Thursday, August 18, 2011

Surviving the Summer with Children in Phoenix

As a teacher who’s used to having the summers off and taking care of my two daughters, one of the daunting challenges I face each year is finding things to do to stave off the summer stir crazies.  Here in the desert, it’s the heat and not the cold that throws the population into lock-down mode for several months, and it is one of God’s great ironies, I suppose, that those months largely overlap with the traditional break in the school year. By the time the end of May rolls around and children all across the Valley are rejoicing at their temporary release from the bonds of educational oppression, the sun is just getting comfy for a long summer sizzle. 

You step outside, and it feels like the sun is there to pounce on you with a big turkey baster, trying to suck the moisture right out of your bones.  A few weeks of that, and it’s your will to leave the house at all that’s been sucked dry.  The sensation of being an ant at the focal point of jolly old Sol’s magnifying glass beam is too much to bear, so you hunker down indoors, crank the AC up (or down; I’ve been here 32 years and still can never keep straight which way you say it), and try to prepare yourself mentally for a few months of incarceration inside the house. 

The kids, who seem to do stupid things all the time, for some reason aren’t stupid enough to go outside in conditions like that; so there you are, an adult and two daughters, chained to the same four walls.  If you’re lucky, you’ll get a few days, maybe even a week of peaceful cohabitation.  But personalities soon begin to clash, household collisions begin to occur with increasing velocity and frequency, and before you know it, someone’s crying, and that someone is often me.  It starts to feel like three people in a very small boat alone on a vast and empty ocean, with barely enough water to survive, and only each other to eat.  You notice yourself praying that when you walk into the kitchen you won’t see your two-year-old and nine-year-old girls squaring off, brandishing random kitchen utensils in their hands, murderous glints in their eyes, circling each other and trading jabs like in some bad prison movie.  Trust me, a two-year-old with a murderous glint in her eye is a very scary thing, and is to be avoided at all costs.  And then you pray that you’re strong enough to resist your own overwhelming urge to grab a butter knife from the counter and try to take them both out. 

So, the basic problem I face each year is how to prevent my wife from coming home to a triple-murder crime scene with the three of us laying on the kitchen floor, a carrot peeler, a wire whisk, and an ice cream scoop protruding from our respective chests.  Now, you might think that since the sun distributes its wealth equally across the Valley, without regard for age, sex, race, or socio-economic status (I can just hear the tea-partiers now: “The sun is a socialist!”), there would be a multitude of choices for escaping the heat without leaving town.  But my experience is that careful planning is needed, in addition to the flexibility of a Cirque du Soleil performer, and some plain, old-fashioned luck.

Let’s survey some of the options available to the average family in summertime Phoenix that don’t involve blistering, and can be done on a regular, or semi-regular basis. And by ‘average family,’ I am talking about those of us who don’t enjoy the ability to conveniently slip the noose to San Diego or Disneyland for two months each year.  If you happen to be one of those families, you need to know that’s not normal.  You also need to know that I am a great traveling companion, I don’t eat much, and while I’d like to be able to bring my daughters with me, it’s not a deal-breaker.  I’m sure they can get by on their own for a month or two.

Malls.  Malls are nice because they’re open pretty early, and they stay open until after the sun has been safely returned to its bio-hazard containment unit (call it night if you must).  Many malls have added or upgraded play areas for children to encourage more families to come.  My neighborhood mall, Metrocenter, added a small play area a while back, I think mostly to give the old folks something to look at as they power-walk around the upper level.  The problem with malls is that they exist to sell stuff, and let’s face it, who can afford to maintain a daily spending pace like that for almost three solid months?  Those of us who can are already doing it, in San Diego.  Another thing about malls is that you kind of pick up on this negative vibe after you’ve been there awhile.  I freely admit that I’m only there to luxuriate in their sweet, 72 degree air; the problem is everyone else knows it, too.  You get the same derogatory look from store employees, maintenance workers, even the lowly survey solicitors.  Fellow non-shoppers will give each other the look.  You’re not here to shop, the barely concealed sneer says, you’re just here to suck the air.  You’re just an air-sucking sycophant. After awhile, it starts to get to you.  For me, that happens each year on June 2nd.  That still leaves a lot of hot summer air to suck.

Libraries.  I love the Phoenix city libraries.  They serve as a great alternative to sibling cage fighting because they get kids to spend some time doing educational stuff, or at least something more constructive than watching mind-numbing reruns of “Fairly Oddparents,” for instance.  They have it all:  books, magazines, computers, story-time, play areas, and workers who actually seem to like kids.  They have little tables and little chairs for the tots; they have the teenage section where my nine-year-old thinks she belongs, but doesn’t.  And it’s all contained in these really nice, air-conditioned buildings, which are open, by my estimate, about 4 hours a day.  It might be a little more than that; math is not my strong suit.  It wouldn’t be so bad if it were the same 4 hours every day, but they change, apparently according to some complex astronomical calculation.  Spontaneous visits are all but out of the question when you have two hooligans riding in the back seat eager to demonstrate any disappointment by destroying your vehicle from the inside out.  Alternatively, planning a visit can quickly become an exercise in calculus, and I’ve already admitted my math deficiencies.  I don’t know about anybody else, but I have trouble grasping the concept that a “world-class” city is one where its libraries don’t open until lunchtime, or are closed by dinner, or both, if they’re open at all.  I guess I’m supposed to take my comfort from knowing that those succulent libraries are there, even if it’s not to use them the vast majority of the time. 

Swimming Lessons.  Summer. Phoenix. Pool.  What three words go together better than those?  San Diego. Beach. Seafood. Alright, I’ll give you that.  Flagstaff. Flagstaff. Flagstaff. Okay, clearly some words do go together better, but if you’re stuck here, those three are about the best we’ve got.  The city has many great pools, some of which are open in any given year.  I’m not sure, but Parks and Rec. must hold a lottery or something to decide which pools win the right to be swum in each summer. I believe their mascot is the Arizona Lottery’s Windfall Willie in a Speedo.  Anyway, if you can find a pool that’s open, swimming lessons are both a great value and a great way to break up the droning monotony of long summer days.  The closest pool to our house is at Washington Park, and that’s where we traditionally have gone for lessons.  Since Washington didn’t win the pool lottery this year, we had to find an alternative. I ended up driving the girls 12 miles each way so they could take lessons.  Did I mind driving an hour a day so my daughters could swim for 40 minutes?  Not at all, and you know why? Because that’s almost two hours of prime afternoon stir insanity that I no longer have to fight.  I actually found myself in the awkward position of trying to keep my older daughter from advancing too quickly through the higher levels of lessons because I was afraid she might finish before the summer sessions were over.  No more swim lessons?!!  You might as well lock me up right now.  On the downside, the city has somehow developed the misbegotten idea that the swim season must not exceed eight weeks, and must end before July does, which for most of us still leaves a few empty weeks before school resumes. But that’s okay, we locals know that in these parts, the water just gets too darn chilly for swimming in August anyway.

Summer movies.  Ah, the summer movies. The saving grace of every parent in the Valley stuck at home with kids for weeks on end.  Specifically, I’m referring to Harkins Theatres’ summer movie program.  For seven bucks, you get ten weeks of morning entertainment, a different movie every week.  Seriously, some acknowledgement is in order here.  Harkins has probably done more to prevent bloodshed among minors in this city in the summer than anything except seatbelts and stoplights.  For this heroic contribution to society, Dan Harkins deserves whatever humanitarian award we can manage to scrape together.  Seriously, put me down for twenty right now.  Every week, Harkins provides a solid ninety minute mid-morning respite in the confines of a cool and dark theater.  No knock on the other chains or theatres around town, some of which offer somewhat comparable offers, but nobody does movies like Harkins. Come on, an annual purchase of a cup and a t-shirt gets you $1 drinks and a medium popcorn, which you can upgrade to a large for another dollar (with a free refill to boot), and all the Kernel Season’s Nacho Cheddar popcorn powder you can stomach!  It’s a beautiful thing, and makes me proud to call myself a resident of the same valley as the Harkins family.  And remember, in the darkness of the theater, you can always pretend that you can’t see your children misbehaving around you.  Dan Harkins, you’re my hero.  And would you ever consider running the city’s libraries and public pools?

Culture Passes.  This is one of the things that makes our city libraries so great, that is, if you’re lucky enough to find one whose doors aren’t locked.  The Culture Pass provides you with free admissions (in most cases, two) to some of the kid-friendliest places in town:  the Arizona Science Center, the Phoenix Children’s Museum, and the Arizona Museum of Natural History, for instance.  Those are just some of the indoor ones. Those willing to brave the heat will find passes to the Phoenix Zoo, Desert Botanical Garden, the Deer Valley Rock Art Center (a quick shout out from a former docent!) and more.  You pull the passes off a rack and check them out, kind of like checking out a book.  Then you can use them anytime over the next seven days.  The best part is, the pass expires automatically, and a new one becomes available for someone else to check out the next day – nothing to return!  The number of passes per attraction is limited for each branch, so a little luck is helpful.  But if you go to the library’s website, you can see how many passes are available, and more importantly, when they will renew. Then you can start doing the necessary calculus to determine which branch will be open at which time to give you the best chance of scoring the passes you want (or in my case, desperately need).  I found it’s also helpful to get there early, stake out a place by the door, and as an extra precaution, loudly begin discussing your bedbug bites with anyone who approaches (You don’t actually have to have bedbug bites to do this, but you might want to consider it; someone who’s equally determined may ask to see them).   Kudos, Phoenix library system for such a slick and seamless process.  We used these passes several times over the summer, and saved serious bank on admissions without a hitch.  Plus, this is one of those things you can hold over your children’s heads to compel good behavior in advance for literally minutes, or sometimes hours, depending on the attraction.

Those are some of the best options I’ve found for averting the inevitable tragedy that would otherwise result from a summer spent confined to the crazy house of the Valley.  So, why am I telling you all this, now that school’s started again, and these options are no longer critical for summer survival?  Well, for one thing, I was too busy preventing backroom brawls and suppressing potential coups to put all these thoughts together in one place at one time.  Two, do you really think I want the extra competition for those treasured Culture Passes? The only reason I’m bringing it up now is because of reason three. Three, I want to make those so-called “normal families” that just got back from San Diego feel really, really guilty about what they’re doing, and about leaving the rest of us behind to suffer, so that next year, maybe one of them will invite me along.  I really am a great traveling buddy; call me, I have references.  Pleeeease call me.

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