Elizabeth turns 17 today. And I'm a mess. I'm sitting here in tears, looking at old photos, thinking way too much about where the time went. She's an adult in so many ways. She drives. She can go see R-rated movies without us. She speaks a language that I don't understand. Today she was explaining to me what scalding hot tea means, and I'm like one of those sitcom fathers I grew up with, the ones that say, "Right on!" in the most horrifying, "I'm too old to be functional in today's world" way.
I'm taking a couple of old stories about Elizabeth and reposting them, adding a few thoughts here and there. I'm also editing them slightly for context and clarity. Here's the first of the three, from when Elizabeth was 9.
* * *
The first thing I had to do when we got to Harry Potter World was stand in line. This was not unexpected. We had been told by many to prepare for 1930s Soviet bread length lines. Still, it was surprising to find that I had to wait in line just for the right to go into Harry Potter World, just for the right to wait in long lines. It turns out that Harry Potter World is small, and they can only let in so many people at a time. I had to wait in a 45-minute line that twisted and turned through the park just to get a return ticket that would allow us to come back to Harry Potter World four hours later.
It probably goes without saying that I do not like waiting in lines — this has to be like saying that you don’t like traffic or you don’t like doing taxes. But, to tell the truth, I enjoyed standing in this line. It was a beautiful day, and the line snaked through Comic Strip World (or whatever it's called); while the family was off doing amusement park things, I looked at Beetle Bailey and Cathy and Blondie exhibits. I felt an unexpected, “I’m a Dad” feeling of pride. What is that? I remember my Dad doing all sorts of awful tasks just so we could do something fun -- scrounging for tickets, driving across states, parking the car while we kids got started on the fun. When I finally reached the end of that first Harry Potter World line and got our return tickets, I felt this great sense of accomplishment. Nobody, for the moment anyway, could argue the point.
Attorney: My client is a great dad. Judge: What proof do you have of this? Attorney: He waited by himself in a 45-minute line so his wife and daughters could go to Harry Potter world. Judge: Case closed. Defendant is a great dad.
We had four hours before being granted access to the actual Harry Potter World lines, and so we went to Dr. Seuss Land. This reminded me, once again, that Dr. Seuss was a disturbed man. I don’t mean this in a bad way — I loved Dr. Seuss as a child, and I love him as a parent -- but the world he created is whacked. We had breakfast with the Grinch (who snapped at and insulted both daughters), and we rode the "One Fish Two Fish Red Fish Blue Fish" ride (where you get sprayed with water). We also went on the Cat in the Hat Ride, where you get spun around again and again and taunted by creatures aptly named Thing 1 and Thing 2. It's like parenthood in fast-forward.
We then stopped at Jurassic Park Land, where a young man in a lab jacket showed us a rather large dinosaur that he said was brought back to life through cryogenics and cloning and whatever that movie was about. This placed us as parents in an uncomfortable position: Were we supposed to tell the girls that the dinosaur wasn’t real? Frankly, I have to admit, it gets harder and harder as a parent to remember what myths to burst and what myths to treasure. I finally made an executive decision: I saw no reason whatsoever for them to believe that dinosaurs still roam the earth.
“It’s a robot,” I told them.
“Are you sure?” they asked.
“And I don’t think Babe Ruth called his shot either,” I said.
* * *
2018 Interlude: It's fascinating what stays in memory and what does not. The dinosaur thing stays in my memory. We went to Universal Studios in Hollywood this year, and they still have young people wearing lab jackets as they give lectures about robot dinosaurs. I turned to Elizabeth and asked her if she remembered the time she asked me if dinosaurs were real. She did not remember it exactly. But she reminded me of something else: She used to have a phobia of dinosaurs.
She was so scared of them that she once begged me to take her out of a Toys "R" Us because they had a giant dinosaur display. She was so scared of them that she refused to set foot in the Dinosaur Cafe in Kansas City; yeah that was a thing. We tried to take her inside, and told her it would be fine, but she cried violently, and even now she vividly remembers the terror she felt about dinosaurs.
"Isn't it crazy how scared I was of dinosaurs?" she said, and yes, obviously it was crazy.
It's crazier that I miss her being scared of dinosaurs.
* * *
Harry Potter World is one cobbled street that features a castle, a wand shop, a sweet shop, a magical joke shop, a restaurant, three rides and 1.9 million people. It feels like you're shuffling about in a pop-up version of the books … assuming that the pop-up book was placed in O’Hare Airport on Christmas Eve.
My point here is to write about the something magical that happened in Harry Potter World, and not to give a review of the park, but I should say that it really was great fun despite the crowds and the long lines. In a weird way, it was great fun BECAUSE of the crowds and the long lines. What I mean is: Elizabeth had been so looking forward to the park. She has a natural habit of building things up way too big in her mind, and it sometimes leads to spectacular disappointment … a habit, I fear, she may have inherited from her father. It's actually this habit that led to our magical moment.
But in this case, her fevered anticipation for Harry Potter World was met, even exceeded. I think the large crowds and long lines had a lot to do with it. I think this for two reasons:
(1) The long lines meant that we stayed in Harry Potter World for a long time. If there had been only a few people in the park, we might have been in and out in an hour, and she would have realized that the park isn't very big. We would have ridden the rides, gone through the castle, visited the shops, and I feel sure there would have been an “Is that all?” feeling. But because it took more than an hour just to get into the castle, another 15-20 minutes to get into the sweet shop, 45 minutes to get on the Flight of the Hippogriff ride, 30 minutes to buy a wand from one of the street vendors … it all felt to her like an enormous adventure.
(2) I think just seeing how many people from all over love Harry Potter — there had to be five or six languages going at once, not including intense Alabama accents (the Alabama-Michigan State bowl game was a day away) — made her feel a part of something larger. A very sweet young woman from Dothan, Ala., lifted Elizabeth on her shoulders so she could see a show (I had our younger daughter, Katie, on my shoulders), and they talked all about goblets of fire and mirrors of Erised and spiders in the Forbidden Forest and whatever else.
So if somebody wants to ask me: “Should we go to Harry Potter World?” I would simply ask how much their children love Harry Potter. For an adult, even one who loves Harry Potter, I can't say how annoying and off-putting the lines and the claustrophobia and the general inability to get around would become. For a 9-year-old who dreams nightly of J.K. Rowling’s imaginary and wonderful and frightening world, it was perfect.
* * *
2018 Interlude: I totally forgot about the young woman from Dothan, Ala. She was, I believe, a cheerleader there for the Alabama-Michigan State game. Oh no, Elizabeth is a cheerleader now. Elizabeth is almost that young woman's age.
Why did I do this again?
* * *
Now, finally, the magical part. Elizabeth was granted one wish; she wanted to buy something from the gift shop. This, even under the best of circumstances, can be a gut-wrenching experience. Every now and again, I will take the girls to Target, and they're allowed to buy one thing. Katie tends to pick out a Polly Pocket doll or something like it within about 45 seconds. Elizabeth proceeds to turn the trip into Hamlet Act 3, Scene 1. She puts intense pressure on herself to make the right decision, as if every Target will close tomorrow, as if a meteor will crash into the earth if she chooses wrong. If she had found herself faced with the blue pill, red pill choice from The Matrix, I have little doubt that the movie would have lasted 37 hours and in the end she would have asked once again if there was a purple pill in a different aisle.
If trips to the local Target are traumatic, you can only imagine the anxiety and torture of picking out one thing at Harry Potter World. My wife, Margo, being smarter than her husband, announced that she was taking the younger daughter back to Dr. Seuss World — getting drenched while riding in flying fish is far superior to dealing with Elizabeth's “what should I buy” anxieties.
It was every bit as stressful as you might imagine. There were way too many people inside the secondary gift shop (the main gift shop had an hour-and-a-half wait). It was difficult to move, and yet Elizabeth did move -- she rushed from one place to another, a frantic 9-year-old in the middle ground between elation and panic.
And then … we ran into Katie the Prefect. Katie was about 18 or 19 -- I’m terrible about judging ages -- and she worked in the store and, as such, wore the robes that students wear at Hogwarts School in the Harry Potter books. I know she was a prefect because she wore a prefect’s badge. This was also the first thing Elizabeth noticed.
“Are you a prefect?” Elizabeth asked, and her face lit up.
“Yes,” Katie said. “What house are you in?”
There are four houses at the Hogwarts School in Harry Potter. The main one is Gryffindor, which is the house of Harry Potter and his friends. For some reason, Elizabeth had decided that her house was Ravenclaw, which in my own memory plays almost no role in the books.
“I’m a Ravenclaw,” Elizabeth said.
“Are you now?” Katie said, and she was amused, and Elizabeth was smitten.
It’s easy to forget this -- anyone can be a star to a 9-year-old. Elizabeth is hypersensitive to stardom; she likes tween fan magazines so she can read up on Justin Bieber and Taylor Swift and Selena Gomez (her favorite) and Demi Lovato and the Jonas Brothers. But the truth is that to a 9-year-old, a star can be almost anybody — the police officer standing outside the mall, the soldier who walks on the plane, the boys and girls in the choir at a recital, the actors in a community theater play and, most definitely, the girl wearing robes and a prefect badge at Harry Potter World. Katie the Prefect was very kind and patient, and she said goodbye, and then we were back on our never-ending quest to find something that would somehow meet Elizabeth’s impossibly high hopes.
I’ve bored you long enough — but I should say there was plenty of angst before we finally got down to two items. One was a glitzy Gryffindor Bag (there was no Ravenclaw merchandise in the junior gift shop). The other was a cute stuffed-animal owl like the one that Harry uses to send and receive mail. Getting down to these two items pushed Elizabeth to her decision-making limits, and she more or less shut down.
“Daddy,” she said in a pleading voice. “What should I do? Tell me?”
Believe it or not, there are no classes that tell fathers what to say to daughters when they have reached a crisis point while trying to choose an owl or a bag. The options, as I saw them: say what I was thinking (“I don’t care just choose one already”); go strict (“If you don’t choose in five seconds, you won’t get either”); be the spoiled Dad I have always promised not to be (“Fine, just get them both and let’s get out of here”); or try once more to guess which one she really wanted (I didn't have the strength). There were no options.
And then … I saw Katie the Prefect. And, in an inspired bit of fatherhood, I said: “Let’s go ask her.”
I had no idea what Katie the Prefect would say. It often seems exuberance and enthusiasm can be such rare qualities. There are so many discouraged people. The older I get, the more I have come to believe that we can make such a difference by showing just a little bit of zeal, doing a little bit more, showing just a bit more of our spirit. But where do we find the energy?
Elizabeth quietly walked over to Katie The Prefect (while clinging desperately to my hand) and said: “Um, excuse me. I wanted to ask you a question, please.”
Katie said: “Oh hello. My little Ravenclaw friend. What can I do for you?”
Elizabeth explained her conundrum. Owl or bag. Bag or owl. Katie the Prefect in real life, I suspect, is a young woman who goes to college, probably has a boyfriend, undoubtedly has her good moments and bad, her good habits and bad, parents who adore her, friends who look up to her, friends she looks up to and all those things. She worked at Harry Potter World, which undoubtedly has its good points and bad points and lots of grumpy muggles (muggles being “non-magical people” in the Harry Potter books).
But in this moment — and I doubt she realized this entirely — Katie the Prefect was the biggest thing in the world to a 9-year-old girl she undoubtedly will never see again. She could have simply said, “Get the bag” or “Get the owl” or “Well, what do you want to do?” or anything else. That was, I would guess, part of her job.
What she did, though, was lean down close to Elizabeth and look her right in the eye. And she said: “Well, it’s a difficult choice, isn’t it? They’re both such wonderful things. But it seems to me that you could use the bag every day. You could use it to keep your books when you go to school, and school is very important. I had to study very hard to become a prefect. And the owl …”
With this she leaned even closer and almost whispered in Elizabeth’s ear: “I must tell you: Owls are not of much use in the muggle world.”
That was it. That was the magic. Elizabeth’s face lit up like the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree. She nodded, and she gave Katie the Prefect a huge hug, and for those 20 seconds of her life it was like she was in the Harry Potter book, being offered advice by the most popular student at Hogwarts. Owls are not of much use in the muggle world. Katie hugged her back, disappeared into the crowd, and Elizabeth got the bag, which, for once, was EXACTLY what she wanted. It was, in fact, the greatest thing she had ever gotten in her entire life. Every time she drapes it around her shoulder, she tells the story of how she got it and the advice Katie the Prefect had given her.
It was just a few seconds of kindness. It might even just be viewed as part of the job of working at Harry Potter World. But that — more than the multi-million dollar rides, more than the authentic butterbeer or the cauldron made of chocolate, more than the remarkable effects in the castle, more than anything — that is what Elizabeth will remember, perhaps even for the rest of her life. A young woman probably making something like minimum wage, wearing a robe and a badge, had made Elizabeth feel special and magical. I thanked Katie the Prefect before she went off to help other customers, but I’m not sure she heard me, and I’m not sure she would have understood anyway. There’s so much we can do in this crazy world with a little effort and imagination. There’s so much we can do that it’s easy to miss what we have done … even after it’s over.
* * *
2018 Interlude: So many feelings. I had completely forgotten how much Elizabeth loved those tween magazines. And she's now a Slytherin, not a Ravenclaw. Time marches on.
I do think every now and again about Katie the Prefect. I wonder what she's doing. She has to be in her late 20s by now; I hope she's happy. She seemed like the sort of person who could change the world. I'd love for her to know that Elizabeth still uses that Gryffindor bag.