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Summer's vacation time -- and, for most of us, it's family vacation time. The trips can sound so Ozzie & Harriet: parents and children bonding, paddling canoes down a sleepy river. But the reality of the situation -- being confined with the family for days on end -- can bring out worst in us.

Contributor Bob Ballmer got creative. He orchestrated this dramatization of a family trip -- and no doubt there's someone in this family you'll be able to relate to.

Postcard: Packing Predicament

By Bob Ballmer, 5/24/2002

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An azure afternoon segues to a star-studded dusk. Faces, too, twinkle.

Dad's 2 weeks of vacation start tomorrow. Mom's, too, but she brings her pager. She's a project manager.

Morning. Everyone packed the previous night. The boy, 12, filled 3 bags: one with clothes; two with computer games. The girl, 14, filled 4 bags, all with clothes. In the kitchen, Mom and Dad are packing food: groceries, especially perishables, cost less in Portland. Dad is contra-perishables.

"Then will you scrub the rotten produce stuck to the fridge?" Mom asks.

Dad says, "Okay," though he's worried vegetables will bump his golf clubs. No, he'll stuff the lettuce and oranges in his golf bag before that happens.

9:00 a.m. Seven bags and a computer rest at the rear of the Explorer.

Dad bellows, "Kids!" and his offspring slouch to the drive.

"Explain," Dad says. Everything, the kids swear, is needed.

"The computer?" Dad says.

"For my games," the boy snarls.

"Okay, but some of this, young man, will sit on the back seat with you," Dad decrees. Then he turns starts to count his golf clubs. Last year, he forgot his putter.

The boy shatters Dad's concentration, saying, "When do we leave?"

"Soon," Dad says.

The boy groans, "I'm starving."

"You'll have to wait. We're eating breakfast at the Pancake Corner. Remember, it was your idea," Dad reminds.

The boy mutters, "That sucks," which Dad ignores.

Mom yells: "The perishables are ready!"

Mom doubles her decibels: "Did you hear me?! The perishables are ready!!"

Dad mutters, "That sucks." The chip is teaching the block the power of succinct language.

Hands on her hips, Mom towers over the girl, who is lying on the lawn reading "People Magazine" and sipping bottled water.

"Three bags is plenty for 2 weeks," Mom says.

"But I've got stuff in each bag that I need."

"Combine them," Mom advises. The girl unzips her bags. She hoists a bag to eye level and flips it upside down. Underwear, socks, pants, tank tops, tampons spill helter-skelter onto the lawn.

"What are you doing,?" Mom snaps.

"I'm doing what you said," the girl says.

Dad is scratching his head. He wonders if he should have bought a bigger SUV; maybe a Bradley troop transport vehicle.

"Packing vegetables -- a $100 headache to save $10 on lettuce," Dad grumbles.

"What's that, Joshua?" Mom says.

"Nothing," Dad replies.

The girl has completed her sartorial down-sizing, though she is lugging a bigger suitcase to the car. Dad is laying his golf clubs across the back-seat floor. The girl plops in the back seat, her feet rattling the clubs.

"Dad gets to bring his stupid golf clubs?" she whines.

"Because I only brought one bag of clothes," Dad says.

"Life is choices," Mom purrs.

The doors shut. The Explorer backs up. On the way to The Pancake Corner, traffic snarls. Inside the Explorer, there is a shortage of smiles. From Mom's suitcase beneath the perishables a shrill beep emanates. It's Mom's Project Pager.

It's day 1, vacation, and the boy asks, "When will we get there?"

Bob Ballmer's a writer who lives in Portland, Ore.

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