Kids are drawn to bounce houses, pulled by forces beyond their control and understanding. The elements of their very souls yearn to join with the kinds of carnal, primal pleasures that only jumping on a vinyl bag of air can provide. I took Jack to a playroom full of bounce houses yesterday. This should have been a kiddie nirvana for him. I was mistaken.
There’s nothing especially complex about a bounce house. In fact, if you discount the air pump, it doesn’t even have any moving parts. It’s not much more than a sea of colorful vinyl stitched together just so to create various recognizable forms. This particular playroom had a pirate ship with a slide, a “rock” wall ascending to the top of a very long slide, an obstacle course that terminated in, you guessed it, a slide, and a skateboarding monkey doing a rail slide on a slide. The drone of the air pumps keeping these structures erect was pretty loud, made ever louder by the joyful shrieks of the kids already there, literally bouncing off the walls.
Jack’s a fairly adventurous little dude. He’ll try almost anything and he has no sense of self-preservation. He collects bruises and scrapes nearly every day as he careens through life. So it was with no small measure of surprise that I saw him cower away from the bounce houses because there were bigger, older kids there — a field trip from a local private school with about a dozen screaming monsters wearing matching t-shirts and several chaperones heavily invested in their smartphones. It’s natural that kids should learn fear; it’s a powerful survival trait. But it’s the first time I’d ever noticed Jack exhibit it around people. He shares my phobia of dogs*, but no other creature has ever caused him even the slightest pause. Strangers don’t elicit any measure of caution from him. Some time ago in the play area of the local mall, he happily accepted the gift of a balloon from another family sitting near us. Upon receipt, he contentedly sat with them for a solid fifteen or twenty minutes with a look on his face that we read as, “This is my family now. They have balloons.” But these banshee children haphazardly sprinting from one bouncy environment to the next, crossing paths like the filaments of a spider web, seeming to exist both everywhere and nowhere like a figment of Heisenberg’s nightmares, absolutely stopped our little Jack Jump-Jump in his tracks.
He tried to ascend one bounce house, the one resembling a pirate ship, but when a chunky boy dropped down the slide like a car with no brakes on an icy hill, Jack wisely jumped off and hung on to my shirt until, in his mind, the danger had passed. The obstacle course was populated by more of these maniacal bairn for whom shouting seemed to be both recreational and necessary. Jack sought refuge among the arcade machines near the lobby, removed enough (in his mind) from the chaos as to be a tranquil respite. He found a basketball game which seemed to be broken, in that you could freely toss the basketballs toward the hoop again and again without depositing any money. He enjoyed this for a while, though we had to stop when he decided to practice his chest passes at a nearby counter with a glass window showcasing the various items one could earn by collecting tickets from the games.**
After some time had gone by, the group’s chaperones had apparently finished whatever it is they needed so urgently to do on their phones and shepherded their kids out of the building, onto a bus, and mercifully beyond ear shot. It was only then that I perceived sounds in the building that weren’t yelling. For example, there was music playing the whole time! There were two TVs audibly reporting the news in a small lounge area meant for drained, frazzled parents and caregivers. Each of the arcade games made its own beeps and boops as well, This entire symphony went completely unnoticed amid the din of the full-mouthed, ear-piercing cacophony of children. With the relative silence that settled upon the place, Jack began his bouncing.
To be Jack is to climb, bounce, run, slide, and pretty much every other action verb one can do at the age of four. With plenty of padding to be had, whatever little reserve he might have had in flinging his body around vanished. He scaled the rock wall, smashed through the obstacle course, sped down the slides leading with every part of him except, seemingly, his feet. For an hour he kept up a pace that was exhausting just to watch. With no bigger kids to deter his frenetic clip, he tirelessly assaulted everything that could be jumped on. Finally, long after I’d gotten tired of following him, he slowly shuffled over to me, fagged and spent, soaked with sweat, red with the patina of exertion. So worn out was he that, when I asked if he was ready to go, he could not even summon words, but instead gave a thin “mm-hmm” as his only response.
He had fun, of course, and accomplished what parents usually describe as “running some energy out.” Parents, myself included, conceive of their kids as having batteries. When full or nearly full, these batteries contain so much energy that it spills out and causes the kids to Do Things, usually resulting in broken bones, furniture, or both. As a result, all parents everywhere adopt a strategy of finding strenuous activity for kids to do disguised as playing. If you were to assign a professional athlete the same regimen of climbing, jumping, and tumbling as Jack performed, they’d either collapse dead at the end like Pheidippides, or proactively quit in protest and take up decoupage.***
What he didn’t notice, and I didn’t either at first, is that other kids came in as he was playing. Some smaller, some about his size, and one or two older kids as well. These creatures escaped his attention for a while. Finally, he did notice, but so immersed in the Joy of the Bounce was he that whatever trepidation existed was not so trepidatious any more. At one point, he actually chased in a friendly way an older kid through the obstacle course, happily rolling off the end with a satisfied slap and thud on the pad. Then he did it again. It seems that bouncing does drain his battery, for sure, but it also builds his courage.
*Out of politeness and deference to dog-lovers, I use the word “dog,” but in my heart of hearts I only know them as Furry Death Engines.
**There is a store or catalogue somewhere that sells this junk. It is of an embarrassingly low quality, priced in tickets the equivalent of many, many times its actual value, retail or otherwise. These people are both brilliant businessmen and deplorable mountebanks. They look up to Oriental Trading from far, far below.
***I like that, of all the kinds of art one learns to do in pre-school, decoupage is the one that changes the least as you get older. Decoupaged items produced by a four-year old and a forty-four year old look about the same. Fancy name, though.