Saturday, October 29, 2016

The Magic Kingdom

My oldest daughter just turned sweet sixteen, and since she's such an easygoing girl with simple tastes, who understands the limits of our disposable income. She didn't ask for a huge party with ice sculptures and guest appearances from Beyonce or J Cole; instead, she just wanted to spend the day at Disney World with her best friend. I couldn't turn her down, in good conscience, especially when I kind of wanted to go myself.

If you live in Florida, pretty much anywhere in Florida, Disney World is close enough that any three-day weekend can turn into a Mickey Mouse vacation. Plus, with the resident discounts, it's pretty affordable, even with the recent price hikes. On top of that, if you have kids, it sort of becomes an imperative, at least once or twice.

The thing is, the last time we went was over a year ago, at the beginning of summer time, and I swore that I wasn't coming back until the youngest was at least five years old. We had gotten in free, because we knew someone who worked in the parks, which is also probably a thing if you live in Florida, so the cost wasn't an issue. The problem was that there are two Magic Kingdom parks.

In the off season months - October, November, sometimes February - Disney World is a place of friendly spirit, familial love, and just sheer childlike wonder, no matter what age you are. Everyone smiles at you and shows you kindness, whether they work there or not. The weather is great, and just a light jacket will get you through the worst of it. There are lines for some of the rides, but none of them really unbearable. Some of my fondest memories of Disney World are during these times. My most precious memory of dating my wife was the day we spent park-hopping, just the two of us, carrying on like teenagers without having to defer our fun to any kids. This trip was a lot like that.

Summer Disney World, on the other hand, is a soul crushing experience. The park seems to relocate to the light side of Mercury, where the ground crackles and softens under the intense heat of the sun, and its brightness blinds you no matter where you look. You get into line outside the Small World ride, thinking it's going to be about forty minutes, only to find out you're standing at the end of the line for Aladdin's Flying Carpets, across the park, and the wait time is 735 minutes. And you either wait it out or decide that you're okay with the idea that you traveled four hours by car to visit the park and you're going to do exactly nothing while you're in it. Patrons are rude, pushing and cheating their way into lines and generally using their bodies like missiles or bumper cars. Might as well - it's the closest thing to a ride you'll be on today anyway. The cast members are as polite and helpful as always, but they have a weary, tortured look in their eyes that betrays their friendly attitudes, and God bless the young person in that Winnie the Pooh costume.

So, with the memory of that last fateful trip to summer Disney World still burned into my psyche, I planned this trip, mostly out of love for my daughter and a desire to make her birthday special, but hoping that October Disney World would be as good as I remembered. I was not disappointed. It really felt like coming home in a lot of ways. The fun was back, and experiencing it with our precocious three-year-old, with all the suspension of disbelief that she brings to the experience, took be back thirteen years ago when the big ones were little ones, and, honestly, even forty years ago, when this big one was a little one.

We used the new Fastpass system, but instead of rides, we booked all the princess experiences, since those would probably be more memorable and picture-worthy. Our little girl got to play the part of the horse in Belle's story time, and at a time in her life when she has just discovered Beauty and the Beast, and wants to watch the movie at least twice a day. She'll settle for just scrubbing it back twenty times to watch the ending, though. She got to sit next to Ariel in her grotto and talk to her, pretending she was under the sea. She got to meet Rapunzel, whom she knows nothing about, and Tiana, whom she adores. In fact, she almost passed Rapunzel right by to try to get to Tiana before she realized that the lady in the pink dress with long hair was calling her over. The poor baby seemed as if she was trying to mask her annoyance with a fake smile. I actually felt a little badly for the woman playing Rapunzel, because she put her whole heart into her script, but she delivered all of it to the back of our little girl's head, because she was looking across the room at Tiana the entire time.

Tiana was especially kind to our little one. The baby has the lightest skin out of all of us, except me, has blue eyes and definitely would pass for white, if she didn't also have her mother's super kinky curly hair. She usually goes around looking like a white, blue-eyed child with a brown, six inch afro, unless we put it up in puffs or braids, which are the only possible styles for it. As soon as she walked, or more like skipped, over to Tiana, the actress went off script as said, in a perfect Louisiana girl accent, "Why, look at your hair. My Momma used to do my hair just like that when I was your age." I don't know how the baby actually took it, but she smiled so big that I have to believe she at least got a piece of it. God bless that woman. It did my heart good to see this beautiful Black woman dressed up and coiffed like a princess to tell my little girl that her parents used to have a hard time with her hair, too. Especially because at that point in the Magic Kingdom, after hours of walking around and several rides, plus a nap in the stroller, the afro puffs were starting to look more like cheese puffs. In fact, I wasn't even sure if the actress was in character or not at that moment until she mentioned something about borrowing Lottie's hair ribbons. Actually, she said a lot of things, but I was a little distracted and mesmerized, for more than one reason.

That wasn't even the only affirming thing about the trip. Everywhere we went, we saw different types of mixed couples and families, some younger or older than us, some of them mixed in different ways, but several of them, with or without kids. We have a code that we use when that happens - swirl week. As in, "It must be swirl week at Disney World," or "Did you hear anything about this being swirl week?" It's an uplifting thing for us, because living in such a multicultural city like Miami, we get used to the acceptance, but when we travel, sometimes we get more stares, depending on where we are, and not all of them are admiring. I think especially when we are all five together, some people play a game called "Who Belongs to Whom?"

The major difference was that my oldest daughter didn't spend the day with us, choosing instead to walk around with her bestie all day, and meet up with us for dinner. It was kind of a bittersweet thing for me - sweet because I think she enjoyed her birthday much more without having to include a three-year-old in all her activities, but bitter because it serves as another reminder of how old I'm getting. She sent us pictures every hour on the hour, as a sort of safety measure, and it looked like she was having fun, even though her smile got less intense and her eyes started showing signs of weariness after about two in the afternoon. The beauty of it is that we got multi-day passes that let us come back three more times. This time, I'm a lot more excited to go than I was before, coming off of a bad trip, but we're definitely planning the next trip on off days. I just hope Tiana is still there.

Friday, October 14, 2016

Election Day Can't Come Soon Enough

I'm really dreading election day this year. Normally, elections are always a touchstone for people with different views, but this year, it really seems to be bringing out the worst in people, bringing the worst out of our nation. I don't know if it's because of the really low quality of the two main candidates, or because of the end of Obama's term, and all of the anger and racism towards him, but it is really getting ugly.

What bothers me most is how this is affecting the church. I'm watching pastors that I have formerly read and respected making the most illogical and weak arguments for supporting an extremely corrupt and immoral Republican candidate. I'm seeing church members who I thought were more levelheaded and rational making all kinds of racially prejudiced and sexist statements. This newest scandal with Trump's 2005 statements on video are probably the worst ever. People that I know, not just talking heads on television, people who have sat next to me in church for years, are now excusing all kinds of debauchery and verbal violence under the name of "locker room talk." And when I ask if they talk like that amongst themselves, the answer is always a vehemently defensive "no," as if the very suggestion was blasphemous. But I can't help feeling that they are betraying themselves a bit with the idea that we are somehow allowed to have private lives that we share with a very few people, where we can be as sexist and racist and even criminally predatory as we want, and somehow that's okay, and shouldn't be counted against us in our public lives. It's as if the carefully crafted facades that we show everyone are supposed to be the only official version of us, and the seedy side of us is immune to criticism, or, at least, can be dismissed with a simple, perfunctory apology.

I'm starting to worry that I don't really know anyone at all, except for my closest friends and family.

I'm seeing people that call themselves Christians gloating over the deaths of other human beings at the hands of police officers. Implying and outright declaring that a man deserved to die because he smoked weed a few years ago, or that a woman deserved to die because she was a little too mouthy with a cop. Someone who has recently been removed from my FaceBook feed posted a video of a man in a pickup truck plowing through a crowd of Native Americans protesting Columbus Day. Somebody in the crowd got badly hurt, but the truth is that the driver could have killed someone. And the comment on the post was "Serves them right!" In case that's not clear, the idea is that they were blocking the street, so the driver was well within his rights to run them over and maim or kill anyone in his way.

I wonder if it had been a group of white people protesting an abortion clinic who had been run down, would this white Christian still say "Serves them right!"

I am thoroughly disappointed in the American church today. I don't see any love for either countrymen or foreigners, any compassion for the oppressed, any empathy for those who are mourning, any respect for anyone with even slightly differing beliefs. I don't see very many Christians (or even Christian leaders and pastors, God bless us) trying to preach the gospel to a lost world, trying to "speak the truth in love." Instead I see people baring their teeth in hatred and wishing harm and ruin on others because of their moral deficiencies, but excusing that same immorality in the people who look like them, or belong to their groups, or run for office in their chosen party. I see people who call themselves Christian spreading racist, sexist, and otherwise hateful lies, boldly, in the name of politics. Saying things out loud, with their names attached to them, that they wouldn't have dared to even whisper a few years ago. All it took was one man with a microphone, a lot of money, and a severe lack of morals to shout these things to a crowd, and the sickening darkness in millions of hearts burst forth into our streets and airwaves.

And the worst thing is, I don't know if any of this will die down after the elections. Usually, election day is like Superbowl Sunday. We takes sides and draw lines in the sand, fight and cuss at each other in defense of our team, but after the game is over, we eat leftover lasagna and barbecue and go back to throwing the ball around in the yard. But the damage that is being done here is very different, and I'm not sure if we can go back to being friends after this. As depressing as the current climate is, I'm not even sure that I want to go back to the way things were, where everybody hid their hatred and contempt and cruelty and you didn't know that the person singing next to you in church secretly thought that you were not quite worthy of freedom and life.

Sure, I can extend grace and forgiveness, and we're all sinners, but now I know who these people really are, and worse, I know what they think of me and my family - that we are somehow less Christian, and somehow less valuable. What would they say if my son was shot in the street on his way home from school, because some police officer thought that he didn't comply in exactly the right way, at exactly the right time, with exactly the right attitude? Will they say "Serves him right"? What would they say if some sleazy older man (or a clean-cut younger man for that matter, a college student, a star swimmer and Olympic contender) makes my daughters the subject of their violent sexual observations? "Just locker room talk"? And what if they act on their words? What would they say about my daughters then? That they are liars or "tramps" or just making a big deal out of nothing?

I still can't vote for either of the two major party candidates, and I don't think that makes me stupid or less moral, despite what I'm hearing from other Christians. I still don't understand the argument that I should support immorality and godlessness, in order to prevent immorality and godlessness.

I keep hearing that if I don't vote a particular way, the the American church will be persecuted, that we'll be hounded out of careers, silenced in our sanctuaries, locked up for our beliefs, and attacked in the streets. I don't think it could get that bad in this country, but if it does, I have only one thing to say.

Serves them right.

Saturday, October 8, 2016

Hurricane Matthew

Hurricane Matthew is the first storm that has actually had me outside in the weather putting up shutters and sealing up the house, at least since I've been a homeowner. We've had a good run for the last decade or so, with hurricanes missing us left and right and either heading out to sea to die, or unfortunately hitting our neighbors to the west, north, and south. The Caribbean especially gets hit by every storm that comes through, just because of where these things usually get created in the tropics. I don't know how they do it, but it seems like they're in a constant state of rebuilding, and for those of us that have family "back home" in Jamaica, Haiti, or the Bahamas, there's always a sense of dread until communications are back up and we can contact them.

The way that people talk about Miami, with its crime and tribalization and lack of manners, you would think that the city would just become the Purge or Marvel Battleworld during a hurricane, where all laws are suspended and normally sane people just run amok. The truth is, I've found the opposite to be true. In my neighborhood, I see people running extension cords to their neighbors across the street, heading out to put up shutters for the older people in the area, making grocery store runs for women alone with kids, and generally watching out for each other. I go to Publix to get water and other supplies, and the lines are long, but people are really chill, talking and laughing with each other, because even if we don't know each other, one thing we know is that we all go through this together. There was one guy in line complaining about the two-per-customer water limit, but then he was also saying that he had nine kids at home. While I had a hard time wrapping my head around that one, I did notice that the next two or three people in line who were not buying water all sent someone over to grab a couple to buy for him. I think he ended up going home with eight gallon jugs of water, plus two or three large cases of bottled water. I have pretty good shutters on my house - roll-down for the windows and corrugated pieces for the sliding glass doors - but we had to run through Home Depot for more nuts and bolts to hold everything down. The store was pretty packed, and they had run out of plywood and batteries, but even there, everyone was being really kind to everyone else, making room in line and helping less experienced people like myself find what they needed, since the employees were already jammed up. I even saw a couple of people showing real concern for the Home Depot employees, asking them when they were getting off work, and whether they would have time to take care of their houses.

Miami is a very special city for this reason. Like a family, we don't always get along, but we are usually down for each other when things get rough.

Then there's this one guy.

On Thursday night after we had buttoned everything up and sealed ourselves in, my wife and I ended up watching Netflix (literally, unfortunately) until about one in the morning when the lights went out. It did seem odd at the time, because the wind wasn't really that strong and we could hardly hear anything going on outside. Still, we figured we really couldn't judge, since we couldn't see outside the house - one of the strangest feelings, by the way, if you've never been through a hurricane.

In the morning, I went for a run through the neighborhood to the park nearby, which is kind of a tradition with me, ever since I was a teenager during Hurricane Andrew. I usually run through the neighborhood past some people I know or down past the church to see how things turned out for them. This time there really wasn't any damage to houses or even trees, until I got to the bridge over the canal a couple of blocks away from my house. 

The wooden utility pole next to the bridge was broken in two places, about three feet from the bottom, and again about three feet from the top. The top of the pole was hanging precariously by its cables over the corner, and about twenty feet of pole was just leaning against it, obviously the reason we lost power. The power company was already out working on it, God bless them, so I kept on running. 

On the way back, I passed it again, and this time I noticed some things I hadn't before, because the repair truck had been moved. First, I saw that the bottom part of the pole, sticking out of the ground, was bent over, away from the street, and the chain link fence on the other side of it was damaged too, but not by the pole, since it had fallen in the opposite direction. In fact, somehow, the pole had fallen toward the street while the base was bent away from the street, in opposite directions. And then I saw the tire tracks in the road. 

So the whole reason we lost power for a day was not because of the winds or anything related to the storm, really, but because some idiot driver tried to power through an all stop intersection, next to a bridge, in a thunderstorm, and lost control of his vehicle, slamming into a power pole hard enough to snap it in half. Then, presumably, he back up his vehicle, which I can only assume was either a clown car or a stolen van from the prison fleet, and left the scene.

At least the power was only off for less than twenty-four hours, and there wasn't any worse damage, although whoever owns that house is going to have to repair that fence that the guy ended up hitting as well. At least no one was injured, except maybe for the driver, who I kind of hope got just injured enough that he's going to be in pain for the next couple of weeks, but not too seriously. At least the kids, including the youngest, were able to sleep through the night, without being frightened by the storm. 

So, for everyone who's heard bad things about Miami, or has ever been afraid to visit, not all of the negative rumors are true. There are lots of good people here, and we do look out for each other.

The parts about the bad drivers, however, are all true.

Sunday, October 2, 2016

DIY Marriage Retreat

A couple of weeks ago, my wife and I went to St. Thomas, USVI, for an extended weekend. Of course, it's a beautiful place - I think I was surprised by how mountainous it is. I was a little disappointed that the attraction I was looking forward to, Blackbeard's Castle, was closed to visitors, but the did tour the island, visit the beach, and stand on Drake's Seat, so overall, it was fun. 

Whenever we go on short excursions like this one, we usually try to turn it into some kind of marriage retreat or reconnect mission, in order to justify taking the days off from work. It's a lot easier to write down "marriage retreat" on your pre-arranged absence form, than "I want to swim all day, and you don't let me do that here." I've been looking into legit marriage retreats, most of them Christian-run, but none of them seem to be available when we can actually go, or else they're just too expensive. As a replacement for the real thing, we try to plan similar kinds of activities and talks for ourselves.

This time, I got inspired to look up some help online, and I came across an interesting article called The Getaway Plan, at I took the discussion questions from the website, as well as the basic structure. We flew in on Thursday and out on Sunday, so we agreed to take some quiet time separately every night, starting on Thursday night, after the bags and bodies were all in the hotel. I even made two journals out of composition books (because I love composition books) with decorated covers and the questions printed out and pasted nicely in the pages, with ample room for long responses. Then we would go to bed, or stay up, since we don't have any clocks to punch for the next couple of days. In the morning, over a nice quiet breakfast together, we would trade our journals and read each others answers to the questions. The rules we decided on were:

1) You have to read all answers before asking or saying anything.
2) You can ask only two questions at first, and those only for clarity.
3) You cannot make a defense for any of the answers you read - assume your spouse is being honest about their feelings and accept that.
4) You cannot defend, refine, or take back any of your own responses once you trade journals - stand by whatever you wrote.
5) After asking your two questions, we won't talk about the answers until after lunch. No immediate responses.

It was really odd to drop bombs like that and then just keep your mouth shut and think about it, but we found it pretty effective in making us both really hear and accept each other's responses.

The first set of questions, for the first night, focus on how we specifically relate to each other as partners, friends, and lovers. One caveat, I felt funny about "borrowing" the questions, instead of writing some myself, but the more I tried to write questions, the more I felt like I was being biased. It felt as if I was writing questions that I wanted to ask my wife, or avoiding questions that I didn't want her to ask, which was obviously counter to the whole purpose of the exercise. Either way, a big shout out to Rob Flood for the insightful questions. 
  • In what ways do you feel cherished by me?
  • In what ways do you feel taken for granted?
  • In what areas have you seen God change my heart and spirit this past year?
  • In what areas would you like to see me grow in my heart and spirit over this next year?
  • What three things am I currently doing that make you feel encouraged?
  • What three things could I do that would help encourage you further?

Tough ones, right?

The second night questions had more to do with how we relate to our children, and to each other as parents.
  • What three things could I do to help you fulfill your role as a father/mother?
  • In what ways could I improve in how I help you?
  • What are the top three issues you see in (child's name)'s life right now?
  • What do you think he/she needs in the next six months to overcome those issues?
  • In what two areas could I most improve as a father/mother?

These were fewer questions, but a whole lot more work, since we had to write answers for the third and fourth questions for each of our three children. But doing this really forced us to think about how different all the children are, and what different stages in life they are in, and ultimately how special each one is. My son, the oldest, is in college, but living at home. My older daughter is in the middle of high school, with everything that means, and very ambitious about it. And then the baby is not really a baby any more, and needs her mind stimulated, and a lot more discipline than the others.

The third night questions were honestly ones I would not have thought of on my own. They have mostly to do with how we relate to our community, our family, and our church as a couple and as a family. 
  • How has God used our family in the past six months in the lives of others?
  • How do you sense He is leading for the next six months?
  • How effective has our family worship/devotional time been? Should we make changes?
  • In what ways has God answered prayer in the last six months?
  • For what should we be praying in these next six months?
  • What atmosphere do we want others to feel when they come into our home? Do our activities and our attitudes help us to achieve this goal?

It's ironic, that my wife and I talk about family members and church members, or people in the neighborhood, that we're concerned about, and we sometimes intervene and either try to help or just talk to them, but we rarely get alone together and just pray for the people who are on our mind. 

I definitely recommend this for any married couple, whatever your situation. It's easy to do, low stress, no yelling and crying (as long as you stick to the rules), and it builds some connection and intimacy into any kind of trip you take together. In our case, we had the baby with us, and despite the potential distraction, we were still able to get her involved in an iPad long enough to focus on each other and these questions.

So, when we got back home, after a flight that was delayed because the plane flew through a flock of birds on it's way into the landing (really), we definitely felt closer. Even though we made a point of not discussing/debating the responses we gave, I can tell that my wife read them and took them to heart, because I can see some change and effort on her part already, and I hope she sees that in me. Best of all, by writing everything down, we still have the journals to look at periodically and think about, and since there are a whole lot of pages left in them, we can take the same ones on the next trip and add to them as we go. Maybe it will take us another ten years to fill those composition books up with our thoughts and feelings, and that's just fine with me.