Families are hard. This is a subject which has been written about in every possible way, but which never ceases to be fascinating, because as a dead Russian called Tolstoy once said, “each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” He also said, “happy families are all alike,” but I think he may have been wrong about that; if you’ve ever met a family so happy that it is uninteresting, I’d like to be introduced to it so that I can preserve it in gold, or at least film it for the remainder of its natural days.
Holidays are a well-documented catalyst for family unhappiness, for all of the obvious reasons: entire, often extended families are gathered together, entire, often extended families are placed under the burning Hollywood-induced pressure to have one perfect day, reckless drinking ensues.
My birthday is on December 27th, which means that, through pure cosmic accident (I could be miffed at Jesus, but he was here first), it falls naturally into the category of family holiday. I would argue that the family birthday is even worse than your average family holiday, because it follows a very particular model of the pressure-to-be-happy formula. My birthday is, in theory, supposed to be a day that makes me perfectly happy. It is supposed to be the one day of the year on which I can do exactly as I please, with no consideration for whether my actions appeal to anyone but myself.
The problem with this, of course, is that my whole family subscribes to this theory. My mother believes that I should do exactly what will make me the happiest, and so do my father and my sister. They are all very concerned with my happiness, on this, the day of the year that is my birthright. My mother, my father, my sister, and I, however, all have very different ideas about what will make me happy. Any deviation from each vision of my perfect day is seen as a great sacrifice on my part.
My mother, for example, thinks that cake is an essential part of my day’s happiness. When I tell her that I would rather skip cake, because I slept in and now I want to go write until the family gathers for birthday dinner, after which I would like to go dancing with my friends, I see the disbelief in her eyes. I must want cake on my birthday. I am giving up the glorious pile of icing and chocolate that I really want because of some ulterior motive, some neurosis that I cannot lay by even on the best day of the year. A diet, a super-ego vision of writerly self-denial, a desire to please my friends by leaving the warm comfort of family to engage in typical, brutal twenty-something birthday rituals. How can I tell her that she’s wrong? She’s not wrong. But today is not a day to examine the tangled roots of my desires. Today is my birthday, and I will act on my impulses without picking them apart if I want to.
I think that the solution is, most likely, to relinquish the idea of birthday as day of total selfishness, to admit to the total impossibility of perfect selfishness. To recognize that to have exactly what one wants never leads to happiness. In celebrating myself, on my birthday, I will celebrate my mother, for having given birth to me, a physical feat which I don’t even like to think about too hard. I will celebrate my father, for having provided for me when I was a tiny, naked thing and onwards into my adult years. I will celebrate my parents, for having raised me to be a person whom I pretty much like most days and even love on the good ones. I will celebrate my sister, for having been my first companion, for having borne the brunt of my early passions, the fits of rage and the ecstasies of imagination, for continuing to offer wisdom and perspective to a sister who lives across the country and with whom she has at once less and too much in common than you would hope for in a close friend. I will celebrate all of the people I have met and loved, people to whom I have tried – and often failed – to give as much as I take.
I will celebrate life, which – as, again, many dead people have told us, Russian and otherwise – is very short, and also (already, at only twenty-two years) so full.
I will be totally happy with not being perfectly happy, because perfect contentment could exist only in a void, and that is – clearly, obviously – not happiness at all.
P.S. Thank you for the birthday wishes! I loved them.
 If you don’t believe me, I will take the liberty of referring you to the ultimate authority on birthday traditions, Dr. Seuss’ Happy Birthday to You! Corroborating sources on the problem of conflicting birthday desires include The Beatles’ “Birthday” and 50 Cent’s “In Da Club”.