Letter from California

An archive of the weekly "Letter from Calfornia", written by Jim McCarthy.

Monday, March 14, 2005

Letter from California-March 7, 2005

It’s a familiar enough story. First, there’s peace, and then somebody does something stupid. Human nature being what it is, no stupid gesture goes unanswered, so the other side responds in kind. In fact, it’s not enough just to match what the first side has done; the second side must prove that it can do something even more spectacular and futile. Soon, you’ve got an arms race: if they come at you with knives and chains, it’s only natural to come back at them with guns. Of course, you realize you’ll be defending yourself from tanks and bombs next time, but you’re confident that when your turn comes up again, you can probably whip up something nuclear if you really have to.

Yes, it’s the Birthday Party Death Race. Remember when Mom could bake a Duncan Hines cake, put up some crepe paper in your favorite color and call it a party? Try that now and you might get a visit from Social Services. Party games when I was 7 consisted of dropping clothespins into a wide-mouth jar for accuracy and pinning homemade tails on a homemade donkey. Don’t get me wrong. We loved it! We counted ourselves lucky that we weren’t at one of those birthday-parties-of-the-less-fortunate where the games were even more basic, like Walk a Straight Line While Dizzy or Guess How Many Fingers I’m Holding Up.

If any of the kids my son hangs out with were to read this, they’d have one question: what’s a clothespin? If I told them, they’d realize that birthday parties must have been a little different in those days if you could do most of your party prep by walking out to the backyard clothesline. Nowadays, there’s a whole store devoted to your partying needs. It’s called Party City, which is funny because that sounds really sarcastic to me, like something you say when you realized the highlight of the birthday get together was the clothespin game. “Party City,” you’d mutter in disgust.

For some of the parents we encounter though, Party City just isn’t enough. I’m not sure an entire Planet devoted to parties would fit the bill, when they’re after something more like a cross between a carnival and a personal fashion statement. A fun time for a seven year old with his or her friends, a little cake, a few presents…that’s all very dated. Instead, they treat the kid like he’s being given a Lifetime Achievement Award. “Today, we gather to celebrate Bobby. There’s a film retrospective of the highlights of his elementary school and T-Ball career, including some outtakes from when we first met him in pre-school and at Gymboree. Yes, he’s really become an household name among the other kids at his school, so we’ve included in your gift bags some commemorative mugs from today’s party and a DVD copy of Bobby blowing out the candles to take home.” I’ll treasure them always.

Also, I’ve learned that you can’t have a party in anyplace that’s unbearably dingy or unglamorous. Home, for example, is completely out. Also, forget about parks, lakes or picnic areas. In fact, as a general rule, if the location isn’t Zagat-rated, you might as well tell your kid his birthday party is going to be held in a dumpster. How can you expect him to do well in school, maintain his self-esteem and still manage to get in five hours a day on the Game Boy if you’re having his birthday party in a dumpster…I mean, at home?

If you don’t want the Lower Elementary set to start thinking of you the way we used to think of the kids who couldn’t afford clothespins, you’d better upgrade. Use miles if you have to. Re-fi the house if you must, but just to be on the safe side, you might want to hold the party at the Museum of Fine Arts. It’s probably not that expensive just to get them to close the place for the day. It wouldn’t be fair for the other patrons to have to deal with the kids as they run screaming through the galleries with frosting on their hands. Best to let them do that in private.

The cake, of course, must comprise anything other than flour and icing, or if it does, you must find a way to pay $120 for it. Stuff it with five-dollar bills if you can’t think of anything else. Finding something to entertain children during the party is a challenge, but if you follow these simple steps, you can do it too. First, pretend you’re a six year old. Now imagine a thing that would normally interest you, like a magician or a puppet show or ponies. Second, change that entertaining thing around until it suits the taste of a 38-year-old woman who got a Bachelors of Fine Arts from Michigan State.
This one simple step guarantees that it will be enriching to their developing young minds and that they’ll be so bored that some of them will be trying to tunnel out of the building by the mid-point of the show or if they’re boys, that they’ll start punching each other in the head and need to be emergency-dosed with Ritalin. Finally, be sure that the check you write for this entertainment is 3 to 4 times more than any reasonable person would pay to entertain a handful of children at a birthday party. (3 to 4 times is a minimum, by the way.)

And when that special day is over, you’ll only get a few minutes peace. It’s still early in the Birthday Season and prices only go up from here. Rumors are swirling that one of the 2nd graders is having his birthday party on the Mir space station. Start thinking now of how you can convince NASA to do that manned Mars mission ahead of schedule.

Or, you can do what I’m doing and stock up on clothespins.


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