Picking the right song for your better half’s birthday is like picking her present: there’s a lot of pressure.
Because if they’re not right, then all she is left with is you. And torn wrapping paper, which after all that, looks better than you and isn’t much.
There’s extra pressure this year, because the better half’s birthday gets competition from Thanksgiving and Hanukkah (she’s calling it GiveThanksforKellyDay. I do.), not to mention Randy Newman and John Stewart, who also get a year older. None of those are the holidays we’re celebrating today.
And because, after celebrating all her previous birthdays in Florida, this one is easily the coldest of her life — by about a thousand miles and what feels like that many degrees. More pressure.
Jack Johnson, who when not working spends most of his time in the warmer climes of Hawaii, says “I’ve got you, I don’t need nothing,” in his latest album, which the better half generously gifted for me. I keep giving her that message — “I’ve got you, I don’t need nothing.” I’m not sure she believes me.
But Johnson’s song recalls a simpler time when he and his better half were in Europe, much younger, much poorer, much less famous. And it’s about ceding control, which we’ve both learned to do in a difficult way the last few months.
“We went walking through the hills
Tryin’ to pretend that we both know
Maybe if we save up
We can build a little home
But then the hailstorm came and yelled,
‘You need to let go, you’ve got no control. No.’ ”
And, besides letting go, it reminded me of our first trip to Europe together, lugging bags around and around Paris, because who knew the Hotel Luxembourg isn’t right on the Jardin du Luxembourg? And hoofing a mile-and-a-half back to the hotel in Amsterdam on a 25-degree night because the trams had stopped running? And letting her do most of the paddling when we took a boat out in Heidelberg on a beautiful spring afternoon a few days later?
After all that, I thought we might be taking separate planes home to separate bedrooms. But my better half showed her better side. Quite a few years later, she’s still got me.
Johnson said in the first verse he remembered the time every pot of gold was filling full of distortion. I don’t think he was referencing the Cheever short story of that title, but he could have been. The Pot of Gold was about a man who searched for riches, not realizing, in the end, it was close at hand. The story, which ended thusly, is only my second favorite graph Cheever ever wrote (I read the first at our wedding. She said she didn’t get it, but said I do anyway).
“Her smile, her naked shoulders had begun to trouble the indecipherable shapes and symbols that are the touchstones of desire, and the light from the lamp seemed to brighten and give off heat and shed that unaccountable complacency, that benevolence, that the spring sunlight brings to all kinds of fatigue and despair. Desire for her delighted and confused him. Here it was, here it all was, and the shine of the gold seemed to him then to be all around her arms.”
Here it is, here it all is. Happy birthday. I’m hoping it’s a warm one.