When One Door Closes…

Tonight I have a date with my bride. Tonight we celebrate that I finally landed a freelance project that pays the bills for the next few months and enables me to stop my early-morning labors at FedEx. We are able to make ends meet. We are able to pray together in the mornings again. I am able to see my children at the beginning of the day and stay up past eight o’clock.

God’s timing is impeccable. For the past couple months, I’ve been losing weight and getting in progressively better shape. I’m holding steady at around 218 pounds right now—a weight I haven’t seen in close to two decades, I would guess. I am stronger, more flexible, and in better condition as well.

At least, I was until a week ago.  Continue reading

Road Trip Review, Part 5: What We Learned and Why We Laughed

Emma, Trevor, and I spent a lot of time together last week — time enough to have learned a thing or two in common and to have developed a few “in-jokes.” We learned, for example, that when you’re playing Score! (a road-trip game in which you count yellow cars for points*), the game gets faster and more furious as you travel south, as sunshine-colored muscle cars, Love’s fuel tankers, and Penske rental trucks take over the highways. Do rental car companies in Florida stock higher numbers of brightly-hued, late-model Mustangs and Camaros? They were everywhere, and more than half were bright yellow!

We learned that, south of Tennessee, drivers have  little regard for posted speed limits, unless it’s to add at least 15. In Georgia, especially Atlanta, and on the return trip through Alabama, I generally drove five or 10 miles per hour over the speed limit, even in reduced speed zones, to keep from being killed. We laughed to think that, if I got pulled over, it would be because the police figured they could actually catch up to me.

We learned that Florida drivers are the craziest I’ve ever seen. At least in Georgia and Alabama, the need for speed did not come with rage, impatience, or homicidal or suicidal tendencies. In Florida, I was passed by a car at such a high rate of speed (while I was driving 10 over) that the air around us seemed to split and our own car shook. As I regained my bowels and watched that car shrink toward the horizon, a crotch-rocket motorcycle zipped by even more quickly — like someone removing my left ear in one motion, with a Dremel — and vanished into the distance! I also watched two or three drivers, stopped at red lights, who began inching (or rather, jerking) forward into the intersection mere seconds after coming to a stop; one arrived in the center of the intersection while cross traffic was still advancing and made them steer around him!

But the worst example was a driver who rode my bumper as we were entering a construction zone. I was decelerating, but still over the posted limit; he or she was behind me mere moments before deciding to pass…at freeway speeds…on the right…using a rapidly diminishing merge lane lined with orange barrels and Increased Fines signs!

Of course, I always try to oblige the locals, so I added to the chaos, emerging from behind a left-turning semi in a non-freeway construction zone to wind up headed the wrong way into oncoming traffic in a dusty, narrow lane lined both sides with orange pylons. We laughed in retrospect, once I quickly backed between pylons and pointed us back the way we came, and the kids learned that I am, in fact, prone to frightened expletives in times of stress.

We learned that deputies in the Keys will pull you over for a burned-out headlight (“Do you know why I pulled you over?” “No, sir, I do not.”), but the one we encountered was very friendly, even when out proof of insurance was set to expire at midnight that very night! He let us go with a verbal warning and the admonition to get the light fixed ASAP.

We learned that gators can, indeed, be spied along the highways in rural south Florida. We speculated that the panther and bear crossing signs were posted to drum up intrigue rather than to warn of any actual wildlife present, and again, that the bears were escaped polar bears (judging from the shape of the black silhouette on the signs) from an apparently flooded zoo. This odd thought led to further speculation that behind the high fences and tall grasses, Floridians were breeding armadillos and releasing them along the highways of Tennessee — or at least littering that unfortunate state with their carcasses.

The prevalence of roadside armadillo carcasses made roadkill-watching something of an activity, in addition to license-plate hunting (45 states, all but one from passenger vehicles, not trucks or trailers; five provinces; and the U.S. Government) and the Score! game. We laughed at a term I made up as we passed a particularly unidentifiable critter on the pavement: inside-out-opus. Indeed, inside-out-opus may have been the second most prevalent creature we saw along I-75, armadillos being the first, and easily identified by their disjointed but intact bands of so-called armor.

We learned (or rather, confirmed) that Trevor and Emma have the same dark, though nonsensical, edge to their humor as I sometimes have, as when we passed a dead deer that had been clearly blitzed by a large truck. “There’s a semi deer,” I observed to pass the time. Trevor replied, “That’s exactly what it was: a semi-deer…half a deer!”

Another example: After being pepper by no-see-um bites the first night in the Keys**, we discussed now and again the possibility of chewing off our own limbs to rid ourselves of the itch. Emma was in a particularly bad state the evening we were in Memphis — relieved only by the distraction of eating those exquisite Rendezvous ribs. She railed at Trevor his seeming inability to get the bones clean of pork to her exacting standards, which led to the best joke of the trip: as we left Memphis and my own numerous red spots began to itch with a fury, I asked Trevor to gnaw off my feet (since I was driving and unable to do it myself). Without hesitation, Emma said, “He won’t be able to finish.”

In addition to inside-out-opus, we learned two new words, courtesy of Trevor: froth-tips (he meant whitecaps) and crane-truck (he meant tow truck). We laughed to recall Randy telling us of his late Airedale Sandy, who rode with him everywhere and became something of a celebrity in Wetumpka, Alabama — how, if something caused Randy to say an angry word, Sandy would jump in the back of the vehicle until he said, “I’m sorry, Sandy, I didn’t mean it!” We learned that a manatee on a mission can swim more than 20 miles per hour, and that Hemingway’s then wife, Martha Gellhorn, stowed away on a Naval vessel to be the sole woman to land at Normandy on D-Day.

We learned many other things, and laughed a lot — though much of the humor was born of 60-plus hours together in a car. I won’t share more. You had to be there!

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* As my kids play Score!, when you spy a yellow vehicle moving under its own power, you get two points; a yellow vehicle parked (on land or a trailer) is worth one point. Yellow Hummers are 15; yellow construction vehicles, school buses, and vehicles with fewer than four wheels don’t count at all. It gets a little touchy at times: designating which shades of chartreuse are too green, or which of signal yellow are too orange, or which bucket trucks, dump trucks, or semis are sufficiently vehicular to not be considered construction equipment, or how to handle a Penske rental lot. After many hundreds of points combined, the final score and victory came down to the last two miles of the trip: Emma spied the last two yellow vehicles and beat Trevor by a mere three points. (She also “scored” multiple Hummers, while Trevor saw none — controversially, the first one came with an accompanying gasp from me, which was followed by Rose saying, “Is that a Hummer? Yeah, it’s a Hummer!” Trevor claimed she didn’t know for sure, so it should have counted. That 30-point swing would have made him the victor by a sizable margin.

** We learned that no-see-ums are a plague on humanity that make mosquitoes and ticks seem quaint and tolerable; the sheer volume of tiny red blistery, burny, itchy bites, couples with the intensity of the itch and the week-plus duration of inflammation (not to mention the sheer madness of a bug you can hardly see carving chunks from your living flesh) make it no competition. Emma got it worst; they loved her, and her bites swelled to pea size early on, like mosquito bites. I was bitten second worst, and Trevor least of all, but still plenty badly — his also seemed to take root and flare up later than ours. Wicked. I won’t make the same mistake and trust the breeze and tent screens to keep the bugs off!

Road Trip Review, Part 4: What We Ate!

As I mentioned, one of the top priorities of the trip to Keys — perhaps the top priority for the kids! — was to eat good food along the way. We started right off the bat, stopping at a family favorite, Mancino’s Pizza and Grinders in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, part of a smallish Midwestern chain of pizza and sandwich shops that was a go-to for Jodi and me during our Michigan years. I don’t recall ever eating the pizza; the grinders are second-to-none: stacks of deli meat, cheese, and veggies on toasted, homemade Italian bread that is nothing particularly unusual and yet is unique to Mancino’s somehow. I get the Italian, without fail, and am never disappointed.

Breakfasts, with just three exceptions, were complimentary hotel affairs, and as long as there’s a waffle maker and coffee, how can you complain? Most of our lunches were from the cooler: ham and cheese wraps, hard-boiled eggs, fruit and nuts, granola bars, and Emma’s chocolate-chip cookies.

That leaves three exceptional breakfasts, dinners, and desserts. I’ll try to cover them in the order they happened, which requires me to retrace the road trip.

After Mancino’s on Sunday, we continued down the freeway toward Rockford, Illinois, where we battled a blinding rainstorm before stopping. Biscuits and gravy at the hotel, then headed south. Road lunch. Near as we can recall, we ate dinner on the road that night, too, trying to get as far along as we could to make the Keys in time to set up camp before sunset on Tuesday.

Tuesday morning, we hit Waffle House in Valdosta, Georgia — a ubiquitous chain of restaurants in the South, with some freeway exits boasting a franchise on each side of the road! It struck me as equal parts Denny’s, roadside drive-in diner, and small-town Southern cafe. The signature waffles look like Eggos, but taste like heaven (Rose and Trev added chocolate chips to theirs); the orange juice was cold and sweet; the coffee, strong and black; the bacon crisp; the eggs cooked perfectly.

“What’s not to like?” a friend asked. “A typical WH meal covers the main food groups: fat and salt.”

She forgot sugar. It was delicious!

Our goal being Big Pine Key Fishing Lodge in time for set-up and supper, we pressed on with another road lunch. We arrived at Big Pine, checked in, set up camp, and on the manager’s recommendation, sought out a relatively new restaurant called Bucktooth Rooster, which had, among other things, the coolest ceiling fans I’d ever seen: regular electric fans on motorized, rotating arms.

I had determined before we set out that I wanted to eat local seafood in the Keys, whereas the kids ate whatever struck their fancy. In this case, Trevor had an deep dish of rigatoni and meatballs, which he enjoyed but was unable to finish. Emma had steak soft tacos, which smelled and looked delicious. I had one of the house specialties: the “famous” seafood pasta, with fresh lobster, scallops, shrimp, and the local “catch of the day” fish, which I forget, in a lobster cream sauce. I also had a solid local lager to wash it down. Our server was friendly and helpful, and locals were eating there, too. All in all, a great first meal in the Keys.

Next morning, we drove 45 minutes to Key West for breakfast, arriving at Cuban Coffee Queen just as the morning rush was starting. A fearless rooster was crowing in the street; locals, tourists, and camo-clad service men and women from the nearby Naval installation were lining up for strong coffee and home-cooked, Cuban-inspired breakfast sandwiches and breakfast burritos.

Emma and Trevor each got a Key Wester: two eggs, American cheese, and bacon on pressed, toasted Cuban bread — it came piping hot, with a side of rice and black beans. I had the Cuban Breakfast Burrito — three eggs, American cheese, chorizo, rice, and black beans in a tortilla — perhaps the best breakfast burrito I’ve ever enjoyed — along with their Cuban American coffee: “gringo” coffee with a shot of bucci, or Cuban espresso. It was strong, black, flavorful, and had the strange quality of making you feel, at least temporarily, superhuman! (I understood immediately where the slogan on their t-shirts comes from: Drink More Cuban Coffee and Do Stupid Things Faster!

Three or four people staffed the little shop. About halfway through our breakfast, which we ate seated on a bench nearby, a lovely woman rode up on a bicycle to deliver supplies; she kissed the man who had taken our order, and for all the world, the little joint appeared to be a family affair. Indeed, later the same woman returned with a toddler in tow, and I found myself hoping this Key West landmark was, in fact, the love and livelihood of this young family. I may have to order a t-shirt!

We walked a ton that day, in part due to the fact that the tourist map I was given had no scale, and nothing to indicate that the streets shown were only “major” streets, with numerous lesser avenues and alleys between. Everything that appeared​ to be four or five blocks away turned out to be a mile or more, and the kids (against my advice) wore flip-flops instead of sneakers — plus we left the sunscreen in the car. As a result, by late morning we were seeking shelter, and found a gelato shop in which to cool ourselves. Emma, Trevor, and I enjoyed mango sorbet, cherry gelato, and strawberry gelato, respectively — and agreed to skip lunch in favor of finding Blue Heaven and enjoying some of its famous, towering Key lime pie in the afternoon.

We walked and walked. As previously mentioned, we visited the Basilica, the Hemingway House, the Southernmost Point marker, and a stretch of beach that required miles of walking and no end to twisting and turning to locate. Finally a beach-clad local on a bicycle saw me looking at a map and pointed us in the right direction, then rode make from whence he came to rejoin a group of bikers — apparently he had seen us from a few blocks away and stopped to approach us and help!

Finally, late in the afternoon (knowing supper would not come until well after the Key West sunset), we walked to Blue Heaven for desserts. We had all planned on the Key lime pie, with its towering, toasted meringue, but I glimpsed “Banana Heaven” on the menu and ordered it to share. The pie was a triumph of refreshing lime flavor and airy architecture, perfect for the long, hot day we had experienced, and just as good as everyone said. Banana Heaven lived up to its name: flambéed bananas and warm banana bread with homemade vanilla ice cream slowly melting on top. It was rich, decadent — almost too much to handle on so hot a day. Almost.


We drove back to the beach for sunset, then trekked to Stock Island in search of Hogfish Bar and Grill for supper. Hogfish Bar boasts of its signature fish and of being a glimpse of the Keys of yesterday. The menu says “A Great Place If You Can Find It” — I was grateful for GPS, and even so, nearly turned back. We drove down a side street, then turned down another, and another — each darker than the one before, with no signs of business and little of life. We drove through a trailer park and past a sign that said “Public road ends here” or some such thing — past stacks of crates and darkened windows — and up to a crowded parking lot and well-lit saloon on the docks of Stock Island!


They seated us a picnic table right on the docks, where we watched a local fisherman fleshing what appeared to be the gaping jaws of a medium-size shark. I had heard nothing but good things about hogfish, though I had no clear idea what it was — so Emma and I ordered the hogfish tacos (mine with jalapenos; hers without). Trevor ordered Cuban spiced pork, and I added a local brew to wash it down. Hogfish, it turns out, is delicious — light, flavorful, reminiscent of shellfish. This may be my favorite meal the entire trip, edging out the others by reason of my complete inability to to replicate it in any way!

We slept in a bit (not much) the next morning, then ate ham and boiled eggs on the beach near our tent before tearing down. Our goal was a late brunch at Mangrove Mike’s Cafe on Islamorada on our way back to the mainland. Their website promotes their catering business well — the cafe itself appears as a typical small-town family restaurant, tucked into a little strip mall between two art galleries: one stocking high-end wood carvings; the other, brightly colored island photos, arts, and crafts, as well as frames made from the weathered wood of crab traps. 

Mangrove Mike’s boasts a assortment of delicious French toasts made from breads, rolls, and cakes. Emma and I opted for cinnamon-roll French toast; Trevor, for the apple cake version. Both were sweet and delicious — well worth the wait and drive — but I give the edge to Trevor’s choice. By his estimation, it may be the best thing he ate the whole trip!

We headed north, first to Everglades City for our mangrove adventure, then to Fort Myers. We had all agreed that one of our goals was to say we tried alligator. Capt. Kent of Allure Adventures departs from a dockside eatery and market called Triad Seafood — known for stone crabs, but serving gator bites, as well. Similar to Hogfish Bar, getting to Triad involved side streets, alleys, and stacks of crates and seemingly abandoned gear — which, based on the previous evening’s meal, boded well for us! Unfortunately, we were all suffering from no-see-um bites, and Emma particularly badly, so we tracked down Benadryl for her and took a drive while she dozed. I lost track of time, and returned to Triad just as the restaurant closed. (I have no doubt it would have been good: while we waited for our Everglades cruise, a carload of well-dressed women from Miami arrived to purchase a couple hundred dollars worth of stone crab for dinner that night — they marched straight back to the kitchen and refused to take “we’re closed” for an answer!)
So we ate our own snacks, and then, after our cruise, drove to Ft. Myers for the night — where we found a gator-themed sports bar called Gatorbites. We ordered the sampler, and ate five flavors of deep-fried gator tail tenders — in texture, like slightly chewy calamari; in flavor, two parts chicken, one part shellfish. It was tasty, and we’re glad we tried it — but we wouldn’t drive extra miles to try it again.
The next day, after a hotel breakfast, we pushed for Alabama. We finished our road lunches en route, and as we approach Montgomery, I asked the kids what they wanted for supper. We all had a craving for pizza, so I had Trev google “best pizza in montgomery” and “best woodfired pizza.” One pizza place showed up near the top of both searches: Midtown Pizza Kitchen. Again, hard-to-find: tucked in behind a maze of businesses, parking lots, and strip malls; again, packed with locals. It was nearly full when we arrived, and people were standing in the doorway when we left. We ordered the Cheese Bread and the 5-Meat Pizza — plenty of food for the three of us, and exactly what we had hoped for in well-crafted, wood-fired pizza!

We stayed the night outside Mongomery, then met our new friends, Randy and Pat, and their Airedales after our motel breakfast. Our goal was to grab lunch at a hole-in-the-wall soul food restaurant in Wetumpka called the Chicken Shack (good things are said online!) but unfortunately, it was closed, with no indication of opening soon. (Maybe when we go after a pup…)

So we stopped at Chic-fil-a on the road, pushing hard to get to Memphis for Mass at St. Peter Catholic Church, then dinner at a barbecue landmark: Rendezvous!

St. Peter is a beautiful downtown church within walking distance of Rendezvous, and with free parking — perfect. Eucharist first, then barbecue. Rendezvous is down an alley in downtown Memphis; you can smell the smoke before you ever see the signs, and we walked past it before seeing a sidewalk sign directing us to the side street we had just crossed, and the alley off that.

Rendezvous is an institution, introduced to me when I worked for Hanley Wood and wrote for FedEx, headquartered in Memphis. They boast a wonderful dry rub and famous ribs. We opted for a full order of ribs and a ribs/brisket combo plate to share, along with slaw, beans, and bread. Smoke, spice, vinegar, char, succulent pork and tender beef. Perfection. This was Emma’s favorite meal, and a close second for me!

That was last Saturday. Sunday morning, after another motel breakfast, we drove hard for home — stopping at Wendy’s for lunch. We were home in time for supper…but strangely, not hungry!
All in all, I think the goal of eating good food in interesting places was satisfied.


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.

The Temple In Decline

I am reclined this morning on one end of a well-worn brown leather sofa, black coffee near at hand, my laptop atop my lap. Conveniently, it is held in place by that protruding portion of my abdomen that overlaps my waistline and also serves as a convenient snack tray. I try to see this is as a blessing, but most blessings I enjoy are well-wrought and gleaming. This one is pasty, soft, expansive, and lumpy.

We are told our bodies are temples. To what heathen god, then, has this been erected? I am 230* pounds of flesh and bone (flesh mostly), underworked and overfed, misshapen and hairy and graying. I am weary from too much rest—so comfortable it hurts. The portal is expansive, the veil is stretched; my altar, I fear, is all table and no sacrifice.

There is a time and place for opulence, but it is not my midsection at 42. Time to tear down this sprawling pagan jumble and put up a tent, a table, a candle, and a cross.

Three days may not be enough.

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* More or less…