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Waiting on the Big Reveal

“Just tell me. Is it a skinny or a fat envelope?”

Over the phone line I could hear my mother giving the letter a good feel. It went on a good long time. So long that even the phone began feeling uncomfortable.

“Mo-om!”

“A fat one,” she said. “I think.”

Back in the days of Journey albums and big bangs (As a former Dungeons and Dragons player, I assure you: I’m solely referring to hair here.), the envelope question was the only that really mattered to high school seniors applying to college.

Especially those who were receiving only skinny envelopes.

A somewhat above average student who looked far nerdier than his transcript, I had foolishly rolled the dice on very competitive universities and a single safety school. And the only other fat envelope I had gotten was from the University of Scranton, which gave out fat envelopes like mall Santas do mini candy canes.

I was desperate for a ticket outta town.

Even if it eventually took me to Baltimore, the armpit of the East Coast.

But as drawn out and stressful as the college selection process was back then, it’s been more drawn out and stressful as a parent of a high school senior.

Like last month when Duke and Johns Hopkins, my alma mater, sent my high school senior fat WELCOME, CLASS OF 2021! emails and then FedExed perky fat announcements that our “expected contribution” was $40,000 per year.

Which is what colleges now call tuition.

Because only the uncouth reduce their ejumacation to a mere commodity by “paying tuition.” The rest of the world’s sophisticates make a required donation. Or a mandatory voluntary offering. Or a completely optional gratuity urgent-ified by penalty of death.

I nearly stroked out.

To soften the blow that we would be selling our other two daughters into indentured servitude, Hopkins at least included a lovely 5” x 7” lithograph of single feather of a blue jay, plucked from the school mascot and tucked inside a fancy envelope with a fake gold seal.

It sealed the deal.

Number One was going to one of Florida’s fine public universities.

Easy choice, right?

Cue the folks threatening everyone with a culturally sensitive tomahawk scalping and screaming, “Fear the Spear!”(I know. I know. This historic fiction is completely reverential.)

While the other nerdy half of the room walks around, pushing up their taped glasses, clapping like human scissors, and thinking they look like a voracious reptile.

OK. OK. My sincerest apologies to those out there proudly driving around Tampa with their college’s disturbing, overly-male looking logo on their license plates. I’m not overlooking you. Number One got in there too, but refuses to attend college in any town where people might actually associate her with me. (But, if you tweak your logo to look more like a uterus, she may consider you for grad school.)

So, it’s boiled down to this:

Florida State University.

Or the University of Florida.

Annually, on the weekend after Thanksgiving, I watch one side of my in-laws scream for the Seminoles and the other side scream for the Gators. (While my sister-in-law, a USF professor, sits in the corner with her arms crossed.)

My wife, daughters and I just look on, amused.

We don’t really watch sports. We just watch people watching sports.

Which, frankly, is more entertaining than even the 11 minutes per game the football is actually moving.

To me, all their excitement is a bit strange.

The only time Hopkins’ students ran around shouting and wildly gesticulating like that was when they got an A in organic chemistry.

But as the weeks have passed, clarity about Number One’s future has remained elusive.

“Where will you go?” we pressed.

Big sigh.

“I can’t decide.”

I had clearly failed in my one significant responsibility as a parent living in Florida. I had not properly brainwashed my child into her college decision by second grade.

I had purchased no Seminole bed sheets. Or Gator pajamas. Or Seminole sweatshirts. Or Gator T-shirts. Or Seminole mini-cheerleader uniforms. Or Gator training bras. And our living room was not painted orange and blue or gold and garnet, which I wasn’t even aware was a color until I moved to Florida.

As far as I could tell, up until at least freshman year, Number One was headed off to a university called Hollister (nearly as expensive as Hopkins).

Now each night at the dinner table, Number One’s sisters take turns theatrically rolling their eyes, propping up their massively heavily heads with their hands, and asking, “Have you decided yet?”

Big sigh.

“Yesterday was a FSU day. Today was a UF day.”

I finally sat her down. “Why don’t you just lay out the rationale for attending both schools,” I suggested.

“Well,” she said. “UF is ranked higher in all the college rankings. It has tougher entrance requirements and smaller class sizes. It has a higher freshman return rate and graduates more of its students in six years. Oh, and I got that Lombardi thing.”

The Lombardi thing being a scholarship covering 85 percent of tuition and paying to send its scholars on summer study and travel experiences to far-flung places like South Africa and Peru.

Starting with five weeks this summer in Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula, where she’d live with a host family, study Spanish at the Universidad de Yucatan and study anthropology and ecology while climbing Mayan pyramids and lounging on the white sands of the Gulf of Mexico.

Other than the beheadings and kidnappings, what’s not to like about a summer in Mexico?

“And FSU?” I prompted.

“Their campus is really pretty,” she said.

Blink. Blink.

“And?” I prompted. Honestly, I was waiting for her to add, “And that’s where my boyfriend is going.”

But she didn’t. “That’s it,” she shrugged.

And so I sit, staring at a small blue feather taped to the wall of my home office…

Wondering if today will be and FSU day.

Or a UF day.

By Chris Barrett, Publisher

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Beware the FedEx Driver

I flip around the newspaper until it’s properly covering our high school senior’s breakfast bagel.

I tap it dramatically.

She emits a 5:30 a.m. Monday morning groan. “Dad, is this another story of a woman who let her really long scarf dangle out the window of her speeding car and it got wrapped around the axle, snapping her neck?”

“No.”

“Because no one wears long scarves like that.”

I tap.

“Or another story about a guy who didn’t properly seatbelt his potbelly pig, which got stung by a bee, jumped on his lap and caused him to drive under a semitrailer and get decapitated?

“No.”

“Because no one drives around town with their pet pig riding shotgun.”

I tap again.

“Or a story about a teenage guy and girl videoing themselves singing a Disney duet while driving, causing them to veer into a pond and drown?”

“Absolutely not.”

“Because no one cares about Frozen anymore.”

I tap a fourth time.

She groans again and finally caves, reading a very important story about a guy who ran out of air and drowned while scuba diving in Florida’s underwater caverns.

She finishes and looks up. Then she purses her lips as if finishing her bagel and getting to school are actually more important.

“Do you know how many people die scuba diving in underwater Florida caverns each year?” I say.

“No, Dad.”

“A lot.”

“I don’t scuba dive, Dad.”

I point to the paper. “Just remember that story in case you start. Over confidence can kill a person.”

“Wait.” Her mom looks up. “How do they actually know a bee stung that pig?”

For some reason, my daughters are convinced I have a pathological obsession with springing lessons on them, at the worst possible times, about how to carefully avoid bizarre, accidental deaths.

And I just may be man enough to probably, reluctantly admit that I kind of sometimes perhaps do that occasionally.

I can’t help it. I’m like a quivering dog with a treat perched on its nose. No matter the illusion of self-control, we can all agree it’s gonna end the same way.

I pick up the morning paper. And there it is. A story about a guy who is mauled to death after he slams his mountain bike into an enormous grizzly while trail riding.

I try to stop myself.

Really.

I even silently scold myself. “Don’t do it!” I say. “They’ll just mock you.”

But the quivering just kicks in. 

And I do it.

I flip the newspaper around at 5:30 a.m. on a Monday morning and tap, tap, tap. “You know. You need to be very careful riding your mountain bike in Montana’s national parks. You should always carefully signal all of your turns and carry bear spray.”

Blink. Blink.

They have absolutely no appreciation for the fact that, right in the middle of breakfast, I just saved their future lives.

I know. It probably comes across as just a tad morbid.

I’m gonna man up again and blame my mother.

She passed on a fatalistic gene the size of Ireland.

Every phone call from the Mother Ship on Tuesday morning concludes with her weekly litany of the dead and dying.

“Did I tell you about my high school friend Sally Kowalski?

(My brain silently squeals in Super Mario’s high-pitched voice, “Here we go!”)

“She has Acute Stage Four Phlegmitis. It’s terminal,” she says. “And Phyllis Biaggio, Kate’s old piano teacher, the one with that frantic Russell Terrier?”

“Toby,” I say.

“Yes. Toby,” she says. “On Friday Phyllis was diagnosed with Progeria. She’s got six months, tops.”

I almost make the mistake of asking her what Progeria does to people, but smartly catch myself. “That’s just terrible,” I say.

“Just terrible,” she agrees.

I decide to change the topic. “I can’t believe good, old Toby is still alive. I loved Toby.”

“Oh, no,” she says. “The FedEx guy ran him over. Toby’s been dead for years.”

Blink. Blink.

I make a mental note to warn my daughters to avoid FedEx drivers while walking the dogs.

My distrust and anxiety about the world has only grown more acute as my oldest, 17, squeaks closer to high school graduation and college, where she will be safe from my dire, early morning tapping.

One night after dinner she plops down beside me with her laptop. “Look at this,” she says.

She opens a web site for a college scholarship, one that pays for its scholars to travel to a different exotic corner of the world each summer. She clicks on a video of college freshmen racing past a Latin American beach in a speedboat, splashing in the waves, leaping from a cliffs into a dimly lit cenote, and dancing in a mysterious town square well after dark. “Isn’t it awesome?” she whispers.

And my brain silently whispers back, “I counted exactly five different and unique ways you could die on that trip.”

But my mind whirls back to the six summer weeks I spent in Mexico in high school without my family. To the summer after high school graduation when I kissed my mother goodbye and leapt aboard a plane with a friend to backpack through Europe. To the crazy two years after college when I lived in a corner of the world with no electricity, where a simple appendicitis attack would have proven fatal.

How did my mother ever let me go?

Yet how wonderful that she did – and quivered through it until I somehow magically returned – clueless, death-defying, young me – completely unharmed.

“It is awesome,” I say, kissing my daughter on her head. “You should apply for that scholarship, win it, go all those wonderful places and grow up to be fearless, wise and all-powerful.”

As I, quivering, imagine wrapping her in bubble wrap and willing her to never leave my side.

By Chris Barrett, Publisher

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Dissecting a Gag

“We’re gonna dissect a frog in science tomorrow,” said Bee, our sixth grader.

My fork stopped mid-air.

Number One’s hand clamped over her pie hole to keep her Pesto-Chicken Pasta from paloofing across the dinner table. “We are not talking about this right now!”

Go ahead. Dissect my three daughters. Right beside their Vera Bradley kidneys and Lokai large intestines, you’ll find a gag reflex the size of Texas.

We first noticed this about a decade ago when we showed them the classic movie, ET.

Everything was totally terrestrial until the scene when a dying ET turns all funky white and gray.

Elf, then 4, turned all funky green and yellow and began emitting extraterrestrial gurgling.

We’re still not clear whether it was ET’s appearance, or the fact that a large, very fake-looking animatronic puppet was dying instead of a real person that triggered her.

Because the human body count doesn’t matter. Turn on Jaws and it’s the fetching dog that vanishes at the beach that will have the girls weeping and retching into the sofa cushions.

Bee is particularly sensitive this way. We’ll be watching a movie featuring a large-scale cavalry attack in which men are dropping like flies. She’ll seize a sofa cushion to block the TV, look at me in horror and cry, “Is one of the horses going to get shot?”

Pause.

“IS ONE OF THE HORSES GOING TO GET SHOT!?”

This is the same person who digitally insists on eating vegetarian in Minecraft.  But when one of the local villagers wanders into her Minecraft home and begins its strange, guttural murmuring?

Boom!

“YOU JUST MURDERED THAT VILLAGER WITH A GARDEN [vulgarity]!” I say in horror.

Shrug.

“He was in the way.”

So I was understandably anxious about the frog dissection. 

An anxiety amplified by my own seventh grade dissection experience at St. Paul’s, a Catholic school in Scranton. 

I was teamed with my best friend, Jimmy Lawhon; Bobbie Casper, the teacher’s pet; and Michael Cristopolous, an all-around pain-in-the-class.

The four of us were all altar servers but no one liked Michael Cristopolous. He hogged the bells and spent every funeral trying to make the other altar boys laugh.

He always succeeded.

Because Michael Cristopolous could conjure up intestinal gas like a gall-bladderless 90-year-old on Bingo Burrito Night.

St. Paul’s was over 100 years old. Its ancient science labs looked like something Edison and Dr. Frankenstein collaborated in. Its jar of dissectible frogs also dated to the Spanish-American War. You could grab your frog by the foot and use it as a gavel.

Which Michael Cristopolous did several times just to gross out Mary Whitcomb, sitting way over in a corner, excused from any and all frog touching by her mother’s note.

Which our science teacher, Mr. McLaughlin, dramatically read aloud and which announced that Mary was “particularly prone to fainting.”

Most frustrating? Our scalpels were as dull as Mr. McLaughlin.

It would have been easier to dissect a baseball glove with a spoon. But Jimmy, Billy, Michael and I gamely tried to saw out designated frog body parts to place them on Mr. McLaughlin’s mimeographed worksheet. Meanwhile the others lurked, breathing their bologna-sandwich breath all over the surgeon.

And Michael Cristopolous helpfully observed how the size of each frog organ was roughly the size of one of Bobbie Casper’s unmentionable ones.

And while Bobbie Casper fretted aloud that his lab group of certifiable morons wouldn’t harvest enough body parts for an A.

Because Mr. McLaughlin’s mimeographed sheet proclaimed each organ would win us specific point totals that would determine our final grade.

Ten points for a kidney. Ten points for a stomach.

And our frog was apparently born without a liver.

It was looking hopeless until Michael Cristopolous observed that Mr. McLaughlin probably couldn’t tell the difference between a frog’s liver and his southern-most orifice.

“So just take out THAT,” he pointed.

So I began sawing, and prying and sawing and prying THAT out of our frog while Cristopolous kept hiding already removed body parts to stress out Bobbie Casper.

“What happened to the intestines? OH MY GAHD, WHAT  HAPPENED TO THE INTESTINES? THEY’RE WORTH 20 POINTS!”

I just pried and sawed THAT some more. While Jimmy, the only one still paying attention, breathed his lunch all over me. “Harder!” Jimmy counseled. “Do it harder!” 

So I jammed the useless scalpel below THAT and pried until the blade was nearly bent over backwards.

PING!

It was a moment any worthwhile movie would show in slow motion.

Our frog’s liver sailed free. It rose…

And arced…

Right into Jimmy’s open mouth, where it hit the back of his throat…

And triggered his swallow reflex.

Jimmy reeled backward, grasping his neck.

“Holy ----!” Michael Cristopolous cursed.

Mary leapt from her chair and ran. Billy Casper screamed, “OHMIGAHD! OHMIGAHD!”

Mr. McLaughlin rushed to our table. I pointed the scalpel at Jimmy. “HE ACCIDENTALLY SWALLOWED THE FROG’S LIVER!”

As Mr. McLaughlin stood there, trying to figure out how someone could accidentally swallows a frog’s liver, Jimmy squeaked, “Am I gonna die?”

And poor, panicky Mr. McLaughlin, whose physical education degree didn’t really cover formaldehyde toxicity, told the truth.

“I don’t know.”

“Ohmigahd, Mr. McLaughlin?” Billy interrupted. “Will we still get credit for the frog liver Jimmy swallowed”

“BILLY!” Mr. McLaughlin cried.

Then McLaughlin’s long-training in classroom management kicked in. “Of course not, Billy. If I do that, everyone will be saying they swallowed frog organs.”

Fortunately Jimmy didn’t die.

And by Sr. Juliette’s seventh period English class, things had settled down.

Until Mary Whitcomb reached into her purse for her comb.

And pulled out our dissected frog carcass instead.

And promptly vomited all over her desk.

And as Michael Cristopolous began the long walk of shame to the principal’s office, he turned. “See?” he growled at me. “Her mom totally lied. She’s not prone to fainting at all.”

By Chris Barrett, Publisher

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Florida Formal

She Who Controls the Universe came in from the mailbox.

“Jennifer is getting married.”

I squinted. “Jennifer who?”

Her eyeballs quivered over the top of her eyeglasses like This Should Be Known.

“Jennifer Who-Do-You-Think?”

This is your life after 20 years of marriage. You become Henry Fonda. Your wife becomes Katharine Hepburn. And every kitchen conversation becomes On Golden Pond.

By that time, I had mentally puzzled out which Jennifer was getting married. But if she was going to completely Hepburn me, I was going to totally outFonda her.

“I went to high school with at least 15 Jennifers,” I protested. “I probably dated four. Five if you count the Geniffer whose parents couldn’t spell.”

“You only dreamed of dating four Jennifers.”

Number One, scratching out Calculus at the kitchen table, snorted.

“In the 1980s Jennifers were like Cabbage Patch Dolls and Star Wars figures,” I explained to Number One. “They were everywhere. You’d look under the sofa cushions or your bed for spare change to buy some Pop Rocks and you’d find at least two Jennifers.”

“That’s kind of creepy, Dad.”

“Jennifer your niece,” my wife said.

“I knew that.”

Number One looked doubtful.

“Who’s she marrying?” I asked.

I threw a glance at Number One and she smiled. She also likes egging on her mama. It’s what we do when there’s nothing better to do.

My wife’s eyes quivered at me above her glasses again. “Ethan.”

Pause.

“Ethan who?”

Number One snorted again.

Hepburn snuck a glance at the invitation.

“Ah-ha!” I pointed. “You don’t know Ethan’s last name!”

Number One switched loyalties. “Dad, no one knows Ethan’s last name,” she said. “He’s like all those people in Indonesia with only one name. He’s just—”

Shrug.

“Ethan.”

Hepburn placed the wedding invitation before me for closer examination. It announced the upcoming nuptials of…drum roll…Jennifer and Ethan.

No last names.

“Wait a minute!” I said. “This invitation says ‘formal.’ That means a tuxedo.”

Hepburn waved her hand. “A coat and tie is fine.”

“What does ‘formal’ mean then?” said Number One.

“Exactly,” I said. “In Florida, clothing instructions on invitations are a diabolical trick.”

Number One picked up her cell. “OK, Google!” she shouted. “What does ‘formal’ mean on a wedding invitation?”

Because millennials even Google bathing tips.

“It doesn’t matter what Google says,” I insisted, “This is Florida. Formal could mean ‘wear a tuxedo’ on Tuesday. And three days later, we could be celebrating Sparkly Flip-Flop Friday.”

“You don’t have to wear a tuxedo,” Hepburn insisted.

“Google says ‘formal’ means a tuxedo,” said Number One. “Or a dark suit.”

“Remember that Girl Scout Daddy Daughter Dance over at the golf club a few years back?” I said. “The tickets all said casual on them.”

“I remember,” said Hepburn.

“So I put on a nice pair of jeans, a collared, buttoned-down shirt and some loafers. And Bee put on a simple dress. Then we drove over.”

“And?” said Number One.

“When we pulled up, all the dads were in formal suits and the girls were all in beautiful, new spring dresses. It looked like Easter services let out. This is what passes for casual in Westchase.”

Number One looked horrified. “Did you go in?”

“We drove right through the parking lot and casually went to Dairy Queen.”

“A coat and tie for the wedding will be fine,” said Hepburn.

“But,” I said to Number One. “This past Christmas your mom and I were invited to a business Christmas party. And the invitation said ‘cocktail.’”

“OK, Google!” Number One shouted again.

“I had on a pair of nice jeans, a sparkly top and beautiful scarf,” Hepburn cooed. “But your dad insisted I change.”

“Because ‘cocktail’ means a dress,” I said. “And a coat and tie for guys.”

“And who was the only fool wearing a coat and tie at the Christmas party?” Hepburn said. 

I pointed the invitation. “It’s a diabolical trick.” I looked at Hepburn. “I need a new suit for the wedding.”

“A coat and tie will be fine.”

Hepburn picked up her phone. In 30 seconds, the kitchen was pinging with text messages from her sisters and sisters-in-law. “Ginnie, Suzanne and Liza say that David, Robert and Ray are wearing suits,” she said.

“A-ha!” I said.

“Do all wives dress their husbands?” asked Number One. When no one answered, she grabbed her cell. “OK, Google!”

“But,” Hepburn held up a finger, “Laura said that Ginnie told her that Jennifer said they only put formal on the wedding invitation so Ethan’s relatives wouldn’t wear jeans.”

It was settled. A coat and tie it was.

Because Google says that all wives DO dress their husbands. 

At least until 3 p.m. on the day before you leave for the wedding, when your wife actually texts the bride.

Hepburn’s head popped through my office door. “I texted Jennifer and she said ‘formal’ means to wear a dark suit.”

“I can’t buy a suit in two hours.”

“You have a tone.” Hepburn’s head popped back out the office door.

So it was settled. A coat and tie it was.

Because reality says you can’t buy suits like sweat socks.

At least until two hours before the wedding, when you start dressing for said wedding. And you are desperately pawing through your suitcase and pathetically shaking out your dress shoes when you already know the truth.

The organist was playing the warm up music when I located a parking spot and dashed, completely tieless, into the church.

He was sitting up by the front, just to the left.

I slid next to my brother-in-law, Carl, who was balancing his 15 month old on a knee while eyeing his 3 year old, who was dangerously close to diving off the pew onto her head.

He slid his hand over.

“You’re a life-saver,” I said, quickly knotting the blue tie.

“By the way,” I asked. “What’s Ethan’s last name?”

He squinted. “Ethan who?”

By Chris Barrett, Publisher

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An Epiphany

The flash of my phone camera gave me away.

The sixth grader contracted into her sweatshirt like a turtle. The high schooler and eighth grader whirled in tandem. “You are not putting this on Facebook!”

“You don’t have enough grass,” I pointed to the ground. “The camels will be ravenous tonight.”

They had every reason to be concerned. It’s pitch black on a school night and they’re hunched over on the front lawn in their penguin pajamas plucking grass and jamming it into old shoe boxes.

A Facebook shot of this nocturnal activity might actually get them all committed.

“No one will see this!” they reiterated.

“Keep picking,” I ordered. “Or they’re going to leave charcoal in your shoes.”

The high schooler growled.

For if there is one thing that gives Number One major conniptions, it’s smudges on her kicks.

It’s a special holiday tradition of ours, this nocturnal growling on the Eve of Epiphany.

Along with stuffing shoeboxes with patches of our front lawn for the camels to eat.

And then complaining we have to shower again because Florida grass makes us itch.

The shoeboxes?

It’s as close as we can get to convincing the smudge haters to stuff the grass into their actual shoes.

“You know,” I point out. “Technically you’re supposed to be stuffing that grass into your actual shoes.”

“You know,” Number One points out, “Technically I should be inside studying for my Chemistry test.”

She plucks another blade, inspecting it to make sure it has not been tainted by our dogs.

“Why would anyone stick grass inside their shoes? That’s just crazy,” says the sixth grader.

As she hunches over on the front lawn…in the pitch black…on a school night…in her penguin pajamas…plucking grass and jamming it into an old shoe box.

Odds are, in your house, Christmas may already well be on its way into the garage – or that storage unit that holds your treasured high school yearbooks that your grandchildren will someday encounter and throw out with a shrug.

Which, given that photo of you in the 80’s basketball team shorts, is a good thing.

But, while everyone relishes the tradition of complaining before Thanksgiving about the early Christmas decorations, this early American rush to deChristmasify life come Dec. 26 depresses me.

Holiday Pop Quiz: When do the 12 days in the Twelve Days of Christmas song officially begin?

Holiday Pop Quiz Answer: Christmas Day.

The 12 drummers drumming don’t officially gift us with a holiday migraine until Jan. 5, Epiphany Eve.

Yet by the time most Americans have sung “five golden rings” for the fifth time, they’re so over it, they’ve hauled the tree out to the curb.

There the silver tinsel blows forlornly in the wind. As you drive past, you shrivel into your seat in depression, knowing there are three months New Year’s resolutions standing between you and spring break.

Meanwhile, on Jan. 3, Target has its red-cellophane Valentine’s Day displays right next to a box of ugly Christmas gift wrap marked 60 percent off.

Thank you and goodbye, Santa. Don’t let the door hit you in the French hens.

Is it any wonder Christmas insists on coming earlier and earlier each year?

It’s because we box it up before it’s properly done.

My wife’s family, which hails from Puerto Rico, does it right.

For them, Christmas is a full-fledged holiday marathon.

Run in festive flip-flops with a meringue band playing Paranda music and featuring frequent stops at their friends’ houses to snog their coquito and nosh their pasteles.

It starts the day of Dia de San Gibbing (loose translation: Thanksgiving) and doesn’t end until Three Kings Day.

Epiphany.

Which the Tarpon Springs Greeks celebrate by flinging their teen sons into a frigid bayou. (Which is probably how most of us want to celebrate every Saturday morning, but I digress.)

In many parts of Latin America, however, Epiphany is not celebrated by attempting to drown your children.

Instead, the three magi, Gaspar, Melchior, and Balthasar, come tramping through your home long after midnight in their pursuit of the magical light in the sky. And if you’ve been very good, The Three Kings leave you some candy or a gift beside your shoes at the foot of your bed.

All they ask in return is a bowl of water and some grass or hay for the camels, stuffed in said shoes.

But if you’ve been horrid, you will find your shoes filled with charcoal or dirt.

A terrible personal Epiphany, you might say.

Which happens a lot more frequently than you might think.

Throughout elementary school, Puerto Ricans throughout the states have to warn their children not to talk to their classmates about the Three Kings’ visit.

All of whom found absolutely nothing in the shoes at the foot of their beds on Epiphany.

Because in order to spare their feelings, their parents snuck in their early and shook the dirt out.

So this year, don’t be naughty. Stand with me against the evil encroachment of Valentine’s Day before the Twelve Days of Christmas play out.

How will you know you’ve celebrated Christmas enough?

When you sneeze beside your tree and your cat emerges from it looking like a porcupine.

When you plug in the Christmas tree lights at night, you find yourself uttering a silent prayer to Saint Gibbing that he protect you from a holiday conflagration.    

When your teen daughters bark at you on a school night for taking embarrassing photos of them crawling around the front lawn in their pajamas.

When you reluctantly take down your tree after the Three Kings come and go and it is so brittle and rigid you need the entire family’s help shoving it out the front door.

And when you’re still pulling Christmas tree needles out of your ears on Jan. 8, you’ll know you’ve done it right.

By Chris Barrett, Publisher

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R.I.P., Bess

She came into our lives in February of 2005, a few months before the arrival of Bee, infant daughter number three.

She smelled good then.

Bessie, I mean, not the infant daughter. (As far as pleasant scents go, the newborn was hit or miss, despite what people say.)

Eleven years later – poof! – Bessie was gone.

In between, she was a constant, reliable friend we took for granted. 

And a lot of rides.

She took Bee home from the hospital for us and happily traversed the East Coast three times. I can’t tell you how many times she helped carry the groceries for us. Or the countless errands she completed.

She never complained. We trusted Bessie with our kids so much that in the last year, we put her in charge of taking Number One all the way down to her high school in South Tampa.

Yet late October brought a moment parents dread.

Five blocks from school, life, and her airbag, exploded when Bessie T-boned a Chevy.

Back home my cell phone warbled. “Hello, sir, my name is Joy,” she said. “Your daughter has been in a bad accident.”

Big pause.

Joy’s parents clearly made an egregious mistake when naming her.

Her words caused the earth to stop on its axis. Its forward momentum flung everything out of the eye sockets of my skull.

“Is she OK?” I whispered.

“Yes,” Joy said perkily. “She’s OK. She’s just shaken up.”

And in that moment, I had a brilliant idea: a new app that can slap people named Joy in the forehead remotely.

And in the second moment, I could hear Number One weeping and proclaiming that her father was going to kill her.

After 17 years, Number One still hasn’t figured her grumpy old man out.

He has little fits and tantrums over petty, unimportant things.

But the important stuff leaves him quivering, weak-kneed, panicky and silent.

I wept the moment Number One was born.

And when I finally heard her living voice on the phone I wept again – as she repeatedly announced to the world I was going to kill her.

When I arrived, the EMS guy and the deputy rushed over, protectively holding up their hands. “Sir, the most important thing you need to keep in mind is she’s all right. It’s just a minivan. It can be replaced.”

“I’m really OK.”

Then the deputy handed me her $251 citation.

I still hugged a shaking Number One.

Three hours later, after leaving her safely with her mom, I had to drive back down to a wrecking yard in South Tampa.

When you think South Tampa, you think upscale, don’t you? You think classy. You think connected.

But the southiest part of South Tampa, the part tucked between the bay on the west and MacDill Air Force base, is a post apocalyptic dystopia of wrecking yards breathing doom and decay.

Guarded by overgrown weeds and rusted chain-link fences.

Around peeling cinderblock buildings beneath rusted-out corrugated tin roofs.

Beneath which sit laconic men slouched behind bulletproof glass, never sliding their feet off their desks or taking their eyes off Maury Povich when you stroll into their offices. Their alcohol-cratered noses just gesture to a rusted bucket of tools on the corner of their desk as you sign your vehicle over to the insurance company. “Remember to grab your plate.”

And when you come back for the screwdriver because the license plate is actually not actually held on by bolts, they laugh at you.

After driving an hour back home during rush hour, Number One looked up as I put Bessie’s contents on the kitchen counter.

“Did you remember my half marathon magnet?”

I froze.

Because I cleaned out the inside of the car. Not the outside.

Number One woke the next morning in a tremendous gloom. Her independence was sitting crumpled in a South Tampa wrecking yard. She faced diabolical shame: mounting the old school bus with all the underclassmen.

That morning I sat at my desk thinking about her.

Then I stood.

And I drove 45 minutes back down to the armpit of South Tampa. I creeped through the wrecking lot’s gaping fence. Bessie sat crushed and mournful in a corner, her windshield already glazed with dust and the morning dew. I popped open the door to make a final interior sweep. Deep inside a seatback pocket, I felt something unexpected.

A cassette tape.

A cassette tape of nursery rhyme songs that Bessie had played on an endless loop as we drove the girls to preschool a decade ago.

Overwhelmed with sadness, I sank back in the seat.

I was sitting in a broken machine. Yet while she had no feelings, she felt very much a part of my family. She was filled with history, our very DNA, the echoes of laughter and quarrels, her carpet and ceiling stained with ancient spilled milkshakes and felt tip markers. It felt ridiculous, but I loved that van for what it held even when she was perfectly empty.

I walked around to her hatchback and bent over to pull off the magnet hidden in the overgrown weeds.

And then I tried pulling again.

Someone behind me cleared their throat. I jump and whirled. Mr. Laconic Junkyard Man gave an annoyed shrug that said: What in the hell are you doing?

I pointed to the back of the van. “I just drove 45 minutes down here to get my daughter’s old half marathon magnet.” I smiled. “Only it’s a sticker.”

“That’s how people get shot.”

“Well, if you spare me, I plan on killing her when she gets home.”

Mr. Laconic Junkyard Man staggered off.

I walked back around Bessie, then I stopped. I picked her headlight up out of the grass and balanced it on her crumpled hood. “Thank you, Bess,” I said. “The last thing you did was the most important.

“You kept her safe.”

By Chris Barrett, Publisher

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A Blessedly Boring Life

“Can you give me a list of really bad things that have happened to me?”

I pivot in my desk chair.

Number One is holding an open notebook at my office door and trying to jam a pencil into her ear.

“Broccoli,” I say.

She heaves a frustrated sigh. “I mean really bad stuff.”

“Didn’t you get a 75 on a test once?”

“Daaaad.”

For a Type A personality who finds anything below an A psychologically debilitating, it seemed a solid answer.

She switches gears. “Has anyone I really loved ever died?”

“Are you asking if someone that you really loved – but you now have completely forgotten – has died?’”

She nods.

“Fluffy,” I offer. “Your beta fish when you were 4.”

“No.” She shakes her head. “It’s got to be worse than a pet fish.”

“Then no.”

“Dang!”

“Excuse me?”

“Have I ever had any, you know, deadly diseases?”

“None that I can recall.”  I dramatically pause. “Except…”

Number One’s pencil hangs in the air with anticipation.

“That unfortunate bout with leprosy back in preschool,” I add. “Did you know you used to have 12 toes?”

“Be serious!”

“You have not had any deadly diseases.”

She slaps her notebook. “How stinking unlucky!”

“Excuse me?”

“Sam has Tourette’s. That’s what she’s writing about.”

Number One says this like I actually am supposed to know who Sam is.

“I don’t think Tourette’s is deadly.”

“You know what I mean.”

Number One says this like I actually know what she means.

The pencil taps against her temple. “OK. Different topic then. Have I had to overcome any significant hurdles in my life?”

I seriously think on this one. I’m actually trying to be helpful. But I’m honestly coming up short.

My kids have a far different childhood than I had. They come from a pretty stable background. A pretty functional family. One blessed with largely sane parents, good health and good jobs. They’re successful students who have lived – outside the typical social angst of middle and high school – pretty golden lives.

“Potty training was a big one for you. We had to resort to M&M bribes.”

“You are impossible!”

“Scratch that. Giving up your pacifier nearly killed you. And, come to think of it, it nearly killed your mom too.”

“You are not helping at all!”

I held up my hand. “What exactly am I not helping at all with?”

“A good topic for my college application essay.”

I sat back in my chair. “Hmmm. That’s actually important.”

Number One plopped into another chair. “Everyone else has a great topic. Michael is writing about his dyslexia, Liza is talking about how her father walked out on them, and Carla is writing about what it’s like to be transgender.”

“Have I met her?”

“Him, Dad,” she corrected.

“Him,” I repeated, then paused. “Just curious. Why didn’t he change it then?”

“Oh, gahd, Dad. That’s gross!”

“I’m talking about her name.”

“His name, Dad.”

“Let’s just move on.”

“Everyone has great essay topics! I’ve got nothing!” She pauses. “What did you write about for your college essay?”

I try to dust off that memory.

“Your dad being an alcoholic?”

“Uh, no.”

“Your mom working as a teacher and trying to raise six kids mostly on her own in a falling down house?”

“I don’t think so.”

“The sheriff coming to your home and threatening to evict your family for unpaid bills?”

“Are you sure you don’t want to write about giving up your binky? It was very traumatic.”

Number One shakes her with appreciation. “You had some seriously scholarship-level crazy stuff to write about, Dad.”

“I had a very lucky childhood.”

“Exactly!” she says. “My life is completely boring!”

“Your mother and I have failed you.”

“So what did you write about for your college essay?”

“It was probably about a service project when I went to a poor Mexican orphanage. I lived there with a bunch of other students the whole summer before my senior year.”

“Oh, that’s a bad topic, Dad.”

“Really?”

“Yeah,” Number One says. “A Harvard admissions lady told our counselor that colleges are completely tired of those taste-of-poverty essays. Apparently thousands of wealthy kids have parents who send them to poor countries every year just for a good college essay. They all end the same way.” Number One changes her voice. “‘I went to Uzbuttistan to help others. But it turns out, I was the one who was helped.’”

I look at her. “You pretty much just quoted my concluding sentence.”

“Totally trite, Dad. It’s poverty porn.”

“It was cutting edge in the 80’s.”

“But my life is completely boring,” Number One moans. “What am I going to write about?”

I think a long while.

“OK,” I finally say. “Here’s an interesting twist. Why not write about how unlucky you are to have had such a wonderful, easy life that you don’t have an interesting topic for a college essay?” I nod. “That could be your hurdle. It would be ironic.”

Number One looks glum. She shakes her head. Then she stands and walks to my office door. “Dad,” she says. “Trust me. Absolutely no one is going to want to read that.”

By Chris Barrett, Publisher

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Panting at the Pantry

The pantry door creaks and I look up from the kitchen table.

Elf, our eighth grader, is scrutinizing the pantry shelves.

I keep watching.

She grunts and scrutinizes some more. “There’s absolutely no food in this house!”

She mutters this into the completely full pantry, oblivious to the fact that there is no cavernous echo. She starts tapping her toe. She steps closer, her nose nearly pressed against a perfectly delicious can of black beans.

One of our dogs, who spends the four hours she isn’t napping each day with her nose stuck in the pantry, bolts to her side.

If Norman Rockwell were alive, he’d paint them for the Saturday Evening Post: A teen stares in bored disgust at a completely full pantry while her drooling dog awaits the crinkling ecstasy of a cellophane bag of Honey Nut Cheerios.

Elf’s eyes flicker to the side, surreptitiously checking if I’m paying attention.

I quickly glance down.

Her hand darts up, making for an unopened box of granola bars, sitting next to three already opened boxes of granola bars – all the same flavor.

“Don’t you dare.”

The hand freezes.

“The others are stale.”

“And you know this by sniffing?”

“They’re all open.”

“They’re not open. Granola bars are packaged within another package. So teens can lose dozens of them under their beds and still devour them years later when they discover them next to their favorite Polly Pocket lost back in second grade.”

Still frozen.

“In fact, when you’re one of the last five people after the apocalypse, the highlight of your dystopian day will be sitting down to a delicious meal of ancient granola bars and Smarties. And the granola bars will still be as refreshingly rock hard as they are today.”

Elf sniffs. “My friends’ parents have actual hobbies.”

She reaches for one of opened boxes of granola bars. Her face blazes with triumph. She turns and shakes the box dramatically. “See!” she says. “It’s empty!”

And then sets the empty box right back on the pantry shelf.

“What did you just do!?”

She looks around dramatically and offers a clueless shrug.

“You just put an empty box back on the pantry shelf!” I say.

“But I didn’t take the last one!”

This has a one-in-three chance of being a lie.

“Do you think it’s just going to just leap from there into the recycling bin?”

She considers this like it’s an actual possibility.

She reminds of Sea Camp students down in the Keys back when our oldest was in sixth grade. As an adult chaperone I was assigned a table of middle schoolers. All of the camp’s dining rules were set to memorable rhymes so even the slowest kids could master them.

“You kill it, you refill it.”

Referring to food platters and pitchers of fruit-flavored beverage served to eight boys dehydrated from eight hours of tropical sun.

Their sunken eyeballs would stare at the pitcher with a quarter inch of liquid left in it rather than walk 15 feet to get it refilled.

I’d sigh, fetch a refill and the boys would descend on it like desert sponges. But when the pitcher was down to a quarter of an inch, they’d break out the slack-jawed stares again.

On Day Two I changed tactics. I picked the kid who most studiously avoided my glares and shoved the pitcher against his chest. “You killed it,” I’d growl.

Prompting Michael (It was always Michael) to stand up. “You’re just like my mother,” he griped.

“Naw, Michael,” Devon retorted. “He has bigger [vulgarity].”

And a piece of hotdog shot out of Jacob’s nose.

Elf turned to leave. “Never mind. I’m not hungry.”

The empty granola box peered at me from the shelf.

I look back down at the newspaper. One paragraph more and I stop. “Yoo hoo! I’m over here,” the stupid box says. “Completely empty. On the shelf. And I will be here until Ivanka Trump and Chelsea Clinton win the Iowa Caucuses.”

I walk over and seize the empty granola box.

Big mistake.

I spot two nearly empty pancake syrup bottles smushed up against a third one that was just opened this morning.

Because teens can’t actually finish a syrup bottle. Doing so risks food poisoning and could make them late for Chatsnapping and YouTube streaming.

I seize the three bottles for consolidation. I return and scrutinize the pantry shelves. Another empty granola bar box is in the back corner. A third sits behind two of the five jars of peanut butter (one completely empty), spanning three brands, because one child hates Jif and another child only eats crunchy. But they all want to be the first to stick their finger in the jar when it’s newly opened.

I start shaking cereal boxes. Three Cheerios boxes are one-tenth full, holding 52 bits of cereal and a handful of dust.

I poke some more.

I find four half eaten mini-raisin boxes, two juice boxes with missing straws, two bags of tortilla chip crumbs and an Oreo container holding half of a broken Oreo with the icing licked off.

All sitting next to the remnants of Labor Day’s final orgiastic fling with S’mores. A Hershey bar sits pathetically torn open with a  jagged, tooth-marked half moon missing from it.

I haul all if it to the garbage can, toss it with a flourish and turn to the nearly vacant pantry.

“There is absolutely no food in this house,” I say.

And the dog is still staring at the cereal boxes.

By Chris Barrett, Publisher

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A World Worth Saving

“You might want to give that to me,” Elf says.

My eighth grader gestures to the blue cardboard TARDIS I’m carrying – Doctor Who’s time-traveling spaceship.

“You want to put it on?”

“No,” she says. “Everyone’s looking at you like you’re a 50 year old guy that still lives in his mother’s basement.”

It’s 8 a.m. on a Saturday. Elf and I are standing in the ticket line for Tampa Bay Comic Con with her friend Elli, dressed like one of Doctor Who’s traveling companions.

Already lost?

Then you were among the normal people still sleeping that morning. 

But while you were snoozing, the 10,000 diehard geeks around me traversed a deep and murky wood (Interstate 275) to enter the Realm of Geek, where traditional notions of cool are disguised as a manga character no jock or cheerleader can name.

We’re standing in line immediately behind two rebel soldiers from Hoth, who have fashioned their ring helmets out of a shiny swimming pool float. One nods appreciatively. “Props on that awesome TARDIS.”

The twenty-something holds up his camera.

“Sure,” Elf says. She tucks into her blue London police box costume and I take a photo of the Hothian mugging beside her.

Officially kicking off the cosplaying.

Pronounced COZ-playing.

As in Costume Playing.

Which entails people who are too old to trick-or-treat dressing up as characters from comic books, TV shows and movies with cult followings. Then they trade compliments, take each other’s photos and attend events and convention panels like [vulgarity] Foam Sword Fighting; Orion Slave Girl Dancers; Building My First Lightsabre; Geek Dating Tips; Star Wars Cosplay Belly Dance Show; Freestyle Dungeons and Dragons; the Manly Man Facial Hair Contest; and Pallet 2 Plateau: A Pokemon Hip-Hop Experience.

Oh and two actual, real weddings between cosplay fanatics.

I strike up a conversation with the guy behind me. He’s missing half of his face. I gesture to his disfigurement. “Did you have to get up extra early to do that?”

He oozes the pained social awkwardness of a high school dweeb. “I got up at five in the morning.”

“You gorified yourself?”

He gains confidence. “You simply take red Jell-O and mix it with gylcerine. That’s a laxative,” he adds. “Then you apply it. It’s gets all rubbery and dries in an hour.”

The high schooler with a face full of cherry laxative is holding a very real looking crossbow. Comic Con’s security has locked the weapon’s trigger with a plastic tie. “Wow! Is that a real crossbow?” I say.

“It shoots suction cups.”

Unsure where our conversation might organically go from there, I offer an impressed nod and look around.

Bain from Batman is in the next line over. A 5-year-old Rey from The Force Awakens is holding hands with BB-8. There’s a Mad Hatter, a murderous video-game robot, a Steampunk Mary Poppins, and a woman wearing a hockey mask over her burka.

Which may be a character I don’t know or just a woman wearing a hockey mask over her burka.

Some child’s grandmother is dressed as Catwoman. Another person is hiding inside a 7-foot tall Pikachu made of bedsheets while across the hall a guy in his forties is dressed like a Pokeball. Two lines over, Spongebob is standing in front of a Lord of the Rings elf.

Scores of Walking Dead characters mingle with dozens of Harley Quinns (a provocatively dressed female vigilante).

Including five separate guys who cross-dressed as Harley Quinn. Which would have been witty and clever had one of them done it, but now they’re just pulling at their bunching fishnet stockings and looking sheepishly at each other.

Then Santa Claus walks by.

“Well, that’s just weird,” the girl wearing a cardboard time-traveling police box says.
 
We enter the convention center hall with all the Comic Con vendors.

It’s a football field full of comic books, figurines, T-shirts touting obscure dweeb humor, nerd jewelry, and geek wall art, which we can buy after paying $42.50 per person just to get in.

A boy Elf’s age comes up. “Awesome TARDIS!” He tries to high five her but she has no arms.

Elf beams.

The boy trots out a recurring Doctor Who line about the TARDIS. “Is it bigger on the inside?”

“I’ve got Matt Smith in here with me.”

The 20-something actor who played the Tenth Doctor.

I suddenly feel very uncomfortable.

The boy laughs hysterically and walks off.

“I made him laugh!” Elf says to Elli. “Did you see him? He was soooo cute!”

Still feeling uncomfortable.

“I would have gotten his number,” says Elf. “But I couldn’t move my hands.”

Fifty photos later a dad gestures to his young son, standing far off and too embarrassed to talk. “He loves Doctor Who. Can we grab a pic?”

The boy actually quivers with happiness when Elf nods.

They pose. Click.

“I’ve never seen a TARDIS smile so big!” the dad laughs.

Then it clicks for me.

Back in high school, who didn’t seize a hairbrush, singing into the bedroom mirror, daydreaming of stardom?

At least until our little sister threw open the door and mocked us.

Then, somehow, life happened. We walled off our fantasies. We learned to spend our days playing at being lawyers and teachers, doctors and accountants. 

All around me, lawyers in Captain America T-shirts enthusiastically drag their kids to another vendor. Accountants are leading roving bands of zombie killers.

Everyone surrounding me is happy.

And I realize I’m smiling back at this gargantuan room filled with meganerds, people who have spent so much of their lives being judged that they refuse to judge each other.

Well, except for Santa Claus.

And in that fleeting moment, I drop an additional $32 on Ms. Marvel comic books for my smiling TARDIS.

Because the world is wonderful place worth saving.

By Chris Barrett, Publisher

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