17 September. To celebrate a birthday, get the message

LOS BAÑOS, LAGUNA (17 September) - I was born today 70 years ago, and the whole town of Los Baños is celebrating; how do you like that?!

Bañamos girls

It’s 1213 hours 17 September as I begin to write this, and I just came back from watching the parade of people walking about at the town plaza by the shore of Laguna Lake, and taking some photos with my daughter Ela’s Exilim Casio Ex-S5.

The image you see shows the faces of the future in this University Town, which is indeed rejoicing that this day has come around once again. This is almost all girls; what happened to the boys? The boys are gathered to the right of the photo in the distance, preparing to climb the bamboo poles, each one with a prize at the top: PhP 2000 for 1st Prize, or about $45, certainly not peanuts in these parts. At the background is the stage; in the middle of the photo are a few hundred empty white seats - it’s 11 AM and it’s too hot to handle. In the afternoon, there will be a parade of beauties, and in the evening the winners.

How important have I become that a whole town celebrates on the day I was born?

Before I answer that, with credibility and in complete honesty, let me ask you: “Why do we celebrate birthdays anyway?” Quick answer: Sometimes, it’s the only one we can celebrate.

Today, I stepped into the conclave of septuagenarians, 70 to 79. I’m thankful, I thank God. I celebrate! The whole town of Los Baños celebrates!

Do I feel old? Age is in the mind. My mind is full of things about birthdays.

Why do we celebrate birthdays? Without saying how old he is, Sam Vaknin says (17 April 2006, buzzle.com):

Surely, as we grow older, we have less and less cause to celebrate. What reason do octogenarians have to drink to another year if that gift is far from guaranteed? Life offers diminishing returns: the longer you are invested, the less likely you are to reap the dividend of survival.

I will survive! The next thing I shall be is an octogenarian, 80 to 90. Right now, I don’t feel older. But let’s listen some more to Vaknin:

Thus, we are forced into the conclusion that (celebrations of) birthdays are about self-delusionally defying death. Birthdays are about preserving the illusion of immortality. Birthdays are forms of acting out our magical thinking.

Death? I shall not worry about death; I shall let death worry about me. I have more important things to do than dying, and they are infinitely more difficult! And there is the challenge, and the promise of the triumph.

I love that part about magical thinking. I’m a creative thinker after all. When I learned to relax quite a few years ago, when I learned to trust in God and forgive truly, I became more creative at 55 than at 45 than at 35.

At 70, “Your creative energies have not waned over the years,” long-time-no-see friend Nestor says, emailing me his wish for a Happy Birthday. “Tremendous outputs!”

Funny you say that, Nes. I have almost 400 long, expressive, eclectic, original, always frank, sometimes hilarious essays in American Chronicle alone; click the link and check me out: Frank A. Hilario. That’s an average of 2 essays every 3 weeks, and that’s only for the last 5 years appearing in 1 online publication.

I have 3 books published by the India-based International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics, ICRISAT: Team ICRISAT Champions the Poor (2007, 128 pages), The Smart Revolution (2009, 154 pages), and Exploiting the Power of Science, Transforming the Semi-Arid Tropics (2010, 168 pages).

I am finishing my book on the international singing sensation Charice (new working title: Glee! Charice, 250 pages in layout - meanwhile, you can check out my dedicated blog, DreamsGirl Charice at blogspot.com where all the original essays going into the book are yours for the clicking).

I also have a 100-page layout of a book on word publishing (my coinage) that simplifies word processing and desktop publishing using only Word 2003 - I did it in 2009, and now we have Word 2010, which is even more powerful.

My outputs are not only in blogs and books. I have 2 unbreakable international records as an editor alone. As an almost one-man-band, with me personally using, hands-on as my desktop-publisher Word 2002 and then Word 2003 (try it, or me sometime), as Editor in Chief of the Philippine Journal of Crop Science, PJCS:

(1) In 2006 I made PJCS up-to-date, from being late 3 years (9 issues).
(2) In 2007 I made PJCS world-class, that is, accepted in the respected list of international publications, the Web of Knowledge (Thomson-Reuters), of old referred to as ISI (Information Sciences Institute), in the immediate past as ISI Web of Knowledge. (You can click the link and check me out here: Hilario’s Paper, also at blogspot.com.) Something for the Guinness Book of World Records I’m sure.

So, why shouldn’t I celebrate my birthday? I thank God I can celebrate my birthday!

We continue with Baknin:

By celebrating our existence, we bestow on ourselves protective charms against the meaninglessness and arbitrariness of a cold, impersonal, and often hostile universe.

And more often than not, it works. Happy birthday!

Actually, you create your meanings. If your life is meaningless, it’s because that’s what you made it. As a creative thinker, I create new meanings out of technical, sleepy materials, even out of old meanings. You can check me out in my other blogs at blogspot.com: FRANK A HiLARiO where I have almost 300 essays, my ICRISAT Watch where I have more than 100, and My Jose Rizal where I have more than 70.

Actually, it’s not a hostile universe. It may be dangerous, but not hostile. It’s hostile only when we think it is. That’s how our mind works. When we are hostile, we think of defense, like arming ourselves, like not going places. On the contrary, I have learned to let my guard down. That’s why I can celebrate my birthday even if there is no cake and no candles to blow, just some daughter Daphne-made tasty pasta and off-the-shelf ice cream from Nestle and Selecta, just half a gallon of each - already we have our mouths full and our hearts content. Celebrate with what you have should be the rule, and should be fun.

Paul Michael (08 February 2010, wisebread.com) thinks aloud: What if we celebrated our birthday only once every 10 years, until we hit 90? “Think of all the money that we wouldn’t have to spend.”

I’m looking forward to being 90. That’s being optimistic. Thinking of the money to save, that’s being Ilocano. I never celebrated my birthday with a birthday cake, not ever. When I was a child, I loved childish things, like the ginettaan (balls of cereal flour cooked with coco milk) was always the one I coveted for my birthday, or something I went for at somebody else’s birthday in the village of Sanchez in the sleepy town of Asingan, Pangasinan, Central Luzon, Philippines. On my birthday, ginettaan was always delicious, because Baket Satur, my mother, would not compromise on quality - the flour was always all pure diket (sticky white rice). Thank God for mothers who like it pure.

Why do we celebrate birthdays? I say, to gather family and friends to celebrate the life of the one born on that date. Chabad (23 July 2009, chabad.org) says more:

Birth is your beginning. It is … much more than an occasion to receive gifts. It is a chance to remember the day that a major event occurred, to celebrate and give thanks and to reflect upon how well we are fulfilling our calling.

That takes the cake out of my birthday celebration - on this day, I’m supposed to reflect whether or not I am fulfilling my mission in life? I don’t know. I just want to celebrate that I’ve accomplished even more, more so that I’m alive.

But Chabad is very insistent (source cited):

Because time itself is like a spiral, something special happens on your birthday each year. The same energy that God invested in you at birth is present once again. It is our duty to be receptive to that force. How do we do so? By committing to a life guided by God’s will, and by using the abilities and resources we were born with to perfect ourselves and society, and to make the world a good and sacred home for God.

If Chabad is correct, that takes the fun out of celebrating one’s birthday. When it’s your birthday, you have to be serious? Why can’t we be not serious once a year, especially on our birthday?

The same energy that God invested in me at birth is always present with me until the day I die, even when I turn bad. It is a different matter to acknowledge it, to be receptive to the force, to harness it for good.

Leading “a life guided by God’s will” - but do I know what is God’s will for me?

Okay, I will simplify my own answer to that question by quoting from my favorite chapter in the New Testament, Romans 12: 2: “that you may discern what is the will of God - what is good and acceptable and perfect” (New Revised Standard Version, Catholic Edition, St Pauls, 2006). In one word, I believe that the will of God for me and for all of us is: Love. I believe that that is the only one that is good and acceptable and perfect.

Ah, but love is the hardest thing to do; in fact, it’s impossible! How can you ever love your enemies?

Even so, I will agree that a birthday is the time to remember that our lives must be guided by God’s will. Tough act to follow.

And Chabad is not finished, referring still to the need for us to be “using the abilities and resources we were born with to perfect ourselves and society.” God, I was just trying to celebrate my birthday, and you remind that I am actually loaded with all those responsibilities? I have enough problems for the day thereof.

“To make the world a good and sacred home for God” - no, Lord Almighty, I can’t do that. I cannot change the world; after trying for 43 years, I know I cannot change even my family - I can only change me.

After trying to force me to change the world, Chabad insists:

A birthday is a time to celebrate birth itself, the joy of life. It is also an occasion to rethink your life: How great is the disparity between what I have accomplished and what I can accomplish? Am I spending my time properly or am I involved in things that distract me from my higher calling? How can I strengthen the thread that connects my outer life and my inner life?

On my birthday at 70, how can I reflect on the joy of life when I have to reflect on how much less I have accomplished and how much more I have yet to accomplish in my life?

The problem with the question of “higher calling” is that we are not taught about any calling in school; our parents don’t teach us, because they don’t know either; and the mass media teach us to enjoy high tech, not high calling. I wish God said early, clearly, “Don’t call us. We’ll call you.”

“Am I spending my time properly or am I involved in things that distract me from my higher calling?” I think the problem there is that Chabad is assuming that in your pursuit of your higher calling, whatever it is, you go at it hardheadedly alone. Chabad must be referring to personal salvation, as indeed he connects the outer life with the inner life. Well, Protestants are happy with the pursuit of happiness in personal salvation; we Roman Catholics will be happy to show you Protestants a higher calling than just the personal!

On celebrating birthdays, Oprah Radio host Rabbi Shmuley Boteach says (18 November 2008, oprah.com):

The virtues of youth are vitality and vibrancy, but the virtues of growing older are wisdom and experience. We have to remember that both age and youth have their virtues, and start loving birthdays once again.

I love celebrating - especially if I’m not spending for it.

We go back to the town fiesta that Los Baños is celebrating today on the day I was born. I’m not spending for it, not that I know of. The young, new Mayor, Anthony “Ton” Genuino, allocated PhP 3 million for the 3-day celebration, 17-19 September, a little bird told me. If you celebrate a birthday like Los Baños does, you have to spend that much.

When you celebrate, birthday or not, you do not celebrate for your sake only but for the sake of others, in this case, for the whole town and the many guests and visitors, not to mention the local and foreign staff that work in the headquarters of these local and international offices:

(1) ACB - Asean Centre for Biodiversity
(2) FPRDI - Forest Products Research Institute
(3) IRRI - International Rice Research Institute
(4) UPLB - University of the Philippines Los Baños
(5) ERDB - Ecosystem Research and Development Bureau
(6) PCAMRD - Philippine Council for Aquatic and Marine Research and Development
(7) LGA - Local Government Academy (Department of Interior and Local Government)
(8) SEARCA - Southeast Asia Regional Center for Graduate Study and Research in Agriculture
(9) PCARRD - Philippine Council for Agriculture, Forestry and Natural Resources Research and Development.

They’re all based in Los Baños, working. 3,000 warm bodies from those big offices alone? Even 2,000 are so many can-do-things people!

The fact that these big offices participate little institutionally in today’s celebration in Los Baños, not to mention in the everyday overall development of the town, merely reflects ignorance on both sides, public and private sectors, on the roles that they must play for the sake of society represented by the residents in the town of Los Baños. Been there, not done that! I worked 5-1/2 years for the Forest Research Institute (FORI, now ERDB), as Chief Information officer, and I don’t remember FORI ever involved in town planning and development with the local government of Los Baños. Time, initiative, money, energies wasted. (Do they pay their income taxes in Los Baños?)

Many people whom you consider important plainly ignore you. What then is there to celebrate a birthday for?

In fact, as Ray Hermann (1991, ffpc.com) says, the celebration of birthdays is frowned upon by some Christian organizations; “often cited as a reason for this attitude is the thought that only two instances of birthdays are mentioned in the Bible; both represented pagan situations and were related to the killing of people.” One is the hanging of the chief baker on the Pharaoh’s birthday (Genesis 40: 20-22); the other is the beheading of John the Baptist when Herod was celebrating his birthday (Matthew 14: 6-10).

The reasoning of those people against celebrating birthdays is this: If it is pagan in origin, it’s bad for you. That is silly. For instance, the pagans must have been the ones who thought of calling people names - and we love that people call us by our names. And don’t tell me that writing is pagan in origin just to make me feel bad. It is, and I love the pagans for it, especially that writing has graduated into the high-tech word publishing (my coinage) that Word 2010 gives me. I’m using it now to draft, revise and finesse my essays, such as this one, for the American Chronicle and my blogs.

Hermann argues that not because something has a pagan origin is it forbidden for Christians to practice. He cites Job and his sons as probably celebrating their birthdays, quoting The Living Bible: “Every year when each of Job’s sons had a birthday, he invited his brothers and sisters to his house for a celebration. On these occasions, they would eat and drink with great merriment.”

In point of fact, there is more than just the Pharaoh, Job and his children celebrating their birthdays. I am now going to borrow a device that the global-thinking American historian William Henry Scott borrowed from the local-acting Filipino historian Renato Constantino, his beautiful “history of the inarticulate” - meaning that you read between the lines of the history of the articulate. (For more details on this device, see William Henry Scott, “History of the Inarticulate, “ in Great Scott! The New Day William Henry Scott Reader, 2006, New Day Publishers, pages 463-473.)

I shall now demonstrate Constantino’s history of the inarticulate with the question of birthday celebrations in the Bible. If you come to think of it, it’s all very simple, reading between the lines:

That the Pharaoh, King Herod, Job and his sons were celebrating their birthdays indicates that birthday celebrations were widespread in those New Testament times. Even granting that those birthday celebrations were exclusive to the elite, only for the very rich and powerful, the celebration of a birthday was an acceptable custom; it had transcended its pagan origin as a ritual. By no means were the Pharaoh, King Herod, Job and his sons pagans. That the Bible does not mention Jesus Christ ever celebrating his birthday does not mean he did not celebrate it, or that he was against the practice.

So, where is the basis for the objection of some Bible-based groups that birthday celebrations are pagan in origin, that they are not biblical? Nowhere in the Bible does it say, “I am the Lord, thy God. Thou shalt not have strange gods before me, like birthday cakes and candles offered at the altar of display.” Or, “Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s birthday party.”

In any case, I’m glad that, theoretically the whole of Los Baños is celebrating a big something on the day I was born.

Here’s the email I sent out with the subject, “Celebrate good times, come on! It’s my birthday” on 16 September:

Tomorrow, 17 September, is my birthday, and a whole town will celebrate: Los Baños. You are invited to listen to the speeches, watch the parade, dance with the boys and girls, and listen to what the new Mayor has to say. Every year, the town does that exactly on my birthday. Let's party!

And it’s all true.

I invited my email recipients, all 112 of them, to come to town, but note that I did not promise to meet any of them if they came. I could not.

The town is celebrating its town fiesta on 17 September but not because of me - it’s despite of me. This year, Los Baños is 395 years old, having been founded in 1615 by Franciscan friars (Rudy Fernandez, philstar.com). I should know. I studied at the UP College of Agriculture based in Los Baños in the 1960s and have been around somewhere since then. This town’s and my birthday just happened to be exactly the same, and I just couldn’t resist the joke.

Update, 18 September:

A good friend of mine took my party invitation to heart and traveled 63 kilometers to Los Baños and when his carload of party got there early evening yesterday, he didn’t know where I was, so he called me on my old cellphone (new SIM):

We’re here! Where’s the restaurant?
What restaurant?
The one you’re having your birthday party in?
Oh, there must have been a terrible mistake!
What mistake?
A miscommunication. I don’t have any money. I couldn’t possibly afford any sort of party in any sort of restaurant.

Get the message? Next time you receive an email invitation to a party, be sure to get the joke right.

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