Today is Barbara’s birthday. And while Barbara is off with Shane in Curaçao, the Netherlands Antilles—a trip to which I was somehow not invited (an oversight, I suspect)—today I will make an opportunity to find and buy for her some token of regard to give her next Saturday, which is when I get to celebrate her birth with her and Shane, for my benefit as much as hers.
Celebrating my own and my friends’ birthdays is among my favorite things to do. I think it was in the late 1970s that I decided that the calendar holidays were pretty much meaningless to me—spending big money to eat foods which are not my favorites, to honor gods I do not believe in, to support obligatory consumerist routines that are more maddening than merry, and, more often than not, to willfully ignore histories of exploitation, war, and genocide that form the dark underbelly of most official days of commemoration. Yes, that’s me, Mister Sunny Side.
Instead, my “traditions” are made up—and, in total opposition to real tradition, often extemporaneous and irregular. I do, however, manage to enjoy the Christmas season—even not minding the word “Christmas,” which is lovely, if artificial—although, for a few years now, my personal celebration of the beginning of winter has been to deck my bookshelves with irreligious ornaments (animals, snowmen, sugar plum fairies) and make cookies on the first Saturday of December. I also enjoy, money permitting, buying presents for the people I love.
A related point: In Paul Schrader’s unassuming 2007 film The Walker, Woody Harrelson—in a revelatory performance as an effete, DC society homosexual—is asked why he is always so polite. He answers, "It was my mother's answer to chaos and now it's mine," which strikes me as the best defense of any unnaturally refined behavior, whether it be to believe in gods, honor superstitions, vote, talk to pets, or sing Happy Birthday to oneself.
Of course, the world is chaos, and everyone cannot celebrate every birthday, and every day cannot be Christmas. Everyone knows this. How many times do I hear people defend their belief in God on the grounds that, without it, life and the world would have no meaning at all! But life and the world have no meaning apart from the meanings we imbue them with—which is why integrity is rational, mementos are valuable, and kindness is mandatory.
But back to Barbara, my most elegant and graceful friend (except when she’s a maniac). Today she is mumble-mumble years old—much, much younger than I. For her, this is a new year’s day—a better day for resolutions and kissing someone you love than the commonly celebrated first of January. Today is a day for her (and those who care for her) to answer chaos with the fact of her existence.
To cite another movie, Manhattan (1979), Woody Allen speaks of someone he loves as “God’s answer to Job.” Despite all the misery, disease, death, injustice, and chaos of the world, God could point to her and say, “Yeah, but I can also make one of these.”
But not only gods (assuming their existence) can create beauty and goodness and meaning and order. We can too.