Ten years ago, when my daughter was drooling on books instead of reading them, I scoured eBay for an ancient collection of Disney stories for young readers.  I had to buy several lots to ensure that I ended up with all my obscure favorites, including Goofy and the Miller, The Princess Who Never Laughed, and of course, Dumbo.

My kids eventually loved the books as much as I did, especially Dumbo.  There’s a point in the story where Dumbo is at the top of a (fake) burning building as part of a circus act.  The clowns and the crowd start yelling, “Jump!” but Dumbo’s friend Timothy – the only one who knows about Dumbo’s hidden talent – tells his pal it’s time to fly.

I’m finding that as my kids get older, I’m playing the role of Timothy more than any other.  Without shoelaces to tie and bottoms to wipe, most of what’s left to do is simply encourage them to fly while providing a soft place to land.

As kids grow up, focus shifts to the less tangible but still critical life skills: the confidence that we can do hard things; the knowledge that compassion is crucial in this world; and the realization that the effort of doing something can be more satisfying than the end result.

I’m also learning that you never reach a stage in parenting where you simply exhale, relax and put it in cruise control.  Having kids, no matter their ages, means that there’s always something pinging on your mom radar.

This week, the mom radar was lit up with the school’s student council election.  My daughter wanted to run for vice president.  Fighting that twinge of “what if things don’t go her way,” we told her to go for it.

She came up with her campaign slogan and designed posters. She wrote her own speech and persistently ignored my suggestions.  This was her race to run, and she was doing it on her terms.  Just as it should be.

Today was speech day.  She woke up nervous and with a sore throat.  I did what little I could to help her feel supported.  I tucked my lucky charm in her pocket, loaning her my prized possession for the day.  I made hot water with lemon and honey to soothe her throat and then scrounged up a handful of cough drops to stash in her backpack in case of a vocal emergency.  I sent her off to school with, “I love you, good luck, and I think it is so awesome that you’re trying this.”

Parents were invited to watch the speeches, and despite feeling slightly helicopter-y, this opportunity was too good to pass up.

The fourth and fifth grade classes filed in to the amphitheater and one by one, the candidates gave their speeches.  My daughter was the very last to go.  She walked to the podium, fumbled with her papers, cleared her scratchy throat and began to speak into the microphone, timid at first but quickly finding her voice.

She finished her speech, locked eyes with me across the crowd and flashed a huge grin.  I gave her a thumbs up, thinking of that one simple word: fly.  

Bird Brain

This just in: having your midlife crisis while at the zoo with your family can be a little awkward.

It started as an ordinary day at the San Diego Safari Park where our biggest challenge was deflecting our kids’ rapid-fire requests for souvenirs, snacks and 80 dollars for a zip line ride over a valley filled with lions.

Declaring we were there to see animals, not to buy a plastic gorilla head filled with 48 ounces of soda, I led everyone towards a zoo employee who was discussing the owl perched on his arm.  A good-sized crowd gathered around to hear the lesson.

It was going smoothly for a while as we tackled the topics of wingspan and night vision.  But then he asked the kids in the crowd to describe the owl’s head.

“It’s so small,” an adorable moppet called out, unaware this would be the undoing of the nice lady standing next to her.

“Yes, its head is small,” said the zoo guy.  “Not much room for a brain in there.  Owls are not very smart.  But you know what?  They’re as smart as they need to be – they can find food, they can build shelter, and that’s really all that’s required of them.”

And then it hit me.  It hit me hard: Oh my God, I am the owl.  

As smart as I need to be — quick, somebody ask me what’s for dinner or how we should decorate the family room.  Food and shelter.  I groaned as this concept sunk in and took over my thoughts for the rest of the day.

Never one for moderation, I recognize that I am both oversimplifying and overdramatizing my kinship with the owl.  But still, the idea that our brains develop only to the level of what is required of them is a compelling one.

This holds true not just for those of us who are old(ish) and set in our ways.  Kids can easily fall into the pattern of learning just enough to get through the next test or homework assignment – as smart as they need to be.

So now the owl and I are at war.  Kind of like Bill Murray and the gopher in Caddyshack except without all the rump shaking to Kenny Loggins music.

This means we’re swinging for the intellectual fences here at Casa Perfectionist: reading the entire newspaper instead of only the Food and Wine section; applying for writing gigs; registering for lectures at the library; and refraining from automatically correcting every homework problem so the kids have a chance to delve into the topic with their teachers until it’s fully understood.

Nothing earth shattering, but it’s a start.  Hopefully, by being aware of the complacent owl and his tiny brain, we’ll be on the lookout for opportunities to stretch ours.  Although I have to admit, the next time we’re at the zoo, I’m heading straight for souvenir cart selling plastic gorilla heads and skipping the animal lecture – I’d hate to see what kind of crisis a lesson on lemmings would bring.