Saturday, March 26, 2011

Screw Disneyland: I'm Taking My Toddler to Ikea!

The management would like to apologize for the unnecessarily maudlin nature of the previous post. Those responsible have been sacked. We now return you to your regularly scheduled slice-of-life programming...

Lately, I've been taking Max to the nearby YMCA for a morning "baby gym" session. For the uninitiated, the Y's baby gym essentially consists of a basketball gym lined with padded floor covers and filled with all sorts of baby-friendly objects--padded things to climb on, small musical instruments to shake, and more plastic vehicles and rockers than I've seen in one place, Toys R Us included.

This week things changed, though. Max, who started taking his first tentative steps about a month ago, is now close to full-time walking, and that gave this week's baby gym visit a whole new air of discovery, as Max walked quickly from one thing or person to another, pointing at each and exclaiming, "Gah!" He also got into several tiny conflicts over toys, although by conflict I merely mean that he and another kid both had their hands on something for a brief moment before the stronger (or more determined?) of the two ripped it away. It seems there's a direct relationship between the ability to walk and the propensity to get into conflicts over possessions. Who knew?

Toward the end of the class, I overheard another dad telling his son, who was about 18 months old, that they had to pick up a friend and head to the nearby Lawrence Berkeley Hall of Science. Being the sheepish, demure soul that I am, I immediately blurted out, "Hey, dude, is that a good place to take kids this age?" as I pointed at Max, hopeful that I had an exciting rainy day option. The other dad gave me one of those uncertain "eh" expressions, and said it was borderline. But then, as if he were reading my mind, he offered up a thoroughly unexpected suggestion. "If you really want him to have fun on rainy days, take him to Ikea."

Normally, I'd grab a nearby sock filled with horse manure and smack the guy in the head with it. Take my son to one of modern society's great symbols of cost-conscious materialism? But with the relentlessly persistent rain we've had the last few weeks, coupled with the fact that we are the walking definition of house rich and cash poor these days, I was pretty receptive to new ideas.

The next day, I awoke to--surprise!--more rain, and declared that I would take Max to Ikea and test that dad's advice. Sarah would be working a 12-hour shift, and sitting around the house throughout a bleak day sounded like a recipe for a daddy vs. toddler war. Rather than peel food off the kitchen wall, try to stop Max from bashing his toys against doors and windows, and rescue numerous objects from almost certain breakage, I'd unleash my little terrorist on the unsuspecting displays of the Emeryville Ikea.

Well, I'm here to report, that dad's suggestion was a smash hit. It started when we arrived and went directly to the Ikea cafe. (And let's face it, the only reason men eagerly agree to go to Ikea with their wives is the knowledge that there's a delicious plate of Swedish meatballs and mashed potatoes in the offing.) I ordered myself the aforementioned meatball plate, and got Max a kids' mac-n-cheese plate, which comes with steamed veggies. I also got myself a green salad, a soda, and a large dark chocolate bar, and the total cost was just over $9. But I digress.

I balanced my tray on the sun cover of the stroller, pushed Max to a window-facing table, and settled in for our meal. Not only did Max devour every last morsel on his plate, there was a major bonus: The cafe at the Ikea in Emeryville overlooks the MacArthur Maze, one of the country's biggest freeway intersections, which rests at the eastern end of the Bay Bridge. Max was mesmerized as he ate, and watched countless trucks go roaring by and under and over the various freeway ramps. When he wasn't watching trucks, he was gawking at our fellow diners (yelling "gah!" throughout), and marveling at the exposed ceiling rafters and other architectural design elements. In case it's not clear, I have a very observant little monster on my hands.

After lunch, we moseyed through the store, lingering longer in the children's section, of course. All the while, Max was beyond entertained. He was visibly ecstatic to put his new powers of exploration--i.e. walking--to use, Frankensteining his way from one bin to another, stopping to point and declare "gah!" at every new product we came across. Naturally, I couldn't resist buying him an adorable stuffed hippo that was priced at a ridiculously low $15 considering how well it's made.

During our adventure, we came across numerous toddlers with their moms in tow (no dads, though). And if there was any doubt we were all there for the same reason, it was erased by one of the moms I walked by as we exchanged knowing glances at each other: "Best rainy day park ever," she said.

I certainly can't argue with that. And the meatballs don't hurt either.

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