birthday party

Bouncing Birthday Bacchanal

Just went to my first children’s birthday party, and… Holy schnikey, y’all!

This wasn’t the first birthday party my daughter, nor my wife, had gone to. This was the first one, however, when I couldn’t find something more important and painless, like a root canal, to skip it for. I’ve already had my vasectomy, so either I show up to this one or I admit I’m a horrible father. I’ll have plenty of other chances to do the latter as the years go by, so I might as well go to this party.

Also, my daughter is approaching the big four-oh. Not forty, but four. Oh! I’m going to have to be present for that one, too, so I figured this was a good chance to do some advance scouting. It turns out that a middle-aged man randomly showing up to watch a bunch of little kids frolic and play is frowned upon.

The first few birthdays my daughter went to were at other kids’ houses. The kids in question put invitations in her cubby at daycare, so I guess we’re counting them as “school friends.” I don’t know whether my daughter was specifically targeted or whether it was a “Just put an invitation in everybody’s cubby.” Again, this is key intelligence we need before our own child’s birthday.

My daughter’s other recent birthday party was for the child of my wife’s friend. Not sure if it’s an upgrade or a downgrade to go from “school friend” to “forced friend.” I’ve seen pictures from my fourth birthday party, and it was attended by a whopping three other kids, all of whom were children of my mom’s friends and who I had virtually nothing in common with by the time second grade rolled around.

Still had to play with them through sixth grade, though. What is the magic age when you finally get to invite only the people you want to your party? Five? Ten? Sweet Sixteen?

Hold on, I’ve planned a wedding before – the answer is you NEVER get to only invite the people you want.

The party I went to last weekend was that of a girl from our neighborhood. My daughter plays with her at the local park. My wife and her mother coordinate via Facebook Messenger. How did my mother accomplish these things in the 1970s? They must have just shot signal flares up into the air when en route to the park. It’s either that or, GASP!, plan in advance, and who the hell has the wherewithal to do that? What happened if my mom had pre-booked a park visit and I wanted to binge-watch an extra episode of “Sesame Street?” Oh yeah, we only had three channels and they all showed soap operas during the days. Never mind.

The first thing I noticed about this particular party was the number of children present. My rough estimate was the high forties. How does a five-year old know fifty people? My wife and I were in our late-thirties when we got married, and we only managed to get close to a hundred guests. And again, most of those people we didn’t really want to invite.

Except for you. If you’re reading this and were at my wedding, you were TOTALLY on the good list.

Allegedly this girl got fifty people at her birthday party by inviting all of the kids in her daycare class. So maybe I was right about the invitations we’ve got. It’s like Valentine’s Day, when even the freak in the class gets the generic Flintstones Yabba-Dabba-Heart card.

But this fact, by itself, doesn’t equate to the cacophony of children that were there. We’ve had some birthday “invites” stuck in my kid’s cubby that we didn’t feel inclined to attend. Usually we ask our daughter if she gives a shit about the kid in question. At other times, she never even needs to know that the freaky kid that still watches “The Flintstones” is having a party this weekend. If she has a problem, she can fucking learn to read.

So maybe this kid with the fifty friends has some secret draw. Maybe she’s the candy pusher in the club. Maybe she has a future in wedding-list design. Or maybe the norms at her particular daycare are more stringent than at ours. Her party was at 10:00 in the morning, and she was scheduled to be at another kid’s birthday party at 4:00 that afternoon. Maybe the whole Stepford-lot of them were going to follow the same path throughout the ‘burbs like some goddamned Hale-Bopp Comet.

Let’s do the math. If the contingent is fifty kids, there’s only fifty-two weeks in the year. Take out some of the major holidays and they probably have to schedule two kids each Saturday. Hell, our neighbor-kid’s real birthday might not even be until mid-July, but this was the weekend she pulled in the birthday party lottery.

What kind of daycare has fifty kids in a class, anyway? State law says there shouldn’t be more than sixteen kids per adult, so unless they’re in some multi-purpose room with five adults casing the perimeter, there shouldn’t be that many kids.

So maybe what was really bringing fifty kids together was the location. This particular party was held at a place called Bounce U. Like its name implies, this business is a giant warehouse with a shit-ton of inflatable bounce houses inside. The warehouse was divided into two rooms, each with four or five inflatable bounce houses. Our party just under thirty minutes in the first room, then moved onto the second room while, presumably, another group of hopped-up ought-somethings piled into room number one behind us. Twenty to thirty minutes later, the well-oiled machine deposited us into a party room for pizza and cake. Three groups in the business at a time, one more congregating in the lobby area, and never the twain shall meet. I guess it’s more than a twain, put quadrain ain’t as poetic.

Seriously, it was flawless. Disneyland could probably learn a thing or two from this company about each group thinking they have the run of the place.

Our particular group had two “Party Pros” assigned to us. Their shirts say “Party Pro” on the back. They’re, like, fifteen years old. I was skeptical at precisely how much partying they had on their professional resume. Talk to me when you’ve graduated from bounce houses to keg stands.

When we finished the cycle and were preparing to leave, I saw three or four more “Party Pros” in the front lobby, waiting for the parties that they were about to go all pro on. None of them cracked eighteen. In fact, I don’t think I saw an employee of legal voting age the entire day. The logical part of me knows there must be an adult supervisor somewhere, some shadowy silhouette behind a one-way mirror like the creepy banker in “Deal or No Deal,” but I never saw any definitive evidence.

When the children were in the rooms with the giant inflatables, it was a study in groupthink and societal interaction standards. All of the children would swarm toward one bounce house. Five minutes later, they would all go on to the next one, leaving the previous Mecca looking more like Chernobyl. At any given time, there would be thirty-plus kids on one inflatable, while at least one other one was not being used at all.

I kept looking for the one kid to buck the trend, but he or she never arrived. No future real estate mogul who would lay claim to the dessert oasis inflatable, knowing that it would soon blossom into the next Las Vegas.

Can anything really blossom into Vegas? Is there a word for growing into degradation? MardiGras’ing?

Remember that scene in “A Beautiful Mind,” where he analogized some scientific theory to hitting on women at the bar? That all the molecules swarm toward the hot chick? I think that was the point. And the kid never grew up. That was the whole movie, right?

Anyway, instead of a bar at happy hour, the schizo scientist could’ve just gone to a kid’s birthday party at Bounce U. The untapped potential of perfectly viable viaducts was on regular display. Only at the birthday party, it wasn’t even the hot chick that all the molecules were going toward. It was whatever bounce house the hive-mind deigned worthy at that particular moment.

“Seriously, kid. The slide RIGHT NEXT DOOR, with three kids on it, works the exact same as the one you’re waiting in a line with thirty other kids for right now. Don’t believe me? Check back with me in four minutes.

The worst case scenario was in the second room. If they make “A Beautifuller Mind,” the whole damn movie could take place in this five hundred square feet. One inflatable in this room had an Ultimate-Ninja/Most-Extreme-Championship-style “jump across the giant balls without falling off” course. It was the only inflatable with a rule, which was “only one person on a ball at a time.” There were three balls, so the most you could have on the “course” at any time was three. More often it was one or two, as somebody would have fallen off or some kid was standing petrified on the second ball, contemplating a two-foot leap like he’s Indiana Jones about to pull the skull idol off the pressure plate.

Meanwhile, there would be ten kids lined up on the ledge, ready to take the first leap. Okay, maybe not “lined up,” but “clumped up.” You’ve seen youth soccer, right? Regardless, at any moment there were four times more kids waiting to jump than actually jumping. Nothing like waiting in line for five minutes in order to have ten seconds of fun. I guess we’re preparing them for Disneyland, huh?

And while these kids spent eighty percent of their time waiting for the ball jump, three other bounce houses went virtually unused. There was a pretty cool mountain-shaped bouncer, getting steeper as it rose, no handles. Like going up a slide, but a slide in the form of a very malleable bounce house, where you’re guaranteed to not reach the top and will instead slide back down in an orgiastic bouncefest. Or at least that’s how I assume it would have worked, because I never actually saw a kid use it. All the kids were too busy standing not-so-patiently on the ledge next to the ball jump. Maybe it’s reserved for the single adult employee.

As for my kid? She just followed the birthday girl around. Painfully so. At one point, they were supposed to make a “silly face” for a group picture. She turned to look at what face the birthday girl was making, then made the same face. Sigh. She’s a bit of a follower.

In her defense, the birthday girl was the only person she knew there. But my wife claims she followed the same M.O. at  the other birthday parties she went to. At her last one, there were five kids from her daycare class, but she still followed the birthday girl around.  Hell, her “bestie” only has that designation because she was the first one to invite my daughter to one of these shindigs. Daughter followed her around the whole party, decided they were best friends, and only now, a year later, is she starting to realize that their personalities aren’t all too compatible.

Wife’s not happy about this particular aspect of daughter’s personality. Not too happy about it myself, but for different reasons. Wife can’t stand it because it’s so opposite of how she engaged with others as a child. I, on the other hand, see a mirror upon my own upbringing.

And by “upbringing,” I mean everything up through last week or so. Never been the social butterfly. Put me in a large group of people where I only know one person, and I’m probably only talking to that one person.

It kinda sucks seeing the worst parts of your personality manifested in a three-year old who doesn’t even know she’s supposed to bury that shit. At least I’ve grown enough so, if said person is the person of honor, I won’t incessantly follow them around. I’ll probably just sit in the corner, check the scores of the game, and nurse my beer.

My daughter doesn’t really have those options, and someone sitting in the corner without beer and sports on the TV is probably just a freak.

Maybe I need to load her some “Flintstones” cartoons.

This is 40

I just turned forty.

Thank you, thank you.

Polite golf applause.

And boy, are my arms tired.

Dammit, that’s not the punchline.

Maybe sense of humor is the first thing to go.

Or the ability to write paragraphs longer than one sentence.

Quite a few people have congratulated me on turning forty. They do realize I didn’t actually do anything to get here, right? This wasn’t Cal Ripken taking the mantle from Lou Gehrig. All I did was keep breathing. And this wasn’t even in the age of cholera or “the consumption.”

But I guess I bucked the odds and made it over the hill. Or is forty the top of the hill? When I was younger, forty seemed so much older. Yes, I know that sounds stupid. Wow, your parents were older than you? Welcome to the generation gap.

But I think it goes beyond that. When my parents turned forty, their youngest child was in eighth grade.  Five years later, they were divorced and empty nesters. Hence, forty meant they were on top of the hill and ready to coast down the other side.

By contrast, I am still a relatively newlywed with an infant who will graduate high school when I am fifty-seven. No time to put that cardboard under my butt and let gravity do its work. I’ve still got some climbing to do.

Which is not to say that I am not aging as nature intended. Things like gout and pre-diabetes were as distant as nuptials a decade ago. But I’m about to have a toddler running circles around me, so aging body be damned.

But I’m not here to write about aging with my whopping one week of forty-something wisdom. Instead I am here to talk of parties. Specifically birthday parties, because I’ve had some good ones and some not so good ones. Plus, the next few will likely feature bouncy houses, so indulge me.

A couple of the parties from my youth, twenty-eight and thirty, stick out.

Whoa, grandpa, did you just call thirty your youth?

Watch it, whippersnapper, patience is the first thing to go.

The only time I’ve had that “Holy shit, I’m getting old” feeling was at twenty-eight. For most people, the round numbers hit them, but not me. I think there were a few things going on with twenty-eight. From a generic number standpoint, at twenty-eight, you go from “mid-twenties” to “late twenties.” It also marked the ten-year anniversary of turning eighteen, hence a decade of adulthood. Up to that point, in my mind, I was still in “college aged,” even if I had been out of college for six years.

A more personal issue I had with twenty-eight concerned where I was in my life. I had received my teaching credential earlier that year after a failed first career, but I had not been hired as a teacher yet. With an October birthday, that meant I was still a good eight months away from the teacher hiring process. So I was waiting tables and occasionally subbing in an elongated “lost weekend.”

I’m sure waiting tables while failing to get hired for my second career had nothing to do with my focusing on the whole “late twenties, six years out of college” thing. It wasn’t so much a “mid-life” as a “pre-life” crisis.

So what did I do for said party? Got drunk, got stoned, went to karaoke with a bunch of the drunk potheads that I worked with, hit on and struck out with the cute girl from work, hit on and struck out with her friend, got frustrated, drank and smoked some more, finally learned the words to “Smells Like Teen Spirit” (minor accomplishment!), then showed up very hung over for the lunch shift the next day and resolved that I wouldn’t go through the same thing when the Big Three-Oh hit in two years.

I also figured that, two years later and still striking out with pretty much any woman I faced in the batter’s box, my thirtieth birthday could replace my bachelor’s party. Who knew if or when I’d finally have a successful date, much less a full courtship and engagement. If it was forty or fifty, would I be able to have the big blow-out that every guy wants? Strip clubs frown upon men using walkers, right? “Here, missy, a dollar for your G-String. Don’t go spending that all in one place. Now where’d I put my teeth?”

Two years later, I was in a slightly better place. Still waiting tables, but now only to augment the measly second-year teacher salary. Even better, the school district that hired me featured a break between quarters that conveniently landed on my birthday.

So more money, job stability, time off, bachelor party atmosphere, and two years to think about it? New Orleans, baby!  Laissez les bon temps rouler!

Those good times might be the first things to go. Better let ‘em roll while we can.

I had been to New Orleans before – once for Mardi Gras, once for New Years. People were tired of me talking about it so much without experiencing it themselves, so I invited everyone to come along for an extended weekend. To ease the burden, I paid for two hotel rooms. Anyone willing to cram themselves in with three other people could stay for free. I even booked a couple flights for co-workers, because restaurant workers can’t be bothered with complicated stuff like that Inter-webs thingy.

Ten people ended up joining me. It was a mish-mash of people from different aspects of my life. That first, failed career donated a friend or two, the teaching credential program another handful. My cousin and her friend who I had already traveled with to England and Australia, and my mom. Yes, my mom. I mean, she was the only one that had been there thirty years earlier, right?

There have only been two or three times in my life I’ve seen my mom drunk, and my thirtieth birthday was one of them. That by itself would’ve made it a memorable trip. At one point, as I sat looking up Bourbon Street from the balcony of the Tropical Isle, the girls all decided to go to the male strip club and asked my mom if she wanted to come. Her quick response was “Oh,yeah,” before sheepishly turning to me and saying “I mean… if it’s okay with you… it’s your birthday…”

Continuing on the subject of inviting my mohter, one year later, when Huricane Katrina hit six weeks before my thirty-first birthday, the role she played in my thirtieth became more apt. Had she waited a year to have me, we would’ve had a whole bunch of non-refundable deposits to an inaccessible city.

Timing is the first thing to go. No, hold on. That doesn’t even make sense in this context.

We drank plenty (The liver is the first- oh, who am I kidding), but we also did some of the other touristy shit around town, like trudging out to the swamps for a boat tour and following the tourbook walk through the garden district.

We ate at Emeril’s restaurant the night of birthday, and that might have been one of the best dinners I’ve ever had. Not to be confused with Brennan’s the next morning, which is one of the best breakfasts I’ve ever had. It was painful, though, on only two hours of sleep and still stuffed from Emeril’s (and a few drinks) from the night before. But oh, how I had to stuff myself. “No, I’m going to pass on the Bananas Foster. Oh, they cook it right in front of you? It smells so good…”

The Angels were even nice enough to clinch the division on my birthday that year, even if the highlights of that game got me in trouble from one of the girls in the group. After the male revue, she wanted to compare it to female strippers, so she found the boys and took us to a strip club. It had a big screen TV that occupied much more of my attention than the topless girls. Fewer scars and cottage cheese.

Simply put, we had a blast. It more than made up for the twenty-eight debacle.

Since thirty I’ve still had some fun birthdays.  My quarter break still sometimes lands on my birthday, so I still travel, albeit with a smaller entourage. I’ve spent one birthday in Ireland, and one checking out the Smurf Turf at a Boise State game. I even lost one birthday entirely by boarding a plane in Los Angeles the day before, crossing the International Date Line, and landing the day after in Fiji for my Honeymoon. My wife refused to accept that she was now married to a younger man.

Speaking of honeymoon, that bachelor party that my thirtieth was supposed to replace? It ended up happening at the age of thirty-six. It was great, but I was right with my earlier assessment. It was way more low-key than it would have been in my twenties. Sure, we went to Vegas, but we opted for a minor league baseball game over the strip clubs and woke up both mornings more tired than hung over. Nobody was arrested, which is something that happened on a Vegas bachelor party I had been to ten years earlier. The worst shenanigan of the whole weekend was a little short-sheeting.

My wife tried very hard to arrange a big blow-out for my fortieth birthday. She had some very grandiose ideas. One involved a trip to Kentucky for the Bourbon Trail and the South Carolina at Kentucky football game. Ora trip to Tennessee for a Jack Daniels distillery tour and a Titans game. I’m sure there were some other ideas that included whiskey and football. Or beer and baseball. Or wine and hockey. Really, I’m easy.

The problem this time was getting other people to go.  Money wasn’t an issue, as we are all making more money than ten years ago. But getting time off is more difficult at forty than at thirty. At thirty, most of us had jobs that wouldn’t suffer from a few days away. At forty, we have careers that are more difficult to take frivolous days off from.  We also have families now. Spouses and children not only complicate travel plans, but also change the priorities for the days we do get off work.

So instead of big travel plans, we had everyone over to our place for a barbecue. Nothing extravagant, just burgers, but not the fast-food inspired burgers that a thirty year old would like. No, we’re gourmeting this shit up! We wanted to stuff the burgers, but couldn’t decide with what. Bacon, blue cheese, grilled onions, Tabasco, Worcestershire? So we made it “Build Your Own” and put about thirty ingredients out with the raw meat. It went over great, and even better, I didn’t have to spend the whole time cooking. Everyone actually grilled up their own concoctions after putting it together.

Had I attempted this at age thirty, I am sure half the guests would have ended up with salmonella. But at forty we all properly washed hands, cooked burgers to a nice medium, and survived. And half of every couple limited their alcohol intake , so that everyone could get home safely and at a reasonable hour. Back to our families. Back to our careers.

Because irresponsibility, it turns out, is the first thing to go.