The Best Birthday Ever

“So, Mr. Parent, what was your best birthday ever?”

My boss looked at me and waited. His query was part of a new meeting protocol to encourage team building. Every meeting, he would ask a question designed to reveal something about ourselves to the rest of the team. I mumbled something about a ½ birthday surprise party arranged by my teaching partner and students. But I wasn’t being truthful. Birthdays are a strange day of the year for me. A bundle of narcissism, introspection, joy, melancholy, and humility all rolled into one. First of all, it’s really the anniversary of your birth day. People only have one birth day in their lifetime, so that confused me as a child. And like most parents, mine let me know, albeit jokingly, that life was easier and cheaper before they had me. I knew I was loved and wanted, but whenever I did something especially dumb, my parents got a far off look in their eyes that conveyed a world without children. Because my father was in the Air Force, we moved a lot, and I was always the new kid in class and the neighborhood. As such, not paying too much attention to myself was an important survival strategy.

Still, celebrations and parties are always good even though being the center of attention is both exciting and scary. Since I have a summer birthday, I was never able to celebrate it at school. I was quite envious of the kids who had birthdays in the middle of the school year. Their mothers brought in cake or some other treat. The teachers often had special hats or special spots on the class bulletin board. For one day, everyone in class focused on the birthday kid. As the new kid in town, I seldom had made enough friends for a real party. When I spent the summer with cousins, it was a different story, but still, summer birthdays were not as much fun as school year ones.

When you are young, every birthday represents some milestone. But after 21, it’s different. Significant birthdays seem more random. But there are still important landmarks. Exhibit A is that this year, besides all the government paperwork I have to fill out, I found out that I no longer have to buy a fishing license. It seems fair to me considering how many times I’ve been fishing in Colorado without catching anything. There’s a lot of skill involved in catching trout. Or patience. I have little of either. I like fly-fishing even though I’m not good at it. It’s an active hobby which is well suited to my ADHD. It’s also less frustrating since it is easier to keep a dry fly from getting tangled in weeds, sunken trees, and rocks than lures or bait. But all of those A River Runs Through It moments seem to elude me.

Every birthday arrives with anticipation of something good happening. This is true even though my life is already great and I don’t really need anything. As for wants, well, those are never ending. I have discovered that a huge part of being happy is understanding the difference between needs and wants. In fact, that is a major aspect of what I do at work in helping rehabilitate felons. Criminals can’t distinguish between the two. So there are few things that my family could do that would just blow me away in terms of gifts. Not that they haven’t tried and succeeded. After the cake and presents, there comes a time that I engage in some reflection. And while it may be true that the unexamined life is not worth living, the examined life is not an easy one either. Students of happiness encounter lots of advice about taking regular time for pondering where we are, where we’ve been, and where we want to go. A lot of self help books offer similar directions. But like most people, I get too caught up in work and daily life to follow through as often as I should.

Therefore, I have markers during every year that prompt me to take the extra time for myself. New Years Day, birthdays, and anniversaries are all occasions in which I work at being in a contemplative mood. Some people can sit still when they ponder their existence. I am not one of those. I, like Socrates, am a peripatetic. Tai chi rather than lotus is more suited for my meditative times. So I putter in the garden or garage or walk around. But every year I try to go fishing close to my birthday. Always in a river or stream that makes sufficient noise to drown out the sounds and thoughts of civilization. Lakes are more suited to drinking beer and socializing than meditation in my experience. Standing in a cold stream, fighting the current, and repetitively tossing a dry fly onto the water regrounds me in the important aspects of life.

The rivers are especially high this year due to heavy snow and spring rains. Several fishermen, rafters, and tubers have died. Fly fishing isn’t particularly dangerous, but standing in the water rather than on the bank adds the possibility of drowning to the activity. And any element of danger makes one more cognizant of the gift of life. More importantly, though, it makes me part of the river. I can feel the currents pushing against my waders as they pull the heat out of my legs. One misplaced step on a moss covered rock and I end up wet and cold at the very least. Water is the birthplace and sustainer of life. It is such a ubiquitous part of our very being that we forget how important it is. Unless you live in California, maybe.

Serious fly fishermen use dip nets, thermometers, and high tech glasses to stalk their prey and match the hatch. I take a more Taoist approach. I do not need to catch fish to eat. But the combination of clean mountain air, blue sky, water, and forest reconnect me to my ancestors whose lives depended on hunting or fishing success. It’s good to reflect on how far I have come in my life. And how far we have come as a species. And on those occasions when a trout is fooled by my fly, I revisit the excitement of food obtained through my own effort. I can feel the line almost singing through the water as the trout struggles. After netting the fish, I remove the hook and return it to the water and watch it swim, slowly at first, then quicker until it disappears back into the shadowy places of the stream bed. Life is not always tooth and claw.

The best birthday ever? It’s this one.