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November 6, 2005


When it comes to throwing birthday parties, overzealousness is the most common parental sin. Though I haven't encountered anything needlessly extravagant yet, I'm sure the moment of truth, featuring pony rides or a gift bag worth $50, awaits me. The closest we've come so far was last spring, when the parents of neighbor kid who liked to bop Elijah on the head threw a party in their front yard and rented a jumpy castle. Otherwise, though, it was just a cooler of beer, frozen hamburger patties, and a poker table where I lost $20 to a group of former defensive linemen from the University Of Texas. They were so large and intimidating, I probably would have folded with a straight flush.

We threw our own 3rd birthday party the Saturday before Halloween. Regina entered Hipster Homemaker mode, and cooked Elijah a chocolate cake (from an organic mix, of course), but at his request she cut it in the shape of a shark and decorated it accordingly. The party cost us a little money, but mostly because my dad was attending and he likes a good buffet. As for the kids, there were seven of them, all of whom Elijah knows well. The party started at 10:30 AM. The group sugar crash hit at 12:30, and the party was done, after a quarter-hour of howling, long before 1 PM.

The point I'm making here is not that we gave Elijah his first guitar this year, though I have been enjoying this song he wrote called "I Like To Eat Poo At The Stoplight." What I'm saying is that there is overparenting when it comes to birthdays, and then there's underparenting. Last week, we received an invitation to a birthday party in Elijah's cubbyhole at school (new, more-appropriate-for-him school, no biting), and thought, oh, a birthday party. That pretty much takes care of our Sunday entertainment for the kid.

Well, the party was held at the playground at Central Market, where every white parent north of downtown Austin hangs out on the weekend. There was a jazz combo playing, and our birthday boy's parents had decided to put the birthday table directly in front of the trumpet player's amp. Also, the party was at 1:30 PM. Any parent of a young child knows that a 1:30-3:30 party directly interferes with prime nap hours. Maybe they wanted to go to church first or something. This is Texas, after all. Check that. This is the United States, after all. But if that's the case, then maybe they should have had the party on Saturday. Regardless, the birthday boy looked wobbly and confused, like someone who's just emerged from the water on "Invasion."

The problems with inviting every three-year-old from your child's class are numerous. First, three-year-olds are not, as a species, entirely comfortable with socializing outside of a known space. My son's best friend at school could send him screaming in terror if we encountered him at the grocery store. Also, there's the chance that your kid doesn't actually know the birthday kid that well, or, worse yet, doesn't like him. Then there's the problem that we ran into today: No one from the school other than Elijah and a kid named Dimitri showed up at the party, meaning we spent an hour sitting around a picnic table with some kid's aunts and uncles but never actually exchanged a word with them. The trumpet music was so loud that Elijah never said hello to the birthday boy. We had a piece of carrot cake, which was only the birthday cake because the mom had forgotten under which name she'd ordered the actual cake. The bakery had to give her whatever was left in the case. All parents have been tired to the extent that we attempt to leave the room and walk into a wall, so I have sympathy. But even if you get the wrong cake, you shouldn't let your guests, who, by the way, you haven't met, cut their own pieces. We left soon after.

I've spent most of my life attending bad parties. We've all been to them: The cocktail hour where everyone's an anthropology grad student but you, the kegger where everyone went to high school together but you, the Rosh Hashanah brunch where, when you sneak off to call your girlfriend, the phone smells like an old woman's saliva. Well, maybe that last one is a memory more specific to my own experience. But if parents plan to invite strangers to birthday parties, then at least make them feel welcome. Conversely, if strangers get invited to birthday parties, at least have the courtesy to show up, or at least RSVP in the negative. Those of us who do make an appearance can only eat so much Mr. Gatti's pizza (a vile, local version of Domino's) before vomiting.

And now, if you'll excuse me, Sunday is rip-off-your-diaper-and-pee-on-the-floor-while-cackling night in my house. At some point, I'm going to learn my kid that going to the bathroom doesn't just mean tearing some toilet paper off the roll and flushing it down. But that moment has not yet arrived. At least while I was changing his diaper tonight, Elijah said to me, "mekka lekka hi, mekka hinie ho." I immediately recognized that as the genie's chant from Pee Wee's Playhouse, which I've been showing Elijah lately.

"Mekka lekka hi, mekka chinie ho," I responded.

"Long live Jambi," he said.

"Are you ready to use the toilet yet?" I said.

"No," he said. "Not yet."

Just preparing you all for a year of parent-blogging. Alternadad is coming.