Tuesday, July 03, 2012

In another universe, I am in Birmingham, Alabama, for some reason. (Vacations)

"It's easier," I said to The Boy, as we stood outside a gas station somewhere in Georgia, in heat that sucked the breath out of your lungs before you could get it all the way in, "If you break it into smaller segments and take it one step at a time."

Mr F, staring at the Illinois countryside.

I was talking, at that point, about the seven hours of traveling that still loomed like an open maw ahead of us last Sunday.  We were at a convenience store in Georgia, a convenience store that was inaptly named, in that it was incredibly inconvenient, mostly because the front of it was blocked by a giant pit where they were, it seemed, putting in the parking lot.  It wasn't a parking lot yet: it was a square rectangular dropoff into dirt, a four-foot dropoff one had to skirt to get into the Inconvenience Store before one could get Cheesy Nacho Puffs and a large soda.

I was looking as I said it, at the roadside stand I would not stop at to get Boiled Peanuts, even though I really wanted to get Boiled Peanuts.  Not because I love Boiled Peanuts.  I don't know if I love Boiled Peanuts or not.  I've never had them.  But I had been seeing signs for Boiled Peanuts for the past few hours and had, in the back of my mind, come to a resolution:  I would get myself some boiled peanuts and see if I liked them.

I never did get them.

At least, this me did not.

I think this is Nashville.

I came to think of our recent trip to Florida as a quantum vacation, because I'm fun that way.  But also because it seems like that not only was true, but also a fun way to think about the vacation, and my life, in general, and also to not be sad when the vacation was over.

Not so long ago, I read a comic strip that talked about quantum realities.  Bear with me, here.  This comic -- Dinosaur Comics -- talked about the idea that every time we make a decision, a new universe is created, one in which we made all the other decisions that we could have made at that precise moment.   It would be impossible to be depressed, the T.  Rex in this particular comic pointed out, because somewhere there is a universe where we are being totally awesome, even if right now you are being not so much.

THAT is a seductive thought:  Choices are no longer choices, options are not lost, opportunity will always be at the door when you answer it.

Outside of the Superman Museum in Metropolis, IL.

So as I stood there, outside the Inconvenience Store, baking slowly in the heat and wondering if it were, in fact, possible that we still had seven hours of driving left that day when we had already been driving for 8 hours, as I stood there watching Mr Bunches sit huddled in his blanket on the ground because he was sad and wanted to go home and hadn't even wanted to get out of the car and could only say "I think go home," as I stood there and explained to The Boy how the seven hours we were facing was better off broken into segments -- two hours here, three hours there, stop for a snack, pull off and eat dinner -- and as I stared at the boiled peanuts sign and resolved that I would get myself some boiled peanuts, I thought to myself:  that's how to handle this vacation:  Quantumize it.

I don't know if "quantumize" was a word up until I just wrote it, but it's a word now.

Ordinarily, on vacations, I have big plans and too many of them at that.  Ordinarily, I pack so much into a vacation that it's impossible to believe one person could think several people could do all those things.

I didn't do that on this vacation.

Or at least the vacation I took.

There's a theory, Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle, that says that with respect to quantum particles, you can measure where they are, or how fast they are going, but you can never know both.  So you can tell where something is or where it will be but not both, is how I think of that.

On this vacation, I decided to just be where I was, and that's another reason I thought of it as the Quantum Vacation.  No big plans, no directions: where I was, was where I would be.

Also, I wanted to take the boys, Mr F and Mr Bunches, to the ocean.

But other than that, no big plans and no directions.

Mr Bunches, sad and sitting on the ground outside a Burger King in Salem, IL. He just wanted to go home, until we let him take his "Play-Doh Dentist" kit into the restaurant with us.


Technically speaking, my vacation began about 2:00 Friday, June 22nd, which was when I got home from work that day, my last day at work before this vacation having been cleverly scheduled to involve nothing more taxing than driving up to a minor hearing in a case and then driving back home, and so I should have been on "vacation" by 2:00 that afternoon but Sweetie and I had made the mistake of thinking that we were regular people and by regular people I mean "people who can rent a car without moving Heaven and Earth."

We're not people like that.

I don't know why it's so hard to rent a car.  Which is to say, I know why it's so hard to rent a car, in theory and in general:  As I said to Sweetie, if I was to be in the business of lending out pieces of equipment that cost thousands of dollars to people, I would be pretty particular about who I would lend that equipment to.  Then again, I would never be in that business.  I would never be in almost any business.  I can't actually think of a business I would like to be in, other than maybe bookstore owner back in the days when bookstores still had a (theoretical) future.  I think I would like to run a bookstore - -back then -- because it seemed like a pretty laid-back way to make a living, plus, free books.  (I wouldn't like to run a bookstore now, not now that there aren't going to be any bookstores in five years.  But back before people knew that, it seemed like a good gig.)

When I look at businesses, I can't imagine how they make any money.  Seriously: drive by a strip mall and try to imagine someone supporting a family on any business in that strip mall.  There is a little set of shops near our house which includes a store entirely devoted to board games.

How is that even possible?

Do people even play board games anymore? People who aren't Amish, I mean?

Those are the questions I think every time I drive by that store, and I assume I'll stop thinking them in about six months when Board Games R Us or whatever it's called stops existing and I can then stop questioning its reason for existing.

Car rentals are another business (along with restaurants, selling board games, and anything that has to do with acupuncture) that I wouldn't get into, in part because it seems like a pretty expensive, dicey way to make a living and in part because, judging solely by my experiences with car rentals, you have to be implacably mysterious and mercurial to be in the car rental business.

I wonder who, other than perhaps vacationers and businessmen traveling on business, rents cars any more, anyway?  And do businessmen travel on business anymore?  On the first Friday of my vacation, I sat in our car outside the car rental place thinking thoughts like that, while Mr Bunches played with my Kindle Fire and Mr F tapped his coat hangers against the car window, and we waited for Sweetie to finish up renting the minivan we were going to take on vacation.

In another universe, we took that minivan but in this universe where this me is existing, we sat outside for about twenty minutes and then Sweetie came back outside and got in the car and said:

"That's our minivan right there," and pointed to a minivan sitting next to us.  "But you have to go in and try your debit card."

Let me explain this about that:  Sweetie and I have credit cards but we rarely use them, for reasons that I will not go into at length other than to say: You know how everyone tells you to pay down your credit cards if you can? Well, that's a load of hooey and also that's a story for another day.  So we use our debit cards for everything because we live in the 21st century and debit cards with little "Visa" logos on them have been around for a jillion years and are accepted everywhere.  I almost never have cash on me anymore, and if I see someone paying in cash I assume they're a drug dealer or Jason Bourne.  I use debit cards because I live in a society that lets me use debit cards.

Also living in that society is the girl who worked at the rental car agency who had, four weeks earlier, assured Sweetie several times that a debit card was fine to rent a car.  Sweetie had reason to be suspicious of that assurance, because the prior time we'd tried to rent a car with a debit card, we'd also been assured that a debit card was fine to rent a car only to arrive in San Francisco and made our way through the crowded busy airport with three tired kids in tow to get to the rental car counter and be told "No, you can't rent a car with a debit card."

That time, I had threatened to sit at the counter and not move until the guy rented me a car using my debit card.  Unsurprisingly, that threat didn't make him rent me a car, but producing a credit card did.

So this time, when we decided to rent a car, Sweetie wondered whether we should use one of our credit cards, which would require us to pay down a credit card, something we don't ordinarily do for reasons related to the continued, unwanted, efforts by the federal government to "protect" "consumers" that had led credit card companies to start shutting down lines of credit once you paid them off.

But the girl on the phone at the car company had said no, no, it's fine, it's a debit card, I know, that'll be fine, just make sure you have $250 available on the card, which we did that fine Friday on my first day of vacation, but for some reason "the system" wasn't "accepting" the debit card even though there was well over $250 available.

So I went in, and Sweetie waited outside with the boys, and I gave the girl my debit card and she swiped it through something and frowned at the computer screen and said that "the system" wasn't "approving" my card.

"Why not?" I asked.

She shrugged and mumbled something about something.

"But you said that we were okay with renting a car with a debit card," I pointed out to her, because I sometimes still believe that telling people what they told me will make people do what they told me they would do.

She shrugged again.  "You need a credit card," she said.

"Why?" I asked.

"Because it's not accepting your debit cards."

"How much credit do we need on the card?"  I asked.  She gave me the price of the car for the week and I said: "What if I were to just give you that in cash?"

(Just offering to pay cash made me feel a little sleazy.)

She stared at the computer screen again (I later pointed out to Sweetie that we had no idea what that screen said; given her rather lackadaisical attitude towards customer service, it might have been her Facebook page.  She may not have cared one way or the other whether we rented the minivan; she probably wasn't the owner of the rental company, after all) and said that we couldn't pay cash; it had to be a credit card.

So Sweetie and I talked it over (while in another universe another me ranted at the girl repeatedly and kept pointing out that four weeks prior she had told us a debit card would be fine) and decided we'd pay down a credit card and use that to hold the car, and Sweetie called and made a phone payment to clear up the necessary amount of credit on the card -- $250, the girl had told us -- and she went back in and then came back out 10 minutes later.

"Are we ready to go?" I asked.

She shook her head.  "She says we need the full amount of credit available on the card, now."  Not just the $250 that we'd been told-- the entire cost of the car rental for a week had to be available on the card.

Thirty minutes later, we'd made a quick trip to the nearby bank branch and transferred the money to make another payment by phone to the credit card in question and went back to the car company and Sweetie, in the parking lot outside, called the credit card company back and was told that she could make only one telephone payment per day.

If you are keeping track, we have offered several times to pay a car company to rent a car, only to be told we could not do that, and were now offering a credit card company to pay our credit card, but were told we couldn't do that, either.

I kept the radio on in the background, humming along with the music while Sweetie and I pondered our options, sitting in the parking lot next to the local Sears store, and looking at the minivan that was so close to ours.

"We aren't leaving 'til tomorrow morning," Sweetie said.  "We could call the credit card company, make the payment, and then come pick up the car and head out."

I considered that: it would mean that we wouldn't be able to leave until 8 or 9 o'clock, and our schedule called for us to leave at about 5:00 a.m. because one of the very few plans we'd made was that our first day would end in Metropolis, Illinois, where we would check into the hotel and then go out for dinner and see the Giant Superman Statue and the Superman Museum.

That first day had been actually carefully planned for Maximum Relaxation combined with Maximum Tourism.  While I hadn't set out any actual goals or plans for the vacation in one sense, I had done just that in another sense, in that I had decided that since we were driving, our trip down should be, you know, fun.

We were driving not because I like to see the sights -- I do, but after 23+ hours of driving through the sights you get pretty sick of seeing the sights plus, let's face it: the days of seeing things while you drive through America are long gone.  That's the whole point of the Interstate highway system: To not see anything because seeing things keeps you from getting where you're going as fast as humanly possible.

According to what I think I remember from movies about stuff that happened before I was a kid, there was a time when you could drive across America on roads like "Route 66" and those roads went right through the heart of every city and town in America, past roadside attractions like "Rattlesnake Acres" and "The Mystery Spot" which I've always wanted to go to but have never actually gone to even though you'd think that it would take wild horses for me to not go to some place where they say gravity is inverted and people on those roads have drive-in restaurants and giant Indians holding doughnuts to advertise their souvenirs and women wear scarves but it's okay because they're also wearing those tight pants women wore in Grease 2.

That's how people used to travel before airplanes became safe enough and commonplace enough that it seemed alright to complain about how easy and convenient air travel is, and once air travel became safe and convenient enough that we could complain about it, highway travel tried to fight back by becoming boring, and so the Interstate highway system was invented to make sure you could travel across America without ever actually seeing any of the good parts (which, as I understand from other movies, has led the good parts of America to all end up being reduced to one-street towns where the guy who runs the gas station is also the local sheriff but he's just covering for the murderous hillbillies that are going to eat your spleen in the second reel.)

So we were not driving in order to get our spleens eaten, or see the sights, although I hoped to see the sights, too.  We were driving because we weren't sure how Mr Bunches or Mr F would take flying, and so even though the cost is about the same...

... trust me on that: I had 46+ hours, driving 2,800 miles there and back, to work through how much we were spending on gas versus how much it might have cost had we flown; I even worked out how much it might have cost if we had no layovers and/or flew from different cities around us...

...we were driving because, as I told Sweetie, "I don't want to be CNN's breaking story on Saturday morning: Family of four forces plane to land halfway to Florida."

I don't know that they ground planes simply because one of your kids is freaking out, but I don't not know that, either, and flying is a huge mystery to me.  I've flown five times in my life, and the rules keep changing.  Back when I first flew, to Morocco, in 1994, you could smoke on the plane and there wasn't any security to speak of.  The last time I flew, they made up open up our baby formula jars but ignored the case full of electronic equipment we were carrying with us.

I do know the rules of driving:  Get in your car.  Point it in a direction. Go.  Miss Chicago Rush Hour Traffic.

So we were driving, and ideally we were driving a rental minivan because Sweetie didn't want to take her car across country in case it broke down and also because we would be eating and drinking in the car during those 2,800 miles, and the rules are that Sweetie won't let anyone eat or drink in her car except secretly sometimes the boys.

Sweetie has had her new car since February, and I am actually very impressed by the fact that she sticks to her rule of no eating or drinking in the car, a rule that was created by the fact that our last car was not, at the end, so much a "car," per se, as it was a rolling giant cheese puff that got horrible gas mileage.  When we bought this car, Sweetie announced that there was no food or drink allowed in it, and I honored that rule because I assumed it would last no more than a month.  Nobody ever goes forever without eating or drinking in their car, right?  Right: We live in a driving culture where everything has a drive-thru window including I heard once a law office, which seems weird sometimes and other times I think maybe that would be kind of cool but I don't know how to propose it to my partners.

So prior to the vacation, I had never eaten or drank anything in Sweetie's car because I followed her rules -- well, that rule, anyway -- and even one time worried that I'd inadvertently broken the rule because when I took Mr F and Mr Bunches to my office and then the swimming pool, when we got out of the car at the pool there was a cracker on the seat.  A half-eaten cracker.

I stared at it.

"How did that get there?" I asked Mr F.

He, of course, did not answer me.

"How did that get there?" I asked Mr Bunches.

"Pool," he said, and started to get out of the car.

Since I knew I had not eaten the cracker, I worried that Mr F or Mr Bunches had somehow smuggled some food including Crackers of Unknown Origin into Sweetie's car, and I cleaned it up and made sure there was no evidence of it and didn't tell Sweetie for a few weeks until one day she confessed that she sometimes let the boys eat in the car because when they came home from school and had to go immediately to Camp, which is actually Therapy but we call it Camp because who wants to go to Therapy, they were hungry and she felt bad about that and so she would sometimes give them snacks and let them eat in the car.

But Sweetie still didn't eat in the car, and so I never did.

In short: we were going to drive across America, hopefully in a rented minivan, in order to avoid having to find out what happens when you put two autistic boys on an airplane, only that wasn't going to happen at all.

Mr F and Mr Bunches in our first hotel, in Metropolis, IL, 9:30 Saturday night. 

I agreed, because Sweetie felt it was important, that we would delay our leaving in the morning to try to clear up credit on the credit card so we could rent the minivan, even though that meant not avoiding Rush Hour Traffic and messing up our plans for the day.

The plans for the day-- one of the few plans I made, and therefore one of the plans which went nothing like what I'd imagined it would, in this universe, at least -- was to use the first day of vacation as an actual day of vacation.

I don't know what it was like when you were kids, and drove on vacations with your family in your family's car, with a couple of comic books and a Rubik's Cube for entertainment (one a trip to Florida, once, when we were little, each kid was allotted 1/3 of the back ledge of the car to hold our toys for the trip.  That's what I brought: two Mad Magazines and a Rubik's Cube.)  But in our family, the drive to a vacation was just that: a drive.  The goal, back then, in the late 70s and early 80s, was not to see the country, but to get there.  We covered an amazing amount of ground on our vacations as a family, back then, driving 10, 12 hours a day sometimes because the vacation, to my parents, began when you arrived at your destination, not when you pulled out of your driveway.

I'd decided otherwise, for two reasons.  I wanted to make our trip a little more enjoyable and leave us time to see the sights and pull off and get out and have lunch and stretch our legs so that I could distance myself from those marathon treks of my childhood, and also so that I could minimize the amount of time we had to spend with other people on the vacation.

This vacation, I should probably have said earlier, was not our own vacation:  This was something I'd spent 43 years avoiding ever since a disastrous trip with our cousins when I was 12: this was a multi-family vacation, in which we were traveling down to Florida to spend 4 days with Sweetie's family.

Now, as people go, Sweetie's family is fine.  Keeping in mind that I can't stand people, as a rule, and hate small talk, mingling, family dinners, and hanging out with people, I can tolerate Sweetie's family, but that ability to tolerate them for holidays and birthdays didn't translate into "Hey, let's all take a vacation together and hang out incessantly so that I can spend every waking moment trying desperately to think of a topic of conversation with my sister-in-law." (Tip: THE WEATHER is only good for one go-round per day.)

But that was exactly what I was going to have to do, so I'd planned this vacation to get me some actual vacationing in, as well, and thus when I looked at the route and determined this to be about a 20-hour drive...

...cue ominous music, as that estimate was off by about 4 hours...

... I decided that our first day of the trip would be a (relatively) short 8 hour drive to the tip of Illinois

("It's where Huck was trying to get Jim to in order for Jim to be free," I helpfully, if possibly inaccurately, pointed out to Sweetie in order to describe where we were headed.)

where we would take in a tourist sight, and then the next day we would have that second drive of about 10-12 hours...

...hey, what's that ominous music?...

 and get to Florida late in the evening, so that we would be free to go to our rooms at the time-share instead of having to go to the big rooms where everyone else would be staying and mingle.  Or, as I put it to Sweetie:

"When we get to Florida, your Mom is going to want to hang out with you as soon as we arrive.  So if we have a long drive Saturday, and then a short drive Sunday, you'll drive for 20 hours..."

...seriously, what's up with that music?...

..."and end up having to hang out and mingle all Sunday night, and do you want that?"

Sweetie agreed she did not want that and so our plan was to have the short drive Saturday, see a tourist-y site, and then have a longer drive Sunday, arriving late enough that day that we could simply go to bed and put off hanging out with people until Monday.

And now that was all going to be thrown off by the rental car.  Plus, we hadn't even gone to the Urgent Care yet.

To be continued...
This is Sweetie's car. In a parking lot at a hotel in Metropolis, IL: Foreshadowing!

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