Thoughts on Disney

It’s amazing that the blog got this far without a Disney post, but here we go.

Frank Thomas. Ollie Johnston. As long as I live, I will never forget those two men, nor their book “Too Funny For Words: Disney’s Greatest Sight Gags.” Equal parts academic and humorous, the book analyzes the different forms of humor in Disney cartoons, often utilizing personal examples (the authors worked for the company for decades). It was certainly an… unorthodox  reading choice for a six year old, but it quickly became a favorite.  I had always loved the movies, the way kids do, but this was the first time that I was able to see them as complex, artistic, psychological undertakings. Studying the studio’s history and the “making-of” featurettes offered early lessons in art, in storytelling, in history and economics and perseverance. It was the first time that I was invited to investigate the inner workings of a system – indeed, to revel in the magic of creation itself.

This was why visiting the Walt Disney Family Museum was a crucial part of the itinerary, and despite my misadventures (this was the place that I was trying to get to during my fateful bumble through San Francisco), it was well worth it. Here was that history and how-it-works spirit writ large, with the added joy of seeing those artifacts in real life. Looking at the scratchy pencil drawings that would eventually become a world-famous rodent (and spawn an empire) didn’t take away from the films. Quite the opposite; once again, I was struck by the technical mastery and constant experimentation that has driven the studio from the very beginning. The chronological walk-through proved valuable as well, a tangible reminder of just how diverse the canon is. Disney has gotten a reputation for churning out tropes, and rightfully so; there are certain elements – the princesses, the brightness, the almost unbearable earnestness – that tend to form the backbone of the studio. But that viewpoint also ignores the finer nuances; the darkness, the creativity, the sheer variety of stories being told. In the 1940s section alone, I could stand next to an animation cel from a heart-wrenching movie about a flying circus elephant and glimpse footage set to classical music to my left and high-energy live-action/animation hybrid travelogues about Latin America to my right. Walt’s curiosity was boundless, and while he didn’t always hit the mark, his application of it was unparalleled. And nowhere does this come into play more than in the kingdom he built in Anaheim, a physical manifestation of these dreams.

Not-so-hidden MickeysDisney fish diagramMulticamJose

Lincoln bust

Poorly kept secret about me: I love dioramas. I can spend hours staring at the little details, burning the entire miniature world into my memory. So when I came across the massive Disneyland display at the end of the museum, I promptly lost my mind. To wit: I took more pictures of that than just about anything on this trip – including some of the greatest natural wonders on Earth. But by god, those tiny balloon carts are important. At any rate, the display took a really interesting approach. Rather than capturing a particular moment in the park’s history, its creators opted to showcase some of the most beloved attractions and designs through the decades – a sort of ageless entity, bound together by its mythology. Thus, we have Lincoln rhapsodizing behind dueling dinos, pirates drunkenly taking aim at mansions full of ghosts, children on flights and toads on wild rides.

Disneyramascience and mountains and stuffTiny Main Street

It was a mecca for a nerd like me, but also a genuinely impressive work, and one that captured the passion and spirit of the place. The only thing better would be going to the actual park….


It had to be done.

Disneyland is not a perfect place.  It is overpriced, and overstimulating, and sometimes unbelievably cheesy. But it is also, in my opinion, one of the most interesting places in the world – and, if you’re willing to get into the spirit of it, one of the most charming as well. It’s a hodgepodge of hyper-immersive environments, a cultural microcosm, an intensely ambitious and ever-evolving art project. I love the fact that you might, on any given day there, rub shoulders with celebrities, vacationing families, hardcore trivia buffs, and Buddhist monks. I love its simultaneous commitment to nostalgia and progress, the fact that top-of-the-line holograms and visibly creaky robots from the 1960s can exist side by side. And, of course, I love the constant opportunities to learn. The rides and shows are generally pretty excellent, but it’s equally fun (at least for yours truly) to explore the craftsmanship involved in every detail. Even the time spent in line can be delightful, if you take the time to look at the set-pieces scattered around.

Alien eyyyye

At the end of the day, Disney is in the business of world-building with all the creativity and complications that such a mission entails. Whether on the screen, the stage, the page, or the street, the company is forever striving to invite its audience into its universes – not just as observers, but often as informed participants. And it is this gift that, at the end of the day, will always make Disney important to me. It is not above criticism, nor outgrowth, but as my very first friend and teacher, it has proven invaluable.

Dis and mouse



Yo, Yosemite

This part was a bit of a family pilgrimage.

Yosemite has always loomed large in my mom’s stories; she used to go there every year as a kid, and worked there during her “gap year” after college. Having not been since roughly age three, and being in a similar existential state, it felt like a perfect time to visit. Cresting the valley, I could see why this has become such a treasured spot – not just for my family, but for the public at large. The mountains are stupendous, thrown out against a sky unusually clear for California. If the Tetons were craggy and complex, these are the bolder stunners, towering up over the valley, breaking into powerful formations, daring – begging – to be explored. The big stunner, of course, is Half Dome, which, true to its name, arches up and off the top of the cliff. The curvature is such that every hour of the day shows a new side of the stone, casting it in a hundred shades, projecting a thousand shadows. It was completely enchanting from every angle, and I was fortunate enough to spend a great deal of time enjoying it.

Half DomePink dome

It’s hard to overstate the cultural and historical significance of this park, rivaled only by Yellowstone. The valley was part of a thriving trade route between Native American tribes, and home to the Southern Sierra Miwok, whose stonework and crafts are still prominently on display. Centuries later, it was the land that John Muir wandered through in awe, its mountains the impetus for his world famous conservationism. This is where he carted our old friend Teddy Roosevelt for several days of vigorous camping, in order to convince him to set aside more of the land – and this, in turn, helped fuel the fires of Roosevelt’s own impressive environmentalist career. And there were (and are) many others who learned and loved and roamed in these lands, creating art, telling stories, or simply relishing the peace and solitude the valley provides.

Or rather, used to provide. There are still some beautiful back-country hikes, but all of the beauty and prestige comes with a price – a large, boisterous, tourist-shaped price. The crowds are constant, even in the fall, and while that does lead to a lot of interesting and entertaining interactions, it doesn’t allow for much breathing space. Of all the parks, this was definitely the one I was most glad to visit in the fall. Not only was the weather beautiful, but there was just enough emptiness to allow me to truly enjoy the spectacular views.

Yosemite and suchYosemite fallsDeer

There were actually two particular strokes of luck that came about during my visit. The first was the arrival of unlikely benefactors: Tom and Rosemary, a pair of gregarious tourists from Southern California. Traditionally, they would come to the park every spring and reserve a whole spate of campsites right in the valley for their family and friends, as well as various wayward campers. This year, however, they had opted to go in the fall, and subsequently, I was able to spend my last two nights in the heart of the park – and in the company of some truly delightful people. They fed me, they played cornholes with me (a lovely bit of Midwestern life back to visit), they gave me fabulous tips on what to see and do all along the Golden State. We’d sit around the fire and share stories, with topics ranging from great movies to various adventures in the fast-food-plastic-table-cover-installation business (Tom’s unlikely – but apparently intense – profession). There’s no way to properly thank total strangers for adopting you for awhile, but hopefully this little paragraph will help in part. Here’s looking at you, guys.

The other fortunate bit of timing was the fact that my visit coincided with Halloween. If you read my previous post, you may have heard about my brief run-in with all the wildness the city of San Francisco can provide for this holiday. I had figured that that would be the extent of my celebration, but I was in for a pleasant surprise. As it turns out, Yosemite has nightly programming, and in honor of the spooky season, they were hosting a nighttime walk through the grounds. Such an opportunity couldn’t be ignored, so once the sun had set, I wandered over to the main village. The next couple of hours were an absolute delight. Various rangers had been tapped to play our ghostly guides and the long-departed historical figures populating the graveyard, and every single one of them seemed to be having the time of their lives. Was it corny? Absolutely. Was it fun? Undeniably so. And as if all that weren’t enough, I did get to learn a lot about some of the wild, wonderful characters that don’t always get the spotlight but nevertheless played a crucial role in the story of the park.

It was a wonderful visit, packed with exciting historical insights and some genuinely moving experiences. It may be crowded, but the trip is well worth it.

Yosemite pano


A wacky interlude in San Francisco

Before we begin this epic tale, it’s important to provide some context:

  • The city of San Francisco is exceptionally hilly. It is, in fact, rather notable for the quantity and steepness of said slopes.
  • Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART), the famous public transit system of the area, has a rather gaping flaw: specifically, its dearth of stations in the actual city itself. Indeed, despite its famous streetcar system, there aren’t tons of options to get around in the city proper – except on foot.
  • Were I to track my flaws in the fashion of Greek mythology, two prominent Achilles’ tendons would be:

A. Constantly forgetting to properly charge my phone

B. A Marshall Erikson-like insistence on walking great distances in short periods of time.

  • San Francisco is joyously, wildly weird.

Right, so:

I set out from Mountain View on the train early in the morning, watching the sleek Googletopia give way to strip malls, then rolling hills, then the industrial muck of South San Francisco, then, at last, the city itself. I made my way to North Beach, past the endless juxtaposition of this bizarre metropolis; wadded up newspapers and rags bordered an offshoot of Susan Sarandon’s ping-pong club. Then there was a brief jaunt through Chinatown, itself a vivid piece of history. Finally, I arrived at the first stop: City Lights, the renowned independent bookstore that housed the Beat movement. I’ll discuss this shop more in a later post, but suffice it to say that an entire afternoon could have been spent roaming its perfectly cozy aisles, sampling the strangest and most thoughtful literature the world has to offer.

Then it was back to the streets, crisscrossing the seedy strip clubs and tiki bars, the club where Lenny Bruce and Barbara Streisand got their starts, the museum devoted to the exploits of Kerouac and friends. There are many such neighborhoods across the United States -indeed, across the world -, but this one is uniquely showcased, a sort of gritty living museum.

My next stop was straight in the heart of mainstream tourism: Fisherman’s Wharf once a hub of global shipping, now a haven of eclectic attractions and abominably priced hot dogs. I had been gifted a ticket to the Exploratorium, which is an interactive science exhibit bar none. Like North Beach, the Exploratorium is not a totally unique entity; in this age of immersion, similar models can actually be found all over the place. But it was the scale of this complex that made it amazing. Every turn led to a new discipline, a thousand wild experiments. Like all the best science museums, it captures the wonder of discovery on a grand scale via firsthand interaction with the simple processes of our world.

Atom theory tombstoneToothpick artHandprint

Then it was off down the pier to the Musee Mecanique, an antique arcade nerd’s dream. If you want to spend a happy couple of hours (and some pocket change) visiting with the predecessors to Pac-Man, this is the place to do it. The building is filled to the brim with movable miniatures, strength testers, and the like. A happy cacophony of whistles and pings and slow-but-steady gears filled the air. Those who lived off of Disney Channel circa 2002 might recognize one of the more prominent residents, a massive arm-wrestling machine challenged by Julie Andrews in The Princess Diaries. I gave it a go, and with all due respect to Ms. Andrews’ acting credentials, she clearly did her own stunt work on this one – unless, of course, she is in fact the all-powerful, all-knowing deity we’ve always suspected her to be.

As I roamed between fortune tellers and pseudo-historical dioramas, my arm still smarting from my encounter with the Liechtensteiner, I came across a particularly compelling nickelodeon featuring scenes from the battlefields of World War I. One by one, the sepia images flicked past, with only the steady whir of the machine as a soundtrack. Battleships glide through the water. Men sit in the trenches, somber faced, by now well versed in the ways of hell. It was chilling to see these amber-cased moments between atrocities; before the Internet, before TV, even before the newsreels that preceded movies, this machine was the only way to view events overseas. Yet it was also the place to watch a striptease, or stills from the latest Chaplin film. As always, the real brilliance of the medium is the way that it presents multiple angles of the human condition with equal power and ingenuity.

Metal Man and horseWeird wizardWorld War 1 viewer

After this interlude, was time for the longest trek. I hustled out the door and headed uphill (as one always does in this city), aiming for Presidio and a museum I’d been dying to see since it opened. It would be a bit of a trip – a couple miles walking -, but I was still reasonably on schedule, the air was clear, and my map had the perfect directions.

And then, with a beautiful theatrical flourish, my phone died.

Now, at this point it would have probably made more sense to retrace my steps and hang around the train station, but, you know… See above points. I plowed ahead, searching for a sense of direction and a charger. Luckily, one of the landmarks on the map happened to be another spot on my list. The Palace of Fine Arts is a vestige of a very particular infatuation for this city (and the country): big, bold, bizarre exhibitions. When the Panama-Pacific Exposition came to town in 1915, this beautiful building was constructed to house various artistic displays.  Today, it is one of the only structures still intact from the bygone celebration. It is also stunningly gorgeous, and still a beloved attraction in the area. It’s another one of those places that vibrates with its own history, and even my sweaty, grouchy self couldn’t help but be moved by the towering dome and beautiful gardens.

More importantly, the coffee shop inside said palace was staffed by an extremely friendly barista who let me use her phone to jot down directions to my destination. By the time I got to the address in Presidio, it was near closing time. Much to my dismay, I found that I couldn’t really justify taking such a short tour, particularly with a still dead phone. The museum would have to wait – but that is a story for another post.

In honor of the Silicon Valley, I barged into the nearest Apple store and charged my phone just enough to let my family know I’d be late getting back and plot out a course to the BART station. Then it was back to the streets, hustling up those famous, pain-in-the-butt hills. I had a few more miles to walk, but figured I’d still get there in a reasonable amount of time.

I had forgotten it was the weekend before Halloween.

Not since my days at a liberal arts school had I woven my way through such an interestingly attired crowd. Scurrying between hippies, superheroes, goth glam figures, and the entire Pixar canon, I was grudgingly impressed – but also increasingly late. By the time I made it back to the station, I had missed both the initial BART and my backup train. Another was on the way, but it politely declined to show up on time, giving me a much-needed opportunity to sit down for the first time in hours.

I rolled back to the Valley a couple hours late, with 12 miles of walking under my belt. The day had been a fascinating, stressful, hectic, beautiful sensory Tilt-a-Whirl… but then again, what trip to San Francisco isn’t?

Time between cities

The road to San Francisco from Portland is paved with strange intentions, beautiful scenery, and a healthy dose of fun. The culture out there is all its own – outdoorsy, granola, at once slightly metaphysical and deeply entwined with its physical features. I got a little behind schedule, but it was well worth it.

Crater lakeA most necessary detour – Crater Lake. 

Misty sea California, stunning as always.Misty cliffsBANANA SLUG Hobnobbing with the locals.Squatch cafeWood salmonBig bunyan and babe


Then it was off to the City (woe to anyone foolish enough to call it San Fran, or worse, Frisco) to visit with family and have another string of adventures.

Roadside Gallery, Part 1: Tree time

Just before the California state border, I nearly wrecked my car. This wasn’t due to weather conditions, other erratic drivers, or free-roaming critters, but rather my own rubbernecking. In my defense, it’s not every day that you meet a fellow like this – even in Oregon:


It turned out that this arboreal apparition was just one of the fascinating residents of It’s A Burl, a woodworking shop/art project/wild wonder. For 31 years, the Shinerock family has crafted high-quality furniture and home decor out of locally sourced wood. But their artistic passions far exceed the commercial, and the result is a yard packed to the brim with gorgeous, quirky, exciting artwork. There are enough treehouses to shelter an entire colony of ragtag young adventurers, marvelous sculptures, and works in progress that reveal the full beauty and complexity of wood as an art form. And the furniture’s pretty great too!


It's a burl truck

Epic treehouseFamous treehouseBest deckjunk manmosaic faceflying carDragon chairBig bear


Bonus Blurb: Waterfalls worth chasing

Even though I didn’t give Oregon’s most famous city its due, I did get to see some of its greatest natural beauty in action at Silver Falls State Park. Several miles of trails wind through gorgeous, solitary streams, towering forests, and an unbelievable array of waterfalls. Not one of these pictures had effects added; just nature doing its wonderful thing.

Little fallsMossy branches

Behind the fallsPhotoshopesque waterfall

A (sort of) apology to Portland

Portland is a wonderland of quirk, if the stories are to be believed. A haven for people-watching. A glorious burg of hipster bikes and white privilege, framed by the river and the mountains. A land whose model citizen rides the unicycle whilst playing the flaming bagpipes, dressed in a kilt and Darth Vader helmet. Such an environment would be well worth extensive exploration – but I must admit, I did almost none of this. No poking around, very little people-watching, and minimal engagement in the weird. Over the course of the day, I only really saw one place in Portland, which feels quite wrong.

But in my defense, that place was the Taj Mahal of bookstores.

If you have any sort of bookish inclination, you may have heard whispers of a wondrous place where books first, last, and everything; a bibliographic temple organized flawlessly by category, no matter how esoteric, scattered across five color-coded floors.  A place that, in fact, has its own map, the better with which to hunt down buried treasure. It seems too glorious to contemplate, and must be examined.

Long story short, I had about six hours to spend in Portland, and I spent approximately four in Powell’s. There was a brief detour to the nearest grocery store (which was, of course, a Whole Foods) and a meal and people-watching on a bench. But then it was straight back to the stacks, reacquainting myself with old friends, stumbling across countless new ones, drinking in poetry and world literature and biographies and Pac-Man instruction manuals.

Powell'sog trail and powell'spoetreeeekey out of timeMoonbanelast mountain

The rest of my time in Oregon was quite pleasant, consisiting of a lot of reading, writing, and hiking; but it’s obvious that I’ll need to come back very soon. So, sorry about the somewhat short shaft, Portland – but thank you for the wonderful literary soak. I look forward to eating a Voodoo donut and watching unicycles parade the street.

Bonus Blurb: The mother of all volcanoes

Mount Saint Helens is surprisingly pretty for a former apocalyptic site.

Since it was just a quick detour on the way to Portland, it seemed worthwhile to visit one of the most infamous sites in the Northwest. Soon I was rolling up to what ostensibly looked like any other scenic vista in the region: dense forests, rippling waters, a beautiful, craggy mountain framed in the distance.

Then I took a walk.

It took approximately thirty seconds to encounter the first of the spider webs. Massive, silky monstrosities, intricately draped over every blade of grass. A quick scan of the marsh revealed that it was, in fact, completely covered in such webs. I didn’t see any of the arachnid architects themselves, but their handiwork was certainly unnerving.  The water was strange as well; brownish green up close, but just opaque enough to reveal perfectly preserved branches and debris beneath.

st helens woodsSPidertopiaLeavvvvesmt st helens

Whether these trends stem from the eruption or not was hard to tell, but it was certainly a fascinating area. The immediacy of the disaster was hard to ignore; when I was planning the trip, my dad recalled hearing about the eruption in college. It’s easy to forget just how precarious geography is.

A love letter to the San Juan

Many of the best stories feature a powerful relationship between place and people. Anne had her Green Gables, the Darling children had Neverland, and, well… I have the San Juan islands. Those beautiful, brilliant little burgs, sitting unassumingly between the U.S. and Canada, have a peace and a charm all their own. There are other places that have more activities, fascinating histories, glorious sights and people; but there’s something about that region that’s undeniably special. It remains the only place I’ve been that holds just as much joy as it did in childhood.

They are also, to paraphrase J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan, “So small that there’s scarcely any room between one adventure and the next.” In addition to all the natural beauty, there’s a remarkable level of creative output in the area. Quirky local writers, multimedia artisans, musicians galore – you’ll seldom be short on artistic options. You might, at any given time, go to a contra dance, learn about the origins of whales, browse through some terrific bookstores (and get treated to live readings as part of the bargain), or simply watch the water and wind and little bits of life go by. It’s its own sweet hybrid – northwestern, small town, big forest. If you hike to the top of Turtleback Mountain on Orcas Island, your view will include strips of Canada, Bill Gates’ vacation home, and an isolated chunk of land teeming with wild, exotic animals. It is quaint in some ways, but also wild, and undeniably itself.

But love cannot always be fully expressed in words, so here are some visual aids:

Madam SasquatchDancing ferryboat captainFerry boattttt!Shoreline OrcasTurtleback viewOctopus roadStained glass humpbackWhale skeletonCabinGrowing truckBeardy squatch

North of the border, Round One

Oh Canada, my traffic-snarled land.

It turns out that the drive from Bellingham to Vancouver is (a. Stupidly pleasant, (b. geographically short, and (c. an incredibly popular route. It also turns out that if you happen to drive straight into the city without a detailed map and plan, you will get hilariously lost, and abruptly find yourself enjoying/swearing at the beautiful shoreline that is in the exact opposite direction of where you intended to be. And if you then happen to turn around and oh-so-cleverly head back the way you came, you will encounter a sweet, slow parade celebrating the Almighty Construction Season. And if, after all that, you finally park in a random, pleasant neighborhood out of sheer frustration…

You may encounter one of the best afternoons of your life.

Having been foiled in my initial sightseeing plans, I inadvertently stumbled upon one of the gems of the city. As I disentangled from the car, I noticed a behemoth of a building several blocks ahead of me. It looked vaguely futuristic, vaguely retro, and potentially perfectly weird. Some exploring would be mandatory. I made my way past the neat, somewhat collegiate mansions and up to the main building, and was promptly greeted by some glorious scenery:

frickin gorgeous Canadian tree


With such a fine sentry at hand, the inside of the building could only harbor wondrous things. And indeed, it turned out to be quite a gem: the Museum of Vancouver, which is quietly producing some of the best exhibitions I’ve ever seen. To say that it offered a comprehensive history of the city is a colossal understatement; rarely have I seen a museum that so skillfully combined technical mastery with intellectual inquiry. I stayed for three hours, and could easily have lingered longer.

The first indication of greatness came from the plaques in the introductory gallery (incidentally, having an orientation space for such a massive building? Brilliant.). In a wonderfully meta move, the focus here was the very process of historical storytelling itself. Broken down toys sat beside a copy of Generation X, the classic generational showcase by the great author (and native son) Douglas Coupland. As the plaque on the wall explained, these objects represent the greater intricacies of museum work; their value – or lack thereof – is ascribed by collectors and curators, as well as, to some extent, the audience.

once upon a time vancouverTurtle head museumBeliefs = legacy

Despite being across the border from the main hotbed of chaos, it was clear that the current climate of optional truth was heavy on the curators’ minds. “Like you, I’m frightened by the post-truth world,” a statement from the head curator declared. “What do we believe about ourselves… about Vancouver?” It’s a compelling question, and one that was explored with great skill and depth throughout the various exhibits.

Appropriately, the first section focused on the history of the Musqueam First Nation. In addition to displaying an impressive selection of artifacts (which were obtained with the permission of their original owners), there was also ample attention paid to other cultural nuances, such as local mythologies and linguistics. While it would have been nice to have a slightly larger gallery, the exhibits served as a thoughtful and appropriate way of delving into the history of the region.

Musequeam alphabet

Diagram of the Musqueam alphabet.

The bulk of the museum was devoted to a decade-by-decade breakdown of the city’s history, supplemented with a terrific mixture of dioramas, artifacts, and walk-through galleries. Though this section was the most similar to other museums, the level of detail was still highly impressive. Then there were the special exhibits, ostensibly two ends of the spectrum. One of them, “Neon Vancouver, Ugly Vancouver,” housed artifacts from the more garish side of urbanity.

sprinting owlfuneral neon

Then there was the exhibit on the history of activism, which was as fascinating and intricate as promised. The last two rooms proved particularly moving. In one of them, interviews from prominent Vancouver activists played on small TVs. Overhead, chants played on a loop, providing an eerily accurate simulation of being in the thick of a protesting crowd. On each of the walls lay even more photos and excerpts, another reflection of the complex history laid out through the rest of the building. Labor disputes, environmentalism, education reform, racism, sexism, the rights of indigenous peoples – all of it was present, right up to the protests surrounding the 2010 Winter Olympics.

olympic creature protesttogether we stand projectionsolidarity pins

But perhaps the most powerful moment was in the next room, when I rounded the corner and came face-to-face with a hand-knit pussy hat, deep pink, resting behind glass. In an exhibit marked with visceral history – indeed, a whole museum of it – this was the most vivid. I must have seen a thousand such hats this year, bobbing down the main drag in St. Paul, blending with the neon slogans on protest signs. We crowded the streets, a solid mass of activism, protesting a million things. We rejected as one the appalling sexism that, forever festering in our country, had come violently to the forefront with the last election. And on the heads of so many singing, shouting, speaking great words, there were those hats. Across the world in New Zealand, my sister showed me her hand-knitted efforts, identical to the one displayed here. Never before had the speed and scope of history become so apparent, a physical jolt.

pussy hat

After the museum, I had just enough time to take in more beautiful views before heading back to the States.

Vancouver shorelineLast glimpse of Canada (for now)'MURICA


Until next time, Maple Leaf Land.