My birthdays are always replete with excitement, which probably sounds pretty good. I would enjoy it more if I could somehow ensure that only the positive sorts of excitement happened. Instead, my birthdays tend to attract the other variety, and sometimes that variety is subtle and tricky. It sneaks up on me like jungle cat, which is especially disconcerting since I schedule my birthday activities as far away from the jungle as possible.
One birthday we were at my favorite restaurant when the excitement found us. The day had been going well; the meal had been going well. All of the indicators pointed toward a thoroughly delightful day. Then I excused myself from the table for a moment.
I was in the restroom when I heard my daughter scream. The situation wasn’t quite as dramatic as it sounds, but my little family and I were subsequently catapulted into a series of bizarre and unpopular activities. By the end of them, an ill-tempered glower had settled onto everyone else in the restaurant. The excitement had found us.
I don’t even have the luxury of denying responsibility. Sometimes, when people have unpleasant experiences with small children, the parents aren’t really to blame. Kids are willful people just like the rest of us, and sometimes they choose to behave badly irrespective of how solid their parents are. Usually, I like to think I’m one of those solid parents, occasional lapses in judgment notwithstanding. This wasn’t one of my solid moments though. My wife and I got directly involved in behaving badly, or at least oddly.
It started with a tantrum. My daughter had reached the age in which tantrums were always a threat: old enough to understand manipulation, and young enough to try it on us all the time. Or rather, she had eliminated her mother as a suitable mark pretty early, but I was a work in progress. Thus, even though I wasn’t at the table, when she didn’t approve of something, she let me know. She just did it from across the building.
I suppose that alone would have been enough to upset the other people who were trying to enjoy a quiet meal; nobody likes tantrums. Unfortunately however, that was just the beginning.
Sometimes, I try to cheer my daughter up by distracting her. (I would claim that this is because she’s so young, but the same tactic works on me: “Look, shiny keys!”) Thus, in an effort to save the rest of dinner, I came up with a distraction as I walked back to the table. In retrospect, I’m not sure what inspired me to try dancing. I could say that I was desperate, but that’s no excuse.
You see, I can’t dance.
Actually, let me go further than that. Saying it so simply makes it sound too dignified, as though I’m stoically abstaining from an activity for which I’m ill suited. One might say, “Abraham Lincoln can’t dance,” and then people could picture him wearing a suit and top hat while not dancing. Abraham Lincoln standing still; there’s nothing really wrong with that picture.
I, on the other hand, should not be allowed even to try to dance. The threat isn’t merely that I’ll fail–everyone knows I will–but rather that I’ll fail so egregiously as to make nearby people regret being born. Yes, my dances produce angst, so I should have known better than to dance in a public place, especially a peaceful one full of people trying to relax.
Sure I might dance at home all the time, but failing in private is funny. My wife and daughter have a special defense against the more damaging effects I might cause: they join in, and that takes the funny to a whole new level. Unfortunately, on the night of our disastrous dinner, neither of them were watching. My daughter had already gotten distracted by something else, and my wife was watching her.
Everyone else got an eyeful though. Imagine Tevye from Fiddler on the Roof auditioning for Chorus Line. I kicked; I stomped; I jiggled. It probably looked like I was throwing my own tantrum, or perhaps like I was suffering through some sort of psychotic episode. It definitely didn’t look like a man trying to entertain his daughter, not least because his daughter wasn’t watching. No, I was just a clumsy giant engaged in arrhythmic and purposeless humiliation. It’s distinctly possible that I sang some music for myself too.
What can I say, when I fail at something, I fail with gusto.
Eventually I realized that I had captured the wrong audience, but the damage was already done. Then my wife and I decided to buy dessert. If that seems like a non sequitur, perhaps I should explain that the desserts available included ice cream. Ice cream comforts us. Unfortunately, the embarrassment wasn’t over, and the ice cream was going to be complicit in it.
In part 3, my wife takes after Neo in The Matrix and realizes that there is no spoon, then our toddler beats us at math.