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Sizzling at the Beach

The lightning bolt slams into the parking lot as we are unloading our luggage and our precious Trader Joe’s snacks.

A distinct crackling splits the air followed by a thunderous roar.

I like to think of myself as having a level head during emergencies.

This is a figment wrapped in a fantasy tucked into a crock of fabrication.

Do I look at my daughters and bravely bark brilliant orders to lead my platoon to safety?

No.

I fling myself against the minivan, flailing my arms in the air like a 1920s movie starlet fighting off King Kong’s giant hand.

While that hole in my head beneath my nose emits the world’s most offensive vulgarity.

Then I dash forward.

And backward.

And forward again.

Like Super Mario when he singes his buttocks on lava.

That’s when I just look at them, wild-eyed, and scream, “RUN!”

At least that’s what my daughters insist. I have no memory of this. My brain was apparently wiped clean by electroshock therapy.

They shoot off like antelope.

Leaving all five minivan doors open, the luggage strewn everywhere and our Trader Joe’s chocolate covered almonds, the Speculoos cookie butter, the Quinoa and Black Bean Infused Tortilla Chips AND the Reduced Guilt Chunky Guacamole strewn across the parking lot.

Leaving me alone to throw everything on the bellman’s cart, slam the minivan doors shut and attempt to run, in a straight line, pushing the stupid cart with a hinky wheel as the thunder roars. I hit 30 mph and it wildly skews right and left across the cobblestone lot.

From the perspective of the teenager videoing me from the second floor of the condo complex, I look like am trying to leap onto the back of a rabid bull, wildly trying to buck me, while nearly overturning twice.

In my fear, I have become my crazy Aunt Petronella, born in 1917. During “electrical storms,” Auntie would sit in the middle of the living room with the lights out, rolling her rosary beads, believing that the only thing protecting her from being reduced to ash by Thor’s wrath was the rubber-soled sneaker she clutched in her left hand.

And I think: “I am pushing a large metal cart across a flat, exposed parking lot at the beach. I am going to die.”

Before I have even opened the Reduced Guilt Chunky Guacamole.

I finally roll up to the front of the beach condo. It sits behind a large, green, ominously smoking electrical transformer box.

My wife is already on the phone to the manager’s office. “Our building has no power. And there’s a big green electrical box outside our front door that’s making sounds like Darth Vader dying.”

“Oh,” the property manager says. “That’s probably a problem.”

Probably.

So there we are. In our beach condo. With no electricity.

It was time for mature, leveler heads to plot a sensible survival strategy.

“We should eat all our snacks immediately so they don’t go bad,” I announce.

The antelopes gather.

“DON’T YOU DARE OPEN ANYTHING!” She Who Controls the Universe seizes the opened guac from me, tosses it in the freezer and slams the door. “NO ONE OPENS THE REFRIGERATOR!”

The antelopes scatter. “But there’s nothing in the refrigerator,” I mutter, walking away. 

I flop onto the bed, getting up once to turn on the ceiling fan, then looking around to make sure no one was videoing me.

She Who Controls the Universe’s head appears in the door. “If the power is not back on by four o’clock, we’re leaving,” she announces.

She disappears to guard the refrigerator.

When the storm passes, I step outside.

An old lady looks up the steps from her first floor condo. She throws her hands on her hips and shoots me a threatening look. “WHEN IS THE POWER RETURN?”

She has a crazy thick accent that might be Russian. Or it might be Spanish. Or Spanglorussian.

“Um,” I say. “I don’t know.”

“AM I SUPPOSE TO JUST STAND HERE WAITING FOR THE POWER RETURN?” she challenges.

Because, in addition to lightning, I’m also a magnet for crazy.

Before I can even figure out how to answer her question, she screams, “CUCARASKAYA!”  

She points to the porch ceiling above me. “CUCARSAKAYA!” She keeps pointing like she’s trying to hurl her hand at me. “GET IT!”

I look up.

There is a four-foot cockroach above my head that also apparently came outside to cool off.

“GET IT!” she screams.

And because I’m a good Irish Catholic boy who would jump off a tall building if an old lady screamed to do it, I actually reach up to “get it.” Then I suddenly remember that grabbing a cockroach is about appealing as drooping a necklace of snakes around my head. 

My hand pulls away. “But it’s outside!” I cry.

“THAT’S WHAT YOU THINK!” she shouts. “GET IT!” 

I shake my empty hands at her. “WITH WHAT?”

We have known each other for 28 seconds and already we’re yelling at each other like we’ve been married 50 years.

She rolls her eyes like I’m the village idiot. “WITH THE SHOE!”

I rip off both my sneakers.

I’m squatted into a proper cockroach fighting posture, holding one of my sneakers like a cell phone when She Who Controls the Universe’s head pokes out the condo door. “If the power is not back on by five o’clock, we’re leaving,” she announces.

But she’s chewing.

“Are you eating my guacamole?” I ask.

The condo door closes.

“GET IT!”

I flail my cell phone sneaker and jump. But it’s out of reach. The cockroach skitters into a corner over the next unit’s door.

Waving her hand, the old lady mutters something in Spanglorussian. But her universal sign language clearly conveys: THERE ARE DEAD CATS THAT ARE MORE USEFUL THAN THIS MAN!

“I WILL GET THE RAID!” she announces.

She disappears then lumbers up the steps. She then gases the both the cockroach and the north half of Longboat Key with a half can of Raid.

The cockroach peels off the ceiling. We both leap back in horror.

“LOOK!” she says, slapping my arm very hard.

I realize I’m still holding my shoes.

“Do you bring a can of Raid on every vacation you take?” I ask.

“OF COURSE!” She nods proudly.

A man clears his throat on the sidewalk below. He extends his hands like he’s holding angry peasants with pitchforks at bay. “Just an ETA on the power thing,” he says. “The power company is out and investigating. We think the lighting probably affected the transformer box.”

The transformer box that is still smoking by his right foot.

“The only problem is that to get their equipment in here to replace the transformer, we’re going to have to take down the tiki hut.”

He nods toward the entrance to the courtyard, where there is actually a tiki hut.

He lets the full weight of the mindboggling engineering challenge of moving four wood posts and a bunch of dead palm fronds sink in.

“So ETA on power is ten o’clock,” he says.

The old lady flails her arms stomps off, clearly conveying: ANOTHER USELESS MALE WHO SHOULD LOSE ALL BREEDING RIGHTS.

I sit on the steps for a while. Three men soon arrive. They commence a careful study the highly complex tiki hut.

When I return to the condo, the entire bag the Quinoa and Black Bean Infused Tortilla Chips has been reduced to crumbs. I shake the empty container of Reduced Guilt Chunky Guacamole. “You ate all the snacks!” I cry.

“We left you the Rosemary and Thyme Maple Toffee Sunflower Seeds,” the antelopes say.

“I hate the Rosemary and Thyme Maple Toffee Sunflower Seeds!”

“If the power is not back on by six o’clock, we’re leaving.” She Who Controls the Universe says, wiping green stuff from the corners of her mouth.

I go off to Publix to buy a sandwich and lie across the frozen foods for an hour.

When I return, the sun is setting. The old lady is back outside, staring at the three men, who have progressed to vigorously shaking the highly complex tiki hut.

At eight o’clock, the inside of the condo is pitch black.

“If the power is not back on by nine o’clock, we’re leaving,” a voice announces in the dark.

The antelopes titter.

I go outside to check on the progress. The old lady is still glued to her spot. The three men are now moving about the tiki hut with flashlights.

Suddenly, after nearly three hours of studying, conversing and shaking posts, the men whip out saws, decapitate the tiki hut posts at eye level and hurl the tiki hut roof into the bushes.

The old lady looks at me. Her head shakes, conveying through the dark: I WAS RASH IN MY JUDGMENT. YOU ARE NOT THE MOST USELESS MALE ON THE PLANET.

At ten o’clock, I do what people in parts of the world do when they don’t have electricity:

I decide to go to bed.

I shiver through a cold shower with the help of my cell phone light.

Then I lie in bed, wide awake. Because a tractor is now shaking the condo. And dozens of condo rental folks are standing on their balconies, transfixed by installing a transformer.

Because Netflix ain’t workin’.

Meanwhile four children in the adjacent condo stand outside my bedroom window screaming at how disgusting the dead cockroach on our porch is.

I find myself thinking about how an enormous bolt of terrifying power earlier that day had upended so many people’s lives by destroying their access to power.

“DON’T YOU TOUCH THAT COCKROACH, TOMMY!” a little girl shouts. “DON’T YOU, DARE! DON’T YOU THROW THAT—“

A bloodcurdling scream. 

And every single light in the condo blazes on.

A thunderous cheer shakes the courtyard.

The tiki hut morons are suddenly heroes.

I mutter and get up to turn off all the lights.

“They don’t know how lucky they are,” She Who Controls the Universe mutters from bed. “I was just about ready to leave.”

By Chris Barrett, Publisher

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Kool Aid Crotch’s Great Adventure

I balanced the Dixie cup on my leg and struggled to shove the cheese back into my bologna sandwich with my index finger.

My father was flying 80 mph down a New Jersey highway in our Ford LTD Country Squire.

You remember the Country Squire. It had those fake wood panel stickers down its sides that a highly dedicated 7-year-old could tear long strips out of to stick to the sides of his dog.

Because dachshunds can rock a faux wood look.

That old station wagon had all the stability control of an enormous refrigerator box perched on a red wagon. I know this because I once climbed into a large refrigerator box perched on my old Radio Flyer at the top of Marion Street.

What can I say? It was the 1970s. Back then even Nixon seemed like a reasonable idea.

“Gerard!” my mother screamed.

Dad flipped lanes and the refrigerator box leaned. My grandmother, two sisters, my toddler brother, a large paper sack of bologna sandwiches and the drink cooler slid across the seat and crushed my skull against the back seat window.

I held out my bologna sandwich to avoid its crushing.  “Be careful, Chris!” my grandmother shouted, “Don’t spill your—”

Too late.

The Dixie Cup toppled and a large red cherry Kool Aid stain spread across the crotch of my favorite plaid summer shorts (the ones with the cool-looking fringe circling my now sticky cherry thighs).

My older brother and older sister, in the way back, screamed like hyenas.

(Please keep track now. There were six of us.)

“KOOL-AID CROTCH!” my older brother shouted.

The station wagon exploded. “KOOL-AID CROTCH!” my little sisters screamed.

I whirled to my grandmother for justice. The old lady was struggling to stifle a smile.

“KOOL AID CROTCH!”

“DON’T MAKE ME PULL THIS CAR OVER!” my father roared.

“GERARD!” my mother cried again.

Another swerve.

This is why, if you have six children and someone suggests you go on a family vacation, you should just go outside and lie in the yard until the feeling passes.

Especially if that vacation is taking you from Scranton, Pennsylvania to Central New Jersey.

We were headed to Great Adventure, a new amusement park with exciting rides AND an amazing, open animal safari you drove through in your own car.

“Tommy McGrath has a cousin whose aunt drove through the Great Adventure safari in a car with a vinyl top,” said my oldest sibling, Kate. “And you know what happened when she drove into the baboon area?”

We fell quiet.

“What happened?” Brian said.

“The baboons jumped on the car and RIPPED off the roof!” Kate cried, with a dramatic, ripping flourish.

Megan gasped.

Maura started crying. “Did they eat her?”

Shrug. “You’ll have to ask Tommy McGrath.” Kate sat back and twirled her hair.

Brian looked at Maura. “Probably,” he said.

“DON’T MAKE ME PULL THIS CAR OVER!”

But we were already at a dead stop. The longest line of cars I’d ever seen was trying to get into THE BEST AMUSEMENT PARK EVER.

Only it was 95 degrees outside. And our station wagon had just spent the last two hours flying 80 miles an hour, carrying about 800 pounds of human flesh, bologna sandwiches and Kool Aid across two states.

Which is why smoke started seeping out the hood of our LTD Country Squire.

(Which is really why cars should never be made of wood, real or otherwise.)

Dad pulled right up to a restroom, flung open the hood and began waving his hands around.

Here’s the thing about my dad. He wasn’t at all handy. He knew just enough about cars to seriously hurt himself.

But he was a guy. And because he was a guy, he drove for hundreds of miles without a map or asking for directions.

Because he was a guy, he tried to fix things he should have left to my grandmother to figure out.

I hung out the window. Dad ran into the restroom, brought back a container of water and poured it into the radiator. He immediately disappeared in a shroud of a dense fog.

I could only hear the cursing.

He flapped wildly and quickly poured another gallon of cold water into the red hot radiator.

He paused and the car made a sputtering low growl.

And Dad leaned over to pour more.

With a whoosh, the radiator erupted like Mt. Vesuvius.

We screamed.

The girls in the next car over screamed.

Dad screamed.

And when he finally got his steaming shirt off, he looked like a slice of bologna.  

Then Dad vanished for hours.

Meanwhile my grandmother and mother took all six kids into the park to ride on THE BEST RIDES EVER.

While every single person I walked past stared and pointed at my cherry red crotch.

“Don’t worry,” Grandma lied. “No one even notices.”

Meanwhile, the sweat and humidity just made everything stickier. So, at our next restroom stop, I secretly flushed my undies down the toilet.

It didn’t help.

Dad reappeared at 3 p.m., wrapped in gauze, looking like an Egyptian mummy. By that time my thighs were so glued together, I was walking just from the knees down.

Dad marched us back to the car.

Because we hadn’t driven through the Great Adventure’s Wild Safari yet.

A normal guy might have stopped and thought, “Hey, it’s 95 degrees out and my car just overheated. Maybe I shouldn’t pile 800 pounds of human flesh inside it and drive it into fields of wild animals at dinner time.”

But dad wasn’t a normal guy.

After paying 26 bucks to get each of his six kids in the park, nothing could stop him from taking his Country Squire through enormous paddocks holding elephants, giraffes, baboons and lions.

Upon entering the safari’s 350 acres, warning signs were everywhere.

LEAVE WINDOWS UP!

REMAIN IN CAR AT ALL TIMES!

The Wild Safari was 4.5 miles of multiple sections holding hundreds of animals. What could go wrong? We’d breeze through and finish before the car heated up.

But dad didn’t account for the fact that we’d be going at idle speed, because 32,000 people in New Jersey also wanted to gawk at baby elephants.

The car started gurgling and steaming in the baboon section. “I’ll put on the heater. It will help cool the engine,” Dad announced.

“OHMIGAHD!” Kate moaned.

Ten minutes later it was 120 degrees in the car.

Grandma started panting.

“OHMIGAHD!” Maura moaned.

A baboon leapt on the car hood, curious about the rising steam. “He’s gonna scratch my car!” Dad cried. “GET OFF!” he shouted, waving his hands. “GET OFF MY CAR!”

Dad beeped the horn. The baboon just turned around and stared.

Because it was a baboon from New Jersey.

Unable to bear the heat any longer, I began to lower my window.

“PUT THAT WINDOW BACK UP!” my mother shouted.

“BUT—“

“BUT NOTHING!”

I cranked the window up but left it open an inch.

“CLOSE THAT WINDOW NOW!” Mom began climbing over the front seat into the back. “THAT BABOON WILL RIP THAT WINDOW RIGHT OUT!”

I closed it and Megan moaned.

Steam was pouring from under the hood. Dad pulled up to the park employees at the next paddock’s opening.

“Sir, you appear to be overheating,” the highly observant park employee observed.  Looking at my father, beat red, profusely sweating and wrapped like a mummy, he hesitated. “Are you OK, sir?”

“We need to turn around and get out of here!” my father said.

“Sir, there is only one way out.”

Dramatic pause.

“And that’s straight ahead.”

A normal man would have turned the ignition of his Country Squire off right there. “That’s insane,” a normal man would have said. “I am not taking a boiling-over station wagon with six kids, a grandmother, a mother and a bag of bologna sandwiches into an enormous paddock of lions.”

My father was not a normal man.

Dad gunned the engine into the lions’ den.

Grandma moaned.

That’s when I knew we were doomed. 

If we broke down and had to make a run for it, I’d be the slowest. My thighs were glued together, my legs flapping uselessly below the knees. Even Grandma, carrying the Kool-Aid cooler, would outrun me.

The Country Squire sputtered and died halfway through the lion’s den.

Mom moaned.

Today, you’d just whip out your cell phone, right?

This was 1975, the era of sit and wait and hope someone notices there are nine humans slowly roasting in a Ford LTD.

And this was Jersey. In the ’70s abandoned cars on the sides of the road were as common as grass. The only thing that might get people to stop and take notice?

We still had our tires. 

“We should just feed ourselves to the lions,” Kate panted. “Get it over with.”

I looked out.  A half dozen lions were now padding around the dead car.

We waited.

And complained.

And waited some more.

And complained some more.

“Complaining will only make you hotter,” Grandma lied.

“I lost my gum!” Maura announced.

Grandma reached up and cracked opened her window a notch. Mom whirled around. Grandma eyed her, daring her to climb over the front seat. “They are not baboons, Barbara.”

As if this made any sense.

That inch of outside cooled nothing.

“Has anyone seen my gum?” Maura repeated.

Megan shrieked.

I looked over. Megan’s left hand was glued to the side of her own head.

“That’s where my gum went!” Maura proclaimed.

Megan tried to pull her hand away. Half her hair rose with it, matted to her fingers by five enormous hunks of chewed-up Bubble Yum.

Megan shrieked again. In five seconds flat, Grandma also appeared to be glued to the side of Megan’s head.

My dad finally groaned.

Kate pointed to a lion that flopped down under a nearby tree and began licking its lips. “She’s waiting us out,” Kate proclaimed.

Brian inched up, flopped over the seat and breathed his bologna breath all over me. “You know what she’s looking at, don’t you?”

I turned. “No,” I said, worriedly. “What?”

“YOUR KOOL AID CROTCH!”

The entire car screamed. “KOOL AID CROTCH!”

Dad shouted, “DON’T MAKE ME GET OUT OF THIS—”

Dad’s voice died. There was no way in hell he was getting out of the car.

“KOOL AID CROTCH!” Brian whispered into my ear.

I launched myself over the backseat, intent on ripping the ears off the side of my brother’s head. Grandma shouted, reached over and seized my belt loops to haul me back.

But her Bubble Yummed hand only came back holding my cherry red-crotched shorts. I landed on Brian, buck naked from the waist down.

That’s when the park ranger knocked on the window.

We froze and fell silent.

Mom lowered the window two inches. “Oh, hello sir!” she said, acting as if everything was perfectly normal.

The park ranger took it all in.

A red-faced, heat-stroked mummy at the wheel. Mama, struggling to maintain her best Jackie Kennedy Onassis, sweating off her makeup and squeezing her lips out a crack in the window to suck in some air. A grandmother with a pair of boys shorts in her raised left hand and her right hand glued to the head of a weeping child. Two other children were near death. And in the way back, a 13-year-old girl was rolling her eyes. And a naked child was lying on top of the brother, trying to pull his ears from his head.

“Well, well,” said the ranger. “Looks like quite the great adventure in there.”

By Chris Barrett, Publisher

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Parenting Teens: Your Daily Chasm of Doubt and Humility

“Just had one of the best times exploring Duluth!” Number One’s text read.

Our college sophomore had flown out, on her own, in the wee hours. Now she was wandering with a friend around Minnesota, a state which once elected a pro wrestler named Jesse “The Body” Ventura its governor and which still has one of the highest numbers of professional bowlers per capita.

I don’t know about you, but having lived for six years in Washington DC’s inner city, that sounds fairly dangerous to me.

They were killing time, waiting to be picked up by Outward Bound, which would haul them northward to canoe the Boundary Waters Area. They were on the cusp of a life-transforming experience.

This is what affluent white America has come to.

We now have to spend thousands of dollars to send our children away for a week to experience real deprivation. Just so they will emerge from the tick-infested woods utterly grateful. With a squeal, they will hug their beds, relieved not to live like wild squirrels. They will finally be appropriately grateful for their cars, their iPhones and their dorm-room Keurig coffee pots, which eat $1 mini plastic cups like high school boys snort cookies.

My daughter will proudly sit in her college Starbucks in her Lilly Pulitzer dress and talk about how much she suffered in her North Face parka, properly layered over her $90 Lulu Lemon yoga pants and her $125 waterproof, fur-trimmed hiking boots.

And we will pat ourselves on the backs knowing we haven’t raised entitled children.

Only Number One threw me a curveball.

“I just did some spontaneous laser tag,” she bragged.

(Laser tag typically being an activity that an honors student carefully plans.)

“And look what I just found!” she continued. “SNOW! On the GROUND! Randomly by Lake Superior!”

Her text included a photo of the most pathetic, filthy snowbank I’d ever seen in my life (And, having grown up in Northeast Pennsylvania, I had a childhood filled with pathetic, filthy snowbanks.)

That snowbank looked like all of Philadelphia had had its way with it before turning it over to Newark for a good mugging.

And Number One was giddily excited about it.

I suddenly felt like a terrible father. I had let Number One grow up to be excited about a Charlie Brown snowbank. I, her father who grew up in the Great White North, had never taken her to see real, beautiful falling snow, which can frost and decorate the dingiest of old coal towns. My daughter had never witnessed a snowstorm hush everything and whisper, “Look how pretty I am!”

She was excited about a filthy snowbank

I just stood there staring at the picture.

What is it about parenting – about parenting teens in particular – that regularly convinces the most educated and competent people on the planet that they may just be abject failures?

At the end of a particularly trying day of parenting, my wife will often pose the same question after we’ve collapsed into bed.  “Do you think we’re doing a good job?” she says.

This from an amazingly educated, brilliant woman with a Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology whose work focuses on children and who has spent decades of her life reading up on the adolescent human psyche.

This is what raising teens will do to you.

“You’re asking me?” I respond.

Yes, she’s asking me. A guy whose biggest daily accomplishment is not leaping off the Sunshine Skyway after another resident has leapt onto Facebook to express outrage that Westchase’s sprinkler system got their car wet while driving down Linebaugh.

(What do these people do when it rains? Uber to Publix?)

I am entirely the wrong person to declare that any parent is doing a good or a bad job. My wife was lying beside a man still daily bamboozled by the staggering amount of crying that teenagering involves.

I survived my teen years through sarcasm. Meanwhile, my father survived my teen years by hiding behind the newspaper in a corner of the living room.

It was a highly successful symbiotic relationship.

My three daughters are an entirely different matter. They cry when they’re angry. They cry when they’re sad. They cry when they’re brilliantly happy.

Take the time one of them asked what we were having for dinner. When I responded, “Tacos,” she burst into tears.

Startled, I looked at her. “Why are you crying because we’re having tacos? I thought you loved tacos.”

“I do love tacos!” she said with a sob. “I think I’m crying because I’m so happy.”

Blink. Blink.

Where’s the instruction manual for this sort of thing?

My three teen daughters burst into tears. What do I do? 

My default is to wrap them in a hug.

“Aww!” you may be thinking, “What a good Dad!”

But I’m actually just doing that so they can’t see me rolling my eyes and desperately thinking, “What the hell do I do next?”

I am the LAST person people should be asking if they are doing a good job parenting.

“Do you think we’re doing a good job?” she repeats.

I lie there and silently weigh the facts: My teen daughters expect too much. They take too much for granted. They complain about chores. They slam doors.

On the other hand, they are not in prison (they’re actually pretty good students). They are not yet heroin addicts. I haven’t yet caught them crawling out their bedroom windows. And they are not pregnant and wondering which guy is the father.

The clinical psychologist with whom I share a bed props herself up and eyes me. “Are you even listening to me?” she says.

“I am going with yes,” I say definitively. “We are definitely doing a good job parenting.”

(Because if I didn’t say that, I’d be doing a terrible job of husbanding.)

“Hmph!” she says. “You’re just saying that.”

And she turns out the light.

By Chris Barrett, Publisher

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School Bus Wars

“What, for the love of gahd, are we going to do about the bus to Robinson?!” the text reads.

I plopped my cheek down on my computer mousepad.

The &%$#& Robinson bus again.

I decide to stay there until a meteor crashes through the roof and crushes my skull.

The &%$#& Robinson bus picks all the nerdy, overachieving IB high school kids from Westchase. It then, if it feels up to it, trickles 45 minutes south to Robinson High School, located at the southern tip of South Tampa so the IB nerds can annotate Othello and learn dozens of IB helpful acronyms to assist in comprehending sentences like: “In addition to your CAS hours, did you complete your IOS for HL Chem before your EE is due in your APUSH class or are you gonna wait for your JA?”

The &%$#& Robinson bus.

Which is late 33.56 percent of the time. (A Westchase IB parent told me this. But I rounded the decimal because my eyes glazed over after the sixth digit.)

The &%$#& Robinson bus.

Driven, if parents’ texts and email are to be believed, by a direct descendant of Genghis Khan.

I start typing my response.“I can’t decide between a good fire-bombing or picking it up with one of those large vehicle magnet thingees and dropping it into ginormous vat of acid.”

I hit send.

Then I quickly type a clarification. “Preferably with most of the kids off it.”

My phone dings for the arrival of a new text. “No. Really.”

But I WAS being serious.

My hatred of the &%$#& Robinson bus began five years ago. I was sitting in front of Westchase Elementary, waiting for Number One’s return home during our very first week of high school. We had never used a school bus before. It was bound to be as cheery and exciting as the old Wheels on the Bus song, right?

“Where are you?” I texted after 30 minutes of waiting.

It was our first experience with Hillsborough County School District’s Transportation Department.

Which, as bureaucracies go, make the most bananas of the world’s banana republic governments look like the pinnacle of brilliant competency.

With buses as new and reliable as all the Chevys in Havana.

“I’m not sure,” my freshman responded. “But we’re surrounded by water.”

Her next text carried a scenic photo of dolphins and a screen shot of Google maps.

The Robinson bus to Westchase was headed across the Courtney Campbell Causeway to Clearwater.

“Has anyone told the bus driver she’s going in the wrong direction?” I texted.

“A bunch of seniors are yelling at her and waving their phones,” Number One texted back. “But she just keeps yelling at them to shut up.”

After a full scale parental revolt some months later, that driver vanished. And for nearly two years, we had an extremely competent, polite and much beloved driver.

Competency being as rare as snow leopard in the district’s transportation department, he immediately got promoted. So that another homicidal nomad could again be directly responsible for our children’s safety.

Among Genghis Khan’s myriad abuses?

She assigns seats.

Despite not actually knowing any of the kids’ names.

Or apparently faces.

Last year at the beginning of the second quarter, Genghis kicked one of the Westchase IB nerd boys off her bus after accusing him of sneaking on it. He was left in the parking lot shouting, “BUT YOU’VE BEEN DRIVING ME FOR EIGHT WEEKS!”

Genghis bans athletic equipment.

Genghis also bans all musical instruments, unless you can convince her your clarinet is really your nerd lunch. (It’s happened.)

Genghis bans happiness and sunshine.

Genghis bans everything.

Because, it turns out, you can’t fit 75 high school kids on a single bus with IB backpacks AND still let two lacrosse sticks on because those stick will take up all the remaining space left for oxygen.

There’s been so much Genghis banning that parents have begun researching official bus rules.

Like this one: “Number 1: The bus driver is the authority on the bus.”

Let’s just skip over that inconvenient one and find something more interesting.

Other rules?

You can’t eat. You can’t fight.

My favorite?

“Rule 9: Do not carry onto the bus any glass items, reptiles, insects, pets, weapons or sharp instruments.”

So, IB nerds, you’re gonna have to leave those taped eyeglasses at home but by all means, bring any amphibian, spider or mammal along provided they’re not your pets.

Even three fully grown bull elephants.

Which, according to Hillsborough County School District’s Transportation Department, will comfortably fit three to a seat.

Or this: “Rule 10: Keep the aisles clear at all times.”

Which runs smack into school district officials’ insistence that 77 high schoolers can fit on a school bus.

Three to each 39-inch seat.

That’s officially 13 inches per butt.

Genghis actually berated my six-foot tall Elf, now a freshman, because her right buttock wouldn’t fit on the seat she was assigned to with a wrestler and a football player.

Genghis, however, doesn’t scream when she stops to pick up 25 more kids from the Alonso stop, whose bus driver apparently works every other week. Maybe you caught that video of 80 kids on the Robinson bus, sprawled on backpacks in the aisles, on the local news?

You gotta keep the aisles clear so the district can fill it with more teenagers.

Up in that hotbed of progressive liberalism called North Carolina, the state’s school rules say that only two kids in Grades 7-12 can ride in a single 39” seat. Because they realized high schoolers are a tad larger than Kindergarteners.

But we’re in Florida.

Where we have rules that ban reptiles from buses.

For years Westchase parents have offered conspiracy theories about why the Robinson bus route is the Titanic of competency. “The district is purposefully making it bad so families just start driving and they can cancel the magnet bus, saving them money,” the parents whisper.

The theory is believable enough.

Except for the fact that it requires a level of cunning, complexity and planning that the district’s transportation system has never once manifested.

This is, after all, a transportation system that forbids its drivers from using GPS systems.

Of course, it hasn’t occurred to Genghis to sit the nerdiest kid on the bus behind her, with a GPS open, telling her where to turn.

Because the Westchase nerd children, being the spawn of Satan, will trick her into something foolish.

Like driving across the Courtney Campbell Bridge to Clearwater.

Each year starts the same. The teetering, creaky bus takes the slowest possible route down Sheldon Road. For the tenth year in a row, Westchase parents launch an email campaign to get the bus to use Veterans Expressway so that the kids don’t spend an hour getting to school in a bus. Two weeks later they win a toll transponder.

Until the next year when it happens again. “Do you think maybe you could write this down this time?” I once suggested a district transportation official at a meeting.

He looked at me suspiciously.

Then last week, another parental text. “Our kids are still sitting on the bus that left for Robinson at 6:30 a.m.”

It was 8:30 a.m.

I texted Elf.

“The Alonso stop’s bus to Robinson didn’t come so we had to go down there to get the Alonso kids,” she texted back. “Then our driver drove back up to Linebaugh Avenue to get on Veterans,” she wrote. “Then there was this accident on Veterans...”

She included a video. Fully grown high school kids were mashed three and four to a seat. Ten kids were sprawled across backpacks clogging the bus floor.

In the background came a shrieking voice. “PUT YOUR PHONES AWAY!”

I texted back. “Make sure both buttocks are safely on the seat.”

And I rested my head on the mousepad.

By Chris Barrett, Publisher

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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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