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Relectant Novice

KID PARTIES : No Cakewalk : A Winter Olympics-inspired idea to take a birthday group ice-skating has all kinds of pitfalls.


No offense to Chuck E. Cheese, but one more birthday party with that rat and you'll scream. Every parent you know must have buckled under the pressure. Surely, you say in a reasonable voice to your almost 7-year-old son, there must be another place he'd like to go?

Your son lowers his head sullenly. There is no other place for a birthday party, he says.

The ball is now in your court. You rack your brain. You try to imagine what parents in the olden days did to amuse their offspring and hordes of other people's children.

Then a quaint idea wanders into your head. How about a picnic at the park, you suggest? He shakes his head and reminds you of the rain. Well, then, how about a bowling party? The ball is too heavy, he answers. How about a fun-and-games-at-home party? Booooring , he says accusingly.

Suddenly you are struck by inspiration. Images from the last few nights of the Olympics come into your head.

You remember Bonnie Blair speeding down the ice, winning the first gold medal for the United States. You picture Unified Team member Natalia Michkutienok being hoisted gracefully over the head of her partner, Artur Dmitriev. You think back, too, to ice skaters from previous Olympics--Dorothy Hamill, Katarina Witt, Scott Hamilton, Eric Heiden--and how easy they made it look.

Your mind then makes a natural twist of reason: Surely, if those athletes can spin and twirl and jump and speed along on the ice for thousands of meters, it couldn't be that hard for you and a few kids to just skate around in a small circle.

You look at your son. "Ice-skating."

The idea thrills him. He has always wanted to try it. And for the next half an hour, you both sit at the kitchen table, filling out invitations to a party at the Conejo Valley Ice Skating Center in Newbury Park. From previous years of experience, you figure that more than half of the kids won't come. You fill out 15.

It is Saturday morning, and seven children whose parents know what RSVP means are due to arrive in an hour. Once they do, you and a friend with a minivan will shuttle the kids to the rink.

Then the phone rings like a bad omen. Johnny's mother says he can come. The phone rings again. Frankie's mother says he can come. The phone rings again. Jimmy's mother says he can come. By noon, every child you invited is gathered excitedly in your living room. None has ever been on skates before.

Except for one parent, who has graciously offered to drive, the others have disappeared faster than meaningful debate in the presidential campaign. For the first time, you wonder what you have gotten yourself into.

At the skating rink, which you learned earlier doesn't accept reservations, you are told that there is a discount rate for parties of more than 10 skaters. After you peel off the required number of bills, the kids rush excitedly inside.

You are surprised first by how chilly it is. Maybe, you think, the Olympic skating rink is warmer. How else could they wear those skimpy little costumes?

But you also are surprised by the skates. Dorothy Hamill never wore ones like these. Yours are mud brown, scratched and chipped. When you lace them up, a metal spike seems aimed at your ankles. You ask for another pair. It's no better.

The 15 kids, all of them fitted with equally sad skates, are now walking around the benches, trying out their balance. They are ready to go. You herd them over to the opening in the railing. Then you step onto the ice. The children, trusting and unafraid, follow you like lemmings.

Disaster doesn't strike immediately. Instead, it occurs with the predictability of the domino theory. You have gone less than 10 feet when a tiny hand grabs onto your coat for support. You do what you are certain must be a triple axel followed by a double toe loop and land flat on your rear.

The child who has tugged on you falls too, taking down the child behind him as well. The entire line goes down. More advanced skaters, many of them snickering, look down at you as they pass.

Several children then ask you for individualized instruction. You do not have the heart to tell them that this is a bit like asking Mike Tyson for lessons on social grace. You agree to help each child go one time around the rink.

The first child grips your hand as if her life depends on it. It could. You lead her--keeping your free hand on the railing--one time around the ice. You try to ignore the fact that your ankles are at a 90-degree angle to your feet.

When you reach the group of children again, you are certain that you have just completed 3,000 meters. You are ready for retirement.

Sorry, you say to the children, but they are on their own. You tell them to hold tight to the railing and to stay away from hotshots who know how to stand up by themselves.

An hour later, you all head toward home. The children chatter animatedly in the back seat while you silently offer thanks to the deities for bringing them back in one piece.

The kids, of course, are hungry. But you know what to do about that.

You are taking them, you tell them, to Chuck E. Cheese's.

As far as you're concerned, it has never looked better.


There are plenty of things you have never tried. Fun things, dangerous things, character-building things. The Reluctant Novice tries them for you and reports the results. After all, the Novice gets paid to do them--and has no choice in the matter. If you want to tell the Novice where to go, please call us at 658-5547. If we use your idea, we'll send you a present.

This week's Reluctant Novice is staff writer Aurora Mackey.

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