TRAVEL SERIES


Traveling with Children: Part I

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By: Dennis Breier

Remember when you wanted to go on vacation and you just called up your boss, lowered your voice, thought about something really sad, lied about someone in your family being ill, and took off with nothing but a backpack and a hundred bucks?  That was fun.  Now, enter your gaggle of children.  Suddenly, taking a trip requires months of advanced planning and is more reminiscent of a journey through the seven circles of hell than to paradise.  When traveling with children there are many more decisions to make:

Should we fly or drive?
How many times should we stop?
How will we keep these kids entertained for eight hours in a car?
What happens when one of them has a mental breakdown on an airplane?
What happens when one of them has explosive diarrhea anywhere?

These are things, as a parent of young tots, you must think about and prepare for.  Luckily for you, I have vast amounts of experience in this department, mostly from taking four kids (now it will be five) on a 26-hour sojourn to Disney Worldevery year.  I’d like to provide you a brief guide to making your next trip with children enjoyable, relaxing and fun for everyone.  Today, we’ll address the age old question: How to make a ridiculously long drive work with your kids. Stay tuned for part two, which will discuss how to fly on a plane with kids and not be committed to a mental institution afterward, and part three, which will discuss some ways you can save money and be happy when you arrive.

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If you are driving somewhere really, really far away, be familiar with the three phases of a trip for young children.

Phase One – The “we are really excited about this and are fully ready to behave” phase.

This phase lasts for about two hours.  The kids know they are going somewhere fun, they’re comfortable, they have some entertainment ready to go, DVD’s,iPads, whatever, and they are determined to be good little soldiers.  However, what they don’t know is that you are about 20 hours from your destination at this point.  This phase quickly wears off and you’ll probably start hearing your first “are we there yet” about an hour and half in.  Be ready to make a smooth transition to phase two in order to avoid mental breakdowns early in the trip.

Phase Two – The “we are already sick of this, but if we stop at some gas station for food, we’re good” phase.

As you pull off the highway about two and half hours into the trip you might see a dirty, dingy, highly questionable gas station with a McDonald’s attached to it.  Remember however, your kids see a land of endless adventure where bathrooms need to be opened with a magical key and chicken nuggets fall from the sky.  Be sure to make this stop.  It breaks up the trip, gets the kids focused on something else, mainly food and gas station tchotchkes, and typically leads directly into nap time.  If you play this phase right, you’ll have an hour of lunch, two hours of naps, and most importantly, three hours or more to drive in peace.  When nap time is up, make sure you stop again, get some beverages and gird your loins for phase three.

Phase Three – The “why did we decide to go on this trip?” phase.

Phase three is inevitable.  You just need to know that upfront.  At this point you’ve been driving for probably seven hours, and traveling with stops for eight maybe nine hours.  From here you need to power through one more hour.  I would not recommend driving with multiple young children for more than eight hours at a time unless you are glutton for punishment.  After seven hours the kids will be uncomfortable, bored, and similar to a caged up sheep dog, they just want to get out and run.  There is no really good advice here, just get through another hour, threaten to turn the car around a couple of times, and then find your hotel for the night.

Given the steps I laid out above, you should be able to leave around 8 or 9 a.m. and arrive at your hotel at around 6 or 7 p.m. at the latest.  It will have been difficult, you will have a significant headache and probably swamp ass.  But, you made it and your kids will be excited to check out the coolest Quality Inn and Suites they’ve ever seen.

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So I’ve told you what to expect, but what happens if the unexpected happens?  Let’s look at a few examples:

1.  What the hell is that smell?

So you just made a stop and there is clearly a devastating steamer in someone’s diaper. You don’t want to stop again and the gas station bathrooms are never a good place to change a kid, but the urge to vomit from the smell is intense.  So what do you do?  Simple, pull off on the side of the road, put your emergencies on, take the child out of the car in the car seat, place the car seat on the side of the road, and drive away.  I’m kidding, don’t do that.  Do pull off, put the emergencies on, take the child out of the car seat, lay them down in the front seat and do a quick change.  This saves you at least 20 minutes of trying to find a place, driving there, and getting in and out of the car.

2.  Oh Christ, Traffic

Occasionally traffic will come to a dead stop.  This can throw off the whole trip, making the travel time longer and the tidy little plan I laid out above non-existent.  The best thing to do here is to start playing some games to pass the time while the car is moving at a crawl.  Maybe you brought some board games or something, or you can play some sort of game you make up, like finding license plates from different states.  One game our family really enjoys in traffic is to stare at people in the cars next to us and make up elaborate tales about who they are and where they’re going.  For instance, one time a 90-year-old woman in aPrius pulled up next to us.  We proceeded to concoct a 15-minute-long story about how she was a ruthless witch driving to the salt flats of Utah to cast a spell on all the children of the world, while at the same getting amazing gas mileage and protecting the ozone layer.

3. Flat Tire/Car Break Down/Utter Disaster

This is just about the worst thing that can possibly happen on a trip, ever.  You, changing a tire by the side of the road, with your fleet of children standing next to the car – traffic whizzing by at 75 miles an hour.  This is the stuff nightmares are made of.  If you are taking a lengthy trip with children you HAVE to purchase roadside assistance.  You can get it from AAA, Allstate, or a variety of other companies and it ensures that in the worst case scenario you can sit in the car and sip your latte while some dude comes out to tow you, or help you, or whatever.  No kid wants to see mommy or daddy on the side of the road screaming for help okay? It’s traumatizing.

Lastly, what about you, the parents?  Just because you are an adult doesn’t mean you enjoy an eight hour drive, it sucks.  So what can you do to pass the time?  One good method is to change the speaker setting in your car so they only play in the front not the back. This way the kids can do their thing and you can listen to something other than The Little Mermaid’s greatest hits. Also, there is great app called TuneIn Radio that allows you to get pretty much any radio station anywhere in the country on your phone.  This is great if your favorite team is playing but you are obviously way out of range to pick it up on the radio.

I hope you enjoyed these tips and tricks for a long car ride with kids, stay tuned for part 2!


Wine Country with Mom: Part V

By: Brian Shinnick

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We pulled into Judd’s Hill winery after our sugary binge on the pavement. The rolling mountains ran out and upward as the backdrop to the large veranda. The sky poured out into a sharp, dazzling blue. Cloudless. The vines, recently harvested, streamed upward on the mountain’s back in perfect sage colored rows and we wandered around, our fingers reaching out to graze the greenery. There were still a few grapes left hanging, and I nibbled.

The resident sommelier is something of a shorter, pudgier variety of Craig T. Nelson with the signature bald-on-top graying mullet. His name is Judd. No relation. He recited all the bits of information that both Katherine and theSpelletich sommelier had already told us. Katherine politely informed him of this repetition. Judd, being the crafty old boy he is, decides to turn his ramblings into a game where more and more wine will be prized. Problem: No one was actually paying attention the first go-round. That or the wine has clouded the learning abilities of the group. Result: no one has any idea what the hell he’s asking. Except, for the lone wine genius: the Brazilian man, sitting cool like Cruise in Ray Ban’s. He’s answering every question correctly with ease.

Mom doesn’t like this. Nuh-uh. Jan wants to play the game too. Jan wants to show the crew that she’s been drinking wine since she was twelve so she must be an expert. Jan even serves wine at parties, much like Judd is doing now, which makes her a sommelier. Boom.

Judd touches his finger to his lips and asks, “And who knows the best time of day to actually harvest the fruit from the vine?”

Mama Bear folds her arms and drunkenly strong voices, “Noon!”

“I’m sorry?” Judd turns to her unsure of what he heard.

“The afternoon. Like early dinner time.”

“Um,” he squints his eyes a little, “No. Actually, the finest hour for the fruit is in the middle of the night. Yes, it’s even sometimes made into a sort of party for the pickers and they bring their families and it’s a beautiful event.”

Mom’s not buying’ it.

Judd begins again, “How about this. Can anyone tell me what one acre of vineyard land yields in grapes? Um, in tons, that is. How many tons of grapes?”

“Six hundred…THOUSAND,” she says with sheer confidence.

“Six hundred thousand?” Judd repeats it back. “Six hundred thousand tons?”

“Correct.”

“Ma’am there’s probably six hundred thousand tons of rock in that large mountain right there. Are you saying you can yield that amount of grapes from one acre of land.”

“Yeeeeeeeeeeee-up,” she says after finishing the rather full glass of wine in front of her.

“The answer is five. You can get five tons of grapes from one acre of land.”

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We leave the Judd Hill winery having purchased zero bottles of wine—I imagine it was a choice Mom made out of spite—and a heavy buzz. We get back on the bus and everyone is a bit rosy in the face. The Canadians are a little more in love and her sunglasses are crooked and his shirt is un-tucked only on the right side. The Lone Brazilian is smiling his very wide smile discussing South American wine to the honeymooners. The Asian women are all laughing hushedly at each other with their hands in front of their mouths. They’re adorable.

I shout with purple lips from the back of the bus, “Katherine, can you turn on some crowd pleaser jams? A little Metallica? Some Slayer, maybe? Y’know, something to loosen up the gang a bit.”

Her big beautiful eyes look into the rearview mirror with a salty smile, “You’re pushing your luck, Chicago.”

“You have no idea.”

The bus turns off the main road and begins down a skinny stretch of asphalt lined with the spires of Mediterranean evergreens and lush vines running—as they always do—into the hills. We pull up to a grand Italian villa with a round splashing fountain to welcome all who enter. The beautiful building is surrounded with lush, tall trees shading the area perfectly, nestled in the mountains and vines.Andretti Winery.

We wander around, Mama Bear and I, not concerned with wine or wine knowledge just yet. The space, that place, the lowering sun, the warm dirt beneath the vines. It swallowed us. We just smiled quietly.

I finally went to get us both some wine and began talking to the Canadian couple as we waited at the small bar. As we discussed what circumstances lead us all to the same place, I could see Mom sitting at a small table, wine already in hand, talking with Katherine.

The three of us go and sit on the grassy edge of a shady spot beneath a tree and laugh for a while about how much we hate winter and there’s no way, we can’t do it, we just don’t have one more god damn winter left in us. They are excellent people. Extremely polite but still a little edgy. Dave, the dude of the couple, asks the very hungover bartender lady if he can just have a bottle of wine, any wine, that he can bring to the shady spot instead of running back and forth. The extremely-discontent-with-her-job bartender gladly hands over a bottle.

I stand up after a while, remembering I’d left Mama Bear, and look to see she’s sitting at a crowded table laughing with Katherine and the like. She gets up for a moment and I meet her walking to the bar.

“Oh, there you are, you little booshkies! [Gasp] I just had a GREAT idea!” she says.

“Nope.”

“What? But you don’t even know what I’m going to say.”

Resting my hand on my scrunched forehead I explain, “I can just tell it’s one of those…y’know…Jan ideas that nobody ever really wants to participate in. Like, matching Halloween socks or, uhhhhhh, visiting Abe Lincoln’s childhood home, or joining that Church of Scient-whatever it was.”

“Hey! Historical sites are magical and you’re going to regret not going to—“

“Mom, what is it?”

“A group picture!”

“Yeah, I don’t—“

“Zip it!”

She runs to the front of this large porch everyone is now sitting at and begins shouting wildly and flailing her arms for everyone’s attention.

“Hey, everybody!” she says. “Heyyyyyy-oh!”

The group looks at her with confused smiles.

“I was wondering if we could take a picture, like a big group picture to remember this wonderful day? Can we? It’d be fun!”

There are a few rustles, but mainly silence among the group. I walk over, “C’mon, gang. This one’s for the Christmas card, now get your asses up here.”

The group assembles along a patio wall and smiles for a few pictures. Katherine is kind enough to snap the photo. It wasn’t until that moment I realized how glad I was to have done this with these people. This strange little cast and crew. Maybe it was the booze. Definitely the booze. But in that moment, I was really happy to be with my mother. I was really happy to understand more of who she is, who she is in this moment. It’s never easy to realize who you are traveling with until you’re knee-deep in the muck of it all. Not until it gets ugly do you know who you’re dealing with. Odds are you’re both going to survive, but you’re both guaranteed to be different.

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I knew that when the flash snapped and I knew it was all over.

We single-filed back onto the bus, ready to brave the ride home, clinking more bottles and laughter rang out amid the music of the highway. Red wine spilled into the white and cheersing glasses cheersed.

“Katherine!,” I shouted. “Can you pull over for some waffles or somethin’? Orrr, uhhh, you guys got White Castle’s in this town?”

She shook her head laughing, “We’ll talk later, Chicago.”


Wine Country with Mom: Part IV

By: Brian Shinnick

Napa Valley

White then black white then black then white then blackblackblackblackblack then white then blackblack then muffled sound then white then blackblackblack then muffled sharp pinging noise then white then “Booshkie-booshkers!” then black then “We almost gotta leave, Bri-bees!” then Oh My God What The Hell Time Is It? Black. Ohmygodohmygodohmygodohmygodohmygod.

My eyelids peeled back slowly, and I could fuzzily see my mother skip around the white hotel room yelling at me to rise and greet the day for “Nnnnnnnnnnnn-apAAAAAAA!”  I rolled the comforter away from my body, slipped my legs over the side of the bed, put my head between my hands and accepted the hangover I was bathing in.  Come on, I thought, this is like a distant cousin to a full-blown Check-me-into-detox-over.  Just get up and go, I thought.  So I did.  Showered then shaved then coffeed then lobby waited.

Hotel lobbies are a place of eminent danger when hungover.  You just sit there in those luscious comfy chairs and there’s pleasant music playing faintly and your mom is oozing happiness and everyone’s super nice to you and they ask you if you need anything when you don’t need anything and it’s just a universal vacuum of awfulness.

We’d signed up for a small trip to Napa Valley with Green Dream Tours that was to take us direct from our hotel to wine country where we’d visit three different wineries with a stop for lunch at some point.

It’s 7:56 a.m. and the small white bus has arrived.  Before I can rub the feeling back into my face, my mother has already run out to greet the driver and tour guide, Katherine.  Katherine, might I add, is stunning.  Tall, blonde, she wears red lipstick and a tight flower-patterned dress beneath a jean jacket.  She smiles genuinely, warmly, and immediately I can tell she’s got zero time for my Chicago bullshit.  I’m in love.

Green Dream Tours

I catch the two of them mid-conversation when I approach the bus. “And I STILL haven’t been on a cable car!  Three days gone past.  I mean, San Francisco and we haven’t been on a single cable car,” my mother divulges exhausting her breath.  “Whew! Oh, here he is,” she says looking at me.

Katherine and I nod to one another, and she’s already hot to my game.  She raises her eyebrows in judgment and goes, “You really ought to take your pretty mother on a cable car, you know.”

“Yeah…” Nodding my head I ask with a raw voice painted in cigarettes, “You got any wine on that bus?”

“Come on, champ,” Katherine laughs patting my back as we get on the party bus that’s been fitted with wrap-around leather seating, a knock-off hardwood floor, and an elaborate sound system that’s linked to Katherine’s quintessential tour guide headset.  We’re the first ones on the bus as we drive from hotel to hotel picking up other small groups of people, mostly couples.

There was a red-headed husband and blonde marathoner wife from Philadelphia in their late thirties. A couple near my age from Quebec that looked more like they’d strolled down from New York’s East Village, they were sleek, trendy. An uncomfortably politically correct trio of Asian women in the hierarchy of a daughter, a mother, and an aunt. Another husband and wife from Minnesota that were really quiet and a lone Brazilian man of about forty.

The morning drive is quiet and foggy.  Peaceful.  Katherine chimes out Napa Valley trivia through her headset and no one is really paying attention before she stops and says, “Listen, people, I know it’s quiet now and we don’t really know each other. But trust me, you’re all gonna be chatty best friends by the time we pack up for the ride home.”  I sat there and saw it all unfold:  Mom would get wasted, like crazy wasted because she’s drunk on two glasses of wine and now she’s gonna be guzzling buckets of wine the whole day. She’d probably just get lost in the vines and collapse, and we’d leave her behind, and her first born son wouldn’t even notice because he’s fallen in love with the guide.

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A two-hour drive and fifteen “I gotta pee”-complaints-from-mom later and the bus pulls into an industrial lot.  “I know what you’re thinking, folks: Hey where are all the vines and hills? Right?  But you’re really going to enjoy the Spelletich Winery,” Katherine assures us.  She was right.  Even though I felt like I was in a bathroom remodeling company’s showroom drinking absurdly delicious wine while a cool jiving sixty-something sommelier lady, we’ll call her Charlotte, spat an encyclopedia’s worth of grape knowledge at me.  While most everyone did this swirl-sniff-tiny-sip routine, Jan and I threw back the petite glasses of grape sauce in one gulp like it was Pepto-Bismol.  Some people we’re even pouring their leftovers out into these big buckets and me and Mama Bear are looking at each other like: Do these idiots know they’re tossing out free booze?  I mean it’s free.

We head to the big backroom where there’s a grape press and a million barrels stacked on top of each other and every time Charlotte dips into a barrel and asks if anyone would like to try, Mama Bear and me are throwing Southside ‘bows through the crowd trying get at the nectar.

“Now you’ll notice in this press the density of these grapes more so than any other batch from another year.  That’s caused by this incredible drought we’re in the midst of here in California.  The yields of grapes are drastically underwhelming.  But the grapes themselves are the best quality they will ever be.  The fruit closes in on itself and tightens when it endures dehydration.  That tightening intensifies the sugars and thus the fermented product.  It’s marvelous for the product, yet detrimental to our livelihood as wine makers.”  Charlotte shakes her head, “The artistry of wine will dry up at its peak.  The beauty of it all will collapse from the apex of where it could ever go.  Poetic really.”

The crowd goes quiet and still at this painful reflection.  No one brings a glass to their lips.  Somber looks all around.

“Yeah,” I shrug my shoulders, “but it’s just wine, right?  I mean, no, it’s great stuff and all, but… didn’t the government, like, declare a state of emergency.”  Uh oh, somebody’s buzz from the night just woke up. “Terrible for the economy and the rest of the Jesus Juice elitists, sure, no one’s doubtin’ that.  But come on, we’re talking about water here.  Our bodies are, like, 98.6% water, right?  We need that shit.”  Everyone is staring at me, and I got my arms stretched wide as if others will join me in agreement.  “I mean, let’s just put the poetry into perspective.  Right?”

Crickets.

It’s one o’clock by the time we roll around to lunch.  The spot we stop at is like a highway oasis, but it’s like a 5-star artisan oasis with charcuterie and sushi and organic bars of soap for sale.

“Oh my goodness!” she puts her hand over her mouth, “Do you think they have one of those Chinese herb shops with the immune booster shakes?  Oh my goodness GRACIOUS!  Look!”  She points to a fluffy pink sign hanging in the corner of the open-air building and begins speed walking toward it.  By the time I catch up with her she’s already in line.  She turns and looks at me like that creepy little dude from the Lord of the Rings movies and says, “Cuuuuuuuuuup-caaaaaaaaakessssssssss-uhhh.”

“You’re gonna eat cupcakes for lunch?”

“Cupcakes and wine.  We’re on vacation.”

“Does that mean I can smoke cigarettes?”

“It’s your vacation too, Booshkers,” she says with gentle understanding.  So she bought a bunch of cupcakes.  I bought some ice cream and a pack of cigarettes.  We snuck back to the bus a little early, cracked a bottle of Cab and giggled hiding in the parking lot.  She always yelled fiercely at my smoking, pointing her fingers at my face, my throat.

Then she asked for a drag.


Wine Country with Mom: Part III

By: Brian Shinnick

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The clock settles on 10:45 when I realize how thoroughly engaged I am in this conversation about animal cruelty and veganism with this redheaded chick and her fraying cowgirl hat.  I don’t want to talk about this anymore.  She has brightbright red hair and very broad shoulders and I begin to remember I’ve been drinking a long time and this can’t be San Francisco and where the hell is San Francisco and…yes, those we’re all the thoughts I was thinking.

This girl, Daniella was her name, takes a big gulp of her vodka and drops the glass heavily back onto the bar and says, “And do you know how they make foie gras?  Well they strap a duck to this—”

“Yeah, yeah, yeah, I know how they make foie gras.  Everybody knows they make baby ducks eat their mama ducks and then…ya know the uh, math quiz.”

She shakes her head, “Wait, no. They strap the—”

“Daniella, where are you from?”

“Oxford, Ohio”

“And what are you doing here?”

“I just had to get the hell out of Ohio,” she sighs looking back into the bottom of her vodka.  “Then again I was just a little baby dear and ended up lost in The Tenderloin for a few months.”  She taps her foot waiting for me to ask.

I bite, “What’s The Tenderloin?”

Daniella gets excited, “Ohhhhhh boy, you’ve never heard of The Tenderloin?  You really are from out of town.”

“You’re from Ohio.”

She plants her hands on the bar excitedly, “I’m saving you from murder right now!  The Tenderloin is over near Nob Hill.”

“Where Hugh Grant and Julia Roberts live?”

“What?” She dives right back in, “Nob Hill, like, where all the shops are and stuff and it’s, like, awful.  Awful neighborhood.  It’s, like, crack houses and crack pipes and everybody’s on crack and they’re all stabbing each other.  It’s, like, whoa.  I just saved you, boy,” she says nodding her head like a war vet who’s seen some shit.

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“I’m from Chicago,” I note.  She is still nodding her head waiting for acknowledgement so I give it to her. “But thank you for telling me, I doubt I could have sensed if I was in a bad neighborhood on my own.”

“Yeah, it’s cray,” she announces.

“So what is it you do out here?”

She is loud.  She pushes the energy from her mouth like a woman of the sky trying to blow along a sailboat and she says, “Ohhhhhhh boy, I’m a dancer,” and she rubs her hands down her sides and shakes her hips on the stool.

I cock my head and lift an eyebrow, “Heh?”

She points over her shoulder and out the window, “I work at the Hustler Club.”  I look out the window and across the street to a dilapidated black building with a scraggly blue awning out front.  I could see I the red sign above it flashing Hustler.

“Well, how ’bout that,” I muttered crossing my arms and bobbing my head with a slight hint of interest.

“Look around.  There’s a ton of people that work in one of the clubs on this street,” she chuckles a bit.

I look back outside and notice the prim rosed path of gentlemen’s clubs surrounding me.  Where the Fügelsang am I?

I nod, “Hmm,” and become extremely upset and bellow loudly with my bleeding throat, “WHERE THE HELL IS SAN FRANCISCO?  Is this it?  Am I here?  Is this where I’ve brought my mother?”  The breakdown set in.  The booze finally caught up.  The anguished senses of hyped-up-movie-that-started-turning-into-a-letdown sank deep in my stomach.  I closed my eyes and shouted for whiskey, shouted for gin, shouted for fluid relief.  Where are you?  Where are you?  Where am I?  Where is the jungle?  You can only run halfway in before you’re running out.

A cool, foreign hand grabbed the one I was pressing against my face in anguish.  My eyes remained closed.

“Let’s go,” the voice whispered.

My eyes stayed closed as my tongue and lips moved, “Nahhh. Nope. Negatory.  I gotta get to San Francisco.  Ma’s gotta go to wine country tomorrow.  I gotta go with her.”

“Come on, you idiot.  Where are you from?” the voice laughed.  I opened my eyes to find a different young woman holding my hand.  I looked around for the dancing redhead; she was nowhere to be found.  Wonderful.

This woman, who is she?  Who am I?

“Get me to San Francisco,” I tell the woman holding my hand.  We walked out the front door of Vesuvio into the night and down an alley where she smirks, “You never said where you’re from.  You look like a guy who calls a lot of places home though.”

“Chicago,” I say scratching my forehead looking at our hands holding one another’s. “Why are we holding hands?”

She laughs and says, “Because you’re lost.  I’m guiding your way.” Her eyes flashed softly from behind the brown hair that was swinging in her face and continued, “You’re my lost Chicago puppy.”  Sarah was her name and she spoke only a little as she pulled me around, weaving between the haloed-city lights.  She was not from this place of San Francisco either, I could tell, but I did not ask where she’d come from or why she’d led me away from that place.

We entered into a small, eight-person diner that hadn’t had an inch of fashionable upgrade in sixty years—Sam’s Pizza & Hamburgers.  There is a short, presumably Latino, possibly Italian man with a thin mustache behind the counter flipping burgers while another portly man in a grey t-shirt and gym shorts takes orders.  I’m quiet.  Reserved.  Sarah orders two cheeseburgers and two beers and a fry for us.

Sams

She bites on a ketchupy fry and raises her eyebrows in humor, “What’s your name?”

“Brian,” I say between a glug of beer.

“And what are you doing here, my lost puppy?”

“You brought me here, Sarah.”

She laughs, “No, you idiot.  San Francisco.  What are you doing in San Francisco?”

I shrugged my shoulders and said, “My mom wanted to go to wine country.”  She smiled at me and I at her.  “It’s her birthday.  She’s been good to me this year so I wanted to take her.”

“Ahhhh, so you’re a mama’s boy, huh?”

I ordered another beer before answering, “Every son with a half-way decent mother is a mama’s boy.”  She stayed silent with a smug grin on her face.  “Yes,” I begrudged, “I’m a mama’s boy.”

“So much so that you wanted to come all the way from Chicago and spend all this time with her?”

I hesitated, “Just because we came here together doesn’t mean I love travelling with her.  It’s hard.  It’s hard for me to travel with anyone.  Anyone.  I’m a minimalist and she’s over the top.  She likes hotels and I like hostels.  She doesn’t think about what can only be done in this place and I’m over here looking for the truth.  It’s not easy.  But I know that I learn something about someone else’s soul when we journey together, and I always learn more about who I am, who I want to become.  We don’t get to any place alone, spiritually or geographically.  Not really anyways.  You’re feet may have carried you but your soul is just a collection of everyone who’s impressed it.”

“Damn.” Her eyes pulled back a little.  ”Deep,” she said.

“Yeah, I’ve been in the midst of a breakdown for about an hour,” I admitted.  “Sorry.”

“Don’t be.  It’s refreshing.”  She was being honest, I could tell.  We sipped our beers in silence a little while.  I said thanks for getting me out of the other bar when she did and she said it was just good timing.  She told me she’d been traveling the west coast since her brother died a month ago.  I told her I was sorry for that.  We understood each other I suppose.  So we walked a little.

“Come finish my trip with me,” she told me laughing, but I knew she was serious.  “Portland tomorrow then B.C. for a week then who knows.  We’ll just run I guess.”

“Sarah,” I shook my head, “I gotta go to wine country with Mama Bear.”

“You’ve been with her a few days, right?  Just come with meeeeee,” she charmed me along.  Her smile.  That smile.  Dancing backward down the street in her white sweater, she stopped at a street lamp and said, “Please?”

I sighed and laughed and explained, “I owe it to her.  It’s been a long, tough year.”

How tough?”

My feet stopped chasing her backward dance beneath the streetlamp and I knelt down.  She laughed and asked what I was doing.  I rolled my pant legs up past my kneecaps and showed her.  Ribbons of pain and scar tissue streamed down and around legs that had been sewn and surgeried back together many times over.  A large patch of rough, leathered, scar lay on the inner calf of my right shin. And she knelt down beside me looking close, in her own bit of understanding.

Really tough,” I said.


Wine Country with Mom: Part II

By: Brian Shinnick

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It’s our second day in town.  We head to Napa in two more days.

I look up at the big yellow and red sign and ring out, “They got In-n-Out Burger here?  Yes.  Ma, you gotta try one of these burgers.  They’re fu—“ and as I’m midway through a word she slapped off my tongue many times as a teen, she looks me dead in the eye, “uhhh-ntastic.  They’re fantastic.  I’m telling you.”

She nods with a cautiously approving glare, “That’s right, Booshkers.”

We’ve spent all day together meandering through Chinatown, bargaining for knickknacks and faux kimonos for my sisters and their kids.  Every now and again I’d look over to find Mom burrowing into a giant pile of silk slippers looking for size 9s.  For all the time she’d spent in Hong Kong she never really understood that shouting your words slowly does not make your language any more translatable than alphabet soup.

“ME NEED SIZE NIIIIIIIIIIINE-UH.”

Meanwhile, I just kept chowing down on Hi-Chews (a Japanese Starburst-type candy) looking for the back alley opium dens and fast handed games of Russian roulette.  I’m a huge advocate of Chinatowns, and all Little (Insert Country)’s for that matter.

“We’ve gotta find one of those herb shops, you know.  You know, where they have all the herbs and there’s someone there that tells you what they’re supposed to do and then you pick the ones you want and they put them all into a blender with Chinese ice cream and they give it to you and you drink it and you’re better.  You know?” she tells me looking across the small street scanning for the strange place she’s describing.

“Huh?”

She goes on, “Yeah, you know.”

“There’s a Jamba Juice like two blocks that way,” I say pointing over my shoulder.

“No, it’s one of those magical herb medicine shops.”

“Wait, are you looking for an opium den too?”

“What?” she glares.  “I need an immune boost, Booshkers.”

“You aren’t sick, Ma.”

“But I could be better!  Your immune system can ALLLLLLL-WAYS use a boost!”  She flies her pointer finger high in the air with an excitement for health like she’s a grade school nurse.  “Wahooo!”

We find the type of shop she’s describing, only I think she had a different picture of it in her head.  The dingy little place smelled like a rundown pet store with walls of tea powders and big vats of unrecognizable herbs.  These places are useless to anyone who cannot speak the language.  She was talking to one man asking him loud, enunciated questions about immune system issues anti-oxidant facial rejuvenation powders while he puttered around pointing from big jar to big jar saying, “Is ginseng.  Is ginseng. Is…?…is ginseng.”

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We leave empty handed.

“They must have been Korean,” she purses her lips to the side.

“Yeah, I don’t think so.”

We leave Chinatown and head up Columbus Avenue to one of their hundred Italian restaurants for a bite.  Mama Bear is a little tired and a bit disappointed that she couldn’t find her herbal immune boost, not to mention she still hasn’t been on a cable car.  Today is her birthday, and I’m doing my best to oblige her requests…while not strangling a street performer out of familial frustration.

“You ok,” I ask sincerely.

“Yeah,” she sighs.

“Are you tired?”

She wobbles her hand of spread fingers side to side, “Ehhhh.”

“You wanna get a drink?  I know a spot you’d dig.”

“Do they have champagne?”

“I’ll get an Uber.”

Pier 23 Café is a locals preferred hub in an despicably touristy part of San Francisco along the Embarcadero of piers.  The joint is a little smaller inside with a twenty-foot bar, a few hi-tops, and a long line for either bathroom.  San Francisco sun spills into the room from every window illuminating the warm yellow painted interior.  The music playing is good fun and everyone is smiling slippery smiles and rubbing elbows.  Immediately I love this place.  My motherloves this place.  We should get drunk.  Hell, the lady is 58 glorious-years-old today.  Let’s get drunk.

It’s hot out.  It’s hot in.  The barroom is sweaty and alive.  It’s Friday afternoon and we’re all just playing to the vibe the city is giving.  I walk outside for a cigarette—yeah, four days is long enough, folks.  We’re sitting outside while Mick and Keith are jamming a ballad to Satan’s humility, I’m guzzling my sixth warm beer, sweating bullets beneath my shades.  We can’t stop laughing.  At everything.  It’s magical.

“You’re sunglasses are silly,” she says.  “They’re too big for your face.  You look like a fly.”

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“I like them.”

“You’re a fly, like that movie.”

“I was adopted, wasn’t I?”

“Remember that movie with Jeff Goldblum and he turns himself into a fly and he throws up all the time.  What’s that movie called again?”

“Jurassic Park.”

“No, silly.  The fly movie.”

“Independence Day.”

“Nooooooooo.” Another champagne arrives for her.

“Good Will Hunting.”

“Was he in that?”

“Law & Order.”

“NO!”

I slap my knees and shake my head, “Well I just have no idea then.”

We sit silently for a moment looking at the other patrons get loose.  “I don’t think I like that boy’s hair cut,” she whispers.

“That boy you’re referring to is a 40-year-old man.  Anything else you’re realizing you don’t like?”

“Germans.”

“Yeah I could see that.”

Four hours later and we’re back at the hotel. Drunk. Mama Bear is complaining she is hungry.  I go downstairs and discuss dinner options with the concierge.  He is a nice gentle little fellow.  I come back up to the room after thirty or so minutes have passed.  Mama bear is wrapped beneath the covers.  Her shoes and jean jacket are still on.

“Ma,” I ask, “you asleep?”

She mumbles from beneath the white comforter, “No.”

“Are your shoes still on?”

“Are your shoes still on?”

I sigh, “Wait did you eat that whole big bag of chocolates?  The Ghirardelli ones?”

“Noooooo-uh.”

Her bed is littered with chocolate wrappers.  Littered.  She ate the whole bag.  “There’s two wrappers in your hair, Ma.”

“Nuh-uh,” she whispers falling to sleep.

“Who ate the chocolates, Ma?”

“Ummm,” she pauses, “that bad maid did.  She’s bad.”

She sleeps.  There is no dinner.

The next morning she decides we should have an independent day and before I can nod my head Yes, she’s gone back to sleep—probably dreaming about Jeff Goldblum picking her up in an Uber.  “Hi I’m Jeff Goldblum, star of the 1986 classic The Fly.  Please buckle your seat belt.”

I love exploring by myself.  I love getting lost.  After I spend the better part of the morning guzzling coffee like Gatorade at halftime and finishing a little writing session in the hotel lounge, I set off downtown.  It’s hot out again and when I reach Davis Park I stop to enjoy watching the Chinese dance-aerobics-movement-meditation-awesomeness that seems to be taking place all over the city.  It’s just a clutter of Chinese women slowly dancing in unison with a leader guiding the movements in front, all to the tune of what sounds like a South Pacific version of Celine Dion.  I sat for quite a while and watched pleasantly.

Much of the day and evening is spent at City Lights Bookstore, a most famous purveyor of words on page.  I kept asking other patrons of the store how I should spend my night.  Everyone has a different opinion where I should go—this bar, that bar, live show here, bay cruise there.  I ask each person where the real San Franciscans go, you know, the born-n’-bread chaps.  No one seems to have been living here long and before I know it I’m in a geography class:  “Oh, I’m from Oregon.”  “I actually just got here a month ago from Kansas City.”  “My boyfriend is a granola farmer and I’m from Novia Scotia.”  “Is…is ginseng?”

Around 9 o’clock, after buying three books, a karma bracelet, two cheeseburgers and a ginger ale, I stroll into a local establishment for a libation.  Vesuvio Café is a North Beach staple.  The building itself, inside and out, looks like a kaleidoscope had premarital relations with a 1920’s gin bar.  Stained glass and paintings and Beat memorabilia smeared across every inch of wall gave the darkened, cramped room a cozy feel and before I can even pull up a stool I feel like I’d found San Francisco.  “Beer, please.”

After some small talk with the two bartenders, I pull out my Moleskin and begin jotting some liquored notes about the evening, this place.  I raise my head to breathe and to my surprise there is someone sitting next to me.  It’s a small statured women wearing a wildly free-flowing green dress/blouse-thing that is tied with a sash above her waist.  She is wearing knee high cowboy boots and this straw beach cowgirl hat that’s falling apart on her head.  Her hair is bright bright red.

“Hello,” she says politely.

Oh, this girl is into me.  Quick, be James Bond.  No.  Be Sinatra.  Negative.  Be Johnny Depp.  Yeahhhh, Johnny Depp.  Johnny Depp should do a Vietnam movie.  Get back on track.  Be smooth.  Be Depp.  Here we go, aaaaand let the smooth talk flow:  “I’m with my mom,” I reply with beer spilling from the corner of my mouth.

Damnit.

“What?”


Wine Country with Mom: Part I

By: Brian Shinnick

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Let me be the first to tell you: I love my mother.  I love her a lot.  I love her like I love Itialian food and Kermit the Frog.  I mean I really love my mother.  She’s the best Mama Bear this side of the Mississippi.  But I’ll also be the first to tell you: She drives me absolutely nuts.  Good God that lady makes a whole new angry boy outta me.  One that throws fits and tantrums and hot dog tomatoes at homeless men.  Absolutely bonkers.  That said, it should be no surprise I chose to take a little trip with my mother to Napa Valley, CA.  Just the two of us.  That’s right, wine country with mom.

It’s 9:45 a.m. standing curbside at O’Hare International Airport in Chicago, easily the most hated airport in this United States, and, for that matter, the world. I’m on time.  Per usual.  My mother has just sent a text saying she’s a half-hour late.  I deal, but damn do I want a cigarette.  I just quit smoking three days ago— terrible, horrendous timing. While I’m thinking about the best way to tell her I’ve caught some strain of Malarian stomach virus and can’t go to the coast, she’s trying to stuff some kind of stand-up vanity mirror into her roller bag that could easily house my brother for six months in Hong Kong.  We’re gonna be gone four days, mind you.

I love my mother. I love my mother. I love my mother. I love my mother. I think I love my mother.

She arrives an hour late.  My dad drove her to the airport—God love that man.  My mother steps out in a white fluttering blouse, blue jeans and tall brown boots.  She’s on cloud nine.  Vacation with her boy.  She’s been waiting for this moment for 27 years and the day has finally come.  Stepping out of the car she begins jumping up and down clapping her hands like a nine-year-old getting ready for Disney World, “Yayayayayayayayay VACATIOOOOOOOOOOOON!”

“Hi, Ma.”

We step into line for the TSA check.  “How looooooooong is this going to take?” she asks me stomping her feet.

“Ma, you were a flight attendant for twenty goddamn years.”

“Yeah, but I think this is the slow line.” She’s tapping her chin scanning the huge room before her.

“Ma, there’s only one line.”

“Yeah, but this is the slow one I think. Look at this one, Bri.  It’s rushing up there.  They’re moving so fast, Bri. Bri? Bri? Bri?”

“It’s all the same line, Ma.”  We move through the line at the same miserable rate as every other miserable group of people discussing their pre-flight cocktail.

Now we’re third in line.  I’m kicking off my shoes, slapping off my belt, jingle-jangling pocket change and money clips and baseball caps into grey bins when she says, “I’m not going through that body scanner.”

“Huh?” I ask between my security strip down.

“I’m not going through that scanner.  Eh-eh.  Too much radiation.”

“Ma, everybody goes through that microwave thing.  It’s fine.  C’mon.”

“I’ll opt out.”

“Out of the trip?” I ask as I hear angels singing sweet melodies of relief from high above.

She opts out.  Opts for the full body-wanding deal.  I’d never even heard of such an option.  They rub their fingers through her hair.  Check her armpits deeply.  Make her spread her mouth wide, just in case she was hiding any shrapnel in there.  It was an extra fifteen minutes tacked on to my airport pleasure.

Beautiful.

“Let’s take airport selfies!” she exclaims as we sit down at our gate.  In case you were unaware: there is such a thing as an airport selfie.  Maybe you knew.  I didn’t.

“Ma, c’monnnnnn. We just sat down.”  But she’s already got her phone stuck out, leaning her head on my shoulder, snapping her smiley face photos as I’m still trying to shake off last night’s whiskey.

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“Airport SELFIES!” She starts clapping her hands again.  Tomorrow is her 58thbirthday, mind you.

As we’re boarding the plane I notice a group of guys my age all in suits touting matching duffle bags.  It’s a professional hockey team a few of my friends played for, the Rockford Ice Hogs.  I see an old buddy, Garrett, and he tells me the team is headed for a west coast road trip for a week or so.  I tell him I’m going to Napa with my mom.  He tilts his head a little, “Well that uhhh that should be fun.  Yeah…?”  We board the plane.

“Airplane SELFIES!”

Holy sh*t.

We wrap up the morning shoot of airplane selfies quickly and now she’s looking for a way up to first class.  She’s not taking No for an answer.  Oh no.  She’s telling these flight attendants it’s her birthday.  Nope.  She’s telling these stewardesses I’m recently cancer free and we’re celebrating life.  That’s just not true.  She’s gonna tell these uniformed women slanging cocktails that I have titanium in both my legs and I need the precious leg room.  Flag on the play.  She’s gonna finger point at these broads with scarves, explain exactly who’s boss and that she’s never sat coach in her life when there’s open seats in first class.  I’m just gonna put on a headband, shout Bruce Springsteen songs, pump my fists in the air violently and hope for the best.

She doesn’t get the seats.  Shocking.  We take off.

In a row of three: Mom’s on the aisle, I’m in the middle, and a nice lady of 40 or so has the window seat.  The woman next to me begins working on her computer and closes the window to rid the blinding glare on her computer screen.  (Keyword: working)

Mom leans over and whispers to me, “Well I want the window open.”

“Why are you telling me?”  I ask this assuming she isn’t brazen enough to complain to a woman—who’s trying to work—about a window that’s only view is the plane’s wing.

“Well she should ask, don’t you agree?”

“Not really, no.”

She hunches over further and dangles her wrist at the woman, “Excuse me.  Hi.  Can I ask you to put the window back up?  I like it up.”

The woman is nice, “Oh sure.  No problem.”

I look over at her and say, “That was nice but it’s not necessary.”  She assures me it’s fine.  I nod thank you.  “Do you like Napa Valley?” I ask her.

“Oh my goodness I love Napa,” she smiles.

“Do you want to go on a trip to with my mother over here and I’ll do…whatever it is that you have to do?”

She laughs a little, “You’re funny, but I have to work and take care of my own kids.”  She’s not understanding how serious I am.

“I love kids.”

An hour-and-a-half into the flight and she’s finished flipping through the fashion magazines she bought at the airport.  Now she’s talking to me about how much this hockey coach gets paid.  He’s sitting directly across the aisle.  She thinks my answer is absurd, no way should he be paid that much she says.  Ok, Mom.  She thinks his shirt is tacky for how much he gets paid, “I mean come on,” she says.  There’s no way he can’t hear this conversation.

The plane lands.

“Dad said we should take an Uber, they’re cheaper,” she says.

“Dad doesn’t know what Uber is,” I politely reply.

“Dad takes Uber a lot!”

“Dad lives in a suburb and insists he is never drunk.”

“Dad says we should take an Uber.”

I hail a cab—a regular, non-Uber cab.

“So this is an Uber?” she asks.

“Yep.”

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