Thursday, December 27, 2012

The Highs and Lows of Holiday Travel

By Blake Friis

It's midnight in the middle of winter at the Kansas City airport. I am waiting for a rental car and singing Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star to an understandably pissed off 8-month-old. The reality of traveling with a baby is falling short of the cautious optimism I carried into the trip.

Traveling 850 miles to create timeless family memories begins with a question void of Christmas cheer: which mode of transportation will make me want to kill myself least?

Driving offers the freedom to dictate pace and keeps the misery private when the junior member of the operation decides being confined to a car seat for 12 hours is a crock of shit. Babies throw massive fits over the course of a drive, but a 30-minute cool-down stroll through an Oklahoma Wal-Mart during the holidays provides all the motivation one needs to get back in the saddle and carry on to greener pastures.

The downside of the road is it’s a boring beat down. A family road trip is like the drive-home from Spring Break. Everyone is tired, irritable, and hopes the smelly loudmouth in the backseat doesn't puke.

That’s why we choose to shell out a few extra bucks to fly. But the friendly skies are not without their own set of challenges.

Driving is a battle of attrition, but flying has an unmatched ceiling for potential chaos. Airport security, cramped airplane restrooms, and ear-popping changes in elevation prove humans were never meant to fly. Challenging the laws of nature with a child in tow is especially egregious.

One year ago, in the Minneapolis airport, we shared a laugh at the expense of a couple struggling through the terminal with a young child and all the baggage – physical and emotional – required to travel anywhere with young children. Approximately 364 days later, we laughed at ourselves, despite not finding the situation particularly funny. We had become the overwhelmed couple in the airport with sore shoulders short fuses.

Looking over my shoulder from the boarding line, I was relieved to see a dozen other families with small children. There is comfort in a theoretical blanket of anonymity, but that is contingent on each baby having about the same lung capacity.

For most of his first flight, my son was a trooper. He charmed the grandfather-to-be sitting next to us and endeared himself to the high school English teacher sitting behind us. With the exception of the man in front of us, whose hair he attempted to grab on more than one occasion and whose seat he took great joy in kicking, everyone in our section observed his happy disposition and returned his smiles.

Then our plane began its descent. That’s when the levy broke.

For the final 15 minutes of our flight, my son managed to transfer the pain in his ears to the ears of all the friends he made over the previous 45 minutes. He wasn't the only child to dial up a good freak out on the flight, but his was by far the most powerful.

I don't know if it was general understanding or holiday spirit, but the people on our flight could not have been more understanding and supportive as we struggled.

There is no perfect way to cover 850 miles with a young child, but the experience can be surprisingly fulfilling. We met some great people on our trip that we never would have encountered before parenthood.

When childless couples with one piece of luggage laugh at us in all their beautiful, well-rested glory, we smile and nod. They’ll appreciate the smile more than they know one day, when an inconsolable little maniac with hurting ears makes them feel like those parents.

Turns out we’re all those parents.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Man's (Actual) Best Friend

By Blake Friis

I knew one thing for certain as I drove 90 miles per hour down the home stretch of a six-hour drive from Dallas to Emporia, Kansas – we didn't come all this way to eat lunch at Braum’s.

So, we exited the turnpike and pulled into Applebee’s.

I don’t make a habit of rising before the sun on Saturday and loading my family into the car for a six-hour drive to lunch at a franchise restaurant; It just so happens the Emporia Applebee’s marks the halfway point between our home in Texas and my parents’ in Iowa, which makes it the ideal meeting place when the health of a marriage requires unloading the family dog on one's folks.

Welcome to Emporia
There have been few contentious arguments in our 19 months of wedded bliss – which is to say I fold like a lawn chair in the face of potential unpleasantness.

We budget items we can comfortably live without. Last week we discussed the necessity of cable television and my iPhone – we both have iPhones, but only mine seemed a frivolous expense. We have since decided since my company offers a fitness center to both of us, the cancellation of our current gym memberships will free up enough discretionary income to justify keeping the cable. It is, of course, pure coincidence this decision coincided with my wife’s newfound love of true-life murder mysteries on the cable network ID.

My wife is like a great runner in baseball. She can steal a base at any time, and my defensive approach is let her go and casually toss the ball back to the pitcher, feeling I am better off dealing with the next batter. That's our marriage - aggressive baserunning against defensive indifference.

As her desire to live in a dog-free house intensified, however, I continued to step off the mound and look her back to the bag. Knowing my success rate, it was critical I never let getting rid of Elvis escalate past hypothetical chit-chat.

Shortly after Gabe was born, I wrote about the battle raging inside our home between my wife and our boxer, Elvis. My desire for our son to grow up in a household with a great pet lead me to dig in my heels on Elvis’s potential relocation.

The more we failed as dog owners, the more Elvis stated his displeasure by destroying everything in his path. I tried to take him for more walks, but my efforts proved futile. Summer’s patience was wearing thin.

It was only a matter of time until she broke for second base. I tried to throw her out this time, but Elvis intercepted the ball and chewed it to shit, just like every other goddamn thing in the house.

Still, when we handed Elvis over to my parents it was just as sad as I imagined it would be. I couldn't help but feel like I'd let him down and deprived my son of the opportunity to grow up with the unique bond a boy shares with his first dog. This guilt and regret were difficult to deal with. I was nearly half-way through the potato skins on the appetizer sampler before I was able to shake it.

In the weeks since Elvis moved to the farm – a real one, not the one in finger quotes where many children are told their castoff pets run happy and free – our life has been exponentially better. We never come home to a disaster in the kitchen, our patio doesn’t smell like a boarding kennel, and we don’t have to fear Gabe being injured by the paw of a well-intentioned, but dangerously hyper 60lb dog.

Thank goodness I never get to make the big decisions.

It turns out Man’s best friend is actually a happy wife.

Later, Buddy

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Children and Profanity

By Blake Friis

Parenthood is loaded with challenges. There are daily struggles of diapers and feeding, and long term worries about the changing world and how to equip a child to survive, let alone thrive in it.

But what concerns me most is that I can’t seem to stop saying ‘fuck’ in front of my son.

He is a verbal sponge and I know I am in danger of creating the most foul-mouthed parrot ever to roam the Greater Dallas daycare scene, but the more I attempt to reel myself in, the more the goddamn Bears blow consecutive leads at home to Pete-Scumbag-Carroll and the Seattle-Fucking-Seahawks.

Sometimes it feels like the world is conspiring against you. Actually, most of the time when you root for Chicago sports teams.

Parenthood is also loaded with lessons, and you never know where they are going to come from. When a couple kids from the neighborhood knocked on our door Sunday afternoon and asked if they could play with Gabe, I gained a whole new perspective on the value of squashing my free-cursing nature.

The dynamic of a suburban neighborhood is not a complicated. There are adults and there are kids, and if you can only befriend one, choose the kids. They’re a pleasant source of entertainment, and more importantly, very forthcoming with the dirty laundry of neighborhood grown-ups.

As the sweet little girl from down the street launched into an unprovoked monologue about her parents’ delinquent rent payments, I realized we are not dealing with parrots, we’re dealing with little journalists who unapologetically report “off the record” observations.

I no longer fear the words my child might repeat; I fear the things he might report.

Because we are the youngest couple on the block, and because every little girl on the block wants to be Summer when they grow up, our house has become a relatively high-traffic area. The annoyance of other people’s children hanging around would be trying if they weren’t so damn good at inflating our egos.

“Blake, can you teach me how to make the football spiral like that?”
“Summer, I knew you were good at sports because you’re skinny and you run a lot.”

They should run for office. I would literally vote for them tomorrow.

The compliments took on a new meaning when they shifted from our athletic prowess to the vibe within our home. The kids were quick to acknowledge how laid back we are and how well we seem to get along, which is apparently not always the case with their folks. One kid talked about hearing her parents fight over money. Another discussed his concern with the age gap between his dad and stepmother, a viewpoint that – given his age – has almost assuredly been cultivated by his mother.

The inside scoop on the neighbors personal business is definitely the kind of stuff you would like to unhear, but the kids spilling the beans have no idea they are crossing a line. We find ourselves uncomfortably attempting to steer them back to the story about their older brother pissing his pants while watching the SEC Championship.

Dropping F-bombs in the presence of my son was something I decided I better work on. After learning how openly kids talk about their parents, good or bad, I am scaling those efforts well beyond cursing. The adult issues we deal with have to remain between adults, so our kids can enjoy being kids.

Parenthood is loaded with heavy shit like that.