I love birthdays. I love the idea of celebrating someone’s life by marking the anniversary of the day that they entered the world. Of reminding each other that you care, that they are special, and that you’re glad they are part of your life.

But they are fraught with disaster. Growing up in our house, you had one chance at a present, and if you didn’t get it right, that was it until next year.  The key to success was getting our mother to pay attention, which bearing in mind she had three children and worked full time, wasn’t always the easiest task. With hindsight, she must have listened to too much of the Rolling Stones, because the birthday philosophy seemed to follow along the lines of ” You can’t always get what you want, but if you try sometimes, you might get what you need.” This certainly proved true for my brother, who when he didn’t employ the Drag, Point and Supervise Closely rule of birthday shopping, ended up with a snorkel duffel coat two sizes too small, which was then returned and swapped for school shirts. It was a defining moment in his development – his attention to detail and project management skills are now legendary.

My own birthday fails include a birthday party with dancing to a Fisher Price wind up record player (there were considerable lulls between renditions of “Camptown Races”, during which the frantic winding of a clockwork mechanism could be heard – excellent for musical statues, not so much for preserving a party atmosphere), and an 18th birthday spent in the garden with homemade paper hats and a birthday cake so sunken in the centre that it was turned into a cake ring and a large floral bow stuffed in it. My mother is nothing if not innovative.

This now causes me to overcompensate when birthdays roll around, but I am hampered by an overabundance of imagination and a warped sense of humor. This was never more evident than in the spoof present bought for my brother-in-law; a flying experience. A lifelong fan of anything aeronautical, he was overwhelmed. Sadly, even after unpacking the goggles, the CD, the hand fan and the instructions to “take a chair to the roof of a high building, sit as close to the edge as humanly possible, don the goggles, listen to the CD of engine noise and enjoy the sensation of unassisted flight”,  he still failed to appreciate the ‘spoof’ element, and was searching for a non-existent accompanying flight voucher. His face when realization dawned was worthy of YouTube, or the illustrated dictionary definition of ‘inconsolable disappointment”, not helped by the raucous laughter from the rest of the family.

Sadly, I have just done it again. We currently have Kelly and Andrew staying with us, who are a newly expectant couple from Wales. They have done the usual tourist route;  Alcatraz, the trolley buses, a bus tour of San Francisco, but they had yet to explore the Golden Gate Bridge, Union Square and the Palace of Fine Arts. Enter the GoCar.

GoCars are small, bright yellow Go Carts, straight out of a Peanuts cartoon. A GPS guidance system takes the driver on a circular two hour expedition around the sights of San Francisco and then gently back to home base. It seemed a fun and foolproof way to mark Andrew’s thirtieth birthday. That is, until the GPS failed to kick in for the first 20 minutes, leaving the two canary yellow helmet clad visitors driving in ever decreasing circles in search of Fisherman’s Wharf. Their self-guided idea ended abruptly when it became apparent that they were 50 feet from a freeway entrance, and while the GoCar is street legal, testing it on the 680 freeway seemed a little ambitious. Andrew was duly ejected from the vehicle to scout out the road ahead on foot (again, something not described in the glossy brochure), and returned to the car with a new  route and the words “I ‘ave to say, Kel, you look f**king ridiculous”, an unwise comment to the expectant mother of your child and the already near hysterical driver of the vehicle. Especially when you too are wearing the helmet.

The tour continued with the help of a grinning passerby, who directed them to Fisherman’s Wharf, whereupon the nice GPS lady in the control panel deigned to join in. She guided them up the Embarcadero, and across towards Golden Gate bridge, where a nice stiff breeze cooled further the already frozen duo, dressed for brisk autumn not subzero wind chill factors. At this point even Kelly, who is known for her steely determination, had had enough, and turned for home, only to be greeted by extensive road works. They then spent the next 40 minutes navigating the Union Square one way system the wrong way, and perfecting the art of the three point turn in a vehicle that isn’t equipped with a reverse gear, and required Andrew to leap out and push. Luckily, the jeering of waiting motorists was partly drowned out by the helmet padding, but as a word to any future husband, the words “this would be a lot easier if you got your fat arse out the car” does not improve marital harmony in stressful times.

They arrived back at home an hour an hour later, limping badly, with helmet hair and incipient hypothermia. You know things didn’t go according to plan when the response to the question “Did you only do two hours’ is a heartfelt ” It felt more like 3 days”;  presumably the inverse of ‘Time flies when you’re having fun”..

The family tradition of birthday excellence continues unbroken.

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5 Responses to When Birthday Presents go Badly Wrong

  1. Sandy says:

    I’ve seen those little cars every time I’ve gone to Fisherman’s Wharf. Never had the impulse to look into their purpose. Now, I know. They are there to discourage future visits!

  2. Jo Hughes says:

    I do remember the year when you blithly said “Oh, don’t get me anything dear” to Chris in the early years of your marriage – and he didn’t! It was for Christmas, but is another warning to the ill-prepared! xx

  3. Sarah Codd says:

    I am crying – partly in sympathy…. I will never forget the time my younger sibling made me sooooooo angry that I stomped into garden and furiously whacked my brand new birthday Swingball and to my horror the string and ball detached themselves and went into orbit. I spent the next week chopping down the neighbour’s overgrown garden with a vegetable knife (possibly all I was allowed, bearing in mind what I was threatening to do to dear sibling under my breath as I hacked inch by inch through the acres of Japanese knotweed). GRRR

  4. [...] to being the perfect host. N.B. The last two are submitted by a current guest, Kelly, of “When Birthday Presents go Horribly Wrong” fame. Needless to say, she has yet to see evidence of any of these recommendations in [...]

  5. [...] present that they had asked for, and a stocking of small surprises. (Big surprises have a habit of going badly wrong in our [...]

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