Yearly Archives: 2012

On Disneyland and Magic

Vacations are not something my family has been great at coordinating. By “my family” I mean my little immediate family consisting of Nik and Callie and myself; as a kid I remember my parents loading my brother and I up in cars or RVs pretty regularly and taking jaunts to visit family in the Midwest or camping or some other exploratory excursion. Somehow as an adult a combination of financial concerns and a heavy demand on my limited vacation time due to three distinct extended family units has meant stringing a full week of days off together with some sort of plan has been a challenge. This year we made a pact that we were going to have a real family vacation no matter what, and I carefully rationed my PTO days so we could take Callie to Disneyland as our “big” gift to her for her third birthday.

Disneyland is, to Nik and I, one of the few vacation-y spots we’ve made trips to in the almost 13 years of our marriage, although again, we’ve never put a full week of vacation into one of these visits, usually lumping our returns in with some other event like a wedding or a concert or a convention. But whenever we’re in the neighborhood and can swing it, we try to make it a point to spend a little time in the parks because we both share a particular fondness for the Magic Kingdom. I know my enthusiasm for Disneyland originates from several of those family trips as a kid where my brother and parents and I would gamely brave the summer lines to experience Peter Pan’s Flight and Big Thunder Mountain Railroad and The Jungle Cruise. Later, when Disneyland became a thing that I did more with friends or with Nik, the nostalgia buoyed the trips beyond the middling thrills offered me many of the rides compared to other destinations. It helped that while Nik enjoys the sort of safe-n-sane excitement of Space Mountain, she’s far more leery than I of the bigger/crazier/loopier rides and coasters at places like Six Flags. I may be a roller coaster nut, game for just about any steel-rail madness the engineers can devise, but a minimum of half the fun is experiencing it with someone else, so I’ll take any ride over no ride and Disney seems to offer the happiest middle ground between my wife and I.

Yet, nostalgia can carry you only so far. In one of the last trips Nik and I made to Anaheim prior to Callie being born, we paused at one point and wondered aloud if we had gotten to the point where Disneyland was no longer quite the same for people of our advancing age to do alone. Unsaid but understood was that it wasn’t Disneyland that was changing, it was us, and we made a half-joking, half-serious pact to make it a point to return only when we had children of our own to bring along.

Flash forward five years or so and after initially nixing a trip somewhere in Callie’s second year for fear of her being too little to really appreciate it (and, as usual, the time off/funding conundrums), we decided three was a good age to introduce our daughter to the magic we both felt from our trips early in our lives to Disneyland. I confess, this put a fair amount of pressure on me and, to an extent (although I hope she didn’t feel it at all) Callie to make the trip memorable, to instill that sense of awe and wonder present as a child in the park that had taken well over twenty years to completely shed.

There is a piece written by SF author Neal Stephenson called In The Beginning Was The Command Line, which is interesting in and of itself, but applicable here in that there is a digression within where Stephenson notes that among Disney’s principal characteristics is their ability to nail user interfaces. Which is to say, the facade of a place like Disneyland, the way the park presents itself to guests and the way the customers interact with the park, the rides, the queues, even just the visual presentation of information and experience is a huge part of what makes Disneyland (and other Disney theme parks, presumably) have that unique factor which makes it, and not, say, Magic Mountain, the most visited amusement park in the world. Six Flags’ close proximity might make it a stronger competitor, and on paper it may perhaps be even better with more rides and more exciting attractions (and shorter lines), but Six Flags isn’t a theme park, and the lack of theme is part of why it is a second run to the Disney mega-destination.  It’s not just that Disneyland seems better curated, it is a more engaging place to be, because even when you’re not on a ride you’re immersed in a place where the details matter, whether you notice it consciously or not.

The challenge became trying to get an energetic and strong-willed toddler to acknowledge and appreciate these details, or to appreciate much of anything beyond “what else you got?” I went in to the trip armed with apps and maps and game plans and strategies to hit the attractions that I considered to be the highlights, determined to depart the trip with a child who recognized what it was that made mommy and I so excited when we advertised (starting about two months before her birthday and three and a half months before the actual trip) our destination. I knew going in that some things were going to have to be deferred; I don’t know that I necessarily remember my very first visit to Disneyland. I think my parents took me when I was about Callie’s age, maybe a touch younger. I have a hazy memory of the Autopia ride and my mom being pregnant with my brother, though that could be a confabulation with a different park (possibly Great America which is local). I know that by the time my brother and I went during the 30th Anniversary event for the park (in 1985) I was already enraptured by the place and the possibilities inherent in a parent-sponsored trip. I would have been seven years old at the time, and it was probably the first time I was tall enough to go on all the “big kid” rides like Space Mountain and the Matterhorn Bobsleds.

Point being, this early trip may not stick many details in my daughter’s mind about what it really means to be at Disneyland, but I think there is more than enough cognition to give her an overall sense of why going to Disneyland is more exciting than, say, going to an indoor jungle gym with themed rooms. Both are certainly fun, but there is an element present at Disneyland that you don’t get from just anywhere, an element that, at risk of sounding like some kind of shill or drone, is close enough to magic to be virtually indistinguishable in a child’s mind. As self-appointed tour guide for her, I went in feeling like it fell on me to ensure that she tasted that enough that if I were to come back to her in a year or two with, “Would you like to go back?” the answer would be as enthusiastic as I would be offering that to her. Presumptuous? Over-ambitious? Perhaps. But in context with the discussion of what it meant to be a childless thirtysomething at Disneyland trying to understand why that sparkle was fading from the experience, it felt significant to me to believe that there was a new element to a favored activity waiting to happen.

We decided to fly down rather than drive. A dull trek down I-5 with a kid in a rear-facing car seat didn’t sound quick or appealing for any of us so we had our flight out of SFO early on Monday morning. Sunday afternoon we traveled to the City to stay overnight; our flight wasn’t just early, it was crazy early for us so saving that little bit of time by waking up within spitting distance of the airport seemed smart. Sunday evening we took Callie to Pier 39, hit the aquarium there and showed Callie the sea lions before having dinner and then retiring very early. We were all up by 3:30 the next morning which might have felt more intense than it did if not for the vacation adrenaline, yet somehow despite our what-time-did-you-say-it-was morning and wise pre-planning our boarding experience was a little stressful, and we just squeaked on the plane with a hasty breakfast scarfed down at the gate. Our arrival at John Wayne airport was further frustrating in that the shuttle we had paid for ahead of time turned out to be more or less a regular passenger vehicle with no child seats. We confirmed with the booking agent that because it was registered as a public transportation vehicle it didn’t fall under the same guidelines as what I assume the exact same van would have if registered differently, but we weren’t at all comfortable with tossing our three year-old in the back of a van and hopping on the LA freeway system. With limited options we ended up paying for a rental car that came with a child seat, which we frustratingly used only to get to our hotel and back. I might have thought it an ill portent, but we were too focused on getting settled in and heading to the park.

As soon as we arrived, my notions of coordinating the trip carefully for maximum Callie-friendly exposure were tossed aside. Our solid-12-hour-sleeper was working on maybe seven hours of rest if you include the short nap she took during takeoff and though she gamely stood in line to meet Minnie Mouse (she was wearing a new Minnie t-shirt, some Minnie Mouse sneakers and sporting a temporary Minnie tattoo on her arm), she didn’t seem all that charmed by the silent, imposing form of the costumed character. I had wanted to stroll leisurely down Main Street and let Callie take in the sights and sounds and smells of that iconic entry point, but it was quickly agreed that we needed to get her on a ride to whet her appetite for the meat of the park. We chose Peter Pan’s Flight as it has been a long time favorite of mine and Nik’s, but in retrospect I think we might have gone a different direction: the line was sluggish and long, most of the switchbacks being positioned right under the unforgiving noonday sun and an already tired Callie was uninterested in anything but clinging to an adult. The resulting 45-minute wait was a sweaty, grueling ordeal that culminated in a ride that didn’t seem as vibrant as I remembered and which Callie declared upon exiting as “scary and too dark.” If she was going to be skittish about dark rides, we were potentially poised for a disappointing trip: a very large number of the attractions at the park are indoor rides with a heavy reliance on spot lighting.

For the rest of the morning session we relied on outdoor rides like Dumbo and The Jungle Cruise, but before long we realized we needed to get the little one some sort of nap so we hopped the shuttle back to the hotel and she promptly conked out on my shoulder during the ride, only to snap to vibrant alertness once we hit our room. Nik and I were dying for the planned nap so we slept fitfully while Callie kept half an eye on the TV and spent the rest of her time arranging our belongings into various drawers around the suite, which made for some fun rounds of Finders Keepers as we tried to interpret Callie’s organizational scheme. As we went back to the park and stayed as late as they would allow us (we ended up being the very tail end of the line for Autopia with a Cast member standing behind us the whole way to dissuade any after-hours sneakers, which afforded me a few opportunities to ask Stupid Guest Questions), something began to dawn on me but it took until later in the week to understand it.

To me, the thing about Disney is that they are integrated into my childhood which means they play a specific role in my formative years. For some time now I’ve shuffled my feet when confronted head on with the truth of my affection for the company and its intellectual property, especially as terms like “intellectual property” have crept into my vocabulary and the cynicism of adulthood has crowded out the blissful ignorance of youth. Disappointments along the way as well as just a pseudo-hipster posture of being sort of half annoyed by everything, particularly if it has intentionally broad commercial appeal had soured me somewhat on thinking of myself as a fan of any corporate entity. I catch myself doing this even with companies that my behavior would indicate places me squarely in the fanboy camp like Apple or Google or Marvel or TiVo or Fantasy Flight Games. It’s as if my smirking, shrugging adopted attitude of feigned nonchalance insulates me from the horrific outward impression of enthusiasm.

And yet I continue to wax philosophical about the aspects of favored enterprises. Case in point, when I think of Disney I dissect it down to the point where I acknowledge that I admire the way that Disney, when they’re being successful in my eyes, are a company that focuses on aesthetic. This harkens back to what Stephenson referred to when he talked about Disney as purveyors of excellence in interface design; it’s visible in the whimsical title animation, now updated from the stylized Disney castle logo of my childhood and beyond the reminiscent 3D one found on Disney/Pixar films, including a chugging train, a quiet dusk setting and a tranquil river leading to a triumphant castle, all towering spires and soft orange lighting. As fireworks light the sky above the waving banners, a sparkling arc of pixie dust hastens the fade in of the company logo and the orchestra swells with an overture of “When You Wish Upon A Star.” In these 30 seconds, Disney conveys a number of things about what they represent, or at least what they mostly try to embody: Hope, dreams, imagination, wonder, and a child-like innocence rooted firmly in a sanitized version of the past that—hopefully—still applies today.

Truth is, I like the concept, perhaps even the worldview, that Disney, to varying degrees of success, traffics in. Worlds where phrases such as “Happily Ever After” aren’t scoff-worthy, where fairies and princesses burst into catchy songs, where tough times are just obstacles to overcome on journeys of self-discovery (often with the comic relief of anthropomorphized animal companions), where wishes and dreams and books and imagination are virtuous, where love can happen with a glance and where magic just is. The adult in me knows there are issues with this perspective, and particularly in the way Disney has handled their own ouvre: The whitebread protagonist syndrome (even dipping into darker, overt racism in earlier work), the implied materialism, the sometimes conflicted role of women or the frequently one-dimensional male figure offering timely salvation, the simplistic moral reductionism and so on. Better minds than mine have and will continue to pick apart the stories and products Disney produces, but those grown-up critiques are separate from the point that on its best days, Disney resonates with kids and with adults who are  still able to divorce their world weariness from their inner child and find joy in movies about dreamers, attractions featuring singing bunnies and shorts about an affable talking mouse and his slapstick-happy pals.

Disney isn’t a charity enterprise, and money sullies everything, so naturally there will be problems inherent with blind acceptance; no one wants indoctrination or the creation of the Cult of Disney. Excessive merchandising, hasty direct-to-video sequels, and inflated premium-brand pricing exists to mine the pockets of exhausted parents. Even the very act of creating that Disney mythos leads to princess culture and pink femininity which can itself be worrisome. It’s easy to over think it. Ahem. Obviously.

It was probably during our second session on Tuesday that it started to dawn on me as I struggled to not burden Callie with a toddler’s incessant need for reassurance that she was, in fact, having a good time and was understanding how cool everything was. It started during a solo stint where Nik and her sister, Sam, and Sam’s husband Chase went off in search of lunch that Callie and I weren’t as interested in. We wandered through “a bug’s land” in California Adventure and she noted an elaborate water play area, one side designed like a giant outdoor water spigot with a concrete hose running and the leaky connector poured a fine mist of rain over an area; around the other side of the land the faux hose terminated with a giant sprinkler head that shot water in hops and jumps from both the functional head and several jets set into the ground. We weren’t fully prepared for a soaked child, but it was hot and Callie kept asking about it. At once I felt my mantle as responsible father, constantly worrying about safety and preparedness and mindful limits, slip off completely. “Yeah, buddy,” I heard myself say, “you can play in the water. We’ll figure it out afterward.”

At first she was timid, standing to the edges and looking wide-eyed at the delighted crowd of children drenching themselves in the irregular jets of water. Occasionally on the sprinkler head side all the jets would just go nuts at once and the chorus of squeals and laughter from the kids would drown out the rest of the din of the park. After one of these climactic events Callie finally began to edge her way around the perimeter of the arena, moving with her deliberate, semi-graceless half run in a regular circle that I noted was more of a slow spiral as she gained confidence with each lap and drifted closer and closer to the actual thrill of cool splashing water. When she finally miscalculated a jet and got nailed, water running down her full cheeks and onto her t-shirt in perfect defiance of every parental missive to “try not to get messy” the grin on her face was unforgettable. After ten minutes her hair clung in sopping strands to her forehead and her shoes squelched with squeezing water from the soles on each giddy step and I couldn’t stop laughing, nor could she save for the few stops to check in with me, grab a drink of non-chlorinated water from my bottle and then back into the cooling fray she’d dance.

It wasn’t a ride, it wasn’t necessarily a unique-to-Disneyland experience, but it triggered something in both my daughter and I that it took until the last hour we had at the park to really clarify. Wednesday was our last day and after two days of shortened hours for the park (open from 10-8 only) that were even shorter when you factored in the two-to-three hour round trip shuttle ride and nap break, we made the call to try and push through a full day with only cat naps in the stroller or on calmer rides and attractions. But Callie, perhaps sensing the end of the trip, seemed determined to not miss any more than was strictly required and she refused to sleep even during the dim and soothing 15-minute Enchanted Tiki Room show I took her to. She did fall asleep for a bit in the line for the kiddie thriller in Toontown, Gadget’s Go Coaster, and didn’t wake fully even once we sat down in the car, only finally coming around when the train took its first dip down the track. But for the most part she was committed. After dinner in Downtown Disney, Nik, Sam and Chase were exhausted from the long day and though there was still an hour left before the parks closed, they called it a night. Callie and I weren’t quite ready, so we headed back to California Adventure for one last round of fun before the trip was over.

The nighttime show, World Of Color, was just about to start as we re-entered, which put a damper on my plan to hit up the area we had least frequented, Paradise Pier, since during the show nearly all the rides in that section are closed down including the big Mickey Mouse ferris wheel that Callie and I really wanted to try out. We settled on Toy Story Midway Mania! which is kind of a ride, kind of a video game and then tried to fight our way through the throngs of people filing out as World Of Color came to an end. We went back to Cars Land where we had stopped earlier in the week and practically walked onto Mater’s Junkyard Jamboree, a sort of updated Scrambler type ride. Time was drawing to a close by the time we walked off, laughing and smiling, and I hoped to find one last ride to catch before they shut it all down. We made it over to “a bug’s land” again and the guy at Flik’s Flyers, a spinning carriage ride, agreed to run it one last time for us, closing the line behind as we entered. Turned out we had the whole ride to ourselves and as we spun over the darkening park I watched the look on Callie’s face and reflected back on the things we’d done on this trip.

The list was drastically different from the last time Nik and I came alone: Dumbo, Mad Tea Party (x3), It’s A Small World (x2), Gadget’s Go Coaster (x2), Buzz Lightyear’s Astro Blasters, Astro Orbiter, The Disneyland Railroad (x2), Flik’s Flyers (x2), Tuck N Roll’s Bumper Cars, Mater’s Junkyard Jamboree (x2), King Arthur’s Carousel (x2), Autopia, Ariel’s Undersea Adventure, Finding Nemo Submarine Voyage, Toy Story Midway Mania, The Enchanted Tiki Room, Sleeping Beauty’s Castle. Very few of those were ridden by us in our grown-up only visits, and the only standards we hit were The Jungle Cruise and Peter Pan’s Flight plus Nik and I got to ride the updated Star Tours and the Halloween-themed Space Mountain: Ghost Galaxy while Callie spent a bit of time with her aunt and/or uncle. By the standards of our pervious trips, this was a dull, thrill-less trip, lacking any of the must-sees like Pirates of the Caribbean, The Haunted Mansion, California Screamin’, Indiana Jones, Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, Matterhorn Bobsleds, Maliboomer, etc. Nik and her sister did make it on the New Orleans Square highlights and I got to do the Twilight Zone Tower of Terror, but all told for a three-day visit it should have been a disappointment.

It was anything but. I had so much fun. I didn’t know the smaller, slower, less elaborate rides could be enjoyable ever again. But then I’d sit there, arm wrapped protectively around Callie, hearing the delirious squeals of sheer delight, watching her head drop back to feel the wind rush by her face or feeling her arm raise to point out a funny animatronic figure, and I saw what she saw. She made me feel what she felt, that sense of awe and excitement of watching characters come to life without thinking “I wonder how the robotics work under that plastic skin?” I grasped the simple pleasure of gently bounding off another “victim” in slow-moving bumper cars, understood the simple thrill of being able to ride a merry-go-round horse all by yourself for the first time. We stayed that last hour on Wednesday night because both of us, in at least equal parts, didn’t want it to end. We wanted to stay, to keep spinning and soaring and riding and seeing and sharing.

As we walked out to the snap of lights being shut off and rattle of chains being drawn across line entrances, Callie’s little bottom lip protruded and her soft eyebrows arced up and inward. “Daddy,” she said so softly I had to stop the stroller, lean down to hear, “I’m sad. I don’t want to go.”

I tried to force a brave smile. “I know, baby,” I said, “I don’t either.”

And at last I got it. Finally it was clear that I hadn’t needed to worry about making sure Callie loved Disneyland, that there was no need to go to extra lengths to expose her to everything the park had to offer. I wasn’t opening her eyes to anything at all. I wasn’t her guide. She was mine. This tiny three year-old, with sweetness and exuberance I’d long, long ago forgotten, re-introduced me to the place I’d been a dozen or more times, a place I’d sworn I knew inside and out, a place I was sure I fully understood. And she showed me I didn’t know it at all. I wanted to thank her, to hug her, to pay the price to push our flight back and buy one more day’s worth of tickets. Anything to keep it going, to retain that exact moment. But you can’t force the magic to happen, and it was time to apply the lesson my daughter had so effortlessly taught me.

“Don’t worry, sweetheart,” I said, feeling a last smile on my sore cheeks, “we’ll come back.”

She considered this for a moment, looking off at the near horizon and seeing the lights behind Mickey Mouse’s visage on the Paradise Pier ferris wheel. Her lip tucked itself back in and she smiled at me, the hint of tears still shining just so in her eyes, no longer needed but still lingering with the understanding that this small chapter was bittersweetly closing. “We’ll come back,” I said again, touching her hair.

“Yay!” she said, with all the genuine optimism only a small child can muster.

How I Accidentally Walked Thirteen Miles Pushing A Stroller

Nik decided at the beginning of the year to set some goals for herself. Among them was “Train For And Finish A Marathon.” This is a lofty goal for a girl whose doctors have told her the congenital herniated disc in her spine prohibits her from running. I like to tease her that this should pave the way for an awesome nickname like “Zombie Bait.” Not out loud, to her face, of course. That would be suicide. What I say to her face is, “It’s okay that you can’t run. If the zombie apocalypse is ever upon us, I will stay with you and we’ll be devoured together.”

I say this because by decree of a loving, sensitive wife she has to reply, “No! I’d have to be the bait so you could get our daughter to safety!” Then I can just look at her like I’m unconvinced but inside I know I’d totally hand her the shotgun and flee to the super awesome treehouse fortress Callie and I set up and I’d look back to see Nik taking down two, three dozen zombies in a really badass way with that shotgun and a tear of pride would slide down my face because let’s face it, shotguns are really loud and she hates loud noises. But she’d brave it out. For me. For us.

But I was talking about marathons. The vague goal that Nik set out to accomplish turned out to be vague enough to permit her to accomplish it with a few added specifics: namely, she would only do a half-marathon because full marathons are the same punishing distance as half marathons, twice. Also she would walk it because she doesn’t frequently adhere to doctor’s orders but when they say, “The next time you run you may snap your spine in half and spend the rest of your life in a wheelchair,” Nik is moderately more likely to take them seriously. It does pain me a little that her doctors know the only way to get her to listen is to over-exaggerate like that (at least, I assume it’s an over-exaggeration because a weakness like that sounds like the kind of thing that would offset a super-power, such as the ability to melt steel with her eyeballs or draw a perfectly straight line without the aid of a ruler).

Still, walking a half-marathon isn’t a watered-down goal. I realize some of you may be thinking, “Dude, that is totally a watered down goal,” which is fine, no one is policing your thoughts. But if you actually come right out and say that to me, I will devise a sinister contraption that forces you to walk and I will use it on you for thirteen point one miles and you will have no choice but to agree with me that walking a half-marathon is Serious Business.

I know this because I walked the half-marathon, too, albeit accidentally.

What happened was that Nik spent weeks training for this thing. I am not exaggerating in the least when I say that at one point she walked nine miles in driving, icy wind and rain. She came home that day soaked to the bone and took the hottest shower I’ve ever conceived of (I know this because the steam alone in the bathroom when I went in to check on her an hour later scalded me). She walked up a hill so steep that its several hundred yard length was specifically designed by the training directors to equate to an entire mile of the course that week. She got out of bed before nine in the morning. On Saturdays. She was devoted.

As for me, I slept in and hung out with Callie. You want to know what we were doing while Nik was fighting the sleet and hypothermia and possible ankle ligament damage? Wait, did I mention that the week before the training began, Nik sprained her ankle? Yeah, that totally happened. She was on crutches with an air cast the week before she started training. It didn’t stop her. But while she was fighting with the elements and her body to achieve her goals, Callie and I were eating Cocoa Puffs and watching cartoons. In a way, I felt like I was showing support. I have no idea what way that was, looking back. It probably seemed like I was showing the opposite of support. I really seems now like I was showing… I dunno, what’s the opposite of support? Neglect. Yes, I was showing neglect. Although I wasn’t neglecting our daughter. Maybe that’s where I was coming from? It seems really fuzzy now. You know how it is when you get too much sleep.

Anyway, Nik trained and I watched cartoons with Callie. And then the big day arrived and we all got up early and drove over to the course where the marathon would take place. I knew Nik was nervous and it didn’t help that I decided to be a colossal jerk the night before. What happened was that we were in Target, which is a store that I… well I don’t hate it. I don’t like it, either. I mean, it’s a store. I can’t really direct strong emotions toward it. But let’s say this: It’s a store that Nik thinks of as a kind of second home, like a combination of Mecca and Disneyland. She can spend hours there. Days. I think the highlight of her year to date (and I’m including meeting this lofty marathon goal in the equation) was when they opened a new Target, a few exits down the highway from the old Target. She was so excited when she walked in she was buzzing. She made plans—plans!—to visit a Target in San Diego when she went down there. This is a town that boasts one of the most famous zoos and waterpark/aquariums in the country, and she’s made sure to put, in ink, Target on the itinerary. My point is that she takes her Target shopping very seriously. So we were in Target so she could get some appropriate marathon-walking pants. And I got cranky.

I always get pretty cranky when I’m shopping. I just don’t like it. I don’t like spending money, I don’t like not knowing exactly what needs to be purchased when I step into the store, I don’t like the fact that shopping with a toddler is kind of like going to the DMV with a rabid wolverine tucked under your arm. It bugs me, and Nik and I shop in completely different ways. By that I mean, Nik shops and I walk into a store and scowl at everything. So I was in a bad mood and Nik was stressed and nervous because it was getting late and she still hadn’t found the perfect pair of marathon-walking pants so we started quarreling and didn’t stop until long after Callie had gone to sleep and the clock was saying ridiculous things like, “Hey, Nikki, you have four hours until you’re supposed to trek 13.1 miles and you aren’t asleep yet, and in fact you’re still arguing about whether or not it is perfectly reasonable to spend $13 on a tarp to keep the neighborhood cats from pooping in your daughter’s sandbox!” Our clock is pretty much a punk.

We had sort of kind of smoothed it over at some obscene hour and we were all kind of under rested and tense but we got to the park on time. Nik had her cool little number bib on and her time-marker strip laced into her shoe and her new (admittedly very fetching) marathon-walking pants. Callie was blearily rubbing her eyes while I looked on proudly. Then the announcer guy got everyone started and Nik took off. We watched the crowd disappear and hung out for a few extra minutes before I told Callie, “Okay! Let’s go get some breakfast and then we can go find a spot down the path to watch Mommy go by and cheer her on!”

To which Callie replied, “No!”

I laughed and walked out to the parking lot. She’s two, so her answer to most things is, “No!” It’s actually cute the way this is such a default setting for her that you can ask her something where the answer is clearly yes, like “Hey Callie, do you want to eat candy for dinner?” And she’ll say, “No—um, yes!” So I didn’t think much of it. Until I got to the car.

“Okay, up you go!” I said, trying to get Callie out of her stroller and into the car seat.

“No! No drive! No car! No!”

I tried to reason with her. “Well you can’t stay in your stroller all day!”

“No drive! No leave Mama!”

I kind of understood her concern, since her mother had just wandered away with a crowd of strangers, but it’s not like she’s so attached that she has some kind of crippling separation anxiety, so I tried to explain again the concept of a marathon, of Mommy doing something important for herself and to raise money for the American Heart Association. And I tried to reiterate the idea of breakfast, which was really where my heart was at  in the initial plan. She was steadfast, and she broke down in tears.

True, saying a toddler broke down in tears when she didn’t get her way isn’t exactly headline news. But amid her blubbering, snotty, red-faced and mostly incomprehensible fit, I caught the notion that she felt she would be abandoning her mother if we left. It didn’t matter how much I tried to explain that we were actually going to go ahead in the route so we could do the opposite of abandonment and could in fact cheer for her and encourage her to keep going, she was steadfast.

Now, I outweigh my daughter by some hundred and (murfle murble) pounds, so I could have forced the issue then and there, plunking her down in her car seat, trying to block out the wailing protestations and gone and gotten breakfast. This was my first inclination. But I try to be reasonable with her, try to encourage her to feel like she’s a part of the decision making process so she can take pride in her choices and we can all live together a little more harmoniously. So, looking for opportunities like that, I made a terrible miscalculation. I said, “Honey, our only option is to go try to find a spot to see her pass by, or try to catch up with her.”

Sometimes it’s freaky how a child who will ask, “What you say?” as if she is a foreign exchange student who has memorized but a single phrase in an English dictionary when you tell her to clean her room or get into bed or brush her teeth, will suddenly have a very comprehensive grasp of diction and implication when it serves her purposes. “Yes,” she said enthusiastically, “catch up with Mama!”

I laughed, because that was absurd. Nik had been gone for well over thirty minutes at this point and I was wearing jeans and a long-sleeved shirt. Plus, Callie was in her umbrella stroller which I had already had to fight to push across a three-foot stretch of recently mowed grass. “Anyway,” I said, “we’d have to get in the car just to go home and get the stuff we need to try and catch up with her.” A couple of things should be pointed out here. It had been discussed previously, the possibility of me doing the half-marathon in an unofficial capacity. I didn’t really want to bother registering or fundraising. Wait. That sounds bad. It’s not that I didn’t want to raise money for a good cause. But Nik and I have been together for so long that we don’t really have social circles that don’t overlap. So if I had to try to raise a certain amount of money on top of what Nik was raising, we’d be double dipping into our same friends and family. The point is, this wasn’t something I needed to check off my bucket list, but it was possible I could support Nik in a direct way by going along with her. In the end we had decided not to because Nik had plan A which was to walk with a person she met through a friend who was also in the half-marathon and she had plan B which was to enjoy her carefully crafted playlist as she went head down and got into the zone for the whole course. Besides, we didn’t find anyone to watch Callie and we weren’t sure how she’d do for hours in her stroller.

So the idea of me going on the walk itself wasn’t fully out of the question, it was just that it didn’t make sense at the time.

And then I saw my gym bag.

It’s significant to note that my gym bag is never in the car. As in, this was probably the first time it had been in there since I brought the bag home from the store (Target, natch). It is also worth noting that it was improbable that not only was the bag there, and fully packed, but the workout clothes inside were unused. The bag was there because Nik had picked me up from work the day before and the items were still laundered and usable because I had brought the bag to work intending to go to the gym but hadn’t made it due to some work crisis or another. And by work crisis I mean that when I got to work Friday morning I threw the bag on my desk and walked upstairs to the rest room and took a nap.

I should clarify that the “rest room” is distinct from the “restroom” because the latter suggests that I took a nap in a public toilet. That’s actually maybe not all that out of character for me to sleep while sitting on the can, but in this case my work has this room with a fully reclining leather chair that has no windows and can therefore be made pitch black. It’s called the rest room and it’s awesome. Way better than the gym, that’s for sure.

So it turned out that just by happenstance, I have a fresh set of workout clothes (ideal for walking a half-marathon) and a jogging stroller. Now, I make it a point not to lie to my daughter. About anything, really. I know that it makes my life more difficult, especially when you get to the grey area of half-truths and make-believe. For example, it makes Christmas particularly dicey because Nik insists that Christmas isn’t Christmas for a kid unless Santa Claus is involved. However, I refuse to go through the theatrics of perpetuating the illusion of the existence of Santa for some nebulous benefit of my daughter. My thought is, how can I tell her down the road to believe me when I say that promiscuous sex and drug use are bad and she just has to take my word for it when she could say, “Yeah, like I took your word for it that some fat guy could bypass the sanctuary of our home security to eat our snacks and drop off some unknown packages? This was a post-9/11 world, Dad! Anything could have been in those boxes!” It makes it difficult because I see the appeal of a happy holiday tradition but I don’t want to set a bad precedent. And here I was again, facing the choice of whether to admit to my daughter that we didn’t actually have a valid reason anymore to get into the car, and could actually do what I had suggested, even though at the time I hadn’t really meant it as a viable option.

In the end, I did what any reasonable parent faced with the prospect of changing their pants in a parking lot and then walking thirteen miles pushing a jogging stroller would do: I tried to talk her out of it. The crux of my argument was this: If we started down this path, if we actually tried to catch up with Mommy, she would be stuck in her stroller for hours. Literally, stuck. For hours. Because we have one car, which would be back at the starting line, and once we got to about the five mile mark, it would be functionally no different to us to simply finish the entire looping course as it would be to turn around and head back. Plus, I reminded her, that would be cheating and against the spirit of what Nik was trying to accomplish. It was a solid argument, I think. But she was unswayed. “Yes,” she decreed, “catch Mama.”

So I took off my pants in the parking lot, transferred Callie to her jogging stroller, collected as many bottles of water and random snack food as I could find in the trunk (which was actually a lot because Nik is like a super mom wrapped in a Boy Scout with all her preparedness… and I just now heard that simile the way most of you probably heard it and realized how icky it sounds so let’s just move on and forget I ever said that), and set off. Now, it should be noted that by this time Nik had a forty-five minute head start and it took me quite a while to figure out exactly where the course was because they had altered it to accommodate the fact that the starting line is also the finish line. So I wandered around a bit lost for another fifteen minutes or so and finally got on course about an hour behind Nik.

My thought was to run as much as possible until I caught up, but I had also forgotten an inhaler and for whatever reason the primary triggers for my asthma are (in order): running, laughing, cats. I love laughing and we own a cat, so the only one I can usually ever really avoid is running. In this case though I felt it important to at least make the effort to try and catch up with Nik before she reached the halfway point and turned around. Even still, I assumed I would probably just meet her coming back and since I wasn’t wearing one of those timer loops on my shoelaces, it wouldn’t matter if I went the full distance or not. But then as I was half-walking, half-jogging the trail, I sent a text message to Nik and after a few status updates on my progress, she decided to stop at a rest station around mile four and wait for me.

It still took me close to an hour to catch up with her, even with my half-jog, which she explained by saying that she had been in power-walk mode until I told her I was coming up behind her. I mostly took it to mean that I am a really slow runner, although I got to blame a lot of it on having to push Callie.

Once reunited, we started walking together and although Nik kept saying how glad she was that I decided to join her, I wasn’t so sure. I mean, I was afraid that I was kind of trampling on her accomplishment, you know? Like, she trains for this thing for weeks while I watch cartoons and eat cereal and then on the whim of a persuasive two year-old I decide to just do a half-marathon for no real reason as if it were the kind of thing I randomly decide to do all the time. Like, “Oh, hey, I have eight hours to kill, why don’t I just swim to Petaluma?” Let me tell you something: That has never happened. Actually, I don’t even know if that could happen. I’m surprisingly dense about my regional geography. Also, I’m pretty sure that the coastal areas near me are all marshy, salt ponds. But I’m getting off the point. The point is, deciding to do feats of physical endurance—unless you count eating three bags of Fritos in one sitting or playing World of Warcraft for sixteen hours straight physical endurance feats—is not my modus operandi.

I’ll spare you the step-by-step re-enactment of the trek, but let’s just hit the highlights:

  • Callie did get bored and sick of the walk, as I feared. All told, she did pretty good although I think we were aided by the fact that she got up really early and for a long stretch in the middle of the walk, she napped in her stroller. Nik and I were brutally envious of her and if we could have devised a way for us both to fit in the stroller, or even to take turns, I think we would have done it.
  • Callie’s favorite part was the “candy stations” where they passed out water and M&Ms or Skittles to give runners a small carbo-boost, or toddlers a mini sugar high to hold them over on the repetitive walk.
  • The biggest physical challenge mid-walk was our hip flexors. My right one was pretty sore most of the time (but not my left, suggesting I have a goofy, asymmetrical stride) but both of Nik’s were killing her and on the second half of the journey she had to make stops about once every half mile or so to stretch them out.
  • The biggest physical challenge post-walk for me was the ruthless sunburn I got. For all of Nik’s preparedness, she didn’t have any sunblock in the car and I underestimated the amount of shade that would be available along the route. The walk was three weekends ago and I’m still peeling. For Nik the biggest issue afterward I think was the incredible number of blisters she had on her feet. Somehow I didn’t get any, but she ended up with a dozen I think. It’s kind of a wonder she doesn’t resent me more.
  • The very end was incredibly difficult. Around mile 10, novelty is long gone and yet the finish feels painfully far away. Three miles isn’t really a nothing distance to walk to begin with, but when you’ve put three plus of those walks behind you already, you kind of want to stab whoever it is that forced you to undertake this torture. Then you realize it was you who chose to do this and you kind of want to stab yourself. Then you think that self-stabbing is probably less painful than walking thirteen miles and you resolve that the next time you get the bright idea to do something for charity, you’ll just have a stab-a-thon instead.
  • It does feel pretty good to finish it, though. The smile on Nik’s face as I took a weary picture of her wearing her completion medal is genuine and justifiably proud.

The absolute best part about walking a half-marathon though is that it burns like 1600 calories, which means that even if you account for the several hundred calories in carbs and granola and stuff that you have to eat along the way to avoid collapse, you can basically eat a huge meal that day for free. Also, you don’t even have to feel the least bit bad about taking a lengthy nap when you get home. We did both of those things.

The one thing I will say for Nik is that, as proud as she is of her accomplishment—and she is proud of herself, which I’m happy to see, because I’m used to being proud of her but she seems to not always find it easy to take pride in what she does—she’s incredibly honest. Having crossed the item off her list of goals for this year, she told me, “Now that I did it, I don’t think I ever have to do that again. I don’t think I’m the kind of person who just does marathons.” And that sounds perfectly reasonable to me.

Of course, then she followed it up with, “However, I could see myself doing something like a 10K…”

Callie shot me a look that I interpreted as, “You start the cartoons; I’ll get the cereal.”

Hand?

It was just one of those impromptu trips, the result of a round of “What should we do today?” The air was crisp and cold, a turn toward the seasonal from the spring preview that had hung over the Bay Area the previous week. There was some good-natured grumbling about, lamenting the lack of gumption on display by the warm front to hang in through the weekend proper. Our chosen destination was a book store Nik had heard about up north where they accepted donations and allowed patrons to walk off with up to 100 books, free of charge.

We’re not a book-deprived family. When we downsized six months ago to our current one-bedroom apartment, we put boxes and boxes of books into storage, but we still had enough to warrant bringing our gigantic Ikea bookcase (Billy, if you’re wondering). Since books are basically the only purchase we always seem to have room for in the budget, six months of bargain hunting and ooh-gotta-have-its have re-filled and then over-filled even that “pared down” selection that we couldn’t bear to be separated from. Even my Kindle, which has accounted for perhaps a quarter to a third of the books I’ve picked up over the last year or so, hasn’t done much to stop the steady flow of books into our home. It should be noted that this is all on top of regular trips to the library.

But a road trip and an investigative stop with the promise of free books was too much to pass up. In the end, the book shop was great. They had an unfortunate five book limit on children’s books (per family, even) but Nik and I came home with about fifty books between us. Some were true treasures (I found a massive old volume called The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich by William Shirer and a copy of Sue Grafton’s A is For Alibi, which I had been seconds from buying the previous week), others were cost saving measures (I picked up about five future volumes of Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum series), and still others were picked up because they were free and interesting so why not? (Nik got a copy of the Maureen McCormick memoir Here’s The Story on a whim; I picked up a book of poetry and a hardcover Stephen King novella collection, Full Dark No Stars that is in brand new condition except it’s missing a dust jacket).

The shop was small, though half the available floor space was taken up for administrative work by the staff of volunteers and stacks of unprocessed donations in big plastic bins, making the shelving space even more cramped. Most of the books were on a dozen or so nondescript bookshelves but a large number were stacked into cardboard boxes that lined the walls and were stacked on folding banquet tables. It was late in the afternoon when we arrived and it took us nearly an hour and a half to look through it all; as it was I’m sure I missed some finds.

Callie was amazing throughout. Some shopping excursions are easy to manage with an energetic toddler. As long as you plan ahead and don’t peruse aisles but surgically approach a list of items, department stores and grocery stores can be managed single-handedly. As full-family outings, plenty of other retail adventures can be managed by dividing and conquering: one parent essentially runs interference on the child while the other looks for what they need. Since shopping is a functional activity to me and not a pastime, I’m usually content to lurk in the toy section or let Callie explore while Nik browses. But book stores are a unique challenge because, at least to me, they demand a dedicated attention to the rows of potential purchases, relatively few of which are uniformly out of the question. The hazard is that Nik loves bookstores as well, which means there is no ready volunteer for toddler duty. But here we were able to find that as long as one parent was stooped over and searching through boxes within arms’ reach of the stacks of children’s books, Callie entertained herself by flipping through picture books for a good half hour or more. She did eventually get restless but I retrieved the stroller from the car and let her play games and watch videos on my phone while Nik and I took turns pushing her around the few aisles wide enough to accommodate our oversized jogging stroller while the other ventured deeper into the piles of cost-free literary treasures.

On the way home Nik and I chatted while Callie played with stuffed animals in the back seat. The sun was low on the horizon but there was still some lingering, silvery light left by the time we stopped by our mailbox before heading back out to get some dinner. As I hopped back into the car, Callie casually lifted her small arm up over her head and said, “Hand?” It was a simple gesture, a not-unique query in search of just some comfort and reassurance after a long time spent amusing herself in the relative solitude of the second row of seating. Nik said, “I can’t hold your hand right now, honey, I’m driving.” I turned a bit awkwardly in my seat and my daughter hooked a small, soft fist around my index finger and squeezed. I wrapped my comparatively massive hand around hers and we just sat for a bit and held hands.

I looked back over the rear-facing seat to see how she was positioned. She’s getting big, now, her legs now forced into a relaxed bend where they meet the seat back. Her straw-colored hair is long and gets in her face so we fight with her to pull it up into a ponytail, which she claims to dislike but I think provides her relief from sweeping her bangs out of her eyes all day. Her feet are growing and her little velcro tennis shoes that a grandma bought her need to find their way to the storage bin very soon. She had her arm raised way up over her head, a position that seemed a bit awkward to me but she gave no indication of discomfort as she leaned her cheek against her own shoulder and just held on.

I tried to take a snapshot with my mind, to just remember this simple, innocent, inconsequential moment where our small family drove off to find something to eat on a Saturday night and my little girl reached out to make a connection with a parent, a sweet girl looking to express her need for love and affection from the people she trusts and relies upon the most. I saw the momentary drift of a dust mote through a slanting beam of setting sunlight just before it lighted on a stuffed Snoopy toy that is Callie’s flavor of the week in plush companionship. I felt the uncommon softness of her tender skin, the lithe plumpness of her still-small but no longer toy-like fingers embracing my own. The radio played a morose tune about lost love and I squeezed a little bit tighter.

The agony of parenthood is the knowledge of inevitability. This small, vivacious, veracious girl will one day know heartache. She will find the dark corners of the Earth that I can’t hide from her, the places from which flow things that I have vowed to protect her against to my dying breath, to the best of my ability. The light that dances in her eyes, the light of trust and careless enthusiasm, may one day dim as war and poverty and hate manifest themselves to her. I resent the world for not being as idyllic as she is, for not meeting her perfectly reasonable expectations for comfort and joy and love. We speak of sheltered children as if they were broken in some way but the mad, frenzied instinct for me is to shelter her up, to block out the hard, harsh truth and take the brunt of the world against my back while I hold her in an unending embrace.

It’s foolishness, I know. I can’t possibly fight off the world. I wouldn’t, even if I could. Within the confines of that embrace, she would smother. Yes, there is darkness. Yes, there is pain. But there is also light. And there is also beauty. My gift to her should not be a protective shell but a toolbox, full of whatever she may need to fight the world or champion the meek all by herself. But still it hurts. She deserves better; better than me and better than this place.

She gave a little sigh. Just a small puff of contented air pushed past her lips that swirled the invisible dust in the air. Her hand loosened on mine, the reassurance she sought now found and she retrieved her small hand to focus back on her toys or a sip of water from the cup we keep on hand in case she gets thirsty while we drive. For an extra moment I just looked at her, peering over the car seat from the awkward angle that allowed only an outline of her full, ruddy cheek and her little button nose. I saw the pleasant bulge of her little toddler belly, pressing against the fabric of her t-shirt as she took another breath and began a stream-of-conscious monologue that was mostly about puppies and mamas and daddies and how they liked to play and eat. I smiled around a thick tongue and turned back, rubbing my fingers against each other where there was still the warm, lingering sense of contact, left by her tiny hand.