I've been working on this party for weeks, and today was finally the day. Do you know how hard it is to throw a planet's first ever birthday party?
As I've mentioned, Dan is curious about Earth. A few weeks ago I mentioned a birthday party, and Dan asked me about it because they don't have birthday parties here. They keep track of their ages, but it's not considered a big deal. This may be a species difference, not a cultural difference, as I don't think any Myrmeoid culture that celebrates birthdays. But Dan decided he wanted one, just to see what it would be like, and we realized that his birthday (or, rather, molt-day--the anniversary of the day he finished pupation) was just a few weeks away.
Everyone was into it--the La'helis, a lot of Dan's friends from other families, Dr. Nades, we invited maybe two hundred people and I think they all showed up. Except that I had to teach everybody what to do. It's not something we normally think about, but a birthday party is a kind of ritual or ceremony. There's the cake, and blowing out candles, and clapping when the candles are blown out, and cutting the cake, and giving wrapped presents, and what wrapping paper is and why....Think of one little detail; you can buy wrapping paper, or you can use newspaper, but you cannot use toilet paper. Why not? You could wrap the toilet paper around and around the item...but I've never seen it done. We have a rule; gifts cannot be wrapped in toilet paper, and even though I've never heard anyone state the rule, I've never once seen it broken. There is so much to explain! I ended up writing and printing up a little manual on all the birthday traditions, what they mean, and what exactly everybody was supposed to do at the party. The result was almost a choreographed performance, but I think we all had fun.
It was a bit strange, watching Myrmeoids act so deliberately human. After I sang the Birthday Song and Dan blew out his candles, everybody clapped. Myrmeoids don't clap. Some ran up and hugged Dan. Myrmeoids don't hug--to express affection, they touch each other with their antenae or groom each other with their tiny tongues. Watching their small, ant-like bodies go through these alien gestures was truly strange. Sometimes they got the ritual charmingly wrong; after cake and ice cream I noticed dozens of people going up to Dan and saying something to him--it was the same something, but it wasn't in either of the Myrmeoid languages I know. It took me a few minutes to realize I was looking at transliterated English; they were all, one at a time, reciting the lyrics to "Happy Birthday." Fortunately, not all two hundred guests did it or we'd still be at the party.
I want to talk about the food. I'm kind of proud of how we managed it. We'd talked about traditional birthday foods, and cake wasn't hard--I adapted a Smith Island cake recipe, since the layers are thin enough that the cake works at the Myrmeoid scale--but Dan had decided he wanted to have pizza. Never mind that this planet has no dairy and no yeast breads, he wanted pizza. I finally talked him out of it on the grounds that I couldn't think of any way to adapt pizza to the very small Myrmeoid mouth. But, denied pizza, he fixed his heart on ice cream. Again, there's the problem of dairy, and the even more serious problem of freezing; no one has freezers here, and of course there is no snow or ice for hundreds of miles.
Finally, it was Dr. Nades who came through. It seems there is a freezer used for research purposes at his college, and he talked some of his colleagues into getting him in (quite against department policy, I might add) so he and another friend could make ice cream. I adapted a dairy-free recipe and gave Dr. Nades descriptions of home ice cream-makers. He designed and built the ice cream-maker, mixed up the batch, and even organized a group of people to fly the ice cream to the party--they used something like a litter with long twine handles. I love the thought of the eminent and dignified Dr. Nades sneaking into the freezer lab in the middle of the night to make ice cream. The stuff was delicious, by the way; the recipe we used ended up tasting a little like almond raspberry.
I'm also really impressed Dan was able to blow out the candles. There were only four of them (I figured 47 candles plus one to grow on and then divided by twelve. They use base 12 around here, not base ten, so this is kind of like using one candle per decade) but one Myrmeoid lung is about the size of two or three kidney beans. They breathe through holes on either side of the abdomen, and the two lungs have no air passage between them, so to blow out a candle Dan had to lift his rear-end sideways to the candle and blow a single tiny lung's worth of air at the flame. Yes, it did look a bit like he was farting the candles out, but no, I didn't laugh. Myrmeoids don't exactly fart, so it would have been too hard to explain. That he got each candle to go out (he did them one at a time) is further testament to the changes his body is going through; he now has a flyer's extraordinary lung power. Right in the middle of an alien birthday party came evidence that he is getting older in a very Myrmeoid way.
We had dessert first, before the ice cream could melt, and then presents. They don't have wrapping paper here (or newspaper or toilet paper), and an extraordinary number of people independently hit on the idea of given Dan flower buds or nuts, or small fruits with a thick peel, on the grounds that these items include their own wrapping. Others gave him wind-chimes or small candies, or pieces of personal jewelry. They have no tradition of personal presents here, and little sense of personal property, so most of the presents were simple, cheap things. The one stand-out gift was a generous coupon card for the hardware store in town, so Dan could get supplies for his beloved machines. I gave him a small Earth globe, about two inches across, so he can carry it, with the topography exaggerated so he can feel the continents and mountain ranges. How did I get such a thing? That was Dr. Nades again; he has friends in the exogeography department. The flyer is useful.
After the presents, the party became a fairly ordinary feast, with plenty of food and alcohol. No, Nades did not get drunk, but Dan got him some wine. You remember what I said about wine being almost impossible to buy.
I think the kids will be demanding birthday parties next; Ka'te is already talking about it. Maybe I should start a catering company for Earth-parties? But I'm really feeling a lot better about myself as ambassador. After stumbling my way through so many science questions over the past few weeks and generally feeling like I don't do anything except hang out with my friends, it occurs to me that not everybody could have done something like this. Not everybody could describe some aspect of our culture that we take for granted clearly, and I did it AND collaborated with an engineer to reinvent an ice cream maker. Not to toot my own horn; I'm not the smartest guy in the room or anything, but I guess I didn't get appointed to this job for nothing.
A funny detail; while Dan was cutting the cake, one of the kids asked me how big a piece I'd eat back home--Dan was cutting pieces about the size of an almond, and generally making my poor cake look like it had been chewed up by mice--so I said "are you kidding? At home I'd eat two cakes myself!" And her antenae spread wider and wider and wider, until they stuck out sideways in total dumbfounded amazement. I had to confess; a cake that size would feed ten or fifteen of us. But the story spread around, and by evening all the kids were giggling about the giants on Earth who can eat cakes the size of houses.
Fi Fie Foe Fum!