Two weeks ago, I stood in the middle of a madhouse. Kids in electric-orange socks, like a too-bright dystopian fantasy, sprinted past me in every direction. What was missing was the heavy arm of an unseen totalitarian regime. Only, it wasn’t exactly missing. I stood there, sneakers off, firmly in the grasp of a kid’s birthday party planning existential crisis. Maybe you saw some of my FB updates and tweets back then. I was borderline apoplectic. Here’s why:
The Mrs. and I had just that week finally decided for-certain to plunk down a $100 non-refundable deposit for a 2-hour birthday party event at Oasis Family Fun Center, one of those massive indoor digs with arcade games, climbing things, laser things, other things. You know the kind. It was to be the much ballyhooed combo birthday party for the Bear and the Mouse. The first of its kind!…for us.
Then, at that very weekend, after repeating my credit card number twice on the phone with Oasis, I was standing there with Mouse at another kid’s party at another indoor play palace, a stone’s throw from Oasis, a trampoline park called SkyZone, a place with mandated electric-orange footwear. I couldn’t help but think that this, all of this, was not the right move for us, that a structured, fixed-time experience doesn’t at all jive with how we view and treat the splendor of childhood.
A potent mix of headache and rage overcame me and I stood there confounded by the notion that such an organized party is the antithesis of everything we are as a family: structured play, time limits, liability waivers, mass produced pizza, hand sanitizer stations, looped instruction videos on giant HD TVs, goodie bags full of junk, adults saying what you could and couldn’t do / where you could and couldn’t go, and the presence of *other* children. There was a designated area for resting. For RESTING!! The totalitarian vibe of it all didn’t feel right, to say the least. I felt disgusting, just another middle class suburban parent doing the thing that middle class suburban parents do in 2014: bus your kids around to yet another overpriced experience filled with rules, instructions, and production line food service.
I was tempted to eat the $100 marker I’d placed down only 72 hours earlier and move the combo birthday party shindig back to our house, our backyard, our playroom, and our kitchen…where it belongs, where kids can be kids without rules and a fear of phantom germs. Where kids can stop anywhere on the grass or carpet of sofa and rest freely. Where no Big Brother-authorized instructional videos play ad nauseam simultaneously on multiple TVs, in a synchronized totalitarian multi-media dance.
We’ve had all but one party here at the house and they’ve all been within the terrific to amazing range for our kids and their youthful guests. We did the science experiment party, in which the Mrs. presided over a half dozen jaw-dropping science projects. And we did the baking party, with me at the helm of the good ship lollipop that day. One of the girls there was so excited to bake because, as she put it, her mom never let her even crack an egg. I felt like a champion, like I made a child’s life a teensy bit better because I let her crack an egg, knead dough, and taste the very thing she baked, even as unbleached all-purpose flour covered everything in my beautiful kitchen. It was totally worth it. We’ve had moonbounces in the backyard. We’ve turned the playset slide into a water slide with a playhouse at the top and a kiddie pool at the bottom. We’ve seen kids running wild in our backyard, screaming, throwing Frisbees, shooting Zing arrows. You know, childhood. And now we were making plans to move all of that inside, for a fee, with shittier food and drinks, and for what, so I have less to clean up before and after? Since when have I ever taken the easy way out of anything? Since when have I opted for convenience? Who am I? Who are we?
Those indoor party places like Oasis and SkyZone serve a purpose. Not every parent has the time, space, or energy to do what is needed to throw a party for 6 kids let alone 26. But the trade off is a manufactured experience, a cookie cutter one with torn down signs, disinfecting spray, another wagon of gifts, another kid’s name in a queue, more faces, an identical experience that will be less memorable when memories are replaced or merged with the next friend’s party to be held in that same room, with that same pizza…and there will be a *next*, probably within the month. I had to decide if I want to carve out a small piece of childhood with this party of ours or if I want an easy 2 hours. I’m pretty sure I already knew the answer.
And yet, and yet, we are still having the combo birthday party at Oasis. It isn’t the $100. It is the weather. It’s been whacked this winter and early-spring. I simply cannot risk a mud fest or a rainstorm or snow (!) on the early May party day. I cannot risk having to figure out how to have nearly 30 kids and some of their parents inside our 1500 sq foot rancher. My only consolation is that Oasis is as loose and free as an indoor play space can be. There are no instructional videos or waivers, no matching socks, and no designated rest areas like that other place. And we can pay more to have pizza from a local pizzeria, which we will do. It is not perfect, but it will do for this year. Grab your hand sanitizer and get ready to party.