At five-and-a-half, Theo has some superhero action-figures, but he’s neither especially loyal to their embedded storylines nor particularly interested in recreating their specific characters in his games. Superpowers, however, show up. Maybe they’re somewhat universal: super-strength, super-speed, morphability, invulnerability, invisibility, and the power to breathe unaided on other planets when you forget your helmet.
Theo and I went hiking the other day—downhill out and uphill back. Fortunately for me, Theo discovered that hucking rocks off the side of the trail accessed the latent super-strength he needed to climb the trail and make it back to the car in time to pick up his sister.
At one point he stopped to think, motion me over and whisper, “Mom. When I throw the special little rocks in my pocket into this field of big rocks, they will give us (dramatic pause) secret powers!”
“Oh!” I said dramatically back. “What kind of secret powers!?”
“I can’t tell you,” he whispered. “They’re secret.” (Did I teach him that tried-and-true come-back? Or does every kid learn that no matter what?)
I wonder, sometimes, about the secret powers other people seem to possess. The women’s active-wear catalogue Title Nine once included micro-bios of their models next to pictures of them throwing frisbees. They said things like, “Mia, business owner, jewelry designer, mom and soccer coach to two sets of twins, finishing PhD in epidemiology, ultra-marathoner, loves to start the day by surfing dawn breakers.”
I think this was supposed to inspire me, and not just so I’d buy the quick-dry skort Mia was wearing. I was more humbled than amazed, though: Instead of feeling empowered—“I can do that, too!”—I felt rather defeated—“How the hell can she do all that?” “Who is that masked woman!?”
I have a similar response to Sheryl Sandberg & Co.—with the full agreement that too few women call the shots in the world and that my response is not encouraging for a gestalt of gender-equality. Nevertheless, my first reaction is less a renewed conviction to “Lean In” than a demoralizing conviction that I am a lost cause, that I Leaned Out, that I am the opposite of a superhero.
As an Amazon/Olympian, Wonder Woman probably escapes this kind of angst. But did Peter Parker ever feel deficient? Clark Kent in his plain clothes?
Perhaps the desire to embody superpowers derives from despair at our mere human-ness. For sure, though, superhero tools are created to elevate the capabilities of mere human-ness. Ironman’s suit, Spiderman’s web shooters, Captain America’s shield, the entire contents of the Bat Cave.
Superheroes certainly look more super from the outside looking in, in real life at least. Costumes help, no doubt. Especially capes and masks, which two-year-old Super Sylvia wears often, sometimes with a tutu, sometimes with a wooden sword, often with no other clothing at all. Since my fashion options are more limited, I rely on superhero tools.
Even in the just-getting-through-the-day version of super/human-ness, such tools are critical. We use them tactically, keep them secret, and then post the results (but only truly super ones) on Facebook. It’s best if we just post our superhero abilities quickly and then log off; because if we stay on Facebook too long, we’ll read about super-others to the point of distress. This is not to say we don’t celebrate the superness of others, by the way, only that we humans are disappointingly self-reflective.
This is a revelatory Mother Tongue: I am revealing some of my super tools for the home front. I can’t vouch for their performance in battles of good against evil, but as multitasking, augmentation, delegation, deception and chemical enhancement aides, they’re helpful.
Liquid Lead. Lead is only substance that can protect Superman from the effects of kryptonite, so I employ the stovetop espresso maker for leaded-coffee energy bolts. Invulnerability from the inside out! And I think it makes me faster, at everything.
Dysondog. When floors covered in crumbs and snack discards sap my strength, I summon Sophie, our dog. The space beneath the table shines in no time. Try it: Why waste a mortal minute with the vacuum? Dim Lighting, Dysondog’s super side-kick, is useful, too.
Flash Demeter Tool. In a nod to the goddess of the hearth and pioneer self-sufficiency, I turn out dense blocks of home-baked bread with our mid-1990s bread machine. I’m super wholesome! The machine is behemoth that jumps around noisily, which counteracts my wholesome flour-dusted-air image, but it’s sturdy. Mine once kneaded itself off the counter in the middle of the night, and it still works!
WonderTwins. The full-circles geometry of comics superwomen is truly super—that they can stand up and do martial arts with such boobs is more impressive. Illustrated cleavage escapes me, so I turn to the simple push-up bra. Or, I did before I discovered, after breastfeeding two kids, that even my Miracle A-cup is cavernous. I’m now devoted to the super-convenience of the built-in-shelf-bra tank and searching for adult Wonder Woman Underoos.
Image Enhancer Tool: An under-touted feature of smartphone cameras is their ability to snapshot stellar moments while omitting all awkward background information, thereby burnishing the superhero image. After I’d hiked up the ski area with Sylvia in the backpack, my husband iPhone photo’ed me in a way that made me appear strong and capable. In no way did his photo hint at the vast distance between me and the rest of the group in front of me, the dry gasps and heart pounding that filled my head, the degree to which I had to pee, or the fact that my legs might have collapsed beneath me at any moment.
Life Decoder Tool: The smartphone is a contender for the ultimate superhero tool of the modern, Earth-bound human. It’s kind of like a version of Green Lantern’s power ring. Lights and cool sounds! Teleportation (Skype/FaceTime)! Instantaneous communication with other ringwielders/iHolders! Language interpretation! World-event headline portal! Also: Video capture of precious moments! Client check-in at the playground! Scheduling and the avoidance of fatal calendar conflicts!
This tool also, like its Green Lantern power-ring corollary, can generate a forcefield and render things invisible. The challenge is not to let this sink you. Every super tool and superhero has its weakness, right? Achilles has that pesky undipped heel. Every American parent seems to have a smartphone, so maybe the test is not to let the semi-sentient computer replace the fully sentient human.
It is possible, though, that the real, at-the-bottom-of-it-all challenge is to give less power to the super-expectations that always ensure I come up short. Does this mean I stop pursuing superhero-dom altogether? Not when I’m hiking uphill with the kids!