For friend's birthday, it's the card, gift and thought that counts [Column]

With our lunch date only one day away, I had to go birthday shopping for my friend — a task I avoid because it always puts me in a quandary.

Most of my gal-friends are at least a decade older than I am. I want to celebrate their special day (As in, "Yay! You're 70 and still have most of your original teeth!"); yet I don't want to seem like I'm rubbing it in that I've still got 10 years before being that old. (As in, "Happy birthday! How's it feel, having one foot in the grave and the other on a banana peel? Read any good ads for cemetery plots lately?")

Janet and I have been friends for over 20 years. We've been there for each other through thick and thin (lately, mostly thick...around the middle); and we've seen each other through a lot, both good and bad (with five kids between us, it was mostly in, scary). It just couldn't be any old present — or any old card, for that matter.

Birthday cards are a minefield of possible friendship-enders.

There are two basic kinds: "serious" cards, also known as "mushy"; and "funny" ones, which are highly amusing (to the person buying them, anyway). Example: a gray-haired, underwear-clad woman ruefully checks out her backside in a full-length mirror while thinking, "My butt used to be higher...and smaller." Sure, I think it's funny. Then again, it's not my 70th birthday.

Admittedly, I'm skittish when it comes to acknowledging a friend's birthday without making her feel old. But skittish or not, it was time to go shopping-or go empty-handed.

I read a zillion birthday cards and rejected any sporting photos of chimpanzees in dresses (seriously?) and squirrels sipping margaritas (Janet's not a drinker, and neither are squirrels...unless their acorn-stash ferments). I also nixed cartoon characters who sing rock-and-roll when you open the card. Hey, I wanted it to at least look like I tried.

Eventually, I found the perfect card. Poking fun at hot flashes, bald patches, and rhinoceros-skin elbows, and doing so in rhyme, it seemed like a safe pick.

The gift was more difficult. I gave Janet a book for her last birthday, so that was out. Gift cards are easy, but that's the problem. They're too easy. Cash was out, because it's even easier (and therefore even worse) than gift cards. Also, I can't put cash on a credit card.

Perfume implies that she smells funny. Candy could make her feel fat.

Clothes are simply impossible. She'd only wind up returning them for a different size, color, style, or because my taste is, in a word, wacky.

With the store ready to close, I had to choose something fast. So I grabbed a gift set of lotions and potions to pamper my pal. I mean, how could I go wrong with that? (There were at least 12 ways I could go wrong with that; but the store manager was shooing me out the door.)

The next day, at lunch, Janet laughed at the card (Whew!) and loved the gift.

To hedge my bets, I'd also enlisted the entire wait staff to bring Janet a hot fudge sundae and gather around the table, clapping and singing a rousing birthday song. And you can't buy that kind of happy — or surprise! — in any store, especially for someone turning 70!

Doug, if you're reading this, here's a gentle reminder: you've got eight years until my 70th birthday. Don't wait till the last minute to plan something!

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