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!

The Temple In Decline


I am reclined this morning on one end of 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.

* * * * *
* More or less…

Our Hope Demands Change

I don’t know about you, but I avoid the news like the plague. No matter the source, the media today is a place of constant conflict, and it’s easy to get caught in the ceaseless spin cycle and feel as though everything is falling apart around us. It’s easy to lose the perspective that we are in this world, but not of it. And once we lose that perspective, it’s easy to lose hope.

But as Catholics, our hope is in God and transcends this world. Specifically, our hope is in a personal God, who loves each of us enough to become like the least of us: wriggling and helpless in a Bethlehem stable; hungry and homeless on the road to Egypt; hard-working and cash-strapped in the wood shop in Nazareth; hounded and criticized by His own people; persecuted and abandoned by those who should have known and loved Him best. Jesus’s perfect and total Yes to the Father finally silenced the steady drumbeat of Nos that had echoed through the ages since the fall of Adam and Eve. He lived, He died, He rose again—we know this through the words of the prophets, the witness of the apostles, and the blood of martyrs. Never before have so many sacrificed everything—their very lives!—for so outlandish a claim as a God-Man who let himself be humiliated and slaughtered only to rise again from the dead. Who would die for such a thing? If you had any doubt in your mind, would you give your life?

Thousands of people have, from Jesus’s day to the present. We believe far more these days on less credible evidence, and yet we’re skeptical of this?

When the apostle Thomas encountered the resurrected Jesus in the flesh, his famous skepticism was transformed—he declared, “My Lord and my God!” Jesus replied, “Blessed are they who have not seen and have believed.”

That’s us: believers in an unseen Christ. Blessed are we who persist in the faith.

Of course, as Catholics we still encounter the living God, just not by sight. We encounter Christ in His Body, the Church, and in the sacraments—particularly the Holy Eucharist. We know that the Eucharist is the Body and Blood of Jesus by His own words: “This is my Body…This is the cup of my Blood.” Jesus is God, and just as in the Creation story, what God says, is.

This is Good News—the Best News, in fact, and we are obliged to share it. It’s not enough to just accept Christ’s mercy and grace, or receive His Body and Blood. We are called to be disciples: not dependants, and not simply students, but followers, who learn, live, and spread the Gospel. No one encounters God without changing, and indeed Jesus says whoever wishes to be His disciple must pick up His cross and follow. If we are unwilling to change our behaviors and priorities; to work, suffer, and die for the sake of the Kingdom, we are not yet full-fledged disciples.

Why should we care? Because it takes disciples to make disciples. We can’t lead others to Christ if we aren’t following in his footsteps ourselves. Fr. Mike Schmitz reminds us that Jesus gave us one job to do while He is gone: go and make disciples of all nations. When He comes back, it won’t matter that the car is waxed; the laundry, folded; or the recycling, sorted. He’s going to look around to see if we did that one thing. Our hope demands change.

Blogger’s Note: This article appear in the Sunday, July 19, parish bulletin.

Go Ahead: Be a Stick In the Mud

I watched the Super Bowl last night with my bride and, at times, my kids. They came and went as it held their interest, and I spent the second half contemplating why we consume this (or why it consumes us) year after year.

The game was exciting to the finish, marred at the end by an odd play call that sealed the victory for the Patriots, followed by a borderline brawl as the Seahawks saw the championship slipping away. But the halftime show and commercials were what really sparked my thinking. Unlike past years, last night there were only a couple of commercials that made me happy the younger kids had already gone downstairs to play — unfortunately, one was a movie promo, which means not only will we be seeing it for months, but there’s a feature-length version somewhere. The halftime show, on the other hand, once again had me talking to my three teens about what’s wrong with the world. It was a short, pointed conversation, since halfway through the performance, my eldest went downstairs to practice his bass and the other two voiced their agreement with my rant and tuned out (from the show, and likely me, as well).


I try to stay somewhat familiar with popular music to know what my kids are exposed to, so I watched the whole thing. Afterward I watched Facebook to see what friends, family, and the general public thought. As expected, opinion was polarized between fans of Katy Perry and Missy “Misdemeanor” Elliot (the female rapper who joined Perry onstage) and people who don’t like their styles of music. But I was struck by the number of comments in the middle — people offering some variation on the theme, “At least this year it was kid-friendly.”

Really?

Call me a prude if you wish, but Perry’s lyrics, antics, and outfits are not kid-friendly. Consider just the songs we heard last night: “This was never the way I planned, not my intention. I got so brave, drink in hand, lost my discretion. It’s not what I’m used to, just wanna try you on. I’m curious for you, caught my attention” (I Kissed a Girl). Or “We drove to Cali and got drunk on the beach. Got a motel and built a fort out of sheets. … Let you put your hands on me in my skin-tight jeans. Be your teenage dream tonight” (Teenage Dream).

Of course, these pale in comparison to Missy Elliot’s Work It lyrics, which I will not post here. Elliot’s verbal dexterity is such that I couldn’t make out most of what she said last night, but I’d like to assume that her halftime rendering of her hit song was substantially edited to even make it on the broadcast.

“Well, it could have been worse…at least she was fully clothed and not dancing suggestively, like in years past.”

Modesty comes in many forms, but crouching like an animal in a minidress, snarling, “I kissed a girl and I liked it!” is not one of them. And as I shared with the teenage boys I spoke to at the church on Wednesday, “It could be worse” is a pretty low bar.

Perry’s performance was only relatively kid-friendly, as compared to shows in years past — and that underscores the problem with relativism. This is how we lose the practice, or even the recognition, of virtue: by allowing ourselves to slip so far down the slope that a half-step back toward the top seems like innocence regained. And the entertainment industry knows their target market well. They don’t care if a 40-year-old dad enjoys the show — they want to hook my offspring, and in that respect, it’s probably better if I don’t like it. The gleaming space lion, the cutesy cartoon beach sequence, and the sandwiching of Perry’s more provocative songs between hits Roar and Firework, which even turn up in grade-school music concerts — the whole production is meant to keep the kids in the room.

Folks, like it or not, they are selling sex to your children — and not the life-giving kind. Last night’s post from the Practical Catholic Junto blog summarizes my concerns in two brief quotes:

It reaches the extremes of its destructive and eradicating power when it builds itself a world according to its own image and likeness: when it surrounds itself with the restlessness of a perpetual moving picture of meaningless shows, and with the literally deafening noise of impressions and sensations breathlessly rushing past the windows of the senses.  …

Only the combination of the intemperateness of lustfulness with the lazy inertia incapable of generating anger is the sign of complete and virtually hopeless degeneration. It appears whenever a caste, a people, or a whole civilization is ripe for its decline and fall.

— from Josef Pieper’s The Four Cardinal Virtues

When we say, “It could have been worse,” we are too comfortable. We have lost the capacity for righteous anger that could set the world straight. We’re giving in.

Late yesterday morning, I was talking to one of our deacons, who was shaking his head at the fact that families might skip religion classes to get an early start on the Super Bowl extravaganza. “I’m an old stick-in-the-mud,” he said, half-apologetically. “I’m not watching any of it. Not the game. Not the commercials. None of it.”

I suppose I’m becoming a stick in the mud, too. But perhaps such sticks will be the only thing people can grab onto to slow our descent.

Next year, I think we’ll watch Groundhog Day instead.

Book Break: The Relative Un-Importance of Being Earnest

Jodi and I used to watch a lot of Seinfeld. In relatively small doses, the show struck us as amusing to flat-out hilarious, although occasionally there was an episode that made us cringe or second-guess our choice of entertainment.

When the series finale rolled around, we were there with much of the rest of the country to see how it all would end. The last joke, it turned out, was on us: using courtroom testimony as the vehicle, the final episode chronicled, back-to-back-to-back, what rotten, superficial human beings Jerry and the gang were during the run of the series, then ended with a joke about how they’d already had the final conversation before. Jodi and I looked at each other with the grim realization that we had wasted a tremendous amount of time over the previous several years, to no redeeming end.

Like Seinfeld, Oscar  Wilde’s play The Importance of Being Earnest seems to me to be adamantly about nothing. Of course, like the TV show, the play has to be about something, but it sets the bar so low that it is essentially a three-act setup to a single joke, the punchline of which is a pun. Like a good sitcom episode, it is funny and short. (I read it in an evening.) I would like to say it’s witty, but I’m not sure it’s clever enough for that. It seems to me to be an exercise in style, primarily, with little substance beneath it.

Several years ago now, I read Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray. That is a great story, and proof enough  in my book that Wilde was a great writer. At the time, I wrote, “It’s a great story full of people you can’t stand, living in a world of false beauty. … Part of the genius of this book is the sinking feeling that there really are people like these, and we may even know some of them.” That line holds true for Earnest, except the word “great” and the phrase “of the genius.” While I don’t regret reading it (especially given its brevity), I sincerely wish there would have been more to it.