The invitation arrived on Tuesday for a birthday party on Sunday. At 10:00 am. Bowling at Buddy's Bowl-O-Rama. For a four year old. Bouncy and lunch to follow at the house.
Late invitation -- strike one. Bowling for four year olds -- strike two. 10:00 am on a Sunday morning -- strike three. So I threw the invitation out.
Big mistake. You see, the mom who sent the late invitation called the next day to harvest RSVPs. My wife answered the phone and, not having seen the invitation and unable to invent an excuse in time, she cracked under the pressure. We were stuck. Or, I should say, I was stuck for, according to the strict laws of my people, I must clean up my own messes.
So that's why last Sunday I herded the kids into the car at a godly hour, set the coordinates for Buddy's Bowl-O-Rama and stoutly resisted the urge to head the other way.
The banner over Buddy's door offered a clue: "Two For One Weekends / Mornings Before 10:00." The mom and dad, lawyers living in a multi-million dollar house, had dragged me out of bed to save $30.
It's not easy for four year olds to bowl. It's not easy for forty year olds either. Even with inflatable tubes to keep the hollow balls out of the gutters, many a ball bounced away or stopped mid-lane. Few of the kids understood what was going on, none seemed interested after a few rolls, but the mom and dad were determined to squeeze maximum value out of their two-for-one special, sending kid after kid trudging into the breach with ball in tow.
At one point dad, singling out my kids as the worst bowlers of the lot, which they were, sidled over to give them a lesson. I silenced him with a glare and a harsh whisper that my kids were just there to have fun, that any instruction would inhibit them and make them feel self-conscious, then I leaned back and watched my son run down the lane and jump on the pins.
Meanwhile, the birthday boy broke out in tears as his mom and dad, busy with the party, ignored him.
Buddy's Bowl-O-Rama offers a birthday party special of microwaved frozen pizzas served with pitchers of flat soda. Most people accept Buddy's offer, reasoning that bowling plus the food is still cheap and, together, take up the two and a half hour time limit specified in the birthday party compact. Mom and dad declined, perhaps out of fear of Buddy's pizza but, I fear, more likely for fear of spending any more coin on the party. We were sent to the house.
Birthday parties at a house must include an inflatable bouncy powered by an air pump noisy enough to drown out all conversation. Why? That's just the way it is. The bouncy must, however, be age-appropriate. Mom and dad rented a gigantic bouncy with a tall slide powered by two air pumps (so that's where the money went, I thought). None of the kids could climb up to the slide, causing the birthday boy to cry once again.
There was nothing else to do; no strolling clowns or balloon people or caricaturists or outdoor toys. They'd fenced off most of the yard and made it clear we were not welcome inside their house. So I ended up in the bouncy, helping kids climb up to the slide, the pumps pounding my ear drums into submission while I swayed back and forth and up and down as the kids jumped around, trying to keep my breakfast in while keeping my shoes on despite repeated warnings from the kids that I was breaking the bouncy rules. "What are you, the bouncy police?" I sneered. One kid, losing his footing, fell back down after I'd helped him climb up. He would have landed on me but thankfully I stepped back just in time, avoiding injury.
Anyways, I was released from purgatory when the takeout pizza arrived. The hungry kids chanted "pizza, pizza, pizza," scaring the birthday boy into tears. I stacked a few slices on my plate and headed into the quiet house.
We were now four hours into the party but mom and dad sent the kids back to the bouncy, seemingly unaware that we'd already served more than the maximum allowed by the sentencing guidelines for five-and-under birthday parties. I asked when they were going to do the cake. Mom, adopting her best put-upon pose, answered with "when we're ready." Thanks, mom.
Somewhere in the distance, the birthday boy wailed loudly and resumed crying. Turns out one of the dads, sliding on the bouncy with the kids, slammed into the birthday boy at the bottom, crushing him against the bouncy's wall. No injuries, other than to his fragile psyche.
He cried again when they finally brought the cake out. Too much excitement, mom said.
As the last bite of cake started down my youngest's throat, I lifted him out of his chair and, grabbing my older one's arm, I thanked mom over my shoulder as I dragged my kids to the front door, breaking stride only to collect the goodie bags.
Driving home, five hours of party under my skin, it suddenly struck me that the subtitle of my forthcoming monograph on the folkways of children's birthday parties in Southern California suburbs at the dawn of the 21st century will be "Ritual Run Amok."