Happy Birthday, Me!

In a few weeks I’ll turn 33 and, sadly, I realize I’m long past being anything “for my age.” I’m no longer cute for my age, talented for my age, a good reader for my age. All qualifications and special considerations have long passed. There’s nothing I can get away with now because, “After all, your honor, he’s only 33.”

I should know better by now. I’m mature, experienced, a grown-up.

You’d think that being so mature and grown up, I’d have a healthy attitude toward my birthday and the presents I may receive. You obviously don’t know me well.

So let’s talk about presents.

Turning 33 reminds me that I’m no closer to being married than I was when I was turning 32 (or 22 — or 12, for that matter). In lieu of working on myself and what I’m lacking personally, I’m focusing instead on what I’m lacking materially. It’s a great system.

My father asked me for a list of what I’d like from my family for my birthday this year. Though this isn’t as fun as letting them figure something out, I’ve learned my lesson from past birthdays: Gift-giving is not their forte.

One year, my father gave me a box of 500 very nice, custom-printed, raised-lettered business cards, printed on heavy ivory stock with my name, address and phone number. It would have been a lovely, lovely gift — had I not been 7 years old at the time. I don’t know what he thought I would do with them. (“Yes, please announce me to the queen. And fetch me a snifter of your finest chocolate milk.”) I did give some of them out to kids at school, which actually proved very helpful. Now the children knew where to come to beat me up before school started, in case they wanted to get an early jump on their day.

Most of the remaining cards went into plastic bins or fish bowls, trying to win a free lunch, dance lesson or Hawaiian vacation from a local merchant. None was ever randomly drawn. It wasn’t a total loss though; in fact the cards proved quite prophetic. I still have no job title or work address. Thanks, dad.

My sister wasn’t much better. One year, in a grab bag of other little gifts, she gave me a very nicely wrapped condom.

I’m going to give you, Dear Reader, a moment to let that sink in: Sister … condom. Greek tragedies have been written about less. If Freud were alive today, I believe he would say, “Eewwww!”

It’s customary, of course, to write a thank-you note when receiving such a personal gift, but telling my sister, “Thanks, I’ll think of you when I’m using it,” didn’t seem quite appropriate.

My therapy is ongoing and intensive, thanks for asking.

Of course, there’s a substantial likelihood that, as with most things, I’m overreacting.

I’m not a heartless idiot. I realize that nobody has to give me a gift. I get it: Material things don’t matter. I should be grateful that anybody thinks enough of me to buy me anything at all. It’s a blessing to have a family, to have such tiny problems, and besides, there are starving children in Africa who would love to have a condom or business cards.

Though misguided in their execution, I do try to remember that there had to be a loving intention behind these gifts. They weren’t thoughtless. Maybe my sister wanted me to be protected and safe and to know that she cares about my health and recognizes that I’m not a kid anymore. Maybe my father wanted to connect with me, see a glimpse of the junior businessman who might one day take over the company that he took over from his father. Those business cards, though impractical on one level, were the most practical on another: wallet-sized evidence that I am my father’s son, that I have an identity, his last name and a home.

And my grandmother, whom I love dearly, must have had good intentions when she gave me a Valentine’s gift one year. Blissfully unaware of what people who are not severely medicated actually wear in public, she gave me a T-shirt she had had custom-made at the mall. Decorated with red felt hearts ironed on all over, and in the middle, big felt block letters spelled, “I Love Keith!” Even if I had any self-love, I don’t think I’d announce it like this.

She tried to convince me that people would see it and think, “There’s a boy whose grandmother loves him.” I took a random survey of imaginary people and the overwhelming response actually was, “There’s a boy who lost a bet. Let’s go to the address on this business card and beat him up.”

J. Keith van Straaten is a writer and performer who currently hosts “What’s My Line? — Live on Stage” every Wednesday in Los Angeles. For more information, visit