It's a beautiful Saturday afternoon--hot and dry. There's a gentle breeze outside that's knocking the wind chimes around just enough to make soft music. The doves and quail harmonize while flying sorties at our various bird feeders. Thing 1 and Thing 2 are asleep.
Earlier this afternoon, I took the boys to a birthday party for a little girl in Thing 2's preschool. He's been insane about this party ever since I made this mistake of telling him about the invitation, over a week ago. Every morning since then, his first words have been, "Is it time for Ashley's party?" And every morning, after learning that it was not yet time for Ashley's party, I've had to talk him out of a deep and forlorn funk.
At the last minute, I discovered that I had to bring Thing 1 along to the party, even though he was not invited and was at least four years older than most of the kids who would be there. But The Wife had a massage appointment with her sister and mother, so I had no choice.
When we got to the party, at a storefront tumbling emporium, Thing 1 was hesitant about doffing his shoes and leaping into action. The father of the birthday girl was wonderful, though, and assured him that he was more than welcome. "The more, the merrier," he said. Which I then had to explain to my son. But the explanation seemed to do the trick, and Thing 1 was off.
Thing 2, upon entering, did exactly what he told me he was going to do, which was to find the birthday girl and give her a big hug. Thing 2 is three and a half years old, and there's not much in this world that's cuter than seeing a three and a half years old hugging a just-three year old and wishing her, unprompted, a happy birthday.
Things were dicey for Thing 2 at first, as the party had been scheduled right on top of his usual nap-time. The Wife had tried to get him to nap earlier in the day, but that turned out to be a joke. Early on in the party, whenever Thing 2 had a run-in with someone else, over a toy or a ball, or whose turn it was to go down a slide, there were big boohoo tears. But somehow, miraculously, he got over that phase and settled down into very happy, crashing-around-like-a-lunatic play.
These tumbling places are about as primitive and low-concept as you can get. It's just a big room in a strip mall,with cushy floors and lots of balls, ladders, foam ramps, trampolines, tubes, and balloons. Every so often, the young women who run the place rearrange the items to focus the kids on one aspect or another. But other than that, it's just a big indoor playground. The kids go nuts for an hour, then stop for cake and "Happy Birthday," then go crashing around for another half hour.
But it works.
We spend so much time agonizing over birthday parties and other events for kids, competing with each other to outdo the last party, showering kids with more Stuff than they can possibly ever play with or keep track of, one-upping each other or bettering our own last personal best, putting their names in flashing lights, four feet high (I actually did see this once). And yet, what do the kids really want?
Well, obviously, once they get older, once they get used to the excess, they want more of what they've gotten or what they've seen. They're made to want--the whole economy is dependent on it. So they want. They're nothing if not compliant.
But does any of it make them happy? We keep doing these outrageous things for them, and our efforts leave the kids cold. We keep buying more and better crap for them, and the crap becomes...well, crap...within a couple of weeks. So what do we need to do to bring them a little special, out-of-the-ordinary joy? What's going to work? Which movie tie-in toy will do it? Which version of which new video game system is the right one? At what critical mass of My Little Ponies will you reach the tipping point to happiness?
Here's what I saw today: at the very end of the party, the young women who run the place brought out a big Something Hidden surrounded by upended tumbling mats. Above the Something was a fan. They handed out pompoms to everyone. They turned on the music, then turned on the fan. And then they brought out the bubble wands. The Something Hidden was a big tub of soapy water. That's all. But once they started making bubbles and launching them into the run in front of the fan, you should have seen the delirium--the pure joy. The music was as cheesy and ridiculous as you could imagine--electric organ music that reminded me of every skating rink I had ever been to as a child. But it had a certain goofball charm that was perfect for the occasion. The kids ran around with their pompoms, trying to chase and catch the bubbles, which poured out from the fan and filled the whole room. And every child, from the two year-olds to my Thing 1 at nearly seven--every child was in absolute heaven. Chasing soap bubbles.
We spend so much time and energy and money doing the wrong things, when the right things--so many of them--are so simple. As simple as a soap-bubble.
I don't know. Maybe it's all just too simple for us to see.