Everybody has one

Russell Baker

August 18, 1993|By Russell Baker

EVERY year I have a birthday, and this year was no exception. For a long time I was afraid to admit that I was experiencing birthdays because in those days Americans hated for people to get older, which is what happens on birthdays.

Nowadays, though, it's all right to have birthdays and maybe even a smart idea to lie by claiming more birthdays than you really have under your belt because nowadays practically everybody is not just old, but downright cheeky about it.

That's because being old makes you part of the biggest, toughest lobby the U.S. government has ever faced: the old people's lobby. Let the old people's lobby catch you hating to get old and you're inviting another painful hike in payments for the Social Security octopus.

It's a great relief not to have to go on being eternally 31, which was the age I had taken up back in the days when people who hadn't even become yuppies yet were making fun of Lawrence Welk.

I now feel free to say that I had always enjoyed Lawrence Welk with his bubble machine and the little champagne lady and Lawrence's pronounced "uh-one, uh-two" enunciation of the musical beat, being a bit slow to pick up a dance beat for myself, you see.

When I learned that mere children were sneering at Welk on ground that his music was strictly for geezers, my policy of remaining an eternal 31 required me to sneer too.

To be sure, secretly I would now and then sneak off to watch Welk alone with my dear gray-headed mother-in-law who was not only devoted to him but also thought the esthetic criticism of people destined to become yuppies was not worth listening to.

Having ignored my birthday ever since becoming an eternal 31, I now find it very hard to celebrate properly. How, for example, is one supposed to reply when someone says, "Happy birthday"?

"Happy birthday" is one of those conversation killers, which leave the person on its receiving end no opportunity for a witty reply.

Being long out of practice, I tried returning the first few "Happy birthdays" with, "Same to you," "How's the wife?" and "Let's have lunch sometime."

"Just say, 'Thank you,'" one of my great-grandchildren suggested.

"Thank you"? Is that what passes for conversation these days? When everybody sang a "Happy birthday" at me, I replied with remarks that strove to rise above the inane, saying:

"I used to be younger than I am now, and once I was a lot younger. This is often the all too banal condition, I fear, of the ordinary person having a birthday.

"How much more interesting it would be if more of us could say, 'I used to be older than I am now, and once I was a great deal older.'"

"Quit dithering, Gramps, and open your presents," interrupted a couple of the grandchildren, who had been into the gin, that destroyer of civil discourse in the American family.

To avoid embarrassing the two enormous brutes, I sat down, thus depriving the entire family of a profound insight about aging: to wit, that if people who had once been very old got younger every year they would end up being unconceived in the uterus, which would end the whole tedious abortion argument.

Yes, there were presents from people who love me enough to spend hours trudging through deepest Kmarts.

One was a paperweight, a magnificently subtle comment on the absurdity of an era when the electronic video screen has eliminated paper from our life yet failed to produce a videoscreenweight.

There was also a miniature flashlight operating on two miniature batteries. It was waterproof. At last I was equipped to take a shower in the dark, secure in the knowledge that though I dropped the soap my waterproof flashlight would make its recovery child's play.

Pondering gifts like these, I could see why so many people had gone right ahead fearlessly having birthdays all those years I spent remaining young.

Best of all was the 64-page volume titled "Elvis: His Most Intimate Secrets." (Sample intimate secret: "Like many Southern boys, Elvis Presley loved animals all his life.")

Lobby of fearsome geezers and codgers, for this birthday much thanks.

Russell Baker is a columnist for the New York Times.

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