Greetings from Atlanta. I’m currently on a four-hour layover, and I am in desperate need of something to do other than eating at every restaurant in this airport. Wait, what?
Haha that’s right bitches, I traveled!! When did I learn to fly? How did I come to be in the home of the Falcons, who triumphed over the Cowboys in glorious battle last night? Only one way to explain… Trip report!!
It all starts, as most things in my life do these days, on Buckingham Boulevard, at Merritt Athletic Club. In between sets of abusing the iron like I was Ted Leonsis and it was the people of the DMV, my attention turned in a direction that frequently attracts that of Fat Ted himself. No, Timmy, not the buffet, but good guess. No, I began to think about my money. And my twisted brain started crunching scenarios. And pretty soon, I was convinced that my dear niece Sakura was going to have a surprise guest at her birthday party, some four weeks away, in Nashville, TN. So I texted her mother, and we worked out a plot. I call it a plot because I had a code name. I swear to god. And it was badass, too. I’ll leave it to your imagination- wouldn’t be much of a code name if I just put it out there. Maybe someday it will be declassified. You’ll just have to wait and see.
Anywhos, with some help from Kristin, the money was worked out. Flight, rental, bills paid despite work missed, and ample cash to spoil the kid with. Fait accompli. But one significant hurdle remained. Getting the time off was going to be difficult. I won’t bore you with the details, but I will say that if the union ever finds out how much overtime I worked without compensation, or just how much seniority I circumvented to get the schedule I needed, I’d better never need to file a grievance again. But in the end, that got handled too. I do not let fucking red tape come between myself and those that I love. And I love that kid a lot.
So that was that. All there was left to do was get on a plane. No big deal, right?
Fuck, am I claustrophobic. And mildly afraid of heights. I tried going on a kiddie roller coaster once and it was the worst experience of my life. To me, air travel has long been an abstract concept for daring souls far braver than I. (Not forever though. My early childhood ambition was to be a pilot. Or, rather, it was to be Baloo the bear, as seen on Talespin. Yes kids, I wanted to be a fat pilot. After the roller coaster, I compromised with myself and became fat.) So getting on a plane was a huge deal for me. I have known three people in my life who I would consider flying to visit in a non-emergency situation, cute girls all, and the progeny of my most creepy friend and his ex-wife, my arch-rival-turned-good-friend-except-when-she-feeds-me-vegetables just happens to be one of them. People fly all the time. It can’t be that bad, right?
Before I continue, let me tell you a story. I have had a recurring nightmare ever since I moved back into my parents’ house when I was 19. There is some dark corner of my mind that derives great pleasure from thrusting me with no warning into an alternate reality in which I can be spontaneously cast airborne. So within these subconscious tomes of terror, I take flight quite unexpectedly, and for a moment it is glorious, and magnificent, and any other word you can think of that means transcendently fucking cool. But invariably, I remember that I, in fact, cannot fly. Granted, this is something that I’ve always taken on faith. I do not know it for a fact. But I’ve definitely never cared to find out for sure, so even if I am in fact capable of flight, the proper mechanics for successful aviation, sadly, escape me. And so, when that moment of lucidity arrives, I fall. And I fall fast. And normally, this scares me enough that I wake up in a cold sweat thinking about how I’ll never amount to anything because I can’t fly. But there are rare instances of courage wherein I see the fall through, just to see what happens when I hit the ground. And on those occasions, I bounce. And I go higher than I was to begin with. And that’s where the courage ends. I have no idea how that fall goes. My mind bitches out and wakes up before we can fall a second time.
Bro. Cool story. So here’s the thing. Just as I’m on the runway and convincing myself that I’m just on a flying bus, we take off, and it turns out that my subconscious idea of what’s it’s like to fly is dead the fuck on. 100% accurate, it is exactly what I have always imagined it to be. And so, of course, I spent the entire flight waiting for my plane to fall out of the sky. I was Kit Brickshitter. I disclose this information with great shame- I would really like for you, dear reader, to believe me fearless. I personally define courage as the measure of one’s willingness to face and overcome one’s fears when the need arises. I ask you to please do the same- it is the difference between whether I will be perceived as chicken shit or just the shit. I’ll wait while you decide.
Alright. While you were making your choice, I was boarding the plane that will take me home, and now find myself crammed between a window through which I will have a lovely view of the smoke should the engine on this diabolical machine blow out, and a friendly gentleman with a goatee. At least, I assume he’s friendly. He said hi when he sat down. That’s nice. And although I can’t look back to verify, I choose to believe that there’s a jovial Indian gentleman whose name begins with the syllable “Raj” seated behind me, reading over my shoulder. Hi Raj. Thanks for tuning in. Okay. I assume that by now you have either decided that I am quite brave for staring death in the face to go to a sweet little 7 year-old’s birthday party, or else found something more compelling to read. So let’s continue.
My trip to the music city did include a brief stop in Philadelphia, noteworthy because the place actually smelled like cheesesteaks. No bullshit. It was kind of awesome, and I wanted to stay. I’m not sure if that was because of the delectable aroma, or my surely impending doom should I tempt fate with a second plane ride in one day, but as Aunt Teresa would say, it’s a mute point. I boarded the plane, and two hours later, ass asleep and jimmies sufficiently rustled, I touched down in the city where Shea Weber sold his soul, and Bud Adams sold out Houston. In a stunning coup, Big J had made his way to Tennessee.
I exited the terminal, and to my delight, discovered that Nashville International Airport was home to a Wendy’s. Any consideration of fitness went out the window. Fuck fitness, I had just cheated death. I ordered a #2 with everything, medium fries, and a refreshingly carcinogenic Diet Coke to wash it down with. Fourteen seconds later, I made my way to the rental desk, where Kristin had set me up with an economy car. Which is cute. But not at all how Uncle J rolls. So, after flirting briefly with a sexy Camaro, I forked out some extra cash and drove off the lot in a more reasonable, but sufficiently badass Impala. I fired up the GPS, and was soon pulling up at house number 808 (everywhere this family goes, they find a little bit of Hawaii. I’m a freak for subtle meaning, so the significance of this address does a lot for me. I’m a little gay for numerical symbolism- not that there’s anything wrong with that.)
It’s hard to describe how accomplished this made me feel. Prior to this, the farthest that I had ever traveled on my own without knowing where I was going was from Silver Spring to Pasadena. That’s forty miles, folks. And, ironically, that trip took longer, and I was every bit as proud of myself for it. I distinctly recall walking down Elvaton Drive yelling “watch where the fuck I’m at!” more than once. But now, utilizing the wisdom that comes with my advanced age, on this occasion I managed a bit more restraint, opting for a simple fist pump as I stepped out of my Impala. I made my way up the walk, which was decorated liberally with spooky Halloween paraphernalia. I opened the screen door and gave my signature knock, and felt an enormous wave of relief- up until that very moment, I had wondered in the back of my mind if I would ever see these people again.
After a brief wait during which I could hear yelling inside the house, I was greeted by Kristin’s sister Jessica, who offered a warm embrace. Moments later, their youngest sister Heather came careening down the hallway and hurled herself at me, and a weight lifted right off of my shoulders. I was welcome here. Basically ever since Kristin and I had set Operation Dinner Out into motion, I had been dogged by the nagging concern that perhaps one or more of the residents of Chez Sasse might be affronted by my sudden appearance after an absence of nearly a year. But that concern was quickly dissolved by the touching reception offered by the two younger sisters, and as nobody else was home yet, we set about the business of catching up. Now, for those who don’t know Jessica and Heather, they are, to me, like heavy metal and hip hop. Probably not in that order. Each brilliant taken by herself. And positively combustible when you mix the two. And the result of that combustibility is different every time. Sometimes horrifying. Sometimes beautiful. Always entertaining. And on this day, it was beautiful. The two hours we spent at the kitchen table poring over the events of the past year, while bouncing balls off the wall
to annoy Kristin for Heather’s dog to chase, was one of the highlights of my visit. I hate how far away the Sasses are from me. But I am absolutely in love with the fact that if I go to visit one of them, I get to visit all of them.
After that it was time for a nap before I put my Uncle J hat on. Sakura would soon be home from school, and I would need to be rested. Going from regular J to Uncle J is no easy feat. Allow me to explain.
During Sakura’s early childhood, being Uncle J was as simple as letting her sit on my lap and “help” me play poker, babysitting her while her parent(s) was/were at work, and changing her diaper. I don’t change diapers. But I changed hers. From the very start, I could not stand to see her in any sort of discomfort. I don’t know what it is, and I certainly can’t explain it. My concern for her is unlike anything else that I’ve ever experienced. Maybe it’s the mercurial moodiness that reminds me of her father. Maybe it’s the coy skill for manipulation that comes directly from her mother. I dunno. I’m not a kid person. But I fell for this kid from the moment her mother dropped her on me to go handle a cooking emergency. And from that moment to this moment, I would do anything to hear her laugh. And I would walk through fire to keep her from having to cry.
So when Kristin told me that she was in the hospital a few years ago, no longer the baby who was so easily impressed, I knew that I was about to make a first impression. If I wanted to be that person who she could turn to, first she would have to let me in. And I had no idea how to accomplish this. So, I pulled a page directly from Uncle Mike’s playbook, and brought the kid video games in the hospital. And it was the same system that Uncle Marky had. And now she had one, and she was quite pleased about it. I was in. Thanks Mike!
Uncle J is my best attempt at an amalgam of the child I was and the man I want to be. It would be easier to just run Mike’s playbook til the wheels fall off, but that would be a great disservice to Sakura, as well as Mike’s legacy. Where I was a little stick-in-the-mud as a kid, in need of encouragement to be a little more wild, Sakura is a psychotic ball of energy who could very well seriously injure someone if encouraged to be any more wild at all. While I had all sorts of role models to choose from as a child on both sides of the gender aisle, at the time Uncle J started becoming what he is today, Sakura pretty much had me for a male role model, and that was it. No pressure, big guy. Just know who we’ll all be looking at when she’s on 16 and Pregnant! So in the face of a kind of retarded amount of pressure, I decided to pull no punches. I stripped myself of shame, and any notion of myself as a “cool” character. I lent myself to childlike goofiness and held nothing back- I played her games. I kept her secrets. I took her anywhere she wanted to go and did everything in my power to make sure that she understood that she was loved wholly and deserved nothing less. And I did not give a FUCK what anybody else thought about it.
And so, as you can see, my typical mindset does not fit the bill at all. Surely, you know me as Mr. Cool; unflappable, stoic- the very picture of silent confidence. Can you think of a better way to bore a child? Me neither. So when it was time to go wait at the corner she would turn on her walk home from school, Mr. Hyde’s 7 year-old son took over. And she ran around the corner with her little friend Tamara, said goodbye to her, turned, saw me… And sped up a little.
The little brat didn’t recognize me! And I give her credit, she knew exactly how to handle a fat weirdo with a ponytail in a Five Finger Death Punch T-shirt. She did not say a word, and picked up the pace. …but then she slowed down. And then she stopped. And she turned around, squinted a little, and charged me. God, I missed that. Those hugs from that kid are one of the very few things that validate my existence. I know they won’t always happen. But goddamn, it was nice to get one then. I was so happy, I even acted like I believed her when she said she recognized me the whole time and was just messing with me. Calvin ain’t the only one who thinks his uncle is a low-watt bulb.
I will not force you to suffer through the unabridged adventures of Sakura and Uncle J. If you’ve endeavored this far, then you deserve significantly better than that. Besides, that stuff is really between me and her. Going back to Calvin for a minute, how much fun would it really be if his parents saw it the way he did? Suffice it to say that every article of clothing that I wore to her party, from my hat to my shoes, was rendered unwearable. I expected nothing less. It was awesome. I am sore, tired, and a little bit grossed out. Mission accomplished.
Something that added a bit of a twist to this already wildly contorted adventure is the fact that Kristin, who once told me with a straight face that she wanted her daughter to eat some french fries so that she would get some vegetables in her diet, has morphed into a certifiable organic food hippy. I had heard rumors online for weeks, but I really didn’t fathom the gravity of it until I saw it in action. She goes to the farmer’s market. She buys and plants things like apple trees. She wants to raise chickens. She eschews all the things that she used to eat; she talks about how unpasteurized milk is better for you. The real twist here is that while Kristin and I have both done a complete overhaul of the way that we eat, we have approached it from completely different angles. What I consider health food, she considers junk food. And vice-versa. She stuffed me full of healthy organic crap all week, and all I could think was “oh god, the calories, and where the fuck are my 165 grams of protein??” What a fucking ingrate I am. It was all quite delicious. But for my purposes, it had no nutritional value. And I know for a fact that my diet would make her yak. Funny how that works.
My weekend on the commune really flew by, as the adage about having fun would suggest. And it really was a blast. I got to know the other kids a little better, and Emma and Anya were enthusiastic participants in the games that Sakura invented for us. That was kind of a tricky line to walk- juggling not wanting Sakura to feel any less special, while simultaneously avoiding leaving anyone out and breeding jealousy. I know what jealousy can do to siblings and cousins, and those little girls deserve better. It’s only going to get trickier as they get older. But for now, I think we handled it really well. It’s helpful that Sakura is the sweetest kid in the world, and was happy to let them join in. And she still got some time for herself. After her party, we took our leave of the rest of the family and made a beeline for the best mall in the state, which we proceeded to tear up. That kid loves shopping, and her godfather loves taking her shopping. It’s a treat for both of us, because even when I was seeing her practically every week, it’s the kind of thing you can’t really do too often- spoil the child, break the bank. So her birthday was the perfect opportunity for a shopping spree, and while we as a pair are many things, wasteful is not one of them.
Unless it’s apples. Damn, we wasted a lot of apples.
The last day of my visit we went to Kentucky, and Kristin and co. were kind enough to show me what’s out back behind the backwoods. We visited some friends who live so far out in the country it would make Jeff Foxworthy blush. This place was so not me I didn’t really know what to do with myself. And at this point, both Sakura and I were starting to burn out a little bit. Our dynamic works optimally for 6-10 hours. We were pushing 48 at this point. So, I did the only thing that made sense. I holed up with the TV and watched football. Eventually, I gathered up the energy to play with the girls a bit, and then I went with Jessica and Heather to take the girls to see some river. I don’t really know what that was about. Heather, Emma, and Sakura were quite impressed with it. Jess and I were not. I dunno. I vaguely recall loving a creek by my grandmother’s house when I was Sakura’s age. I just can’t for the life of me remember why. Fortunately, she didn’t need my help to have a good time there, and I got to hear that beautiful laugh as she gleefully chucked rocks into the drink, so that worked out just fine.
If we had any energy left when we left that place, it was gone by the time we finished the hour-plus drive home. The kids traipsed straight off to bed, and myself, the sisters, and Kristin’s fiance Chris all collapsed in the living room. We talked for a bit, and it was a nice end to my visit. I like those guys, and it was really nice to be normal boring J for a little while and unwind. Eventually they all filed off to bed, and I even got a couple hours of sleep before my alarm went off at 2:30 am.
And that is how I came to be in Atlanta when I started this entry some twelve hours ago. I am happy to report that I have since made it home to my loving wife and cat, and gorged myself on pizza. Because if I’m going to deviate from my nutrition plan, it’s going to be rotten for me, not organic healthy crap that just doesn’t fit my macros. And now, having beaten the odds and survived four different flights, I am going to go throw up, because I have eaten way too much. The last four days have been exhausting, exhilerating, and draining, and I can’t fucking wait until I have the opportunity to do it again.