How To Ring In a Birthday

There are questions absolutely guaranteed to cause trouble: “What else could go wrong?” “What does this do?” “Why don’t we invade Russia?”

A few years ago, I planned to cook my wife a birthday dinner. My question:

“How hard could it be?”

Emily didn’t try to stop me, so in my mind she’s at least partially responsible. The plan was simple: a romantic, candlelit dinner to celebrate her birthday, which happens to fall on December 21st. That’s the shortest day of the year and the first day of winter, so before I met her it was traditionally my day of mourning.

The normal “what could go wrong?” festivities began three weeks earlier, when I got sick –  also a tradition for me in December. Then she got sick. Then I got new medicine, which cleared up the original problem but made me sicker. Then she was put on an antibiotic that actually has the word “nitro” in the title, a warning sign if I ever heard one, and it made her sicker.

Under these circumstances we entered the week of her birthday, so I threw caution to the wind and suggested we just go out to eat. She refused, citing money issues. See why I love her so? Ordinarily I could only be thankful to have someone who doesn’t want to spend money, but I was seeing the big picture: I owed her a meal, and I cook about as well as I do car maintenance – usually with the same disastrous results.

The next day I took my car to my son-in-law so he could change the oil (see above about car maintenance). As I sat inside, pretending to play with my grandsons while actually nursing a massive headache, he came in with the same look I get whenever someone says “snowstorm”: “You need to see something,” he intoned.

The tread was coming off my tire. Just … peeling off. Like it was something I’d glued on. “How far can I drive on this?” I asked.

“Across town. To the tire place.”

So I gave up hopes of taking Emily out to dinner, or of sneaking take-out into the house, and settled on … cooking. Also, I needed to make a cake. And, because we’d both been so sick for so long (being sick together isn’t nearly as romantic as they make it sound in Hollywood), I still had to prepare a romantic place to eat that wasn’t cluttered.

And that’s when I said it: “I have a day, extra-strength ibuprofen, and antibiotics … how hard could it be?”

cookin We’re still married, so I guess I did okay.


I’d never made salmon before. Or deep fried anything. Or made a cake. And once I got into the nook and crannies of the kitchen, I got to thinking I’d never cleaned before, either.

No, it didn’t turn out to be the perfect birthday. I mean … it’s me. Although I managed the cake myself, she had to help me figure out the salmon (thank you, George Foreman) and the frying..

Still, we did have our candlelight dinner – for some reason I have thousands of candles packed away in the basement – and the dining area looked pretty good if you squinted in the candlelight. I also learned a few lessons along the way:

Red velvet cake resembles something bloody at every step of the process. For awhile my kitchen looked like the lair of a serial killer.

Fish can taste pretty good even without breading. Why was I never told?

Other than food, no good can come from a pan of boiling grease.

Overall, despite our level of physical misery and the fact that the act of eating exhausted us to the point of collapse, we had a pretty good time. After recovering she left the room, and returned with something behind her back. I don’t recall her exact words, as I really wasn’t expecting this, but I’ll paraphrase.

“I wanted to get you the Moon and the stars and the universe and everything … so I did.” We’re both huge astronomy fans. She presented me with a ring carved – literally – from a meteorite. It was so much cooler than the engagement ring I gave her.

I’m beginning to think she’ll keep me. What could go wrong? Lots. But that doesn’t mean things don’t go right.

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4 thoughts on “How To Ring In a Birthday”

  1. Massive respect for even attempting to cook. Cooking like math should be left to those who know how to do it.

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