Tomorrow, I will be 18,000 days old. For many years, I have periodically went back and tracked my age by total number of days since birth. It is fascinating. I know I’ve mentioned it before. Each time I do, though, someone discovers this for the first time. It’s such a cool thing to watch someone’s eyes light up with the discovery that they’ve been doing birthdays wrong their entire lives. (Conversely, it might also give them reason to understand just how tangled my upstairs wires might really be.)
Though the knee-jerk explanation from others might be “what a typical guy,” I’ve never been one to appreciate my birthday. For people who are close to me, a heart-felt expression of love and well wishes – given on any day of the year, covers all the bases. Despite having written much about birthdays and the milestones people bring to their celebrations, I’m still uneasy with them in general.
While my dad was in prison in Indiana, I mostly lived with my maternal grandparents. I didn’t know them as independent adults or as troubled people with long histories. By the time of my existence, my grandpa was a much quieter man than the hell-raiser he had once been. While I do have some interesting memories when I was quite young, my golden memories are those years around 1975 and 76. Grandpa told me stories about his war, about following too closely to a tank and being saved by mud, about why he loved sardines canned in that horrible sauce – the smell so strong I would want to pour bleach into my nostrils. Most of these memories, though, are stolen from me, from being too young to understand it or capture them. Also, grandpa had to be careful about not talking too loudly around grandma Nellie, whose ears sometimes functioned as directional antennas. I escaped my youth with a woeful lack of understanding of how complex my grandad’s war experience was. Since I was his favorite grandkid, had cancer not killed him, I would have been able to write a book about what he had to say. His death forked my life into a massively different path and I always wonder what stories I would have known if he had survived until I was a little older. He let me drink coffee when I was a toddler, showed me how to form letters by seeing the Dolly Madison symbol on tv (which looks like a cursive ‘l’), taught me to love salt pork (the most un-vegetarian food ever created by mankind), and listened to me by actually listening. It was a shock to me later in life when I learned how different he was in later life compared to his youth.
When I was growing up, before the internet became king, I would have to resort to using books to calculate how many days old I was. It helped me understand leap years quicker than most people, too. Now, I can visit one of several websites and it will compute and tell me my age in days. That’s a lot of Mondays. I think of grandad and say “eighteen thousand” aloud and laugh a little. If you’ve ever learned a foreign language, you can appreciate the complexity of hearing another language being spelled out like that.
I’ve never seen a child not be thrilled and happy to hear how many days old they are. Measuring your life in days doesn’t rely on knowing how many days are in a week, a month, or a year. It’s just simple math, the kind you can scrawl on your bedroom wall, just like they do in prison movies. If a child was born in mid-2005, it would sound much more interesting to say, “You’re 4,000 days old today!” and celebrate that instead of the traditional birthday. PS: It would also save you 2 out of 3 of your birthday parties.
As for me, the exception for me regarding memorable birthdays of my youth would be my 5th birthday. My family would later move to Northwest Arkansas, leaving central Arkansas and the flat spaces of Monroe County. My grandma wanted me to have a happy day and since she was always fattening me up like a Christmas turkey, she made me a white cake from a box, with white frosting and candles, something I didn’t have any other year of my childhood. My cousin Michael Wayne was there with me, mischievously wiping his finger along the cake and eating the frosting every single time my grandma Nellie turned away. Even though he was only about 3 or 4, he had already acquired the mischievous way of life. (The cake was probably missing half the frosting by the time she cut it.) We drank almost two entire glass quart bottles of Coca-Cola with the cake. Both Michael Wayne and I had all the cake we wanted. It was a great day and the best kind of birthday: someone who loved me, lots of laughter, and an emphasis of shared time. After making a mess on grandma’s table, Michael and I went outside to excavate the ditch along the country road.
My birthday is an arbitrary milestone, one created from an imperfect calendar. It holds no emotional significance for me and doesn’t warrant a pause in the world. I know there are many people like me, but we are classified as ‘party-poopers’ by those who crave a reason to celebrate.
I vote we forego the calendar rituals and create other ways to share hilarity and confections. The need for an observed milestone is what detracts from so many occasions. Absent all prompts, how often would celebrate someone’s life? How often would you remember them? How frequently would you salute their service, acknowledge their impact on society, or give thanks to everything in your life that deserves it?
Let’s have a cake. Let’s sing together off-key, but let’s leave the excuse of a birthday behind and choose a better way. And definitely, let’s start counting our age in increments of 1000.
I’m 18,000 tomorrow!