Tag Archives: Winnie the Pooh

Save the father, save the world

mrbanks

“Winds in the east, mist coming in, like something is brewin’, about to begin… Can’t put me finger on what lies in store, but I fear what’s to happen, all happened before.”

First uttered on screen by Dick Van Dyke in 1964, those words are whispered again by the unlikely voice of Colin Farrell as Saving Mr. Banks begins, over vistas of turn-of-the-last-century Australia and the dream-lost face of the young Helen Goff, who will grow up to become author P.L. Travers and the creator of Mary Poppins.  In short order we leap forward from the idyll to early 1960’s England, where the adult Travers (Emma Thompson) remains, after 20 years of attempts by Walt Disney (Tom Hanks) to purchase the film rights from her, stubborn in her determination to avoid having her beloved creation bowdlerized by uncouth Americans who don’t seem to understand what the story is about, or, more importantly, what it means to her.  Drawn in for the moment by the allure of some much-needed funds, Travers agrees to fly to Los Angeles to work with the creative team on the screenplay for Mary Poppins – “work with” meaning shoot down almost every single idea – while resisting Disney’s personal charm offensive.   The unstoppable force meets the immovable object, and as the movie proceeds along two time-separated narratives, we see the girl trying to save her treasured father from his deterioration, and the woman fighting to preserve his memory from people she thinks are only interested in exploiting it for the sake of a mediocre cartoon.

Much like the movie whose conception it depicts, there are no villains in Saving Mr. Banks; only goodhearted people attempting to do the right thing, whether it is Farrell as Travers’ father reacting to every setback with a twinkle in his eye and spring in his step, or the increasingly exasperated but always smiling screenwriter Don DaGradi (Bradley Whitford) and composers Robert and Richard Sherman (B.J. Novak and Jason Schwartzman) struggling to meet the impossible conditions put forth by the uncooperative Travers during interminable meetings.  Particularly touching is the relationship that develops between Travers and her sunny limo driver Ralph (Paul Giamatti); while first treating him as an ill-informed Yankee, she comes to see him as a true friend, and is inspired to pass along to Ralph’s physically challenged daughter the proof that disabilities are not the same thing as limitations.  But misunderstandings abound, naturally, and this is probably the first screenplay in the history of Hollywood where the crisis point at the end of the second act involves whether or not penguins are to be animated.  (As an aside, it’s also the first screenplay to my knowledge where a character utters my last name:  checking into her room at the Beverly Hills Hotel only to find it’s been filled with Disney stuffed animals as welcome gifts, Travers shoves aside a Winnie the Pooh and grumbles “Ugh, A.A. Milne.”  I – what’s the expression – fangirl squeed?)

I’m a sucker for movies about Hollywood, particularly old Hollywood, and the attention to detail in recreating the feel of the Disney production offices (and Disneyland itself) of the early 60’s is impeccable.  The performances, especially Thompson’s, are elegant, the cinematography is lush, and the score is full of life and hope.  Magic exudes from each frame.  But despite the central conflict between Travers’ obstinacy and Disney’s persistence that is the focus of the trailers, the movie is about fathers, and the complex relationships we continue to have with them long after they are gone.  That is where Saving Mr. Banks packs its most powerful emotional punch.  Like Hamlet, the ghost of the father looms in every scene – Travers Goff, the man who helped the young “Ginty” unlock her imagination and set her on the path to becoming a storyteller, honored posthumously in her choice of surname for her writing career.  Befuddled by the author’s seemingly irrelevant demands on the script, articulated by frustrated Bob Sherman who pointedly queries, “What does it matter?”, Walt Disney initially misses the mark, thinking that Mary Poppins comes to save the children.  We have the benefit of hindsight, having watched, dozens of times, David Tomlinson as George Banks evolve from curmudgeonly drone to a man full of life and wonder and joy.  The children don’t even say goodbye to Mary Poppins when she leaves, but they don’t have to, as her spirit has found a new home in their own dear father.  Late in Saving Mr. Banks, Disney relates to Travers a tale of his own upbringing in wintry Missouri and of his difficult relationship with his hard-driving father Elias, and the two creative forces finally find their connection – a shared desire to redeem the old man.

Being someone’s child is taking on the responsibility of their legacy, willing or not.  In the movie, Ginty cannot understand why her beloved father is falling apart before her eyes, and she struggles to help him preserve his happiness and his dignity, even where her efforts are unintentionally harmful.  In creating the character of George Banks, P.L. Travers wanted (the movie posits, at least) to give her father the happy ending he could never find for himself.  When she sees him depicted on screen, and when she experiences the joy of the audience in watching him triumph, she weeps.  My father died when I was 11, and I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that a significant portion of why I do what I do is trying to ensure that his name is regarded in perpetuity as highly as I think it should be – the same name (though different family) P.L. Travers mouths onscreen.  He was the person I experienced stories with.  Reading to me, and with me, taking me to the movies, kindling a lifelong love of narrative and of imagination and promise lying within pages and celluloid.  He used to let me borrow his handheld dictaphone so I could record my own imaginary episodes of The A-Team (don’t ask).  He’d let me fill LP-sized floppy disks from his office computer full of chapters of an unfinished attempted novel about a boy and his racehorse.   And though he died long before I ever began to take writing seriously, every time I sit down at the keyboard I’m hoping that it will turn out to be something he would have liked, that he would have boasted to his friends and colleagues about.  (Knowing him, he’d boast about it even if it was an illiterate pile of tripe.)  And perhaps, beneath the veil of different characters in settings far removed from that available to a small-town attorney, I’m trying to give him his happy ending too.  In the theater, I felt in my soul that primal need of Travers to do right by her dad.  To save him.  And a tear escaped my eye as it did hers.

For too short a time, they’re our whole world.  Eventually, our chances to talk with them are gone, to ask them questions that never would have occurred to us while they were alive, questions we thought we’d have time for someday.  When we were sharing a beer after staining the back deck together on a hot Sunday afternoon.  When we were tossing the football back and forth between three generations upon park grass touched with the first autumn frost.  Those scenarios aren’t possible now, so we try to replicate them in fiction.  We forge characters who ask the questions we can’t, and let them seek their answers, secure as we type that they will reach their destination and achieve the closure that eludes us.  When the stake is so personal, we comprehend why P.L. Travers did not want to give Mary Poppins up.  Mary wasn’t a character, she was a mission.  So was Mickey Mouse for Walt Disney.  It’s not easy to abdicate such a soulful responsibility, to hand over a legacy.  I wouldn’t be the first to volunteer for that, would you?  However, there may come a time when I’m willing to let go, to share the father I knew with a world that deserves to know him the way I did.  I can only hope that it’s in a manner as befitting as Mary Poppins, or Saving Mr. Banks.

“Winds in the east, mist coming in, like something is brewin’, about to begin… Can’t put me finger on what lies in store, but I fear what’s to happen, all happened before.”

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A Writer’s Journey Through Disney World: Part V

mickey float

Disney World has made the news a few times over the last few weeks, and not really in a good way.  First up was the brief notoriety afforded to Escape From Tomorrow, an unlicensed movie shot guerrilla-style surreptitiously throughout the Disney parks, with a storyline suggesting malevolence lurking behind the facade (the movie’s regrettable tag line:  “Bad things happen everywhere”).  Then there was this item from the New York Post revealing that one-percenters have been gleefully paying intellectually or physically challenged people to escort their families through the parks so they can skip lines.  It’s nearing two months since I last left the place that for me remains a reservoir of goodwill and good feeling in a world growing increasingly greedy and misanthropic.  And while I am ever aware of the essential contradiction at the heart of Disney World’s existence – a theme park celebrating the innocence of childhood that is lorded over by a corporation – I push back hard against the tide of cynicism lapping at its shores.  Reviews of Escape From Tomorrow are tainted by the writer’s opinion of the place; those who dream of kicking Mickey in “his pious balls,” as one sort put it, find their smugness vindicated by the movie’s skewering of the Disney tropes, where others who thrive on their positive memories struggle with the creep of darkness along the edges of the frame.  (For the record, I haven’t seen the movie.  With Escape From Tomorrow‘s official release looming in a few days, Disney has apparently chosen to simply ignore it, sidestepping the Streisand Effect.  The chatter and the publicity have likewise diminished, so good call there, Mouse House.)

Disney's Boardwalk at sunset.
Disney’s Boardwalk at sunset.

We remarked upon returning from our voyage how much we in point of fact didn’t get to see; a great deal of Animal Kingdom, including the delightful Festival of the Lion King show and the serene Flights of Wonder bird exhibit, was left unexplored as it was the only park we weren’t able to repeat visit during our eight days.  A healthy portion of Fantasyland in the Magic Kingdom was either down for refurbishment, still under construction or hidden behind impenetrable wait times.  I’ve long held the dream of dining at least once in each of the eleven different full service restaurants throughout Epcot’s World Showcase; a glimpse of the seating area in Mexico would be all we’d get on this occasion.  Speaking of food, one can’t conduct a proper review of Disney World without mentioning the dining fare – while one might cringe at the sight of folks strolling through the parks gnawing maniacally on oversized turkey legs that clearly aren’t from any turkey that wouldn’t fail an Olympic drug test, Disney does in fact boast plenty of culinary experiences that manage to enchant both taste bud and heart.  Our selections ran the gamut, from the ripped-from-Leave-It-To-Beaver meatloaf and pot pies of the Prime Time Diner in Hollywood Studios (where the waitresses yell at you if you put your elbows on the table or – horrors – use your walkie talkie – i.e. cell phone), to the finger-lickin’, artery-bustin’ ribs, cornbread and fried chicken of Mickey’s Backyard Barbeque (where the characters join you for an after-supper country dance party to burn all that stuff off), to even a messy yet tasty pizza delivered to our hotel room.

May I join you for dinner?
May I join you for dinner?

Of the more upscale options, we have two favorites in particular.  First is Sanaa, the African restaurant at Animal Kingdom Lodge’s Kidani Village.  The food at Sanaa is exotic and flavorful, replete with a wide array of tongue-tickling spices and compelling textures, but what truly sells it is the incomparable view.  Animal Kingdom Lodge wraps around an open area that is accessible to the animals of the Harambe Wildlife Reserve, so it’s typical to have giraffes and zebras wander by the windows of Sanaa as you’re sitting there enjoying your appetizer.  The first time we went, my wife uploaded a photo of the view to her Facebook page and one of her friends thought we were in Africa.  After dinner you can wander out to the central firepit and use night vision goggles to see if you can spot a wildebeest sneaking in for a bedtime snack.  There’s a guide on hand to assist with the goggles and answer questions (and presumably ensure that no one jumps the fence), and in one of the most serendipitous examples of small world I’ve ever encountered, I and the Namibian gentleman on duty that evening turned out to have mutual friends – these folks.

kouzzina

Our other favorite is Cat Cora’s Kouzzina, on Disney’s BoardWalk.  This Greek-themed restaurant, nestled comfortably amidst the old-timey seaside architecture and only minutes by foot from Epcot’s rear World Showcase entrance, is not somewhere I’d recommend if you’re looking to count your calories, not when the signature appetizer is the Saganaki, or flamed and decadently rich Greek cheese.  Another standout is the Pastitsio, a Greek take on lasagna with cinnamon-infused meat sauce and bechamel, which no one in our family has ever been able to finish in one sitting.  I opted for the braised short ribs this time, but even they come with potatoes mashed with smoked feta so alas, no room for dessert.

ohana
Flame On at Ohana.

One surprise last-minute addition was Ohana, the immensely popular Hawaiian family service restaurant at Disney’s Polynesian Resort.  We’ve wanted to try it for years but have repeatedly been thwarted by its tendency to book up months in advance.  It was a fellow countryman, one of the cast members at Epcot’s Canada pavilion, who alerted us to a new app that tracked up-to-the-minute dining availability.  Spotting a convenient cancellation, we leaped at it.  The equivalent of an indoor luau, Ohana is probably the friendliest restaurant we sampled this time, with staff calling you “cousin” and a ukulele-strumming entertainer leading the junior diners in hula lessons, Hawaiian karaoke and coconut races between courses, while you wait to be served beef, pork and chicken that’s been marinating for three days straight.  I can’t say it ranked quite as highly as Kouzzina or Sanaa with me, but I’m still glad random fortune allowed us to fit it in.  One more item scratched off the Disney Bucket List, as it were, a document that seems to get longer with each trip rather than shorter, and will probably never be satisfied.  There’s just too much, and Disney World is too far from home, and finances aren’t infinite.

It’s doubly ironic, because as I draw to the close of this series, I find myself reflecting on all the things I didn’t find space to include:  the Wishes fireworks show over Cinderella Castle, the five-floor DisneyQuest arcade and the rest of Downtown Disney, the quirks and quibbles about FastPasses, character encounters and LeFou’s brew.  But there’s an incident that occurred a few weeks after we got back that I think helps to put things into context and provide a sense of unity and completion to this quintet of ramblings.

My wife was in line to renew her driver’s license.  She was wearing the black Minnie hoodie she’d acquired on our trip, which sports ears and a bow on the head.  It’s really cute.  Thinking she couldn’t hear them, the couple behind her in line openly sneered at her, and the dude boasted to his charmless companion that he was proud that she would never wear something like that.  Apart from wishing I’d been there to deck this smarmy douchebag, I couldn’t help but feel sorry for him and his undoubtedly equally hipster-esque friends.  They do themselves no favors by pretending they’re above embracing Disney.  Sure, you can climb onto a soapbox and lecture the world about capitalism-run-amok under a layer of artificial pixie dust, but isn’t that the obvious argument?  Doesn’t it require more sophistication and a greater capacity to seek truth to look beyond these tedious trappings and find something of value that you can carry with you?  I am reminded so much of the late George Harrison, who while dedicated to the pursuit of spiritual enlightenment and musical achievement could still laugh at Monty Python’s jokes about cannibalism.  And I would not even suggest that Disney is somehow lowbrow, or lowest common denominator.  Yes, sometimes their attempts are clumsy, some of the movies aren’t great, we all wait with bated breath to see what they do with Star Wars and they’ve been accused of complacency as Universal Studios Florida nips at their aging heels.  But there is so much that should be celebrated rather than scorned.

Like the character in the U2 song “The Wanderer,” sung by Johnny Cash, I went this time in search of experience that would challenge me as a writer and enrich me as a person.  In each park, I discovered a fundamental lesson.  Belief.  Being.  Connection.  Communication.  Four simple concepts that should be obvious but often get buried under layers of irrelevant complication, and form the very heart of the art of placing one word after another.  And isn’t it wonderful that these lessons didn’t have to be learned at the bottom of a whiskey bottle or in the depths of personal crisis.  They were plain to see and framed with Mickey ear ice cream – the literal spoonful of sugar to help the medicine go down.  I departed after eight days, feeling my sense of storytelling renewed and a certitude about continuing to share my words with the world.  The writer journeying through Disney World is a wandering bard stopping for a drink at a wellspring from which imagination flows, and eventually he moves on, his thirst quenched, carrying that inspiration onward to wonderful parts unknown.  With a stuffed Winnie the Pooh under his arm.

So long, Disney World.  And see ya real soon.

farewell

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.

cindcastle

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…

Cat’s in the cradle

A fairly accurate representation of my state of mind.
A fairly accurate representation of my state of mind.

Most men first find out they’re going to be fathers when a little plastic stick turns blue.  While the mood swings and crazy demands that often accompany the pregnancies of their partners may give them the vaguest sense of the responsibility and adventure to come, realization doesn’t strike them until they first hold their little wriggling, blanket-swathed miracles in their arms and recognize that they’ve been thrust into an irrevocable new job with absolutely no sense of what to do next.  My journey to paternity has followed a different path; after struggling with fertility and even the question of whether we wanted to be parents at all, my wife and I decided that our family would expand through adoption.  That was well over a year and a half ago; between then and now came extensive training, invasive interviews, traumatic phone calls, a few thousand miles logged on the car, hopes both raised and dashed and a thorough exploration of every single point on the emotional spectrum.  Was it worth it?  Listening to my new son laughing when my wife chases him up the stairs after he’s stolen her slippers should be evidence enough.

Fatherhood was never really on my radar.  In fact, the very concept of the father and the son has been something that  I’ve thought and talked about largely in theoretical terms, relating it to imagery found in literature, cinema and religion.  In a way, that’s all I’ve had to go on.  My father died when I was eleven, and strong, positive and consistent male role models were largely absent from the years that followed.  Like President Barack Obama, I’ve had to rely on dreams of my father, the images growing cloudier as the years slip away.  And it doesn’t feel that long since the days of the smoke-filled dance clubs (back when you could still smoke in them), sharing crude opinions on the hotness of the assorted females with no greater aspirations for myself than a night of physical fun with a nameless partner.  Sometimes I wake up in the morning incredulous that I even managed to get married – how in the hell did I suddenly become somebody’s father?  Yet there he is, playing on his laptop and asking if he can watch Star Wars again.  Every time he calls me “Dad,” I have to stop myself from turning to see if he’s talking to the guy behind me.  Even after a mere three weeks together I’m humming the lyrics to Harry Chapin’s melancholy anthem about fathers and sons and wondering if we’re losing out on oh-so precious time.

My son was one of the thousands of older children living in foster care waiting for a forever family, because a large swath of potential parents looking to adopt, if not the majority of them, insist on babies.  They want to give their child his or her name, witness the first steps and first words and other milestones they can photograph and post for their Facebook friends.  However, fewer and fewer babies are available.  If you don’t have the financial resources to look privately or overseas, or you’re unable to take on a baby with a lot of special needs (and heaps of praise are due to those who do), you’ll likely see retirement cheques before you find an infant in the public system.  And as the years go by and so many of these kids linger on in foster, it’s almost as though they pass their “use-by” date.  Couples start to think that if no one has adopted them by now, there must be something seriously wrong with them.  But there isn’t.  Of course there will be emotional trauma that needs to be addressed with patience and love, and perhaps even a few minor medical issues, but for the most part these are kids like our son – a good boy who’s had a rough start to his life and just wants a mom and dad to love him.  And not to diminish the hard work of the many giving foster parents out there, but according to the National Center for Mental Health Promotion and Youth Violence Prevention, 40% of kids in foster care don’t graduate high school, and only 3% of them go on to any kind of post-secondary education.  These boys and girls need more than parents; they need relentless, even to the point of being obnoxious at times, bullhorn-wielding advocates who will scrape and claw for every precious inch of progress. They need a family who will never give up on them no matter how rocky the road gets.

Is that me?

There’s an exchange between Peter Facinelli and Kevin Spacey in The Big Kahuna that comes to mind.  Facinelli’s character, a junior salesman about to experience his first convention, says that it’s time to throw me in the water to see if I can swim.  Spacey retorts that no, we’re actually going to throw you off a cliff to see if you can fly.  Adopting an older child, a little person with his own name and with a personality already shaped and molded by total strangers is kind of like the Sanka of fatherhood:  instant and occasionally might not taste that great.  You do have to grieve the loss of a lot of those firsts, including the loss of the not-unsubtle desire to pass on one’s genes and traits, the loss of ever seeing what that indelible combination of you and your spouse would have looked like.  During initial weekend visits as the new family adjusts to each other before final placement, it feels at times like you’re just babysitting someone else’s problem, resulting in massive feelings of guilt when you feel relieved after he’s picked up on Sunday evening.  And you have to try and “deprogram” a bit of the stuff that you likely would not have encouraged had you been raising him from birth and replace it with hobbies and habits that you know will help him grow (i.e. perhaps we can cut back a little on the 10 hours of video games per Saturday and replace it with at least one hour of reading – no, doesn’t have to be Hemingway or Dostoevsky just yet – and put away the Nerf gun before we accidentally shoot the cat?)  But at the same time, there are still lots of firsts to look forward to.  First birthday and Christmas together, first date, first time driving the car. First overnight away from us.  Figuring out how to have “The Talk.”  Graduation day.  Heading off to college.  Watching him grow from this shy, awkward kid into the amazing, confident man you know he has the potential to be, terrified all the while that you’re just making things worse.  I suppose there is a term for all of that:  being a parent.

I didn’t have my father to guide me through my teenage years, so I have no point of reference on which to base how I’m going to do it with my son.  My father was long gone before I could talk to him about my huge crush on the beautiful blonde in the other Grade 6 class, or the boundless depth of my everlasting 13-year-old love for the 18-year-old brunette who used to drive me to band practice, and my utter cowardice in being able to verbalize those feelings to their subjects.  I want my son to be able to seize the moment and not be caught up in his feelings.  I want him to be able to avoid some of the mistakes I made, and yet instinctively I know he has to be free to make them and learn from his failure.  Put simply, I want to be the example I never had, and as I sit here typing this I’m increasingly doubtful of my ability to do it.  I’ve had a lot of friends and colleagues tell me how touched they are about our adoption of our son, and how lucky our son is to have us.  Yet I still feel like a bumbling idiot who’s doing everything wrong.  Chapin’s final words haunt me in my sleep.  I can’t figure out my own life most days.  Do I really want him to grow up to be just like me?

Perhaps the best advice is to draw from the Buddha (or Winnie the Pooh) and to just be.  To let the good times roll with the bad and to take each day as it comes without ruminating endlessly on the shape of the overall to the point that it distracts from the little moments that truly matter.  Without letting the perfect become the enemy of the necessary.  For better or worse, I’m this kid’s father now.  He is part of the legacy that I will leave behind long after everyone’s forgotten about little ‘ole me – a legacy that includes my father as well.  I may not be passing on my genes, but I can pass on my values, my beliefs, the things I consider important to cherish in our ever-so-brief walk across this world.  The same stuff I got from my dad in the times we were able to share.

Maybe one day my son will sit down and write a blog post (or whatever the new equivalent is by the time he’s ready for it) about what he thinks about becoming a father himself, and maybe he’ll praise or damn the example set by his old man.  Maybe he’ll understand some of what I’m feeling right now.  Maybe he’ll finally understand why I don’t want him signing up for that online game that requires a valid credit card number.  Maybe the stern looks and the lectures and the occasionally too-obvious frustration on my face will finally make sense.  Maybe he’ll think it was silly that I worried so much.  Sure hope so.  Harry Chapin tells us that the lives of a father and son are cyclical, repeating themselves in familiar patterns as each succeeding generation emulates the precedent it was shown.  What better advice is there, then, than to work even harder to be a better me?  I told my son last night that if he looks after himself he has a chance to see the dawn of the 22nd Century.  (Wonder if there will be phasers?)  The greatest gift I can give him is to do my best to ensure that he will watch sunrise on January 1, 2101 with a big smile on his face, secure in the knowledge that it was, indeed, all worth it in the end.  That’s what this strange concept of “fatherhood” has come to mean to me, even after just a few weeks.  In the meantime, I know when I’ll be coming home, son, and we’ll get together then.  You know we’ll have a good time then.

I can’t worry about gay marriage; I’m too focused on my own

There is a first-season episode of The West Wing in which a pollster played by John de Lancie advises President Bartlet that he can sew up re-election by supporting a constitutional amendment banning flag-burning, as the numbers indicate that a vast majority of Americans are in favour of such an amendment.  Faced with the prospect of a gut-wrenching policy flip-flop to the dark side, the news is dispiriting to Bartlet’s staff, until another number-cruncher (Marlee Matlin) gives them her figures on how little the issue is of importance to the average voter, and that the total number of people whose vote would actually be swayed on flag-burning alone is insignificant.

This exchange was at the forefront of my mind as I read about President Obama’s announcement of his support for same-sex marriage yesterday.  The people who are so tyrannically obsessed with this issue that their vote hinges on it (the Santorums of the world) were never going to support the president anyway, even if he announced he was cutting taxes on the rich to 0%, declaring Planned Parenthood enemy combatants and appointing Pat Robertson Chief Justice of the Supreme Court.  In strictly political terms, the president has lost nothing, energized the liberal base that first elected him, and forced his presumptive opponent into defending bigotry.

All in simply doing the right thing.

I can’t pretend to understand the fervour that drives certain elements of the conservative religious population to spend so much time, energy and money in attacking the LGBT community; I haven’t been to a regular church service since I was nine, and even then it wasn’t exactly one of these old-time fire-and-brimstone parishes either.  Like the lily-livered liberal latte-sipping literati atheist that I am, I believe in treating others as I would like to be treated, and that the consensual relationships of two adults, straight or gay, are none of my damn business.  Frankly, even if I were of the abhorrent mindset to want to dictate to other human beings how they should be permitted to love each other, I don’t know where I’d find a spare moment.  I’m busy working on my own relationship.  I’d say my plain old man-woman marriage is generally a happy one, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t constant effort.  I simply don’t have the time to worry about anyone else’s.

When we think about the complexity of love, its many twists and turns and ups and downs, and its perpetual evolution and change as two people try for decades on end to figure out how to share their lives with each other, it is a difficult enough road without having elements of society, even family, castigating you at every turn – looking askance at the two of you as you walk down the street holding hands, or whispering sarcasm out of earshot as you share a kiss in a tender moment in the park on a sunny afternoon, or smirking smugly after you’ve had a fight.  Love is a journey to be explored, a discovery awaiting each of us as we wind our way through life, and each of us deserves the chance to find and experience the love that we long for.  Who we love forms our identity, and asking our LGBT brothers and sisters to turn away from their natural feelings is like asking them to disconnect part of their soul – condemning them to a slow death of the spirit.  No one deserves that, and I cannot believe it’s what any truly loving god or goddess would desire for their creation.  Nor does the evidence indicate that a broad societal acceptance of same-sex marriage will bring forth any of the apocalyptic visions foretold by the dubious media soothsayers who adore citing nonsensical “slippery slope” arguments such as the forthcoming rise of man-dog, woman-horse, boy-tractor and girl-Cayman Islands holding corporation marriage.

A friend posted on her Facebook status yesterday that she was disappointed in the dearth of common courtesy these days, in the almost complete absence of “please” and “thank you” in our daily interactions.  Whether it’s the economy, sunspots, Mayan prophecies or too much Fox News, the world of 2012 seems stalked, like Winnie the Pooh, by a persistent little thundercloud.  Gloom and a general unpleasantness are humanity’s dominant tone.  I can’t help but wonder if we are obsessing too much over other people’s lives and failing to attend to our own, to the root causes of why we are so unhappy, why our own relationships are struggling.  A man who spews homophobic invective is clearly not smiles and sunshine deep inside, and rather than blaming the same-sex marriage boogeyman for his woes, he needs to take a good, long look at what is lacking in his own soul, at why, instead of trying to make a positive contribution to the world, he simply be hatin’.  What is so wrong with his own marriage, his own life, that he turns that loathing outwards instead of confronting it.  For hatred will not heal self-neglect.

We only make our marriages better by never taking them for granted, and by ensuring that our marriage, and ours alone, is our singular passion.  Our LGBT friends should be able to enjoy the same challenge, the rewards and even the pitfalls that may come with it.  That, I think, is how one preserves the sacred institution of marriage – by making our own an example of the best that it can be, not fretting fruitlessly over whether other people can or can’t get married to the person they love.  It would seem, based on his announcement, that President Obama feels the same way.