I wake up in an unfamiliar hotel room, gray light filtering in through the slightly split curtains. It takes my brain a beat to catch up with my surroundings. Where am I? What state? Nevada. Hawthorne. It’s a ghost town. I stick my foot in something cold and damp at the foot of the bed. I sit up and find Quinn’s pajamas lying on the floor and her naked self sleeping across the room. She’s peed in my bed and then abandoned ship. Rory is naked as well but this is typical. He always strips off his PJs sometimes after we’ve put him down but before going to sleep. Getting him to wear clothes is like trying to dress a hurricane.
Where is Bryce? I look around. No sign of her. She’s probably weaseled her way into a mound of blankets somewhere. She’s like a guinea pig – sort of nuzzles into the sweet spots for short term hibernation. When I’d gone to bed eight hours ago she was jumping onto my back and laughing as my ribs popped out of place one at a time.
My elbow is swollen and burning up. I assume I’ve been bitten by some kind of horrible bug in the night. The room was $55 for two queen beds and that cost comes at a price… and sometimes that price is a certain level of sterility… or rather, lack thereof.
Slowly, everyone wakes up. Eyes are opened, limbs are stretched, yawns are ejected. Jade dresses the kids while I pull yogurts from the car. I throw my phone down on the table while Radiohead’s The Bends floats out of the tiny speaker – try to expose the kids to some culture while they enjoy their blueberry / pomegranate mash.
Rory finishes his cup well ahead of the two girls and casually says, “I’m still hungry,” in a way that suggests I should just continue to shovel food into his mouth until he is a plump melon begging me to stop. I grab the keys and go to the car for another yogurt, which he inhales likes a junkie before letting me know that, “Hey! I’m still hungry! I want cereal!” I ask if I can get a please out of him, please. And he relents. I head out the door and get a box of Safari Cocoa Crunch which I guess is either either some kind of healthy version of Cocoa Pebbles or some kind of super generic version of Cocoa Pebbles. It saddens me to think that Fred Flintstone will be nothing more to this generation of kids but a cereal box spokesman.
I pour a hundred little spheres in his yogurt cup along with some milk and tell him to go nuts while Thom Yorke moans about Fake Plastic Trees. Quinn falls out of her chair and Bryce poops her pants. I help Quinn up and change Bryce’s diaper. Rory tells me he’s still hungry and I say, “Tough. Lunch is in four hours,” and he says, “Nooooooo…..”
Jade says she’s going to take a shower so I take the kids for a walk around the block. It’s 8am in desert country and there’s a chill in the air but the sharp briskness reminds me of spring in South Dakota when I was a kid.
The four of us walk up the sidewalk and down a dirt alley. Quinn picks up a rusty bolt and Rory bangs on a gas tank. Bryce stops and watches ants. We make our way to the main street – a completely dead four lane road – and cross to the other side. It’s clear that at one point this town was a place. A real place. A real place with real businesses and real things happening but now it’s about one good month at the mortuary from being a ghost town.
The kids and I explore an abandoned hotel that the Earth has begun to reclaim, dragging it slowly down with it’s green fingers.
Across the street there used to be a car wash but it too has fallen into disrepair at the hands of Time and then was generously decorated by a poet doubling as an entrepreneur in the field of women.
I grab Jade and we head towards a gas station feeling like I’m trapped in an adult version of Children of the Corn.Jade fills up our coffees and cooler while I clean out the car. I find some dirty socks, crunchy peanuts and loose change, which I pocket. Under my seat is a grape, which I toss over my shoulder onto the pavement. Jade exits and says, “Whoa. Look at the size of that bird…” I look behind me and see a crow the size of a small dog hopping towards me. It eyeballs my grape before picking it up in its massive clicking maw. “Take the grape, Crow. Take the whole bag. Just don’t peck my eyes out.”
I reach into the backseat and pull out two clementines and think about my dead dog while I peel them. Poor Clementine – my little cocker spaniel. Hit by a stupid car and thrown away by a homeless man a little over a year ago. A citrus mist pops into the air as I pull back the bright orange skin and it smells refreshing. I throw the peelings on the ground and before I’ve started the car, three tiny brown birds are sniffing them out to make use of.
The Nevada landscape pours slowly past us like sand in an hourglass. It has a beautiful liquid body – the rolling hills, the salted fields. One mound rolls into the next rolls into the next. We pass through several more towns that should be euthanized… or at the very least placed in resting homes.
In Fallon we stop at a restaurant called The Slanted Porch for lunch. It has a dirt parking lot and is across the street from a massage parlor called THE RUB, which looks like it’s inside of someone’s house. I imagine walking in and finding a heavy set Canadian woman lying me down on the bed she sleeps on, crawling on top of me and then using a curling brush against my back and on the top of my head. I have no idea why the woman is Canadian in my imaginings. I shiver and walk up the path to the restaurant instead.
A man that looks like Willy Nelson beats me to the door and opens it up. Jade says, “Go ahead,” and he shakes his head. “Nah, you first. You got more legs than me,” and I say, “Yeah, a little caterpillar,” and he says, “Haw-haw-haw. Boy you sure got your hands full!”
We ask to be seated outside and let the kids run around while we peruse the menu where every item, regardless of its contents, is named after a famous painter. Jade and I each order The Monet – a tomato / pesto sandwich – while the kids all order The Homer – a peanut butter and jelly.
I fail to see the connection in any of it.
The waiter tells me that he drives just over an hour everyday for this job. He drives from Reno. He used to live in The Bay Area in California but now he leaves out here in the desert. Says he needed a change of pace – just packed his car up one day and started over from scratch. Says he likes to serve. I ask him why he doesn’t serve in Reno and he mumbles something that doesn’t make any sense to me. I assume there’s more to his story but he never lets it slip. Our drinks come just as the town’s air raid sirens begin to go off. I pray it’s just a test and we’re not about to be nuked. The missile never comes but the double Monets do.
Rory shouts, “DAD! I GOTTA POOP! NOW!” and two older women at the table next to us pretend not to hear. I say, “Shhhh…” and pretend not to hear him as well. Rory whispers. “Dad… I gotta poop and pee…right now!” I push back my chair and take him to the bathroom whereupon he crawls upon his ivory throne and begins to talk in stream-of-consciousness-I-don’t-even-know-whats. I nod my head dumbly. At one point he stops talking mid-sentence and I glance over at him. His face is beet red and his gaze is a million miles away. I say, “Are you, uh, okay? Are you pooping right now?” I hear a loud PLOP and he says, “OOOOOOOH!… How did you know?”
“Just a hint.”
Then he leans back, like he’s in a recliner, leaning against the toilet tank. Kid is really getting comfortable now and just starts swinging his feet like he’s on a park bench. I ask if he’s done and he says, “Nope. Not yet.” I pull out my phone so I don’t have to stare at a pooping human for the next few minutes. I’m going through my email when Rory releases a super sexually charged, “YESSSSSSSSSS!” and I shout / whisper, “Quiet! Quiet!” and then can’t help but laugh a little. “What are you doing?” and he says, “It’s coming out!”
“Okay. Let’s just… are you almost done?”
“Yeah. I’m done.”
“Awesome. Wipe, wash and let’s be on our way.”
Back on the highway the view is bleeding past us and the road is stretching straight into the horizon, falling off the side of the Earth. I’m strumming my ukelele in the passenger seat while Jade drives. I tell her about “a sweet travel app idea” that I have and she says, “AWESOME!” I say, “Thanks! Really? I mean, I thought it was good but-” and she says, “LOOK AT THAT!” She points and I turn my head. Off to the right of the freeway is a giant monument that looks like a chapel constructed from bones.
I say, “What is it?” and she says, “I have no idea. We need to turn around. We need to turn around right now.”
She pulls the mini over to the left side of the road and finds a turnout that says “No U-Turns” before pulling a U-Turn. A paved road turns to a dirt road turns to a dirt parking lot. The fence surrounding the place is made from old scraps of wood and chicken wire.
We park and pull the kids out. Quinn pees on the tire before we head in – we are in solitude. Bryce doesn’t want to walk and instead just sits in the dirt and cries. No one is around so we let her. “See ya, Bruce!”
We walk in and find what is, essentially, an outdoor exhibit that celebrates Native American culture by creating art from “garbage” found around Nevada; old cars, bottles, cans, car engines, animal bones. There are picnic tables made from spare bulldozer parts and outhouses decorated with license plates. Dolls are scattered throughout, feeling like molested versions of baby cherubs. Life sized Indian statues sculpted from cement populate the premises, making you feel like you’re being watched at all times.
Rory asks why there is barbed wire around some of the exhibits and I say, “Because there are stupid people who try to ruin beautiful things with their garbage.. even when those beautiful things are made out of garbage,” and he says, “Oh,” and then throws the wrapper to the snack he’s eating on the ground and it immediately blows through the fence. I go, “What was that?!” and he looks at me with these blank eyes. “What?”
“What-WHAT? Did you just throw that on the ground? What did I just say. Literally. Just now. What did I just say about this fence?”
“That, uh… people throw their garbage down?”
“Yeah. Okay. So doubly negative points because you were actually listening and should know better. Pick it up.”
“I can’t! It’s on the other side of the fence!”
“Then get on your hands and knees and reach your scrawny arm through and pull it out. Otherwise we’re going to have to do a B&E and get you over this fence to teach you a lesson.”
“What’s a beanie?”
“Another time. Grab your wrapper, knucklehead, and don’t litter. This is the only Earth we’ve got. Haven’t you ever seen the commercial with the crying Indian?”
By the time Rory has re-acquired his trash, Jade and the girls have wandered off. Rory looks down at a plant and says, “Hey… look at this…” He squats down and touches the growth. “C’mere, Dad. Come down here. Look at this.”
I squat down. The plant looks like some kind of desert weed. It’s green with flecks or magenta. I say, “It’s pretty, huh?” and he says, “Yeah. What’s it called?” and I say, “I honestly don’t know… we could name it something,” and he says, “I wish we got here a little earlier so we could’ve asked the people who built this what it’s called.”
I nod my head and stand up.
On the way out Jade suddenly shouts, “There’s a tornado! Go jump in it! See if it lifts you off the ground!” I look down the road and see a dirt devil heading our way. I set off at a dead sprint directly towards it, every moment one step closer to fulfilling a lifelong dream. I shut my eyes and jump into the playful whirlwind. It kisses my cheeks and blows dirt in my face. I turn around and jump back into it. “Here I come, Oz!!!” but no. Nothing. I just get really dirty.
I jump in the driver’s seat and pull onto the road. A dog runs out of nowhere and tries to bite our car and I almost run the stupid thing over, again reminded of Clementine. My elbow still burns and it’s getting worse. Whatever poison that bug shot into my body is working its way into my fingers. My entire left arm is starting to tingle and my bicep is swelling.
Before we’re twenty minutes down the road, Rory is shouting that he has to pee. I pull over, kick open the backdoor, unbuckle him and grab my uke. On the side of the road he pulls his pants down and pees into some weeds while I strum out a simple pattern and sing, “Rory, Rory, peeing on the freeway. Rory, Rory, peeing in the wind.” A trucker drives past us and sees me serenading a half naked child in the middle of nowhere.
Rory turns, mid-stream, and says, “I’m hungry.”
We stop on an Indian Reservation and have dinner in a casino that’s perfumed with smoke and decorated with dormant slot machines. A few locals have bellied up to the bar and no one pays us any attention as we walk through the haze and back into the diner portion. Before we sit down Rory says, “I gotta go potty,” and Quinn says, “Me too!” and I say, “What is with your bladder, kid?”
I take them both to the restroom and Rory gets a burr in his shorts because sometimes that’s just how he is. Sometimes Rory is just difficult. Sometimes he’s a sweetheart and sometimes he’s a monster that can’t be reasoned with. I tell him to wash his hands and he does… sort of. He gets soap on his mitts and scrubs them into a lather and then says, “I’m not washing my hands anymore.” I tell him, “Rory, you need to rinse off your hands,” and he says, “I won’t,” and I say, “Rory. You need to wash your hands so we can go eat. You can’t eat with soap on your hands.”
He fires back, “I’m not going to. You can’t make me. YOU CAN’T MAKE ME!” and he screams the last few words like he wants them to hit like rocks, his voice echoing in the small bathroom. I don’t count with our kids – get over here before I count to ten! I give them two options and I spell out the consequences of both options and then I allow them to choose. Immediately after they choose I deliver them the consequences of their decision
They’ve gotten use to the “I’m going to give you two choices” speech so when I say it, they pay attention. With this method, if they choose incorrectly, they’re not being disobedient, they’re just being stupid. And I can correct stupid behavior. It transforms the situation out of an emotional power struggle into a logical choice making one.
Sidebar: they don’t always choose the right path. It simply shifts the event into something that is more manageable for me.
I lean down close to him and say, “I’m giving you two choices right now so listen closely. I am going to walk Quinn back to the table. If you’re still standing here with soap on your hands when I get back, I am going to take you outside and give you a timeout. If you wash the soap off, we are going to go sit at the table, eat dinner and have pie. Do you understand your choices?” We have a stare off and then I say, “I will be back in thirty seconds.”
I walk Quinn halfway back to our table, never letting the bathroom fully out of my sight, hoping that Rory just needs a few moments alone to collect his thoughts. I stand outside of the bathroom for a beat before I hear him start to moan, “Daaaaad… Daaaaaad…. Daaa-haaad….” Excellent, I think to myself. He’s ready to communicate. Pie over timeout. Easy choice.
I walk back into the bathroom and he’s still standing in the same spot, soap still all over him. I say, “You still have soap on your hands,” and he says, “I’ll NEVER wash them!”
To his credit, he makes firm decisions. It will probably lead him to be a powerful CEO someday if I can funnel it properly.
I take two steps across the bathroom, grab him by the wrists and force his hands under the water. He screeches and shrieks and I’m certain the people in the casino thing I’m beating him mercilessly with my belt. Once the soap is off his hands he pulls away from me and says, “I’ll NEVER DRY MY HANDS! EVER!”
Now, it has occurred to me, in my almost five years of parenting, that at some point, the more intelligent of the party must stop arguing with the less intelligent and simply green light action. And so I grab him by the ear (yeah, I do the ear – it takes very little pressure and the entire body follows with very little effort) and I drag him out of the restroom, through the casino (where no one acknowledges us), out the front door and onto the sidewalk where I place him nose first against the front of the building. I say, “You’re standing here and you’re getting a time out. When you’re ready to talk to me in a nice voice, we can go inside.”
I walk away and stand on the curb where I slowly count to fifty. This exercise isn’t just about letting him calm down. It’s also about letting me calm down. Parenting is, by its very nature, an emotional topic BUT it is my opinion, imperative that we approach it as logically as possible, pushing our emotions aside. Emotions allow us to feel sorry for the child and not see through the punishment. Emotion allows us to strike out in anger. Both things lead to less desirable results.
I count to twenty. I count to thirty. I push my emotions away and think about the process and the consequences. I count to forty. I slow my breathing. I slow my heart. The closer I get, the smaller Rory’s pleas become. By the time I hit fifty he’s completely silent. I walk back up to him, myself in perfect calm, and say, “Are you ready to go inside and eat?” and he says, “You can NEVER make me go inside!”
Inside my head, fireworks are exploding, hammers are hitting anvils and buildings are collapsing. Lord, give me patience, I pray, and then give myself a moment before I speak. Don’t show weakness.
“Rory James… you are going to walk with me right now inside this restaurant. And you are going to sit down at that table. And you are going to eat because you have been telling me all day how hungry you are.” And he looks at me and he says, “I’M TAKING OFF MY SHIRT!” and then he starts to pull off his sweater.
What is happening right now? I just want a mozzarella stick.
The door opens and the sheriff walks out. He stops and looks at me, looks at this kid. Looks back at me and says, “Uh oh.” I say, “Getting a little time out on a road trip.” The sheriff says, “Good luck,” and disappears around the corner. A minute later his cruiser pulls into the street and he doesn’t even look our way.
“Rory. Put your shirt down. You look foolish. WHY… Why are you -”
“I’M TAKING OFF MY SHOES! I’M TAKING THEM OFF!” and he flips his foot and a shoe pops off. In other circumstances it would be comical.
Lord help me.
“You put your shirt down. You put your shoe-”
“I’M GONNA BREAK MY GLASSES!”
I point at him and I say, “Don’t touch them.”
Idiot. You’ve show a weakness.
He grabs them off his face and lifts them into the air. He says, “I’m going to throw them on the ground. I’m going to break them.”
I look him square in the eyes and I play a wild card, “Fine. They’re yours. Do whatever you want with them… but have fun seeing all fuzzy for the rest of your life.” It’s cloaked but it’s another choice – me trying to pull this out of emotion and back into choice and logic.
He stares at me for a full minute before slowly placing the glasses back on his face. I point to the ground in front of me and he walks over. I open the door and he walks in. We find our table and sit down. Rory has a pancake for dinner.
Disciplining your children in the private comfort of your home is one thing. Trying to do it in an unfamiliar public place is a challenge worthy of reality TV competitions. After I get one of the kids to bend to my will, I feel like somebody should be dropping 10k in my lap and throwing a wreath of roses over my neck. I want to high five a stranger and say, “You see that. YOU SEE THAT? I got that kid to reason.”
*Roadside attraction. I bet it’s soft serve.
We get back in the car as the sun is setting – red, yellow, orange. It’s a true vanilla sky. The sun disappears behind the mountains and the creams turn to grays, turn to blacks. We cross into Oregon and pull over for gas. As I open up my door to step out, I bump into a man and scream. “Filler up?” He stares at me, some tall drink of water, his mechanics bibs hanging off of him two sizes too big.
Every single time I enter Oregon I forget that you’re not allowed to pump your own gas. “Yeah, yeah. Everything. All the way. Regular. Thanks. Hey, where’s the next hotel?” He says, “‘Bout sixty miles up you’ll find Nampa, Idaho… but it’s dark. You gotta watch out for deer until you hit the state line.” I thank him and pull down my seatbelt. Just as I turn over the engine, Rory screams. I turn around in my seat and his top lip is covered in blood.
“What is THIS?!”
“Quinn…. PUNCHED ME!”
I look at Quinn but she’s hiding under her blanket. Her voice comes out muted, “Wasn’t me! I don’t know who did that!”
I shove a piece of toilet paper up Rory’s nose and rip the blanket off Quinn before giving her a dirty look and a speech. What is happening today?
Slam the door, snap the seatbelt, fire up the car, pop the headlights, shift into drive, get two miles up the road and Jade screams, “WATCH OUT!” I swerve hard to the right and avoid a bull crossing the street like he’s sauntering up to a broad at some bar, three beers deep. I try to imagine what a bull’s body would do to a mini-van. “Thank goodness, our car wasn’t red! He might’ve chased us!”
I slow down to forty-five MPH and slam a Red Bull because driving at night makes me crazy tired. We reach the hotel after the kids are all asleep. Jade and I crawl out of the minivan and unbuckle all three of them as they try to shake off their sleep. “Are we there? Are we at the hotel?” Quinn asks. “Ho-tey!” Bryce shouts. Rory jumps onto the asphalt barefoot and says, “This place smells like goat’s breath.” I inhale deeply and start to laugh. He’s absolutely correct. All three of them begin to wander like short zombies towards the entrance to another cheap, off-brand hotel, their blankets dragging behind them.
They’re each going to bed with cuts and scrapes they didn’t have when they woke up. But they’re also going to bed with experiences and lessons they didn’t have. Life with these three is not always easy and it’s not always fun and sometimes it tries my patience, not only as a father but also as a human. It tries it to the very edge… and then it pushes it over the edge… and then it expands it. They expand me as a person. Their misbehaviors turn me into a better person. Rob Bell says, “We are going to suffer. And it is going to shape us. Somehow. Bitter or better, closed or open, more ignorant or more aware, more or less tuned in to the thousands of gifts we are surrounded with every single moment of every single day.”
These are my gifts that make me suffer. These are the gifts that make me better and more aware.
The road is not the adventure. My family is the adventure that travels the road. They turn the boring minutia of everyday life into a carnival wherever we go.
*** *** *** *** ***
We head into the hotel and everyone immediately falls asleep.
Everyone except me.
I drank a Red Bull forty minutes ago and I’m wired.
So, with a burning and infected elbow, I write.
And I stare at the kids while I do, wondering what they’ll show me tomorrow.