Intentionally Unreasonable: Celebrating birth, preparing for death

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Since a relatively young age, I’ve never enjoyed birthdays and the attendant celebrations. I don’t dislike them; I just don’t enjoy them. I share this because last week I suffered through a birthday myself – the latest in a string of 57.

Maybe over time it was the stale ceremonial structure, rote emotional engagement and forced commercialism that devalued birthdays for me?

To be clear, I love being with friends and family on all occasions, I just don’t require pastry, pyrotechnics, helium or off-key singing as catalytic elements for an enjoyable time.

In a world of billions of people with millions of differences, the shared experience of us all being born is one of the few common elements that bind the entirety of our humanity. But, how did we come to assign such unquestioned positivity to a ritual attributed to the ancient Greeks, who would put candles on round cakes to honor Artemis, the moon goddess?

Which ancient party planner decided that blowing out candles should be the mechanism used to create smoke in defense against evil spirits – and later serve as today’s signal to consume large quantities of sugar products?

Now, with the candles dark from my own celebration, cake fully eaten and the chorus of “Happy Birthday” faintly playing on repeat in my ears, let me share a few of my wishes from last week’s birthday-palooza. (Yes, I’m aware that birthday-wish mythology requires both singularity and secrecy, but birthdays allow for broken rules.)

I wish I could find my third-grade teacher, Miss Petroski, to remind her that I was right about the metric system – that it wasn’t going to catch on as the standard in the U.S. and we wasted so much time learning metric only to have it only apply to large (2-litre) bottles of soda.

I wish I could convince my work colleagues to all wear one-piece jumpsuits as daily work wear. Whenever you see futuristic television shows and movies, everyone is generally wearing the same outfit, typically some sort of jumpsuit. How soon before that type of societal uniformity (duel meaning intended) will permeate our thinking and approach to fashion? Can you imagine the cost savings, time savings and increased productivity if we all just wore the same outfit every day? It seems to work for the military and the Starship Enterprise. We can do this, right?

I wish that sports fans, especially parents of kids playing community or high school sports, would just stop yelling at referees, or whining to other parents about how “unfair” the officiating is, or how unfairly their son or daughter is being treated. As a sports fan for over 50 years and as a spectator of more than 2,000 games of all levels, I’ve seen mistakes, bad calls and lots of human error from the zebras, but little evidence of deliberate bias or blatant “fixing” of a game.

I wish that I could write fractionally as well as Ellen Goodman – my columnist hero and a long-time summer resident of Maine. I was honored that Goodman joined me during my day-after-birthday decompression phase to tape a one-hour radio interview that will air next week. (She’s amazing.) Goodman’s groundbreaking success as a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist for the Boston Globe and author of wide acclaim is both well documented and richly deserved – a body of work now spanning more than five decades. She remains a purposeful thinker, truth teller and active voice for small and large issues vital to the human experience. The words “grace” and “empathy” come to mind whenever I read her writings, which always include a distinctive warm tonality with sharp wit and subtle wisdoms.

Going into my interview with Goodman, I had focused on her many successes as a celebrated and accomplished writer without being aware of what may be her most lasting and life-changing accomplishment: getting people to talk about death.

In 2010 Goodman and a group of her friends and colleagues started a nonprofit organization called The Conversation Project, with the goal of creating of a platform of information and tools to help people talk about the inevitability of death, along with the importance of end-of-life care and planning.

For most of us, the entire concept of death is a deeply painful and scary conversation to have with ourselves – never mind family members. But, as suggested in the group’s name, it’s the conversation itself that may be the most life-affirming step in the process of facing our own mortality.

So my final wish is that every (AARP-qualified) reader will visit theconversationproject.org to read Goodman’s own poignant words on the subject of her mom’s death. Also, I encourage everyone to read “The Starter Kit” section, which offers a step-by-step guide on how to begin the end-of-life conversation with your own family.

I want to thank Goodman for the gift of her columns over the decades, the gift of joining me in the studio last week, and the gift of our conversation.

Most importantly, thank you, Ellen, for the many critically important conversations you have helped guide for millions of people (myself included) through the obstacle course of life, death and everything important in between.

Happy Birthday to us all.

Steve Woods is from away, but fully here now, living in Yarmouth, working in Falmouth, traveling the world, and trying his best. His column appears every other week. He can also be heard each Saturday at 11 a.m. on WLOB-AM 1310.

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  • David Craig

    I have to come to the defense of the much maligned metric system. Those of us in science and engineering use it, almost exclusively, every day. I’m sure someone from Miss Petroski’s class is using it right now. Happy belated birthday!