ALWAYS AT OUR BEST
Welcome to the 8/1/99 edition of the Online Murphy TimesTM where we chronicle the continuing adventures of that intrepid Murphy Family© as they climb every mountain, and ford every stream.
"Only mediocre writers are always at their best" -- W. Somerset Maugham
I wanted to complete this edition before our trip to Chicago. The night before the trip, when it was obvious that it wasn't going to happen, I packed a yellow pad so that I could write on the trip. I thought I would be able to get all kinds of stuff written on the twelves hours on the train alone. I started the trip by writing. I really tried, but somehow I was in vacation mode and writing is not part of that mode. Denise asked to look at some of it and I showed her, with some hesitation. Hmm, its hard to read, she said. Hmm, it's not like your usual writing she said. The train bounces too much to write well, and yes, it's not my best stuff I replied. But I'll clean it up in editing. In fact, none of what I wrote was usable (I didn't even try to edit it better after reading it again), but lucky for me I couldn't really write that much. Lucky for you, my muse hadn't left me, just stayed behind, and so I was able to knock out the rest of this once I came back home. I really should try writing this more as it happens then trying to remember months later, but then I'd probably write too much of everything, and not the idealized version you get here. Not ideal, just idealized.
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As you regular readers know, The Fruit of the Murphy LoinsTMget three birthday parties: A large extended family birthday party, a small intimate family birthday party, and a friends party. This usually means that they get a week's worth of celebrating as the large family party and the friends party tend to be held on separate weekends and the small family party on their actually birthday where it falls during the week.
Erin's birthday came first, as it does every year. This is both good and bad, as it's first and that's the kind of good that needs no explination, but Kyle's is only two month's later and that means his was the most recent for ten months (as in "we just had your birthday, Kyle). We just couldn't think of what to get her, now that she's on the cusp between childhood and young adulthood, well, too old for toys but old enough for what we didn't know. So we got her her own CD/Radio player. So now we get to hear Pure Disco, Backstreet Boys, Grease, and the Brady Bunch. You haven't lived until you here the Brady Bunch do American Pie -- yes, Drove my Chevy to the levy and the levy was dry American Pie. For her party, we had a sleepover with two friends and we took them to the skating rink. We were at the 9-11 session on a Saturday night, so our party was both the youngest and the oldest there. Contrary to her friends predictions, I did not fall down on the ice. I complained about my ankles and sore feet, hung on to the railing like a drunken sailor, but I didn't fall down.
We can still get Kyle toys, and we did. Mostly things that shoot or make lots of noise. His party was at McDonald's. There's a new one by us, and they have a little room for parties. It didn't seem little when it was just the two Fearless Leaders and the two McDonald's people, but it sure filled up fast with us plus fourteen kids (his whole class again - some people just never learn!). That's when you really notice that they have no sound absorbing material in the play place/party area, and just how loud five year olds are. I've been to quieter rock concerts. Anyway, the kids had fun and that's the important thing. At least I keep telling myself that and it seems to work. Kyle especially enjoyed sitting on the throne to have his picture taken and to open his presents. And he really got a kick out of the secret, hidden present in the seat of the throne. To me it was just some cheap McDonald's placesetting, but to him it was special. Oh to be five again and have such innocent joy in simple pleasures.
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THURSDAY IN THE PARK, BY GEORGE!
The Fruit of the Murphy LoinsTM were on spring break and the weather was gorgeous. So throwing all caution to the winds, I decided to take a day off and enjoy it with them. Because of my schedule, I picked Thursday, which unfortunately was a day The Other Fearless LeaderTM had to work. So I slept late and enjoyed doing nothing during the early morning. Still, the day beckoned and stiffening my resolve, I informed the Fruit that we weren't going to watch TV in our jammies all day and that we were going to get dressed and go somewhere. Initially they resisted the idea, but they came around when I stood firm and listed a bunch of places I knew they'd like to go. They picked "the train place", i.e. the Museum of Transport, and after putting our faces on we left.
The Fruit were momentarily dismayed because the outdoor gas powered train wasn't running because we were too early in the season on a weekday. But only momentarily and we started in on clambering over the big trains, mostly engines and cabooses. We watched a real train go by on the working track adjacent to the grounds, and Kyle had a brief panic until I assured him that the train wasn't going to follow the tracks we were standing on but stay on their own set of tracks outside the museum. I was disappointed because all of the passanger cars were now open only to tours and there were no tours. The Fruit shrugged this disappointment off too. A refreshing soda and pretzel later we were off to tour the car building (I'm sure it has a real name, but that's what we call it and that's what it is). Lo and behold, the guide for this building was none other than Joe Frazier, no not that Joe Frazier, but the Joe Frazier who used to work at the flying bomb factory with me until he retired several years ago. We caught up on who was left and doing what, and then I asked him about train tours. He said he was supposed to give them, enjoyed giving them, but was stuck at the car building because the normal volunteer for that place had called in sick and they couldn't get a replacement and they had to have someone inside the building or people would swipe stuff. The Fruit soon got very restless because they had looked at the old cars for as long as they cared to (which wasn't very long), and they cared even less to listen to us two talk about people they didn't know doing things they didn't understand. So now we went back home to get a real lunch and off to the park.
After eating and loading, as we headed to the park we ran into the Other Fearless Leader who had left work early because the computers were down and as a part time temporary worker she would much rather go enjoy herself than sit there in a stuffy old office and do nothing. We quickly unloaded my Saturn and loaded her Villager and we were off to the park (again!). Once there the kids had fun riding their bikes in the park, and the Fearless Leaders had fun just walking together and pushing Kyle up the hills. After playing on the playground for awhile, the Fruit wanted to ride their bikes again, but not tamely around the big circular path, no they wanted to go off into the forest. So after pushing Kyle up the hill to the start of the path while enduring Erin's questioning of what was taking so long, we were off into the forest with Denise and I trailing behind. All was going well, a beautiful stroll in a lovely forest on a gorgeous spring afternoon, not a care in the world, and then we heard screams from around the bend. As we dashed to them, we could see what happened - the path went downhill around the bend and Kyle lost control as he picked up speed. He'd gone off the path, fallen off the bike, and gotten scraped up a bit. Erin was comforting him, but that was the end of our visit. Oh, we still had to limp back to the van and load up, but the sun had gone behind the clouds, the wind turned cold, and the fun had gone out of being there like air out of a leaky tire, only faster. Much faster.
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AT THE MOVIES
I suppose it's been a while since the two Murphy Fearless Leaders went to the movies by ourselves on a Saturday night. There've been some changes since the last time. Like reserved seating. It threw me for a loop when I asked for two adult tickets and was asked where I wanted to sit. I looked at the attendent and thought "in a seat in the theater" but said "what are my choices?". She punched something into a keyboard and said seats 14 and 15 D are the best available. So I said fine and took my tickets, still mystified at the whole process, and went in with Denise. The next change was that there was an enourmous counter just as you came in that looked like an information booth but was clearly labeled Employment Opportunities. The movie business is suffering the same difficulty in attracting employees that fast food places are suffering -- leading to McDonalds putting employment applications on the sides of their bags. Curiouser and curiouser, I thought to myself. Then when we got to the actual auditorium, there was an attendent outside who showed us to our seats. And after the movie, there was an attendent with mints awaiting our departure. What a revolution in the movie business, where everything old is new again -- big screens with plenty of leg room, comfortable chairs, personal attention -- just like I imagine the forties were like, without the dreariness of knowing for sure. It seemed odd to me that a business that was having trouble hiring employees and that wants to minimize the time it takes to move people through would institute a labor intensive, slower process, and only on the two busiest nights of the week. Oh yeah, we saw Entrapment. Not a bad flick. We'll see what changes time has wraught the next time we go to the movies on a Saturday night: maybe the attendents will be wearing little pillbox hats or something.
Another movie milestone this summer was seeing the Return of the Hype, oops, the Phantom Menace, aka Star Wars I. We waited a while to see it, waiting for the lines to die down, and we showed up at 3:55 for a four a clock show and got good seats without waiting in any line. It was all downhill from there. Well, alright, it was a good movie, but there were a few inconsistencies with the earlier (later, who can say for sure with a backwards inverted time-line?) Star Wars movies. And throw in the awful accents for the Traders and the Gungan, and it does take away from the movie. And let's not forget the waste of Darth Maul as a villain -- it reminded me of the waste of the character played by David Straithorn in L.A. Confidential, only there you figured he was more important and lived up to the foreshadowing in the book but they just couldn't squeeze him all the way into the movie. Plus, during the light saber duel, when O-be-my-Ryobi was trapped in that laser thingamagig and couldn't physically do anything, why didn't he make a grappling motion and hold Maul's legs or something? He was throwing robots into pieces earlier in the movie with but a gesture. Just a thought. Maybe now you're beginning to understand why the Other Fearless Leader dreads seeing movies with me.
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QUEEN FOR A DAY
Denise celebrated her birthday in style this year. She has to share the extended family celebration with Father's day every year, but this year I think we did her birthday up right. I took the afternoon off, and after a nice lunch together she opened her presents. Both Fruit picked nice cards and nice jewelry, which she returned since it was a little too nice - a reproduction of the saffire necklace from Titanic and matching earrings. Not that the Fruit knew what the design was, just that it was bootiful. A sweet gift, if not a practical one, as Denise doesn't have much occasion to wear such finery. From me she got five issues of Just Like Buttah, a Barbra Striesand fan magazine, with a sixth to come, and a one of a kind coffee mug, that I got over the internet from Gift Mugs with a signed picture of Barbra Stiesand on one side and "I Love Barbra" on the other. I was in a lather about getting them in time, as I was a little late in getting started (as always), but they both arrived on her birthday.
After that it was off to the Science Center to see an Omnimax movie, Alaska. It was just that kind of day that we got a great spot in the lot at the planetarium (free) as opposed to going to the main lot (charge). We had some time to kill before the show so we got to wander around a bit and see a bunch of the exhibits, which is always a treat for me if not all the family members. If you haven't seen an Omnimax movie, it is quite an experience. You sit inside a sphere, cut on the diagonal for the seats, and the movie is projected on the inside of the sphere above you. The illusion of "being there" is complete. The opening shots of the movie were taken from a plane flying over rugged mountains, and I had to brace my feet on the seats in front of me to keep from falling whenever the peaks dropped into the valley below. And during another scene, the plane had a camera shooting downward as it twisted to follow a meandering stream, and I was beginning to wonder where they kept the airsickness bags when they finally went to another shot. In other words, the plot wasn't much, but the special effects were dazzling.
Still not content with calling it a day, we rode the Metrolink (St. Louis's light rail rapid transit system) to the Landing and then took a short walk to Planet Hollywood. The location isn't ideal since while it is but blocks away from the Mississippi, it faces away from the river and toward I-70. After a brief wait complete with vibrating pager, and noting that my hands were bigger than Arnold Schwartzenneger's plaster cast outside, we were ushered into, if memory serves me right, the safari room - the other room is the sci-fi room. I'd describe the decorating style as overdone garish, but it did achieve a certain ambience. The food wasn't as good as the price, but the service was first rate -- attentive to the point just before a fault, although having an attendent in the washroom is more anachronistic than desirable in my opinion. The icing on the cake was to ride back to Union Station, no longer a train station but a destination for fun seekers nevertheless, to take in a little more joi de vive before returning home and declaring the birthday celebration over. The age of the birthday may have been a boring one, but the celebration of it was anything but.
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I have achieved a lifestyle I had no ambition to. Our subdivision has a pool complex (plus tennis courts, a playground, a picnic area, ballfield, and clubhouse). We were dimly aware of this when we bought the house, but the big item for us was the large master bathroom. Now that The Other Fearless Leader takes her summers off from part-time temporary work so that she and the Fruit of the Murphy Loins can go to the pool, we live a country-club lifestyle on small dues. And part of that lifestyle is having children on the swim team. It's just Erin, as Kyle has gone from getting out of the pool and wiping his face off everytime it got wet at the beginning of the year to just this week Torpedo Boy as he glides swiftly underwater without using his arms. If Kyle does join the team, we'll be in a quandry. Swim suits for girls are easy, with the only significant choice being color. Suits for boys involve a real choice - between the speedo style and the big baggy short style. Men's swim suits have evolved along divergent paths, leaving no middle ground between the ridiculously small and the ridiculously large. Women's suits, like all of women's clothing, come in a near continous range from floss to tent. I noticed that most of the boys (easily over 80 percent) opted for big and baggy, although one boy surprised the crowd by whipping off his big and baggies on the starting blocks to reveal the speedo underneath. No doubt the psychic shock on the other swimmers gave him an edge.
Based on friends' recommendations about previous years, we asked Erin and she agreed to be on the team this year. We thought the hour long practices four days a week would be the hard part. The fact that they were from 8-9 AM would only make it worse. Well, the worst part was how cool it was early this year (we're paying for that now as the last three days have been over 100 degrees here). Erin developed a permanent shiver reflex where now she just has to see a pool, any pool, and she begins to shiver. Sadly, this year there was only one coach and little progress was made on stroke skill. But all that practicing didn't hurt her, and between the practice and the meets I think on balance the team was good for her (easy for me to say as I sat in my chair urging her on to greater and greater hieghts of character). For six weeks, she had a meet every week where our team did aquatic battle with a team from another subdivision, all under the official sanction of the soveriegn State of Missouri, at least I think it was official as each meet had an official complete with white T-Shirt with shoulder patch with the shape of Missouri in red surrounded by some letters. Sad to say, the only meet our team won was the one that the other team forfeited.
The season was capped by the all conference meet, held at a local high school, where all the teams competed and we managed to come in fifth out of sixth (and no, the team that came in sixth didn't forfeit). But my heart swells with pride that she came in eighth in backstroke (my best stroke in my distant, younger years) and fourteenth in breastroke (out of about 30 entrants in each field). She may not be the best, but she combines a high thrust to weight ratio with low crossectional drag (in other words she's much skinnier than most other swimmers). Now we're debating whether she should join the Parkway Swim club and swim year round. What a change since our childhoods, when childhood was so unorganized, to now, where regimentation and organization is the norm. We played football and baseball with neighboorhood kids in the back yard whenever we wanted then; now children have to join teams and play in leagues and get ribbons and trophies for everything. Still, kids are kids and even as I write this my Fruit are having a ball just playing together - make believe school one moment, make believe house the next, climbing trees another.
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We decided to take a long weekend in Chicago when we decided to go to Gulf Shores again instead of a cruise or Mexico or Disneyworld. Our planning for Gulf Shores consisted of looking thru some old brochures and picking a place out - maybe half an hour worth of work. The planning for Chicago took more time than we actually spent there. First was picking the weekend to go - we had to work around our busy schedule and our niece's, who we wanted to visit. The emails flew back and forth. Then came how to get there - fly, drive, or take the train. We looked at cost, time, and schedules. Ultimately we decided to take the train and bought our tickets over the internet. Finding a hotel was much harder. Since we were taking a train, we would have to decide how to get around. Rent a car? We did that last time we were in Chicago nine years ago, and I'm still not over that experience. What about public transportation? The Chicago Transit Authority keeps a nice website, but downloading all the .pdf files to see actual routes was time consuming to say the least. I never appreciated the bandwidth a letter with a bunch of brochures in it represents until I spent hours downloading the equivalent over the web. Then came the fun part of trying to match up hotel locations, public transportation routes, and the various places we wanted to go. Then that had to be cross indexed with the hotels that gave discounts for our Entertainment card. We made a short list of hotels and began calling. At first we laughed at the rates, but there was a convention in town the weekend we wanted to go so the list of hotels got longer and pretty soon spending over a hundred dollars a night for a hotel didn't sound so bad after all. We were completely worn out by a trip we had yet to take.
But at last the day came when we were to leave. The Murphy Progenitor© dropped us off at the train station. St. Louis doesn't put its best foot forward for visitors who arrive by train, or for its own citizens going by train for that matter. The station, temporary for over twenty years now, is a miserable little building with furniture no longer good enough for an airport waiting lounge. It's nestled among the elevated ramps of I-64 and hard by the rusting rail cars sitting in an old train yard. The whole experience can best be summed up by one word: bleak. Purgatory's anteroom (at least Hell's anteroom would be near somewhere). The train left an hour and a half late, which made for an existential experience before there was anything to experience.
But once we got going, everything got better. We were on a SuperLiner car, way above the common ruck. The seats were large with plenty of leg room and amenities -- including under-the-seat fold out foot rests. The experience was much superior to airline travel - stuffed into an aluminum tube like sardines - but it goes on for much longer and the ride is not as smooth. We ate lunch in the snack car -- the rest of the family got White Castle cheeseburgers but in deference to my fellow travelers I just got a turkey and cheese sandwich. The other nice thing about the train, besides being able to get up and move around, is that you get the feeling of great speed. Oh, you're moving much faster in a plane, but the ant-like scenery crawls by, while the weeds next to the track are a blur on a train. Outside of major cities, anyway, where you ooze along at about 20 mph.
We enjoyed our brief jaunt by hitting a few tourist traps. The first night was the Navy Pier, which caters to children with an enormous ferris wheel which moves constantly and so is entered and exited on the fly, a children's museum, a carousel, and various other such attractions including a McDonald's and a row of bars complete with male happy hour crowd ogling the passing women. The next morning it was off to Shedd's aquarium where we couldn't see the whales because one was being born (we had to read about that the next day in the paper - go figure) or the seals just because, and then back to the hotel so that we could set off to The American Girl Store. If you have a young girl, or know one, then I imagine you know what I'm talking about; otherwise you're clueless. The American Girl Doll started it all, and now you can buy every possible accessory including matching kids clothes. Anyway, they have a store just off Michigan Avenue, next to Ralph Lauren, in the same vicinity as Saks, Nieman Marcus, Tiffany's and Pottery Barn. You can find the place just by following the gradient of girls carrying bright red bags with American Girl Store blazoned on the sides. We experienced all three floors, and to say the place was crowded doesn't do it justice. If the Pleasant Company (the parent of the American Girl phenomenon) sells stock, buy it. Anyway, the women folk had tea there while the men folk hung out in Water Tower Place and watched some street performers in Water Tower Park. The next day the rest of The Murphy Family went up in the Hancock building to the observatory while the Fearless Leader wandered around and people-watched instead of paying another $8.50 to go with. The sacrifices a father must make (okay, I don't like heights, at all, and I've been up there before, and so I remember that feeling of terror from the last time I was up there, a feeling that is similar but less intense than the feeling I got when driving up there before).
And then that afternoon Becca and Steve joined us on an outing the the Museum of Science and Industry (the place where old exhibits go to slowly fade away). We got to rediscover the fact that kids like hands-on exhibits not because it teaches them any better, but it gives them something to do while ignoring the point of the exhibit. After we saw everything that didn't have an hour wait, we got to go to Rebecca and Steve's new house - complete with bed and Bar-B-Que. And I have to say, it was the nicest bed and the best food of the trip. And the kids enjoyed the nearby park complete with community built playground. The next morning they dropped us at the Lombard Metra station and we took a train into Chicago so we could catch our train out of it. And then, after six more hours on the train (most of them without a/c), our trip was over, and all that was left to do was to wave to The Murphy Progenitor© who had returned to the station to pick us up. I have to say, there is a special thrill waving to someone waiting for you as the train pulls into the station. Not a big thrill, but a special one - kind of like the one you get from reading The Murphy NexusTM.
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Contents copyright Kevin Murphy 1999. All rights reserved.