We were THIS close. It was her one birthday request. DanTDM. She will be 10 in a few weeks and her response to the announcement for his national tour was, well, Donny Osmond-ish, for those of my generation. To her and her friends, he’s a rock star. I had scored seats in the 2nd row. Row B. For this moment, as we settled into our seats in the bygone-era beautiful Egyptian Room of the Old National Murat Theater in downtown Indianapolis, I was her hero.
Dan Middleburg, known as DanTDM, is a 25-year-old YouTube personality and professional gamer from England who has over 14,000,000 (yes, 6 zeros) followers and parents, pay attention…. he makes a living doing this. His eyes did not go bad from staring at a screen. His face did not freeze “like that”. And he has the good fortune of a future in media, publishing and, get this, motivational speaking. To those ever-elusive attention-span challenged adolescents.
We were here, today, because my daughter faithfully follows him and his online YouTube channel. She likes playing Minecraft and I like watching her play Minecraft. In a nutshell, it is pixelated problem solving with pugs and humor and harmless pranks. It requires engineering and creativity and quick thinking in the midst of digital chaos. It is this digital chaos that became the basis for this show and as he stepped onstage to chants of “Dan T-D-M!” over and over at a surprising consistent decibel and cadence, children waved cartoonish cardboard swords and pick-axes. Yes, weapons. Used to fight “creepers” and caricature enemies in a squared-up digital world that is anything but “in the box”.
Kids were focused on seeing this personality in person and the parents in attendance were, surprisingly, not fidgeting. Because as his message rolled out, we recognized it. It was the classic “hero’s journey” of high school english and Star Wars and Wizard of Oz. The formula that underlies every myth and fairy tale, ever. But, his message and manner made it new. His updates included not only the timeless pick axes in the hands of the dwarfs, but digital devices that nearly every child has at hand. It began in the normal fashion… the hero’s call to action, the denial, the overcoming of challenges against all odds through the pure love and power that he had, all along, within, and yet… his enemy with a shock of bright red hair was actually his evil…..
“We interrupt this program for…. a calm and controlled evacuation.”
Yeah. At a critical juncture in Dan’s story, someone from the venue stepped onstage. No words, no drama, just the slightest of hand gestures for Dan and his co-star to exit, stage right. The lights came up and the auditorium of over 2000 parents and children stood to try to figure out what was going on, looking toward the back of the auditorium. Listening for alarms. Sniffing the air. And following the Mr. Roger’s mantra of “look for the helpers”.
The helpers appeared but they were not accompanied by sirens or badges or bullhorns. Slowly, security personnel from the venue began, quietly, evacuating the room. Starting at the back. Low volume murmured conversations were taking place around me but the cacophony of excitement from minutes earlier gave way to a collective calm.
It was going to be a few minutes before we could fall in line and so I took the opportunity to formulate a plan with Addie. Since we didn’t know what the nature of the issue was, we had to talk through what we did know. And that was that she could trust me, even if we could not trust the situation.
I glanced toward the back of the auditorium and saw that they had opened a set of doors, slightly toward the right, and I could see light flooding in. I told Addie that we were going to cut to the right, through the seats, and head toward daylight. The unknown meant heading deeper into the building through the lobby doors was not a good idea. The idea was to get quickly to where we wanted to go and it this case, it was outside.
At the moment this began to unfold, we grasped hands. I told her to not let go but to not worry if she had to. My job was to keep track of her. Her job was to keep moving and since I was taller, I would maneuver around her. If I needed to block for her, I would step in front. If I needed to follow her, or grab her shirt or push her back, to just respond like we were dancing.
We were just about to the door and I looked back at the auditorium and nearly everyone was out. Except for one family. They were still standing in front of their seats. I heard the mother exasperatedly ask one of the ushers “Do we at least get to know WHY this is happening?” Addie heard her, too, and looked at me with a “really?” look on her face because she knows. She knows like everyone else in the auditorium knew. The “WHY” doesn’t matter in the moment. The only things that matter in the moment are WHAT we need to do, WHERE we will be safe and HOW we will get there because the WHEN is already answered. It. Is. NOW.
We got out the doors to find that the crowd had not gone far. They were actually jammed at the bottom of the short flight of steps and so I told her to make her way through because we were going to cross the street. We did not make it to daylight to get THIS close and be blown out of the doorway like a scene in Hawaii 5-O. We made it to the curb and there was typical downtown afternoon traffic, even though it was Sunday and so I pointed her toward the corner where the crosswalk signal was, thankfully, in our favor, so we crossed. I assure you, I would have jaywalked to safety, if necessary, but again, we were THIS close to safety and I wasn’t going to now leave our fate up to oncoming traffic.
We stood on the street corner and watched. I texted one of my older daughters to see if anything was in the media. It was still remarkably calm. And uncharacteristically silent. No alarms were going off. No firetrucks or rescue personnel or “helpers”. The crowd began to move, en masse, around the left side of the building. My daughter began to follow suit and I held her up. I told her we were not going to follow the crowd but follow instructions and we were going to wait here, a safe distance from the building, until they came.
At that moment, a woman in a security shirt with a headset and a walkie-talkie came out on the steps and informed the crowd that the doors on either side of the building were now open and we could come back inside. In a re-entry that was as calm and controlled as our exit, everyone returned to their seats. Intermission was over. The show must go on.
As we resettled into our seats, I could not help but think about the mission of this interruption. There were probably 1000 children in the age range of 6 to 12 in this room and there were no cries, no melt-downs and no fear. Except from the one mother. “Do we get to know why?” The literal why was pretty simple, actually… a light fixture had been sitting on a chair and it began to smolder. The air did smell faintly of “crisped pleather” but it also smelled like the smoke machine that gave Dan’s opening an air of drama. A drama that was most definitely lacking during our intermission of interruption… and that was the question my mind went to work on. Why was this so…. matter of fact?
The fact is, children are now normalized to the drama. When you live THIS close to a culture that seems to thrive on temper tantrums and meltdowns by the people we elect to be in charge, the children don’t become numb to it, they become immune to it. They are being vaccinated on a daily basis by conflict and we, as parents, must take time to talk them through it and walk with them in it, calmly, even in the midst of potential chaos. The children in this room, especially, had already bought in to heroes who respond to “evil” with creativity and innovation… on the fly. And the parents who bought them tickets could not know that they also bought them a real life lesson in how it unfolds.
They are being educated by a voice of their times through an innovative device that teaches them to innovate and it comes from a slightly built powerhouse of creativity that, in placing the power of the devices, not in these children’s hands, but in their heads and heroic hearts, is pushing the evolution of innovation. Using the authority of the creative force within all of us to not follow crowds but to lead a crowd of over 14 MILLION young souls who will, together, calmly and collectively, move us toward daylight.
At the conclusion of this interrupted and spontaneously intermissioned program, Dan asked that we not reveal the details of his show. That he wanted us to honor the delight of the children who had yet to see him. I won’t betray that request — but I do want to reveal one element that defied the formulaic approach that underlies every “heroes journey” epic. Whether its Homer repackaged as “O Brother Where Art Thou” or the parallel story lives of Harry Potter, Frodo or the Little Engine that Could, the magnificence of the metaphor muddies the message. We merchandise the character to the point that we forget the character IS the point.
DanTDM didn’t just get THIS close. He was spot on. That we are not only the hero, but our own worst enemy. That we must be brave enough to confront the most brutal of inner fears. That we have every weapon, within, to chip away at our doubt and create a future for all the right reasons… for the unreasonable evolution of innovative love and faith in ourselves. These children, normalized into “this is not a drill” everyday occurrences are facing the truth that generations before them haven’t. They don’t have the time or luxury to escape into hero mythology. They must craft their own hero muscle to escape the cultural mythology they will inherit from us by first confronting their own truth. In an era where the possibility of a hijacked election via cyberattack, who are we to criticize what device our children choose to prepare for this journey? They see the truth of their future rising before them in epic proportions.
It’s a universal truth. Chaos always comes before order. And the “why” only matters in hindsight when we must either learn from history or repeat it. If need is the mother of invention, the necessity for a new way of doing business will create the need for evolved, awakened innovation. This cultural and political moment in the life of my daughter is an unpleasant and potentially dangerous interruption. But, like the intermission that has now been woven into her story, it’s a teaching moment that even the branding genius of DanTDM could not have envisioned. It may be my job to ensure that she is safe. But… in this whole hero’s journey thing? I’m going to follow her lead. She’s my “why”. Because her generation’s show MUST go on.