Monday, July 8, 2013

Every traveler needs a piece of good luck

     My elder son first appeared in my Sun-Times column in 1996, in a somewhat unhinged piece mocking Republican Al Salvi for dragging his family into his political commercials. The lad's picture was tucked beside the column, which begins:

     Meet my 10-month-old son. His name is Ross, and well, I hope you'll excuse a proud father for saying that he is the most handsome baby who ever spat milk.
     Take a look at his picture. Am I right? Cute? Of course he is. Other babies look like folk dolls in comparison; their eyes all skewed, their hair sticking out like a maniac's.
     Now, I'm not ashamed to say that I write this column entirely for Ross' benefit. Other columnists -- no names, please! -- write for other, less noble reasons. Fame, money, easy sex with strangers.
     That's their right. It's a free country, unfortunately. They are the kind of people they are, and I am the kind of person I am: a pro-family kind of person. A loving dad person. A sensitive guy person.
     Look at that picture again -- Ross', not mine. Kiss it. Go ahead. What's the matter with you? Uptight? Can't give a baby's picture a little kiss? Go ahead. Mmmmmmm-whap!     There, doesn't that feel good? Now say "Ross, I love you." Go ahead, say it! "I wuvvvvv you..."
     Sorry. I'll stop. It's just I was watching television one morning last week and up pops Republican senatorial contender Al Salvi -- whom I had forgotten existed -- showing off his family: four spunky kids, perky wife/mom and his self-proclaimed "newest reason" for running for the U.S. Senate, an infant Salvi.
     The singularity of the ad's message jarred me. I couldn't help but wonder how that gambit would fly in my own line of work. Not too well, judging from the above.

     Since then, both of our sons have popped up in the column from time to time. I try not to write about them too much, so as to avoid trying readers' patience. Though, to be honest, they're the one subject that I don't hear complaints about. Nevertheless, in recent years, as they've become teens, I've drawn the veil. There's just not much to say about teenagers that wouldn't embarrass them, or me, or both. But Ross went to China in late June, and one aspect of the trip seemed worth mentioning. The column appears in Monday's Sun-Times, and begins:

     “Do you want to take some kind of talismanic good-luck charm with you?” I asked, as my son prepared to leave for China. He looked at me blankly. “It could provide comfort in times of duress.”
     That sounds a little robotic, now that I write it down. But it is what I actually said, or close to it. I don’t talk that way to everybody. But my oldest boy — now 17 — well, he has a pilgrim elder’s formality; God knows where it comes from. Not from me, surely. He addresses his parents as “mother" and "father.” So, talking to him, I tend to slip into a kind of mannered decorum myself, which is surprising, since I’m in no way like that. Part has to be that I’m choosing each word precisely, since he’ll leap to correct my grammar if I don’t (note to proper fathers who raised their sons correctly: yes, yes, I understand that you would have put him over your knee and tanned his butt with a hickory switch the first time he did it. But he was very small, it was not my way, and I was too taken aback. We fell to discussing whether it is “who” or “whom” or whichever fine point of language he was chiding me on, and now it’s too late).
     He wasn't completely against the lucky charm idea, so I fished a little medallion out of my briefcase depicting a Cracker Jack seaman in a peacoat: "Lone Sailor - U.S. Navy."
     "Here," I said. "I got this aboard Old Ironsides. "There's a poem on the back I like."
     I started reading:

Eternal Father
Strong to save
Whose arms hath bound

the restless wave
Who bids the mighty
Ocean deep
its appointed
limits keep
Oh hear us when we
cry to thee
for those in peril 

on the sea.

     But he waved it off. No poetry. "OK," I said. "How about Ugly Dog?"

     If you are familiar with the fine line of Uglydoll comfort objects, they range from enormous, pillow-sized stuffed creatures to little, soft, keychain figures. I'll be damned if I recall when I got this 4-inch, rust-colored cyclopean dog hanging from a clip. At least four years ago, because it was dangling from my backpack when he and I climbed Avalanche Peak in Yellowstone in 2009. Lately, it has been guarding a lamp in my office. I jiggled the dog between us. He appraised it, then put it with his passport and wallet.

     "I'll photograph it at the Great Wall," he said. I waited until he was out of the room.   "Keep an eye on him," I whispered to the dog.

     The joke I always made to my wife when she was pregnant was, "At least we know where he is." I tried not to hover — you can damage your kids that way too. And in the main I haven't. But a good-luck charm, well, I've always employed them. As did my mother before; she took a dime-store glass elephant with her to Europe when she sang with the USO at 17, and my father — Mr. Rational Nuclear Physics — toted the thing around the world, from Auckland to Zaire. Regular readers might wonder how this descent into magical thinking jibes with my vaunted reasoning, and the honest answer is: I have no idea. Chalk it up to being human.

     We tracked the plane on the American Airlines website — technology does shrink distance. He had asked for my laptop, and I extorted a vow: He would write every day.

     The first email can stand in for them all. It began:

Mother and Father. The first day was nice, we visited the Jade Palace (Qing Summer Home), went on a short boat ride, had lunch, saw our pen pals, learned about traditional Chinese medicine and got foot and shoulder massages, had Peking Duck for dinner, took lots of pictures, and saw a Kung Fu show. Great wall etc. tomorrow, and hope all is well. Regards, Ross

     Ignoring that run-on sentence, it wasn't exactly the printed itinerary, but close. Both his mother and I wrote back: But how are YOU? How are you feeling? Send photos!

Nothing beyond more itinerary. Though true to his word, a daily bulletin did arrive. A dozen days flew by — that was the most surprising part. We were OK — son No. 2 got extra attention, the house was very clean — no pile of papers on the dining room table, no nest of blankets and books on the sofa.

     "This is what it'll be like when he goes to college," I told my wife, and we agreed that it was not bad. It isn't that I'm eager for him to leave, so much as his wings are formed and the time to fly nears. China was a dry run.

     Suddenly, he was in the driveway, wearing cool Chinese sunglasses, his pal's father having picked the boys up at the airport. "Jacob lost eight pounds," he announced.

     Inside, he handed out the riches of the Far East, like Marco Polo returned to Venice: chopsticks for me, a model terra cotta warrior and jade bracelet for my wife, even a Mao hat and a bag of gooey rice candy for his little brother, presents bought of his own volition, my wife and I noted. Growing up.

      Attached to his suitcase handle was the orange Ugly Dog. "Job well done," I said softly, unclipping the inert little thing and returning him to his regular duty post in my office.


  1. My favorite part of Ross' letter is the valedictory "regards."

    1. One of my favorite Demetri Martin joke.

      "Regards" is the one thing you can give in person. You have to sent it.

      You can't just walk up to someone and say "Hey Neil, regards!"

    2. Rats,

      My very 1st post here and I screw it up. It should have read:

      "Regards" is the one thing you CAN'T give in person.

  2. By the way, what was your son doing in China anyways? Was this a graduation present?

  3. @Chris -- no worries. Human error is a leitmotif in my work; @David -- he went with his Mandarin class; hasn't graduated yet, he'll be a senior this year.

    1. Neil,

      That must be one very upper crust high school. I recall trips to museums and the like but China was never on the list of choices. :-)

    2. It would only be upper-crust if the school paid for it by dipping into its preposterously large "field trips" fund. I suspect that the Steinbergs funded not only Ross' trip but also contributed their share of the staff chaperones' trips to make this happen (just at the Zorns did for their son's recent, similar "school trip" to Spain based at a non-upper-crust CPS high school

  4. Eric is of course correct. The trip wasn't paid for by the school -- it wasn't even sponsored by the school. It was set up by the Mandarin teacher, who assembled such a low cost package that parents were wishing she could set up more trips. Ross also paid for part of it -- his idea, which we gratefully accepted.

  5. Is it just me or are there others who can't find the rest of the story? The link goes to the Suntimes website where exactly what was above is what is there - no there there?

  6. I'm sorry for the misunderstanding but I got the impression that this trip was officially sponsored by the high school instead of being something arranged by an individual teacher. There have been high schools that took trips to China and you can read about them online. That's where I was coming from. No insults were intended. I just thought that the school was paying for most if not all of the trip.

    My daughter went overseas to Australia and New Zealand as part of the People-To-People program and we paid a pretty penny to cover the costs of the trip. She had a great time and I'm glad that it sounds like Neil's son did as well in China.

  7. @Anonymous -- it continues after the ad. @David -No insult taken.

  8. We used to have a colorful little plastic turkey that became our “good luck” travel companion. A few years ago it got lost, somehow. Kinda sad …


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