The California mountain emergency chicken call

This was the phone call I received. It was from my mother. I was in the mountains of California, and it was early morning. I answered it, worried something might be wrong. I was right. Something was wrong … I answered the phone. This is the call I received.

Mom: Brian!

Me: Yes, mom. What’s wrong?

Mom: I hate to bother you on your vacation, but this is really, really important (long pause) … There is a chick in the backyard!

Me: Hold on, say that again?!? It sounded a lot like you just said, “there is a chick in the backyard.”

Mom: What?

Me: A chick in the backyard!

Mom: That’s what I just said … how did you know?

Me: I didn’t know. That’s what you just said.

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Mysteries of the summer vacation

Somebody explain to me how you can pack enough clothes for a 10-day trip to the mountains of California, yet only wear the equivalent of three days worth. Layers upon layers of unworn jeans, shirts and shorts sat stacked up inside my suitcase. There were enough socks to open up my own store. Why did I bring all those clothes? With so many options, why didn’t a single thing match?

And, most perplexingly, did they multiply? Because as I tried to re-pack everything into my suitcase for the journey home, nothing fit anymore. Same number of clothes, yet the stack was twice as tall. I had to wear four layers of clothing on the flight, and bind the bulging suitcase shut with heavy cable and duct tape.

Oh, the mysteries of traveling.

My family and I ventured out to Yosemite, Kings Canyon and finally Los Angeles. We rode horses down mountain trails and across rushing creeks. We stared wide-eyed at waterfalls, all super-charged this year by the heavy winter snowfall. We marveled at 1,800-year-old sequoias that were wide as a house and tall as skyscrapers. And we wandered star-struck through a backstage tour of the Paramount Studios lot in Hollywood.

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The perils of dog sitting

It’s day number five with Ella, the Meat Chunk. Meat Chunk is a specific breed of dog that is native to my brother — large in stature, dense, the mass of three imploding suns and likes to sit on small children while riding in the car. The aforementioned child no longer has any feeling in her thighs.

My brother and his family went on vacation for, well, close to eternity, and we’re dog sitting ye ‘olde Meat Chunk while they’re gone. It hasn’t been a bad experience — for the most part she’s a good dog. It’s just that dogs have their own quirks, and this one especially. Partly because my brother believes dogs NEED quirks. That they should be uncivilized and unruly, and that these eccentricities should be on display like a neon peacock.

You know, like a dog who can’t walk in a straight line. I swear I thought she was drunk the first time I walked her. She darted left and right on the leash, like a divining rod swerving from water source to water source. I was dragged behind like a rag doll, my knees all skinned up and the circulation to my poor hand long since cutoff.

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Thump goes the milestone

As a runner, I always understood the word “milestone” in terms of distance. How long it’s been since you hit the last the one. How they’re important markers on the road of life. How they pop up and symbolize something so significant that you have to remember it, memorialize it and celebrate it by screaming out, “Dude, who knew I could fit a whole bag of Cheetos in my mouth!” (Not sure that last one has anything to do with running, but …)

When I hear the word “milestone,” I always focus on the “mile,” and never the “stone.” Only, recently I’ve come to appreciate that second part of the word a bit more — what it really means. How important it is to the greater construct.

Mile-STONE — an event of great significance … that wallops you on the head. I believe the term comes from ancient Greece where the swift marathoner Runesius won a country race, only to be bludgeoned in the head by an archrival with a rock. “Boy, that milestone sure did wallop Runesius!” someone remarked, and the rest as they say is history. (Or at least, that’s how I picture it.)

This new meaning of milestone has come to me as my daughter winds down her school year, which seems loaded with significance and change on the horizon. This week, for instance, marked her last performance with the children’s choir at Memorial Presbyterian downtown. She graduated. Apparently, she isn’t a “children” anymore.

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Send in the real Easter candy

Easter just isn’t understood in my house. Oh, as a religious season? A time of rebirth? Sure, but not the other meaning of Easter: Eating enough candy to rot out real teeth, porcelain teeth … shoot, even the teeth on your chain saw.

That it is a time for copious amounts of sugar in the form of marshmallow animals, chocolate bunnies, malted milk eggs and an assortment of candies that seem hatched straight from some mad scientist’s lab. “Hey, how about a chocolate egg with a creamy filling that’s actually like yoke? Just disgusting enough to be delicious!”

And the grocery store is awash in it. Bags of it. All kinds of shapes and sizes. If you want a life-sized chocolate elephant with a jelly bean center, they’ve got it.

But you know who doesn’t have it? The only house in American lacking a dump truck full of sweet garbage goodness: Mine. How is this possible? I have an 11-year-old.

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Lessons in childhood chores

I started rubbing my hands together. Scheming. Thinking about all the tasks and jobs and things I hate to do.

My wife — I can’t even remember why —said to my daughter one day: “It’s time you had some real chores. You need to come up with a few ideas.”

I popped up out of nowhere, complete with a puff of smoke. “I’ve got some ideas!” I said.

I think my daughter hadn’t finished something or tried to order room service after the kitchen had closed. Something that kids are known to do to set parents off, and get them threatened with more tasks around the house.

It was music to my ears. Free labor! Handing off tasks I hate. Giving up household duties that threaten life and limb — MY life and most of MY limbs!

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The vacation worrier

It’s summer vacation planning time, and it has me in a tizzy. I love the act of designing a summer trip, filled with excitement and adventure and beautiful spaces that will make our mouths gape so wide open that some exotic insect buzzes in and ruins the moment.

But with the excitement comes the stress and the pressure and the fear of getting it right. Knowing that if not planned perfectly, it will all go wrong. And if it does, my daughter will tell the story for the rest of her life. “So, after he drove the rental car into the swelling river, he blurted out, ‘Oh no! I left my wallet at the truck stop!’ A beaver on the shore was laughing at us.”

For chronic worriers, vacation planning can be a nightmare. A tale of excitement and dread. But as I venture into my annual travelers’ panic attack, I came across a Wall Street Journal titled: “You’re a worrier? Don’t worry.” It looked at why we worriers “over-worry,” and laid out some handy steps to help us stop. So, as I dig into travel books and web sites, I’ve decided to use some of this advice to help me with my vacation planning:

• Is the concern as serious as I think it is? Meaning, if my vacation turns sour, will my family really leave me stranded on the side of a lonely road while they check into a 5-star hotel and get strawberry-scented pedicures? Probably not. At least not if there is bad WIFI service and they can’t pull up Google maps. Note to self: look for remote, isolated locations.

• Come up with a detailed plan to make it seem more controllable. I like that. Although, I already come up with ultra-detailed plans that get too deep down into the minutiae — “ … arrive at restaurant, put napkin in lap, ask for more bread because my daughter already ate it all.” Is that too detailed? Maybe skip to the other extreme and do no planning? Or just leave out the part about asking for more bread?

• Ask yourself, “What’s the worst that could happen?” … aside from being eaten by a bear, because that’s pretty bad and could happen. Or checking into a place like the Bates Motel run by a creepy guy who keeps his taxidermied mother in the upstairs window. Or unknowingly booking a place right next to one of those failing California dams because the Internet description read, “Wake up to tranquil sounds of rushing water …” Better yet, let me just skip asking myself about the worst things that could happen.

• Come up with a better story than the negative one that is playing in my head. For instance, instead of seeing the downside of being next to that disastrous, failing dam, think about how once the National Guard helicopter pulls us to safety, the authorities will probably put us up in a nice hotel for free. And they might have strawberry-scented pedicures so my family can forget all about our failed, miserable vacation. Now, that’s a plan!

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Breaking free from the screens

I had just about reached my limit. That moment when I realized I had wasted enough of my time — my life! — staring at the computer screen while clicking on an endless supply of political ramblings, soccer recaps and advice columns about getting really rich while only raising two fingers. “Go do something productive!” I commanded myself. And I was just about to … when I saw the story headlined, “Luke Skywalker learned Jedi secrets while watching Youtube.”

Oh, I’ve got to click on that!

It was then that I realized I had a problem. That my whole family has a problem. Like millions of Americans, we’re hooked on screens. They’re everywhere in the house, and worse, we’re bound to them like umbilical chords. Unable to function, think or cope without them.

“How are you feeling today?”

“Hmm. I don’t know. Let me Google it.”

Which is why I think we need to break away. Free ourselves from the screens. So I have come up with a 5-step family cleanse to help us do it. We will shatter our reliance on the almighty screen and here’s how:

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The Florida scrub brush Christmas tree

My mother wants a 2-foot Christmas tree. A real one. Cut fresh from a Florida tree farm.

Only 2 feet tall!

“Two feet?!?” I gasped in horror when she told me this. “That’s not even a tree. That’s a weed!”

My mother likes scrub brush pines. The kind that grow in the sand or gravel. In my mother’s mind, it’s the classic Florida Christmas tree. They are so starved for water from the never-ending drought that they look like they have mange. We find them at a Christmas tree farm in Eustis where you cut them down yourself.
Actually, many of them look quite pretty. But to get the size my mother wants — before they grow to a normal height, fill out and look pleasant — you have to sift through a selection of odd-shaped sprouts and runts.

Since my mother doesn’t go — she just hands me a check and some strict orders — we have to make the call ourselves.

My mother doesn’t ever water her tree. By the time Christmas comes, the poor guy is little more than a shriveled stick with clumps of brown needles hanging on for dear life. The tree gets so dry that it risks spontaneously combusting, and for that reason, no one wants to sit by it as we pass around the presents.

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Surviving a hurricane … with mom

I don’t mean to sound over-dramatic, but I really feel lucky. I don’t mean to make light of the situation. It’s just that people have told me this in jest. Not because I made it through Hurricane Matthew, but because I made it through two nights in a stuffy hotel room with my mother. With her dog. Without electricity. With only a couple of cold chicken fingers and the few sandwiches I grabbed from work.

And maybe most of all, because my wife didn’t kill me for staying with my mother, and not with her and my daughter.

It certainly wasn’t the way I planned it. Looking back on it, I’m still not sure how it worked out that way. But I do remember a phone call one early morning, right before Matthew started huffing and puffing our way.

It was my mother: “Brian! The hotel just called to say they’re canceling my reservation! They’re evacuating the city!” (My mother talks with a Southern accent, but she is Cuban. And Cubans talk in exclamation points!)

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