What Did You Bring Me?
Memories of all the things I've brought home from the Charlotte airport
After a several-year-long respite, business travel has resumed in full force.
Sites need to be visited, clients demand facetime, and meetings that would’ve been Zooms a year or two ago are in person again, which means that I’m spending time away from home again. By the end of May, either my wife or I will have been gone for business more than half the days in the month, a travel schedule that would’ve seemed inconceivable just 18 months ago.
It’s got some advantages—I’m accruing plenty of airline miles, I always sleep like a baby in hotels wrapped in a huge comforter with the room AC set to 62 degrees, and it frankly is much easier to evaluate construction progress when you’re actually at the building being built—but there’s downsides, too, of course. One of us being gone means that the other’s schedule is thrown into complete disarray, suddenly juggling all the kid-pickup-and-drop-off responsibilities that are normally shared.
Some people love traveling for work; more power to them, I say, but I’m not one of them. Amidst the good and the bad, the ups and the downs, the upgrades and the delays, though, there’s one absolute constant:
The kids are going to expect me to bring them something from my trip every time.
There was a time, even pre-pandemic, when my business travel was infrequent enough that I didn’t take issue with this expectation. It’s a cute demand, and seemingly an easy one to indulge.
Now that these trips are happening regularly, though?
Well, it poses some problems.
You see, I travel a decent amount for work, but I’m not exactly jet-setting to Paris or Tokyo each time. My travel generally involves observing construction projects as they progress, and that means I’m usually going to the same places, over and over again.
After a while, there’s only so many things you can buy a kid from the Pittsburgh airport, especially when you’ve hated the Pittsburgh Steelers your entire life.
Here is a short-but-not-complete list of things I have brought home for my children from business trips in their brief lives:
American Airlines replica plane that I did not realize made loud takeoff-and-landing noises until it was already home and out of the package (disappeared under mysterious circumstances a few months later)
A non-location-specific “dig your own fossil” kit purchased during a layover at Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson airport that I assumed would involve 15-20 minutes of work to excavate the plastic dinosaur bones from within the fake dirt caked around it. It actually took 17 days, two and a half weeks where this thing sat on a dinner plate on the kitchen counter, partially excavated and mocking me for my failures in both gift-giving and paleontology
Personalized North Dakota license plate keychain (only for child whose name they had)
Stuffed timberwolf from the Minneapolis airport, purchased on layover while returning from North Dakota to mollify child with apparently-too-esoteric name
Plastic snow globe depicting the Pittsburgh skyline
Pittsburgh Pirates window decal, one that did not include the words “Pittsburgh” or “Pirates” but rather only the team’s pirate-head logo, fortuitously timed with the phase where my son was obsessed with Jake and The Neverland Pirates, it stayed stuck to his bedroom door for two years and only ruined the finish a little
Plastic snow globe depicting the Pittsburgh skyline (replacement for original, broken two hours after original gifting)
bear-shaped keychain from the Chicago airport (layover, was not in Chicago)
series of MLK-quote refrigerator magnets (layover, was not in Atlanta)
stuffed bear wearing Charlotte Bobcats cheerleader outfit (purchased six years after Charlotte’s NBA team had rebranded back to “Hornets”)
stuffed tiger wearing a University of North Carolina basketball jersey, an inexplicable combination of team and animal given that one of their ACC rivals is, in fact, the Tigers
stuffed version of the Penn State Nittany Lion mascot, I must reiterate that it is a stuffed version of the mascot, a semiotic joke that Magritte would be proud of if only the damn thing weren’t so ugly
A microwaveable (?) stuffed crocodile purchased from a hospital gift shop, something I believe was intended to soothe newborns but something I am now forced to microwave for 30 seconds before bed each night a full two years later and now refer to simply as “HotCroc”
Most of these have been purchased with a shrug and a “well, it’ll have to do”, but the climb is getting harder with each trip. Last week, I found myself standing in the gift shop of the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton International Airport, debating if my five-year-old daughter would appreciate a Dunder-Mifflin coffee mug.
(I opted for a generically “Pennsylvania” snow globe. She has to think Pennsylvania is a magical winter wonderland by this point.)
I suppose I could just stop.
I could re-frame expectations—as I’ve threatened to myself to do on multiple occasions—and tell my kids that, now that I’m traveling more frequently again, they won’t be getting something from me each time. They have plenty of stuffed animals and keychains and snowglobes and HotCrocs, and just because Daddy’s got to do a two-day trip to Pennsylvania doesn’t mean that they need any more.
I’m going to keep doing it, though.
The worst part of these trips isn’t being stuffed into decades-old domestic regional airplanes, the rubbery “scrambled eggs” at the hotel breakfast bars or the sixteen-channel selections on the in-room cable, the rental cars with completely inscrutable radio/GPS configurations, or even the occasional flight delays in Charlotte’s Terminal E, quite possibly my least favorite place on Earth.
It’s being away from my kids when they’re still young enough to not want me to go.
Sure, it feels nice to break up the routine every once in a while, to be absolved of the responsibilities of homebound life and focus on only one thing for a few days. It’s nice to eat a dinner I didn’t have to cook or pay for, have exactly two beers and slide into a cushy hotel bed to half-watch Die Hard until I fall asleep at 9pm simply because I can. It’s nice to have a job where someone values what I do enough to occasionally need me to go somewhere else and do it there.
There’s a cloud hanging over me the whole time, though, from the moment I kiss them goodbye to the moment I bear-hug them upon my return. I know they’ll always love me, but they won’t always miss me, at least not they way they do now.
All those trinkets—all those silly little things I’ve brought them, those insignificant mementos of airports I passed through on my way to somewhere they’ve never heard of—they aren’t really for them, even if they’re usually well-received. They’re for me. They’re my gift-shop penance, my consecration of a piece of mass-produced junk into a physical reminder of a time I was missed, and a time I missed them too.
—Scott Hines (@actioncookbook)
What you might’ve missed on The Action Cookbook Newsletter lately…
The ACBN Is For The Children — on the first day of my kids’ summer vacation, I dedicated an entire Friday slate to entertainment for people of all ages, including a mac-and-cheese-and-hot-dog pizza, a PB&J smoothie, and great movie/book/music selections
The Morning Dance — a transcript of a typical morning in the ACBN household