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Birthday party blues

At some point--maybe a decade ago--I stopped attending live music. (I'm old enough to remember the festival circuit where Americans of my age used to go to Lollapalooza in the summer before it settled down in Chicago...or the all-girl Lilith Fair.) I'm not sure that I sat down to make a firm decision that I'd spent my last concert dollar. But it was some combination of paying $100 to stand and hear badly amplified noise, stand in line for the bathroom, smell the pot smoke drifting, and wait in the parking lot in an hour-long traffic jam when the show was over. No thanks.

I tell this story not because I want to talk about the music industry. But I'm having similar feelings about why I don't demand that someone throw me a birthday party in adulthood. Remember, funerals are for the ones throwing them, not the dead. Right now we're in the middle of picking the venue for my son's 5th birthday party and it's pretty much like poking your eyeballs out with toothpicks.

For several hundred dollars of your money, they'll allow you--maybe--about 20 kids for 2 hours. But that ranges from $200 for 10 kids at our local gymnastics center up to $600 to get your child's friends into the zoo for the day complete with a buffet lunch. Most of the time at these birthday party locations is spent in some sort of planned activity before they throw you in a room with cake at the end for 30 minutes.

In the old days, our parents just invited our kindergarten classmates over to the house for cake, some bad party games, or maybe the yellow plastic slide you got wet with the garden hose. Though I totally get why we've gotten away from that as a society...who wants to clean up? Chuck E. Cheese remains popular with this crowd. Which says something about longevity when I had a birthday party there and now my kid's friends have theirs at the same chain that really hasn't changed much in 30 years. Then there's the modern cultural equivalent--the bouncy castle place. Bounce houses everywhere. Probably a climbing structure of some sort. Often in a giant warehouse in an industrial park. Then it has a clever name like Monkey City.

I see how it happens. So far this school year we've been to probably 6 of these birthday parties so you see what all the other families have done and feel this overwhelming pressure to be at least different, even if not "better." You see what goodies they handed out and then you feel like because someone else did it that you should, too.

We're thankful, really. Up to this point, we've avoided birthday parties for our kids as a rule. They each have gotten a "mostly family" gathering and have experienced the cake and presents. But school sets them up for this new world of real, honest-to-goodness parties. They immediately leave the venue saying, "I want to have my party at..." and you want them to be able to invite their friends to have fun. Just not in your house. So here we are.

We've thought of everything. A movie together. A place that has real fire trucks to climb on that dresses you in firefighting gear to fight a pretend fire. A Lego building academy. A rock and roll class with real electric guitars. Ice skating. Pool party. Anything outside is suspect (even in summer) because of the possibility of weather ruining your plans. In our case, we're trying to not have his friends have to drive outside our town to get there.

Narrowing down the possibilities, I think we're finally ready to book the event. Of course, that's far from the end of it because we need decorations, RSVPs, a cake, and party favors. We're certainly not the family that feels they have to "keep up" and we fairly easily ditch convention when we want. But a birthday party is one thing we can't escape in the end. It's here and we need to get invitations out. I'm sure he'll have a blast.

But his mom and I would just as readily skip it.