You know those weekends in August when it feels like summer has been going on for about a decade? Like somehow there was a disruption in the space-time continuum and the calendar just froze in place for a few weeks or years? But the calendar is the only thing that is frozen because the temperature outside hasn’t dipped below 90 degrees in several months? However, on the plus side, you know autumn is right around the corner and you will start to feel an ever so slight freshening in the air in only eight more weeks? Okay, twelve weeks tops? You know those weekends?
Oh, you don’t live in Florida? Well, perhaps you can use your imagination. Or better yet, I can just tell you what they are like.
Those August weekends (or August days in general if we’re being real here) can start to feel a little devastating. So devastating that they can cause men and women to get deranged and more than slightly desperate. Particularly men and women who are the parents of small children. They are startled awake at 6:00 in the morning, beleaguered and bewildered after another confusing night. What happened? They ask as they stumble out of bed to locate whichever child is calling out for them at the bottom of the stairs. Why are there three empty bottles in the recliner and two more on the bedside table? I really don’t remember leaving my glasses hanging from the mobile on the baby swing. And why does my face feel like I slept on top of a television remote control all night?
After they gather up their crying child, number 1 or 2 or whatever his name is, they grope their way through the still dark living room and slide the back door open to let their impatient Chihuahuas outside. And boom. That first blast of hot furnace air slaps them in the face. Slam goes the closing door as seventeen mosquitoes that were lying in wait outside make a mad dash for exposed flesh.
Okay, the mom or dad thinks, what now? At this point, the available options seem to be, in the oppressive morning haze, bad and worse. Sit inside all day again? Pros: air conditioning. Cons: whining, fighting, and boredom. Go to the park again? Pros: it’s not sitting inside all day. Cons: no air conditioning, mosquitoes, possible death by heat stroke.
But remember, at this point in the summer, mom and dad are desperate. And not just your everyday kind of desperate. No, they are at the point of desperation where one of them will say to the other, with genuine excitement and hope, “Hey, you know we could try going to the science center today. We do have those annual passes we haven’t used yet!” And while it would normally be incumbent upon the other parent to provide a dose of sanity and realism, you have to remember that they are also desperate so instead they react as if their partner has just proposed a foolproof idea to achieve everlasting world peace. “Yes!” they announce with unfettered exuberance, the excitement in their eyes either inspiring or depressing depending on your perspective. “That is an amazing idea!”
Eventually, reality begins to encroach on the idealized day of family fun in the air-conditioned educational oasis. It sneaks in, unnoticed at first. Like water seeping in through hairline cracks in the underside of a canoe. Everything seems pretty much okay for a while. Sure, maybe there are a few beads of water in the boat that weren’t there before, but it’s fine, the parents think. But reality, like water, is relentless. It exploits every crevice and gap and won’t stop until it has capsized the ship.
It starts as the family walks across the elevated, glass-encased walkway from the parking garage into the science center. Fun facts line the walkway. One of the parents tries to engage the children. “Did you know elephants are the only mammals that can’t jump?” Meanwhile, oblivious, the older children are plotting a sprint relay along the length of the corridor. The first beads of water start to appear.
Then when they get inside the building proper, the first stop is a room full of puzzles and games and people and kids and nightmares. Quickly the group becomes divided. Divide and conquer. The oldest strategy known to man. The goalposts have now moved. Fun is no longer the aim. The aim is not allowing any children that are mobile to escape. And not forgetting the existence of the third child in the stroller. Larger cracks begin to show and the beads of water have turned into a slow and ominous trickle.
“You know what would be a good idea right now? Let’s head over to the Cinedome and check out the movie. The National Parks Adventure is about to start!” says some idiot. Less than sixty seconds after entering the imposing dome theater, it’s time to break out the buckets and start bailing water furiously because the two-year-old is not having it. Women and children must exit the sinking ship first. The others stay behind. But taking the two-year-old is like taking six kids, so survival is still far from guaranteed.
Those that remain are treated to perhaps the most baffling and bizarre film imaginable. Actors portraying Teddy Roosevelt and John Muir are in it and This Land Is Your Land is prominently featured, which is all fine and well. But then there is a group of three modern day adventurers traveling the west using the national parks as their personal playground that the film inexplicably follows. There is Conrad, the fearless leader, his step-son Max, and “family friend” Rachel. The trio drive around, look at maps a lot, and do all sorts of insane things like climbing frozen waterfalls, riding bikes on denuded mountain tops, and completing full yoga routines on the top of really high and treacherous rock formations. All the while, Robert Redford narrates their journey, quotes John Muir and Native American proverbs, and mentions semester breaks and the school calendar a lot for some reason. As the four-year-old lies on the floor in the theater and the baby drinks from her bottle, startling with each overdone sound effect, the parent takes a moment to think, “We might be crazy, but at least we’re not as crazy as these wackos.”
During one scene as the camera sweeps across a wide expanse of some rocky desert park, the four-year-old and parent have the following exchange.
4 y.o.: “Is this on earth?”
4 y.o.: “Our earth?”
4 y.o.: “The one we live on?”
Just as the film is wrapping up, step-son Max takes a moment to reflect. And then he drops a bombshell. “Conrad and my dad were best friends. They were on a climbing trip in the Himalayas when I was little,” he says. “There was an avalanche and my dad didn’t make it. I think we all bonded over our shared grief.” And just like that, in what appeared to be a feel-good, if a bit ridiculous and campy, film, all hell breaks loose. There is no further explanation. About any of that or what in the world Rachel’s status is other than “family friend.”
So when the film ends, the family all re-assembles, a little exasperated, but mostly relieved. Fortunately, the two-year-old did not manage to abscond onto any elevators unaccompanied. But it wasn’t for a lack of trying. Next stop: Kid Zone, which you can think of as an indoor playground with vaguely scientific undertones. There is a train that the two-year-old dominates for a solid twenty minutes.
Next is a series of interconnecting tunnels in which the children run and play and parents envision their boat capsizing once and for all.
There is also an interactive reproduction of the orange fruit supply line. In this exhibit, children are willing to spend hours (literally) picking “oranges” from the trees, placing them in wooden baskets, and dumping them down the conveyor belt or into holes that feed the bicycle-powered transporter machine. A sign suggests that, later, parents should ask their children how oranges get from the tree to the grocery store. One can only assume that the correct answer is that children fight over picking them off the trees and shoving them into holes and then one child pedals a bicycle that causes a machine to move the oranges from one end of a tube to the other while other children try to push her off. Then the oranges fall into a bucket and more children fight over who gets to put them into the baskets and onto the conveyor belt. Regardless, the children are captivated and would likely stay in this portion of the Kid Zone until the end of time.
Finally, there is a series of water tables to play in. Plastic vests are provided to prevent the children’s clothes from getting wet, but most parents, including the heroes of this story, are well past the point of caring about wet clothes or anything else. After another hour or so, it is time to move on to the café for a late lunch consisting of sandwiches, pizza, chips, and tears. Then there is a fight about ice cream, several lies about the center’s closing time, a promise of ice cream on the way home, and ultimately, a slow but steady return to the parking garage and the relative safety of the car.
On the short drive home, this happens…
…and the parents’ wildest dreams become reality. And then there is ice cream procured from a drive thru. You know, for later. “Well, this was a pretty great day,” one of them says. “Yeah, you know, I might even try bringing them back one day while you are at work. Just to see how it goes. I’m sure it will be fine,” the other says, overflowing with delirium and ice cream.
All the canoe needs is a little caulk in those cracks. Then it will be ready for another trip down the river.
Don’t forget! My book, Fatherhood: Dispatches From the Early Years, is now available for immediate purchase at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and pretty much all of your favorite online book retailers. Paperback and ebook versions are both available. Don’t wait…everyone is doing it! (And by everyone I mean more than zero people.)