Front porch

Each morning at about seven o’clock, a man with a peach ballcap walks by on the road leading away from the cul de sac that punctuates Stablewood Lane.

He wears the same blue Bermuda shorts, cream shirt, tube socks and white sneakers, and looks straight ahead as he walks. He doesn’t notice me on the front porch, even though the time and stillness of day, and the relative clearing of trees, should allow one’s peripheral vision—that is, his—to sense another human fairly easily. Perhaps he is as focused moving ahead as I am relaxed staying still. I admire his discipline.

Seven o’clock.

By this time each weekday, my father-in-law Earl would have been at work and probably about to see his first patient, slightly more than an hour drive south of here in San Antonio at the Veteran’s Administration outpatient clinic. Every morning at 4:10, with military precision, he’d arise, eat breakfast prepared by his faithful wife of 50+ years (the “plus” sign on longevity like that is a narrative ellipsis of its own), don a mid-thigh long, starched, white medical coat with his name embroidered on it, a buttoned down shirt and tie, cordovan loafers and either gray slacks or dress khakis, and off he’d go. For a number of years since I first met them, every other week he and Ginger would fly down to McAllen—“the valley”—and he’d perform sigmoidoscopies at the VA clinic there as well. He would talk with pride but not boastfulness about how he and his team increased the number of patients seen and effectively treated, yet he lamented how the system both overloaded the staff, and how it had such a surprising disdain for efficiency and excellence.

This was the first summer we’d experienced Kerrville, a town of twenty thousand, without Earl. He died in February at the age of 82. Four months before his death he was still practicing surgery, still getting up at 4:10 most mornings, still rocking the government health care system in his “H. Earl Kilgore, M.D.” white coat and obliging you with his motto, “to cut is to cure.”

There was peace during these mornings I sat on the front porch of their home and watched Peach Ballcap walk by.

What you notice first when stepping onto the 4’ x 8’ limestone slab is the clouds moving overhead. To the left, south, and to the right they often appear thicker than they do directly overhead, where you see mere strands of cotton candy being pulled like threads by a large invisible hand over the roof. They move quickly enough that the illusion of proximity makes you feel like you could reach up and touch one. Grab one of those cotton candy strands and stuff it in your mouth.

The driveway comes in from the right, with a decline of about fifteen feet from the road, and makes a long arc in front of the house and then swoops up again to the street. A “U” shape as you sit there, looking up. The slight rise between the two-foot wide berm planter spanning the front on the other side of the driveway—the open area that allows you to take a deep breath and the space my father-in-law called “the beyond”—almost wasn’t to be.

At the outset of building, Earl and the subdivision’s developer were negotiating the depth of the setback. Earl said he preferred the house to be close to the road, so that he and Ginger could have an extended back yard. The developer wanted all houses set farther back. The latter finally picked up “a large rock” and, walking down the hill of the site’s footprint (part of the “beyond”), he dropped it saying, “The house will be no closer than here.”

“What’s funny,” said Ginger, “is that we’re actually farther back than even where that rock was. We were both happy later when we saw how it turned out. So I’m glad the large rock won the day!”

You’re aware at this hour of the deer and the birds, particularly morning doves, whose hollow coos echo the hilly landscape. The deer, often numbering between five and eight, will graze among the mountain cedar and live oak trees in the beyond. They notice me but with no regard. They’ll be back each night, when we sit out front and bring stale tortilla chips to feed them. The strongest of them is a female who’s come to be called Matilda by the Kilgore family. Matilda has survived in part by chasing off the others, even her offspring, and cornering the market on tortilla chips. Whoever says that nature is not harsh, even among such seemingly gentle creatures, has not closely watched deer during a Texas drought. Ginger found three dead fawns out front just this summer. Only humans can display mercy and kindness for their own sake, and our ability to do so—innate or not—is a gift, and a sporadically exercised one at that. Nature is unblinkingly consistent, and here the buzzards are its primary beneficiaries.

Across the road to the left is a house under construction. The workers arrive just before Peach Ballcap goes by, and judging by the voices there seem to be four or five of them. A rusted dumpster, about head-high, sits to the right of the worksite. Occasional hammering and a table saw can be heard before 7:15, but for the most part a man, probably the foreman, can be heard on his cellphone or calling out to the others through the skeletal floors. A turquoise and white van fires up and then drives away, returning fifteen minutes later, perhaps with breakfast tacos from Rita’s in town, or from the closer Taqueria Jalisco, just across the Guadalupe River and then left, less than a mile on Junction Highway.

The purple martins are back.

I saw these birds first on the grounds of the Kerrville VA hospital. When I met Earl and Ginger in 1995, they were living in a two-bedroom apartment at the VA—this is well after their five children were grown—and then they moved to hospital’s “big house,” a two-story, five-bedroom house which served at various times as an administration building and housing for staff. That second building afforded a gathering point where the out-of-town kids and six grandkids in addition to the three local kids and five additional grandkids could congregate. At Christmas, Ginger would host dinner and a couple dozen additional family members from Austin and Buda. At that point, there was room only for chairs and 8-foot long folding tables, food and unsweetened tea, and funny stories and family news.

Purple martins, Earl told me, require a long open approach to their nests, which is rare in most places, so they’re hard to find but are highly desirable because they are “aerial insectivores,” flying while feeding, on mosquitoes in their case. You watch them swoop low to the ground where the insects are, back and forth like World War I aces in dogfights. Their white underbellies flash toward you, and their forked swallowtails flit open and closed. Nature, both beautiful and unadorned. Unrelenting. Irrepressible. Unforgiving.

The sun has risen enough now that you get a little too warm for comfort. It is nearly 7:30 and probably close to 80 degrees, and the touch of direct rays makes you begin sweating.

Peach Ballcap is typically my only human contact—in an indirect way—on these mornings. Others are voices on the construction site—(I’ve never verified a person there except for one, whose back was to me as he stood urinating next to the dumpster)—or a lost driver once who inched toward the cul de sac and circled back around and then drove off. I can see how people in a monastery with a vow of silence can become a bit eccentric. Even introverts needing solitude need others.

Just now, a black pick-up truck grumbles by headed to the cul de sac… Now turning in to our driveway.

“Morning!” he says when the truck is close enough. Grey beard. Glasses. Black t-shirt. An arm extends out the window and a paper is dropped on the front walk.

Back to him: “Good morning!”

“How you doin’?” Meant as a further reply to my greeting, not really a question. Or at least I think. It’s Texas, after all, and he might really be asking.

“Good! Thank you!”

A wave, and he looks ahead at the arc leading up to the road, driving up through the beyond as the purple martins continue their breakfast.

dominion

‘Howard Freeman (2)’ appears on one of the Firefox browser window tabs and, along with the other seven or so tabs, constitutes a small but growing and ornery press corps at 6:30 this morning.

The ‘(2),’ I learn when I click on it, indicates that on Facebook I have a Friend Request waiting (that’s good, as long as it’s not one of the always-slender women from Eastern Europe whom I don’t know, who appear to be photographed with a 1970s Polaroid, and have only male friends and no mutual friends with me—I can only surmise they found me because I listed Darren Aronofsky as one of my favorite movie directors) and also a comment added to something I’ve written—a news item I posted to my Wall, or piggybacking my comment somewhere else…or whatever. Some notice of some thing (if ever there was a good use of that word that all English teachers mark off points for use of) that warrants a number on the display in front of me that requires attention now. The hand from the press corps crowd is sticking up, or rather down—from the menu bar.

But wait! There! On the icons in the dock (some of them doing the put-your-left-hip-in Hokie Pokie out from the screen’s edge to warn me that I have forgotten some thing), and on my iPhone, my life consists of responding to white numbers in red circles. They all tell me I am running late.

Other tabs include my Chase Bank account (which I’ve set to send alerts to my mobile phone if certain things happen, so now I can be warned from several directions and with several tech indicators at once—as though I am Helen Keller and need a strobe, tone, and shifting parquet floor to get my attention), my work email (on which I now respond to a concerned message instead of continuing coffee with the First Lady, who was sitting contentedly on the couch next to me but now turns to her iPad. She plays ‘Godfinger,’ a game where she controls little Wii-looking figures who all do what she says and ‘worship’ her, accumulating her ‘Awe’ in the lower right corner…I have no such currency), my Google calendar (whose full window, with unabashed seniority, itself occasionally pops open in front of any other open window to remind me of an event happening now, much like Helen Thomas, whose diminutive frame—short and wide like the tab—doesn’t limit her from making her agenda known to the 6’2” men around her and to her primary audience, the man facing her…the powerful man in front of her who must listen, patiently, and then, patiently, respond. With a finger he could silence her, but he doesn’t. She is, after all, Helen Thomas, and she is the media. With a finger, he could play ‘Godfinger,’ the way the First Lady still is; he could fling her like a Wii character upwards of 340 metres across the White House compound landing her somewhere on Pennsylvania Avenue and she would go back to farming, and worship him, and give him Awe…but instead all his fingers rest on his keyboard—like a podium—which has become the place of finding a false equilibrium and foundation rather than dominion or even dominance.).

Speaking of Google, Reader is on another tab. I avoid looking at that grey rectangle, knowing that the lecture hall found on its window will only lure me in to discussions that will never end. I do care that Bill Gates wants to overhaul America’s schools, but it’s not something I have time for. I need to get dressed in twenty minutes. I spot a snippet from Arts & Letters Daily, my favorite news aggregator, that ‘Economic and scientific innovation helped propel the West past the East around 1770. So did Islam. Timur Kuran explains….MORE,’ where the last word is hyperlinked. It would be so…easy…to just click that four-letter word and learn from Timur about the innovation that Islam helped propel 240 years ago. I didn’t know about this! And If I don’t read all this stuff, I won’t be like the editors who put together these aggregators, like Denis Dutton of Arts & Letters, or even Matt Drudge, or Mr. Reader himself. But I have to get dressed in 19 minutes. BBC News has ‘1000+’ unread items. Same with Christian Science Monitor. Prior to a 2008 trip to Asia, I had signed up for the South China Morning Post to get familiarized with the issues. Now, this paper’s three feeds I subscribe to (I had a choice of so many more!)—Business, Property, and Hong Kong—remind me that we are no longer on such great speaking terms, and the relationship is strained. Among the three, there are 1378 unread items. The last time I actually went through and looked at news items, I read one or two and marked the rest ‘as read,’ summarily dismissing the collective work of approximately fifteen thousand man-hours of journalism. (Could have been more; not sure.) If I read each item from SCMP in summary fashion—using the Reader feature of scrolling down the headlines, which move from bold to roman after a couple seconds hovering over each, I can cover perhaps a few hundred of them in an hour. It would be the ‘receiving line’ of getting re-acquainted: working the rope and shaking hands long enough to smile and wink and let them know I have not deleted them without acknowledging their fleeting existence.

Along the row of tabs also are articles I have not read but want to, intend to, all with lengths approaching that of a New Yorker essay, which means that these tabs are carried over from day to day until my computer restarts at 3 a.m. one night (because it needs new system software to keep up with the bandwidth I require to keep in play the items I do not address immediately). The articles that disappear when this happens are forgotten, and I am not the worse for it. They had been temporary lusts that slithered toward me, waiting to strike, and whose venom is given an antidote by Mac OS X. The next system upgrade from Cupertino should be called Mongoose.

There is a ‘+’ sign to the right of the tabs, reminding me I can start a new conversation anytime. Invite more people to the press conference. Perhaps I do this, and the others—while they don’t fall completely silent, especially not Helen Thomas in the front row, who raises her voice about every 30 minutes—are shushed by the increasing din of the current conversation. My ‘Favorites’ also perch in a row above the current tabs, like gargoyles, waiting to be affirmed as named. They know they will be called on at some point; that’s why they’re Favorites. At one time, I had the power to name them and place them there; now they with the name and position hold the power. If I delete them, I would have to find them again, or at least I’d have to email the IT guy to get the URL to access the work server remotely. This is unconscionable.

I get up from my computer to get more coffee for me and the First Lady—who is happily subduing and having dominion—but it is not quiet that I experience.

It is deafness.

photo: kees straver

Unchanging

She sat with her back to a cypress tree,
Her front to the river and to the six children,
fanned in front like a peacock’s tail.
They stood and watched her blankly, not speaking.
Her knees were drawn to her chest, her
Shoulders jerking up and down, her
Hands covering her face, her
Palms pressing the images of the six
Into her memory,
Her present,
The future.

The river frothed behind the six, the whitewater relentlessly and mercilessly crashing against rocks smoothed by destruction over thousands of years and leading inexorably to the waterfall fifty yards downstream.

She said something through her hands to a girl of 14 and a boy of 12,
Who both turned
Away and walked back along the water’s edge down the
Brown dirt path from which they’d come.
Their pencil-like bodies grew smaller and
Smaller as a girl of 3 watched them instead of watching
Her mother. Their slender figures disappeared around a bend where

The whitewater frothed, moving toward the four children and

The woman. The children were silent
Before her.

The roiling water gurgled and hissed, its bubbles’ bursts and popping drowned by the roar downstream, its uninhibited dance on the rocks calling for attention, like a pot of milk overflowing on a stovetop and fizzing on the gas burners.

The woman took her hands away from
Her face, which was red and
Shiny.
Across the river was a cliff, and there was a squirrel
Scrambling down the crumbling rock face, looking for food or perhaps
trying to escape a predator.
She looked over the heads of the four children and
Noticed
The leaves of a madrone tree, its fiery bark like dried
Blood against the ancient gray of the cliff.
A raven sat on a branch and watched.

The water behind the four young children boiled and hissed and cascaded over rocks, their surfaces pounded mercilessly for hundreds and maybe thousands of years in unchanging agreement between tormentor and slave. The waterfall groaned and howled, its receiving maw at the bottom swallowing and regurgitating all that flowed over its lips. Never satisfied.

She looked at her 3-year-old daughter.
The woman’s eyes were bloodshot.
She heard the raven CAW!—a loud, wounded plea for its mate and for
Food.
The whitewater beyond the girl hissed.
The waterfall groaned and howled.
The squirrel stumbled and somersaulted into
the pitch of a hollow.
The cliff was like a wave,
A wall trembling and
Poised to crash on all five of them
On the riverbank.

The woman heard a small voice.

She ignored it.

She stared at her 3-year-old.
The whitewater hissed behind the toddler, only ten feet behind
Her.
The waterfall howled, its mouth still open,
Waiting.
The cliff trembled,
Waiting.

Again she heard the voice.

The woman listened to the raven—CAW! CAW!—and the
Water—its bubbling and its dance, now silver with
Light shining off the spray as the
Waves splashed on the smooth, round rocks. A male
Cicada above her sang his mating song to an unknown lover.

The 3-year-old now yelled, “Mommy!”

The mother, her face wet and shiny and red, as if slapped, saw her toddler, dressed in an aquamarine one-piece swimsuit. She exhaled hard, as if trying to touch her daughter with her breath.

“What.”

“I’m hungry.”

The mother looked at her and at the faces of the three other children. Their cheeks were sunburned, their hair dried haphazardly. Derek was scratching the mosquito bite on his right shin. Mary was staring down at her barrette, snapping and unsnapping it. Casey had her hands on her knees and was bent over, looking at an ant making its way around an apple core browned and shriveling in the August heat. Laney repeated her plea, “Mommy, I’m hungry.”

The mother stood up and, taking her under her armpits, hiked the little girl to her hip. The water was an iron gray, crashing and roiling against rocks that had been smoothed over thousands of years in an unchanging agreement of tormentor and captive. The mother walked closer to the water, and Laney wiped some hair that had blown over her right eye from the rushing wind coming down the river. She looked at her mother, her cheeks red from the sun, her hair dried haphazardly.

“Laney, have I ever told you that I was a camper here when I was Derek’s age?”

The toddler was watching the silver water dance along smooth rocks and a big black bird fly down toward them from a reddish-brown tree across the river.

“No, Mommy.”

“Well, I was. I came here as a camper for eight years and then was a counselor. I wanted all of you to see this place. It’s very special to me.” She paused to listen. “If you’d like, when you’re a few years older, perhaps you could come to the kids camp.” She paused. “They have horseback riding and archery and many more things than we’ve had this week. Would you like that?”

The little girl nodded, as if dreaming about silver water and big birds and horses and being a princess. “I’m hungry, Mommy.” And she put her head against the mother’s sunburned shoulder.

“C’mon y’all,” she said, turning her eyes to the others. “I think the dining hall’s still serving lunch.”

The mother of six carried Laney on her hip with the twins and the 5-year-old trailing her. The older two would have reached the cabin by now and would be picking up their clothes. The whitewater hissed, the waterfall groaned, and the cliff trembled, forever poised to crash on the riverbank. The raven flew overhead and passed them, its silent flight an empty shadow of the chatter now beginning below. The family walked together along the dirt path, their slim figures disappearing around a bend.

photo: psd

‘Are you sure this is safe?’

As the doctor today diagnosed my 9-year-old son with a simple stomach bug and also some kind of viral skin bump that multiplies when you try to squeeze it, my wife Karen decided to maximize our co-pay and ask about the small grey dot—about the size of a pencil prick to be more precise—on Bennett’s forehead between his eyes, and for his estimation on how long it would remain. It had been there since his older brother Carter decided to start his own personal military about a year ago, conscripting his two younger brothers.

‘Oh…’ the pediatrician told her casually, ‘It’ll be there a long time.’

‘Ten years?’ asked Bennett, who was following every word.

‘Longer,’ he replied.

‘Twenty?’ the warrior asked.

‘At least.’

Mom felt duty-bound to explain.

In early 2009, Carter—then 10—had required that his recruits undergo tests and drills. Tests like knowing which gear would be used in different emergencies and in various terrains, such as the desert or the city. Granted, some of the questions were basic: ‘When skydiving from a plane, would you choose a water bottle or a parachute?’ But then, when you’re a General in need of an army, you can’t be too selective.

And then there were the drills, one of which caused the 20-year+ tattoo between Bennett’s eyes. The idea was that in the military, one must dodge bullets. Sometimes, one has to do this with such aplomb that it approximates Matrix-style dexterity. The most ready-made missiles in any kid’s school supplies, of course, are pencils.

So Carter set out with a 16-pack of colored pencils. Bennett, standing about six feet away, steadied himself while Carter prepared to hurl the pencils like throwing knives at Bennett’s face.

Bennett questioned the General. ‘Are you sure this is safe?’

‘Sure.’

‘OK.’

Carter says the missile struck Bennett between the eyes after five—‘No. Wait: three!’ ‘No, Carter, EIGHT!’—missiles (as they recount the story to us). For his effort, had he made it past all 16, Bennett would have ranked up from PV2 to Private First Class. Instead, he deserted and went to discuss the matter with the civilian authorities, who so happened to be playing Snood Extreme on her laptop in the living room. (This often happens with lifetime government workers, while unbeknownst to them the military misuses expensive weapons purchased from Staples with the hard-earned paycheck of workers like you and me. Well, not so much you.)

The president, wise as she is, found a way to get the parties back to the negotiating table by convincing the General to promote Bennett up to Lieutenant and provide him with canteen coupons allowing him to raid the pantry. (The president also served as chief quartermaster and in this capacity had leeway to provide this privilege in extraordinary circumstances.) This, too, upset the taxpayers, who would have preferred not to have had to stop at the store on the way home from work to pick up more Pop Tarts to replace those that were raided with canteen coupons.

Carter’s military was soon subsumed into a theocracy that spontaneously occurred when I opened the front door, and he lost interest.

Karen relates this genesis of the grey dot on Bennett’s forehead to the pediatrician, a veteran of forty years.

The doctor says, ‘That sounds about right.’

artwork: J bradford

Doing ‘The Worm’ to a Polka

“Have a magical day,” was what you hear from cashiers in the hotel gift shop, ticket booth clerks at the various parks, and ride monitors as they check children’s height. It’s difficult not to at least lean toward obedience after 72 hours or so.

My family’s six magical days at Disney World were indeed so, but in the end I was drawn to the magic that has always been free, what has been internal or intra-personal, and what is to come, rather than what is costly, external and visible, and what is rapidly passing away.

In the days leading up to the boys’ spring break from 5th, 3rd, and 1st grades, I was a bit restless—selfishly and snobbily—that we had not planned a more…refined, or cultured, getaway. If not refined, then at least one where we would experience Life Unscripted together. Yet, with Teak at 7, he could enjoy most of what this small world had to offer, and at 11, Carter is in the child-bubble a little longer before his current exposure in middle school will render him too cool to wave at Mickey and Cinderella, which he in fact did on our penultimate night. Bennett, 9, would do what Carter liked to do, and there is a hidden innocence beneath his rugged exterior anyway that adheres to a world in which boats with shellacked benches take you from lodge to Magic Kingdom dock, streets are free of garbage, and even ice cream stains from diurnal pressure-washing, and in which fireworks close each night. If we were going to do Disney, scripted days or not, this was the year.

At first, there was an “It” I wanted to pass along to the kids. Getting past my cynicism—for it was Karen’s first visit as well and for her it was magical in an adult way—there was a normal parental urge to have my kids experience what I did in 1975, when younger brother Jim and I went for a day to the Magic Kingdom, the only one of the four current parks then open, and we rode everything from the Pirates of the Caribbean to Space Mountain, from the Haunted House to Splash Mountain. Our kids rode all of these and more, yet inadvertently and perhaps providentially, we spared them of “It’s a Small World,” so that they—at 46—will not be thinking of those lyrics and melody as they type out the attraction name in a blog. There was content that I wanted to not just pass along, so that we’d have shared memories. It did not, however, extend to something more fundamental, and even insidious, like allowing them to consider Disney World in any way preferable, normative, future-looking.

For as my father once told me about our summer beach community of Point O’ Woods, Fire Island—an exclusive and precious-to-me home-away-from-home where crime was not, and non-WASPs were not—that it was “not the real world,” so is Disney not, nor what it stands for. I was angry with Dad. I argued that I had made friends for life at Point O’ Woods, and “wasn’t that real life?!” That was not his point and, in fact, it is the very point I am less succinctly and eloquently making here. The point was that the place itself, its underlying assumptions, its pace and culture, and even its long-term effects on a person, did not enable one to live in the real world. I did not want the boys to think that “if you wish upon a star” that this resulted in your heart’s desires being realized. There is a difference between manufactured magic and ineffability, and I want my sons to know it. I didn’t want the kids to fall in love with Disney World. I found, on about the third day, that I wanted our family to fall deeper in love with each other and with the God who would make the world more like a magical kingdom than Walt Disney ever could dream.

This happened from a combination of an exchange with a Disney employee and, later, seeing another family on a Disney inter-park/lodge bus that we took multiple times each day.

She stood before me outside the “Fantasmic” show at the Hollywood Studios park, which—for the uninitiated—is the one show to see at Disney if you see no other, like “Wicked” in NYC. Here was this woman, only five feet tall, if that, but dominant. I had walked Teak in by the hand to join Karen, where she was saving seats in between the aisles marked by headshots of Scar and Buzz. (Nobody is allowed to save seats at any Disney attraction, and apparently there is a place in Dante’s 5th circle of hell for those who do, in between those who were greedy in life and those who were ungodly landowners.) Meanwhile, Carter and Bennett waited outside the entrance at the adjacent “Tower of Terror” free-fall ride. Moments earlier I had had all three boys, and we were approaching the entrance to the attraction.

Teak mumbled, “This looks boring,” as he bent his neck backward to gaze up at the 13 story-ride edifice, whose neon “Hollywood Hotel” sign’s first “O” letter flickered on and off like a Norman Bates-owned property. His mouth was ajar in his “You’re-wasting-my-time” look.

I took Teak aside and asked privately, “Is it that this looks a little scary?” He stuck his right thumb in his mouth and I could see his blonde bangs bobbing slightly as he stared past me at waist level. This was of course not discernible to his two older brothers, who were distracted by the increasing “Stand By” line that was for those, like us, without the Fast Pass that allows you to skip most of the wait by showing up within an hourly “appointment” you are given. I told the older boys to stay put while I brought Teak to Karen.

Having situated the 7-year-old in the large amphitheater, which gets to capacity at least 30 minutes prior to each show, I started to walk quickly back to the other boys, but first came to a Disney monitor, who handed me a 2×4-inch blue card that would allow me re-entry once the theater was full.

“I have two sons coming back with me, so that we can join my wife and other son who are inside.” Failing to mention the saving-seats-5th-circle-of-Disney-hell thing.

She was, as I said, five foot tall, if. Chinese. Authoritative. Not taking crap from a white boy who once thought an exclusive beach enclave without her race was the City of God.

“I see one person. I give one ticket,” she said in a practiced way. [Disney Employee Handbook, Page 352: Insert adjectival number before each noun. Remember to wish guest a “magical day” at end of concluding sentence.]

“But there are five of us, and we’ll be back just after this ride. Couldn’t you give me two more tickets so the three of us can get in?”

“If I see your one ticket, I let you in. Nobody else.”

She turned to deal with another anarchist, while I decided to take my chances later and moved past her. She did not wish me a magical day, a nice day, or even a “good day to you, Sir.” She will likely one day run Disney as CEO and produce fat dividends. I considered buying 1000 shares of the company before reporting her name to her supervisor. (I did neither.)

And yet, a little while later, I recalled the exchange as curiously refreshing. She reminded me of New Yorkers, and I got homesick.

Two days later, I watched another family of five seated across from us on a Disney Transport bus, which operate between the resorts, one of which we stayed at, and the four parks plus Downtown Disney, Blizzard Beach, and Typhoon Lagoon. At the end of any given day, one would always see multiple children in a family with their heads on parents’ laps and their sandaled feet drawn up onto the seat next to them. Their Midwest-pale faces and flamingo pink legs contrasted against the ubiquitous purple seats. Their eyes might be closed or they might be open slightly, staring across the bus aisle at you but not focusing. Likely letting the days’ events slowly recede into their expanding memories, where one day at Disney equals four-score the adventures of a day around the neighborhood and where—if you don your First Time Visitor button at a park—you are told, “Well, anything can happen at Disney.”

This couple had three girls, about the ages of our three boys, and while I don’t recall the conversation as vividly as that with Disney’s next CEO, it struck me at the time that all week I had been seeing families having a great time together. Sure, there were fights and there was discipline to be done and I saw not a few parents hauling off little ones by the triceps, no doubt leaving white marks on the tikes’ sunburns, to give them a talking-to. But I saw families from North America, the UK, France, Italy, and others, who were simply enjoying having fun together. Long lines afforded everyone a chance to talk about the ride one had just gone on, or wanted to go on next, or to plan a route around the park and which Fast Pass to get when in order to maximize the time spent on rides together. Perhaps that was it: it was hard not to be together at Disney. The evidence was brimming over. And that’s what, in fact, made it magical to me.

I had planned two date nights with Karen, thinking that six nights and seven days with the kids would surely require that we have two evenings of 2.5 hours each alone. Bare minimum.

Though we spent roughly 15 to 17 waking hours together every day, we never tired of being with each other. Were this time spent in our apartment, it surely would have turned to cannibalism. Yet it was Disney, so at 11 p.m., I would lift Teak onto my shoulders and we’d walk past sleeping Korean pre-schoolers on Main Street in the Magic Kingdom who’d stayed awake long enough to see the fireworks and then collapsed with their heads on the copious bags of Disney paraphernalia that we parents all reluctantly yet laughingly acquired each day. Karen and I agreed to cancel our date nights and instead have all five of us do something together. One of the nights entailed a Concierge at our hotel—a blonde woman based out of the University of Michigan—to cancel our reservation at the hotel’s “Cub’s Den” (their child care area, which I never named aloud around our children for fear that they would dig in their heels and not go) claiming a “serious family illness.” (This was her call, not mine, and I was surprised to find a Disney employee dissembling this way. The Disney Handbook surely has a red-letter section on dissembling and there also might be another hell circle for that kind of warped thinking.)

I arrived at Disney and expected to be assaulted with appeals to look at the “It”—at the content of the place—all week long. Certainly, those appeals were there. Yet, I found that we all looked at each other much more than we ever had.

On Friday, our travel day home, and because our flight didn’t leave until 9 p.m., it afforded essentially an extra day at the parks. Bennett and I decided to go to Typhoon Lagoon, while Karen and the other boys spent one last morning at the Magic Kingdom. Later, through photos and retelling, I learned that Carter, my rapidly maturing Middle Schooler, went on a “mission” with an 8-inch white plastic Mickey Mouse doll, to get autographs from as many Disney characters as he could. Pinocchio, Minnie, Mickey, Donald Duck, Buzz Lightyear and a couple others each signed the doll, which Carter carried around the 107-acre park by himself with little to no parental supervision. Crime at Disney is virtually non-existent. We had a Free-Range Child.

On the other side of the vast Disney real estate southwest of downtown Orlando, Bennett and I bobbed in 4-foot waves crashing in the wave pool at Typhoon Lagoon. He grabbed onto my neck from behind and I felt his cheek against mine. He braced himself with his knees against my rib cage, not unlike some of the primate offspring did at Animal Kingdom but doing so from their mothers’ bellies. Four nights earlier, Bennett and his brothers had danced at the Biergarten, one of the restaurants at Epcot Center’s Germany area. A four-piece brass blasorchester played while Karen and I ate and watched from our table one level up from the floor. The boys formed their own troupe among some dozen other children, all dancing in pairs and threes and fours. Bennett decided that German polkas did not restrict him from doing his one serious dance move, The Worm, which he promptly performed across the wooden dance floor, much to the astonishment of two women who shared a ringside table and one of whom nearly spit out her würst laughing. My Bennett, the boy who never looked like a baby but rather always looked like a handsome little man when he was born and likewise as an infant and toddler, who at 5 years old at church would pretend to trot on a horse on his way up the aisle to receive the Eucharist—this boy now bobbed in clear blue water and smiled at me when I looked back, our faces inches apart, and as his foggy goggles allowed enough of his sparkly eyes to show through, I knew that his time at Typhoon Lagoon, though replete with body and raft slides, would be remembered perhaps primarily as the first time either of us had spent six hours alone together.

As I write, it is Easter. I couldn’t sleep and started writing this post at 4:15. I had planned to write it since before returning and knew basically what I was going to say but not how or to what ultimate conclusion. I find myself considering several facts and feeling several emotions.

First, thank you, Mr. Disney, for creating a clean perfection with realistic storefronts that from behind reveal corrugated metal and guy wires and which points us to a perfection that is yet to come. This temporary perfection affords families from all over the world to experience togetherness while excusing ourselves beforehand and even during that it’s about roller coasters, water parks, and life-sized Disney characters dancing on immaculate streets. It’s not about discovering Disney; we find it’s about discovering who we are to each other.

Second, I am truly astounded that our family shared 119 hours or so together and left Florida wanting more. Yesterday, there was no sense that we had “had enough” of each other and needed our space. Had it been a trip anywhere for longer, say a month, even to someplace that was in my own dreams, it might have been another story. It may have become too familiar, too all-the-same, too much “like home.” We might have turned on each other in our new comfort, our shortcomings having become all the more obvious as the surroundings became commonplace and less distracting.

But third, thank you, Jesus. You showed the apostle John and us a kingdom in which the streets are cleaner than any Disney street. You showed us a world that—at 1400 miles by 1400 miles by 1400 miles—is actually a fairly “small, small world after all.” You showed us a world in which peace and prosperity are everywhere and enjoyed by people of every tribe, tongue and nation. A place where our true home can actually be more inviting and desirable that any vacation we can possibly imagine. You showed us this after leaving it for a time, setting up a tent among us in what my father called “the real world,” which in fact is a world that is passing away, and letting your very servants command your fate. Instead of presenting perfection in human terms and coming first in strength, you lived perfection on your own perfect terms and presented weakness in human terms, being executed like a common criminal. We esteemed you not. Hanging on the cross, you were the epitome of ugliness and disfigurement. We turned our eyes from you.

But today you live. The only reason the Magic Kingdom appears to have any magic at all is because it hints at Who you are. Were this not so, those who leave Disney would soon become depressed, realizing that the world as we know it would never be like Disney. Yet many who aren’t conscious of this must feel it gnaw at them, beckon them, entreat them. Thank you for the family on the bus, who pointed me more toward my family. Thank you for the Chinese ticket taker, who reminded me how much I love my own city, with all its foibles and imperfect people, people who don’t always follow the rulebook but do so endearingly. Thank you for causing me to value my true home as where my family is. The magic was not what we saw while in Florida. It was what was happening inside of us and which we left with. You made this happen. This trip was a gift; thank you, Lord.

You are making all things new.

Come, Lord Jesus.

photo: Phillipp Klinger

sketch: steelforest

At the end of a day

We have a few trees in the courtyard behind our apartment. Two silver maples and a Chinese elm.

Though they are luscious during the summer, they also carry for me the association of seeing them next to the highway on the rare occasions I would leave Manhattan by car many years ago. There—it seemed always to be in the 1970s—they stood humiliated behind wind drifts of plastic grocery bags and pieces of tarpaulin. Old shoes and cardboard boxes.

But on these July days, their verdant canvas and moist sheen and birds beckon our fourth-floor terrace into acting more like an Upper West Side tree-house. We have morning doves. Sparrows. And these orange-beaked birds that071209.1bluecanoe Karen spotted one afternoon and which gave her dreams that night about wild toucans and macaws and about two parrots—white and red—that adopted her as their mother when she said, “Polly wanna cracker? Rawwrr!”

When I was maybe five and spending my summers at Point O’ Woods on Fire Island, Mom told me about the “drink-your-tea” birds, known by adults as Eastern Towhees. (Known by mature adults as Pipilo erythrophthalmus, a dangerous name that if tossed out mindlessly at a cocktail party may invoke questions on whether you’re taking antibiotics.)

Because I first heard Towhees there, their three-part song has always been evocative of that magical place, where it seemed that all we did was drink tea, ride our bikes, and play in the surf. Also, it was Mom who first mimicked the bird’s invitational call as she stood on the front porch of the two-bedroom white cottage we rented. It was early in the morning for a boy, perhaps seven o’clock, in July, and after waiting first for the Towhee she proclaimed while looking down at me: “Drink your TEEEEEA!” Then she squinted and tittered. She would hunch her shoulders at me as she laughed, to let me know that this was a delicious moment shared just between us. A short-lived flower of time.

Two nights ago as Karen and I sat in our tree-house at the close of a workweek, I saw a morning dove. It perched on the brick wall at the edge of the roof about seven feet above our heads. It gazed quietly to the west, toward the Hudson, its head barely moving, its right eye fixed. The slightest of evening breezes left its smooth brown feathers unruffled.

My bride and I sat across from each other, eating olive tapenade on melba crisps and table wafers, white cheddar cheese, salami, fresh sliced green, yellow and red peppers, and a date-walnut cake. Her Pinot Grigio beaded on the outside of her glass. Since the early evening air was below 70 degrees, she wore a cream, long-sleeved, v-neck knit top and a flowery scarf fastened with a playful knot around her neck.

She would chirp about this and that, her knees pulled to her chest to stay warm, and I would smile. Zinnias in flower boxes and arborvitae in planters surrounded us. The sun dipping to the west of Riverside Drive illuminated the top five floors of the pre-war buildings on West End Avenue. We ate and talked, and sometimes were silent.

We stayed this way until it was time to go inside.

photo: 1bluecanoe