A perfect collection of birthday presents

Yesterday was an especially delightful today for me. It was my birthday, and the gifts that I were given were brilliant.

It started off in the morning with Elysha. Her family has always given their gifts at the crack of dawn, which was decidedly different than the after-dinner gift giving that I was accustomed to for all of my life, but I’ve decided not to fight this tiny bit of crazy.

She’s excited. I get it.

Elysha gave me two gifts:

  • Tickets to the 20th anniversary tour of Rent, a favorite of mine. I saw Rent at least three times with the original cast when it debuted back in the late ‘90’s at the Nederlander Theater on Broadway, and I can still sing all the song by heart.

I was thrilled.

  • A portrait of Kaleigh, my best friend who passed away in 2018. Elysha sent photos of Kaleigh to an artist who produced a beautiful rendition of my little friend of more than 17 years.

    She always finds a way to make me cry with her gifts.

Then I went to school and was greeted by my students who gave me some entirely unnecessary but delightful gifts. One student gave me a handmade ceramic bowl with a card telling me that I was to keep paperclips in the bowl for those moments when I might need to throw them at students.

Another student asked me what I wanted for my birthday earlier in the week, and my list included a bucket of kittens, a time machine, a lifetime supply of cheeseburgers, an addition to my home, a robot, and a cage to hang over my desk to imprison naughty children..

So she built me the cage.

Using baling twine and wooden hoops, she created a perfect replica of the kind of cage that the witch in Hansel and Gretel stuffed the children into as she prepared to cook them.

I immediately hung it over my desk, much to the delight of my kids.

A few hours later it was time for lunch. I’m a member of a secret birthday club at school, and my friend, Wendy, revealed that she was my birthday buddy. My gift was a surprise lunch, complete with a white table cloth, birthday centerpiece, Chipotle burrito, and my good friend and former colleague Rob Hugh.

She gave me time with my friend. An hour to catch up and eat.

What a perfect gift.

When I arrived home later that day, I was greeted by my in-laws, who had spent much of the day with our kids. They handed me a renewed membership to the kids’ favorite museum, where they had spent much of the afternoon, and had so many kind things to say about how well behaved and polite our kids were throughout the day.

Future fun with the kids and the knowledge that they had a great day together… I can’t imagine a better gift.

I’m not the kind of person who gets excited over gifts. I’m a minimalist at heart who doesn’t really care much about things. But yesterday I received the things that I value most:

Experiences. Originality. Creativity. Thoughtfulness. The happiness of my children. Storyworthy moments.

Every single gift that I received fit at least one of these categories. It was a day filled with beautiful gestures of kindness and generosity.

I couldn’t be more thankful.

The two birthday gifts you should be asking for above all others

My birthday is approaching.

My wife often asks me for possible gift ideas, as I can be a difficult person when it comes to presents. I am much more interested in eliminating things from my life than adding to it. The accumulation of stuff does not interest me. In fact, if someone would just agree to clean out the the extra furniture from my basement and remove the bins of clothing on the second floor of my home, that might be the best birthday gift of all.

But if cleaning out my basement doesn't strike you as a reasonable gift, there are two things that I want more than anything else, and I humbly suggest that you consider them as gift ideas for yourself as well. 

I promise you that they are far superior to any cashmere sweater, shiny trinket, or electronic gadget that you think you may want. 

Time

Truthfully, the best gift of all is the gift of time, and it's not a terribly difficult or expensive gift to give. In the past, my wife has hired people to cut the grass, rake the leaves, and shovel the driveway, thus returning this precious time to me.

Other options for the giving of time include babysitting my children, digitizing my photo albums, walking my dog, mulching my flower beds, bringing my car to the shop to get that light on the dashboard checked out, renewing my passport, determining the contents of the boxes in my attic, correcting all my spelling tests for a month, or offering to complete any task or chore that I would otherwise have to do myself. 

Your list would be different, of course Hopefully it doesn't include a warning light on your dashboard or mystery boxes in your attic. But I'm sure you can think of things that you would rather not do that a friend or family member is more than capable of accomplishing on your behalf.

I know what you're thinking:

"Matt, I'd rather mow my own grass and receive that cashmere sweater instead." 

"I'd rather complete the mountain of paperwork required to renew my passport myself and open a brand new iPad on my birthday."

"I'm more than happy to shovel my driveway. Give me that new Fitbit/star finder/water purification device that I have wanted for months."

No. I'm sorry, but you're wrong. I know it may seem presumptuous to tell you what you want, but trust me. I know. I know the difference between what you want and what you think you want, and the two could not be more different.

Studies repeatedly show that money spent on experiences generates far greater happiness than money spent on things. The gift of time is the gift of an experience otherwise lost to a mindless or meddlesome chore. It's the opportunity to play with your kids or enjoy dinner with a friend or read a book or watch a movie.  

I promise you that when you are lying on your death bed, surrounded by all of your material possessions - your stuff - your greatest regret will be the time you could've spent with friends and family. At that moment, the gift of time will mean more to you than anything else. 

It should mean that much today. Don't wait until it's too late to appreciate it.

Honestly, you don't need any more clothing or jewelry or electronics. 

You could do without the device that clips to your belt or fastens to your handlebars or makes imaginary things explode when you click the right combination of buttons. 

The thing you should crave - more than anything else - is time.  

Knowledge

Coming in a close second to time (and in many ways its first cousin) is the gift of knowledge. Find a way to teach me to do something that I’ve always wanted to do but never could or haven’t had time yet to learn. 

Either teach me yourself or find someone who can do it for you.

We all go through life wishing that we could do more. Accomplish more. Achieve more. This is a gift that would allow a person to take one small step closer to those dreams. 

For me, it's meant sending my wife to a cooking or an art class. 

For my wife, it's meant buying me an hour with a professional poker player or an afternoon with a golf instructor. 

In these instances, we walk away with nothing material but something far more valuable: The gift of knowledge. The acquisition of a skill. A slight improvement in an area that means a great deal to us. 

Far more valuable than a pretty scarf or a new sweater. 

In case you're thinking of giving me a birthday gift this year, here is the list of things I want to currently learn:

  • Change the oil in my car 
  • Hit my driver longer and more consistently
  • Install replacement windows in my home
  • Manage my photo library on my Mac
  • Wire my television for the best combination of sound and on-demand and/or cable programming
  • Strike-through lines of text in SquareSpace without having to learn how to code
  • Remove the occasional burst of static and background hum during the recording of my podcast

Clara Susan: January 26, 2009

I wrote this seven years ago today, upon the birth of my daughter.

Today she celebrates her seventh birthday. Such a big girl.
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Our day began yesterday, at 11:53 PM, when you mother awoke me from twenty minutes of glorious sleep to inform me that her water had broken. In fact, it was still breaking as I awoke. I could hear the splashing from the bed. Despite the hours of birthing class and hundreds of pages that Mommy and I read on pregnancy, we both stared at one another and asked, “What do we do?”

It was at this point that both us fell into an “I told you so” situation. For me, I doubted that your mother was experiencing contractions, since the brutal, possibly hedonist midwife earlier that day had told me that there was “no mistaking contractions.” Since you mom said that she thought it might be contractions, I assumed that she was experiencing cramps and that we should probably not go to the hospital yet.

Your mother, in a bit of a panic, insisted that we go and refused my suggestion to call the doctor first and bring Kaleigh to the Casper’s house before heading off. Less than fifteen minutes later, she was on the phone with the doctor, and for a moment, she was wishing that the Caspers weren’t already on their way to our home.

Oh well. Mommy and Daddy aren’t always perfect.

After loading up the car and waiting for Jane to arrive to pick up Kaleigh, we were off, leaving the house at 12:30.

Seven minutes later, we arrived at the hospital, and I dropped Mommy off in order to park the car. I said, “Don’t wait for me. Just go up.” She replied, “There’ll be no waiting for you” and exited the car. I admit that I secretly hoped that by the time I made it up to the sixth floor, you would be well on your way out.

No such luck.

Mommy was filling out paperwork with a nurse when I arrived in the delivery center, and it was at this time that I finally understood the degree of Mommy’s pain. As she was being asked questions, her responses were not very coherent. Of course, her contractions were coming every three to four minutes, which explains the pain.

After being led to our room, we met Cassie, the first of two nurses who we would come to adore throughout the process. Cassie was with us throughout the evening, making us comfortable and helping us to catch a few hours of sleep. After arriving, we learned that Mommy was almost entirely effaced but not dilated at all. We were shocked. On the way over, we took wagers on how dilated she would be. She said 4 centimeters would make her happy, and I was hoping for 7.

Zero was a disappointment.

Thankfully, our humanitarian doctor, who doesn’t believe that women should ever suffer through childbirth, offered to administer the epidural immediately, even though birthing class instructors informed us that it would not be done before 4 centimeters. This was the first of what we discovered to be several false statements made by birthing class instructors, including their assertion that the hospital had no Wi-Fi, which I am using at this moment.

I left the room for the epidural (though Cassie said I could stay, which my birthing instructor said would never happen), and even though Mommy hasn’t said much about it, it seemed to go well. The anesthesiologist was a bit of a jerk, but otherwise, the needle, the meds, and all the horrifying aspects of this procedure went off without a hitch. Mommy was terrified during this process, possibly more than any other time in her life, but she held up like a trooper.

With the epidural on board, the pain vanished, the lights were turned off, and Mommy and I managed to sleep for a couple fitful hours. The chair that I attempted to sleep in was a device that harkened back to the Spanish Inquisition in terms of its torture on my neck and back, but later I found the wisdom to open it into a bed and sleep soundly for an hour or two. We slept from about 2:00-4:00, when Cassie checked Mommy again and found her fully effaced and 4 centimeters dilated. Lights went out again until 6:00, when Cassie checked and found Mommy fully dilated.

Hooray. I expected a baby before breakfast and said as much.

She began pushing at 6:30, but in the midst of a shift change, in which Cassie left us and Catherine took over, it was decided to allow you to drop some more on your own before resuming to push.

When Catherine first appeared, we didn’t know who she was, but being the woman she is, your mother immediately requested her name and rank, and we learned that Cassie was leaving us. Cassie was wonderful; an easy going, friendly, and warm woman with three young kids of her own who was perfect for helping us to rest and relax during the night. Catherine was warm and friendly as well, but she was also a bit of a drill sergeant, specific and demanding in her orders, and it was just what your Mommy needed when she began pushing again around 8:00. This was the hardest time for your mother. She pushed consistently from 8:00 until 11:30, but because of the placement of your mother’s pubic bone and the angle of your head, you simply would not come out. The vacuum was attempted briefly, but at last, it was determined that a c-section would need to be done.

A few interesting notes from the pushing:

Several times, Catherine encouraged Mommy to find some anger with which to help push. “Get mad,” she would say. “Find something to be angry about.” Your mother continually asserted that she had nothing in her life with which to be angry. Finally, Catherine acknowledged that she was dealing with the sweetest person on the planet.

Your mother never yelled at me and never uttered a single word of profanity during the entire process.

Throughout the pushing, I was receiving and sending texts to your grandmother, Justine, and Cindy, who were all dying to find out what was going on. I also managed to update my Facebook and Twitter accounts throughout the morning.

When the vacuum was brought into play, the room filled with about eight doctors and nurses. At one point, a nurse asked me to hold your mom’s leg, which I had been doing all morning. Catherine said, “Not him. He doesn’t get off of that stool.”  Though I didn’t feel queasy or weak in the knees, she saw something in me that indicated otherwise. Later I was sent out of the room to “drink some juice.”

When the decision was made to extract you via c-section, things got fast and furious and I left your mom for the first time today in order to don a pair of scrubs while she was rolled into the operating room and prepped. It was at this time that I was forced to remove my Superman tee-shirt, which had been specifically chosen for the event. I wanted your first glimpses of me to be reminiscent of the man of steel.

The best laid plans of mice and men.

When I entered the OR, the doctors were already working on your mother, and I inadvertently caught a view of her before I was ushered to a stool behind the screen and told not to move. Yikes!

Sitting beside your mom’s head and three anesthesiologists who were busy at work injecting Mommy with more medicine than I could have ever imagined, I listened and waited with her. It took about fifteen minutes before I heard your first cries and one of the doctors leaned over the screen and said, “Here it comes. Do you want to know if it’s a boy or a girl?”

“Yes,” we said in unison.

“It looks like… a girl,” he said, and immediately thereafter, the docs behind the screen began asserting the same. We began crying while we listened to your cry and caught our first glimpses of you as a nurse was preparing to weigh you. A couple minutes later, after managing a 9/9 on your apgar scores, you were handed to me, the first time I have ever held an infant without the protection of a sofa and many cushions.

You were simply beautiful.

Because of the position that Mommy was still in, she wasn’t able to see you well until Catherine finally took you from my nervous arms, flipped you upside down like a football, and held your face to hers.

I’ll never forget this moment.

Your mom was forced to remain on the table, arms outstretched and pinned, for more than an hour while the doctors stitched her up. She began to go a little stir crazy for a while, unable to move and shivering uncontrollably, and we tried to calm her by massaging her shoulders and rubbing her arms.

Eventually the surgery ended, and you were finally handed to Mommy. The two of you were rolled into Recovery while I had the pleasure of telling your grandparents, Aunty Emily, and soon-to-be Uncle Michael all about you. There were many tears. Your grandfather laughed, your grandmother cried, and in keeping with her character, Emily was indignant over her inability to see you and her sister immediately.

She’s one demanding babe.

It’s almost 9:00 PM, and we are now sitting in our room, resting and chatting. You are asleep and have been for the past few hours. I must leave soon in order to go home so that I can teach tomorrow and use my time off when you and your mom are at home. My students will be thrilled to see your photos and hear all about you.

For your mother, the three plus hours of pushing were her greatest challenge of the day. For me, the greatest challenge will be leaving this room tonight and not taking you with me. I want nothing more than to hold you in my arms for the next week.

We love you so much, little one. Welcome to the world.

Clara’s sixth birthday. Make it stop.

My little girl turned six last week. She seems so old.

Time hasn’t exactly flown by. I write to my daughter everyday, so perhaps that allows me to mark time well, but time is still moving forward, incessantly so, and my girl is getting bigger and more independent and more autonomous by the day.

If I could, I would freeze my kids at exactly these ages forever. Six and two. I don’t care about the diapers or the babysitters or even the car seats. I’d go all-in on six and two and be happy forever.

When I tell this to Clara, she says, “Daddy! It’s my job to grow up!”  Sometimes she sounds so much mature than her age.   

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Based upon this year’s birthday gifts, I’m much more mature than I was two years ago.

My wife gave me tickets to American Idiot, the theatrical adaptation of Green Day’s rock opera of the same name, for my birthday.

Coincidentally, a friend who shares the same birthday as me (along with a laundry list of other bizarre coincidences) also received tickets to American Idiot.

Great minds think alike.    

Though I recently posted that the gift I want most is the gift of knowledge, tickets to American Idiot are damn good, too. In terms of gifts, my preferred list includes (in no particular order):

1. Experiences
2. Knowledge
3. Time
4. Cash

With few exceptions, I have no interest in things. Other than a few large ticket items, I have plenty of stuff already.

American Idiot represents a unique experience, and considering I’ve written my own rock opera, it’s the perfect gift.

Ironically, someone at work attempted to solve my iPhone calendar sync issue on Friday, which is one of the items on my knowledge list, and two of my friends read the aforementioned post and have offered to assist in getting my podcast up and running.

I even received some cash.

This represents a dramatic shift in terms of the gifts that I have received for my birthday. Two years ago, Elysha planned a surprise party for me. The gifts from that party included

  1. A pocket copy of the US Constitution
  2. A sweatshirt that read Matt, The Man, the Myth, the Legend
  3. A basketball
  4. Gift cards to Dominos Pizza, McDonald’s and Wendy’s
  5. Snow pants
  6. Mille Bornes, a French card game that I played as a child
  7. Underwear (from my in-laws)

In the words of one of my former students, “It’s like you’re not even a man yet, Mr. Dicks.”

Another said, “I can’t tell if you’re an adult nerd or just a big kid.”

The husband of one of my colleagues and the bearer of the McDonald’s gift card asked his wife, “Are we really giving McDonald’s gift cards as a birthday present?”

I like to think that the tickets to American Idiot represent a newfound maturity. 

Or perhaps my wife’s attempt to mature her husband a bit.

Slightly hazardous play makes a birthday party great.

I loved my daughter’s recent birthday party.

Held at My Gym, which Clara believes is not the name of the place but a reference to the gym being her own (and I dare you to try to convince her otherwise), I couldn’t have been more pleased with the organized games that they offered.

Normally Clara is not one for the organized games, preferring free play, and she can become annoyed when told that it’s circle time or the moment to learn a new skill. Normally I would agree with her, but on Saturday, the activities offered just enough danger and old school to make me happy.

First, punching bag-shaped bolsters were hung from the ceiling and swung back and forth and random arcs, and the kids were asked to run through them without getting hit and knocked down. It was actually a challenging and slightly frightening task for many of the children (some were legitimately knocked on their ass), but they loved it, running through several times each.

Next, the staff dumped an enormous pail of plush balls on the floor and encouraged the kids to think of them as snowballs. “Snowball fight!” a staff member shouted, and the kids were invited to throw the balls at one another.

I have often said that one of the best things to do with a ball is throw it at someone else’s, and these kids agreed wholeheartedly. 

Lastly, kids were sent down a zip line. Though they were spotted for the entire ride, it was challenging and frightening for many of the kids. Even Clara, who had never agreed to ride the zip line before, loved it.

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Three activities that generated some old fashioned fear and excitement in the kids, which almost always makes the event more fun and memorable.

Add a little kickboxing, an arm wrestling match and maybe some Rock’em Sock’m Robots and we could’ve a legitimately idyllic afternoon.

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Still, it wasn’t bad at all. Kudos to my wife for pulling the whole thing off on her own.