Sunday, November 13, 2011


At the risk of sounding like a big kid, God I wish I was a kid again. Obviously the best bit would be that wherever I was, however tired and emotional, I could fall asleep and magically wake up in my own bed. I could burst into tears when being dragged around IKEA, maybe even pull my pants down in protest. And when my wife was talking to our mortgage broker, I’d still have to go, but I’d be allowed to colour in.
(I really must stress here, just between you and me, God those things are boring. Those ads that talk about getting a mortgage as being a really “exciting opportunity”? Don’t believe them. It’s mind-numbing stuff, about as gripping as a live webcam on Winnipeg. Plus these mortgage meetings are made worse by the knowledge I’ll be tested on it later, usually during a pretty frosty drive home.)
The other great reason for being a kid again? When there was a birthday party, all I’d have to do is show up, eat sugar and go berserk for a couple of hours and leave.
I may get sick. That used to happen, back when there was none of this politically-correct carrot-sticks-and-apple-wedges nonsense on the table. It was all just chocolate frogs and lollies, and cake, and icing, and more lollies, and fairy floss, and cake, and ice cream, and ice cream cake. And soft drinks. It was just an eat-a-thon really, with lots of running around. In fact it was like running a marathon, except the volunteers at those roadside tables don’t hand out cups of water to the runners as they go past but stuff cake and candy into their mouths.
Still I’d take any amount of sugar-induced illness over having to organise a child’s party as an adult.

Even this guy's having trouble. 

These parties always end up fine and mostly I have fun, which I guess is the main thing. The kids do to, and it’s always all over in a blur of activity. But oh the preparation.
It starts with a venue. Here in Beijing there’s a familiar list of play centres. They’re all indoors, which helps on two fronts: The weather, if it’s the freezing winter or the debilitating summer; and the fact that in Beijing, the great indoors are far better than their outside counterpart, the mediocre outdoors. This is because of pollution, and the fact that in most parks you’re not allowed to walk on the grass (“No strolling” the translated signs usually say). Sometimes you can stroll on the grass, only to find it’s a big, green, non-flushing dog toilet.
You worry about the venue. Is it nice enough? Is it too nice so as to be not much fun? Is it too expensive? Will people think we’re cheap? Are our kids too old for this? Or too young?
Then there’s the invitation list. What fun this is as you interrogate your birthday girl.
Which one is Monique? Is she the cute one with the lisp? And who’s Sharon. Isn’t she the sour one with the attitude? Are you still friends with Cindy? Really? But we changed your classes so you wouldn’t be. Who the $*&# is Maddie? Does she eat much? Della can come. But does her father have to come?
Or there’s this sort of parental angst:
Leo’s the only boy on the list.
Perhaps he can bring a friend?
How about Henry?
But then Henry’s parents will think he’s only invited to keep Leo company.
Well, he is.
We can’t do that.
If a doorman let me into a nightclub full of girls to bolster the numbers I wouldn’t be complaining.
You’re not seven.
Look, if this is how they might feel about this, @$&% Henry’s parents!

Nothing wrong with how they used to party in the old days.

There are decorations. Last time, for a party at home, we wanted balloons. A guy brought samples in advance. They look satisfactory, so I booked them. Three hours later, they were lying forlornly on the floor.
We knew we’d have to get ones that stayed up longer. The guy said that would take unsafe gas. In China, when people actually admit they use unsafe practices, you should take them more seriously than those who don’t. Suddenly I found myself on the internet getting an ulcer about safe and unsafe gas. One minute I was pondering musical chairs. The next I was freaking out about hydrogen versus helium. Would our balloons stay up? Would we be handing back kids who were happy, disappointed, or just plain charred? In the end, money won out. We paid more, our balloons stayed majestically aloft.
There’s also entertainment. We parents now fear you can’t just go for old chestnuts like pass-the-parcel, pin-the-tail-on-the-sister and boxing any more. (Seriously, my brothers and I used to have little boxing gloves, a present from our parents, who would help us put them on and send us into the yard with the goal of punching each other in the head. And don’t get me started on our other favourite game. It’s enough to know we called it ‘Knives’.)
Last time I feared that if a game wasn’t on an iPad or some other beeping device, kids would call it lame. I wondered if there was a pass-the-parcel app? Still, we held firm and tried for imaginative, non-electric games. We did a version of Twister, which went down a treat, especially when we sprung it on the adults that it was their turn. Try playing Twister when sober at 11am, adults!

Of course you can't have party games like this anymore. 

Or this.

Do you get a clown, or some sort of magician? In 1970s Australia, these were rare. Now they’re almost compulsory. I think they’re rubbish, but perhaps I’ve got coulrophobia, a word someone thought up for the fear of clowns. Usually I just fear smelling them. I’ve known several who were too scared to wash their flimsy-looking costumes, which, it seems, are quite hot underneath. Smelly clowns, they are. But again, the kids don’t seem to mind.
Pinatas were once confined to Mexico. Now everyone has to have one. Usually these too disappoint.
Who makes them these days? Lockheed Martin? You try sticks, broom handles, bats, but they never come apart. Kids end up lying around exhausted and tearful as the little donkey/Spiderman/Spongebob refuses to give up the booty. We watch their frustration build as order disintegrates in a Lord of the Flies type scenario. We end up barking at them to get the hell away from this creature we thought it would be nice to have at a kids’ party - the blindfolded stick wielder. Still the whacking gets more frenetic, the kids just crowd closer and closer. Seriously, they’re worse than zombies.
Once it’s finally open (Tip: Pick the heftiest kid and tell him he’s won 20 free turns), it’s fun to watch the unbridled frenzy. Until someone loses an eye of course. Next time, to get it over with in less than an hour, I’ll give the kids this empowering choice: axe or blowtorch?

All cultures do parties differently.
This is a popular game from the
Republic of Moldova called
"Pretend the kid is the pinata". 

In nearby Bulgaria, they believe the best way
to stop things getting out of hand is to place
all the children in bags.

This pinata appeared one morning in 1971
 in a town square in northern Paraguay.
What followed was the so-called
 "Hundred Days War" with Bolivia.

The cake has to be right. I like to make ours. And what would a party be without being up at 3am the night before, frantically finishing these off, and making yourself even more frazzled for the big event?
Last time out we were left with many happy memories in our minds of daughter Lani’s sixth birthday. Which is just as well, because there is no photographic proof the party took place at all. The photos were kind of my job, and I kind of forgot. There were a lot of things to remember that day. Forgetting only one of them isn’t that bad really, is it?

A photo from a party planners' website of a game called
"Throwing the small ball into the really big target from
point blank range". It goes for bloody ages. 

The main thing of course is ensuring your child is happy. My brother and his wife once threw a sixth birthday party for their only child. Hanging around adults had at least made him articulate, but sharing with guests wasn’t his strong suit. Asked his thoughts afterwards he replied: “I had a sickening time at my party”. I laughed and laughed because kids say the darnedest things. My brother didn’t.
In the end, after all the worry, after everyone’s gone and your little darling’s big day is all over, you reach out for that ever-reliable source of comfort. You look, you hold, you marvel at the little bubbles, and you thank God for beer. Then your little one says in that enunciated little-person style: “That was the best … party … ever.” And you can’t wait for the next one.

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