Gapers Block has ceased publication.

Gapers Block published from April 22, 2003 to Jan. 1, 2016. The site will remain up in archive form. Please visit Third Coast Review, a new site by several GB alumni.
 Thank you for your readership and contributions. 


Sunday, July 21

Gapers Block

Gapers Block on Facebook Gapers Block on Flickr Gapers Block on Twitter The Gapers Block Tumblr


Back in the day, when my eldest was just a tike, I was befriended by a woman with a daughter the same age as mine, but also a son seven years older. She seemed impossibly wise and very together, way more serious about life and parenting than I was. She was no longer in that state of awe and bliss that many first time parents enter into upon the arrival of the royal baby, plus she dressed much better than I did. At the time our daughters were three, and I was still very much a sucker for each miraculous turn of phrase and sweet gesture. While waiting for our girls one afternoon she said something so shocking and utterly mind boggling to me that I remember it still. She referred to the anniversary of her daughter's birth as "The Dreaded Birthday." Dreaded? How could you dread your child's birthday? In fact, it was not the actual date that my friend dreaded, but the approaching party, with all of the planning and cleaning and shopping and hoopla that made her bone tired a month in advance. And here I was busily sprinkling glitter on handmade invitations, poring over recipes and thinking about attempting spun sugar. I knew nothing.

Now the dreamy cloud of bliss has worn away a bit, by the passing of time, and certainly by the lack of it. Now that there are three royal team members, I don't have as much space in my day for ogling and amazement, but I do plenty of it, ask anyone. The everydayness of life with children starts to stack up, and it's hard to remember which baby it was that did this, or that, but an approaching birthday brings it all back home. I'll whisper this, so the kids don't hear it, but I kind of dread birthday parties, too. With the one that's rapidly descending upon our house, it makes a total of 20 birthday parties I've pulled off so I'll just set it out: you can forget about spun sugar, unless they sell it at the dollar store.

We've had some successful attempts at taking our party out on the town, though I vowed early on that I would never set foot in a Chuck E. Cheese, the favored birthday locale for many, and technically I've held to it. My kids have gone with other families, and last year, to satisfy a long held curiosity on the part of my daughter, we went to visit Chuck's marsupial cousin, Jeepers, (food, fun and a monkey!) to see what the fuss was all about. What I discovered was horrifying. It's basically a kiddie casino. You buy a bunch of tokens up front, and then your kids run around from game to game trying to win tickets, which they then take to the fabulous prize center and trade their tickets for a bunch of cheap plastic crap. Some of the games were very much like slot machines that would spit out tickets in a thrilling stream on the first go, sending the child into a frenzy of token stuffing, hoping for a repeat that never happened. I pictured all of the kids running around Jeepers that day as middle-aged, pasty-skinned, overextended gamblers on their way to HoChunk. It was more than a little depressing. Some might say, "Hey! what about the indoor rides and the machine you spent $9 on that 'drew' portraits of you with your kids? Wasn't that fun?" Yes, I'll give on that point. Those portraits are awesome, and some of the rides were fun. All in all, I figured that the one inch long hard plastic dolphins, plastic bracelets, beyond cheap matchbox style cars and rubbery aliens that my kids came home with cost us about $50 in tokens and bad food. No one has requested that we return, except for my 3-year-old, and really, that doesn't count.

A far better bang for your birthday dollar, or many dollars, is Kiddieland. This place has more rumors swirling around it than a batch of pregnant celebrities. Feuding family members, the land has been sold, Costco is opening there, this is the last season…Who knows what's really going on over there at North Avenue and 1st Avenue. I do know this: there are awesome rides, especially for the younger set. Most of them are quite old, and extremely cool looking. There is a carousel of vehicles, including bikes, motorcycles, buses, cars and trucks. You can take amazing photos of your kids flying in space-age flying saucers, driving sparkly boats, trapped in a steel mesh basket or slowly spinning around on a tiny ferris wheel. One year the biggest crowd-pleaser was the do-it-yourself train car, where your child has to hand pump their way around a track in a small car. It takes forever, and look out for the crying child stuck in the tunnel! It must be the sense of independence and accomplishment my children gained from this ride, but it was at the top of the list — almost as much fun as the self propelled raft that they had to pull through a murky pool. A ride I loved as child can be found there as well — the old fashioned cars that you drive along a track through a scenic wonderland. Kiddieland is not cheap, and parents have to pay full price to enter, even though most of the rides are for kids only. It's worth it, though, and makes for a very special birthday for the six and under set, and, who knows, maybe this is the last year it will be open.

Last year's lesson, for me anyway, was that there really is no place like home, especially when you are away from it with a bunch of maniacally gleeful children. I took a vanload of almost-10-year-olds to Margie's Candies last December in a swirling snow storm. Margie's is the perfect place for six extremely enthusiastic girls. They got their own table, they placed their own orders, they pretended like they didn't know who that woman sitting at the next table was, and the birthday girl was given a free bag of delicious Margie's Candies to take home. Absolutely perfect. When we left Margie's, it was snowing so hard it was impossible to see, and everyone was driving the pace of a snail. The girls were high as kites on sugar and much shrieking, shoving and girly hijinks ensued. Nothing I said or did had the least affect on their behavior, so it was my lot to simply endure the torturous crawl home, my hands clenched on the wheel, hoping that this particular vanload of merry little girls wasn't going to be a weather-related headline in the morning. Fortunately, all survived to stay up until at least 2am giggling. Aside from my brain aneurysm, it was great!

The other birthday trip we made last year is a similar story only with a vanload of 6-year-old boys. I wasn't along for that one (thank you!), but I do know the highlights involved two boys crying about being separated from their dads, one boy grabbing a tent pole from under the seat of our van and whipping another boy on the cheek, and an equal amount of screaming and mayhem as noted on the Margie's trip, with a more Lord of the Flies flavor. Their destination was the Cernan Space Center at Triton College. It's a great place, with the whole planetarium show that we all remember as kids. Our mistake was taking the kids to the children's program. It was about this character Rusty Rocket and his travels through the solar system. Sounds good, but now imagine viewing a film strip. Remember those? Now picture a anthropomorphic rocket as envisioned by a film strip circa 1970. Not something to be taken seriously, perhaps best shown prior to a Pink Floyd laser show. I think kids, at least the ones I know, are so used to intense computer animation that old Rusty Rocket and his planetary pals just weren't doing the job.

Granted, these opinions are just the opinions of a couple of tired parents who would prefer to not drive a birthday party's worth of children off to someplace else to have fun. Were you to question the children themselves, I'm sure you would get quite a different attitude, or they might not answer the question at all, but instead ask you a bunch of questions, and I'm afraid you would be on your own there. This year we're sticking around home. It's going to be a scorcher anyway, and who doesn't love a good water balloon fight?


Weird Bug Alert! On a completely unrelated note, keep your eyes peeled for a freak show going on all over the country. As you may have noticed, it's cicada season. Those big little bugs are singing their hearts out right now, trying to attract their ideal life partners. What they may not be aware of are The Cicada Killers! These giant wasps are about 1 1/2 inches long, with big black bodies with yellow stripes and a big mean stinger. We happened to step outside just in time to catch one in action, and it was like Mothra vs. Godzilla. The cicada killer swoops down and picks up a cicada, which is no small fry either — usually 1-2 inches long, crashes to the ground with it, stings it to paralyze it, drags it back to a tree, hauls it straight up the trunk, and then flies off with it back to its nest, where it lays an egg on it, seals it up and leaves it. Two months later, a cute little baby cicada killer is born and it feeds on the cicada. Eww! In our case, the cicada killer dropped its prey and then fiendishly hovered around until it found it, and then stung it again before dragging it off, climbing the tree and flying off to its den. We eventually had to run back into the house to escape the horror.

GB store

About the Author(s)

Lori Upchurch lives on the far Northwest Side in a house that's overflowing with books, kids, pets and too much stuff from the thrift store. She is a proud member of Team Upchurch, a family of multi-talented unschoolers. She can generally be spotted driving around with a bunch of kids, not all of them hers, looking for someplace fun to get out and play.

GB store

GB Store

GB Buttons $1.50

GB T-Shirt $12

I ✶ Chi T-Shirts $15