The Disney Experience



My husband, daughter, and I just returned from a weekend soccer event at Disney World’s Wide World of Sports in Orlando, Florida. It was a warm, sunny weekend, our daughter’s team played well, and a good time was had by all. My only regret was not having time to visit one of the many theme parks that make up the World according to Disney.

Being close to the “happiest place on Earth,” however, reminded me of the many times we have taken our children to visit Disneyland and Disney World over the years. While I am an unabashed fan of all things Disney, my husband has always been a grudging participant in our visits.

On one of our first trips to Disneyland in California, we were in line waiting for a ride when we overheard a child in full meltdown, red-faced and wailing. My husband turned to me and drily quipped, “That’s the Disney experience.” From that time on, we referred to the many tantrums and outbursts that are an inevitable part of dragging young children around a theme park in the sun as “the Disney experience.”

The world created by Walt Disney and his successors is a strange one indeed. There is a certain Stepford Wives quality to the perfection of an imaginary Main Street and the many other fantastical settings created within the parks. Everyone acts as if it’s normal to line up behind a figure in a giant costume and wait to get Mickey Mouse’s autograph. Mind you, these are not just children jostling to get close to the world’s most famous rodent.

Within the world of Disney, unseen voices sweetly, if a bit eerily, encourage guests to “please move to the center of the row” in a given attraction over and over again – to the unthinking and perfect compliance of the guests. And inside these dimly lit fantasy worlds, animatronic figures go about their business in a not-quite-lifelike manner.

There is an entire unseen, underground apparatus that runs the Disney theme parks. When I learned this, I imagined cartoonish jail cells where unruly guests might be confined for, say, throwing their jumbo drink cup on the ground or taking cuts in line. One gets the sense while at Disney that there is no possibility of allowing misbehavior to go unchecked.

In fact, that’s one of the things I love about the Disney experience. It’s unreal, true. But we all get enough reality in our day to day lives. It’s nice to go somewhere where everything is shiny and perfect and have some good old fashioned fun. The jokes are corny and the songs sometimes a bit saccharine. But there’s no denying the sense of magic in the Magic Kingdom.

And notwithstanding the toddler meltdowns that are part of “the Disney experience,” it may just be the happiest place on Earth.



The Aloha Spirit


IMG_2959For my upcoming 60th birthday, I wanted above all else to go on a vacation with my family. As the kids have grown, it has become increasingly difficult to have them all in one place. So a logical time to gather my crew was over the Christmas holidays. The logical place? Paradise, a.k.a. the Hawaiian island of Kauai.

Kauai and my hometown of Chicago could not be more different. The most obvious difference, especially at this time of year, is the climate. When we landed at Lihue Airport, it was a balmy 70 degrees, as opposed to the single digit temperatures that had descended on Chicago and, indeed, much of the mainland. Winter in Chicago is cold and bleak whereas the seasons on Kauai are virtually indistinguishable from each other. Everywhere we looked was a profusion of color: velvety green mountains, bright green shrubs and trees, pink and red and orange and yellow flowers. Our hotel even hosted a couple of friendly parrots and a host of noisy chickens that wandered the grounds.


But the differences don’t stop there. Chicago is a big and somewhat impersonal city. People are in a hurry, perpetually hurtling from one activity to another. In Kauai – and all of Hawaii, really – there is a relaxed and unhurried vibe. Not for nothing are Hawaiians known for the “hang loose” gesture that implies there’s plenty of time, no need to rush. Whether driving around the island in bumper to bumper traffic, being waited on at a restaurant, or interacting with salespeople at shops, tourists need to cultivate a more easygoing temperament to match the Hawaiian way.

The Hawaiian word aloha represents the spirit of the islands. Aloha means both “hello” and “goodbye,” but most importantly, it means “love.” From the moment we landed on Hawaiian soil, we were greeted with this aloha spirit. Hotel staff greeted us by placing leis around our necks. “Aloha” constantly came out of people’s lips as they would pass us by. Smiles and friendliness were the norm and not the exception.

Another word that is important to Hawaiian culture is ohana, which means “family.” My favorite part of our Hawaiian vacation was not the fresh fish, the mai tais, or the spectacular views. It was the feeling of being surrounded by my family. We had adventures together hiking, rafting along the exotic Na Pali coast, and snorkeling in the pristine blue waters. But my favorite times were those spent together, on beach chairs just lying companionably next to each other and comparing notes about the books we were reading or the music on our iPhones. Or the relaxed dinners where we reminisced about vacations past and shared our “bests” and “worsts” of the present one.

Too soon it was time to part ways and go back to work and school in various parts of the country and the world. But my memories of this milestone birthday will always be ones filled with aloha for my ohana – and for the Hawaiian spirit that I hope will linger into a New Year in a less heavenly clime.

No Place Like Home


IMG_1235There were numerous times on my almost-three-week sojourn in Europe with my daughter and her club soccer team that I wished I could click my heels Dorothy-style, whisper, “There’s no place like home,” and find myself in the comfort and familiarity of my home town.

Don’t get me wrong. It’s a rare privilege to travel to Europe, whatever the reason. I got to visit places I had never been, such as Gothenburg, Sweden, a beautiful and orderly city that each summer hosts the Gothia Cup, a huge international youth soccer tournament. I was able to dip my toes in the Adriatic Sea and enjoy an Aperol spritz on the beach in Riccione, Italy. I enjoyed fish and chips and scones in England. And in all of these places, I was able to see my daughter’s team go up against teams from Italy, Sweden, Germany, and Manchester, England.

Yet traveling to a foreign country can be stressful. First of all, there’s the language barrier. In Rome and Sweden, most people spoke English. Many restaurants even print menus in English. But there were times when our inability to understand each other caused problems. For example, the personnel at one hotel in Italy spoke very little English, and they weren’t particularly helpful in addressing such issues as finding transportation or dealing with an invasion of ants in one of the guest rooms. On the other hand, we met a pair of lovely older Italian women running a little fast food stand on the beach who smilingly helped us with our flailing attempts to order the local specialty, piadene, a sort of Italian quesadilla.

Even in English-speaking countries, cultural differences can make travel less of a breeze. For instance, it’s hard to adjust to the currency in another country. The euro is pretty easy to manage because one euro is fairly close to a dollar. Likewise with the British pound, although at 1.3 dollars to a pound, things in England were a little pricier than they appeared. But in Sweden, the krona is .12 to a dollar, so prices would be in the hundreds of krona for a 10-20 dollar item. Managing all the various coins at point of purchase also made me feel like something of a clueless rube.

Food is also an adjustment in a foreign country. You’ll find that even simple dishes such as eggs or pasta are prepared in ways that are different from typical American fare. It was fun trying some traditional specialties in the countries we visited, such as the aforementioned piadene in Italy and real Swedish meatballs in Gothenburg at a charming out-of-the-way place called The Pig and the Whistle. But at times some of us craved good old American food, such as a cheeseburger or American-style cobb salad.

It’s good to visit other countries and learn about their customs and lifestyles. Italians, for example, never seem to be in a hurry. Our restaurant lunches and dinners would go on and on, and we practically had to beg for the bill so that we could move on. I think Americans could learn from this more unhurried approach to life, especially when it comes to enjoying the good things. In Sweden, I noticed scores of young men by themselves tending to babies and toddlers. Someone told me that this is due to the generous family leave policies in Sweden as well as the more equitable division of labor in Swedish marriages.

It’s even good to feel uncomfortable in a place that is not your home. Years ago, when my husband and I were in China to adopt our youngest child, we experienced what it was like to be in a minority. There were few Western faces anywhere we traveled. Once the babies were with us, complete strangers – usually older women – would come up to us and scold us in Chinese about how we were handling our new charges. The babies were too overdressed for the weather, for instance, according to our English-speaking guide. That experience was invaluable to us as we prepared to bring our Chinese daughter home to a land where she would be in the minority.

Travel broadens our horizons, takes us out of our complacency, and ultimately makes us appreciate our lives in our own homes. As our plane touched down at O’Hare International Airport, I reveled in the knowledge that I was home at last. There really is no place like home.


Ike Is a Highway


obama+i55The news that the State of Illinois just designated a stretch of Interstate 55 the Barack Obama Presidential Expressway could not be more timely. Having returned from a recent trip to the Minneapolis/St. Paul area, I was musing on the ways in which residents of different cities refer to their expressways.

Twin Cities denizens are logical and matter of fact. They refer to their highways by number: 94, 394, 494, 694 etc. Outside of Highway 35, which is a north/south route that branches off into an East side road and a West side road, such references make it easy for the out-of-towner to get around without confusion.

Out in Los Angeles, where I lived for a number of years, residents also use numbers to refer to their expressways, even though many of the highways have names, such as the Santa Monica Freeway and the San Diego Freeway. The twist is that for some reason, Angelenos like to put a “the” in front of the highway number. So it’s the 10, the 405, the 5, and so on. The only major road known by its name more than its number is Route 1, the Pacific Coast Highway, known to locals as the PCH.

Here in the Chicago area, we like to call our expressways by name. I-290 is the Eisenhower, I-55 the Stevenson, I-294 the Tri-State. I-94 is variously called the Dan Ryan or the Edens, depending upon what part of the city it is headed toward.  I-90 changes its name from the Kennedy Expressway to the Rockford (or Jane Addams, if you prefer) Tollway as it heads northwest away from the airport. As you might imagine, this can make things a bit confusing for people from out of town. To make matters worse, we’ve nicknamed the Eisenhower Expressway “the Ike,” so a newcomer listening to a traffic report of congestion on the Ike might have no idea what road is being referenced.

The only interstate that is consistently referred to by number and not name is 88, the Reagan Memorial Tollway. (I have my theories as to why that might be.)

I like to think it’s our friendly folksiness that makes Chicagoans so chummy with our roadways that we like to call them by name. On the downside, the gridlock faced by commuters on most of these roadways can give the historical figures for which they are named a bad rap. Let’s just say that in Chicago, I don’t like Ike.

It might not be fun driving in heavy traffic down the newly named Barack Obama Presidential Expressway through Springfield. But it will be entertaining to start hearing the radio news choppers reporting, “Traffic is heavy on the outbound Obama” or “A crash has shut down two lanes of the Obama.” Who knows? Maybe before too long we’ll be calling it “the Barry.”

Mass Appeal



If a church is God’s house, a cathedral is His mansion. Yesterday I attended Sunday Mass at the Cathedral of St. Paul, a magnificent edifice in the city of the same name. The church is a massive stone structure with a dome that dominates the skyline of St. Paul, the Twin City on the Mississippi River regarded as the little brother of Minneapolis.

There was quite a crowd assembled for 10 am Mass. I found a seat and gaped at the ornate marble altar, the stained glass windows, and the ceiling of the dome, adorned with gold-leafed paintings of the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove along with its seven Heavenly gifts.


What moved me the most, though, was when the Mass began and the sound of organ music and song soared up through the expanse of the cathedral. I experienced the otherworldly nature of a communion with God. As I joined the congregation in prayer and singing, I felt a sense of true and profound worship in this magnificent place  dedicated to glorifying the Creator.

The building of cathedrals in medieval times was truly a labor of love and devotion. With  virtually no machinery, thousands of men toiled to build these imposing stone structures. Thousands of artisans fashioned altars and shrines, frescoes and statues. While the Cathedral of St. Paul was built much later, in the early 1900s, the intentions were the same: to create a sanctuary worthy of the Lord and a place for believers to gather and worship.

As the Mass ended, I found myself wishing I could spend every Sunday morning at such a beautiful and spiritual house of God. But knowing that “wherever two or more of you gather in my name, there I am in the midst of you,” I will be content to give praise in my own humble home parish.


Best Laid Plans



For the past nine days, I have had the privilege and the pleasure to accompany my son and his college football team on a tour of Ireland and Scotland, complete with a visit to the iconic Guinness Storehouse and a friendly game of American football against the Scottish East Kilbride Pirates.

I have nothing but admiration for the logistical and sheep-herding talents of our tour guide, who has been responsible for getting 50 people on and off our motor coach for visits to five different cities on two different islands. We have seen everything from the breathtaking Cliffs of Moher on the southwest coast of Ireland to the awe-inspiring Croke Park, one of the biggest sports arenas in the world, to the charming and ancient city of Edinburgh, Scotland, a city with its very own medieval castle. We have been fed, housed, and otherwise looked after with consummate professionalism and unfailing friendliness.

The ancient lands from which my ancestors descended are some of the loveliest places I have ever seen. The verdant fields dotted with peacefully grazing sheep. The mysterious islands shrouded in fog. The mountains and rocky coastlines. The charming little rural cottages and the Georgian row houses in the big cities. The rivers winding through these tiny countries that formed the lifeblood of commerce and sustenance for the people, as well as made them bombing targets during the World Wars.

We have had the good fortune to learn from our history buff of a tour director so much about the past that has formed the British Isles into what they are today. It was one thing to be somewhat aware of the sectarian violence that has marked many periods in Irish and Scottish history. But it was quite another to see in person the partitions that still separate Catholics from Protestants in Belfast, Northern Ireland – or to witness the Orange marches asserting Protestant dominance in Glasgow, Scotland. Such estrangement reminded me of the political divisiveness in the United States these days and makes me realize that all countries have conflict and strife of one kind or another.

Yet this trip has been a unifying and bonding experience for us. My husband and I have met and gotten to know so many of my son’s teammates and their parents. We have had great fun with their coaches and joined in on their good-natured teasing of each other. Was some of this camaraderie fueled by pints of Guinness? Maybe. But I have been so gratified to know that my son is living and working among good young men with good people as their role models.

The great Scottish poet Robert Burns once famously wrote, “The best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men / Gang aft a-gley.” But in the case of this wonderful tour, those plans have been executed flawlessly to create an experience that will give us memories to last a lifetime.