Remembering Road Trips

May 25, 2015

Few things in life are simultaneously as rewarding and annoying for a family as a long road trip.  While preparing (both physically and mentally) recently to hit the open road with my family, I found myself reminiscing about my childhood experiences on American interstates.  Although I probably wouldn’t have said I enjoyed these trips at the time, I have very fond memories.

When I was a kid my family never flew, but rather always opted for the (extremely) close companionship that a road trip in a Japanese compact sedan offered.  Although he held no official certification or title, my dad was a MRTD (Master Road Trip Driver).  It has taken me over forty years, along with many trips where I was at the helm with my own wife and kids, to fully understand the awesome abilities my dad possessed.  He could eat a cheeseburger, hold a coke between his legs, read the map in his lap, and blindly spank me and my sister’s legs, while barreling down the highway at nine mph over the speed limit (because ten over gets you ticketed), using only his left knee to steer.  Or at least this is how I remember it – something tells me my mom was assisting. 

Despite being an incredibly multitasking driver, my old man was typically grumpy on the road, at least for the first hundred miles or so.  My mom, our co-pilot, would do her best to keep me and my sister calm, quiet and patient.  This, however, was not an easy task with two youngsters who were extremely excited about reaching a destination that was many hours, if not days, away.  This was in the early 1980s when kids didn’t have a phone, tablet, or laptop to keep them occupied.  We couldn’t text our friends, watch epic fails on YouTube, or use an app to make fart noises.  Hell, in the early days, we didn’t even have a Walkman to listen to.  My sister and I were crammed in the backseat of a 1979 Honda Accord (or something very similar, but newer, as the years passed), and many times the most entertaining thing to do was competing to see who could annoy the other one more.  Unfortunately, the most annoyed person usually ended up being my dad…

“No more talking, period,” my dad would declare about seven minutes into most trips.

This didn’t phase my sister, who would then proceed to find a way to make me laugh – and make sure I got a blind spanking.  I never minded the spankings, though.  My dad could never get an effective angle from the driver’s seat, and he wasn’t really trying to make it hurt, anyway.  If he wanted it to hurt, the car would have been pulled over.

Our road trip meals were usually something from a drive-through, to make sure we maximized time.  My sister and I would each get a burger, but often shared fries and a drink, to maximize money.  We may have wanted a little more to eat (and we probably got an earful for dropping crumbs), but I recall these cheap meals in the car always tasting great and being much more fun than eating inside the restaurant.  After some food and an hour or so on the road, my dad would loosen up and repeal the silence mandate.  This is when we started having some fun.

We loved when it rained, because my dad could make it stop!  My sister is three years younger than me, and for years my dad had her convinced that he could briefly stop the rain by snapping his fingers.  What she didn’t realize, of course, is that he snapped just as we went under overpasses.  It was truly magic to my sister, though.  This trick worked great years later on my own kids.

We played the alphabet game, where we raced to find each letter of the alphabet (in order) in the words on signs and billboards we passed.  This was really a game for my parents, but my sister and I always thought we had a chance to win.  Sadly, no one wants to play this game these days.  It sure seemed fun back then.

My sister and I played “slug bug,” looked for license plates from far away states (it was so cool to spot Alaska plates), and sometimes just took in our surroundings.  Kids don’t appreciate it at the time, but road trips allow you to really see and experience America.  We witnessed mirages in the desert, were gripped with fear driving through mountains, rolled through areas of extreme poverty in the South, and saw incredible mansions on the West Coast.  We stayed in very nice hotels and rather dirty motels.  We drove through tiny college towns and the largest cities in the country.

We listened to oldies on cassette tapes, which today would truly be “golden oldies.”  Bands ranging from The Beach Boys to CCR to The Kingsman.  One of my favorite childhood memories is the four of us belting out every word to all eight and a half minutes of Don McLean’s “American Pie.”  We sang along to this on every trip.  I think about this whenever I hear the song now, and it makes me both happy and a little sad.

Eventually we would all grow tired and agree that some peace and quiet would be nice.  I remember my sister and I lying in opposite directions in the back seat (the importance of seat belts wasn’t stressed quite so much then), as we watched clouds move across the windows.  The hum of the engine and the occasional thumping of the tires slowly lulled us to sleep.

In retrospect, I understand the significance of these road trips.  It was a small slice of my life, covering a span of only seven years or so, but it was a time when my family was together, which I don’t remember happening a whole lot in my childhood.  My parents divorced when I was thirteen, and suddenly there would be no more family trips.

My dad, sister, and I did go on one more road trip after the divorce.  Oddly, I don’t recall our final destination on that trip, but I remember many things that happened while on the road.  I was certain for miles that we were being followed by a biker gang (I had flipped off one of the bikers, but I don’t think he actually saw me), my dad left us in the car when he stopped at a liquor store in East St. Louis (it was the only place he could find Coors Light, and we were only alone in the car for a minute or two), and, as usual, we listened to great music (my dad bought me my first Led Zeppelin album on that trip).  It was a great time, but it wasn’t the same without my mom.

That was the last road trip I took with my family.  Shortly after, I hit that age where I thought I was too old and cool to go on a family vacation.  My dad remarried and started flying for most of his trips, anyway.  Things were never really the same, as they never are at some point in all of our lives.  Funny how that happens.

If your family is squeezing into a car to travel, consider yourself lucky.  Not only because you are able to take a trip, but because you are getting to spend valuable time together.  Ask your kids to turn off their devices (or at least remove their earbuds) for a while.  Try to take it all in and remember the details.  The time together may seem like a chore now, but it has the potential to mean a lot…somewhere down the “road.”

My son starts middle school tomorrow.  This truly seems impossible, as I have such a vivid recollection of trying to console my sobbing wife after we dropped him off at daycare for the first time.  That was nearly twelve years ago.  I know from experience and from the words of people older and wiser than me that time isn’t going to slow down any.  On the contrary, it will most likely seem to accelerate.  If I had the middle school years to do over (and I’m glad I don’t), these are five things I would want to consider, so I will share them with my son.  I’m sure he won’t want to listen, but between the eye-rolling and sighing, maybe something will stick.

1.  Don’t take things too seriously:  Despite what you might hear, there really is no “permanent record” at your age.  You are going to make mistakes, make bad choices, and make a fool of yourself.  Don’t beat yourself up; learn to laugh at yourself instead.  If you do this, it will be much harder to be hurt when others laugh at you — and they will.  When you stumble, make it part of your dance.  When you fall down, pick yourself up (with a chuckle).

2.  Be yourself:  I know this will sound crazy, but please don’t worry about being one of the “cool” people.  Being yourself, instead of trying to be someone you think people want you to be, is one of the secrets to finding true happiness.  You are a great person, and don’t let anyone tell you differently.  By being yourself, you are giving people a great opportunity — the chance to know the real you.  By the way, many of the so-called nerds, dorks, freaks and geeks will grow up to be much more interesting than the current “in crowd.”

3.  Be kind and compassionate to everyone:  Kids will be mean, but you don’t have to be.  Everyone you meet will be worried about something, sad about something, and will have problems similar to yours — or possibly much worse.  Set an example by treating these people the way you want to be treated.  It’s just that simple.  Remember that the best way to get rid of enemies is by becoming their friends, and that the best kind of popularity is to be admired for your kindness.  People will notice kindness.

4.  You can talk to me and Mom about anything:  Your mom and I are extremely interested in what’s going on in your life.  We want you to be happy to talk to us about all of the good things, and to be totally comfortable coming to us with any questions or problems.  You will go through times when you feel like there is no one to listen, but we are always ready and willing.  Yep, we are your parents, so there may be times when we get upset or are disappointed.  Regardless, we will always have your back.  Don’t forget that we were your age — and it wasn’t that long ago.  We had the same questions you will have, and we made the same mistakes you will make.  Let us in.  Please.

5.  Be a kid as long as possible:  High school, dating, driving, getting your first job…  These are all things you’re excited about, I know.  Trust me, though, that one day, which will seem way too soon, you will look back and ask where your childhood went.  For now just have some fun.  Play hard, laugh loud and be silly, ride your bike with no hands, and do cannonballs off the high-dive.  You will have plenty of time to be older, but you will never be younger.  Bottle some of that youth up, however, because the good news is that you are never too old to act young.

Hopefully my son will heed at least some of my advice.  Come to think of it, I should too.  We all should.

DOES THE COLOR MATTER, the large, bold, all capital letters asked.  It was front and center on my son’s fifth grade science fair exhibit, and upon seeing it I was immediately mortified that people would get the wrong idea.  I could just imagine the scuttlebutt that would develop as teachers and parents entered the gymnasium where the fair was being held…

“Does the color matter?  What the hell kind of display is this?”

“Who does this punk think he is?”

“Who does this child belong to?”

“Oh yeah, his family has always seemed racist!”

Let me give you a little background info.  First of all, my family is in no way racist.  On the contrary, my wife and I are committed advocates for equality; regardless of race, gender, religion, sexual orientation, etc., and we raise our family with these values.  Secondly, the purpose of my son’s exhibit was to show the results of an experiment to determine if colored candles burn at a different pace than white candles.  I know, I know, suddenly your focus has changed from the poor choice of wording on the exhibit, to the incredibly irrelevant subject matter of the experiment.  I mean, what should everyone do, stop buying blue candles if they burn faster?  But don’t let yourself get too distracted.

The exhibit was finished around 9:00 the night before the fair was to take place.  As usual with these types of school projects, despite my kid having weeks to do the work, it wasn’t done until the last minute (some people might point at the parents about this problem).

“Check it out!” he exclaimed.

“Whoa…”  I grimaced.  “Are you sure that might not send the wrong message?”

“What, oh no, it’s fine.”  He even knew what I was talking about.

“How about changing it to read, CANDLESDOES THE COLOR MATTER?'”

“You’re being ridiculous, Dad!  It’s fine,” he said with frustration.  He had been occasionally (rarely) working on this for weeks – not to mention for hours that evening, and he was ready to be done.  “How about just telling me it looks good?”

I knew he was probably right, so I let it go.  I’m well aware that I can be far too serious/sensitive about political correctness.

The next day the science fair went great.  I saw no sign of anyone being upset.  In retrospect, I feel bad that I was bothered by it, and truly wish I would have simply complimented my boy on his hard work.  While he is very intelligent, assignments requiring some creativity are not his cup of tea.  Hey, it could have been worse.  He could have done a different experiment resulting in a display asking, DOES THE SIZE MATTER?  Or, heaven forbid, DOES THE COLOR MATTER IN RELATION TO THE SIZE?

In case you’re wondering, color does matter when it comes to how candles burn.  It turns out that red candles burn faster.  I can only assume that news of this will soon get out, resulting in either a huge surplus of red candles or a very significant reduction in price.  I mean, who is going to waste their money on a candle that burns a little faster than others?

One last thing.  Considering that nearly half (literally) of the science fair exhibits displayed the results of mixing Mentos (you know, the Freshmaker) with Coca-Cola, I’m damn proud of my kid.  The one who loves people of all colors.

“Dad, whatever you do, please don’t embarrass me!”

These were my daughter’s words before her boyfriend came over to pick her up for the first official date of her life.  I wish.  Okay, I certainly don’t wish she was dating, but that would make a lot more sense.  She actually said it before going to meet a former preschool classmate for a play date.  You see, she’s only five years old.

Silly, crazy, ridiculous, over-the-top, annoying, please stop, you’re embarrassing me, you’re embarrassing yourself…  These are all words and phrases that my tweenage son (and quite possibly my wife) might call me or say to me at any given time.  I admit that I might (definitely) tend to overdo it on the jokes, and that my sense of humor is sometimes (usually) a little (very) bizarre.  Personally, I think I’m very funny.  I crack myself up on an hourly basis.  Maybe I need to chill out a bit, though?

Perhaps I shouldn’t sing along (in my falsetto voice) to the horrible pop songs that my son insists on listening to — when his friends are in the car with us.

It might be best if I didn’t ask the costumed mascots to hug my kid at every high school, collegiate and professional sporting event we attend.

I probably shouldn’t, after dropping the boy off for school and letting him enter the mob of kids waiting to get in the front door, holler, “I forgot to say I love you!”

That time, during the back to school sale at a Target packed with similarly aged “cute” girls, maybe I shouldn’t have yelled from way down the aisle, “Hey bud, I found that Justin Bieber notebook you were looking for.”  Yes, in retrospect, that definitely wasn’t cool.  

But alas, I have done these things, and many others that are possibly (without a doubt) worse.  Too many to remember them all.  Is it bad that I don’t want to stop?  Won’t it make my son less embarrassed by the awkward moments he encounters in the future?  I’d like to think so.  Or, maybe I just selfishly enjoy the pleasure it gives me.

But hold on, now my five year old daughter is already paranoid that I might do something wrong.  The writing is on the wall, I really ought to take it down a notch.  I, myself, am a little embarrassed that she feels this way (but also secretly pleased).  

Okay, I’ve made up my mind, I will try to be better.  When that first date does finally come around, I want my daughter to insist that I meet her boyfriend, and even keep him company while she finishes doing her hair.

“Have a seat, pal,” I will politely say.  Then, rather than saying something embarrassing about my daughter and putting the fear of God into the young man, I will only choose the latter.  If this causes any embarrassment for anyone, so be it.  I never made any promises, I only said I would try.


Photo Credit:

Admit it guys, sometimes we are clueless. We could really try harder. Thank God for our moms, or we would be even worse. The following is absurd fiction. Or is it…?

It’s very obvious that today is Mother’s Day. Why, you ask? Because nine out of ten people in the grocery store this morning are dudes. Yes, I am one of them. I’m sacrificing my sleep in order to be a good husband to the mother of my children, and am at the store buying breakfast items, allowing her to sleep in. 

Upon entering the store, I immediately notice a large group of guys huddled together, jockeying for position, like desert nomads who have come across a small, evaporating oasis. “What the hell is happening here,” I ask myself? “It might be a fight! Fight, fight,” I begin to chant. But as I get closer, I realize it’s only the Mother’s Day cards display (which is always in the front of the store so men can easily find it). Bummer. Wait, I should get one of those for my wife. You know, to be from the kids.

After shoving and clawing to get to the front row of the mob, I see that there are seven cards remaining. Excellent — that’s more than enough to find something that really speaks from the heart. I spot one that boldly states “I Love You” on the front, and grab it. It is already very touching, and I can only assume it will be even better on the inside. I make sure the card fits in the envelope, because so often it seems they don’t, then move on. So far so good.

Next task: Getting food for breakfast.

Because it’s Mother’s Day, a special occasion in my house, I feel like I should get something besides, or better yet, in addition to donuts. Yes, donuts and scrambled eggs it shall be. I get the donuts first, because I know where they are. All men have the uncanny ability to immediately locate donuts (and beer) in any grocery store throughout the country. The government only dreams of one day harnessing this power to use for military purposes. I get to the bakery. Damn, another line of fellows waiting for donuts. I notice that several of them are holding Mother’s Day balloons, perhaps to give to their moms or wives. “Balloons…how immature,” I scoff under my breath. After a short wait, it’s my turn, and I load up a baker’s dozen. Now to start my quest for a dozen eggs.

This store is vast, with so many aisles. Men are walking around aimlessly, their eyes glazed over. I start down aisle number one.  No eggs. I continue on aisles two and three. No luck. I’m hungry, so I eat the thirteenth donut. Suddenly, I spot a young woman…

“Excuse me, what are you doing here? I take it you aren’t a mother?”

“Um, I work here, sir,” she politely replies.

“Oh great, can you tell me where the chicken stuff is?” I expect her to lead me to the aisle that has chicken breasts, thighs, legs, livers, gizzards, farm fresh eggs, etc.

“Chicken stuff?” She looks puzzled. 

“You know, eggs and stuff.” I try not to roll my eyes, but I’m growing impatient.

“Oh, that would be down in the dairy section,” she points to the far opposite end of the store.

I’m extremely annoyed, but try to cordially thank her for the assistance. “Dairy?” I mumble to myself. “Who designs these stores?”

I get the eggs, and after what seems like an eternity, finally get through the checkout line. The pimply-faced sacker doesn’t even offer to carry my bag out to the car. This experience, which started so well by finding the perfect card, has really turned out to be a disappointing pain in the ass. Oh well, I know breakfast will be good – my wife is a great cook. Plus, my tee time is just a couple hours away…

Thank you and Happy Mother’s Day to all the moms (and non-moms who helped raise boys) out there. Hopefully none of you have to put up with any dolts like this guy, but let’s face it, we men sometimes behave like only slightly evolved primates at best. Can you imagine how much worse we would be, were it not for the guidance of our mothers? 

Go enjoy your day, moms — and don’t take any crap from your husbands!

Imagine That

May 7, 2015

“The world is but a canvas to the imagination.” – Henry David Thoreau

“Land ahoy, me hearties,” cried my daughter, Ainsley, from the helm.  “Let’s go get the treasure!”  The helm was actually a steering wheel attached to the jungle gym at our neighborhood playground, but to Ainsley it was real.  More “real” than anything she could watch on TV.  “Sit down behind me,” she instructed, then she took us on a voyage.

It had been a slow morning, and I was trying to think of something fun to do.  As a stay-at-home dad,  I like to get out of the house everyday, but we were both feeling a little lazy.  I threw out a couple of ideas, “We could go for a hike or play tennis?  How about the library?”

“Let’s just walk down to the park,” Ainsley suggested.

I have to admit that going to the park, while very easy (and free), isn’t my favorite activity.  Ainsley loves it, but I worry that it isn’t enough.  By “enough” I mean, what is she getting out of it, other than some outdoor time and exercise?  These are obviously important, but I also want her to be doing something productive.  When we hike, we talk about nature.  When we play tennis, she is getting better at a sport.  The library obviously has a lot of productive possibilities.

“Okay, the park it is,” I conceded.  “Tomorrow we are going back to the library, though.”

Our neighborhood park is about a half mile walk.  Once we arrive, I usually play with Ainsley for a bit, then let her run around on her own while I sit and watch.  This gives me a little time to make a grocery list, catch up on emails, or just relax and try not to remember the laundry waiting for me at home.  Sometimes there are other kids there, which is great.  It was just the two of us on this day, however, and I decided I would actively play with her the entire time.  This is when we had our voyage.  It was a short trip (it wasn’t long before the allure of the monkey bars became overwhelming), but it was long enough that it made me think about what it means to be “productive.”  It occurred to me that using her imagination like that, even for ten minutes, is equally as important as reading books, exercising, or a number of other so-called productive activities.

Do our kids today use their imagination as much as children of past generations?  I don’t have the answer, but you have to wonder.  Many kids now grow up with 1000 TV channels, the internet, and video games.  Electronic tablets are as common as books.  School districts (including my family’s, which is considered to be one of the more financially sound districts in our city) are cutting art and music budgets.  I have read about some districts in the U.S. that are completely eliminating art and music programs.

It sure seems like less and less is left to the imagination?  This is a shame, and the trend needs to be reversed. 

Hey all you grown-ups out there; using your imagination is fun.  Can you remember?  Sharing your imagination with your children is even better.  Pablo Picasso said, “It takes a very long time to become young.”  Think about that for a second.  Today Ainsley and I are going back to the park.  I’m going to fly a rocket ship.

Let me preface this post by saying that it is very important to me to be a person who doesn’t judge, or seem judgmental, towards others.  However, it is more important to me that I defend what I think is right – or stand up against what I believe to be wrong.  I hope readers agree.

This morning I read two disturbing blog posts from Amanda Goodman, an anchor with KWWL Channel 7 News, located somewhere in Iowa.  I encourage everyone to read the posts “We are PARENTS – not FRIENDS” and “The ‘Entitlement Generation'” on Amanda’s cleverly named blog, Anchor Mom.  The gist of these blogs (or my interpretation, at least) is that parents today are too easy on their children, and that kids these days have a sense of entitlement, don’t respect adults or authority figures, are praised rather than challenged, and are basically “spoiled, entitled brats.”  Although broad generalizations (and something every generation in history has said about its youth), all ideas I might tend to agree with on the surface.  Wait, though, she also indicates that it is okay to physically abuse your kids (insert the “record scratching to a stop” noise here).

While Amanda claims her parents didn’t “beat” her, she proudly writes about being “hit with a wooden spoon,” and how she “got the back of (her) mom’s hand to (her) mouth” if she back-talked, and that one crazy time when she missed curfew so her mother grabbed her hair and “literally ripped (her) out of the car…(with) a good grasp on (her) scalp…nails digging into (her) head…”  All of these examples are apparently just Amanda’s ideas of good parenting, since she goes on to state that “I am thankful I was raised the way I was raised in the era I was raised in.”  (Yes, she used the word “raised” three times here.)  She also writes, “Clearly (my parents) did something right (with a happy face/winking emoticon).  And let’s be real for a minute, it wasn’t all about a wooden spoon.  It was about manners and respect.”

Amanda, may I suggest (actually, recommend) that you can teach manners and respect without physically hurting your children?  It’s my opinion that hitting is an indication that the parent doesn’t have the patience to properly discipline their kids.  As a result, the easiest (and probably most self-gratifying) thing to do is to lash out at the child who is acting up.  You say your parents didn’t beat you, but getting back-handed regularly (or ever) is abuse in my book.  You say it teaches respect, but I believe it teaches the opposite of respect – it teaches a child that it is acceptable to hurt someone if they do something the child doesn’t like.  Abuse at home is a leading cause of bullying at school, but I’m sure you already know this from your anti-bullying efforts, which your station’s website mentioned.  Abused children are also more likely to become abusive parents.  Hopefully you haven’t already discovered this.

Suzy Kassam said, “Stand up for what is right, regardless of who is committing the wrong.”  I’m not saying, Amanda, that your parents were horrible people or that they didn’t care for you, but they were abusive.  I know you will probably continue to disagree with my opinion that what they did was wrong.  Despite this, I at least hope you don’t (mis)treat your own children the way you were (mis)treated.  You don’t have to hurt kids to avoid “send(ing) spoiled, entitled brats into the world.”  I’m no expert on child abuse, and I’m far from a perfect parent or person.  However, I’m a good enough parent and person to know that if I ever see you yanking your child from a car by the hair, you will have to deal with me.