Matter of Laugh or Death
By Bill Dunn
Interesting observations on this thing we call life
NO SURPRISES ON THIS BIRTHDAY
“Oh, it’s just what I wanted!” I gushed while peeling the wrapping paper from a birthday gift. “Thank you so much, honey,” I said to my daughter.
“You’re welcome, Daddy,” she replied with a smile. “I’m glad you like it.”
“Oh for heaven’s sake,” my wife exclaimed. “This is pitiful. You’re acting like it’s a big surprise, but you bought your own gifts! Then you gave them to the kids to wrap up and give back to you. And now you’re pretending to be surprised? Ugh! This is ridiculous!” With that, she got up and went into the kitchen.
“But I am surprised,” I called to her. “I’m surprised I got exactly what I wanted this year for the first time ever!”
Is it ridiculous to buy your own birthday presents? I don’t think so. My kids usually ask me for the money to buy my birthday gift anyway, so as long as I’m paying, I might as well get what I want. (It often goes something like this: “Hey Dad, gimme 20 bucks so I can buy your present.” Then when my birthday arrives, I find myself unwrapping a 79-cent pack of Twizzlers and noticing that my daughter is sporting a brand new shirt.)
Also, no matter how carefully I explain what I would like for a birthday present—even to the point of ripping a page from a mail-order catalog and making size and color notations in the margins—most of the time my gifts fall into the “not quite” category.
You know what I mean. Not quite the right size (shirts or jackets). Not quite the right fabric (pants or sweaters). Not quite the right style (doesn’t apply—I have no sense of style). Not quite the right horsepower (cars or boats. Yeah, I’m dreaming. I mean lawn mowers). Not quite the right philosophical orientation (any type of tool, which means I’ll be expected to build or fix something. If you’ve ever seen me try to build or fix something, you’ll instantly understand that manual dexterity craftsmanship is not why I was put on this earth. Exactly why I was put here is still a divine mystery—also in the “not quite” category, as in, “I’m not quite sure what God was thinking when he created you, pal”).
Probably the most compelling reason to buy my own birthday gifts, however, is the simple fact that I hate surprises. I’m not a big fan of being startled, stunned, or stupefied.
I think it dates back my birthday party when I was six years old. On that special day, I saved the biggest present with the shiniest ribbons and bows for last. When I finally unwrapped that gift and opened the box, about a dozen relatives, arranged in a semi-circle before me, leaned forward in anticipation of my joyful reaction. After a few moments, I looked up and said with a frown, “What the hell is it?”
My father quickly reached out and startled, stunned, and stupefied me with the back of his hand, and demanded, “Who the hell taught you to talk like that?”
My mother stepped between us and redirected the conversation back to the birthday festivities. “It’s so lovely, dear,” she said to me. “Thank Aunt Prunella for her gift.”
“Why?” I replied. “I don’t like it.”
By then Aunt Prunella was jostling with my father to get in position to give me another good whack. The party was over.
Ever since that time, I get a little twinge of anxiety whenever I open a gift. What if I don’t like it? What if I can’t figure out what it is? What if I can’t force myself to act surprised and happy? What if I once again blurt out, “What the hell is it?” (or something worse, since my vocabulary has expanded slightly since age six). I don’t particularly like it when my daughters reach out and startle, stun, and stupefy me with the backs of their hands.
But this year I finally solved my problem. I went out a week before my birthday and bought a few things for myself. I gave the gifts to my kids to wrap, and when my birthday arrived, for the first time in decades, I was completely relaxed and comfortable. I didn’t swear and no one whacked me (although I saw my wife cock her arm a couple of times—but she refrained).
Because of my new gift-buying system, this turned out to be my best birthday ever. But I can’t relax now. Father’s Day is coming soon and, of course, it’s never too late to begin shopping for Christmas. See you at the mall!
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