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August 2, 2018

Sometimes my four-year-old daughter throws enormous temper tantrums. Giant, booming, Wagnerian operas of emotion, full of red-faced theatrics, simultaneously absurd and completely sincere.

I don’t write about them often because, well, there are some things that you really can’t put into words, especially in a column where heavy swearing is frowned upon and you can’t actually see me crying. Like being blown away in a Category 5 hurricane or being mauled by a grizzly bear then learning your identity was stolen and all your money evaporated, you can go on and on about how unpleasant it was, but it’s the type of thing you really have to live through to fully understand.

On a side note, I just tried to Google “The worst type of hurricane” in order to remind myself how high the categories go. Before I could even type the “h,” my browser saw what I was doing and tried to help me out, auto-filling with: “The worst type of cancer.” It is 5 o’clock in the morning. Thanks, Internet.

I’ve read that these tantrums are a natural part of growing up. That they are inevitable, and that we don’t have the right to complain because we chose this life. Nobody wants to hear a skydiver go on and on about a little bit of windburn, or a clown gripe about the fact that he took a pie to the face. No one wants to see a matador lament a couple of bleeding, horn-shaped holes in his thigh; no one forced him to put on his fanciest tights and his best Mickey Mouse ear hat and start taunting a 2,000-pound beast.

I chose this, so I shouldn’t complain when my little girl bursts into tears, kicks, and proclaims this to be the “worst day ever” because I had the audacity to buy her vanilla ice cream, rather than the vanilla she explicitly asked for five minutes earlier.

We recently spent nine days on a lake in New Hampshire. While my daughter and I swam and played, I sometimes stopped to chat with my wife, who does not swim. Inevitably, we debated whether or not swimming is one of those skills you can magically do if you are motivated strongly enough.

“Well, I can’t swim,” she always says. “But I could probably swim if I were drowning!”

“I don’t think it works that way,” I reply. “People can’t suddenly fly if, and only if, they fall out of an airplane.”

“Oh, I could probably do it if I really wanted to,” she responded. “It’s just that I don’t enjoy it, so I don’t want to try right now.”

Several people have told me that swimming is a bit like riding a bike. “Once you know how to do it, you’ll always know how!” they proclaim.

While treading water with the shoreline a fuzzy little panorama in the far distance, I suddenly realized that there are a couple key differences between cycling and swimming. For starters, if you do forget how to ride a bike, all you have to do it get off and walk. If you want to stop swimming in the middle of a lake or ocean, there is still the task of getting to shore. The other thing I realized is that, sure, I will always remember HOW to swim, in much the same way that I know how to dunk a basketball (just jump really high), how to scale Mount Everest (climb really high and give all the heavy stuff to the guides), and how to win a Nobel Prize for Literature (just write a really great book!). But, in order to implement this knowledge, one must have things like muscle mass, endurance, or perhaps even talent. I could easily sink to the bottom of the sea as my legs and arms grew too tired to obey, all the while thinking, “But I know HOW to swim. What’s happening right now?”

Young children can build up muscle mass at an alarming rate. After a week in the water, little Hadley’s legs were starting to bulge with new muscles, pulling the smooth, sandstone-colored skin taut over them. When she leapt up into my arms, bounding into the air so high that I worried she was about to take flight and join a passing flock of gulls, I imagined what one of her tantrums would be like if she were, you know, immensely physically powerful. As she embraced me and whispered, “I love you, daddy,” I felt the frightening power in her arms as they closed around me, and I suddenly felt enormous empathy of John and Martha Kent. “What do you do when your child is an ‘X-Man’ and you bring her the wrong flavor ice cream?!” I wondered.

“You’ve been getting a lot of fresh air and exercise lately,” I said. “Maybe it’s time to sit in front of the television for a few hours.” Maybe it’s time for a little atrophy, just to level the playing field, I thought.

My fears–these particular fears, at least–are unfounded. She is getting stronger, but when she emerges from bed each morning, the thing I’m most struck by is just how small she really is. She’s three feet tall! She weighs 35 pounds! She’s like a hobbit.

As she wobbles out into the world each morning, rubbing the sleep from her eyes and telling me about the most wonderfully bizarre dreams, I’m always shocked by how very diminutive she really is.

It’s the same way I feel when I meet celebrities in person. I hear the same thing from other people, too.

“Morgan Freeman was nice,” they’ll say. “He was smaller than I expected.”

It’s because the size of a person has nothing to do with the metaphysical space they take up, and the muscles in their little arms have nothing to do with their immense psychological power when you really, really love them.

Still, I wonder: How can someone who looms so large in my mind, someone whose sheer force of personality is so epic in scale, be no bigger than a plump raccoon? She has to look UP at doorknobs! I realize all this, reminded yet again that our world is one of profound contradictions, where things can hold several essential properties at once, both large and small, beautiful and ugly, despondent and hopeful.


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