Posts Tagged ‘Birthday Party’

Backyard Birthdays Hits the Road: Gunnar Golf!

October 11, 2012

Heaven lies on a paper plate

Okay, I admit it, I’m firmly planted in the OCD department about a few things.  Pizza, for example, is a bit of an obsession.  To me, only New York Pizza is pizza. When we went up to Citi Field to see the Mets as part of our follow the Mets on July 4th tradition, I discovered my kindred (though somewhat more potty-mouthed) spirit, Collin Hagendorf of the Slice Harvester blog.  He led us to New York Pizza Suprema right across the street from MSG.  And to quote one of my pop-icon heroes, Special Agent Dale Cooper, New York Pizza Suprema must be where pies go when they die.

I guess I love good pizza so much because, for me, a real slice is a Ratatouille moment.  When the crust has that soft, almost melty (I know that’s not a word, but it’s the best way of describing the sensation) inner layer, but that crisp snap at the bottom; when the cheese has that perfect light sheen of oil, and the cheese achieves that impossible balance between melting in your mouth yet still providing a springy chew; when the sauce is perfectly wed with a hint of sweetness and garlic—I’m instantly eight years old again, sitting at Angelo’s pizza in Queens, with my father, step-mother, sister, and step sisters, my Batman sneaker-clad feet dangling from my chair above the floor, melting in my chair as the pizza melts in my mouth.

Washington Deli’s selection. Highly recommend the basil slice, and they even have a solid Vegan slice!

So when pretender pizza comes rolling around, not only the taste, but even the look…even the smell just feels like an insult to what pizza is supposed to be.  It’s why I was so delighted that Nationals Park decided last year to bring in Flippin’ Pizza, a reasonable approximation to a New York slice—the perfect ballpark food for this vegetarian.  And, other than saying goodbye to the amazing people I worked with at the Union of Concerned Scientists, the hardest thing about leaving was that I would no longer be just two blocks away from Washington Deli, the best New York slice I’ve had outside of NYC itself (the only ones who really get the crust right!).

I know what you’re saying.  “Uh, Scott?  Wasn’t this post supposed to be about something called Gunnar Golf?”  Well, like I said, OCD.  But I’m getting there.

Like pizza, one of my most keen early childhood memories is of golf.  But not just any golf.  About a half-hour’s drive away from my first Atlanta home was a miniature golf course called Sir Goony Golf.  Now long gone (though it looks like there’s one still standing in Lake George, NY), I remember driving down Roswell Road, seeing the trademark red roof of Pizza Hut (blech!) on the left, and knowing that just one light later, over the horizon, would pop the massive yellow Tyrannosaurus Rex using its stubby little arm to bounce a plywood caveman up and down like a yo-yo.


From hole number one, when you faced down Humpty Dumpty sitting on that big ole’ wall, you knew you were in for a challenge.  An ostrich dipped its beak into a hole.  An alligator with glowing eyes peeped its fanged mouth open just long enough to allow a ball to pass.  A castle’s door teased and blocked.  And, of course, there was that T-Rex.  Challenging?  Yes.  But, because it was “Goony” there was that sense of imagination, of silliness, of plain, simple, fun that couldn’t be beat.  Seeing grown ups, from my Mom and Step-Dad, to my Grandma and Grandpa who were real golfers hem-and-haw over just missing the Kangaroo’s pouch made the whole experience truly fantastic, with the emphasis on “fantasy.”  And when we went to visit Grandma Helen and Grandpa Nat down in Florida, and learned that there was a Goony Golf with three different courses, including a massive Purple People Eater whose black, bumpy tongue revolved around to tip balls in or drive them out?  Let’s just say that I was eying the haunted house hole to see if it had indoor plumbing.

Oooh, on this hole, they have TWO sticks! How wildly creative!

In some sense, I think this is why I really don’t like normal golf.  But I do understand its appeal–nice walk, fun cars, and cocktails while “sporting.”  What I really, really cannot stand is that miniature golf impostor…putt-putt.  Yes, some of you may think that putt-putt and miniature golf are the same thing.  Indeed, many putt-putt courses mask themselves in the name miniature golf the same way Pizza Hut uses the word “pizza.”  But while miniature golf is an invitation to a world where creatures monstrous and mythic work to block your every path, putt-putt puts a stick in the way of the hole.

So, much as my excess of snobbery runs toward poor pizza, so too does my nose lift upward at putt-putt courses.  To me, they symbolize the laziness that beset family entertainment when video games first really hit in the 1980s.  My beloved Goony Golf and its T-Rex became extinct, and instead my friends were having their birthday parties at Putt-Putt Palace, a large arcade with a flat, listless, lazily constructed course attached as an afterthought.  I mean, if you can play pretend inside a TV screen, why bother with the real thing, right?

Camelot Mini-Golf instead of Disneyland? Oh yes, we did.

Fortunately, real miniature golf is not dead.  Indeed, Kir, the boys, and I have been from Stony Brook, NY to Anaheim CA and many points in-between in the hunt for the most challenging, most goony golfing in the land.  Unfortunately, however, none of those courses are in the Washington, DC area.  Closest to us is the county-run Upton Hill Park, a pretty-decent putt-putt course as the well-manicured grounds do have some passably clever holes, including one huge hill the kids love to run down (and all parents therefore fear).  And when Gunnar, who has started doing real mother/son golf lessons (which is awesome) absolutely begged me to have a mini-golf party, Upton Hill was really the only option that we could reasonably ask guests to come to.

This, of course, brings me to OCD, Mk. 3—the birthday party.  I won’t go into details here, but for those of you who haven’t been following my blog for very long, I hold a very special place for the birthday party as a cornerstone of childhood memory.  It is a wonderful opportunity to make kids feel special and also, in my typical SHYB fashion, provide opportunities to teach fundamental teamwork and conflict partnership skills.  Just use the search function on my home page and type in the word “birthday” and you’ll get a flavor about how I’ve tackled everything from Middle Earth to the Olympiad in our back yard.

So I was, of course (no pun intended) unwilling to simply sit back and allow Gunnar’s party to simply be a walk around some passable putt-putt holes.  At first, I envisioned bringing Halloween props and doctoring up each hole so it more closely resembled a real mini-golf course.  But as obsessive as I am about these things, that seemed a bit too high maintenance even for me.

Now THAT’S a Clown’s Mouth!

Then, I remembered my experience at a very clever indoor mini-golf course in Atlanta, Monster Mini Golf.  In one particular hole, at the beginning, there was a spinner.  When you spun, whatever you landed on, you had to putt that way.  Among the options were putting with your eyes closed, and having someone lie down on the course to make themselves an obstacle.  And then it dawned on me—if you can’t make the course itself goony, change they way you play the course so it’s creative and silly.  And so, Gunnar Golf! (patent pending) was born.

The Gunnar Golf Cup!

You’ll find here the Gunnar Golf! setup, and the many games I came up with, from blindfold putting to using your club like a pool cue to the player favorite, using the “crazy ball” which was an Unputtaball, a weighted golf ball that would turn in random directions upon hitting it.  One thing I did which really helped keep things competitive, but friendly was have two tiers of competition.  The 5 lowest individual scores would qualify for a chance to go to an individual playoff to win the Gunnar Golf! Cup, each group was also a team.  The top team would get a chance to pick their prizes first at the end, so the members of each group were actually rooting for each other and helping each other out.  It really helped keep the teasing and bragging to a minimum, which I think helped provide a nice balance between individual achievement and teamwork that I always like to have as a party base.

Upon seeing the list, both my wife and my Mother-in-Law felt that playing Gunnar Golf! every hole would take too long.  I agreed, and we did it every third hole.  That allowed us to stagger our starting hole (Group 1 started at hole 1, Group 2 at hole 2, etc.) and keep the action going.  Even then, we didn’t get through a full 18 holes within our two hour play/eat cake window.  So if something like this seems interesting to you, think to either simplify the game play, or allow yourself a little extra time.

The kids’ reactions to Gunnar Golf! were very interesting.  Most really enjoyed it, but some said they like regular golf better.  When I asked why, it wasn’t that the challenges weren’t fun, but that playing the regular way was easier.  Unlike when you are creating a world (and rules) from scratch in your backyard, when you do an on-site party like this and twist conventional rules, the kids know that there is another way to play it, so that all-important suspension of disbelief is a bit harder to accomplish for some.

$4 of fun

That said, the kids thought the Unputtaball was extremely cool.  Frankly, you could just bring one of those and have a random draw on who has to play with that, and I think you’d have a hit.  But what I also found interesting is that the kids really gravitated to the mathematics aspects of the game.  Just the concept that you could do better than a hole in one, and the concept of that mathematical impossibility, that you could get a hole in negative numbers, was very intriguing to them.  And that really helped in one case, when one player who had one of the higher scores was the first to get a hole in -2.  Even though he struggled elsewhere, he had bragging rights over that (and used it!).

The other popular mathematical concept was the Math Ball holes.  Not only did the kids enjoy using their noodle trying to figure out the math problem, but because they got to do it before or after the hole, they knew that it was separate from playing the hole itself.  It combined the mental and physical by keeping them separate.  It really intrigues me to think about the possibilities of combining physical activities with mental exercises to help make learning more fun and fun activities more educational.  So, in that alone, this was a very worthwhile experiment.  And, of course, for the Mr. Numbers Birthday Boy, Math Ball was, slightly inaccurately, a no-brainer.

And so another birthday passes, and thanks to the “Caddy Crew” of Kirsten, Mor-Mor, and Gus, we were able to take the backyard birthday on the road and show that you don’t need a giant yellow T-Rex to make golf some goony, creative, and even educational fun.

And the pizza after the golf wasn’t half-bad either.


Backyard Birthdays for Tweens, Episode III: Imagine if you will…

July 12, 2012

One of the great challenges for me as the kids grow older is how to get them involved in a fiction now that suspension of disbelief is no longer axiomatic.  My effort, I think partly successful last year, was to make the party more realistic by having the story line based on things the kids knew, and having them as themselves as characters.

Not likely to be seen in a theater near you, but a great party favor!

But while this year’s Lord of the Rings(ish) party still kept the kids as themselves, the swords and sorcery were hardly realistic.  Foam swords, a moon bounce, and a giant Halloween spider on top of a shed don’t exactly scream “You’re battling for the survival of our planet!”  So how do you get them to cut the snark and really immerse themselves in the story?

Ah, that was it…the story.  We were going to tell a story together, like sitting down and reading a great book, only instead we would be acting it out.  And in order to set the scene, what I needed to do was not to find a way around their reality, or to cleverly insert their reality into the story.  Instead, it was to simply ask them to tuck that in a corner for the next few hours and join me in a different place.

And so after each partygoer picked out their weapon of choice and took a few minutes “training” by bouncing around the castle and competing to make the loudest slapping sound on the others with their styrofoam swords, I gathered them together in shade of our tree and began our story with these magic words:

Imagine if you will…

And I retold the story put on the invitation.  Of a world not so unlike our own, but where our warming planet had unleashed an ancient and evil magic upon us.  Of an Evil Eye of Blood and its dark forces that had brushed aside the modern weaponry, laid waste to our way of life, and had even brought all adults under its power.  My boyish heart and the powers of Gustav the Gray, child wizard, had kept me so far from falling under the Eye’s spell, and I had found in the historic archives the only possible weapon that we could use to stop the world from falling under the Eye’s nefarious gaze.

And then I asked them to join me inside.  There were some giggles and slapping of swords, but most were quiet, curious as to what I had in mind.  “Are we going to watch Lord of the Rings now?” one asked as I warmed up the DVR.  “Ooh, Mad Men, I want to watch that!” said John as I scrolled through the offerings.  Then I had arrived at my destination—Game of Thrones.

Are you a moron?  Letting 11-year-olds watch Game of Thrones?

Legitimate question, but I had carefully vetted the penultimate episode of the season, the big attack on King’s Landing to find an acceptable scene, one where Tyrion Lannister (amazingly played by Peter Dinklage) sets the enemy fleet ablaze spectacularly using an alchemal substance known as Wildfire.  This fictional fire is actually based on a cool historical substance known as Greek Fire, used by the Byzantine Empire in actual ancient warfare.  The scene itself, spectacularly rendered as a single ship filled with the green, glowing substance envelops dozens of ships in a massive emerald blaze had the kids absolutely riveted.

If you don’t have the budget, steal special effects from others

“Wildfire,” I said.  “This lost substance of the ancient pyromancers, is our only hope.  And we think we have traced the location of the sorcerer known as the Spider Mage back to this location—the Shed of Spiders.”

I point outside and suddenly the oversized Halloween spider sitting atop our shed took on new meaning.  They gathered round as I keyed the lock.  I threw the door open and…AAAAAAH!  (actually more like “oh…eeek…”) a skeleton ghost covered in spiders blocked their way.  When I entered first, I screamed in agony and, when I turned around, I had morphed into the golem-like form of the Spider Mage (courtesy of a recycled Voldemort mask).

A few brain teasers before the bedlam

Yes, the sorcerer gargled, he did indeed have the magical weapons they sought, but he was a “tricksy” wizard and would only give his wares to clever children.  And so he riddled them with brain teasers like:

It cannot be seen, cannot be felt,
Cannot be heard, cannot be smelt.
It lies behind stars and under hills,
Even the deepest holes it fills.
It comes first and follows after,
Ends life, kills laughter.
Answer: Dark

I am used to bat with, yet I never get a hit.
I am near a ball, yet it is never thrown. (this one really stumped them)
Answer: Eyelashes

The builder doesn’t need me,
the buyer doesn’t use me,
the user doesn’t want me.
Answer: Coffin

If you’re buying by the gallon, you KNOW you’ve got a party!

Once solved, they were given access to a treasure trove of magical items.  Hundreds of balloons filled with blue, green, and red wildfire (my thanks to Crayola and their washable paints).  A bowl filled with the venomous blood of the giant spider Shelob, poison which would burn through steel, but, ironically, could be wielded with foam.  A bowl filled with magical tar missiles that stayed cool (and chocolaty!) until thrown at the enemy, its contents bursting forth with pudding-fueled destruction.  And the magical Blade of the Knights of Aragorn, longer and stronger and capable of allowing knights to increase the range of their attack.

Yet, even with their new weapons, how could this small band have any chance against the Eye of Blood’s massive Army of Darkness?  By appealing to his one weakness—his arrogance.  If they could entice the Eye to play on their terms, they might stand a chance.  And their terms would be to play the battle out as a giant game of Castle Panic (which just so happens to be a cooperative game.  Can’t take the Conflict Partnership out of the Dad!).

And so, with the Castle Moon bounce bracketed by Blue, Green, and Red sectors just like the Castle Panic Game board, the young wizards, and warriors paired up, divided into “good” and “evil” teams, and practiced the game in preparation for the grand battle with evil.  After several rounds by the rules, we took a “melee break” and the kids just bloodied up their swords, used the remaining “practice wildfire” and went at it.

“Hey, that was a pretty fun party!” Rowan said to me when we went inside to reconstitute their strength with the ancient recipe of rounded flatbread topped with the sauce of tomatoes and shredded cow’s cheese.  “I’m glad you are enjoying it,” I replied as I escaped upstairs.

Highly recommended for witches and wizards 21 and older

As the young partygoers completed their meals and sped back to the castle for more quality bouncing time, I gathered the forces of evil clandestinely in the front of the house.  Powered by (or at least inhibitions lowered by) my Witches’ Brew, the adult Army of Darkness made their way to the battlefront as their heretofore sagely adult guide had been turned into the blood-soaked, 3rd eye-adorned vessel of the Evil Eye itself.

As I barked my evil taunts, I saw the looks that I had so hoped to see.  Wide-eyed, smiling and gasping as they saw their parents, coaches, and teachers aligned against them.

But if anyone was whining for me to stop blabbing and get to the action, it was the grown ups.  And the carping didn’t stop when we lined up and began to play, Castle Panic-style.  “When do we  get to attack?” Mary groaned, her finger itching atop a can of silly string.  “I still don’t get the rules!” J.P. groused as he twirled his saber.

I realized then that adults really do make the worst children.  While the kids patiently played, my blood thirsty army couldn’t wait.  So, I simply passed out the weapons, sprayed all swords with blood, and bowed to anarchy.

Now THAT’S a workout

Unfortunately, when it comes to pictures, all I have is this one great after-shot of Coach Craig, as our staff photographer bowed out soon as the pudding began to fly.  But, let me tell you, the Id had its day to play as both children and their child-like parents unleashed mayhem on each other like nobody’s business.  The wildfire went in about 3 minutes, but luckily there was plenty of blood to go ‘round.  Mentos were added to Sprite to create torrential ice storms, and poor Ms. Waterbury, who had the triple threat of being Mother, Wife of Coach, and Teacher to most of these kids won both the good sport award, and “Most Likely to be Mistaken as Carrie.”

All resources spent, the combatants panted as the Evil Eye and Gus the Gray squared off for one final contest.  And with one final nerf sword slap, the prosthetic was loosed from my forehead, and the spell was broken.  Earth was saved, cake was eaten, and the vanquished drowned their sorrows.

And I got a great reminder that whether it be teacher, coach, parent, or party planner, sometimes the best thing about rules is understanding when to throw them away.

Backyard Birthdays for Tweens, Episode II: Know Thine Enemy

June 18, 2012

So as I mentioned back in part one of the epic journey toward my soon-to-be 11-year-old’s Lord of the Rings party, I had an idea in my head on how to make this post-modern fantasy pay off.  My only concern was that I needed to find willing victims for my particular brand of insanity.

But, Mr. Carr, I’m your BIGGEST fan!

You might remember that for Gus’s 10th birthday party, the noir adventure of the Decade Thief, the kids were guessing from about half-way through that it was Ms. Nathanson who dunnit.  I had actually predicted that might be the case, and had asked the elementary school music teacher and rock star in residence Mr. Carr if he’d be willing to take 10 minutes to come over and hide in an unlit shed holding a birthday cake with a mask on.  His declining of my invitation was polite, professional, and smacked of his very justified fear that I wanted to lock him in our basement and force him to teach Gus piano… forever.

But while I now see how absolutely odd my request might have seemed, I still loved the idea of having the children’s local celebrities—their teachers, coaches, and parents—make a surprise appearance to really throw the kids for a loop.

And so I set up the invitation noting that the Great Eye of Blood had corrupted the adult world, and only the children had remained innocent enough to battle its evil.  And what greater “Eye-rony” would there be than the Evil Eye using the people these children loved and respected more than anything in the world as the instruments of their destruction?

And so, learning my lesson in both the alarmingly high level of my own idiosyncrasy, and the need to cast a wide net in order to catch enough grown-ups willing to pick back up their childish things, I sent out the following email to the parents of all kids invited to the party, as well as a number of their teachers and coaches:

Subject: A slightly odd (but fun!) invitation

Hello everyone, Scott (Gus’s Dad) here.  Let me come right to the point.  I need your help the evening of Saturday ,June 16, and I’m willing to make it worth your while. 

As you likely know, Gus’s birthday comes right at the end of the school year.  As I thought of what to do for this year’s requested theme, Lord of the Rings, an idea came up that I think would be really special for the kids, and fun for us grownups, too.

What’s a castle without a slide?

I’ve set up the plot noting that grown ups have fallen under the spell of the Evil Eye (see my invite attached).  Given how much kids love to take on the grownups, I’d say that your unexpected presence will be far more fun than even the foulest of creatures of their imagination could create.
After you’re done being defeated by the forces of good, we’ll send the kids inside for cake and a LOTR film fest, and I’ll bring out some of my own “Witches’ Brew” and some food for you to help celebrate a job horribly done, and to wish farewell to the golden age of Elementary School for these kids, as they’ll probably be “too cool” for this kind of stuff once they’re hardened middle schoolers.

So, if you’re still reading this, here is what I’m thinking:

  • Kids start the party around 4.  I will lead them through an adventure until about 6.  
  • Kids have dinner to rest up for battle at 6.  Grown ups come at that time to “get into character.”
  • Between 6:30 and 7, the Evil Eye will announce its horrible presence.  The forces of good will be ushered out to the back yard for the final battle.
  • This will NOT be a crazed melee.  We will be playing this more like a strategy game where attacks will be in turns.
  • I have not worked out all the combat details yet, but, yes, there is a chance you could get a little wet or dirty.  All weapons will be soft so injury to anything but pride will be highly unlikely.
  • We’ll send the kids in around 8 and bring the grownup stuff out.
  • Yes, significant others are welcome to come even if they are not willing to participate in the Evil Eye’s efforts to throw the world into eternal darkness.
  • Ask around–I make VERY good cocktails.

So, there you go.  In order to get things together, I’ll need to know by June 9 if you might be able to make it.  No problem if you can’t or just are not interested.  I know it’s a bit of an odd request, but those who know me understand that odd is pretty much standard issue.

Thanks all,

Scott (aka the Evil Eye of Blood)

I call Ash!

So, what do you think.  Would you have said yes?  Or would you have said, “You’re nuts.”  Perhaps both?  Well, I was thrilled that I could coax over a dozen grownups, inclusive of THREE elementary school rock stars to join my Army of Darkness.  So who looks crazy now, eh?  Okay, it’s still me, but at least I’m not alone!

Next, I will conclude this trilogy (can’t do a LOTR party justice without a trilogy!) and tell you how the battle for Modern Middle Earth “played” out.