FRESH YARN presents:

The Tyranny of Happiness
By Annabelle Gurwitch

For five years I tried to resist. Eventually my will was broken. Its power was greater than me. You can. You will. You must. You have a kid. You will eventually make the journey to the happiest place on earth.

I have a lot of experience with the Magic Kingdom. I grew up in south Florida where Disney World was always a great place to go when stoned. These were the halcyon days of the late '70s when everyone in Miami was high and so it is that I have vivid, if not complete, memories of our Temple Beth Shalom Youth Group bus trips up to the Magic Kingdom. What Disneyland had to do with Judaism, I'm not sure other than the irony of making an annual pilgrimage to a kingdom built by a notorious anti-Semite.

It never took very long for a group of teenagers in various states of Quaalude and marijuana highs to find ways to enhance our Disney experience, jumping out of rides and scaring small children, but perhaps we went too far when Madelyn Steinberg and I dove off the bridge to Tomorrow Land and swam in the magic castle lake. We were chased by security guards, taken to Disneyland jail and escorted off the grounds. Couldn't they see this for the metaphor that is obviously was? On the brink of adulthood, we brave souls, taking the leap into the unknown- well, apparently not, we were told to never come back and that was the last trip B.E.S.T.Y.! took to Disneyland and we had to satisfy ourselves with getting stoned in the alley behind the center and playing guitar with our youth leader. What strumming the guitar has to do with Judaism I couldn't say except that this scene would threaten to reappear years later when the rabbi who was set to officiate at my wedding offered that he liked to play guitar while rabbying. Yes, he used the phrase rabbying and amazingly we are still married today, have produced a son, hence this story. Hopefully they didn't keep records of such teenage pranks, I thought as I packed snacks for my son and prepared for our journey.

How do children hear about the wonder that is Disney? Perhaps this can best be illustrated by the Kevin story. During one of those inevitable parental nightmare moments, when asked, "What happens when you die?" and even the most ardent atheists reply, "You go to heaven," my son inquired if this is what happened to our cat Fraidy who was last seen clutched in the jaws of a retreating coyote. "Yes," my husband replied, "she's gone to 'Kevin,' cat heaven." This one remark has led to numerous apologetic phone calls to the confused parents of Ezra's friends whose children feared that their cats would also be mysteriously taken away by this Kevin. Disneyland, Kevin-- you make the connection. Suddenly we were inundated with requests to make the trip.

"Mommy is an existential nihilist with a solipsistic view of the world and doesn't go to theme parks," just wasn't cutting it with my five-year-old, so when Ezra's best friend Jake and his parents planned a jaunt to the park, this seemed a fortuitous opportunity to hitch a ride down.

As any local knows, the trip down the 5 to Anaheim is neither scenic nor is the signage good. At one point we got lost and had to exit into an industrial wasteland of junkyards filled with old bathroom fixtures. "Look kids," I announced, "We're here!" Perplexed but enthused, they accepted this explanation and cheered, "Yeah, Disneyland!" Had we continued with this ruse I'm sure they would have had a good time rummaging around the old tubs and sinks but we pressed on. And yes, children do actually repeatedly inquire, "Are we there yet?" Finally we were.

With a gamey smile plastered across my face, our two families boarded the tram ride to the park entrance where a disembodied voice cheerfully announced that should we need assistance at any time we should just ask a cast member for help. I felt a cynicism set in upon hearing that all employees at the park are referred to as cast members. But later in the day, when a smiling cast member with a broom and dustbin swept up some popcorn as it dropped from our hands, I thought, yes, happily tidying up the garbage of others, this does remind me of some productions I have been in myself.

I spotted a La Brea bakery serving soy lattes by the front gate, wait a minute, this is not my father's Disneyland! This might actually be good, I thought. It was with trepidation but aptly caffeinated we passed through the turnstile and joined the line for the first attraction---"Yeah we're going to the bathroom in Disneyland," the kids exclaimed. Very clean, well lit, only a ten minute wait in line-- so far so good.

The kids were excited as they bounded over to the Haunted Mansion but just as we headed in, my son, Ezra, stopped dead in his tracks. "Too scary, Mommy," and we headed out and waited outside for our friends. During the next hours this scene was repeated over and over: Jungle Cruise- too many animals, Mom; Storybook Land- too dark; Mad Tea Party ride- I don't drink tea, Mommy, I'm a kid; Peter Pan's Flight-too much Mary Martin, Mom, though I swore it had nothing to do with the original filmed version. So far we were at Disneyland four hours and had not been on a single ride.

Jake and his family trundled from attraction to attraction as I sat demoralized, staring up into the sky, the only spot within eyesight unadorned with the Disney logo. At that moment a cast member came up to me and said, "Sometimes its just fun too sit and watch others around you." The cast member, Donald, was a senior citizen. I don't know if it's the economy or just an old guy looking to be useful but there's nothing sadder than an old man in Storybook Land lederhosen wearing mouse ears. There's something vaguely hopeful, dare I say sweet, about a pimply teenager in a frontier outfit with a nametag working their first job to save money for college, but it's a sad reminder of the futility of dreams and it definitely subverts the Peter Pan message when an old geezer reminds you that, "It never hurts to smile." "Well, yes, sometimes it does," I snarled.

I hate happiness. Particularly jocularity on demand. I have always refused to smile on cue. When I was a child we posed for family portraits at the local suburban shopping mall photography studio. My grinning parents and cousins all look like the typical middle class suburban family while the expression on my face would suggest that I'm about to be marched on a pogrom from our shtetl in Russia. I love melancholic novels, depressed poets, and pessimistic prognosticators. I like sad songs, weepy movies, I'm a sentimental drunk. My idea of a good time is drinking a double espresso while reading Death in Venice. Venice is my idea of a rollicking good time town. I was never a waitress. Not perky enough. I had just enough natural attitude to work the door of a popular NY nightclub in the late '80s. In fact, I probably turned you away, for no reason at all, just because you really, really wanted to come in. I was never a cheerleader, never an ingénue, never the homecoming queen. Although one year in high school I was voted to the homecoming court but alas, see paragraph 2, I was so stoned the night of the ceremony I couldn't find our football field and that was the end of that. I was never a shiny happy person, although I have been both shiny and happy even at the same time (although to achieve both has been in the performance of acts that are still considered illegal in certain states.) Happy meals, happy faces, don't worry be happy. Given the state of the world, perhaps if we had a little more worry and a little less happy we'd be better off. Is the insistence upon the value of happiness a peculiarity endemic to the American psyche? After all, it does read: life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, an interesting note is that the precursor to the declaration… whilst liberte, egalite, fraternite….. Alas no mention of happiness anywhere. I have never been to Euro Disney, but I did read that they had to make a lot of concessions- allowing facial hair on the cast members and serving wine with meals, I just hope the employees were able to keep their sulky European attitudes.

That's what really bothers me about Disney. It isn't the commercialization of childhood, or the fact that they saddled us with that triumvirate of talent: Britney, Christina and Justin; not the anti-feminist patriarchal message pervasive throughout fairy tales, it's the happily ever after. Would it have been so hard to just say "ever after?" And they lived…. ever after. I would like to add: and they endured the challenges that most people face. Divorce, career disappointment, the constant battle against hirsutism, the insidious pull of gravity on your most favorite assets, the gasp that escapes your lips when you look down and see that your mother's hands have been mysteriously grafted onto your body, and the eventual march to the grave. Yes, endurance isn't that the value that we should be passing on to our children? That's when it hits me, exactly what a sad, sad, person I have become, who but a sad sad person wouldn't want their child to claim their rightful place in this Disnified landscape, and I determined that we were going to get some of this Disney happiness even if it killed us. And then I remembered those hairs on the pirate's leg as it dangles above the boat at the Pirates of the Caribbean and I did what any mother would do. I bribed my son with the promise of a new toy. If he could just see those goddamned hairs we'd turn into that happy Disney family I saw on that fucking commercial on TV.

From the moment we loaded in to that pirate ship I knew we were in trouble. Ezra began to wail a wail so piercing, featuring actual fear and trembling, accented by screams of terror, it was as though I had removed his spleen and was filleting it in front of him. Other parents shook their heads and cast scornful looks at me. Babies were smiling, not my child. By the third display he was whimpering like a wounded dog. I rubbed his back and said, "It's ok, it's ok," as I mouthed, "I'm sorry," over and over again to those around me. And I began to see the ride for what it truly is. Why wouldn't he be miserable, I thought, this pirate ship is a morality tale of the order of "scared straight"-- that TV show about how drug use ruins your life. All these ghouls had lived dissolute lives and we were now bearing witness to their sentence in this watery purgatory. It was as we passed under what I had always considered the coup de grace of Disneyland, that pirate's leg that as a child I had observed in awe at the meticulous detail to, I now saw clearly as pubic hair pasted on an animatronics dolls leg. Then it occurred to me that Disney is all a morality play. When they say happiest place on earth, they literally mean that this is all one can expect from life on earth. The truth is, nobody looks all that happy in Disneyland except the cast members. True, I've seen a passing look of glee, a fleeting glimmer of excitement, but real happiness, I don't think so. Disneyland was intended to be an endurance test, each of us traversing varied and wondrous lands, one in the numberless faceless crowd of humans hoping to be entertained on a brief illusory ride-- the enjoyment of the rides mitigated by the hours of waiting in lines, plus the trauma inducing imagery-- all part of Walt's plan. My god, I've done a semiotic study of the Magic Kingdom, I thought. I've decoded Disney, isn't this what Susan Sontag has done for photography? If only I could make it through an entire volume of hers, I'd be able to say for sure. I want this to be over, my son started chanting and, after what seemed like four hours of character building entertainment, it was. We were delivered out of the darkness and into the light of day.

We found ourselves running toward the exit and the resumption of our real lives which now seemed much better by comparison. I stopped for a double espresso as we all headed back to the car. Piling in, my son announced, "I can't wait to go back." "What did you like about it?" I asked. He replied, "The escalator to the parking lot." Maybe it was just the coffee or the recognition of the resiliency of my child's spirit, but I smiled my first genuine smile of the day. Jake and family were spent, their eyes glazed with the satisfaction of having done Disney, a weary but satiated exhaustion which was not unlike porn star Annabelle Chung's expression after she had done 236 guys, Ezra was beaming, extolling the virtues of the escalator, and for one moment it was, perhaps, the happiest parking lot on earth.


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