Category Archives: Parenting

How Did You Spend YOUR Summer?

Well I’ll tell you what I didn’t do. I didn’t write much at all. I have my reasons. Lots going on this summer; and usually that’s a recipe for more writing. But this summer was different.

I could say that a lot of what was going on was travel. If you read my last few posts a couple of months ago you know that we were well on our way to another amazing family road trip. And one day I promise to write all about that from the spot right where I left off. The Big Apple, the Garden State, my time at “Relaxation House and Spa” (AKA: my sister’s house in central PA), the rolling Blue Ridge foothills of Northern Virginia, a wedding, a long return drive through a place that is nowhere along the route home (Peoria, IL?), a journey down old Route 66, home again… And that was just us getting started with an incredible time for me and the kids (and my wife when she wasn’t buried in work). A few days later my wife and I set out for Southern California for another wedding, a major earthquake, some Hollywood sightseeing, and another trip home. A few days later my wife set out back to Virginia for a funeral and more work. Then a week and a half later and she returned to California for a vacation with some old friends while I entertained one of my nephews with his cousins (my kids). And like that, summer’s over. But I won’t say it was any of that.

One of my favorite moments from this summer.

I could say it was the near 1,000 degree heat and high humidity to which I have NEVER become accustomed. The stickiness of this literal hot mess slows down every molecule in the deep south to where typing out a few sentences is a major undertaking. It’s why we sit on our porches and drink gin. I did a decent amount of that this summer which also contributed to my bronzed appearance. I saw an old friend yesterday. We seem to lay eyes on each other about once a year despite living 4 miles apart. He noticed the tan. Some might say skipping sunblock is probably bad but it’s how I get my Vitamin D. And I’ve soaked in about as much as nature will allow. And like that, summer’s over. But I won’t say it was any of that.

I could say it was physical in nature; that I spent hours each day jumping rope shirtless (see tan above) outside, sweating bullets, hoping to see the slightest reduction in body fat percentage For the benefit of my fused spine. I also lifted weights, did a bunch of HIIT cardio, and a few other things just for fun. You’re probably wondering why I mentioned my lack of upper body clothing. Well, it’s funny you should ask. I have really come to rise above my self and my natural laziness and aversion to hard, physical work over the past few years. And something about stepping outside into the hot Texas sun and sweating everything I’ve got is incredibly rewarding. Unfortunately I still hate wearing sweat-soaked clothes. Since I can’t workout in public without shorts I opt to ditch the shirt. I promise it’s not a vanity thing. There’s not much to be vain about. But I mention this fact in particular because while entertaining that nephew I mentioned I traveled with him to stay at a friend’s house in Austin for the weekend. He wanted to workout with me so we bought a jumprope and some gym shorts at Walmart, stepped out onto our friend’s patio, and I trained him – a strapping young fireman – in the finer points of jumping rope. He was learning how to master the classic boxer skip; I was racing through double and triple-unders. My friend in who’s house we were staying texted and asked what we were doing. Her next door neighbor, unaware that we were houseguests or who we even were, texted my friend (the homeowner) to ask why two studly shirtless dudes were jumping rope on her patio while she was in Napa with my wife. Did I mention that I only had one rope and so my nephew and I took turns with it, and that while one of us had the rope the other simply jumped in place? It must have been a strange sight indeed. So I worked out like a beast all summer. And like that, summer’s over. But I won’t say it was any of that.

In fact it might have been a combination of ALL of that and it might have been NONE of that at all. Part of it is that I’ve been living life with my kids, knowing I could continue to chronicle this life of ours a little later. True I don’t like to wait too much longer lest I start to forget details or the stories don’t sound as incredible. But there’s something to actually living it and then writing it down. Not everything needs to be documented in the moment. And we’re still here and still fine. My wife has been beyond occupied by her job, traveling a full quarter of every month away from us and the kids and I have had to learn to adjust to that. It’s not ideal but we’re managing to have fun together even though we miss her terribly. We’re kind of developing our own groove in our communication and our interactions. I went back and read old posts from when the kids were babies. It’s funny that now we have inside jokes with each other, we sneak in “Dad-treats” to get ice cream, and play games. And Dad tries to keep them on track with their chores, hopefully inspiring them to help keep our house a home. And when Mommmy gets home we all breathe a sigh of relief because everything is back to normal. So it was some of that.

But perhaps the biggest reason I haven’t written in a while is that I’ve been on a quest of late to re-tool my digital footprint. One way to do this is to step away from blogging for a bit, trying to rediscover why I started writing in the first place. Toward that end I’ve spent months re-reading the old stuff and getting a good laugh. I’m happy to say my style hasn’t changed much. I think I’ve become a better writer but the old stuff was still good – and some of it even still makes me laugh very hard. There was the dark summer last year where I wrote so many memories of my time in McCarrick’s seminary; stories I eventually took down so I could organize them into a book, a book that will come eventually. Mentally recovering from that mess was some of it too. I spent about a year reading every single article, watching every Youtube clip, searching out news, caught up in one of the darkest scandals in Church history. After a while, it’s time to just stop and reflect. And I did. I’ll still write about it, the truth; but I need to write about my blessings too. And speaking of social media, I deleted my Facebook after 12 years. Now that’s another story for another day. I’ll say that a friend of mine commented right before I pulled the plug that “I’d be back”. He’s probably right but when I am back it will be right for me, on my terms, as a platform to stay in touch with family and people with whom I am actually friends in real life. I think I know how to do it to. So was that any of it?

What did I do this summer? Man alive, what didn’t I do this summer? School’s starting next week. I’m so ready to have my kiddos back. I’m a teacher. If they didn’t return to me every year around this time I’d be talking to an empty room for an hour at a clip because I kind of have to teach. Say a prayer for all of us.

I’m thankful for this summer, thankful God gave me this time with my kids, this time truly to miss my wife, thankful for gainful employment (hers and mine), thankful for returning students, for travel, strange roadside attractions and the St. Louis Arch, thankful for a gift of writing, and thankful for all of you who read.

Kids and Their Grandmothers: Another Road Trip – Day 6

Since Monday’s post was all about my son I think today’s post should be all about my little girl… right after I relate one additional thing about my boy.

This morning — Tuesday/Day 6 — my son and I did something we rather enjoy doing and that we had previously done three years ago on a trip to the same town.  We climbed to the top of the Currituck Beach Lighthouse.  See pictures below.

Why wasn’t my daughter with us?  That’s because she was having too much fun hanging with her new girls.  From the moment we arrived she gravitated to the other young ladies and it seems they’ve been having quite the time of it.  They all screamed something at each other in some sort of “girl code” and then took off for the beach to paint their nails or something.  I really don’t know and I’m afraid to ask.

This afternoon my daughter proved once again how she can probably make me do just about anything.  The girls (by now a sizable pack numbering somewhere between 8 and 12 and with no discernible leader having emerged) were looking for something to do. Stepping away from the other wolves girls my daughter approached me as I was walking toward the beach.

Daddy, where’s your credit card?

I did not like the sound of this.

“What do you need it for, Sweetheart,” I asked.

“It’s just that the other girls want to go get iced coffee,” she replied, looking almost forlorn.

I knew she couldn’t care less about coffee. She was having so much fun with her new friends and worries that if they all went off on a walk to the donut shop and she stayed behind she’d be somehow out of step with them. Hey, I get it. I’m kind of the same way. They call it “FOMO” – fear of missing out. It’s why I don’t like to sleep.

Being the awesome dad I am I hatched a better plan. Instead of coffee we’d take all the kids for ice cream. This way no one would have to pretend to like coffee. Who doesn’t love ice cream? We walked to Dairy Queen and enjoyed our treats while my son regaled us with the history of that franchise. He’s been watching YouTube videos on corporate America.

And while we were in that shopping plaza we spotted a place I almost immediately regret having spotted. “Look girls! That place does henna tattoos.”

I suppose there are few better ways (or worse) that a father and his daughter can bind together than getting inked up. And it’s henna. It will wash off in a week. She chose a llama. They’re big right now. Me? Well, let’s just say I was feeling patriotic.

The rest of the day was filled with more pool time, a wonderful dinner, and great conversation with our friends.

My daughter is happy her daddy is so cool. Her daddy is happy his daughter is so happy. The other she-wolves probably think we are both strange and amazing – a combination that cannot be undersold in life.

For Indian ink and happy memories with my little girl I am most thankful. Let’s see what tomorrow brings…

Kids and Their Grandmothers: Another Road Trip – Day 5

Missed it’s procession over the line where sea meets sky but still snagged a neat pic.

The year was 2006. I had only one week earlier proposed to my wife (well, she wasn’t yet my wife; that’s why I proposed). She had been in the habit along with a handful of friends from college and their ever-growing families of traveling to the Outer Banks of North Carolina every year around the end of summer. They would all rent a house and enjoy a week of fun at the beach. Now that I was entering into this fray I, too, would be invited along. It was lots of fun for about two days. And then… a tropical storm struck the Carolina coast. One of the group, heeding the weather reports early, decided to pack his family and bailed. He’s Canadian, though, so I think tropical storm warnings are especially traumatic. I had been assured that “these things happen all the time” and that there was “no need to worry” and that I should “stop being such an amazingly good-looking but dreadfully cautious killjoy”.

The storm came.  The roads flooded.  After one day of looking out the window and NOT seeing water recede I decided I should probably try to make a break for it.  I got in my car and headed south on the beach road for exactly one-half mile.  Attempting to drive through standing water that didn’t look that deep my car – a brand new Dodge Magnum – shorted out and died.  Long story short: I walked back to the beach house, a friend of my wife helped me push the car to a local supermarket parking lot, and I borrowed my new fiance’s pickup to drive back to New Jersey.  The insurance company sent an adjuster who deemed a new engine was in order.  Turns out it just needed spark plugs.  A few weeks later I had reclaimed my vehicle and life went on.  The following summer, as a newly married man I returned to the beach with my wife.  We were already expecting our first child (though we had not yet told anyone) and we enjoyed a few days of sun and sand.  The summer after that, with a six week-old boy in tow we ventured on the first of many family cross-country road trips and I began documenting them in writing.

Which brings us to today – Monday or Day 5 if you like.

The thing is that even though nothing much happened yesterday, even less happened today (hence the long and winding intro). We played on the beach During the day and in the pool when the sun went down. My wife and I prepared dinner and drinks for 50 people. You know, typical stuff. But one thing that did happen struck me as ironic considering how this all began…

I always have a hard time sleeping on vacation.  I don’t know if it’s the change in bed or the change in atmosphere.  Something just seems to prevent me getting a good night’s sleep.  Today was no exception.  I woke up around 5:45 because of the sunlight pouring into the room “like butterscotch” as Joni Mitchell would say.  I was excited because at least I would see the sunrise over the Atlantic.  Look, it’s not like I go looking for these things but when they happen in my presence I try to make the most of them.  I’ve seen the sunrise before but there is something really awe-inspiring watching it come up over the ocean.  It truly gives one a sense of the majesty of God.  I stepped outside onto the balcony.  And I immediately realized that Mr. Golden Sun was already over Mr. Horizon by a few degrees.  Damn.  I missed it.  No worries though.  I opened my laptop, went to Youtube, and entered “sunrise ocean corolla nc”.  Within moments I was watching what I had just missed – time-lapsed, no less!  Saved me the trouble of waiting through the whole boring thing.  Then I went upstairs to the kitchen for my black coffee, then downstairs to the driveway to jump rope for a half-hour.

In 2006 there was no going to Youtube to watch a sunrise.  I mean, I think there was a Youtube then but it wasn’t a part of everyday life as it is now and there wasn’t nearly as much content.  There also was no “black” coffee.  Until four years ago I used to give my dad a coronary every morning when I’d pour cream and sugar into my morning Joe.  “Why not drink it like a man?” he’d ask me.  “Dad, I’m 37 years-old.  You shut up because I am a MAN!”  I likely never said those words but if I did I likely said them like the guy from that episode of Law & Order called “American Jihad”.  Yeah, you’d have to have seen it I guess.  In 2006 there certainly was no jumping rope for this guy.  I think at the time I fancied myself being “in shape”.  I also fancied myself having great flexibility despite already having had my spine fused five years earlier.  I did not care what I ate (which included nothing that wasn’t meat).  If you had asked me to pick up a rope and jump over it for 30 minutes I would have accepted the challenge and then promptly died.  Times change.  People change.  The sun still comes up.  Man always desires to better himself.  And Dad will always be right.  I still can’t imagine why I ever put anything into my coffee.

One more thing that wasn’t a thing in 2006 was you, son.  And yet, this morning after I did all of my ridiculousness I walked into your room, shook you from your sleep as only a dad of an 11 year-old young man can, and said loudly “WAKE UP!!!  It’s time for fun!”  See the thing is I didn’t care if you slept.  I wanted your company.  I love hanging out with you and my waking hours are kind of boring if you’re not a part of them.  You grumbled.  I jumped on the bed.  You muttered something about hating life.  I pulled the covers off.  It was great fun.  And where did we go from there?  Well, since you share my DNA I’ve often planned our time together based on what I want to do.  The thought is that if I enjoy it, you will too.  And if you don’t we’ll blame your mom.  In short order you were dressed and we were off on a morning walk.  The Dunkin’ Donuts is only a mile away and I was craving something more than black coffee.  Figured you’d like a donut and we could enjoy some father-son time together.

What I didn’t count on was your determination to be even less physical at that hour of the morning and on vacation than I was at any hour of the day when I was in my 30’s.  Three blocks from the beach house and you dropped this gem on me: “Dad, when we get there do you think we can Uber back?”

Yes, I did just hear that correctly.

Uber wasn’t a thing in 2006.  And it wasn’t going to be a thing today either.  We got to DD, grabbed our breakfast, and WALKED back to the house.  And you know you’re happy we did because along the way we passed something really neat.  We took a slightly different route and encountered the rather sizable fire/rescue station.  Since the Outer Banks are kind of isolated one might figure that a rescue station would have to be well-equipped to handle any kind of life-threatening emergency.  What neither of us figured was that they would have “it” right out front.  “It” was a concrete pad – but not just any concrete pad.  “It” was a concrete pad with a giant letter “H” painted in an even gianter circle smack in the middle of the pad.

“Look!” we both said in unison.  “A helicopter landing pad!!!”  Like two little boys excited over the dumbest thing we both squeeled with delight at the prospect that a helicopter might swoop in at any point during the day.  We walked a little further.  “Of course, son,” I said, “that would require someone to have to kind of die or something.”  We paused in sadness for a moment.  And then you looked up at me.

“But it would be kind of awesome.”

It would indeed my boy. It would indeed.

For moments of clarity when God allows me grace to compare my life today with my life before kids and to know that it’s so much better now; I am most thankful.

Kids and Their Grandmothers: Another Road Trip – Day 3

*You already know that I started out Day 3 by writing about Day 2. Now I am starting out Day 5 (in a manner of speaking) by writing about Days 3 and 4.

We did make it past Asheville last night (or rather, early this morning) and checked ourselves into a hotel on the side of I-40.  Charles Kuralt once said upon the completion of Interstate 40 – which runs from coastal North Carolina all the way to the Central Valley of California – that it was now possible to drive from one coast to the other without seeing a thing.  I fear he was right.  That’s not entirely true.  Why, late last night I saw stars.  No, my wife did not beat me over the head for blasting the original cast recording of Evita while she was sleeping.  My son, in a way only 11 year-old boys can do, announced confidently that he had to relieve himself.  He did this about ten miles after I had driven past the last exit with any services for a considerable stretch of road.  Oh well, I’m a guy.  I get it.  You don’t really need a bathroom proper in order to take care of that kind of business.  It’s just how God made us.  The only problem was that this stretch of I-40 wends and winds its way through the Great Smokey Mountains.  It was cut as judiciously as possible through rocky cliffs.  Owing to that fact the highway engineers “forgot” to install a shoulder.  I drove as far as I (and his bladder) could travel before, mercifully, finding a runaway truck ramp.  Out we hopped.  I walked him around the back of the vehicle to afford a tiny bit of privacy (not like he cared) and for some reason I looked up.  The night sky was blanketed with thousands of stars.  We live in the Dallas area.  On a typical night we’re lucky to see about five stars and one of those is the moon.  I also saw a sign that proclaimed bears would be crossing the road in some kind of pack formation.  I feel sorry for the bears, really I do.  According to the sign, they cross like this: a she-bear followed by three cubs.  Where’s the dad?  Not doing as good a job as I am, I should imagine, shepherding my wife and kids across the continent.

Upon leaving the hotel I did something I promised I would not do on this trip (or anytime if I can avoid it).  I asked my wife to drive.  She’s a fine driver and I appreciate the help.  It’s just that this is something I can do for her.  When I was growing up I never once saw my dad NOT walk around the car to get the door for my mom.  It’s a car door.  Of course she can open it by herself.  But he did it for her because he could.  And he could because she allowed him the privilege.  Until the last time I saw him drive anywhere with her, he held her door.  I liked that.  But, I needed time to write so I accepted her invitation to take the wheel.  She drove us all of an hour and a half until reaching the city of Greensboro.  That’s where my niece and her family live.

Right before getting out of the car my wife pointed out that Facebook had notified her of a “memory”.  On this exact date three years ago we had also visited my niece on a cross-country drive.  Her son was a couple of months old.  We had taken a picture of my daughter holding her first cousin once removed.  This meant that we would have to re-create the picture.  My niece prepared a lovely breakfast for us.  Sadly we couldn’t stay long – just long enough to enjoy a meal and catch up.  And one of the best parts for me was getting to play with her dog – a lab mix named Leo.  I love dogs and I especially love labs.  They’re so friendly and seek attention.  They also want to be loved and so they go out of their way to please every person they meet.  Sound like anyone we know?…

Perhaps the funniest thing of our trip so far happened at this time. I almost didn’t want to write about it but my wife insisted I should. My great-nephew is potty training. It happens. As we were getting ready to head out the door my niece walked past the bathroom door on her way back into the kitchen. As only a parent who’s potty training a child can, she said “Did someone poop?” And before anyone could comprehend her question a certain member of our party who happens to be my mother-in-law replied quick as lightning: “Me.”

Sometimes in life there are pauses. Sometimes these pauses are dramatic like when the Twin Towers fell and we all held our breath for 40 seconds. Time seemed not to exist. Sometimes these pauses are ironic like when we await the punchline of a joke. In either case there is anticipation in these pauses. We know something is coming, we just don’t know what. This was not one of those moments. In fact there was no pause. Her answer was immediate. The pause came after her “Me”. The pause was me and my wife wondering how to process what we had just heard. For a moment we just stared at each other. And then we figured it out. We were to laugh. Look, I’ve never thought bodily processes a good subject for humor. It’s lowbrow and cheap. But her innocence in answering so quickly and something about the moment just made us laugh. Seems she didn’t want my niece to think it had been her potty-training son. I admire such honesty. And I laugh at it.

After breakfast we were back on the road. Remember when I said a trip with us is like trench warfare? So… a half-hour later we stopped. This time our stop was an outlet mall. Unlike the depressing shell of a mall we had seen two days earlier, this one was vibrant. I hit all the shops I wanted to, got some new shorts and shirts. The lady behind the counter at the Old Navy even gave us a 20% discount because she liked the Nintendo-themed shirt my son was wearing. It seems his love of classic video games has indeed paid off. Back on that road. Another hour, another stop. We had promised my daughter we would hit a craft store so she could get a few items to keep her entertained at the beach. I thought the ocean and stuff would have been enough; but it appears not. Ten minutes after entering they emerged with even more crap stuff to stuff into the car.

Finally, we were on our way again. Fits and starts, kids, fits and starts. By the way, did you like my use of the word “wend” up above? Thought so. From the craft store we actually raced to get to our next destination. See, we’re Catholic, if you couldn’t tell, and this being Saturday evening and not wanting to attend the “beach mass” at the Outer Banks On Sunday morning we decided to take our chances on a church in the city of Rocky Mount. We got there with one minute to spare. I ALWAYS wear my best suit to Sunday mass. This time, however, that option was not available to me, arriving with no time to change. The church was interesting. For those in the know, it looked like a typical 60’s parish that had recently been assigned a more tradition-minded pastor. The mass was ad orientem and we knelt at the rail for Communion. This might offend some but I realized over the past five years that I need to go out of my way to exemplify the virtue of reverence in the face of so many Eucharistic abuses. Kneeing for Communion, for me, is the best way to do that. Not a fan? Sorry. But the building itself was quite distinct in that it featured the most bizarre stained glass windows. At one point I looked up to see a purple man-baby looking down upon me. If that doesn’t put the fear of God into one, I don’t know what will.

And now for the “Top Reason to become a Libertarian” section of the post. We drove on from Rocky Mount headed for the Outer Banks. Normally, this is a three-hour drive. Not with us. And not because we took a ton of stops either. I use the Waze traffic app. About fifteen minutes out from mass Waze informed me “Police reported ahead.” My wife and I looked at each other and, noticing two county police cars in the median, remarked in unison: “Police right there.” Lucky for me I was not speeding. Had the cruise control set at the actual speed limit. But that didn’t stop our friends from Edgecombe County, North Carolina’s Sherriff’s Office from pulling out in tandem and trailing me for five minutes. In my mind I went over any possible violations I could have made. Nothing. Why were they doing this to me? We were about to find out because they put their lights on. Being the dutiful citizen I am (and always obeying my federal overlords) I quickly pulled to the shoulder. An officer approached my vehicle. Without ever identifying himself he said simply “Got your license?” I already had it out so I handed it to him (careful to make sure it was my driver license and not my gun license because this isn’t Texas and he has no right to know) and asked “What’s the problem?” “We ran a check of your plates and it came back ‘no record’,” he said. Stop and think for a minute. If I haven’t done anything wrong, why on earth would you run a check of my plates? None of this made any sense. After five minutes he returned to my window and handed me back my license. “You’re good,” he said. “I know that,” I replied. He turned on his heel to walk away and I decided to be a wiseguy.

“Just one thing, officer,” I said.  “Why do they call them Tar Heels?”

Officer Skippy shot me a look as if I had just asked him to explain quantum physics. “Um, I think… You know? I’m not… Hey Buck!” Here he called to the other officer who had never approached the car. “Buck! Why are they Tar Heels?” Buck mumbled something inaudible. Skippy stuttered a bit and then said “I think Tar Heel was an Indian or something. Yeah, I think he had black feet.” Then he scurried away. The thing is that my wife and I had just had this conversation moments before being pulled over. Thanks to Google we knew the answer and it did NOT have a thing to do with a Native American. I’m not even sure these two clowns were actual police officers or if they were. perhaps they were doing some kind of on-the-job training. Look, folks, be on guard when you drive through North Carolina. The very first speeding ticket I ever got was in the Tar Heel State and the trooper admitted it was because the county needed the money

Another stop. This one at a Walmart for supplies and the world’s smallest liquor store for liquor supplies. Then, with the cruise locked to the speed limit the rest of the trip we drove on toward the beach. And finally, at 11:35 PM we reached our destination. Having seen stars, family, a shopkeep with human decency, an inflatable unicorn raft from a craft store, Jesus, two Andy Griffith wannabes, and a whole lot of coastal flats we could settle into bed. And this dad could give thanks for his wife, children, mother-in-law, friends, health, and safety… and a whole lot of memories.

PS: I need to mention here that my niece and her husband started up a neat company a couple of years ago and I would love to drive business their way. The company is called Soledier Socks. Check them out here and, if you, like me, wear socks consider them for your next purchase.

Kids and Their Gradmothers: Another Road Trip – Day 2

This morning I woke up in Alabama.  There’s nothing terribly spectacular about that fact I think.  Just a man and his wife, their two kids, and his mother-in-law struggling to gain consciousness in a hotel room in the Deep South…  I did what I do every morning upon waking up.  I hit the ground and said my morning prayers.  Praised be God!  I’m alive.  I got out of bed unassisted.  I required no help in getting dressed.  From the looks of things through the room-darkening drapes, the sun was out.  My watch told me that the temperature hadn’t crept too high.  This was going to be a beautiful day and my heart is full of joy.  I have a lot of prayers that I pray every morning.  It’s structured.  I’m not saying I pray like Rainman or anything but if you mess with my routine I will cut you.  I continued praying silently as I left the room and headed to the lobby for coffee.  The trip downstairs took a little longer than it should have.  I could not board the first two elevators due to overcrowding.  Hoop skirts and parasols take up a lot of space.  I told you there was nothing strange about waking up in Birmingham.

We’ve traveled like this many, many times to where we have the unpack/pack thing down. The lady at the front desk marveled at how quickly we managed to get everything back into the car so efficiently. “Y’all must have done this a time or two befo-ah, I should declaaayah.” I nodded politely. My daughter and her grandmother came past the front desk. “Ya’ll fav-uh; but I reckon yal’l get that a lot,” said the lady behind the counter, now staring at my daughter and me. I whispered to my wife: “If we pay her no heed perhaps she will ignore us.” We went back to packing the car while the attendant busily replaced the carafes of coffee with bottles of gin and a bowl of sloes mixed with sprigs of mint. If I hadn’t been so scared I might have been tempted to stay and check this party out. As she placed the bottles down I heard her softly singing something about the land of cotton and old time days, silently moving apostrophes as she did so. I walked around the vehicle shoving each member of my family inside, slamming doors behind them. Then I locked the doors, rolled down my window, shouted “We won the wo-ah!” and sped away.

Absolutely none of that may have happened in reality.  I just needed some kind of device to get my story going.  You see, it’s actually the morning of day 3 as I write this.  When we reach the end of this dispatch you might see why I am writing this then or now or whenever it actually is.  Let’s pick up from the only part of that tale that was true.  That would be the part where I woke up and prayed.

Masses in English and Spanish and Latin and Spanish-Latin and Spanglish!

We packed the car and headed to mass.  My son and I were both wearing long pants despite the increasing heat.  That’s because we would be heading to a place that required a certain dress code.  My wife had chosen the church from a list online.  It was about a half-hour away.  She had to remain in the car to get on a business call so Wilma, the kids, and I all headed into the tiny, almost mission looking church building.  The sign out front declared that “All are welcome here!”  And what a strange way they had of showing welcome.  We encountered a Catholic mass in Spanish with heavy doses of Latin – as in, the priest seemed not to be able to make up his mind.  For instance (and I don’t know much Spanish) the priest prayed the Our Father in Spanish, said something rapidly in Spanish directed toward the congregation, and then chanted the Pater Noster.  We approached for Communion.  For such a “progressive” looking church building we all knelt at the rail to receive Communion on the tongue.  Again, I prefer to receive Communion kneeling and on the tongue but all of this seemed so disjointed.  Regardless, we had been blessed to stand at the foot of Calvary and I can’t ever complain about that.

We drove a little further down the road and stopped in at the Shrine of the Most Blessed Sacrament. Yeah, we’re those kind of people. And this is where the pants come in. Some shrines like their visitors‘ legs more covered than others. I don’t mind. It’s not like it’s 1800 degrees out today or anything. We’ll offer it up. This shrine was built under the direction of one of my heroes, Mother Angelica. Here was a woman who didn’t take any nonsense. A beautiful place it was, too. Seemingly in the middle of nowhere was a large church with an enormous plaza, visitors center, and the requisite gift shop. In fact it was both the best shrine gift shop I ever saw and one of the most beautiful churches too. I had to force myself to leave the gift shop before I spent a small fortune. We stopped at the crypt-level church to pray at Mother’s tomb and then it was on our way again. A quick lunch (at five different restaurants to accommodate five people who suddenly remembered it’s Friday and we’re not eating meat; a quick change for father and son into shorts; and we’re on our way.

Still further up the same road (and keep in mind at this point we’re only about 30 miles from where we left this morning) we stopped at another shrine. I have a former student who is currently walking the Camino in Spain, mocking me every few minutes on Facebook with her pictures of beautiful places along the way. It is as if she is saying “Ha! You will never make it to Spain but I am here!” Yeah, toots? I’m doing the Northern Alabama Catholic tour. You don’t even know… OK, so it doesn’t quite work the same. This shrine is more of a grotto than a specific place of pilgrimage. It’s another spot that I had visited years earlier with my brother (see yesterday’s post). It’s called the Ave Maria Grotto. Here’s the story… About a hundred years ago, give or take, a young Benedictine monk arrived at St. Bernard’s Abbey in Cullman, Alabama. Possessing an artistic streak, he began making “models” of buildings he remembered from his native Bavaria. He constructed these out of rocks, twigs, broken dishes, basically anything he could get his hands on. He began making more and more “buildings”, placing them on the grounds of the abbey. Eventually his creations were arranged around a long and winding pathway and people come from all around to see what one monk could do with the other monks’ garbage. At one point Wilma, making note of the literature that said “friends would bring Brother Jozef old pottery, dishes, and knick-knacks, asking him to fashion them into his miniature displays of cities like Jerusalem or Rome.” Said my mother-in-law while staring at a crucifix made out of dozens of seashells “He must have had a lot of beach friends.” Oh, and the gift shop strikes again. “Look, kids, it’s all the same at all of these shrine gift shops. Holy cards, books, and statues of saints. Don’t get too excited,” I said as my gaze turned toward a holy card of a Fulton Sheen statue holding a stack of his books. They’re getting clever, these shopkeeps.

Packing the family back into the car I drove across the northern reaches of Alabama as I cut a diagonal path toward the northeast corner of that fair state.  We had planned to stop at a place I had not been to yet but that my wife had visited once as a child.  There is a mountain lookout near the convergence of Tennessee, Alabama, and Georgia appropriately named Lookout Mountain.  From the summit, a piece of private property known as the very touristy “Rock City”, one can see seven states.  After paying damn near a hundred bucks to enter I wondered aloud whether those states were frustration, anger, seething rage, depression, etc.  However, after wandering the grounds – following the paths laid out by the owners – we reached the lookout point and it was well worth the money.  Not only was the view spectacular (you couldn’t really see seven states, or at least I couldn’t) but experiencing the excitement of exploring new places and seeing things most people never get to see and doing this with my wife and children brought a great joy to my heart.  Additionally, the grounds feature lots of story-book themed motifs.  I’m still not sure why there were hundreds of garden gnomes placed throughout the park and we may have in fact been paced under some kind of Wiccan hex by signing the credit card slip.  Time will tell.  To be safe we may return to Mother Angelica’s grave for protection.

Finally we headed out toward a nighttime stopping point. “Feel like driving past Asheville?” asked my beautiful wife. Asheville, NC lies a couple of hundred miles from Lookout Mountain. I felt like stopping right then and there, finding a cocktail, and getting into bed. But I knew we had to go on. And if she thought I could get us past Asheville then I could get us past Asheville. Along the last few hours of our drive my wife lovingly mocked me for my multiple stops. Look, my back can’t handle that many straight hours in the driver’s seat AND I need coffee. Thinking my passengers were all asleep I turned on some music from my phone. Came across an old album I used to listen to with my sister when we were young and used to go to Broadway matinees on the regular just because we could. After a while my wife opened her eyes, looked over at me, and said “You’re so strange…” “What?” I said. “Just rehearsing for my new production: Evita, a one-man show.”

And just as Mandy Patinkin was cryptically shrieking about Eva Peron’s missing body we arrived at our hotel. The time was 1:37 AM (hence the next day posting). A more thankful dad I really don’t think you could find – at least not in any of the states one can view from a mountaintop that might be in Georgia or perhaps in Tennessee. No matter, I can’t wait to see what tomorrow brings.

Kids and Their Grandmothers: Another Road Trip – Day 1

Dedicated to Annie DeLisle for reasons known to her.

Well here we are again! And by “we” I mean “me” sitting in a hotel room in a strange place, laptop on hand, pictures uploading to the cloud, bizarre canned cocktail nearby, cataloging the day’s memories, and reminiscing about the past – both years past and hours…

By the way, wasn’t it swell of me to start this post with a relatively short paragraph containing just two sentences, the second one ridiculously long and ending with an ellipses? Thought so.

By “here we go again” I mean to say that the very thing that was the catalyst to this blog and the forthcoming book(s) is now underway yet again. All the way back in the summer of 2008 and with a six week-old boy in tow because it would have been kind of wrong to leave him home alone, my darling wife and I set out to take the road trip we had talked about taking since we were dating. Six weeks later we returned to our apartment in Northern New Jersey, the boy now a man doubled in age. For 48 days we criss-crossed the continent reaching the far point of the Vegas Strip. I was a brand new dad and had fancied myself a pro at fatherhood. It’s hard to blame me since I had the best role model. My old man always did not only what was best for us but also made use of what he was good at while doing it. As a result I know every cerebral dirty joke every told. What I was good at (in my mind) was writing. So at the end of day one I found myself in a hotel room in Northern Virginia, playing with a happy infant boy, adoring my life, and reaching for my laptop so I could “pen a few lines to remember the day”.

Those lines exceeded 2500 words.

The next night I wrote another few thousand. And the night after that I did the same. I shared them with my wife who suggested I post them to Facebook where soon enough I had attracted a small army of “fans”. Long story short, I kind of forgot to stop writing. And every time we’ve taken a road trip since I’ve realized what is the bread and butter of this blog – road trips.

So tonight I present to you Day 1 of a new adventure on the asphalt ribbons of America.

Let’s start with the title. Every good story needs an apt title. The purpose of this trip for us is to visit my mother in New Jersey. And since we love my wife’s mother as well and she and my mom are great friends we asked her to come with us. So we’ll have one grandmother on the trip, another on the other side, and a whole lot of fun in between.

Best Mother-in-law ever!

The day began shortly before 3AM when I sprang from my bed, dropped to my knees in prayer, grabbed a cup of hot, black coffee, and hit the shower. My loving wife had stayed up most of the night getting the house ready to be abandoned for a month and packing the car. She insisted I get the rest since I’d be driving. It’s a guy thing. It’s literally the least I can do. I imagine myself in days of old, my family in the back of a coach and me on the bench up front driving the horses. I also imagine horses don’t scare me.

Typical Thursday morning at 5AM, Buc-ee’s
Yes, it’s a beaver.

A trip with us is like a trip to the DMV only not terrible or disgusting. However it does take all day to go a few inches. I was going to compare it to trench warfare but I thought it was too soon. Our first stop came just thirty minutes later as we pulled into Buc-ee’s. Click the link to look it up. It is pure Texas and pure awesome. I think we accidentally spent a hundred bucks there. Well, not me. I bought a black coffee and did 25 pushups in the parking lot. Off we go…

Every do push-ups on asphalt?

About two hours later, driving into the rising sun, we crossed the border into the Pelican State (Louisiana) at Shreveport. The kids and my wife slept soundly this whole time. My Mother-in-law Wilma remained awake long enough for the two of us to discover we were both halfway through a rosary (individually) and so we joined forces. Then she crashed. And I drove. Alone. For hours. Don’t feel bad. I got to count all the pine trees in East Texas along the way.

Perhaps it was the excitement of the rushing and mighty Big River but all my passengers seemed to awaken right before we crossed the Mississippi. After a bathroom break and photo op we stopped for lunch at a Cracker Barrel in Vicksburg. I got excited as we pulled off the highway. There, right next to the restaurant, was what looked to all the world like an outlet mall. They do come in handy on road trips for all the articles you suddenly remember forgetting to pack once you’re just out the door. Only this one was different. For starters it was only two strips of stores. And 98% of those were closed. As in, didn’t exist anymore. It was sadder than when my dog died in high school. Thank God for chicken fried steak.

Big River

As we barreled across Mississippi I decided it was time to indoctrinate the offspring by forcing them to listen to playing some selections my older sister made us listen to on road trips when I was their age. Linda Ronstadt, Boz Scaggs… I’m sorry. I almost drove off the road. Let’s listen to silence, kids! Silence sounds good.

Finally we crossed into Alabama where the stars fell. Not sure if that’s a tourist slogan or if a radiological waste site is actually contributing to the ethereal glow. It is a beautiful place. Here’s where it got really fun for me as a dad. When I was 12 my older brother had just graduated from West Point. Yes, that one. He set out on a trip to Birmingham to visit a friend from the Academy who had left two years earlier and was graduating from Auburn and he took me along for company. I remember the trip well and not just because my brother decided to make the 1000 mile return drive straight through but because our hosts took me to the Statue of Vulcan. Someone from Birmingham once visited New York Harbor and decided the Statue of Liberty would be nice overlooking their city. Instead they got Vulcan. Birminghamanians are proud of their city’s industrial roots so entrenched in the iron industry. In fact they’re known as “the Pittsburgh of the South” even though that city’s lifeblood was steel. Came up with that one all by themselves. Their history of segregation? Not so proud of that one. But they deal with that in several other really neat monuments. Hey, nobody’s perfect. Vulcan is really cool too. Perched on a very tall pedestal resembling a lighthouse, the deity looks out over Birmingham with an anvil at his side and an arrow in his raised hand. He’s even wearing a nifty apron round his waist. Unfortunately that apron was cut for a transparently smaller man. From the rear and shining on the Homewood neighborhood with the brilliance of a large celestial object is the exposed backside of a well-sculpted dude. God? Demi-god? It’s his butt. I remembered all of this and simply had to take my kids for the experience. Both kids laughed heartily when they saw it. Then we went to the top. My daughter even climbed the ten flights of stairs with me (had to get my workout in) and gleefully stepped out onto the viewing platform at the base of the Statue. Before freezing in terror.

I love Art Deco.
Seemed like the thing to do.
Note the abject fear in her eyes.
Perfect pose.

The platform was an open steel grid. Boy was that scary. I had to be brave so she wouldn’t cry. Inside I had three heart attacks. Not figuratively either. Ten stories up and a clear view of the ground below. Maybe this wasn’t such a brilliant plan after all.

Nonetheless we got our pictures and drove on. On our way to the hotel just north of town God must have known I hadn’t closed my exercise ring on my watch. An old woman sat in an old car in the middle of a busy street. She had broken down. My wife said “She needs help.” Good observation. I pulled over, jumped out, and like roaches scattering in a kitchen but in reverse two other people and I ran toward her car, dodging traffic, and pushed her a block to a safe spot.

They seem to enjoy this.

Finally in the hotel I “did the Dad thing”, even though I was beat, and jumped in the pool with my children. My wife went for food. Krystal’s. Never had ‘em? I’ll tell you more tomorrow. Wilma? She stayed in the room to pray. I needed it – the prayers that is. Later I closed out the day with a Walmart run. I forgot to pack my jumprope. It’s my daily cardio. I start every day with 30 minutes of high intensity jump rope before breakfast and vacation doesn’t change that. How else do you think I can do all this? Prayer? Oh, yeah that too. Made five trips back to the car for forgotten items, and finally cracked open a drink (if you can call it that) with my mother-in-law.

Alabama what now?

Which brings us to the present. Seems we have some 30 days ahead of us and many more adventures in store. I can’t promise more bareassed statues of Roman gods but I can promise lots of love and plenty of fun and a most thankful heart from this dad of two future saints.

Ready to join me? Let’s go.

Stars, Oil, and Me

Today I am enjoying many blessings. My niece and her husband have brought their two beautiful boys to visit. On that note I am reminded of what I told my students years ago when my oldest nephew and his wife brought their first son into the world. “Kids, my first great-nephew was just born!” “You’re a great-uncle?” they asked.

“I’m the best.”

We have taken the whole family to the Science Museum where there is some kind of celebration called “Star Wars Day” taking place. Joy. Lots of little kids constructing light sabers while their parents run around in costume living out some kinds of George Lucas fantasy. I just suggested that my wife affix some cinnamon rolls to her scalp. She was not amused. I am not a Star Wars fan as you could probably tell. Nonetheless I am mildly amused at the display from many of these parents. Whatever… You do what you have to do as a parent to amuse your kids. If you happen to be able to engage your own psychoses at the same time then all the better.

Thinking to self: why do these science museums not have a bar? Looks like someone missed a great profit opportunity.

Head ‘em up and mooooove ‘em out.

This being Texas there is a wing dedicated to the oil shale. It’s next to the “Death of Dinosaurs” room. The former is a gloriously well-lighted and large room featuring many happy motifs of the Lone Star State. It inspires great pride. The latter is a bleak 4’X4′ closet. It is black as there are no lights. Inside a few bones are thrown on the floor. They look rather like the remnants of a rack of ribs. Dinosaurs, if they ever existed, were terrible people. Therefore God smited them and gave us oil. God is good.

Next up is the IMAX theater. Five toddlers just stumbled out the exit door with parents in tow. All of them – parents and children – are vomiting profusely and struggling to walk. The feature? “An Aerial Drone Tour of Fort Worth”. I believe the drone’s operator was a child. On amphetamines.

Note to self: Must check this film after lunch.

On to the planetarium. The show this afternoon is called “The Stars at Night: the Texas Night Sky”. One patron who was exiting the previous show was heard to say “I didn’t know the other states received no starlight at nighttime.” Another was heard to say “I had heard there were other states.”

I do believe I will rustle up the herd and head on out. We’re fixin’ to get ourselves somethin’ to eat now.

Who knew science (and Texas) could be so entertaining?

More to come…