Sunday, June 20, 2010


I have worn my share of pointy hats, a few of the “dunce cap” variety. I acted the dunce in elementary school on occasion, but I was usually out-dunced by some goof named Mingo. By the sixth grade Mingo was getting involved in recess fisticuffs and I was all but forgotten as a behavior issue.

The only other pointy hats that have decorated my head were worn as the cake was cut or the presents were opened or the song was sung: “Happy birthday to you, happy bir . . .”

I’ve got to stop there or pay some ridiculous royalty. When you sing it at home to your least favorite aunt (visiting from Wichita and with a hairy mole on her chin) there is no fee, but use it in a commercial enterprise—such as a stunningly brilliant and financially successful humor blog—and you’ve got to pony up the cash. That silly song rakes in about two million bucks a year. For someone other than me.

Happy birthday, indeed.

Anyway, I no longer wear pointy hats. I do continue to sing the happy birthday song, at family gatherings and around whatever few friends and colleagues remain in my inner circle. At times my voice is light and bright and enjoyable, but in a few rare instances it slows. Beat by beat, word by word, it is like watching a slow motion video of an out of control car bearing down on an abandoned baby carriage. Baby included free of charge.

These requiems started as a competition between my brother and me. At some unfortunate soul’s birthday party—with Scott and Matt, the Baxter Buffoons in attendance—we finished the song some few seconds after the rest of the assembled guests and with a dissonant tone. We probably were given a few warning glances and looks of disdain, but that just made it funnier to us.

So the next time we had the opportunity, we sang it even slower. Each time thereafter we stretched out the words a little longer, and sang them a little lower on the register. Eventually we might only be at the end of the second “to you” as everyone else finished the entire song. We’d still be singing as the cake was parceled out to the plates, and in the most extreme cases the last syllable might be drawn out until the guests began to leave.

It became known as the Baxter Birthday Dirge: the same words but different music. Horrible, plodding music, full of lament. It sounded like we were mourning the passing of another year, and yet we really were just trying to celebrate the special day for that special someone . . . sitting there in the birthday chair and staring at us with loathing.

It was the best part of birthday parties for many years, at least for Scott and me, but lately we have had to alter our songfest a bit. You see, my wife has become a member of a professional choral group. They sing the birthday song to each other on a regular basis, sans the pointy hats. Kristin recently heard her own birthday song, once at home as a dirge and once with her singing friends. She is in a perfect position to offer a cogent analysis on what is wrong with the way my brother and I sing birthday praises.

“When our group sings,” Kristin says, “it is full of sunshine and joy. It is the sound of butterfly wings tickling your lips and an overwhelming sense of love.”

“Makes sense,” I respond. “Go on . . .”

“Your little song, well, that might not be the right word, but let’s go with it. Your ‘song’ is more like a broken sewer line. It is decay, and mistrust, and an overwhelming sense of loss.”

“Makes sense,” I respond again. “Go on . . .”

She has made her point; I am just too daft to get it. Once again she leaves the room and allows me to ponder my future. I pull down the family calendar from the kitchen wall to see whose birthday is on the horizon.

There will be a few opportunities to try to sing nicely, for some nice people. Mother, sister, niece, and others. I will do my best to inspire, rather than to suffocate, because they probably deserve it. They have put up with my shenanigans for a long time.

But I will save my most grief-riddled dirge for September 26, because that is Scott’s special day. And I am determined to make it the best ever. Or the worst ever.

Depends on your perspective.

1 comment:

  1. The choir he refers to is called "The Choral Project" and they sing amazingly. Check them out on and see for yourself. Nothing like one's name ("dear Kristin") in 45-part harmony to make you feel special, buoyant, and like anything is possible. On the other hand, family traditions are important, and the teenagers of the group who are carrying on the dirge are starting to make the boyish rivalry look more sweet than not. The Baxter Birthday Dirge may be here to stay, at least two times a year!