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Things my daughter believes we need to bring with us in case of a fire

The other morning at the breakfast table, my almost-six-year-old daughter started laying out her whole life plan for me. I wound up recording about 14 minutes of it, since Sprout was really on a roll (yes, her Eggo got cold).

She had everything planned out:

  • Her career
  • Her spouse’s career
  • Where they were going to live before and after they had kids
  • How many kids she was going to have
  • What pet each kid was going to have (and be personally responsible for)
  • Where her brother Button would live, and how Button would take care of the kids she already had if she was giving birth to the younger ones (because she expects her spouse to stay with her in the hospital “just like you did with Mom.”)
  • How they would all evacuate their house in the event of a fire

Hold Up — What was that last one?

She’s been very focused on what to do in the event of a fire.

  • Who’s going to get Luna?
  • What if we’re outside and can’t hear the smoke detectors?
  • What if a fire starts when we’re asleep?
  • Will we go to the front yard, or the back yard?
  • No, really, who’s going to get our cat? We won’t have time to put Luna in her carrier.

The other day she made an emergency kit in a pile on the couch:

  • Snugglies, including Fletcher (her forever favorite) and Sushi Cat.
  • Toys
  • A coat, in case the fire happens at night when it’s cooler
  • A blanket
  • Snacks

She’s a very structured kid. She likes process and routine. It makes sense to her. So she’s drafting this all in her mind when she starts thinking about fire.

And she’s thinking about fire a lot lately. Sometimes so much that she says she can’t think of anything else.

But it’s not as if suddenly there’s been a lot of external references to fire that she’s been bombarded with. We don’t live near a fire station, nobody we know has dealt with a fire recently, and the only time we’ve ever had to call the fire department was years ago for what fortunately turned out to be a very minor issue.

So… Yeah. Where did this come from?

Buddy Holly, “Ben Hur”, space monkey, Mafia

Years ago my friends and I would riff on “We Didn’t Start The Fire,” adding new verses to this random jumble of baby boomer buzzwords. Looking back on that word salad, it feels like a proto-Twitter stream.

And I think about that because of all this around us right now. The ambient anxiety. The multi-pronged, world-on-fire assault on our attention every day.

With all that going on around her, and being a young kid, she’s processing only part of what’s going on. She understands social distancing, and she understands why she can’t play with her friends, why school closed, and why (for a long time) she couldn’t even go near her grandparents.

A fire is smaller and easier to respond to than all this.

Sometimes it comes up to the surface

Before bed time every night, Sprout and I read together. Normally I prop myself up in her bed with a few of her snugglies, but the other night she asked me not to use Nice Bear.

“Nice Bear has a fever,” she said, “And snugglies don’t have vaccines. But they do have medicine. So she’ll get better, but you shouldn’t put her in bed tonight.”

The subtext of her anxiety has always been about this pandemic, but it doesn’t always come out as directly as it did in that conversation.

Sprout is an intense extrovert who was cut off from her Young Fives Kindergarten class months ago and has spent most of that time with me, her mom, and her baby brother. Nothing about this new normal feels normal to her.

She craves the world that she’s known for most of her life and that’s kept just out of reach.

When we go out into the backyard, she makes up Star Wars themed games and tells me to do voices (My Ewan McGregor Obi-Wan has gotten pretty good over the last two months). But what do these Rebels and Imperials do every time we play?

They plan birthday parties. Or Christmas. They invite guests and think about food and games and presents.

It’s the flip side of her panic planning about fire safety.

She could have adventures in the farthest corners of the galaxy, but all she wants is to play games with some friends and share cake.

What I can and cannot do for her

I can hug her as many times a day as she’ll let me.

I can tell her she’s loved, and her mom and I will do everything we can to keep her safe, no matter what.

I can wear a mask, and can be vigilant about my own exposure when I have to venture out into the world without her (especially soon, knowing that I’m required to teach face-to-face in a classroom).

I can pretend to be Obi-Wan Kenobi and Darth Vader and, yes, even Luke Skywalker, if that’s what she needs.

But I cannot make sure that her school is safe for her to attend.

And I cannot convince every person to make the small concession for the health and safety of others and wear a damn mask.

And I cannot single-handedly convince the federal government to just try and do better.

I cannot step into a clean suit and stare into a microscope until I have an a-ha moment that allows me to save everyone with a simple answer nobody has thought of.

And I cannot be all the friends she misses. I cannot be a kid.

We do not have a metric for all we’re losing

We can measure the lives lost.

We can measure the number of people who were infected.

We can measure the number of people who were exposed, or at least the number of people who were able to get a test because they thought they were exposed and were able to jump through whatever hoops were required of them to get a medical opinion.

We can measure the number of people filing unemployment claims. We can measure the number of businesses closed or filing for bankruptcy. We can measure the value of the stock market and the GDP.

But we have nothing that measures how many good ideas will never be put to use from the people we’ve lost, or because the people still living haven’t been able to think about anything other than their fear or anger or exhaustion.

We can’t measure the achievements, advancements, or good deeds lost. We can’t even guarantee that some of these things have only been delayed.

We cannot know the landscape of the path we shall never travel.

And if we cannot have some kind of measure to know what we could have achieved if our nation hadn’t been forced a poisoned cocktail of unpredictable, indiscriminate disease and conscious, callous government disinterest and disinformation…

All we can do now is the same thing we could do before.

Wake up every day and try.

Force yourself out of the doomscrolling (literal and figurative) and find that small patch of goodness that you can tend.

If you don’t know where to start, make a list of the essentials. The things you need now, and any time that all this feels like too much.

And don’t forget to include snacks and snugglies.

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On not passing on your fears and failures

My daughter loves getting in the pool, except for one thing: Getting water in her face. I know this problem well.

When I was a kid, I hated being in the water. Hated it with a passion. Needed to be bribed, heavily, in order to even attempt the most basic aspects of swimming, like going underwater. And even then I still hated it.

When I was younger, there was a PSA that ran all the time on television about how little water it could take for a child to drown. It was intended to make sure parents didn’t leave a baby alone in a bathtub, but my brain catalogued it as evidence that drowning should be a constant fear when in the water.

So I recognized that level of fear and anxiety when Sprout was asked to put her face all the way in the water to blow bubbles (called Submarine Bubbles by her swim class instructor, as opposed to Motorboat Bubbles, which just involve putting up to your nose in the water).

“But what if it hurts?” she would repeat on a loop, with different levels of anxiety and tears.

That fear of potential pain would lead to stalling. To crying. To building up a wall of anxiety around something that she could actually do when she pushed through that initial moment of fear.

And I thought about all the years I spent, afraid of the water. Afraid of getting stuck underwater and drowning. Scared witless by a moment as a tween when I got the courage to swim in the ocean with some friends, only to fall behind and get pulled under by wave after wave as I struggled back to shore.

I didn’t want that for her. I wanted her to face this fear down.

We had an opportunity: A family trip to a lodge in Ohio, where four generations of my family were spending the weekend. The lodge had a pool in the back yard, and the weather would be warm enough for plenty of opportunities for Sprout to practice.

But we needed to bribe her to do Submarine Bubbles.

At first, it was one dollar if she did five of them. Then my dad offered a matching gift for the second set of five, so two dollars for that set. And the last set, the one where she threw herself into them with gusto, involved matching gifts (as a limited time offer) from a bunch of other family members, which brought her $10.

She was practicing. She was getting better. My wife and I were both feeling more confident she could keep this up.

But the night before her final swim class, when executing submarine bubbles for her teacher would determine if she moved on from Mini Fish 1 to Mini Fish 2, she went back into her stubborn, fearful refrain. I asked her to do one Submarine Bubble in the bath tub, and —

“But what if it hurts?”

There’s a frustration and a futility to arguing against an irrational fear. You can’t out-reason it. The only thing that we could do, in trying to help Sprout break through, was normalize the thing she was afraid of: Water in her face.

At one point, during her bath, I asked her if it would be worse to get hit in the face with water or a ham sandwich. We agreed that the ham sandwich was worse (especially if it had mayo on it). Then we made other comparisons, and I asked her if I could dump water from a pitcher onto her face while we joked about it.

With every comparison, she picked water in her face as being the better of the two options. With every splash, she laughed a little harder about the water in her face.

We had to get through this. We had to, because I was not going to pass on this fear. Whenever I’ve gone swimming with Sprout, I’ve always tried to be conscious of not showing any hesitance toward what she was doing, or signal any anxiety that she might pick up on. And I wanted to feel like my failures wouldn’t become hers.

When it’s your own child, it’s sometimes hard to remember that teaching isn’t always about successes. The Last Jedi put it pretty succinctly:

'The greatest teacher, failure is.' —Jedi Master Yoda

Because I know the fear, I can share with her what I know about facing it. Because I know the cost of letting this fear overwhelm your common sense and your courage, I can remind her of what she’ll miss out on if she forgets how brave she is.

One pathway to success isn’t going to work for all people, but passing on which roads point toward failure can help other people narrow their choices and find the way that works for them.

Let’s cut to the end: She passed the class.

As soon as she was in the water with her teacher, Sprout was eager to talk about how much she had practiced her Submarine Bubbles and showed her teacher what she could do.

After finding out she had passed her class, Sprout was full of boundless enthusiasm for swimming, and wanted to show us all the things she’d learned in her class, without the aid of floaties.

We had to reel her back in when she said that she wanted to jump off the diving board like some older kids she saw, but it was great to see her get past the fear, to feel pride in what she’d done, and to show courage when facing down something that only days before was still paralyzing to her.

At one point we had to start calming her down to get ready to leave, and my wife, commenting on Sprout’s newfound excitement for swimming, asked her “Where did you come from?”

And like the Pawnee Goddess she is, Sprout shouted back:

“I came from your belly, and I’m made of Spicy Chicken Sandwiches!”

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Let’s Talk About Cats

Picture a cat.

Now picture that cat in your home, somewhere near you.

What do you imagine that cat doing?

Don’t overthink it. Whatever immediately came to mind when I said to imagine a cat in the room with you works fine.

Got it?

So, what did you imagine?

Was it something you’ve seen a cat do before? Chase a laser pointer? Stare out a window at some birds? Knock something off a table? Curl up and purr in your lap?

Remember that. Keep your imaginary cat in the back of your mind for a few minutes.


Recently, my daughter looked down at our lazy, 13-year-old cat lounging on the carpet.

“When’s Luna gonna get bigger?”

I paused. “She’s already fully grown. That’s as big as she gets.”

Sprout started to pout. “So I’m never gonna get to ride her‽”

I didn’t see that one coming.

What Sprout did just then? That was beginner’s mind in action.


You see a cat, or you imagine a cat, and your experiences tell you about things that cats do. They tell you purposes cats have. You catalog and categorize the things you see in the world around you.

This thing is a cat. This thing is like a cat. This thing is not a cat.

Time passes. More things make their way into the matrix of your memory. All thoroughly cross-referenced and orderly.

And that’s why you didn’t consider riding your imaginary cat.

You have your reasons, and they’re good reasons. They’re true. It would be foolish to try and actually ride a housecat.

But that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be an imaginary possibility.


I want to try to break down how Sprout came to this moment. My guess is she had some combination of these thoughts (not necessarily in this order):

  1. There’s Luna.

  2. I love my cat so much, I can’t handle it.

  3. I am small, and so is Luna.

  4. I am growing.

  5. Is Luna growing? Ask a grown up.

  6. I can ride animals, like that time I rode Oreo the pony.

  7. If Luna was bigger, I could ride her!

  8. When will Luna be big enough for me to ride? Ask a grown up!

Her creative process for this idea probably involved memories, established facts, and questions about the unknown.

It’s unlikely she’s seen anyone riding a cat, so that’s a novel element. It’s an aspect of the unknown.

It's just a picture of He-Man on Battle Cat.
I am absolutely certain Sprout has never watched He-Man in any form, so I’m ruling out this as an influence.

However, that element of the unknown is an extension of the known. She’s not just creating this possibility out of nowhere.


So why am I doing a deep dive on two sentences from my daughter, besides the fact that they made me laugh really hard?

What I saw in her in that moment was a piece of the larger creative process: The desire to create something that does not currently exist, except in the mind.

It reminded me of the beginning of Shunryu Suzuki’s Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind:

“In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few.”

The more we learn about an idea, or a process, or an art form, the more it can constrict our thinking. That which has already been proven, or has already been done, suggests boundaries for what can still be learned or done.

It limits the questions you ask, or the solutions you attempt.

While I can’t deny there is value to be had in deep study of anything you want to work with, be it a creative medium, a scientific field, or any job with its set of processes and requirements, adhering to strongly to “the way things are done” can stifle novel solutions.

The best cinematic expression I’ve seen of this comes from Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back. While training on Dagobah, Luke whines to Yoda about how he couldn’t possibly lift an X-Wing using the Force. He says that even though he can lift rocks with it, an X-Wing is much heavier.

Luke knows the weight of objects, and he knows his capacity to physically lift objects. He applies these rules to how he thinks the Force works.

And Yoda attempts to convince him that his strict adherence to just these facts isn’t helping him.

Yoda: 'You must unlearn what you have learned.'

In this example, Yoda lifts the X-Wing out of the swamp using the Force to make a point: This is something new to you that you don’t yet understand. It isn’t a muscle. It doesn’t use your body. You can’t hold onto the same rules you learned from interacting with heavy objects using your body.


There’s a method to test and explore ideas. To not feel like everything is already decided for you, or that what you already know is an impenetrable wall, halting your progress.

Anchor your ideas in what you know, but test those boundaries of possibility. Ask questions, the way Sprout did.

Think about what happens if something you see as a hard rule could bend, just a little.

Then chase that notion.

It’s mental jujitsu. Use the weight of the knowledge you already have against itself, and try to swing it to the side to see if it will make way for something unexpected.

To be clear: I do not have all the answers to this, or a simple, listicle-friendly process for people to follow. It’s something I wrestle with regularly, too.

What I do know is that some ideas are less solid and impenetrable than they seem, and it’s important to be able to test your ideas to understand them as they truly are.

It does you no favors to look at a suggestion and see it as a rule, or vice-versa, like the difference between a stop sign and a yield.


One caveat: This doesn’t mean that all ideas formed in this Beginner’s Mind state are great ideas.

I can’t tell you how many times since having this conversation with Sprout that I’ve had to stop her from straddling Luna in preparation to actually try to ride the cat.