Recently, a motley yet somehow charming group of Fisher Price Little People hit the local water park. It was an afternoon as perfect as one spent at a water park can be, complete with intrigue, indecent exposure, and titillating violence. It was much like an especially good episode of “Gossip Girl,” but with less plastic.

The Little People, long relegated to the basement since the Child Owner turned two, were in desperate need of a bath. Covered with dust and beginning to show their age, the Little People resigned themselves to a soapy bath, a must before entering any public water amusement facility. (Also referred to as a P.W.A.F. Just so you know.)

While no one Little Person would have called the bath pleasurable, nary a complaint was made. The frog on Blond Man’s back did experience a panic attack, but dishsoap bubbles muffled his cries. Turns out that Dawn Direct Foam (Lime Surge scent) cuts not only grease, but also panicked screams. Handy.

Bath complete, it was finally time to pass through the gates into the main area of the P.W.A.F. One glance told the Little People all they needed to know: The park had fallen upon Hard Times. Instead of the bumper boats of days past, visitors were now offered Crocs on which to float. Not even real Crocs either. KNOCK-OFF CROCS.

Still relieved to be freed from the basement, the Little People decided to make the best of it. However, Necklace Lady, long homesick for the placid waters of her native Hawaii (French Polynesia? the Federated States of Micronesia?), did bring her cell phone into the boat with her to lodge a complaint, thus proving you can never truly satisfy a Pacific islander.

Headphone Lady fared better, balancing precariously on the tip of her Croc boat. Onlookers could be heard murmuring that she appeared to be on the verge of taking off her top, but these rumors were speedily squashed by the lifeguard, Pilot Man.

From atop his Tupperware observation post, Pilot Man sees and hears everything. Local legend has it that he will put down his steaming cup of coffee and promptly water torture any swimmer who gets out of line, but this might be nothing more than local gossip.

Then again, maybe not.

Happily, Pilot Man had very little other reason to scold park visitors this idyllic day. Nearly everyone behaved themselves admirably, even those waiting in line, a queue that stretched almost as far as the eye could see.

If any of the Little People were anxious about this guy, they hid it well. Apparently men brandishing gigantic wrenches at inappropriate times is not cause for concern at this particular P.W.A.F.

When everyone had their fill of the bumper boats, they moved on to Pirate Island, the P.W.A.F.‘s only other ride. Several Little People jumped in immediately, ignorant of the Dangers That Lurked.

Yet many others remained cautious about the, you know, GIANT SHARK. Kitten Lady opted for the safety of Pirate Island’s beach, her smarmy grin the only hint to her bloodthirsty voyeuristic side.

Cell Phone Man, never the sharpest tool in the shed, performed a lazy backstroke. Cursed with myopic eyes, he never even saw the shark before it ate him. Sigh. Life is so tragic. One minute you’re frolicking at a P.W.A.F., the next you’re nothing more than an inflatable shark’s snack. Rest in peace, Cell Phone Man. Rest in peace.

But Beach Ball Girl? She kept her eyes on the prize. Even as the lifeless bodies of the shark’s victims floated around her, Beach Ball Girl continued to lay claim to the treasure chest. This cold-hearted yet shrewd determination netted her $100,000 in gold coins. She has since used this fortune to start her own line of hair extensions, in partnership with Fisher Price.

The moral of the story? Not all blondes are dumb.

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One summer day, Mother and Daughter went for an impromptu swimming lesson at a family member’s pool. Afterward, flushed from the exercise and some yelling (AURA, YOU NEED TO LET GO OF ME! THE SWIM BUBBLE WILL HELP YOU FLOAT! IF YOU GRASP THE FRONT OF MY BATHING SUIT AND EXPOSE MY BREASTS ONE MORE TIME I AM SO ABANDONING YOU HERE IN THE DEEP END SO HELP ME GOD) and some screaming (MOMMY HOLD ME HOLD ME MOMMY I AM GOING TO GO UNDER DON’T LET ME GOOOOOOOOOOOO), Mother and Daughter decided to stroll next door to the neighborhood mall. It was a quiet stroll, given how neither was speaking to the other, but a stroll it remained.

Lunch at the food court was had, conversation was resumed, and many a ride in the mall’s glass elevator was taken. All in all, life was good. Which is why Mother and Daughter should never, ever have stopped into the mall toy store. For that is where Mother was exposed to the stuff that will haunt her nightmare for decades to come. (For the record, Daughter seemed wildly unaffected. Mother questions this. Mother feels that maybe less sheltering needs to take place.)

Without further ado, The Stuff That Will Haunt My Nightmares For Decades to Come, also known as…

BABY DOLLS.

Horrible Horror #1: The Man Baby

You can dress up that sucker in all the pink in the world, but that won’t change the fact that she looks like George Burns. Or possibly Nick Nolte on a really youthful day.

Horrible Horror #2: The Assassin Baby

The manufacturer can swear up and down that this is the “Sleepy Time Dreams” baby, but I for one know the eyes of a killer when I see them. It’s a free country, so, of course, buy this for your kid if you want. But I’d frisk that moon for the world’s tiniest sniper rifle first. Maybe the little yellow cap, too.

Horrible Horror #3: The Opera Baby

Now here’s a doll I can almost get behind. Does he let mere cardboard packaging and the possibility of living for all eternity in the World’s Worst Toy Store get him down? No, indeedy! He flings his chubby plastic arm out with the kind of flourish normally reserved for opera singers. If you close your eyes, you can almost hear him: “Figaro! Figaro! Fiiiiigaro!

Horrible Horror #4: The Sumo-Politician Baby

Leave it to the close-minded world of toy sales to make the one non-white baby in the store a cross between a sumo wrestler and an infant with a penchant for Hitler’s gestures. Plus the indecency of the high-waisted, polka dot diaper! I almost bought the little bugger just to put him out of his misery in the trash can outside the store.

Horrible Horror #5: The I’ve-Given-Up Baby

Poor little gal. Not even that plastic cable-tie-type thing they tried to lasso her neck with can contain her—or her despair. I thought you only saw such hopeless eyes in those photos of refugees that Time always publishes, but obviously I was mistaken.

Horrible Horror #6: The Morning-After Baby

Now, the box tells us that this is “Baby Sleeping Beauty.” Yet I beg to differ. Last time I saw Aurora, she was shying away from spinning wheels but otherwise hale and hearty. This Sleeping Beauty? Well, let’s just say that she doesn’t look like the type of girl who shies away from anything. It’s spooky, actually. It’s as if she’s taking fashion pointers from Lindsay Lohan but learning how to sit in public from Britney Spears.

Needless to say, Mother will never be the same.

As I may have mentioned before, we have no yard. We have lots of mulch and tons of weedy stuff and a downright precipitous rock cliff in the back, but zip for grass. I doubt this would bother me in the least except for Aura, who is a child and is having a childhood and therefore needs Outdoor Childhood Memories. Given this, I am easily suckered into buying any outside toy that can be used on non-grassy surfaces. We have a closetful of bubble toys, a virtual hamper of bouncy balls, the world’s most annoying ring-toss kit…the list goes on. But I still feel guilty.

I tell you this because all that guilt is my excuse for purchasing the following:

Yet I am still scrambling for an excuse to explain why the woman on the pool box infuriates me so. I suspect it might have something to do with the fact that I find myself reluctantly subsisting almost entirely on cucumbers and Fiber One bars (Oats ‘n’ Chocolate!). Whatever the impetus, this Mother Who Swims with Her Kids in a Silver Lamé Bikini is really annoying the hell out of me.

A closer look.

As I spent 20 sweaty minutes pumping up the pool today, I kept casting looks over my shoulder, unable to stop glaring at the Mother Who Swims with Her Kids in a Silver Lamé Bikini’s smarmy grin. Or, for that matter, the Mother Who Swims with Her Kids in a Silver Lamé Bikini’s abs, which I am fairly certain are approximately 273% more defined than my own. Also, those fake kids of hers might very well be better behaved than mine. Though I doubt that last one, since the boy looks a bit like a Kennedy and, well, we all know how THAT goes.

Twenty minutes is a long time to glare at one hussy, so I eventually let my gaze wander over the rest of the box. And I started to feel a little better.

The above? That’s information about the pool. In Finnish. Maybe’s it me, but trying to sell an inflatable pool to consumers in Finland seems a little…optimistic. As I pumped and then pumped some more, it occurred to me that selling pools in Finland is kind of like selling snowman-building kits in Ecuador. “Snowmen in Ecuador!” I chuckled to myself, enlightened by my own genius. I tell you, I may not have abs of steel, but I am positively AWASH in marketing savvy.

Then there was this:

Maybe this is also targeted to Finns. Perhaps the Splash and Play! marketing folks believe the Finnish people to be not only a hearty people, eager to thumb their noses at a naturally frosty climate, but also a people equipped with ginormous mouths. A race of humans who could actually manage the attempted swallowing of a six-foot-long piece of plastic, which is the only possible way the Splash and Play! pool could be a choking hazard.

And that right there really put it into perspective for me. I may not have a sculpted stomach, and my closet may indeed be woefully empty of  lamé bikinis. But at least no one has ever believed me capable of trying to swallow a pool. In my book, this counts for a lot.

This one, though, I’ll have to watch out for:

If you could see what she does to Hershey’s Kisses…well. Let’s just say you’d be worried, too.

One afternoon not long ago, in a discount store not far away, Aura may have asked me to buy her the CraZCookn’ Marshmallow Maker, a foul toy that would surely produce foul creations, the likes of which would immediately inspire a Whole Foods employee to start rending his or her fair-trade garments. Fatigued by shopping and weak from a gnawing need for a Diet Coke, I may have said yes. I will admit to nothing, except the following.

Admission #1:

Perhaps the CraZCookn’ marketing gurus were so exhausted by the Herculean task of spelling two common words with three fewer letters that they didn’t have the energy to appropriately audition box models. For if I am not mistaken, the taller girl is muttering something distinctly unChristian between her teeth to the other, dim-looking girl. Something along the lines of “Move over or I will stick this elbow into your still-developing boob, just like my older sister Shannon Doherty taught me. And then my agent will eat your agent, FOR BREAKFAST.”

Admission #2:

If a person were pressed to identify the Marshmallow Maker’s least appealing trait, that person might have to say it’s the 371 parts that need to be washed before use. After all, a mother doesn’t want her developing child to ingest factory chemicals. Except after the 52nd piece falls down the garbage disposal and has to be retrieved by hand. At that point the kid is welcome to all the nitrobenzene she wants. Godspeed, daughter, and happy snacking.

Admission #3:

Well, shoot. If I’d known about the Yellow 5 and/or Blue 1 beforehand, I wouldn’t have even picked up a sponge. Talk about freakin’ gilding the lily.

Admission #4:

Somewhere, some food safety lab is enjoying an early, CraZCookn’-sponsored happy hour. “I’ve gotta hand it to you, Gerald,” says one lab worker to another. “I thought for sure you wouldn’t find one actual mineral in that stuff. But then you go ahead and not only do you find calcium, you top yourself with a trace of riboflavin!” The Heineken flows. Or, more precisely, the HeiNekn’.

Admission #5:

The instructions tell you to add water to the marshmallow mix and then “stir to a toothpaste thickness.” I tried my best to gross out Aura as she stirred, making all kind of mentions of vomit and bird poop, but nothing. If the folks at CraZCookn’ have taught me anything, it’s that you can’t disgust a three-year-old. You can, however, make her father retch for five whole minutes, and that’s worth $11.99 right there.

 Admission #6:

I  know. EXACTLY what I was thinking: How can this white stuff possibly turn blue simply by mixing with water?

“Now THAT!” I cried to Aura. “THAT is SCIENCE!” Having already explained both mermaids and the Loch Ness Monster earlier that afternoon, I felt that it was a particularly solid day of science education. Preschool may teach her about rocket ships, but here at home SHE LEARNS THE TRUTH.

Admission #7:

When I looked down at the baggies of white powder scattered across the counter, I couldn’t help but sigh. “In another life,” I murmured, “this might have looked illicit.” I tell you:  A woman goes and has a kid, and it’s like her dreams of being a cocaine dealer just fly right out the window.

Admission #8:

If I had bought Aura the Marshmallow Maker, this would have been the end result. And it might have tasted like puffy bird poop after all.

Thank God for hypotheticals.

Heaven—its existence, its contents—has gotten a lot of play over the centuries. Hemingway, unsurprisingly, thought heaven might be a bull-fighting ring. Longfellow imagined infinite meadows. Dante proposed a divine hierarchy of sorts. And we’re all pretty familiar with the Qur’an’s promise of a paradise flush with virgins.

To be fair, all of these predictions were made before American suburbia was in full swing. I’ll even stick my neck out here and presume that Dante never even visited a Chuck E. Cheese. For if he and the others had, if they had indeed breathed in the aroma of overpriced pan pizza and been nearly deafened by the sound of buzzing and beeping game machines, they would have witnessed heaven in its purest, most exact earthly form:

Skee ball.

I ask you: Is there anything more heavenly than the perfect thwump of a ball landing in the 5,000 point hole? Can you think of anything more divine than watching prize tickets pour out in a long, kinked paper chain? What, what, can possibly exceed the pleasure of watching the points counter go up and up, and up again?

Yeah, that’s right. NOTHING.

Well, I guess Muslims might disagree. Because judging from the number of kids there, the place wasn’t exactly packed with virgins.

As for hell? That’s easy. Hell is the sound of those mechanical animals’ eyeballs opening and closing. Creeeeaaaak click. Creeeeaaak click. I wish I could have gotten audio and embedded it here. Let’s just say it’s like the sound of your worst nightmare, times, oh, TEN TRILLION.

Miley Cyrus has gotten a lot of criticism for some recent choices, including certain navel-baring couture and that stint where she was writhing around a pole. However, after a recent visit to the mall, I’m thinking Build-A-Bear Workshop is actually responsible for the sluttification of America.  That, and those little girls’ shorts with words emblazoned directly across the bum. Those suckers are downright bawdy.

To be clear, I’m talking about the sluttification of young girls, not boys. Boys who shop at Build-A-Bear are presented with a rather slim selection of behavioral suggestions. As far as I can tell, Build-A-Bear believes that a boy and his bear will want to act like a police officer, a fire fighter, or the kind of little nipper who would happily wear a High School Musical! emblazoned t-shirt. Oh, or a hunter. A chilly one.

But for girls? Build-A-Bear presents an armful of options! Many of them best accompanied by a stripper pole much like Miley’s! Here, let me show you.

Official B-A-B name: Gold Quilted Coat

Real Name: Even ‘Hos Get Cold

Why Your Bear Needs It: Because those street corners can get nippy.

Official B-A-B name: Pink Boa Slippers

Real Name: Nuances of Adult Entertainment

Why Your Bear Needs It: Because strippers get naked, but exotic dancers keep their shoes on.

Official B-A-B name: Pink Ruched Sequin Purse

Real Name: The Chinatown Special

Why Your Bear Needs It: Because escort services pay knockoff salaries, not designer salaries.

Official B-A-B name: Blonde Wig/Brown Wig

Real Name: Budget Photo Spread Solution

Why Your Bear Needs It: Because those cheapskates at Hustler don’t pay for extensions.

Official B-A-B name: Purple Sparkle Camera Cell Phone

Real Name: Purple Glitter Paycheck

Why Your Bear Needs It: Because pimps don’t call landlines anymore.

Seriously, though: What happened to the long, flannel nightgowns my Cabbage Patch Kids used to wear? Also, I distinctly remember the days when your Barbie wasn’t supposed to leave the house in a miniskirt. Unless it was Businesswoman Barbie, who was able to pass the skirt off as part of a power suit. OH, HOW THINGS HAVE CHANGED.

Since last fall, Adam and I have been throwing around the idea of taking a vacation in February or March. We’re not sure where we might go, other than it will be lush and tropical and rife with hotel-screened babysitters, preferably the non-kidnappery kind. It having been years since I’ve been anywhere exotic (hello, 2005 honeymoon in Ibiza!), my vacation-related frame of reference was, until recently, rather limited.

Then Aura received the Polly Pocket Roller Coaster Resort (PPRCR) for Christmas. It was clearly Mattel-produced, Santa-driven Divine Providence: A cheaply made Dos and Don’ts list for planning our family vacation. The fact that PPRCR has approximately 1,753 parts that constantly detach themselves and are then batted into the heating registers by Smoky Jo, Feline Destroyer of All That is Good and Fairly Expensive, is irrelevant.

(Feel free to make use of this list while planning your own family getaways. I am nothing if not munificent, you know.)

1. DO know the neighborhood in which you will be staying.

If it appears that giant-sized children live near the resort, be wary. Nothing ruins a vacation more quickly than being crushed by a Stride Rite, size 8.

2. DO look at photos of guestrooms before booking.

Avoid rooms with no walls whatsoever. Also, if traveling with children, resist the urge to book a room with a swing that swings out over nothing but oblivion and maybe a straw-umbrella table. Even if that swing does match the world’s tiniest lamp.

3. DON’T choose a resort with only one swimming pool.

As all good former spring-breakers know, there is bound to be at least one “party pool” at the resort–certainly no place for impressionable children. Just look at what happened at the PPRCR. This obvious Bad Seed went down the water slide while still fully clothed, clunking her head on that regrettably located chaise lounge. Now she’s a corpse not unlike those you see in the opening sequence of Law & Order.

4. DON’T choose frugality over comfort.

Saving $700 by staying at the economy resort instead of the luxury resort is all well and good. But if the PPRCR is to teach us anything, it’s that you get what you pay for. If you insist on being thrifty, know ahead of time that you will get fake granite boulders with huge cracks between them because someone didn’t force Tab A into Tab B hard enough BECAUSE THE ASSEMBLY INSTRUCTIONS REALLY SUCKED.  Also, even if you’re okay with eating your meals in the same room in which the resident DJ is spinning, are you okay with food that is actually a sticker that just looks like food? STICKER FOOD. For God’s sake, don’t be so damn cheap.

5. DO consider who else will be staying at the resort.

Fellow vacationers can make or break your trip. Do your research. Identify demographics. Run background checks. Don’t have time? Fine. That’s understandable. Yet know ahead of time that you’ll be in the room right next door to this young lady. And you can tell just by looking at her single-strap bathing suit that she is about one hair crimping away from stealing your husband.

Bon voyage.