Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Our Son's Ethically Compromised 6th Birthday Party

Our precious, sweet, hilarious, infuriating little boy turned six last week, and now that he's firmly ensconced in kindergarten, with a whole new set of friends, it seemed like we should consummate all his new friendships the way little kids' friendships are consummated: with an invitation to his birthday party.

Of course, throwing a birthday party in Brooklyn (or any borough of New York City) is a little more complicated than the birthday parties I grew up with, where you invite eight to ten of your little buddies over to your (relatively) nice, roomy house, take a couple of whacks at a PiƱata and play Pin the Tail on the Donkey, cut the cake, open the presents, and call it a day.

To begin with, we ended up inviting 16 kids to Henry's party. When I went to kindergarten in the *ahem* late '70s, kindergarten was a half day: there was the AM class and the PM class (I was AM). If I formed any strong, lasting relationships in kindergarten, I don't remember them (other than the love/hate frenemy crush with a girl named Gretchen that would last until the 7th grade when my family moved to another city).

Whereas, Henry gets on the school bus at 8am and is picked up from the afterschool program at 6pm, so he spends ten hours a day at school, so he's forming intense attachments to the other kids, and has more close friends now than I do. It's great, I love it, I'm glad to see he likes the kids he's with and that they like him, but the reality of Brooklyn class sizes plus the reality of Brooklyn real estate means we just don't have the space to accommodate all these kids for anything other than a lineup. Initially, my idea for this birthday party was to invite a bunch of kids over and have them watch a movie on our big projector screen. Six kids we could do. Eight kids maybe. But as Henry's guest list grew to 16, my wife Jennifer pointed out the insanity of trying to throw a party like that in our own home. It's partly a matter of space, and partly fear of the raw destruction that many kids would inflict on the place, which is already a wreck even with the three of us there together for about two waking hours a day.

My wife tells me that this is what everyone does here: they find an outside venue for their kids' parties. Seems a little weird to me, but I don't want to be the one to clean up after 16 kids -- and I would be the one to clean up after them -- so, when in Rome, right?

We brainstormed a number of ideas for the party: Children's Art Museum! Bouncy Castle place! Ice skating rink! Gymnastics place! As we discuss it with Henry, he loves every idea more than the last one, a pattern that continues even when we go back to the top of the list. So we start to look at more practical matters like where the places are, whether they're subway-friendly (that strikes out the Bouncy Castle place), novelty (that strikes out the ice skating, as his best friend had just had an ice skating party a month before), and of course, financial reality.

That last one came into sharp focus when I looked into throwing the party at the Children's Art Museum in Greenwich Village, one of Henry's favorite places to go. I don't know why they call it a museum -- it's actually more of an art workshop, with various stations with materials and helpers leading different projects for the kids to do. Henry is really into making art (just what our family needs, another artist) so this seemed perfect, particularly the Clay Bar, where the kids make figures out of clay and then get to take them into a stop-motion studio and make a little animated movie with them. So I go to the website and find that an "Animation Party" for 12 kids can be had at the Children's Art Museum for the eminently reasonable price of $1,200 ($1,475 if you want it catered). Spoiler alert: we did not have the party at the Children's Art Museum.

We ended up going with the Little Gym in Brooklyn, which is a large room with brightly colored walls and about $400 worth of padding, plus a balance beam, a springboard, an inflatable trampoline, and a couple of other obstacles. My wife had taken Henry to another birthday party there a year or two ago and said it was great so, in the interest of not thinking about it any more (we had put this decision, and the attendant planning, off for far too long) and the fact that it was in the bottom two options price-wise, I quickly agreed, and when told that there would be a trampoline, Henry made it unanimous.

The guest list expanded when my parents decided to come visit that same weekend, though it looked like they might not make it when a blizzard prompted Delta to cancel their flight. It ended up being rescheduled, they arrived the evening before the party, and the next morning we all went out shopping: his grandparents and I took Henry to the toy store so he could pick out a present, and his mother went to the grocery store to get snacks for the party.

Hex Bugs Habitat, aka Greatest Gift Ever
We got back to the house and played with Henry's super-cool gift for a while, and as we did so Henry's head gradually sank toward the kitchen table. We asked what was wrong and he said he was tired and wanted to go to sleep, a phrase I had never before heard pass his lips.

He felt a little warm, but as he had missed school the previous Monday and Tuesday with a cold and fever but had already more than recovered, it didn't seem likely that he was really sick, so I told him to go take a little catnap, and I'd wake him up in an hour for the party. I figured I'd give him some children's ibuprofen -- aka the miracle drug -- when he woke up and he'd be right as rain.

Jennifer had gone to run a few last-minute errands and pick up the cake, so I'd be going with Henry and his grandparents by car service and meeting her at the Little Gym. When the hour passed, I called the car service and gently shook Henry by the shoulder.

"Time to wake up, buddy. Party time!"

"ijuststartedsleeping. iwanttosleep. letmesleepdaddy," he mumbles in a heartbreakingly tiny voice.

Also unprecedented. You wake this kid up, ten seconds later you're shouting at him to put something down or get off something. I touch his cheek with the back of my hand and it feels like a radiator.

In a flash I go get the children's ibuprofen and the thermometer. First I take his temperature: 103.6.


My parents are looking on with concern, and I start to panic. What are we going to do? Do fevers even go higher than 103.6? It seems like some kind of record. I can't take a 6-year-old with a 103 fever to jump on a trampoline, can I? I grab my phone and call Jennifer, who's at the bakery picking up the cake, and bring her up to speed.

"Oh my god," she says. "We're about to have a party for all his friends."

It's 2pm, and the party starts at 2:30. Way too late to cancel. My mom and dad taught me that it's rude to talk about money and what you paid for things, so let's just say that the party cost an amount that starts with "Six" and ends with "Undred." We are about to spend a lot of money for a kids' party that our kid can't come to.

Jen stops responding to my panicked noises because she's talking to the lady at the cake place. She explains the situation to the cake lady and the cake lady says, "You gotta take him there. The same thing happened to me. You gotta take him. He'll be fine." Jen repeats this advice while my mom is offering to stay home with him. The decision is made: we're going. We are not spending this kind of cash on nothing. I tell my folks to put their coats on.

Behold, the Miracle Drug.
A word about children's ibuprofen: it is amazing. I have never seen any drug, either therapeutic or recreational, have such a quick and positive effect as children's ibuprofen has on Henry when he is sick. He's only been sick a few times in his short little life, but every time it's happened we give him a spoonful of this orange syrup and 15 to 30 minutes later it is as though nothing is wrong.

So I read the label, see that as a 6-year-old he's now eligible for two teaspoons instead of one, and I sit him up and give it to him. Then he collapses like a rag doll. I prop him up against the couch and put his snow boots on (there had just been a blizzard) and carry him out to the stoop to wait for the car. When it arrives, I carry him the way the Hulk used to carry damsels in distress out of burning buildings -- limp, across both my arms -- and we all get in, the driver asks "Where you going?" and I say, "Brooklyn Heights."

"Hospital?" he asks.

The insanity of this situation hits home when I reply, "Birthday party."

The boy is a limp rag in my lap on the drive over, but I detect signs of life when I feel a slight change in air pressure on my leg; he farted on me. I whisper in his ear, "You just farted on me," and I see him suppress a smile. The wonder drug is working. He farts on me again and I whisper in his ear again and he smiles again and I start to think this might just work out.

By the time we get to the Little Gym, it's starting to seem like he's playing up the illness; he wants me to carry him from the car into the place. We get inside and I set him down and greet some friends of ours whose kid was invited to the party. I put him in a chair against the plate-glass window through which about 12 of his friends can be seen frolicking on the gym equipment, and continue talking with our friends while I take off his snow boots. We're still talking about the school where Henry's going for kindergarten -- their daughter is a year younger, so they're looking at schools -- and I look up and see Henry through the plate-glass window, doing a somersault off a springboard onto a big pad, and I see that everything's going to be fine.

And it was. The party was great, all the kids, including Henry, had a total blast. No tears were shed, no disagreements among the kids. Oh, there was one thing: the cake was kind of terrible. So even though the cake lady was right about taking Henry to the party, her cake was so bad -- oddly, it seemed like it had been baked and then dunked in a tub of water -- that we ended up throwing away the half that didn't get eaten at the party.

In closing, if there are any parents reading this who are horrified that we may have knowingly exposed your kids to Henry's fever, please understand that we did so reluctantly, with great faith in the Wonder Drug, and because there was a lot of money involved. In the unlikely event that your kids did get sick, please accept my sincere apology and, well, do what we do when Henry gets sick: try to look at it as a blessing.


  1. Ibuprofen is the wonder drug! Happy birthday "big" Henry aka Ace! -Michele

  2. I had no idea! He was energetic and we had a blast! Thanks again for inviting us.

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