The other night over dinner, we started talking about a summer vacation. Someone suggested driving to Florida to swim with the manatees.
"I want to swim with dolphins!'' shouted my pigtailed daughter.
"I want to swim with dingos!'' echoed my son, the jokester.
"I want to swim with Brad Pitt,'' said my wife, under her breath.
Ahh, the family vacation. Few things in life compare. Certainly not a quiet evening at home, or good baseball game, or rich bottle of wine. No, they don't compare at all.
We are far closer to the Griswold family than PBS uber-tourist Rick Steves, able to travel continents and barely break a sweat. Wish they'd drop some nap-deprived pack of 3-year-olds into his European tour, see how well he does then. Ten bucks says he loses his passport by sundown.
In the compost heap of family vacations, there are tears, laughs, fights, hugs, spilled margarita mix. And we haven't even backed out of the driveway yet.
"Daaaadd!!'' someone screams.
Every summer growing up, my family went to Florida. Once, it was just me and my dad. I was 10. We went to Panama City Beach. I brought my BB-gun. We drove two-lane highways through Alabama, stopping for boiled peanuts in paper bags and Cokes in glass bottles. Once, he pulled the station wagon over so I could roll down the passenger window and shoot BBs at black crows perched on telephone wires.
We rode roller coasters, the salt water and humidity in the air like a shawl. Ate up more shrimp than trawlers.
That was nearly 30 years ago. I still remember every bit of it.
"So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past,'' reads the last line of Fitzgerald's "The Great Gatsby.''
Maybe that's why we do it each summer. We beat on, minivans against the current, hoping to repeat the times from vacations past when things converge, like an eclipse, and all the credit card debt and sunburn give birth to the sweetest thing of all.
"Daaaadd!!'' someone else screams.
So like tuning forks, my wife and I are always listening. What's the best trip for our family? What's the most affordable? What's least likely to cause us to blow a gasket?
"Family vacations are where the most fertile, ferocious fights imaginable can happen. Money. Planning. Navigation,'' writes Bruce Feiler in his recent "The Secrets of Happy Families.''
"Add in canceled planes, lost luggage, bad traffic, and one kid who always has a nose buried in some electronic device, and it's a marvel anyone is speaking by the second day,'' he writes.
His book is a gem. For nearly 300 pages, Feiler writes about his quest to find the most up-to-date research on what makes happy families happy.
He interviews scientists, grandmothers, Green Berets and international conflict negotiators. He writes about family mission statements, allowances, sex-talk, dinner-time, Little League ... and vacations.
"The latest thinking about families consistently shows that some chaos, disorder, and tension are perfectly normal. You will bicker every now and then over where to eat on a trip. You will forget a piece of luggage,'' he writes.
"Far more important to the success of your trip, or any other aspect of family life, is to worry less about eliminating the negatives and focus more on maximizing the positives. One easy way to do that: Put away your phone, get down on your kids' level, and play.''
Amen. Feiler reminded me that despite all the headache and stress, in the end, vacations need to be about one thing: a good time. To paraphrase the immortal Cyndi Lauper: the kids just wanna have fun.
"Daaadd!!'' the voices scream.
"Love you,'' they say. "Thanks for the vacation.''
Kiddos, I wouldn't trade it for the world.
Contact David Cook at email@example.com or 423-757-6329. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter at DavidCookTFP.