How to Create Your Own Traditions
Updated: Jan 23
In 1958, celebrated fitness guru Jack Lalanne appeared on the televised game show, You Bet Your Life, hosted by comedian Groucho Marx:
Groucho: How old are you, Jack?
Jack: You know, Groucho, every year I get a year younger. I don’t consider calendar years. I say your age is the sum total of your physical condition, the condition of your mind and how you feel.
Groucho: In what way do you get younger? Are you ready for your second childhood?
Jack: Nothing like that. But you know, each year on my birthday, I try to do something no one has ever done before.
Groucho: That’s not easy.
Jack: You’re right.
Groucho: What did you do on your last birthday?
Jack: My last birthday was September 26. I broke a record. I paddled from the Farallon Islands to San Francisco on a surfboard in nine and a half hours in rough water.
Groucho: What did you do in the years before you were in the middle of San Francisco Bay?
Jack: One of the things you probably heard of, I was the one who swam from Alcatraz prison to Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco handcuffed.
Groucho: Why? You crazy about fish?
Jack: Not exactly.
Groucho: Isn’t that the way everybody leaves Alcatraz, handcuffed? What were you in for?
Jack: I wasn’t in for anything. It was just one of my birthday feats.
Groucho: Oh, well, let’s see the other one. Has this feat ever been done before?
Jack: No, it hasn’t Groucho.
Groucho: It hasn’t? What did you achieve by this? Did you get any type of an award?
Jack: Well, I’m the type of person who likes to see people have hope; and you know the warden at Alcatraz, he conditions the prisoners, tells them that it’s impossible to escape from there, so these fellows have no hope for being able to escape, so I swam from there handcuffed, so now maybe they are happy. They could get a chance to escape.
Groucho: The warden must be crazy about you. Why do you insist on such curious and strenuous demonstrations? What are you trying to prove? Why don’t you just settle for a birthday cake and some cheap ties like the rest of us?
Jack’s answer: “Well, Groucho, health is my business.” My answer: Jack LaLanne created an annual birthday tradition that reflected his interests and values, not the expectations of others.
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P.S. Happy Birthday is a book about creating and embracing one’s own traditions. For me to do that with my December 25th birthday, I first had to unhinge it from Christmas: Independent of the worldwide holiday, what gives my personal revolutions around the Sun meaning?
Once I reached adulthood, I also had to separate December 25 from my childhood and the rituals my father created. A big part of that was recognizing that my customs would likely not be bell curve. From an early age, I’d chosen a non-traditional life – child-free, partner-free, artist. With no concrete societal blueprints to guide me, creating traditions proved challenging yet equally rewarding because they were wholly my own.
As I explored those non-traditional choices, I tried them on for a while like a new pair of sneakers that need breaking in. Next, I had to protect and honor them, not give myself away in service of societal constructs not of my choosing. Over three decades, I have experimented my way to a birthday tradition I can call my own.
My tradition is to remember the love my father gave me on my birthday when I was a little girl, and the closeness we shared. My tradition is to experience five, two and a half hour massages during my birthday week, eat whatever foods my body is asking for, make art, re-watch movies I love, walk, dance, swim and ride far east in the rural Florida sun. My tradition is to be in my own company. To celebrate in a quiet, reflective dynamic assimilating the year past and the one I’m about to enter. My tradition is gratitude for yet another opportunity to circumnavigate the Sun and to be thoughtful and responsible about the legacy I leave behind.
To paraphrase a passage from Stop and Smell the Universe by the Institute of Zen Science, the miracle of my existence is this: all the elements that comprise my body parts had to coalesce in a very precise way to become me. “Then factor in the idea that over the last 3.8 billion years, as Bill Bryson writes, ‘every one of your forebears on both sides has been attractive enough to find a mate, healthy enough to reproduce, and sufficiently blessed by fate and circumstances to live long enough to do so.’”
Own your day. Your celebration. Your life.
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