WASHINGTON, July 9, 2016 — I hate birthdays.
Not all birthdays. I love my own. It’s a celebration of me, after all, and what’s not to love about a celebration of me that ends in cake? My wife’s is fun, too. After all these years, I still love coming up with gifts for her, and unlike me, she enjoys sharing her cake.
Kids’ birthdays are another matter. It’s bad enough to have to go to them and sit in the parents’ section, even worse to have to plan one. It’s a fraught enterprise, with all the planning and the other moms all sitting in judgment, wondering how many kids will show up—no one RSVPs any more—or whether, after that bathroom incident where Catherine somehow imprisoned her friends in a stall, any will show up at all.
It seems none of Catherine’s friends or their moms thought that was nearly as funny as I did.
I hoped that in their teen years it would get easier, and it sort of did. There’s no need to rent out a gym or make little gift packets for the kids who come (whose stupid idea was that, anyway?). But teen birthdays are their own kind of trouble.
For the third year in a row, Harlan wanted to see a movie for his birthday. He wanted to take his four best friends (the limit set by the seating capacity of my wife’s station wagon), and he wanted to see it in 3-D IMAX. That meant a 90-minute road trip. It also meant having to talk him through the process of figuring out who his four best friends were and how to invite them without hurting the feelings of his other best friends.
That process deserves its own article. We ended up with A, B, X and Y, with Harlan feeling guilty about not inviting Z. “But I’m pretty sure he doesn’t like that kind of movie. Y isn’t as good a friend, but he really wants to see it. What should I tell Z?”
I set off to the Boardwalk with five 14-15-year-old boys in the car to see a movie that was reportedly three hours of battles punctuated by a series of fights. There were no fights in the car, as near as I could tell, but the bonding rituals of teenage boys involve a lot of verbal aggression. It turns out that some words that would have gotten you beat up in my day are terms of endearment today.
I felt like an anthropologist studying a tribe of chimp-men.
The boys chatted happily through the movie, drawing “shushes” from the people behind them and from each other. “Hey, Harlan …” “Shhh!” “Y …” “Shut up, (term of endearment)!” “B, doesn’t that remind you of when Mr. H caught you …” “(Shocking term of endearment)!”
The movie was an assault on my senses; I practically staggered out of the theater when it was over. I felt like I’d been folded, spindled and mutilated in 3-D.
Next stop in this celebration: dinner at Joe’s Crab Shack.
There was a 45-minute wait; we gave the hostess my cell number so she could text us when a table was ready. The boys wanted to go to the Bass Pro Shops next door. I told them to be back at that entrance in half an hour. They walked in the door and vanished.
I wandered around for awhile looking at rifles, then made my way back to the door to wait for them. No boys. I went outside to see if they were there, then came back in. An elderly woman at the welcome desk asked if I needed any help.
“I came in with five 14-year-old boys, and now I don’t have any,” I said.
“Honey,” she said, “I don’t see the problem there. That sounds like a blessing.”
I walked around the aquarium and through the knife displays. No boys. I went back to the door, checked outside again. The boys still didn’t show up, so I called the mom of one of them to get his cell number. No answer. A few minutes later I got a call from Harlan on Y’s phone. “Where are you?”
“I’m at the door,” I said, “waiting for you. Where are you?”
“At the front door by the parking lot.”
I gritted my teeth and said, “that’s not the door we came in, and the restaurant is by the door into the Boardwalk.”
Silence, then Harlan’s whispered comment, “X is such an idiot.”
“Come back to the door we came in,” I said.
A few minutes later three boys showed up. That was better than none, and probably better than five, but the moms of the missing boys might not have agreed. We stepped out the door and I called A, one of the missing boys. “Where are you?”
“Oh, Mr. Picht, we got lost, but now we’re at the door to the parking lot.”
I’m surprised I didn’t break a tooth, I was clenching my jaw so hard, but I patiently told him, “we’re just outside the other door.”
“Oh. We’ll be right there.”
I turned around and realized I’d lost one of my three and was down to two. “Where’s X?” I demanded in not my nicest voice. Harlan just shrugged, but Y ran to the window to pound on it and wave at X, who’d gone back in the store, with an anxious look on his face; he could see the storm gathering on mine.
X came out, but we were still missing A and B. I called A again. “Is this Mr. Picht?” he answered.
“We’re by the door, but we don’t see you.” I started looking around. They were nowhere to be seen.
“You’re at the main entrance onto the Boardwalk?” I asked.
I checked around the corner, growing slightly agitated. X looked ready to wander. Then about 50 yards away I spotted B’s bright yellow shirt. They were at the door of Joe’s, looking around for us. Rather than do the obvious thing of walking back through Bass to our entrance, they’d gone around the building and circumvented us to get to the restaurant. X was starting to wander back into Bass. “Come!” I barked, and marched them over to Joe’s.
“Welcome to Joe’s Crab Shack! Party of six?”
I looked at the hostess with a plea in my eyes: “I want my own table. I’ll pay good money for it. Help. Please.” My eyes didn’t speak loudly enough.
Dinner was fine until the food came. Then a food-fight broke out. X licked a sausage and threw it onto Y’s plate; Y reciprocated by sucking on a french fry and tossing it into X’s soda. Harlan sucked some soda into his straw and blew it out at B. B threw his napkin at A, who licked his thumb and stuck it on one of Harlan’s shrimp.
Harlan grinned at me. “They’re so immature.”
I ate in silent fascination until it looked like the exuberance might escalate to jumping on the table. “It’s late,” I announced, waving at the server so that we could get out of there. “Sorry, we’ve go to go. Your moms will be worrying about you.”
Two of the boys were staying in town, and their mom came to the Boardwalk to retrieve them. I was down to three. Then Harlan wanted to go back to the Pro Shops and buy a hat. We stepped into the store and I immediately lost them.
The elderly lady smiled at me and said, “Back again? You’re such a nice dad! Would you like a piece of fudge?” I don’t know how much they pay her, but they should pay her more.
When I finally found them again, Harlan had bought a red plaid hat with ear flaps. He asked me how it looked. “Like Elmer Fudd,” I thought. “Like a wabbit hunter,” I said. He missed the reference. The hat seemed to be lined with rabbit or some similar fur.
He spent most of the birthday money he got from his friends on it. I have no idea why. One of our dogs attacked and destroyed it when he left it on the floor.
Harlan told me later that his friends thought I was pretty cool. “You looked mad a couple of times, but you didn’t even yell once. They said you were really nice.” He sounded almost surprised when he said that, and pleased. He’s always terrified that his dad will embarrass him in front of his friends.
I never have, but I will, some day.
It wasn’t such a bad evening after all. I’m still looking forward to the year I can throw Harlan the car keys so he can take his friends to the movie himself. “Bring me a box of fudge,” I’ll tell him. “I deserve it. I’m such a nice dad.”