The polite little girl seated next to me this morning, maybe 6 or 7, had never flown before. “This is my first airplane ride,” she announced, without an inkling of fear. “I can’t wait to take off.” Once in the air, this tiny, freckled blond person with a purple stuffed monkey and flip flops fidgeted incessantly, devoured an entire bag of Cheetos and couldn’t stop taking selfies. “Just look outside!” she chirped, and I pushed way back in my window seat so she could take photos of the clouds. “Madeline, don’t get the gentleman in your picture,” said her grandma. The girl agreed. “Yeah, people will look at it and say, who is that guy?”
When disaster strikes someplace else, across a time zone or continent or sea, we can feel helpless. Sure, we can donate money for relief, and the company I work for matches contributions dollar for dollar. That's a great thing. But people ache to DO something, to roll up their sleeves.
This week, more than 100 Disney Cruise Line employees gathered in the lobby of our Celebration, Florida, offices to pack personal hygiene kits for delivery to hurricane evacuees from Grand Bahama and Abaco. "Giving money is critical, but participating in something like this is equally important and so helpful,” said one colleague, as she stuffed soap, shampoo, toothpaste, toothbrushes and socks into plastic baggies. These items won't singlehandedly solve the Bahamian crisis, but they will absolutely make life more comfortable for the thousands who have been displaced from their homes and moved to shelters in Nassau.
In total, and with the support of the nonprofit Clean the World, we packed 1,500 kits, each containing a handwritten note to the recipient. One of our ships, the Disney Dream, is delivering the kits as we speak. And in some makeshift shelter in Nassau, someone else will now take a little better care of themselves and feel just a little better about an otherwise dire situation.
Our hearts hurt for everyone whose lives were upended by Hurricane Dorian – and we stand by them as their communities rebuild and recover.
I wish I had a dollar for every time someone said, “They’re sooooo cute!”
This weekend we visited an alpaca farm for my wife’s birthday. She loved it, can you tell? We all did. These lamb-like creatures, indigenous to South America, saunter right up to you with their tall necks and big, smiling eyes. They let you feed them and rub their fluffy heads. Everybody who encounters them, from kids to grown men, ooh and aah.
In their native land, alpacas are raised for their hair, or fiber, and as a food source. “If you go to Peru, it’s on their menu,” says King Fowler, the local farm’s co-owner and a heck of a nice guy. In all, 37 alpacas and three llamas (they’re related) roam this farm in the quiet hills of Lake County, along with a smattering of chickens and ducks. Fowler is a breeder and competitor and just returned from an alpaca show in Kansas City. It’s mostly a business for him, though he says sitting around with your favorite drink and just watching these beautiful animals is “therapeutic for sure.”
What a fun family outing. Best of all, the birthday girl hasn’t stopped talking about her new friends. “They’re sooooo cute!”
Nothing gets the adrenaline pumping like a hurricane threat.
Heard and overheard of late …
“Everybody in Florida is essentially freaking out.”
“The first thing I did was fill my shopping cart with wine.”
“I really don’t have time for this.”
“Oh great, my eye’s twitching now because of frickin’ Dorian on my birthday.”
“Now Paul, I’m worried about your family. It looks like Florida’s in real trouble. You still have time to bring everybody up to Winston.”
“Yeah, I’m ready for it. Why not?”
“I got this, no problem. It’ll be a breeze. Ha! Get it?”
“The only time I watch TV is for This is Us and when’s there’s a hurricane.”
“I’m not going to let something called Dorian wreck my weekend.”
Be safe, ya’ll.
She’s always wanted to come back here. And this is our reward. The smile of the century. Kjerstin and her mom visited Niagara Falls when she was a child, and while some memories are intact, they’re misty, like the vapor you spot as you approach the falls from a distance, rising hundreds of feet as it has for millennia. It’s a wonder of the world for good reason. Our family stood at the precipice of Horseshoe Falls and pondered the immensity of this crushing, gushing marvel. “Is any of this man made?” my son asked. “It just looks so perfect.” I proceed to go on and on about why it’s important for us to get off our phones and break away to really inspect the natural beauty of the earth, to realize this planet is the work of God, or gods, or something very, very powerful. For a moment, I see the awe and inspiration in their eyes, a peace and calm that’s sometimes hard to come by. It’s worth every penny of this trip. Precious, for sure, and fleeting. “All right, let’s get ice cream,” someone says, and we’re off.
Cows and kudzu. Rolling hills and wide-open spaces, all lush and green and shimmery in the July heat. Nature seems to have reasserted itself along these stretches of I-75 and I-10, in the heart of north Florida, a place quite removed from the palmy beaches and sanitized amusement of so much of this strange state.
The kids are getting hungry. “We have two choices. We have Arby's or the gas station connected to the Arby's,” jokes my daughter as we eye the billboards, though she’s not laughing.
We’re on a whirlwind two-day tour of colleges in Gainesville and Tallahassee, seeing if the boy can picture himself at one of these fine institutions. No doubt, getting accepted into either the University of Florida or Florida State University is a tall order. But we’re hopeful, and we’ve got some time to consider a range of options.
This trip is as much about family time as anything, though my vision of bonding with my teenagers heads south as they give priority to making fun of their parents, in the car, walking, eating, pretty much everywhere. I hear stuff like, “Dad, why do you have to be so weird.” That’s fine.
I scoot out of the hotel by myself and hit up a few shops on Gaines Street in downtown Tallahassee, among them Retrofit Records. The dreadlocked dude at the counter is prickly when I pull out my phone to snap a picture (“no photos in the store, sir”) but he warms up once we start talking music. I leave with a used copy of Philip Aaberg’s piano solos for $4.
Wrapping up our morning tour of FSU, we’re sweaty and tired and running on empty. Whataburger, a fun-looking joint on a leafy side street of the state capital, calls to us. “This has got to be one of the best burgers I’ve ever had, and I don’t know if it’s because I’m so hungry or it really is this good,” says my son, perfectly content.
Sometimes I wonder what will become of my books after I’m gone. Morbid thought, I suppose, or at least not very uplifting. But it does cross my mind.
Since high school I’ve amassed what I consider a valuable collection, curating an extensive catalog heavily weighted toward travel narrative, memoir, journalism, literary studies and other non-fiction genres my kids can easily find a way to make fun of. ”You’re a book geek, dad,” my daughter has told me on more than one occasion, and I know it’s true.
What's worth mentioning is that I treat my books almost like records. (I collect those with great passion and fussiness, too, but that’s a whole other story.) I don’t read my books once and move on. I return to them again and again, relishing the contour of the sentences, the movement of the verbs, the way they transport and transform me. I sometimes reference them if only to recall a single phrase or description. Just now I distracted myself by typing “description” and reached for Mark Twain’s intoxicating account of the Mississippi River at sunrise (“The water ... gives off spectral little wreaths of white mist ...").
Odd affliction, this bookish inclination. But hasn’t everyone been enraptured and enlightened by the printed page, if only for a few fleeting moments?
This is the face of focus. Full attention. Relentless pursuit. I’m talking about the instinctive drive to get a job done, and done completely and skillfully, no matter how extensive the time commitment or how many lesser opportunities are missed in the process.
My son Jackson doesn’t make a big deal of this, actually none whatsoever, but I’m compelled to share his story. He is wired to always be creating something out of nothing. We call him the mad scientist. He goes into his room, closes the door and we don’t see him again for hours. He emerges at some point, usually hungry and having forgotten to go to the bathroom, with a new song or two composed and recorded. “Hey dad, can I show you a few things?” And I couldn’t be more proud, thrilled really.
The same level of concentration is applied to his studies and other aspects of his life, most notably basketball, a love of his since he was a small boy and to which he devotes huge swaths of his days to improving and refining. “It’s no big thing,” he’d tell you. And that’s where I’d disagree. I see in him not just passion and stamina but a persistent hunt for the next personal best, something bigger, better, more exciting, more meaningful.
God I love this kid.
It must be the gorgeous weather. Everybody I encounter this morning couldn’t be nicer. First it’s the laid-back cat behind the counter at Orlando Skate Park who lets me in without paying. Just because. Then it’s every other person I talk to. The little kid on the scooter. The middle-aged dads like me all padded up. The 20-somethings who shred beyond belief and totally own this place. “Hey man, I’m Seth, what’s your name?” And there’s a handshake. And another. And another. One guy was kind enough to shoot this video of me pretending to know what the heck I’m doing. My Saturday is off to a rad start. How’s yours?
... After an unusually cold and rainy winter, Los Angeles looks as radiant as ever. Perfect skies, temps in the 70s. “It’s starting to feel like Southern California again,” a radio DJ rejoices between tunes. The weather is certainly sublime from the rooftop of the Griffith Observatory, as we gaze at the vast L.A. basin, the glittery sprawl giving way to the lush Hollywood Hills and, farther afield, the snow-dusted San Gabriels.
... Moving from the blinding brightness of the Sunset Strip into the ghostly dark of the Chateau Marmont, we are tired and a little cranky, but mostly thirsty. We order drinks from comfy couches in the courtyard, the servers stealth and stoic, the patrons behind sunglasses and countenances of cool. Here in the heart of Hollywood, at a hotel steeped in celebrity and debauchery, my kids drain their Cokes as my wife and I share a Stella. Breaking the silence is the young hostess who seated us, Noel, whose outsized friendliness contradicts the Chateau’s solemn vibe. Her accent sounds slightly southern. Turns out she’s from a familiar place. “I came out here two years ago from North Carolina,” she tells us, “from a town called High Point.”
... We make it a priority to rent bikes and cruise from the Santa Monica Pier to Venice Beach and back, shimmery Pacific on one side, edgy SoCal boardwalk weirdness on the other. Posh condos and Teslas mix with graffiti and homeless camps. The smell of weed wafts around every turn.
... Disneyland is a family destination where happiness reigns and dreams really can come true. Most of the time. We stroll through the front gates and onto a jam-packed Main Street only to spy the iconic castle veiled and scaffolded and under refurbishment. “You’ve got to be kidding me,” says my pouting daughter. Thankfully the initial disappointment fades as the pixie dust takes effect, intoxicating the kids and prompting them to declare the Incredicoaster at Disney California Adventure “totally the move” and “fire” and other terms of endearment that mystify the middle aged.
... “This is MY favorite kind of roller coaster,” I inform the family as I steer us along the spine-tingling ups and downs of Topanga Canyon. This is the freaky interior of L.A. canyon country, once home to 60s rock stars and now aging eccentrics and hippy art dealers. We make our way up a steep side road and are rewarded with a killer view. Golden sunlight drenches the mountaintops. All is quiet except for the who-who, who-who of an owl. We literally taste sweetness with every breath.
First of all, how are our kids old enough to be interested in college? And when did campuses start looking like this, all lakes and palm trees and resort-style dorms and perfect weather in the dead of February? “This isn’t like the places we went to school, is it?” asked another tired dad as we strolled a scenic path surrounded by kayakers and sunbathers.
Florida Gulf Coast University may or may not be where our son ends up going. But our college visit this weekend gave him some needed perspective, and his younger sister seemed to take the most interest, drawn to the dance team and chamber choir opportunities. With an enrollment of about 15,000, the school is well sized, and the students who hosted us for the Eagle Expo were smart, smiley and super impressive.
“My mom’s really proud of me, and that’s all that matters in the end,” confided one of our tour guides, Tara.
FGCU got our attention with its notable program in engineering, a field that intrigues our left-brained boy, and naturally with its excellent basketball team. A half-hour presentation by an engineering PhD was inspiring if a touch fear-inducing for setting an expectation of long hours of study. “Engineering is not an easy career choice but it’s a beneficial career choice,” she explained. A quick trip upstairs to the virtual reality lab brightened things up. “I could do this all day,” said our goggled son, getting lost in a roomful of wiry gear and gadgetry.
In the end he seemed engaged, though noncommittal. More school visits lie ahead, including trips to the big ones, University of Florida and Florida State University. But this place by the sea does have a good software engineering program, he pointed out, “and the scenery’s cool.”
Even though I’ve been writing for a living the past 30 years, apparently I can't get enough of it. I’m constantly jotting down notes and ideas and the funny things people say.
Some of you may have noticed I can be text-heavy on this site and other social media, posting longish pieces about my family, travel, music, basketball, bikes, beer, etc. I've been sharing these stories for years and now, gathered in one place, they fill a 216-page collection I’m calling Hold On, Let Me Write That Down.
I self-published this book mostly as a gift for my 85-year-old mom, who knows darn well there's an internet but chooses to consume information only via print and TV. That means she's missed pretty much everything I've written since I gave her my last book, a decade's worth of newspaper stories, some 15 years ago. Today my gift is on its way to her house. I figure if anyone will care for this, it’s my mom.
For anyone else who’s interested, below is the intro to the book.
Maybe it’s a carryover from my days as a newspaper reporter, but I constantly find myself reaching for a notebook. Many of my jottings are mundane details that simply connect the dots in my life: lists, reminders, things I did, things I need to do.
Other times my notes are more inspired, more a reflection of what I find important and remarkable. Someone will say something clever or poetic and I'll scribble it down. A perfect sentence, phrase or quote will jump off the page of a book or magazine, and I'll capture it for some future use. I'll hear a cool song and make note of its title, with plans to figure out how to play it on guitar. Or an idea for a story will pop into my head and I'll sketch out a beginning, middle and end – and soon, after transferring the notes to my computer or phone and wrestling them into shape, I have a new slice of life, a new reason to be excited.
Travel writer Bruce Chatwin viewed taking notes as a means to better understanding one's world and ultimately oneself. He considered his notebooks invaluable extensions of his experience, his spirit. "Losing my passport was the least of my worries; losing a notebook was a catastrophe," he said. Not sure I'm that serious about it. But I do often find myself wondering why other people aren't writing stuff down.
In your hands is a collection of my stories, notes and musings drawn almost entirely from my posts on Facebook, Instagram and my website, Guitar Dad. Many of the pieces were inspired by everyday experiences I had with my family, especially when my kids did or said something totally wacky. All of them started, of course, with the words I jotted in my notebooks and the ideas that rattled around in my head. The pieces date from 2008 and, as of this publication, bump up against the end of 2018. They are arranged by category and mixed up chronologically. They are a decade’s worth of moments I carry in my heart and that define the absolutely amazing life I’ve been given.
Don’t get me wrong, I love the Hampton Inns of the world. Big-brand hotels are comfortable and consistent, and I’m happy to rack up more Hilton Honors points.
But I'm also a big fan of oddball places to stay, the ones you simply stumble onto and which make you forever grateful you did. The Driftwood Resort in Vero Beach, Florida, is just such a place. It’s really more a collection of found objects than a hotel.
“It’s kind of weird but other than that, it’s OK,” says my teenage daughter. That’s actually a resounding endorsement.
The Driftwood emerged piece by piece from the imagination of Waldo Sexton, a quirky, wild-eyed agriculture student from Indiana who traveled to Florida’s Treasure Coast in 1914 and never turned back. Today he gets credit for singlehandedly creating the citrus, cattle and tourism industries in Indian River County. He also gallivanted the globe gathering ironwork, wooden artifacts, tiles, bells and other peculiar finds for the Driftwood.
“He was quite industrious should we say,” explains Lynn at the front desk. “He brought back interesting things from all over the world, whatever made him happy.”
Waldo, who died in 1967 three days after Christmas, is still very much present at the Driftwood and everywhere else in Vero. I saw no fewer than four historical plaques bearing his name. “My only regret,” he once said, “is that I had not come to Vero Beach sooner.”
Our small but mighty speechwriting team helped stage another great show at Walt Disney World today, creating the script and visual support for several speakers and engaging a ballroom of 500+ Disney fans. I’m super proud to work alongside these two amazing talents ... and the dozens of others who made today's event a success.
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