What We Did On Our Summer Vacation: Part Two

THE ARRIVAL

          If given the choice between a box of corgi puppies and a box of rusted nails my children will immediately be drawn to the second choice. So it was of no surprise that on entering “Casa De This Will Do” late in the evening after a full days travel the first game they began to play in our Lilliputian living space was a ferocious game of tag. I have to constantly struggle with intense and clear pictures of “what could go wrong” appearing in my mind’s eye. My son who has the coordination you might expect a “sensitive” and “verbal” child to have was careening around a corner in pursuit of his much nimbler little sister. I saw him flail towards the edge of the rustic stone fireplace and my imagination treated me to a bloody scene ripped from a Sam Peckinpah film. I hastily moved the couch (with my 6’2” friend laying on it reading a book) almost on top of the hearth which interrupted the circular path my children where stampeding around. With the runway now blocked my children took on the demeanor of two idling motorcycles. Their engines were ready to explode forth in celebration of windblown freedom but “the man” had closed down the boulevard ‘cause them damn hippies need haircuts. It was now time to switch gears. Feed the beasties. That would calm the proceedings down. A hastily but nonetheless tasty meal of spaghetti and meat sauce was prepared with alacrity by my wife’s bestie. Carbohydrates slowed the little ones down enough to begin the bedtime ritual. Black candles were lit and the nightly incantations were made loudly to the phantasmagorical liegemen of the sandman. So many goats were given up that night. Sleep. At long last sleep. I later looked out over the woods our cabin was plopped in. We made it. Vacation…or whatever the hell you call it.

LUNCH TIME

          For lunch on the second day our group settled on a pizza place in Gatlinburg Tennessee. There is nothing like relaxing with searing hot bread slathered with cheese and tomato sauce in the 98 degree heat. After overhearing the host tell a passing friend “I told my second grade teacher I only needed to learn three letters: ‘U’ ‘S’ and ‘A’ which spells ‘freedom’” we were placed on the veranda which overlooked the main strip of town. Gatlinburg is a carnival-like mishmash of biker t-shirts stores, Christian candle shops, fudge purveyors, wax museums, and olde timey novelty photographers. It’s ground zero of the oversized belt buckle of America. I grew up in Indiana so outwardly I reject places like this and inwardly I’m strangely drawn to them. Like Ben Folds once sang: “my redneck past is nipping at my heels”. So there we were eating blazing hot oily pizza in the egg drop soup-like summer air with the odor of corndogs wafting unrepentantly over the proceedings when my children leaned up on the tall metal guard rail. There is no chance they would fall. None. They would have to pull themselves up three feet and then pull off an advanced trapeze maneuver to even be close to danger. I’m in an almost constant police action with myself over letting my kids experience life while keeping them from suffering lasting damage. My 50% free range 50% helicopter parenting at times makes my behavior resemble a gonzo journalist huffing raw ether in 1970’s Las Vegas. I was however positive they were going to plummet to their end and wind up in a broken pile surrounded by a group of “I’m with stupid” shirt wearing locals who would toothlessly shout “at least they’re with the angels now”. Yet my wife and friends seemed totally unbothered by the kids location. They were safe as could be and they carried on with their conversation. I had to nervously look away with the affect of a paranoid accountant who has just finished his fifth rip off a giant Buddha shaped pipe stuffed with government grade marijuana. My wife asked:

“Mike? Are you okay” and my response was almost a bark of

“Fine! I’m good. I’m great. What a day we’re having.”. Stares. I started pacing. The kids were still leaning on the rail and now pointing at a small cadre of people on mobility scooters.

“I wonder where our waiter is with the check?! Maybe I should go find him so we can get going!”

“I’m still drinking my beer”

“Haven’t you had enough?”

“Excuse me? I’ve had one”

“Is it hot out here?”

“Mike! What’s the matter?”

“I just want the kids to not lean on the rail!”

“They’re fine. They’re just looking”

“Look I saw an internet video where a bunch of people fell from a hotel because a rail gave way! It would make me feel a whole lot better if they got down!”

This was a lie to cover up my volcanic and irrational fear that had now spilled out into the immediate circle of tables. My wife gave me the look I deserved and I excused myself to go to the bathroom. I bumbled past the Guy Ferri themed bar and while waste deep in my chagrin I almost walked right into Honey Boo-Boo. No joke. She and her mother from that reality show were walking out of the restaurant. There in my moment of terrible dadness I was faced with Honey “Sketti and Butter” Boo-Boo. At least I was fairly sure it was them. Many folks in my immediate vicinity resembled some form of the Thompson family. Why was the universe presenting me with the grand poohbah of all odd parenting in this my time of paternal paranoid preposterousness (did I just earn that alliteration? Probably not). I darted to the bathroom and washed my face repeatedly. The oil and sweat mingled with the soap. I was lost for a second. “I’m gonna screw these kids up aren’t I?” I said out loud. The guy next to me in a “Make America Great” t-shirt mumbled in a slow and steady drawl “Probably”.  My mother was totally overprotective and even she would have paid no attention as I rappelled off the side of a building. Mama June while unconcerned with the fifth bag of flaming hot Cheetos her daughter just ate would probably be the type to keep Honey Boo-Boo off that rail. Was I Mama June? A parent too concerned with made up dangers to even notice the real ones? How long have I been staring into this mirror with a soap oozing down into my beard? Why are three dudes with mullets staring at me? I’m blocking the door.

I returned to my friends no more refreshed than when I left but I was relieved to see them all ready to depart. The children were now quietly coloring a picture of the Twin Towers and an American eagle they had been handed by our waiter earlier in the meal. We left and I garbled another explanation for my departure from sanity to everyone about how the made up internet video I saw truly impacted me. My friends and wife were generous and more than willing to put the whole thing out of their minds as we waltzed into an olde timey photographers. We dressed as outlaws as the photographer made aggressively sexist jokes. The day was saved.

THE FIRE

          Me and JackSitting around a fire that night with everyone was honestly the highlight of the entire experience for me. Sure chiggers were secretly attaching themselves onto my inner thigh while innumerous unnerving eyes were staring at us through the surrounding darkness and it was much too humid to enjoy the warmth of the flames but none of that really mattered. The stars were in the sky gently reminding us of the gorgeous mysteries that exist beyond our world and my children were roasting marshmallows. A guitar was lazily strummed and the assemblage of the perfect s’more was debated with playful aggression. My daughter even asked me to read the story I most love to read to her: “The Letter” from “Frog and Toad Are Friends”. I have my Master’s Degree in acting so my opportunities to perform are extremely limited at best and I relished the chance to publicly show off the voices I had developed for gentle Frog and the irascible Toad over the many months I’ve been reading this story over and over to my daughter. All was right with the world. I didn’t think about my responsibilities as a parent. I was Dad in that moment. Relieving to reflect on and absolutely lovely to experience. The fire began to crackle a little less and my son told a wandering and quietly non-sequitur ghost story. More songs. Sleeping children carried inside only to awake at the last minute by a spider drunkenly dancing across the glass portion of the front door. Yelling. Calming. Quieting. Hugging. Teeth brushing. No more story telling. Sleeping. Parents snacking. This may be the best of times.

What We Did On Our Summer Vacation: Part One

fireI think I read on the back of my cereal box that the word “vacation” is defined as a “freedom or release from duty, business, or activity”. Traveling with my wife and children for a legion of hours in an overpacked four seated vehicle to a small “rustic” (read: spiders in your shoes) cabin in the deep fried southern mountains of western North Carolina doesn’t quite meet those requirements. Duty?  If my wife and I aren’t using our Sarah Connor level focus someone will probably sustain a life altering injury or end up being chased by bears or enraged locals. Business? As a stay-at-home dad my business is the business of always watching the kids so there isn’t much respite there. Activity? Activities are the sweet enduring life blood of the semi-sane parent. Keep the activities going full tilt or the children might just realize you’re sitting down for a second to feel the mountain breeze on your face as though you’re the only person on earth..you know…sweet lord in heaven just for a damned second.

So what do you call a period of time spent with small people in a place other primates typically go to “vacation”? Is it a “recreational dry run” to practice an array of vacation-like behaviors so one day your progeny will be able to mutually enjoy the scenery with you? I’m not sure it is because by the time I could really appreciate scenery I was too old to want to go with my parents anywhere. Is it a “locational respite”? A place to shake things up and reboot behaviors? If that’s the case I’m fairly sure the journey though the toddler vomit inducing winding mountain roads wasn’t all that necessary because there is a perfectly lovely park across the street from my house that fits the definition of a“different location”. Perhaps it’s just a “universal rite of passage”. “You went WHERE with a two and five year old? And! AND! You SURVIVED!?? Allow me to buy you a drink pal! Hey Dave! Get a load of this guy! He took his kids to a CABIN!”

My wife and I (along with some dear family friends…the kind so dear they’re amenable to traveling long distances to spend time with our kiddos) had decided to head to the mountains of North Carolina for a “trip” (let’s just call it that). The journey began with packing the car for nearly half a day on a Friday. I truly remember a stage in my life where I could toss some deodorant, a tooth brush, a few t-shirts, and some underwear in a Kroger bag and be out the door. Now there’s a process and lists to be reckoned with. Contingency plans must be designed, considered, and prepared for. Long dead Roman senators must be communicated with via a trio of albino Slovakian mediums in the belly of an ancient Native American burial ground. The gravitational constant of the known universe must be readjusted using ancient alien technology delicately pulled from the wreck of a starship at the bottom of the Mariana Trench. Packing for a trip with young beings is not a task to be taken lightly. Oh sure there are stores along the way you can hit up if you may have missed something but it’s those things you need in an emergency that you can’t wait for a google search of “nearest grocery store” to appear across your screen cracked phone that present the problem. It’s just best to bring everything. Tie the rocking chair to the roof of the car Pa Joad because you’ve got yourself some bear cubs in them car seats.

Our first stop was the house of my wife’s parents to spend the night before setting out on the remainder of our pilgrimage to the land of knife stores and pottery stands. Arriving much too late in the evening my daughter was extracted from her car seat only to walk into my mother-in-law’s waiting arms and immediately throw-up. This regurgitative response was due to the hastily consumed road food combining with the carsickness that both my tadpoles seem to be stricken with. This motion-sickness always seems to result in wild chundering when parking a car or recently exiting one. It’s not that the middle of a journey is a better time to toss cookies but for me I struggle with the fact that the two of them allow my wife and I to think that perhaps this time we’ll make it to a destination without having to use a Starbucks stir-stick to extract regurgitated goldfish crackers from the seatbelt clasp. This time we won’t have to spend an hour deodorizing the car with archaic dark magic before we get back in right? Mighty Zeus please tell us that this time we will be puke free?! No. Lies. All lies.

When my son was born I promised something imbecilic and ridiculous to myself. He would have no screen time until the age of four and then only strongly limited screen time until he left the house for college. Pardon me while I laugh the laugh of a thousand laughs. That strange guttural hollering noise you just thought you heard in the alleyway sixty stories below your rent controlled apartment is not a hobo fight but the eternal echo of my booming laughter at the dense pronouncements on the usefulness of screen time I had made when holding my newborn babe in my uncertain arms. After I set up the dual dvd players in the back seat and slammed random Pixar offerings into the players whirring interiors my wife took the wheel (because she wants to get there tonight and not a week from now) and we zoomed off down the road. Four minutes passed before I found myself in a Kmart looking for sunscreen and granola. Civilizations rose and fell, whole species evolved into unique variations of their primal forms when we pulled into the cabin. It had been a day. My wife aged well. Her hair now a deep white belied the life still in her eyes. I was a lumpy skeleton filled with unfortunate piles of preservative laden fast-food choices made with no consideration for my future health or happiness. The kids were a wild mess of sugar, tenderfooted frustrations, and John Lassetertonian philosophical hopefulness.   My daughter took one look at our cabin and said grimly “this will do”.

                                                                           More to follow….

(Photo Credit:Emily Schwartz 2016)

Here goes…

In the summer of 1988 at the age of thirteen I started my memoirs. Waist deep in the unintentional and unwitting mix of the sublime and trivial I called my as yet unwritten book “Listen for the Train…It’s Carrying Tomorrows Doughnuts”. The title was meant to evoke in the reader both a love and disdain for Midwestern living. I thought I was totally brilliant and before the age of fourteen I would have multiple literary awards showered on me like Gene Kelly in a raincoat. Over several late summer nights I slammed out two hundred pages stuffed with blatantly lifted Monty Python fueled irony bizarrely juxtaposed with a treacle fueled small town sentimentality that would make Thomas Kinkade look like Hieronymus Bosch. I proudly showed my efforts to my parents who gracefully told me that it was a “great start” and “to keep at it”. As an attention hungry child I saw through their words to the core of their meaning. It was a terrible mess. I abruptly abandoned the effort and escaped into adult themed soft core text adventures pirated for my apple compatible computer by the neighborhood hacker.

Almost 30 years later I find myself nowhere foolish enough to “pen my memoirs” but I’m faced with an experience that bears writing about; the continuing adventures of a stay-at-home dad. Armed with a dust buster and a Netflix account I journey through the unyielding responsibility that yawns before me like a dude who had a few before starting to walk on a tightrope the runs over the center of the Grand Canyon. I’ve read over and over that a writer should never make excuses or apologies. This is seen as manipulative and hackish. So I’ll skip those sweet sweet trappings and jump in head first. Dad Blog One. Here it is. Cue the sound of a drum roll played on a Snoopy Xylophone.

“A Barbarian Takes a Sheet” 

My thirty-four-month-old daughter is a being who is still at a place where delineating her exact age is salient. Not quite three and definitely not two. Thirty-four-months. Her will is formidable. If she strolled into a room wearing nothing but a freshly removed bear skin with a battle axe slung jauntily over her shoulder I wouldn’t bat an eyelid. I’d remove her five year old brother from the room but my gaze would remain unbroken by reaction. Her one fear is being left in the hands of a babysitter. While we’ve been blessed with totally fantastic sitters over the years my daughter remains aggressively anti-sitter (usually for the first twenty minutes of their arrival…or at least until my wife and I blast out of the house cackling like free range chickens). Her response to just about any new person who walks into our house that she thinks may be a sitter (weather they are or not) is to weep and demand to be put to bed. My only guess is that she figures “out of sight/ out of mind”. One of my close friends whom I’ve barely seen since I abandoned Saturday noon wake-up calls for parenthood came by the other night. He’s a warm and gregarious figure so watching my daughter totally reject his presence was pretty unpleasant. My wife at

-PARENTING BREAK-

While I was writing this and I thought my kids were working on a puzzle twenty feet from me my daughter was instead trying to climb a tapestry. It fell off the wall and onto my son who is uninjured but was under the tapestry mumbling the word “typical” with Charlie Brownian aplomb. Drywall anchors can only hold so much.

-PARENTING BREAK 2-

While writing the description of the above incident I heard my son shout “Daddy doesn’t want people on tables” They now have returned to the puzzle.

My wife decided the best course of action would be to let our now despondent child go to her bed. Our evening proceeded with my son being uncharacteristically aloof with our guest who for a non-parent took it all in great stride. After he left and with my son having long since gone off to bed my wife and I prepared to go to sleep. It then hit us that our daughter hadn’t been prepped for bed. My wife quietly strode into her room when I heard the direct and steady request; “Can I sleep in your bed tonight?”

Innumerous child psychologists have written widely varied theories on children sleeping with their parents. One could quickly google “children in parents bedroom” and come up with strong pronouncements like “your children will feel safer in the long run and end up graduating from top universities with honors if they know they can come and go as they please into a parents bed…in fact give your bed to your little one and go sleep on the damn roof you plebe” to “Your child will become a co-dependent drug addled mess mired in anxious, neurotic, and possibly violent tendencies if they spend even one night in your bed”. Like any good American parents we ignore advice and do as we think is right. Our son is allowed to have a cot in our room. It seemed like a good compromise and I don’t have to ever sleep on the edge of the bed for fear of rolling my ample frame onto my son. He uses it a few nights a week and usually after having been asleep in his own bed for many hours. My daughter -ever the independent soul- hasn’t slept in our room since she crossed over from the third to fourth month of life. She likes her room and even goes there to have “alone time” which is a rarity for a two-year-old. This night however the wee warrior decided it would be a right jolly party if she got to bunk with ma and pa. Once in our room she immediately put her head on my wifes shoulder, shut her eyes, and seemed to drift off to the land of nod. I fiddled with my phone absentmindedly and then tucked a pillow behind my side (I was a little paranoid about rolling over) and drifted into slumber. Suddenly a cold hand inched its way up my back and a reedy voice whispered in my left ear “There are spiders on your back”. It was a game we had played before so it wasn’t quite as creepy as it may seem. Well. A little creepy seeing as I was already dreaming about piloting a space ship through my manchild dreamscape.

“Honey it’s time for sleep”

“But spiders never sleep”

(Okay…that WAS creepy) “Honey. Daddy loves you. Lets put the spiders away”

(Using her frosty foot) “There are more spiders now. Ahhh!”

“Honey. It’s time to sleep. Okay?”

“Okay daddy. Love you.”

“Love you too”.

Moments pass. Some wiggling. Moments pass. More readjusting. Moments pass. Is my daughter doing some Norse ceremonial dance?

“Darlin’ do you need a pillow or extra blanket?”

“No. I’m just being silly”

“It’s not a good time for silly. It’s time for sleeping”

“Okay daddy. I love you.

“I love you too”

I started to slip back into a deep sleep when I was sharply woken up by my daughter who was now on my head. She had somehow wedged herself up and over my pillow in an effort to spoon my brain.

“Babe! You can’t be there. It’s time for…”

“Daddy! It’s time to sleep. Shhhh!”

“You need you to get down from…”

“You’re gonna wake up mommy! It’s time to sleep. You need to shhhhhh!”

“You’re right. It’s time to sleep. It’s time to not sleep on my head!”

She then slung her body over me and Exorcist style crab walked down my face. At this point her feet jammed into my arm pits and I started laughing uncontrollably which only encouraged her to continue moving her feet around with wild abandon. Did I mention how my wife could sleep though a hurricane? I eventually got ahold of myself and physically moved my child to the center of the bed where I leaned up and very strongly explained that it was “time for (expletive buried deep in my soul) bed”.

Here’s the thing about me and the middle of the night. I (like most folks) don’t make great decisions when I’m tired. The easiest solution would have been to get up with my pillow and journey to the couch. The kid could stay in bed and continue not keeping my comatosed partner up and I would at least get five….at least get four….at least get three….at least get two hours of sleep before my son began his early morning clown parade of needs, wants, and desires. I truly can’t explain why it took me an hour before the morning rituals to zombie my way to my daughters room where I flopped down in a horribly uncomfortable position in her rocking chair resting my head on a stuffed aardvark that was inexplicably wearing a pair of my boxer shorts I thought were lost.  I CAN tell you that at 11:50 am (moments after eating her millionth peanut butter sandwich with a side of sliced apples and never touched vegetables) my daughter passed out on the couch for four hours. She looked so peaceful and innocent and all I wanted to do as a fully grown adult was to jump on the couch singing old Megadeth or Slayer songs until she woke up. I didn’t wake her because sweet mother of mercy my daughter was napping…but I wanted to. How I wanted to. Later that day after my wife returned from work I spilled my toosh out the door and went grocery shopping (without the kids which meant it would take 1/5th the time). I was so tired I forgot my wallet and had to shamefully hand back all the groceries on the conveyor belt until the price equaled the loose change in my pocket (enough for milk…the morning was saved) as the cashier rolled her faded denim eyes deservedly towards my sleep bumbling.

My daughter obviously returned to her regularly scheduled time and place of sleep the next night. After eight in the evening I could make out on the video baby monitor the shadow of her battle axe leaning up against the smoldering remains of the evening fire she made in her room to roast the wild boar she trapped earlier that afternoon. My sons lute had fallen silent by the time I drifted into unconsciousness. Tomorrow was to be another day in parental paradise and at least I would be fully stocked with an hour or two of extra sleep.