In the spring of 2011, my youngest daughter taught me a lesson about perception. Technically, I suppose, the message was a group project delivered by my daughter, Piglet (from Winnie-the-Pooh), and a seemingly rabid adolescent goat – all with the assistance of Mickey Mouse.

But let’s not muddy the water with details just yet.

Step One: The Journey

0330. Alarm explodes. Swear words are uttered. Snooze button is depressed.

0337. Alarm re-detonates. More vigorous swearing. Feet hit floor. Toothbrush hits teeth.

0350. Kids are dragged from angelic slumber, except for Macy The Oldest, who has been awake and twitching with anticipation since 0200. JackMan stumbles drunkenly to the car, and immediately slips back into his coma. Ellie Kate, the Princess Baby, is just looking around at everything, wide-eyed and flustered, mumbling the baby words for “what the hell is this 4 a.m. crap about?”

0400. Drive drive drive drive drive doze off jerk wheel scare family drink coffee drive drive drive.

0830. Chik-Fil-A. Creepy bathroom guy tells me, as he steps away from the urinal, “I warmed it up for you.” At this point, a tiny piece of my soul dies and drifts to the dirty tile floor. My son JackMan is very confused by this exchange. “What did he mean, daddy?”

I pretend to be absorbed by restroom signage to avoid explaining that some people in life are just destined to say creepy, nonsensical things in public restrooms.

More driving. Sweet Moses, the driving. To understand driving in Florida, you have to understand two things about Florida drivers:

  1. They hate you. All of them hate all of you. They want you dead, right now, in a flaming ball of wreckage rolling conveniently into the emergency lane and out of their way.
  2. Brake lights are meaningless. Turn signals are meaningless. Hand gestures are meaningless. Screaming at your windshield is meaningless. The only things that matter are position, relative velocity, and leverage. In this respect, driving in Florida is exactly equivalent to playing on the offensive line.

Well, O-line is what I coached back when I still coached football, and so we survived. And, like the Israelites of old, we found our way to the Promised Land (assuming the Old Testament Promised Land featured Captain Jack Sparrow doppelgangers). DISNEY WORLD! The magical land of costumed characters, cash transfusions, and $11 popsicles.

Murderous Piglet and a buffet full of bacon

The first day we were at Disney World was magical in the truest sense of the word. Somehow, we had landed in some sort of non-crowded fantasy vortex. We rode everything immediately: Dumbo, Small World, Space Mountain (whoo!), The Whirling Teacups of Vomitous Death, Snow White’s Slightly Creepy Forest, Buzz Lightyear’s Glorified Lazer Tag, and – of course – Pirates of the Caribbean. It was amazing. I hate Disney so much, it hurts my teeth to let those words out. But it was a blast.

Then, lunch.

We get very excited for lunch in my house. And this one was in that crystal restaurant where all the Pooh characters dance around and pat your kids on the head while dad gets to eat every item on the buffet. The prospect of this lunch had been the only glimmer of hope keeping my black soul from slipping into the abyss for the last few days.

Which is why it was a huge kink in my plans to learn that Ellie was convinced Piglet wanted to murder her. Please wait: I know that “kid who cries at characters” is an overused and trite cliche. You are not understanding me. I do not mean “Ellie cried when she saw Piglet.” This was not discomfort.

What I mean is: Ellie was 100% convinced that Piglet was going to shove a Mickey-themed butter knife into her chest. She screamed like that girl at the bottom of the well in “Silence of the Lambs.” She bucked her high chair like a tiny, apoplectic cowgirl astride an angry bull. It was the kind of cry that forces you to leave the restaurant for the good of the other patrons…if you’re good parents or decent people.

Fortunately, I am neither. I had driven 10 hours and paid eleventy jillion dollars, and this buffet was the one thing in my day I was looking forward to. So I declared “We’re not leaving. She’ll get over it.”

Here’s the thing, though. She did not get over it.

When it dawned on her that I had no plans to save her from the lunatic porcine assassin, my tiny Princess Baby looked at me with eyes that clearly communicated the simple phrase “When you are old and helpless, I will unplug your machines for this. Is it worth it?”

And I decided that yes, six plates of bacon was absolutely worth it.

So she screamed. And wailed. And when she was done wailing, she circled right back around to try a bit more of the screaming. It was an absurd variation on the ghost scene in MacBeth. You know the scene? MacBeth can see Banquo’s ghost, but no one else can. So in the middle of the dinner, the ghost keeps popping up at just the worst time, and MacBeth jumps up and flips his chair over and generally looks like a crazy person. You know that scene?

Imagine that, but with Piglet and a toddler. Everyone eats quietly, then Ellie sees Piglet / Pooh / Tigger / Eeyore, at which point she becomes a 12-pound bass right after hitting the ice in the cooler. That is, if that bass were strapped into a chair and screaming infantile obscenities.

On it went. Inside the park. In every restaurant. Wherever she saw a character. From a football field away, she would begin welling up, and as we approached the smiling character, surrounded by a line of happy children, she would become Sean Penn in “Mystic River” when he finds his dead daughter in that park. Just sobbing and wailing at the sky, calling on God to bring down lightning on everyone in sight.

Finally, Animal Kingdom

This went on for three days. Seventy-two hours of mortal carnage. So it was a relief, on the fourth day, when we got to the Animal Kingdom.

First of all, there aren’t nearly as many characters in the Animal Kingdom to dodge, and I was tired of spending my vacation feeling like a downed chopper pilot in Vietnam dodging Charlie. “Quick. There’s Stitch. When he turns to pretend-fart on that family, you step toward him and I’ll cross the alley to the gift shop.”

Second of all, do you know what there is in the Animal Kingdom? There is a safari ride, full of actual animals. And she loved it. Piglet in costume? Murderer. Actual lion that would maul her tiny beautiful head in a remorseless second? Best friend of all time.

Do you know what else there is in the Animal Kingdom? A petting zoo, full of cuddly, safe animals, none of whom represent animated characters. So OF COURSE we are going to visit the petting zoo.

And there we are, petting baby deer and cute little sheep and tiny goats. And she’s loving it. Finally, Ellie, my Princess Baby, is loving Disney World, safe from the organized crime syndicate of Mickey and Company.

So imagine her surprise when the three baby goats she’s petting decide this is the moment for a lively round of mortal combat. My daughter’s innocent childlike joy turned to horror, her universe twisting terribly awry in the most absurdly goat-oriented of fashions. The goats are circling, churning, head butting, making that horrid goat sound, and Ellie is slowly dawning to the realization – THE DISNEY ANIMALS REALLY ARE TRYING TO KILL HER.

And this time: they’re organized. They set her up. They lulled her to sleep for three days; Piglet and Mickey and Pluto were all red herrings, and they’ve actually planned all along to use the one animal she wasn’t scared of to execute their nefarious plot. This required both intent and forethought. (That’s attempted Murder One, for you “Law and Order” aficionados.)

I tend to be a reasonably helpful chap, so here’s a suggestion f0r the Disney suits – you’re gonna need to train those petting zoo employees a little more if you plan to avoid lawsuits from people who are less laid-back and forgiving than me.

Imagine, if you will, the half-addled college kid they’re paying to work in the goat pen, nervously chuckling and saying, “They’re just playing” while the maelstrom of goat anger builds and my daughter is trapped inside. She can’t even cry – she’s just doing that wide-eyed fish-gulp thing kids do when something too bad to even cry about has happened. And imagine the college kid’s realization that no manual explained what, exactly, one is to do when a cyclonic goat-fight breaks out literally wrapped around a toddler.

Now imagine me, striding into the fray, punching a goat.

Yes. Punching. A goat. I will say that again, because it can be difficult to comprehend. I punched a goat. In the neck. Right in his tiny goat neck.

Punching the goat was necessary, because the Disney Official Magical Goat Tender was standing there, telling people, “Let’s stay away while they calm down,” completely oblivious to the Wailing Human Infant trapped in the Maelstrom of Disney Goat Anger.

(Ellie now carries a plastic Playskool knife, which she brandishes at the mere sight of a costumed character while muttering, “Bring it.”)

We survived, though. Goats were punched, sarcastic utterances were uttered, off was stormed, at which point I realized what a GREAT story my toddler’s barnyard trauma would make. And if you can’t traumatize your children for the sake of a good story, what is parenting even for?

Of course, if I wanted to press the issue, I could point out the obvious lesson, right? Here Ellie was, surrounded by costumed characters who wanted nothing more than to make her happy, but she was terrified. And then, when she encountered actual animals that could and would do actual harm to her, she let her guard down.

There’s a point in there somewhere about American culture, or global politics, or human nature. But I’ll let you figure that out on your own. You definitely shouldn’t take any advice from me. I punched a goat.