Tag Archives: Starbucks

Theories of relativity

earth

Thanks to the modern miracle of wi-fi, I’m writing this in a Starbucks, where the scents of burnt coffee blend in an orgiastic melange with subliminal jazz and the tinny patois of the three teenage girls sitting to my left, cajoling one another with tales of romantic woes with such frequent interjections of the word “like” it might as well be in, like, a completely different language.  I gather an acquaintance was at a young lad’s house overnight and the former somebody is obsessed with the latter, and another someone is totally getting engaged in Utah, omigod, make of it what you will.  Shards of October are littered across the deep sienna tile in the form of fragments of leaves hitching rides in from the street on clumsy boots, and yet, November is in full swing inside, pumpkin spice abandoned for peppermint, gingerbread and hot apple cider, menus and cups transformed to holiday red.

The espresso machine whirs and spits milk foam, and the girls are on to complaining about work now, and while to each his own, I can’t help but smile a bit at the relativity of personal problems – what seems disastrous to one person is laughable to someone else.  I guess the whole “First World Problems” meme is the perfect example of that; how dare we privileged few whine that our latte is weak when someone in the deserts of Sudan is crawling haggardly across the sand in search of a drop of water.  I read a statistic a while back that if all seven billion human beings lived at the same standard as we do in the northwestern hemisphere, we would need four earths worth of resources to sustain everyone.  I haven’t checked the star charts lately, but barring some unforeseen discovery I’m pretty sure this is it.  Kinda makes it difficult to justify getting mad at an inadequate supply of chocolate shavings on a peppermint mocha.

This week has seen some interesting developments in the political sphere, particularly as it concerns two gentlemen whose continuing success seems the embodiment of global unfairness.  First, Dick Cheney decided to cancel his trip to Toronto, where he was scheduled to give a speech to an economic forum, claiming that Canada was “too dangerous.”  This followed a report that a group of lawyers had sent a letter to the Attorney General of Ontario demanding that Cheney be arrested on war crimes charges the moment he landed.  Dodging small arms fire and rocket-propelled grenades on the way to this cafe, as I often do, I wondered what on earth would possess anyone to want to go see a speech by Dick Cheney in the first place.  Really, what was he going to tell the group of too-rich-for-their-own-good muckety-mucks ponying up for the ticket – how awesome it is to be wealthy and how the only way to become more wealthy is to screw the poor into the dirt even harder?  There, I saved ol’ Six Heart Attacks the bother of the trip.  But had he chosen to tread upon these allegedly too hazardous shores, he would have found his appearance swallowed up in the news by the Rob Fordpocalypse.  The two men are truly a pair of poison kings:  unrepentant bullies who always get away with everything because karma’s apparently asleep at the wheel.  Confronted by the revelation that the Toronto police have the infamous “crack video” in their possession, and facing calls by all four major Canadian newspapers to step down and attend to his personal problems, Ford is pulling the equivalent of sticking his fingers in his ears and bleating “na-na-na-na-I-can’t-hear-you.”  We’ll see in the coming days and weeks whether he’s able to hang on to his office, but if and when he does go, it won’t be voluntarily, no matter what consequences Toronto suffers in the meantime.  The man’s CN Tower-sized ego simply won’t permit him to express those magical little words, “I was wrong and I’m sorry.”  Ultimately, that’s what the opponents of both men want.  It isn’t to see them flayed or doing the perp walk in irons (though to be fair, in Cheney’s case that image would be particularly satisfying.)  It’s wanting them to feel guilt and regret and shame and desperate wishes that they could somehow atone – you know, wanting them to be human.  Cheney is probably too far gone, but Ford may have a semblance of a soul left.  One can only live in hope that he will ultimately do the right thing, but I’m not a betting man.  (At least not if his serial-enabling brother Doug has anything to do with it.)

And yet, what happens to Rob Ford and Dick Cheney affects my life as little as what the girls at the next table decide to do about their next shift at the restaurant, or about the girl who’s apparently getting engaged in Utah, omigod – so why worry about it?  I remember an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation involving a telepathic guest character who was so overwhelmed by the emotions and thoughts of others that it drove him to near madness.  You can be paralyzed if you let all that stuff get to you.  Yes, it’s awful that Dick Cheney will probably live out the rest of his life in ease and affluence after ruining the world for everyone else, but there’s no sense in shortening our own time on this troubled planet by stressing out about it.  Nor is there much to be gained by spitting blood over the escapades of RoFo and DoFo.  They’re certainly not up late worrying about us.

At the end of Casablanca, Rick tells Ilsa that the problems of two people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this world.  Perhaps, but when you’re neck deep in beans that hill feels insurmountable – even if a stranger would look at you and scoff, wondering what the heck the big issue is.  Much as how while I might feel that what these three girls are obsessing over is utterly trivial, so too would they think I’m an idiot for wasting my hour writing about the travails of the former U.S. Vice President and the Mayor of Toronto, two men I have never met and will likely never meet.  At least they’re talking about people they know, people who matter to them, smiling and laughing and having a great time.  I’m the solitary soul typing away in dour silence about strangers.  Who’s better off?  We are all our own little universe, after all, we define the shape of that cosmos with our individual hopes and dreams and fears, and it is not anyone’s place to say that universe doesn’t matter.  That way lies the death of empathy and of compassion, of seeing others as human.

I eye the clock, drain the last of my lukewarm beverage, click save and shut down and slip the laptop back into the bag.  And as I head for the door I wonder if by some quirk of fate one of those young women ends up reading the post their conversation inspired.  Unlikely, of course, but you just never know.  Cold air touches my face, and I step onward into the street and disappear.

A Writer’s Journey Through Disney World: Part II

topiary

Getting up before seven a.m. seems antithetical to the very concept of a “vacation,” but as rays of sunlight sneak through the crack in the curtains decorated with tiny traffic cones a la Cars, one cannot help but stir with delight at the prospect of another day in the Disney sunshine.  My wife made a great point the other night as she lamented not being able to return for a while:  when you are at Disney World, you are stepping into a pocket universe that seems as utterly removed from reality as any of your favorite fantasy novels.  You forget that you’re in the state that threw the Presidency to George W. Bush because its voters couldn’t read their ballots, where the current governor came from a business that was convicted of defrauding Medicare – paying almost $2 billion in fines – and believes so completely in the Tea Party’s desire to drown government in the bathtub that he signed a bill defunding mosquito spraying (because lower taxes are much more important than preventing outbreaks of malaria).  You cross the border onto the Disney property and you’re transported from that depressing place into somewhere that logically shouldn’t be able to exist in adjacent space.  Thoughts of the world flee from your consciousness; everyone is so blessed friendly and helpful here that smiles become currency and delightful surprises the expectation.  And today we’re headed to the nexus of the fantasy, the beating heart of the dream:  The Magic Kingdom.

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Modeled after Disneyland, the Magic Kingdom is the original park, opened in 1971, though a 1971 visitor returning in 2013 would find it dramatically different as attractions have come and gone and entire lands have disappeared and been replaced with experiences new and improved.  Pirates of the Caribbean includes three cameos by Captain Jack Sparrow now, and the “roll call of the Commanders-in-Chief” portion of the Hall of Presidents grows increasingly crowded.  The staples remain, of course, as timeless as Cinderella’s castle, its spires visible from every spot throughout the realm, and the turn-of-the-last-century charm of Main Street U.S.A., though the bakery that once sent wafts of the aroma of warm cookies skipping through the nostrils of every passerby no matter the hour has, in a nod to the passage of time outside the Disney gates, become a Starbucks (the cups do feature an appropriately colorful rendering of sparkles and fairy dust).  And what never changes is this place’s ability to let you leave the cares of adulthood at the gate and regress to the time in your life when you were the happiest, when you knew nothing of cynicism or the burdens of responsibility, when you held your mom or dad’s hand as you waited in line to climb aboard Dumbo and soar into the sky.  Dumbo has been upgraded (two carousels instead of one and an interactive waiting area under a Big Top) and you don’t fit into the car as comfortably as you once did, but that feeling of reassurance is still there, that you have not lost your childhood completely.  It’s just been dormant for a while.

opening

The day began with an early arrival at the park so we could see the opening ceremony, where Mickey and the gang arrive by train along with a specially-chosen family to welcome one and all.  The entrance is designed so that you can’t actually see Cinderella’s castle from the outside; it is unveiled to you like the rolling back of a stage curtain as you step through into Main Street and stroll past its collection of galleries and emporiums, boasting seemingly infinite varieties of curios, souvenirs and Disney paraphernalia to suit all tastes and wallet sizes.  The rides await further on, however, and a right turn at the end of Main Street takes you into Tomorrowland – which hasn’t looked futuristic since at least the mid-80’s and is now more of a time capsule of what we once thought the 21st Century would resemble; in a way, the child’s dreams of the decades to come.  Presiding over Tomorrowland is of course the giant white dome that houses Space Mountain.

The most intense of the trifecta of “Mountain” rides in the Magic Kingdom – the others being Splash and Thunder, respectively – Space Mountain is another of those bits of Disney that used to terrify me as a child.  I was afraid to even go near it, and couldn’t even summon the courage to give it a try in the face of my younger sister deciding to brave its twists and turns through the darkness.  Of course it doesn’t help that there’s an urban legend about someone being decapitated on it too (in fact, the only thing that ever lost its head on Space Mountain was a dummy that was placed in the car standing up so the ride engineers could test for clearance).  Wanting to impress my then-girlfriend six years ago on our first Disney trip together, I gathered my wits and took my place in the rail-mounted spacecraft, and 90 seconds later, although I wasn’t exactly champing at the bit for a repeat voyage, the horrifying Space Mountain turned out to be not so bad in the end.  You’re actually not going nearly as fast as the Rockin’ Roller Coaster, but the complete darkness you’re traveling through and the resulting unpredictability of the track intensifies the sensation of speed, as though you are indeed on a rocket out of control in the heavens.  And yes, despite myself, I do still feel like I have to duck.  (Note:  You do not have to duck.)  You know, I never had much of an appetite for high-speed rides in my youth, but as I grow older, I’m beginning to grasp the appeal.  Perhaps it’s the creeping understanding of the passage of time, of ruing the inaction of younger days and wanting to seize as many of the moments as possible now, before it’s too late.  There’s the old saying that you’ll regret the things you didn’t do far more than the things you did; how one wishes that wisdom could be applied retroactively.  At the Magic Kingdom, you do get that second chance.  Space Mountain’s not going anywhere.

Nor, indeed, are the characters that inhabit the parks.  In fact, they’re much easier to find now than they once were; in the distant past you had to rely on luck and happenstance whereas now they are located in specific viewing areas with appointment times clearly listed.  Some Disney fans feel this is a bit of a loss of the magic of the random encounter that used to occur, but it’s the inevitable consequence of too many short-tempered parents blowing a gasket that little Johnny didn’t get his picture taken with Mickey and in some cases even physically attacking the characters in reprisal.  What then is Disney to do but provide a more structured, consistent environment for these meet-ups?  In New Fantasyland, Ariel’s Grotto is a new permanent installation (on the site of the old 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea ride) that gives you the opportunity to say hello to the eponymous Little Mermaid, but the “secret” appears to be multiple Ariels waiting within, disguised by the bends and twists of the queuing area, to better handle the often crushing flow of eager youngsters.  The more traditional encounters are still held in the open air:  Chip and Dale and Woody and Jessie hang out in Frontierland, Pluto and Daisy Duck can be spotted on Main Street, and the whirling tea cup ride of the Mad Hatter features regular appearances by the White Rabbit and Alice herself.  Meeting her was our first and probably our single most delightful character greeting; upon saying hello to my son, who was wearing an Iron Man T-shirt, Alice inquired, “Are you Iron Man?  You don’t look like you’re made of iron.”  Another cast member suggested that the real Iron Man was considerably taller, to which Alice replied, “Well, perhaps he shrunk.  Or perhaps I grew?”  My son is at that age where reality is seeping through fantasy’s borders as he begins to suspect the truth of things, but I swear he thinks he really did meet Alice that day.  We certainly weren’t about to disillusion him by telling him it’s an actress doing a role.  Hell, she almost had me convinced.  So of course Dad had to get his photo op as well.

alice
Yes, I am really that freakishly tall.  And no, Royal Caribbean did not compensate me for wearing that shirt.

Since we’ve been back I’ve had conversations with a few friends and colleagues about Disney and been disappointed to hear tales of people who’ve found it frustrating, tiring or just not living up to expectations.  Folks who’ve spent no more than a day or two there and declared “I’ll never go back.”  While you can’t speak to the reasons why others may feel the way they do, the common theme seems to be a completely wrongheaded approach to “doing Disney.”  In fairness to Disney, they give you every opportunity to leave your misanthropy behind.  But if you enter determined to find flaws and disappointment so you can regale your knitting circle with smug superiority about how you’re the one person in the world that Disney’s magic didn’t work on, that’s exactly what you’ll come away with.  And that’s your loss.  If instead, you enter with an open heart, if you tuck thoughts of the outside world away, if you forget that it’s a 27-year-old actor about to collapse from heatstroke under the Mickey head and give yourself permission to be charmed, then you will be.  And buying into the illusion doesn’t take a lot of effort, it’s simply a question of appreciating the park as intended – as a child would.  As you once did.  So just play along, you’ll have a lot more fun that way.  I did Disney as a sullen teenager once and it was awful – but that was my fault, not Disney’s.  I’ve come full circle now, and I can watch my son’s eyes twinkle as he runs up to embrace Winnie the Pooh and feel just as giddy when it’s my turn for a Pooh Hug.  And as the sun sets over Cinderella’s castle and the last float of the Electrical Parade disappears up Main Street for the night, I can stroll to the exits with a weary body yet rejuvenated soul, and confident that this little pocket of eternal childhood stands ready and waiting for the next visit, and the next, in the years and decades that follow – whenever I need a reminder.  And this is only Day Two, there’s so much more to come…

My Canada

Canflag

Patriotism is a word that seems to be more ill-defined than defined of late.  What is ostensibly a concept of some nobility is usually hurled in a threatening manner, to suggest that one is lacking in it if one does not support without reservation whatever controversial policy is being advanced by the government of the day – often the call to arms.  The redoubtable Oscar Wilde called it the virtue of the vicious.  I’ve always thought of patriotism as loving your country more than you love the dolts who are running it – a sentiment most pertinent when the party you support is out of power.  Yet what does it mean to love a country?  We can love a song, a great work of literature, a beautiful painting, our life partner, our children.  What are we saying when we say we love our country?  Since we’re going at this from the point of etymology, apparently, what is it that constitutes a country insomuch as something capable and worthy of being loved?  Is it a mere delineation of territory, is it a system of self-governance, is it the character of the people who inhabit its boundaries and the society they have crafted for themselves?  What is it I’m saying I love when I say I love my homeland of Canada?

As is true with almost any place on the planet, most of the stereotypes about Canadians aren’t true, as endearing as they may be or as useful to the creation of soundbites.  And I’m not talking about the lazy “y’all live in igloos, don’t you?” redneck view of Soviet Canuckistan.  Are we unfailingly polite?  No more so than anywhere else I’ve chanced to visit, and I have in fact encountered some stunningly rude Canadians in my time, folks who’d just as soon deck you as look at you, and not apologize for it afterwards.  Are we peacemakers, honest brokers to the world and friend to any and all to the point of effusiveness?  Again, not really – Canadians fight just as hard in wartime as anyone else, and lately our record of living up to our international obligations has been sullied by ideological maneuvering.  What about our pristine environment and our unflinching need to protect our natural resources?  Hmm… have you chanced to look at the moonscape around northern Alberta recently?  Or the rate at which we’re paving over our arable land to build strip malls, big box stores and cookie cutter suburban neighborhoods?

No, we’re not the hosers you think we are.  In fact, we’re not entirely sure what we are.  For a long time we’ve started our national identity conversation from the point of “not-Americans” and latched on to the quick and simple traits – hockey, Tim Hortons, bilingualism, universal health care – to try to distinguish ourselves on the world stage.  Remember those “My name is Joe, and I am Canadian” commercials that were so popular back in the 90’s?  While it was amusing to poke fun at the silly questions we’ve all coped with at one time or another while abroad (my personal favorite, my wife being asked about Prince William and Kate Middleton’s wedding plans while at Disney World three years ago, as if she and Kate were BFF’s), the ads still ended with the same laundry list of “Canadian” traits, packaged into five seconds for easy digestion.  They made me restless.  Surely being Canadian is much more than that.  Does my not caring about hockey and preferring Starbucks mean I have to turn in my membership card?

I wanted to write something for Canada Day and I’ve been struggling with it, turning over the question of what it means to be Canadian in my mind all day.  It occurred to me, in one of those lightning bolt moments, that I was missing the mark – because the answer lay within the question.  Our current federal government has been earnest, if not obnoxious, about pushing symbols of national identity onto the populace – playing up the importance of hockey and Tim Hortons and the monarchy to “honest, average, hard-working Canadians,” positioning the idea of their party and their party alone as the arbiter of Canadianness.  Encouragingly, the reaction to these moves, at least from what I’ve seen, has been one of collective indifference.  Canadians refuse to be defined; not by their government, not by foreigners, not by anyone.  We define ourselves.  Because figuring out what it means to be Canadian is, in fact, what it means to be Canadian.

There is no “Canadian Dream,” at least not like its American alternative.  Put rather basically (if not overly simplified), the American Dream is about financial success in the capitalist model:  starting from nothing, working hard, becoming rich and famous.  Does your average Canadian dream about being rich?  Sure, a great many do, but the acquisition of massive wealth is not a universal motivator. What does a Canadian want?  That is left up to each of us to decide for ourselves.  I think about my list of Facebook friends, most of whom are people I went to high school with.  From that level playing field they have each followed in some cases wildly divergent paths in life.  Some run their own businesses.  Some are devoted to charity causes.  Some are academics, some are artists and musicians, some work in the trades.  Some work for the government, or in health care.  Some are attorneys, police officers, computer engineers, teachers, some are stay-at-home parents raising wonderful kids.  Some love hockey and follow with religious devotion the trials and tribulations of the Leafs, the Canadiens, the Canucks, the Senators.  Some could not care less.  They are as diverse a group of people as any random focus group you could gather together, and I would defy anyone to say that a single one of them is any less Canadian than the others.  They are the epitome of Canadianness, because each of them is discovering it on his or her own, without feeling any compulsion to conform to a standard.  And there’s no group of folks I’d rather stand up and be counted with.

Canada is not without its challenges.  We are 37 million people of probably just as many different cultural backgrounds clinging to the border we share with a sometimes very noisy neighbour, one whose influence permeates our daily life (and even our spelling, as my father-in-law would doubtlessly remind me).  Often the folks on one side of the country are peeved at the folks on the other (and almost everyone is either peeved at or in love with Quebec at some point).  The reason why this grand experiment continues to work, in my humble opinion, is that there is no single destination that can be pointed to as the ultimate objective.  Each Canadian is free to follow his or her own path.  The objective, as it were, is to discover who you are and make that your Canada.  And that is an idea I can get behind and fall in love with.  I love this country for allowing me to find myself within it.

Happy birthday, Canada.  Bonne fete, Canada.