Arrival

The Alarm going off at eleven PM felt incredibly rude and distinctly impossible and I flailed at its unfamiliar controls as I tried to get my brain wrapped around where we were and what was next.

We had been in bed for possibly three and a half hours and though Short Stack had been out cold for the majority of that, it had taken me a little while to mentally wind down and then a little longer to find peace with the bundle of knees and elbows that curled up against me in the strange bed. Little kids are notorious in their lack of bed sharing etiquette and my son, as it turns out, is no different. The mental image of sleeping with your child in your arms is just about guaranteed to turn the heart of any parent immediately into sentimental goo, but the reality of the experience is that, even in sleep, your average child possesses ten thousand times the energy of an espresso fueled chipmunk and it will need to be released in wild explosions of sleep gymnastics throughout the entire time.

They will sleep. You shall not.

Oddly enough, the next night, the same sleep deprived and lightly bruised parent will almost immediately sign up for the exact same punishment once they look down at the beautiful form of their own child curled up and alone in bed. Apparently, it’s not just our hearts that our kids can turn into goo. Our brains are fair game as well. The effect is something like Stockholm Syndrome and we willingly crawl right in, ready for another night’s micro-beating.

I fumbled about in the half light looking for pants, shirt and shoes, and eventually had myself dressed and fuzzily awake enough to consider the next step. We needed to get to the car. What I SHOULD have done was to get the car mostly packed up the night before so that, naturally, had not happened. I had realized this when the moment had arrived but it had been the exact moment that Short Stack was finally getting sleepy and we were on the downhill run to bedtime. Normally, I would have left him with my wife at that point and scooted off with the larger bags and been back to the room in five minutes. With a little kiddo in tow however, and no back up, I was tied to spot. Since he was too tired to go with me and there was no chance of me leaving him alone, even for the sprint to the vehicle, I found myself unable to “run out” and do anything. It was a slightly frustrating realization but one that would be a part of every moment of this trip. While we were here, I wasn’t letting Rocket Boy out of my sight, even for a moment. This is when I remembered the stroller.

It had seemed goofy to lug it in with us when we checked in and I had almost left it at the car. Actually, I had almost left it at home all together. My reasoning had been that Short Stack is a pretty good walker and we would be doing something that he loved. I had little fear that once we were surrounded by the objects of his adoration, he would, as my Grandfather liked to put it, turn into a Cream Puff.

Being labeled “Cream Puff” had been an epithet of my childhood to be avoided and it was the one he liked to use when you, as a young child, would wimp out on a long walk and ask to be put on his shoulders. As a kid, I had taken many a long stroll with him at the beach and to this day, I can remember the exchanges that took place after I started to whine about tired legs.

“Your not going to turn into a cream puff on me, are you?”

“No.” Plod, plod, plod. “Grumble grumble grumble”

“What’s that?”

“I’m just getting tired.”

“Cream Puff?”

“NO!”

…and I’d trudge on down the beach with renewed determination my little chin leading the way, at least for a little while longer. Some would see this as being too tough on a little kid, and I do remember complaining to my folks when I’d come home, more often than not sitting on his shoulders anyway, but I did get pretty darn good at keeping up for more of the walk than I expected. Looking back as an adult, I have a sneaking suspicion that his encouragement had more to do with saving his back and neck muscles than building any character and stamina on my part, but the effect was much the same. I’ve tried the same treatment on Short Stack but he tends to fight back with logic.

“My legs are shorter than yours, though.”

To which I’ve replied, “Yes but you weigh less.”

This argument worked well until at one point he realized that, yes, that was true, “But my feet are smaller”

This kid is way too good at logic arguments.

“Are you being a Cream Puff?”

“No. Just carry me”

Ah, the best of both worlds. And I go on with my Cream Puff on my shoulders. Who needs to go to a gym to work out? My gym finds me!

Through all this, I have developed a packhorse mentality and will take just about any load on my back and trudge for miles. This was indeed my plan for Florida too. When his little feet gave out, I could simply plunk him on my shoulders and he’d be fine. I could do that for three days… I foolishly though. During the initial packing phase for our adventure, I had seen of the stroller as being an unnecessary torture instrument that I could leave behind. Strollers are not made for men, (or woman for that matter) of any height. Though I am only six foot tall and thus, well within the average for a male of mixed European heritage, strollers make me hunch painfully with the rear wheels so close that I inevitably wind up kicking them as I stride along. Couple that with the evil, free castoring front wheels that will inevitably go off on their own unexpected expeditions, often into the inevitable trash can or unnoticed door frame, and you can see why this can quickly degrade into a litany of mumbled swears. Right now though, it was a lifesaver and awkward as it was, I was grateful that my wife had convinced me to bring the thing along. Though I was pretty sure that I could have done without it during the day, there was one flaw I hadn’t considered. For Short Stack to stay on my shoulders, he needed to be awake.

With as delicate a touch as possible, I lifted my sleeping boy from his bed, set him down in the red canvas of the seat and wrapped him up in the travel blanket his mother had thoughtfully provided in her dutiful packing the night before. He stirred briefly and then was back to dreamland in seconds. Tossing a flannel shirt over the sun shade like a bullet proof mosquito net, I hoped to keep him sheltered from the blinding hall lights just out side our room’s door.

I glanced at the clock next to our still warm bed as I gathered up the last of our belongings.

“Crap. We’ve gotta go!”

Wheeling him out before me and pulling the suitcase along after turned out to be a challenge as usual and our room’s pneumatic door tried its best to chew on us as I shoved us though and out into the hall and escaped to the elevators. Catching wheels and snagging shoulder straps, we managed to make the lobby. With all the jostling, he was starting to come around.

“What are we doing, Daddy? Is it time to go?”

“Yup! But it’s a long drive. Just go back to sleep, buddy”

I was really hoping that the dark car ride would do the trick for him and that he’d get the sleep he should, but that it wouldn’t have that same effect on me. Realizing how groggy I still was, this became more of a concern than it had been before. It’s a simple thing to say, “I’ll just drive though the night” It’s another thing entirely to do it. What I needed was coffee.

The same multi-talented young woman was still working behind the front desk when I wheeled our ungainly caravan through the lobby and she smiled brightly as I appeared in all my encumbered glory, cloaked, half sleeping child pushed before me. “Don’t worry,” she said in a whisper and waived a dismissive hand. “I’ll check you out myself. Enjoy the launch! It should be a good one.”

“Thanks! Um…” I paused and whispered back. “Coffee?”

In the end, they had no coffee and the nearest all night dad refueling depot would take us a good bit off our intended course. With time weighing me down more than the bags, I decided to opt for the syrupy gloop that passes for bottled ice tea that was available from our helpful host. I didn’t have time to fill out a comment card and I regretted that. She had been great and deserved, if not a promotion, then at least an assistant or four. I also might have mentioned to the hotel chain their need for coffee in the lobby.

By now, the transfer from the bed to the stroller had woken my boy up a bit and the lights in the hall and lobby hadn’t helped, though I had done my best to muffle both. My brief search for caffeine hadn’t helped either and by the time I was clicking him into the car seat, he was rubbing his eyes and yawing. He was up and he knew where we were going. It was rocket time! As I made ready to pull out and leave, there was none of his usual chatting coming from the back seat as he grappled with his sleep drunk body and attempted to take control. He’d start a sentence with a groggy, “Um… Daddy. Um…” and get no further than possibly, “Did we… um.” And leave it at that. Mentally, he was struggling to the surface but trying to get the machinery of his little brain going was rough. It was still clogged with the cotton batting of deep sleep and though it became quickly evident to me that there was no chance of him nodding off again, I stayed quiet too in the hopes that he’d nod off again. I punched our destination into the GPS that I had oh-so very thankfully borrowed from a friend before we flew out and pulled the car onto the highway.

At NASA, an hour away, the countdown was running…

It was actually running!

Both they and we were on schedule.

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Pool Time, Part II

As I bobbed around in the pool with my grinning, water wing wearing bundle of energy, I resolved to see what could be done about a cold adult beverage at dinnertime and continued to listen with great delight to the peals of genuine laughter that Short Stack was making as we frolicked in the water. We kept this up for quite some time until finally, pruny, happy but exhausted, I had to call it quits on our time in the water. Naturally, it took some time and convincing to get my son on the same page as well. He’s a master of the delay tactic and being in the pool and slippery just made him that much harder to corral. We needed food and a rest now. We’d both sleep well tonight.

Padding back to the room, I let Short Stack run ahead and just enjoyed watching his little bouncy form as he trotted down the long, straight hall toward the elevators. He was still going strong and could have gone on playing for an hour more, easily, but time was starting to run short now. The realization that it was important not to squander the few hours that we had set aside for sleeping kept me focused. The simple act of moving with purpose again, waking up my sluggish brain and getting me back in mission mode. At the room we quickly showered up, dried off and dug through the suitcase to see what we could wear. I had packed for myself and knew what I wanted. My wife had packed for our son though, so it was a little work to see what I had available for my resident bed bouncer.

He hurtled over the two foot gap from one bed to another and then back again, enjoying the freedom of movement while I used the time to find what I needed in our luggage.

Bounce, bounce, bounce! “I’m hungry!”

“I’m working on it, Buddy.” I rooted around in an effort to find pants.

“The pool was great! Can we go again after dinner?” Bounce, bounce, bounce. We already had covered this ground before and to his slight dismay, the answer was still ‘no.’ He must have figured that it was worth a try.

After what seemed far too long, I found what I needed in the neat piles of clothing. Cramming the extras back into the approximate locations I had found them in, I motioned my son over. When that failed to get his attention over the bouncing, I called to him nicely. When that failed, I decided to tackle him to the bed and with much hooting and giggling, I started buttoning him into this evening’s attire.

“Perfect!” I said through my own grinning smile. ”Nothing says, ‘I’m on vacation’ quite like Hawaiian shirts and camo shorts! Now hold still you little jumping bean!!”

Wrestling him as he squealed with glee, I managed to stuff the wriggling, laughing mass of four year old into his clothes and eventually got him ready. The hotel was supposed to have a restaurant downstairs and I intended to stay on premises if at all possible. With my energies starting to run low and Short Stack’s due to ebb any moment now, I wanted to make this as simple and painless as possible. The two of us wandered around the ground floor for a bit, looking for our goal and listening for the clink of plates and silverware. After a few minutes, I gave up and asked the front desk about dinner. It was the same nice lady who had checked us in an hour and a half ago.

“Oh, well we don’t have a dining room per se, but we do have the bar. It’s right here!” With a sweep of her hand, she motioned around the corner of the check-in desk where, indeed, it had been fitted out with bar stools. Talk about your all in one service! “Here are some menus” And with that, she handed them to me and then left us to look them over while she checked in another couple just a few feet away.

For the set up, the menu was surprisingly complete and held exactly what you’d expect for bar fare. Though I was at first a tad taken aback at this setup, I quickly realized that this would be just fine for our needs. I helped Short Stack up to his very own stool and once he discovered that it spun, immediately put it through its paces. We looked perfect for the part we were playing, loud shirts draped over our pale frames and we both were happy with the way things were turning out. Short Stack was mostly happy with spinning his stool as he revolved around and around, slowed only by my hand in the concern that he might get dizzy and fall off. Glancing through the menu, I decided on two personal sized pepperoni pizzas to go, figuring that though they were probably of the microwaved variety, it gave me the best shot of getting some sort of dinner into my spectacularly hard to feed son. That decided, I then looked intently at the beer list. It had been a long day and a hard push and it was almost over.

Pretty much every evening when I’m home, I celebrate the close the day with a good, cool beer and it’s become almost a ritual for me. I don’t drink much, and having been cursed with the most amazing ability to extract the most fierce hangovers from the smallest quantities of alcohol, I rarely have more than just the one, but I’d be lying if I said that the notion of continuing my tradition this evening hadn’t been in the forefront of my mind for quite some time now.

I looked at the beer list and scanned the names.

Hmmmm.

Then I started thinking about later tonight.

In less than an hour, I was going to lie down next to my young son who may or may not actually close his eyes and nod off. In reality, even if we both did manage to, it would be more nap than real sleep. I’d be getting us up an hour before midnight, repacking the car, then driving for an hour or better on unfamiliar roads and THEN would have to get us in through the gate and set up at the Kennedy Space Center. I’d need to be on my game and what I needed, regardless of what I WANTED, was something that was non-alcoholic and non-caffeinated. I needed to be good.

Booooo!

I looked away from the tempting list of frosty delight and back up at the concierge/front desk manager/waitress/bar tender whom had returned, smiling, to take our order.

“Two, small pepperoni pizzas and… how about two orange juices. Large please.”

With an inaudible sigh that rattled around in my head for a second or two, lamenting the lack of my evening drink, I placed the menu down as my son decided to abandon his stool for the comfort of my lap. Like every establishment in Florida I’ve ever been in, the air conditioning had been cranked to polar temperatures and our jaunty shirts and tropical shorts didn’t offer us much protection from the incongruous chill. I’ve always found this remarkable when I encounter it, but it always seems to be the case. One doesn’t really think of needing to pack a sweater when traveling to the tropics but I often feel like I need one when I venture inside. I never remember this until it’s too late and I’m covered in goose bumps. Now Short Stack was discovering this too. I hugged his warm body to mine and we chatted quietly as we waited for the food to appear.

In the end, getting our dinner took way longer than anticipated, especially for two microwaved dinners and as my little traveling companion started to fall asleep in my lap, I was getting more and more ticked off at the wait. We should be sleeping by now! With the food’s arrival, I quickly paid for it, scooped up both dinner and my son and headed for the elevators. When, sitting on our miniature couch back in the room I opened the takeout style boxes, I was surprised to discover the reason. The pizzas had been hand made and baked in a pizza oven. They were delicious!

Concierge/Front Desk Manager/Waitress/Bar Tender/Pizza Chef!

That girl was good!

By the time we were fed and ready for bed, it was later than I’d hoped, but still, not too bad. We’d get a good, solid three and a half to four hours before we needed to be on the road. I pulled out traveling clothes for later, laid them out so that I could jump into them with a minimum of consciousness needed, repacked the rest and got things set so we could zip out the door as fast as possible. Short Stack was moving much slower now, the efforts of the day finally showing on him. As I tucked him into one of the massive queen sized beds, I looked down with a smile as he instinctively curled up into a tiny ball. He looked like such a peanut, dwarfed by a mountain of pillows and lost under unfamiliar sheets and blankets. He was yawning continuously but the questions never stopped.

“What will we see there?”

“When will we get there?”

“They won’t launch the Shuttle without us, will they?”

“Are the astronauts going to sleep now too?”

It was time for me to go to sleep as well and I glanced at the second, still made bed just a couple of feet away where I had expected to catch what rest I could. Then I looked back at my little boy. His voice came small and groggily from beneath the sea of bedding.

“Daddy, I’m cold”

With a glance and a last thought about having my own space tonight, I turned my back on it, gently pulled back the covers of his bed, crawled in and joined him. Still in a ball, he scrunched himself into my chest and rested his head on my arm.

“G’nite, Daddy.”

“Good night, buddy. I love you.”

“Love you too.”

In seconds, he was out cold. As I drifted off myself, I thought of the astronauts who were getting ready at that very moment. The thrill that they must be living and the excitement of knowing that soon, they would be in space. The ride of a lifetime! But as I listened to my son’s quiet breathing and my nose was tickled by his mop of hair, I realized that right then, I wouldn’t trade places with any of them. This was heaven and into it, I gently slipped away as well.

Time to sleep.

The Big “Three”

Today is my son, Short Stack’s birthday. The whopping big “three” has been achieved and with the messily devoured cake and ice cream, the presents and family, our son has enjoyed himself thoroughly.

Three years seems like such a short time to me now, but for him, it’s been his whole life and I try to remember that when I have the opportunity to do something with him or by my self. It’s so easy to put off playing when there are things to do, but as the old chestnut goes, “He’ll only be this age once.”

I try hard to make time for the playing.

It’s been an amazing time over these last three years. I’d wanted a family for a long time and waiting for things to come together financially and domestically before starting one was hard. I may be an only child, but I’ve always loved the idea of having children of my own. Short Stack was the perfect way to start off. He’s sweet by nature, smiles by default and is relentless in his quest to find out “why.” He makes us laugh almost daily. He may have only been part of our lives for a brief time, but I can’t quite remember what it was like before he joined us and I look forward to each day I have with him and his sister.

That’s not to say that he was easy on us in the beginning. Oh, no.

It’s funny how the horror shows of infancy fade from memory or morph into funny stories to be related to friends over the dinner table. It’s like showing off your scars long after the wound that made them has long since stopped causing you pain. You laugh, nod knowingly compare war stories and have another glass of wine. It all makes for good conversation, but when it was actually happening, you would have happily slept in the unfurnished basement in an effort to escape the six month old who refused to stop screaming no matter how far you bent your will to making them happy.

Short Stack has turned into a great little kiddo, but as a baby, he was tough. During the day, he was almost always a peach. He’s smile and burble. He’d playa and laugh. He’d fool just about anyone into thinking that we’d hit the easy kid lottery.

Then, the “witching hour” would arrive.

The witching hour was right about dinnertime and from that moment on, all bets were off. Our sweet little baby boy would turn into the fussiest baby on the planet and there were damn few things you could do to placate him. Usually, it was just me, alone in the evenings. Action Girl often works second shift and that left me with my dream come true, strapped to my chest and screaming like an air raid siren as I paced through the neighborhood, drying to get him to calm down. Being outside had two benefits. Firstly, he loved being out in the fresh air. He still does. About three quarters of the time it would get him calmed down and possibly even asleep. The other benefit was that if he didn’t calm down and continued shrieking and carrying on, it didn’t bounce off the walls like it did in the house. I doubt that the neighbors liked listening to it much, but I was in pure survival mode at this point. I’m willing to bet that our cats appreciated he being gone for an hour or so.

Then there was getting him to bed. This was an exercise worthy of any martial arts dojo. Everything was laid out in preparation for bed and followed a perfect trajectory. Deviation in any way spelled doom. The last step of the rigmarole was laying him in his crib, whereupon he would grab my arm and pull it to his tiny chest. My job was to not move and pretend that the top of the crib was not cutting off the blood flow to the rest of my arm. Then, I’d wait.

Pull the arm out too soon, and he’d wake up and scream.

Pull the arm out too fast, and he’d wake up and scream.

Try to wiggle fingers in a hope to keep the blood from pooling and the arm from going numb, and he’d wake up and scream.

If the screaming started, the only thing to do was to start the entire night time rigmarole form step one and be on the job for another twenty minutes to a half hour.

As I slowly, oh ever so slowly extracted my arm from my son’s snoozing grasp, I’d work hard at pacing my self. I was the ninja. I was imperceptibly slow in my movement. For extra entertainment, I usually also had to pee as well. To slow my self down to mitigate the risk of upset my tiny but loud applecart, I’d turn on my internal music collection and mentally play back every single note of the Beatles, “A day in the life.” The entire time, my hand was slowly, slowly pulling away. When the song was done, I would be free, but not a second before.

This worked, right up until it didn’t. That was the breaking point.

The fateful evening when I had stood on my head and done all my tricks to no avail, I had had it. I kissed him, told him I loved him and when down stairs. All I can say is “thank God for head phones.” The screaming for “DADDDDDY!” went on for over an hour. He got hoarser and hoarser and I ground my teeth down lower and lower. When he finally stopped, I waited another good hour before venturing up to check on him. My nerves were shot and though it was murderous to go through alone, I was happy that Action Girl wasn’t home. She’s tough in a lot of ways, but I seriously doubt that she could have lived through the tidal wave of guilt that had been thundering down the stairs at me that night.

As I carefully crept into Short Stack’s room, the sight the appeared to me was somewhere between heart breaking and hilarious. There he was in his crib on his knees. Both hands were over his head grasping the vertical bars that held him at bay while his tiny noggin sagged down like that of prisoner who had lost all hope of escape. He was fast asleep. With great trepidation, I carefully uncurled his hands from their grip and laid him down. Much to my relief, he didn’t even stir.

This was not the only night of these shenanigans, but it was the most memorable. Eventually, he got better at falling to sleep and just about the time of his second birthday, he consistently was sleeping through the night. Then, Lulu Belle came along…

It’s been a log time since we’ve had a full night’s sleep on anything like a consistent basis but that’s all right though. To quote my Grandma, “ I’ll have plenty of time to sit still when I’m dead.” I knew the work load of having children was going to be epic and I also knew that I had no real idea of how hard it was going to be until I got there, and I was right on both accounts! I wouldn’t trade it for the world.

These days, my hobbies gather dust and my “to-do” list gets longer and longer as I fail to accomplish items faster than new ones accumulate and yet, I’m happier now than I could have ever imagined. I have two of the most wonderful kids in the world and a moment spent with them trumps a year doing just about anything else.

I can’t wait to see what we’ll do next and I’ll do my best to savor each and every moment at is passes us by forever. They’re only this age once, after all.

Happy Birthday, Short Stack! We love you more that we could ever put into words. What adventures we have to look forward to together! I can’t wait!

But I will.

Happy Birthday, buddy.

dad-and-john

Play it Again. And Again, And Again, And…

Lulu Belle and Short Stack are down for the night and here I sit, in the young evening, wondering what projects I can get into. Tonight, I’m solo. Well, not if you count the bundle of pink fluff in the crib, and the snoring boy, but I am the only one awake. Action Girl has a new schedule and with it comes one night per week when she is unable to make it home. She has a good friend in town with a spare room and though she naturally hates being away from her children, she also gets the opportunity to sleep through the entire night with out interruption; something that hasn’t happened in this house for almost three years now. An opportunity like a sleep filled night is beyond rare in our lives at the moment, so at least that can take some of the sting out of being forced away from home it a bit.

So, what to do when trapped in the house with a sleeping baby?… Hmmm.

One of the issues I have to deal with is that, A: our house needs an astonishing quantity of work done to it, and B: I can’t do any of it because it all involves power tools and hammering. Lulu Belle would most defiantly not approve, though Short Stack would likely jump at the chance to help, even if dressed in nothing more than his blue helicopter and airplane PJ’s.

So, as I sit in my small, open concept house, I try to do only the things that would make the least possible noise. Naturally, in a totally silent house, just about anything creates noticeable noise that would wake the kiddos, and so I’d pretty much be left with darning socks and brushing the cat. What I need is audio camouflage! What I use is Norah Jones.

norajones

Various artists have been employed in my search for the perfect cover for my evening bumblings around the house while babes sleep fitfully in their respective rooms. Classical is good but can get too soaring at times and the brass section, too triumphant during the crescendo. Ambient music is a good alternate as well but lacks vocals to mask the hushed phone conversations or the actual chatting done with my wife when she’s home in the evening. Vocals are also handy for smothering my hissed expletives, shot out from between clenched teeth when I inevitably stub my foot on a chair or toy truck. As Action Girl has pointed out on many occasions, a stealthy panther of the night, I am not.

So, Norah Jones fits the bill and I can honestly say, I just about can’t stand her any more. There was a time, long before munchkins invaded our home, that I really liked Miss Jones. Her voice, her songs, her presentation… I really, really liked her. After the gazillionth listening though, I’m cooked. This is not the first time this has happened to me, but it is the latest.

I can recall, years ago, the first time I burned out on an album. This is back when albums were big, flat, black and made of vinal. I had experienced one of those magical, youthful moments of ecstasy that we all seem to go through at some point. The moment you fall completely in love with an album. You love it. You live it.

YOU understand it, MAN!

It’s not just music! It’s way purer than that! The normal outcome of this euphoria is to listen to it over and over again until it fuses with your brain. I had fused with this particular album and had proceeded through all the steps of discovery, adoration and finally, was just setting it aside for the next musical infatuation. Then, the guy down the hall discovered it too.

To be fair, he did nothing worse than I did. He just did it at a time when I had moved on and was looking at new listening pleasures. Being in college, he did what everyone else did and played the hell out of it with the door open and the volume turned up to eleven. With the incessant replaying of this one album stacked on top of all my own incessant replaying, I started to crack. Finally, with its twenty-fifth iteration in the same afternoon, I was forced to explain to him that it was time to either find something else to play or witness a sad and terminal fate befall his stereo. With a judicious quantity of grumbling, he shut his door and turned it down to nine. Very considerate of him considering our age.

I still can’t listen to that album.

The next overload was far more evil because I never really cared for it in the first place. Immediately after I graduated, I took a managing job in a downtown store. We sold beads, rocks, hacky sacks, rain sticks AND… music. The genre was classified as “World Music” and it was all we were allowed to play by the sadistic owner. The owner, I should add, rarely worked behind the counter, had an office far away from any speakers, plus had his own radio which mysteriously never seemed to be tuned to world music. He never had to listen to the endless loop being run over and over again of Brasileiro or hideous third-string-folk-musicians in the store for more than a few minutes a day. I, on the other had been quickly loosing my mind to the sounds of traditional South American festival music. Every noon, our evil overlord would leave for a couple of hours for an extended lunch, and I, the disloyal underling, would immediately toss in some other music in an effort to cling to my diminishing sanity. I was always thoughtful when I selected the CD’s to smuggle into the store in preparation of my musical interlude and never played anything that would have been inappropriate to hear in your average retail shop. It all made good background music. It just didn’t involve maracas, pan flutes or incessant, repetitive refrains from songwriters who should have stuck with their day jobs.

The trick with my subversive behavior was that I never knew the exact return time of the owner. It was like the feeling you had when you were looking at some friend’s father’s Playboy Magazine. You loved every minute of it but were just waiting for the inevitable, “What the heck is going on here!?” coming from the doorway. The anticipation of being found out seriously cramped the enjoyment, but you did it any way. I also, naturally, got caught on more than one occasion.

Listening to the music, that is.

They never caught me looking at the Playboys.

I worked at that shop for about a year and a half and was so scarred by my musical ordeal that I find the prospect of traveling to South America and possibly being subjected to the live version of this torture makes me want to scamper up a tree and hide.

So now, Norah is just starting her gazillionth and first time around on the iPod and I’m doing my best to blot her out. I could find a good substitute for her, I know. I have an absurd quantity of music to listen to, but here’s the thing. I like my other music… and I want to keep it that way. Norah Jones has become my musical work shirt, if you will. She’s stained, ripped, dirty and has paint spattered on one sleeve. I have lots of other shirts I could put on, but then I’ll just start wearing them out too. No. I’ll stick with her for a bit longer rather than start to burn through some other well enjoyed album or artist. This works for now.

Some day, far in the future, my son or daughter will no doubt play some Norah Jones in the evening and will wonder why dad’s starting to twitch. Hopefully, they won’t decide that she’s the best thing ever and that she must be replayed again.. and again.. and again… and…

Do not take the night train from Munich to Prague. Conclusion.

…So we had gotten seats and the train was just about packed. Not only were there no open seats to be seen anywhere, It became increasingly obvious that there weren’t any anywhere. Slightly and not so slightly panicked looking Koreans drifted by our doorway, each with a look like that of a child looking for their lost mom. The whistle blew, the train lurched and we were on our way. As I sat in my lucky seat, I very shortly became aware of a few things. First of all, this was a nine hour train ride on which I would be surrounded by nothing but the Korean language. I prayed that SOMEONE here spoke english and wouldn’t mind chatting a bit. Second, that with the heat and the humidity and now the crush of an overloaded train car, it was turning into sauna here. Fast.

I still wasn’t too keen on getting out of my seat even for the thirty seconds that it would take to open the window lest someone leap into it behind me. The seatless still prowled the hallway looking for the weak of bladder or the very, very foolish who went looking for the snack car. Eventually, I asked out loud if someone could open the window. The guy across from me quickly replied in flawless english, “Good idea” and nodded to the guy on my left, who looked a bit like an Asian Elvis. The hair product alone was impressive, but the clothing choice of unbuttoned while shirt, necklaces and tight black pants really set the image off nicely. Being closest to the window, Elvis managed to get it open and back to his seat before a squatter moved in on the vacancy. The stagnant hot air was replaced with blowing hot air and we listened to the train groan its way out of the marshaling yard. After tickets were checked but before we all got too comfortable, I decided to see if we could improve our seating arrangement. I turned to Elvis and explained that my wife was in the next car and would he be okay with switching? We’d all have seats but that way Action Girl and I could be together. He looked at me from under his moussed mantle and quickly responded, “Okay.” I was delighted. I smiled. He smiled.

He didn’t move.

Uh Oh.

The english speaker across from me started to laugh and then quickly explained to Elvis in Korean what he had just said “Okay” to. Elvis’ smile vanished. Apparently, Elvis didn’t speak english and had been bluffing with his best “Okay”.

He was a man of his “Okay” though. The switch was made and Action Girl joined me in the compartment that was the lap of communist comfort. About this time, the sky could hold the humidity no longer and suddenly, it was like we were traveling under a waterfall. The open window let in sheet of rain and someone sprang up to slam it shut, whereupon he compartment quickly reverted to a steam bath. Ugh!

After about five hours of this joy we finally pulled into a siding and awaited a new engine to take us the rest of the way to Prague. I dared to leave my seat and go out into the hall to stretch my legs and my translator came to join me. The hall way was disgusting. The floors were soaked from the rain and up an down them there were Korean students sleeping or trying very hard to sleep, mostly lying on bits of soaked cardboard. Oh and did I mention the bathrooms? You don’t want to know the state of the bathrooms. Honest.

As it turned out, the nice guy / translator spoke perfect english and had previously spent quite a good amount of time in the states. He explained that this was a package trip from his university and that they had been traveling together for about a week. He was really a nice person to chat with and as my wife did her best to convince her self that she was sleeping, the Nice Guy and I had some good chats. Most of them started with a, “Holy Sh1t! it’s hot in here!”. After an uncomfortable hour or so, the train wobbled with the coupling of the new engine and we were off. I had really gotten to like the Nice Guy. He was a chess player, a scholar and had a really good wit. In short, just the kind of person you’d want to be trapped with in a smelly, wet, steel tube for nine hours.

We were in the home stretch now. The Koreans however were in trouble. Czech ticket agents came through the cars with way too much bluster. They did not look happy and other than the fact that it was something like four in the morning, we quickly found out why. The Koreans had the wrong tickets. All of them. Everywhere you looked, panic was spreading. They all needed to buy new tickets for the Czech part of the trip but to do this you needed money, and money is what most of them didn’t have. They didn’t have it in droves. Our tickets, thankfully, were correct and the ticket collector let us off with only a severe glare. We were, after all, foreign. There was much horse trading and begging amongst the group for loans and the tour operator trying to get the ticket collectors to see reason. It must have all worked out because the collectors finally disappeared and only came back to bother us seven or eight more times. Essentially, just enough to keep anyone from sleeping.

As we rolled into the outskirts of Prague, Action Girl pointed out bonfires dotting the woods. Gypsy encampments, we decided. A little over an hour later we squealed our way into the train station and squirted off the Hell Train on to the main platform. We looked around in a haze made of sleeplessness and being in an utterly unfamiliar place. All the signs were written in cyrillic and we had no idea where to find The Doctor. Then his voice piped up behind us. “Right now,” he stated dryly, “You are saying to your self ‘What the hell did I do to deserve that?'”. We boggled. Did we look that bad? Well… yes, I suppose we did. He took us to breakfast and over what was possibly the most lovely food we had had in months (or at least the most appreciated), we told him our story. He smiled and took a drink of orange juice. “That’s interesting.” he finally said. “Because for me it was exactly the same except for the Koreans. On my train, they were all Japanese.”

I will never take the night train from Munich to Prague again. I don’t care if I have to walk. The really best part of all this is that a friend of ours went to Prague via Munich just a few years ago. She told us her itinerary before she left and we warned her in the strongest possible way. She naturally did it any way and though her experience didn’t include the asian tour group, she told us later that she regrets not following our advice. It’s refreshing to know that some things in the world never seem to change.
prague.jpg

I’ve run out of room to get to the bit with the Evil Eye, but I’m sure I’ll mention it later in another post. Suffice it to say that gypsy’s can be a real pain when they are trying to rip you off but if you shoo them away with too much vigor, get ready for a hex.

Any way… That was the worst night ever for us. A cranky two year old at three in the morning is the minor leagues in comparison. I just have to remind Action Girl about it from time to time when sleep seems to be illusive. “Well, at least we’re not going to Prague by train”. That usually adds some good perspective.

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