Thursday, November 05, 2009

The Surprise Is That There's No Surprise (Thinking The Lions... Essays About Stuff)

I have always, since the Pound Puppy Incident, had a real problem with surprises and presents in general, and that came to a head on Sweetie's birthday the other day.

This year, Sweetie's actual birthday fell on the fourth day of celebration of her birthday. Sweetie's birthday has always been too big to be contained with just a single day. While she'll generally deny that her birthday is a big deal to her, she's lying and she knows it: her birthday ranks in importance right up there with all other major holidays, and like all other major holidays, Sweetie's birthday now includes an eve and an observed day and, most recently, also includes a day off of work for her, and kind of a day off of work for me.

The expansion of Sweetie's Birthday celebration began a few years back. There are two rock-solid traditions that we've observed on most of Sweetie's Birthdays: 1. We go to a movie, and 2. We eat Whoppers from Burger King.

The latter started with the tradition, in our house, that on your birthday, you get to choose the exact meal you want and, if necessary, inflict that on everyone else who eats dinner with you that day. The rest of the family has to eat what you choose, with no complaints, and all the kids have always gone along with that tradition, or at least half of it: they still complain. But they complain about everything, and after a while, you start not noticing it, like how people in Seattle don't notice the rain or people who watch Law & Order don't notice that it's always the same exact show.

Over the years, the You-choose-the-meal tradition has changed only a little. For example, I do not choose the meal, or my cake, because nobody likes the things that I like and there's too much complaining about it; and, when the complaining ends, I'm left with all the leftovers that the kids don't eat. Which isn't too bad, but even I get sick of the choices I make on occasion. I don't really like cake to begin with -- it's not snack food-y enough -- so being left with a cake that sounded good, like "Butter Pecan cake with Orange Frosting" can be a drag because I, like most dads, have the responsibility to eat all the leftovers and foods that people bought but didn't eat. Dads don't throw away food; we learn that early on from our own Dads, who also didn't throw away food. Regardless of what kind of food it was, how old it was, how unidentifiable it was, or how tiny the bits of food were, our dads didn't throw it out and neither do we.

Being responsible for not throwing away food is one way that I end up, from time to time, having "Mix Chips" full of potato chips and snack foods I don't like -- not individually and not mixed together -- but which I eat, anyway, as a Dad-ly duty. The kids, or Sweetie, will buy a snack food they think they like, like "plain corn nacho chips" that they buy on the premise (I assume) that those things are "healthier" than other potato chips, but which after they buy they realize they don't like and leave them to rot in our cupboard, until I take the non-eaten bag of plain tortilla chips ("plain" meaning "completely flavorless") and dump them into the giant Tupperware bowl of mixed chips I keep around to avoid food going to waste.

I question, as I dump those chips in, the entire premise that there's a healthier kind of snack food, anyway. Every now and then, one of the kids will ask me a question along the lines of "Which is healthier, this or that?" The this is typically something like "a Snickers bar" while the that is generally "A bowl of ice cream with chocolate syrup." My response to them is, invariably, "An apple."

Don't get me wrong: I am not in any way advocating eating an apple, or any other "healthy" food. I am only pointing out to them that if the question is "Which is healthier, a candy bar or ice cream," then the entire question is misguided. That question is akin to asking "Which is faster, mountains or outer space?" In that conceptually, at least, one could be deemed faster than the other, but neither one is, overall, the kind of thing that's fast, and the options the kids present me with in the which is healthier question are, likewise, not healthy at all. They don't get the point, though, and continue to try to buy, every now and then, "healthy" snacks.

Sweetie is like that: Sweetie buys, about two times per year, Saltines. This used to make me say "Why do you buy Saltines?" but now I ask a more pertinent question, which is this: "Why do Saltines even exist?" What's the point of a Saltine, after all? A cracker which is purposely made to be completely devoid of flavor, color, even substance? They're like the dark matter of crackers, except that Saltines, unlike Dark Matter, aren't entirely fictitious creations made up by scientists who can't be bothered to think; I can prove Saltines exist. They're sitting right there, in our snack cupboard, untouched since they were bought several months ago.

Saltines are so bad that I don't even mix them into the Mix Chips bowl, and that's saying something, because I put everything else in there: graham crackers (which I buy for the Babies! but which they don't eat), frosted Circus Cookies (ditto), leftover corn chips from Taco Salad night, a couple of Pringles from the two cans of Pringles I found hidden in the way-high cabinet above the refrigerator, cans that would still be there if I hadn't used my day off to clean 1/2 the kitchen one day (I'd have cleaned the whole thing but I promised the Babies! that we'd watch a movie that day, too) and any other chips or crackers or even cereal that happens to be leftover: all of it gets dumped into the large white Tupperware bowl we stole from Sweetie's mom one year, and all of it then serves as my "chip" course for lunches and dinners, the frosted cookies and generic Oreos offsetting the blandosity of the tortillas and other "healthy" snacks.

But no Saltines. They're too gross.

In addition to my own decision to not choose my own meal for birthdays, but instead to try to pick something the kids will like, we've had to alter the kids' ability to choose their own meals, because they were getting expensive. The kids graduated from saying things like "I want pizza" to "I want to have the whole family go to the really fancy italian restaurant where we'll all order individual appetizers and then whole entrees, plus "Nada-rita" kiddie Margaritas, all of which will cost about $150, and to top it off we won't be able to eat our entrees because we filled up on Nada-ritas and appetizers, so we'll take it all home and then throw them out after a few days because leftovers are gross."

After a few rounds of that, we told the kids they had to pick a meal we could eat at home, or at least which could be delivered, or at least picked up, like we do annually when The Boy chooses gyros for his birthday dinner and I drive to another city to get them from the restaurant where we always have a half-off coupon.

Sweetie's Choose Your Own Birthday Meal a couple years back was "Whoppers" from Burger King (of course). I don't know how she happened to hit on that, since there's not a Burger King near us and we never go to the only one in Madison - -or never did, since now we go there once a year -- but she opted for Whoppers, which prompted the kids to immediately spring into action and start complaining. "Do we have to get Whoppers?" they ask -- and still do, each year, and ask "Do I have to get the same toppings on as Mom?" and they ask "Can I get fries?" and each year I field those questions before driving off to the Burger King to get Sweetie's Birthday Whoppers for her birthday dinner. (The answers are, respectively, "Yes," "No," and "Yes, why would you think that you couldn't get french fries with your dinner? Where are you getting that from? You're just trying to be difficult.")

Over time, as the Whoppers, and the Whopper-Related Complaining, became entrenched as Sweetie's Birthday Traditions, we added in "Go see a movie," because Sweetie likes movies and it was a nice treat for her for us all to take Sweetie out to see a movie. That's how Sweetie's birthday expanded beyond just the one, or two, days we used to celebrate it on: One year, there was more than one movie Sweetie wanted to see, so we had to take her to all of them, seeing a couple of movies over a couple of weeks. Just like Christmas expanding outwards to Thanksgiving, Sweetie's Birthday began to creep out and take over surrounding weekends.

This year, Sweetie's Birthday really came into its own. Each year, I try my hardest to top the prior year in terms of Birthday Excellence, a feat which is terribly difficult first because I rarely am aware that Sweetie's birthday is coming up, and so I always end up scrambling around at the last second with no time and no money, and second because I'm paralyzed by The Pound Puppy Incident, which has scarred me for my whole life and left me gun-shy about presents and surprises.

The Pound Puppy Incident involves my little sister, Katie, who was at the center of the Incident. When Katie was very little, she liked "Pound Puppies," toys that were like Beanie Babies before Beanie Babies were invented. People who think Beanie Babies were something new and unique should know about Pound Puppies, which were around about 20 years before Beanie Babies but which were otherwise like the Beanie Babies in that they were phenomenally popular and also really dumb.

Dumb or not, Katie loved Pound Puppies with a fervor matched only by her love of dragging our dog, Annabelle, around by the ears and trying to dress her up. Katie couldn't get enough of Pound Puppies and was constantly thinking about them in between hitting her older brothers on the head with toy trains. The only thing that diverted her from thinking about Pound Puppies, as far as I could tell, was getting us in trouble, like the time she insisted that she wanted nothing for lunch except a "liverwurst and jelly" sandwich. We finally gave in and made her that, only she then refused to eat it -- and refused to eat anything -- and then complained to our mom that we made her eat that sandwich for lunch and wouldn't make her anything else. Mom ignored our protests and explanations and insisted that we "knew betteer" and made us eat liverwurst-and-jelly sandwiches for dinner.

(They were still better than saltines.)

But Pound Puppies occupied more of Katie's mind than liverwurst-related schemes, and she was constantly on the lookout for new ones. I didn't realize the extent to which she was hooked on the Puppies, though, until the day I brought her home what I thought was a good surprise, a Penny Racer.

Penny Racers were those little cars that you could wind a little and they'd zip around on the floor; if you put a penny in the back, you could make them do wheelies and spin around. Penny Racers were like the Nintendo Wii of the early 80s, if Nintendo Wiis wore out their welcome twenty seconds after you got them. (Penny Racers have, I assume joined a museum of toys, sitting in the branch of "Toys Whose Appeal Is Not Longlasting," where they line up alongside "Wacky Wall Walkers," "Micro-Machines," and "Simon.")

I'd gotten a Penny Racer somewhere and when I'd called home, I'd told Katie I was "bringing her a surprise." She was all excited and when I got home, I pulled out the Penny Racer and gave it to her and she burst into tears at the sight of it. That's not exactly the reaction I, or the makers of Penny Racers, was hoping for. When I asked what was wrong, she said "I wanted a Pound Puppy!" and wailed away crying, leaving me to try to cheer her up by pretending to bump into walls, which usually worked (but didn't that time.)

Since that day, I've lived with a secret fear that the surprise I'm getting for the person is not good enough, is not a Pound Puppy, and I've done everything I can, when I'm forced to give someone a present or surprise, to lower expectations: "It's not very good," I'll say. "It's not much," I warn people in advance. "I got you crummy presents," I tell Sweetie all the time. I told her that before I surprised her with a trip to Mexico on January. "It's not much," I said of the all-expenses paid trip to a resort in Puerta Vallarta, and then held my breath as she opened the card, waiting for her to start bawling and saying she'd wanted a "Pound Puppy" instead of a week on the beach.

It doesn't even help when the person tells me exactly what they want and I go get that, as Sweetie and I now do each year: she gives me a list, and I get the stuff on the list, as much as I can afford. Even then, though, I worry about the surprise and worry that I've gotten the wrong thing and I try to dampen expectations, like I did this year with the stuff I got her.

First, I got her a gift certificate for a day at the spa -- and agreed to take off the Friday before her birthday (thereby extending SweetieFest into October for the first time, and making Sweetie's Birthday, technically, kind of a legal holiday) so that she could have a day off and go to the spa. It was only after I got the certificate and managed to have a day clear so that I could take the day off that I realized that meant that I would have to give Sweetie her present before her birthday, or she wouldn't be able to use it for the Friday off that I was giving her, too.

Which meant, then, that I had to get her a different present, too, since now she would have nothing to open up from me (and the Babies!) on her actual birthday, which was only being observed on Friday but which actually fell on Monday. So I decided I'd get her some pajamas to give to her on her birthday, and give her the gift certificate on Friday morning so she could go to the spa, but that meant, then, that I was still in trouble, because what if I gave her the certificate for the spa but they were all booked up that day?

I decided that I'd give her the gift certificate earlier, on Sunday before the Friday on which we were observing her birthday, but then I forgot to do that, so I ended up calling her from work on Monday and telling her where I'd hidden the gift certificate (my sock drawer, left hand side) so she could go get it and open it and make a reservation, which she did, on Monday, leaving me nothing to give her on Friday.

Now, I know, I gave her the gift certificate and was taking the day off of work to watch the Babies! for her so she could go to a spa and have seaweed stuffed in her nose or whatever they do, but I still felt like I had to do something to honor the Friday, that being the first day of her Birthday weekend, so I decided that I'd watch a movie with her -- The Proposal-- since going to a movie was impossible that day, impossible because we have the Babies! and no babysitter, since I hadn't planned this out.

We tried to watch The Proposal that night, Friday night, as a couple, and as part of her ongoing Month of Sweetie, but it didn't work out because the Babies! kept acting up and my brother called and we ended up getting through only about 1/3 of it, so now I felt even worse about her birthday (even though it wasn't her birthday yet) because I felt like she'd gotten nothing yet and that I needed to make it up to her somehow.

Saturday it was tough to do that, because Saturday was Halloween and Sweetie's Birthday isn't recognized by enough people (yet) to muscle out Halloween (give it a year or two), so we didn't do very much in honor of Sweetie's Birthday that day, and I felt again as though I'd let her down.

I should point out: Sweetie never says that anyone's letting her down, and she doesn't insist on this many presents. While her birthday is clearly a big deal to her, she says all the right things, like "You don't have to get me anything at all if you don't want," adding, before I believe that "I know I'm not that important," so that it's clear to me that I do have to get her stuff, even though she's saying I don't. I get the unspoken hints and, more importantly, I want to point out to Sweetie that she is that important, that she deserves a birthday along the lines of the one arranged for that kid by that bird in that Dr. Seuss book that I had as a kid, but which I can never remember too much about because when I start to think of birthdays, and childhood, the first thing I remember is the time my parents got me a record with a birthday song on it, and the birthday song had my name in it. It went like this:

Hey Briane,
It's your birthday...

And it was sung by a character named "Zoom" who lived on the Moon and was in charge of the stars, and had come down to Earth to sing to me. As he sung:

My name is Zoom
And I live on the moon
But I came down to Earth
Just to sing you this tune
'Cause Briane,
It's your birthday,

(This is a real thing, and you can hear a sample of it here.)

I do what I can, though, to give Sweetie a birthday that exceeds even a birthday sung about by the guy who's in charge of the stars, because I want her to be happy. It just never works out that way, as hard as I try.

On Sunday, the day before Sweetie's Actual Birthday, I planned to give her a small present, and get the Whoppers, and also told her (quite bravely) that I would actually skip the Packer-Vikings football game if she wanted me to. (Luckily for me, she fell sound asleep in the afternoon, so soundly that she didn't hear me sneaking away to go downstairs and watch the game with The Boy and Oldest.) But I ran into troubles getting her present, and had to make two trips to get the books and gift certificate that were the fill-in present for the day, and the kids did their usual complaining about having to eat a Whopper (complaining even while they ate them so fast they practically inhaled them), and then everyone rushed off -- The Boy to work, and Oldest back home, and Middle off to college again -- leaving us with a mess and the usual pantsless three-year-olds and me feeling like Sweetie deserved more than that.

I had a make-up plan, though: I'd gotten Oldest to agree to babysit the Babies! on Monday, Sweetie's Actual Birthday, so that I could take Sweetie out to dinner at the diner where we like to go eat sometimes.

When I say "so that I could take Sweetie out to dinner," I mean that Sweetie would be paying, though, since I was already out of money and in fact owed Sweetie $17 by now for money I'd borrowed to buy her all the various presents. But she agreed to treat herself, and me, to dinner for her Actual Birthday, and to pay Oldest the $10 I'd promised for babysitting, and we went to dinner on Monday night, celebrating her birthday quietly and happily and with patty melts (me) and chicken strips (her.) And frosted pumpkin cookies that were kind of like pumpkin bars shaped into a cookie and which were so good that just typing that made my mouth start watering.

We were on the way home from the diner when I really blew it, though. A thought occurred to me, and, as so often happens, I voiced that thought before I'd really let it filter around.

The thought was this: What if Sweetie thinks that I took her to dinner to let everyone set up for a surprise party at home on her birthday? I'd done that once before, thrown her a surprise birthday party, taking her to dinner and a movie while people had set up the party at her apartment, then bringing her back home (where she insisted on bringing her laundry in before we went inside, so that she was greeted by Suprise! while holding a basketfull of unfolded clean clothes.) As we were about a mile from our house Monday, I remembered that and then wondered if Sweetie was thinking that's what this had been about, this trip to the diner.

So I said, stupidly: "What if this was all just a setup for a surprise party at home?" and immediately mentally slapped myself upside my own head. Why would I say that? I wondered. Why? What if Sweetie wanted a surprise party and I'd just put hope into her that she was getting one, that we'd go home and all these people would jump up and yell "Surprise! Happy Month of Sweetie!" when I knew full well that we were going home to find pantless three-year-olds and Oldest complaining about how her stomach hurt after eating four hardboiled eggs and a barbecue sandwich.

But, I consoled myself, Sweetie doesn't like parties. She won't want one. It's okay. I'm just making conversation!

Sweetie then said "I wondered if you'd do that for me. I wouldn't mind a party."

Which threw me further for a loop, because I quickly said: "There's no party. I was just making conversation." In my mind, I was hitting myself repeatedly over the head with a broom. Then I thought: What if Sweetie thinks that there is a party, and that now I'm only covering up for it, trying to throw her off so that she's really surprised?

So I said: "Seriously, there's no party," which then made me feel worse, because now it was like I was rubbing it in, that there was no party, as if I was taunting Sweetie about how she was not getting a party. I tried to fix that by saying: "I mean, who would I invite, anyway?"

Smarter people than I am will now realize that I should simply never ever ever talk, and that if it were possible, I should have immediately made up an excuse, gone to a gas station, say, and used my cell phone to somehow put together a surprise party in the 1/4 mile until we got home, and also figured out a way to buy Sweetie diamond earrings in that time span, too.

Instead, I said "Plus, you don't like parties, right?" Which sounded to me like an insult and a cover for what I now figured Sweetie assumed was the massive surprise party waiting for her at home.

Sweetie finally managed to get a word in edgewise and assure me that she didn't really expect a party ... making me wonder not expect one because her husband's a loser? or not expect one because... only I couldn't figure out another explanation for that and we were home by that time, home to the house that did not have a surprise party waiting inside, but did have a surly Oldest and a mess created by three-year-olds who'd been let to run amuck for over an hour. If Sweetie was disappointed in the lack of a party, she didn't show it, and I did finally remember that I had one final present to give her, the pajamas that I'd meant to wrap and let her open before we'd left, but which I'd forgotten about until we got home. I ran upstairs and hastily threw them into a box and came back down with them.

"It's not much," I said, and handed the box to her, and added "It's not very good." She opened them and said that she liked them very much and seemed happy, overall, if a little wary, like maybe someone was still going to jump out from behind the piano and yell Surprise! I didn't know how to dispel that notion, and decided (for a change) that I'd just stop saying things.

That was three days ago, and I still am worried that Sweetie still thinks there might be a surprise party in the works, that I'm going to come home from work with 30 people (we don't even know 30 people) in tow and a cake and balloons, or that when I suggested the other night we go to the health club and work out, it was a cover for the real surprise party that I'd set up the day after her birthday, as a true surprise.

I don't know how to shake that feeling that Sweetie is expecting a party, and if she is, I don't know what to do about it, but I've got an idea: I'm going to get her a Pound Puppy.

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