A few weeks ago, I went to watch my nine-year-old daughter, Anna, launch her rocket at the rocket camp she had attended all week. Using paper towel rolls, recycled vegetable cartons and markers, she had spent her afternoons that week creating something she hoped to propel into the sky. She used a purple plastic Easter egg for her rocket’s cone. My knowledge of rockets is limited, and I referred to the top piece as a dome until Anna corrected me, a paper towel roll for the body tube and a piece of black garbage bag to construct her parachute. She called her rocket Monkey’s Success, which she wrote in large black letters on the rocket’s paper towel frame. She was nervous the day of the launch hoping her parachute would release and slightly more nervous when some of her fellow launchers witnessed their rockets collide cone first with the earth. On her first launch, though, her rocket soared into the sky, and the parachute released gracefully.
After the first round of launchings, the students were given the option to launch again with a more powerful engine. This time around, a few of the rockets sailed incredibly high, much higher than the previous round of launches, but some did not return, lost to the school’s rooftop or the forest beyond the field.
I watched Anna’s eyes follow one of her campmate’s rocket as it disappeared, and then I watched as her instructor asked her if she intended to launch again. She shook her head no. I walked over to her. “You don’t want to launch again?”
She hesitated. “I don’t think so.”
“What if it doesn’t come back?”
I put my arm around her. Her rocket was safe in her arms. She could walk away with it, take it home, show it to her papa and display it in her room. I understood her hesitation. I had some hesitation myself. I know what it is like to pour your heart and energy into something only to see it destroyed. She had tangible evidence of her effort, and I was about to counsel her to do something that might change that outcome. I took a deep breath. “You did such a good job making this rocket, and I know you are so proud of it. I am so proud of you. Your rocket is amazing. I know how much you want to be able to take it home, and you are right, if you launch it again, it may not come back to you, but on the other hand, all the work you did this week was in preparation for this day. A rocket’s purpose is to launch, not to be on display. There are many opportunities to make rockets, but there are fewer opportunities to launch them. It would be such a shame to lose your rocket, but I think it would be a bigger shame to deny yourself the opportunity to see your rocket reach its full potential.”
Her eyes, still conveyed doubt, but I could tell that she wanted to try. She inhaled, and said, “Here goes nothing,” and I crossed my fingers and hoped her rocket would return to her. Monkey’s Success soared into the air, past the tallest pines, much higher than expected. She had made a smaller rocket compared with some of the others, and when paired with a powerful engine, it leapt into the air outdistancing some of the previous rockets by a good twenty or thirty feet. The garbage bag parachute released beautifully, and Anna released her breath knowing her rocket would not come crashing to the ground. Monkey’s Success was returning to the earth and to Anna, but it was headed toward the other end of the field, close to the treetops, too close to the treetops, and instead of falling into her outstretched arms, it found its landing pad in the uppermost branches of a maple tree.
We ran over to see if we could retrieve it. The rocket was pretty high up, and there appeared to be no direct route to it. I’m not an expert on climbing trees, but I can recognize a good climbing tree versus a bad one. In the former, one branch leads to another and then to another practically beckoning to climb aboard. This tree was not beckoning. One of the boys in her class started to climb anyway. “I’m really good at climbing,” he said, and I admired his confidence, but then he started to shake, and I kindly explained to him that Anna didn’t want anyone damaging limbs over her rocket, and so he came down. Anna and I surveyed the tree thinking about what we might do, looking at each other, each hoping the other held a solution we ourselves could not see. And then, a dad of one of the other campers came over and started climbing the tree. He was wearing dress slacks and leather loafers while I was wearing shorts and hiking sandals, and while it’s possible he could have been the same age as me, he seemed at least five years my senior. I wondered why he thought he was better suited to make the climb.
As I watched him start to climb, my mind drifted to a time earlier this year, when the trees were bare and the ground was frozen, and the kids and I were taking Cato, our dog, for a walk by the lake. They asked me if they could walk on the frozen ice. We live on Monona Bay, and the water is still and shallow, and for much of the winter, it is frozen solid, so solid that people sit on the lake, set up tents and ice fish, so solid that my son, Sea Bass, and I can walk across the lake to his school on the other side, so solid that you can ice skate comfortably. I said no to their request, though, because even though it was still quite cold, winter was making way for spring, and the average daily temperature was rising. I was concerned that the lake wasn’t solid enough for safe passage. However, the kids desperately wanted to skate and play, and I, like any good parent would, gave into their pleas and assurances that it was solid and safe. They ran, slid and skated in their shoes, falling over and laughing, laughing so loud, you could barely hear the crack, but the sound of Anna’s boots connecting with the water was unmistakable, and the laughing quickly turned to yelling. Anna, wearing her winter coat and boots, was waist deep. She knows how to swim, but it was the middle of Wisconsin winter, and the air was bitter cold, and the water was even worse. Although the water appeared to be quite shallow where she had fallen, she could not stand. She was cold and scared and unsure of what to do next. I wanted to run to her, but I held Cato’s leash, and the possible unpleasant consequences of releasing our 65-pound pit-bull were of real concern as well.
I could see that despite being scared and cold, she was okay, so I told her to stay calm while I tied Cato to a tree. A man walking by on the bike path noticed our predicament and stopped to help us, and in this situation I was grateful to him because we were in need of another hand. He could see that I was struggling with two kids, one stuck in the ice, one standing precariously on the same ice, and one large, anxious dog. He walked over to the lake and held out his hand to Anna. She maneuvered to the side, and he held her there. I tied Cato up and told Sea Bass not to move from his spot, as he, unlike Anna, could not swim, and the idea of him falling in was truly terrifying. The stranger and I pulled Anna out of the water, and I told Anna to walk straight home and get in the shower. She was shivering, scared and so cold, but I had to get Sebastian and Cato, and she did as she was told.
I made it home as quickly as I could and found her still fumbling with her clothes about to step in the shower. I helped her turn on the hot water and get in. I could see that she had been crying, but she had calmed herself down, and I told her how sorry I was that I had allowed her to walk on the lake. I also told her how brave she was, and how proud I was of how she handled the situation. I kissed her forehead and told her that she had a really good story to tell her friends back in Maryland, and she laughed a little. Now, when she tells the story of this day, she laughs a lot and tells it with pride. However, even though I helped pull her out of the lake, even though I coached her through the situation, even though I helped her find perspective and strength when she was feeling broken, it is the stranger that she credits with saving her.
Maybe it’s a little silly, but I didn’t want someone else rushing to her rescue this time. I was here, and there was nothing preventing me from helping her solve this problem, no anxious dog, no younger sibling at risk of drowning, nothing but this man positioning himself as a knight in shining armor, trying to show off under the guise of helping. When Anna was three, princess culture permeated the air we breathed. We never let her watch a Disney movie, yet she knew the name of all the Disney princesses, and when she wanted to dress up like a princess, we pushed back a little, pushed back more than we pushed back in later years when her brother chose to dress up as Spiderman, Hulk or Ironman. When she said she wanted to be a princess, we told her a princess was not a career choice, and quite frankly, princesses were boring because they didn’t do anything. In hindsight, our response may have been a bit extreme and complicated for a three year old to grasp, but could you blame us? Her friends were watching movies where the heroine’s main happiness in life came from falling in love with a man. Moreover, the princesses, all looked the same. Yes, in more recent Disney movies, the princesses had various skin tones, but they were all skinny, small-nosed, large-eyed, straight-haired girls who personified the American standard of beauty. Ironically, Anna’s nursery school wouldn’t allow the boys to play fight or bring any type of fake sword to school, but Anna and her friends were allowed to dress up as Disney princesses, pretend to get married, and say they wanted to be a princess when they grew up. Somehow, no one seemed to think this was a problem.
I remember one time I went to the store to pick up a birthday card for one of Anna’s friends. The cards were separated for the birthday girl and for the birthday boy. Those shopping for the birthday boy could choose cards decorated with superheroes, animals, trains, cars and trucks. The cards were every color of the rainbow. If you were shopping for a girl, the cards came in one color, I’m sure you can guess which one, and they were covered with princesses and Barbie with the occasional flower or butterfly.
This was the culture we were raising our little girl in. I was so glad when I read Peggy Orenstein’s Cinderella Ate My Daughter, and I no longer felt like I was alone. She justified my feelings and fears about raising a daughter in a society obsessed with princesses. According to Peggy, in order to counter such a toxic culture, we had to be prepared. We had to stare it straight down. We had to fight back.
I didn’t want to take away Anna’s right to make believe and imaginative play, so we drew a careful line in the sand between embracing her creative self and discouraging the idolization of girls valued for their beauty and luck with love. More simply, she still dressed up as a princess, but it was a princess of her own design rather than a character whose role was already prescribed. We told her she was beautiful, but we also told her she was smart and strong. We banned Disney films from our home, and instead tried to find alternative shows and movies, which showed girls doing things in life, choosing things, following their passions. Fortunately for us, while Disney seems stuck in 1950, animation and film have evolved so much since then, and we found excellent shows for Anna. We fell in love with Hayao Miyasaki, whose films are spectacular and beautifully crafted, and whose protagonists are often strong girls and women. One of Anna’s favorites at age three was Kiki’s Delivery Service, which is about a young witch, who must leave her family and forge her own path. We watched Avatar, The Last Airbender, whose female characters are as vivid, strong and capable as the male characters. To this day, this show remains one of the best I’ve ever seen. We discovered Bamboo Blade, a Japanese anime about a co-ed kendo team, which focuses mostly on the female players. All of these shows portrayed girls Anna’s age that she could identify with and relate to, girls with dreams and aspirations, girls who wanted to be more than someone’s wife or mother.
We played Jonathon Coulton’s “The Princess Who Saved Herself,” loud and often in our house; “She had a pet snake, she bought a red guitar, and she ate a whole cake.” This princess tames a dragon, who she later invites to tea, and she and the dragon form a band with a reformed witch. Prince Phillip calls, but the princess hangs up on him. It’s an adorably clever song, and it offered us a way to bridge the world of princesses to the world we hoped Anna would build for herself.
In addition to banning Disney, we banned Barbie dolls. A friend of our family tried to giver Anna a Barbie doll when she was two, and I told her we could not accept it. It was one of the many weird, gendered presents Anna received during her early years of life, gifts that made me question how the giver could not recognize that in giving the gift they were limiting her, suggesting that because she was a girl, she must like certain things. I remember feeling awkward and uncomfortable when the Barbie was offered by one of our family friends, wondering if I was overacting, particularly since this occurred in my childhood home, the same home where playing with Barbie dolls was one of my favorite things to do as a child. Now, looking back on that moment, I’m so glad I had the courage to politely decline the gift. Barbie, just like the Disney princesses, conforms to a certain standard of beauty, in Barbie’s case, an impossible standard. It’s probably not fair to blame my years of playing Barbie on the eating disorder I later developed, but it’s also not unreasonable to think that there might be some connection.
When Anna was four, instead of buying her a Barbie doll, I crocheted her a Kiki doll with the help of a friend. I decided that if I couldn’t find the doll I envisioned for her, I would create one. I made Kiki a broom so she could fly wherever she wanted. Five years later, Anna still sleeps with Kiki.
At age five, we signed Anna up for kendo, something she had a strong desire to do after seeing the kick-ass girls on Bamboo Blade. She was learning this beautiful martial art, wearing the same uniform as the boys, men, women and other girls participating in the sport, learning discipline in training her body and finding pleasure in its movement. Anna no longer dresses up as a princess, that phase faded fast, but she still loves to dress up and she loves doing her hair, but she also likes swimming and playing soccer, riding her bike, cooking, reading, drawing…Her options are not limited.
And so, we signed her up for rocket camp even though she was a little hesitant about the idea. We signed her up because girls and women are still underrepresented in science an engineering and because we believe that part of changing that is offering opportunity and exposure, and because well, it’s just awesome to create and launch a rocket, and we knew she would love it once she got there, which she did. And here we were at rocket camp with a prince trying to come to our rescue, and as the prince climbed up the tree, I wasn’t sorry to see the limbs of the tree waver a bit along with his determination. His daughter yelled from the base of the tree, “Dad, what about your bad neck?” I told him what I had told the little boy, Anna would not want someone risking limbs or in this case risking their neck for her rocket’s retrieval.
I meant what I said. I didn’t want him to get hurt on our account, but I also didn’t want him seizing the headline of our story. I didn’t want him teaching my daughter that she needed him to come along and fix things. So, I was glad when he climbed down. I inhaled and looked over at Anna and said, “Here goes nothing.” I started to climb, and Anna later told me that the man chuckled a bit as I climbed. But again, I was wearing comfortable slacks and sandals, I didn’t have a bad neck, and I had a little more invested in this than he did. It was clear that I would not reach the bough that the rocket had landed on. It was too high, but I asked Anna to pass me a large stick, which she did, and I batted at the rocket like a piñata hoping it would not break into various pieces but rather that I could free it from its captivity and return it to its creator, and when I gave it a good shake and the rocket moved a little, the man stopped laughing, and Anna started smiling, or at least that’s what I imagined happened as I was focused on not falling out of the tree and developing a bad neck of my own. I caught part of the parachute string with the stick and gently lifted it up and over a branch and I sent the rocket flying on its final flight into my daughter’s arms. “We did it,” I said to her.
“Thank you,” she said to me, smiling wildly. We were the victors. We had looked at the problem together and saved her rocket and ourselves.