Still is Still Moving to Me

(It's a Willie Nelson song)

The 11-year-old got braces on Wednesday, and at about the same time was stricken with a severe bout of pre-adolescence.

I guess I’d be moody, too, though I never had braces. I’d been under the impression that it’s because my teeth were straight enough, but it may just be that they were straight enough for Lafayette County, Missouri. Katie assures me I would’ve met an orthodontist before last month if I’d grown up here on the East Coast.

We’ve also been talking about a little bit of summer travel (vaccines permitting), and it occurred to me to dig up an old travel piece that I was a little irked never got published. I sold it to The Boston Globe’s travel section at the same time as this piece about a trip to Germany with my father (pub. date on that one: October 2016, truly a different time!). As sometimes happens, the other one never made the paper, and it’s safe to say it won’t now, four years later.

But one thing I don’t have to worry about with this newsletter is timeliness! Plus, in the future I’ll be able to pull up this post if I need something to embarrass our budding tween with (she’s five and a half here). Of course, Katie is the hero of this story, as true then as it is today as it was … yesterday:

Without further adieu, here’s … oh, what should we call it? How about:

Can’t Take You Anywhere

We left Cambridge at 11 a.m. on July 1st, headed for North Conway, N.H., and for Story Land, a charmingly threadbare amusement park — like the worn elbow patches on a New England professor's corduroy jacket —scaled for the under-10 set. We’d taken our five-and-a-half-year-old daughter two years before, and she was eager to show her 18-month old brother the ropes.

“Ike, you're not big enough to ride all the rides, but you can ride some of them,” Annie said.

Ike chewed on his book.

After stopping for gas and picking up a thank-you gift for the folks we'd be staying with in Vermont later in the week, we made it almost to I-93 before we had to turn around to grab the stroller we'd left at home.

So we actually left Cambridge at noon on July 1st, headed for North Conway and for Story Land, the DisneyWorld that time forgot.

“Are we still in Cambridge?” Annie asked.

“Yes,” my wife said, before delivering the message that would, over the next several days, punctuate the hours as prayer, chorus, and mantra: “but we're on our way now and it's a long drive so feel free to close your eyes.”

In retrospect, we're lucky we made it as far as we did before the whimpering started. Soft at first, accompanied by audible shifting in her car seat, the “nnnnnhhhhs” and “aaaaaaaahhs” of discomfort became “I have to pee! Nnnnnnnnhhh, nnnnnh, I have to go pee pee!”

We'd been on the road for less than an hour.

Downplay, delay, distract — what are you most excited to do at Story Land? What do you think you'll do when you start camp next week? As wife engaged daughter, I sped past several unpromising exits. On I-95 now, I was looking for a sign that guaranteed a Dunkin’ Donuts. I'd like to say this was due to relative confidence in the chain’s restroom cleanliness, but I also needed more coffee.

We made the exit at Newburyport — still in Massachusetts — Annie's keening now a high-pitched moan. Judging from the volume and urgency, and with a discount for five-year-old dramatics, I put the odds of her making the restroom without incident at about 60-40. As it turned out, that was not the issue.

The toddler and I waited outside. He was strapped into his seat. I stood at the open rear passenger door playing peekaboo. Ike grew tired of the game after about 20 minutes — just 19 minutes later than I did — so we unstrapped and went inside to see what was taking so long, and to get Daddy that coffee.

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The family’s other half had made three separate trips to the bathrooms, including one to the “disgusting” men's room, in futile, frustrating and painful efforts to get Annie to literally relieve herself. Ike patrolled the Dunkin' seating area; I winced as Annie screamed from the restroom.

Dunkin’s patrons winced, too. It sounded as though my wife was performing a whiskey-less Civil War-era field amputation. When Katie emerged from the bathroom with the still-yowling five-year-old wrapped around her, the fact that Annie was using all four limbs to cling to her mother may be the only thing that kept the customers from calling Child Protective Services on us.

“OK. Daddy,” Katie, using her manage-the-crisis tone: soothing, deliberate, yet urgent. “We're going to go to find the hospital, which is nearby.” My quest for an iced coffee just happened also to have led us to the exit for Newburyport's Anna Jaques hospital. I dropped Annie and Katie off at the emergency room, and set out to find a park that might entertain my son.

This is probably a good place to mention that we are not the kind of parents who rush to the hospital every time their kids fall down the stairs. It's just that, two nights earlier, Annie had come into our room around 5 a.m. to ask an urgent question:

“Mommy? What happens when you swallow a penny?”

That woke us up. After some impromptu interrogation, we decided that Annie had probably dreamed her coin-swallowing. In consulting with several pediatrician-friends, we learned the likeliest outcome would be for the penny to pass through her system without incident, and the best strategy was probably to watch and wait.

Back in Newburyport we were regretting that decision, feeling guilty about it, even.

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Ike and I drove around, listening to podcasts. He fell asleep. I bought another coffee. It rained hard. Katie sent text-message updates:

— OK. We are checked in and waiting triage. I think they might fast track her bc she's the only kid.

—  Otherwise the waiting room is packed.

—  We are going [to be] here forever. Haven't been to triage yet.

— She shouldn't have anything to eat/drink until we are sure she won't need any procedures.

—  We just had triage. Then to see NP and likely to get xray.

After my phone buzzed with, of all things, a tornado warning, Ike and I drove back to the hospital about two hours after we'd dropped them off.

X-ray update: no penny, nothing in there at all but an inordinate amount of poop. When we got to the emergency room’s “Fast Track” waiting area, Annie was alternately taking ginger walks around the floor and tiny sips of apple juice, as she waited for the procedure that would, as it were, get things moving. Ike and I played dump the crayons on the floor to distract from his sister's muffled cries of discomfort down the hall.

It worked! Everything came out OK, as my uncle would say. And so, we left Newburyport around 5 p.m., headed for New Hampshire, and Story Land, home of all your child's favorite characters who are also in the public domain.

Nothing tires like tedium, and the 1-2 boredom punch of waiting — and waiting — for health care professionals to rule out the possibility our daughter was also a piggy bank combined with the standard-issue monotony of a long car ride was doubly exhausting. So it was a treat to get off the interstate and on to the winding, two-lane New Hampshire highway that would take us to the door of the hotel in North Conway, right on the border of the White Mountain National Forest. We still had an hour to go, but at least the drive was increasingly beautiful. The trees grew denser, and the mountains rose on either side of us. The kids looked out their windows, Katie looked at her phone for a place to eat dinner, and I looked out at the road ahead as it wound back and forth, up and dow...

“Ugh, GROSS, Ike!” came the cry from the backseat. It was the big sister, hours removed from her first enema, disgusted by her brother’s vomit.

Ike cried and flung his puke around; Katie gave me directions to the nearest restaurant she’d identified as a possibility. We pulled in to the parking lot, Katie dislodged the boy and stripped him bare as I did my best to wipe down the carseat with baby wipes.

“I have to go I have to go I have to go!”

Annie was no longer constipated.

Annie and Katie hurried into the restaurant’s bathroom; I rummaged through our luggage for a suitable replacement outfit; Ike stood wailing in the gravel parking lot, naked save for his shoes. It turned out that the restaurant had a 45 minute wait. We went to the pizza joint across the street.

And so, at 8 p.m., we left Oliver's Pizza, headed for our hotel room in North Conway. At check-in I had one question: “Does this hotel have a bar?”

It did not.

The next day, finally at Story Land, home of the world's mildest attractions, we stood in line for 20 minutes to ride ... the cars, those self-driving ones on a track where all you have to do is push the pedal and pretend to steer. There wasn't much to look at in line, except for old maps of Story Land through the years, and an advertisement for your very own Story Land driver's license. It attempted to attract parents with this tagline-cum-taunt:

“Want a reminder of your visit to Story Land all year long?”

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How Do You Finish a Book?

No interview in the department this week, but some great ones one the way!

In the meantime check out my friend Julian Zabalbeascoa’s interview with Irish novelist and short story writer Kevin Barry in The Believer: “I have noticed in my own work it’s hard to go for the kind of comic lines at the moment, the real boom-tish comic lines. It’s hard to lean into those right now. You think, Who am I fucking kidding?”

Barry offers this: “I’ve essentially convinced myself of two things. One, that there is a God and, two, that she only turns on the internet at 12 noon. I’ve got these two things. So I don’t go online in the morning. I don’t check my phone. I don’t leave it in the bedroom, no devices are allowed. And I just stay in the analog offline world until 12 noon, and that’s plenty enough to give me the space to write before I go to the jittery online mode. I find if I go there first thing in the morning, my mind is whirring at that online pace.”

Me: This is great advice Mr. Barry.

Also Me: <wakes up to pee at 3 a.m. and looks at his phone>

I really enjoyed Hannah Gersen’s piece in The Millions, How to Get the Muse to Visit: “The Muse doesn’t care if your work is worthwhile and neither do I. I just want you to have more fun. And I want to have more fun. I wrote these for myself, obviously.”

This is the kind of writing advice I like: there’s a premise — the muse is an actual visitor — but it doesn’t take itself too seriously or get incoherently spiritual.

The Substack Conundrum

If you’re a person who is not obsessed with media circles talking to themselves, you probably don’t know that there’s a somewhat-roiling debate about the platform via which I’m sending out this missive. The Columbia Journalism Review has a pretty in-depth overview here.

I’m just noting — for those of you who are obsessed with and/or members of those media circles — that I’m aware of the discussion, and I may at some point change platforms. For now, I’m following the path writer and publisher Anne Trubek lays out in this thoughtful post.

Thanks for reading!

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