Philosophers spend much of their time (I assume based on little to no research) sat in Parisian cafes, smoking filterless cigarettes, drinking small cups of intensely black coffee and considering the nature of humanity.
A process of inductive reasoning must take place. A noticing of an idiosyncrasy that turns out to be more common than thought, then three packets of Gauloises later and bang, you’ve got Benjamin’s views on ‘die Moderne‘ to send off to the publishers, freeing up your evening to get blind drunk on absinthe.
I would, very humbly and quietly, suggest that whilst modern philosophy is all well and good as an ontological exercise, to truly understand the nature of humanity philosophers need only visit their local leisure centre at around 1.30 PM on a Saturday afternoon at which time and place, there will be an inflatable, a table full of cakes, a banner that reads ‘HAPPY BIRTHDAY’ in glittered font, and what can only be described as Lord of the Flies for the under-fives.
My eldest has been invited to a number of these and they seem to follow a pattern.
A few days before the event, you remember that the party is coming up and your other half says “oh, we must get so-and-so a gift for Saturday” and you say “yes, quite right, we’ll go this afternoon” at which point, a cosmic ray is shot into both of your brains, simultaneously causing you to forget all about it until the morning of the party.
Come the morning of the party, the effects of the cosmic ray wear off and you drag your child to whichever shop happens to be open and sells objects tangentially connected to things children might like but isn’t just a bag of soggy chips and a pickled egg.
After a brief round of questioning to determine what kind of thing so-and-so would desire as a gift (during which your own child is utterly useless at recalling any relevant information) some kind of decision is made. It is generally revealed several hours later that the chosen toy is actually what your offspring would like for their birthday. This comes with the very real risk that what you have bought is completely inappropriate. Imagine turning up to a party and handing over a tethered football-on-a-rope kicking toy to a child in a wheelchair. Your son has abandoned you to play on the bouncy castle and you look like the kind of person who is mean to puppies whilst stuttering out an excuse that deliberately avoids the phrase “is there any chance they will get better?”
Upon arriving at the venue you hand over the gift (whilst surreptitiously trying to check that the party isn’t for someone who is registered blind and therefore unable to get the most out of a book) and smile warmly at the harassed hosts who are desperately trying to organise the mostly synthetically orange food onto Spiderman plates to give the impression of civilisation. This must stand at odd with the desire to just rip open the packaging and scatter the contents on the floor safe in the knowledge that much of it will end up there anyway.
Having discharged their gift offering duties, and momentarily relieved of having to provide direct supervision of their children, many parents cluster into groups and swap stories about what trauma their child has managed to put them through over the last week: “five hours in A&E and they only found three of the peanuts. The consultant is hoping the rest of the pack will come out when she has a heavy cold.”
Those who are not part of groups sit around the edge of the sports hall on their phones looking up occasionally when there is a scream and accidentally witnessing the untold horror of children untethered from the social boundaries that separate us from mere beasts. I was one such ‘edge-sitter’ until my eldest’s best friend’s mum (a relationship that surely needs its own noun) came over to have a chat.
As we spoke about how nicely our boys were playing together I noticed that the children had divided themselves into what can charitably called ‘friendship groups’ but in actual fact are more like rival gangs engaged in some pretty brutal turf war. My eldest and her son had organised a raiding party on another group to acquire more soft-stuffed Tetris shapes.
It’s all fun and games until one of the raided children starts to sob uncontrollably and, much like the UN mediating between warlords fighting over control of an illegal diamond mine, an adult has to step in and force a reluctant ‘sorry’ from their child.
After the joy of pretending to be Vikings raiding a monastery had worn off the kids ran in one great loop, up and over the inflatable a structure that towers some 5 or so meters over the ground. Again. And again. And again.
After what seems like several eternities stuck together with the Frozen soundtrack, the call of food and cake is hollered and, like Pavlov’s dogs or ducks to floating bread, a gaggle of children crowd around low tables. You can see parents unsuccessfully trying to insert carrot batons into their kid’s gob between fistfuls of crisps and sausage rolls.
Then comes the pagan ritual of cake and fire.
Sometimes there is enough time left for round two of running over the inflatable. I’m always nervous when this happens as: Cadbury’s mini-rolls + jelly x bouncy fun = excitedly spraying vomit everywhere. It’s one thing to apologise to another parent because your child had knocked them over by accident, quite another when your child has barfed down the back of someone’s favourite fairy costume, permanently staining it with partially-digested Monster Munch.
At the end of the party a small bag of additional sugar and plastic toys, flimsy enough to break in seconds, desirable enough to incite sibling-on-sibling violence when brought home, is handed out.
A few hours later the twin machinations of exhaustion and hypoglycaemic trembling cause a wailing, sobbing meltdown that can be heard across most of Western Europe.
At this point the philosophers should start scribbling in their Moleskine notebooks with nicotine stained fingers gripping underused fountain pens. Here is humanity laid bare. Friendships beautifully working together for a common goal, the joy in success, the crushing despair of defeat, the avarice, the kindness, the role of authority in social structures, the power of apology and forgiveness, how none of it matters anymore when candles are lit on a cake.
We are in the process of organising our eldest’s fifth (!) birthday party. Before having kids I assumed my child’s birthday party would be materially different. Not focused on gifts but experiences. Perhaps like a little version of a book club where we all sit around drinking organic nut milk and discussing the themes found in The Gruffalo.
Now we’ll be pleased if he wants a leisure centre with a bouncy castle. Not least because then I can more successfully hide the fact that I’m a pretentious idiot but also, and more importantly, it’s manageable chaos and oxymora are fertile ground for contemplations on what it is to be human.