As usual, Jan. 25 was not shaping up to be a good day.

I woke up and proceeded directly to my morning routine: juice, tea, read book, wash face, clean glasses, feed cats, open Nook. I answered four or five e-mails before receiving repeated notifications that the Nook couldn’t connect with Gmail. I checked “sent”; none of my messages were there. I checked “outbox,” and there they all were — unsent. Instead of going swimming, I spent a fruitless half-hour on the phone to tech support. And sulked.

I didn’t even have my music. Happy birthday to me.

Historically, my birthday has not been much of a day for celebration (fittingly enough for the accidental last child in a family that didn’t need another one). It’s not the aging I mind so much as the timing. When you’re born in January, you learn early on not to expect too much. You can’t swim in a lake or have dinner alfresco; you will huddle indoors, trying to stay warm. Friends do their best, faithfully inviting me out to dinner, but all too often things like snowy roads or frozen pipes interfere, and I accept them gracefully. When you’re born in January, you’re used to it.

The decade years have been better than most. My 10th birthday brought my first and last full-blown party with school friends, rather than cake and ice cream with relatives giving pajamas. In the mail on my 20th were my first passport and a booking confirmation from the Crescent Gate Hotel in Manchester, England, where I would live during my study-abroad; the world was opening up. My 30th was Chinese food and music with the love of my life at the home of his closest friends; my 40th, with my fellow fellows at Duke University and my friend Gina, who had flown down for the occasion; my 50th at the Peninsula Hotel spa, followed by lobster and Champagne (thank you, Leslie). I have high hopes for next year, not least the pension that will theoretically begin.

But too many years, I spent my birthday doing my taxes or worse. My 39th was spent in flight home from Moscow, being taunted by a crazy man who reeked from the smoking section. The absolute worst: my 31st, when the festivities included a do-not-resuscitate order for said love-of-my-life, who had collapsed from a cerebral hemorrhage two days earlier. “Happy birthday!” is still a tough sell.

For many years, though, I had one reliable source of reliable comfort: a 1980s-vintage cassette tape of Gretchen Cryer and Nancy Ford’s “I’m Getting My Act Together and Taking It on the Road.” “Getting My Act Together” is an Off Broadway feminist musical of the late 1970s set on the eve of the lead character’s 39th birthday. (39? Ha!) Being a rock musician, she is understandably feeling the terrors of aging. Who knew back then that Mick Jagger would still be strutting onstage as a great-grandfather in his 70s? But for women the rules were, and are, different.

I never saw a production of “Getting My Act Together” until just a few years ago, at William Paterson University in Wayne, N.J. Cryer herself performed in a York Theater revival and sequel in 2011, and City Center’s Encores! series mounted the original last summer, which I missed. The book is painfully dated, but for many women Cryer’s lyrics resonate:

So many people leanin’ on me,
I’m gettin’ run into the ground
Everybody’s wantin’ somethin’ from me
And there’s not enough of me to go around . . .

And:

I’m doing my strong woman number
Fixing everything myself . . .
I can handle any crisis
I’m so capable I could scream

And:

I have been a lonely lady all my life
And to tell the truth I’m scared of findin’ home . . .

I hadn’t been able to play my cassette for a while; my “new” tape deck (bought for my first New York apartment in 1988) stopped working a couple of years ago. I’ve missed it. Though some of the lyrics could be counted on to make me cry, they were cathartic and cleansing.

The LP of Cryer’s original cast recording is fairly rare, the CD on the Fynsworth Alley label even rarer. (A London recording is available on iTunes, but for me only Cryer’s voice will do.) The night before this birthday, there were a few LPs on eBay, along with a couple of Playbills and a button, but no CDs. I passed. Amazon had a new, factory-sealed CD for $33 plus shipping — ouch. Again I passed.

But then morning came, and I was feeling grumpy and rebellious. So I did the only sensible thing: placed the order with Amazon. The CD would arrive too late for this birthday, but I figured I wouldn’t have to get through another one without it.

And then I had another thought: what if, deep in my CD cabinet, there might happen to be an old Sony Walkman? I had given away my Discman — rendered obsolete by the iPod — a few years ago when a friend, temporarily in a nursing home, needed music. But I had no memory of tossing out the cassette player that had gone along on my pre-iPod travels.

And sure enough, there it was, in the bottom drawer. I pulled it out, along with the cassette — not even the original, commercial tape, but a copy from my two-head tape deck. I checked the batteries, which had corroded, then cleaned out their compartment and replaced them. I plugged the Walkman into portable speakers and pressed “play.” After a few seconds of static, the familiar instrumental intro started playing.

“Gettting My Act Together” is a short show, running only about 70 minutes, and the recording only about 35. Still, it’s an emotional journey, carrying the singer — and the listener — from confusion to regret to affirmation of one’s life choices. Amid a joyous chorus, it ends:

This is the day I was born
This is the day I begin
With the rain still tap-dancing on my head
The sun is starting to grin

Happy Birthday!
Happy Birthday!
Happy Birthday!
Happy Birthday!

And I don’t know what’s coming
But this new day feels fine
’Cause I woke up this morning,
And the face in the mirror was mine
.

And those are just about all birthday wishes I need. The cassette has now disintegrated after being played twice, but next time I’ll have a pristine CD, and probably listen on my iPod. Thanks, Gretchen. See you next year.

One thought on “How to salvage a birthday

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