We're trying to steal some family time in this increasingly busy and beepy world -- a world that has become electronic almost to a fault, human connections going, going, gone . . .
"Hey Dad," says the little guy.
"I can smell the ocean," he says.
I loved him when he was in utero. I loved him before he was born. We agree on almost everything. But darn if I can smell the ocean. After all, we're still gliding through Irwindale, a good 30 miles from the beach.
"I can smell the ocean too," says the little girl.
Remember Manifest Destiny? Manifest Destiny was that notion you learned in high school that we were destined as a people, as Americans, to work our way west, to explore and settle, till every nook and cranny of this great land was paved over -- mini-malls, 7-Elevens, upholstery shops -- from sea to shining sea. It's part of our national character.
At least that's my interpretation of Manifest Destiny. I swear, I should teach history on the side.
Well, the pull of the ocean is still strong for me. It's already midsummer, and we're fleeing to the beach with two of the four kids, the other two having abandoned us for the allure of real lives.
"Sure you don't want to come along?" I ask the lovely and patient older daughter.
"Um, I'd rather paint my tongue with horseradish," my daughter says.
"I love horseradish too!" I say.
"Not me," she says.
See? She's very conflicted. I can tell the older daughter wants to come to the beach with us, wants to watch me turn the hot dogs on the grill with my fingers ("Ouch, damn it!"), wants to watch her mother spill margarita mix down her lovely legs ("Here, I'll get that.").
We have been doing these things for centuries, and it just doesn't seem like summer till someone drops a roasted marshmallow in Mom's lap, or my mustache catches fire while I tend the burgers. The smell of burning hair is emblematic of many of our family activities.
But she has plans with her boyfriend, my daughter does. They've been going out for only seven years now, so she's at that tender point in the relationship where she doesn't want to offend him. I understand. He's a catch. Has his own pickup truck and knows three songs on the guitar. Men like that don't come along every day. Usually, just Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.
"Mr. Erskine, I came up with a new joke today," he told me last week, then launched into this 45-minute story about bass guitar players.
"That's good," I lied when he was done. He has show business aspirations, this kid, and I don't want to be the one to crush them. No way. If there is still any ambition left in this world at all, I want to nurture it, not destroy it.
"I can smell the fish," says the little guy from the back seat.
MAN OF THE HOUSE BY CHRIS ERSKINE