Friday, September 2, 2016

Some fodder for the Tell-All... Or, the time Chi-Chi's ruined my birthday

Whenever my mom does something crazy (which is fairly often) or does things that, by her own admission, “take her out of the running for mother of the year award”, I like to remind her that it is just more fodder for my tell-all. In the past 27 years, I’ve gathered more than enough fodder for my tell-all… it’s time to actually start writing it. My mother, however, is an easy target, not only does she do completely illogical things on a regular basis because they simply seem like a reasonable plan of action at the time (I’m talking about the time you put an ice cube in your pocket, mom), she also has the grace to laugh at herself when the situation warrants. My brother and I tease her pretty non-stop when we are home for the holidays and she laughs along, entertained by her own silliness.

Thus, she deserves a break. This is my tell-all. A compilation of all of my most embarrassing moments... A few that I only remember because the stories have been told so often that they live in infamy, many of which still bring a flush to my cheeks…. Come to think of it, this would be a brilliant piece of writing to debut under a stage name that has no association with me, but where’s the fun in that?

I’ve had more than my fair share of especially mortifying moments over the course of my young life. So many, in fact, that it would probably take several months to fully narrate each and every one. Unfortunately for you, ‘months’ is not a duration that is often used to describe my attention span. Lucky for you, I haven’t abandoned this undertaking just yet. Consider this the first in a series of short stories describing events that still make me cringe to think about. Here goes nothing.

That time I had my birthday dinner at Chi-chi’s.

As a child, I was extremely shy – as in, refused to make eye contact with strangers, had my dad order for me in restaurants so I wouldn’t have to speak to waitresses and absolutely hated having attention drawn to me for any reason level of shy. Luckily, my parents were well aware of my social phobias and they would often cover for my inequities (which, I’m sure was preferable to having the waitress at a restaurant ask “what” 35 times in a row as I mumbled that I wanted a ‘cheese burrito’ over and over again inaudibly.) Side note: a cheese burrito is two tortillas filled with American cheese and then microwaved to melty mushy cheesy goodness. I was often disappointed in restaurants when my dad would order a cheese quesadilla for me and I would receive a toasted multi-colored cheese atrocity that was masquerading as a ‘cheese burrito’. At home, it served as one of my major food groups from age 2 until about age 19 and, honestly, I still make them sometime when I need comfort food. Don’t knock it until you try it though, they’re quite delicious.

I digress.

Good ole mom and dad actually went well beyond the call of duty to ensure that my fragile psyche was not damaged in a large number of normal-kids-would-not-be-afraid-of-this situations and social settings. So, I’m sure it occurred to them that the horrible restaurant tradition where the entire staff gathers to sing some cheesy lyrics birthday song while every patron in the building gawks in your general direction might give me nightmares for years to come. Unfortunately, they had another child, who, in addition to not being the social pariah I was at that age, also had a birthday on the same day.

Jimmy and I have shared a birthday since… well, honestly, since I’ve been born. This never ceases to amaze people. Often, upon learning this fact, people who have met us both and know that we are separated by 2 years of age, forget all understanding of biology and ask if we are twins. No. Even my mom would have thrown in the towel after a year of labor. The second reaction after spending an uncomfortable amount of time in silence mentally analyzing the possible baby making activities of my parents that led to such well planned offspring (read: any amount of time), is to point out how much it sucks to share a birthday. Gee, thanks. Having never not shared a birthday with my older brother, I can’t say that it sucks. It is the only thing I have ever known. I like having someone to stand next to me while the rest of the room is staring and singing ‘Sto lat’. If anyone really has license to complain, it has to be Jimmy – he had his own birthday for one glorious year and then I showed up. At the Christmas between birthday 2 and birthday 3 for him, he attempted to dump me down a staircase out of the back of his toy dump truck. Assuming he was acting in attempt to reclaim his birthright of a day celebrating him alone, he was ultimately unsuccessful. For many years after that we had cakes with both names on them, we got “share” presents that we both enjoyed – like the tree fort in our back yard. Mom and Dad went above and beyond to make sure that we were both made to feel special on our birthday and that neither of us was made to feel more special on our birthday.

However confronted with the restaurant serenade, they must have faced some internal drama– Jimmy deserved to have a restaurant serenade him with all the accolades he had merited by turning four. Katie, on the other hand deserved not to be psychologically traumatized by an entire room of people staring at her for reasons she didn’t understand by turning two. As they often do, accolades took precedence over preventing psychological trauma. To their credit, I’m sure my parents did not forsee the ending as it actually played out. What they likely anticipated was me hiding behind my dad or under the giant sombrero that back in the day, Chi-chi’s gave for the birthday boy or girl to keep. (Last time I checked, we had at least half a dozen of these sombreros in the attic… Chi-chi’s played a big role in the history of my family.)

Picture it: happy family out to dinner for their adorable children’s birthdays. Mom and Dad in their 30’s, holding a 2 year old who looks petrified but is an otherwise normal appearing little girl with a bowl cut who has eaten 3 bites of her cheese quesadilla and only because it was necessary to mop up all of the liquid of the salsa (none of the chunks, those were practically vegetables). Two other grown women fill out the table, the Aunt and Grandmother who are both so excited for the birthday celebration. Between them a 4-year old boy with a huge smile and dimples who is just thrilled to be there on his special day. Jimmy was generally thrilled by most things at that age; It would be years before the toll of having me as a sister wore on his constantly sunny demeanor.

The tradition begins with clapping. The wait staff all gather in the kitchen or near it so they can form a processional over to the unsuspecting victim’s table. I’ve worked as a waitress but oddly enough have no memory of this particular phenomenon – is there a pre-song huddle? A pep talk? A practice run? Do they decide if they are going on 3 or after 3? (Pitch perfect, anybody?)

Regardless, it begins. Far off, quiet. Much like the drums of the goblins in Lord of the Rings. For a moment, you’re not even convinced that you actually heard something… just your brain playing tricks. An auditory hallucination in a crowded room full of people laughing and talking… anyone could be clapping, right?

It grows louder. Now you know that this clapping is not a coincidence. Throughout the restaurant, patrons begin to sweat. Is it my birthday? No, that was last month, Oh, thank goodness… wait Kevin missed my birthday, did he tell them it was me to make up for it? Are they coming for me? Do I have food in my mouth? Kevin wouldn’t do that, would he? Come on, man, this is so awkward. They’re getting closer!! Smile, pretend like you’re in on it… Smile … keep smiling. No, they’re passing by… its NOT me!! Relieved expressions cover faces as the convoy passes them by. Suddenly, inane lyrics that are really just pointless statements over and over mixed with subliminal messages about the restaurant are adorable. “So its your birthday, your birthday, your birthday… Chi-chi’s wishes you happy birthday. Happy Happy Birthday, Ole!” They begin to clap along, joining in the mob mentality and thankful that they are not its chosen victim this time.

For some reason they always have to cross the entire restaurant - What if the birthday human sacrifice was sitting right by the kitchen? I think they would probably do a lap to ensure that the entire restaurant stops mid sentence and mid bite to stare at the person who is approximately one year older.

By the time it is clear that this parade is heading for our table and ours alone, the entire room has begun clapping. They’re in on the game – besides, there are two little kids at the table, they love this sort of thing.


I can’t remember the exact moment at which I became aware that public humiliation was imminent, but even 2-year-old Katie had some sense of self-preservation and knew she needed to act immediately.

In situations of extreme stress, biology teaches us that animals enact their “fight or flight” response. Essentially, at almost all levels of the food chain, if an organism believes that its life is in danger, different mechanisms kick in to help it survive. The heart will begin to beat faster and harder to supply the muscles with the oxygen they need for upcoming increased exertion. The muscles become more tense and possibly tremble. The pupils dilate to allow more light to hit the retina – making the organism more sensitive to visual threats. The stomach and guts slow the digestive process (you’ve got bigger problems than the lump of cheese burrito you just ingested). This is considered to be an evolutionary advantage that was selected for; that is to say – animals with good strong fight or flight responses lived long enough to have babies and make more animals with good strong fight or flight responses. While it is less often an evolutionary advantage in our day to day life, it is certainly present – just think, when something startles you and your heart races, you become slightly lightheaded and get a bitter taste in your mouth? That is all thanks to adrenaline which is the chemical responsible for gearing you up for a fight. Or potentially for a flight… which sadly does not mean you will actually fly. The response is dubbed ‘fight or flight’ likely because the alliteration just makes it sound pretty. (Actually, fun fact, this response also covers a third F activity that involves increased heart rate, but that’s probably beside the point for now)

2-year-old Katie knew none of this, but benefited from it anyways. This was before Katie had been trained to fight. This was before Katie had become well versed in verbal sparring. For 2-year-old Katie, flight was the only option.

There were limited options available to a 2-year-old trying to flee the scene. The path to the bathroom was blocked by the far-too-happy group of terrible singers head our way holding sombreros and some cheap dessert with a candle in it. Although our booth was situated near a window, I was unlikely to be able to reach and open and escape through said window in a timely fashion.

Pupils dilated, heart pounding, I scanned the room. I needed to conceal myself. As the sound of clapping grew ever louder, I could feel more and more eyes on me. I climbed into dad’s arms, but it was not enough, they were all still watching. I looked down at the mostly empty bowls of chips and dregs of salsa that remained on the table next to the majority of my meal that I’d lost interest in minutes after it arrived. Next to it sat the children’s menu and crayons I’d been provided upon entrance. All of this sat upon a solid wood table that concealed a dark underworld where crayons fell never to be retrieved and the 5-second rule for dropped food did not apply.

It would have to do.

Taking one last look at all the grown-ups headed my way (although, in retrospect, I’m sure most were just teenagers) with their singing and clapping and attention-getting antics, I made my decision and hurtled my small body towards the crevice of darkness that was between the table and booth. I could taste the quiet dark security of the tiny space – I was so close!

Suddenly, with a loud crack, my head was filled with excruciating pain. I’m pretty certain this pain was a 7/10. It was bad. Plus, I was pretty dramatic. Plus, everyone was still staring at me and I wasn’t going to make it in time. Plus, now everyone was staring more because I had just dove head first directly into the edge of the table.

I sobbed. Loudly. The singing might have softened somewhat, but did not stop entirely. This new twist on the dinner theatre was just an added bonus for the other patrons. My dad tried to continue with the general gaiety of the situation while simultaneously consoling me. (A role that would be required again and again throughout my trying childhood. It really is quite a wonder they didn’t just let Jimmy dump me down the stairs when he had the chance).

The rising egg on my head did nothing to deter the interest of the general public. The amused stares became concerned stares and the attention lasted significantly longer than it would have if I hadn’t tried to pass my head through a solid object. Come to think of it, I might also have had a few more brain cells and gone on to become a successful practicing physician… but if that were the case, then I wouldn’t have this fun story to tell.

So if you’re ever out to dinner with me on my birthday and you’re wondering if you should ask the people to sing to me, I recommend bringing a helmet, just in case.

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