Monday, September 30, 2013

A Fun Problem

Josh turned 10 this month.  To celebrate, I took him and two of his friends to Kalahari, a giant indoor-outdoor theme park in the Wisconsin Dells.  

I believe the theme of the indoor theme park was soul-wasting vagaries of a commercialized childhood. Or, if that wasn't right, it might have been the desperate pursuit of fun amid a head-splitting cacophony of visual and auditory noise. 

People with peanut allergies should avoid peanuts, and people like me should really steer clear of amusement parks.  I loved them as a child, but now they bring out my dark side: a cynical, critical, coffee-house misanthrope.  

I'm not usually like that anymore.  Parenthood has sweetened me beyond recognition.  Talking to my pregnant belly, singing Rogers & Hart songs to my baby, scrunching up my face and making cross-eyes for a smile...I forgot why I  spent so many years of my lazy youth wondering why life was meaningless, commercialized, over-scripted, and dully ironic. 

But birthday parties bring it all back, clear as day. 

In fact, they scare the hell out of me because I know that deep down inside, despite having identified, finally, so much spirit and love and beauty in the world, I am still not as light as air or sea foam or Styrofoam or even wd40.

So, it was my kid’s birthday.  We were at that giant indoor amusement park, and I was stressed.  But I dearly wanted Josh to have fun, so I assumed a worried expression and trailed after him from a respectful distance, eating overpriced and weirdly sour frozen yogurt that was supposed to taste like birthday cake.  

After about ten minutes, Josh's friends glommed onto each other and vanished into the ether.

I searched for them everywhere for at least twenty minutes. And then I begin to panic. I went to the front desk and confessed that I had lost two children, not my own.

The woman at the desk took her phone into the entryway vestibule (the only place where a person could hear herself scream).  When she returned, she explained that the announcement would only be audible to people who were playing electronic games.  

Within seconds, the two boys showed up. 

With classic Barmackian intensity, I explained to them without raising my voice that they must tell me where they were going at all times unless I could actually see them. I knew, because I am my father’s child, that they would abide.

We took a long walk of shame from there all the way to the water park, where, for the next two hours, Joshua anguished over whether to go down any of the water slides. He would wait in one line with the rest of us for twenty minutes or so.  With each step toward our goal, his agitation would escalate.  

I tried to comfort him.

If it scares you, I’ll give you five dollars.

What if it doesn’t scare me?

If you just get in the raft, I’ll give you five dollars.

No, I don’t think so.

It was our turn to step into the raft.  I reached out to comfort him.

Ten dollars? How about ten?  All you have to do is get into the raft. C'mon!  Get in the raft!  It will be fun!  

I don’t want to get into the raft.

Ten dollars…! Ten dollars...!

No!  I don't want to get into the raft!  I’m not getting into the raft!

Okay, okay!   I’ll see you at the bottom of the ride.

My son had to turn around and walk, all alone, past all those people, down all those stairs.  Did I mention, it was his birthday?   

Water-jets propelled my two-person raft (with just me in it) through a boiling, curling tube of high-speed, stomach-churning, kinetic disappointment.

Josh, are you sad?

Yes.

Why?

didn't get ten dollars. He burst into tears.  

I have spent so much money on this place, I think. And for what?  

Josh scolds, You shouldn’t bribe me with money.

And I think, Then with what should I bribe you?  Candy?

Okay.  I won’t bribe you. 

I had made those stupid water slides extra important by offering Josh money to get on them, thereby magnifying his sense of failure.

I just wanted you to try it because I thought you would really enjoy it.  I thought it would be fun.

What the hell do I know about fun?

The slides are not important, Sweetie. They are just for fun. 

For the love of Christ, stop saying fun.  What do you know about fun?

(I want you to work through your fears. I want you to dispense with this inconvenient anxiety. 
I want you to be like the other boys.)  

Horrible, horrible parenting.

I searched my mind for an ennobling thought, and stumbled over my shame at having thrown money at the problem of Josh's inconvenient birthday.  

We had just moved...We were still unpacking...I was overwhelmed... So, I tried to solve the problem with money, and yet the problem remained.  

A less expensive, less time-consuming, less exhaustive effort might have been unsuccessful, but at least it wouldn't have been so wasteful.   

I gave up.  I gave in.

As long as we’re sad, I said, we might as well play water-basketball.  

That pool is too cold, Josh said.  He was right.

Yeah, but we're miserable anyway, so what difference would a cold pool make?  I don't see any balls available, either.  Let's go!

Josh laughed.  We jumped in the pool.  His two loyal friends reappeared.

Something heavy with talons launched itself silently into the humid air, off my shoulders.




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