Petra decided she wanted to have an Avatar: The Last Airbender theme for her birthday party. I’ve seen a few episodes of the show, and it seemed like a pretty solid basis for a party.
You know those videos where they have four-year-olds explain The Princess Bride? This is like that, but where a mom who has seen three of episodes of ATLA explains it to you. The short version is that in this Asian (Japanese?) fantasy world, there are four main types of benders, who can control air, water, earth, and fire. It’s like Captain Planet without heart. The protagonists travel on a sky bison named Appa, which is an air bender (that’s how it flies?). The main guy is Ang, who is “the avatar.” He can do all the bending, but he’s young and has to learn those skills. Maybe he’s a reincarnation of another avatar? Vague. Ang, Appa, and their buddies (particularly sibling pair Sakka and Katara, who are……..water benders?) travel the lands looking for….something. A MacGuffin, or a series of MacGuffins. They have weird combo animals in this world also, which I like a lot, like turtleducks and owlcats or something. Oh, and everywhere they go, there’s a chase scene in which they destroy a cabbage merchant’s cart full of cabbages and he shouts, “My cabbages!” Apparently this guy is crucial. There’s also a guy named Uncle Iroh who enjoys tea and a troupe of thespians who stage Ang’s adventures in a folk-theater type situation. <—- I just read this to Silas, with the caveat that I would not change anything, and he said I got the major points right.
When I asked the kids what we needed to have to make the party good, they said they wanted an Appa to ride on, a pile of cabbages (REAL cabbages!) to destroy, “unfried dough” for Avatar Day, a cake shaped like Appa, the Jasmine Dragon Tea Shop, and a piñata shaped like a cabbage. After I joked that we should just fill the piñata with shredded cabbage and the kids insisted that this was exactly what we should do, I started calling this the cabbage party.
We had a challenge because of COVID. A couple of them, actually. One was that we had a lot of uncertainty over the guest list. Our kids’ birthday parties have always been intergenerational gatherings, with at least one of my kids’ three sets of grandparents, the guests’ parents and siblings hanging out, often Carlos or other friends stopping by. Part of the fun for me is that it is one of the few big gatherings we host each year. This year, obviously, that wasn’t possible. We decided the safest thing would be to limit it to our weekly playdate group, Bethany’s and Miriam’s kids. The not-invite that hurt the most for all of us was not including Lillian and Arthur. And maybe that wasn’t necessary? It ended up being a nearly-all outside party, and once I saw how good the weather was, I regretted that call. I felt their absence deeply, particularly in the moment when I snapped this picture of Petra and Elisabeth and thought of one of my favorite images, from Petra’s fourth birthday, of the three girls together. There will be other birthdays, and other parties, and playdates. But I am sad I didn’t figure out how to have all the Kutelopes together for this one.
The other COVID challenge was me and some kind of pandemic fog/depression/lack of executive function. I just couldn’t get excited about this party. I couldn’t make myself do anything ahead of time. I had “make cabbage piñata” on my to-do list for literally three weeks, and somehow I was rushing the papier-mâché by drying it (and cracking it) in the oven the day before the party. In normal years, I’m putting together party stuff for a month before the event, so the week of, all I have to do is remind JC of the parts he had agreed to, make the food, and then put everything out. I’m not a last-minute person; it’s much harder this way.
When I made the Appa cake that night and then dropped it while trying to put it in the fridge, I had a bit of a meltdown. “I don’t even want to do this one. I hate that I don’t want to do this one,” I said. “I just can’t get my head around it.” JC said, “You know, you don’t have to do these things. Are you going to still be doing them when the kids are 15?” He’s not wrong. I obviously had do to do this one because it was the next day and it was too late to back out. I always tell people that I only do these ridiculous events because I genuinely enjoy them, and every other year, that has been true. This year, I felt like I was swimming through mud to make it happen. I don’t think I’m ready to call the whole thing off forever. Silas is already talking about picking his theme for his 11th birthday. I don’t exactly have an end game, either. Maybe we will still be doing this when they’re 15. Maybe other years will feel more joyful.
JC also said (during my meltdown, while he was cleaning cake and frosting off the floor and I was trying to figure out if I had enough ingredients to make another one), “Of course this is hard. It’s the middle of a pandemic.” Again, he’s not wrong. But I’ve done these while I’ve been in the middle of a rehearsal process, right after coming back from a 1400-mile trip, and very pregnant. It’s the middle of a pandemic—for once, I have very little else to do. But he was right, the pandemic was a complicating factor.
Recently, looking for something else, I skimmed through my journals from the year before I got married. Those who didn’t know me well back then might be surprised to learn what a controversial choice it was for me to marry JC. Lots of people who cared about us both tried to talk us out of it. Reading over those journals, I see all of this doubt, so much tension between my brain and my gut. I was literally sick over it. I wrote my fears in excruciating detail, disaster-rehearsing a difficult life. And we have certainly had some challenging times. But then there are nights when he goes to the store at 9:30 pm because I need more milk to make another Appa cake for this dumb party that I am insisting I have to throw in exactly this way, and I know I made the right choice. I always tell my kids, it’s fine with me if they don’t ever get married. But if they do, I hope they find partners who will be completely, unquestioningly, in their corner. I’m grateful I trusted my gut. I don’t know how 23-year-old me knew how to make that choice, but she chose well.
ANYWAY after all the drama of the night before, the party itself was extremely fun. I had a good time. I’m glad I do these ridiculous events. They are fun to create, and fun to watch the kids enjoy. In addition to the Appa cake, we set up “The Jasmine Dragon Tea Shop,” where JC took a break between meetings and poured tea for the kids.
I bought some random snacks from the Asian market for everyone to try (verdict: They liked the lemon biscuits and the green tea candy, some of them enjoyed the roasted peas, and everyone hated the mochi).
The show also has a running thing about cactus juice (“It’s the quenchiest!”). Petra and Silas wanted me to get them some of that, but cactus juice is hard to come by, so I settled for aloe juice. About half of the kids liked it.
For the “unfried dough,” which is a thing from the show that I still don’t understand, I made a batch of pizza dough, divided it into nine pieces, and told the kids they could shape their avatars, which I would be happy to bake, because I didn’t think it would be good to have raw, or they could just…eat?
Silas declined to make an avatar because the dough was slimy, so I just baked his as a lump. Thomas ate a ball of raw dough (ew). Everyone else had theirs baked and enjoyed it. Not sure what I was thinking, having an activity this weird and messy, but they were all super happy about it.
I wanted to have some activities that connected to the different types of benders, so I helped everyone make air cannons for “air bending.” I gave the kids paper cups and showed them how to stack them to make targets. Esau and Jude figured out other ways to use the air cannons, including blowing into them, filling them with water, and just…throwing them at targets.
Their party favors included water bombs (sort of like water balloons, but reusable), geodes (for the earth benders), party snappers (fire benders), and bubbles (air benders). I put out a tub of clean water for them to refill the water bombs. So there was a lot of water bomb action. They all loved the party snappers, which I guess people don’t give to kids anymore. None of them knew what they were, and I had to demonstrate. Esau, in particular, got maniacally excited about them, flinging them by the fistful. They also were blowing bubbles all over. We didn’t end up breaking the geodes at the party, which is probably for the best.
JC painted a giant box as Appa, and we stuffed it with pillows so that the kids could ride on it. Even the biggest kids got a kick out of pretending to fly on the sky bison. We were concerned that it wouldn’t survive the party if everyone piled on at once, so Silas made a sign asking to keep it to only one rider at a time. That worked…for a bit. Appa held up better than we thought, and everyone was having too much fun to enforce any rules that weren’t strictly about safety.
Far and away, the hit of the party (“hit”) was the cabbages my kids insisted on. I bought 14 cabbages and put them in our wagon and…the kids destroyed them.
I was concerned that somebody might get hurt, and I did have to keep reminding them not to play cabbage dodge ball. Those things could really hurt somebody! Petra, Ruth, and Elisabeth took shelter under the picnic table during the worst of it. But in general, they were good about checking their targets, throwing them at trees, slamming them on the ground, hitting them with wooden swords, and tearing them up to fling the pieces around. It was a full-on melee, and they were all thrilled.
My yard looks like coleslaw. What I wouldn’t give to know what the UPS guy thought when he stopped by today.
Against my better instincts, I got talked into a piñata. The last time we did one was for Silas’ fifth birthday. My niece nearly lost her head on several occasions because she kept coming too close to see what was going on. This time, I made a line with some benches, told everybody they needed to stay behind the line, etc. Silas, Petra, and Esau were the ones who kept coming too close this time. The only near-injury was when Esau almost got brained with a flying cabbage because he didn’t stand back.
The kids rejected blindfolds. They agreed that each person could get three hits, either with a stick or by throwing a cabbage. They lined up in height order, and because James has a good arm, Elisabeth and Thomas didn’t get a crack at it. They didn’t seem too put out, though. The kids talked me into stuffing the thing with shredded kale (the store didn’t have pre-shredded cabbage, and they didn’t want to sacrifice one of the wagon cabbages for this). I talked them into letting JC put two small pieces of candy per kid in the thing because I didn’t want their friends to mutiny. Can you imagine, a group of elementary-school-aged children busting into a piñata full of vegetables???
For the record, although nobody got hurt, I am still anti-piñata. We can try again in five years; maybe by the time they are 13 and 15, I’ll have forgotten that this is a bad idea and we only survived unscathed through sheer luck.
We always tell everyone that our kids don’t need gifts for their birthday parties. Sometimes, guests bring gifts anyway. Thomas gave Petra a strange but beautiful glass object (paperweight?). Ruth made her a little stuffed kitten. And Esther…gave her a cardboard box? Miriam had warned me about this; she was kind of mystified and didn’t think Petra would like it as much as Esther thought she would. But Petra knew exactly what it was for. The girls have been making tiny houses out of found objects, and Esther had started this house for Petra, drawing a window box on one side and filling it with cardboard pieces. “It’s the best box I had,” she said. Before bed that night, Petra had already filled it with furniture, installed a roof garden, and devised a light source.
This was a fun party. I’m glad that I pushed through the haze to make it happen. So little is making time stand out, right now. Everything feels like a foggy blur. This party made that day special. It marked time in a different way. I think all of us need that.
Birthday parties, years previous: