On Sunday, I celebrated my birthday -- along with Vincent Gallo, Joss Stone, and Ethel Kennedy. When I was a child, birthday fetes were pretty sloppy, far wilder than any of the parties I attended in high school or college. They went down at the zoo, parks, public pools, and pizza buffets, where sweaty kids, red-faced from exertion and sauce, bounced around and challenged each other to contests of consumption. There was always cake, homemade at mine. While sweets have never been my thing, leftover cake for breakfast -- straight from the fridge, with hard cold frosting that peels right off -- was an irresistible coda to the annual gathering, so appealing that, on several occasions, in a rare greedy moment, I actually asked my mom to bake and stow away a second cake -- just in case my friends managed to vaporize the first.
I don't remember specific birthday parties so well. Somewhere along the way, they stopped happening, probably when dessert-oriented affairs lost their luster -- and I stopped caring about getting older in the first place. Years unfolded like symphonies then, long, meandering and dense, narratives stretching out, passing through movements, moods and phases. Now, they are proggy rock productions, half as long yet still intricate and hefty. Ten birthdays from Sunday, they will be pop songs, economical, straight to the point -- verse, chorus, verse, chorus, bridge, chorus, out.
My birthday was a big one, a landmark -- or so I have been told. No one over 35 sympathizes when someone whines about turning 30. "Big deal" and "get over it" are common responses. At the corner store on Friday, I was buying some beer. "So, how old are you, bro?" the cashier suddenly asked -- a now familiar casual alternative to actually requesting identification. I told him I was a few days away from turning 30, and he groaned. "Bro, 30 blows," he sighed, shaking his head, dropping my six-pack into a paper bag. "My 20s were awesome, and then it went downhill." I shrugged. "I'm don't care," I said. "But, you know -- I'm 32, and you're just 30," he added helpfully -- hopefully starting to feel like an idiot. "It won't be too bad."
The arrival of spring wasn't always about green garlic, favas, fresh peas, asparagus, and the start of the N.B.A. playoffs. Beginning with my 25th -- a silly excuse for a milestone, really -- it revolved around anticipating and dreading my birthday -- so much that I actually tried to keep the date a secret for a while. I have come a long way. Now, I realize though that my problem with birthdays isn't so much an aversion to growing older as the idea of celebrating the passage of time so personally. I don't want my friends to gather and toast me just because I'm a littler older. I don't want to be the center of that kind of attention. Some people organize dinners for themselves, invite everyone they know to bars, and throw house parties. Me, I only want to get away.
This past weekend, instead of donning skins and venturing off into the woods alone to nibble rodents and pick berries, I faced the dawn of my fourth decade with calm and an appropriate aura of maturity. I went to Wine Country with my girlfriend, but we did not go to wineries, take hikes, or shop. Instead, we watched cooking shows and basketball from a bed at a Best Western smelling fairly strongly of cat, sweat and old coffee, napped, and left our dark little room only to eat -- at Ad Hoc, Thomas Keller's two-and-a-half-year-old restaurant in Yountville.