One day last winter, I was standing with my son’s classmate’s mother in a Chuck E. Cheese’s as the woman’s daughter screamed from within a plexiglass pod in a SkyTube, which is a play structure not unlike an extra-large set of hamster tubes. Children who enter it are instructed, but only by signage they can’t read, to remove their shoes. The girl had climbed in with her shoes on, and about 14 preschoolers with clear, doll-like eyes and righteous fury had anxiously scolded her for it. She was fogging up the plexiglass pod with muffled wails because the lead whistleblower was sitting behind her, also staring at us, inaudibly mouthing the Skytube rules.
“Just take your shoes off and throw them down!” the mom shouted, miming these actions. “Just take them off. It’s okay! Or carry them. Or just throw them down! Please. Sweetheart, please?”
At this, the girl tilted her chin up to scream straight at the roof of the pod, and then fell onto her back, holding her shod feet in the air and pointing at them.
Maybe unkindly, but not on purpose, I started giggling, because it was kind of like this, except the mother was very calm:
The other kids just climbed over the girl, but each of them made sure to tell her she was NOT SUPPOSED to be wearing SHOES. And every time a kid said something to her, she would scream louder, in a more agonized way. Finally, the mom took off her shoes and climbed into a pipe made to hold toddlers. She filled the entire plexiglass pod. She is a small woman. After some intergenerational grappling, during which no fewer than three preschool ethicists shouted at the mom, the mom reemerged with her kid’s shoes in her hand, her curly hair in a marvelous lofty halo courtesy of the static electricity generated by going down a spiral slide made for people who weigh under 50 pounds.
A small crowd of parents had gathered to watch this scene. We were nonjudgmental, and not surprised.
“You know, I was in a Burger King Play Place structure just last week,” I said.
“Today’s my 40th birthday,” another mom said. “Do they serve alcohol here? Not that I want any,” she added. “I mean I wouldn’t, I don’t want any. It’s not even lunch time.”
“Time for pizza,” a dad said. “It’s not as good as the bowling alley pizza, though.”
The pizza was not accessible until a lackadaisical teen/very animated teen duo did a confusing hype routine. The lackadaisical teen was wearing a rat costume, and the chipper teen was in a polo shirt. The plush rat motioned inarticulately to recorded music that seemed to be emanating from someone’s car in a lot far away. If a depressed parent hosting a Quaalude tasting party had pre-gamed, you’d get roughly the same crispness of gesture.
It never occurred to me that either I or my husband would have to attend every birthday party our kids were invited to. It also never occurred to me that I would get married, as I was never a good candidate for it, and every year when our anniversary rolls around my fingertips drift over the sympathy card section. But I guess dropping off your 4-year-old at a strip mall with a bunch of people you only know as Zachary P., Vinny’s mom, etc. is probably not a super-deliberative approach to maintaining your child’s welfare.
I am a big fan of backyard parties where no gear has been imported, or house parties where the kids just run around, and the number of kids is kind of limited. But also, I only want to do this myself in my fantasy house, which is a net-zero self-cleaning home with fourteen acres and an alpaca farm.
So last year, a month before my son’s fourth birthday, and after it had been determined that he would like a birthday party (for three years we convinced him he just wanted to hang out with us), I tried to think, while making soup, what we should do.
At the time, I was in a market share program that allowed me to pick up vegetables, milk, cheese and meat once a week at work. Because I often forgot to bring bags with me, I would stuff winter greens, a thing of frozen sausage, a quart of milk, garlic, a damp ball of mozzarella, potatoes and a clutch of beets with dried mud on them into my courier bag, so organic soil could work its way into the ports of my laptop. Once I had a frozen Cornish hen resting at my feet all day under my desk. With these ingredients, except for the beets, which lived in a pile on the counter until I composted them, I would often try to make soup. Cooking with no plan and no taste profile in mind is my basic m.o., and soup is forgiving, according to the chef at the artists’ colony where I used to live/work. According to the chalkboard signs outside liquor stores on Nantucket, soup du jour is Chardonnay or a vodka tonic.
Usually, when cooking, I think about other things than food. Is this problematic? Yes. But I decided that making soup would be a meditative time and that I could figure out my kid’s birthday while standing over a nice, steaming pot. And maybe tableaus would appear in the steam, like they do for witches? Among my questions was, why, if you are someone who likes kids, and who is happy to live in circumstances where the fact of the kids’ continued existence can be celebrated rather, than, say, in circumstances where you have to say “happy birthday, I think,” to your kid who is in a mud hole with you mining rare earth minerals while a foreign paymaster sits in a chain-link cube of a cage waiting for you to bring him a muddy bag of ore – why do you dread kids’ birthdays? Well, one reason is that they can be socially boggling. Parents at kids’ birthday parties, especially in public places, know that they are there on loose common ground, and only as security monitors.
Those of us who have been to every classmate’s birthday party but otherwise only see each other at pick-up or drop-off sometimes do comparative in-person Yelp reviews of various kid party venues, or run out of gas after we tell each other how our kids always talk about their kids. For some reason, talking to the birthday kid’s grandparents, if they are present, is usually very interesting. And some parents, if they become aware that you remember something they’ve told you in the past and then you have a follow-up question (like, “How did moving into the new house go?”) get very uncomfortable and then just issue slogans about how great everything is. That weird need to reset to basic acquaintanceship triggers a collective retraction of personality. Everyone basically becomes cognizant furniture, and the prospect of being a void for 120 minutes while also having enough situational awareness to make sure no child sticks their finger in the machine that keeps bouncy houses inflated gets into cyborg territory, but very dull cyborg territory. As opposed to the kind of cyborg that can leap up onto a building because of one robotic super-leg.
Anyway, the things that went in the soup pot were garlic, sausage, potatoes, onions, tomato paste and chicken stock. Did I have to invite all the kids in my son’s preschool class to a birthday party? I thought I did. Did I want to have them come into the space where I live? I thought I did not. Because that would be probably 16 kids and at least 16 parents, and some of the parents chose to attend all parties as a duo. Some of my son’s classmates had siblings who would come. I was looking at 50+ people milling around our house. I was also looking at the soup. It was very thick. I added more stock. My son had been to the aquarium, the bowling alley, a bouncy house place, a house party with a bouncy house, and several large indoor facilities in which children were free to scream on Astroturf. Also, it was winter. I realized the soup had no herbs or spices in it. To gussy it up, I located the 1-inch-long clear plastic case full of saffron threads and tossed a handful into the pot. I also added pepper, which floated on top of the soup, and salt. I stirred. Could the party be at a park? A beach? Could someone else throw the party? I had found a place that taught little kids songs and dances, and that sounded superb, but was limited to 12 kids, was expensive, and was, as the host told me over the phone, not something she advertised anymore because it was so much work. “So much work,” she said. “You know? Like is it worth it?” This sales pitch confused me. “But you still do it?” I asked. “Oh, of course, yes!” she said.
Staring into the soup, I decided to give the music-dance teacher my credit card number. I re-read an email about what the party involved, and that is where I got snagged—on the line, in italic font, that read, “We provide all plastic plates, cups, and utensils, along with a themed table cloth!”
The most excitement I have ever felt at a kid’s birthday party was when I realized that there was a basket full of cloth napkins and a bus tray for dirty metal utensils alongside a compost bin for the paper plates used to eat birthday cake. I essentially mugged that parent with praise as she was trying to get everyone to leave the aquarium. I am a boring person. I know this. But as my iPhone fogged up over the soup pot and I thought about adding eight pounds of plastic garbage that would last for 500 years in service of telling my kid that we had managed to keep him alive for four whole years, I bagged on the music party. I could have negotiated non-plastic stuff, and should have, but on top of weeding out four of his classmates from the party and having to word the invitation to tell parents that neither they nor any siblings could come, per the music teacher, I crumbled.
Soup on a flame stops for no woman, and by this point, the soup was boiling, but in a kind of tar pit manner. Just thick bubbles from near the center, and some weird variable broth coloration around the edges. I have one move in the kitchen, and it involves the immersion blender. I decided to address the consistency issue with that. Did I mention there was sausage in the soup? Because there was, and one thing that does not appeal to any sense is freewheeling sausage bits, particularly if you have not removed the casing from the sausage, because the sausage just adheres to the arched backing balls-out like your junior high computer science teacher who got fired. Also, saffron is not something you add to recipes in tufts. But I had done that. I had probably dumped $18 worth of crocus stigmas into soup that I had not actually thought about. When I took the immersion blender out of the soup, it looked like a great bird, a pterodactyl with a sharpened mandible trained for warfare, had come to rinse the gore from its beak in my stock pot after laying waste to a Scottish village full of redheads. The blades of the immersion blender had all kinds of lumps stuck to them, as if I had just swung an outboard through the shallow end of a pool full of kids learning to use kickboards.
In the end, this was clarifying. No child only lightly known to me should come to my house to eat food that I would provide. We had my son’s fourth birthday party at the bowling alley, where I had heard they had good pizza.