1. How to Be a Superhero
My son came home one day from his progressive and politically correct Providence, Rhode Island, pre-school and informed me that he was not allowed to talk about superheroes.
“Why not?” I asked, flabbergasted. This couldn’t be true, I thought. There must be some kind of mistake.
“Because, Daddy,” he said patiently, “Superheroes solve their problems by fighting and not with their words.”
“Yeah, but…” I tried to respond but couldn’t. I was stumped, struck dumb and silent.
He was right. But for Chrissakes, they’re superheroes. They’re the fabric of childhood. I could barely imagine my own without superheroes. Their stories helped me believe I might actually survive the nuclear 1980’s. A superhero’s problems were not the kind you could just talk about, like parking tickets, traffic jams, or sub-prime mortgages. A superhero had to deal with evil super-villains, rogue mutants, and extra-terrestrial war-mongerers. A superhero had the kind of problems that you might only be able to solve by fighting.
One of my favorites, the Incredible Hulk, couldn’t even use words. He just grunted, bellowed like an animal, and smashed things. But his anger, his insecurity and pain, was his superpower. His existential angst made him special and allowed him to help others with his unique physical gifts. What better role model for a child of the 80’s?
Still I had to admit that my son (or his teachers) had a point. It was just difficult for me to deal with the idea that he could have a superhero-free childhood or, worse yet, that he would think the model of a superhero was this guy on TV named “Sportacus.”
If you haven’t seen an episode of “LazyTown,” you’re missing one of the most bizarre television experiences. A lot of children’s shows are strange, but this one is a truly odd mixture of public service and entertainment. Sportacus, the star of the show, teams up with a spunky little pink-haired girl named Stephanie and a gang of children wearing rubber puppet suits. An adult male outfitted in a tight blue spandex flight-suit and aviator goggles, Sportacus speaks with a faux-French accent and wears a handlebar mustache waxed to sharp points. He champions lifestyle choices like physical activity and eating fruit. Pretty much any problem in LazyTown can be solved with exercise and an apple.
But what good would Sportacus be in the face of real danger? How would he handle a supervillain like Magneto or Lex Luthor or Doctor Octopus? What dreams of survival would he inspire? His beloved fruit would be poisoned with radiation. Exercise is difficult when you have a second head growing out of your shoulder and sort of pointless if you’ve mutated into a Ninja reptile. LazyTown is yet another reminder that my son lives in a world that is both eerily familiar to and strikingly different from my own childhood reality.
Some days I feel terribly ill-equipped to teach him anything.
After watching the animated film The Incredibles, we had another superhero discussion, about Mr. Incredible’s reasons for lifting train cars like dumbbells.
“Why did he do that, Daddy?”
I told him that Mr. Incredible was working out, getting stronger to fight evil, sort of like when Daddy lifts the dumbbells at home.
Then I asked, “Do you think Daddy could lift a train car?”
“Yeah,” he said, and with no prompting at all from me, “’Cause you’re a superhero.”
I just let that one settle in for a while. I let it linger in the rarified air of our minivan.
Then I repeated the story over and over again, telling friends and even strangers. But the more I told it, the more self-conscious I became, the more aware of my own shortcomings as a potential superhero. I have bad knees and bad ankles. My shoulder is wrecked. I’m lactose intolerant. I’m generally afraid of confrontation, and I trust strangers and freaks way too easily. I have more curiosity than common sense. And I look terrible in tights.
I’m glad I didn’t ruin the moment, but part of me thinks I should have politely informed him that I am no caped crusader. I’m a regular guy who makes bad choices sometimes, and he probably shouldn’t depend on my superpowers to protect him from harm. But then again I figured he’d have the rest of his life to learn this lesson. So I decided to let him believe for a while that I could lift some trains or maybe even—following his example—use my words instead of my fists to save the world and protect my family; because perhaps all children need these sorts of fictions to feel safe.
2. How to Play Dead
When I was 5 or 6, a huge scar creased my face, and I towered over many of the other kids. Not only had I pulled a pocketknife on my best friend and booted a kickball through a school window, but I regularly led a gaggle of boys around the playground in a militaristic march, while chanting, “Crush. Kill. Destroy.”
I had some issues. But I overcame them. Mostly.
So I wasn’t really worried when my son’s preschool teacher pulled me aside one day to tell me that he’d been playing a game with the other kids where they put a baby in the oven.
When she said this she said the last part almost in a whisper, a baby in the oven. She folded her hands in front of her as if in prayer and stretched her lips out thin like a knife. This was the same teacher I had to talk with about my son’s repeated reference to his colon and his drawings of the digestive system. She was one of those preschool teachers who just seemed completely incapable of understanding little boys; but she did get me thinking a bit about where he might have learned such things.
Then I remembered that I’d recently read Hansel and Gretel to him, and let me tell you, that is a seriously dark and twisted story. But I thought about it more and realized there are actually quite a few children’s stories about children being shoved into ovens or cooked in pots or cakes. One of our favorites, Sendak’s In the Night Kitchen, features a naked boy baked in a cake by portly bakers with Hitler mustaches. And then I thought about a game my son liked to play with his mother. It was called “The Baby Bagoo” game, and it was a regular part of our everyday life in Rhode Island. I figured it was the kind of imagination play that good parents are supposed to do with their precocious children.
This is how it went: My son would climb up on the bed and curl into a fetal position. He’d coo and babble like a baby.
Then my wife would walk into the room and say, “Yes, I’ve come to the orphanage today because I would like to adopt a baby,” and then, “Oh, look at all these babies. I want a little girl baby. Where are the little girl babies?”
My son would cry and babble urgently.
“Oh, look at this cute baby!” my wife would say. “Oh, but he’s a boy baby.”
“Ga. Ga. Ga. Goo. Goo,” my son would say.
“What’s your name, baby?”
My son nodded his head.
“Oh, you’re such a sweet baby Bagoo. I want to take you home,” she said as she wrapped him up and carried him to another part of the room or the bed.
“Now, I’m going to leave you here by the river/ocean/lake/bathtub, OK, Baby Bagoo? Don’t go anywhere.”
She’d turn around and Baby Bagoo would promptly roll into the water and go under.
“Oh my god!” she’d yell, “My baby! My baby!” as she pulled him out of the water, limp, eyes closed. “Bagoo? Bagoo? Speak to me. Oh no, my sweet Baby Bagoo is dead.”
On cue, my son’s eyes would flutter and open wide. His arms would begin to flail and he’d rise up, cooing and babbling and saying “Bagoo” over and over again. He would be born again, newly risen, and then we’d go about our normal routines.
Of course, I recognized that my son was working through a lot of fears—layers of fear—with this game. It somehow touched on fear of abandonment, death and water, issues of gender, and the promise of reincarnation. But it was an admittedly strange game, one that other people might not understand. It even freaked me out sometimes.
I never told my son’s teachers about Baby Bagoo. I thought they might worry about us. But what they didn’t know wouldn’t hurt them—unless of course they were hurt by the un-tethered imaginations of children. Our cultural avoidance of death and our ignorance of its meaning begins at an early age. One of the things that makes little kids so morbid, so creative, and so fun to be around is that they are not afraid of death. Or rather they have not yet been taught to face death through fear rather than through curiosity. For my son, curiosity generates questions—and it is these that I’m constantly encouraging him to pursue. “Never stop asking questions,” I say in my more parental moments. Fear only leads us into the darkness of easy answers, to avoidance and ignorance…and this is usually about the time he stops listening to me.
“Daddy?” my son asked me once at a restaurant.
“Why do we not like George Bush?”
Silence. The sound of guilty pride. Or the sound of me trying to come up with a reason that would make sense to a 4-year-old, or trying to just pare down the list I keep in my head.
“Is it because he doesn’t share his toys?”
For my son, this was the ultimate knock against one’s character.
“Kind of,” I said.
I was trying to speak his language.
“And because he’s fighting a war in the desert and killing people for oil?’
“Uh huh,” I said.
I swear I didn’t prompt him to say this.
“Daddy?” he said, pausing to blow bubbles in his soda. “Why is he doing that?”
“Good question,” I said.
I didn’t have an answer either. I also didn’t have an answer for why people want to bomb trains or planes or malls or sporting events, or why so many stories are about the loss of innocence. I just knew that we had to keep telling them. And I worried sometimes that fear would rise up and fill the void of answers, that he would stop saving babies from ovens and rivers because someone told him he’d got the story wrong.
3. How to Get Rich
In 2006, shortly after we moved to Fresno, California, I bought my son a frog-shaped sandbox and two hundred pounds of sand from Home Depot. As we were driving home with it in the back, he asked me if I thought a robber would come and steal his sandbox.
I laughed. “I don’t think a robber would be interested your sandbox.”
“Why not?” he asked.
This made me stop and think. I didn’t want to admit that his sandbox wasn’t valuable because you couldn’t sell it for crack, crank, or a bottle; that it wasn’t valuable because you couldn’t hock a sandbox or recycle it for cash. Lately, the robbers in Fresno had been targeting street-lights in the nice neighborhoods, pilfering yards and yards of copper wire and selling them to recycling plants. More recently there had been a rash of thefts of catalytic converters from cars parked in driveways and public parking lots. Something about the stuff inside that could be sold on the black market.
My son’s sandbox really only had sentimental value. It was not worth money on the black market. It couldn’t be resold or recycled easily. But what if there was a black market that trafficked in sentimental value, an underworld where my grandfather’s typewriter is worth more than my laptop, or where a child’s sandbox is worth more to a meth-head than the copper wiring in the street-lights?
If there were such a market for sentimental value, we’d be rich.
With a few exceptions, most of what we owned was valuable purely for sentimental reasons. We liked our neighborhood, but it was not affluent. There were five vacant, essentially abandoned houses on our block, four of them at our end of the street. Though just one house away from an elementary school, we were also in some gang’s territory. I didn’t know which one. The only real evidence I could see were graffiti tags on our trash cans. Our neighborhood was not high-crime—mainly because there wasn’t much to steal. My son asked us once if we were ever going to be rich, and we gave him our standard line about being teachers and writers and how we were rich in “the things that matter.”
I didn’t want to say his sandbox wasn’t valuable; but I also didn’t want him to be afraid of robbers or bogeymen or the people who picked through our recycling bin, looking for bottles and cans. We’d had a few scares recently.
Once when my son and my wife were out walking the dog, they spotted the black-and-white police helicopter—a ubiquitous presence in our neighborhood at night—hovering just a block away. A voice boomed over the chop, ordering someone to “come out now with your hands up”; they hightailed it home.
Another morning, during our regular walk down to the bakery, my son and I passed a corner roped off with police tape. We found out later that a man had fired shots at a police officer, led the police on a high-speed chase into someone’s yard, crashed his car, and was shot more than 80 times by pursuing officers. I wanted to alleviate my son’s fears about a robber stealing his sandbox, but I couldn’t pretend that crime wasn’t real, and I didn’t want to tell him his new toy was worthless.
Instead, I told him this: “You know what? Your sandbox would probably just be too heavy for robbers to lift. There’s two hundred pounds of sand in there,” I said. “That weighs almost as much as Daddy.”
This was mostly true. I weigh quite a bit more than his sandbox. But it seemed to help. He sat there for a while, perhaps imagining the robbers trying to lift his frog full of sand or his Dad. I often tried to deflect and distract with humor, and I hoped he was imagining me curled up in the frog.
Then he said, “Daddy, I think robbers are golden.”
“Golden?” I asked.
“Yeah, I think robbers are golden and have three golden horns.”
“Golden horns, huh?”
“And they’re made of metal,” he said finally.
I imagined tri-tipped monsters of golden metal clanking and clunking through the side gate—a team of them, four or more with shovels, emptying his frog-shaped sandbox into five-gallon buckets they would trade for cash at the asphalt plant; one of them hefting the plastic frog onto his shoulder and dragging the lid across the concrete. I rose from slumber to the sounds of scraping metal and labored breathing. I dialed the police and watched the golden robbers squeeze into a blue van, ducking so their three horns didn’t hit the door frame. If I wanted to, I could see them circling the neighborhood, pilfering tricycles, soccer balls, and boxes of sidewalk chalk for their weekly haul to the other black market, the warehouse full of battered toys, worn-out t-shirts, and sagging recliners; shelves piled high with emotional attachments, a warehouse full of the most obscurely valuable things you could imagine. I hoped that if I tried hard enough, I could pretend that all robbers were golden sentimentalists, burdened by their metal skin and their guilt over stealing a child’s sandbox; but I knew that if they were, we’d be the target.
4. How to Be a Hummingbird
Providence, Rhode Island, 2005. The rain had been coming down in sheets for nine days straight, seeping through the walls in our basement, leaving puddles beneath the oil tank. We needed to get out of the house, and we drove fast, just barely tethered to the asphalt, headed for a movie in Massachusetts, a movie about a giant Were-Rabbit ravaging the village gardens. The red and green and yellow lights flowered in the moist fog. They twinkled and blinked intermittently with green. It was too much sometimes, too heavy. This place. This moment in time. The white noise of water-spray competed with the radio voices. My son blithely chattered away in his car-seat, conversing with his invisible friend, Tum-Tum the elephant.
Meanwhile, my wife and I talked openly about recent bomb threats to subways in New York City. We said whatever we wanted—things like, “bound to happen,” and “nothing we can do,” or “just gets worse and worse.” We admitted that this was our reality now. But a claymation movie about a giant Were-Rabbit awaited us, and we were happy about this. We were out of the house and not thinking, just driving and living. We were good Americans. It was early October 2005, and we’d already decided not to go to New York before the bomb threats were issued—mainly because we couldn’t afford the trip. But when we’d heard the reports of threats to subways and public transit, we were both honestly relieved to be anywhere but the city.
“Can you imagine that?” my wife asked, responding to another NPR update on the car radio.
“Getting bombed?” I asked.
“Yeah,” she said. “Or living with that threat every day like they do in so many other places.”
“No, no I can’t imagine.”
I suddenly realized that our son had gone silent; and the moment began to stretch and expand, distended with silence. He was listening to everything we’d said. He was paying attention to all the words and possibilities, looking for the suggestion of violence or fear or conflict because he had Doppler radar for such drama.
“Who’s getting bombed, Daddy?” he asked.
“Nobody, honey,” my wife said, “Daddy and Mommy were just talking . . .”
“It’s a figure of speech,” I chimed in, but I was kidding myself.
He understood. He listened to NPR every morning and heard me ranting at the voices. I didn’t want him to be afraid of war and bombs. I didn’t want him to feel targeted. I wanted him to stay young and innocent and fearless as long as possible. But I also didn’t want to shelter him from the truth or from real danger. I had to prepare him to live in a world where people bombed trains or sporting events or buildings. But how was I supposed to do this? I was in the midst of a full-on parental pause, a seizure of language, and I didn’t know what to say.
Then my wife swooped in with this diversion: “What do you want to be when you grow up?”
He paused for a moment, letting the possibilities balloon.
“Hmmmm, “ he said, “Maybe a hummingbird.”
April 15, 2013, Fresno, California: My son the hummingbird, born almost nine months after 9/11, will soon turn eleven. He’s just a few years older than Martin Richard, the youngest victim of the Boston Marathon bombing. My son is a bright boy who takes painting lessons, plays the trombone, and dreams of being a filmmaker. He still likes birds but he doesn’t want to be one when he grows up. His mother now has a house a few blocks away from me. My son and his sister live with me half-time, splitting the weeks. Things have changed a lot in eight years. But my son tells me that he still likes listening to NPR in the car because he learns cool things. These days he’s been listening to the news of the Boston Marathon bombing and the subsequent manhunt with what appears to be a kind of careful detachment, a calculated pre-adolescent disinterest. But he knows all the details, knows the bombs were packed in pressure cookers, knows they blew apart peoples’ legs, and he knows the bombs killed a young boy.
My 5-year-old daughter seems mostly oblivious to the news; she makes up songs in the back seat as we drive from school to home and listen to the radio reports. She doesn’t ask the same questions that my son asked years before, but I know from experience that she’s listening. I know she’s absorbing it all. And I suppose that’s what I’m reminded of every time something like this happens. Such things—these bombings, this terror—have the capacity to shrink your reality down to what really matters, making the world seem tiny and impenetrable, while simultaneously expanding things exponentially until your world seems immense and fragile and impossible to maintain.
I was still a new parent when my son first became aware of bombs, when he first started to ask “why” questions about war and violence. I can’t say that I know a lot more now than I did then. But perhaps he knew something then that we can all try to remember.
He may have been small, but he thought big and wild and in ways I aspired to match, ways that I still hope to preserve in my daughter and myself. If I could, I’d take them both out in the yard the next time a bomb or some other violence tears through the fabric of our days. Just the three of us, our faces pressed up close to the flowers, and I’d tell them to remember the nectar, remember their wings, their imaginations, and the way they can beat against the pull of violence. It’s a simple matter of defying gravity. I want to free them and protect them with this one fact: a hummingbird can beat its wings seventy times in one second. A simple blur of breath and flesh, and they could be gone.
5. After School Lessons
The other father schooled me during first-grade pick-up time.
“Saw some local fauna in the backyard,” he said and kind of rolled up on the balls of his feet. He had the tanned muscled calves of a postal worker or a soldier, someone who’d walked a lot of ground.
“An opossum,” he said, nodding his head. “The wife wanted me to kill it, but I said, ‘No, let it be.’”
I told him and another mom about the raccoon I’d seen crossing busy VanNess Avenue and the Coopers hawk that took down a grackle on our street corner.
I’d called my kids to the window. “Hurry,” I said, “check this out,” and we watched the hawk stomp on the smaller bird, plunging its talons into the heart, puncturing the tiny chambers until the grackle bled out and stopped shuddering and flapping. It took a long time for that little bird to die. And then we watched the hawk carry it away.
When I finished my story, the mom gasped, “Oh, dear. I don’t know . . . ,” She put her hand up to her throat, covering the scar where she’d had her thyroid removed. “I can’t even . . .”
“It’s not violent,” I said. “It’s natural. The order of things.”
In one hand, the other father clutched a snack baggie stuffed with fruit. Strawberries and grapes, maybe a raspberry or two. A gift for his daughter. A treat for the walk home. He brought her something special every day.
“I freaked my sister out,” he said, gesturing toward me with the fruit baggie.
The children had already begun streaming out the doors, single-file, gravitating toward parents or guardians, gathering on the grass to wait.
“I poured salt on a block of dry ice,” he said over the chaotic noise of children.
“Watch,” he’d said to his sister. “Wait for it.”
And the deer did come. Two of them. Put their tongues to the salt. Stuck there, they pulled against the dry ice. Anchored to the lick, they strained to break free. And I wanted to tell him to stop.
“And my sister was like, ‘What are you going to do to them?”
I could see the deer pulling on their tongues, practically yanking them from their skulls. Panicked, they must have strained against their own anchor.
The other father handed his daughter the fruit baggie, “Here you go, honey,” he said and then he finished his lesson:
“And I was like, ‘Oh, I’m not doing nothing,’ and that’s when I slit their throats.”
He smiled, nodding his head again. There was a breeze that day. Unusual for Fresno. But it could not carry his words away. They dropped into the space between us.
The children flocked to their parents, gathering around us like metal fragments to a magnet. Drawn to our shelter. And I wanted to hold them all, to drag them all away from the image of the deer pulling against their tongues, their throats spilling blood.
The other father’s daughter looked up at him, his words hanging there, waiting to attach and take root. My own daughter, oblivious to the gore, grabbed my hand and begged, “Can I?” pointing at the playground; so I let her go, watching her legs kick up, bouncing toward the cedar chips.
His daughter watched, too, staring at the other girls at play. She wrapped her arms tight around the baggie and squeezed until it burst. Pop! Like a shot. And the fruit spilled down around her feet. Grapes rolled like they were trying to escape. The strawberries just sat there, wet and seedy on their flat-cut sides. And the girl looked up at him.
“Why did you squeeze it?” the other father asked, squatting to the concrete, sitting back on the heels of his Army boots.
“I don’t know,” the girl said, talking into her chest and twisting her toe on the ground.
“Consequences, baby,” he said. “Consequences,” as he picked up the fruit, and tossed it into the grass for the squirrels.
* * *
From I’m Just Getting to the Disturbing Part: On Work, Fear and Fatherhood by Steven Church. © 2018 by Steven Church. Reprinted with permission of Outpost19.