Friday, July 04, 2008

"I know how to get there from where I am, but not from where YOU are."

As vacations draw to a close, I try to stretch them out, cram a little more in, let it not end.

I'm always afraid of things ending. I like the run-up to things almost as much as the actual thing; maybe more when you factor in that during the event I'm a little sad because the fact that I'm taking part in the event means it's almost over.

It's like Christmas. I love the period of time from Thanksgiving to Christmas Eve -- the cookies, songs, get-togethers, shopping, special episodes of TV shows, all of that. On Christmas Eve, though, I'm a little sad because the fact that it's Christmas Eve means that Christmas is more or less over.

I was raised to look at things as being almost over. Every year, for as long as I can remember, my Dad has announced that summer is nearly over. He used to do that on the Fourth of July. We'd be having a barbecue or getting read to march with the rest of our t-ball team in the local parade (One year, I was on "Liebert Insurance." Another, I was on "Hartland Meats." "Hartland Meats" was the most-made-fun-of t-ball team) and Dad would say "Well, summer is nearly over now." He moved it up over the years. Now, he calls me the first week of June. "You know, Fourth of July is coming up. Summer's almost over."

With Orlando, I anticipated the end before it began. Tuesday night, after everyone went to bed and tried to get in their 4 hours' sleep before we left, I sat in the quiet house, exactly the way I do on Christmas Eve. I looked at the suitcases, and my "traveling outfit" laid out, and my camera and wallet and cellphone, and felt a little down. All the planning and mapquesting and getting Crocs for the Babies! to wear in the ocean... it was all ending.

So you can imagine how wistful I get when the vacation is, in fact, coming to an end. I began trying to stretch it out on Friday night, after the gators and shopping. Mr F and Mr Bunches had dozed off in their car seats, so I used that as an excuse to let them go on napping while we went around and took some pictures, visiting the World's Largest Orange to take a photo of that, letting Middle visit some shoe stores. Later that night, we stopped by the Shell Shop and then got everyone a Twistee Treat.

Orlando, like all good tourist towns, has a variety of oddly-shaped buildings. The Twistee Treat was one; the World's Largest Orange another. Near the Twistee Treat was a castle, and it was for sale. "We should buy that," I told Sweetie. "We could move to Orlando and live in a castle." When she refused, I sweetened the deal: "I'll make sure it's air-conditioned," I promised. Still no go.

I can't imagine a better life than living in a castle, just down the street from a giant ice cream cone and the World's Largest Orange, a place where the streets have names like "Seven Dwarfs Lane" and every other exit promises a theme park at the end of it.

Saturday was the last day of our vacation. We began it with Sweetie and Middle indulging themselves with a spa treatment while The Boy and I took the Babies! to the pool to worry about them dry-drowning.

"Dry-drowning," as you've probably never heard, is something that happens when a person inhales water into their lungs but doesn't die until they're well away from the water. I first heard about dry-drowning about a month ago. In 39 1/2 years, "dry drowning" had never come up as an issue or topic or real thing; then, one day, I read a news article about it and now Sweetie and I can't stop worrying about it, despite the fact that it apparently happens about once every 39 1/2 years and is so newsworthy, when it does happen, that it makes headlines across the country. Before we read the "dry drowning" article, the Babies! would play in their kiddie pool or splash in their bath and if they coughed or sputtered, we thought it was cute. After reading the article, every sniffle they have within a mile of water is grounds for concern. "Is he dry-drowning?" we ask. We check his pupils, unsure how they looked before the baby coughed. We try to listen to his heart. "Say something," we say, but the Babies! don't say much most of the time.

That's how it goes with us, me in particular. There's no malady so rare or unlikely that I don't potentially have it, and no accident so rare that it could not happen to the boys if I'm not vigilant. Before they were born, I read an article about a circumcision that went wrong. So when they went to get circumcised in the hospital, I made sure I went along to monitor. I'm not sure what I was looking for-- is the doctor drunk? Is his scalpel rusty? -- or what I'd do, or in fact how I'd know if something went wrong.

Around the time they were born, too, I read a different story about a boy who was playing and tripped into a coffee table and did something horrible to his brain that required a team of surgeons to remedy. All of the corners in our house have been covered with as much padding as we can round up; blankets are duct-taped to coffee tables to round off the edges a little and we strapped a pillow to a support tower in our house.

If I were to read an article that a toddler had been killed by a meteorite, I'd never let the boys outside.

So The Boy and I took the Babies! to the pool and watched as they toddled around and about every two second flung themselves towards the deep end or a cement wall, coming up sputtering and breathing hard and smiling and laughing, which did not assuage my fears because I was pretty sure the other boy had smiled and laughed, too, and then he'd dropped dead. After about an hour, the Babies! were tiring out, so we walked back to the time share to wait for Sweetie and Middle, and I got even more worried. These Babies! never tire out, I kept thinking. Lethargy is a sign of dry-drowning (and of swimming for an hour in the hot sun, but forget about that.) So while we waited, I kept trying to rouse the boys, pump them up, see if they were okay. The only thing that kept me calm was that I knew we were never more than four feet from one of the walk-in clinics.

They were okay, though, and Sweetie and Middle eventually rejoined us; we all set out for Tampa to visit Matt and see the beach. That meant more driving through a lack of scenery, and also trying to find a beach when, technically, beaches do not have addresses.

Matt had told us to meet him at "St. Pete's Beach," and in trying to look it up, I'd found "St. Pete's Beach City," which actually exists. There was a mailing address for "St. Pete's Beach City," but not an address for the beach itself. So I mapquested us to the City's address, figuring if we got to the city, the beach would have to be pretty obvious, right?

That's logical thinking for you: logic is always wrong. Plus, it's wronger when I overthink things. We drove the 87 miles to Tampa and then crossed the giant bridge that you have to cross to get to the beach. The bridge is so large that they warn you to check your gas before you get on it. We were driving along and saw a sign that said something like "Long Bridge. Check gas." How long is this bridge? I wondered. We were supposed to be swimming on the Gulf of Mexico at St. Pete's Beach, but maybe, I suppose, the beach could have been on the Mexico side of the gulf.

Periodically, I checked in with Matt by cell phone. "Follow the signs to the beach," he told me, and that made sense. I assumed there would be signs, and I assumed that it would not be hard to find the beach, anyway, because I was sure I could find the ocean, and if you can find the ocean, the beach will be right next to it.

After we crossed the giant bridge, I learned how wrong all of that "logic" was. It's always better to rely, as I and Stephen Hawking usually do, on a combination of paranoia, hyperbole, and half-truths than to trust "logic," and the trip to the beach shows why.

First of all, I assumed that there would be signs to the beach. I assumed that because (a) more than one sign is usually necessary to find a thing, and (b) Matt had said to follow the signs. But, as we learned, Matt was misleading about Florida all the time: rain never stopped. And there was only one sign. We saw a sign that said "St. Pete's Beach 14." That sparked a debate about whether it meant fourteen miles away, or exit 14. It also did not say what would happen at 14... would we get off? Turn left? Be on the beach?

We drove on while debating, and the highway split apart. One side was labeled with a sign I did not see; the other side, the side I took, was labeled "St. Petersburg," and I took that because it was logical -- wouldn't St. Pete's Beach be in St. Petersburg?


We drove past the Devil Rays' stadium, and into St. Peterburg, where I announced that it was America's oldest city and everyone ignored me, and where I said we were almost at the beach, and everyone was skeptical about that. We drove a few more minutes, and then I saw water, and put my plan into action: I'd found the ocean, the beach had to be nearby, right?


We hit a street that ran along the ocean and the marina, and I guessed and turned right, figuring I'd follow the ocean until I got to the beach. 15 minutes later, I'd ended up in a dead end at a government office, no ocean or beach in sight, and calling Matt on his cell phone.

"How do we get to the ocean?" I asked, when he answered. He said he would use his phone's GPS to get us a route, but then called back.

"It's not working," he said.

"Well, you live here. How do we get to the beach?" I asked him.

"I don't know," he said.

"You don't know?"

"Well, I know how to get to the beach from where I am, but not from where YOU are."

Through some guesswork and random turns, we made it to the actual city of St. Pete's Beach, parked the car, reslathered the Babies!, and hit the beach. For the next two hours, we'd float in the ocean, watch the Babies! try to steal toys from other kids on the beach, and shuffle our feet to avoid stepping on sting rays as the signs advised us to do. ("You shouldn't worry about them," Matt said. "They just put up those signs for legal reasons.")(If you're keeping track, the list of things that Floridians don't worry about but sane people do now includes hurricanes/tropical storms, alligators, sharks, rain, and sting rays.)

Two hours is all I can take of the beach. I've never, to be honest, seen the appeal of swimming. I go to a pool or the lake or the beach, I go into the water, I swim a little, do a couple of flips or headstands, and then what? Float? Floating is sitting with work added to it, and minus relaxation. I can't float and read a book or drink a soda, but I do have to tread water. This beach, like most other beaches in my life, too, was a bit of a disappointment.

Beaches, based on a lifetime of movies and Ranger Rick magazines, are supposed to be one of two things: They are either full of boardwalks and t-shirt shops and vendors and crashing waves to surf and body-surf on, the kind of beach where if you wait a few minutes Jack Tripper will roller-skate by and fall down laughing; or, they are supposed to be havens of sea life where tidal pools hold sea urchins and starfish and shells wash up on shore and teeming schools of fish dart back and forth while birds overhead hunt them.

This beach was none of that. Some beaches hit one or two of those marks. The one we went to in Puerta Vallarta a long time ago, for example, had souvenir stands and a pirate ship docked offshore and people roaming around selling stuff. They'd come up and hold up what they were selling as we lay on the beach. We'd be sunning ourselves after a round of swimming and someone would come up and hold up some soda, or a variety of bracelets and jewelry, or gum -- there were lots of gum vendors in Mexico, including a kid who climbed a six-foot wall to sell us some Chiclets. I had to buy them; I can't ignore that kind of effort. Once, on the beach, a woman came up and showed us a picture of a girl who appeared to be about 17. We were shocked and offended. No, we tried to say in sign language and Spanish that was limited to hable despacio por favor ("speak more slowly please," one of two Spanish phrases I know by heart)(The other is donde esta el cuarto de bano?). No, we motioned, we do NOT want to buy a girl.

Later, we learned that what she was selling was braiding hair, and the girl was the braid-model. Still, you can't be too careful.

I've never found the haven of wildlife beach. Ranger Rick, like Matt, is not to be trusted.

This beach was very nice, though; the sand was soft, the water was as warm as bath water, and it stretched for miles. We were sorry to leave it when we did, but we had to stop at Matt's house for dinner, a dinner that seemed to have caught Matt unawares despite the fact that we'd planned it for several days and he'd invited us; when we got to his house, we had to run to the store to get the stuff to make the dinner with. Once we had that, he had to run back to the store to get the stuff to cook the stuff we'd bought to make dinner with. As he was heading out the door a second time, with his LP tank, I wanted to say "Are you sure you have a grill?" but I kept quiet because I try to be a good houseguest, even in a house that is as fraught with peril for the Babies! as Matt's was.

Matt's house was like a training ground for parents; it packed virtually every imaginable danger into its ranch-house confines. Swimming pool without fence around it? Check. Dog? Check. Sharp-edged pictures and heavy things hanging on the walls at eye level to a two year old? Got it. Collection of knives? Right here. Plus, because this was Florida, there were probably alligators all over; that wasn't just our imagination. Matt's wife showed Sweetie and the older kids the spot down the street where they sometimes see alligators.

Matt added to the sense of peril by describing his adventures as a jogger; Matt and I exist at opposite ends of the spectrum and so as I have been slowing down and cutting back on "traditional" exercise like jogging and biking in favor of "nontraditional" exercise like Cloverfield! and watching TV, Matt has begun training for the Chicago Marathon, and so he runs about 100 miles a day. Each of his routes seems to have been picked out for the level of danger it presented; he had stories of nearly falling into pits that were hidden in the dark, for example. So to the list of things Floridians are hearty enough not to worry about, add: jogging in a pit-strewn field in the dark. It made me think Matt had a real-life "Pitfall" game set up for his practices.

Dinner was excellent, when it was ready, but my enjoyment was diminished a little by the obvious differences Matt and I exhibited. Someone who runs hundreds of miles at a time, narrowly avoiding pits and alligators and probably swinging on vines can eat anything they want and still look like Matt did: all stringy and muscular and thin.

Someone who proudly made his way through the pizza buffet a fourth time the night before, and who had reason to know that an apple fritter is not a doughnut, as I do, and whose main form of exercise in the past few days had been carrying his souvenir Gatorland cup, does not look like that. I looked sort of like a melting version of Matt: saggier and with weird tan lines. Eating dinner across the table from the healthy, nonmelty version of me took away some of my appetite. (Don't worry; I soldiered through.)

Eventually, even good things like that had to come to an end, in this case about two hours after I'd planned them to, because I didn't want Florida to end. I knew once we left Matt's we were heading back to the time share to pack, and then to the airport at 4 a.m. the next day to head back home, with another vacation behind us. So I stretched it out and out and out but we had to go and we got back, got everything packed up, and everyone got an hour or two's sleep before we piled into the minivan one more time for the last little jaunt back to the airport and home.

The trip home was somewhat anticlimactic. Because we left so early, by design, we had short lines at the airport and the car drop off, and ended up at the terminal with almost an hour before the flight left. That left me enough time to sneak off with Mr F and get some souvenir t-shirts for everyone at one of those airport shops, something we accomplished one inch at a time because Mr F had found a piece of cardboard to play with, and what he wanted to do was drop it, pick it up, and drop it. After inching through the airport shop for a half-hour, we had the t-shirts I wanted and headed back.

We also had a wait at O'Hare for about an hour and a half, which we filled up by eating more McGriddles and by trying to find a place to change the Babies!. It's not easy to find a secluded spot in O'Hare airport; I located one just to the side of a Starbucks' stand, by a plant, where I changed both diapers while distracting the Babies! with straws to play with.

Straws, we'd learned, were the perfect distractor for toddlers. Tear the paper off, and give them a straw, and they're happy for almost a minute, blowing in it, twisting it, chewing it, and then thowing it. You then give them another one and they go through the whole routine again. We'd developed the habit, wherever we went, of having everyone grab a handful of straws, and O'Hare was no different, as The Boy and I each had a pocketful of them from our trip to McDonalds.

We were, of course, exhausted by then, ready to drop. Sweetie and I had gotten maybe five hours' sleep in five days, and just wanted to make it back home with most of our luggage and a majority of our kids. Standards really, really, drop when you're tired. On the way down there, we'd been careful to keep up appearances. We'd guarded Mr F and changed their diapers as privately as we could and made them eat their breakfasts sitting on our lap.

On the way back, our path was marked by the trail of straws, and when Mr F threw some McGriddle on the floor and then picked it up and ate it, I reasoned that nothing that was on the floor of O'Hare airport was any more hazardous than what was already in the McGriddle itself. Then I gave him some more straws.

We got back home around noon on Sunday, exhausted, with sand still in our clothes and suitcases, needing to unpack the alligator toys and seashell ship and wet clothes, out of straws and money and energy, and, for me, melancholy that another vacation had ended. I busied myself with the various tasks to fill that void, putting dirty clothes downstairs and putting away suitcases and getting groceries. I told myself that I had my "Gatorland U" shirt and my seashell ship and hundreds of pictures to remember our vacation.

And I of course had my one abiding memory of Orlando:

Read About The Other Days of My Vacation:

Vacation All I Ever Wanted.

Day One: Please don't feed McGriddles to the Alligators.

Day Two: Fish Bones, No Bones & Billy Pilgrim

Day Three: "Wal-ligators?"


Want a free t-shirt? Of course you do. Click there to find out how you can get one courtesy of The Best of Everything: Our Opinions Are Righter Than Yours.

The Best of Everything: Our Opinions Are Righter Than Yours! Find out what’s The Best in any category you can think of, and a lot you can’t. Best Simpson Sister? Best Candy Bar to Eat In Sections? Best Plot Twist That Makes a Lame Song Cool? Best Sexy Sci-fi Alien Chick? They’re all here—and more!

Thursday, July 03, 2008

Vacation Day Three: "Wal-ligators?"

You do things on vacation that you would never do sitting at home. That's what vacations are all about, in my mind: getting out and seeing the world and trying new things. I love to do that, even when the world I'm seeing is mostly t-shirt shops and the World's Largest Orange, and the "new things" I'm trying are very very bony alligator ribs.

Friday, Day Three of our vacation, promised all sorts of new things. Or at least, a lot of one new thing: Gators. Despite our best efforts, we had not yet seen an actual alligator in Florida -- this despite the fact that I had walked by the lake at the time share several times, and we'd taken the Babies! past the lake at least once, and we'd also driven around a lot and been to Wal-Mart several times. (I expected, at a Super Wal-Mart, that they'd at least have the Wal-Mart version of alligators, like they have the Wal-Mart version of everything else. "Wal-ligators." But no luck.)

Florida has a fix for that: Gatorland. Gatorland, according to its brochures and billboards and websites, is the "Alligator Capital of the World." If they did not have enough gators to keep us satisfied, nothing would.

So we got an early start -- leaving about 10 a.m., after all the slathering of goo -- and headed off to Gatorland.

Driving through Central Florida is boring. I've driven through Kansas and Oklahoma and Arizona and even Ohio and Indiana, and Central Florida ranks up there with all of those states in terms of boringosity and run-down-ishness. Get off of International Drive and the Kissimmee drive area is not very scenic at all. It's mostly flat and trees and telephone wires, and the continued overabundance of combination shops. I found myself wondering, as I do whenever I'm in a tourist spot, whether ordinary people live there and if so, what are their lives like?

Think of that the next time you visit Orlando, or the Wisconsin Dells, or anyplace that claims to be the World Capital of anything that involves animals, waterslides or roller-coasters: how do the ordinary people there live? Do they wear moccasins and eat fudge year 'round? Do they communicate solely via postcard? Somewhere in Orlando, there has to be banks and law offices and title companies and regular grocery stores that don't also offer to buy your extra Disney tickets or take you on a scenic helicopter ride, doesn't there? At the Super Wal-Mart in Kissimmee, a store I was getting ever more familiar with, they sold, alongside all the other Wal-stuff, shell souvenirs and Disney towels. Our Wal-Mart doesn't sell souvenirs. When I shop at home, I'm not able to buy things that spell out the name of my city in shells.

That's what I was thinking as we drove through Orlando and Kissimmee. That and: this is boring. There's really nothing to see beyond acre after acre of "We Buy Extra Tickets" signs and these ubiquitous hot air balloons that I believe were trying to entice people into buying time shares -- although, as I said, my in-laws own most time shares, now, so any potential buyers will have to negotiate with Sweetie's parents, who are sharp cookies.

The hot air balloons were inflatable decorations, like the giant Rudolph and sleigh full of drunken reindeer I put up at Christmas every year, only these were circus-colored inflatable hot-air-balloon shaped decorations that popped up about every 10 feet and asked you to stop and see about a time share. They were never in front of any store that appeared to be in the time share business (except that all the stores appeared to be in the time share/ticket/souvenir business) and never had the name of the company on them.

Around our house, in spring and summer, seemingly everyone has rummage sales, unloading all the junk they've accumulated in the prior year -- mostly from other rummage sales. I've noticed in recent years that the word "Rummage" is rarely used, which tells me that even the grandmas and stay-at-home moms of the world are becomming savvy marketers; just like the "used" car I used to buy is "pre-owned," the stuff you can buy on a table in someone's driveway isn't "rummage" anymore; it's something better. There are so many sales that as you drive around our city, you see hundreds of signs advertising "SALE" or "GARAGE SALE" or "NEIGHBORHOOD SALE" and come to believe that everyone in the city is selling everything they own.

It's that way with the time shares in Orlando and those balloons; I began to believe that every resident of Orlando was in the time share business, each selling them off. I pictured my in-laws, someday, with their own balloon.

After about 45 minutes, we made it to Gatorland. Gatorland is a relative bargain among the parks, at about $25 per person, plus $10 for a double stroller. The Babies! were free. We got them packed into the stroller and walked in. I was expecting, like Seaworld, a relatively family-friendly and sterile environment with lots of 'natural looking' environments made of fiberglass.

That's not Gatorland. Gatorland is gators. You walk in, and you're standing on a pier in what looks like an actual lake, and there are alligators all around you, just a few feet below your feet, swimming in the water and resting in the sun and piling on each other and generally being alligatory.

The effect is disconcerting; although they're separated from you by a few feet and some netting, there are so many of them that you can't help but feel as though you're in danger. I could tell that I was not the only person feeling that, because Sweetie was trying to position herself between the alligators and the twins; since they were all around us, she had a hard time of it and had to settle for hovering and moving in a circle around them, constantly on the lookout for the next alligator she had to move in front of.

There was an alligator show going on, guys running around and yelling into microphones and putting whole raw chickens onto their hands and encouraging the alligators to leap up and bite them off. I don't know why that's not on TV. I'd watch "Let's Feed Some Live Alligators" any day over those other reality shows. We watched that and tried to get a good vantage point, but it ended about as we could see what was going on, so we moved on to the rest of Gatorland, seeing some birds that you could feed by hand, and some parrots, and some snakes behind glass, and some goats (which Middle fed, causing The Boy to protest that we weren't here to feed goats because we have those in Wisconsin), before getting to a small stand which advertised that you could feed the gators.

I thought I was in heaven, but it would only get better in a second. The Gator Food was frozen hot dogs, two packages for $5. "Break them in half and throw them just to the side of the alligator's mouth," the old lady told me. I took the packages and tried calling for Sweetie, who was attempting to get keep the stroller someplace safely away from alligators, like Delaware. "Let's go feed the alligators," I said, holding up my frozen hot dogs.

"Be careful," the lady warned me. "The birds may mob you if they see you have food. They'll attack you." Now, this was vacationing: feeding dangerous animals with food that might cause me to inadvertenly remake a Hitchcock movie! But Sweetie was near me with the Babies!, so I made an executive decision to avoid the Babies! getting mobbed by birds: I called The Boy and Middle, and gave them the hot dogs. Then, I got my camera ready in case they were mobbed by birds.

The birds, fortunately or not, depending on your perspective, paid them no attention, and they wandered out onto a pier where they could toss the hot dogs to the massed alligators, which swam right up to the edge of the pier by the netting, all scaly and large and ponderous and sharp teeth and sleepy eyes. They were surrounded in the water by an astonishing variety of birds and a seething mass of fish.

You could feed the fish, too, for a quarter, and Middle did that. Middle never met an animal she wouldn't feed, and in fact has not yet met one she would not feed, take in, care for, live with, and allow to sleep on her bed. The fish grouped around her as she tossed fish food out there for them. The Boy wondered if the alligators ate the fish, and I guessed that they would, but why would they bother when someone was always tossing them hot dogs? (That also told me that I have a lot in common with the alligators: I'd never eat fish if a hot dog were available, either.)

While they were doing that, I was walking Mr Bunches along the pier by hand while Sweetie quietly had a stroke back on solid land. Mr Bunches was following a stork-like bird that was walking around trying to score some hot dogs. Holding my hand, he'd walk a few steps closer, and the bird would eye him, then move a few steps further away. We made our way back to land like that, and eventually The Boy and Middle ran out of things to throw at animals, and we moved on down the line.

At one end of the park was a refreshment stand where we paused to get some Gator Snacks -- feeding alligator to us. You could buy Gator Nuggets, or Gator Ribs, or a Gator Sampler. The Boy and I got some sodas (in souvenir cups, of course), and a Gator Sampler. The girls got french fries.

Alligator has the consistency of fish, but a flavor that's like the fatty part of a pork chop, only a little greasier. The alligator nuggets were okay, but nothing you'd want to eat a lot of. The ribs tasted okay, too, but were filled with dozens of tiny bones that I had to spit and pull out of my mouth. All told, I doubt we'll be seeing Oscar Mayer's Alligatorony in the stores anytime soon.

There were only a few stops left, looking at frogs and turtles and baby alligators, and we paused to buy some souvenirs including plastic alligators that squeaked for Mr F and Mr Bunches, and we bid goodbye to alligators, having killed a half-day there. I loved it. I loved seeing all the wildlife and feeling outnumbered by the alligators while still knowing I was safe; it was kind of like being in a foreign country where everyone around you is different and speaks a strange language, only in this foreign country they might also eat you.

From Gatorland and its awesome display of nature, we moved on to the exact opposite of nature, the Florida Mall. A trip to the mall is obligatory for us on vacation; the girls like to shop, and like it especially on trips. I myself could never see the allure, since they shop at the exact same stores that we have back home. But they wanted to shop, and so we'd picked out a couple of likely-looking malls to try to go to.

The first one we thought about going to was called "The Mall At Milennia," and even the name was a little intimidating to us. When you put "mall" before the rest of the name, you are sending a message to people like us, people who will want to come there with bits of Gator Nuggets on our shirts and sweaty Babies!: Don't. The kind of people who shop at a place called "The Mall At Another Place," (or, in this case, another time, since it was at "milennia") don't want to rub elbows with the kind of people who buy a ship made out of seashells.

We never even tried to go there, as it turned out, because the other mall they'd selected, "The Florida Mall," (which was not, apparently, impressed enough with itself to call it "The Mall At Florida") was just up the road from Gatorland. So we made it there, and got the twins into new strollers, and then split up into guys and girls. The girls were going to shop; the guys were going to eat and use their strollers as bumper cars as they roamed through the mall in search of sugar and distraction.

The Boy and the twins and I made our way to the food court, where we first made sure the twins ate, feeding them whatever we had handy: bananas, some baby food, potato chips, mushy brownies that had been in the backpack the whole time. With the Babies! full, we began to get our own food. While The Boy settled for a cajun platter-- you get the best cajun food in a mall food court, I'm sure -- Mr Bunches and I roamed around looking for something more exotic, and we found it in The Crepe Market, where they would make a crepe right before your eyes and fill it with just about anything.

I ordered a Pizza Crepe and a Diet Coke ($8.50) and waited by the counter while they prepared it. That had me, with Mr Bunches in his stroller, standing right next to a sub sandwich restaurant, and as we waited for my Pizza Crepe, a lady came out and began offering samples of sub sandwiches. And not just any old samples, either -- these were about 1/4 of the sub, huge samples, practically a free sandwich.

That really put me in a bind. The etiquette for samples is this: You get one, and you have to pretend that there is at least some chance that you will, after eating the sample, buy one of the thing you have sampled. So when I walk through the grocery store and they've got pizza samples or ice cream samples or crackers or something, I take a sample and eat it, and declare it good, and listen while the person tells me what deal I could get if I bought that. I then consider for a second and then move on. I never actually buy the sampled item; I just act as though I'm going to do so.

I could not do that in the Crepe line. I was clearly in line for food that I was going to eat for lunch. To get a sandwich sample, I would have to move away from my actual lunch, take a sandwich piece, and then move right back to where my crepe was being made, and then go eat my lunch. I could not, under those circumstances, make even a pretense that I would order a sub sandwich for lunch. And isn't that the whole reason they're offering those samples? It's not just free food; it's free food they hope you will then buy. Taking a sample when I'm clearly waiting for my 'real' lunch seemed so rude; it would be like slapping the sample lady.

So I stood there, waiting for my crepe and cursing fate that she had not come out two minutes earlier, before I'd ordered. But the crepe was good. (Later, I doubled back through the food court to see if there were more sub samples available, which I could take even though now I was full and there was no way I'd order a sandwich. I have a complex moral code, but one I stick to rigidly. The lady was gone, though.)

With lunch done, The Boy and I had time to kill, which we did by roaming randomly from store to store, looking at the autographed memorabilia here, or the actual wave pool with surfers there, pausing to buy giant chocolate chip cookies, and then we got to the M&M Store.

The M&M Store is a new phenomenon. In Las Vegas, they have one with an M&M Museum, and you can go there and buy any sort of M&M or M&M junk you want -- except that you still cannot get a real "Giant M&M." I'm forever disappointed by that; when "Giant M&Ms" came out, I pictured an M&M the size of a doughnut, a giant mass of chocolate with all the nonmelting candy shell I could ever want. Then, I bought some and they were just slightly larger M&Ms.

That puts M&Ms into the same category as tidal pools and the Green Flash: things I imagine to exist but will likely never see.

I have bad experiences with the M&M store. In Las Vegas, I told the kids they could get some M&Ms and when it came time to check out, it turned out that we were buying one hundred and thirty dollars' worth of M&Ms. We could have opened our own M&M Museum.

In Florida, my experience was almost worse. We wandered through the store, imagining what life would be like if we had an M&M Coffee mug and trying to determine what the connection was between Indiana Jones and M&Ms, and I found my way, like I always do, to the clearance section, where you could buy "M&M 2000" shirts for only $6.99. Why are they still $6.99? I wondered. Really, was there ever a market for the "M&M 2000" shirt? Were there people who were thinking Sure, the millenium is exciting, but it needs a little something extra to show that while it's the turn of the century, it also will not melt in my hands. I was tempted to buy one just for the heck of it, but $6.99 was a little high priced for me.

While I looked at them, the salesgirls came a little closer, and one of them said something. I didn't know if she was talking to me, so I merely nodded. She then said, a little louder, something that I heard as this:

"There's the dumber kid."

I stared at her. She smiled kindly at me and pointed at Mr F, who I was pushing in his stroller.

"That's him?" said the other one.

"That's the dumber kid," the girl said again. I swear that's what she said. She smiled again at me, and I wondered what to do. Why was she just randomly insulting us? What had we done? Should I get angry? Should I say "Look, he's not even two, what do you expect, he's very bright for a toddler." I just kept quiet, and resolved to head out and avoid a confrontation with this girl who obviously had issues about toddlers. Plus, dumber than who? Her? Mr Bunches? How could she make that assessment?

As I turned the stroller around, the girl gave me a weird look, and Mr F began pounding his hands on the plastic sides, making quite a racket.

"See?" said the girl. "He's the DRUMMER kid."

But I'm pretty sure I heard it correctly the first two times.

We met up with Sweetie and Middle not long after that, stopped at another candy store that had Mr F's real name in it -- so now Mr F not only had access to personalized license plates and sippy cups and t-shirts, but he had a candy store named after him, with t-shirts and all, while Mr Bunches' name was still nowhere to be found -- and headed on back to the time share, having seen the full panoply of central Florida's charms that day.


Want a free t-shirt? Of course you do. Click there to find out how you can get one courtesy of The Best of Everything: Our Opinions Are Righter Than Yours.

Like horror stories? AfterDark: The Scariest Things, You CAN’T imagine.

Vacation Day Two: Fish Bones, No Bones & Billy Pilgrim

Part Three of "Thinking The Vacation." Read Part 1 here, and Part 2 here.

The plan for the first full day of vacation was a breakfast buffet followed by a trip to Seaworld -- because what goes together better than a belly full of breakfast food followed by fish smells and a roller coaster? Nothing, that's what.

I like to get an early start on vacation. But with Babies!, there is no such thing as an early start. Or a quick start. Or, as it turns out, sleep.

At home, the Babies! have "crib tents," which are exactly what they sound like-- tents that go over the cribs and keep the twins from jumping out of them, in the process transforming the entire crib into something that recalls a 6th grade science class bug collector, but the thing works: the Babies! stay in the cribs, no matter how much they jump, and eventually they will fall asleep. We'd come to take the immobility of the crib for granted, because Mr F and Mr Bunches never want to sleep and do everything they can not to. It seems, sometimes, that they simply don't sleep. We have a baby monitor and at times we'll wake up at 2 a.m. to hear the boys jumping in their cribs, or just talking in their mysterious twin language, with bursts of English. There will be babbling and humming and then one will say "Yeah."

Staying up all night talking enthusiastically is cute when they're safely in their room down the hall trapped in their cribs and I can sleep. It's not as cute when they are sharing a room with you in the time share and their beds are air mattresses that are great to jump on but don't hold them in at all, so that they can do what they want, which is not sleep, and if theyy're not sleeping, I'm not sleeping. Throughout the vacation, including the first night, we tried to get the Babies! to sleep in a variety of ways.

First was by letting them play until they slowed down. The flaw in that plan was that they won't slow down. Ever. They just keep bouncing and running and throwing things and grinding Oreos into the carpet and trying to climb the blinds on the window.

The second plan was sitting them on their air mattresses to watch TV and drink a bottle. While that seemed like a good idea to us, they had a better idea-- to them-- the better idea being to jump on the mattress and throw the bottle, and then go running across the room to pound on the door to the older kids' section.

The third plan was sitting them on our laps and watching one of their movies until they fell asleep; if you can hold one of them motionless for long enough, the engine stops running and they conk out. This plan is harder than it sounds, because they are strong kids. Holding Mr F and trying to make him sit still is something akin to trying to cram a bag of ferrets into a box that's too small for it. Worse, if he can't get away, he still tries to fight sleep using whatever means he can, including slapping himself on the cheek to stay awake. It's like watching a miniature truck driver try to make a deadline.

A few nights in, I tried a fourth option -- let the Babies! do whatever they want, and snooze on the couch. It would have worked brilliantly if Mr F hadn't decided to hit me to keep me from sleeping. Sweetie didn't approve of my fourth option, although I think she secretly approved of Mr F's response to it.

The result of all this is that Sweetie and I got roughly 1 hour of sleep per night, and not one solid hour; it was an hour pieced together between trying to get the Babies! to sleep and then trying to get them back to sleep, and then trying to avoid being kicked in the head when they'd wake up and crawl onto our bed and fall asleep, because they are violent sleepers: they flip and toss and kick and roll. At one point, Mr Bunches was sleeping next to me, and there were four feet of space between us and Sweetie. Mr Bunches out of nowhere inched across the bed and kicked Sweetie in the head. While still sleeping.

At least, I think he was sleeping. I was watching him the whole time and he never opened his eyes. The fact that I didn't try to stop him is probably why Sweetie later approved of Mr F's slap attack on me.

But we made it through that first night, and I got up at the crack of maybe 7. I couldn't tell because all the clocks in the time share had a different time on them. I tried to make coffee, but I couldn't figure out how to get the coffee maker to turn on, and then when I did I thought I had figured out where to put the coffee and the water, but it never made coffee. It steamed and burbled and the pot remained empty and eventually there was some gross water in the basket that I considered drinking but dumped out.

While not making coffee, I also tried to go use the bathroom. There were two in the condo, one in our bedroom where Sweetie and the Babies! were still sleeping and kicking each other, respectively, and the other in the older kids' area. Rather than wake our side, I went to use the older kids' bathroom, only to realize that they had locked me out. So I sat and watched the news of the overnight murders and sex scandals, and the weather, all without the sound on again because the TV was right outside the bedroom and I didn't want to wake anyone up. I tried to gather what the weather for the day would be, but I couldn't read lips and everything the weatherman showed on the screen looked like a hurricane. I thought maybe there was supposed to be a hurricane, but wouldn't they put a warning up about that? The weatherman wouldn't just calmly stand there telling everyone some sort of superdestructive hurricane was coming, without at least some little storm ticker, right? The expression on his face didn't say "hurricane." I've never seen what expression a weatherman would wear when he was telling people a hurricane was coming, but I'm pretty sure it would be recognizable. This guy just looked bored.

I later asked Matt whether it was hurricane season, and he said "Yes, but it'll just be a tropical storm by you," which, like the shark answer, did not reassure me. It also made me wonder, because Matt sounded bored by that, so maybe Floridians take sharks and hurricanes for granted.

The weatherman also had something I called the "Comfort Index," a graphic which showed a temperature, and a humidity reading, and a bar labeled "Comfort" with "LO" at one end and "HI" at the other. At 7 a.m., the temperature was 96 degrees. The "comfort" arrow was as far towards "LO" as it could be. It never moved the entire time we were in Florida.

Eventually everyone got up, and we began the laborious process of getting the Babies! ready to go out into the harsh Florida atmosphere, which already was so hot and humid that it approximated a trip to Venus. Getting a kid ready meant grabbing a baby and changing his diaper, then putting clothes on him, then putting sunscreen SPF 50 on him, then putting mosquito repellant on him, then changing his diaper again because that took so long to do, then washing his hands because you know what Babies! do as soon as their diaper comes off, then putting more sunscreen and mosquito repellent on because you'd just washed it all off cleaning the baby.

With the twins slathered in their protective coating of chemicals, we set out for the breakfast buffet. I love "All You Can Eat" Breakfast buffets, but I will be the first to admit that they are not for everyone. The charms of the breakfast buffet are lost on those who don't see the pleasure in having a plate-- or plates-- piled up with pancakes, french toast, sausage, pineapple, gravy, watermelon, biscuits, and chocolate chip cookies. The one we went to also had soft-serve ice cream cones and sundaes available. I washed it all down with a diet Pepsi. It's important not to overdo things.

I was a little slowed down at the buffet because Mr Bunches decided that he wanted to stick close to me and not sit in his high chair, so I had to eat with him on my lap, and go through the line carrying him or holding his hand, and carrying my plate in the other. Each option - -carrying or walking him-- posed problems. If I carried him, he tried to grab stuff off my plate and throw it and tried to stick his hands in the various entrees and soft-serve ice cream in front of him. A breakfast buffet is not the most sanitary of restaurant options in the first place, I know, but I felt like I would be bothering my fellow overindulgers if I just let my kids stick their hands in everyone's food randomly. They already stick their hands into my food randomly, but I'm used to it. When I share a drink with them, for example, Mr Bunches will take a sip and then helpfully put half of it back for me. Mr F doesn't even sip; he just reaches his hand in up to the elbow and grabs ice cubes. What I'm saying is you don't want to ask me to share my drink.

Holding Mr Bunches up wasn't an option. On the other hand, if I walked him, he'd investigate every nook, cranny, and dropped piece of food on the floor. I wasn't worried about him eating stuff -- Mr Bunches does not like to eat, period, and we have to trick him into eating by distracting him. We'll get a spoonful of yogurt ready and say Look, over there, and when he falls for it, we'll slip the food in. Or we'll put something he might like on his plate, like a Cheeto, and when he tries to put it in his mouth we'll also cram some green beans in there.

So I didn't think he'd try to eat anything off the floor, but he did want to see everything that was on the floor, so about every inch we moved, he'd crouch down and investigate whatever blob of junk he'd found. We were holding up the line, and, equally importantly, holding up my access to gravy-covered chocolate chip cookies. So I tried to keep him from slowing us down, but Mr Bunches and Mr F have a trick up their sleeve if they want to stop: They go No Bones.

"No Bones" happens when the Babies!, holding a hand, go limp, as though all their bones have evaporated. It's a nonviolent form of protest they've developed to get their way, and Mr Bunches used it at the buffet. I'd try to take a step; he'd want to inspect a crust of toast. I'd say "No, come on, we have to keep moving," and there'd be a tug on my hand and I'd look down and he was flopped on the floor, hanging limply by his left arm, a puddle of baby looking up at me. It looks exactly the same as if I'd tazered him. It's an amazingly effective tactic. I intend to use it the next time I'm shopping with Sweetie and she wants to go in a store I don't like. I'll just go limp at the entrance and flop down.

Back at the table, The Boy, Middle, and Sweetie were trying, unsuccessfully, to keep Mr F from throwing napkins all over the place and rubbing stuff into his hair.

We made it through breakfast-- and left a large tip-- and headed over to Seaworld. The older kids had picked this as their theme park to go to. When we started planning the vacation, we were going to go to Disney World for the Babies! and then another theme park for the older kids, but then we realized that the Babies!, being only 21 months old, really have no concept of what Disney World is and would never remember it. They get every bit as much enjoyment out of bouncing on the time share couch as they would out of Main Street, U.S.A., more, maybe, if we also let them play with straws and napkins, so we opted for just one theme park, and let the kids choose. They opted for Seaworld, and I'm not sure I understand the choice.

Seaworld is not really an "amusement park" the way I think of it. There are only two rides in the entire place -- a water ride (shown above) and the "Kraken," a roller coaster. The rest of it is devoted to water shows, aquariums, displays of sting rays and dolphins and turtles, and a playland. It's basically an aquarium that lets you pet the fish and has a couple of rides.

If I had opted to take us to Seaworld, I'm fairly sure that it would be seen as something educational and thus boring, since everything I opt for the family to do is seen as educational and thus boring, a rap I get from the time I proposed, on our trip to California, that we go to Death Valley and along the way also see a canyon where there were fossils. I was voted down and in place of that we went to Rodeo Drive. But since the kids opted to take us to an aquarium, it was seen as "cool."

After waiting in line for 30 minutes to get tickets, which we did because we didn't want to risk getting whatever fake tickets every store in Orlando promised to sell us if we'd just look at their time shares, we got inside and the first order of business was cooling off. The temperature had risen by that point to something in the three digits, or maybe low four digits, and the humidity had hit infinity. Sweetie saw a guy selling water and those little spray-fan bottles and said we should get one to keep everyone cool.

"One bottle and a fan please," I told the guy.

"$17.75," he told me, and I almost choked. I paid it, but I wasn't happy. $17.75? I could have saved a lot of money by getting the water and just dumping it on everyone's heads. Or by 'accidentally' falling into the dolphin pond. But that's the way theme parks work, and I was prepared for that. We'd gone to Universal Studios in California a few years back, and had taken along a budget of $150 for the day for refreshments. That was spent before noon. A soda in a theme park will set you back between $5 and $10 -- more if you want the "souvenir" cup, which I always do want. If you eat dinner at our house in the months after a vacation, you will have the option of having your beverage served in a very-classy T-Rex cup, or day-glo souvenir "Gatorland" plastic thermos. You should opt to use those, because they have lids and that will help keep Mr F's hand out.

Seaworld is an extremely interesting place filled not just with $17 fans but with all kinds of animals that you can interact with, take pictures of, pet, watch do tricks during shows, learn about, feed, and otherwise have a great time with. You can do all of those things, though, only if you are not traveling with The Boy, Middle, and The Babies!, each of whom had their own agenda.

The Boy wanted to see the Shark display; that was his only goal for the day, as it turns out. The Shark display, though, is not anywhere near the entrance or any other exhibit; you've got to go through the whole park to get to it, which meant that The Boy had no patience for any of the other exhibits or rides. Take the sting rays: He pointed out for us the sting ray exhibit where you can pet sting rays. So we went there, and a Seaworld employee was giving a talk about sting rays and people were gathered around the tank trying to pet them. I petted one and took some pictures and a video, but was getting urged to keep going by The Boy. When I tried to slow him down by getting him to pet a sting ray, he stuck his hand halfheartedly in the water towards one about 8 feet away. "It doesn't want to come by me," he said, and moved on.

We did eventually see the Shark display, and I could see why he loved it; it's incredible. It's one of those aquariums where you walk through in a tube underwater and the sharks all swim around you and over you, so you're almost in the water with them, and there's more sharks than you can ever imagine in one place.

Sweetie had this to say about the sharks: "They don't look that big." Jaws has ruined sharks for a lot of people, I bet. I tried to explain that six or seven feet was plenty long enough to be scary, but I don't think she was buying it. I could tell she didn't think they were scary because she was walking Mr Bunches and made no effort to put herself between him and the sharks. (Mr Bunches did not notice the sharks for almost half the trip through the aquarium. He was examining the floor. When he did look up and see them, he seemed impressed. But, then, he is also impressed by his own index finger, which he will examine for minutes at a time.)

Middle's agenda for the day was to ride the Kraken, so she, too, had no patience for anything else, before or after. We got to the Kraken relatively early in the day, skipping only the sea turtles and dolphins to do so, and because the lines were short we rode on it twice. I have a love/hate relationship with roller-coasters. I think they're fun and all, but I can't stand heights and so I hate that first ride up the hill, when the roller coaster is getting slowly yanked up by a chain, and it's creaking and groaning and laboriously climbing to the point where the ride gets quick enough to be fun.

It's not the heights, per se, which bother me, either, because I'm sitting in the roller coaster, so it's not as bad as it would otherwise seem. What bothers me is the idea that the train will stop, and I will have to climb out of the train and walk back down the rickety-looking stairs to the ground, a task that looks to me far more scary than the roller-coaster itself. So while everyone else is riding up the hill anticipating that first thrilling drop and the loops and twirls and all, I'm looking at the stairs wondering whether they're the kind that would crack open if I stepped on them and I'd fall to my death that way. If roller coaster designers really wanted to scare people like me, they'd have the exit be a flimsy rope ladder.

Also, I never feel quite like the safety belt is adjusted perfectly, and those shoulder bars always have just a little too much play in them for me to feel at ease. I worry that I maybe have a little more belly than the designers intended -- especially after a stop or four at the breakfast buffet -- and that the bar didn't get down far enough and only looked locked, so I clench it to me with a fierce passion. I always want to try it on the way up the hill, to see if it is locked, but I don't because what if it isn't? Then I'm screwed and I know it. I'd rather not know it.

The Babies! agenda was much simpler than either The Boy's or Middle's. Their goal was simply: keep moving at all costs. If we stopped their stroller for a microsecond, they'd start crying and try to climb out. Maybe they were intent on getting to the sharks and the Kraken, too. I don't know. But whenever we stopped to look at something, one of us had to keep the stroller moving, spinning it and rocking it and pushing it back and forth, to keep them pacified. The alternative was to let them out and walk them holding their hands, but that would again result in inspecting each iota of Seaworld's ground, and we'd still be there.

So we mostly let them out of the stroller when inside a building, like the Shark exhibit, where they could walk around and look at stuff and inspect the floor without reducing the whole procession to a crawl. That's when I realized that there was a significant difference between what is interesting to one of the twins and what you would think would be interesting. The entrance to the shark exhibit is a series of aquariums including one where the aquarium is built into the floor below you, so as you walk over it, you see all the fish below you swimming around.

Seeing that, I got Mr F and Mr Bunches out of the stroller and walked them over it, thinking that at last I'd found something they would want to inspect and could do so to their heart's content. They were mostly uninterested. Mr F did try to pick up a fish, but finding out that there was glass between us and it, he got bored and didn't perk up until we moved on to the carpet, where there was lint to look at.

Sweetie's agenda that day, aside from worrying, was to find personalized souvenirs for the Babies!. As a person whose name is unusual, I've long stopped trying that for myself. The Babies!'s real names are different, a little, but not weird or unusually spelled, and yet we could not find anything for Mr Bunches. They have every name you can imagine, names that don't even look like names, names that sound like the noises people make when they're trying to describe what they think a gravy-covered-chocolate chip cookie from the breakfast buffet would sound like, but they don't have Mr Bunches' real name.

The Shark exhibit was early in the afternoon, and leaving it we realized it was raining. Everyone else wanted to leave, but I put Matt's advice to work. "Don't worry," I said. "It won't last long. It never lasts more than an hour." I kept saying that for over an hour, when I switched to "I think it's letting up." A half hour later, I gave up and said "Matt's a liar."

The rain eventually lightened to the point where we thought it would end, so we tried to walk a little further into the park, but then it worsened and we eventually gave up, heading back out. The point we gave up at was the part of the park that was farthest from the entrance, so we were thoroughly soaked and exhausted by the time we reached the car and the rain started up again in earnest. In all, Tropical Storm Neverend continued through the entire night.

I did not want to head back to the time share yet, but there's not much to do in Orlando in the rain otherwise. I decided, therefore, that it was time to achieve the only remaining goal I had left in life.

I've gone to college, gotten married, had kids, gotten a career, started my own business, gone skydiving, been to foreign countries, met a Supreme Court justice, swam in both the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, visited the Grand Canyon... I have done a lot in my life, but there was one elusive goal that I had not met yet, and that was to eat at a Sonic Restaurant.

Ever since the advent of cable TV, people everywhere have been getting inundated with ads for businesses that they can't actually spend their money on, and that drives me crazy, especially when it's a business that I would definitely spend my money on, like a place where I can drive in and have them bring me my hamburger and ice cream right to my car. Sonic is that place. I'm not getting paid for any of this, and Sonic likely has no idea how I feel, so you can rest assured that this is my true emotion: I am hypnotized by the prospect of Sonic restaurants. For years now, I've been watching TV and those great ads come on with the funny people eating things that look delicious and having the time of their life, and I get excited about doing just that, only to again realize that there is not a Sonic restaurant within three states of where I live. I know that for a fact; I've checked, because one year I was going to make Sweetie go to one for our anniversary but it was too far to drive.

So Sonic seemed to me to be a dream beyond reach, something I'd hear about all my life and want to see but would never actually encounter, like tidal pools, until we decided to go to Orlando, and it occurred to me that they might have a Sonic there. So while the kids were planning trips to Seaworld and the beach and Sweetie wanted to go shopping and we were making sure there was a kiddie pool for the Babies!, I was also mapquesting a route to the closest Sonic, and I had my directions handy as we made our waterlogged exit from Seaworld.

The drive to Sonic, in the rain, took about 30 minutes, during which I became more and more anxious about whether Sonic would really exist because we seemed to be getting no closer to it. We went by various buildings and restaurants and miniature golf courses as we drove along "International Drive," which is to Orlando what 5th Avenue is to New York, only with smaller buildings and infinitely more franchise restaurants, including one called "Fish Bones," which said it served fish and steak. I'm no marketing expert, but I don't think the skeletal remains of the meal are the main selling point in luring hungry diners. Calling a restaurant "Fish Bones" did not make me think "Let's go eat there." Maybe "I hope they know the Heimlich maneuver there" but not eat there.

While I was concerned about that, The Boy was getting enraged by the miniature golf courses. These drew The Boy's ire because we saw a miniature golf course called "Pirate's Cove," and there is also a miniature golf course called "Pirate's Cove" in the Wisconsin Dells, not far from where we live, relatively speaking. The Boy thought this was an incredible ripoff, that Orlando minigolfers would think they could golf at "Pirate's Cove" when there was only one real "Pirate's Cove," ("real" being a relative concept in the world of miniature golf). We tried to mollify him by pointing out that maybe it was a franchise, that these were owned by the same person as the Wisconsin Dells site, but he remained unconvinced. I even tried pointing out to him that, historically speaking, Florida has more of a claim to pirates than Wisconsin would, because there were actual pirates in Florida at some point in the past.

"There were no real pirates," The Boy informed me. When I tried to convince him otherwise, and pointed out that Thomas Jefferson had to deal with the Barbary Coast pirates and that pirates had actually existed, he tuned me out. This was a first for me, though. The Boy has seen all the "Pirates of the Caribbean"movies, and generally speaking, if something has been in a movie or on TV, The Boy assumes it existed and actually took place. So Jurassic Park, the moon landing, Gotham City: these are taken as historical fact by The Boy. But take a historical fact like pirates and put it in a movie, and he assumes it is fake. I blame the Internet, because that's what parents do: we throw up our hands and blame the Internet. I don't know what parents blamed before the Internet. Fish Bones, maybe.

We made it to Sonic, finally, and I was so excited that I had Sweetie videotape our entrance to the parking lot. I'd share that with you, but it's too private. I get a little choked up just thinking about it. I'm going to keep it alongside our wedding video.

We pulled in, and I was overwhelmed. This might be my only chance to ever eat at a Sonic; I wanted to get everything. Plus, it all sounded really good, although that may have been that we really hadn't eaten anything since the breakfast buffet, and that gravy can only carry me so far.

It turns out that the trip would be more historic than even I can imagine, because Sonic is where I really came to understand Billy Pilgrim. Billy Pilgrim, you'll remember, was the star of Slaughterhouse-Five who had a sad experience, one that haunted him all his life, on vacation. Billy went to a cave with his dad, and the guide was going to turn out the lights and place Billy into total darkness for the first time in his life -- darkness more complete than any human being will ever experience. Only, when the guide did that, [SPOILER ALERT!] Billy was standing next to his dad, who was wearing a glow-in-the-dark watch -- so Billy missed out on the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

The message of that story? Dads screw things up without even trying. As I learned at Sonic, where I became Billy Pilgrim. Or maybe Middle did. Someone did, and here's how: We ordered, and I ordered the special -- the "Island Fire Burger," prominently advertised and loaded with bacon and two kinds of cheeses and sauce you could get only at Sonic.

My rule when going to a restaurant is: get what the restaurant is known for. If a restaurant specializes in one kind of food, order that. Don't go 'off the board' as they used to say in The Joker's Wild and get all tricky. I once ended up at a Red Lobster with my mom and my sister. I hate seafood so I ordered a Caesar salad and a burger. (Because I was dieting at the time, and because I had no idea what a "Caesar salad" was, I ordered it without dressing. The waitress just stared at me until Mom and Sis explained what was wrong.) My salad and burger were awful and tasted like fish anyway. At "Johnny Rocket's," once, I ordered the burger and Sweetie got chicken. When my burger came, she was jealous because her chicken was awful.

(You should note that my diets include burgers. That's the way to diet.)

While I got my "Island Fire Burger," Middle ordered a regular double cheeseburger. The food was brought out to us, we distributed it, and ate our meals, and only after eating it did we realize that Middle and I had accidentally eaten the other's sandwiches.

My once-in-a-lifetime opportunity: the first sandwich I'd ever eat from Sonic -- the only sandwich I'd ever eat from Sonic-- was the wrong one. Just like Billy Pilgrim, only in a more burger-esque way. Or Middle was just like him. I'm still not sure, but we both got the wrong burger and it was very significant in a literary sort of way.

But my burger was still really good. Let me emphasize that. It was a great burger.

In retrospect, I'm not sure how we did not realize the mixup. For my part, all I thought while eating it (besides "I can't believe I'm at Sonic! This is great!") was this: This is not as spicy as I thought. I wasn't sure which Island, exactly, the "Island Fire" was coming from, but it was definitely not one of the spicier islands; it was an island where maybe British citizens would go on holiday, like the Isle of Wight. I don't know what Middle thought as she ate her burger, but I do know that she was more disappointed than I was because for the rest of the trip, she wanted to go back to Sonic and get her "real" burger. So maybe she's Billy Pilgrim in this story. I was never very good with symbolism.

I got over my literary-esque disappointment in the best way: Ordering dessert, which posed its own dilemma because all of the desserts, too, were enticing, and there were exotic, one-of-a-kind things to order like a Coconut Creme Pie Shake. In the end, I opted for the Blue Coconut Slush drink, because "Blue" is always the best possible flavor for desserts. There is no flavor so great already that you can't make it a little greater still by making it "Blue."

With that, Day Two was essentially done, because there was nothing else to do and we were all tired from running past Seaworld exhibits to get to other Seaworld exhibits, and from keeping the Babies! moving. That and we were three hours into the rainstorm that Matt promised would last only an hour, a storm which showed no signs of letting up. So we drove back to the time share and began trying to wind the Babies! down to get some sleep, because we'd need all our energy for the next day... since the next day, we were heading for alligators.

Tomorrow: Gators! And, I reach the limit of my sample-ness.

Important Mug

Want a free t-shirt? Of course you do. Click there to find out how you can get one courtesy of The Best of Everything: Our Opinions Are Righter Than Yours.

Nonsportsmanlike Conduct! AlwaysMostlyRight!: It’s the sports blog for people who love sports but hate sports blogs.

Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Vacation Part Two: Please Don't Feed McGriddles To the Alligators

My vacation story continues. To read part one, click here.

There's something either very disturbing, or very bothersome, about how long a "McGriddle" can stay fresh sitting in a backpack without any special wrapping whatsoever.

We got some "McGriddles" at O'Hare International Airport at one of the 150 McDonald's we passed going from the gate where we arrived to the gate where we would leave.

When your flight begins in Madison, Wisconsin, you may develop an unrealistic expectation of airports. We made it to the airport in a reasonable amount of time, and unloaded the Babies! and luggage. I then parked in the long-term parking lot, which is cheaper because it's far enough away from the terminal that you can't actually see the terminal. It's so far away that there's wildlife there; as I walked past a tree, something moved and ran away. I hoped it was a cat, but I thought it might be a raccoon-- maybe even one of the ones we'd displaced.

Security at the Madison NonInternational Airport is pretty easy to get through, even when you're carrying Babies! like Sweetie and I were. They made The Boy start the laptop, they made me show them a can of formula, we all had to take off our footwear, and then we were through, with a half-hour until boarding.

"You need to go to Gate 7," the security agent told me. With only a half-hour, I was nervous.

"Where's Gate 7?" I asked. "Is it, like 40 minutes away? Should we run?" The security guard shook her head.

"It's right there," and she pointed, and it was. All the gates were right there. So we sat down and ignored the hostile stares of the other passengers as they contemplated the fact that they were about to get on a plane with two Babies!, and did what all good parents do to get through tough times: we drugged the Babies!

It's okay; we had a doctor's excuse. The pediatrician had told us to load them up with children's cough medicine because it would help them sleep on the plane and then we wouldn't have to worry about being that day's lead story on CNN: Plane forced to land one mile outside of Madison because of terrorist twins.

Just to make it palatable, though, we rationalized the dosage by pointing out to each other that the Babies! had some mosquito bites, and the bites were pretty big, so maybe they were allergic. Maybe they were developing hives right then! Maybe they were about to go into seizure or something and only a dose of hypoallergenic cough syrup could prevent that!

Boy, did it work. They both fell asleep right about as the plane took off. Mr Bunches didn't wake up until we got to Florida; he slept all the way through O'Hare and the subsequent flight from Chicago to Orlando. That made Sweetie's job a little easier, carrying him through O'Hare, where we had to make our way from one terminal to the other, traveling approximately 450 miles on foot carrying two babies and dragging the carry-ons behind us.

We had an hour or so to kill at the gate. Here is how each of us spent that time:

Mr Bunches: Sleeping sprawled out on the bench, oblivious to the world. He didn't even wake up when I changed his diaper.

That's actually when we started to worry about whether we'd calculated his medicine dosage correctly. The doctor had said to give him a teaspoon, but the doctor had forgotten that the rest of the medical community pretends that people remember the "Metric System" from when we all spent a week on the Metric Unit in 4th grade, and so the medical community labels everything in units like "ml" and "cm" and "cholesterol" and other meaningless terms. The medicine's syringe had no "teaspoon" marking on it. We'd solved that by googling the question How many milliliters are in a teaspoon, and decided that since most of the websites said it's between 4.8 and 5.0, we'd go with that.

Mr F spent his time at O'Hare pounding on the glass window and trying to escape the little enclosure we'd set up using suitcases and sharing everyone's McDonald's breakfasts, alternating between eating his pieces and throwing them at Mr Bunches, who paid no attention.

The Boy sat and slumped and tried to pick fights with Middle.

Middle sat and slumped and tried to pick fights with The Boy. Their efforts failed because they were both picking fights on different subjects, and not paying any actual attention to what either was saying. It was more reflexive than anything. The Boy would claim that Middle could have caught Mr F before he got away, and Middle would not respond directly; instead, she'd point out that The Boy was making a mess.

Sweetie worried. That was her number one activity for the whole trip.

And I ate two of the three McGriddles we'd bought as part of the breakfast pack, and tried to corral Mr F using makeshift toys because I didn't want to unpack the carry-on and get his 'real' toys out. So we distracted him with straws and napkins and soda lids, all of which he would play with for a second, then throw on the floor and try to climb over the suitcases. I don't know what primal compulsion was telling him to get lost in O'Hare airport, but it was very strong.

On the plane, while Mr Bunches stayed in his coma on Sweetie's lap, Mr F tore up the emergency instruction card, tore two pages out of "Skymall," slammed the window shade down, and stuck his finger in my eye. I was fearing the worst, but then the plane took off and he dropped to sleep like someone had removed the oxygen from the cabin. He stayed asleep the rest of the way, awkwardly perched on my lap.

I spent the flight trying to look out the window and figure out what the things on the ground were. That's hard, because from the air, everything looks like... nothing. Unless you're flying over the Rocky Mountains or the Grand Canyon, ground looks like ground and trees, grass, fields of corn, houses, and factories are all more or less indistinguishable. It would have helped greatly if Illinois or Kentucky had bothered to put up huge diagrams like the Incas did, or crop circles, or maybe just a large sign next to everything they own, saying THIS IS A BARN or THIS IS A CAR DEALERSHIP or ANOTHER BARN.

In the end, based on my reckoning, most of the country between Chicago and Orlando is made up of three things: golf courses, Georgia, and truck stops. That's what everything looks like from a mile or so up in the air. But I've driven through the country, too, so I know that actually is what most of that area is made up of.

We made it to Orlando and got off the plane and the very first thing we noticed was the phenomenal humidity. I've lived through some pretty humid days, days when you sweat just walking around and everything feels damp. I've never felt Florida humidity. Stepping off the plane into the jetway alone it was terrible; it felt like stepping into a hot shower; there was that much moisture in the air.

And it showed. The Orlando Airport is not very welcoming, not least because it's dark and smells like smokers, but also because it's covered in something that appears to have come from the future and is slowly taking over the world. Most of the airport is torn apart and you can see the skeleton of the building, which includes some sort of fuzzy, green substance that I guessed was mold and The Boy thought might be insulation. But why would you need insulation in Orlando? To keep the humidity out? Because it was not working.

The futuristic/decaying impression was only heightened by the monorails we had to take to get from one terminal to the other. In that sense, Florida seemed at first more enlightened than Chicago. O'Hare makes you walk a marathon to get to your plane. Orlando gives you a train ride to move you 100 yards. I thought they were being nice until we walked outside the airport to get our rental van and realized the real reason: nobody wants to go outside in Florida. Breathing Orlando's air is difficult, at best. While it's clean, it tastes like jungle and is wet, and you sweat just breathing. Getting everything into the car left me more soaked with perspiration than many of my workouts.

It was only a short drive to the time-share we were using for the next few days. Sweetie's parents have bought umpteen time shares. A while back, they inherited some money, and began investing in time-share condos, which they've bought one after the other. I think about 75% of all time-shares are now held in my in-laws' names. They travel all the time to them, spending three weeks in Branson or a week in New Jersey. I' m not sure why they do that; Sweetie says that they don't go out and do much when they get there, and if you stay in a time-share, you still have to make your own bed and do your own cleaning and cooking (or go out to eat, as we did), so if they're staying in a time-share in New Jersey and still cleaning and cooking and not going out, their life is pretty much what it would normally be. Except they're in New Jersey, and that seems to me to be trading down.

Along the way to our time-share, we saw the 'sights' of Orlando and Kissimmee, which are: not much. I love tourist spots, and tourist stores, and gift shops, and so I was prepared to love this area of Florida, which to me exists solely as a place to hold theme parks and draw tourists. But I was disappointed in the tourist traps that Orlando/Kissimmee presented me with.

I am a consummate tourist. The off-the-beaten-path, for locals-only, classy, reserved spots in states are not for me. I like the Mystery Spots, the mini-golf courses, the fudge shops. In California, we'd seen the Drive-Through Tree and Pier 39 and the Hollywood Walk of Fame. In New York, we'd bought those "I HEART NY" shirts and shopped at the NBC Store. Las Vegas was one big tour of t-shirt shops, photos with Elvis impersonators, and even touring a fake New York at the New York New York casino. If there's anything more touristy than going to Las Vegas to go to New York, I don't know what it is.

Orlando/Kissimmee featured mainly walk-in clinics. We began driving to the time share, and the first strip mall we saw featured prominently a sign for a walk-in clinic. A few miles later, there was another one, this time next to a liquor store. When we saw a third, I began to wonder just how dangerous the area might be.

I had to wonder that because there was one fact I knew about Florida before going there, and that fact was that any body of water larger than my can of Coke Zero had an alligator in it. This was reinforced not just by the yearly story CNN plays about someone who has an alligator in their kitchen, but also by the prevalence of signs warning people not to feed the alligators -- implying, I think, that the "feeding" would be done using one's own body parts.

Florida-ers, I think, take alligators for granted. The sign outside the time-share's own lake warned us not to feed the "Alligators OR Wildlife." The use of "or" seemed to me to make a distinction: Alligators are not wildlife. Or maybe it was to highlight the fact that there were alligators. Warn a tourist against fishing or swimming because there's "wildlife," and we'll all jump in and try to get pictures of it. Say there's alligators, and we'll stand ten feet away and wonder whether the leaf we see is actually an alligator drifting just below the surface waiting to charge up and eat your twins.

We had to walk by the alligator-filled lake to get to the pool, which raised the possibility that an alligator would, actually, leap out and eat the Babies! Sweetie dealt with this by making sure that the Babies! walked on the side of her that was away from the lake. She does the same thing on busy streets, placing herself between danger and the Babies! While admirable parenting, I have trouble believing that Sweetie would be able to stop either a reptile or an SUV.

So maybe, I decided, all the walk-in clinics were for people who hadn't heeded the warning signs.

Other than walk-in clinics, the area offered one prevalent kind of shop: The combination food store/liquor store/electronics store. These were buildings, usually two stories tall, with a generic sign that labeled them to be a "Grocery/Convenience Store." (There were lots of generic stores or restaurants in the area. Some restaurants said, simply, "Pizza." How lazy of an enterpreneur are you that you couldn't even use your own name for your shop? What if that trend catches on? Honey, let's go out to eat tonight. I'll take us all to Chicken.)

Absent a name, we could still gather what the store sold by looking at the giant oversized posters that covered every window and prevented us from seeing into the store itself. On the store nearest our time-share, one poster said "GROCERIES MILK EGGS". Another said "CAMERAS IPODS ELECTRONICS." A third advertised beer. And one whole window said "LAPTOPS $289." It went on like that around the building.

I got a little sad picturing people coming from around the world and flocking into stores to get eggs, beer, and a cheap laptop. Plus, that's not a souvenir. A souvenir has to say the name of a place you visited on it. Unless the laptop said "Busch Gardens," it was not a decent souvenir.

Combination stores seemed to be Orlando/Kissimmee's specialty. The electronics/grocery store was joined by a plethora of Super Walmarts, which were flanked in turn by gas stations where you could get gas, beer, pizza, and a tattoo, if you so desired. I wondered how the consumer need for that type of store had sprung up. I need to stop and get some gas in my car. I'd better pick a spot that also sells beer and pizza or no dinner tonight. But, darn it, I'm running out of time to get that tattoo! Could you get the tattoo while you pumped your gas? That's full service.

Plus, every store-- literally every store, including the World's Largest Orange (which sold fruit and t-shirts) also promised to sell you a time-share and to buy or sell your amusement park tickets at a discount. Florida's shopkeepers leave no stone unturned. Every trip to the store is one-stop shopping.

We made it to the time-share, and checked in and managed, too, to avoid a lecture on how we should buy a time-share of our own by politely declining to attend a "short" seminar that would be "short" and would be "no pressure" to buy a time-share and although it would be "short" and "no pressure" it would be informative and we could get discounts on Disney tickets by attending this "short" "no pressure" seminar. By the end of the spiel, the lady had used the words "short" and "no pressure" so often, I guessed maybe she thought those were our names. When we declined for the fourteenth time, she said, archly, "You mean, you're just going to pay full price?" and gave us a look that seemed to say Do that and you won't be able to afford even the discount laptops at the Tattoo Gas Station.

We held firm and finally made it to our room, where we used the luggage cart carry up the suitcases and the Babies!, unpacked, and then piled back into the minivan to visit our first thrilling Florida destination: The Super Wal-Mart.

You can only bring so many diapers onto the plane, after all, and we'd gone through most of ours.

The Super Wal-Mart would turn out to be our most visited spot over the next four days. I went there four times, and Sweetie went there once, although to be fair Sweetie's trip was made only to get the stuff I had been supposed to buy but had screwed up on.

While going to the Super Wal-Mart, I also called my brother, who lives in Tampa. I'll call him "Matt" (his real name). We were planning on squeezing in a visit to Matt's house, because I hadn't seen him in 8 years and because we were in a closer geographical location than usual.

That's how people think, you know. I've learned it. We have relatives in Milwaukee, California, and Florida, and if I venture into some undefined radius of their homes, I'm expected to stop in. After getting back from an all-day seminar in Milwaukee, I called my dad, who lives there, to talk to him.

"I was at a seminar in Milwaukee today," I said, when he asked why I was home late from work.

"You should have stopped in," he said.

"It's my anniversary," I told him, which was true, but it didn't seem to mollify him.

When we went to California to visit Los Angeles, we had to begin our trip to Los Angeles by staying in Oakland with Sweetie's dad for a few days, and then go visit my sister in Northern California for another day, the thinking being that if we're in the state, we should just visit them, but that kind of logic doesn't really hold with California, which takes up about half the landmass of the US and which takes 14 hours to drive through. Still, we did it, and now that we were in Florida and only 87 miles from Matt, we were expected to visit.

So I called him, and told him our plans for the next few days, and he gave me some advice. First, he said, when it starts to rain, wait it out. He claimed the rain (which was going on at that moment) only lasts about an hour. I registered that and stored it away to use on the kids if it kept raining, because it could be useful in forcing them to keep doing something they don't want to do, like walking in the rain. When "Come on, we're on vacation, let's tough it out" stopped working, I could switch to "Matt says it only lasts an hour."

Matt also suggested we visit a beach, and I asked him about sharks. Specifically, I said "Are there sharks at that beach?"

To which he replied: "The sharks aren't going to bite you."

I noticed that he had tried not to answer my question, but had actually answered it quite well. I also thought he seemed a little casual about maneating sharks. But maybe living with alligators surrounding you has that effect.

After Super Wal-Mart, we drove around a little more, looking at the liquor stores, laptop shops, and walk-in clinics, until, exhausted, we went back to the timeshare to fall asleep. The Boy and I spent a little time at the pool, where we were treated to the sounds of karaoke coming from the bar next to the pool. (To the guy who sang Bohemian Rhapsody, which I did not know you could sing at karaoke: I admire your courage. Also: Pick a key and go with it Just one key. If you ever hear anyone, including me, trying to sing a Queen song, especially that Queen song, you come away with a new appreciation for just how talented Freddy Mercury was, and just how talented we are not.)

That night, with the older kids in their room and the Babies! on their air mattresses at the foot of our bed, Sweetie dozed off, but I was too excited at being on vacation, so I distracted myself by eating the third McGriddle which had been in the backpack all day, rationalizing that by telling myself (1) It should not go to waste, (2) It appeared to still be fresh, and (3) I'm on vacation. I can justify anything by telling myself I'm on vacation. It's kind of scary, actually. If someone came up to me and asked me to let them practice some elective surgery, and then pointed out that I was on vacation, I'd be tempted to undergo the procedure.

I also tried to doze off by watching local news with the sound muted. That might sound boring, but in Orlando, it's not.

Our local news, in Wisconsin, is things like property taxes and road construction. Local news in Orlando involves an alarming number of arrests and murders and fires started by lightning and shots of police tape or mug shots, each with heading that probably make sense if you can hear the reporter, but which are like haikus with the sound off. Under a picture of a haggard looking woman that might be a mug shot: Stolen. Was she stolen? Why not show a picture of what she stole, if that's what happened? A live scene of police tape and flashing lights over a reporter's shoulder might have a banner saying Highway 192 Threat. We had driven in on Highway 192; if only I'd known! A family crying, a courtroom scene, and a guy in a suit talking were followed by the anchor's face and the heading "Sex Scandal." With that one, I saw a second reason for the prevalance of walk-in clinics, and fell asleep wondering if the Highway 192 threat was stolen alligators, and how they might fit into the sex scandal.

Tomorrow: Sea World, and Matt's A Liar (But [spoiler alert] Not About The Sharks!)

Date Quiz:

Want a free t-shirt? Of course you do. Click there to find out how you can get one courtesy of The Best of Everything: Our Opinions Are Righter Than Yours.

The Best of Everything: Our Opinions Are Righter Than Yours! Find out what’s The Best in any category you can think of, and a lot you can’t. Best Simpson Sister? Best Candy Bar to Eat In Sections? Best Plot Twist That Makes a Lame Song Cool? Best Sexy Sci-fi Alien Chick? They’re all here—and more!