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Open Letter

For several years, my younger daughter has been invited annually to a friend's birthday party at The Four Seasons. The one on Chicago's Magnificent Mile, just to be clear. One year the invitation was an inscribed blue ball, approximately one foot in diameter, with the stamps slapped right on it. I still can't believe the post office delivered it. They must have mistaken it for junk mail, the only thing that reliably makes it to our mailbox. Of course, the ball didn't fit in the mailbox; we found it on the front steps.

Anyway, every year a big group of giggling girls takes over the hotel's restaurant before moving on to the Four Seasons pool, eventually hopping into Gold Coast horse carriages and returning for a slumber party in a Four Seasons suite. The contents of the goody bag are inevitably worth more than my iPod mini and all the music downloaded onto it.

Perhaps you expect me to sneer at such an extravagant party for anyone, much less people who wouldn't be allowed to register at the hotel, lacking legal IDs. Nahhh. The friend's family is so utterly without pretense, and the whole thing is such a crazy lark, why be a spoilsport?

The vital thing I've found is that attending the Four Seasons party has never given my daughter the notion that she, too, should entertain her little friends at a five-star hotel. "I hope you don't think you're ever having a party here," I said the first time I picked her up from the lobby. That seemed to do the

The five-star hotel-party syndrome isn't spreading throughout her grade. The birthday parties remain a mix of sleepovers, bowling, and a sprinkling of more upscale venues like a gourmet food store where the kids all made their own calzones.

That, in fact, is my point: Don't let the roiling waters of social pressure sweep you, howling and clawing at your wallet, into a sterile "party room" somewhere, or even the restaurant at American Girl. (Although the tea is surprisingly well done at American Girl, despite the insistence on naming each item after a historical doll character such as Kaya, as if a Nez Perce American Indian girl circa 1764 would be likely to eat or serve blueberry-lemon scones with fruit preserves and Devonshire cream). The pressure is entirely in your head. The kids don't care - they just want a lot of junk food. Their parents don't care either - they just want to know what time to drop off and pick up, and whether they can fit a trip to Costco in between.

Actually, I've found that when we host an old-fashioned backyard party and parents wander in for pick-up to see their children busy drawing with chalk or competing to see who can go the farthest on the tiny Playskool plastic "roller coaster" we inherited from an older cousin, they often express wonder, and start treating us like we're morally superior or something. As atheists, we don't get much of that, so it's nice.

Home parties are easier than you think, too. I know many of you stress out about having guests, preparing food and planning activities. So unnecessary. These are kids. Kids are people who only recently stopped clearing their nasal passages by wiping boogers on your couch.

What about their parents? Unless you've just moved into the neighborhood, their parents already know how you live. You won't fool anyone by holding the party at the Rainforest Cafe. In our case, everyone is already well aware that the kids began destroying the living room furniture years ago, and our current cats finished the job with their politically correct intact claws. Anyone who wants to shun us based on the state of the upholstery has already had ample opportunity.

Food? Forget the roasted red pepper dip and the homemade mango chutney and anything with sundried tomatoes. The only tomatoes kids need are in ketchup, on top of a hot dog. Talk about easy dinner guests; they act like you're Charlie frickin' Trotter if you rip open a bag of sour cream and onion chips in addition to plain.

I confess to one egregious outside party. Last year we told our older daughter that her thirteenth party would be her last - mistake number two, since, with this information, we had given her a first class piece of emotional blackmail. Mistake number one was previously letting her go to someone else's birthday party at Dave and Buster's. I suspect Dave and Buster's sends home youthful guests with a post-hypnotic suggestion to spend eternity at that establishment and become one with the token dispenser, in order to achieve total unconsciousness.

So anyway, of course we ended up at Dave and Buster's. We vowed in advance to extricate our bunch of tweens after two hours and return home for a sleepover, even if we had to use the jaws of life to do it. This was fortunate, for without a predetermined and conservative time limit, adults would do well to tape a "Kill Me Now" sign to their backs before entering Dave and Buster's. The place was apparently conceived as a replacement for Purgatory. It is fit only for people who need hearing aids, and who have left their hearing aids at home.

The most depressing part of Dave and Buster's is not the way the kids immediately lose all awareness of other human beings as they desperately scramble for the games that kick out the most reward tokens. Nor is it the pathetic array of schlock at the prize counter afterward, or being forced to rip the veil from the indecisive children's eyes and tell them the horrible truth: it's all garbage manufactured abroad by oppressed workers younger than themselves, and they'd do better to just bring the tokens home and play checkers with them or let the cats use them for hockey pucks up and down the hall.

No; the most depressing part is the grown-ups who are at Dave and Buster's voluntarily, without children. Even at Chuck E. Cheese, you aren't subjected to that grisly spectacle. It's worse than the trailer for Captivity. It's worse than the publicized publicity parties for Captivity.

Party on,



Comments? Open Letter is open to letters.


See who else Cate has been writing to in the Open Letter archive.


Posted on July 24, 2007

MUSIC - Chief Keef Changed The Industry.
TV - Vizio's Best Product Is You.
POLITICS - UIC: Soda Taxes Work.
SPORTS - More McCaskey Malpractice.

BOOKS - All About Poop.


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