09 April 2008

Birthday Presence

Another year older. A tad more wise. A few more grays and a couple more lines. Still, no matter how many I have, I love birthdays. It’s not the cards or presents or phone calls or best wishes; it’s the party I love.

While I remain a wild child at heart, my friends have grown a bit more sedate as time goes on. Boo. I can no longer drag the full gang out for a night of drinking, dancing and going beyond last call. For the past three years, I have celebrated with large restaurant dinner parties instead...though some have been known to go to last call. While that seems to be an easy out, a soft compromise, let me tell you, it’s not.

First, forget about doing it on a Friday night. It’s the worst day of the week to try to toss a big get together. Traffic, deadlines, and simple exhaustion from the workweek causes even the most reliable to be late, or flake. If you opt for a Saturday night, you’ll need to book it well in advance and play ball with the restaurant (don’t expect to get the exact time you want, or stay as long as you’d like). This year, my birthday falls on a Wednesday (today, as a matter of fact). Since that was the weekday I was born, I decided to have a dinner that night. Surprisingly, there was no bitching. Mid-week seemed to be a crowd pleaser.

Next, you have to breakdown the guest list. I wanted to do something simple this year because it was on hump day. I didn’t make it a big deal and invite the world, not wanting to put pressure on those a long day or a long drive away. I thought eight was enough. A nice, round number. But, that somehow went to twelve. Then twelve became fourteen. Okay. Once you get double-digit, you need to pick a venue that can/will take your lot.

I’m a strong believer in the power of group dynamics. Luckily, I have a dynamic group, so it’s never an issue of someone not gelling with another. I’ve never had friends get pissy with each other. Shocker. Still, a good host always considers conversation flow. So I do a seating chart. I know, I know. It sounds über controlling, but it’s not. Would you call a maestro conducting an orchestra controlling? Of course not. Because, done well, beautiful music is made. Shy people or those new to the group need to be placed next to one more established and gabby. Commonalities need to be considered, though placed across from, not next to, each other so others will be able to more easily participate in conversation. Name cards are either envelopes holding thank-you-for-attending cards, or gift bags...because who doesn’t love a bit of swag, even if it’s homemade? It doesn’t stop there, though. The true winner and night saver is the playbill.

When you have such a large group in a setting where sitting is required (and mingling near impossible), there’s no guarantee everyone will be able to properly meet and get a chance to chat with each other. So, I create a playbill. Give the night a name, present it as a play and add in the “cast of characters”. I provide mini-bios on each guest, humorous in nature, with how we know each other or our latest misadventure. Before they even meet, guests feel like they know each other. This reduces the chances of awkward silences and need for formal introductions.

If the venue in question doesn’t have a stellar dessert lineup, ask about BYOD. Most don’t mind, or they charge a small plating fee. While cupcakes are trendy, overpriced and annoying, they are small, easy to dole out, and everyone feels obligated to eat one, so that’s my birthday “cake” of choice. I used to do a tower of Ding Dongs. That was fun. I’d stack them in a tall, silver pyramid, unwrap a few on the top for candles, blow them out, then throw the wrapped Ding Dongs to guests. Seriously. Beats cutting and passing plates. Here, catch! And, everyone looked forward to their annual taste of that chemical confection, a sweet reminder of childhood. Now, Hostess ruined that plan by taking the Dongs out of tinfoil and into ugly plastic packaging. Bastards. So, cupcakes it is. And, my feeling is that my friends are buying me dinner and picking up my bar tab; the least I can do is comp the dessert.

No matter what, people will be late. Hopefully, the restaurant won’t hold you bar hostage until the full party arrives. I only had that happen once at another friend’s dinner (and I don’t go to that venue anymore). I also don’t go to her birthdays anymore because she lied to everyone, saying that the party was fifteen minutes earlier so “everyone would be on time” — then had the effing nerve to be fifteen minutes late herself, which meant I wasted a half hour of my time waiting on her birthday girl ass. Just because it’s your GD B-day does not mean you get to lose your manners. A good host is early, or at least on time. Unless you’ve got a co-host to handle things, it’s not the night to be fashionably late.

Math skills can also be an issue. I try to resolve that by paying my own dinner (though there are always stubborn friends who refuse that demand of mine). I don’t believe in equally dividing the check, either. I’ve got friends who are rich and friends who are broke. And I’ve been the broke ass friend who has gone out with the richies, only eating a cucumber roll and drinking tap water and then asked to cough up $100. And, you know it was one drunk ass from Princeton (nothing against the school; the fact was he graduated from there and spent the whole night reminding us), who kept ordering more rounds of sushi and sake. That used to happen at happy hour with the agent boys back in the day. It was only J who would order the rounds of Patron, then he’d want us to all chip in when he saw the $100+ tab. “Dude,” we’d tell him, “we said we didn’t want them. You insisted.” So, my rule is: He/She who orders it, pays for it. That keeps things simple. And I will whip out the BlackBerry calculator and come up with to-the-penny amounts, tax and tip included.

All the hard work and over-planning ends up being worth it, though. Good food, strong drinks and lots of love. My true enjoyment comes from watching my friends engaged in conversations with each other and hearing their laughter. The greatest compliment to me is how they all end up adoring each other and, for days later, I hear, “I totally loved Soandso. He/She was great. And Whatshishername was fantastic,” then they run down the list of everyone they talked to, gushing about each one, finishing with, “Can’t wait to go out all together again.” That is the best gift. “That says a lot about you,” one friend said to me. Nope. It says a lot about the people who put up with me. I love them all. They are the best.

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