Ball and Socket

“Write what you know.” That’s not just sound advice, it’s a warning. Honoring that old adage should disqualify me from tackling anything more presumptuous than a grocery list. It should. But it doesn’t. Because… go big or go home. So here’s a little story about death and grief.

My mother died this past February 1st, exactly two weeks shy of her 99th birthday. My brother called that evening to let me know that her caregivers thought our mom had probably had a stroke (or a couple) and that she had maybe a day left, or two at the most. I decided to drive up to Boston the next morning and then spent a restless night second guessing myself about not having gone right away. When I finally surrendered to insomnia sometime before dawn, I wandered downstairs to make coffee and check my messages. There was a text from my brother, sent just before midnight. Two words: “It’s over”.

After my father died twelve years ago, my mother lived for awhile with our family in Connecticut, then later with my brother in Belmont, MA and then, finally, in institutional care near him. My brother became our mom’s primary custodian and he was devoted to her. He visited her most days, regularly springing her for afternoon drives, ice cream and wheel chair rides to hilltop sunsets. He took her to concerts, to the theater and brought her back to his house for parties and gatherings. He supplied her with endless recordings of the classical music she adored and otherwise made sure she wanted for nothing. He set her up in a series of first class custodial arrangements of increasing intensity as she became less and less independent and arranged for her transfer to an inpatient Alzheimer’s unit when she could no longer safely be cared for in a traditional geriatric setting. In the last month or so, as she lost strength and started making it abundantly clear that she was “ready to go”, he arranged for her transition to hospice care in which comfort she spent the last few of her thirty six thousand one hundred forty seven days. And my brother was by her side at the end. A gymnast might say that my mother stuck the landing at the end of an amazing routine. We should all be so fortunate.

After my brother contacted me and both of our out-of-area sisters to let us know our mom had died, he made all the necessary arrangements (attending physician, funeral home, coroner, etc.). The ambulance corps snuck her body out in the very early morning so as not to freak out the surviving residents at the group home and her furniture was removed later piece by piece with similar discretion. That’s the kind of attention to detail you don’t think about unless you’re in the business of caring for the very old. And my brother was all over all of it. By the time I got up there the next day, all the heavy lifting (literal and figurative) was done. All that was left for anyone to do was let it sink in.

Once I knew my mother was dead, I honestly didn’t have much appetite for confirming that fact by viewing her body. My son felt the same way and articulated it thus: “When I saw her at Christmas, she was smiling and holding my hand. And that’s how I’d like to leave it”. Amen. Some people need more closure than that but, like my son, I’m not one of them. It’s not that I get queasy about death (at all) but my experience with corpses is that they are like empty boxes the day after Christmas. Not the gift, if you know what I mean. And…recycle comes to mind. But of course I drove up to Boston anyway because it seemed like the right thing to do and I really just wanted to be with my brother for awhile. My youngest daughter insisted on begging off her Super Bowl bartending gig to join me. I immediately assumed she was one of those people who needed to put some witness punctuation on The End so I didn’t fight her on her decision to tag along. But when we got to the funeral home she took a seat some deliberate distance from the body, made pleasant conversation with my brother and his wife and didn’t really even look at her grandmother. And then it hit me. She didn’t need the closure either. She’d just instinctively made the trip to be with me. When I called her on that she said, simply, “Yeah, I’ve got your back”. Hmm.

The funeral director had unlocked his place just so the four of us could spend some time with the vessel that was my mom before it got shipped off for cremation. I thought that was pretty decent, especially on a rainy Sunday when his shop almost certainly otherwise would have been closed and he’d probably have been at home pre-gaming the Seahawks – Broncos tilt. My mother’s body was laid out simply on a plywood platform supported by a collapsable stainless steel table on rollers. She was covered from neck to toe with a simple cotton blanket and looked to be sound asleep. Except that her left eye kept drifting open, just enough to add to the illusion that she was stirring or dreaming (my brother carefully shut it each time). And I don’t know if it was the lighting or what but if you turned your head at just the right angle it looked for all the world like she was breathing. Totally weird. It was unnerving enough that I finally put the back of my hand on her forehead to make sure that she wasn’t more than room temperature. But she was cold. And gone. For sure.

One other thing I now know for sure is that you can’t not inform people when your parent dies. If you don’t tell, folks wonder why you left them off the distribution of that chapter in your life and they feel neglected and hurt. But if you do tell, it almost always provokes in the tellee a physical grief reaction which is either a flashback to some other heartbreaking personal loss or a fast-forward to an impending one. And so I cringed at the burden I’d impose by sharing the news. Because, at least in the case of my parents, the people I’ve informed were usually made to feel significantly worse than I did. My mom and dad were in their mid forties when they had me and they both lived long (ridiculously long in my mother’s case), full, rewarding and fascinating lives. A majority portion of those lives was archived history before I was even born. Profound grieving over either of their deaths just didn’t happen for me. At least not in the traditional sense of a stabbing loss or regret or betrayal. Because, in both cases, my parents’ deaths seemed timely and the aftermath, therefore, very normal. But tell somebody “My mom died” and it’s as if you’d announced the family dog had been run over in the driveway. For some reason it comes off as the most shocking thing you can say out loud. Right up there with “I have cancer” or “The Yankees just signed Ellsbury”. Terrible.

Anyway, when it was time to leave I took one last look at my mother’s body and then headed for the door. Just as I left the room I had a sudden and sharp moment of clarity that, with both parents dead and none of their siblings surviving, my brother and sisters and I had finally severed ties with a whole generation. And with that realization came a stab of panic, like I’d had my mooring rope sliced and was drifting helplessly away from the float. That’s the only time I got a little weepy. And in that vulnerable moment I did something completely unplanned. I turned to the funeral director and mentioned to him that my mother had an artificial hip. And asked him if he could salvage it for me from the crematorium.

I don’t know much about the funeral home business except that A) it’s a growth industry and B) it takes a special breed to do it right. My guess is that part B includes keeping a straight face and an even keel in the face of the myriad manifestations of grief and loss. Whatever, this sturdy pro did not flinch. He told me he wasn’t sure about the crematorium’s policy on requests like mine but that he would follow-up and let me know. Long story short, I got my mom’s hip. A little sooty after baking @ 1800 Fahrenheit for a couple of hours but otherwise completely intact.

Some of you will, by now, have concluded that I am insane. That is completely understandable. But here’s the thing. My mother, a true child of the depression, was an instinctive collector and saver. Dozens of used margarine cups and their lids carefully nested in a forgotten drawer. Heaped scraps of interesting fabric. Jars of buttons, sorted by size. Miscellaneous shiny objects. Rivets from the Eiffel Tower. Ancient mortar purloined from the Great Wall of China. From the ridiculous to the sublime. Collections on collections. Each special to her for some now forgotten reason.

Here’s another thing. My mother was the least squeamish person I have ever known. Possibly the least squeamish person with a fully developed conscience who ever lived. Trained as nurse, she was coldly clinical about animal biology and pretty unflappable in the face of gore. She took out more of my stitches than doctors did. She kept her own removed gallstones in a jar of formaldehyde. She brought adorable laboratory animals to visit at my nursery school before euthanizing them, by hand, back at the office. Ask anyone in my family about the surgical steel pin-through-her-phalanges hammertoe repair which she boldly displayed to all on Christmas Day one year (that still makes me squirm). Unbelieveable.

Of our species, my mother was a compelling specimen. She was quirky. She was interesting. She was fearless. Why I loved her so much. And in that one clear, sad moment I suddenly wanted to hang on to her. So, her hip: Closure curio? Titanium talisman? The ultimate consolation prize? Insert joke here. It’s on the mantle over our fireplace now. An odd, cool and memorable item. Just like its previous owner.

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Some Thoughts, #4c

Topic #4 – The Car (finale)

Several years ago, because I guess working seven days a week, getting a doctorate and running marathons weren’t burning up enough of her life, my wife decided to take up the violoncello. Because it’s all about balance and moderation. Benedictine wannabes are pretty hard to keep up with, in my limited experience. I’ve heard it argued that the cello is among the most difficult things to master. Maybe like attaining fluency in Mandarin. Which I suppose is next for Audrey based on her trajectory evidence.

A couple of weeks ago, m’lady broke the bridge on her instrument. And because her old man doesn’t have anything better to do most days, he volunteered to deliver it up to Northampton for repairs at the workshop where it was born. Which womb is the home of Francis Morris, one of the loveliest guys you’ll ever have the pleasure to meet. A talented violin maker (and restorer) and truly balanced human, he deserves his own post, a task I hereby bequeath to my wife since she knows Mr. Morris better than I, is as big a fan and is doubtless looking for something to do. But for the record? Francis Morris is a New England treasure.

Anyway my fifty mile drive up and into Western Massachusetts found me intersecting the Appalachian Trail somewhere north of Sheffield which crossing I marked with some pangs of regret. Audrey and I have for many years shared and teased each other with a dream of hiking that icon. A twenty two hundred mile ribbon stretching from a launching pad at Stone Mountain, Georgia to the terminus at the smack dab middle of nowhere on the summit of Mt. Katahdin, Maine.

Audrey and I are probably not going to check a “through hike” of the AT off our bucket list. Mainly because we’d need to coordinate six consecutive months unencumbered by jobs to get it done (don’t look at me – I’ve been leading by example all year). But also because I doubt my knees would hold up for a job like that. So the AT is just another line in the endless rolling credits stream of it’s-not-gonna-happen. Sigh.

After I spotted the trail sign out the passenger side window, I found myself deconstructing the theme of lost time and missed mission and pretty soon after that started feeling seriously sorry for myself. But just when I was about to ruin my own day, I remembered something Audrey related to me about the AT; that several South-North through hikers actually quit at the base of Mt. Katahdin, just one last tiny day hike bite shy of finishing the whole enchilada. Which seems kinda crazy after five or six months of blisters and mosquitoes and black flies and sleeping on the ground and boiling your water and being hungry all the time.

At the last minute, in the epicenter of the Maine wilderness and against all logic, an otherwise rational through hiker wakes up on the last day and simply does not want the adventure to end. Abandoning the hike is the only act that makes sense to that pilgrim. The semi-permanent semi-colon punctuation on that amazing journey. A psychological gimmick that indefinitely postpones the emotional let down that inevitably follows an epic achievement like a six month forced march.

That’s one way to cope. Another is to finish the stupid hike and get on with the next in the adventure sequence. Doctorate, marathons, cello, Mandarin, etc. Or whatever.

I’ve taken a little bit of heat for never really properly finishing the car installment in this blog. And I may have explained why above, if you can sort your way through all the clumsy metaphorical digressions. I’ve also been thinking that I’ve been accused of lots of frailties in my life, but rarely of being a quitter. So here goes. About that car…

When Bill and I arrived at the Enterprise counter in Avon, CT on the morning of May 6th, we were escorted out back to select from the fleet of “Mid-Sized” sedans that fit our rental profile. Only to find that they only had a single vehicle in that category on the premises. So we shrugged our shoulders, pointed at it and said we’d take it.

First off, let me remind everybody that “Mid Sized” in rental car dialect translates to compact car. A key fact I unaccountably managed to de-select from my accessible life experience database even after having rented scores of cars over three decades of business travel. So my first thought was that this little caboose was gonna be pretty cozy with four occupants plus luggage (especially mine). I flirted briefly with an upgrade until Bill rescued us from a paperwork nightmare and said, simply, “Let’s Go”, invoking the exact language Dwight Eisenhower employed to launch the invasion of Europe. A born leader. Bill’s first of many saves on our trip.

Depending on which poll you Google, the 2013 Chevrolet Cruze is rated somewhere between fourth and eighth in it’s peer class of compact cars. And to be fair, there isn’t much separating the top ten. For perspective it competes in size and price with the Honda Civic, Toyota Corolla, Kia Forte, Ford Focus, VW Golf etc. My verdict? It passed. And it had a couple of things very much in its favor.

First was the engine, which in our LT version was a turbocharged 1.4 liter inline four cylinder with plenty of gallop and very decent fuel economy. I think we averaged close to 33 mpg on our trip which involved a spectrum of hauling from drag racing across South Dakota to climbing the rockies to meandering around San Francisco and included both two and four passenger loading. Coupled with a 15 gallon gas tank, the range was phenomenal which came in handy in the couple of circumstances where finding an open gas station was looking problematic.

The other thing I liked about this car was the trunk space which was amazing. When we met up with Emma and Nic in Las Vegas I was worried we’d never fit all our stuff and that we’d have to jettison our beloved cooler. But we managed to squeeze ourselves and all our baggage in somehow. And even though four people was a tight fit, the back seat experience wasn’t awful.

There were a couple of things we didn’t like so much. Bill had issues with the unpredictable six-speed automatic transmission which downshifted on him at odd occasions during static cruising. I did not encounter this problem when I was behind the wheel but I also didn’t drive with nearly as much maniacal purpose as Bill did so that may have had something to do with it.

Bill and I did share periodic episodes “stick syndrome” which neither of us completely tamed. That’s the phenomenon where somebody who normally drives a car with a manual transmission occasionally forgets and employs his left foot to plunge in a phantom clutch. Results ranged from terrifying to hilarious but I can’t really blame that on the car.

The other major drawback was near zero rear visibility. The tradeoff for the huge trunk capacity was a tiny rear window which forced reliance on mirrors for virtually all six o’clock intercepts. I’ve noticed this is a common issue with most modern cars and it is an evolutionary step backwards, if you ask me.

The other modern blight our car suffered was chronic over-engineering. Call me old fashioned, but if you give me power windows, air conditioning, a decent stereo and a rear defroster? My cup already runneth over. The Chevy Cruze owner’s manual is three hundred and ninety six pages long. Not kidding. Thirty three of those were devoted to the “Infotainment System” which I assume means radio. Even with written instructions we never figured out exactly how it worked. So we listened to stations at random mostly.

And the dashboard was truly a marvel of confusion. There were just too many buttons, signal lights and controls, many of which were replicated in miniature on the steering wheel so the driver could access them all without reaching too far. I assume this was to improve concentration on the task at hand. But if that task is trying to change the radio station, driving the car immediately becomes a distant second priority. Very few of these controls were intuitive and some were stupid. The radio was a frustration. We never figured out how to open the trunk without the key. The cabin temperature control was in constant contact with the driver’s right knee and was therefore in peril of random adjustment all the time. And so on.

And then there were the nanny issues. When the internal clock tripped that it was time to change the oil, that’s all we heard about from the dash monitor. Like some kind of water torture. When finally we did change the oil (an astonishing act of Christian charity for a rental, btw), the guy at Jiffy Lube supposedly reset the alarm. But thereafter the car periodically feigned an oil pressure emergency which required a restart each time. Like a soccer player crumpling in a heap without being touched. We got used to that pretty fast and it didn’t slow us down much after the first couple of diva tantrums.

The one gimmick we both grew to love was the thumb activated cruise control on the steering
wheel which allowed for a change of speeds. We had fun playing with that and seeing how long we could drive without touching the pedals. Stupid and dangerous but amusing.

On balance? The car was fine. It was comfortable, quick, efficient and reliable. I suppose if I owned one I’d eventually master all the controls and avail myself of all the stuff we ignored (navigation, internet radio, bluetooth, waffle maker, etc.). It wasn’t perfect, but the little Chevy Cruze never gave us a bit of real trouble other than taking an oil pressure injury dive every once in a while. But it never quit on us. And here I can say, finally, that I didn’t quit on it either.

A note on this blog: I have decided to keep this…whatever it is going with periodic installments if it makes sense to share something interesting. Or stupid. And even though I can’t use the excuse of our road trip for content anymore, I’ve decided to keep the xcroadtrip masthead since that’s easier than recruiting readers to another site.

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Some Thoughts, #4b

Topic #4 – The Car (cont.)

I will here apologize to all who deserve it for my inexcusable delay in posting this second installment of The Car. You know who you are, both of you. But after my last post I got diverted by a bunch of stuff way more important and possibly more interesting.

The first distraction was my college roommate’s outstanding coverage of his own family’s Summer vacation. Bill and I went to Dubuque? They went to Istanbul. Our drive-by through Vegas? Their week in Rome. Seriously? His is the blog you should be reading right now. Here’s the link.

http://www.taksimtotuscany.wordpress.com

Start from the beginning. A born reporter’s eye and an experienced journalist’s voice. And if the Ali massage installment doesn’t convulse you, you’re dead.

Then there was the woodpile. Sometime before I lost my job, we convinced the town to cut down the decrepit, doddering old maple tree in our front yard. It was a sad day to see it go and for some reason I convinced the assassins to leave the wood. Which they did with pleasure. Which pleasure I completely grasped when I had to chainsaw the remains, load them into my twenty year old pickup truck, drag them two hundred feet around to the back yard, dump them and then…commence to chopping them into fire wood. If you’re still reading this, I’m about two thirds through the leavings. And I’m omitting the part where my friend Dexter came over and removed the thirty foot tree trunk. It takes a village indeed. Bill has arrived home from Maine often enough to stack everything I’ve cut and split so far and we look to have a couple of chords in the hopper (and thanks, neighbor Chris Bradley for keeping Bill on task with this – huge help).

Peripherally, I’ve lost eight pounds swinging a new splitting maul over and over and I think, maybe, I could now go Monster Yard at Fenway given the right BP pitch. Or, probably not.

And then there was some family stuff. My Mother will be ninety-nine if she makes it to the middle of next February again. She can’t really speak much any more and she lives in something resembling a fifteen minute moving window of reality, with about that much short term memory but a surprising reach into the very distant past. She remembers Armistice Day, for example. What we now call Veteran’s Day. The actual day. November 11, 1918. People running into the streets and banging on pots and pans with wooden spoons. She remembers her father picking her up, pointing East, and explaining to her that the neighborhood was celebrating because the war “over there” was over. Over there. She was three.

We connected long enough for me to selfishly and shamelessly preview for her the twelve decent and five hundred shitty pictures I took of our roadtrip. A captive audience is what you need for this and she didn’t disappoint (apologies to my lovely and patient friend Paula who sat through the same slideshow). But one cool thing happened. When we showed my Mom the Mt. Rushmore shots she lit up like a Christmas tree. And we knew immediately that she remembered being there on a family camping trip during its construction. And standing in Lincoln’s eye, believe it or not, thanks to an improbable friendship her dad struck up with the site foreman who hauled the whole family up onto the job for a look-see. My sister, Kate, can tell you the true story but I think I have it close enough for the internet.

Then the Tour de France got underway and I started watching that all day. I’ve been heartbroken and angry about what a total heel Lance Armstrong turned out to be and all the other cheaters and vowed I was never going to fall in love with that race ever again. But I tuned in to day-one anyway just to spit on cycling’s grave and…a half an hour later, Phil Ligget and Paul Sherwen (the best tag team in sports) had me hanging on every second and I tore up my divorce papers. Greatest endurance event on earth. Next to Glenn vs. woodpile.

Then Audrey announced that she was taking some time off and we decided to go someplace. Quebec for the Forth of July, as it turned out. Insert patriotic joke here. Then to Boothbay Harbor, ME to visit an old friend and meet her extraordinary husband for the first time. Then, on a questionable whim, to Old Orchard Beach which I think is where you give Maine an enema. But that’s class warfare and not a subject I should tackle anyway. Great take on this from Audrey’s own blog, however. Check it out or you’re missing something really special.

http://www.joyfulstruggle.wordpress.com

So, anyway, that’s why I didn’t finish the car blog…yet. Honestly? I don’t think I really want this trip to end. So, more to follow.

Some Thoughts, #4a

Topic #4 – The Car (Part One)

So Bill was supposed to make a blog entry during our trip about the car we drove. And he didn’t. But he did leave behind some notes. I stole those and without his permission I’m going to make The Car entry instead. It’s a little windy so I’m posting it in two installments. Sorry this took so long.

As a father, I have worried myself into knots over, you-name-it but what probably freaked me out more than almost anything in parenthood was the prospect of my kids driving. The thought of my progeny loosed on the road, navigating a gauntlet of inexperience, hormone poisoning, incompetent fellow drivers and plain bad choices kept me awake at night before our first baby was even conceived. Because life expectancy behind the wheel? Newly hatched sea turtles probably have a better chance of surviving their first year. I wish that were funny.

I know this particular child raising obstacle causes concern for every parent but it provoked me to unusual anxiety and still does. And I think I know why.

One of the many oddities in my life was learning to drive. I’m pretty sure my Dad had some early instinct that I might be a little bit slow. At least compared to my older and ridiculously accomplished siblings. And he might have had reason for concern. I remember, for example, getting pulled out of school in the third grade and being sent for a couple of days of “testing”. Uh oh. That didn’t go unnoticed.

So imagine my old man’s situation. He’s in his mid fifties. He suddenly, or gradually realizes he’s been dealt a weak hand in an accidental fourth-born who spends all day fanning through the Sears catalogue. A weird little dude whom the school system is having serious concerns about stewarding. He’s worried. He should be.

But my dad was an engineer – a problem solver. His parenting approach with me from the point where he identified a defect was basic. Old school remediation. Compensate for lack of natural ability with repetitive practice. I think he had in mind something like mastering activities of daily living. Tie your shoes, button your shirt, do your laundry, cook an egg. And, for God’s sake, learn to drive a car. So what does he do? The moment I am tall enough to see out the windshield and engage the clutch all the way at the same time? He teaches me to drive. I am nine.

As it turned out, my Dad was an amazing driving instructor. Patient, deliberate, and very ahead of his time. We practiced almost every day. And we’d do weird stuff. Like doughnuts in a local parking lot every single time it snowed. For an hour. Or we’d take two cars – I’d follow him alone in one – and he’d make me chase him around that same empty parking lot. In Reverse. Then he’d signal for me to follow him home. Again, backwards. In the right, driving lane. My car pointing first out of the driveway in the morning. On nights after those outings it would often take me hours to fall asleep after bedtime. WTF did we do? Crazy. Stupid. Perfect.

But that was just the preamble. After I had the hang of it, he let me solo. Regularly. On weekends, for example, my job was to drive, alone, to the top of our street, make a left on to the main drag, then another left into a convenience store parking lot. There I’d pop in for a gallon of milk and the Sunday paper, then return home. Round trip was maybe a mile. I don’t think I ever got into third gear. It is hard to describe how thrilling an adventure that was because it was so stunningly irresponsible, not to mention illegal. But it was something I looked forward to like a jail break every week and it never got old. And it made me feel uniquely special. Because I was pretty sure no other kid my age anywhere on the planet was allowed to do that. Much less knew how. I was the little Mozart of driving.

So – I love to drive. And I’m a decent driver. Not a great driver. Not Mozart, as it turns out. But imagine what I’d be like if not for my old man. If you’ve shared the I-95 corridor from Baltimore to Maine with me any time in the last thirty years, my dad may have saved your life. You’re welcome.

And – shockingly – I taught our kids to drive more or less from the same playbook. Are you nine? Can you plunge the clutch to the floor mat and still see through the windshield? Yes? Time to drive stick. That’s the short version. This is a public blog so my kids can fill in the details. But that’s pretty much how it went.

There was a time a couple of years back when we had seven cars. One each for Audrey and me, one each for our three kids, then a 1993 F-150 pickup truck that I run to the dump and back on weekends and a 1973 Karmann Ghia mouldering in storage. Emma moved to California and registered her car out there. And the Ghia found a much better foster home. So now we’re down to five.

Of those five there were only two we could possibly have taken on our xc roadtrip. Both are Subarus. One is mine, a 1998 Legacy wagon with 308K miles on it. Bill’s is the other, a 1999 four door hatchback with 210K miles. Both have the same amazing 2.2 liter engines and same 5 speed manual transmissions. Mine is on it’s third timing belt, suffers from some minor compression issues (like its owner), leaks oil like state secrets and has a pretty sloppy shift linkage. And the clutch slips. Bill’s is in slightly tighter shape except for a nagging ignition issue at slower speeds. His machine’s main defect is structural – it’s not waterproof any more. Driver gets wet when it rains kind of thing.

When Bill and I first latched on to the idea of driving across country the early plans were considerably more romantic, impractical and dangerous than the more conservative version we ultimately adopted. Which is to say we thought about driving one of our cars. Saddling up either of these antiques would have put our trip in another category altogether. Like covered wagon territory. We considered a couple of options. One was trying to nurse my car out and back. Maybe eight or nine thousand total miles. But that seemed harsh somehow. A llittle like making the favorite old family lab lead dog in the Iditerod. So then we considered taking Bill’s car as far as it would go before unscrewing the plates, prying off the VIN tags and leaving it somewhere discreet. That second idea actually had some legs until we realized that our trip would then be defined by warning lights, makeshift roadside repairs and unplanned overnights waiting for parts. Not to mention Greyhound rides to fill in the uncompleted miles.

So in the end, we traded exotic and exciting for practical and predictable. We decided on a one way trip so we could see as much as possible in the three weeks we had. And we decided to rent a car to improve the chances we’d actually get to some of the places on our list in relative comfort. And with a lot less anxiety.

Some Thoughts, #3

Topic #3 – Time and Space

When I was a little kid, I used to play a game where I’d plan elaborate voyages from my home in New Jersey to some distant spot on the map, taking with me only what could be ordered from the Sears catalogue. If you don’t remember that famous bible of mail order, it was pretty amazing. About the size of the Boston phone book, with tissue thin pages, it put a price on almost everything. There was a time you could even by a house from Sears – they’d deliver the materials and instructions to your little plot of land in Wherever, USA and the rest was up to you.

So the game went like this: I’d map out the route using a big atlas, then make elaborate, detailed lists of the stuff I’d need to bring. Camping equipment, fishing gear, clothes, first aid kits, guns (lots of guns), ammo, tarps, rope, tools, transistor radios, etc. It was actually a lot of work. And I wouldn’t stop until every single last contingency had been addressed. At least to the satisfaction of my fourth grade mind. Here, probably, was the genesis of my packing problem. And the first, unmistakable signs of what would become a magnificent and life defining OCD. Undiagnosed, I should add but…I report, you decide.

Anyway, almost everything. But not quite. There were some gaps in the Sears bible that complicated my game to the point where it sometimes got nearly impossible. I remember, for example, not being able to find a boat big enough to transport me and all my imaginary purchases to an island in Lake Huron. So I ended up selecting two aluminum skiffs, “lashing” them together with my imaginary rope, then agonizing over how I was going to sync the necessary second outboard motor to a uniform throttle. The strangest boy in the world. Until Bill was born.

These mostly harmless diversions were informed by what I then had available to me: an Atlas of North America, the world’s most eclectic mail order catalogue and brain damage. My choice of destinations were usually of the close-your-eyes-and-point variety. And because I grew up in New Jersey, the most densely populated state we have – then and now – traveling almost anywhere else presented very good odds of encountering many fewer people per square mile. I counted on that. And also, always, on traveling alone. A one man moon shot.

So…on the day we barreled West through Minnesota and South Dakota and put behind us all the places I’d ever been before, I suddenly started thinking about that super weird little kid and his trips to the moon and it began to dawn on me that he’d actually done it. That goofy little misfit had actually packed a function of the whole Sears catalogue and left. And, as it turns out, all the planning and worrying I did for this trip left me as unprepared as if I’d put that fourth grader in charge.

Because I had no idea. About this place. At all. The United States is enormous. And it is almost otherworldly to someone like me who has spent his whole life on cheek-by-jowl, quarter acre lots on the East coast. The scale of everything changes as you head West. On our first day we drove from Collinsville, Connecticut to Cleveland, Ohio. That was roughly 575 miles. If we had aimed North instead that day we would have ended up so far into Quebec that there would have been a good chance we’d never have been seen again. Much less had an expensive steak dinner the first night. And the farther from home we got, the less the total mileage seemed to matter. We were covering some pretty crazy distances some days without seeing much in the way of civilization as we knew it. Or sometimes even changes in the topography. The liberal Interstate speed limits (which Bill liberally ignored) contributed to my disassociation from an old reality as did the time of day, which was consistently on our side as we crossed from Eastern to Central to Mountain, etc. I finally stopped thinking about my watch. And the utter vastness of the landscape started to seep in and alter my perception of my place in it.

And that got me to thinking about how the landscape shapes the way we think. My trip didn’t change my views on the urgent necessity of revolutionary gun control or the folly of an unsustainable profit-only economy based on poisonous, non-renewable extraction. But it did help me understand how other people could easily have developed a completely different perspective on those issues. If you live in rural Wyoming, where you can literally drive for an hour without seeing another car, it might be hard to understand why anyone would care if the government leases your back yard on the cheap to Exxon-Mobil so they can drill for gas under it. Because your back yard might go all the way to Utah. And the oil companies are the only employers within a hundred miles anyway. Or where the fuss about guns comes from. In that part of the country, people go hunting on their way to work. There could very well be an average of two firearms inside every pickup truck West of the Missouri. And these are nice people. Lovely people, most of them. Simply living the life in front of them. They’re just over-represented in congress.

And a word about my own inexcusable ignorance here. How is it that I was so amazed by this place? How did I get this old without knowing…anything? I watch the History channel and Discovery. I read a lot. None of that spoiled the surprise, apparently. It was embarrassing, actually. Embarrassing that everybody was so nice. Embarrassing that everything was so beautiful. Embarrassing that I had to find things to complain about so my posts would be more interesting. I had a lot to learn, as it turns out. And now, a lot more to think about.

One random tangent – because I’ve been thinking about this too.

Now that we’re home, it is clear to me that it was Bill who actually made this thing happen the right way. The guy who packed in five minutes and planned ahead each day thereafter with about the same accidental deliberation. But who needed and appreciated and enjoyed this trip every bit as much as I did. Who kicked us over the Missouri river. Who drove our rental car like a pony express rider – hard, but not too hard. Who broke rules so gently that they were re-formed behind him. Who instituted and enforced the daily exercise requirement. Who drove and hiked like his life depended on it. Who coordinated all the music. Who was thoughtful and patient and hilarious company. Who called me on my OCD exactly on schedule – twice daily. The gentleman on this trip. If he’s the best man at your wedding, you’re in good shape.

Some Thoughts, #2

Topic #2 – Shaving.

I had not originally intended to address the topic of grooming on this blog because, honestly, I didn’t give it much thought while we were away. But my wife sure did. Every trip picture with me in it that got posted on Facebook, regardless of the stunning backdrop or the interesting sign I was standing next to or the scary cliff I was navigating, all drew exactly the same feedback from her. S.H.A.V.E.

My wife is a beautiful woman. She’s also smarter than I am. So I married up. By definition that means she did not. It also means she had to make allowances when she agreed to this union and, let’s be honest here, some of them were pretty significant. I have a tendency to speak my mind. At the wrong time. I am inpatient. I have a bad temper. I am moody. I am stubborn. I am depressive. And I’m not beautiful. Not even close. And that’s the short list. That she overlooks these shortcomings, and has for over thirty years, is nothing short of a tiny miracle in my life and something I think about almost every day. And I try to compensate in little ways to smooth out the disappointments for her. I clean the house. I do the laundry. I make the bed. I change the oil in her car. I mow the lawn. I painted her office last summer. And I shave regularly. Mostly.

Let me acknowledge here that I know this is a stupid topic. But I’m fielding it because one of our friends, whom I ran into today, said this to me. “I hear you grew a beard on your trip but Audrey didn’t like it so you shaved it off.” It was funny and confrontational in a who-wears-the-pants kinda way. But I didn’t flinch. I told her she had it exactly right. Here’s what else I told her.

There are three broad categories of beards, in my opinion.

The first is the kind that make you look distinguished. I’ll use my go-to guy U.S. Grant as my favorite example here. Full, groomed, and absolutely necessary. Couldn’t have smoked a cigar or won the war without it. Or Edmund Gwenn in A Miracle on 34th Street. Can’t play santa without that bathmat. Awesome.

The second kind makes you look badass. A number of hollywood actors rock this type for effect but they look good anyway. Like George Clooney. Or they look so badass anyway that even a bad beard doesn’t screw it up for them. Put Ryan Gosling’s mess on me and I’m asked to leave the restaurant, for example. But that’s not really what I mean. I’m thinking badder-ass than that. Like prison bad-ass. Like the goateed dude stewing in solitary for eviscerating his cellmate with a bedspring. Who tattooed himself. In the other guy’s blood. With that same bedspring. That kind of beard.

The third kind is hard to assemble into a descriptive category but let’s start with depressed and jobless. The I-don’t-remember-when-I-stopped-caring-about-myself beard. Patchy. Calico. Should shave it but I’m not even showering now so…why bother.

That third one? That’s the one I had when I came home. Now it is true that I am depressed and jobless, but that’s not why I grew the beard. I grew it because I had three weeks away from my wife to air it out. I’ve never had the opportunity before to go that long without shaving and I wasn’t going to let it go to waste.

Actually, it was Bill who suggested we go Jeremiah Johnson on this trip. But he got so itchy by the end of the first week that he caved and shaved. I toughed it out. It did get uncomfortable after about ten days and I found myself checking it for snack residue a couple of times. I also will not include a complete description here of the dried mucus in my mustaches episode except to say I only discovered the damage after I’d finished the Grand Canyon hike. So not only was I presenting a portrait of hiking agony to my passing trail mates and looking depressed and jobless in the process, but I had also besnotted myself. Oy.

So when I returned, it had to go. I actually kept it for a couple of days after we got home just as a litmus test of sorts to see if Audrey still loved me anyway and…she did not. Boom – off it came. A small sacrifice.

A quick thought on my previous post. If people were almost uniformly nice to us the whole trip, it was in spite of my beard. Two possibilities here. First is that folks were so cool they overlooked my obvious disfigurement. Second is that I tapped in to some kind of sympathy vote – patient son and his special needs father kind of thing. That is a new angle I had not considered. More study required.

Some Thoughts, #1

So I sat on this trip for a week in full expectation that some transcendent thematic material would percolate through my memory and render me an essay-worthy wrap up to the trip. And…nothing. Except that I eventually came home and how great that felt. But given what Bill and I accomplished, which was really pretty neat, I feel like that punctuation of this adventure is kinda cheap. Or inadequate somehow.

Maybe I expected too much. Like a unification theory that ours and all past and all future road trips would bind into some original proof. Of what I don’t know and the fact that nothing revealed itself means maybe our trip wasn’t really that special after all. Certainly it was unforgettable to the both of us. Not in a life altering way but perhaps close. It was, by definition, unique. But not especially original, or even that compelling if I’m honest about it. A fifty something, unemployed, middle class nobody and his footloose son rent a car and make a run for it? Meh. We didn’t even get arrested. I had a screenplay in mind for my brother to write but we’d have to embellish the characters and invent too much drama or plot complication for it to be interesting.

At least I took some notes. I had hoped they would inform my pulitzer prize speech but there’s no sense hanging on to them now. So I’ll share them here. A consolation prize maybe.

Topic #1: Americans

This is the hardest item on my list for me to write about so I’m tackling it first to get it out of the way. And I apologize in advance for the next paragraph.

I’m a terrible American for lots of well documented reasons but largely because I have almost always harbored a dim view of them. Er, us. Here’s an example of what I’m talking about using a local archetype. Tiny blond thirty something Avon, Connecticut mommy on her way to morning Bikram wearing yoga pants and a baseball hat with her pony tail sticking through the rear band, driving a fifty thousand dollar SUV with a Life is Good sticker on the back window, talking to her life coach on Bluetooth and about to make a detour to drop off her four year old’s sweater vests at the dry cleaner’s. There, even though it is well after ten, she will slap her hand on the counter for same day service because Little Man’s French tutor (such a find) will be swinging by to pick up the togs and deliver them with the lesson to Yoga’s eight bedroom McMansion that evening so they will be pret-a-porter at Sister-In-Law’s Disney themed bounce house party first thing tomorrow. GHW Bush once famously bragged that the American lifestyle is not negotiable. This is what he was talking about. A ninety five pound monster. Why we fight. We suck.

Some baggage? You bet. I’m overpacked – there’s a theme I missed. So imagine my surprise when, on our three week trip, we met…nobody like her. Anywhere. Not even close. Instead, nothing but the nicest, most helpful, honest, friendly, shirt-off-their back characters. In gas stations. In toll booths. In restaurants. In motels. In stores. In ballparks. Everywhere. National Parks employees, with one unique exception at the Grand Canyon, were perfect. My cup runneth over. I wouldn’t say it completely changed my tune about Americans (we took a fairly small core sample after all) but it did make me think maybe we’re not quite as bad a collective mess as I thought.

To be fair, we were predisposed to think the best of people. We were on an adventure. We were on vacation. We had endorphins pumping. It is possible we met a whole slew of assholes and didn’t even notice. There was Las Vegas. And Hollywood. And the TSA. But those fell more into the category of statistical anomalies. And even in those experiences there was a kind of merciless honesty and plenty of warning about what to expect.

So good for you, American Core Sample Alpha. You live in an amazing place. You work really hard. You are generous. You are friendly. You are kind. You are my kind of folk, if I may be included.