Simple birthdays give way to staged productions
By Annette Clifford
Gannett News Service
Birthday party memory, circa 1964:
Mom bakes a cake and ices it. She must have planned ahead, because there is a present, which she has wrapped. It's a summer afternoon. Five or six neighborhood kids with nothing better to do are rounded up to come and eat cake on the screened porch, sing "Happy Birthday," and observe the present unwrapping. Then we go outside and engage in unstructured play until dinner time.
End of party.
Birthday party drill, circa 2002:
Two weeks in advance: Call and obtain directions to wall-climbing facility in an industrial park 30 minutes from house. Drive there, scope out joint, pick up three waiver forms to be signed by parents of kids who will be attending the wall-climbing birthday celebration. Get waivers to parents.
One week in advance: Begin worrying about the dangers associated with small kids climbing up vertical walls designed to look like steep mountainsides with random chunks of rocklike material sticking out for wedging feet and getting grips.
Two days in advance: Purchase present for child. Because present is a miniature hamster, purchase a load of equipment, including a hamster habitat. Assemble "Jetsons"-like hamster habitat, comprising 45 pieces of plastic tubing, sky loft, gates, treadmill, domes, chew-resistant rings and a water-delivery system. Try to complete assembly before hamster chews his way out of small cardboard box, or at least before child comes home from school.
Find place to hide hamster and his habitat for two days. Check on hamster regularly to make sure he hasn't died. Keep older sibling who discovers hamster habitat hiding place from blowing the birthday surprise. Purchase cake mix to make cupcakes for class at school. Bake and frost cupcakes and hide from view so they don't mysteriously disappear overnight.
One day in advance: Purchase special-request ice cream cake. Rearrange freezer to accommodate large ice cream cake. Keep everyone from destroying ice cream cake by taking it out of freezer to show off to friends or by filching off fingers of frozen icing.
Day of party: Order stack of pizzas. Feed pizzas to birthday group. Hop in car and drive half an hour to wall-climbing facility. Turn in signed waivers and hand over credit card. Supervise kids in lower climbing areas while spouse trains to handle the safety ropes that will attach to harnesses that will keep kids from plunging to their deaths when they climb the mountainlike walls.
Tell kids to stop running. Tell kids to stop getting in way of adults who are practicing their serious climbing moves, such as the hanging-for-your-life-from-the-fake-overpass move.
Tell kids not to climb under someone else or do somersaults on safety mats under someone else, especially adults practicing serious climbing moves, who may jump or fall off walls and land on them.
Pray no one falls. Pray no one wigs out and cries because climbing these walls isn't necessarily as easy or as fun as it looks. Pray for two hours for the party to be over quickly.
Remind self to enjoy the moment. Enjoy moment for about one moment. Offer prayer of thanks when every child makes it to the top of the fake mountainside at least once.
Go home. Open presents. Bring out ice cream cake. Sing "Happy Birthday." Put video in VCR for kids to watch before bed. Put out sleeping bags and pillows for sleepover.
Collapse on bed. Contemplate wretched excess of birthday party. Wonder if we are nuts or something.
Remember child's face drenched in delighted surprise upon receiving hamster in "Jetsons"-like habitat. Remember child's face drenched in delighted triumph upon successfully scaling the artificial mountainside. Remember child coming for a goodnight chat and saying, "I am so lucky."
Probably we are nuts or something. But, also, so lucky.
Annette Clifford writes for Florida Today. Her column is provided by Gannett News Service.