Wednesday, April 26, 2006

My Disney Addiction

Most of my friends know of my family’s frequent visits to Walt Disney World, in Orlando, Florida. Many of my friends are “Disney People” themselves, however some people just don’t “get it” when it comes down to why we go there on vacation every summer. I can’t tell you how many times I have heard: “This is a big country… why don’t you go somewhere else?” It is my intention, with this post, to attempt to explain it you (them).

Confession: My name is Gunfighter, and I am a hard-core Disney addict, but I wasn't always. I'd like to tell you my story:

In 1996, my wife and I were planning to go to Melbourne, Florida, to see some friends for a weekend. Susan had some passes for Typhoon Lagoon (which is a Disney water park in Orlando) so we planned a really short trip to Orlando to use them and to see what else we could see. I have to tell you that I was less than thrilled about any Disney aspect to our trip. My thoughts were in line with most Disney-Haters: "This is just a colorful way to separate stupid people from their money", "I'd rather make MY OWN fun, rather than having the fun someone else wants me to have" etc... etc... etc... So we went to Typhoon Lagoon and later to Downtown Disney, which is a large shopping/entertainment area. I was not the best companion and Susan let me know about it. I didn't care much for our visit, and figured that since I had seen parts of Disney World, there was no need for me to have to go back. I was in for a surprise.

The following year, Susan suggested that we go again, because she was sure I'd like it if I gave it a chance. By this time we had been married almost two years and if I had learned anything in that period, it is that my wife is one of the smartest people ever, which means I trust her judgement on just about everything (except cooking)So... we made plans to go back to wdw!

I decided that perhaps I had been looking at this the wrong way. I decided that I was going to "give myself permission" to have a really good time, and just enjoy whatever we did in the spirit in which it was meant to be experienced. With this in mind, we traveled to Orlando. Once we settled into our hotel, it was time to go to The Magic Kingdom. (The MK is the first of the four major Disney Theme parks in Orlando). As soon as we arrived in the MK, I bought a set of Mickey Mouse ears, and that was it. I was hooked. I have been addicted ever since. During this trip, we saw all four of the Disney parks in Orlando, which include: Animal Kingdom, EPCOT, and Disney's MGM Studio. We had a great time on this trip, and i'll never forget it.

We went again in 1998, adding a week at Longboat Key for some time on the Gulf side of Florida, while Susan was pregnant (but not hugely so) with Olivia. We went again in 1999 (twice), and in 2000 (twice... I had to get a PT job at the Disney store to be able to feed the family habit), and again in 2001 (twice) Well, you get the picture... in 2002 we bought into the Hilton Grand Vacation Club because we knew that wdw was always going to be our vacation of choice (followed closely by Williamsburg, Virginia).

What did it for me? Why the transformation? I'll tell you: It was/is the texture of the place. There isn't just a thin veneer of happiness and cheer... there is a depth that has to be experienced to be understood. This is particularly important to me, as I am exceptionally detail oriented when it comes to many things. To see the incredible thought processes that went into not only the designs, but also the engineering of the roads, the resorts, the efficiency of hiding all the restrooms, the cleanliness of the parks, the locations of the trash recepticles, the water features, the use of infectious music... the tangibility of the place. It was overwhelming. As I said, I am detail oriented, and I really love seeing anything done particularly well. Well, my friends, Disney did it for me... the place was/is efficiently run. Clean, bright, and loads of fun. Fun for all, not just for children.

People often tell me that since they have no children, why would should they bother? "It couldn't possibly be any fun for me". To them I say: Look, you can go to Disney World and do lots and lots of kiddie stuff if you want to, but you don't have to. There are many levels of experience here, from staying in motel-like accomodations, to staying in five-star hotels and eating in the fanciest (and priciest) restaraunts, or anywhere in between.

Sure, Disney wants your money... but then the same can be said for going anywhere else. I realise that there are those that think themselves too cerebral or intellectual to have a good time at Disney World, but I respectfully suggest that perhaps those people need to lighten up and have a bit of fun that doesn't require recitations of the Periodic Tables or of Hamlet... in Danish.

For those that are skeptical, I’d ask you to give the place a chance. Allow yourselves to EXPERIENCE the place instead of just passing through. It is ok to play, if you want to, and I promise not to tell your friends in the local Shakespeare Society that you actually had a good time.

To paraphrase Rafael Sabatini, people that leave Disney World without having had an enormous amount of fun, only have themselves to blame.


Monday, April 24, 2006

Soccer Dad (Part 1)

I'm a soccer dad.

I didn't want to be, but I am.

I didn't want my daughter associated with that evil game, because nothing says “suburbanite” like having kids that play in a soccer league. I always scoffed at the parents that had a soccer ball sticker on the back of their minivan and thought to myself: “that’ll never be me, no way!” yet here I am.

How did I get here? It was because of the church. In fact, it was Jesus Christ himself. Oh, laugh if you like, but work with me for a moment. We are members of the local Lutheran Church in our neighborhood… my family is active in many facets of church life, my wife is President of the Congregational Council, a lay reader and teaches adult Sunday school. I am a Worship Assistant, a member of the Outreach ministry, and I teach adult Sunday school. Olivia attends (and really enjoys) Sunday school. What’s this got to do with soccer? Simply this: We are members of Christ’s church and because, as believers, we are called to worship and fellowship together.

At Olivia’s baptism we committed to training our daughter in Christian education. One of Olivia’s Sunday school chums plays soccer, and her mom (also a member of the church) is a coach. Karen talks to Olivia about soccer, Olivia talks to Susan, Susan talks to Debbie, they all settle on it and tell me what I am going to do. Ergo, I am a soccer dad because of Jesus. Thank you, Lord (note the sarcasm).

A few weeks before soccer practice is due to begin, we find out that one of Olivia’s mates from her 1st grade class is also going to be on the same team and the circle is complete.

I was determined to see Olivia fully kitted out for soccer because I want her to have everything she needs, and because I want to be a fully supportive, inclusive, and participatory dad (this means a lot to me for reasons I may discuss in another posting on another day). I went down my checklist for things I needed: shorts, shin guards, size 4 soccer ball (metallic pink… whatever happened to black and white?), and cleats. The cleats... God help me… the cleats.

This is a new realm for me. I’m not Methuselah, but apparently I am a man of a different era. You see, when I was a lad (thats how you know I am middle-aged… I use the word “lad” regularly) cleats were black, and sometimes they had white stripes. The cool guys on my football team (cool being defined as being a wide receiver or quarterback… I was an offensive lineman) wore white cleats… but that was as varied as you got. So when I told Olivia that I was going to buy her cleats later in the week, she said: “I want pink cleats, daddy!” I didn’t know such things existed, so I asked Susan, who showed me the photo advertisement for pink cleats in the previous Sunday newspaper (The Washington Post). Being a dutiful dad who wants the best for his girly-girl daughter, I set out to find these shoes.

My first stop was Sports Authority… they’ll have them surely… they have EVERYthing. I go to the section with children’s cleats and find… nothing. Damn! No worries, there are plenty of athletic shoe stores in the mall; I’ll go look at them. I went to all of the athletic shoe stores in the mall and found no cleats in any of them. I was rather annoyed because I got the impression that none of these so-called athletic shoe stores were about athletes. These stores all sold $150.00 shoes that people appeared not to use for sports, but just to look cool. I don’t get it. Anyway, I was still in the hunt for these shoes. The next day, I used my lunch break to go to a different mall and found some black Nike cleats that have the trademark silver Nike swoosh highlighted in pink. The rim of the upper is also pink. OK, I thought, this should work, but in order to he sure, I went to another store in the same mall, and bought a pair of metallic pink and silver cleats. I also bought pink laces for both. I felt really good about myself having accomplished my mission. I was also pleased that I didn’t have to take the rest of the day off to find these bloody shoes (which I would have done, if I was unsuccessful at lunch time). Thank you, Lord.

OK, lets look at this: I have a ball, practice clothing, socks, shin guards, pink cleats, and a very sociable, girly-girl daughter that is excited about playing a game (about which she knows nothing) with her friends. We are ready.

The first practice is scheduled, and on the day of days, we all go to one of the local elementary schools, which has our assigned practice field. Coach Debbie meets with the parents while the girls run around the playground, shrieking about nothing as little girls sometimes do. Debbie made all of us sign a parent’s pledge about the rules of parental behavior during games (groan!), discussed games, attendance at practice, scorekeeping etc… she also informed us that the team’s name will be the Iron Butterflies (how cool is THAT? Those of you, who have no idea of why that is so cool, go to Having finished all of the administrative folderol, she asked for volunteers for certain things like snack mom, trophy mom, and end-of-season-party mom. All of the worthy ladies volunteered for these duties, after which Debbie said that she needed an assistant coach (looking at me pointedly). I told her that all I know about soccer is that the ball was round, instead of the properly shaped oval of a rugby ball, and that you can’t use your hands, nor can you tackle. She said that that was enough… so guess what? I am now an assistant soccer coach. Thank you, Lord.

Since I knew/know nothing about what some people call “the beautiful game”, I went out and bought “The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Coaching Youth Soccer”. I read a bit of it, and it mostly made sense to me… never mind the rules of the game… Coach Debbie can work on that… I just need to know a bit about useful drills and things like that for the moment. Our team practice is held on Thursdays, but on Tuesday evenings, Olivia and I go to a nearby field for a little personal practice. We practice dribbling, passing, agility, and other things, just so she can learn her ball handling skills (and I can learn how to coach). I’m not a tyrant, so we keep it to about 45 minutes or an hour’s worth of practice, followed by about 20 minutes on the playground. It’s fun.

So I stand before you, my friends, a soccer dad, a soccer coach. I didn’t want to be, but here I am. Olivia is glad that soccer is something that we share… just the two of us (I am too). Sometimes she teases me and calls me "Coach Daddy". It makes her happy… and it makes me very happy, too.

Thank you, Lord (sarcasm deleted)

Thursday, April 20, 2006

The Rest of America… or, a Report From Flyover Country

Recently Uncle Sam sent me to Altoona, Pennsylvania, to attend a week-long course on pistol, rifle, and shotgun repair. It was a class that I needed to take because guns get a lot of hard use (at least, they do where I work), and from time to time, they break and need to be repaired or worn parts need to be replaced.

This wasn’t the first time I had been to Altoona, and it won’t be the last, but this is the first time I have made an extended stay in this blue-collar town in the midst of rural Blair County, Pennsylvania.

While the subject of firearms repair is interesting, it isn’t quantum physics, so it didn’t consume my evenings with study. This gave me plenty of time to take a good hard look around at a part of America that coastal guys like me aren’t terribly far from, but rarely ever see.

The Altoona area has been settled since the middle of the 18th century, but the Pennsylvania railroad is what put Altoona on the map. By the middle of the 19th century, the railroad system was how people and goods moved about the country in large numbers. Since railroads were becoming so important to the economy, railroad centers became important regional centers. Altoona was one of them, and the population exploded, subsuming another town, Juniata, into itself. What was a newly incorporated borough in the mid 1850’s was an incorporated city by 1868. The late 19th and early 20th centuries saw the end of the steam age and brought in the diesel locomotives of today, and after the end of World War II, Altoona had seen it’s population at it’s high-water mark.

Altoona continues to be the regional population center, such as it is, but with the decline of the railroads as the way most people travel long-distance, it has fallen on hard times… or so I thought.

When you drive through Altoona, it strikes you as a classic down-at-heel mill town… sort of reminiscent of the town that the Robert DeNiro, John Savage, and Christopher Walken characters in “The Deer Hunter" lived in. Old houses that had their best days many years ago dominate the central part of town. It appears, at first glance, that the local area high school, and its well-kept athletic fields, is the focal point of the community.

The people of Altoona, if what I saw was accurate, are a religious lot… and if you don’t believe me, you should see how many churches are in this town. The people of Altoona are a patriotic lot as well, the area's Army and Naval reserve and National Guard units having served in all of America’s wars. One of the ladies at Wendy’s has a son that just joined the Army. She is worried about him, but is proud of her son’s decision. As a matter of fact, nearly every man that I spoke to while I was in Altoona was a fellow veteran.

Altoona also has a minor league baseball team. I drove past the stadium and wished that I would be in town for a game, but alas, the season was a week or so away, and I wouldn’t be there that long.

Another thing you will notice in Altoona (well, if you are me, anyway) is that everyone looks the same, which is to say, that I was in town 2 days before I saw any black people other than the guy I always see in the mirror when I shave. It was rather odd when I walked into the local Wal-Mart and was met with open staring. One woman actually bumped into her husband while she gaped, open-mouthed. The ice was broken when I laughed and told her to try not to hurt herself. The Instructor for our course (a crusty old former Navy SEAL), remarked on the first day, that our class had drastically, if only temporarily, changed the demographics of the town, where, as he put it, “die-ver-sit-tee” ain’t Altoona’s strong point, men”. He wasn’t kidding. There were 12 men in the class and 6 were white, 5 were black, and one was Latino.

Lest you think this is going to be a discussion of rural Pennsylvania racism, I urge you to read on.

The people of Altoona that I encountered (referred to by one of their own as “Altoids”) were mostly very friendly and cheerful people. The ladies at the Wendy’s restaurant, where we ate lunch a few times, were eager to chat, and were very solicitous about our comfort while we ate our three-dollar burgers (and yes, I did have fries with that).

Determined to find out what Altoona was all about, I spent a fair amount of time just driving around looking at places as well as a fair amount of time sampling places to eat. I had dinner at three different Chinese buffets while I was in Altoona, all of which were along Plank road, which is Altoona’s economic jugular vein. One of them (across the street from the Veteran's Hospital) was REALLY good, the other two were quite unremarkable… but the people were nice. I also went to a place called CiCi’s Pizza (located next to Wal-Mart… also on Plank road). CiCi’s is a pizza buffet, which I wasn’t really in the mood for, but it was getting late, and I hadn’t eaten in nearly 8 hours (hungry Gunfighter means CRANKY Gunfighter... Cranky Gunfighter... not good), so in I went. “WELCOME TO CiCi’s!!” the teenaged girl behind the counter bellowed at me, almost causing me to beat a hasty retreat. The pizza was fair; the atmosphere was a cross between Sizzler and your high-school cafeteria. I read while I ate my dinner and then quickly made for the door. Before I could put my hand on the push-bar, the barely-out-of-her teens manager rushed up to me and bellowed (bellowing is obviously a big thing in Altoona) “Thank you for dining at CiCi’s! We’ll See-See ya later!” (“No you won’t, I thought to myself”).

So, let’s recap, the people were nice, the streets were pretty clean, the town isn’t terribly diverse, the young folks like to bellow… ok, moving on.

I was saving the highlight of Altoona’s retail pleasures for my next to last night in town, and THAT was the local mall… on Plank road, next to K-Mart, which I visited the night before. The mall had all of the standard stores, the jewelry stores, a skate shop, several athletic shoe stores, the obligatory cellular phone kiosks, etc… but the place was devoid of any sort of soul. Even Sears was rather lifeless! Damn! My yardstick for many places is how much I like the local mall. Well, Altoona failed miserably in that respect… but I have to give the place a break, since it is kind of unfair to make a comparison to a mall in that area to any of the myriad malls in the DC suburbs.

The next evening, my classmates were going to go to a local place for dinner/drinks… I went to the regional library instead (on 17th street, NOT Plank road, thank you, very much). On this beautiful spring-like afternoon, as I was about to enter the library, I met a lady named Judy. Judy works at the county Senior Services Center... a delightful, silver haired, 61 year old with whom I chatted about politics, social issues, our mutual dislike of the current occupant of the White House, our sorrow at the waste of lives that our war in Iraq is producing, and saving the world. Judy is married to a retired Coast Guardsman, and is the main reason that I decided to write about this place, for reasons that I hope to make clear, below.

You see, Judy made me realize that Altoona, and by extension, other places like it, is a different place than perhaps we metropolitan east and west coasters think. Often, we derisively call places like Altoona “flyover country”. It isn’t fair, and it isn’t right. We hip, urbane, in-the-know people think that since we live in major population centers and work in finance, government, or the widely-distributed media, that we have a better grasp on things happening in this country. We don’t.

We liken people that live in places like Altoona to be backward hicks. They aren’t. They are the population of what I call “The Rest of America”… people that spend their days working to raise families and live their lives… lives that started and will likely end very near where they live today. They have views and opinions shaped by their experiences, and those experiences, like my own or your own, make them think and believe as they do. Their experiences may be different than ours, but the opinions and views that are shaped by them are no less valid than our own.

I spent nearly an hour talking to Judy, and was very pleased with our conversation. She had spark and vitality that I smugly wouldn’t have thought to find in a place “like this”. When we parted ways, I decided people had to know, or at least that I had to tell someone what was on my mind.

I know that not all who read this live in or near major metropolitan areas, but rest assured that there is at least one person in my America that isn’t ignoring you and doesn’t think that you are any less worthy than someone that does.

I promise to pay more attention in the future.