The Wrigleyville Riot or How I Spent My Summer Vacation

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They look like a nice bunch of non-troublemakers.

As a kid, summer vacation meant loading up the family car and heading somewhere for a week to play miniature golf, sleep on the fold-out couch of one of my Dad’s old Navy buddies and possibly take an unplanned detour to someplace like the Rodeo Hall of Fame.  But now that the statute of limitations has surely passed, I can finally tell the story of our last family vacation.

When I was around 27, myself, my sister Megan, my brother Sean and Sean’s then-fiancée Beth all decided to go along with my parents on an annual trip they took with friends to go see the Cardinals play the Cubs in Chicago.   For the trip, the six of us loaded into a single car to approximate the comfort of flying in coach for five hours with the added bonus of my Dad being in control of the radio.

The first part of the trip went off without a hitch.  My Dad complaining about downtown Chicago traffic, going to dinner at an old-school German restaurant and accidentally visiting a gay bar along with my parents friends from church.  Typical vacation stuff.

The next day, we went to Wrigley Field to cheer on the Cardinals as they (possibly) beat the Cubs (maybe).  I really have no recollection of the game outside of the fact that I promptly cut myself off from drinking any more Old Style when I caught a glimpse of the trough in what seems to be the only Men’s Room in the entire stadium.

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Here’s a picture of us at the game.  There certainly doesn’t seem to be any evidence of intoxication or premeditation here.

 

Following the game, my family and about 2,000 of our fellow attendees decided to head to a bar called the Cubby Bear, which is within stumbling distance of the entrance to Wrigley Field.  And here’s where things start to go sideways.

While attempting to find my parent’s friends and some of Sean’s fraternity brothers in a bar where the phrase Personal Space probably only referred to a shot they made with Grenadine and Peach Schnapps, it became obvious that my parents were not that thrilled about being pushed up against someone in a sweaty Shawon Dunston jersey.  So we decided to leave the Cubby Bear.  As I led our group to the door, I managed to “excuse me/pardon me” my way through the thick crowd, walk down the narrow stairs to the exit and emerge onto the sidewalk off of West Addison.  I waited.  And waited.  No one else was behind me.

Full disclosure, I was not a witness to the next few minutes of this story.  For narrative and liability reasons, I thought it would be important to point that out.

Back in the bar, my Dad squeezed through the crowd towards the exit and nudged a tall, thin guy frat guy in his early twenties.  This polite young man admonished my father for bumping into him and my Dad apologized for bumping into him.  Frat Guy then called my Dad a “Motherf….”

(Quick aside about my Dad, who is a retired cop and is built like one of those blue mailboxes.  He is a man who would, quite often, come home from work and show his children how take down a larger man by pulling back their thumb.  I can’t say that his job regularly involved melees, but I doubt that any of my friend’s Dads growing up ever came home with a story about breaking up a bar fight in a parking lot following a wet t-shirt contest at a local disco.  Now back to the story)

“…ucker” and pushed him.  Once again, my Dad apologized and said, “We’re just trying to get to the door.”  Frat Guy then pushed my Dad back into my sister Megan, knocking her down.  Upon seeing Megan sprawled out on the floor, I can only imagine that my Dad experienced some sort of Bill Bixby to Lou Ferrigno transformation.  He raised his hands in the International sign for “I don’t want any trouble” and then rapidly smashed his palm into Frat Guy’s nose several times.  Frat Guy and his gushing nose tried to collapse but the thick crowd kept him upright.

I imagine the phrase “You don’t have to go home, but you can’t stay here” passed through my Dad’s head and he split for the exit.  Frat Guy must have felt that he still had more to say, and took a step towards my Dad, who had turned his back to him.  My sister Megan, who is five feet of dynamite, then jumped in and received an elbow to the face from Frat Guy for her troubles.  While she countered with a punch to his throat, she assures me that she was aiming for his face.  “He was really tall,” says the now-mother of three.

At this time I (Yay, I’m back in the story!) heard a message on the doorman’s walkie-talkie announcing that he was needed to help break up a fight.  No sooner had the thought “My poor family is stuck up there because some drunken ruffians started a ruckus” crossed my mind when my Dad came barreling down the stairs.   He crashed into a souvenir stand and continued running past me as my sister also emerged from the bar.  The souvenir stand owner yelled, “Hey buddy, you break it you buy it” to my fleeing father, and both Megan and the man who walked her down the aisle at her wedding yelled in unison “Hey, fuck you!”  My Dad then ran down an alley.

Needles to say, I had a couple of questions.

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Since Wrigley Field and the Chicago Cubs (a then-wholly owned subsidiary of the Tribune Company) told us to go to the Cubby Bear, aren’t they at least somewhat culpable?

As my sister began filling me in, my crying Mother, Sean and Beth also exited the bar.  Apparently, after Frat Guy once again attempted to go after my Dad and Megan, my brother Sean had put him into a headlock until the bouncers had kindly asked him to leave.

In the pre-cell phone age, if your father broke someone’s nose in a bar fight and then ran down an alley while removing his baseball cap to change his appearance for the cops, you were unable to simply text “Where u at?” So, as my Mom attempted to clean the blood off of my brother’s forearms with Bath and Body Works Vanilla-scented hand sanitizer, we decided that we should probably take a train back to the hotel before the police arrived.

Back at the hotel, my Mom paced and cried while her friends asked her if she might like to go shopping to take her mind off of my on-the-lam father.  Roughly an hour and a half later, my Dad, who was completely soaked, walked into the room and simply asked, “Are you guys ready to go to dinner?”

Had he jumped into the Chicago River to throw off the police dog’s scent?  Taken second place in a Boy’s Town wet t-shirt contest? Perspired through his shirt while taking The L to Schaumburg before realizing that he could no longer see The Sears Tower?  We may never know.

While my Mom worried that the incident would scare Beth off from marrying Sean (thankfully it didn’t), my Dad’s reaction to the entire event was to pretty much avoid ever talking about it.  Even now, I’m not sure how thrilled he will be with this story.

It was our first and last family bar fight and, deep down, I am still secretly disappointed that I wasn’t more involved.  It may have been my only chance to fulfill my lifelong dream of breaking a pool cue over someone’s back.

I guess it will just have to remain a regret.  Although, even at 4, I wouldn’t put it past Kate to get a little lippy with someone who bumps into her with a pitcher of Bud.  So, I guess I better keep in “running down an alley” shape just in case.

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Must Love Like Tolerate Dogs

At the beginning of any relationship, there is often a carefully orchestrated release of information to make yourself seem more attractive to your potential partner.

In what would now be generously referred to as “alternative facts,”  the majority of the embellishments I would share when I first met Jen regarded my relative interest/experience in doing anything remotely outdoorsy.  For example, walking 8 miles after your car breaks down sounds an awful lot like hiking.

But the one trait I would have a hard time talking my way around was my love, or lack thereof, of dogs.  For that, I would be put to the test when I met Jen’s overprotective, 160 lb roommate.  A feisty gal with personal space issues who just happened to be a Great Dane named Tula.

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Tula and I learned to see eye to eye.  Mostly because she was able to get in your face while you were eating.

 

Now, don’t get me wrong, I don’t hate dogs.  Or even dislike dogs.  But I have just never had the bond with them that most people do.  I don’t want to be kissed or licked by a dog.  If anything, I would give them a firm, respectful handshake.  Which would require me to take the time to train a dog how to shake.  Which is a real Catch-22.

While Jen grew up as an erstwhile Dr. Dolittle, living in what sounds like it may have been a discount pet store, I grew up with a dog named Spanky who was treated more like an animal who happened to rent a room from my parents.  My only other dog experience came when I lived with my brother, whose dog Rub was a laid-back Spuds Mackenzie lookalike who was fond of eating loafers.  And nickels.  And the occasional downspout.

As I got to know Jen’s dog Tula, I found out that she was a gentle giant.  As if Godzilla decided that instead of smashing Tokyo, she would rather lay on a futon mattress and watch squirrels at the front window.

Over the next couple of years, I would become the step-father Tula never had.  And possibly never wanted.  We grew into a comfortable routine of her scaring the hell out of me when I would wake to find her an inch from my face and having to keep her distracted by throwing pepperoni across the room like tiny cured-meat rodeo clowns in order to eat some pizza in peace.

When we found out that Tula had cancer, I accompanied Jen across the state for chemo treatments at a hospital that also specialized in farm animals.  Chances are pretty good that I will never again have to extend a trip due to an incident involving radioactive horse urine.

When the day came that Tula got so sick that Jen had to make the choice to put her down, I was genuinely sad.  Not just because the person I loved had to say goodbye to someone that she loved, but maybe, just maybe, because I had grown to love her too.

For the next several years, as Jen and I started a family, the subject of a new dog would surface frequently.  With Jen contemplating a puppy each time she was set to be on maternity leave since she would “be home anyway.”  In hopes of delaying the addition of a dog to our household for as long as possible, I would dance around the subject by using every Mom’s passive-aggressive favorite: “I trust that you will make the right decision.”  As steam would shoot from Jen’s ears, she would slowly realize that having a newborn would already take up roughly 25 hours of our day.

I held out as long as I could, but when you are pitted against someone who once threatened to get a hog because you told her that she couldn’t, you can only last so long.

Two years ago, we brought home a Chocolate Lab named Barry, so named by our son Matthew because he “loves to bury bones.”  Little did we know how prophetic that would be as Barry (Bear for short) has now turned our backyard into a permanent trip hazard in an effort to hide rawhides from some phantom intruder.  But who really needs rawhides when you can eat the screens out of basement windows and chew on the gas meter?

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“Is there something around here that I could eat?”

 

Luckily for Barry, he has a lot of fans in our house.  Jen and Matthew both adore him, and Kate loves him the same way that she loves me.  By that I mean that she tells him that she loves him one moment and then tells him to leave her alone and not touch her the next.  It is really, really sweet.

So, in the cheesy 80’s family comedy that is our life, I have definitely been cast as the curmudgeonly father who gradually gains a begrudging admiration for the family dog.  Only to have that dog knock over the Christmas tree as the credits roll.

So, maybe I still don’t love dogs.  But I love people who love dogs.  So I guess that makes me a “dog person.”

Now, cats….?

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Home for Christmas

The windows were filled with the morning’s frost, and the red and green lights twinkled among the 20 year’s worth of handmade, grade school Christmas ornaments which filled our tree.  Not a creature was stirring……except my 28 year-old brother.

Well beyond the years when people begin to be jaded, Sean was still filled with Christmas Spirit, and I could always expect to be jostled awake at 5 a.m. to let me know that it was time to see the bounty which awaited us.  Or, time to wait until a somewhat reasonable hour to wake our parents.

With everyone moderately conscious, we would begin our Christmas tradition of taking turns opening gifts, my Mom telling us the story of how she got bought each one of those gifts (“I had to push a woman at Venture to get that He-Man figure.”), and my Dad cluelessly saying “You’re welcome” when we thanked him for gifts which he was obviously unaware that my mother had purchased.

Unlike my brother, I was always more than willing to sleep in late, since I had begun the process of finding hidden Christmas presents in Mid-August.  A cat and mouse between my mother and I.  She, always searching for new and unique ways to hide gifts, and me, always finding new and unique ways to locate them.  I went so far as lowering my little sister Megan into the narrow opening of a locked cabinet to retrieve gifts.  Things finally reached a tipping point when Mom hid a Nintendo NES in the home of our elderly neighbor, who then died shortly before the holidays.  My parents had to convince her next of kin that Ann was not, in fact, a big fan of Duck Hunt.

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Posing in front of the tree, and the world’s most uncomfortable orange love seat.

 

Sean had led me down the path to become North County’s most prolific Christmas gift spoiler when he fulfilled every big brother’s duty of ruining the mystery of Santa Claus.  I can still remember he and Jeff Lewis matter-of-factly letting me know that it was all a big lie as we strolled past the Electronics Department at Target.

With my world shattered, Sean and I began scouring the house for gifts.  But he never had the stomach for it.  When a previously discovered race car set was a no-show on Christmas morning, Sean caved almost immediately when our Mom simply said, “Looking for something?”  He would have never been cut out for a life of crime.

Our Mom always made Christmas special for us, and my Dad always let my Mom make Christmas special for us.  She took such joy in making us happy at Christmas, even when we didn’t make it too easy.

Like when my Dad had to hold my Mom back after I almost kicked the tree over because “Stupid Santa” brought me the Bat-Cycle instead of the Bat-Mobile, or when Sean launched a plastic Godzilla hand through a hand-painted Christmas ornament purchased on a trip to Frankenmuth,MI.

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Godzilla may have defeated Rodan, but he was no match for Eileen McMullin.

 

After, the wrapping paper had stopped flying, Sean would don whatever Generra sweatshirt or Swatch that my Mom had gotten for him and we would head to St. Martin’s for mass.  Our favorite Christmas homily remains Fr. Marty’s “Christmas is about the three F’s.  Food, family and fun.” sermon.  We really thought one of those F’s was bound to stand for Faith, but he really threw us a curveball.

Then, after a few more hours of enjoying our gifts or possibly napping, we would head to our Uncle Tom and Aunt Mary Lou’s house.  Even though I now realize that they lived maybe 30 minutes away, it seemed like it was the other side of the planet.  We would play, compare Christmas gift notes with our cousins and sit down for a fancy dinner.  Or at least my idea of fancy.  All of the plates, glasses and silverware matched!

Even though, at 43, I still don’t think I would have graduated from the kid’s table, I miss those days.  Falling asleep in the back seat on the way home as my Dad drove, and knowing that everything was right with the world.

This will be our first Christmas without Sean.  When I type those words, it still doesn’t feel real.

We all have our own families now, and we have created our own traditions, but the Original Five coming together has always been a part of that.

I take solace in the fact that the Christmas Spirit, which was so alive in Sean, lives in on in his children and all of his nieces and nephews.

I love you Sean.  You will always be home for Christmas in my heart.

jjj

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10 Miles to Lebanon or How Al Bundy Scared the Hell Out of Me

 

They often say that the most exciting part of a trip is the journey and not the destination.  I’m not sure who “they” are, but they probably never broke down in the middle of nowhere late at night.

In the Fall of 1992, my brother Sean and I were both attending Southwest Missouri State in Springfield, MO.  I was a Sophomore, and Sean was taking a “bonus” semester before he graduated.

Sean and I had plans to take the three-hour trek back home to St. Louis for the weekend to do laundry, eat something other than Cashew Chicken and visit our family.

Sean was working as a shuttle bus driver around campus and wasn’t set to get off of work until around 9 pm, so our plan was for me to wait for him in the disgusting basement room he shared with two of his fraternity brothers and head home late that evening.

But fate, and the clutch in a 1982 Datsun B210 with 150,000 miles on the Odometer, was against us.  Driving through the Ozark Mountains outside of Springfield, it became apparent that we would not be making it home that night.

The exit at Phillipsburg, MO now boasts The World’s Largest Gift Shop (I’m not sure how official those ranking are), but in 1992 it was home to a single gas station which closed at 7:00.

While the Datsun could still drive in reverse, our plan to drive backwards on the highway to the next town was deemed “unfeasible.”  So the decision was made to walk the 10 miles to Lebanon.  A town which looks like Chicago next to Phillipsburg, by flaunting both a Long John Silver’s and the Walnut Bowl Outlet.

Using the payphone at the gas station, we placed a collect call from “It’s Sean and Scott, don’t hang up!” to our parents.  The one casualty of the cell phone that I truly miss is the late night collect phone call.  What better way to scare the hell out of your parents while also costing them a fortune.

So we were on our way.  Armed with the tire iron from the Datsun for defense and a Hostess Fruit Pie from a vending machine for sustenance.  Just like the early settlers.

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How long could it possibly take to walk ten miles in a pair of Bass loafers?

 

With ten miles ahead of us, we started things off right, with me slipping on a beer bottle in the grass and immediately injuring myself.  But luck was still on our side as I didn’t smash the Fruit Pie in the spill.

While the prospect of a motorist slowing down to pick up a guy wearing a trench coat and another wielding a tire iron seemed slim, Sean made it clear that he would not accept a ride from anyone even if they did stop.  “How do we know that some guy that pulls over to help us isn’t Al Bundy?,” he said.

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Fictional shoe salesman Al Bundy.

 

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Prolific 1970’s serial killer Ted Bundy.

 

 

 

Despite Sean’s reluctance to get into a stranger’s car, that did not stop him from cursing out the occupants of cars which sped past us for their lack of human decency and compassion.

That anger led to some minor vandalism, as I’m sure many of the mile markers along the route still retain dents from the Datsun’s tiny tire iron all of these years later.

We spent the next several hours walking and talking about all of the things that life had in store for us.  All the while being cruelly mocked by billboards which advertised the Walnut Bowls outlet only eight miles ahead.  Seven miles.  Six miles….

When we finally got to a hotel well after one in the morning, Sean waffled on whether or not to spring for two beds, since the credit card he had came with strict instructions from our parents to only use in case of an emergency.  I let him know that despite the lack of locusts, this would definitely count as an emergency.

We were exhausted, we were sore and we had only a handful of hours before our Dad would arrive to tow us home.  Despite all of that, as was mine and my brother’s way, we turned on the TV to find that “The Outsiders” had just begun.  So instead of going to bed like sensible people, we spent the next hour and a half watching Dallas and Soda Pop.

In the morning, my Dad arrived in exactly the way we would have expected.  With a plan to tow the Datsun home hundreds of miles with an old rope he found at a junkyard tied to the back of our Malibu.

I immediately volunteered Sean to take the wheel of the powerless Datsun, which he was happy to do as long as he could still listen to the radio.

I can still see him drumming on the steering wheel and singing at the top of his lungs as the Datsun got smaller and smaller in the rearview mirror.  The first of only three times that the junkyard rope broke before we made it home.  Who would have guessed?

I don’t get to Springfield very much anymore, but any time I am on that stretch of road, I always remember our long walk.  Just walking and talking without a care in the world (aside from passing serial killers).

It was an experience and a story that I only really shared with one person, and now maybe I can help it to live on here.

I miss you Sean.  Stay gold, Pony Boy.

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Now what am I supposed to do?

As a kid, I followed my brother Sean in everything I did.  He made up the rules to all of the games we played, I listened to the music that he liked, and I followed him to the same grade school, high school and college.

Sean had already blazed a trail in pretty much everything I did, and he was always there to show me the ropes and act as a safety net.  So, when he left home to go to college, I famously said to my Mom, “Now what am I supposed to do?”.

Three weeks ago, I lost my brother at the age of 46.  And now more than ever, I am left to ask, “Now what am I supposed to do?”.

Sean was not only my brother, but my best friend.  Even though I was three years younger than him, he never excluded me from anything.  If he was playing with his friends, they had to accept that I was going to be included.

To be honest, I can never remember fighting with my brother.  A fact that, now that I have kids of my own, boggles my mind.  I believe there was a disagreement once over me reneging on a Han Solo for Greedo action figure trade, but that is the worst I can come up with.

For me growing up, Sean was the coolest kid I knew.  He was stylish (for the 80’s), he listened to “cool” music, he had tons of friends and girls liked him.  He was everything I wasn’t.   I would never tell him that, of course, but he was the kind of guy that when we walked into someplace together I was proud to say, “I’m with him.”

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Even though I am Batman, I am most definitely the sidekick here.

So much of what I am, my likes and dislikes, were shaped alongside Sean.  We both loved movies, TV, comic books and music.  Supposedly, being a nerd about all of those things is cool now, but it was anything but cool when I was growing up.

Knowing too much about “Star Wars” or being able to talk at length about something like the British TV show “The Young Ones,” was something that I kept to myself when I was younger in order to fit in.  But with Sean, all of those things that we loved were like a secret language that only he and I knew.

We could have entire conversations in obscure movie quotes and we would be so excited to share a new song or band that we discovered.  I could hear something and immediately think, “Sean will love this.”

It is that relationship that has caused his loss to leave such a hole in my soul.  There will never come a day that I discover something new in which sharing it with Sean will not be my first thought.  Hiding just out of sight behind all of the things we loved together and all of the happy memories we shared will always be a twinge of sadness.

As we got older, and started our own families, our contact with each other became less frequent.  Life always seemed to get in the way.  So much so, that my last contact with him was barely a blip, weeks before his death.

I will forever be filled with regret for not forcing our relationship to remain strong, and for not looking after him and being the best friend that he always was to me.

Maybe the sadness and regret I feel every time I think of him will gradually turn into something new.  I don’t know.  But I will never forget him.

“What am I supposed to do now?” I have no idea.  But I will start by keeping my memories of him and the love that he showed me alive for the sake of his family, my family and me.

I love you Sean.

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I’m getting too old for this….stuff

There are very few people who can really say that they have made a difference in their professional lives, but as my Dad retires today, he can proudly say that he did.

While he ends his career as a State Investigator, he spent most of his life as a policeman and a detective.  Working in a part of town where most people would be afraid to stop to get gas.

Growing up, it was not uncommon to see my Dad interviewed on the local news about a murder investigation or for him to get a page (ask your parents) in the middle of the night to head out and see something that was no doubt horrible.

While my friend’s fathers came home from a day at the McDonnell Douglas plant or some desk job, my Dad came home for dinner every night and set his handcuffs and gun on the stereo in our living room.  Eager to hear about our day and always filled with stories of his own.

While my most exciting work story on any given day probably involves what I had for lunch, my Dad would (and still does) regale people with tales of prostitution stings, standoffs that ended in tear gas, and all out brawls in disco parking lots that wouldn’t look out of place in a Burt Reynolds movie.  And all of this seemed very, very normal.

Movies and TV have conditioned us to think that policeman are all dark and brooding, bottling up all of the horrible things they have seen.  But if any of these things bothered him, you would have never known it.

Through the course of his career, my Dad put away countless criminals, returned precious items to their rightful owners and brought some sense of closure to grieving families.  There is an elderly couple whose daughter was murdered more than 30 years ago with whom he still keeps in touch with and helps to this day.

While my Dad would probably tell you that this was just a job, I would have to disagree.  He made a difference in the lives of more people than I will ever know.  All the while, he worked to support his family and made sure that they always felt safe, secure and, most importantly, loved.

Congratulations on your retirement Dad.  On behalf of everyone whose life you have changed for the better, I say thank you.

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Little Endings

“How do cars go?”

“Could I sit on a cloud?”

“What happens to my poop when I flush it down the toilet?’

For the last three years, I have driven either one or both of my kids to and from daycare five days a week.  Roughly seven and a half hours each week shuttling between our house in the suburbs to downtown.  In that time I have answered (or attempted to answer) 976,324 random questions, mediated countless arguments and listened to “Mashed Potato” by The Wiggles more times than should be legally allowed under the Geneva Convention.

Today, however, marked Kate and Matthew’s last day at daycare.  Jen will be staying home with the kids as Matthew gets ready to start Kindergarten, so I will be making the trek to work by myself for the first time in years.

And it makes me….sad.

 

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My rearview for the last three years.

 

 

Will I miss the floor of our car looking like a bad day at the Nabisco factory or me reaching blindly under the backseat to retrieve a dropped stuffed animal while I drive on the interstate?  No.  Although that is closest thing I probably get to exercise these days.

But for forty minutes in the morning and forty minutes in the afternoon I get to hear about their day, answer a bunch of silly questions, listen to Kate sing, and force them to listen to (and enjoy) music that will be sure to keep them out of touch with their peers for years to come.

Sure, every once in a while you need to get off the highway to take them to pee in a truck stop bathroom only to have them tell you that they no longer need to go.  But where else can you have your son call out a grizzled truck driver for not washing his hands, and have a Hell’s Angels reject tell your kids that “most people are basically disgusting.”  Thank you Mr. Biker Man.  A solid life lesson.

I’m sure that, in time, I will learn to love the quiet time again, but for now I will feel a little twinge of loneliness when I see the billboard featuring the picture of a balding, 60-year-old insurance salesman who my kids swear looks just like me.

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Me: “I think you mean it looks like Grandpa?”  Matthew:  “No, it looks like you.”

Most of all, this last ride reminds me of all of the little endings that are such a big part of being a parent.  It is so easy to focus on the last time your kids will need you to change their diaper, or ride on your shoulders or want you to tuck them in that it can be easy to overlook the little beginnings.

Matthew, Kate, Jen and I are all beginning a new part of our lives, and it is important to stop and enjoy that and not just fixate on the end of something else.

Does anybody want a Wiggles CD?

 

 

 

 

 

 

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