Last weekend when my son and I arrived at pre-game practice for his soccer team’s first season match, I noticed a handful of parents at the other end of the field. They’d set up the typical phalanx of folding chairs, yes, but also an iPod attached to a square black amp, from which they were blasting mariachi music. Clearly, these parents knew this wasn’t just a soccer game — it was a party. As the kids warmed up I walked the track, enjoying the bright, brassy sound of trumpets floating through the air.
The music took me back to the time my stepdad turned 40 and threw a celebration in our rambling San Jose ranch house. His midlife fiesta included lots of food and beer and a house packed with people. Guests draped themselves over the maroon velour couch in the living room and jostled together in the family room, spilling out onto the screened-in porch. One enormous dude parked himself in our wooden rocking chair, drinking beer after beer and rocking himself so close to the wall that he scraped the paint off.
But what really made the party was the mariachis my stepdad hired to play for the evening. About an hour in the band made its grand entrance, a cluster of men in charro outfits — sombreros and tailored black suits, the pants trimmed with embroidery and silver buttons. Right there in the middle of the house they began playing their trumpets, their vihuelas, their guitarrones. I was pretty sure the music was going to break the picture window that faced our backyard.
I’m tellin’ you, those mariachis blew my mind.
I was 12, in seventh grade and consumed by the project of surviving each day at the local junior high. My chief aim was cultivating unobtrusiveness, and this party was the antithesis of this goal. How could someone so old like my stepfather celebrate his birthday with such chaotic vitality, such joie de vivre? The mariachi music was a sonic representation of blood rushing through the veins — urgent, powerful, alive.
I circled the perimeter of our house, grabbing handfuls of tortilla chips as I wandered through the kitchen to the TV room then back through the dining room, both attracted and repelled by the din. People had started dancing in the small open space behind the couch; the air hung heavy with beer and sweat; women shrieked above the music. Understand, now: I was an introverted kid. My idea of a good time was sitting alone somewhere, reading. So the sounds, the people, the smells — it all combined into a massive bolus injection of adrenaline. And like it or not, the party became my template for what turning 40 should be like.
So when I reached that milestone I tried to recreate this experience, although I did it somewhat more conservatively. Instead of hiring a mariachi band I made a mix of Eighties songs and threw a barbecue for my family and friends. We danced in the dining room to Echo and the Bunnymen and Midnight Star; I wore a blue wrap dress and Frye cowboy boots. My fortieth birthday party wasn’t as splashy as my stepdad’s all those years ago, but it did serve a similar purpose — celebrating the joy of living, as I myself tipped over that noon dial point into midlife.