Thursday, July 28, 2005

Get in the car...the movie's about to start!

I've been watching the space shuttle rotate the earth and listening to excited CNN anchors marvel at the technology aboard including the robotic camera arm that takes photos while the crew sleeps. I flip the TV off and yawn.

"Big deal," I think. "This thing has nothing on the Navi."

"The Navi" is our pet name for our new Lincoln Navigator. I purchased this behemoth, gas guzzling tank of a vehicle for my wife's 40th birthday. Because she is my wife, she insisted it come with every single extra that Lincoln had created so far. My wife looks at an accessory and then tries her best to concoct a hypothetical situation that would require having it aboard. Greg, I really think we need the machine gun turrets inside the rear bumper. What if we're on a date and we recognize Al Qaeda terrorists in the rear view mirror? Huh? What then?

The most pricey feature was the on board navigational system. That wasn't a tough sell because my wife's sense of direction is about as good as the Scarecrow from the Wizard of Oz. That way is a very nice way too. Of course some people do go both ways. Now, if she even feels lost, the screen on her dashboard shows her current location and can provide her with step by step directions to reach her destination. Inside the screen is, I'm convinced, the world's smartest woman. Yes, the voice is female and for good reason. If it were a man's voice, it would consistently say, "I know a shortcut."

Instead, "she" very calmly instructs my wife to "turn left at the next street, "proceed north approximately two miles" or "make a legal U-turn at the next intersection." That's her way of telling my wife she messed up. Again, a guy would not be so polite. He'd say something like, "women drivers are so stupid."

The navigation system is cool. It's the DVD player that bugs me. These days if you are looking for a family car, a DVD player is no longer an option. It's standard equipment, much like the steering wheel. My two kids sit behind us, in bucket seats that are more comfortable than a chiropractic massage chair, and, with the press of a button (either on their own personal dashboard OR by using a remote) a screen unfurls from the ceiling. Every time I hear the whirring sound, signaling that the movie theatre is open for business while we're traveling 70 down the highway, my mind drifts back to our family vacations in the 1970s when Dad piloted the station wagon to some obscure destination. For "entertainment," my sister and I drew the obligatory line in the backseat and then constantly bitched that the other person had crossed it. When we were in better moods, we spent hours looking for out of state license plates or trying to find find every letter of the alphabet on billboards. As I remember, 'q' was the toughest. Usually, we had to wait until Dad passed a liquor store.

Kids today would be oblivious if you passed Moses parting the Red Sea. That's because their heads are covered in earphones and their gaze is fixated on a screen which is no doubt showing a movie they've already seen at least 10 times. Recently, while driving at night, we pulled behind a car with two screens embedded in the seats. Worse, the screens were showing two different movies. Bravo to the car companies, I thought. You've just taught children that it's not necessary to communicate OR share.

My wife and I hate the DVD player. If we'd had a choice, we would have nixed it. But, as I said, it's standard equipment on the Navigator. So we've instituted the "90-minute" rule. No DVDs unless the car ride exceeds 90 minutes. If we're running out to Target for supplies, are kids will be forced to (INSERT GASP HERE) talk to us! What a concept. An actual conversation between two parents and their two children.

Oh, and of course one smart woman who occasionally interrupts to say, "turn left here."

Saturday, July 09, 2005

Branson, we have a problem

I've been a father long enough to realize that, the more remote the vacation destination, the sicker your child will get.

Trust me, I could take the family to a campground in the parking lot of the Mayo Clinic and, by the end of the week, everybody would still be completely healthy. But attempt a vacation in an area where one bar on your cell phone qualifies as "nationwide coverage" and it's a sure fire bet that somebody will end up with a rash, a wound, or a disease that requires immediate attention.

The latest evidence of my theory occurred two weeks ago while on a family reunion to Branson, Missouri. I'm not sure why we chose this destination as none of my wife's family is from Branson. Somebody mentioned that it was a good central location as relatives would be driving in from Dallas, Chicago, Tennesee and Alabama. After I looked on a map, I thought a better central location would have been my backyard but nobody bothered to ask me. Instead, we strapped a luggage carrier on top of our Lincoln Navigator, giving the impression that we were hauling an upside down canoe, and pointed the car toward Branson, which is rapidly becoming the Las Vegas of the Midwest, except that casinos have been replaced with Denny's.

You start seeing billboards for Branson attractions and "entertainment" about three hours before actually arriving there. That's always the first clue that it's going to be a long, boring drive. I remember taking a family vacation as a kid and, as we drove north from Chicago, advertisements for a South Dakota store called "Wall Drugs" began appearing somewhere around Lake Shore Drive. By the time we were actually in South Dakota, the signs were every 20 feet. "Only 300 miles more to Wall Drugs," "Wall Drugs is a short 100 miles away," "turn here for Wall Drugs," "hey moron, you just passed Wall Drugs. Can't you read?" Alas, the signs worked. We HAD to stop at Wall Drugs, which was simply a Wal-Mart but with hardwood floors. And it sold things you'd never find at Wal-Mart, like calf rope.

Speaking of Wal-Mart, that's how I would describe the entire town of Branson. The town is a steady stream of Airstreams, fifth wheels and mini-vans, clogging up State Road 76, a two lane nightmare of IHOP's, Denny's, all you can eat buffets and motels with pools that look as those they're cleaned once a year - in January. In the center of it all is a 24 HOUR WAL-MART, containing a magnetized force field that pulls every car off the highway and into its parking lot. After we settled in our condominium (the Schwem version of "roughing it") I went to Wal-Mart for "supplies," meaning everything except beer. I had to go elsewhere for that. I felt I had just entered the Broadway of Wal-Marts. People were actually taking pictures inside. Hey Gladys, get with the kids and stand in the chips aisle. Okay, SMILE!

Branson also is home to, according to the brochures, WORLD CLASS ENTERTAINMENT. I'm not sure what world these entertainers live in but I'd never head of 99 percent of them. I like country music so I vaguely recognized some stars such as Mickey Gilley and the Gatlin Brothers. But who were the Pierce Arrow Vocal Group, Dalena Ditto, John Tweed, the Lowe Family and Shoji Tabuchi? This Tabuchi guy bought up every billboard in Branson. I didn't see the show but, judging by the billboards, he is a Japanese guy with bad bowl haircut who plays the fiddle and is married to a hot blonde American woman. I wonder if Jerry Springer knows about them?

Most of these "entertainers" do their entertaining at 9:30 a.m. That's right, in Branson you can see world class entertainment AND have bacon and eggs at the same time. By noon you've put in a full day. Of course, my eight year old and three year old daughters didn't have much interest in seeing a Japanese fiddler so we opted for an amusement park called Silver Dollar City. We were all set to visit a water park the following day when Natalie, my eight year old, complained of a stomach ache. We'd lived through enough of these to know that Natalie didn't have your typical kid "I ate too much cotton candy" stomach ache. She'd been having bad pains for the last two months, which would linger for about 30 minutes and then disappear. Her pediatrician told us the condition could only be treated while it was occurring. "Wait until it happens again and then take her to an emergency room," he said when we called.


When the pain got worse, we relucantly loaded her in the car and drove her to Skaggs Memorial Hospital in Branson. Even the name "Skaggs" was ominous. I envisioned a medical facility run by the Skaggs Family. Hi, I'm Buford Skaggs. I'm the head doctor here. Ma Skaggs takes the X-rays, Pa Skaggs runs ICU and brother Billy Skaggs is the pharmacist. Only he's in rehab right now.

The Skaggs emergency room on a Saturday night is truly a thing of beauty. Think rednecks with injuries. Of the 12 patients waiting for treatment, Natalie was the only one not reeking of gin. A thirty something woman sat across from us in a wheelchair, with a bandage on her leg and a home made wooden splint on her wrist, which somebody had secuured with duct tape. She stunk of booze and informed us that she had "fallen down the stairs." GO FIGURE! Next to me sat a chubby girl, whose mother sat in a wheelchair and altnernated between laughter and tears. The tears flowed whenever the receptionist turned her way. I don't know if the woman was in pain or just trying to move up in the line by appearing more sick than she was. In any event, I asked the daughter how old she was.

"I'm seven but I'm fixin' to turn eight," was the reply.

"Fixin'?," I thought. "That's a pretty big word for a little redneck.

I quickly learned that medical procedures are not the same everywhere. A large sign in the emergency room said, "you are entitled to treatment even if you do not have insurance." In Chicago, I can't even get in the hospital parking lot without an insurance card. I wondered if the actual treatment would vary as well. Eventually we made it past the reception desk and met the doctor, who performed a battery of tests, gave Natalie some pain medication and instructed us to drive home the next morning and see her regular pediatrician. Natalie has since been diagnosed with severe constipation, although that required an overnight stay in our local hospital and a bunch of invasive procedures. She drinks a laxative with her juice every morning and we've promised her that, when she is better, we'll take her to see Shoji Tabuchi.