Sunday, May 25, 2008

On the Road Again...

Greetings from Southern California, where my family and I are spending the Memorial Day weekend. We took a few extra days off, giving us a five-day weekend, and we drove down to my Aunt's place on Saturday.

Driving from Sacramento to Riverside could probably be done in seven hours of road time, if the traffic wasn't too bad (and it wasn't yesterday). However, traveling with three kids--ages five, three, and one--is a little tricky. Among other things, you've got to stop at least twice for food, and you should never count on it taking less than an hour per stop. And you'll have to stop for gas at least once. This can be tough on kids. You can just tell from the one-year-old's expression that he's thinking: "You aren't going to put me back in that seat again? Not again? No!!! Not fair! This isn't right!" And truth be told, I don't blame him one bit.

And then there is the whole potty-time issue. One of our girls is potty-trained, but is still very young. One of them is in potty training. So, we have to think strategically: when was the last time we stopped? Did they pee then? Can we wait the additional twenty minutes so we can stop in Mojave, or do we need to stop here in Tehachapi? Man, I can't wait until their bladders are bigger.


And then there's the sheer boredom. No, it goes past boredom into the realm of ennui, almost to realm of nihilism.

Now when I was a kid, the most common game that was used to pass the time could be called the "Quit Touching Me" game. You know the one! Somehow, the fact that we kids weren't allowed to goof off meant that goofing off became entirely irresistible. What would typically happen is that the older kids would realize that they could get the younger ones in trouble merely by making goofy faces--quietly. At this point the younger ones would start to giggle, and would make goofy faces back, but this time with noisy sound effects, which would then set off the parents:

Don't Make Me Come Back There!

If you don't stop right now, we're turning around and going straight home!

Any more of that and we'll make you get out and walk the rest of the way!

Incidentally, my parents actually followed through on this last threat once. We were on our way home from somewhere or other, and they made my younger brother get out and walk about half a mile away from the house. Then my older brother and I were looking at each other, thinking to ourselves: Oh no, this has never happened before. They've gone off the deep end! But we couldn't stifle the giggles either, so they pulled over about a quarter mile later and kicked me out. And then apparently they kicked my older brother out about a block or two later on.

You were smirking!

I was not!

Alas, one of the effects--for better or worse--that current child-safety-seat laws have had, is that it has reduced the opportunities to play the Quit Touching Me game. After all, if you have a family with three kids, and each one has to be in some kind of booster or five-point-harness, it means that you really can't get by with anything less than decent-sized SUV or minivan. You just aren't allowed to throw all three kids in the back seat of an econo-box anymore, since these cars just aren't big enough to hold the seats. But with each kid in his or her special seat, with one in the back row and two in those big bucket seats in the middle, they can't all see each other, and they can't reach each other to play the Quit Touching Me variant known as Stop Crossing That Line.

So mostly people get bored on these really long trips. I mean, it's pretty exciting to point out, "Oh look: cows!" the first few times. But after the first couple of hours, even a three-year-old starts to lose interest in that game. There are only so many times that you can point out trains and count the train cars, or look for out-of-state license plates....

And then there are all those games, where you are intentionally looking for things outside the cars. A favorite in my family growing up was trying to find all the letters of the alphabet, in order, in street signs and billboards and on license plates outside the car. The problem with these games is that they work best when you're trying to cross the width of New Mexico or Montana or the like, where there's not a whole lot to see. If you try to play this game along a reasonably well-populated stretch of road--and Highway 99 in California's Central Valley passes through lots and lots of little towns--it takes you all of five minutes to play this game, A through Z. There are just too many signs out there. Even the letters that you would think would be rare, like X and Z and V, are pretty common: X is in the word Exit, Z is in the word Mazda, and V is in the words Avenue and Boulevard. Of all the letters, only the Q takes any time at all; and if there are enough cars on the road, you'd expect it to show up on at least one out of every ten license plates. So of the five minutes needed to play the Find the Alphabet game, at least four of them are Find the Q. And let's face it, Find the Q would be a pretty boring game in and of itself. I'd rather count cows.

(Incidentally, this game is a lot more interesting when you play it in Germany, where I lived for four years as a kid. The various letters have different usage frequencies in the German language than they have in English. And those words I mentioned above? Well, Exit is Ausgang--no X there. The letter X is pretty rare in German. And you don't get words like Avenue or Boulevard, which came into the English language by way of those pesky French invaders; mostly the invasions on the continent went in the other direction. The word in German is Strasse. And I don't remember too many Mazdas in Germany. Even words that you would expect to help you out--like "Bavaria"--don't work, because that is an Anglicized version of the German place name "Bayern". So it takes a lot more work to play this game in Germany than it does in America--especially those parts of America with lots of Spanish-derived place names.)

Except that I'm generally the one driving, and counting cows while driving is at least as dangerous as texting while driving with a blood alcohol content of .07%.

When you think about it, it's amazing that we ever get anywhere at all without killing ourselves.

Anyway, we're here tomorrow, and then we drive back north on Tuesday. Any suggestions on how to keep us sane on the trip back north, let us know.


silvermine said...

Ah ha! Instead of letters, do numbers. They don't ever end!! And make license plates off limits.

Or do the alphabet, but make the words have to begin with that letter, maybe?

We used to play "categories" where someone would pick a category (animals, foods, whatever) and the first person says one that starts with A, the next person has to say one that starts with the last letter of that word. (Apple, Egg, Ginger, etc.) That might be too hard without kids who spell, though.

Car bingo (pictures in a bingo card of stuff you'll probably pass. Play over and over).

Laptop with movies? :D Lots of songs. Lots of new toys. Um. I dunno, I'd rather chop off my arm then go on another 6-8 hour airplane ride. Done that too many times.

FatcatPaulanne said...

Your kids might be a little bit young but we listen to audio books in the car. We love Hank the Cowdog. I think I'd go with renting a DVD player or get up very, very early so they sleep halfway there.

Chris said...

1) As usual, I'm struck by the unlikely coincidence that me and my Georgia-based family were driving along that same central valley highway just last month. Too bizarre!

2) re the alphabet game, even before kids my wife and I played this to pass the time on long trips. However, as fatcatpaulanne suggested, we always limit it to "words that begin with "a"", etc. The only exceptions being "x" and "z". Those could be found anywhere in the word. Also, it had to be an actual WORD, not just a letter. Hence, "arl" found on a license plate would not qualify, while "ark" would.

I must confess that we gave in to the in-van video player about 6 years ago. We try to focus on educational videos with just a dollop of "Angelina Ballerina" or "Curious George". However, it's a slippery slope. If you're not careful, you'll end up watching videos en route to the grocery store 2 miles away.

Timothy Power said...

Yeah, we haven't yet succumbed to the lure of the in-van DVD yet. So far we haven't needed to, but after nine-plus-hour road trips like this last weekend's, it sure is tempting.