The Superhero Illusion
And the things I will do to maintain it.
When I was a child, I was an avid reader of comic books. Lately I’ve wondered if I was born too soon in this sense; sure, comics have been around for generations, but the media I consumed as an 11-year-old in the early ‘90s pales in comparison to today’s Marvel/Disney Industrial Complex producing new billion-dollar blockbusters more frequently than I get haircuts.
But I digress.
In those days, I would spend hours at a drawing table in my bedroom drawing comics of my own, creating new characters—most obvious derivatives of existing properties, but that’s as true of successful adult creators as it is wannabe tweens. I’d assign their special powers, and I’d daydream about having superpowers of my own—incredible strength and blazing speed, shapeshifting and invisibility, walking through walls and teleportation, x-ray vision and the ability to throw energy-blasting playing cards. I was old enough to to know it was all fantasy, but still young enough to believe in my own potential for exceptionalism—even as a husky, unathletic child who didn’t possess average speed or strength, let alone Kryptonian.
More than any of these powers, I dreamt of flight. Lying in bed at night, eyes closed tightly but not yet sleeping, I would dream of flying, of soaring high above the landscape, watching the world recede and the people become ants, breaking through the clouds to challenge the sky and coast without limits, without bonds.
Part of maturity, it often seems, is letting daydreams give way to the boring physics of reality.
As an adult rapidly approaching middle age, busy with career, children and a thousand other obligations, I have a pretty good understanding of my limitations, and little illusion that awesome new powers will suddenly manifest and change that. As the comedian John Mulaney—who’s within months of my own age—once observed: “I’m like an iPhone. It’s just worse versions of this every year, plus I get really hot in the middle of the afternoon for no reason.” I make sounds when I get out of chairs now, my knees click like a ballpoint pen, and I recently strained my neck for a week from nothing more strenuous than getting a rare decent night of sleep.
I’m pretty sure I’m not a superhero, is what I’m getting at.
Not everyone realizes that, though.
There is a fleetingly narrow window when your children think that you’re a hero, and it just might be the best time in one’s life.
When you first have a baby, well-meaning and absolutely-wrong people will tell you isn’t this the best and to cherish every moment of this and it’s such a special time and that’s borderline offensive when you’re bottle-feeding a newborn, dying from lack of sleep, and the kid won’t even have the common courtesy or muscle control to smile at you once in a while for your troubles. I appreciated that stage of life for what it was, but I did not especially enjoy it and will not participate in the romanticization of it.
This stage, though? This stage rules.
My kids are obsessed with superlatives right now, and with determining who in our small family is the most of anything. This often favors me, if only through the law of small numbers. You see, I’m the strongest person in our house, the tallest person in our house (a bar I clear comfortably by being 5’-10”, seven inches taller than the next-closest competitor), the best cook (arguably true), the eater of spiciest foods (inarguably true), and the smartest (inarguably false). The kids are old enough to possess the capacity for awe, but not so old enough to have the context to apply it properly.
They think I’m a superhero, and I will do anything I can to maintain that illusion.
We joined a pool this summer, a new stage in our ever-deepening suburbanization and yet one more venue at which the kids can endlessly pester me about getting snacks. This being their first regular experience with a real, full-fledged swimming pool and not a leaky inflatable in our backyard like last summer, they’ve focused their awe on new frontier. The Deep End, proper noun, exists as a near-mythic realm, a place only the most brave and capable dare venture—a place they know they’re too small for.
But they know someone who’s not small.
On the short drive over this past weekend, my son breathlessly speculated about it.
“Daddy, can you swim in the deep end?”
“Sure, kiddo, I’ve swam in plenty of deep ends before.”
“Of course I have.”
“And you weren’t scared of the waves?”
“There aren’t really waves in a swimming pool, buddy. And besides, I’ve swam in lakes and rivers and the ocean before, too.”
“Aren’t there fish in the rivers?”
“Yeah, you just try not to swallow them. If you do, you just spit them out.”
“And you can jump off the high dive??”
“Uh… well, we’ll talk about that.”
“HIGH DIVE! HIGH DIVE! HIGH DIVE!”
Part of reckoning with my own mortality—and in this particular moment I use that term less to refer to the fact that I will someday die and more in the sense of understanding that I am in fact a mortal and not a superhuman—is getting better at predicting in advance when something is going to absolutely wreck me.
We have a steeply sloping front yard, and several summers ago, my kids and a few neighbor friends were attempting to roll their bodies down it, though no one was getting terribly far. I decided to show off, and roll down it like a champion. I did, in fact, do it much more effectively than they had, rolling far faster and further. I impressed the heck out of some preschoolers, and I was dizzy for three hours afterwards.
I knew the high dive was going to be an issue.
I know it’s not a difficult thing, per se: there were small children, some barely older than my own but born without the genetic predisposition toward caution that I am grateful, all things considered, for mine to possess, flinging themselves off it with wild abandon, over and over again. For me, though? It had been a good, solid three decades since my last leap off of one, and I knew in advance it was going to to wreck me in one way or another.
I couldn’t tell them that, though.
“Of course I can go off the high dive. At the end of our time at the pool today.”
They spent the afternoon anticipating. In between bouts of actual play and demands for more snacks, my son would check back with me. “Are you going to go off the high dive soon? Are you going to do it? Can you do it now??”
Just be patient.
I’ll do it in a little bit.
Let Daddy finish his drink.
Finally, my stalling ran out. The time had come—the line was short, and our afternoon waning. I announced my intention, and the kids scurried out of the pool to watch anxiously from the edge, the greatest sporting event they’d ever attended.
I couldn’t hesitate at the top of the board the way I might have three decades ago, or the way a nervous tween had for a solid five minutes earlier in the afternoon. (This generation of kids is so much kinder than previous ones; despite holding up the line for a while, there were no chants of “JUMP!” and instead supportive applause when they finally did.) Heroes don’t hesitate, though. I didn’t think about how sore I was going to be tomorrow, or how my happily-earned shirtless physique compared to some of the more annoyingly-fit parents of this particular pool. I didn’t think about what sort of dive I was going to do. You’re either born a diver or a person who does a cannonball, and it’s obvious which one I am. I didn’t think about any of that.
I thought about flying.
As I write this, more than a full day later, my right ear is still partially blocked and ringing; I had a headache for the rest of the afternoon and my neck is once again sore. It was not an impressive dive, I’m sure, but I’m told it served the target audience well: the kids lost their minds with excitement while I was still six feet under and paddling my way back to the surface. As I climbed out and cleared the chlorine sting from high up in my sinuses, they beamed with pride—pride in their very own superhero, the one who lives down the hall from them and eats spicy food.
There will come a day, sooner than I am willing to admit, when they will see me in a different light. I won’t be able to change their whole perspective on the world simply by hoisting them on my shoulders, partly because they’ll be too big for me to lift. The superhero illusion will be shattered, and the idea of dear old Dad going off the high dive in front of neighbors, schoolmates, and members of the greater community will be mortifying instead of thrilling.
Heroism as a parent isn’t actually about amazing feats of strength and daring; it’s about doing everything you can to make them feel safe, supported, empowered and loved. It’s about being there for them every day, teaching them the lessons they need to become the best versions of themselves. Someday, perhaps decades from now, they will come to appreciate that as well, just as I did with my own parents. They’ll recognize the love that went in to all of it, the hard work and late nights, the hand to hold and shoulder to cry on. They’ll realize that it was never about the flying.
I’m going to soar as long as they let me, though, and I’ll have something those dreams always lacked: a place to land.
—Scott Hines (@actioncookbook)
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