Things that scared me when I was a kid: spiders, heights, and E.T. Things that scare me as an adult: spiders, heights and E.T. (Yes, that creepy Extra-Terrestrial and not the evening “news” show Entertainment Tonight, although, come to think of it, that show’s pretty scary too.) Unlike many people I know, I don’t fear clowns. I think today, however, I may have scarred my daughter for life. Things that scare Little Friend: our Roomba vacuum cleaner, the regular vacuum cleaner, and now clowns. I had the best intentions in introducing her to clowns. I’d planned a great day for us: two Pittsburgh Children’s Festival theater performances, an intermission of carousel rides and petting zoo, and lunch at a French creperie. Things didn’t go as planned. Sixteen minutes into the first play, I was walking to the back of the theater with a whimpering toddler suction-cupped to my neck. (Personally, I thought the three former Ringling Brother clowns were rather amusing.)
The first time I noticed fear enter Little Friend’s world was back in her Bumbo-sitting days of four months. A blender, chunking away on smoothies, elicited the first squeal of real fear. Since then, other than inexplicable terrors over crowd applause and the more understandable fear of our robotic vacuum cleaner, my daughter seizes adventures great and small with no hint of trepidation. I thought that a 40-minute clown show geared to “all ages” would be a thrilling adventure to add to her repertoire. She had other thoughts. Sadly, she didn’t screech or sob in terror. Instead, when that clown with the toilet paper stuck to his shoe wobbled toward the audience, she whimpered and clutched my arms tighter around her waist. She had no interest in the cracker I offered as consolation. (Little Friend turn down a cracker? Something was up.) And when she turned and scrambled, squirrel-like, up my shoulder, I knew it was time to leave. A gentle, white-clad clown cradled a mop-head against a star-studded backdrop. The crowd cooed. Little Friend sniffled into my neck. We ducked out the back doors.
Now that I may have inadvertently introduced a fear of adults dressing in baggy clothes and bizarre make-up, I wonder if I’ve robbed some of my daughter’s innocence. Could this be how we grow up? In moments of fear? I hope not. In my own life, my fears have remained constant across the years. Spiders: rewind to four-year-old Beth sticking her finger in a wheelbarrow’s handle and pulling out a black widow spider. Easy to see why the disgusting creepy crawlies still make my skin itch with fear. Heights: not sure where it came from other than a deep yearning for survival; I truly believe it perilous to stand at the top of the Empire State building without a harness tethering me to the wall. An erstwhile gust of wind could, perhaps, carry me up and over the shamelessly flimsy fencing to splat the pavement hundreds of feet below. (Big Friend finds this fear ludicrous. I hold out that it could somehow happen.) E.T.: Seriously? Need I explain this? Nothing is creepier than a mono-syllable croaking alien with glowing fingertips and chalky skin. Three-year-old Beth left the movie theater in tears and if I saw the film again today, you’d get no different response from thirty-year-old Beth. So, if I am powerless to change fear’s grip on me, young or old though I may be, then something else must create balance and foster maturity. Something more potent than fear must make my world okay again.
Little Friend’s world righted itself thanks to repeated spins around the Schenley Plaza carousel. Back in April, when the carousel opened for the season, Little Friend and I threaded our way through the throngs of sun-tanning college students to compare the merits of sea horse, elephant, tiger, and dragon on the carousel’s turn-table. We stopped when I got dizzy and dragged a screeching Little Friend away from the golden poles. Today, a seventeen-piece steel drum band serenaded the carousel riders. A sound technician, bearded and haggard, sat behind the stage and watched the swirling carousel circus. He sipped from a water bottle, twitched a knob, resumed his reconnaissance of childhood flashing by. Little Friend first selected a panther for her ride. The second time the bell clanged, she moved eight inches to her left to try out an elephant. I laid my cold-clogged head against the animal’s rump and pointed for the fifteenth time: “Ear. Eye. Trunk. Yes, trunk.” The combination of up-down-and-around and cold medicine made the edges of my world mushy. Fear then sickness cut short our outing. The French crepes oozing Nutella would have to wait for another day.
A failed adventure? Surely not. I prefer to think about the good moments I’ll take away to balance the day: the sun playing hide and seek with clouds in Oakland’s skies…the buoyant waves of crossing guards shepherding strollers across busy boulevards…the light burden of my daughter tethered to me like I’m the antidote of fear in her world. If it takes a clown with a toilet paper problem to reveal the good in life, then I say, terrified toddler or not, bring in the clowns.
With convenient ticket options, entertaining performances, and numerous additional festival activities, the 2011 International Children’s Festival is a don’t-miss outing. The Schenley Plaza carousel is open from May through October, seven days a week. Round out your fun by lunching at Crepes Parisiennes on North Craig Street. Order their soul-satisfying Nutella crepes. If kids and carousels aren’t your thing, unroll a yoga mat on Schenley Plaza at 11 am on Saturday mornings for a free yoga class. And still order the soul-satisfying Nutella crepes afterward.