Month: August 2013

Down the Shore: Confessions of a Trash Bag Traveler

It appears as if I am channeling Noah in my parenting–yes, that Noah. Everything we do seems to involve the number 2: Two boys, two cats, and, now, two dogs. It is no surprise that with such a menagerie, we would need two cars to go spend a week “down the shore” on Long Beach Island.

As I made my way to the beach in the dog car, along with two crates and a variety of other “essentials”, I couldn’t help but think about my own childhood shore travels. How different the journey to my in-laws’ place was from my family’s trek to Wildwood, New Jersey thirty-some years ago. Hard to believe that we crammed into ONE vehicle–all seven kids and our parents. Yes, NINE of us in one station wagon. We lapped it, we sat in the way-way back, and one or two rode shotgun with mom and dad, who smoked their Kool 100s in a futile attempt to escape the chaos that surrounded them. All of this was done without a single seat belt or child-proof lock. I’m sure we even hung out the windows–I know that’s where we threw our trash–the Now and Later or Juicy Fruit gum wrappers.


How did we all fit in that one wagon with all of our luggage? We didn’t. The luggage, I mean.  Most of us were given a large green trash bag and told to fill it with whatever we wanted to bring to the beach. Yes, my two sisters belongings were placed in with my parents’ luggage, and the five boys traveled a la Hefty.  My bag weighed three times as much as I did, and included the $35.00 I had saved for months from my paper route. I placed the wad of money in my bell bottom jeans, which I packed right next to my Starskystarsky_hutch and Hutch sweater. We all received these sweaters for Christmas, and I overheard the older kids–I am fifth in line–say that they were bringing theirs for the boardwalk. I couldn’t wait to belt my sweater around my waist and get in touch with my inner Huggy Bear while cruising the rides at Morey’s Pier.

After placing every piece of summer clothing from my drawers inside the trash bag, I dragged it downstairs to the car. There, I looked at four other similar bags–each stuffed not with trash, but all of our treasures. This was the highlight of our summer, our year. We felt lucky–special–because we got to say we went on a vacation to the beach. Vacations were a luxury in my neighborhood. Yet there we were, headed to The Al Sands Beach Hugger Motel on Third Avenue in Wildwood, where we would rent two rooms for a whole week. Two rooms for eleven people. My grandparents stayed with us (I think they actually paid for our lodging). That meant eleven people crammed into two compartments. Of course my parents and grandparents stayed in the same room with my younger brother and sister (twins) and me. I never seemed to make the cut off into cool-dom. The four eldest got to stay in the other room, right next door. I was still small enough to share a cot with the twins, but I hated every minute of it.

Back in the driveway, my father was faced with a dilemma: Where the hell was he going to put all of this damn stuff? This is what I loved about my parents–with so many kids, they did not have time to check our bags, nor did they have the sense to tell us what to pack. We were left to our own sensibilities–or lack thereof. My dad’s solution was to throw the bags on top of the station wagon and tie them down with string. STRING. Now, we were the type of family who lacked many tools and equipment. There was no garage to store these items in anyway. We were lucky if we could locate a hammer and nail–although never in the same location. And there was no need for a screwdriver–a butter knife would do just fine. So, of course there was no camper thingy to place on the roof–camper-thingys were for rich people, or at least those who were better prepared. And God knows where he got the string. It was equivalent in strength to a spool of dental floss. I would say that it WAS dental floss, but I am certain there was none of that in our house, either–again, made for rich people.

Going_and_ComingWith the bags piled high on the top of the roof, and mom and dad’s luggage wedged in the back with a few pairs of knobby knees, we headed down I-95 to the Walt Whitman Bridge–the portal to ocean paradise–or, if you live in a large, crazy family, Hell in another location. Car rides were always a nightmare, but long car rides were insufferable. This was pre-head phones, people. No one could tune out everyone else–or pretend to. You were stuck–literally stuck– in a position. The radio was a constant source of resentment–nine people just couldn’t seem to agree on a station. Any game attempt ended in a fight that could involve fists and hair pulling; sing-alongs died off in seconds, and everyone just counted the minutes until we could get out and stretch our limbs. Of course there were always fart wars, and staring contests, and name that tune, but nothing made the journey more tolerable. And someone always had to go to the bathroom as soon as we pulled out of the driveway, but we had to hold it. Holding it became a source of pride.

We had just settled in for our misery on the interstate when my mom chirped up: “Look at those people pointing to our roof and making fun of us.” “Joanne, relax,” my father said, annoyed that she was probably right. Embarrassed, my father sped up to get away from them. “Yeah, we know,” he said, more to us than the car he just left behind. “They should mind their own business,” said my mom. And it dawned on us in the back of the car… THIS WAS NOT A NORMAL WAY TO TRAVEL. Other people didn’t travel with trash bags. Other people had suitcases, or maybe duffel bags. Other people would at least hide the bags among the bodies in the back. But noooo, not us. There was our trash bag mountain, on display for the world to see.

Within a few moments, another car was honking at us. My dad huffed and puffed his way out of the passing lane, thinking it was because he was moving too slowly. “Dad, they’re pointing at you,” my brother said from the back. My dad rolled down his window, as did the other car’s passenger. “Hey Pal, you lost your bags a few miles back. We’ve been trying to get your attention.” “Uhh, thanks,” my dad mumbled, a bit dazed. “Oh, no,” said my mom. “Oh, Jesus God, please no!” “Joanne, relax,” said my dad. We made a U-turn on the highway and headed back to the on-ramp. Then, we exited and entered I-95 again. We found nothing.  Not one stitch of clothing. All of the bags were gone. This whole ordeal transpired within twenty minutes, and we lost everything–including my bell bottom jeans, my paper route money, and all 5 Starsky and Hutch sweaters.

We witnessed this realization from inside the station wagon. There we were, still crammed like sardines, with my dad standing outside the driver’s seat, looking out at the cold, unforgiving highway. His eyes then turned to the roof of the car–it was barren. My mother burst into tears, “Why us, God? Why? Dammit anyhow!” “Joanne!” said my dad, who hated any curse word.

We drove the rest of the way in stunned silence. Nine people trying to figure out how one family could cause such a ruckus. My brothers and I made mental lists of all of our clothes and other belongings that were now in the sweaty hands of some other family with too many mouths to feed. I lamented every dollar that I stowed away in my jeans–You fool, thought I. Never store your money in a trash bag on the roof of a moving car! Then, my Catholic guilt kicked in, and I considered how the trash bags could have caused a major pile-up on the interstate. How strands of plastic bag could have blinded other drivers’ windshields who could have lost control. So I lost everything I owned. Others could have been killed, for Christ’s sake.


When we arrive at The Beach Hugger Motel in beautiful Wildwood, everyone is hot and tired. Body parts are peeled off of other body parts and vinyl seats. We exit the car. No one knows what to do. Unload the luggage? Ha! Change into our bathing suits for a swim in the pool? We have none.  I follow my mom into the motel office. The man at the desk is cheery and kind. He hands her the keys for two adjoining rooms.

We file up the stairs to the second floor. The outdoor speakers blast Paul McCartney: “Someone’s knockin’ at your door, somebody’s ringing the bell…” The pungent smell of the ocean awakens our senses. “Do me a favor? Open the door, and let ’em in.” Our rooms are clean and chilled from the air conditioning. There is an ice machine down the hall where we can get all the free ice we need. I go into the “big kids” room, hoping that this time I will make the cut–I don’t. But for now, we jump on the beds and turn on the TV, catching a groovy episode of The Partridge Family.

My mom goes out to Woolworth’s and buys several packages of underwear, 2 shorts, 2 shirts, and a bathing suit apiece. She does laundry every day. Throughout the week, we swim in the motel pool, we ride waves at the beach, we get sunburned, we eat too much, we lick melting ice cream cones in our hands, we go to the boardwalk. We make do. My family is crazy. We have shitty luck. But we make do.

The Wildwood summers do not last. They don’t become a family tradition. They don’t graduate into a beach house for a week every July, or a vacation elsewhere every summer. The few summers at the shore we had were quite eventful and unpredictable. But there was one thing you could count on from that trip forward: my father never stored anything else on the car roof–EVER!

Portrait of an Artist as a Weird Man: Now with Man Boobs


My son Owen’s latest rendition of me. This was a quick sketch he did the other night to delay going to bed. You can tell it’s summer because he drew me shirtless (which I was not at the time) and he has me wearing shorts. This is his first attempt at giving me hair all over: On my legs it looks a bit like lacy ballet slippers; my beard is actually just a few days of summer scruff, and my chest hair looks like a tattoo of an oak tree. Also, his attempt at giving me pecs makes it appear as if I am in the middle of a gender reassignment–I am not:) Owen is very cute, though. He said, “I’m going to draw you thinking about your 2 favorite things–coffee and cake.” And I think that’s a book flying towards my hands. Got to admit, this boy knows his father–even if he still gives him the arms of a T-Rex.

A Modest Proposal for Preventing the Singing of Happy Birthday from Becoming More of a Burden on Parents, Family Members, Friends, and the World At Large

It happened again on Sunday. There I was, enjoying a delicious summer barbecue at a neighbor’s house. The food was plentiful, the weather balmy, so much so that I forgot the occasion for our being there–an 8 year-old’s birthday party. The kids had a blast, we had some drinks, and all was merry, until…until it came time to sing “Happy Birthday.”

My hatred of this song sneaks up on me. I forget how insufferable it can be, because I am so excited for the cake–those who know me well, know I am obsessed with all things cake. When did singing “Happy Birthday” become so annoying? It is either so drawn out that it may as well be a funeral march, or it is hijacked by screaming kids who think it’s a contest to see who can shout it the loudest. Adults sing it with such monotonous dread that it takes longer to finish than it does to bake the damn cake; kids just holler it at you.

The other night, I was watching Arbitrage with Richard Gere and Susan Sarandon. The movie begins with Gere’s character’s birthday. A successful billionaire, his cake is kingly–larger than our master bedroom. But when it is wheeled out by his butler–complete with sixty candles (!), his family simply says “Happy Birthday Dad/Honey/Grandpa.” Then, he makes a little speech. I loved this scene. I want to try it at my upcoming birthday. Let’s just say “Happy Birthday” everyone–I don’t even have to make a speech. Hell, I don’t even need a butler to serve it to me. Just a simple spoken gesture of well wishing and then– let’s eat!

IMG_0055I realized how bitter I was about this song when my younger son turned five. There we were, birthday boy, brother, parents and grandparents, singing our hearts out. Yet, it took us so damn long to finish the second line that Hayden simply blew out IMG_0057the candles. Just like that, the song was over. We stopped, somewhat dumbfounded. Then, I burst out laughing and said, “Well, okay, let’s cut the cake.” He knew! A five-year-old knew that all of this pomp made for too much circumstance. It was as if he was saying “While we’re young, people. While we’re young.”

I don’t enjoy being such a party pooper. In fact, I like birthdays. I like celebrating the lives of the people I care about. But the devolvement of this tradition irks me. Even as a child, I remember being annoyed when someone introduced the trend of adding “How old are you? How old are you?” to the end of the song. Or the crueler, but similarly inane, “You act like a monkey, and you look like one, too.” I think that one bugged me because I DO look like a monkey. Anyhow, every year, I share my observations about our society’s annoying birthday renditions with my students– a captive audience (emphasis on the word captive). I tell them to fight the injustices that have been done to this song, and encourage the group to avoid dragging it out. In addition, I tell them that they have the power to start the singing and set the pace. Once candles are lit, and lights are dimmed, no one wants to actually begin. Thus, I tell them to take control. In a loud, throaty voice, just utter the sound “HAP-” and the rest of the group will chime in with “BE-Birthday to you…” It never fails. Whenever one says that first syllable, the rest join in on the second syllable. Try it at your next party, and see for yourself. You may even want to just sing that one noise and then watch as the rest of the gang finishes the entire number. It is highly entertaining to watch the faces of your friends and family sing, while their eyes are transfixed on the flickering candles.

Growing up, we were a traditional “Happy birthday to you, Happy birthday to you, happy birthday dear So-and-so, happy birthday to you” sort of family. We sang it faster than any song we knew–be it a TV theme song (“The Brady Bunch, The Brady Bunch”) or commercial jingle (“Plop, plop, fizz, fizz; Oh, what a relief it is”) . We’d finish in less than fifteen seconds. I guess with seven kids, everyone was preoccupied with diving into the cake.  As an adult, particularly as a dad, I have come to realize that there are the traditional singers of “Happy Birthday” and the obnoxious upstarts who have to add the “Cha Cha Cha’s”. What. The. Hell. I had never encountered this until I had kids of my own. To make matters worse, there are those who take over the song (my sons’ included), who think it’s funny to add all manner of absurd imagery to the end–in addition to all of the Cha, Cha, Cha’s. Allow me to enlighten those of you who are lucky enough to have been spared such a lengthy performance:

. . . “Happy birthday dear So-and-so, happy birthday to you.” Note: The song should end here. But, Nooo. It then continues with:

“Cha, Cha, Cha. Ohh, la, la. Hi-Ya. Scooby-doo, we love you. Winnie the Pooh, We love you, too.”

Enough! E-nough I say. Let’s take back Happy Birthday. Let’s make it a quick, sentimental rendition. Let’s stop letting people yell it at the top of their lungs. Let’s stop adding nonsensical lyrics to a simple musical gesture.

Therefore, I propose that anyone who feels the need to ruin the Happy Birthday song be “accidentally” burned with the hot wax from the candles, which are now mere wick-nubs because a few big mouths had to take so freakin’ long to wish someone well, that the candles melted into the cake. It will only take a few “accidents” for your guests to get the hint. And besides, the pain will subside that much quicker with the taste of all that sugary icing in the victims’ mouths–but the scars will serve as a reminder for all future celebrations.

If this issue does not make you feel as sadistic as it does me, could you at least give the offenders a considerably smaller piece of cake? Thanks!

Warning: This diatribe is not meant for toddlers or senior citizens.