Dad by Disney

RDG Stout

They say that you get three turns of the wheel: your childhood, your kids’ childhood, and your grandkids’ childhood. On my first spin I fell into Generation X.2, which put me right in the sweet spot for both the silver screen’s Disney Renaissance and the small screen’s Disney Afternoon. Kids my age knew the theme songs for Gummi Bears, Rescue Rangers, and Talespin. By sixth grade we were all certain that Ariel was the greatest possible tribute to Alyssa Milano, right up until Guardians of the Galaxy.

But the Disney of the 1990s wasn’t all Aladdin and Beauty and the Beast. Soon came Hercules. And Atlantis. And (shudder) Home on the Range. Yeah, that happened; someone at Disney thought it would be a great idea to have a slapstick Wild West cartoon starring Roseanne Barr, Dame Judy Dench, and the Bride of Chucky as musical cows. There were some smallish diamonds in the rough, however. Lilo and Stitch touched on powerful family issues, and my college roommate and I could recite the entirety of The Emperor’s New Groove by heart. Maybe we still can. But Meet the Robinsons? Chicken Little? Man, the Disney Renaissance of my childhood was well and truly dead.

Then I had kids. And Disney met Pixar.

Peculiarly, the collaboration of these two studios seemed to keep coinciding with major events in my life. When our son was little, he loved cars and trains and tractors, and so the movie Cars, with all its overabundant merchandising, was like toddler crack to him. This was also back when he was an only child, so we had little compunction about showering him with toy vehicles. I found myself developing an oddly emotional connection with the Cars film, however, and when I stopped to examine why, I could only come up with two reasons: (1) My son adored it, and I was seeing it through his eyes; and (2) Cars is the story about a cocky, self-centered city guy who unexpectedly finds love, peace, and meaning out in the country. At first he views this transition as an agonizing exile, but soon comes to realize just how empty his old life was.

Did I mention that we were watching this shortly after I fell in love with a Minnesota girl and moved from the urban East Coast to the rural Midwest? Go figure.

Like most little boys, our son soon transitioned from machines to animals. He especially loved whales, sharks, and sea creatures in general. Well, there’s a kids’ movie for that too: Finding Nemo. It was love at first sight for him. Before long everything was Nemo this and Nemo that. Again I found myself oddly invested in my son’s favorite movie, and for similar reasons. I loved it because he loved it, and with a degree in biology this was an interest we easily shared. But Finding Nemo is also the story of a dad with a vulnerable child, who is forced to confront his own terror of losing the son he so deeply loves.

Did I mention that our son was born with a rare heart defect that required $300,000 of open heart surgery, and that it was two weeks before we could even hold him? Yeah. I still have trouble visiting the NICU. And this is why I found myself tearing up every time we watched that bloody movie together. Every dang time, right when the seagull tells the story that makes Nemo proud of his dad. Gah.

Meanwhile, the quality of non-Pixar Disney films demonstrated some improvement. Bolt wasn’t terrible. The Princess and the Frog was really pretty decent. (I automatically give any story set in New Orleans an extra star.) But Tangled was something special.

We became parents again with a pair of daughters, nearly Irish twins. And while our girls do enjoy werewolves and broadswords and crossbows, they also love their princesses and frilly dresses. Tangled was their gateway drug. The middle child especially has since branched out into the classics—Cinderella, Snow White, Sleeping Beauty—but Rapunzel was our household’s first Disney princess. And if the girls like it, Daddy likes it. (This was followed by Wreck-It Ralph, a love letter to every child of the 80s, which culminates in the line, “If that little kid likes me, how bad can I be?” Should you happen to be a father of little girls, that sucker will get you right in the feels.)

Then came The Big One. Of course, we didn’t know that at the time. Brave had come out a few years after Tangled, and though it definitely improved upon later repeat viewing, I hadn’t been impressed in the theater. So when we heard about Disney’s latest, something called Frozen, I thought the best it had going for it was that it looked an awful lot like Tangled. On Thanksgiving I took my son and two nieces to the cinema to see Frozen, and as it happened we had to make a potty break right at the film’s showpiece song. Yes, we missed “Let It Go.” My initial judgment was that it was a good movie, and obviously destined for Broadway, but I still preferred Rapunzel.

The thing about Disney films, though, is that the good ones really do grow on you. We took the kids to see Frozen again about a month later, with a negative 47 degree wind chill. Weather be damned, that theater was packed. Minnesotans took an immediate shine to the story. Stave churches, rosemaling, ice, snow, Minnesota accents, friendly wild creatures, whispers of trolls, Lutheran bishops, saunas, Hans Christian Andersen references—good heavens, Disney had made a movie about us! And don’t even get me started on the religious imagery. I’ve taught classes on the spiritual symbolism hidden away in Frozen. The kids started listening to the soundtrack in the car.

That February my wife and I had planned a belated honeymoon trip to Egypt with Zahi Hawass. It was a once-in-a-lifetime sort of deal. But then Egypt came down with a bad case of civil war, and that was the end of that, deposit and all. My wife, however, was bound and determined for us to take some time off together, and so she signed us up for something we’d never done before: a short Caribbean cruise. A Disney Caribbean Cruise. I wasn’t particularly enthused about the idea—the Caribbean over Egypt?—but hot snot, once we were there, it was like paradise on earth. I can’t even describe. We spent four days, together, without kids, for the first time in seven years. It was glorious. Ends up we’re still quite fond of each other. Who knew?

In addition to live theater every night, the ship had this crazy 3-D surround-sound cinema which outdid pretty much every other 3-D surround-sound cinema I’ve ever seen outside of Captain EO. (Yes, I’m old enough to remember Captain EO.) And what were they showing? Why, Frozen, of course: the story of a beautiful Norwegian girl who introduces viewers to a magical world of ice. Rather like my wife. And that’s what did it—that was the tipping point. We now began to understand those friends and family who were obsessed with Disney not just as an entertainment provider but almost as a worldview.

So today I don’t mind that Disney has metastasized all over our home. I don’t mind that our daughters want to wear their Elsa dresses and play with their Elsa dolls and read the latest Elsa books while sitting on their Elsa bedspreads. We pretty much drank the Kool-Aid. And as it so happens, we did end up finding an appropriate replacement for that Egyptian honeymoon. When Disney announced new cruises inspired by Frozen, spanning Denmark, Norway, Iceland, and Scotland, I sold my grand prize Harley Davidson (won in an undertaker’s raffle two years earlier), giving one third of the value to charity and putting two thirds towards a Viking-themed Disney Cruise with my Viking-themed wife. I wouldn’t recommend waiting a year and a half between vacations, but this summer it’s going to be just me, her, and the lands of the Prose Edda. And I have the Queen of Arendelle to thank for that.

Well, her and a certain Mouse.

RDG Stout was born and raised amongst the Pennsylvania Deutsch but has spent the last decade as a country preacher in the windswept wilds of Niflheim, a.k.a. rural Minnesota. He lives in a mead hall with his Viking wife, three kids, and a bizarre assortment of stories. His musings may be found here and at Grimly Optimistic.

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Fridays with Francis: February 13, 2015: Beautiful Romance and Broken Ego

Melissa Maleski

A beautiful romance begins with a broken ego. That is the only way I can think to summarize Pope Francis’ message leading up to Valentine’s Day.

There was some fairly hard language to come from the Chair of Peter this week. Technically it began at the end of last week when Pope Francis called the abuse-of-minors scandal a scourge, but he kept the ball rolling this week. He called on world governments to stop ignoring the  shameful wound of human trafficking, which boasts a consistent tally of victims in the neighborhood of 2.5 million. In some parts of the world the word shame carries some weight, but us Westerners have some well-padded egos. If Pope Francis wants Western governments to listen when he speaks, I’m afraid he’ll need to use much stronger language. But let me come back to this in a minute.

The Holy Father saved his strongest statement for couples who choose not to have children. Not bothering to mince words, he called this choice selfishA society with a greedy generation, that doesn’t want to surround itself with children, that considers them above all worrisome, a weight, a risk, is a depressed society,” the pope said. “The choice to not have children is selfish. Life rejuvenates and acquires energy when it multiplies: It is enriched, not impoverished. I’m assuming that the lack of reaction in the mass media to this statement is due to Dropped-Jaw Syndrome.

There is a rapidly-growing debate around the inter-web about who is more selfish: parents or childless-by-choice couples. For your edification check out this editorial in Time.  Or this passionate opinion. Or this actual side-by-side debate. Each position defends their claim primarily on the grounds of economics and psychology. The Catholic position, which Pope Francis succinctly stated, rests primarily on moral principles. Economics and psychology are incorporated to support the moral principles, but are not supposed to precede moral considerations.

I don’t want to make this a windy apologetics piece, so I will try to explain briefly why childless-by-choice is selfish by Catholic standards. Male and Female were created as a gift, one to the other. When one male and one female come together, they are supposed to give all of themselves to the other. This is called the total gift of self. It’s a process that is similar to how stars are born. Clouds of gas and dust (the individual persons) begin to collapse and die. As the parts collapse, the center of the clouds get hotter and more solid (Sacrament of Marriage). When the center reaches peak heat and density, a star is born. It starts to grow, and eventually it’s light bursts forth for universes to see. This last part correlates, in people terms, to two things. One, biological conception and birth of children. Two, charitable contributions to society through volunteering, donations, and being generally happy and well-adjusted people. Both components are necessary aspects of man’s existential reality. Holding back, or not totally giving one’s self to another, blunts the humbling impressiveness of this gift. Feel free to argue the logic of it in the comments, but this is Theology of the Body in a mustard seed.

Let me turn back to Pope Francis and Western governments. His statement to Western leaders is not as forceful as the one aimed at childless-by-choice couples, and that intrigues me. Maybe it’s just that the latest consistory of cardinals began this week, but I get the feeling that Pope Francis has a different approach in mind for dealing with those who are on the top of the food chain of power and influence. Rather than engage in compelling dialogue (as, say, Jesus did with the Pharisees and regular folk), I think we may see the Holy Father increasingly limit the attention he gives anyone attached to established power. Like the Sadducees in the New Testament, those who have gotten comfortable being in charge will be nudged to the margins of relevance. What better way to break an over-inflated ego than to deny it room to breath?

Notes from Niflheim: Country Moon

One’s definition of “rural” is completely relative. After spending years living out of efficiencies in Philadelphia and Boston, moving to Fargo deeply jarred me. Everything seemed so small, what with buildings rarely rising above two stories in height. I laughed the first time that one of my new coworkers referred to Fargo-Moorhead as “the metropolitan area” for “urban ministry.”

“Urban!” I replied. “Man, this is rural.”

“Then what do you call what we call rural?” he asked, sipping his coffee.

Frontier.” For heaven’s sake, the town is named for Wells Fargo.

That was a long time ago. Having spent almost seven years in a town of 1200 souls, Fargo-Moorhead’s 140,000 indeed seems like the Big City now. All those lights, all that traffic, all the pavement—after living on 5.2 acres of forest and field, the whole thing feels like a wasp nest. Country life has ruined me for being urban, or even suburban, ever again. There’s just something about the space, the people, the wildness that liberates one’s soul. Plus it forces you to learn a whole host of basic survival skills that one never develops living in crowded neighborhoods.

One transitional memory that really sticks with me even today is how we had to adjust to the darkness. Growing up I never much noticed the full moon, save for my time working in the trauma bay. (Weird stuff happens when the moon is full, believe you me.) But this knowledge became less theoretical and more practical when we left behind the highways, the street lights, the passing cars. On a moonless night, there’s nothing, no light at all, a darkness like the plagues of Egypt. You literally can’t see your hand in front of your face. And on a full moon, holy cow. It’s like a spotlight in the sky, a second silver sun. You can see everything.

It also drives kids and dogs wild, and our household possesses both in abundance. Take, for example, last night. We had the Super Bowl on as we chased small children about, but my wife and the kids passed out before halftime, so I switched to something I can only enjoy when I’m the solitary viewer: PBS’s delightful second season of Shakespeare Uncovered. (That’s how I roll, son. Bard4Life.) After A Midsummer-Night’s Dream, I should by all rights have gone to bed, but the moon was just so bright, streaming in the windows … I decided instead to read a bit of The Book of Conquests, which has proven highly addictive. Celtic mythology is metal as fudge.

By the time I finally hit the hay, our night unfolded like so:

10:45 p.m.—Go to bed.

12:00 a.m.—Youngest child cries because moonlight is shining directly on her face. (Middle child long ago tore down the venetian blinds.) Youngest is only consoled with a bottle and being brought to your bed.

1:00 a.m.—Dogs insistently bark at a forest monster that’s, like, right behind you, seriously. You can see them clearly in the moonlight wagging their tails and staring in the windows at you, happy to have saved the entire family from a gruesome demise.

2:00 a.m.—Eldest child awakes and comes in to check on you, because he dreamt that you grew a beard. You remind him that you’ve always had a beard, and get up to tuck him back into bed.

3:00 a.m.—Middle child cries because the moonlight is now shining directly on her face. This is the child we’ve caught howling at said moon. She demands to sleep with a parent.

5:00 a.m.—Eldest child turns on the lights and walks on top of your feet to wake you up because he’s seen an alien. Alas, it seems not to have abducted him.

6:00 a.m.—Alarm goes off because it’s Monday, sucker.

Just another full moon in the country.

 

 

RDG Stout was born and raised amongst the Pennsylvania Deutsch but has spent the last decade as a country preacher in the windswept wilds of Niflheim, a.k.a. rural Minnesota. He lives in a mead hall with his Viking wife, three kids, and a bizarre assortment of stories.

Generation Jr.

I thought of a new name for the previously suggested generational nomenclature of Generation X’s children.  Gener-aiden X.  Just kidding.  I was thinking “Jr. X.”…like Gen X, but Junior X.  Or X, Jr. X2?  The more I weigh the options, the more I really do like Generation More Awesome than Superman, Spider-man, Batman, and the Hulk Combined.  Seems appropriate on quite a few levels, most notably the 5-fold pop-cultural reference and the unashamed, unironic suggestion that our kids actually are the best ever.  Almost every parent thinks their kids are the best, but I think Gen X parents, especially younger ones, approach parenting in some fundamentally different ways than Boomer parents did.  I’m not making a value judgement (yet.  Give it 15 years).