ImageI'm blessed with an abundantly honest primary relationship. But twice a year, there is secrecy between my beloved and me.

Plans are discussed in hushed tones. The mail is collected hastily and shunted off to obscure hiding places. Bodies are positioned to block monitors as crucial e-mails are exchanged and secret arrangements made. At all costs, the other must be kept in the dark.

It's all for a good cause, of course. Because we take birthdays seriously, and every birthday involves at least a few birthday surprises.

A birthday surprise isn't a party — the prospect of a group of people leaping out of the dark to startle us holds no allure — and it usually isn't a physical gift. Beyond that, there aren't many rules. A few past birthday surprises have included:
    Private concerts.
    Museum tours.
    Rambles in the outdoors.
    Excursions to spas for elaborate treatments.
    Trips to visit out-of-town friends.
    Bringing out-of-town friends in for a visit.
The magic comes in the pleasant sense of helpless anticipation followed by deep appreciation for the imagination and planning involved.

This year, I was taken on an "out-of-town" trip that wasn't far out of town. We could have driven home in half an hour, but we stayed in a seaside motel as though we'd traveled a great distance. And once you've adopted that "out of town" mindset, it's easier to slip into the indolent vacation mode — complete with margaritas, tourist traps, shopping and (best of all) dropping onto a chaise to listen to the roaring waves. A year's worth of keyboard jockeying and phone-call wrangling melted away as my mind embraced the prospect of gathering shells, dancing, dining and drinking.

One of my favorite innovations in the field has been the private concert. Because we're
It's natural for the birthday boy or girl to try to guess the destination, so the "what to pack" instructions are frequently fraught with speculation.
fortunate enough to know a great many musicians, we've been able to bring a few over to the house to play a handful of requests. There's nothing quite like a musical performance that's just for you — provided the performer can handle the intimacy.

Where travel is concerned, it's naturally easier to pull off a surprise when you're going by car. Once planes are involved, it becomes harder to conceal the destination. But even if the surprise is unveiled at the airport, it can still have a powerful impact.

It's natural for the birthday boy or girl to try to guess the destination, so the "what to pack" instructions are frequently fraught with speculation. Perhaps a few items will be thrown in to cloud the issue: Sunblock? Check. Snowboots? Uh, okay. Hungarian-English dictionary?

Smaller birthday surprises usually flank the big birthday trip or presentation during the course of birthmonth. Even the most casual of these can yield wonderful dividends — like a trip to a revival house to see some shivery film noir, or a nocturnal canyon hike echoing with the sounds of owls and coyotes. The important thing is knowing the birthday boy or girl well enough to pick something he/she will enjoy but won't necessarily know about or expect. It's tricky, but it pays off.

Do you have suggestions for birthday surprises? How about tales of surprises executed perfectly or gone horribly awry? Fill us in and we'll send you our signature Editorial Emergency red pen: This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .