The World Is Built for Four and Who Cares?
My acquaintance Fred once told me that the world is built for four. He was talking about families and his decision to have only two children. Fred seemed pretty sure he'd made the right call, and maybe he did. Perhaps he was so correct that there was no need to consider the feelings of the man he was speaking to, who was the proud father of three. My life up until that time had been built around five: mother, father, three kids. That's how it was in my family growing up, and that's how it was in my own family.
This is the number four and I don't really have any jokes about it.
This week, however, I took my first vacation with just my kids, and even though the metric was a little different from the one my friend had described to me, it was a golden opportunity to see if the world was indeed constructed in such a way as to make four a better number than five. The testing ground was Lake George, New York, and I discovered that Fred was right: The world is built for four. I also discovered that I didn't care.
The first thing I noticed was that traveling with four made a camping vacation much easier to pack for. I don't mean one fewer set of clothes, I mean just getting the crap into the car. Y'see, because I know how to ignite the hearts of young co-eds everywhere, I drive the rolling sex machine known as the Honda Odyssey -- a minivan. (I'll pause here and wait for you to change out of your now drenched undergarments.)
Here's the thing: With only four people, I could flip that last row down completely, giving me the rough equivalent of "much more than enough space to pack for a three-day camping trip."
All that space also allows room for all the orgies that will spontaneously pop up when you cruise the junior colleges.
Now, I'd packed for this same trip with five previously, where I could only put half of the third row down, and it was totally doable with some smart packing (and I'm all about smart packing, having watched my dad pack post-war Samsonite luggage into car trunks in a way that defied spatial relations). Still, the point is, packing for four took no time or talent. Slopped it all in there and voila. Score one for Fred.
The next thing I noticed was that vacations sure are cheaper with one fewer person! I saved 20-something at the water park, 20-something at Howe Caverns (which is like 90 miles away from Lake George, but it was a thunderstorm and being underground seemed like a good idea), and eight bucks at mini-golf, and, of course, I saved money during each and every meal.
25 bucks, specifically.
And who doesn't like saving money? No one. Meaning everyone likes saving money! I'm part of everyone. Saving money is nice. Score another for Fred!
Here's the funny thing about this vacation. And when I say funny, I mean funny like Adam Tod Brown's columns, so, y'know, not funny. So y'know how this was meant to be a camping vacation? Well, yeah, about that ...
Y'see, it started out fine. We got to the campsite, pitched a tent, built a fire, cooked some dogs and burgers. Hell, we even had some s'mores later and told ghost stories. I was camping so hard and so responsibly that I'm pretty sure I heard Smokey the Bear masturbating as we fell asleep.
"Hi, I'm Smokey the Bear, and I'm here to say that Gladstone is either horrible at metaphors or seriously has no idea what arouses a fire-prevention bear."
But at around 11 p.m. -- after the kids and I were plum tuckered out from a day of owning camping so hard -- I awoke with a super bad headache and upset stomach. Not really sure why. Came out of nowhere, but I wasn't stoked about leaving my kids alone in a tent to go be sick. I paced around outside. I tried to see if sitting in the car outside the tent made me feel better. No. I felt super awful. So at 11 p.m., with a killer headache and nausea, I woke my kids, packed them into a car, drove 20 miles to the nearest Econo Lodge, and checked in. I also broke the world's record for shortest amount of time between opening a hotel door and vomit hitting toilet water. But what did it matter, my kids were safe in a clean room with a deadbolt. I could puke all night without concern. And actually, that reassurance made me feel much better. We were all asleep by 12:30 a.m.
But here's the thing. I only needed a room with two doubles. The world was built for four. The first hotel I hit was able to accommodate us perfectly and cheaply. That Fred was right again.
So it's a lot easier to sit in restaurants with four people, too! Look at this truck stop we had lunch in. Four-person maximum at this joint. There was literally not one place that held more than four. (Some of the jukeboxes did work on the other tables, though.)
Hey, y'know those people that always straighten up surroundings before they snap a picture? Yeah, I'm not one of them, but after this pic, I'm thinking I should be.
So yeah, much easier to fit four at a table than five, although there is no magic number to stop Yoshi Sushi from pretending that his is a "Philadelphia roll."
Yes, that IS crab and shrimp in their Philly roll, and not at all the smoked salmon that I and every other person who has ever eaten sushi and is not insane expected.
Apparently whether you're a party of one or 17, Yoshi Sushi calls cream cheese and smoked salmon their "bagel roll." So yeah, I lost pretty hard on that one, but that's not relevant to numbers.
So one day I decided to pay entirely too much money to go to a water park, but I have to admit, it was pretty damn fun. Know what else made it fun? All the slides were made for two, and I got to go down each one with one of my kids.
Just like this blurry dot and his dead person friend here.
Not just the money I saved buying the ticket, but the rides. Five is just cumbersome, but four in a row or two by two, it just makes sense. It works. My Lord, it seemed Fred was right: The world is built for four.
And Who Cares if It Is?
So as illustrated above, Fred has a very solid point. In many ways, it does seem the world is built for four, and I can understand the logic of planning a family that fits to the contours of that number seemingly provided by the universe. I can understand it, but I don't care. At all. Because families are not supposed to come in neat little packages. Families are not supposed to float down the pathways of life without leaving a trace on their surroundings. That's the job of a painless enema, not a family.
Families are messy and loud and hard. Families make you laugh too loud in public places, and they can make you insane. They are filled with chaos and regret and anger that rivals the deepest loves and commitments and sacrifices. Families grow together through tragedy and triumph, and if you plant a family in a perfect square box, its roots will twist and embrace until they explode outward looking for a way back to soil again.
It's not a parent's job to figure out what the world is built for. Especially because the world, like everything else, changes. Things happen. Death and divorce happen. Illness and tragedy happen. Things you could never even think to list, even if it were your job to make lists, happen. They take your family from five to four, from four to three, from one to seven. And if you think the point of family is numbers, then you won't know how to make the math work when those big changes happen. No, it's not a parent's job to figure out what the world is built for. Parents take the world they find, in whatever form, and try to make it work for their children, knowing that imposing order on family is as impossible as quantifying love.
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