If you pause, breathe deeply and drop everything that weighs you down, it's easy to be swept away in the spirit of the Florida Keys. The scenery is heavenly, medicinal really. Time no longer ticks and tocks, it oozes. The morning starts still and eerily quiet, then a wind picks up and you notice a faint hum of tires on the Overseas Highway. The day takes gentle shape and the moments evaporate into memory. The night gets so pitch black the sky crowds with stars you never knew existed, big, bold spotlights elbowing each other for position. A nice spring break getaway, and a whole lot more.
So many wonderful things happened in 2016. And so much crappy stuff, too.
"You just gotta roll with the punches," my wise mom instructs me routinely, and she's right.
I've never been much good at rolling with it but I try. I really do. If you ask my wife, she'll tell you I suck at it. She's right. The women in my life are always right.
All of this is just to say ... let's keep our chins up in 2017. I feel pretty sure all won't be flawless in the new year, but there's usually more than enough of the miraculous to balance everything out. Make the most of each day we're given, because each one is indeed a gift.
“What day is it?" asked Winnie the Pooh.
"It's today," squeaked Piglet.
"My favorite day," said Pooh.
The past several months have been a blur ... really.
It was February when I first went to the ophthalmologist complaining of hazy vision in my right eye. He diagnosed inflammation inside the eye and a small area of scar tissue on the retina. Using steroid drops made it better for a few weeks but it slowly deteriorated and by mid-summer, I was back at his office, frustrated and a little alarmed.
We did additional treatment and then, in a troublesome twist of fate, I suffered a detached retina in late August and underwent emergency surgery to repair it. By October the retina had stabilized but the scar tissue was creating significant distortion in my vision and becoming more and more difficult to bear.
On Election Day, as everyone else set their sights on the contentious presidential race, I crossed my fingers and went in for another surgery, this time to remove the scar tissue. So far, recovery is going well. Today, less than two weeks after that procedure, the vision in my right eye is improving little by little.
This is obviously not the kind of thing I'd want to manage alone. And thankfully I haven't had to. My employer and co-workers have been super supportive and I can't thank them enough. The Disney company is every bit as magical as our fans say we are (and then some). Of course, my wife Kjerstin is the star of this story. I knew I lucked out when I married her, and seeing her jump into action to take care of me just confirmed my belief that I have the most wonderful spouse on the planet. I'm very blessed.
We all hit rough patches. They come in many different varieties and severities. And sometimes they really throw us off the rails. But if we pay close enough attention, maybe we can realize that even these unexpected tests of personal fortitude bring some new level of understanding, resilience and hopefulness.
My vision isn't exactly crystal clear but what I see has never looked so amazing.
Apparently some player on the Miami Dolphins just did something terribly wrong. "You suck, Jordan," barked the peeved dude right behind me.
The game was off to a dawdling start. Plenty of running and helmet crashing, but few completions and a fair amount of generalized blundering. The first quarter was over without any points on the board.
Enter the Miami Dolphins cheerleaders. "Mom, dad is looking at the cheerleaders," my daughter finds it important to divulge. But aren't we all? Come on!
Meanwhile, in the time it took me to drain a single $8 can of Bud Light, the two super fans in front of me, in well-worn Dolphins jerseys and caps, had worked their way through at least four Heinekens apiece. One of them kept turning around to high-five me. That's cool. The best part was when he and his buddy held up their beers for a selfie. Not a selfie of themselves with their beers. A selfie of their beers. Just their beers.
"Next time put some freakin' arc on the ball," pipes up the guy behind me when a pass doesn't measure up to his standards.
I must say this game, a pre-season Dolphins vs. Falcons matchup at the Citrus Bowl, was big fun and certainly a unique opportunity for my family, given that NFL action is rare in Orlando. Everyone was in the sporting mood until ... just seconds into the third quarter ... wait for it ... "I want to go home," my little girl pleads softly, leaning her head against my shoulder. "I'm tired, and I'm tired of all this."
Some of you may have gathered that my son, Jackson, 13, has a thing for basketball. He's not bad at it, either. He also loves making videos. Pretty good at that, too. In this clip, shot on his iPhone, he combines his two passions to arrive at a very cool result. "This video is wonderful," I told him. "I guess," he said. "I guess it's all right."
All day long the sun burns and the heat builds until it becomes almost unbearable to even walk outside. The AC pumps and pumps but can no longer beat back the big bully pushing against our walls. The grass, dried-up and defeated, cries for somebody to do something, please.
Then this ...
Clouds gather and darken and lose their temper. Utter stillness gives way to sudden gusts thrashing through the trees. There are flashes and booms. Drops drip and then splatter and then finally ... finally ... the whole scorched mess is drenched.
People like me, the gawkers, are strolling quietly and scanning the makeshift memorials, solemn and stunned. Then I hear something. Sobbing. Not loud but heart-wrenching. A middle-aged man in tan shirt and jeans is leaning over one of 49 white wooden crosses, squeezing it as he cries.
Each cross bears the name, age and photo of one of the souls lost in this unspeakable tragedy. Several more crosses down the line, my eyes catch three simple words scrawled in cursive above the photo of another smiling young face: "Daddy loves you."
I know my city ... our city ... our nation ... will get through this by supporting each other and doing the right things. But at this moment, in the town I love so much, the pain is too real. Incomprehensible, really.
May kindness, respect and unity lift us out of this nightmare.
6:20 a.m, Orlando International Airport. Way too early and my second cup of coffee isn't really cutting it. I bet I forgot to pack something.
11:30 a.m., Denver International Airport. Hungry. Feed me.
3:45 p.m., Vancouver, British Columbia. This town is awesome and beyond beautiful. They say it always rains here but every time I visit I risk getting a sunburn.
2:30 p.m., on deck 10 of the Disney Wonder. Photo shoot with two of our officers and a couple of new friends from the Port of Vancouver.
5:45 p.m., sailing under the city's iconic 78-year-old Lions Gate Bridge toward the Straight of Georgia and ultimately the Inside Passage of Alaska.
10 a.m., inside the ship's ornate Walt Disney Theatre running through content and flow for this week's Crew Assembly. Video and slides loaded, check. Audio and lights adjusted, check. Closing show number rehearsed and ready, check.
4 p.m., navigating southeast Alaska's narrow, misty channels surrounded by greener-than-green islands and icy peaks in the distance. Whales surfacing on the starboard side. I imagine this is what the earth looked like at the dawn of creation.
3:20 p.m., Endicott Arm, Alaska, and a close encounter with Dawes Glacier. Un-freakin-believable.
10 a.m., docked in Skagway, Alaska, more than 900 crew members and officers gather in the theater for remarks by shoreside execs including an announcement of cool new elements coming to the ship this fall in dry dock. It's never lost on me how lucky I am to work with such talented people from all over the world.
2:45 p.m., ashore. Two-hour mountain bike rental, $21. Just me and the Last Frontier.
2:25 p.m., Juneau International Airport. Drizzly, downright dreary. Heading home. Looking at a layover in Seattle and a red-eye back to Florida.
5:44 a.m., stepping off Alaska Airlines flight 10 into the painful glare of Orlando International Airport. Spent the last five hours strapped in seat 12F next to a toddler who was remarkably well behaved. The squealing newborn next to him, not so much. Coffee is critical but the line at Starbucks is 17 miles long. Redirect to Duncan Donuts where the only person there is the guy behind the counter. "Large regular coffee, please," and a new day begins.
All told, approximately 8,015 miles.
You see the passion and anguish and frenzy in their faces. But you don't hear them say anything. They're too busy playing basketball.
The parents, on the other hand ...
"Go after the rebound, for crying out loud!"
"Come on, don't let 'em shoot!"
"Grab the ball ... GRAB it!"
"What's wrong with you, use the backboard!"
It was adrenalin overload in the stands today during our son's games (three of them, in fact). Lots of respectable moms and dads sitting calmly, then abruptly standing and yelling, then sitting again, grumbling about the refs or the absurdity of that last play. No sentence is spoken without an exclamation point. Here and there an expletive sneaks out.
At a crucial moment, one of the kids on our team sinks a three pointer.
It's an emotional see-saw ... for the players, yes, but mostly for the feisty older crowd on the bleachers.
"The world's still an amazing place." That's the first thing I'd say. "And I hope you're proud of what we're doing and who we've become."
What else would I tell my grandparents if I could? I'd definitely introduce them to my wife and kids and give them a quick overview of the Internet and Facebook. They'd probably be a little stunned by the frazzled, hyper-connected lives we lead. But maybe their lives were frazzled, too.
I recently came into possession of this photograph from the mid-1920s showing my paternal grandparents, Margaret Smith and Lloyd Dillon, early in their courtship. They look youthful and happy and upstanding.
A lot has happened since then. My grandmother hasn't been with us since 1985, and my grandfather died 23 years before that (I never met him). I often wonder what he was like, how he talked and acted. I can see he was tall and dignified, and I'm told he was quiet and kind. Of course I know she was special. Very loving and generous. A wonderful cook. Sweetest grandma ever.
Mostly, I wonder what kind of people they were back then, in that black-and-white moment, with all the world in front of them. I imagine it was an exciting time, a turning point maybe, the beginning of so, so much to come.
Thirty years ago this month, four starry-eyed rock musicians (me included) unloaded a few cars full of drums, amps and guitars into a small recording studio on the outskirts of Winston-Salem, N.C.
Greeting us in the driveway that overcast morning was studio owner and legendary sound engineer Mitch Easter. Although our band The Vanguard (shown in this awkward and ill-advised promo shot) was more comfortable on a live stage, we were downright ecstatic to commit some of our new tunes to tape with Mitch at the controls. And the result was super cool, at least to our ears.
It's true we didn't end up with a record deal and live happily ever after as rock stars. But I'll always cherish the recordings and memories we made over those heady 24 hours inside Mitch's lair. It was a project we poured every ounce of our energy and creativity into and which stands as a defining moment in our young lives.
Everlasting thanks to Mitch Easter and much love to my extraordinarily gifted bandmates Mike Chamis, Jon Heames and the late, great Clark Huneycutt.
Hear the songs we recorded that day on SoundCloud.
It started out nice and calm in the lobby of Tires Plus this morning. Just a few of us there waiting, mostly staring at iPhones and sipping coffee, and me optimizing the moments by rereading a Hunter Thompson paperback.
Then a young lady flips on the TV. Ugh, a news program. The topic is presidential politics. There he is, Trump, sharing his vision for America.
"He ain't nothing but a coward with a big mouth," blurts a man in a yellow Izod golf shirt. I can't say this guy didn't nail it, but that's not my conversation.
I try hard to focus on my book but can no longer manage. The blaring TV, an increasingly antsy lobby scene, the fact I've been waiting now for an hour and a half for a simple battery replacement. I'm a bundle of nerves. Patience is fraying fast. Let me out!
Then ... the magic words. "Mr. Dillon, your car's all set."
It's dark and quiet. And lonely. Well, not exactly lonely; peaceful is more like it.
It's nighttime but not late. And I'm walking, as I often do, around our suburban neighborhood, stealing a few moments away from the family hubbub.
I'm always surprised by how hushed everything can be out here. There are signs of life inside the houses, the glare of kitchen lights and computer screens. But all I hear along my path are crickets, an occasional barking dog and the faint hum of traffic in the distance.
These outings bring to mind the portentous Ray Bradbury story, "The Pedestrian," in which a man walking the streets of some futuristic metropolis goes for miles and miles every night without seeing a soul. Finally one evening the police stop him, demanding to know what he's doing, why he's not sitting at home like everyone else watching TV. "I'm walking," he explains. The police keep pressing him. "Walking where? For what?" Then he says, to their utter disbelief, "Walking for air, walking to see ... and just to walk."
Tonight, with no one else around, there's so much air, so much to see. The stars are all mine.
There are moments in life, a rare few of them actually, when you're completely caught off guard and everything changes.
Twenty years ago today, the day after Valentine's Day, I crossed paths with a young woman who was smart and funny and beautiful. She had an unusual name, a Swedish name. "The first part sounds like Cher, as in Sonny and Cher. It's 'Cher'-stin," she informed me, her eyes twinkling and drawing me into a place I'd never leave.
We would talk and talk all night long, till the sun came up. We'd discuss music, our families, our dreams, our disappointments. Mostly we talked about the future.
And the future swept us up. We exchanged vows and, holy matrimony, here we are, still talking to each other too much, still plotting the future, two decades in.
I'm not sure what I'd amount to without her. She props me up, straightens me out and shakes sense into me. She adds fuel to my fire, and extinguishes the flames before I burn everything down. She makes fun of me when I deserve it, which is pretty much all the time. Mostly, she supports me, comforts me and enables me. I like to think I do the same for her.
Happy Day-After-Valentine's Day, Kjerstin Ecker Dillon.
It's been 20 years of little miracles, not to mention a couple of big ones, the ones doing their homework at the kitchen table.
I was shocked she'd even consider doing this.
Usually my daughter keeps me at a comfortable distance, only buddying up to her dad when she wants something ... a Slurpee ... a new Lego set ... Disney merchandise. Or so it seems to me.
But somehow the stars aligned in my favor and Lucy agreed to let me accompany her to this evening's Father/Daughter & Mother/Son Dance at her school.
The affair was quite nice, with parents and kids in their snappiest outfits, elaborate Valentine's decor, a dessert buffet, photo booth, strobe lights and a DJ spinning the latest, most dance-tastic tunes. And the beat got me groovin'.
"I'm going to start dancing now," I told my girl.
"No you're not," she blurted. "Please!"
But as the night progressed, so did her willingness to boogie. And we danced together. We really did. She twirled and shimmied, and I tried really hard not to look stupid. She even gave me an unsolicited hug after one song.
"This is fun!" she said.
I actually think she enjoyed hanging with her old man. At least that's how I'll remember it.
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