Last night Tallulah and I went camping in Fairyland. Fairyland is a toddler-sized Disneyland smack in the middle of Oakland. Three times each summer it sells tickets to about 25 parents and allows them to pitch their tents, and their toddlers, inside the park. For the first time in their young lives, 25 small children have a chance to spend the night under the stars or, at any rate, the skyscrapers that loom over Fairyland. A few months ago I mentioned to Tallulah that we might do this, and she has been unable to contain herself on the subject ever since. Every other day she has asked me, “When are we going camping in Fairyland?” or “Can we sleep in a tent up today?” She’s never been camping or slept in a tent and can’t possibly know what any of it means. That is why she wants so badly to do it.
We enter not through the main entrance but through a gate in the back of the place between the miniature Ferris wheel and the bumper boats. Twenty-five parents and their toddlers line up and wait for the gate to open so that they can rush in and find the softest, most-level patch of grass to pitch their tents. In line are Tallulah’s friend Matts and his father, John. John is the reason I am here; John told me about camping in Fairyland. John, who has done this once before, also told me that I didn’t need to bring anything to Fairyland except a tent and sleeping bags: Fairyland would take care of the rest. But John, I notice, carries many more possessions than I do. I have only three large sacks; he has eight. What is in those other five sacks, I wonder? What does an experienced Fairyland camper bring with him that I have neglected to bring?
The gates swing open and the other families rush to find the best spots in the dish-shaped campground. Tallulah is more interested in the fact that she appears to have Fairyland entirely to herself, and she rushes off past the Ferris wheel to pet the donkeys. The great thing about Fairyland, from the point of view of a 3-year-old, is that it is designed with a 36-inch-high person in mind. The horses on the carousel are designed for a 36-inch-high person, the cars in the steam train are designed for a 36-inch-high person, the long tunnel in the Alice-in-Wonderland section is designed for a 36-inch-high person. It’s a home explicitly for children between the ages of 2 and 5; any ordinary 7-year-old is made to feel unwelcome. With one exception, it is a Lilliputian world drawn perfectly to scale. The exception is the donkeys. These large animals, which Tallulah claims are “llamas,” are also surprisingly aggressive. I rush after her and quickly lose any chance of securing a comfortable place to sleep. By the time I herd Tallulah back into the saucer, all of the soft, level places have been taken. We’ll be spending the night on the hard, steep slope just below the rim.
All the other fathers have their tents looking very tentlike. These are elaborate affairs, with great huge roofs and fancy walk-in entrances. The man in the tent beside me not only has his tent up and running, he has a fantastic contraption that looks like a giant fire extinguisher and sounds like a pneumatic pump. He’s huffing and wheezing over the thing like a pro. He is inflating what appears to be a full-sized mattress inside his enormous tent. I do not own one of these. I have never even seen one of these. My tent is still in its sack on the ground.
Tallulah looks around, then at me.
“Where is our tent, Daddy?”
“It’s in there.” I point to the blue sack.
“I haven’t put it up yet. You want to help Daddy put up the tent?”
“I want to go see the llamas.”
A bit tensely: “I need you to stay here while I put up our tent.”
In a flash, she’s gone.
One eye on the donkeys, I unravel the tent and count our possessions with the other. These are: the tent and two sleeping bags I bought last week at REI, one head-mounted coal miner’s flashlight that Tabitha gave me so I could see the barbecue pit when I grilled at night, three diapers, one sack of wipes, a purple and green glow-in-the-dark toothbrush, one tube of strawberry-flavored toothpaste, insect repellant, a pair of what Tallulah calls “my stripey PJs,” along with the pink slippers she insisted she could not do without. Finally there is a tattered and yellowing Outward Bound Student Handbook from the last time I camped—22 years ago, when I spent a month wandering about a wilderness area in Oregon. In this tattered Outward Bound handbook is everything I have forgotten about camping. Or so I think. When I open it I see that it is, like Outward Bound itself, more concerned with my spiritual development than my survival. It’s filled with aphorisms the Outward Bound student is meant to take to heart:
They are wet with the showers of the mountains,
and embrace the rock for want of a shelter.—Job 24:8
For the first time in 22 years, I pitch a tent. It has such an odd shape to it, I think to myself when I am finished. John wanders over and stares a bit. “It looks like one of those old Volkswagen beetles with a tarp thrown over it,” he finally says. “I’m a little worried the fly sheet isn’t on right,” I say.
He thinks about what appears to be my problem. “I think you’ll be OK in downtown Oakland,” he says.
The man in the tent next door continues to pump away at his inflatable mattress. Sweat drips from the tip of his nose. John leaves. I turn to the sweating man. So far as I can see, his giant inflatable mattress is no better inflated than it had been 20 minutes before. No longer does he seem quite the aficionado.
“What are you doing?” I ask.
He stops, relieved to have an excuse not to keep pumping away. “Trying to pump this fucking thing up,” he says.
I peer into his tent at the limp mattress. “How does it work?” I ask.
“I’m not sure,” he says. “My wife bought it.” Pause. “This whole thing was my wife’s idea.”
I sympathize and yet at the same time do not. The truth is, I am pleased by his distress. It means that it is possible, just, that I am not the least-prepared father for the journey that lies ahead of us. Tallulah and I may not survive, but we won’t be the first to go.
A night in Fairyland divides fairly neatly into two dramatically different experiences. The first amounts to a rave for toddlers. The Fairyland staff lays out a buffet banquet of hamburgers, hot dogs, potato chips, and chocolate and vanilla cupcakes: food that not a single toddler can find anything to object to. Not a single vegetable! Not one fruit! For the first time since I have become a father I dine with my child, alongside other parents and their children, unaccompanied by torture-chamber shrieking. All the children eat happily, greedily, so that they can scramble away as quickly as possible to the Fairyland rides, which stay open until 9 p.m. But there’s more! At 8 o’clock at night, when most of them would be in bed, they attend an expertly executed puppet show. They watch the story of Cinderella with giant sacks of popcorn on their laps and their mouths wide open. At 8:30 a woman dressed as a gypsy leads them in song. At 10 p.m. they stumble, exhausted and sated, back to their tents. There begins the second part of a night in Fairyland.
About two years ago, addled with lack of sleep, my wife and I adopted a firmish policy not to further encourage Tallulah to view the middle of the night as the most interesting part of the day. We shut the door on her at 9 p.m. and do our best not to hear or see her until 7 in the morning. And it has worked, so far as we know, though she still tends to get up a few times a week around 3 a.m. and holler at the top of her lungs. But as a result of our policy I know next to nothing about her sleeping life. That changed last night.
We crawl into the tent at 10. For the next hour Tallulah amuses herself by punching the roof and racing outside and trying to climb inside other people’s tents. When even that gets old, she settles into her sleeping bag and instructs me to read her a book. Eleven-thirty at night must feel to a 3-year-old like 4 in the morning to an adult, but Tallulah lasted, along with every other child in the camp, until 11:30. During the second reading of Harold and the Purple Crayon, she fell asleep. Here is a rough log of what occurred during the next six hours:
12:15. Tallulah pokes me in the head until I wake up. “Wake up, Daddy. Wake up, Daddy,” she says. “What?” I say. “I need you to snuggle me!” she says. I curl up next to her. She falls back to sleep.
1:00. “Daddy!” I wake up and find her seated bolt upright inside the tent. “What?” I say. “You forgot to put bug spray on me!” It’s true. I apply insect repellant. She falls back asleep.
1:38. “My sleeping bag came off!” “What?” I say. “My sleeping bag!” she wails. I cover her up. “No!” she says. “I want your sleeping bag!” As her sleeping bag is 4 feet long, this presents a problem. We negotiate and compromise on both of us sleeping under both sleeping bags.
3:15. “An owl is in the tent!” Again, she’s bolt upright. “What?” I say, scrambling for the miner’s headlamp. By the time I find it, she’s fast asleep.
4:12. “Daddy.” I wake up. This time she’s awake, alarmingly alert and rested. I am not. “What?” I ask. “Daddy, I just want to say how much fun I had with you today,” she says. Actual tears well up in my eyes. “I had fun with you, too,” I say. “Can we go back to sleep?” “Yes, Daddy.” Then she snuggles right up against me for what I assume will to be the long haul.
5:00. The fucking birds are actually chirping. Tallulah, of course, awakens with them, turns to me, and begins to sing:
There was a farmer who had a dog and bingo was his name, O!
B I N G O
B I N G O
B I N G O
And Bingo was his name, O!
“It’s still sleepy time,” I mutter.
“Is it time to wake up, Daddy?”
Miraculously, she falls back to sleep.
5:45. It’s still dark outside. I wake up to find Tallulah standing in her pink slippers at our tent door, which she has unzipped. “Matts!” she shouts. “Are you awake?” I hear a cry from a distant tent: “Tallulah. I’m awake! Are you awake?” “Matts!” shouts Tallulah again. “I’m awake! I’m awake!”
Forty-five minutes later, the four of us are all stumbling off to a breakfast of Sugar Pops. John, if anything, looks worse than I feel. And yet neither of us feels deterred; the evening went pretty much as we’d expected. “I just heard that they do this at the Oakland Zoo,” he says. “When’s that?” I hear myself saying.