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Helping Your Kids Get Holes in Their Heads

An old memory sits like a scar in my brain:

Grunting, the Cable Guy slowly emerged from behind the entertainment unit, crawling backwards.

Technically it wasn’t really the whole Cable Guy slowly emerging. Just his prodigious crack, peeking precociously over his belt. “Step aside!” it seemed to cry. “I am here!”

I stepped aside.

But our fearsome beast, Dash, who runs in terror from the vacuum cleaner, eyed it suspiciously and then stepped forward for a big sniff.

I lunged for Dash’s collar.

The Cable Guy’s head popped out just as I appeared to be lunging for his backside.

“I WAS GETTING THE DOG!” I said too loudly.

The Cable Guy yanked the back of his khakis. “OK, that one’s done. Where are your other TVs?”

“That’s it.”

“What?”

“That’s the only TV we have.”

“You only have one TV?” He was looking at me like a large crack had suddenly replaced my nose.

“Yeah,” I said. “That’s the only one.”

“Oh,” he said.

But it wasn’t just an “Oh.”

It was an “oh” that succinctly conveyed, “Oh, you’re one of THOSE parents.”

And I’ll be honest.

I was one of THOSE parents.

Back then owning a single TV did make me feel superior.

Except when I went the living room with a plan to watch all 80 cable channels for five seconds each before grunting and throwing the controller on the ottoman only to find my wife clutching the controller (and her pregnant belly) and turning white with terror as some lady died of eclampsia on Grey’s Anatomy. 

Then it would have been nice to be one of the other parents.

But my wife is a clinical psychologist who specializes in children and teens.

She is all about limiting the screens.

They are the opioids of the under 21 crowd.

So, one TV. In the living room.

Oh, and she refuses to let her daughters get their ears pierced until they’re 18.

Because her Puerto Rican mama waited exactly 30 seconds after she cleared the birth canal to jam pins through her baby girl’s ears.

So my wife has taken a clear stand against screens and youthful ear-piercing, both of which put holes in kids’ heads.

A kid cries in a restaurant? What does a typical parent do?

Hands him their phone. Or his own personal iPad.

It’s the world’s first babysitter that fits into a purse without all the awkward shoving and yelling.

Alas, if you’ve handed your child a screen like this, you have just condemned him to a lifelong attention span of a gnat, bed-wetting, low SAT scores, teen acne, multiple unsuccessful marriages and a future career as a prison inmate or a personal injury attorney.

According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, you should have handed him a book instead – even if he does try to eat it. Those pediatricians have a strict rule: Minimal to no screens until after the age of 2.

We followed this rule with our oldest to help protect her head from holes.

And when we finally let her watch Caillou and Arthur, our 2-year-old sat in front of the TV, her nose five inches from the screen.

Which was when we first discovered Number One was nearly legally blind.

So we got her some fancy thick glasses.

And she spent a whole following week walking around admiring those things on the end of her hands. “Look at what my fingers do, Daddy!” she cried.

Wiggle, wiggle, wiggle.

But we were still superior because we only had one TV.

Then along came Elf, now 15.

And smartphones.

And Netflix.

It’s a lot harder enforcing the no-screens-til-two rule when you already have a 3-year-old bouncing up and down in front of the TV along with the leaping lemur on Zooboomafoo.

And because my generation also banned playpens, we couldn’t just drop our second born into prison until Number One finished her strictly monitored 45 minutes of screen time daily.

So we slipped.

Then Bee came along. And while the three of them still got fed and read books and played musical instruments and ate their vegetables, mistakes were made.

Corners were cut.

And then, because we sent our daughters away to magnet school in high crime or far flung areas, we slipped again.

We got them all phones.

We were officially on the expressway to hell.

Someone even gave the girls DSes.

I think it was their grandmother, the ear mutilator.

I don’t exactly remember. That whole decade is blur of STEM Fair projects, Sunshine Math and iXL.

Math that needed to be completed on a computer screen.

Then—boom!—in roughly 36 hours, they were all teenagers stomping about, accusing each other of wearing their clothes and spending their lives walking around, staring at or poking at screens.

It’s been terribly confusing.

Most nights, when I walk into Elf’s room to say good night, I’ve not been sure if she’s Facetiming her best friends Shea and Blair or watching Pretty Little Liars.

And the one time I was sure she was watching Pretty Little Liars, Blaire’s voice screamed over the iPad, “Are those cute little piggies on your pajama pants, Mr. Barrett?!”

The screen crackdown was inevitable. Especially after their smartphone-addicted Uncle Eddie walked off our cousin’s lake dock checking all his Facebook Likes.

No one wants an Uncle Eddie.

“We’re instituting some new rules in this house!” their mama, Dr. Clinical Psychologist, cried.

The good doctor announced new limits on screens. All phones and iPads and iPods and Kindle readers were to be placed on the kitchen counter at 8:30 p.m. (There would be no bed wetters or personal injury attorneys in this house!)

We expected blowback, a fight even.

But Elf, a high school freshmen, threw us a curveball. “I’ll do it on one condition with no complaints.”

My wife looked at me.

If you see Elf, be sure to compliment her on her newly pierced ears.

By Chris Barrett, Publisher

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Abu and Alexa

My father-in-law leaned over and shouted into the metal cylinder. “PLAY SOME SALSA MUSIC!”

He stared at the cylinder, which, like metal cylinders everywhere, just sat there.

It was Abu’s seventy-fifth birthday. And we had just given him an enormous jar holding six pounds of peanut M&Ms.

Because Abu loves his peanut M&Ms.

And what else can you really buy for a wealthy guy who buys himself whatever he wants?

I mean, other than the go-to answer.

Drones. And in Abu’s case, you can just keep buying him drones.

He’s got six of them stuck up in the same palm tree in front of his Lakeland house.

Abu goes through drones like he does peanut M&Ms.

His son Robert had arrived during dinner and dropped off the package holding the cylinder. Then Robert quickly took off, before Abu could open it and ask him to set it up.

“I’ll be back tomorrow!” Robert shouted. The door slammed and Robert sprinted across the front lawn.

Because you never know what fresh tour of Hades lies in store when Abu innocently asks you to “just take a look at” something.

Five minutes after we arrived, Abu turned to me as I sat down on the sofa. “I need a little help,” he said.

I got up to sprint across the lawn but he blocked my escape.

“My new lanai pool lanai lights aren’t working. Would you be willing to just take a look at them?” He handed me the directions written down by the guy who installed them.  “I have to go pick up dinner,” he said.

Abu patted my shoulder like I was a high schooler about to try a 12-foot high pole vault for the first time. “I know you can do it!”

I looked down at the incomprehensible directions. “Did you actually try the on switch, Juan?”

Abu gave me a little offended look. Then he sprinted across the lawn.

I got up. And because I know nothing about electricity, I walked around his pool lanai for 40 minutes before I discovered Abu’s new lights weren’t actually plugged in.

When Abu returned, he threw his hands into the air. “Es un milagro!” he cried (It’s a miracle!).

(Apparently he didn’t really think I could do it.)

“I knew you could do it,” Abu said.

So when I glanced at Robert’s box, I got nervous. My mind flashed back to the guy who set up the entertainment system in Abu’s man cave, complete with eight recliners and surround sound. He took Abu’s check, handed him five different remote controls and sprinted across the lawn.

Abu immediately dropped three of them.

My brother-in-law Carl spent an entire Saturday setting up a single, universal remote for Abu.

Which Abu still hands to one of his 19 grandchildren to operate so he can binge watch all five Rocky movies.

Abu tore open Robert’s box.

“What’s this!” he cried, pulling out the metal cylinder.

“That’s an Amazon Echo,” cried Bee, 12, excitedly.

“It’s a miracle, voice-activated digital assistant you set up on your kitchen counter,” said Elf, 15. “And then you yell at it.”

If you’re not familiar with it, in a smart home, a digital assistant can change your thermostat, play music, dim the lights, fold your clothes and scrub the toilets.

OK, I lied about those last two. A digital assistant is actually a lot lazier than a real assistant.

But a digital assistant can tell you the weather and which U.S. president was nicknamed The Little Magician (Martin Van Buren). It can also helpfully answer all your child’s math homework questions, giving you time to chase the dog around the kitchen table in order to find out what foul thing is in its mouth.

“Alexa!” your child simply has to call out to the Echo. “What’s seven times five?”

Alexa’s calm, cool and slightly condescending voice responds. “Seven times five is thirty-five.” (You kind of wait for Alexa to add, “fool!” but she doesn’t. But she’s definitely rolling her digital eyes.)

Bee seized the Echo before I could stop her. “I’ll set it up for you, Abu!”

I groaned audibly.

Bee plugged the Echo in, hooked it up to the wifi then looked at her abuelo. “Spanish or English, Abu?”

Abu, who was born, raised and has lived his entire life in Puerto Rico, thought about this. “English!” he said.

Bee looked at me as if this was: A. BIG. MISTAKE.“It’s ready!” Bee proclaimed a few minutes later. “PLAY SOME SALSA MUSIC!” Abu shouted at it.“No, Abu.” Elf, 15, touched her grandfather’s shoulder. “You didn’t say its wake word.”

“Ahh, yes!” Abu nodded. He leaned over again and braced himself. He looked like he was about to swallow Alexa whole.

Abu shouted into the cylinder’s top. “WAKE UP AND PLAY SOME SALSA MUSIC!”

Elf snorted.

Abu picked up the metal cylinder and shook it. “Maybe it needs batteries.”

“No, Abu,” Bee said. “You have to say ‘Alexa.’ That’s its wake word.

“Ahh, yes!” Abu said.

Elf and Bee leaned in hopefully.

Abu placed his nose an inch from the Echo. “WAKE UP AND PLAY SOME SALSA MUSIC, ALEXA!”

Bee turned and tossed me a look that said, “This ship is goin’ down!”

Elf took over. “No, Abu,” she said. “You have to say ‘Alexa’ first.”

“Aah, yes!” Abu said.

His granddaughters giggled.

“WAKE UP AND PLAY SOME SALSA MUSIC, ALEXA FIRST!”

This from a guy who spent his adult life working as a highly respected cardiologist cracking dying people’s chests open and actually keeping them alive.

His granddaughters screamed with laughter.

Abu turned to me and shrugged.

Then he turned back and pointed at the useless cylinder. “Alexa, you’re fired!” Abu said.

The lights on top of the metal cylinder spun and changed colors. “Aww, man! I’ll just have to place a magic spell on you,” Alexa responded. “Abracadabra! I’m rehired!”

Abu looked at me amazed.

“Here, Abu,” I said handing him the enormous jar. “Have an M&M.”

By Chris Barrett, Publisher

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Life’s Unwritten Rules

The chief chaperone for Bus #2 (the friendly one who speaks in italics) sidled up to me.

Approximately 8.2 inches too close.

Compelling me to step back without appearing like I was stepping back.

“Well, that was a memorable experience.” Her italics made clear she was making a dramatic, unclear statement that compels a man to stop and listen.

Even though his bladder is screaming at him for drinking that second large cup of coffee waaaay back in Tampa before foolishly boarding an early morning charter bus to Orlando.

It was an IB middle school band trip to an invitation-only music clinic at Disneyworld. Perhaps the 40 young Mozarts on her bus had broken into a soaring, transcendental, acapella version of In Dulce Jubilo before annotating War and Peace and releasing a joint study announcing a groundbreaking Grand Unified Theory of Physics.

Or they had just behaved like 40 middle schoolers on a bus.

She heaved an italicized sigh. (The world would apparently be waiting for its Grand Unified Theory.)

She stepped forward. “There was a rather PG-13 version of Truth or Dare.”

I stepped back. “At six in the morning?”

Step forward. “And one of the boys stole one of the girl’s purses, removed a feminine product and began passing it around the bus.”

Step back. “Strawberry sparkle lip gloss?” (I was now pinned against a Disney hedge.)

Step forward. “No, the other feminine product,” she said. “How was the behavior on your bus?”

Nearly toppling over hedge. “Oh, it was great. The kids were very well behaved.”

At least that’s what my mouth said.

Meanwhile my brain was seriously rethinking the last 90 minutes.

Had the largest hole in my head spoken truthfully, it would have said, “Actually, I was sitting in the front of Bus #1 comfortably reading the paper and commenting to another chaperone that the bus driver clearly didn’t color inside the lines as a child because he certainly couldn’t drive inside them as an adult. And, frankly, the eighth graders could have stuffed the sixth grade bassoonist down the bus toilet and I wouldn’t have even noticed.”

Fortunately, I have a very active social filter and only say about 40 percent of the foolish things that flit through my skull.

She nodded. “Probably because the band teacher was on your bus,” she said.

I politely overlooked the fact that my own highly intimidating presence received no credit for the perhaps entirely fictional superior behavior on my bus. “Well, she even terrifies me, so you may be on to something there.”

Then I sprinted to the Disney bathroom.

Because, as everyone knows, you NEVER use the bathroom on a charter bus.

At least everyone apparently knew that except me.

In 2011 I once boarded a charter bus for a 9-hour trip to Sea Camp in the Florida Keys. And when I emerged from the bus bathroom, I encountered a red-faced, sputtering bus driver. “WHO USES THE BATHROOM ON A CHARTER BUS?!” he screamed.

I had violated an unwritten rule. Bathrooms on charter buses are like those expensive, fancily printed napkins on the sink in your neighbor’s guest bathroom.

You’re never supposed to use them.

(Important note to guys: Just shake your hands vigorously over the sink and wipe them dry on your buttocks.)

And here I was, chaperoning the precious offspring of real adults again, and I’d made another major misstep.

No one told me that chaperones were actually supposed to watch the kids while they were on the bus.

It frankly seems rather counter-intuitive. What farmer watches 40 free range chickens once they’re jammed into a small cage?

Apparently a good middle school chaperone does a lot more than repeatedly count to six or seven at Hollywood Studios and grumble, “For the love of gahd, would you people make up your minds?”

That’s the problem with society. It has a lot of unwritten rules you magically have to know.

Like when you step into an elevator full of strangers. You’re supposed to mutter a number and immediately whirl 180 degrees, facing the closing elevator door.

No exceptions.

You should never just board and keep facing all of the strangers. And then, to break the growing tension, loudly ask, “So what d’yall think of the president?”

Another unwritten rule?

Fifty-one year old men should not go into Disney parks alone.

Which is exactly what I had to do for three full hours before all the free-range chickens joined me at lunch.

“Awesome!” I first thought, speed-walking toward Toy Story Mania in Pixar Place. “I have three hours to do whatever I want to do at Disneyworld!”

Then I stopped. 

Because it was going to play out one of two ways.

I was going to climb into a single car all by myself.

And slooooowly roll past all the other people in line staring at the 51-year-old man riding the Toy Story 3D shoot-em game all by himself.

Or I was going to sit next the 8-year-old son of some couple from Italy. And, when I scored 150,400 to his 88,000 points, I would be screaming, “IN YOUR FACE!” in incomprehensible English to a complete stranger child instead of one of my own daughters.

I couldn’t figure out which made me feel more pathetic.

So I searched the town square for an empty park bench.

To keep me safe from all the ole-people scooters out in force, hunting potential victims that morning.

And because there is an unwritten rule that you just don’t sit down on a park bench that another person is already sitting on unless it’s longer than five feet.

Finally finding an empty one, I sat.

So that I looked like a proper dad waiting for his kids to get off a ride that started making him feel motion sick once he turned 40.

And I thoroughly enjoyed myself.

Until another guy came up.

And plopped into the park bench beside me.

Long, awkward pause.

“An absolutely beautiful day, isn’t it?” he italicized.

The bottom quarter of my face smiled. And I slowly, subtly and incrementally slid away, politely wedging myself into the corner of my bench.

Because that’s what the other rule says.

By Chris Barrett, Publisher

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