Vacation—half the fun is surviving

Our son and his family sent a classic snippet while they are on vacation. It is a short video that opens with the sun beaming streaks of apricot behind a bank of dark scalloped clouds hugging the horizon. Majestic. The camera pans a barn, a windmill, beautiful wide-open prairies and wheat fields with perfect right-angle corners. Breathtaking. And then in the background you hear one of the kids yelling, “Stop it, John!”

It’s family vacation time. Who hasn’t had the pleasure? You plan, you map, you pack, you estimate travel time, you pack some more, you count down the days, the kids are excited, you’re excited, but there are always those moments that no family vacation is without.

No vacation is complete without some fighting in the backseat.

No vacation is complete without at least one brief moment wishing you’d never left home.

No vacation is complete without, “I have to go and I have to go now!” Just as no vacation is complete without at least one, “I don’t feel so good,” or “What’s this rash on my arms?”

Somewhere along the line you can plan on someone copping an attitude. Someone will touch someone else’s leg and that will trigger an all out battle. One of your points-of-interest won’t quite match the description on the Internet. There were no tour buses in the photo online, no long wait for a dirty restroom, no bees circling the overflowing trashcan.

Our son sent another email from where they are camping for the night. They are at the Ingalls homestead (as in “Little House on the Prairie”) in De Smet, South Dakota. The picture is the view from their tent and around their tent. It is flat prairie nothingness. There’s no pump, spigot, small creek bed or water drop in sight. No outhouse or port-a-potty can be seen. There is one lonely picnic table, but no grill or fire pit.

There is not another human being in sight. Coyotes and wolves are probably lurking in that tree line in the distance, waiting for nightfall. The skies are clear. You can feel the scorching heat.

It is a still picture with no sound. Probably just as well. Some memories are better left on mute.

Still, they are making the best kind of memories. They are learning to be family, to get along, to iron out differences, to endure one another and love another. Even a vacation is a mixed bag of ease and challenge. Life always is.

To those of you traveling great distances or vacationing with small children this year, two things: God speed, and remember—a family vacation is two parts relaxation and one part “Survivor.”

Furniture logs frequent family miles

We have a family history of moving furniture from one family member to another. We have a bedroom suite in an upstairs bedroom that traveled from a great-aunt to my brother and his wife, who then gave it to one of our daughters.

When the bed, dresser and vanity moved in here, I thought the set finally had a permanent home. A year later it moved out to an apartment. A year after that it came back. We figure it must be one of the Boomerang generation.

We have a piano that has logged nearly 5,000 miles in moves. If it had a dashboard, it would tell us it’s due for an oil change. Yep, just roll your little cart right there under Middle C, Mr. Mechanic.

There is a crib in the family that has been in three different states, six different homes and slept five different babies. It might sound like we are cheap; we prefer to call it practical.

When I visit my brother’s place, I always have a furniture déjà vu. I recognize the sofa in his basement as once having been in Mom and Dad’s basement, but it should be against a wall not in the middle of the room. He probably feels the same about a church pew I have that sits at the top of the stairs. It really should be under a window.

The furniture and goods not only keep recycling, sometimes they even multiply. We bought a small portable blue cot several years ago for when grandkids spend the night and now we have two little blue cots. I don’t know who the second one belongs to or how it got here, but I do know possession is nine-tenths of the law.

When our oldest daughter’s family moved back to the area, they made the mistake of buying a house with a large basement. I immediately offered a carpet shampooer and plastic tubs full of wedding centerpieces someone may want someday, so that their basement didn’t look so empty. Always doing what I can to help.

Her sister donated a table and six chairs that don’t fit in the place where she lives now. And an old saddle. Who doesn’t need a saddle in the basement?

In our most recent round of moves and rotations of household goods, we seem to have lost the dinner plates to my mother’s china. I searched my house and don’t have them. The youngest daughter searched her house and doesn’t have them, and the oldest daughter searched her house and doesn’t have them. Our son says China isn’t lost. It’s where it has always been in East Asia.

How do you lose a box with 16 dinner plates? I don’t think you do. You just keep them moving so fast nobody can catch them.

Humidity got you steamed?

There are beautiful summer days when you feel blessed to live in the Midwest. You wonder why you’d ever leave this part of the country to travel anywhere else. The sky is blue, the air is crisp, the fields are green and birds serenade outside very window. Yes, there are days like that. This is not one of them.

Today is the umpteenth consecutive morning the outdoor thermometer has said the humidity is 98 percent. The only time the humidity drops is when it is actually raining. The air is steamy and muggy. Nearly claustrophobic. When the legislature reconvenes, I’m going to propose a new state motto: “Indiana: Tropics of the Midwest”

The air is so “close” as my father-in-law used to call it, that you could walk outside and shower on your front lawn. Not that I’d advise it. Plus, the shampooing part probably wouldn’t turn out well.

Our 4-year-old grandson likes to sticks his head out a door every morning and report on the weather. “It’s a little bit breezy and a little bit chilly,” he tells me.

“Good to know,” I say.

Minutes later, the husband walks into the kitchen. “Tell Grandpa what the weather is like today.”

“It’s a little bit hot and a little bit cold.”

He’s living the cliché every city claims: “If you don’t like the weather, wait five minutes and it will change.”

If only.

Last year, when we had a long, miserable run of hot and humid, I was checking out at a store and the clerk said she was from the South and absolutely loved the humidity. I thought about shaking some sense into her, but I didn’t. One, because it would have been the wrong thing to do, and two, I was too weakened by the humidity.

For those of you unfamiliar with claustrophobic, oppressive humidity, there are actually three types of humidity. There is plain old humidity, which refers to the amount of water in the air as measured by women with naturally curly hair. A friend claims it has been so humid that her hair has been curled like a poodle’s since early June. She says when she needs a trim, she’ll probably have to book an appointment at Pet Smart.

Relative humidity refers to the percentage of people that make you feel claustrophobic and closed-in at a family gathering.

Specific humidity refers to the specific point in time you resolve to do something about the humidity by googling “U.S. cities with lowest humidity.”

The top four answers are Phoenix, Las Vegas, Salt Lake City and Denver.

Each and every one is a long way to travel to enjoy a bout of fresh air and a morning cup of coffee on a stranger’s patio. I’m not ruling it out.

On this tour make like a tree and leave

One of my greatest temptations is stealing flowers from other people’s gardens. I’ve never done it; well at least if you don’t count the time I clipped a branch with red berries from a neighbor’s tree for a Thanksgiving centerpiece. The branch was overhanging the sidewalk and could whack people in the face, so I don’t consider that a theft as much as I consider it performing a community service. And yes, I am aware such actions are often the gateway to more serious crimes.

It is with this penchant for criminality that I went on my first garden tour. My friend bought the tickets and had the map. “The tour begins with the house with the wraparound porch. You know the house?” my friend asked. Of course I knew the house; anybody who had driven through the village knows the house.

Being the first ones on site, my friend opened the front gate surrounded by enormous hydrangeas. We oohed and aahed our way up the walk to the lush garden beds surrounding the wraparound porch—freshly mulched hostas, sprawling blue veronica and cheerful Shasta daisies. There are few things I enjoy more than the fruit of other people’s manual labor.

I snapped pictures of every foot of the porch, including the beautiful front door, the light fixtures, the house numbers, the ferns and the outdoor furniture with luxurious pillows.

It was lush, peaceful and, wonder of all, we had this magnificent place to ourselves.

We walked the stone path around the house and through the side yard. We came upon a white gate featuring a birdhouse made out of a hat nailed to it. The gate led to the pool. We peeked in. Charming.

My friend wondered why they hadn’t deadheaded the roses for the tour. Tsk, tsk. And why no refreshments on the porch, I asked. We cackled like crows. We were having fun now.

A few steps later, there it was. The arbor swing of my dreams. I took a seat and breathed deep. Then I took a few more snaps. Maybe later I’d Photoshop myself into the arbor swing relaxing with a glass of iced tea.

It was fabulous, simply fabulous. We lingered some more. I took pictures of my friend’s daughter crouched next to a hydrangea bloom. I needed proof the blooms were larger than a human head.


At the next garden on our map, a woman was in the driveway asking to see tickets. No one asked to see tickets at the other house. This place was crowded. We had the other place to ourselves. Of course, that’s because the first place we toured wasn’t on the tour. Turns out there are two houses in the village with wraparound porches.

I fired my friend as map reader.

I’d even taken a picture at the first house of a little ceramic sign that said Garden Tour. I hadn’t noticed it said 2012.

There are two ways to look at this; either we were trespassing, or we toured a garden three years late. In the interest of a clean criminal record, I’m going with the latter.

At least it wasn’t a house tour.

The meaning of the Fourth is losing its spark

The answer is Boston. The question is, “Your favorite Fourth of July?”

The kids were all at home that summer, but it would be one of the last. We’d planned a summer vacation sweeping the upper East Coast, stopping at every spot of historical interest, forcing them to tour sites and read countless plaques and markers about events and people long ago.

They claimed I thought even the roadside litter had historical significance. Carbon date it and we’ll see, kids.

A year later, our son was in college studying architecture and a professor asked for a show of hands as to who had been to this particular site or that particular monumentaround the country. Our son said he raised his hand so many times it was embarrassing. “Mom, did you realize how many of those places we’d been to?”

We’d been to Lexington and Concord the day before the Fourth. We lingered at the North Bridge a long time. It is quiet and serene there, with thick grass, quiet waters and mature trees that dapple the sunlight. It is the very ground where farmers and craftsmen, ordinary citizens, answered the peal of church bells to commence battle for every man’s God-given right to live free.

We walked the Freedom Trail through Boston on the Fourth, the red brick pathway that leads past King’s Chapel, Park Street Chapel, the Old South Meeting House, Paul Revere’s House, the Old North Church and Bunker Hill. There are nameplates in the church pews. Many were regular churchgoers, faith being woven into the fabric of life.

Ministers in the pulpit at the time of the Revolution were firebrands. They weren’t preaching about enhancing self-esteem and 15 ways to love yourself more. Presbyterian, Methodist, Episcopalian and Congregationalist ministers, Jesuits and priests preached revolution. Some became military chaplains and others like John Witherspoon served in the Continental Congress and signed the Declaration of Independence.

After following the red brick road, we sandwiched ourselves into the Boston Harbor that evening amid a mass of humanity. Fireworks soared into the sky and exploded into magnificent balls of red, white and blue glitter, brilliantly mirrored in the water below.

The crowd oohed and aahed. For a time, we were all fixed on something larger than ourselves, not unlike when the colonists were fixed on a vision for a government where no man would be above the law.

Dwarfed by fireworks arcing and filling the sky, it truly felt like “E pluribus unum,” from many one. It would be one of the last Fourths that felt that way.

Today we don’t often embrace “from many one.” We are becoming fragments, shards and splinters screaming, fighting and clawing to get what is ours. The once broad vision for life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness has grown myopic focused on self, greed, and what’s trending on Twitter.

That shining city sitting on a hill? The lights are growing dim.

The question today is, “Do we have the grit and vision to refuel the lamps and rekindle the vision?”

I pray we do.

PBJ a small taste of giving

I’m baking brownies today. One hundred and twenty-five. Each one will go into a small plastic bag and be put in the freezer.

Next week there will be an assembly line in my kitchen as friends slap peanut butter and jelly on bread, drop small containers of applesauce, along with juice boxes, the brownies, spoons and napkins, into the paper bags.

We’re making sack lunches for a Vacation Bible School that meets in a gritty neighborhood on the near-Eastside of Indianapolis. We don’t pack veggies—the kids won’t eat them. Ours is to supply, not reform.

The first time we did this, it was for 80, then 90, then 100 and now 125.

Sounds wonderful of me, doesn’t it? The fact is, this is an easy way to give. Funding 125 sack lunches comes with a cost, but it’s only money.

This sort of giving doesn’t cost me at a gut level. It’s not the kind of giving that sits beside someone, listens to them, loves them, cradles them, challenges them, calls them to a new way of living. Seriously, have you ever heard someone say, “A brownie changed my life?” The sack lunches meet a momentary need, but they don’t address the deep need.

Our friends who pastor the church hosting the VBS address people’s needs on a far larger scale. They’re engaged in costly giving—they give of themselves. They believe to minister to the poor, you have to become poor. So they did.

And so they are.

Those who give much, reap much. They see the dividends that come with sacrificial investments—new life, more families doing foster care, addicts no longer addicted and a few more kids who now have a future. But the needs never end. One need is met and two more arise.

And then there’s the drumbeat of poverty constantly in the background. Cars stolen, gunfire, awakening to find a SWAT team on the front porch at 3 a.m.

But by far, the biggest cost of sacrificial giving is having their hearts broken. Repeatedly. It’s watching the smallest ones slip through the cracks and knowing all too well what’s ahead for them.

Yet, along with the neighborhood VBS, the leadership circle is growing, too—there are more solid church members helping shepherd the flock, and a few more transplants have moved in from the outer ring of the city to be of service.

They graduated another class of high school kids this year and have established an amazing health clinic. It’s all volunteer. People do what programs never can.

Of course, every gift counts. The parts come together to make the whole. But I am acutely and humbly aware with each brownie I pack that there is a rich and costly giving that changes lives, and then there are the crumbs.

Hopefully, the crumbs will bless, too. One hundred twenty-three, 124, 125.

A toast (with eggs) to breakfast with Dad

There’s not a day I can remember as a kid when my dad didn’t make breakfast. Dad was a morning guy. He was hard-wired to wake up with the chickens from growing up on a farm. Dad may have left the farm, but the farm never left him. I think he figured if he couldn’t be up early and feed livestock, at least he could be up early and feed his family.

He’d bring in the morning paper (along with a first-hand report on the weather) and start the coffee. Then as my brother and I appeared, he’d offer to pop some bread into the toaster or pour cereal, maybe peel an orange or halve a grapefruit.

I thought every kid grew up like this.

On cold winter days, he’d say we needed something to stick to our ribs and have a pot of oatmeal or cream of wheat simmering on the stove. I wasn’t a girl who relished the picture of oats and grains sticking to my ribs, so I was a hard sell most days. But on the mornings he sweetened the deal with raisins and brown sugar, I was game.

When we were out of milk, he’d constitute powdered milk, pour it in a pitcher and say it was just as good as the real thing. It wasn’t as good as the real thing; it was awful. And then he’d drink some of the powdered milk to demonstrate how wonderful it was. He drank alone.

When Mom came out, he’d pour two cups of coffee, and then they’d both sit down at the table and divide the newspaper. For 10 minutes or so we’d all be around the same table.

I thought every kid grew up like this.

My dad’s greatest gift to his kids was being there. Faithfully. Reliably. Every day. He wasn’t a big talker or flowery philosopher, but we knew what was expected. We also knew that whatever happened, we could count on him. He’d be there for us, just like he’d be in the kitchen every morning.

After Mom died and Dad got cancer I would often go stay with him for a week or so at a time. I was now the first one awake, dressed and in the kitchen.

“What’ll it be this morning, Dad?”

“Oh, I’m not too hungry. How about some toast? Put some of that strawberry jam on it, would you?”

After toast and coffee, he’d often say, “You know what sounds good? Maybe some scrambled eggs. See if we’ve got some sausage in there. Do we have any fruit?”

A little while later, “Would you mind making a little oatmeal?”

It was a pleasure and a privilege to be there in the mornings the same way Dad had been for us, day after day, year after year.

I don’t eat much in the mornings anymore, but breakfast will always be my favorite meal of the day.

Anything is possible in the Wonder Years

A four-year-old is counting her piggies as she calls them.

“I have nine piggies, Grandma.”

“If you have nine piggies, something is terribly wrong. Count them again.”


“I have 11 piggies, Grandma.”

To me, this is very funny. It is not funny to her. She knows that the expected number of toes is 10, but in her world, some days you might have nine, 10 or even 11. She is not yet bound by the precise and finite expectations of numbers.

There is a gaggle of kids and grandkids in the backyard. One of the grands peels off when she sees a robin in the grass. Stepping ever so gingerly with her arms stretched out to her sides, as though she may need to take flight herself, she silently encroaches upon the bird. Closer and closer and closer and then the bird lifts off, soaring into the trees.

She returns with an “oh well, another one got away” smile. She is not the least bit frustrated, even though this is the third bird today that has slipped away. Unaware of the laws of aerodynamics that govern winged creatures, she is confident the next time will be the time she holds a bird in her hands.

A grandson, not yet 2 , has appeared over the back of the sofa and is preparing to propel forward. He probably launched from a large round can with a lid that holds toys and sits behind the sofa. Sure enough, he did. But the tin is not upright; it is on its side ready to roll. He was not, and never is, restrained by the possibility of danger. In his world, if it is there, it is to be climbed.

Our 4-year-old grandson arrives with a plastic bag of animal bones he found in the country. The bones have been cleaned and dried and are safe to handle. He spills them out on the patio and crouches over them. “What’s this, Dad? Is this a leg? Look at this tooth!” He is oblivious to social etiquette that dictates the only bones at a cookout are ribs. He is mesmerized, imagining how the bones connect and once held an animal together.

And then he returned home to Chicago without them. He sent a desperate message via his father, “DON’T THROW AWAY THE BONES, GRANDMA!”

I would not throw away the bones anymore than I would discount the possibility of extra toes and birds yearning to be held. I would sooner outlaw circus tricks on the sofa than to discard those bones.

The bones and birds and toes and tricks are part of the wonder years, where life is unscathed by the skid marks of cynicism and the sneers of skepticism. The wonder years are rich with curiosity and imagination, a place where every gust of wind is a delight and every dark cloud looks promising.

In the wonder years, children believe what they see and even what they don’t see. All things are possible.

Oh that these bones of mine might relive the wonder years, too.

Things teachers can’t say (but I just did)

It’s hard to teach kids right from wrong when the adults around them are terrified of the very words.

Several teacher friends say they are no longer permitted to say a student’s behavior is “wrong” or even that a student has made a “wrong choice.” Instead, when a child makes a wrong choice, engages in bad behavior, is unruly or noncompliant, teachers are to say such behavior is “unexpected.”

Teacher to child: “Please sit down.”

Child does not sit down.

Teacher to child: “My, that was unexpected.”

No doubt a cold chill races down the child’s spine. Hardly. For most children, “unexpected” would be an extended lunch period, a snow day or finding the spelling test has been cancelled.

For adults, “unexpected” usually refers to something along the lines of a surprise party, running into an old friend or a payment not clearing the bank.

Of course, there are committees, groups and studies funded by grants that stand behind the new nomenclature of “unexpected.” But that doesn’t negate the fact that it is painful for adults to wrap their heads around such convoluted thinking, let alone children.

“Unexpected” is a stray hair, or a poppy seed between your teeth, not a framework for social conscience. In the real world, people navigate mazes with turns and corners that wind up being right or wrong, good or bad, appropriate or inappropriate, prudent or foolish.

Along the same convoluted lines as “unexpected,” teachers are also being told they are not to say a child “lied.” Instead, they are to say a child has told an “untruth.”

It is hard to imagine “untruth” catching on, yet I can hear the words of George Washington retooled for the 21st century: “I cannot tell an untruth.”

Courtroom dramas will need revising as well. Prosecuting attorney to the witness on the stand: “May I remind you that you are under oath and untruthing on the stand is a punishable offense.”

And then the jury breaks into laughter.

Lying is out; “untruthing” is in. You might also say a child is veracity-challenged, or has limited abilities conveying the full scope of reality.

If a lie is now an “untruth,” then cheating must be viewed as utilizing unapproved outside resources. Fighting in the cafeteria becomes exercising the full forward thrust of arms and legs.

Silliness proliferates. When a school sexting scandal broke out in Vermont, an article quoted a communications expert as saying that parents should talk with their sons and daughters about sexting, but they should not use the words “right” and “wrong.” Instead, parents were advised to use terms like “cool” and “uncool.”

Why not call behavior what it really is? Why not simply speak the truth? Playing games with words, clouding a child’s mind, and obscuring the consequences of choices will produce results that will be anything but unexpected.

A brief history of selfies and narcissticks

There was once a time when we took pictures of other people, but now we mainly take pictures of ourselves. Sometimes we take pictures of ourselves with other people, but usually (hopefully!) with us in the center doing something more clever than the other people—things like crossing our eyes, flaring our nostrils or sticking out our tongues—so that the other people are not much noticed. They’re called selfies for a reason.

There was also once a time when we took pictures of interesting places and historic monuments. Today we take pictures of ourselves in front of a mountain carved with four presidents nobody can name, and a couple hundred snaps of ourselves in front of the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial. Or is it the Lincoln Monument and the Washington Memorial? Who knows and who cares? All that really matters is that we were there and we have the selfies to prove it.

There was also once a time when we took pictures of architectural and natural wonders. Today many people consider their own bodies to be among the most amazing natural and architectural wonders of the world and, therefore, focus on taking pictures of themselves in various states of dress. But mostly undress. Then they share those selfies with others and then others share them with others and then, when the natural wonder-of-the-world selfies go viral, the people who took the selfies become indignant and garner massive amounts of attention and sympathy, even though they were the ones who took the selfies and shared them in the first place.

Don’t try to follow the logic. There isn’t any.

Today, everyone who is famous takes selfies, which inspires people who aren’t famous to take selfies, hoping that the accomplishment of taking a selfie will somehow make them famous, too.

And we question if a college education is still worth the money. Probably not. Especially not when you take good selfies.

And now, being that some people (those naturally clumsy or cursed with short arms) were previously at a disadvantage for taking selfies, we have the selfie stick, also known as the narcisstick. Simply mount your camera on the end of the selfie stick, with the remote control trigger, raise it overhead in a crowded tourist spot and watch it crash to the ground and shatter as another camera on a selfie stick whacks into yours.

Disney’s Space Mountain and Thunder Mountain rides have banned selfie sticks, as have the Kentucky Derby, the Smithsonian, Rome’s Colosseum, the Palace of Versailles, a host of museums worldwide and all of Brazil’s soccer stadiums.

Sure, it is a disappointment and a setback in the ever-evolving advancement of selfies, but who needs to go inside the Colosseum when you can take cool selfies on the outside?

Clearly, the most pressing question of our day is whether we can ever have enough pictures of ourselves, taken by ourselves, and clearly the answer is no. Never, ever, ever, not in a million, billion, trillion selfies.