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The Slumber Party

The children come to dinner and stay the night. Chaos ensues.

11:00 PM, Feb 11, 2003 • By LARRY MILLER
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KIDS ARE DOING EVERYTHING earlier these days. That's not a fresh thought, to say the least. You have to figure that every generation of parents in history has said the same thing. Go back a thousand years to the Norman conquest, or two thousand years to the life of Jesus, or three thousand years to the building of Jerusalem by King David, or four thousand years to Pharoah seeing the Jews walk through the Red Sea and saying, "If they can do it, we can do it. Follow me." It's not hard to imagine an ancient father lecturing a precocious son with, "I don't care if Isaachar's parents let him go to the bazaar alone. If Isaachar jumped off the Tower of Babel, would you do that, too?"

Still . . . Kids are doing everything earlier these days. Our oldest started sleeping over at friends' houses last year. He was six. Just before we drove him to the first sleepover, I said to my wife, "You know, honey, I don't believe I stayed at anyone's house until I was twelve. Maybe more." She pretended I hadn't been speaking, and off we went.

Recently, he turned seven, and The Divine Mrs. M. suggested we retaliate with a birthday-sleepover at our place for all the kids who had previously hosted him. "Suggested" is probably the wrong word, since it implies that there was some give-and-take on the matter. The result: Two Fridays ago, six boys descended on our house for playtime, dinner, more playtime, a movie, still more playtime, and, ultimately, sleep. In theory. Our mandate was twofold: first, to make a good faith effort to return all of the children to their parents the next day alive. Failing that, I was prepared to bury them out back and swear no one had ever arrived. Second, we were stocked with the most important ingredient of the affair, a constant flow of sugar products in the same ratio to body mass as the ant with the cube on his back.

And, I must say, I was very pleasantly surprised to see how smoothly things were going; at least until the children arrived. From then on, the house looked like an 18th century French asylum during a breakout. You know, the ones where the inmates never actually leave but just skip around, screaming and laughing and setting fire to everything that burns.

Now, of course, none of these kids had driven himself over, so the opening ceremonies included a dinner for the parents, which is a pretty good-sized crowd for people you don't like. I'm kidding, I just threw that in for the joke. We like these particular parents a lot. My wife is really good friends with four of the mothers, and I'm very fond of the guys as well, and not just because they drink. One of them is the scoutmaster for our cub-den and has covered my butt more than once when I forgot the secret pack salute, and another is a furniture maker who insisted on taking a broken chair with him to fix for us. Good people, and the meal with them was nice, so nice, in fact, that I kept remarking that we should do things like this more often, and that an evening together didn't have to include having the kids stay over. Everyone laughed when I said this, as if I was trying to be funny.

But the whole point of the evening was that the other parents got to leave, wanted to leave, and then, well, left. When they did, I tried crying like a pre-schooler saying goodbye to mommy. This did not work, and as quickly as you can say, "Please, don't make me beg, although I will," we were alone with the wolves.

There was a silent beat, the same kind of quiet that descends in a forest when the devil is about to stroll by. They were all motionless, like that shot of the dogs all looking the same way from "The Omen," and I swear their eyes even started to get that red glow you see in bad photographs. But this was no class picture. I cleared my throat and smiled like a guy walking into a tax audit, and herded them--the right word--to the bedrooms we had turned into playrooms. And this worked well enough for my wife and me to begin cleaning up the kitchen.

Unfortunately (or predictably), there was a serious dust-up about every ten minutes, and I'd have to go down the hall and separate the combatants with things like, "Okay, let Charlie be the robot first, and Evan will be the ghost. Jake, you're the spy, and the rest of you are the policemen who arrest the monster." Kofi Annan has nothing on me.

When linear logic began to fail (as it always does), I retreated to my old standby: colorful threats of dramatic violence.