It's Junior's birthday. Quick! Race out to the party store at the mall after work and buy a box of invitations. Some hats. Some noisemakers. Some streamers. Bags for party favors. Five or 10 age-appropriate cheap plastic party favors for each guest. Wrapping paper. Ribbon. Plastic forks and spoons. Paper napkins, paper plates and paper cups.
Seventy dollars and three bulging garbage bags later, it's easy to see why the plastics and paper industries are raking in the bucks. And why landfill space is at a premium. And why every birthday party Junior goes to is indistinguishable from every other party he has ever been to.
Two things can be said for the party-store approach to birthdays: It is very easy and it is very fast.
I have nothing against Easy and Fast. They are two of my favorite adverbs. And they may be the only adverbs you have time for -- apart from Too Busy. Even so, keep an open mind and read about some alternatives.
Now that I have acknowledged that party-store parties are Easy and Fast, you no doubt expect me to go on to admit that the alternatives are Time-Consuming and A Lot of Work.
Ha! How about: unusual, individualized, unexpected and fun? And here's the zinger: inexpensive.
Almost all of the ideas I'm going to outline here are more time-consuming than that evening's -- to the party store. But you don't have to adopt the lot of them. Read on, and maybe one or two will creep into your party-giving repertoire.
The invitations: Make them yourself. If you're the formal type, you and Junior can paint or print them on heavy white (recycled, natch) watercolor paper. Are you wild and crazy? How about dyed feathers and glitter on brown paper bags? You may end up with creations so fetching, you'll make an extra one for the scrap book. Or for that file folder labeled scrapbook.
A tip: If you've left the invitations until dangerously late, use the phone.
The presents: Give thoughtful, durable presents with long-lasting appeal -- and that don't require batteries. Even though a gimmicky present might make the biggest splash when the presents are opened, give for the long run. Books are always a good idea, and so are really good games.
The wrapping paper: Make your own. Brown paper bags can be cut up and decorated with paints or crayons. If the present is for a child who likes silky scarves, look through your drawers for one you know you'll never wear again. Buy inexpensive ones at yard sales. For the paramilitary look, buy a remnant of cheap camouflage material at a fabric store. Wrap presents in them.
If you love crisp, pretty, commercial wrapping paper, look for some that is made from recycled pulp. It is widely available these days.
The decorations: I happen to think decorations are pretty crucial. How about investing in paper garlands that can be saved to use again -- if they survive the gaiety? Even crepe paper streamers can be reused. Older children will want to decorate the house themselves. Challenge them to think of decorations made from stuff you already have.
The balloons: These, I'm sorry to say, have apparently fallen into environmental disfavor because of their nasty habit of escaping to the oceanwhere already endangered marine animals swallow them and suffocate. When you weigh this against the years of analysis Junior will undergo because his politically correct parents banned balloons at his party when he turned 2 years old, well, perhaps you could have one truly magnificent balloon per child and try not to let any get away.
The table: Consider it a challenge -- a party with no disposable place settings. If you don't have sufficient dishes and silverware of the kind designed to withstand a birthday party, borrow some from a friend. Or buy an inexpensive set at a secondhand store. Cups, if you can find really cute ones at a decent price -- that is, cheap -- you can give to the children as party favors when the party is over.
The party favors: These are a real challenge. How about a tiny pot of African violets each? These can double as table decorations. Or an interesting mineral specimen from the 50-cent table at a rock shop? Baseball cards. Hair gizmos. A tiny, tiny book. Look for possibilities throughout the year, and keep a list of ideas.
The file: Keep a file of good birthday ideas. These can include examples of unusual decorations, good presents, good favors, anything. Also jot down ideas you have for games, things you saw at other parties you'd like to try at your own.
Then, just when you've developed a genius for throwing fabulous children's birthday parties, your children will reach an age where only a masochist would have 10 of them over at once. Then your list of great ideas will be limited to: the bowling alley, the miniature golf place and the amusement park. These are the ultimate in Fast and Easy.
Feeling environmentally incorrect? Write a letter to Ms. Household Environmentalist -- on recycled, unbleached paper, of course, using soy-based ink -- and send it to P.O. Box 121, 1463 E. Republican St., Seattle, Wash. 98112.