Friday, June 20, 2008

American excrementalism

Orlando -- Do you believe that every child should go to Disney’s Magic Kingdom while he or she is young enough to appreciate the magic? I do. I believe that. I believe that somewhat less than fervently. So I have made it a point to take each of my children before they become teens. Last week was my son John Bob’s turn to appreciate the happiest place on earth, to be the happiest kid on earth. Hopefully, it will not screw him up for life.

I am not confident, you see, in my belief that all children should experience the Disney brand of happiness. But I have to choose, so I do, and off we go, but I am sick with gut wrenching fear when I ponder what it all means. How can we know what is best? Any act of parenting can conceivably ruin a child's life. Disney is a huge gamble. And the horror that is Orlando is infinitely more dangerous. A gateway drug. A taste of the life of the rich and famous. A megachurch for the worship of consumer crap. A shrine to all that is false and shiny. A place where moral values trumpeting senseless acquisition über alles are instilled into impressionable minds. A soul-sickening place of surface happiness masking vileness and insecurity just below. An animatronic illusion that many will chase for the rest of their lives. Unknowingly or not.

That, you see, is the danger of shielding the children from all that is Orlando in this world. What if you don't take them? Will they feel cheated? Will they come to worship that which they were denied? Society would give them plenty of encouragement. Your parents never took you to Disney? What monsters. It’s the happiest place on earth. Didn’t they want you to be happy? What? You’re not 100 percent happy every moment of every day? If only your evil parents had taken you to Disney…

And what if I don't take my children to Disney? They might become like those adults you see there. Adults at Disney without children. They go at least once a year. They have sashes with hundreds of pins, one from each visit. They get married in the magic castle. Spend their honeymoons, their anniversaries, their birthdays, mothers day, fathers day -- all of their vacation days within the confines of the park. They don’t go to Europe, Asia, South America. They don’t go hiking, camping, exploring. They go to fake castles, fake rivers in fake jungles, fake frontier towns, fake tomorrow lands and they enjoy fake liberty in a fake 18th century New England town square. They live in a nightmare. They aspire to it. A nightmare, I tell you true.

Yet there I go. It all started very innocently. The phone rang. I answered. It was a telemarketer. She was polite, so I was polite. I didn’t hang up. How would I like to spend an inexpensive vacation in paradise? There are many paradises to choose from. I, and my family, could spend 4 days and nights at a luxurious resort. We could have it all. Swimming pools, fine dining, beaches, golf, whatever we could dare to dream. And it would only cost a pittance. All we had to do was sit through a 90 minute sales pitch for a time share. We didn’t have to buy. We were, she implied, too smart for that. Yes, that would be nice, but we have plans for this year. I understand, can I give you a call back next year? And so on. Every few months she would call and whisper lurid tales of luxury in poor chuckling’s ear. But chuckling is rarely tempted by luxury. We offer more than mere luxury. Do you have children? Have they been to Disney? John Bob is getting old. Time is running out. If we don’t take him to Disney soon, the results could be, as I detailed above, grim.

You must understand, my wife Lola and I had no idea how time share sales work. We had heard that they put you under a lot of pressure to buy before you leave, but that’s pretty much it. Are time shares a good deal, a bad deal, a rip-off or the chance of a lifetime? We had no idea. We entered the sales facility without prejudices. Like freshly fallen snow at Disney’s Blizzard water park, we offered ourselves to our salesperson. The first impression was all his.

Chris was a portly fellow who appeared to be a heavy drinker and seemed to be under a lot of stress. He began by emphasizing how important it was that we like him personally. If we liked him, you see, then we would like the company and would want to buy its product. I half expected him to have a moment of clarity and ask if he’d really said that out loud, but apparently he really didn’t know that he wasn’t supposed to share that strategy with the prospective suckers. Lola and I were amused and although we tried to hide it, I think it showed.

And it would only get worse for poor Chris. We were his first appointment and he already reeked of flop sweat. Looking around Orlando it wasn’t hard to imagine the kind of pressure he must be under. Selling a questionable product to people who have made a pact not to buy is difficult enough. But with the tanking economy, the gazillion other giant resorts all around, and an almost equal number under construction -- the competition had to be fierce. His job could be hanging on the next sale. How long had it been since his last?

And now he’s looking across the desk at me and Lola. Sizing us up. Wishing he could wake up from this nightmare and see some white bread. How many vacations did we take together a year? Not many. How many is not many? Well, we don’t usually take vacations together. What do you do? Typically, she visits her family and I visit mine. Or I go camping somewhere. You never take regular vacations. Well sometimes. What do you do? Usually camping.

Poor Chris, he showed his exasperation. But he soldiered on. He could see that we were at a point in our lives where we were ready to change our ways, to start tasting the luxury we so clearly deserved. And he did make a pretty good argument. For less than the price of a cheapo new car from Korea, we could buy two weeks of vacation a year pretty much wherever we wanted in the world for the rest of our lives, then we could deed it to our children, and they to theirs, forever till the end of time.

Were we ready to take that step? Chris could see that we were. And to make it even easier, he thought he might be able to talk his manager into giving us a special bonus if we were to sign right then and there. We could talk amongst ourselves as he went to fight for our prize.

Unfortunately for poor Chris, even if Lola and I were keen to buy a time share and even if we were the types to sign on the spot, there was no way in hell that we would buy a time share in Orlando.

Chris was mystified. Orlando is great. One of the best places on earth. Why wouldn’t you want to come back?

There’s nothing to do here, I said.

What about the theme parks?

Poor Lola shuddered.

Literally. Shuddered.

On that note, our sales meeting effectively ended.

But we’ll consider it, I said.

Sure you will, whimpered Chris, accusingly. Then he looked at his watch. It was only 9 am. Too early for a drink.

* * *

Our daughter Jane Bob’s trip to Disneyland was on the fourth of July. If you are like us and want your children to experience the Magic Kingdom without becoming entranced by it, I highly recommend going on the fourth of July. The park was so crowded that we only got to go on four rides the entire day. The Haunted House was the only good one. Then we did the teacups and Peter Pan. Lame rides with two and a half hour waits. Finally, we waited the 90 minutes it took to get onto the train and spent the rest of our time riding around the park in circles. Jane Bob claimed to have had a good time and remembers it fondly, but she never exhibited any desire to go back to Disney thereafter. I couldn’t have scripted the result any better. It was as close to the perfect day at Disney as you could possibly get.

We didn’t have quite so much luck this time. Sure, it was crowded but they now have a system where you make reservations for the good rides and can go to the front of the line. So the day was not a horror show of waiting in line. It was almost not unpleasant. And the kids had a great time.

So were my fears justified? Will John Bob become a Disney dork? Perhaps, but I think we’re good. The Disney evil just ain’t what it used to be in this age of American excrementalism supreme. As we were leaving the Magic Kingdom I asked the kids if they wanted to come back the next day. They were horrified. Truly horrified. No, dad, we want to go somewhere else!!!

Sometimes I get down on my knees and pray. Jesus, I beseech thee, this is chuckling. All I want is a cold waterfall on a hot summer day. And a cold waterfall on a hot day is something within my means. I can even afford a cold beer or two to make a perfect day. Yet here I am in Orlando, sitting literally in a cesspool at Sea World's Aquatica water park. I'm on a fake rock under a fake waterfall on a fake beach watching fake waves roll in and pondering the meaning of it all. The waterfall is the temperature and consistency of warm piss. Untold 55 gallon drums of chlorine mask the smell. A life guard tells me to get away from the wall. What did it all mean?

John Bob has had a good time. He will remember the trip fondly. As an adult he will not be able to keen that he never got to go to Disneyland. He knows the feel of a real waterfall and can recognize the superiority of the one over the other. I have done my job as best I can. At some point you have to let go.

Who knows which incidents will ultimately mold a child? It’s never the ones that parents plan for. Maybe this trip will increase John Bob’s love of the natural environment. Maybe it will make him want to become a real estate developer. Whatever. He got a few moments of happiness out of it. And so did I. That’s about all we poor mammals can hope for.