This is quite the obvious statement, but our birthday experience changes greatly throughout the course of our lives.
The first year you’re not really aware of what’s going on, although by the second birthday the presents and cake are pretty exciting. It continues to build and probably peaks when you’re around 10-12 years old, and then from there it transitions into more “grown-up” activities, which is really code for “less presents and awesome decorations.”
Well, forgive me for not wanting to give up on all the fun and just accept this whole getting old thing. Instead, I wanted to embrace nostalgia and relive some awesome birthday memories from years long ago.
When I was a kid my older cousin Jeremy and his family lived in Tacoma for a few years. At the time it seemed really far away (my family lived in Everett), but we usually got together to celebrate our birthdays. His birthday is Aug. 24, and mine is Sept. 2, so usually either Labor Day weekend or the weekend before we would join together for a combined celebration. And, as I’m sure many kids of my generation experienced, the party was often at the haven of all fun, Chuck E. Cheese’s. After all, that is where a kid can be a kid (as their motto professes).
We had a Chuck E. Cheese’s up in Lynnwood, and that was often where we had the party. But occasionally we would make the long trek down to Tacoma and go to the Chuck E. Cheese’s there by the mall. And here’s the thing: it was by far the superior Chuck E. Cheese’s. By far.
The Tacoma location had a giant rotating Chuck in a window looking out at the freeway and boasted ceilings a mile high, which made for the most epic play area this side of the Discovery Zone (may it rest in peace, but that’s a birthday story for another day). It also had the world’s largest ball pit. I’m pretty sure that’s actually a verified Guinness World Record.
Within a few years Jeremy’s family had moved to Oregon and the rest of my Chuck E. Cheese’s birthdays were doomed to be experienced at the (still fun but) vastly inferior Lynnwood location. But I never forgot about the best birthday party place in the world, and the rotating Chuck always smiled at me as I passed by on the freeway if we ever drove south through Tacoma.
I spent four years as a student at Pacific Lutheran University, often passing the Tacoma Chuck E. Cheese (though they removed the rotating Chuck years ago) on my way to and from school, work and home. And I often longed to return to the place of so much joy. But I never thought I would have the chance.
Finally this year the stars aligned. Jeremy (along with his wife Marissa and two-year-old son Malachi) moved to Orting in January and I am back in Tacoma working at PLU. His birthday was last Sunday and mine is tomorrow. And I never hesitated when offering an idea for our birthday celebration: Chuck E. Cheese’s.
With much hesitation Jeremy and Marissa agreed to the party, and we convinced my parents and big sister Frank (along with my brother-in-law Brandon and two-month-old nephew Elliott) to join us. Next time we’ll have to get all the cousins to join us like the good old days of childhood (we can even include Jordan on the birthday celebration if he wants, although his late-October birthday was always far enough away that he got his own party).
I could hardly contain my excitement as we made our way into the building. I may be turning 27, but this is where a kid can be a kid! But alas, nostalgia often falls by the wayside when confronted with reality, and I must admit I was not happy to see some of the changes in the past 20 years.
First of all, while the ceilings remain high, someone lowered them from the glorious heights of hundreds of feet (all measures approximate) to the much more manageable height of probably about 20. And the climbing area has been vastly reduced to one small network of tubes leading to a slide. And the ball pit is completely gone, forsaking the Guinness World Record heritage. In its place are a ton of electronic arcade-style games.
But worst of all, I discovered that Chuck had clearly gone under the knife in a vain effort to retain his youth. He hardly looked like the same mouse. And an even worse sign of his vanity was the fact that he had gone solo! Gone were his bandmates Helen Henny (bass), Mr. Munch (keyboards), Jasper T. Jowls (guitar) and Pasqually (drums), with only a lone animatronic Chuck standing awkwardly on stage. I always though Chuck was such a team player.
Despite my heartbreak over these harsh realizations that life just isn’t fair (I guess I had to learn that some time), I had a blast. And I’m pretty sure Jeremy did, too, even though he’d probably deny it. We used up all our tokens and collected hundreds of tickets, which somehow Malachi schemed to snatch as he redeemed them for toys clearly he wanted (that devious little trickster… It wasn’t even his birthday party!). I told them I wanted the awesome K’NEX 3D Super Mario Land, but somehow Malachi got the plastic snake he wanted and I got the shaft (it might have had something to do with the fact that we had about 300 tickets and the K’NEX toy required 7500, but I think that’s a cop out).
After years of memories and wondering, I returned to Chuck E. Cheese’s and found that it’s just not quite as awesome as it used to be. But it’s still full of fun (and mediocre pizza), and I’ll always remember my first combined birthday party with Jeremy in probably 20 years being back at the place where a kid can be a kid.
I’m sure I’ve written this before, but I think so often we try to make life way too serious. We dismiss our childhood memories as simple experiences of a less informed era. And in a lot of ways that’s a legitimate assessment. But really, what’s the point if we can’t slow down, have some fun and cast off our grown up-ness (new word I just made up) for a short time and relive some times of great joy?
Tomorrow is my 27th birthday. I will spend most of the day at work continuing preparations for a very busy fall sports season. Aside from a lunch with some friends I am lucky enough to work with and an evening back with Jeremy and Malachi, I won’t get to see family or friends. It will pretty much be just another day.
And that’s what our birthdays become at a certain age, along with so many other holidays. Life does that, and it’s okay. Most days I’m a grown-up, living in a grownup world. But occasionally the opportunity arises to be a kid again, and I’ll jump at that chance pretty much every time.
Our birthday experience changes as we grow, but that doesn’t mean we can’t revisit fun kid celebrations. After all, they usually have better cake. And presents. I expect lots of presents. I mean, my birthday is tomorrow.