A couple of days ago, the whole family was out to the Wal-Mart together. It was a snowy Saturday afternoon, and we'd all been cooped up for too long.
After forty-five minutes of cleverly keeping clear of all the Easter candy, we came up to the register, and I drew the short straw. In the grocery story, my wife and I split duties: one of us handles the groceries, and to other takes our kid to playland. Guess which duty I pulled.
The people who put grocery stores together know what they are doing. When one parks a grocery cart in front of a register and begin unloading, one's child is positioned right in front of a rack of candy. Even if the child is full, even if the child is eating two suckers (one in each hand), even if the child has been knocked out, they will reach for this candy...
And then scream if they can't get it.
So my wife and I have come to the point where we must split the chore and take our kid away from the candy. That's right, we are smart; we take our little girl away from the candy and set her up in the playland, which is a little arcade and coin-operated ride section of the Wal-Mart situated right next to the registers.
You see, they are brilliant; they will extract your money one way or another.
As a side note, there is a brilliant and fascinating section in Eric Schlosser's book, Fast Food Nation in which he describes the race between Disney and McDonalds to capture parents' money by enticing children into a fantasy world. Out of that race we get two things I despise: Disneyland and Playlands. This kind of salesmanship is lower than low. In fact, as far as I am concerned it's no longer sales but pure, unadulterated mongering, complete with one of the best diversionary tactics on the planet.
Instead of complaining about the way these corporations have our children shilling their crap, we have had our attentions turned to the problems of media content. The nudity and violence of the R-rated movie (not, of course, intended for children) proves the need for the toy, meal, clothing marketing package. Their content is child-friendly, just the thing a parent needs to keep Martin Scorsese and Quentin Tarentino at bay.
My wife and I have been able to navigate this business pretty well, so far. We don't watch a bunch of television. Zoë likes old Felix the Cat cartoons better than whatever the hell they have on the tube these days. We don't know.
That's not entirely true, we have bowed a little to Dora the Explorer, because Dora is a can-do little girl and that's an okay message for now. And in the Wal-Mart playland we've not told our child that the horse, boat, truck, motorcycle actually trot, pitch, rumble, or vroom. Up until last week she thought of these things as play sculptures, like in the park. You use them for pretending.
Saturday, my daughter Zoë and I headed into the playland. To my surprise, and Zoë's amazement, we found a young dad and his eighteen-month old little girl in the Tigger Boat, not still on placid seas as it is when Zoë and I play on it. Saturday it was pitching its way across the bounding main, and Tigger was saying all kinds of Tiggery things about boats and silliness and being good, good friends.
As it will happen when she's amazed, Zoë's mouth went round and she gasped and she lifted her finger to point at the object of her attraction. "Daddy," she eventually gasped. "Daddy, that boat is moving."
"Yes," I said, thinking for some explanation. I couldn't say it was broken or that the little girl had special powers or that, heaven forbid, the girl's father had some skills, abilities, or connections that I lacked.
After a few more seconds of noise and rumbling the boat slowed, Tigger bid his passenger farewell. The little girl and her father debarked. As they left, the other father, damn him, looked down at Zoë and said, "Now it's your turn."
Zoë stared at me with deep and palpable yearning. It was obvious to me that I could not simply redirect her attentions to the still ice cream truck or the horse frozen mid-gallop over by the change machine. And with a "good" father within spitting distance, Zoë would know the difference between me and the preferable parent. She would know that I am the mean father, the parsimonious father, the father who will not unlock the joys of the universe with the small round "money" I have recently begun to allow her to fish out of the couch and put in the bib pocket of her overalls.
So I conceded...
I hoisted her into the boat and told her to grab the wheel. I plucked a quarter from my pocket, let it glint before her eyes, and then thumbed it into to machine, which roared to life, bounding and Tiggering for a minute or two until it slowed and stopped.
Zoë, still clutching the helm, looked up at me, smiling. The expression on her face said, "That's good, Dad. That was a good ride." I smiled back, then she wheeled and pointed her finger at the horse. "Make that one go, too," she said. "Put money in that one."
Thankfully her mother appeared with the groceries bagged. She was folding the long receipt in half and then in half again.
I helped Zoë down, and she ran to my wife. "He make it go. Daddy make it go."
She was so excited about the whole thing, with the ride and with the fact that I did this for her. So how could I help but feel incredible ambivalent about the whole thing. I was able to work magic for my little girl, but now we were trapped. She knew I could bring these inanimate sculptures to life, even for a minute, and in her world, that is power.
She would also know that I could choose not to use that power, and every time I withheld it would be a slight against her. It would be me choosing to love my money more than I loved her. I could see it. My wife could see it. Our lives had changed. We were in the system.
We have become fully-baptized parents, and it will take the rest of our lives to set things right.