Send. Help. Now.
I’m writing this from inside a corn maze somewhere north of Tampa.
Given how long I’ve been wandering in here, we may very well be south of Tampa by now.
This is Quality Time.
Deliberately Scheduled Family Fun.
Holiday Memories to Last a Lifetime.
If you’ve never tried Quality Time, here’s a tip from a professional: The quantity of quality in any particular stretch of Family Quality Time is directly proportional to the amount of complaining your kids do about it.
Properly interspersed with regular queries about what’s for dinner.
Beginning at 2:35 p.m.
Unless NASA launches a rescue mission, my chances of survival are looking bleak. I’m dehydrated and sunburned. The fifth grader dropped the last granola bar three turns back. Soon afterwards, I stepped in something rank and squishy – perhaps a moldy pumpkin or a dead squirrel. Or perhaps another dad who never found the exit. The stink has since trailed me like a specter. Given that my left foot has gone numb, I could be transforming into the undead – from the bottom up.
In 20 more minutes, it will be a welcome alternative.
Another desperate family rushes by. The parents look terribly familiar. They’ve either lived in my neighborhood for the past ten years or they’ve walked past me in the corn maze six times in the last two hours. Their 8-year-old still seems happy poking all the ears of corn, but their pre-teen is clearly suffering post-traumatic video game withdrawal. Every time he swallows, his eyes flail about in a dramatic eyeroll, even without an adult speaking.
“Does this look like the feather coming out of the Indian’s head to you?” The dad glances around the corn corridor. The mom studies the corner of the smartphone where he’s pointing.
Waiting for my middle schooler, I sneak a peek over their shoulders. They’ve cleverly plugged in the address of the farm and are looking down at a Google Earth image of the corn maze.
Absolutely nothing will stand in their way of escaping back to the far happier world of jobs, mortgages, taxes, homework and assigned community service.
“Yes,” the mother nods. “It kind of feels like the feather.”
Their pre-teen gestures wildly to the other side of the field. “You said we were in the feather way over there!”
I weigh whether to tell them they’re looking at a Google Earth corn maze image taken by satellite back in 2012.
Which I know for a fact because I got lost in the Indian head back then too.
But it won’t make any difference.
“It’s definitely the feather,” the dad proclaims. “Let’s go.”
“Corn mazes suck,” the pre-teen announces.
The middle schooler rushes up with the latest piece of the map she has retrieved from one of the maze’s secret collection points. She holds up a hand of sweaty, crumpled two-inch by two-inch squares. “They’re all out of tape, so I can’t put them together!”
From my pocket I smugly pull out the postcard of the maze. Before we entered this god-forsaken trap, I purchased the postcard at the farm kiosk selling pumpkins, cider and those tiny, smallpox-infected gourds I’ve never actually seen anyone buy.
“Smart move, Pops!” The middle schooler high-fives me.
The high schooler exhales in relief. “Where are we?”
I point toward the top. “We appear to be in a corridor just to the right of the scarecrow’s head.”
Then I point to the bottom. “Or we’re on the other side of the field, climbing up the unicorn’s horn.”
“Let’s try the GPS on my phone,” the middle schooler says. She looks up three minutes later. “We’re on the right side of the field.”
“What’s the right side?” the fifth grader asks.
That’s the problem with corn maze maps. Lose track of your location a moment, and your kernel is cooked.
Everything is green.
Go down one corridor and you simply find another corridor. Or three. You could be in the crossbones of the skeleton’s head or in the hem of the witch on the broomstick.
From the perspective of the four foolish gerbils in the spinning wheel, it all looks the same.
The fifth grader sighs. “What’s for dinner?”
A trick question. Unless the answer is pizza or her favorite homemade chicken soup that requires two days to make, her question is just a warm up for a dramatic groan.
A few years ago, it finally dawned on me that this was why, when my five siblings or I demanded to know what was for dinner way back in the 1970s, my saintly grandmother always responded, “Crap on toast.”
Yes, I know this makes me a terrible parent, but in the last year, I’ve started channeling grandma.
“Crap on pumpkin spice toast,” I respond.
The middle schooler snorts.
“Wait,” the high school junior weighs in. “Where’s Nana?”
The middle schooler snorts again.
We have been in the corn maze for two hours and it just occurred to the 16-year-old that her 78-year-old grandmother is nowhere to be found.
“She stayed back to play Cow Pattie Bingo with mom,” I say.
Because standing beside a fence waiting for a cow to poop in a field to see if it lands on the part of the grid you’ve bet five bucks on is actually more entertaining than a corn maze.
The family with the two boys suddenly reappears. They appear oblivious to the fact that in the five minutes we haven’t moved, they’ve managed to circle back to the exact same spot.
The dad pokes the smartphone. “This is definitely the Indian’s chin.” He points. “We just need to turn right up there.”
They rush off.
And so I’m writing this from inside a corn maze somewhere north of Tampa.
By Chris Barrett, Publisher
Third Dogs and Therapy Bunnies
She pokes her head inside my office door in the middle of my work day. “You know. I’ve been thinking.”
“Uh oh,” the little voice in my head whispers.
I obediently lift my hand off my computer mouse.
I slowly and carefully swivel around in my office chair.
And I silently remind myself: Do not interrupt.
No matter how outrageous the idea – quitting our jobs and walking the entire length of the Appalachian Trail in our beach flip flops or selling our deed restricted home so we can buy some land where we can raise goats and therapy bunnies – I must not interrupt.
Or I shall appear unreasonable and place myself at a strategic disadvantage.
“Yes?” I cautiously say.
“First you have to promise you won’t immediately say no.”
A very bad sign.
“Will you just think about what I’m going to say?” she presses.
At least a 3 on the Def Con Doozy of an Idea Scale.
“Really. I just want you to consider something.”
Because, in the last five minutes, I’ve apparently become Kim Jong Un.
“Perhaps,” I suggest, “we should just skip to the end where I start crying and give in?”
“See! I knew it!”
“When have I ever responded to an idea with an immediate no?”
“When I suggested we get a second dog.”
Satisfied smirk. “But we have a second dog.”
“And later when I suggested we get a third dog.”
OK, she cornered me on that one.
But the fact that I did bend on the second dog suggests I may just be gullible enough for the latest idea. So she sits and takes a deep breath. “Now that we bought our new car…”
I brace myself and stick a finger in my right ear to keep the “no” from leaking out that hole.
Because I know where this is going.
Number One, a high school junior, got her license last week.
The very same week the Robinson High School bus has been one hour late each day returning from the southernmost fringes of South Tampa.
Because the school district apparently hired my mother to drive and she’s taking the kiddos on sightseeing tours across the Courtney Campbell Parkway. (I know this because Number One texted us a photo of a dolphin.)
“Instead of selling it, maybe we could just keep the old one,” she adds. “And let Number One occasionally drive it to school.”
A 10-year-old minivan with 117,000 miles we were going to sell to some sucker for $4,000.
To defray the cost of the new minivan.
“Hey,” I say. “I’ve been thinking. Why don’t we unload this dopey house and buy a proper piece of land on which we can raise some goats and therapy bunnies?”
Her face lights up, but she immediately sees through my attempt to distract her.
Instead she launches into the pros. “Number One works very hard. She’s a good kid. She got the insurance discount for good grades. And to show how responsible she is, she even took a driver’s ed course for another discount.”
Which, she fails to mention, Number One completed entirely online.
Because driving is just like Minecraft.
“Plus, you wouldn’t have to drive down there on Wednesdays during rush hour to pick her up from orchestra practice. That’s two hours."
The intriguing proposition nearly derails me, but I respond with extensive list of well-thought out counter arguments:
“That’s a terrible idea!”
But I’m tapped out.
Because my counter arguments can be summed up thus:
I don’t trust high schoolers. Largely because I once was one. A very responsible one. Who still thought it was a fine idea to climb into my best friend’s surplus mail jeep to climb up a mountain in the middle of a snowstorm.
A jeep whose passenger door kept sliding open whenever Jim made a left turn.
A jeep whose seatbelts consisted of a frayed rope you ran through a couple of your belt loops.
A jeep that Jim’s father bought for $36 at a public auction because he had 13 children and it seemed like a cheap, legal way to get rid of at least one of them.
What’s more, having been a teacher of high schoolers, I also know it’s the rare teen that doesn’t crack up a car in the first two years of driving.
My wife can read the internal debate playing across my face.
“In addition to the $4,000 increase in insurance, we’re looking at $5 more in gas every day Number One drives,” I say. “However shameful it may be to the Lily Pulitzer crowd to ride it, the school bus is free.”
“But wouldn’t you rather have her first fender bender in the beat-up minivan that’s paid for than the brand, spanking new one?”
She’s effectively countered my cheapness with my other cheapness.
And so, like every other conversation that has begun with, “You know. I’ve been thinking,” I fold like a dinner napkin.
And the next day, Number One requests the keys for her first solo trip – an ice cream run to Publix.
And it suddenly becomes real: my oldest child is now driving alone.
Her mama stands on the driveway and watches her drive away. “This is very hard,” she whispers.
I successfully drag her back inside and plop into the sofa. I pick up the TV remote but don’t turn it on. Instead, I just listen.
“Why isn’t she calling?” she says.
“Because she’s not there yet.”
She falls silent. I can see it in her face. “What are you doing?” I say.
“I’m listening for sirens.”
We’re gonna need those therapy bunnies.
By Chris Barrett, Publisher
It Begins With a Fish
“We’ll take it out to poop without complaining,” they’ll promise.
“And we’ll take it for a walk every day.”
They’ll bat their eyelashes. They’ll throw in their best puppy dog stare. They’ll even pinky swear.
The shameless beasts will stop at nothing.
You’ll initially fend them off. You’ll even head out to the PetSmart to prove that you’re not The Worst Parent Ever. You’ll convince yourself that a fish is an entirely reasonable compromise.
“Fish are cool,” you’ll tell them. “They’re totally cool.”
Just like that practical minivan you bought is just as cool as the SUV with the stick figure family you’ve always wanted.
And so you teach your kids a hard truth: Life is just a lie with a big fat F thrown in to distract everyone.
And after three months of feeding the fish to prove she is responsible enough to own a completely different pet, your daughter will plunk her cheek onto her hand. “Fish are boring,” she’ll sigh. “They don’t do tricks.”
“Fish are totally cool.”
“Fish are food,” she’ll say. “Not pets.”
And you’ll be delighted that your daughter is far smarter than you were at her age (or, for that matter, your current one). And you’ll tell the story to your parents to prove she should be tested for the gifted program.
And they’ll agree.
But the guilt will start eating at you when the really cool fish dies for the third time. You’ll even consider sneaking off to PetSmart again to swap it with a fake replacement before she gets home.
Which has fooled your gifted child twice before.
But, you’ll catch yourself thinking, if a fish really was a cool pet, wouldn’t someone other than the undertaker notice when even the imposter’s imposter died?
And you’ll be tired of cleaning the bowl and swapping the water anyway.
But you won’t be tired of lying.
“Hermit crabs are totally cool,” you’ll say on the way back from PetSmart.
She’ll stare through the plastic aquarium doubtfully. “Does it do tricks?”
“It plays hide and seek.”
“If it just hides in the same spot every time, that’s not really hide and seek. That’s just how stupid, little kids play.”
“We don’t use the S-word.”
Three months later, another flash of giftedness: “I think Hermie is dead.”
“Don’t be silly,” you’ll say. “What would make you think such a thing?”
“It hasn’t moved in a week.”
“It’s not dead. It’s just tired.”
But the following week you’ll offer the benediction at your first hermit crab funeral. “Hermie was the world’s best, most loyal pet,” you’ll say.
Your daughter will look at you doubtfully.
“He never ran away.”
You’ll struggle to pinpoint her hermit crab’s other fine qualities. “He was very talented. He played hide and seek very well.”
Your daughter will sigh.
And as you bury Hermie, she’ll finally burst into tears. And you’ll hug her because she DID love her hermit crab.
“I’ll miss Hermie too,” you’ll whisper.
And she’ll wipe her nose on your shirt. “I don’t miss Hermie. I’m crying because I want a dog.”
And you’ll sigh.
And arrange a playdate to take her mind off her dramatically misplaced grief.
“You just need to convince your mom and dad you’re responsible enough for a dog,” the troublesome playdate will whisper (the one whose shirt is covered in dog hair).
And the following Tuesday as dinner is wrapping up, she’ll announce. “I have something to show you.”
She’ll return with the laptop. “I’ve done some research on the best dog for families like ours.”
“You found one that doesn’t poop?” you’ll say.
She’ll fire up PowerPoint anyway. (Because this approach once worked for a fictional child on the Disney Channel.)
And you’ll look at your wife hopelessly.
Because she knows you’ll do anything to avoid another PowerPoint presentation.
“I’ll take it out to poop without complaining,” your daughter will say, clicking to the last slide.
“And I’ll take it for a walk every day.”
She’ll throw in their best puppy dog stare. And hold out a finger. “Pinky swear.”
And four years later during a torrential rainstorm at 8 p.m., not ONE but TWO dogs will begin whimpering at the front door and you will look over your book at your daughter.
“It’s not my turn!” she’ll cry. “I took them out twice in January!”
And you’ll discover another harsh truth about life:
PowerPoints and little girls who want dogs lie.
And you’ll find yourself standing in your front yard, mud oozing over your flip-flops, lightning flashing above your useless golf umbrella, waiting for her dogs to stop blinking in the rain.
And the little dog who just hates the rain will crowd beneath the umbrella and pee on your foot.
And you’ll wonder how this came to be.
It always begins with a fish.
But you’ll come home from work crabby the next day. And while the rest of the family will ignore you, your dogs will greet you happily at the door, their tails shaking the joy from their bodies all over you.
Like they do every night.
And the next morning, moments before the jarring alarm will strike, they’ll instead gently nudge you awake with a wet nose and thumping tail.
Like they do every morning.
And that afternoon, when she comes home from school inconsolable, when she sinks to the hallway floor crying, when none of the words you conjure work any magic, her best friends in the world will gently pad over and kiss her tears away.
And no matter how bad the day, she’ll hug them and finally smile.
Because dogs are cool.
They’re totally cool.
By Chris Barrett, Publisher