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We Are Going to the Sea! (From the Safety of Our Car.)

How do you explain social distancing to a ‘Little Mermaid’–obsessed 3-year-old?

Getty Images/Disney/Ringer illustration

The sports and pop culture calendars have paused. The safest thing that you can do right now is stay inside. And millions of people are looking for creative ways to pass the time. The Ringer is here to help. We’re running a series called the Social Distancing Diaries, with our staff’s ideas for finding comfort, joy, community, or distraction while doing their part to flatten the curve. In the coming weeks, we’ll be diving into what we’re passionate about and want others to discover—from bidets to buried treasure and everything in between.


I.

Our oldest girl’s 3 and in a deep love with The Little Mermaid. If somehow Ariel and I were both tied to the same set of tracks and a train was coming and my daughter had time to save only one of us, me and the mermaid are both dead. She’s 3. She doesn’t know her way around a knot yet. If she were older, though, and had the kind of finger dexterity required to accomplish such a task, Dad’s getting a cowcatcher to the head. In the princess’s defense, she does have an extremely cool grotto. My grotto doesn’t have near that many shelves and I myself at this time am in possession of only eight thingamabobs. She’s plus-12 in the thingamabob battle. That’s an insurmountable advantage. Those things don’t grow on trees.

We got my daughter an Ariel costume for her birthday. It was the big-ticket item. She was amped up. First thing she wanted to play with. A complication did arise briefly when she expressed some concern that the bottom of the costume didn’t look enough like a tail, but after some light convincing that she need not worry because the flare at the bottom of the skirt covered her toes, and explaining that she had to have the use of her feet because she was a human being that needed to be able to do things like stand and walk—flipping your fins you don’t get too far—she was back to jazzed. She will get taller. It will become an issue. But you live to play another day. She can’t listen to the soundtrack enough. It’s on at all hours. The seaweed is always greener. From breakfast to bath we are all about the underwater city of Atlantica and its hoarder of a princess, The Young Miss Triton. There’s a Little Mermaid television series on Disney+. We’ve seen every episode. Some of them twice. Some of them thrice. The series comes before the events of the movie. Flounder and Sebastian and King Triton are in the mix once more. You get to see how she first met Scuttle. For Little Mermaid completists and dedicated fans of the greater Little Mermaid Cinematic Universe, obviously it’s a must. The two pieces are very much working in concert with one another. One feeds the other. It’s a circle. It’s a wheel. Ursula shows up, too. My daughter is scared of Ursula, but also fascinated. I get it. We’re talking about an aquatic hybrid beast with pet eels. Half octopus, half witch, all trouble. I’m certainly not going to sit here and act like that’s not a wildly compelling mix. As combinations go, that’s up there with milk and cookies.

My daughter has so many questions about the sea witch. They come in waves. It’ll start with something like, “Daddy, Ursula was not nice.”

“Not really, no.”

“She’s not nice.”

“Right.”

“She was a bad guy.”

“Right.”

“Why was Ursula not nice?”

“Well, I guess she got kicked out of the palace by King Triton I think they said.”

“Who said?”

“The movie.”

“Um, Daddy? Why did she, why did Ursula get kicked out?”

“Why did Ursula get kicked out of the palace?”

I find repeating the question an effective way to stall for time. She nodded.

“Um, well, she was mean,” I said. “She was the evil sea witch.”

“Why was she mean?”

“Why was she mean?”

And then my wife from the other room, “To move the plot forward.”

We also have an 8-month-old. She’s shaped like a big, beautiful medicine ball and makes a sound like a pterodactyl when she gets excited. We’re like a lot of other people and without childcare at the moment. Sometimes one of us takes both. Sometimes it’s two on two. Sometimes it’s about dividing and conquering. Depends on how much work the other one has. Neither kid is at the age that we can just turn them loose in the house and stop paying attention for a while, so it’s a lot of playing school, playing doctor, dancing, watching the 3-year-old put on a “show.” She might be pound-for-pound the friendliest person I’ve ever been around and the first time she made the 8-month-old laugh it was like I was seeing colors for the first time, like I was drunk on the moon. Since a little before the stay-at-home order started, she’s been referencing pretty regularly something called The Donut Movie, a movie that is not real that she is certain exists on Disney+. Every now and again she’ll start singing something I’ve never heard her sing before and I’ll ask her if she learned that in music class. She’ll tell me no, it’s from The Donut Movie. We were putting her to bed the other night and she started singing one of the songs from the film, “Can’t Wanna Go in the Box.” A sampling of some of the lyrics, this is the end of the bridge, into the chorus, into the end of the song.

Because he’s too big
Or he’s too little.
Can’t wanna go in the box
Can’t wanna go in the box
Can’t wanna go in the box
Oh, oh, oh, oh, oh, oh, oh, oh,
A whole new world
A whole new world

So, she kind of closes it out with a blatant Aladdin rip, but one thing we’ve really beaten into her since she was born is that if you’re going to steal, steal from the best. The fact that she doesn’t know if he’s too big or too little is definitely odd. That seems like something that would be kind of obvious. From what I can figure, it’s sort of a mid-tempo death ballad sung by a donut with some especially self-destructive tendencies. To be chosen is to be special. To be special is to die. She’s a lot of fun. She’s a great kid. She’s also 3. This makes her a finely tuned killing machine, a real rain. There are times I’ll be saying whatever to her and she’ll cut me off midsentence with, “Daddy, stop talking to me.” Another thing she’s started doing lately, if one of us is getting on her and telling her not to do something, she’ll sometimes hold her hand up and shout, “No! You don’t say that to me!” You must show no fear and be firm or else she will rip your heart out and stuff it in one of her purses along with the good toenail clippers we can’t find, an O the Owl figurine, a toy stethoscope, two raisins, and like 70 hair ties. You will have somehow promised her a car. She will be wearing your watch. Best to get her excited about something and then out of the house to the greater, wider world, let her focus her energies elsewhere and run herself ragged.

The thing about right now is, there’s nowhere to go. We’re in Northeast Los Angeles, staying home because we aren’t dicks. How do you get out of the house in a fun way where you won’t be around anyone but it’s something resembling an exciting time? An activity that can get the girl a little juiced up about life, make a memory.

The idea was to drive up Highway 1 for a while, go see the ocean. She’s been having trouble napping lately—my wife and I are stoked about the timing, the other day when I was trying to get her down she kicked me in the chest and called me Chicken Face—and she tends to nap better in the car, plus it could be like we’re going to see where Ariel lives, plus it would be some great one-on-one time on either side of her snooze, plus we never go see the ocean. There are usually too many cars, too many highways between us and it and a trip there is a full day with two kids. Mainly, though, for two working parents, it’s about the time. There’s never enough of it.

Now there is only time. For us, at least. For now. So, let’s do something new, something different, something where she’s not playing with the same toys and staring at the same walls she’s been playing with and staring at for the past month. We’d leave for the ocean around noon. She’d eat lunch in the truck on the drive over, hopefully nap at some point, and we’d just ride around.

II.

The morning of the trip there were several times when she’d stop whatever she was doing and out of nowhere scream, “We are going to the sea!”

III.

We had not gotten to the end of our street before she demanded I put on The Little Mermaid soundtrack. What she’s started doing lately is, if it’s one of the instrumental tracks Menken cooked up, she’ll ask, “Daddy, when is this Little Mermaid?” And then it’s my job to know where in the movie that particular song took place. I then have to describe that scene in detail, including whatever dialogue I can remember. This practice really began in earnest with Ariel and the gang but it’s made its way to the soundtracks of other Disney films. Frozen, Moana, Coco, Aladdin, Frozen II: Water Has What Now?, Tangled. Not Cars. She doesn’t care about Cars at all. Watched the whole thing with her and it’s like it didn’t happen. I told her she was as fast as Lightning McQueen like a day after we saw it and she looked at me like I was speaking in tongues. On the opposite end of the spectrum, we went to this father-daughter dance a few months ago and they had Aladdin playing on a projector screen above the DJ. She hadn’t seen Aladdin at that point. I had to tell her what the movie even was. She sat in my lap and watched half of it on mute, and was as happy as I’ve ever seen her. Had no interest in dancing and she loves dancing. She wanted to eat french fries and watch the movie. That’s my girl! I don’t know why some movies hit with her and some don’t. I want to understand her taste so we’ll be friends when she’s older. For a little while it was like she loved everything she saw. Whatever we showed her, that was her favorite thing. Now, not so much.

Her favorite song, period, is a song from Moana that plays while Moana’s in that secret cave with the drums and the torches and the massive Proa ships, when she realizes her people were voyagers. It’s sung by Lin-Manuel Miranda and Opetaia Foa’I and it’s called “We Know the Way.” She just calls it “The Song With the Guys.” Her favorites on The Little Mermaid soundtrack are your standards—your “Under the Sea,” your “Kiss the Girl,” your “Part of Your World.” And her fascination with Ursula means she’s also sometimes into “Poor Unfortunate Souls.” She likes the way Ursula screams, “body language.” I honestly hate the song and would be fine if it were erased from existence entirely. Take from my head that tune and shoot it into the belly of the sun.

COVID-19 and the stay-at-home order has left Los Angeles’s normally loaded highway system with decidedly more leg room. In 30 minutes we were driving along the water. We saw the beach. We talked about the beach. Last summer we were in Chicago for my wife’s job. We went to Foster Avenue Beach, waded out to her shins in Lake Michigan. She asked if I remembered that. I said yes. She asked if someday we could go back. I said yes. And we drove. Tried to talk up anything I could. “Look at that van, baby. It’s four different colors.” The dad trying to impress the daughter can be one of the more pathetic interactions you’ll ever see. Maybe you’re my dad and you walk out into the living room in new jeans with designs on the back pockets and my sisters start laughing at you and make you change. Maybe you’re me and you say, “Look at that van, baby. It’s four different colors.” She responded as we all should to obvious, nothing statements: with total silence.

IV.

I love palm trees. I dig them very much. At this juncture, in my tree power rankings, they are no. 1. And let me tell you something, I don’t see that changing anytime soon. They are exotic and bright and beautiful to me. I grew up in Oklahoma. We didn’t have any palm trees. Had absolutely no idea what I was missing out on. These things are aesthetic wonders. Just makes you feel good to see a nice, healthy palm tree, you know what I mean? Not one of these skinny, leaning ones without a bunch of fronds. Those worry me, make me grieve what might have been. I think, if only someone had taken better care of that palm tree, it could also be among the universe’s most beautiful things. Your standard issue, run-of-the-mill palm tree, this is one of nature’s greatest details, as consistently handsome as neon or a Ritz Toasted Chip. I do think that my mind is fragile and I have no idea what I’m doing right now. One of the best parts about moving to Los Angeles is getting to see palm trees all the time. An elite decoration, they litter the drive.

V.

Much to see. Two white guys sparred in an empty beach parking lot a couple miles north of the Santa Monica Pier. They were either roommates or idiots and had their shirts off and tucked partway into their athletic shorts, dark-colored tanks dangling off their hate handles like flag football flags. Black gloves on both of them. Neither looked like they knew what they were doing, but sometimes you’re just trying to get a sweat going. We saw a woman wearing a fanny pack on her head. Her earrings were Christmas trees. She talked on the phone and wore all red. Signs for Point Dume. A dead Zuma. All the beaches were closed. All the fancy houses. Couples took folding lawn chairs to the grass just off the shoulder of the highway, faced the water, and read beside one another. They seemed supremely comfortable and I did not understand them. There were people surfing, paddle boarding, a few small triangles of sea kayakers every so often. We got stuck behind a Blazer waiting on a spot along the side of the road and saw a guy get out of an orange Chevy Sonic with his shirt already off. He walked right in front of us. There was, on his right pec, a tattoo of a horse. His bioluminescent chest seemed delicate and crumbly and the animal looked depressed, bitter, riddled with botulism and a bad personality. The guy also had weird nipples. They looked like Rolos. Three of the happiest women I’ve ever seen drove past us in a pre-OJ Bronco with the top chopped off. They all wore oversized, sun-faded T-shirts and the wind seemed to somehow push their hair straight up, like they were all touching the same Van de Graaff generator and shimmying. We went by a beachside villa the size of a motel that had a hulking silver art piece like some kind of abstract statue at the back of the property. It would be difficult to mow around. You’re probably looking at just breaking down and taking the time to use a weed eater on the entire area. Wear tall socks. It could also have been an old refrigerator.

There were roadside stands for avocados and oranges, a fair number of Sotheby’s signs, Leo Carrillo State Park, and a well-sunned guy in a Juventus jersey standing beside a defecating King Charles Spaniel. But the highlight was La Salsa Man. La Salsa Man, a.k.a. La Salsa Muffler Man, a.k.a. El Salsero, a 22-foot-tall fiberglass Muffler Man sculpture beside an old Mexican restaurant called La Salsa that closed down back in 2015. There did not seem to be any new tenant occupying the property, so he was just there, hanging out, keeping watch over the PCH, a Mexican Goliath dressed in all white with a mustache, sombrero, and serape in tow. Terracotta-looking tray in his hands. Nothing on it. Fine by me. He need not bring gifts. He is the gift. Lumpy forearms and yet something austere about him. Knowledgeable eyes. Probably a lot of fun at, not a big party, but at sort of a smaller thing at somebody’s apartment where you could get him to open up a little bit and be himself. He seemed infinitely reasonable, had a big, awesome hat, and was taller than every building around him. My daughter was enthralled.

She fell asleep as we got into Ventura County. Before she knocked off she said, “Daddy, I’m tired, but I’m not going to sleep.”

I kept going north. Drove up a mountain to the closed entrance of Charmlee Wilderness Park. The mailbox beside the gate was open and what looked like a loose ball of plastic bags were stuffed inside. Charmlee sits on a bluff that overlooks the Malibu coastline. It wasn’t COVID-19 that locked the entrance, though. From the National Park Service’s website:

Charmlee Wilderness Park is closed for the foreseeable future due to the damage that was sustained to the park from the Woolsey Fire.

The Woolsey Fire was in November 2018. The wildfire torched just south of 97,000 acres. Three people died. The smoke plume looked like something out of the ninth chapter of Revelation. Things keep breaking. I turned the truck around, peed at one of the scenic outlooks they have off the road. The air was very clear and the coast curved along and sand outlined the water. White bars of foam near the shoreline from the waves. I headed down the mountain, went right when I got to the bottom. Saw the Ventura County naval base, signs for the Channel Islands Air Guard Station, a weirdly high number of old VW buses, and a man in a Brett Favre Packers jersey. He reminded me of the kid in Elf that wears a Wayne Chrebet jersey half the movie. J-E-T-S, Jets!, Jets!, Jets! I know Chrebet retired in ’05 and Favre was there in ’08 but the mind works how it works. At some point I turned around, headed back toward the house.

A vehicle with a sleeping kid is a tense one. You do not want to do anything to upset the equilibrium and mess with the slumber. I listened to my tires, tried not to think.

When she woke we were almost back to La Salsa Man. She immediately said she was hungry. She had already eaten her entire lunch and there was no food left in the truck and the math begins. The immediacy of the demand told me this was a serious request born out of, not need, because she would have ultimately been fine had she not gotten anything to eat, but this was a deep want. These days can be long and drawn out and tiring. And she’s had to hear our whole spiel about germs all the time and washing her hands and not touching her face and I wish we could but we can’t go see your cousins and here’s this new mask we’ll start putting on before we go for a walk and look it has little hearts on it and don’t touch the mail and Dad’s outside Lysoling all the groceries. She’s 3. It’s a lot. I wanted to make her happy. I also wanted some fries. We went to the McDonald’s across the street from the Malibu Nobu, pulled through the drive thru. I got the fries and dumped them into an old Gelson’s deli container that had held some blueberries we’d brought for part of her lunch. I threw the carton away. I covered myself in hand sanitizer. I covered her in hand sanitizer. I took a handful of fries. I handed her the container. She started in on them right away. The bombs bursting in air. We parked across the street from La Salsa Man for a second so she could really take him in. His sideburns went down past his ears and stopped at a diagonal. The serape was a collection of different pastels. Easter egg–looking squares and rectangles gave some pop to his chest. He looked phenomenal. I looked at her in the rearview. She funneled fries into her mouth six at a time and smiled while she chewed. She was elated. So was I. Before we got back on the road, she said, “Daddy, I have to tell you something.”

“What’s up?”

“He’s a big guy, huh?”

VI.

Because Los Angeles doesn’t make sense, on the way home I could see snowcapped mountains from the 10. I tried to show them to her. She couldn’t see them. Part of fatherhood for me has been the daily battle with the limits of both my own vocabulary and my own imagination. I’m also not exactly Rand McNally at giving directions. I told her to look out the front. They were way out ahead of us. They looked palatial, hung there like islands. I was so happy to be in the truck with her. She leaned over in her car seat.

“Where?” she asked.

“Right straight out ahead of us, just a long ways off,” I said.

“I don’t see them.”

“OK, so, the road we’re on? Do you see the road we’re driving on?”

“Yes.”

“So just keep following that with your eyes and go strai—”

“Daddy, stop talking to me.”

Tyler Parker is a writer from Oklahoma.