When I was a kid, I never understood why adults dislike birthdays. I recently turned 47. Now I get it.
Childhood birthdays are about laughter, sweet things and great expectations. Adult birthdays are reminders. If I live as long as my life insurance policy predicts — 84 or thereabouts — I've still got a ways to go. But I'm past the halfway point. Sobering.
Last week my family vacationed at the beach. While there, my son Clancy turned 13. We celebrated by eating ice cream for lunch. Then we spent the afternoon building a sandcastle big enough for humans. At night our family watched a sidesplitting performance by comedian-conductor-pianist Victor Borge, followed by a late night board game. At the end of it all, Clancy declared: "I'm a teenager now."
Conversely, my birthday was an ordinary day. My gift to myself was to see how many simple pleasures I experience in my daily routine. Here' a peak.
I awoke before dawn, a beautiful woman sleeping beside me — not a bad way to start a day. Stealth, I sat up, noting that my back wasn't stiff. Mobility is a wonderful thing, especially in the morning. By 7 I was lifting weights in the workout room while watching Matt Lauer interview Cardinal Timothy Dolan.
I cherish the routine of starting every day with exercise and news consumption. By 8 I headed for the shower, another favorite pleasure of mine. But en route I encountered my 16-year-old son, Tennyson, in the kitchen. He interrupted by bliss.
"So how old are you now?" he said.
"Wow, that's …"
He grinned. "Yeah."
I pursed my lips and nodded. "Thanks."
I could see that he was thinking of what to say next.
"Well," he said, "Sean Connery was voted sexiest man alive at 64."
"That's encouraging," I said. "I still have hope."
We both laughed. Then I took a long, hot shower. I do my best thinking there. Amazingly, more than half of the world population does not have access to a shower. Afterward came the sensation of foam shaving cream on my whiskers; the spray puff from my cologne bottle; and the smell and feel of a freshly laundered cotton shirt.
By this point, my bedroom was full of sunlight. I knelt at my bed, looked out the window at the trees and offered a prayer that consisted of one sentence: "Thank you for another day." I stayed on my knees for another five minutes. But brevity in prayer, as with writing, is my preference. And I seldom ask for anything other than mercy.
At breakfast, my 10-year old daughter Maggie said: "Dad, what do you want for your birthday?"
"Can you give me that?"
Instead she put her thin arms around me. We were alone in the dining room. I held her tight. It was a great birthday present.
I was at work by 9. As fate would have it, my college football book deadline fell on my birthday. I had 2,500 words left to write — so much for celebrating on my birthday.
But employment is a wonderful thing. Few things crush a man's pride faster than losing a job. My birthday card from my mother said: "Happiness comes from the capacity to feel deeply, to enjoy simply, to think freely, to be needed." That last part — to be needed — is so true.
Around 1:30 I had an urge for chocolate. I figured I'd run to buy a candy bar. But as I reached my office door my son Tennyson drove up. He handed me a plastic container. Inside I found a note: "Dear Jeff, Happy birthday! Here are the last of my Trader Joe's dark chocolate peanut butter cups. I hope you enjoy & they help you get through all your work."
It was from my wife Lydia. I fell in love with her in 1988. So I turned to my laptop, minimized my manuscript, went to YouTube, and selected one of my favorite songs from that year — Def Leppard's "Hysteria."
Then I slowly enjoyed her peanut butter cups while I listened and remembered.
Then back to work.
By late afternoon my partner Armen Keteyian and I had finished writing. As we emailed our manuscript to our editor in New York, I took stock in how lucky I am to work with one of my best friends.
I hustled home for my birthday party. My presents were on the dining room table, neatly wrapped. One of my gifts was nostalgia – the complete box set of "M*A*S*H," all 251 episodes from the debut on Sept. 17, 1972, to the final show on Feb. 28, 1983. More than 125 million viewers tuned in to the show's finale, making it the most-watched television episode in U.S. history. I was 16 then and my eyes welled up when Hawkeye had a nervous breakdown.
After my kids went to bed, I wanted to escape to England before my birthday came to a close. My wife and I snuck off to the TV room and watched "Downton Abbey."
It's the simple things that make life rich.