A Tale of a Very Happy Unbirthday

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.  

From Hero to Zero – Great Dining Debacles

It seemed so innocent.  A simple email arrived in my inbox without warning or fanfare.  Little did I know that it was a veritable poison pill whose sole purpose was to heap shame and ignominy on me like I was a nature strip and they were seeking to dispose of their hard rubbish after two years of lockdowns.  Put simply, it was a lot.  And to think, it started with a dinner at a swanky Melbourne restaurant.

I suffer a severe form of imposter syndrome.  In fact, my condition is so acute that I feel like a fraud even having imposter syndrome.  It means that when I go out to a fancy-pants restaurant for a special occasion, I can never quite get over the feeling that I don’t belong there and that all the staff and the other patrons know it too.  I don’t know whether it’s because I lack experience or because I always insist on wearing fly fishing wader pants when I eat out since it’s so much easier to mop up the inevitable spillage; I just never really fit in.

Like any good imposter, I like to do my best.  When ordering from the menu, I always try to pronounce the words if not correctly then, at least, convincingly.  In this case, the menu was in Italian (except for the word ‘menu’ itself which is of French origin) and I was determined to do it justice.  But before I knew it, my lips were tripping over syllables and consonants resulting in the kind of heinous alphabet soup that, for sure, what not featured on the menu.  To seem even more genuine, there may also have been hand gestures on my part, which I now concede were regrettable.

But despite the fact that I was something of a fraud, we had a really tremendous night.  The food was exquisite and there was something quite glorious about the very fact of being in a restaurant at all.  We had a wonderful time, and spilled out into the street, happy and content.  Then the email arrived.

The email came from the fancy restaurant.  It included a heart-warming message, thanking us for dining with them and hoping that we enjoyed our recent dining experience.  Then they sunk the boot in.  The email went on to say, ‘You’ve just earned 0 points’.  The zero was bolded just to drive the point home.  Granted, I had no idea when I went there that by chowing down on their food, there were points up for grabs, but now that I do, I really want some.  I’m even prepared to return the bread in exchange for points, if that helps.  But bread or no bread, it seems our attendance wasn’t enough to render us ‘point worthy’.

It was strange, I thought.  On the one hand, they were emailing me to thank us for dining at their restaurant whilst, at the same time, refusing to recognize us by giving us zero points.  My first instinct was to demand answers.  But then I paused and thought better of it.  Perhaps, I reasoned, it was better not to know why I’d been denied points.

I could imagine it – me, pleading my case in a lengthy email and them, in an equally loquacious reply, revealing the depravity that led to me having my points withheld.  ‘Sorry sir’, the response would begin.  ‘We’ve recently learned that two days after you dined at our high-end restaurant, you purchased a three-piece feed from something called “KFC” and, as a result, you have been disqualified.  Goodbye.’ 

It could have been so much worse.  If they’d been aware of the number of times I’ve devoured an entire box of barbecue shapes on a Friday night and called that ‘dinner’, I doubt I’d have ever been permitted to set foot in the joint to begin with.  I’d have been removed forcibly if they’d known how often I’d ordered an ‘Aussie’ from the pizzeria because I truly, genuinely believe that egg and shredded ham belong together.  The less said about all the times as a kid (and, also, possibly not as a kid) I ate Nutella from the jar using only my finger, the better.  Forget points.  Had they known about the ‘Nutella fiasco’, I’d have been banned for life.

Then, unbelievably, it got worse.  This was not the first time we’d gone to this very fancy Melbourne restaurant.  In fact, we’d gone there almost exactly twelve months earlier to celebrate the same very important occasion.  This, I feel, makes us regulars.  But despite this, having now told me that my attendance had just earned me ‘zero’ points, the email went on to say that this would be added to my current balance of  ‘zero points’. 

Not only were they refusing to recognize that I’d been there this week, they were now asserting that I’d never been there.

Ultimately, I feel the fault may be mine.  When they served us the artisan bread, I should not have sent back the butter and demand a tub of ‘Flora’ instead.  When the scallops arrived, I should have restrained myself from requesting a potato cake.  And when my exquisite spaghetti marinara appeared, I should not have demanded a bottle of White Crow tomato sauce.  Be that as it may, I regret nothing.  Eating out is not just a matter of ‘what’ or ‘where’ but also ‘who’.  And in terms of the ‘who’, I couldn’t have been happier.  That, after all, is what counts.  And with that said, I feel I’ve made my (zero) points.

Something Or Other For My Slightly Younger Brother

As occasions go, I can’t let it go by without remark.  Granted, there are others who are equally if not more qualified than I to say something but believe me when I say there are sound reasons as to why it should fall to me.  I’m sure my father has plenty of thoughts on the matter, but this column is only half a page long and the risk of a voluminous outpouring that is unlikely to remain on topic is simply too great – as anyone who saw my father give a speech at my sister’s wedding would doubtless attest (ideally, wedding speeches should be about the wedding in question, and not about the time you and your best friend used dynamite to launch a tree stump into space).  My brother, Cameron, has turned fifty.

I’d describe myself as his older brother but, traditionally, that has been a disputed statement.  That’s because we’re the same age, he and I, for four days every year.  As kids, these were the most fractious days of the year – I’m surprised our parents didn’t drive us out into the wilderness and leave us there, so incessant was out bickering.  Our conflict was rooted in a mathematically-challenged assertion that we were, for those four days, ‘the same age’ and, as a consequence, I was ‘no longer the boss’ of him.

As someone who, most of the year, was an undisputed older sibling, the news that I had ever been the ‘boss’ of my slightly younger brother, came as something as a shock.  Had I been aware, I would have made more of it.  But once I overcame the initial shock, I quickly despaired at his cavalier attitude to maths.  Granted, we’d accumulated the same number of years, but there were still nearly twelve months separating us and I was, without doubt, still the older brother.  Cam wasn’t having it.  He rejected my appeals to reason outright.  Not because he can’t count (he can) but because he knew that to do so would wind me up like watch.  Which it did.

But as difficult as these four days were, there have been many advantages to having a sibling who is (practically) the same age.  It means that there are many things you don’t have to experience alone.  This is particularly true of social events, where my natural inclination would have led me to avoid them completely.  But with my brother, I always had the option of tagging along.  Were it not for him, I’d have seen, heard and done a lot less than I have.  Mostly, that’s a good thing.  Through my brother, I have lived an almost unparalleled vicarious life.

Because of him, I never have to wonder what would happen if I tried to make wine out of blackberries.  Cam launched himself into the business of wine making in the same way he does everything else – with extraordinary gusto.  This enthusiasm resulted in him generating litres of the stuff, poured into old sherry jugs and left to ferment on the back step.  Then, without warning, the jugs began exploding, sending blackberry wine in all directions and the dog off the bush from where it refused to return for several days.

He was passionate, too, about break dancing for a time, even going so far as to sign up for lessons.  Although he only studied for a little while, he’s still known to break out the odd cardboard box for a few backspins now and again.  There was a mercifully brief flirtation with motorbike riding, a short stint learning karate and a moment during which he was deeply committed to scuba diving.  There was phase in which he curated bonsai plants and the time he decided to build a greenhouse and constructed something so elaborate and beautiful that it could easily have been upgraded to ‘primary residence’ status.

Somewhere along the line, he no longer fought with me for four days a year.  Either he was confident that I was not the boss of him for the rest of the year (which I wasn’t) or he no longer considered being the same age as me to be a desirable outcome.  He may even have been in denial.  As late as last week, he insisted he was ‘mid-forties’.  For my part, I took to labelling pictures of him in family calendars as ‘late 40s’ and, for several weeks before his actual birthday, sent ‘gifs’ wishing him a happy fiftieth.  It was, so I claimed, to get him used to the idea.  I may have gone slightly too far when I gave him a card that read ‘ninety years today’ and suggested I was ‘getting in early’.

Landmark birthdays are funny.  Often, they’re an opportunity to remind that person how lucky they are.  But I’m the lucky one.  To have a brother who’s practically the same age has been a gift (not ‘gif’).  I don’t mind the fact that we used for fight for four days every year as he challenged my authority. 

I don’t care that, for years, his favourite trick whenever we went anywhere was to park so that the passenger door was right up against a tree and I couldn’t get out.  I’m fine with the fact that when he used to ask how I’d done in any kind of athletic event, he’d let me answer and then claimed he’d done ever so slightly better.  I’m just thankful he’s here.  Happy birthday, Cam.