February 27th, 2006

An Important Birthday

We tend to view our own birthdays like we view New Year’s Eve: a marking of the passage of time, which can turn into wistfulness about what was accomplished the previous year. Resolutions about the coming year are common on birthdays as well.

Those around the birthday person tend to view the event a bit differently. For some it’s a time to poke fun at how old the person is (because, as we know, making fun of a person’s inexorable march to death is hilarious) or, more specifically, to poke fun at how much older that person is than than the person doing the poking.

For others, it’s a celebration of a year spent with the person. What is life if not a collection of interactions with others? Rather than focusing on the time left, it’s a chance to focus on the time already spent.

The most important people in our lives are those that have not only taught us something about ourselves, but have taught us how to better ourselves. While they accept us as we already are, they challenge us to be better than we are, and not usually by direct command. Rather, their presence in our lives is challenge enough.

Author John Steinbeck was born on this day in 1902. Sixty years later, he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. Almost thirty years later, I read my first Steinbeck novel. He’d been dead for 23 years already, but Of Mice and Men instantly became my answer to “What’s your favorite novel?” Since then I’ve read almost every book he’s written, and I’m currently reading Journal of a Novel, which is a series of letters he wrote to his friend and editor while he was working on East of Eden.

Like most life-touching things, I’d be hard-pressed to explain what is exactly that I like so much about his writings. His most famous works are set in a time foreign to me – the Great Depression – and are stories of people who work the land, a long way away from my technology-driven life. His characters are flawed and real. The “things don’t go like you plan” message in Of Mice and Men must speak to me on levels I don’t even realize – in fact, it wasn’t until a year or two later that I realized the title was referring to the Robert Burns poem where “the best-laid schemes o’ mice and men/gang aft agley.” (I know, right? That should have been easily evident.)

So today, 104 years after the fact, I celebrate John Steinbeck’s birthday. It’s possible (likely, even) that he would have been a difficult person to befriend, but today’s a day for appreciating those who have affected our lives and challenged us to be better than we are.

Happy birthday, Mr. Steinbeck.

2 Comments on “An Important Birthday”

  1. the obscure says:

    Does this mean you are going to sneak up behind me with a pistol when I least expect it?

  2. Angela says:

    When I first red Of Mice and Men in 8th grade, I didn't quite get it. It left me with an empty feeling, and I found it depressing, but I shoved it on and moved to something else.

    It was when I re-read it this past year that I really understood WHY it left me feeling empty, yet… not, at the same time. It's hard to describe… I guess it's just one of those books. It accomplished a lot for hardly being 100 pages.

    Yay birthdays!

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