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Not Feeling Remotely Well

We were all sick as dogs (well, except the dogs).

I shivered and clutched my blankie. Everyone else moaned in their beds. She Who Controls the Universe shuffled from the bedroom, looking like death. “It’s actually shaking the wall, sweetie. Could you please turn it down a little?”

I lethargically pushed the TV remote’s volume buttons.

Nada.

The Guardians of the Galaxy raccoon was getting his rabid on, blowing up a guard post inside an extraterrestrial prison.

I gave it the requisite remote shake before pressing again.

But the TV volume was stuck on 63, where The Sickly Sophomore had left it while soaking up all the Gossip Girls’ profound life insights.

I fruitlessly jabbed more buttons. “They’re just blowing something up right now.” I rasped. “It’ll get quiet again when everyone’s dead.”

Fifteen minutes later she was swooning at the door again. “My head,” she begged. “Please.”

Turns out the Guardians of the Galaxy is a two-hour long explosion, interrupted by a single 45-second emotional monologue that rallies everyone to shake off their doomy gloom and go blow more stuff up.

I hauled myself from the sofa. Shaking from chills, I dragged myself to the kitchen junk drawer.

I fiddled with the tape that kept the old remote’s broken battery door in place. After heaving a wracking cough to effectively convey that turning the TV down just might kill me, I inserted a pair of double A’s. I dragged myself back to the sofa. I poked the buttons.

Mas nada.

The wall quivered. A wave of nausea.

I eyed the stupid remote. Then I remembered SWCTU’s house-wide Lysol attack an hour before. I exhaled across the little glass button on its front and dragged it across my T-shirt.

Which is how guys clean stuff.

More poking.

Triple nada.

Admittedly, for the last six months, the remote was on borrowed time. Whenever we poked the volume buttons, the TV defaulted to the perky Movies on Demand madame on Channel 1.

Rather than get a new remote (way too normal for my family), we quickly embraced The Middle Schooler’s work-around. To change the volume, you hit the Guide button. With the channel guide open, if you carefully wrapped your remote arm around the back of your neck and held it at a 45 degree angle, you could adjust the volume without the channel changing.

But there were no middle school Twister techniques for getting ALL the buttons working.

Meanwhile the Guardians were going all D-Day on the Galaxy. A moan trickled out of the bedroom.

I desperately resorted to the final, universal, fix-the-remote solution: I slapped it hard against my other hand.

Because for centuries broken TV remotes have magically started working after a good spanking.

Complete and total nada.

I had been remotely transported back to the 1970s.

When men in The Barren and Lifeless Pre-Television Remote Era spent their nights leaping from recliners to adjust their three TV channels. To twiddle with the rabbit ears. To lower TV volumes.

The only problem?

I didn’t own a 1970s TV. My modern flat-screen featured absolutely no knobs to twiddle. 

Instead, it featured a series of never-used control buttons, ingeniously hidden somewhere. I began groping my TV. And my hand hit five of them at the same time. The TV screen burped and spun into a spasm of explosive static.

I nearly fell to my knees and cried.

Who was to blame for this flu-induced 1970s hell?

We had driven to Central Florida to spend Christmas afternoon with 22 of the 26 members of my wife’s tiny family. The week before, countless Tampa friends had kicked off Winter Break with a ruthless Facebook competition overdisclosing their battles with the flu and an explosive stomach bug.

One mom posted a photo of her elementary aged son sprawled lifeless on a doctor’s examination table, looking ready for a coffin.

Inexplicably, it had 12 Likes.

Another went for broke. “All four of us are deathly ill. Fevers. Aches. Chills. Now my colon has turned into a fire hose.”

Twenty-two Likes. “Feel better!” dozens of others commented.

Facebook code for: “Stay the he** away from me.”

Somehow, we had sidestepped it all. With school out, our exposure chances had plummeted. We were completely safe until Westchase Elementary began mailing its March Madness Lice Letters.

Yet 20 minutes after the wet Christmas afternoon smooches and double back-slap hugs, Uncle David dropped Bomb Number One. “Full disclosure. Joshie barfed the other day but he’s fine now.”

I looked over at my 4-year-old nephew.

The screeching firecracker who’s normally climbing bookshelves, crashing through the house and scrunching his large plastic Marvel superheroes into my cheeks, looked only slightly less green than The Hulk. He was sprawled across all the wrapped presents beneath the tree, gurgling and comatose at 3 p.m., LEGOs stuck to his cheeks.

His sister, Maddie, 6, swooped over. She waggled a finger and screamed, “THEREISNOFINGERFAIRY!”

Her traditional greeting ever since I told her, two years back when she lost her first tooth, that dozens of different fairies would thereafter be retrieving various body parts when they fell off. 

“I don’t get a hug?”

Maddie seized my leg and wiped her nose on my pants.

Whipping up the sweet potato casserole, her mom dropped Bomb Number Two. “She woke up with a fever this morning but she’s all good now.”

We had walked into a trap.

We were spending Christmas with Those Parents.

People who, if their children contracted Ebola, would show up at the playground and responsibly announce, 30 minutes after the kids began playing together, “Well, little Ashley’s eyeball melted two hours ago, but she perked up considerably after her juicebox.”

Translation?

You’ve been warned. It’s all on you now – the responsibility, the guilt AND the germs.

Four days later?

A dozen additional human beings were moaning on their sofas, LEGOS stuck to their faces.

Science Trivia Crack Question: What’s worse than your entire family contracting the flu at the same time?

Science Trivia Crack Answer: Your entire family contracting the flu at the same time with no working TV remote.

So, with a 103 fever and a wracking cough, I pulled myself to the minivan. And I swerved four miles down the road to the Bright House office on Linebaugh Avenue.

To hold my breath and stand in line behind an ancient guy with Einstein hair who clearly relished the opportunity to spend his entire morning arguing over a 32 cent credit.

Yes, I was That Guy.

Standing behind That Other Guy.

I finally reached the counter. The Bright House lady took one look. Alarmed, she instinctively leaned away. 

I extended the remote. “Please, for the love of gahd...”

The tips of two fingers seized the remote. She hurled it into a garbage can and shoved something at me.

“You gave me two!”

I smiled, which actually hurt. “God bless your heart.”

I staggered toward the door, pulled it open and steadied myself.

“Feel better!” she shouted.

By Chris Barrett, Publisher

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The Wolf Pack Names a Rooster

Darcy shifts in the minivan seat. “Does it hurt?”

Elf thinks on this. “Well, I went to a birthday party, shot the boy whose party it was in the head and he cried.”

“Hmm,” Darcy says. “But was the pain worth the fun?”

Elf nods enthusiastically. “Oh, yeah!”

Having exhausted paintball as a topic, the Wolf Pack Carpool turns to more pressing matters:

Deciding which of The Wiggles’ songs represents the group’s most brilliant work.

Because while retro takes at least three decades for adults, it’s merely six years for middle schoolers.

We’re shooting across Race Track Road – my daughter Elf, 9, occupying the second row with fellow nerd-athlete Darcy. The third holds fellow sixth grader, Astrid, Reigning Queen of Carpool Non-Sequiturs, and The Eighth Grader, who’s in a committed, long-term relationship with her Sols.

What are Sols?

Retro music headphones the size of Rhode Island.

Then there’s me, their eavesdropping driver, drowning in the middle school Stream of Consciousness.

The Sixth Graders are singing along to a YouTube video of Fruit Salad. Astrid pipes up. “My mom once told my sister that she’d hold a pillow over her head until she stopped struggling.”

It just kind of hangs out there a moment.

“You know, until you really listen to The Wiggles, you don’t realize just how gooda singers they are.” Elf says.

“PUNCH BUGGY PURPLE!” Astrid plugs Elf.

“Wait!”

“What?”

“It wasn’t a purple! It was white. The light just made it look purple.”

Astrid [vulgarity] her fist. “Is that a do-over?”

“No way!” says Darcy.

“OK,” agrees Astrid. “Plus, that’s the same punch buggy that comes out of that same neighborhood every morning at the exact same time.”

“You mean you can’t punch buggy the same punch buggy even on different days?” I ask.

“NO!” they cry.

“I once saw a Tesla,” says Darcy. “Did you know Teslas have seats in the trunk? What kind of parents would put their kids in the trunk?!”

“All of them,” the driver says.

Nervous, polite laughter.

We stop beside a utility box with a red blinking light.

“It’s gonna blow!” cries Darcy.

Giggles.

“My house alarm beeps faster and faster until you finally turn it off,” observes Astrid. “Once our house alarm went off and my neighbor showed up at our front door with a shotgun.”

Elf, battling a cold, snorts. “I sound like Darth Vader.”

The trio trades effective mouth-breathing strategies.

Astrid: “You know Helena?”

“Perfect Hair Girl?” says Elf. “I can’t figure out if she’s nice or a snoot.”

Darcy sides with snoot: “She always ditches me!”

Astrid sides with Nice Girl: “But you always move back to talk to Quinten!”

Near the school entrance a rooster crows.

“We should name him!” cries Elf. I like Rafael.”

“No,” says Darcy. “Gus.”

“Guster,” Astrid counters.

“How ‘bout Dinner?” Elf offers.

Laughter.

We pull up to school and the door slides open.

“Do you know what Ms. Jensen said yesterday when Ethan had the hiccups?” Astrid says.  “Hold your breath for 10,000 seconds and see if it helps.”

They tumble out laughing hysterically. The Eighth Grader turns to close the door.

“Thank you,” she says.

---Two Weeks Later---

“This is how my morning went.” Darcy heaves her Zombie Apocalypse Backpack into the minivan. “I went down the stairs and stepped into something icky and gooey.”

Collective groan.

“I didn’t want to tell my mother because she was already all riled up.” Darcy continues. “My dog is really stupid,” “Once we threw him a stick. He went to pick it up but he dropped it coming back. Then, when he got back, he opened his mouth but couldn’t figure out where it was.”

Astrid: “Maybe you confused him by naming him Bambi.”

“Sixth grade boys are the worst!” announces Elf. “Yesterday they just kept laughing at the Kingdom of Kush and Napoleon Bonaparte.”

Pause.

“Because they sound like the Kingdom of Tush and Napoleon Bonafart.”

Darcy giggles.

Elf giggles. “Napoleon Bonafart,” she repeats. “Hey, have you noticed how Kiera trips kids during track practice and then blames other runners?”

“At basketball practice,” Darcy says, “Kiera once threw a really hard passed to me and missed it!”

Darcy shivers with laughter. “And the ball crashed right into the back of the head of a little girl standing in line behind me! Then Kiera just turned and pretended she didn’t throw it!”

“What happened to the girl in line?” asks Astrid.

“IT WAS LIKE THE DOMINO EFFECT!” screams Darcy.

Hysterics.

Elf: “Did you know Kiera is Hawaiian?”

Darcy guffaws. “She’s not Hawaiian. She’s Chinese! But she told everyone you actually believe she’s Hawaiian and we shouldn’t tell you.”

Elf cries in protest. In 10 seconds she dramatically sways from outrage to pure admiration.

I chime in. “Maybe you should call Kiera, um, what’s that Hawaiian girl’s name from Lilo and Stitch?”

The sixth graders’ eyes collectively roll. “Lilo,” they cry.

“I suppose that makes sense.”

Astrid: “Anyone ever watch Curious George?”

“That was my childhood!” cries Elf.

“How creepy was the Man in the Yellow Hat?” Darcy says. “Who dresses like that?”

Astrid: “He’s supposed to look like a banana.”

Elf whirls in her chair.  “OH MY GAHD! I just realized…!”

The rooster crows.

“There’s Rafael!” she cries.

“We did NOT name him Rafael,” insists Darcy. “I like Gus.”

Astrid: “What about Rufus?”

“Let’s compromise!” Elf throws open the door. “We’ll call him Grafeus!”

They tumble out laughing.

The Eighth Grader turns to close the door.

“Thank you,” she says.

By Chris Barrett, Publisher

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Ditching the Big Ask

Grab the marmalade. Homecoming season is toast.

Shelve the sequined dresses, the purple dress shirts, the manicures and the dinner parties.

That tremendous whoosh at the beginning of November?

It was all the high school guys heaving a sigh of relief.

HoCo is done. You can now safely enter the cafeteria.

I feel sorry for high school guys today.

In addition to all that strange peer pressure to wear Chubbies, it’s not good enough for a guy to have his palms get clammy and his heart nearly explode as he screws up the courage to furtively beg a young woman to spend a mere four hours with him.

Nope. He must stage an elaborate production requiring more creativity, more effort and more anxiety than applying to 18 highly competitive colleges and FSU as his safety school.

It may also require the renting out of a dirigible or exotic animal petting zoo. Or, if funds are tight, bungee jumping off the high school gym into a vat of 6,000 cafeteria tater tots all individually hand-painted in sparkly nail polish with The Question:

Homecoming?

Furthermore, the guy must do all this in front of hundreds of other students to prove he will risk even suicidal mortification to win the right to have the love of his life stand radiantly beside him in the HoCo Grind Line.

At least judging from all their mamas’ pictures on Facebook.

You know it’s all true. You’ve gotten carpel tunnel from clicking Like so quickly.

In recent years I’ve seen a guy who convinced 30 of his best friends to stage a Flashmob at the mall food court. The production culminated in the guy falling to his knees and popping the big question.

Right before it culminated again with mall security slapping plastic cuffs on him. (It was more mob and less flash.)

Another guy painted an entire wall in the girl’s bedroom with the question “Homecoming?” Then he filled the room with an ocean of balloons and hid beneath them to surprise her.

Because totally cool parents are apparently totally OK with a guy totally hiding in their daughter’s bedroom.

Another guy cut out 72,000 black footprints. He put Hershey’s kisses on each one of them in a trail leading to the girl’s room, where he placed a big poster that said: Now that you know I kiss the ground that you walk on, will you go to Homecoming with me?

Now that you’ve finished gagging, answer me this: Is anyone else concerned this always ends up in the girl’s bedroom?
If your Facebook friends don’t offer enough ideas to steal, hundreds of Web sites offer tips to make your son’s Homecoming invitation preparations simple and easy.

One suggests he spend several hours before daybreak – on five consecutive days – sketching anonymous chalk drawings and messages on the girl’s driveway, culminating in drawing himself and her touching fingers like God and Adam on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.
Another suggestion?

He can write, illustrate, self-publish, print and mail his hoped-for date an entire book titled Reasons You Should Go to Homecoming With Me.
If he selfishly needs to keep his Homecoming preparations to something less than a full-time job, he can ask the local pizza delivery franchise to deliver a pizza with the big question, “Homecoming?” spelled out in pepperoni.

Then, when she winds up at HoCo with the Papa Johns’ driver, he can have another sent to his own house topped with the word “Idiot.”

What’s The Big Ask standard? If his HoCo video fails to go viral on YouTube, the photos still must get at least 100 Likes on his mama’s Facebook page.

Does something strike you as suspicious?

No adult male is this romantic let alone high school guys who wear the same unwashed clothes to sports practice all semester long without realizing that they started smelling dead back in October.

These Big Asks require preparation, careful thought and creative planning.

Having taught high school for a dozen years, I assure you that the only thing high school boys carefully plan in advance is their farts.

There’s only one explanation. The Big Ask is just another production brought to you by Moms With Too Much Time on Their Hands, Inc.

Women who use HoCo Season to get warmed up for this month’s Elf on a Shelf Facebook competition.

There are dramatic social consequences to courting on steroids, ladies. The average American guy is getting married far later. Or he’s simply skipping that walk down the aisle altogether.

Likely because he’s yet to figure out a bigger and better way to ask his HoCo date to marry him.

The Times Square newsfeed and the First Lady are booked through 2016.

Even if the newer and hipper Pope tweets his marriage invitation, there’s still the silver wedding anniversary to worry about.

You see where this is going.

We’re creating monsters.

So, moms, back off. And, sons, if your mother won’t back off, just hide her smartphone until she completes FB detox and wanders off to Trader Joe’s.

Then, in an unexpected romantic twist, be yourself. Buy a bouquet of flowers from Publix for $4. Jam it into your sports bag and lie to your buddies that it’s just your basketball stuff. Nearly ask her in Chem class but chicken out at the last minute. Screw up the courage and approach her one last time before the school bus arrives. Turn red and thrust the crushed flowers at her, stuttering she’ll make your day by going to Homecoming.

She’ll still think you’re awesome.

And her father will love you for not hiding in her bedroom.

By Chris Barrett, Publisher

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Reflections of a Crash Test Dummy

She inches past a guy watering his grass like she’s a mobster slowing for a hit. He looks up suspiciously.

She passes and heaves a sigh of relief. “That’s my first pedestrian I didn’t hit!”

It’s been a month of inspiring firsts.

All culminating in her profound observation about learning to drive: “This is more complicated than Mario Kart.”

A video game that triggers excited cackling in her throat whenever she runs Cousin Izzy off the road.

The Sophomore is driving me east on Forest Lakes Road toward Race Track Road – our first venture out of 25 mph neighborhoods. She’s successfully keeping my heart rate under 100 bpm.

Until 10 yards before the Race Track Road intersection, when we enter the Big Brakes or T-Bone Stakes Zone.

And the traffic light slings yellow.

She has two milliseconds to choose between slamming the brakes, flinging her crash-test dummy dad against his seat belt, or slamming the accelerator, rocketing through the intersection to beat red.

Instead, she gasps. She pulls her foot off both pedals.

My spine fuses.

And her right foot demands a UN Debate.

“JUST…!” I sputter.

“WHAT?!”

She starts convulsing. She taps the brake. She taps the accelerator.

I brace my feet against the floor in a futile attempt to run away.

Her foot comes back up.

The Chinese and Russians have vetoed the General Assembly’s resolution to Just Do Something.

And the light clicks red.

“AUGH!”

“OHMIGAHD!”

I brace one hand on the car ceiling, the other against the door. We roll into the eight-lane crowded intersection – against the light – at five mph.

If this were a Pixar film, you’d suddenly notice the 8-year-old standing on the side of the road, mouth gaped in mid-lollipop lick, his saucer eyes slow-motion tracing the most ludicrous thing he’s ever seen passing by:

A screaming 15-year-old girl snail-driving through a hellaciously busy intersection while brakes shriek; her father stands completely upright inside a Toyota Corolla; and the guy selling Ruskin tomatoes on the side of the road seizes his own head to brace for impact.

We interrupt our regularly scheduled program for an important safety announcement:

Next time tell your wife to take the child driving.

Breaking news:

That’s not gonna work either.

The Sophomore blasts into the house the next weekend. “I am never going driving with her again!” She flees to her room to thrust her brain inside her iPod.

“I am never going driving with her again!” her mother, entering from the garage, unwittingly echoes.

Overhearing, The Sophomore jets back to the living room to address this outrage.

“She thinks I drive crazy!”

“Um,” I interrupt. “You both agree. Yet still you manage to argue.”

The Momster calmly points at her. “She thinks that speed limits are goals to be reached within three seconds.”

“No one ever told me they were just maximums!” The Sophomore cries.  “Mom just sits there, herky-jerky gesturing and sputtering!”

The Sophomore turns to address the woman who carried her for nine months, foregoing her Friday glass of wine and her daily morning coffee, before nearly splitting in two pushing her large, purple head out. “When we passed my friends on Montague Street, you looked like you were dancing the Robot in the front seat!” The Sophomore gestures like an out-of-control C3PO. “How embarrassing is that?!”

Her Puerto Rican mother holds up her hands. “The problem is…”

The Momster pauses dramatically.

The Sophomore and I both fall silent. Momster’s look makes clear that what she will utter will explain everything perfectly.

“…I learned to drive in Spanish.”

I realize I’m mouth-gaping like the Pixar kid.

The Sophomore is C3POing again.

“Every time she does something,” Momster says in perfect, unaccented English, “by the time I get it out of my mouth, it’s a half mile back.” She shakes her head. “You’re taking her driving from now on.”

So, two days later, we’re in the parking lot of the local elementary school, where the bus dumps all the loser high schoolers who don’t drive themselves. I’ve decided to let The Sophomore drive home.

“Did you check your mirrors?”

“Ugh!” She growls and adjusts them. “Someone keeps moving these!”

“You always need to adjust them before driving. We’re different heights.”

“Oh!” she exclaims.

The same “Oh!” she exclaimed when I first answered her puzzled query, “So, how do I get this thing to go backwards?”

“This is not going well!” her fourth grade sister announces from the back.

“Dad, can you please tell her I need complete silence?”

I turn to evil-eye Grace and find her lying across the seat in the fetal position.

“Do you really think that’s helpful?”

“I only do this when she’s backing up.”

“Dad!” The Sophomore exclaims. “I need to concentrate!”

Grace falls silent and The Sophomore heaves the van into reverse. She ever-so-cautiously creeps backwards.

A handful of juniors, the last to clear out from the bus stop, stand over by the bike rack. They watch the unfolding drama, astride their bikes, frozen until we’ve safely moved on.

Her highly complicated reversal complete, The Sophomore pauses. She rubs her sweaty hands on her shorts and clears her throat. She heaves the van into drive…

And rockets forward.

Arriving at the parking lot exit’s stop sign, she slams on the brakes. Not firmly hitched, my seat suddenly rolls forward until it catches and flings me against the seat belt.

Ka-THUNK!

It’s either the seat mechanism catching or my collar bone snapping.

“Sorry!”

She turns out of the lot and kathumps off the curb. It finally hits me. I just don’t want her to drive.

I don’t want her to climb into a thin metal can and drive out into a world where a man with Ebola lies on an immigration form and flies into Dallas. I don’t want her bee-bopping out into a county where drivers, drunk beyond reason, sail south on northbound highways.

A man spends 15 years protecting the most remarkable achievement of his life. And then, with a snap of the fingers, she begs the keys and drives off into a world he simply doesn’t trust.

While he sit there like the Ruskin tomato man.

Is it too much to expect that she just stay happily in the living room running Cousin Izzy off the road?

Yet, with her outstretched hand, she’s asking me to take the next, difficult step in a parent’s life. A process begun in June of 1999, when a delivery nurse offered an outstretched hand, where I found the scissors to cut through the thick rope binding her to her mother.

While I wept like a fool.

Halfway home from the school lot, The Sophomore pulls over to offer a friend a ride.

Specifically, she pulls entirely onto the grass and almost the sidewalk.

“What are you doing?!”

“I’m pulling over.”

“Into someone’s front yard!?”

“Is it a big deal?”

“If you’re offering someone a ride, you’re not supposed to run them down beforehand.”

She huffs.

I roll down the window. “Are you really sure you want a ride?”

“Sure!” Michael says excitedly. He’s either exhausted from walking a whole block or feels compelled to witness the trainwreck firsthand.

But she does it. She actually gets Michael home safely, slowly and smoothly and he jumps out.

“My first real passenger,” she says, forgetting the crash-test dummy beside her.

Beaming, she calls out her window to her friend. “How was it?”

Michael thinks on this. “You drive like my grandmother.”

“Thank you!” she chirps.

And The Sophomore drives off…

With the crash-test dummy clutching the door.

By Chris Barrett, Publisher

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