Freelining with Mike Freeman: Quiet ways to celebrate the season

ORLANDO – Maybe it’s nothing more than the inevitable process of getting older, but I find that I increasingly appreciate the smaller, quieter things in life.

Or maybe it has to do with living here in Central Florida, where every day in December we get television ads trumpeting all the ducky things we have to do to get into the holiday spirit.

Having just taken in a sneak peek of what Sea World is doing this year, I can tell you that yes, there’s a lot of fun holiday stuff to absorb at our theme parks.

Sea World's Ports of Call gets into the holiday spirit with this seasonal decoration.

But for me, I recently pondered the sublime pleasure of something else entirely: Light Up UCF and Rudolph. But first I had to figure out why.

Light Up UCF is the University of Central Florida’s gift to the holidays, and it won’t remind you of what the theme parks have to offer. It’s a modest event, with a flashy and colorful light show in the UCF Knight’s Plaza, an ice skating rink, a 100-foot ice slide, a merry go round, ferris wheel and Santa choo-choo train. The big neon flash of “Season’s Greetings” lights welcome you upon your arrival, although the music blasting from the skating rink ranges from Christmas favorites to country and even rock and rap.

I got there on Thanksgiving night with my sister, and noticed one thing right off: we didn’t spend a whole heck of a lot of time fighting the crowds. In fact, we almost were the crowd. There were no intimidating-looking lines at the rides, although the skating rink had attracted a decent number of folks and the kids were taking on that ice slide with gusto. My sister and I rode Santa’s train, feeling for all intents and purposes like we had left our childhood behind just a day or two ago, rather than the many long decades that have passed since we’d routinely beam with excitement at an event like this. 

The lights shine brightly at the University of Central Florida's Light Up UCF

Summed up that way, Light Up UCF must sound quite drab, a letdown for those who brave the lines at Walt Disney World or Universal Studios for the big stuff. But for me, it wasn’t dull at all. Granted, I didn’t spend hours at what essentially took me less than a half hour to enjoy. But enjoy it, I did. And as I said to begin with, I think I found myself appreciating the quiet solitude of Light Up UCF – no long lines to crawl through, no waiting an hour to hop on a ride, no pushing and shoving through mobs of tourists and locals. We strolled across the university campus like it was our own backyard.

The same was true last night when I sat down on the couch with a cup of hot chocolate and watched the annual showing of “Rudolph The Red Nose Reindeer,” the 1964 animated show with Burl Ives narrating the story of Rudolph, Hermey, Yukon Cornelius, and the rest of the gang as they save the day when it looks like Christmas might get cancelled due to a blinding snowstorm.

Seen today, the animation in “Rudolph” seems primitive. Computer-generated animation is so sophisticated by comparison that it seems limited only by the imaginations of the designers and artists. I hadn’t watched “Rudolph” in years and have no clue what convinced me to check it out again this year. But even if it makes the likes of “Shrek” seem monumentally artistic and creative by comparison, I found myself hopelessly caught up in a Rudolph nostalgia binge. There I was, quietly anticipating certain moments that proved to be alternately scary (how many times as a kid did I hide my face in my parents’ couch as the Abominable Snowman chased poor Rudolph and Hermey?), sad (remember those misfit toys that nobody wanted?) or perfectly capable of tugging effortlessly at the heartstrings (Clarice doesn’t care if Rudolph’s nose glows or not – awwww!). Maybe I loved the movie as a kid because I empathized with Rudolph and Hermey, and felt like I, too, was something of a misfit – but then again, didn’t we all feel that way as kids when we thought we didn’t fit in with the crowd?

In any case, I stayed with “Rudolph” to the very end, before “NCIS” came on and the holiday entertainment ended. It took me back, just briefly, to a happy time many holiday seasons ago … and so did Light Up UCF. 

Santa's Train is running at Light Up UCF

But as I said, maybe I just wanted the quiet, simple nostalgic buzz I got from that 1964 movie and that quaint little college festival. Not everything we do at this time of year has to be big and splashy and designed for massive crowds. Sometimes it’s the little things that really put you in the mood to celebrate the season.

Light Up UCF continues through Jan. 2, and tickets for the rides are $12. To learn more, call 407-823-6006.

Contact Mike Freeman at FreelineOrlando@Gmail.com.

Freelining with Mike Freeman: Depressed at 44

Being in your mid-40s isn't all that bad, when you give yourself a chance to relax a bit while revving up your goals and ambitions.

According to researchers, I should be miserable right now.

This should be the low point of my life.

Not because of a study on where I live, what my occupation is, how badly my hairline has receded. No, this study says the problem is my age.

The good news, though: I’ll get happier as I get older.

I’m totally confused.

A scientific study released in January basically claimed, “Middle age will make you miserable,” for those of you Baby Boomers born, like me, in the early 1960s. based on an international study of 2 million people from 80 nations, the researchers concluded that men and women in their 40s were most likely to be depressed and dissatisfied in life.

The researchers painted it this way: in your mid-forties, you’re at the bottom of a U-shaped curve. Put another way: you start out at a high point when you’re in your twenties. You’re full of energy, excitement about your potential, and a burning desire to succeed. You have dreams and you’re chasing them.

By your thirties, you’re starting to go downward: working your way up in your career, starting a family, buying a home, etc. This consumes you.

Then you hit your forties.

The dreaded forties.

One of the study’s co-authors, Andrew Oswald — an economist at the University of Warwick in Coventry, England — explained it this way to USA Today: “It’s midlife per se. It’s something deep beyond all the controls in our equation. It’s a developing midlife low. It doesn’t just happen one year and go away another.”

He said the probability of depression peaks around age 44 – and I’m just past that now.

I’m depressed to know I should even be depressed, even though I wasn’t particularly unhappy prior to reading the study.

The reason people are supposed to feel depressed at 44 is many of them think they had greater ambitions in life, and ended up settling for less than they wanted at age 20. Or they suddenly feel like they’re stuck in a situation — so-so marriage, blah job — that no longer satisfies them. They’re depressed because they think, Is this all there is? Is this the most I’ll ever achieve?

Then, as they get into their fifties, their aspirations and expectations get lower. They hope for less and they expect less. Since they no longer have a burning desire to be a) a great ballerina; b) president of the United States; c) salesman of the month once a decade … they begin to get happier because they no longer care if their grandest ambitions have fallen into the toilet.

Boy, cheerful study, huh? I wonder if the folks who market Prozac are incorporating it into their advertising. I guess according to this theory, by the time you’re 75, you’ll get up every morning acting like you just inhaled laughing gas. Then 82 should be sheer nirvana — break out the party hats!

The study — by Oswald and economist David Blanchflower of Dartmouth College in Hanover, N.H., and published in the journal Social Science & Medicine — doesn’t offer up much hope for my forty-something crowd. As Oswald told USA Today, “You can be almost certain you will follow this U-shaped curve. If you are finding life tough in your 40s, maybe it’s useful to know this is completely normal.”

I find that so comforting as I stand here on the edge of the bridge, ready to jump.

But the real problem for me is that as I look back on my life, I don’t think I’m on a U-shaped curve. I’m more like an arrow pointing up that hasn’t reach the top yet or started to go down. True, there are things about getting older that I don’t like: less hair on your head, more in your nose, and having a harder time staying awake at night for your fave TV shows.I particularly hate what aging does to your feet. If I had known this at age 20, I would have stopped aging. But ….

I wasn’t all that impressed with my twenties. It took me a while to settle into a career — I got my first newspaper job at age 25, and had many unpleasant jobs before that — and I didn’t make much money throughout that entire decade. I got my first professional job at a daily newspaper at age 28. Life got better in my 30s. I settled into my first stable relationship, and I’m still there all these years later.

I also got bolder as I got older, quitting my job and relocating from New England to Florida. I started off with no job to go to, no great career prospects at a time when the economy was tanking following the 9-11 terrorist attacks. I didn’t find a hot job right away. But eventually it happened, and I landed a job that I love, much better than the one I left behind.

Living in the big tourist city of Orlando, I’m having more fun than I did in my twenties or thirties. I make more money now than in past decades. To me, it’s a relief to no longer be where I was a decade — or even two decades — ago. I’m just plain happier today than as a twentysomething or thirtysomething. Why? Maybe some people just settle for mediocrity as their lot in life.

Maybe because my expectations in life got stronger as I got older, and I had no qualms about pursuing them. I was still trying to find myself at 24, still trying to break out of my shell, still hoping to stop being the shy, quiet, introverted guy I was back then. That man doesn’t exist anymore. And I like that.

So to hell with the researchers and their U-shaped curve. Life is sweet, baby, and getting groovier by the minute. My curve is still pointing to the sky.

Contact Mike Freeman at FreelineOrlando@Gmail.com.

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