Friday, July 31, 2009

Jack Mormon

Before any of you go calling my bishop and expressing concern, I'd like to explain a little more. In her comment to my last post, Cristin said, "the other blogs I'm reading in Google Reader are all about how awesome going to the temple and church activities are...." Here's my take on those things: Temple? The best. Church activities? The worst.

I've written before about my sliding scale of doctrinal believability, which basically says the further away a statement is from the scriptures and conference, the less I believe it. I'm sorry, but I've sat through too many sacrament meeting talks that, with a five-minute visit to, would have been gutted to merely, "When the bishop asked me after church last Sunday to speak this week, I wanted to say no.... In the name of Jesus Christ, amen."

I probably have written before (but I'm too lazy to find it for a hyperlink right now) about my idea that a large portion of what we consider "the church" is, in my opinion, just the result of the Restoration making use of a boy raised in a 19th-century Protestant tradition. We use pianos and organs in church and look down our noses at churches that use drums, but if Joseph Smith had been from a culture with a history of percussion instruments in religious and cultural settings, we'd use drums in church and no one would care. The church was set up by a bunch of people who already had a common notion of what a church should look like, and so they followed that pattern, but if anyone thinks the true gospel in Moses' * day resembled a Presbyterian meeting as much as it does in our day, you're not thinking very hard.

Along those lines, one of the things that made its way into our church by virtue of being part of pre-existing Christian tradition is a complete inability to trust people with their own time. Evidently I'm either at church or having adulterous sex and smoking a cigarette. Remember, it was within our lifetime that the consolidated meeting schedule was unveiled, and testimony meetings (categorized as the worst idea in the history of the church by some pundits) used to be on Tuesday afternoons.

You can tell how much a particular person subscribes to this "you can't be trusted alone" theory by how excited they are for additional church activities. Use this convenient test: does the idea of a "cultures of the world" ward activity fill them with giddy anticipation rather than haunting dread? Now, it's true that I liked ward activities as a teenager, but that was because it was an excuse for me to see Persephone. It was like a date catered by the Elders Quorum. But now that she's my wife, I'd much rather spend time at home with her than sitting on a folding chair and eating cold green bean salad.

Part of what I hate about Deseret Book is the way it appears designed to make money off these guileless Mormons. It's the ward activity fan club crowd that shells out $28.95 for yet another book about the Book of Isaiah instead of actually reading the Book of Isaiah, which is available for free from this website.

Leaders are not exempt from this way of thinking. The more your leaders support meetings, especially meetings about meetings, the more they don't trust you with your own time. When they show up at a meeting with a list of things to talk about and no timeframe in which to finish, they don't trust you with your own time. When every Saturday has some church activity, they don't trust you with your own time. After all, your job keeps you busy on weekdays, and church takes all of Sunday, but allowing you to have your entire Saturday to yourself is just asking you to take up drinking or possibly try a marijuana cigarette which, if rumor proves true, kids these days are calling a "joint."

It is nearly a certainty that the worst offender in this department is your ward's Relief Society president. Man might have not been created for the Sabbath, as some contend, but your Relief Society president will argue heatedly that women were created for the Relief Society.

Last month when a group of five regular service project attendees met at the house of a non-active ward member to rebuild her backyard fence, I realized that modern religion is a clearinghouse whereby the unconscionable and the guilty get to meet and take advantage of one another. The unconscionable get to take whatever they want, and the guilty get to feel better about their faults because they allowed someone to abuse them.

My sister was locking up her church building one night when a woman pulled up in a truck and demanded "stuff." "We don't have anything," the woman said. "We need diapers and food and clothing. We don't have any of that stuff and we need someone to give it to us." Just another American making use of the current state of organized religion. We've gone from "give your time and money to the gospel" to "giving your time and money IS the gospel." And although I couldn't articulate most of these ideas when I was seven, I could feel them in my bones, and that's why I wish I'd had the presence of mind to steal a car to avoid church.

* = I'm totally following correct apostrophe usage.


Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Avoiding Church

I've never liked going to church. I hate listening to the stupid, quasi-false-doctrine that the people there love to share. I go because I've covenanted to go, and when I stopped expecting something out of it and accepted that it's like taking three hours to the tabernacle and burning them on the altar, it's been a lot easier to accept.

As far as I know, I've always felt this way. When my now-mother-in-law was my Primary president she let me read whatever book I brought from home because it kept me from being disruptive.

My son now feels the same way. Nearly every Sunday morning he says, "But I don't want to go to church." I used to say, "Neither do I, but we have to." My wife didn't like that response, so now I just tell him, "Oh well." (I'm not going to try to talk up church because eventually he will learn that it really does suck and then he won't be able to trust my judgment.)

Even though this article says nothing about the religion of the boy who was trying to avoid church, I believe he must be Mormon. I wish I was as enterprising as he. At least it would have been more exciting than reading War of the Worlds in Primary.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009


The Friendly Jerk can't stand seeing me do something that he hasn't done. I think it comes from how little regard he has for me; if an idiot like A Random Stranger can do [activity X], then anyone can do it.

Because of this, he's going to graduate school. He wasn't going to until he found out I was, and then all of a sudden he needed to. I guess it's nice to be an inspiration in someone's life (and good practice for my eventual career as a life coach), but it's also a bit insulting that the reason I'm inspiring him is that he thinks he's better than I am.

Well, as the time approached for both of us to quit our jobs and go to our schools, he started to chicken out. And the whining began. I had to hear him worry about what a big commitment it is for him, how he doesn't know if it's the right decision, how he can't handle the pressure. He's single with no kids, moving to another college town that's substantially closer to his hometown. What's all this talk about pressure? But, seriously, it knocked him off the wagon. So he's back on the bottle, while I quit my job and move my family further from our relatives to attend a more expensive school, all without the aid of alcohol.

Finally, he completely wussed out, withdrew from the program he was going to start, canceled his moving truck and apartment, and has been scrambling to get into a different program here in this town. Because he's two months late on his application, everything is a rush. He needed a letter of recommendation done in 15 minutes. Our supervisor pulled up the one I wrote for him to sign and changed the name at the top. The Friendly Jerk had problems with the letter, though, and instead of just making the edits, wanted to let me know what they were. This week I've been trying to convince my work to tell our Virginia apartment complex that I'm a contractor so we have a place to live (It's still not finalized and we show up in less than a week). They don't need to use me as a contractor, just say they might. Well, the Friendly Jerk has been complaining all day that he's going to be doing graduate work next year and can't be expected to work 16 hours per week, and the initial feedback he heard was that this place would just cut him loose if he worked that little. He freaked out, ready to cuss out anyone who didn't run away fast enough.

Again, I am not really interested in hearing how your less-rigorous academic program and your empty social schedule aren't compatible with a less-than-half-time job, while I'm in a harder program with a family and a full-time job.

It's been going on all day. He won't shut up about it. He's talking about it right now. Meanwhile my supervisors are being distracted from the letter I need written. I only come to work two more times, but this really isn't going to be over soon enough.

Editor's note: the eponymous whining is that of the Friendly Jerk, not this blog post of mine.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Kansas Accomplishments

So what have I done with my four years in Kansas?

  • I did my first pull-ups in as long as I can remember (by virtue of my time at the garage door factory).
  • I visited three new states (Arkansas, South Dakota, and Tennessee).
  • I had a third child.
  • I paid off my auto loan.
  • I graduated from university with a bachelors of science in economics.
  • I taught college classes.
  • I became a bicycle commuter.
  • I was a regular newspaper columnist and editorial writer.
  • I ran a marathon.
  • I was accepted in an academic honor society.
  • I visited 476 new counties (including the ones I got moving here).
  • I wrote a book.
  • I went from barely being able to swim to, today, swimming one mile on my lunch break.
  • I read 221 books for 55,433 pages.
  • I graduated with economics department honors.
  • I served as a ward missionary for the last time (knock on wood!).
  • I visited every county in the state of Missouri, my third completed state (along with Utah and Arizona).
  • I was accepted to seven of the 11 graduate programs to which I applied, including the one I most wanted to attend.
  • I ran a half marathon.
  • I had a short story accepted for an anthology.
  • I kept my job as long as I wanted to, even though for the past three years they've been firing people left and right.
  • I voted for a Libertarian presidential candidate.
  • I carved a statue.
  • I passed the "Jeopardy!" screening process (again).
  • I made maps that were published in a book.

What have I NOT done, that gets to wait for Virginia?

  • I have not learned Spanish.
  • I have not eliminated our debt.
  • I have not finished my minor in mathematics.
  • I have not run a marathon as well as I would have liked.
  • I have not read 25,000 pages in a single year.
  • I have not sold my book.
  • I have not been a "Jeopardy!" contestant.
  • I have not lowered my weight to 199 pounds (which BMI calculators say is STILL overweight for my height).
  • I have not willed the Pirates to a winning season.
  • I have not hiked the Appalachian Trail.
  • I have not started working from home.

"Call Me Mint Jelly, 'Cause I'm on the Lam!"

In preparation for our life of crime (my only legitimate option for financing our life in Virginia), Persephone and I have undertaken to alter our appearances.

Me three weeks ago (as photographed by this woman here).

Me now.

Persephone's mug shots. (She's already way ahead on this outlaw lifestyle.)

Title from Abraham Simpson in The Simpsons episode "The Great Money Caper."

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Somewhere in Between

Things used to be a certain way, and lots of people disliked it, for good reason. But now that things are different, are they really that much better?

Time was, the husband controlled the dinner table conversation. He told his wife about work and the news of the world and she and the children listened. Maybe the wife would do her part to keep the conversation from turning into a soliloquy, but the children listened and ate.

Of course this was bad. Legitimate conversations don't have one person in charge. That's more like an interview. And when children are allowed to talk, they often bring comic relief with their observations. Hell, Bill Cosby had an entire chapter of his career based on the notion.

Now, the husband sits quietly and is told everything that passes through the head of his wife and children. Since the children are allowed to talk, this increases the number of people talking, and now dinner resembles a more-animated episode of "The McLaughlin Group." And since children have smaller lungs, they can fill them more rapidly, meaning there is never a pause long enough for the husband to say a word. What better way to follow up a day of workplace alienation than with a hearty helping of domestic alienation? Besides, who wants to hear about work, anyway? And with every statement followed by a kid asking, "What does that mean?" who wants to TALK about it?

Time was, the husband controlled the finances. The wife got a certain amount of money to use for what she needed, and if it didn't cover everything, she had to get creative or do without. Kids got allowances that were to cover candy expenses, and presents were given on birthdays and legitimate federal holidays.

Of course this was bad. The wife is an equal partner, not a charity case. After all, everyone knows the man only goes to work because he has a wife and kids. If he were single, he would be back grifting outside the horse track within the quarter-hour.

Now, the husband earns a paycheck he doesn't see, at least not in monetary form. He sees it in the steady stream of new stuff that turns up underfoot when he wants to walk down the stairs. If his income is insufficient for the wants of his family, he'd better find a way of earning more money. Lives of crime and vice pay quite handsomely, and sometimes they can even cover the cost of living for a modern set of American kids. For more information, ask your closest married man or, if you can't find a married man, ask an Italian.

Time was, the husband made the decisions and told the family what they were. Where to live, what to drive, when to have kids. The family vacation was somewhere the husband wanted to go, not DisneyWorld. The husband belonged to a lodge and went when he wanted. For more information on the subject, cf. The Water Buffaloes Lodge on "The Flintstones."

Of course this was bad. Our Founding Fathers dressed up like Indians to destroy the tea of despots like this (and in France they sent to the guillotine anyone who made his family visit a national historic site). The family is a tiny democracy, complete with a welfare class who uses their sheer overwhelming numbers at the ballot box to extract concessions from the producing class, and the producing class agrees to this because otherwise the welfare class cries, "But I don't care if I had dessert last night, I want dessert again tonight!"

Now, the husband gets to find out the decisions of the family, usually during his dinner debriefing. Where to live, what to drive, when to have kids. There is no more lodge for escaping. After all, didn't the husband just "get" to spend all day at work? He needs to just sit there, listening to how his money was spent that day, and silently pining for the old Three Card Monte table in the shadows of the stables.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Public Embarrassment

Even the casual reader will know that I seemingly seek out public embarrassment, and then compound the shame by some inexplicable compulsion to retell the embarrassing situation. Probably because I'm a moron.

Anyway, we're leaving town in nine days (so few days that, style-guide-wise, I need to spell out the word instead of using a digit), and I stopped by the library the other day to pay my fines. The library in this town is great because they don't hound you over your fines. Every once in a while they remind you the fines are there, but you can say, "I don't want to pay that today," and they say, "Okay." In our California town, fat chance doing anything until the fine was paid. (That may be why I still owe that library quite a lot in fines.)

Well, the woman at the desk looked up my account and said, "You have an interlibrary loan item that is overdue." I said, "I know; I returned it just now." She said, "Do you want to pay the fine on that, too?" I said sure, so she had to go get the book out of the return bin and check it in. When she got the book out of the bin, saw that it was an instruction manual for improved sexuality, so to speak, she refused to make eye contact for the rest of our interaction. I was fine with it, however, because I kept telling myself, "She WISHES she had a husband who wanted to find out how to be better in the sack!"

Disabuse yourself of the notion that I am currently somehow lacking proficiency in the sack. I'll have you know that I'm extremely capable, vis-a-vis the sack, and I expect the first comment to this post will come from my wife, backing up that claim. (Or else it will be from her complaining that I wrote about this.)

Monday, July 20, 2009

Worst Vacation of My Life (So Far) - Part Five

The day we left we got up early. I would have been in our car beyond all the gates by 6:00, but I was satisfied with leaving the cabin for the ride to our car at 6:15. As we were moving all the kids to our car, my left ear filled with fluid, painfully so. We'd been going up and down the mountain for two weeks with no problems, but the relatively-flat drive to the car did me in. If my ear hurt at 9,600 feet, it was something else entirely once we were down the hill in Cedar City at 5,800 feet.

I wished I was dead the whole way to Cove Fort. My brain was being squeezed out my left eye socket, and to help ease the pain, Jerome was yelling. The pressure abated slightly when we climbed and returned when we descended. Our return through Green River was horribly painful, and not just because it was Green River.

We made good time to Grand Junction, so I thought we could stop for an actual lunch there, giving us a break from riding in the car. We ate at an Olive Garden, which is evidently the dining establishment of choice among the Grand Junction white trash set. The seven-year-old behind us ordered a raspberry iced tea and the waiter assumed she meant a raspberry lemonade. Her mother later said to the waiter, "And can she get her ICED TEA, not a lemonade?!" Maybe I'm just Mormon, but don't normal people not let their kids drink iced tea?

When we reached Edwards, Colorado, we headed north towards Steamboat Springs to get Routt, Grand, and Jackson counties. On the way into Steamboat Springs the clouds unleashed a torrent. With a canvas luggage carrier on the roof, this wasn't the best possible news for us. Our kids were impatient the whole drive, since they were looking forward to a night at a hotel with a TV and a pool. We crested the Continental Divide in the Eisenhower Tunnels, and that was the zenith of good feeling for my left ear. I got three more counties before we reached our hotel: Gilpin, Broomfield, and Boulder, but the entire descent into Denver was like a descent into hell, only without all the friendly faces of long-lost friends I'd expect to see in the underworld.

Our hotel was the worst I've ever experienced. Make a note to not stay here: Residence Inn Denver Downtown. The problems were myriad. Here are just a few:

  1. Residence Inn and Spring Hill Suites only earn five points per dollar, while every other Marriott brand earns ten points per dollar.
  2. The carpet wreaked of dog urine. Persephone sniffed out the offending spot and placed our wet towels over it to fight back the odor.
  3. Jane read the guest services book in our room from cover to cover, so happy was she to finally have new reading material after two weeks away from a library. She showed us where the material said breakfast was served until 9:30. The next morning we went to breakfast at 8:55. A sign on the wall said breakfast was served until 9:00. We mentioned to the attendant that we were late because of the hotel printed material. She said, "There's still some food out," and then she began taking the food away. Every seat was filled with people just hanging out drinking coffee. Persephone and I had to race the attendant to get food for our kids, and then there was no food for us and no place for us to sit.
  4. The hotel shuttle to and from downtown had instructions for calling for pick-up, but really that meant, "We won't come get you any faster."

After breakfast and a brief visit to the pool, we packed our car and took the hotel shuttle to Coors Field for a game between the Colorado Rockies and the Atlanta Braves. The kids had decided to root for Colorado since they were the home team. I agreed since I hate the Atlanta Braves. However, I like individual players who are now Atlanta Braves, like Nate McLouth and Garret Anderson. My loyalties were torn.

My kids were all great baseball fans until this game. Jane brought a book to read and loudly complained of boredom. Joe wouldn't watch the game to see the players doing the things he's learning to do himself. And Jerome only enjoys a stadium if he can wander around. The sun was unbearably hot when we first showed up, and although the kids had been sunscreened, Persephone only was in spots and I wasn't at all. By game time heavy clouds moved in and spared us any further damage, but both of us got badly sunburned knees. It looked like thunderstorms all game, but it never really rained.

Atlanta was ahead handily and I decided that, if the sun came back out, we'd leave. Well, right as the sun returned, Colorado tied the game. We spent two innings slowly circling the stadium concourse, watching the end of the game. Colorado won in the bottom of the ninth.

Coors Field has some nice things and some crap things. Nice thing: they let you bring in just about anything you want (except aerosol-powered sunscreens). The streets around the park were lousy with vendors promising that everything they sold could be taken into the park. It turned out they were telling the truth. Crap thing: there is no way to circumnavigate the park on the outside. I have a habit of needing to walk around a park. Once at Angel Stadium, I was nearly run over by Gene Autry's driver as I tried to circle the park looking for my car. Well, the gate we had to use was in center field and there is no way to walk behind left field. Our hotel shuttle bus picked up down the street from third base. (That's not a sexual euphemism; it actually picked up down the street from third base.) Nice thing: the ushers don't get uppity when you try to watch the game from the concourse. I've been to stadiums before where half the staff was charged with making sure people didn't stand still and watch the game. (Busch Stadium and Qualcomm Stadium come to mind.) At Coors Field, though, the concourse is incredibly wide and they let you stand behind the back row of seats as long as you want. Crap thing: deep center field was unviewable from our center field seats. We had to rely on the roar of the crowd to determine if balls were caught or not. Nice thing: the usher gave our kids a baseball from batting practice.

Back in our car, we took our time leaving Denver. Clouds continued to gather south and east of town. We drove by the capitol, then ate dinner at Qdoba and bought some diapers at Target, since Jerome had used all the ones we'd brought with us. When we finally left Denver it was 7:00. An eight-hour drive and a lost hour from the time change meant we would be home at 6:00 am.

That was before the bathroom needs. Just as we left Aurora and opened it up to freeway speeds, Joe had to poop. A rest stop was the next exit, but not until after we were off the freeway did we learn that this rest stop had no on ramp. Who the hell makes rest stops without return access to the freeway? We had to drive four miles on a back road into the next town to use their freeway interchange.

Then we were exiting in Limon, Colorado, to take US-40 for a bit, gaining two new counties, Cheyenne County, Colorado, and Wallace County, Kansas. Coming into Limon a sign said, "US-40, next exit," so I exited. We then wove through town, crossing the interstate two more times (with interchanges at both bridges) before finally getting to the highway we wanted. A short way out of Limon, with nothing but fields full of cattle around, Jane had to go pee. The storm was blowing in pretty hard by then, so when I held her in the patended girl-peeing position (pants down, leaning back against my chest while I hold her ankles in the air), her pee sprayed all over the front of my shorts.

Back in the car and then into the worst thunderstorm I'd ever seen. For over two hundred miles there was constantly at least one flash of lightning visible. There were no lulls between flashes. This is not hyperbole. The interesting thing was that there wasn't too much rain associated with it. There was about 20 miles of hail, which again wasn't good for everything we had on the roof, but the rest of the time it was just continuous lightning.

I have a detailed atlas of Kansas by DeLorme that I use for some aspects of county visiting. When I want to make sure I reached a county line, especially when traveling on a rural road, I can use this atlas to make sure. However, when Persephone loaded the car for our drive home, she packed the atlas away somewhere in back, so I had to rely on my memory. We rejoined the Interstate for a short while before exiting in Grinnell, Kansas, and heading north through town to reach Sheridan County. I remembered the county line being barely north of the railroad tracks, so once we crossed the tracks and went a few more blocks, I figured we were safe. We turned into a side street to execute a three-point turn, then backed up to head back down the road we had come in on. I turned the corner too sharply on the reverse leg of the turn, putting the passenger-side wheels halfway down the roadside drainage ditch and the driver-side wheels less than two inches off the pavement. Persephone said, "We're not on the road anymore." And indeed, the car had a slight tilt to it. Not heavily, but noticeably.

I tried backing out further and we began our sideways descent. I tried driving out forward then, and it very nearly worked. Later, when I had all kinds of time to notice such things, I saw that we were within an inch of reaching the pavement with our left front tire. I got out to help rock the car out of its rut while Persephone was in charge of driving. We could get the car a-rockin', but there was no need to warn against anyone coming a-knockin'. At one o'clock in the morning in Grinell, Kansas (population: 329), we were stuck in a ditch with three kids asleep in the back seat.

Now for a little sidetracking: four years ago we decided to move to Kansas. I interviewed with a map company and, after much wrangling, finally got a commitment from them to hire me. I had moved here on my own for two weeks, but once they said I had the job, my family moved out, too. Then a few weeks later they said I couldn't start until the next month. Then they called and, while I was at a temporary job at a garage door factory, asked my wife to pass along the message that they weren't going to hire me, after all.

With the garage door factory not a long-term solution, I needed a better job. I ended up working at AAA, since it was sort of map related. As part of the employment package there, we got free memberships. (I believe we were already members because it was cheaper to join AAA and get the AAA truck rental rate than it was to just rent a truck to leave California, but if I hadn't worked at AAA, we would have let that membership lapse.) Thus, when we were stuck in a ditch in Grinnell, Kansas, I could call AAA.

Then I got to stand around and wait for an hour. A car drove by and the driver asked me, "How's it going?" I laughed and said, "I've been better." I was not looking forward to explaining to the tow truck driver how this had happened. I said to Persephone, "He's going to tell his buddies about this one for years. 'The strangest tow I ever had was in the middle of the night with some city-slicker jackass who was trying to go to a certain county.'" Persephone said, "He's a tow truck driver in western Kansas; he's got tons of idiot stories." I made a pact with myself that I would never check a map to see if I had actually made it to Sheridan County. I would just tell myself that I had made it.

When the tow truck came, it sort of looked like Persephone had been driving, since she was still behind the wheel from our self-extrication efforts, and I didn't disabuse the driver of this notion. Once we were pulled out, he asked if we'd exited the Interstate because we were low on gas. It was just sitting there, on the tee, waiting for me to knock it out of the park, but instead I said, "Actually, I was trying to go to Sheridan County." He said, "Well, did you make it?" I said, "I don't know, am I in Sheridan County right now?" He said, "No."

Persephone said it was good that I didn't tell him we were low on fuel, since we were nearly completely full, and if he had an extra gas can he would have known I was lying when we only needed half a gallon. The driver recommended we not try to get to Sheridan County on the road north of Grinnell, since it was dirt and the giant thunderstorm had left some rain earlier. Instead, we went to the next town down the road and used the paved state highway there. The tow truck driver was from that town, so he followed us the whole way, probably saying to himself, "I can't believe this idiot goes to counties."

Jane woke up and freaked out when she noticed we were in a ditch. Joe woke up and was very happy to see a tow truck pull us out. Jerome never woke up.

Two hours further down the road and I was having a harder and harder time staying awake. While waiting for the tow truck I'd already decided to call in sick to work later that day, so we exited the freeway and slept on the side of the on ramp. We all woke up around seven, when I said to the kids, "I had a horrible dream last night that we were stuck in a ditch." (They thought that was funny.) We finally reached our home about 10:30 am, and spent the day unpacking and napping.

Final figures: 2,584 miles. Jerome got two new states (Colorado and Utah) and Joe got one (Colorado). All of our kids and Persephone got a link between their western counties and their midwestern counties. I got 29 new counties, filling in three holes and making the eventual completion of Nevada much easier in the future. And I learned that the number of extended-family vacations I will be going on for the rest of my life is zero.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Worst Vacation of My Life (So Far) - Part Four

I knew going in to this vacation that my wife's family is thoroughly disappointed with me, and for some reason I agreed to rub my face in it for two weeks. So I guess I have no one to blame but myself.

Although, to be fair to myself, they are thoroughly disappointed in everything. It's a family trait, like how some families all have brown eyes and others all have aquiline noses. My wife's family can find something wrong with anything and everything in under twenty seconds. For instance, as I was unloading the first load of luggage, this exchange took place.

Father-in-Law: "We've got to go back for the rest of it."

Brother-in-Law: "There's MORE of it?"

When I tried to temporarily escape by going for a run, my father-in-law's dog ran after me. When I got back I got to hear twice how it was bad for a dog that age to go running, and four times how it would be my fault if the dog got lost, since I showed him how to leave. I also got to hear several times that the way I opened the gates was not the way that they opened the gates. For the rest of our visit I made certain to open the gates the unapproved way.

My wife's family has a huge house that is effectively one room. As long as anyone else is awake anywhere in the house, you might as well be in the same room. As much as I hate this layout, they obviously love it, because they built a new cabin that follows the exact same design premise. With a baby asleep in the bedroom we were using, there was nowhere for me to go. My brother-in-law tried to cater to my misanthropic penchant by hoisting a hammock, but I couldn't get to the hammock without a kid or a slobbering dog climbing on top of me.

What really enhanced the experience was the way our Jerome, our sickly kid, went and got himself sick. Within a few days he was having to put so much effort into breathing that I got nervous when he went to sleep for fear that he'd take a break from the work and die. I had the croup when I was a little older than he now is, and I ended up with a tracheotomy. A few days after arriving, we got to take Jerome to the Saint George emergency room.

Nothing makes the tension wash away like taking a kid to the hospital on vacation. Annoyingly, Jerome started feeling better as soon as we got there, playing hide-and-go-seek behind the hospital curtain, so we looked like a bunch of overreacting jerks. When we got back up the mountain, I got to disappoint my relatives once again when they found out that we have Kansas state health insurance.

One entire day was wasted doing laundry in Cedar City, continually feeding quarters into a machine that didn't dry. Then our car had problems shifting, and being 1,000 miles away from home, I didn't feel it was a problem I could ignore. I drove down to Cedar and dropped the car off at the mechanic, then walked to Southern Utah University and spent the day reading in their library before walking back to the mechanic to get the car right before closing. It cost $86, and as far as I can tell all they did was press the reset button on the transmission computer. Then came the Fourth of July with a pancake breakfast at the local fire station. Every slack-jawed yokel in the surrounding hills rode down on a quad, and let his ten-year-old ride down on his own quad, for the festivities. Quad riders see every non-flat object on the ground as the makings of a sweet jump, and every thing whose running over would lead to police questioning as something to be barely avoided at high speeds. I enjoyed spending three hours standing in a parking lot line with three children, awaiting a ride on a fire truck, even though I have photographic evidence that my kids have already been on a fire truck.

After one week my brother-in-law's family went home and my sister-in-law's family arrived. The one-room layout then became unbearable, for my sister-in-law refused to sleep in the bedroom she was supposed to be using, claiming she couldn't sleep in the same room as her baby. So when she wanted to go to bed at eight, that meant everyone had to go to bed. One evening I tried to escape it by taking Persephone out to look at the stars on a blanket, but she was in too much of a panic that a bobcat would attack her (seriously) and wouldn't stay outside.

I made a temporary escape one day when I took our car and left for Nevada. I went to Great Basin National Park, which is trying to make lemonade by claiming they have the darkest star-gazing skies in North America. I couldn't eat any breakfast before I left or bring anything with me for lunch, since the other of my sister-in-law's babies was asleep in the food pantry. (Shockingly, our baby slept in a bedroom the entire time.) So I had a bag of Swedish Fish and two bottles of gas station water to fuel my attempted ascent of Wheeler Peak.

The trail began at 10,000 and the summit was a bit over 13,000. I was in shorts and a tee shirt with no additional clothing. I began my climb, aware that the other hikers were thinking uncharitable thoughts regarding my unpreparedness. I would have liked to have summited, but I also knew that when I got to the final ridge, the wind would be fairly strong. I made it to the ridge at 12,000 and I believe I could have finished, but I would have been completely miserable for at least two hours. The coldness was not dangerous, but it was very uncomfortable. I took some pictures and hiked back down.

During my brief stay in White Pine County, Nevada, I stopped at the Great Basin National Park visitor center. A car from California was idling the entire time I was inside. The family that came in that car was taking their time touring the visitor center. It made me happy that I was no longer from California and couldn't be identified with them.

Things in Nevada are more edgy than in Utah. Both states have signs warning of open range cattle, but in Utah the cattle are just standing there, like they're posing for a prom picture, and in Nevada they're getting ready to charge.

I was going to swim across Navajo Lake, and my brother-in-law told me he was going to pay me $100 if I did it, but the rest of my wife's family was critical of the idea, convinced I would cramp and drown, so I never put the plan into action.

We went to the Deseret Book in Cedar City and I have to say that never before have I wanted so much to go inactive. Everything about the place made me dislike our church. Firstly, every book in the place is incredibly expensive. Not just hardback books. Most bookstores sell $30 hardback books and $15 paperback books. At Deseret the paperback books are $30. I found a book for under ten dollars by Richard Lyman Bushman and I thought, "Why is this book so cheap? Did he get kicked out of the church?" And the rest of the store was filled with unnecessary works on whatever the current Mormon trend is. A few years ago it was "Mormons and sex," and all the usual Mormon author suspects came out with a book entitled with some combination of the words "sacred," "chaste," and "intimate." More recently the trend was Isaiah and the usuals wrote books with titles involving "understanding," "Isaiah," and "for Dummies." (Is this year's Gospel Doctrine material from the Old Testament? I don't know because I go to Gospel Essentials, the best-kept secret in the church. Sure, it's the default Sunday School option for the crazies, but I'd rather listen to someone who spouts crazy doctrine because he's an investigator raised in a different church than listen to crazy doctrine from a fifth-generation Utah Mormon.) If I were less charitable I'd call these Mormon authors out by name, but I can't say that, if I'd made a name for myself on the Best of EFY circuit, I wouldn't try to cash in on it, too. Shakespeare gotta get paid, son, no-m-sayin'?

Towards the end of our visit we met Persephone's friend in Zion and did a small hike with her and our kids. When we told the rest of the family that we wanted to go to Zion, we had to hear three days of, "It's so hot there. When we went there it was so hot. We'll never go back because it was so hot. Honestly, you are going to die from the heat. You will open the car door and fall over dead. I'm not joking. You will be buried in the ground within the week if you step foot in Zion National Park. The heat is horrible." We went anyway, because by this time I wanted to do everything the exact opposite of what they told me.

None of us died.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Worst Vacation of My Life (So Far) - Part Three

Again, we did a great job waking up and eating breakfast. One the road by 7:00 again, we were nearing the western end of Rio Grande County when we reached a highway closure because of an accident. The federal highway was being diverted onto three miles of county-maintained dirt roads. As semi trucks and RVs tried to pass each other, the detour was itself blocked by a cattle drive. I don’t blame the cattlemen, who probably were expecting a car or two, not a diverted highway-full of traffic. Our family enjoyed seeing actual horse-mounted cowboys (the last cowboys I saw were ATV-mounted in New Mexico) driving cattle right next to our car.

Once back on the highway, we continued on through a county that many consider the most difficult to reach in the lower 48 states: Hinsdale County, Colorado. It’s such a challenge because there’s really no reason at all to go there or go through there unless you are meaning to do specifically that.

To get there we went through Creede, Colorado, which I thought was one of the most beautiful parts of the state. However, it was while driving through Creede that we had the misfortune to start listening to Judy Blume’s Superfudge.

I normally like Judy Blume. I will forever be grateful for what her book Wifey did for me when I was a teenaged boy. But the Peter Hatcher character is unforgiveable. He’s a jerk to his brother Fudge, sure, but he’s also a jerk to his parents for having another child, a jerk to his dad for moving the family to Princeton, a jerk to his mom for wanting to go back to school, a jerk to his friend from New York and his new friend from Princeton, and yet for some reason thinks some eight-foot-tall Amazon in his new class is going to like him. When I was a kid and read these books, I was focused on Fudge, so I was surprised to find out this time that he wasn’t even the main character. It was all Peter, all the time, and Peter was a jerk. When we finally finished the book I declared we would not be listening to Fudge-A-Mania.

Coming down from Slumgullion Pass, our brakes got weak and I could smell them, so we pulled over at a bathroom halfway down to let them cool off. (It is a 10-percent grade, which is the steepest I’ve ever driven on.) We had a nice view of the Slumgullion Flow, a still-active, slow-moving landslide. Continuing on, we used first gear all the way to the bottom.

We made another stop at Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park. This stop had been planned. Persephone likes when we have something to do in the middle of our driving days so we don’t spend 10 straight hours in the car. At Black Canyon we discovered the junior ranger program, which our kids loved because they got badges. (Joe loves wearing badges, and even brought his Douglas County Junior Sheriff badge with him on our trip. Jane just loves free things because she’s a packrat.) What they DIDN’T love, though, was having to interact with another adult, as both refused to say their oath. In the visitor center I saw a stuffed yellow-bellied marmot. It looked like a big tan beaver with no tail. I thought of the line from The Big Lebowski, but hardly made a note of it. What does or does not constitute a yellow-bellied marmot ended up being one of the main controversies of our vacation.

It had been so long since we left Topeka that reaching Grand Junction made it seem like we were in the Big City. (We weren’t, though; we were in some dry western craphole. But it SEEMED like the Big City.) We continued on into Utah, where I had a run-in with the town of Green River. I remembered Green River actually being more than a flyspeck. When we approached the first exit and were completely unimpressed with our dinner options, we went on. The second exit was no bigger, but I was reasonably certain there were options at the US-6 interchange. I was wrong. We had to turn around and go back, since it was 110 miles to Salina, Utah, with no services between.

Don’t let my reticence to lambaste my children fool you: they were a pack of jackals. If Noel Gallagher had a baby with Amy Winehouse and then sent the aforementioned spawn to a finishing school deaned by Satan himself, that child would be more of a pleasurable companion for long-distance auto travel than my children. Jerome spent several hours at a clip screaming, demanding everything the other two kids had in their hands with his mantra, “Ma ma ma ma ma!” Jane and Joe complained of boredom, always needing “something to do.” When I reminded them that, at five years old, I had made the drive from Ohio to Utah and back with nothing more than a hand-held mechanized (not electronic) Pac-Man game, they blinked blindly and then asked if they could open another present. (Persephone got the idea from a friend to bring presents to open along the way to make things not so boring. Here’s how that panned out: hours of demanding the next present, opening said present, tossing it aside because it’s boring, and beginning the cycle anew.) Finally, nearing Richfield, Utah, when Jane said, “What does anyone have for me to do?” I yelled, “What does anyone have for ME to do? I’ve been driving a car for three days!”

Once we were on US-89 we thought it would satisfy them if we told them we were really close. Joe asked, “Where’s Grandma and Grandpa’s cabin?” I’d point in the approximate direction and then he would ask, “Then why are we not going that way?” I’d say, “Do you see a road that goes that way?” Five minutes later we would complete this dance again.

Finally we reached the first of the three gates between the county road and the cabin. We had to park our car just inside this gate, since the roads further on were impassible for anything other than a four-wheel-drive SUV. This added feature heightened the cabin fever by making us into virtual prisoners, while making unloading and reloading our car a delightful challenge.

Worst Vacation of My Life (So Far) - Part Two

The first day we left town in the early afternoon and made a stop at the Topeka Library. Jerome Jerome the Metronome was already screaming about everything, while Crazy Jane and Articulate Joe were already claiming terminal boredom. I should have known to turn the car around when the Super Baby billboard, which is usually the highlight of a trip to Topeka, only elicited yawns.

We scoured the library for books, since Crazy Jane reads voraciously and then gets surly when she’s out of material. Persephone hid library books in our luggage for periodic surprises, but that just made Jane insist, “I need to get out another library book now!” She started in on one book as soon as she took it off the shelf and, by the time we finished our browsing, checked out, and changed Jerome’s pants, she had finished it. As we drove out of the parking lot I asked if we should return it in the book drop we were driving past.

My plan was to be in Hays, Kansas, by 3:30. Instead, we stopped for dinner at an IHOP in Salina at 5:00. There were two parties of old people who were just finishing their meal, and us. The rest of the place was empty. Things were so slow that they had TWO greeters. We placed our order and then waited forever for our food. Twenty minutes later a tour bus pulled up and the workers went into pandemonium. There were still at least 100 empty seats. Jerome figured out how to escape a restaurant high chair. We were back on the road two hours later, finally reaching Hays after 8:00.

I took the older kids swimming while Persephone tried to get Jerome asleep. After a lengthy swim, showers, and watching the end of a baseball game on television, Jerome wasn’t asleep and the other two kids thought “Don’t say another word for the rest of the night” was merely life advice to be disregarded as soon as necessary. I took them down to the lobby and read their books to them (Forecasting the Weather for Joe, and Anne of Green Gables for Jane) until nearly midnight, when Jerome was finally asleep.

Things got better the next morning, sort of like how Han rescues Luke in the middle of The Empire Strikes Back, relieving some of the buzz-harshing while paradoxically enhancing the harshing to come. We were up by 6:00, at breakfast by 6:30, and out the door by 7:00. And since we were heading west, we were gaining an hour when, a little later in the day, we passed from Central Time to Mountain Time. Things also got much better (for me, at least) when I started getting new counties.

We spent the morning driving through rural western Kansas, listening to Laura Linney’s reading of the Nancy Drew book, The Bungalow Mystery. (The bungalow has only a tenuous connection to the plot. If I were the Stratemeyer fellow who ran the whole production, I would have called it, The Mysterious Guardians.) We drove through Two Buttes, Colorado, where Persephone killed my plan to have us stand next to the town sign, mooning the camera (the great thing about extremely rural places is the myriad opportunities for spontaneous nudity), despite the fact that she’s never mooned a camera before in her life. (The same cannot be said of me.)

After a lunchtime experience with some Amish at the McDonald’s in Lamar, Colorado, we drove on. When we finally saw mountains, near Walsenburg, our kids were sufficiently impressed. Jane said of the Spanish Peaks, “The look like they’re made out of plastic,” and Joe said, “That’s the hugest mountain ever!”

We stopped at Great Sand Dunes National Park. It wasn’t part of our plan, but we had made good time all day and had several hours until sunset yet. I had done some reading about Great Sand Dunes, and was aware that it was full of sand dunes, but not one thing I read made mention of the stream that runs between the access road and the sand dunes. Evidently I was the only one who didn’t get the memo, because most of the park visitors were in bathing suits, playing in the stream. We forded the stream and hiked on the dunes. Joe was unexpectedly ecstatic, leading the way towards the dune he wanted to climb and slide down.

Sliding didn’t work so well, so I rolled down, like every self-respecting Mormon has done at the Manti Temple. I got very dizzy and nearly puked, much to the delight of our kids.

Of course, we became unbelievably sandy. So much so that, three washes later, the clothes we were wearing still have sand in the pockets and cuffs. But we had a good time and we all got more stamps for our national parks passports. And I managed to beat the sand off our kids’ feet without scrubbing the skin off, which was something that happened so regularly when we frequented the beach as a child that I assumed it was a necessity. It turns out, it’s not necessary at all.

Things went downhill when we reached our hotel in Alamosa. Persephone was supposed to get Jerome asleep while I swam with the kids. But the hotel pool was small and had nearly no area under four-feet deep. On top of that there were, by actual count, 19 people in the pool: three adults and 16 kids. Half of the kids were busy incessantly jumping in the pool, creating splashes that the pool deck was not designed to handle, resulting in enormous puddles against every wall. Their adult proudly told the other, “They did this for an hour last night.” One of his kids didn’t know how to swim, so would sink to the bottom, push off with his feet to resurface, and repeat, slowly hopping his way to the stairs. Once out, he singled out a particular kid NOT FROM HIS GROUP and tried repeatedly to jump on that kid’s head. That is no hyperbole. He wasn’t merely trying to splash the other kid, or jumping really close for fright. He was jumping with his legs open, trying to land on the kid’s neck and ride him under the water. After enough dirty looks from me to his adult, the guy told the kind, “Garrett, not so close.” (If it weren’t for these kids and their negligent adults, the story of the pool would have been the woman in the bikini top with the sagging stomach flab hanging over the waistband of her Budweiser-logo-bedazzled jean shorts.)

Later, while reading in the lobby to the older kids, the staff of the hotel was friendly, but a little TOO friendly. One woman asked if we needed anything. I said, “No, we’re just reading while our other kid falls asleep.” Five minutes later she came back and said, “The TV’s on in the dining area if the kids want to watch cartoons.” Did she think we were only reading because we didn’t know where to find a TV? Hotel TV is like crack to my kids, who are so TV-deprived, what with our lack of cable, that they happily watch infomercials at hotels. I got to incur their wrath by telling them that we were going to continue reading.

Worst Vacation of My Life (So Far) - Part One

I’ve written here before about the fact that my blog isn’t an Option 1 blog, so I’ve got to say nice things like, “Thanks for the awesome sweater, Aunt Loraine!” even though I don’t even have an Aunt Loraine, because one of my prying family members might come along and read the post and think, “He seems upset that he doesn’t have an Aunt Loraine. I think I should confront him with this observation, intervention-style!” (For those of you who think I don’t have prying family members, my father just became a Twitter follower of mine; and for those of you who disbelieve the piddling level of crap my family can turn into an intervention-style confrontation, I need only remind you of the question, “Is this your black thong?”)

JT recommended, in comment-form back then, and since then in face-to-face-form, that I ignore all my potential readers and just write what I want. At the time I dismissed his advice with a well-reasoned, “If he knows so much, why isn’t he a doctor?” Then I realized he IS a doctor, and now that I've become so enraged at all things familiar to me, I don’t care who I piss off. If they don’t like it, they can kiss my black ass.

I am not exaggerating when I say this past vacation was the worst I’ve ever been on. (Positive sidebar: that last sentence was the first time in my life I ever spelled the word “exaggerating” correctly on the first try. Usually it’s so mangled that SpellCheck can’t even help at first.) Everything about this vacation went wrong, in increasingly horrible ways, reaching a grand crescendo of crapulence when we spent an hour in a roadside ditch, listing 15 degrees to port.

Firstly, three years ago my work made me go to part-time instead of accommodating my school schedule, so all of my time off is unpaid. When everyone else gets a holiday, I have to work 10-hour days the rest of the week if I don’t want to pay money for the privilege of not working. That means that a two-week vacation is thousands of dollars more expensive for me than for the average person. So already I was in a position where every day needed to be pretty awesome to be worth its price.

Packing the night before we left, our parking space battle with the new neighbors came out in the open. We’ve lived in the same place for nearly four years now, and are on our fourth set of neighbors. The first set moved in after us. They were a childless married couple with two cars, and we had one car and two kids. They continually parked in the closest parking space, and other neighbors further west used the other spaces in that row, leaving us to load kids in an out of the car in the parking spaces that filled with rain and snow. Crazy Jane was the age to ask loud questions like, “Why are they parking in our space?” and I am the type to give loud answers like, “Because they don’t think of anyone but themselves.” They finally stopped parking in our space, and we never got along afterwards. The second set was two college girls who treated the spot as first-come-first-served, even though my wife had two little kids and was visibly pregnant. When the baby was born in the dead of winter and I spent an entire morning shoveling out the space for my wife and then one of them came home and took it, I went next door and asked them to stop. They were great about it and we got along well for the rest of their tenancy, even though for part of that time they owned an indoor goose. The third neighbor was a crazy lady who hung blackout drapes, tried to let herself into our place once because she was looking for her niece, and moved out suddenly one afternoon in the middle of the month. She fought us for the space at first, but after a few times saying hello to her, she grew frightened of us and started parking several spaces away. Now we have two guys who fight for the space more than anyone before them. Although we only have three weeks left as their neighbors, we have a lot of loading to do. Most of our packing (and unpacking) for this trip had to happen in the intermittent lakebed because they need to park 15 feet away from their front door.

Another thing that made packing horrible was the volume of stuff we had to take. Persephone’s sister is a bit of a clotheshorse (like Lenin was a bit of a radical) and has amassed a collection of children’s clothing not seen this side of a Children’s Place factory explosion. Since she only has one daughter, she has been lending girl clothes to us as Crazy Jane’s been growing up. After nearly seven years of it, several boxes of it were on our hands. Persephone asked if we should move them with us in case we have another girl, or if she could sell them on eBay for her sister, possibly keeping some of the money for her troubles. Instead, her sister wanted them all back so she could give them away to friends. Therefore, the entire roof container was filled with borrowed girl clothes to return, so much so that, when tightening the straps, one of the clasps broke.