THE HAPPIEST PLACE ON EARTH

1344713366975_2498279 Can’t get enough family “together” time over the holidays? Try taking a vacation with your family. Maybe go to Disney World. Although, I can only assume you went to Disney World the week after Christmas like us, since it seemed like every family that ever existed was there.

My family of origin has never taken a Christmas Vacation. We thought it would be perfect to go right after Christmas, because we would have the dogs with us in Chicago, and there would be plenty of people in the area to care for the dogs. However, Sensation’s newest issues with Leukemia, plus the fact that he was due for a seizure made choosing a pet sitter complicated. In the end, we didn’t feel right putting that sort of pressure and responsibility on certain friends and family members, and the others, well, the others we just plain didn’t trust. We’ll let you decide in what category you think you belong.

So, we placed our dogs under the care of the Morton Grove Animal Hospital. We were very hesitant to board them because of a nightmare experience when we went with my family to Hawaii in 2008. The boarding facility we always used had new owners, and from what I can tell, they had no instincts for working with special needs dogs. I won’t go into all the details, but at one point, they were convinced that my sleeping dog was dead. Clearly, they didn’t realize that Sensation is immortal. Ultimately, we made the right choice this time, as they came back chipper and smelling clean, free of any signs of trauma. So, either the staff did a great job, or they brainwashed the dogs to think they had a great experience.

If you’ve never gone on a vacation with your family, then I can tell you right now the instant benefits of such an adventure: - You all know each other really well. So, you can really get under each others’ skin when necessary. Also, when it’s not necessary. - At the same time, you really don’t know each other at all any more. So, it’s a friendly surprise when you discover everyone wants to do something different. It’s the perfect opportunity to enjoy some soothing regression. - Every moment is an opportunity to see the humanity of your family members - especially, how everyone must eventually go to the bathroom. Just not at the same time. If you can wait until five minutes after the last person went before announcing your need to stop, then you can memorize all the bathroom locations of all Disney parks. I’ll be writing a travel book. - You are your own crowd, so you have the bonus challenge of moving your crowd through the larger crowd. A real character-builder.

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The most important aspect of the trip was giving my parents the experience of spending time with their family again, just like when we were kids. Togetherness. It never gets old. And by never, I mean day 5. But, it’s an acceptable side effect of enmeshment. If you can take your family for who they are, and not expect them to change to fit your needs – well then frankly, I don’t think you’re a family. Seriously, it’s the dynamic of regression that I look forward to enjoying every trip home.

But, if I take a healthy view on the vacation, then success is available with the right perspective. For example, if I expected this trip to be a romantic getaway with my wife, then it would’ve been a total failure. If I expected this trip to be a non-stop adventure of spills and thrills that you might expect from a world-class theme park, then it similarly would’ve been a total failure. And finally, if I expected this trip to be a quiet, relaxing escape into luxurious decompression from the hustle and bustle of a crazy work schedule, then yes, you guessed it – it would’ve been an epic failure. Except for that 2 hours at the spa. That was sublime. However, the 2-hour (5 mile) shuttle ride back from the spa successfully decompressed the decompression. I’m not complaining. I’m just saying that if I had taken the trip with any of these expectations, then I would be complaining. But, I’m not.

It never was supposed to be any of those kinds of vacations. This trip was always intended to be a mix of family together time. And in those respects, it was a total success. I’m thankful that I get along with my family, and that we can make each other laugh – even if it’s at the expense of one another. This is the kind of life my parents had always dreamed about when they grew up diving under the bed to avoid the physical punishment acceptable at the time, or slaving over a stove instead of having fun with friends. They improved on the family dynamics they faced growing up. For example, they never got to go on a vacation as an adult with their parents, unless you count that wedding in Wisconsin (which by the way included some mad crazy polka dancing, so I guess it wasn’t that bad).

Of course, we all had our low moments on the trip – like the fight over whether my brother should go back to ride the Pirates of the Caribbean after hours on his own, or when I chose to make a joke to my sister-in-law instead of helping her off the ground, which led to a fall and infected finger. Believe me, I am sorry for this lack of judgment, but sometimes comedy wins over good judgment. Actually, comedy always wins over good judgment.

On the other hand, everyone had at least one moment of getting what they wanted. My moment was the rock n roll roller coaster. That ride does not screw around. It starts fast and never slows down until the very end. Add some music in the headrest, and it’s a no-brainer win-win. I’m not a huge Aerosmith fan, but it works in darkness at 50 mph. I also enjoyed the ice cream. Bonus.

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And my mom got what she wanted – one final trip with the family to Disney World. A trip that won’t ever happen again. In fact, that was her mantra for the last few days: “this is the last time – this is it – we’ll never do this again, you know – enjoy it, because this is the last time.” What’s that about?

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Traditions define most of my childhood. Outside of the daily routines like nickel lunch milk cartons and beatings from the local bully, each holiday carried a unique set of expectations — from the annual blowing up plastic models on the Fourth of July, as well as the Easter hunt for a good hospital after Grandma collapses from exhaustion. Through all the holidays, pranks with my cousins kept us particularly cheery. My fondest Christmas memory involved tricking our parents into thinking we were breaking Grandma’s fine china. Good times.

Eventually, the traditions evolved as the family structure changed. I resisted the changes at first. I clung to these rules that seemed to define the very culture of our family (when in reality, they merely defined our tendency to form habits). My resistance even led to my first major fight with my wife. After only five hours of Christmas at my Grandparent’s house, she wanted to leave — outrageous, right? I mean, we hadn’t even started the scotch-fueled poker game, much less put out the leftovers for the third meal of the day. So, I avoided her, ducking from room to room for at least another two hours until I could get my paws on a beef sandwich. Later that night, she spent more time letting me know what I did wrong than we the time we spent at the party.

It only took a few years of therapy to realize that her complaints were reasonable. I finally opened up the door to new traditions. In fact, for a while, I embraced the creation of new traditions so much, I didn’t want any of them to remain traditions. Why not do something different each time to avoid feeling stagnant?

That ill-conceived tradition didn’t last too long, though. Creating original experiences each holiday quickly exhausted me, and I went back to accepting some traditions as a comfort. After a busy year, I now understand the benefit of some habits that give the holiday a little structure.

So, here are some photos to document a few of my current holiday traditions:

Santa-palooza at the Willowbrook Ballroom with the Outcast Jazz Band (nothing like playing jazz in a Santa hat!)


My lovely office view for the self-imposed daily writing retreat at Caribou Coffee


Senior citizen-style dinner on New Year’s Eve (i.e. 4:00pm or earlier)


My niece Sydney and Goldie keeping secrets from me (you can totally tell they’re spreading vicious rumors!)

 

Our annual intervention with Sensation after another “snow” bender


Goldie’s driving shift during the annual road trip from Los Angeles to Chicago

 

Happy New Year to all!

Break's Over

Whenever I plan ahead enough, I can travel back to Chicago for another gig with my friends in the Outcast Jazz Band. During the Christmas break, we played our annual Christmas Swing Extravaganza at the Willowbrook Ballroom. It’s an old-fashioned dance hall ball room that hosts the event every year, with swing dance lessons before the big band plays.

I find the experience of playing live in the middle of 17 other creative musicians to be nothing short of sublime. In addition to playing fun music, I goof around quite a bit. Unfortunately, this time I had a difficult time staying focused due to my obsession with capturing my life on Facebook, and the performance suffered. It was easier in the 90’s to tell long stories and jokes during the measures of rests (even two beats could be enough time for a really great one-liner), but that was when we played the same music over and over. I actually had to sight-read at this gig, which means I should’ve been paying attention, not taking the above photos to upload.

As great as the fun on the bandstand, the breaks can often provide the most entertainment. With a drink in one hand, and a stolen piece of wedding cake in the other, I have heard some of my most offensive and exciting stories of my life. And in my early years, I may have even lived the offensive and exciting story myself.

For this reason, we tend to take our time returning to work. And, if we don’t police ourselves, the bridal party will eventually begin to wonder why they paid us. We once spread a break to 25 minutes, causing the mother of the bride to unleash some offensive curses herself.

So, now I must tell myself “Break’s over!” I took some time off of blogging over Christmas. I spent it fine-tuning my script for the web series first episode, location-scouting, auditioning, and then deciding that the script needs to change. Why? Because I’m not enjoying it. My analytical mind takes over sometimes, and I wind up with a tight story, without making myself laugh. If I can’t laugh, then what’s the point?

I’ve been going over the story of the whole series, and I’m battling in my mind between making a full in depth feature script, and just having fun with it episode by episode. After all, the character we discover in ourselves makes the journey all the more worth it. That sentence is an example of my efforts to use the types of poetic phrases I’ve heard before and reuse them to teach a lesson.

What’s the point of all this? I’m tired. And this is after a 3 week break. 3 weeks is not enough? Sure, I had to deal with my family. That can be exhausting. And not because we are arguing or battling some serious dysfunction. We don’t live our lives the same way, and forcing ourselves to live together for 2 weeks puts a strain as we get along.

But, I’m still tired. What did I do today? I wrote a little. I watched TV. I worked out on my new fabulous Wii Fit (thanks mom and dad!), and watched more TV. Okay, I did laundry as well, but it was a relaxing day overall. And now I’m tired. It’s 11:24pm, so that kind of explains it. But, if I had a kid, I think I would be BT (beyond toast).

Ultimately, I come back to that argument again and again - don’t have kids because I’m lazy. Nice. But, then I remember the joy of playing in the band all over as we begin playing our second set of music. So, ending the break isn’t so bad. I can find a unique life experience from the Outcast Jazz Band that has rewarded me for 19 years since I joined. It’s work, but it’s worth it.