“Derek doesn’t have a penis. He has wind chimes.”

We’ve been watching The Good Place with our five-year-old.

Don’t make that face. I see it.

Dena and I are huge fans of The Good Place, just like we were fans of Parks & Recreation, but we were moved to start introducing it to our daughter as a way to prompt discussion with her about being kind, and what it means to think about doing kind things for other people and for herself.

Yes, the show has a lot of fart jokes, but it also has teachable moments about making good choices and being honest.

Some of the stuff flies right over her head, and we’re fine with that. Even when things like this happen:

(Sprout’s grandfather’s iPhone makes the Chimes alarm sound)

Dena: (under her breath, to me) Derek?

Sprout: (enthusiastic, to her grandma) There’s this show called The Good Place and there’s a character named Derek. Derek doesn’t have a penis. He has wind chimes!

Look… I regret nothing.

Yes, watching this show with her means that we have embarassing moments like that, and it also means we have to watch her imitate Bad Janet farts so, so many times.

But it means that we get to talk with her about big, important ideas about being a good person.

It means she gets to watch a show that had a strong commitment to purposefully diverse casting, showing her a more accurate depiction of the different people that make up our world and our communities.

And it will give us a chance to talk about doubt, and fear, and despair, and cruelty. Because there’s plenty of reason to discuss those things, and to start giving her the tools to call them out and rise above them.

We would never stick her in front of a TV and hit autoplay on this show. It’s a lot, even for grown-ups. If we watch an episode, we usually spend time afterward talking through what we saw.

But the act of watching with her is important. So she sees us actively engaging with the story and the ideas in the story. So she can ask us questions. And so she can get into the habit of treating the media she consumes more thoughtfully.

When I was a kid, I watched movies as a way to talk with my dad about atomic bombs and the Cold War. These were heavy topics, but the giant monsters and cheesy effects made it palatable.

But the message of the act of watching stuck with me: Never take a story for granted, and always ask why this story is being told.

That’s a question I want my kids to be confident in asking.

Seabase Alpha

The Hydrolators. A row of specially designed, retro-futuristic elevators ready to take guests under the ocean to visit Seabase Alpha. I held my father’s hand and waited for my family’s turn to board. I tapped my feet, eyes darting over the crowd of sunscreen-scented tourists, cameras at the ready. They went inside the Hydrolators, the doors closed, and a minute later, another group would board.

I was ten years old, and I wouldn’t put my head underwater in a pool unless suitably bribed. During the swimming lessons my mother insisted I take at the YMCA, I clung to whatever flotation device I was offered. That pool, with its dim, sickly green lighting, appeared bottomless. The instructor said I could float on my own if I just laid back and trusted the water to hold me.

But I knew things could sink. Water swallows them up. I kept my white knuckle grip on the kickboard.

My parents and I entered The Living Seas pavilion mostly knowing what to expect. There was a short movie about the ocean and a ride that took you around a coral reef. Yes, water and I didn’t get along, but there was a fight going on inside me.

I was the kid who told his preschool teacher that he wanted to be a paleontologist when he grew up (and then had to explain what that was to his classmates). I was the kid who checked out every Isaac Asimov branded book about space from my elementary school’s library, one by one. I was the kid who wanted to spend a big chunk of our trip to Disney World going to as many of the attractions at Epcot as we possibly could.

That was the battle: Science is cool! vs. Your watery death is an inevitability.

The crowd thinned out and we waited to move up. I started sniffling. Impatient twitching turned into fearful trembling.

I knew that Body Wars didn’t really shrink my family down and inject us into somebody’s body to swoop around inside their capillaries. I knew that when Pluto snuck up behind me at breakfast and put his gigantic mouth on top of my head, it was just a person in a suit.

But an elevator? Those are real.

One of the Disney World employees saw me and came over to talk. She asked what I was scared of and I told her that I was afraid of going down so deep.

She could have taken us to an exit. She could have said it was alright to pass on something you were scared of and left it at that.

Instead, she showed me a door. She lead my family off to the side of the Hydrolators to a door marked for staff use only and pushed it open for me to look through.

I saw the other side of the Hydrolators. They didn’t go anywhere.

The Epcot employee explained to me that there were a lot of effects that happened in the Hydrolators to make it feel like you were moving, but it was just for show. Something they did to make the ride feel more special. And then the doors on the other side would open.

She asked if I still wanted to go on the ride, and I nodded. She pointed to the line of people getting ready to get into the cars that would take us all around the reef and said we could head right over.

But I wanted to go back and see the Hydrolators. I wanted to see the bubbles. I wanted to feel the shaking. I wanted to see the rock walls moving behind the elevator glass to simulate sinking deep into the ocean.

I wanted to learn how this whole exhibit had made me ignore all the obvious red flags that a science-minded kid should have recognized (Such as “How would they build an undersea base in Orlando, which is in the middle of Florida’s peninsula?”). I wanted to laugh at myself for being afraid of this magic trick.

Peering through that door opened up worlds to me. That moment carried greater resonance when I got around to reading Philip K. Dick and Jean Baudrillard. The memory was sitting in the background as I watched Jurassic Park and thought about how maybe paleontology wasn’t for me, but there might be something to storytelling and film. I still think about that moment in a more literal sense, like when my wife and I went to Universal Studios, and I spent time on the rides looking for the tricks. Trying to spot the seams of the illusions. That moment even crept up during my first encounters with Buddhism.

But maybe the most important part of that moment for me to remember is the compassion of the employee, and how she did more than just try to calm me down and keep the ride going. She showed me that there could be joy both in being tricked and in discovering how it had happened; that skepticism and wonder don’t need to be mutually exclusive.

Treading Lightly

When my wife and I first brought our baby home, Sprout slept in a pack & play next to our bed. It helped us to respond quickly to her needs, but it created a problem: We needed to be quieter in order to avoid waking her.

After a few nights of hearing the Mission: Impossible theme in my head every time I tried to slip under the covers, the realization hit that there was more to it than stealth. We started looking at the room differently. There was a need to rearrange where things were in order to make it easier to take care of the necessary tasks. It became more important to maintain the order in that space than before. Anything left on the ground could create noise or injury to the person trying not to make noise.

You start to look at your actions differently. Being quiet doesn’t involve tensing up and tip-toeing the way that every cartoon ever would have you believe. You limit how much you move. You tone down how much force you put into actions. You set things down gently instead of tossing (which also helps to maintain the space). Your actions begin to feel lighter.

You even think about your actions differently. It may start as “I have to be quiet while I get into bed, or else this baby is going to hear me, wake up, and never go back to sleep until the next Presidential election, and I will rip all my hair out long before then!” but if you keep that up, you will wake the baby. And you will be annoyed. And it will be harder to focus on getting the baby back to sleep.

But with practice, you can hit that sweet spot where you’re even treading lightly in your mind. “I need to pull the covers back.” “I need to sit down on the bed.” “I need to shift my weight to slide under the covers.” Simple actions, pushing toward the goal, but detached from the prediction of failure. Even your mind is using less effort. Walking softly.

Drop a rock in a stream. The water doesn’t stop, look at the rock, swear under its breath, and evaporate. It flows around. That rock can be seen as an obstruction to the natural flow of the water, or it can be seen as the cause of a new route. Either way, the water keeps flowing. The trick is in learning to see the difference.