Monday, November 3, 2008

The Magic Kingdom

When I was a lad, I used to be quite taken with the idea that I’d been born at 7:25 p.m. on a Sunday (yes, folks, prime-time meant something different back in the 50s) so I'd be around for that evening’s broadcast of The Wonderful World of Disney. Needless to say, I don’t see such a cosmic plan in the timing anymore, but there’s no question that Uncle Walt played a huge role in forming my imagination, along with the imagination of umpteen other kids from the same epoch.

So it’s no big surprise that when I was a youngster, my fondest hope was to set foot on the hallowed ground of Anaheim, CA—the magic castle, & Storyland, & the pirate ship, & Frontier Town—I was a bit too young for the first run of the Davy Crockett shows, but I did see the reruns & sported a coonskin cap. But we were a working class family, & Westminster, VT is a looong ways from Anaheim, CA in every sense of the word looong; & there’s little question that my little seething mass of forming brain was well-served by the trips my kindly folks took me on to see various historical sites in the New England area—but we never did make it to the Far West.

But let’s face it—a bit of kid still exists in all of us, even us AARP poets; so when Eberle & I got an invite back in ’05 to perform our score for Shipman’s Back to God’s Country with a screening of the film at Claremont-McKenna College (thanks Jim Morrison & good pal Audrey Bilger!), I was delighted to learn that Audrey & her partner Cheryl would be delighted to show us around the Happiest Place on Earth.
Now, let’s get two things straight at this juncture: 1. the Happiest Place on earth is a blast, & some of the smartest people I know on earth enjoy it—Audrey, Cheryl, Eberle, our Riverside friend Sally Ness, & Eberle’s old McCall chum Kerrin McMahan—& for what it’s worth, I get a huge kick out of it, too. 2. The Happiest Place on Earth is also among the weirdest places on earth. It’s the land of eternal childhood, but in a very U.S. & WASPish incarnation. It is a small world, after all, which makes it that much easier to conquer, & that much easier to appropriate legends from all manner of cultures & Disnify them for consumption by the U.S. market. Still, even knowing this, is it possible to resist the Tiki Room or the tiny scale model taken from Aladdin on the banks of the Storyland “river”? I recall a good pal of mine from Bay Area days who one day around the office saw a saying taped on a door—the saying had something to do with diversity, & he was quite taken by it. Later, he was horrified to learn that the saying came from Disney’s Pocahontas—& this gentleman is definitely not anglo or even from the U.S. per se (he’s from the U.S. Virgin Islands), so the tentacles are long & tenacious.
& of course, obligatory happiness can be a heavy burden to bear; while my companions & I have, I believe, had great times on our trips in 05 & again earlier this year, you see a lot of frazzled folks in amongst the whirling teacups & flying elephants. One could go a ways out on a limb & claim that this is emblematic of a certain cultural ennui; after all, as citizens of the Happiest Country—or is that, most power-wielding, resource-using—country on earth, aren’t we entitled to happiness? Doesn’t it say something about that in the Constitution? Happiness: a right, an entitlement…. it’s true that “pursuit of happiness” means something quite different than “continuous attainment of happiness”; & I know I’m far from the first to point this out. But isn’t our disappointment that our entitled happiness is constantly thwarted a rather powerful tool for the powers that be? Isn’t it a convenient mechanism for dividing us into groups that are by definition at odds, & thus incapable of unifying toward a common good (e.g., “red states & blues states”)? It also helps lots of corporations sell the things that, we devoutly believe, will finally bring us this happiness—whether it’s a household cleaner or a luxury car or a pair of designer jeans.
Disney is also pretty adept at perpetuating stereotypes, whether in terms of gender (ever notice how many princess outfits young girls are wearing at Disneyland?) or ethnicity (tho more subtly in this post Song of the South world). Of course we learned last spring (assuming we didn’t know it already) that Disney isn’t a great employee, when the various Goofys & Peter Pans & Sleeping Beauties & Jiminy Crickets went out on strike over wages & working conditions—I’m sure that was a surreal sight.
So what do we do with this sort of information & with all these considerations? Because as true as all these considerations seem to be, it’s also true that if you can capitulate to the experience, the Happiest Place on Earth can be pretty happy, if not superlatively so. I believe I’ll always remember the glee on Eberle’s face when we rode the teacups, & I was in complete bliss when we were on the Neverland ride (among others). Folks whose smarts & ethics I respect visit & enjoy Disneyland. Is it enough to view the attraction with a critical mind when you’re not there, & to give oneself over to the experience when you are? Although I respect Pete Seeger, I’ve never been a big fan of the sort of puritanical streak that runs thru his worldview, & the worldview of some other counter-culture types (nor for that matter the puritanical conservatives either); at heart I’m more of an epicurean. I do believe we have one go-round to experience & enjoy, & that we should do so, as long as we respect the rights of others to do the same.

& perhaps that makes me the worst sort of collaborator with the machine, because I do know, & to some extent still participate. But next time I’m in SoCal, even knowing & believing what I do, there’s a good chance I’ll return to the Magic Kingdom.

Top pic of Eberle & yours truly at the Magic Kingdom is by Cheryl Pawelski
Second pic: Storyland’s Pinocchio’s village w/mouse ears
Third pic: Space Rocket
Fourth pic: Outside the Tiki Room
Fifth pic: Snow White & the Seven Dwarves
Bottom pic: Audrey, Eberle & Friends outside Storyland

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