Road Trip Review, Part 1: What Were We Doing?

On Sunday, May 1, just as soon as I got home from First Communion Mass and changed my clothes, Emma, Trevor, and I left for a week-long road trip. So many of you were curious about where we were going and what we were doing that it became a source of amusement to keep you guessing.

Now that we’re back, it appears some of our friends still insist there must be some method to our madness. Surely we didn’t drive 60-plus hours in seven days for kicks?

I assure you: there was very little method. Only madness. Or maybe dadness.

It all started in September 2008, when I took Bren (then 10) and Gabe (then 8) on  a road trip to the East Coast for a Yankees game, a Yale football game, and various other amusements. We had a great time, and when we returned (and ever since), Emma and Trevor have reminded me I owed them a trip. We’ve talked about various destinations over the years, but when we got serious about a year or two ago, they agreed: they wanted to go to Florida.

“Florida,” I said. “Really? Florida?”

“Yes,” they insisted. “Everyone goes to Florida. We never have.”

Exactly, I thought. Everyone goes; we never do. What I said out loud was, “Well, if that’s your choice…but we’re not going to Disney or that kind of thing. If we’re going, we’re doing something I’ve never done.”

“Like what?” they asked.

“Like go to the Everglades. Or the Keys. Or go fishing.”

They looked at each other and grinned. “Okay!” they said.

“Alright,” I said, “I’ll start figuring it out.”

Their grins grew even bigger. “We’re going to Florida!”

They’ve been excited since.

I’ve been to Florida twice: once as a three-year-old (I have vague memories of visiting family and Disney World — Pirates of the Caribbean, Space Mountain, and Mickey’s big plastic cheek made lasting impressions) and again with the high-school marching band (I mostly recall the bus ride down and back, a big waterpark in Orlando with a crazy steep slide called Der Stuka, a.k.a. the Wedgiemaker, and not knowing the marching music because as a football player I rarely marched). My recollection of the state itself was pretty green ranch country punctuated by neon t-shirt shops, tourist-trap towns, and RV parks. I wasn’t excited to return, until I started planning the trip.

Our purpose — our primary goal — was to drive to end of the road and eat good food along the way. That was it. Beyond that, I wanted to see gators in the Everglades; they hoped to see whales or dolphins and new country. Some months after we decided to go south, we connected with an Airedale breeder in Alabama, and thought, God willing, we might come home with a pup.

We knew before we left he wouldn’t have puppies for us yet, but we decided to stop through anyway to meet Randy and Pat and their dogs, which also enabled us to rendezvous at an old favorite spot for ribs in downtown Memphis (a place I used to love in a previous life, working for Hanley Wood Marketing and visiting our clients at FedEx).

Aside from no-see-ums the first night in the Keys and sunburn the next day, it was a great trip. I’ll share much more in words and photos in the coming days.

Farewell to Puck

Our new pup, circa 2002

We lost Puck today. At 13 years old, he was certainly not a young for a dog, but definitely not old for a Schnauzer. He had begun, in recent years, to sleep longer and run less, and earlier this fall, he had some teeth removed. At that time, the vet said his blood work was clean and extolled how healthy he seemed for his age, but warned that at this stage in a dog’s life, anything can happen.

And it did. Over a matter of weeks, Puck went from old to frail. He never complained, but slept more, ate less, and stayed closer to the house and us. He was slower on the stairs and slower to respond to our calls and whistles. Then a few days ago, he lost his balance and struggled to stand. Our other dog, Boomer, had done this several times in his old age — he would usually sleep for the better part of a couple of days, then be up and around again. Only Puck didn’t recover.

He was 13, and our kids are age 16 to 2, so he’s been a part of the family for as long as they can remember. We miss him.

Puck, all Christmased out.

We got Puck from a Schnauzer breeder on an old farmstead in rural Michigan. I wanted another dog — a smaller, indoor pet, since Boomer was big, woolly, and hated being inside. Jodi is not a dog person, but gave in to my persistence and the boys’ pestering. (Or was it vice versa?) He was an adorable pup (my Dziadzi — Polish for grandpa — was not overfond of our Airdales, but looked at our Schnauzer and said, “Now that’s a dog!”), and full of curiosity and mischief. I was struggling to come up with a name that reflected both his Germanic roots and his personality, and my choices were getting more and more outlandish. At one point, the name Wolfgang came to mind. I had Mozart on the brain, but was freely associating, and thought of the chef, Wolfgang Puck, then of the Shakespeare character from A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

I looked at our impish pup, and the name fit. (Of course, only later did I discover how a grown man shouting, “Puck!” out the back door sounded to the neighbors, or how many Minnesotans would instantly assume I was a hockey fan.)

Steamy summer roadtrip…

He’s always been an easy keeper and a good traveler. In fact, the only trouble he’s ever been came from a tendency in his younger days to know exactly when we were preoccupied by something else and high-tail it around the neighborhood. During the day, he would turn up in someone’s garage, or walk in through their front door with their kids, and they’d look at his collar and call. At night, he’d run yard to yard, and I’d drive with my head out the window, listening for jingling dog-tags or a neighbor dog in an uproar, trying to catch up to him.

After Boomer passed, Puck no longer wanted us to travel anyplace without him. If he sensed even a hint that we were preparing for something longer than a day trip, he would look for an opening, jump into the van, climb as far back in as he could, and refuse to come out unless I removed him. He would lay in whatever open space he could find in our overstuffed minivan, never bothered the kids when they were eating, and was content to sleep in the vehicle, in garages, in tents, wherever, as long as he could come with us. On cold winter nights, he would curl up under my old Carhartt jacket, head and all, and be there in the morning, ready to greet the frosty dawn.

He loved dog biscuits and pop corn and being scratched above the collar bone, beneath the collar. He used to love chasing tennis balls, but only in the house. He never liked to be picked up or manhandled — I could do what I wanted (he would even roughhouse a bit with me), but he only tolerated Jodi or Brendan lifting him, and nobody else. In recent years, he tended to get out of traffic when little kids were around. He tolerated other known dogs, but strays drove him berserk. Cats made him quiver with nervous energy; he was never quite sure whether he was supposed to chase them or not, and they seemed to relish his uncertainty and rub it in his face.

The old man, a couple weeks ago.

When we told the kids last night that it might be his last, we recalled three other special memories. Jodi remembered how our little ones, especially Lily, bonded with Puck by dropping food from their highchairs, and when they realized he was eating it, making a game of it. I remember him shifting from front foot to front foot and softly ruffing at us when he thought we were paying too much attention to baby Lily and not enough to him.

I also remember how perceptive he could be. He had a habit of sidling up to whomever he thought was most likely to pet or snuggle him — he would sit on your toes, even, or thrust his soft gray head up under your hand. But when we lost little Jude, I remember him insisting that I pet him as I lay on the couch or the bed, quiet and sorrowful. He nudged, prodded, cajoled, as if to say, C’mon…better days are ahead!

And he was right.

Goodbye, old man. Good dog.

Book Break, Feast of the Archangels Edition: Tobit’s Dog

For those of you who recall our wedding (or those who have heard Jodi and me speak at the engaged couples retreats around these parts), you may remember that the only detail I was specific about in the ceremony was the Old Testament reading, from the Book of Tobit, Chapter 8, verses 4-8. The back story, about the faithful but afflicted Tobit, his son Tobiah, a long-lost kinsman, and a cursed young bride, is retold in the novel Tobit’s Dog by Michael N. Richard.

Richard re-sets this ancient story as a mystery of sorts, set in the rural South during the Depression, and opens with a vignette of the titular canine visiting a local dump with his master, who is looking for discarded furniture to repair and sell. The dog is torn between the lure of his senses and the love of his master, but ultimately, chooses to follow and obey and is rewarded for it. It’s a compelling analogy to our relationship with God — but I was nervous: if the entire book were written in this way, it could be heavy-handed.

Thankfully, it isn’t. Instead, the opening scene sets the theme for the rest of the book, in which all of the major characters are conflicted in some way and are either moving toward their Master or further away.

Though the story is told in an easy and often humorous style, the subject matter is dark — the apparent mutilation and lynching of a teenage boy, rape and racism, and a tragic family cycle of alcoholism and abuse all figure into the tale, as does spiritual warfare as conducted by the old man’s unusual dog and a talented and world-wise traveling musician who may be Tobit’s cousin but doesn’t seem to be from “around here.”

It is a Catholic book, featuring Catholic characters living their Catholic faith, but you don’t have to be Catholic, or even Christian, to follow the tale or enjoy it — and in fact, nearly all of the characters find themselves questioning their faith and why bad things happen to good folks. As a bonus, for those who know the Book of Tobit or the three archangels named in Scripture and celebrated today, there is a strong connection between the book and today’s feast — but that’s probably more fun to uncover after the fact. As for the novel, I recommend it highly!

Lily Speaks Up

Our daughters on Saturday morning…

I’m told that parents are not supposed to compare their children to each other, but how can you not? What we know best about parenting we know from experience, so when some new ailments manifests itself, or child number four does something as yet unseen or unexpected, you noticed.

For example: our number five, Lily, has begun to speak more slowly than her older siblings. We attribute this primarily to the fact that her siblings do the talking for her, anticipating her needs and filling in the blanks – she need only whine, whimper, grunt, or shriek, and her desires are addressed. Lately, however, she is becoming more verbal, showing her strengths, her weaknesses … and a budding sense of humor.

She loves her family, and has said Momma or Mommy for a long time now, and Dada or Daddy only slightly later. Emma came easy, and her hero worship from her eldest brother led to his name being next in her vocabulary: Nennen at first; now Denden.

Among her next words were nanee (banana), and gog and guck (for our Schnauzer Puck). She was a little slower with her other brothers, but that’s fair: they’ve been a little slower with her, as well. Trevor, as she warmed to him was Ruh-ruh, then Reh-Ruh, and now Chreh-ruh.

She then said all of these names for weeks, but we couldn’t get her to say Gabe or Gabey. We couldn’t trick her, couldn’t coerce her – nothing worked; she just looked at him and held her tongue. Then last week she began to call him Abba – which given his priestly inclinations, seemed almost mystical (it’s Hebrew for “father”). That was cool, but only lasted for a couple of days before it devolved (we thought) into Abluh or Uh-bluh. (Gabe quickly tired of everyone asked Lily who he was, or saying, “Lily … where’s Uh-bluh?”)

It seemed like a step backward, until once a couple days ago, when Lily saw Gabe’s photo and said, “Ay-bluh.” You could almost hear Gabriel in her syllables – she knows what she wants to say, but can’t quite articulate it yet.

She is trying out other words, as well, that show up in humorous (and sometimes trying) ways. For example, when we tell her not to do something (or when she is about to do something she knows she shouldn’t), she looks at Jodi or me and says, “no, no, NO!” in a tone that suggests nag, nag, NAG! And one night when she was being clingy and fussy, I made the mistake of steering her away from Jodi by stepping between them, putting my arm around my bride, and saying, “MY mommy!”

I thought it was funny in the moment – but a day or so later, I returned home from work, walked into the kitchen, and kissed my wife, only to see Lily march over, grab her pant leg, and say, “MY MOMMY!” Now she walks around the house claiming everything in her reach: “My mommy, my Denden, mine, mine, MINE.”

Nice going, Dad.

Finally, a couple nights ago we’re seated at the table eating supper, and everyone’s chattering away. It’s hard to listen to five kids at once, and Lily is repeating the same monosyllable over and over, so I’ve tuned her out temporarily.

Finally I focused in, and see that she’s leaning across the table, looking insistently at me as she speaks.

What did she say?

“Jehm. Jehm. Jehm! JEHM!”

“Wait a minute!” I say, and the table quiets. “Lily, who am I?”

She grins. “Jehm.”

“Who?”

“Jehm.”

Jodi and the kids are giggling. “Who?” I ask again.

“Jehm!”

“Lily, who am I really?” I say, mock sternly.

She grins until it wrinkles her nose. “Daddy!” she says.

She loves this game now. She won’t call Jodi anything except Momma or Mommy – though she knows her name, too; ask her to give Jodi a hug and see.

I know, I know – it’s not the first time a child has done something precious (or precocious) while taste-testing words. But for us, it could be the last. Jehm is enjoying it, and so is Daddy.