When I was a child, happy birthdays were wished in person, by a group of peers surrounding the birthday boy or girl, wearing cone-shaped hats with an elastic chinstrap stapled to the sides, and singing the song “Happy Birthday” while a parent tried not to drop the blazing cake on anyone’s head. When my closest friend at the time – closest meaning his house was closer than any other kid’s – turned five, I was positive that the instant he blew out the candles he would grow a few inches before my very eyes. I was disappointed to see that he stayed the same size and still refused to let me sign-out his He-Man figurines.
In elementary school the procedure was the same except that it was done during class time. These were the days before peanut allergies, and the procedure was similar except that a parent of the birthday boy or girl had to take time off of work to bring in a cake so that class time could be spent wearing the cone-shaped hats and singing the song. If your birthday fell on the weekend or during the summer you were out of luck.
In high school, though, the male students adopted an odd procedure for wishing other male students a happy birthday. Instead of wearing hats, or singing songs, or eating cake, or even just saying “Happy Birthday,” the birthday wishes came in the form of birthday punches.
My seventeenth birthday is etched in my memory. It was third period math class, and I was trying to decide how many lines of notebook paper I wanted my integral symbol to occupy, when a classmate in the next row said, “Hey Kaplowitz, I heard that today’s your birthday.”
“Oh really? No one told me.”
“Very funny.” And he came over and punched me seventeen times in the upper arm, hard. “And one more for good luck,” and he punched me again. Then another classmate got me. Then another. I tried to turn away but they had no problem going to the other arm. “Happy Birthday,” each would say before laying in. They were all lined up. It was like being mugged.
By fifth period my arms were throbbing and I couldn’t hold them up. I staggered into English class like an old boxer and the words going through my head were, “Please, please no more.” But they were there in the back of the classroom, like a gang, throwing their fists softly into open palms, waiting for me. “Hey guys, it’s Kaplowitz’s birthday today!” said the ringleader, the same one who first got me in math class. I cited an old rule from the Court of Chancery that permits only one series of birthday punches per person per birthday. “Wow, you’d make a good lawyer,” he says, and then starts punching me in the arm. He doesn’t get through them all because I start falling to the floor and our teacher starts passing out copies of A Separate Peace.
My arms eventually healed, which was fortunate because wishing someone a happy birthday today requires typing. But not much more than that. You enter a username and password on a social networking website, and the website reminds you of your friends’ birthdays. Click on their name, type “Happy Birthday” in the field, press return, and you’re done, your birthday wish slotted atop all the birthday wishes that came before. For a while I tried to add variety to my birthday wish by adding “Hope you have an awesome day,” but then one day I did that with two people who had the same birthday, and I got caught and it was awkward. At least I didn’t punch them.
The other day was the birthday of a good friend that I had not seen in a while. I could have posted a “Happy Birthday” on his profile page, but it felt so impersonal. I wanted to do something really special. So I texted him instead.
Happy birthday to my wife, who tolerates all this blogging, and who I think is expecting more than a text.
Thanks to Adam Foley for the topic.