Thursday, June 30, 2016

Carpe Di-Cave

Early summer descended on Eastern Iowa packing all the heat and humidity usually reserved for much later in the season. In this weather, the corn shoots skyward, and the weak are culled from the herd until only the hardiest Iowa natives are left to complain about the weather.

The Princess and Little Prince had retreated to the cool solitude of their bedrooms, perfectly content to relax and stare at their smart phones in air-conditioned comfort. (“We needs the charger. Must recharge the precious.”) But underneath it all, I could tell they were longing for some quality, enforced family fun time.

It was time for a Mom-tervention.

It was time to pry them out of their man-made, air-conditioned, soft and cushy caves
and take them to some nature-made, naturally cooled, drippy and muddy real caves at Maquoketa Caves State Park. The King declined the opportunity, citing work deadlines (and lack of air-conditioning).

I had been to the caves as a kid – we made frequent trips to the area to visit relatives – but The Princess and The Little Prince had not. This trip was a chance for me to share old memories (which they loved – not) and create new memories (which I loved – totally).

Part of the reward for not selling off your children when they were pre-teens, is having them develop into people you actually enjoy spending time with. While The Princess and The Little Prince can, individually, be mutes, when they are thrown together in a car they become Laurel and Hardy. Their schtick began before we even left the house:

The King (from his air conditioned throne): Be sure to wear sunscreen.
Princess: Did Sacagawea wear sunscreen? Did Herbert Hoover?
Prince: And he became president!

For more than an hour, I listed to their constant back and forth, covering everything from family trips (“Hey, remember that time you told The Little Prince it was time to go, and we searched the house for him for like, 30 minutes, because he thought you really meant it was time to go and he was waiting in the car? Good times.”) to my driving ability (“Are we lost yet? Are you sure we're not lost yet?”).

Gramma Anna at the caves, 1936
For the record, we weren't lost (yet), although I never did find the little wooded, copse my Grampa liked to point out as the spot where my Gramma Anna once hiked her skirts (literally) to answer nature's call. That historic location seemed to move each time we traveled those roads, but Grampa's delight in telling the story – and Gramma's adamant denial – never did. There's a slight chance hyperbole runs in my family.

Eventually we did make it to the park. I didn't remember it being quite so popular, but that day it was overrun with 20-something year-old hikers and rock climbers (“I think they're high on more than nature.”) and families with little children.

At times I watched wistfully as the parents held their child's grubby little hands, or boosted them up onto some of the small rock formations, arms outstretched to assist if needed, but giving them the chance to explore their independence.

Meanwhile I panted, trying to keep up with my little angels, letting them lead the way over rocky trails and trees, and cringing as they insisted on climbing to the highest points they possibly could. Every so often The Little Prince would scout out a trail, only to 
tell his sister it looked “a little sketchy.” They would silently lock eyes for a moment, then The Princess would smile and shout “Parkour!” and off they would scramble over mossy boulders, muddy logs, and loose rocks. This is why we say that when The Princess becomes the voice of reason, you know you're in trouble.

Still, there were times when the littlest hikers out parkoured us. While The Royal Procession picked our way cautiously across the creek (again), tottering on the slippery rocks, one intrepid 8-year-old sloshed right past us through the ankle-deep water. (In our defense, it was muddy, it looked much deeper, and it was cold.)

Fat Man's Lament
In between the daredevil feats of climbing, tentative spelunking, and creek fording failures, The Princess and Little Prince turned their comedy routine to a variety of topics:
The beauty of the park – “You know you're from Iowa when you learn to pronounce methamphetamine, but not aesthetic.
The natural features of the park – “Fat Man's Lament? I thought they said Bat Man's Lament!
Philosophy – “We have to cross the river again?” Me: “It's a creek.” “It has potential!

In the end, the joke was on me:
Why didn't you tell us to wear old shoes?” “Why didn't we bring flashlights?”
Me: “Because I didn't think I'd be able to get you out of the car.” Honest.
(Sharing an incredulous look.) “Why not? This is the best place ever!”


Saturday, June 4, 2016

Junior High Dance Survival 101

It has come to my attention that some people have not had the opportunity to chaperone a junior high school dance. To them I say “How did you get so lucky?” and “Can we trade lives?”

It's not that I dislike junior high or middle school students. I was once in middle school. The Princess and The Little Prince were once in middle school. If you think back really, really hard – back to those memories you try to repress – you will probably recall that you, too, were once in 6th, 7th or 8th grade. Think bad perms, braces, and over sized Sally Jessy Raphael glasses. Sound familiar?

Individually, these children can be mildly tolerable to almost bearable. However, when gathered in groups of two or more, junior high-age kids should be caged and tranquilized. “Middle School Teacher” is one of the virtues recognized for canonization, and an automatic “head of the line” designation for angel wings.

It's really not the kids' fault. They just have that unlucky distinction of being in the roughly 11- to 13-year old age range, frequently referred to as “possessed” – I mean, “'tweens.”

They are the victims of an uncontrollable onset of hormones – a volatile chemical combination that is constantly agitated by the same abrupt growth spurts that it causes. These once adorable youngsters are unwitting captives on an out of control Tilt-A-Whirl of emotions. The rapid personality swings from sweet, considerate child to abrasive, rude, inconsiderate, obnoxious jerk seem to confound even them. Or maybe that's just their voices breaking.

Whoever decided that hosting a dance for junior high students was a good idea had a masochistic streak a mile wide.

Whoever decided that hosting a dance for junior high students as a fund raiser had a shrewd business mind.

On any given night, the parents/guardians of a 'tween are more than willing to pay to get rid of them for a couple of hours. That is to say, they are anxious to ensure that their child is learning proper socialization skills to better interact with their peers. Failure to develop such skills would, no doubt, lead to even more nights spent at home whining that there is nothing to do and no one to do it with.

Hosting an “End of the School Year Dance” for junior high students – on the day after the last day of school – is, in theory, a brilliant marketing idea. This is attested to by the ear-splitting shrieks of joy emitted by the girls whilst hugging their BFFs, and the running, full-body slam greetings exchanged by the boys. After all, it has been upwards of 30 hours since they last saw each other leaving the same school building to which they have now voluntarily returned. (Although some of them spent the entire first day of no-school together, meaning that it's been close to two whole hours since they saw each other. Ohmygod!)

Using the term “dance” to describe this gathering is stretching the meaning of the word. Very little recognizable dancing is done, and relatively few students attempt the spasmodic flailing of limbs that passes for dancing.

The “dance” moves can be loosely categorized as:
The Repetitive Motion: A random dancer breaks out one move – such as the “running man” (the new one, duh) the “whip” or the “nae-nae” – completely unprovoked. This sets off a domino effect of random dance moves with little or no relation to the music being played.
The Line Dance: A favorite with all ages, these choreographed dances take all the pressure and decision making out of dancing – you either lead, follow, or watch from the sidelines. It also shows who knows their right from their left.
The Slow Dance: At the junior high level, the slow dance is actually a group dance which consists of one couple awkwardly swaying, straight-legged and flat-footed, while 20 other students gather around them, gawking and pointing.

To be honest, the gathering probably should be billed as a “stand,” since most students spend the evening standing/sitting and watching others. “Herd migration” would be another, more accurate description of events, as packs of students spend the evening slowly oozing around the gym floor. They approach and abut, but rarely merge with other packs, and occasionally discharge micro groups. Viewed from above, they give the appearance of a human lava lamp.

The main duty of the adult sacrifices, or “chaperones,” is to be a fun hater and to squelch any attempt at fun undertaken by their youthful charges. Chaperoning a junior high dance brings out a side of me usually reserved for Costco shopping trips with my family (“No. We do not need the industrial size vat of ketchup. No. We are not getting the Pallet 'O Jerky. You haven't finished the last one. Yes. It does go bad.)

As a chaperone, your duties will include:
Yelling. A lot of yelling. You yell because they are endangering themselves and others. You yell because the music is loud. You yell because they didn't listen the first 10 times you warned them. You yell things like “Stop. Stop! Stopstopstopstopstopslowdown!” “Don't sit on that.” “Don't sit on him.” “Get off of there.” “ForGodSake Get Off Of Her!” “Don't swing on that.” “Don't swing on them.” “Don't pick that up.” “Don't pick him up.” “Put that down.” “Put her down. Gently!”
Being alert and suspicious. You need to keep your eyes out for couples getting too friendly, groups not being friendly enough, anyone hiding in dark corners, individuals trying to escape, groups plotting a coup, and the quiet ones sitting there doing nothing. The quiet ones are always the most dangerous.
Photobombing. Nothin' says fun hater quite like popping up in the back row of a carefully arranged, “spontaneous” photo of 18 'tween girls all making a pouty face at the same time. In the future, extra chaperones will be needed just to keep up with photobomb duties. Yes. They take That. Many. Selfies.
Unauthorized Game Busting. As the night wears on (Two. Whole. Hours!) “dancers” may invent other activities to entertain themselves. The following “games” should be avoided for the health/safety/well being of all attendees: Hot Dog Free Throws (Literally. Shooting free throws with a half-eaten hot dog.) and Snotty Kleenex Soccer (Literally. Playing soccer with – you get the idea.) In a perfect world, the participants would be required to dispose of the game balls. But, to quote one gamer, “Eww. That's gross. I'm not touching that.” But you just put one up from the top of the key!
Turning on the Lights and Sending them Home. Eventually your indentured servitude will mercifully come to an end. After the last of the students has been picked up, the last of the trash thrown away, and the last of the hotdogs retrieved from behind the bleachers, you can go home and start thinking up excuses as to why you will be unable to chaperone the next junior high dance.
PS: Successfully shooting a free throw with a hot dog is much more difficult than it looks. And no. I have no idea how that ketchup got on the net.