Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Ms Communication

Today is my birthday. Most likely, it's the last birthday I ever have. No, I'm not planning to do something rash. I'm not dying of cancer, either.

For the last two weeks, my wife asks me what I want to do for my birthday. My answer is always the same; nothing. I want no fuss made. No party. No dinner out. No movie. Nothing. Unfortunately, my wife forgets I am a man which means the words coming out of my mouth mean pretty much what they do in the dictionary. There are no hidden meanings, no hoping she won't listen to me and do something anyway.

My birthday is a time of reflection about the past year. What were my mistakes? What can I do better this year? Sometimes, reflecting happens on a hike by myself or a trip to the library. Maybe it's a drive or a walk down the street. Sometimes I like to include others so I can tell them how much I value their love and friendship. My birthday is not about cake and presents. It's about presence and the present.

On her way out the door, Robin makes suggestions about where we will go to dinner for my birthday. Since she didn't listen to what I said all week, I'm pretty much resigned to a dinner out. I even offered to make dinner myself but to no avail. During the day, I work with my editor putting the final polish on a magazine article, spend time trolling monster.com and craigslist for another writing gig, write an email to someone I worked with 20 years ago on the same subject and talk to a technician about servicing some fuel injectors.

By this time, my wife comes home with a couple of wrapped presents and is all excited about taking me out. She goes out for a run and I ponder whether I should make another case for low-keying my birthday. By the time she comes back, I decide not to say anything. Big mistake.

Now we're out at the restaurant. My skin is literally crawling because I meant what I said; no fuss please. I can't believe how uncomfortable I am with all the attention. The whole time, I'm wondering how much damage I'll do to my marriage if I bolt.

So I violate Newton's First Law of Marriage (Make your wife's happiness your own) and tell her I wish she listened to me all last week. Robin replies since I didn't say anything today, she thought I changed my mind. I try to tell her how I want to spend my birthday and why. Big mistake. Now I'm ruining her good time because all she wants to do is treat her husband on his birthday. Unfortunately, I make the situation worse by staying with the subject when all she wants to do is change it. We curtail the dinner early and she smolders all the way home. Once home, she throws my toothbrush and some toothpaste out the bedroom door and slams it shut.

So what kind of jerk denies his wife the opportunity to celebrate her husband's birthday with a few tokens of affection? Let's see if I can explain it to you any better than I explained it to her. First off, I'm horrible at both giving and receiving gifts. Talk about anxiety and flop sweat. I've built 16 car engines but I can't buy a gift without panicking. So I don't want to inflict that kind of agita on anyone else. Even if that person exhibits no such behavior.

Even as a kid, I did not enjoy my birthday parties. However, I enjoy going to your birthday parties. My birthdays themselves were always a minefield. A few of them went very badly. On my 11th birthday, my aunts, uncles and cousins are all over to celebrate. Everybody's laughing and having a good time. The television flickers in the background. Suddenly, a special report interrupts the regularly scheduled program so we all pay attention.

Okay, that doesn't sound like much, especially in this day and age where everything is a "special report." Back then, interruptions in regularly scheduled programming occurred only for real news like the Kennedy assassination. This time, a somber Chet Huntley told us astronauts Virgil "Gus" Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chaffeee burned alive in a pure oxygen environment while testing their Apollo 1 capsule on the pad.

Talk about putting a damper on the festivities. The Space Program was a big deal and a source of pride. Now America had their first casualties in the Space Race. It was a huge blow and a horrible way to die. Everyone was numb. They all just left. I don't even remember if I got to blow out the candles.

Another January 27th celebration ended early with a heated discussion about religion. Seems the older generation was taken aback when they heard some of the younger generation didn't believe what they believed. That argument changed the boundaries of conversation in our family for many holidays to come. At least they waited until I got to blow out the candles.

There are a couple of other examples but you get the picture. I tiptoe around the date reflexively, as if too much attention means something bad happens.

There is another reason (I can hear the women reading this post saying to themselves, "There better be another reason."). Other than being born, meeting my wife is the most pivotal day in my entire life. Everything changed on February 14, 2003. I found someone who believes the content of my character is more important than the content of my investment portfolio (she's probably rethinking that one).

Every day I spend with this woman is like Christmas, Mardi Gras and a hundred thousand birthdays rolled into one. Every day she does me a million little kindnesses and doesn't even know it. Every day I wake up next to her and give thanks because she's still there. When her daughters are over and I'm cooking and the girls are laughing, I rejoice because I have people to do for. I'm part of something bigger than myself. I might be the second string, but I'm in the game.

Even when we argue, even though I'm doing some couch time when I finish writing this thing, I want to get on my knees and thank The Almighty and match.com for providing this 53-year-old balding, freelance voice talent, writer, mountaineer and mechanic with someone who loves me so much, she can be really pissed at me. You can't be that mad at someone you don't care about.

Every day of my marriage is such an enriching experience, such a huge and powerful force, anything above and beyond that (like too much attention on my birthday) is way too much. Total circuit overload. Like welding without protective goggles.

That's why my birthday is a time to sort things out. Birthdays are an unchanging milestone so they mark your progress as a human being. There are a lot of areas I must improve at or I am afraid I'll be alone again managing rental property for avaricious management companies, unrealistic owners and ungrateful tenants.

By the time I have some grip on the whole marriage thing, I'll be 127. That's the downside of a first-time marriage as a fifty-something. Twenty-eight-year-olds make the same mistakes I make. How many incidents like this can a marriage endure before it erodes? Can I work out the communication issues? I hope so. Otherwise, I'll never get off the couch.

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