Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Curmudgeon takes a vacation -- Part V -- Bugs and Bugging Out

With each passing year, my waistline grows bigger (sort of like rings on a tree, I suppose) and, yet, my bladder grows smaller. And I had been driving longer than federal regulations permit for over-the-road truckers. And I have only a wee bit of my original colon. Yes, that's too much information. But, armed with that knowledge, you can't be surprised that, within a few hours after hitting the hay at our sketchy Winter Haven hotel, Nature came calling for the Curmudgeon.

Whilst attending to my own business, I could not help but notice the roach on the bathroom floor. In the hotel's defense, it was just one roach, and it was on its back. Clearly it had seen better days. It may even have been dead. On the other hand, I went to college in the City of Chicago. I shared an apartment with roaches once. There is, to my knowledge, no such thing as just one roach. Indeed, in my college days, it was sometimes thought amusing to turn on a bright light unexpectedly in a bathroom and watch the roaches form kaleidoscopic patterns as they scattered. If you're old enough, or a serious film student, you may begin to wonder what inspired Busby Berkeley.

I suppose that last image may have cost me my few remaining readers... but it's not the sort of thing you forget.

And this bug on the floor was one of the smaller, speedy ones I remembered from college in Chicago, not one of the larger, tropical variety. My good wife hates, loathes and despises your everyday Rogers Park Roach (not the scientific name, I know, but that's what I called them) -- but she has a particular aversion to the larger, tropical variety.

The tropical ones fly.

Anyway, taking no chances, I killed the roach, or killed it again, and flushed it for good measure. The toilet didn't work particularly well, but I suppose I'll save those details for the letter to the hotel chain that expects me to pay for this room.

I went back to bed, glad indeed that I had found the creature before my wife did. But now -- you should excuse the expression -- my antennae were out.

Maybe that's why I woke up again just a couple hours later. On the other hand, it was close to our normal wake-up time. Anyway, I started tippy-toeing back to the bathroom.

Our hotel room was dark. It was still dark outside and room-darkening curtains were adequate to block out any pre-dawn gray. But, when I travel, I always leave the light on in the bathroom, with the door slightly ajar. That way, if I wake up confused -- and it happens to the best of us -- I can quickly reorient myself to my surroundings. So while the bed where my wife was (I thought) still asleep, there was enough light for me to see the floor near the bathroom door... and anything thereupon.

In this case, there was a bug on the rug. A big bug. A couple inches long, cigar-shaped, and (fortunately for me) very still. I had no shoes on and I had no intention of trying to dispatch this creature with my bare feet. My wife has very sensible, thick-soled, teacher shoes. These were in easy reach -- well, as easy as may be for an increasingly middle-aged Curmudgeon who never did bend so good -- and I reached one anyway and drummed that big bug home to Big Bug Heaven.

I don't know whether my wife was awake the whole time, or whether it was just my impromptu bug-stomping that roused her to consciousness, but I heard a drowsy, "What's going on?" coming from the darkness across the room.

"Nothing," I said. "Just a bug. I squashed it."

"A bug?" There was no sleep in her voice anymore, and her pitch rose two octaves in four letters. "What kind of bug?"

"A waterbug. Nothing really. It's gone now."

"Let me see it." She got out of bed, cringing, and crept over toward the bathroom where, fortunately, there had been a well-positioned garbage can. She looked inside. "That's no waterbug! That's a cockroach! We're leaving!"

"Hold on," I said, as my wife picked anything up off the floor that might have been left and jumped back on the bed. "Let's get some coffee first, then decide what to do."

I got some coffee, then planted -- again, you should pardon the expression -- a bug in the desk clerk's ear about the uninvited guests in our room. "If my wife sees another one, we'll have to leave."

Now, I should say this about that hotel. The people were nice. The desk clerk must have pulled double-duty over the weekend, because it was the same lady when I got coffee on Sunday morning as had been working on Saturday night as I confirmed my reservation over the loud thumpa-thumpa-thumpa coming from the hotel lounge. But she was certainly sympathetic, promising an especially thorough cleaning (and a plunger and a TV remote -- on top of everything else, there was no TV remote in the room when we checked in). The staff person who promptly brought the plunger and the TV remote seemed like a very nice man, too. But, in bringing these items down the hall that morning, he, like me, must have passed by two more big bug carcasses in the hallway.

No, it was time to leave.

We left. We bugged out.

I didn't even tell Long Suffering Spouse about the little roach in the bathroom until we were some miles away.

"I'm glad you found those bugs," she told me. "And everyone in the hotel should be glad, too. I would have screamed my head off."

And she was not exaggerating.

But here we were, back in the car with the funky oil light, with all our possessions carefully examined before re-packing, on our way to the Orlando airport, there to swap out rental cars. We had no place to return to that night. And our son would be pitching early in the afternoon. Seeing him pitch was, after all, why we had come to Florida. We found Interstate 4 with no problem -- but Google Maps sent us off that soon enough, into a couple of new toll roads. It took forever to get to the airport, and forever to swap out the car (the GMC Terrain was replaced by a similar, but smaller, Buick Encore). But we were still on target to make it to Youngest Son's game. If we could find the park. And if the traffic ever started moving. Why would there be a weekday rush hour on Sunday morning? Construction, apparently.

No, I didn't have a stroke, but Long Suffering Spouse was expecting me to topple over at any moment. Instead, we did make it to the park... eventually... and got to see the entire game (only because the start was delayed) and I'm very happy to report that the kid had a great outing. Then we could start looking for another hotel room. The next hotel turned out to be much nicer. It did have a microwave (which we never actually did use) and no bugs whatsoever. But there's no dramatic tension in any of that. By now, though, I think, I've explained how we drove to Florida and back in two cars, stayed in two hotel rooms, and yet were together the whole time....

Monday, March 30, 2015

Curmudgeon takes a vacation -- Part IV -- Signs of the Times

Well, I've milked this recollection for three full posts so far and I haven't even taken you out of the Midwest. No wonder I have no readers. But, I promise, we'll be in Florida before this post is out....

Older Daughter kept calling and texting her mother -- on the car phone that Long Suffering Spouse couldn't charge thanks to my grabbing the wrong charger -- something that was pointed out to me repeatedly as the miles rolled by.

Older Daughter wanted to know if we'd be stopping by her house.

Older Daughter lives in Indianapolis and a car traveling from Chicago to Florida must go through or around that city. But I was sure that Younger Daughter had put this idea in her sister's head; I doubted she would come up with it on her own, and I said so.

My oldest child is, let us say, directionally challenged. She once got lost going around the block, shortly after we moved to our present home. In her defense, it is a large, irregularly-shaped block, not uncommon in my little corner of Chicago. On the other hand, she was 12 at the time.

Both Older Daughter and Younger Daughter were miffed about my accusation. Younger Daughter swore she'd never breathed a word of our possibly stopping off in Indy -- and Older Daughter insisted that she knew we'd be passing through all by herself. Given how unpopular I already was with their mother, at this point, I did not have any serious concerns about being added to two more fecal rosters.

In the event, we didn't stop in Indianapolis on the way down -- it would have been far too late to come calling, given the late start we'd gotten -- even Long Suffering Spouse agreed with that -- though she was still wary of the field marshal's gleam in my eye.

We crossed the Ohio River sometime after midnight, which was a good thing, really, because the Interstate bridge and its Kentucky environs were under construction and must have been terrible to attempt during daylight hours when normal people drive.

By the time we reached the southern outskirts of Louisville, even I was beginning to realize that our forward progress must be halted, at least temporarily. Even if I didn't fall asleep at the wheel -- something that seemed increasingly likely -- my wife might strangle me, and consequences be hanged. We pulled off at an exit that promised an extensive choice of lodgings.

And, indeed, the sign did not lie. Unfortunately, all of the hotels were booked solid. I stopped at several, just to be sure. At the last of these I was able to engage the young lady behind the desk in conversation. I learned that not all of this traffic was caused by Winter Storm Thor -- although, to be sure, some of it was. Folks who had spent a night or two in their cars seemed eager to sleep in a real bed for as long as possible. But the real culprit, insofar as room usage was concerned, was a girls' volleyball tournament. Teams from all over creation had commandeered large blocks of rooms and parents and other camp followers had filled in the rest. However (said the nice young lady) she'd been talking to the night clerk at the Best Western one stop south not too long before and she said they still had a couple of rooms left.

The fire in my wife's eyes banked slightly at the rumor of a room one exit away. I made haste lest some other weary traveler snag the last room before I got there.

Sure enough, there was a room left at the Best Western. Pausing only to plug my wife's phone into a wall socket, we hit the pillow. And, no, this is not the second hotel to which I made allusion at the outset of the last post.

We resumed our journey early the next morning -- not early enough to suit Field Marshal Curmudgeon, who wanted to go over the top in the pre-dawn grayness -- but as soon as reasonably possible. In the bright, but chilly morning, Long Suffering Spouse decided to forgive me, a little, for my failings of the preceding day. We saw for ourselves the remains of the winter storm, my wife trying to snap pictures through the car windows. Not only did Kentucky in March look a lot like Wisconsin in December, there were an inordinate number of cars still abandoned on the shoulder of the road. One vehicle had apparently been parked a little closer to the edge of the shoulder than the others. Either that, or the passing snowplow strayed just a teensy bit off the road. Either way, the metal skin of the driver's side of the vehicle had been peeled away.

In addition to the abandoned cars, we noted billboards alongside the Interstate. We come from a city where most private citizens weren't allowed legal gun ownership until the United States Supreme Court said so -- and our city fathers have been whining about it ever since. So the many signs for gun shows and various gun stores and gun manufacturers made an impact on us. Rahm Emanuel would have a stroke if he looked out the windows while driving to Florida. And, of course, there were the billboards for "adult superstores" coming up at many of the exits. These were liberally interspersed among both gun-toting and religious billboards. "Evolution is a lie!" a number of billboards proclaimed. Judging from the billboards, there was an exit somewhere in southern Georgia where there must have had a porno emporium on every corner. I wondered how the concentration of such stores might be received among the local God-fearing populace. Would the attitude be 'jobs are jobs' and we'll expect you at services Wednesday night and Sunday morning? Or would families be torn asunder, with those who took jobs selling steamy DVDs to horny truckers being ostracized by their kin?

We saw what for us was the strangest, and on some level, most frightening billboard not long after we crossed into Florida. The Sun was setting by this time, but we could plainly see the giant letters on the sign: #secede. There was a web address below. I looked it up later. You and I may think America's Civil War ended 150 years ago next month -- but, for some, apparently, there has been only a temporary cessation of hostilities. Yikes! I can't recall, now, whether this billboard was before or after we passed the gas station flying a ginormous Confederate flag (the battle flag of the Army of Northern Virginia, for those of you keeping score at home, as opposed to the official Confederate emblem during most of the Late Unpleasantness). (And, no, we didn't stop for gas there either.)

But the day was not given over entirely to meteorological observation or cultural speculations. Somewhere in the course of our first night's drive, the spaceshipish-sort-of instrument panel in our GMC Terrain began proclaiming (to the exclusion of other useful information) "change oil soon." The change oil light came on again as soon as we headed out on Saturday morning. I thought a call to the rental car company might be prudent under the circumstances.

The nice lady with whom I spoke Saturday morning said that these kinds of things happen all the time with these new cars -- it was probably just a computer glitch, she said, and therefore I did not need to pull over and find a Jiffy Lube or similar establishment. Instead, she said, bring the car into another National location and swap it out for an equivalent vehicle, no questions asked. But the concern over the possible consequences of this computer glitch did add, a little, to the stress levels on the journey.

I drove through Kentucky and across Tennessee, and all the way through Georgia into Florida. We paused only twice for gasoline, and other things, along the way. By the time we reached the Florida Turnpike (the first of about 1,000 Florida toll roads) Long Suffering Spouse was becoming most insistent that she drive -- and I was too fatigued to protest. It was full dark when we stopped for gas at the start of the Florida Turnpike. I moved to the passenger seat and assumed the role of navigator -- reduced, of course, to GPS, since I'd left my Google Maps printouts in the living room at home. I looked at the map on the phone en route, as well. On the phone screen, everything looked like a real road. We were about to find out differently.

We thought the stretch of the Florida Turnpike over which we'd been passing looked rather dark, empty and foreboding. Then the GPS had us jump ship onto U.S. 27 and, in the twinkling of an eye, onto something called Villa City Road. We saw no villa, I can assure you, and nothing at all like a city -- although Google Earth says the road cuts through some sort of hamlet -- but, you know, sometimes these map programs -- always trying to save you time -- take you on shortcuts back to the main roads. These were looooong shortcuts, granted, but we were, according to the maps, headed for a long stretch down a state highway.

The state highway, however, turned out to be a two-lane ribbon of asphalt in the night. A couple of motorcyclists were in front of us, and we could watch their headlights swivel and in that way anticipate forthcoming curves. The speed limit was 60, which seemed awful fast for a pitch-dark road in the middle of absolute nowhere. But, sure enough, as we were wending our way down this little road at what we thought was breakneck speed a pair of headlights appeared behind us and closed almost instantaneously.

I really don't know what the custom is among native Floridians regarding personal space. I know in some cultures folks stand jaw to jaw to engage in ordinary conversation, whereas in my experience, getting jaw to jaw means fisticuffs are about to commence. And maybe Floridians do like to crowd each other in person; I wasn't there long enough to find out. I can say, however, that -- judging by what I saw on the Florida roads -- the typical Florida driver has absolutely no sense of interval between vehicles. The front of the typical Florida driver's car liked to snuggle in about an inch or two from the tailpipe of my car. Where possible, on the Interstate for example, I would get over to let the vehicle pass, but the further south we got the sooner he (or she) would be replaced by another vehicle equally as oblivious to any sort of safe interval. I coined a name for these drivers. I called them -- well, never mind exactly what I called them, this being a family blog, but it rhymes with "gas moles."

I think it was on this lonely stretch of Florida Rt. 33, where we were following the motorcycles (at a distance!) where we experienced our first real encounter with this phenomenon away from the Interstate. I don't much care for this sort of driving on the Interstate either, mind you, but it is much more disconcerting in the dark on a narrow road far from civilization. And it's even worse when you don't realize that this is normal native behavior.

Our first follower soon passed us, cutting in close behind the motorcycles. I begin to understand why not all cars have license plates in the front: The extra couple of millimeters would cause no end of collisions. I thought for sure the motorcyclists were done for, but the car passed them soon thereafter and no one seems to have died.

Meanwhile, we were looking for turns and I was watching my phone charge dwindle dangerously low. I tried plugging the phone into the car where we'd had the i-Pod hooked up and this worked, sort of. The battery drained a little slower.

Apparently GPS uses up a ton of battery charge. Each road we came to, though, was darker and more isolated than the next until, suddenly, and without warning, we passed over Interstate 4. "Why the hell didn't you put us on this, you supposedly 'smart' phone?" I snarled at the device in my hand. But the device was smug as well as smart, and would not answer. (Later map study would show that it was -- in terms of miles -- a detour to take I-75 all the way to I-4, which runs southwest to northeast between Tampa and Orlando. But it surely would have been less stressful.)

After nearly a week driving around that area, I came to recognize the Interstate crossing as a positive sign that we were nearly to Winter Haven. But I didn't know that on that first Saturday night. And neither did Long Suffering Spouse. And it was getting later and later and it seemed like hours since (with the exception of that single Interstate crossing) we'd seen any of the trappings of western civilization.

Somehow, though, we found our way to U.S. 17, the main drag in and out of Winter Haven. But just because a road is designated as a U.S. highway does not mean that it too won't meander through the darkness. There was one place in particular where 17 was supposed to jog left and a sign pointed left and the phone was saying turn left and I was saying turn left and -- fortunately -- Long Suffering Spouse did not turn left until she actually found pavement on which to turn a city block or more from where the sign pointed. By this time, Long Suffering Spouse was screaming at me, and I was screaming back, and the phone was down to about 11% -- and falling -- while plugged in.

Winter Haven is a dowager. It may once have been in the upper tier of resort towns -- it was once the spring training base of the Cleveland Indians -- but the Interstate was not all that had passed it by. The passage of time has been unkind to the town, it's life-essence probably drained away in the growth of Orlando and the Mouse House therein. We passed a Macy's in a shopping mall, an unexpected glimmer of prosperity in a sea of permanent depression, decline and decay. And, yes, we shouldn't make snap judgments about a place after passing fearfully through pitch-black country roads, after being on the road for 15 hours or so. We found the hotel where we'd reserved a room for the next three days. There was a police car parked by the entrance. There was loud, pounding music coming from the entrance. There were a bunch of people just there -- sitting out, walking around, no apparent connection to anyone or anything -- just there. "Are you sure it's safe to stay?" my wife asked as I maneuvered around the squad car looking for a place to park.

"Of course," I lied. The objective nearly achieved, the Field Marshal Curmudgeon persona was nearly back in its cage -- but I had one last gasp of willful obliviousness left in me. And, besides, I was tired. It was at least 10:30. Or maybe it was 11:30. We got everything into the room as quickly as possible and texted the kids of our arrival.

The room wasn't much to look at -- nothing at all like the picture I'd seen on line. The chair legs looked like they'd been gnawed by large dogs. One chair was broken, but my wife pieced it together so we could both sit. There was a refrigerator (not plugged in) but there was no microwave.

Long Suffering Spouse was not taken in by my reassurances. Still, I tried. I even looked up the nearest Catholic Church, expecting we'd go to Sunday Mass as usual. "Everything will look better in the morning," I promised. "You'll see."

As usual, I was wrong.

Friday, March 27, 2015

Cuurmudgeon takes a vacation -- Part III -- A Journey of 1,000 Miles Begins With A Single Step... and Forgotten Maps... and the Wrong Charger

We took two cars, stayed in two hotel rooms, but Long Suffering Spouse and I were together the entire trip. Confused? Well, hang on.

You'll recall, of course, my insufferable bragging about the careful, logical, analytical way I planned our accommodations for this Florida adventure. No detail was too small. I even printed out detailed, turn-by-turn instructions from Google Maps, which promised to get us to our hotel in 17 hours, 47 minutes.

These were the maps and directions I left on a chair in the living room of the Curmudgeon manse when we finally got underway.

And that, Dear Readers, was the least of my failings.

By the beginning of that first full weekend of March, we knew that Youngest Son was scheduled to pitch on Sunday afternoon and again on the following Friday. I had hoped for a Thursday start, perhaps, so that we might have a more leisurely journey home, but at least we were armed with the facts.

Youngest Son had been ill during the week preceding the Florida trip -- fever, hacking, wheezing, congestion. He called me on Monday of the week we were to leave informing me of this malady and, essentially, demanding that I give up the identity of the secret pill or potion that would instantly restore him to good health. As if there was one. From our distant vantage point in Chicago, Long Suffering Spouse and I feared pneumonia, or bronchitis at least, and urged Youngest Son to seek medical attention. He ignored us, of course, at least at first. Perhaps he consulted with the team trainer.

By Friday, the day he was to leave (by air from Milwaukee) -- and the day we were to leave by rented car that I would pick up Friday afternoon -- I was still unsure of his health. I texted him to inquire whether he actually made it to the airport bus. He texted back that the bus had just left campus for Milwaukee's Mitchell Field. Twelve hours later he would text again, to confirm touchdown in Orlando. This made me feel even better about not flying.

Even the weather cooperated... sort of. Winter Storm Thor was pulling out of the Southeast as Friday dawned -- but my wife was petrified by horror stories of persons stuck in their vehicles on I-65 overnight (a lot of celebrities and pols among them, heading for Selma and the 50th anniversary remembrance of Bloody Sunday). There aren't a lot of choices for people driving from Chicago to Florida: The best route is to take I-65 to Nashville, turn east on Interstate 24 to Chattanooga, then turn south on I-75, all the way into Florida, land of the endless toll roads. Stranded motorists were still being pulled from cars in Kentucky -- there had been nearly two feet of snow in Louisville courtesy of "Thor" -- and Long Suffering Spouse was worried that the roads might not yet be passable when we got there.

By this time, however, I'd adopted the stubborn, inflexible mindset of a World War I general. We were going over the top as scheduled no matter what. I was certain that the road would be cleared in time for us. On this one point, at least, I was proved right, ultimately, but our discussions about the likely driving conditions did add an extra layer of tension and confusion to our final preparations.

I took Friday off to prepare for the trip. My wife worked a full day -- and then some -- because, she said, she could not leave her substitute (Mrs. Lork) without stuff to keep the kids busy. She had assignments. She had contingent assignments. She created punishment assignments if the kids got unruly. And she wrote out d-e-t-a-i-l-e-d instructions. She'd been working on these all week -- and she still wasn't finished late Friday afternoon.

Meanwhile, I took our second car to Younger Daughter's house -- she needed the car to watch our house during our absence -- with the expectation that Younger Daughter would then take me to the Blue Line so I could get to O'Hare and the rental car. Both Younger Daughter and Long Suffering Spouse were concerned about using public transportation to get to the rental car place... but you really can't drive up to one of these places in your own car. How do you get out? Everywhere you go is either a gate or a row of spikes that will shred your tires should you foolishly try and back up. No, the train and the shuttle bus was the best plan -- such a planner I'd become!

What I couldn't plan, of course, was the duration of Granddaughter No. 1's nap. Younger Daughter and Olaf are in the process of housebreaking Granddaughter No. 1 -- and she's doing very well indeed, I can tell you -- but it has complicated her schedule. On that particular day, she didn't go down for her afternoon nap until late -- and she wasn't yet awake when I arrived (already later than I'd wanted).

Readers of this blog will readily understand that one cannot simply bundle a toddler, newly awoken from a nap, into a car and take Grandpa for a ride. Wait! Grandpa's here? What are you doing here? Well -- the child was happy to see me (it's my blog and you'll just have to take my word for it) but there had to be a delay before Younger Daughter would even consider trying to get Granddaughter No. 1 into her coat. So we lost more time there.

Eventually, though, we could go. Granddaughter No. 1 was upset when I jumped out of the car at the River Road train station, but I was finally back on the plan.

I didn't realize how cold it would be shivering on the platform at the River Road station. The wind was whipping and -- this is the story of my life -- there were four trains from O'Hare before the first one arrived heading toward the airport. Eventually, however, I got the car -- a 2015 GMC Terrain. It had all sorts of gizmos and whizbangs on a very spaceshipish-sort-of-instrument-panel that I had no clue how to operate. Still, a dim thought worked its way into my consciousness. Perhaps, I thought, we could connect the i-Pod to the vehicle and listen to music. That might be nice.

Younger Daughter and Granddaughter No. 1 were at my house when I brought the rental home. This was not part of the plan. I forget why they had come. Granddaughter No. 1 may have insisted. But I seized on the opportunity to ask my daughter how to connect the i-Pod. Not only could I do that, Younger Daughter told me, but I could hook up the cell phone through the car, too. She was trying to show me how while Granddaughter No. 1 climbed into the vehicle, situated herself in front of the instrument panel, and began pushing random buttons and twisting knobs. I'm not sure I absorbed the lesson very well.

I am sure that it was dark out by the time Younger Daughter and Granddaughter No. 1 were gone and Long Suffering Spouse and I were ready to hit the open highway. "Are you sure we shouldn't wait until morning?" asked Long Suffering Spouse for the 80th time. But Field Marshal Curmudgeon would hear none of this. We had a hotel room in Florida Saturday night which we could not possibly reach if we left Saturday morning. No, although we were hours behind schedule, The Plan Must Be Followed. "Do we have the I-Pass?" asked Long Suffering Spouse -- that gets us through toll booths in Illinois and Indiana, although (as is not particularly surprising) not in Florida -- and I answered in the affirmative. "Are all the bags in the car?" she asked. I answered in the affirmative. "Did you bring a brush for snow?" Well, no, I said, we're going to Florida, remember? "Bring a brush," my wife said, "we don't know what weather we will encounter en route." I was going to ask if she wanted me to bring a shovel, too, but I thought the better of it. If I asked, she might have said yes. "Where is the phone charger?" she asked. "I don't know," I answered. "Get the phone charger," she told me. I went into the family van and grabbed a phone charger.

Now, apparently, although I didn't realize it at the time, we have two phone chargers that plug into the family van. One of these is for a phone that we no longer have. Why this should still be in the van under the circumstances is not something I can answer. I can admit that I didn't check to see if I had grabbed the right charger or the wrong charger because I didn't realize there were two.

Long Suffering Spouse, however, figured it out mere minutes after we finally left. We had just gotten on the Illinois Tollway. The phone charger discovery happened moments after my wife figured out that I'd left the maps and directions in the living room. This was not the most auspicious way to beging a journey.

"Turn around. We are going home. We will leave tomorrow."

If Long Suffering Spouse hadn't said anything about leaving tomorrow I probably would have turned around. Probably. But Field Marshall Curmudgeon was not going to wait until first light Saturday to start the attack on Florida. We were leaving Friday as the plan required, no matter how late on Friday that might be. I didn't turn around. I was not a very popular fellow in that vehicle, let me tell you.

But -- like this story -- we kept going.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Curmudgeon takes a vacation -- Part II -- The Careful Plan

Having had my bluff called on the Florida trip, there was nothing to do now but figure out how to make things happen.

I had one piece of hard data: I had the South Janesville College baseball team's itinerary, showing the addresses of the three different parks, in three different towns. With Google Maps I could readily determine that there were significant distances from each to each -- a half hour's drive or more. The logical conclusion from this was we would need a car for the week.

Having determined that we must rent a car for the week, then the question became whether we should fly down to either Orlando or Tampa -- our destinations were roughly in between -- or whether we should rent a car here and take it there. I'd done that once before, about 17 years ago, when we took a family vacation to Camp Lejeune. Marine bases are not traditional vacation destinations, but Penny's husband Carl was stationed there at the time (Penny was my wife's college roommate, you may recall) and they were able to rent a doublewide trailer on the beach where we could all hang out. I don't remember where we actually stayed on that trip -- at Penny and Carl's home, I assume, but I'm not certain. But there are two things I do remember. First, this was the most unspoiled beach I'd ever seen this side of the pages of National Geographic -- imagine an almost deserted beach on the Atlantic Ocean, closed to all but Marine officers and their guests -- and but for the tanks practicing maneuvers a mile or so behind us every day, it was as quiet as it was deserted. The second thing I remember is that, although we had nice weather at the beach, we had rain going to and coming from North Carolina. Lots and lots of rain. Buckets. Torrents. It made for an interesting drive....

But, anyway, we'd rented a van on that occasion because we did not think our family van up to the long trip. The old van did last a good six years more -- but now, as I planned for the Florida trip, that old van's successor -- our current family van -- is just about 11 years old. I didn't want to tempt fate. So I was receptive to renting a vehicle here for the drive.

I admit to a certain prejudice against air travel. I hate it. I hate the phony security (universal inconvenience makes no one safer). I hate the increasingly random pricing schedule. If I buy on a Tuesday with one eye closed I can pay x per ticket, but if I wait until Wednesday with both eyes open I might pay 1.5x or even 2x. Unless I caught the special on Thursday night between 11:00 and 11:15 p.m., when I'd pay .75x.

I can put up with the zig-zag prices, but then there are the extra fees -- like for checking bags. There was no way we could go to Florida for a week and have carry-on luggage only. For one thing, my wife and I would need to bring at least one computer -- she had grades to finish and I had to monitor my practice, such as it is. I had to have enough 'stuff' with me to operate from a hotel room in Florida at least as well as I could from home. Have you ever tried typing a letter on a cell phone? Cell phones are great for reading email -- but any task more complicated becomes well nigh impossible.

Oh, yes, the computer was another vacation cost: We had to buy the laptop for Florida. We had a laptop we'd been using -- but it was an XP machine and Windows (how I hate Bill Gates) recently decided to stop supporting XP. The still-functional machine was now useless -- unless I didn't want to connect in any way to the Internet -- and connecting to the Internet for business is kind of the whole idea when one travels. Now I have a brand new Windows 8.1 machine -- which is almost as good as the one I was using (yes, I'm sure it's a technological order of magnitude better in some respects, but none that concern a word-processing, email reading person like myself) except that it's not yet paid for.

I did scout out airfares, but once I figured out that the cost of flying would equal or exceed the cost of renting a car for the week, my heart wasn't really in it. I had to revive my membership in the National Emerald Club, but it seemed to me like I had made great progress in the planning of the event.

Not so to Long Suffering Spouse, however. "We're going to drive?" she asked. "The whole way?"

I explained the bases of my recommendation. Long Suffering Spouse was resigned to the inevitable, if not exactly enthused about the prospect. "What if it snows?" she asked. "We have to go through mountains. What if there's ice storms?"

Negotiations continued throughout that week. Long Suffering Spouse was paying increasing attention to The Weather Channel long-range forecasts (and these were becoming ominous). And there was one more thing preying on my wife's mind, as she announced one Saturday morning when Olaf and Younger Daughter and Granddaughter No. 1 were visiting. "Where are we staying on this trip? I'm not sleeping in the car!"

I hadn't attempted to book a hotel room yet, it was true. There were three widely separated baseball fields to consider, in a part of the country I didn't know at all (I'd been to a deposition once in the greater Orlando area, as I recalled for certain during the course of the trip, but that was for a single night and day -- the deposition was at the hotel). Cautious individual that I am, I was interested only in major chain hotels -- I'm sure there are wonderful places down there not affiliated with any major chain -- but how was I, from Chicago, supposed to ferret these out? Internet reviews? Please. Internet reviews are written by (a) trolls or (b) the mothers, spouses, and other family members of the business owner.

I tried searching within a radius of a certain number of miles from each park's address. A lot of places were already full up -- there were a lot of college baseball teams being rotated through central Florida in March for this never ending 'tournament.' Harvard was going to play there for a single game. No, seriously. The actual Harvard, as in don't-pahk-yah-cah-in-Hahvad-yahd Harvard. Harvard wasn't playing South Janesville, but still -- Harvard.

Anyway, we could assume that all the best places filled up first and we'd have to sort among the dregs. Again, this is why I was focusing on major chains -- eventually, I found one in Winter Haven, Florida that seemed to meet all the criteria -- major chain -- near one of the parks where the boys would play -- reasonably priced, but supposedly with refrigerator and microwave -- the picture of the typical room looked quite nice -- and there were no glaring troll reviews.

I announced my selection to the assembled throng. But, I said -- again, my native caution coming to the fore -- I would only book the room through Tuesday -- Sunday, Monday, Tuesday -- leaving us potentially at liberty thereafter. My wife was appalled. "We'd have to start looking all over again?" she asked.

"Well, yes," I began, "but at least we'd be in the area and could see for ourselves. And if we liked the place, we could almost certainly extend our stay there for the whole trip."

I could see Long Suffering Spouse building up to a major objection to this plan, but Younger Daughter chose that moment to interject, "That makes sense to me. When we went to Minnesota" (she and Olaf had gone there a couple of years ago for an extended weekend) "I wished we could have changed hotels. Where we were was nice, but there were other places we wanted to see but we couldn't get there and back to our hotel in time."

Long Suffering Spouse throttled down.

I booked the rooms. I suppose I should have wondered more at the no cancellation policy, but I was thinking that -- at that busy time of the year -- the hotels wouldn't want to hold empty rooms that they thought they were going to get paid for.

So we had a plan -- logically arrived at, the product of careful study of all known information, after due and careful consideration.

*Sigh*

We were about to learn -- again -- the wisdom of Von Moltke's maxim, no battle plan survives contact with the enemy.

Friday, March 20, 2015

Curmudgeon takes a vacation -- Part I -- Curmudgeon's Bluff is Called

We don't take vacations often in the Curmudgeon family -- at least not Long Suffering Spouse and myself -- as this essay, from 2006, makes clear.

Here's a link to the story I wrote about that last vacation, nine years ago. The story has 'matured' in the retelling, over the years, as all good stories should, to the point where (the way I spin it now) there's a Shoot On Sight Order posted at Sky Harbor Airport in Phoenix in case I should ever return again during Spring Training -- how we left Arizona in March 2006, one jump ahead of an enraged committee of the Chamber of Commerce, all decked out in parkas, and carrying pitchforks and torches, bundles of feathers, and buckets of melted tar.

Well, it really did snow as far south as Scottsdale, when I was in Arizona for Middle Son's first Spring Training. That's not exaggerated in the least. And my wife and I and Youngest Son and Younger Daughter wore every stitch of clothing we'd brought with us, all the time, all at once, because it was so darn cold there in the so-called Valley of the Sun. (Meanwhile it was in the 70s and sunny in Chicago.) The hotel didn't have heat -- who needs to heat a hotel room in Phoenix? -- so the only place we could get warm was in the rented van.

We spent a lot of time in that van in 2006.

That part of the story's not exaggerated either.

In the nine intervening years, I believe my wife and I have been out of town overnight on only three other occasions -- once for Older Daughter's wedding (in Indianapolis) and another for Oldest Son's wedding (in San Antonio). We did get to tour a mission on the San Antonio trip and, of course, we remembered the Alamo -- it's right in the middle of town, so you can't forget it, even if you try -- but I don't know if that counts as a family "vacation." And the third trip, to South Bend, for Oldest Son's college graduation, was certainly not a vacation (I offer this as proof) -- and we'd spent the night before the commencement ceremony sleeping, at least occasionally, in a dorm room. Most of the parents did -- there weren't nearly enough hotel rooms, so this was planned in advance. It's just -- well, you've heard of getting a mint on your pillow at a nice hotel? The pillow on my dorm bed was as thick as a mint, and not nearly as soft. I was still recovering from surgery at the time, and was terrified that the only available bathroom was down the hall. Still, we survived.

And time passed.

This spring turns out to be Youngest Son's last Spring Training as a college baseball player. He's a senior already at South Janesville College (the name I made up instead of using the actual school's name) and this year, as in the past three years, Youngest Son's team would be journeying to Central Florida, midway between Tampa and Orlando, for a never-ending 'tournament.' Most tournaments, in my experience, have winners and losers and such. But this tournament is just a way to get as many teams from as many places as possible to play each other. My son's team played a lot of teams from Pennsylvania -- and one from Illinois. Go figure. So it's not really a 'tournament.' Still, it's an opportunity to play in reasonably warm weather, without having to first shovel the field (they do that often in Youngest Son's league), and it may be the actual last time this spring where the kids can play in nice weather.

Anyway, Youngest Son's team has gone down there during the school's Spring Break each year. The very secular South Janesville College does not concern itself with Easter in determining when Spring Break will come -- so it's not surprising that his trip has never coincided with my wife's Spring Break.

But, one night at home, somewhere around Valentine's Day, realizing this was the last time we could see the boy pitch in Florida, I said something to Long Suffering Spouse about how I wished she could get the week off anyway. And -- and this surprised me -- she said she'd ask.

And this surprised me more: The school said, sure, go ahead and go.

I must have been working from home the day all this happened. Perhaps I had a deposition somewhere out here and I didn't want to drive downtown. I have most everything I need to work at home anyway. I know I had gone to the store to buy a box of copy paper for my office -- I was going to be driving downtown at some point, obviously -- because I remember that I was in the parking lot of the store when my wife called and said (a) she needed something she'd forgot at home and (b) she had permission to go to Florida.

I went home and got it and brought whatever it was into the school and, who should I meet on my way to my wife's classroom but the retired teacher who'd already agreed -- just that morning, because everything happened just that quickly -- to substitute for my wife while we were away. "I'm so glad you're going," she told me, and I thanked her.

It wasn't long after that that it hit me: Everyone had called my bluff. We were really going to have to go to Florida, weren't we?

To Be Continued

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Banks do something else stupid... and, in other news, the Sun will rise tomorrow in the East. Unless a banker is put in charge of sunrise, that is....

After the Great Recession, when the banks nearly destroyed the national economy, you'd think that banks might be a little more -- I don't know -- cautious about doing stupid things.

You know, the next time the bankers destroy the economy one or more of them may actually go to jail.

But, apparently, I am ever the optimist -- failing to realize just how mind-numbingly stupid banks can be.

Today I went to my bank with the simple objective of depositing a check in my business account.

Now, you've been to a bank recently -- you know what they look like -- whether the decor is wood or marble, chrome or wrought iron, there are always four or five teller windows, and only one or two is ever open. A really big bank -- really big -- may have a dozen teller windows... with only three or four of them open.

No matter how many people are in line, right?

Even the grocery store knows enough to open a new register when the lines get too long. This will shock you, but I've actually seen this happen at the Post Office.

But never at a bank.

Well, this bank has some new, fancy wallpaper -- covered with slogans -- up on one wall now -- new since I was last there a couple of weeks ago (it's been a long time between checks for deposit, I know) -- and exactly no teller windows open.

Seriously.

This, by the way, was in the early afternoon. I hadn't broken in after hours or anything.

A banker walked up to me as I stood there puzzling over the complete absence of tellers. I didn't realize he was a "banker," of course. I took him for a greeter. A lot of banks have greeters these days. Just like Wal Mart, only younger. With the money banks make from nonsensical fees alone, they can afford to hire armies of greeters.

"Can I help you?" says the banker.

"I'd like to make a deposit." I gestured at the empty, closed teller counter.

The banker picked up on my meaning. He may have noticed the deposit slip and check in my hand. "We don't have tellers at this location anymore, sir."

This is still a bank, right? Some vestige of the good manners my mother taught me as a child prevented me from asking that question in the tone in which I'd have liked to ask it.

"I can show you how to use our ATM machine. Do you have an ATM card?"

"No, this is a business account," I said, "I don't have -- or want -- an ATM card."

"We have bankers handle all these transactions. I'll get you into see a banker as soon as one is available." He was carrying an iPad Mini on his arm -- maybe that's how he kept track of all the "bankers." Maybe he used it to play cards.

"We don't need dedicated tellers because we are cross-trained to do everything," he added.

"You do realize that that is the dumbest thing I've heard all day." My mother -- and my childhood -- have been gone a long time.

"Many banks are moving to this model," he told me, "but we still have some branches with tellers." He named one a few blocks out my way. At least it was still Downtown.

Somebody else came in at that point, also hoping to make a deposit. I watched the scene play out again.

"We're short-handed today. We have three bankers out with the flu." Well, we have had 50 degree temperature fluctuations here in Chicago in the past few days. That can get a lot of people sick. If bankers are people -- a mighty big if, mind you -- I suppose they wouldn't be immune.

Someone emerged from a cubicle. I don't know what he'd been doing in there. Undermining the economy, probably. But it freed up a live terminal for my helpful banker to take my deposit.

Finally.

On the way to my next errand, the craziness of what I'd just witnessed sank in a little. Banks are moving to a model that does away with tellers? What next? Grocery stores doing away with food? Auto dealers doing away with cars? A bank is a place where you put money in or where you take it out... and they are moving away to a model that does away with people who actually handle money just so customers can meet with a "banker" on each visit? Why? So the "banker" can tout the unsuspecting customer on the dubious virtues of credit debenture swaps or whatever scam they dream up next on Wall Street?

They say the Great Recession is finally over. They say the economy is recovering. But the banks... and the unjailed bankers... are still here. Innovating insanely. Don't count on the recovery lasting any length of time.

And start keeping your money in your mattress.

Tuesday, March 03, 2015

Curmudgeon goes to a funeral, comes away moody

My friend Steve and I went to a funeral yesterday. I wouldn't tell you whose it was -- that would compromise my anonymity -- and, frankly, if I described it, even, I'd give it away. So maybe I'll tell the story of why I felt I had to go some other time, when it won't be as easy to connect the dots.

The decedent had been politically involved. I can say that much. His eulogist said a lot more about that. A lot more.

And it was very entertaining. Very funny. Very impressive. But the man couldn't have been home much in the evenings.

He was divorced. I knew that. So many lawyers are, you know. I served a term in the state bar Assembly 25 years ago -- my father used to go to the conventions each year, up in Wisconsin, and my wife and I could have dinner and a couple of drinks with him and my mother.

The highlight of the convention, each year, was the installation of the new bar president. We've had a few women presidents since, but in those days, at least, they were all men. And at the big dinner on the last night of the annual meeting, the bar president would give a little speech and proudly introduce his family.

"Isn't that nice?" Long Suffering Spouse would say. "And each daughter is prettier than the next. But where's the wife?"

And my father would lean over and tell her. "See that one on the right? The youngest looking? That's the wife."

My father would lean over to tell my wife this so he could watch the horrified expression on her face as his message sunk in. He was very amused by it. "I think that's the second wife," he'd say, unless he said, "I believe that's wife no. 3." And then he'd add, "You have to spend a lot of time away from home if you want to be president of the bar association."

And that was just state bar politics. You can imagine how much time somebody involved in politics-politics must have been away from home. Absence may make the heart grow fonder, but it takes its toll on the family, too.

The decedent, we were told, was very proud of his family. He had a son and a daughter. His daughter he saw every day. I got the distinct impression he didn't see much of his son or his son's family. They live out East somewhere, and that surely explains some of it. Maybe most of it. But the eulogist, a nephew of the decedent -- making him a first cousin to the decedent's son and daughter -- made it a point to address the son's kids directly from the pulpit. "You don't know me," he began....

You don't know me? Well, my first cousins have roughly 30 kids among them and I don't know them all either. But the eulogist was with their grandpa every day for several decades, he said, as driver, as confidant, as traveling companion, as factorum -- surely if those kids knew their grandfather, they must have known the eulogist as well, right? Well, apparently not....

I have two grandchildren (a third is pending) and both were over at the house over the weekend. I don't suppose the house can be overrun with grandchildren when there are only two, but my wife and I weren't planning on quite so much family togetherness this weekend -- we have a ton of work to do if we hope to get to Youngest Son's Spring Training next week in Florida -- and we were able to accomplish very little. Although going home at nights put an effective kibosh on my political ambitions, at least my grandchildren may get to know me -- if I live long enough. These were heretical thoughts to have, I suppose, during a long eulogy suffused with prominent political names, but there you have it.

Steve and I were walking back to the car after the car after the Mass.

"Charlotte got one of those new iPhones," he told me. Charlotte is Steve's wife.

"Oh?"

"Yes," he said, "and she feels compelled, now, to show me anything that she finds interesting. Your new Facebook picture, for example."

Oh, that. As long as the grandkids were over, I made sure that their mothers got some pictures of the kids sitting on my lap. I put one up on Facebook as a new profile picture (in case you're wondering, Long Suffering Spouse doesn't want her picture on Facebook because she's a teacher). "Yeah, I saw she 'liked' it," I said. "I don't know," I went on, "maybe I'm being morbid. But I keep thinking I need new pictures for the tables at the funeral parlor. Just in case."

Steve laughed.

"You know," he said, "we used to go to weddings and take away ideas. I don't like this -- or I'd like to do that -- and we'd try and remember them for our own. Remember?"

"Yes," I said, as we pulled out into traffic, heading back home. "You're doing it at funerals now?" He grunted an affirmative. "Me, too," I said.