A few weeks ago we were talking about birthday parties. You love your kids and you want them to feel wanted, even celebrated. But you remember that you grew up as a happy and well-adjusted child; this did not require that your parents spend a small fortune and weeks of advance planning to commemorate your birthday. I struggled to establish a balance. Needlessly, I might say. You give a child a roof over their heads and some love and chances are excellent that she will do very well. We worry too much.
So it was that Alison’s birthday was coming up, and I had, as I often do, delayed on making a decision on what kind of party to have. My wife had given up on nagging me. Because she worked at the office the other employees were well aware of the looming deadline. We were a small office, and we had very good people as employees. It was a large family. So my receptionist and my nurse had no qualms about picking up the slack and doing the nagging themselves.
“Isn’t Alison’s birthday coming up?” says the receptionist.
“What are you doing for Alison this year?” asks the nurse later in the day.
“She’s getting big, isn’t she?” mutters the office manager.
To which I would respond with a grunt, at the same time that I quickly walked away.
It’s during this period of severe birthday stress that I walk into an exam room to see one of my really nice and lovable couples. He used to work for GM; he had retired a few years previously. She had worked in retail for years. Their children were grown and gone. These two loved each other’s company; they had a blast together. They finished each other’s sentences; often they spoke at the same time expressing exactly the same thoughts. Every other sentence was a joke.
They were in their sixties. Both of them smoked, and they loved their beer. Their skins were deeply tanned and wrinkled beyond description due to years of sun exposure in their back yard, or their boat. They traveled a lot, to any convention that had anything to do with engines (a very common finding, I may say, in GM workers of those days. They worshipped cars and motorcycles). I knew that the odds for these two to live long and well were minute; I think they knew this too. They didn’t care.
How are you two today?
The answer was always “great.” The wife had a chronic deep cough that I could hear from three rooms away; the husband could not walk ten steps without panting. They felt “great.”
“How are you, doc?”
Some stress. Don’t know what to do for the daughter’s birthday.
They looked at each other.
“Maybe Joe can help,” they both said. “What day is her birthday?”
“He’s our friend. The orange peel man. Surely you saw the piece Channel Five did on him.”
No; I’m afraid I don’t watch much TV.
“They interviewed him a few months ago. He makes sculptures out of orange peels.”
I was speechless for a few seconds.
That sounds interesting. But these are children. I don’t think…
“No, no, he’s great with kids!”
“And he doesn’t use a knife. It’s a special plastic peeler.”
“He brings oranges and peelers for everyone.”
“Kids love him! He has met all of our grandchildren!”
“It will be great! We’ll give him a call.”
“And he doesn’t charge anything. Just the cost for the oranges.”
In less than twenty seconds these two had given me a precise marketing speech for the orange peel man, expertly cutting into each other’s sentences, enthusiastically promoting their friend. And it was nearly free. How could I argue? I signed up the orange peel man.
I left the exam room feeling very good about myself. The stress was over. I stood next to my wife, waiting for her to finish a phone call with a patient. When she was done I stood up straight and tall and looked down at her.
We have entertainment for Alison’s party!
She looked at me. We had been married only five years, but she knew about my ideas. She kept looking at me.
“OK; I’ll bite. What is it this time?”
The orange peel man!
I said this with fanfare, as I spread my arms wide, as if introducing the next circus act.
She looked at me again. A long look.
“I called the skating rink yesterday. They still have an hour open.”
No, no! I refuse to do what everyone else does. This guy is terrific! He has done many kids. He was on Channel Five!
“The reason everyone does the skating rink is because it works. The kids like it. Why take a chance on orange peels?”
He makes sculptures!
She looked away and began to dial another number.
The fateful day came soon enough. Joe showed up with twenty oranges and a dozen peelers. I forced the kids to sit in a semicircle around him. I introduced him in a loud voice; I explained how he was world famous and had been on TV. I stepped back and gave him center court.
Joe was also in his sixties. Short; thin; balding. No special costume; no large poster to advertise him. A bald old guy holding an orange and a peeler.
To their credit, the kids paid attention to the first act. Joe peeled an orange and made what could, with some effort, be mistaken for a little girl. Now he urged them to start peeling their oranges.
This is where the disaster hit. There weren’t enough hands to be sure that everyone was doing it right. There were tiny pieces of rinds flying all over. None of the kids could peel a rind long enough to sculpt. Some tried to bite into their orange. Others threw theirs in each other’s faces. After thirty seconds they all walked away.
Show me how to do this, I said to Joe.
My wife quietly ushered the kids into the garage, where we had the piñata (more on this story later). I remained glued to Joe for some time, enough that he would not feel rejected. I profusely thanked him and ushered him out. I offered some money; he turned it down. He took all of the barely used peelers with him. We kept the remains of the oranges.
The party was a success. Alison still remembers the orange peel man; probably more than she does the skating rink that I was coerced into accepting at her next birthday. She’s successful and well adjusted; undoubtedly her accomplishments have nothing to do with orange peels or skating rinks.
We worry too much.