I was never any good at it. This is despite the fact that I had no shortage of practice. It comes up every year without fail, and yet the very thought of it makes me squirm. Some may relish the chance to be the centre of attention and bask in glow of adulation (or, if adulation isn’t readily available, then candles), but it’s never been for me. I speak, of course, of my birthday.
The whole idea of a birthday party always made me feel uncomfortable. It started with having to choose a certain number of friends to invite. This was challenging because I knew at an early age that the number in question was entirely random and that I would need to make brutal decisions as to who (and, more to the point, who not) to invite. In a small town like Tyabb, snubbing someone could lead to a conflict that lasts a generation or more.
The second great anxiety was whether those that were invited would, in fact, show up. Granted, a bag of mixed lollies and skin-full of soft drink is a pretty powerful motivator, but there’s nothing like an invitation to socialise out of school hours to find out exactly where you stand in the pecking order. Which led me to my next problem – did I actually have enough friends to fill the arbitrarily determined quota given to me by my parents? I had my doubts.
Then there were the gifts. I remember one birthday in primary school where I was given a model aeroplane. That required assembly. I’m sure I said something along the lines of ‘thank you’. I’m also sure I wore an expression that suggested she had made a grave misjudgement. As a rule, you should never give anything that requires assembly to a kid who routinely manages to super-glue himself to furniture during art class. To this day, my hand is still attached to a tiny, primary school-size chair. I guess I could have it surgically removed, but I’m (ahem) attached to it.
My last major birthday party I had was when I turned twelve. I was allowed to have six friends and, struggling for numbers, I may have invited the postman. Dave was deeply appreciative. On that birthday, we saw a movie I’d never heard of entitled, ‘E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial’. I had no idea what a ‘terrestrial’ was and couldn’t conceive of a world where someone would want one, much less an extra. But the two hours that followed convinced me otherwise. As birthday parties go, there’s no way to top ‘E.T.’. I decided to retire.
Liam turned ten in March. He feels very differently about birthday parties. For the last nine months, he has taken every opportunity to lobby, campaign and otherwise cajole in the hope of having a birthday party. At the time he turned ten, we were managing other major events and we decided to defer. Until November, as it turns out.
It was on. Even though Liam was closer to being eleven than he was to ten, we sent out invites for people to come rock climbing with us. He was extremely excited. Indeed, he was so profoundly eager that I also began to look forward to it. His enthusiasm was infectious. And although this may be because he washes his hands too infrequently, I couldn’t wait. To see someone so committed to a birthday was inspiring. There would be games, sing songs and craft activities. It would be awesome.
It’s been a long time since I’ve spent the afternoon with a room full of ten-year-old boys. I was in for a surprise. We arrived at the venue to find a function room waiting for us. There was even a special sign that read, ‘Happy birthday, Liam!’ on the trestle table. The kids were rounded up and given a safety briefing before being set loose in the rock-climbing pen. It was as if someone had unleashed the devil and left the gates of hell wide open. Mayhem ensued.
There was shouting, there was screaming and there were limbs flying everywhere. It was like a tornado of small people. Things only went down hill from there. By the time I had returned to the comparative safety of the function room, the sing that read, ‘Happy birthday, Liam!’ had been completely violated and now said, ‘Yer Phat Liam’. I’m not even sure what that means. But I’m sure it’s not good. Liam’s older brother, Ryan, had been volunteering at his school, so knew most of kids by sight but not by name. So we decided that instead of learning their names, we would simply assign them any name we liked. One kid we christened ‘Marmaduke’, another we called ‘Chauncey’. We even had the kids volunteering to be ‘Dennis’ for the day.
At the end of the mayhem, Liam said it was the best birthday party he’d ever had. I’ll bet he can’t wait to turn eleven. Lucky for him, it won’t be that long. I learned a few things that day. Firstly, that ten year old boys, in pack form, are complete animals. The other is that it’s okay to be the centre of attention sometimes. Especially on your birthday. Or even nine months after your birthday as it turn out. It’s a lesson that I’m sure to take to heart.