The Other Columbus: The birthday is an art form

The writer offers a list of things you can do to honor his birthday and, more importantly, to celebrate 'community and discovery as physical acts, not just concepts'

Scott Woods
One suggestion: Play five Prince songs you’ve never heard before.

By the time you read this my birthday will have just passed. I have accumulated enough of these well-meaning occasions to have arrived at an age where I am not old, but actual old people have stopped calling me young. In old-speak that means I am officially grown and allowed to celebrate birthdays in the time-honored traditions of Woods men through time immemorial: prone on a couch with a PlayStation controller in hand.

In any case, another one has happened, and people seem genuinely glad that they keep coming, so I guess the ritual on my end is less important than the grace with which we accept the passage of time, and the love of a genuine community that comes with it.

Speaking of rituals, my favorite birthday ritual is waiting for my mother to call and launch into a round of the “Happy Birthday” song. She is not a woman prone to displays of affection, so her annual performance is a wonderful thing. My birthday is not complete without that sing-a-long. According to my math, that means when she passes on, I’ll stop aging, or some other Dorian Gray-esque magic will kick in.

I had a birthday ritual I started in 2017 where I posted a list of a dozen or so things that people could do if they wanted to honor my birthday. It wasn’t a new concept — people solicit donations for various causes and organizations all of the time — but my list wasn’t about money. It had things people could do at home or at work, in the car or on the couch, while waiting in line at the bank or while on a date. Fun stuff — stuff most of us do all of the time, but with my personal recommendations. It was like sharing the best parts of being me with others. I loved getting the “receipts” as the day went on: people sharing pictures of the things they did or recounting what they thought of some new musician I turned them on to. It kind of made the day a celebration from afar, a socially distanced festival of sorts.

I didn’t post a list last year. I was turning a certain age and needed bandwidth to process that, but also the pandemic seemed to be wearing everybody out. In reflection, January 2021 would have been the perfect time for a curated list of self-affirming and communal activities, but the world really did seem too on fire then, the fragility of our democracy too close to the skin. My birthday fell less than three weeks after the insurrection at the Capitol. Reality itself seemed in flux. My cute little list of “pay it forwards” seemed too trite.

Now, two years into a pandemic, I want to rectify that misconception on my part. Here’s a new list of things for anyone to engage with as deeply as they see fit. Nothing heavy, nothing too expensive, completely optional. And it’s not about celebrating me, so much as it is celebrating community and discovery as physical acts, not just concepts. So if you do anything on this list, share it. Let people see you learn something new or rediscover a passion or just have a little fun. Show your receipts!

- Read a James Baldwin essay.

- Buy a song or album by an artist you don’t know.

- Buy a song or album by a musician singing in a language you don’t know.

- DoorDash someone lunch.

- Call off work to enjoy your life for once.

- Tweet something nice to the last remaining Fat Boy, Kool Rock-Ski.

- Donate to a Native American organization. If you’re in Columbus, try the Native American Indian Center of Central Ohio (NAICCO).

- Restart a video game you haven't played in over two years.

- Read 10 comic books.

- Take a child out of school and to a gallery or museum.

- Play five Sade songs.

- Play five Prince songs you’ve never heard before.

- Check out something from a library you’ve never been to before.

- Watch three Spice Adams videos.

- Watch three “Our Family Plays Games” videos on YouTube. (They got me through the pandemic, for real.)

- Learn a new board game.

- Read Anthony Bourdain’s essay “The Cook’s Companions" from The Nasty Bits. Eh, just read the whole book.

- Read a book out loud to a child.

- Read a book over the phone to someone laid up sick.

- Buy a blues record. Yes, on vinyl. Yes, even if you don’t own a turntable.

- Buy a book that politicians are currently trying to ban. I recommend Kiese Laymon’s Heavy.