When I was little, birthdays were all about the birthday presents. Well, to be more accurate, birthdays were all about the birthday cards atop the presents. I took great pride in opening the cards, sure that everyone needed to hear what each one said. In fact, I felt it was my civic duty to ensure that all birthday cards were read and appreciated, even if they weren’t mine.
There’s a home video I found a while back of my cousin Spenser’s 7th birthday party. Everyone is sitting in a nice blob on the living room carpet of my aunt and uncle’s house, anxiously awaiting the first rip of wrapping paper. Spenser reaches for his first gift, rips the card off the blue paper and I proceed to rip the card right out of his hand. I unseal the envelope, take out the card and start to read it, only to find the birthday boy in tears. You can read the shock all over my face. What could he possibly be upset about when I’m doing my job? Doesn’t he know that there is no one better to read this card to him but me? My mom politely approaches me and the puddle of a birthday boy that I created and explains to me that as hard as it is to believe, this birthday was not about me, but rather about Spenser, and he was allowed to do whatever he wanted with his birthday cards. (He saw resolution, I saw anarchy.)
When I look at old pictures now, the presents still stick out to me the most. Every party shows a consistent flow of smiles and cake, family and friends. They show the birthday on its surface. The presents, however, go much deeper than that. They essentially showcase that year of my childhood. What I was interested in and what I was sure I couldn’t go on living without. Like the black fedora from JC Penney that I had seen in passing on a shopping trip with my Grammie. I was POSTIVE I couldn’t start school without it. (I wore it a total of 2 times after the party) One year I got both the new Britney Spears and the new NSYNC*albums. The smile on my face in the picture is alarmingly large. I remember being completely convinced that having those CDs would both teach me to dance like Britney, and give me a chance with Lance Bass. (As you can imagine, both dreams worked out totally great.) There was also one year when I received, by fervent request, a Password Journal and a set of denim kerchiefs. (Yes, I know I was a cool kid, let’s not harp on it.)
When I started high school I started to think of birthdays as a kind of 2nd New Year’s Eve for the body and mind. I had started to find that any resolutions I might have made amongst the fireworks and confetti at the beginning of the year, would catch up to me once my biological clock ticked its reminder tock on the eve of my existence. So, I started thinking of birthdays as an inspiration reminder. A little alarm that said, “are you making the most of this year or are you still watching the Notebook every night before you go to bed?”
Last year I turned 23.
I remember sitting on my couch wondering, what exactly is there to be excited about in turning 23? I was about to graduate college and was heading into the “real world.” It was supposed to be exciting, but all I felt was anxiety and nausea. I felt like I was having a midlife crisis; like I should go out and buy a car and name it Donna, or start stocking up on fairy sweat to prevent wrinkles. I then went off on a daydreaming tangent where I decided to blame all of my qualms on the media.
The media, I thought to myself, plays a big part in building up our expectations for many aspects of our lives, including birthdays. It all starts when you turn 16. Sweet Sixteen, they say. That’s when you become a woman/man. (Or at least you think you do) It’s when you have your big “coming out party” and your body starts attacking you with the hormones and narcolepsy. It’s when you’re supposed to have your “big moment” with that guy or that girl or that spotlight. You’re supposed to take chances and fall hard and then eat ice cream with your friends at midnight.
Then comes 18. The day when the rest of the world recognizes you as the adult you’ve been emulating for two years. The rest of the world of course being: politicians seeking votes, TV infomercials looking for suckers, and strippers looking for dolla dolla bills. You receive an endless stream of “you’re an adult now” and “welcome to the real world” comments, which you try to ignore, but you end up spending your birthday in a transitional state of confident terror as you try to figure out what your new place in the world means. Then you’re supposed to have that moment with that guy or that girl or that spotlight. You’re supposed to take chances and fall hard and eat ice cream with your friends at midnight.
Then comes 21. The year of all years. The “BEST. BIRTHDAY. EVER.” It’s a birthday that comes back to you in waves of regret over the years, but you smile nonetheless. It’s the eve before one of the worst hangovers of your life, but your survival of the night becomes your right of passage into the “Yeah dude, remember my 21st ….WHAT A NIGHT”, reminisce club. You wake up with an unclear amount of puke on yourself and your belongings and you end up walking down the main street of your hometown contemplating the decisions you made yesterday, all the while trying to avoid the decisions you have to make tomorrow. Then, once you’ve sobered up and let reality sink in, you’ll get a rush of adrenaline and suddenly have to the courage to go have that moment with that guy or that girl or that spotlight. You’ll take chances and fall hard and eat ice cream with your friends until midnight.
For many generations before mine, 21 was the last year to look forward to until 30 or 40 or 50, in terms of milestones. Taylor Swift blew that pirate ship out of the water in 2011. Who in their right mind doesn’t want to sing the song 22 when they turn 22? NO ONE. Put up as many fronts as you want. Talk as much trash as you want. But if you have not turned 22 yet, you are secretly excited that the day is coming when that song will be about you and you can jam your face off. Even if it’s just once. Don’t worry, I get you. I won’t tell anyone. I’ve been a passenger of the T-Swift 22 Express and let me tell you it was quite a ride.
SPOILER ALERT: When you turn 23 and that song no longer applies to you, a little piece of your soul dies.
Just kidding (not kidding.)
The day before I turned 23 I decided that I would not become one of those people who mourned the passage of birthday milestones. I would simply have to make up my own, which in a way, I suppose I’ve always done.
For example, I never had a Sweet 16. I had a Sweet 17. Totally stuck it to the man with that one. I had a big bonfire at the beach that came with pizza, ice cream, and night tour of Hollywood in a big white van. I had never felt so cool.
I bragged about birthday #20 weeks before it happened. This was not merely another year in the books, this was the end of my SECOND DECADE OF LIFE. Think about it.
“How old are you this year Kim?”
Now, for some of you, this may sound like you are dating yourself more than necessary, but hear me out on this. You are essentially letting that person know that in a world with disease, crime, murder and spiders, you have kept yourself alive for 2 DECADES. You don’t sound old, you sound like a damn champion.
My 21st birthday was about as far from the stereotype as one can take it. I was in Australia for a semester abroad and I spent my birthday completely sober—aside from the free drink I received from our waiter—stuffing my face with shrimp tempura and homemade chocolate cake. I did not wake up with a hangover, but I did have more cake for breakfast, and it was marvelous.
It only took 2 minutes past midnight for birthday #22 to be magnificent. Once the clock struck 12, my sister pushed play on her computer and took her place in the center of our bedroom. She then proceeded to perform Taylor Swift’s entire age appropriate anthem for me, complete with hair flips and hip swaangs. Then she struck up the idea to plan a party at our house. We made invitations, bought disposable cameras, set up the ping pong table for candy pong (an alternative to beer pong since there were minors attending) and coordinated a dessert pot luck. Was it a fewer levels tamer than an 82 year old’s birthday party might be? Maybe. But fun was had by all and no one got pregnant or threw up in my bathroom, so I counted it as a great success.
I already have big plans for birthday #25. Age 25 marks the first year in which you can rent a car without any additional “you’re young and immature” charges. So, on September 5th, 2015 I plan on parading my friends and family to the nearest Enterprise and renting a mini-van. As I am being rung up for the car, I will throw my ID down on the counter and say, “Those extra charges won’t be necessary, I’m 25 today bitch!” (Whether or not this is said aloud or in my head is still unclear.) I will then drive around in said mini-van, wherever I want, for the whole day. One required stop will be McDonalds. If you’ve been keeping up with my “make up your own milestones” philosophy, you might have realized that my 25th birthday will mark me at a quarter of a century old. That being said, my brother and I have agreed to go to McDonalds and order Quarter Pounders to commemorate the ass-kicking I put on the first quarter century of my life.
Last year though, thinking about 23, it was a tough one. Unlike many of my colleagues—who often don’t use the word colleagues—I’m not much of a partier and not a big drinker, so my Friday & Saturday nights often look a little different that one would expect from someone in their mid-20s. (Example: last Friday I took a two hour nap, made pancakes, and painted my toes cobalt blue. WE CAN’T STOP, amirightmiley?!) As a result, I wasn’t big on the idea of a drunken night out on the town.
So, instead of trying to conform with the norm and wind up at a bar being mocked for drinking dirty shirlies and wishing I was wearing sweatpants, I decided to make the milestone of birthday 23 the completion of a challenge I set for myself.
Challenge: Do things you normally wouldn’t do, things that you are afraid of, even if you hate to admit it.
It would be the year to kill fear.
Looking back at age 23, I think I did pretty good. There were a lot of times I found myself at a crossroads between submitted to fear or acting on bravery and I was able to choose the latter. The most obvious one being the decision to climb Mt. Whitney.
As I sit here thinking about 24, it’s relatively similar to where I sat last year. However, with a year of (at least attempted) courage until my belt, I feel like this year has the potential to hold a lot of victories.
So, to give myself some inspiration for age 24, I did some research to see how other people tackled it.
Here’s what I found:
Edgar Allen Poe won a $50 prize for the story “MS. Found in a Bottle.”
Nelly Bly made a solo trip around the world in less than 80 days.
Johannes Kepler defended the Copernican theory and described the structure of the solar system.
And someone named Helene got a high score of 170440 in the online game Robot Unicorn Attack.
So basically, I only have one direction to go, and that’s towards victory.
I know there’s a new challenge waiting for me somewhere, I just have to find it.