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Outing an Addict

It’s 7:28 a.m. and the fifth grader is working up a froth.

“We’re going to be late!” Bee hollers.

I angle for better cell phone reception and the kitchen chair I am standing on inside my wife’s closet nearly tips. I squeak as She Who Controls the Universe walks me through the proper, classy presentation of the birthday gift for Bee’s teacher.

Which is a six-pack of Doctor Pepper.

“Wait! What? Where is the gift bag?” I cry.

But my wife, who is returning from middle school carpool, is fast fading on the cell phone.

Because T-Mobile still views Northwest Hillsborough County as the Alaskan Wilderness.

“[mumble…click] the top… [dead space]”

While a mile north, she sounds like she’s in the mountains of Tajikistan stuck inside a huge, heavy sweater she’s wrestling to get on, not realizing both arms have been knotted.

“[muffle…mumble…static] Gift bag…tissue paper is…”

The call goes dead.

“OHMIGAHD! Can we just go?! We’re late already! We can give it to him Monday!”

It’s now 7:29 a.m. The school gate opens at 7:30. And the late bell rings at 8 a.m. We live two blocks from school and we drive.

Because the bike helmet musses Bee’s hair.

In 11 straight years, my three daughters have been late for school exactly zero times. But they have shouted at me that they are going to be late approximately 1,952 times. (On the other 27 school days, they wore me down and we arrived in the school parking lot at 2:30 a.m. and watched the school gate for signs of movement for five hours.)

But her fifth grade teacher is retiring at the end of this year. And any man who has spent a half century teaching fifth graders deserves to have his Doctor Pepper six pack on his actual birthday.

Plus, this is clearly a parenting test: What if my wife ever doesn’t return safely from Tajikistan? If I successfully wrap and deliver this gift, I will prove our daughters will not be arriving at their schools with underwear on their heads should she meet an untimely demise during carpool.

I glance to the top of the closet and finally spot them.

I’m so shocked I nearly tumble backward off the kitchen chair.

Because in that moment, my blindness is lifted.

For I’ve been living a fantasy.

I have long believed that my wife is the most meticulous, organized, neat, tidy and somewhat rational human being on the planet. (For the sake of future arguments, my current position in that I’m more rational. I do, however, concede that my meticulous, tidy gene got left behind in my rush down the birth canal.)

Flashback: We had been dating a few weeks when I finally invited her over to dinner at my apartment, which I had spent several hours actually picking up before her visit.

“This is very nice,” she said.

And then looked at me suspiciously.

I immediately came clean. “I don’t actually own a vacuum.”

But she decided to keep me around anyway. And I learned that the quickest way to making my beloved’s heart melt was to vacuum.

For the next 20 years I vacuumed in earnest.

Today, when she passes through a room, the dust motes still quake in fear. Leave an innocent baby too long on the living room floor, and it will be swept up with the random sock and tossed into the recycling bin.

But, now, standing in her closet, I see the truth:

My wife is a hoarder.

An out-of-control hoarder of gift bags.

The top shelf of her closet is a Jenga of enormous, overstuffed shopping bags and boxes, all filled with hundreds of gift bags. There are gift bags for birthdays and Valentine’s Day. Anniversary gift bags and Hanukah gift bags. And an entire suitcase-sized Christmas gift bag jammed with other Christmas gift bags.

There are enough gift bags to last a family of 32 the next 100 years.

Bee whoops from the garage again.

On the tips of my toes, I reach. Slowly, ever so carefully, so very cautiously, I edge the enormous shopping bag of birthday gift bags out from its surroundings.

I don’t spot the enormous collection of tipping Christmas gift bags until it’s too late.

My life flashes before my eyes.

And it involves a lot of desperate vacuuming.

One thousand Santas, several hundred snowmen and approximately one billion snowflakes knock me off my chair. The bedroom looks like someone exploded a nuclear gift bag bomb. 

Bee walks in ready to shout again. Then she spots me on the floor.

“Oh!” she says.

She steps over me and plucks a plain red bag from the mess. “This one’s great!”

And then walks out again.

At my feet I actually spot a gift bag from a store that closed a decade ago.

“OHMIGAHD! WE ARE GOING TO BE SO LATE!”

It’s now 7:34 a.m.

As I return from dropping off Bee with 15 minutes to spare, I spot the garage door closing. The hoarder has beaten me home.

I pull in and throw open the door just as she hits the entrance to the bedroom.

A shudder passes through her.

“WHAT HAVE YOU DONE TO MY BEAUTIFUL GIFT BAGS?”

And I instinctively reach for the vacuum.

By Chris Barrett, Publisher

COMMENTS

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A House of Pestilence

“Um, Dad?” her voice trembled.

“Can you look at this thing that just fell out my hair?”

It was one of those moments that stretch a father.

“No, thank you,” I would have preferred to respond. “I must immediately set off for Utah by foot, where I plan to establish a new religion featuring frightening quantities of crazy people.”

Because a country can never have too many political parties.

But, being spineless, I did the responsible, fatherly thing. I actually crossed to where she was sitting while begging God to strike me dead before getting there. 

We had just finished a large family dinner. My family, along with those of my brother and sister, had overflowed two happy, rambunctious tables. Even my mom was visiting from Scranton. Dinner had gone so remarkably well, I should have suspected some tragedy was afoot.

I had managed to cook something that satisfied the vegetarians and the libertarians. Dinner conversation had scaled a tower of topics without my brother demanding massive restrictions on people actually voting in the next election. Even my mother had avoided her favorite conversational topic – her impending death.

Oh, she’s not terminal. She’s been enthusiastically discussing her impending death since the Reagan administration.

“Look.” My daughter pointed to a dot on the table.

Which brings me to some helpful advice. If you’re ever hosting a large family dinner and need to clear your home quickly, simply stand and announce right after dessert, “We have lice.”

Go ahead and scratch. You know you want to.

And, by all means, judge. For I abide in a house of plague and pestilence.

Just tie a bell around our necks and confine us to a suburban street corner. “Remain afar, good people!” we’ll cry to approaching strangers. “We be infested!”

“I really should go home and take the dogs out,” my brother quickly announced.

My completely bald brother.

I had feared this day for nearly a dozen years, since the first neon announcement brayed from a backpack that a wild beast in my precious daughter’s preschool class had bugs camping in her hair without her parents knowing.

“It’s the worst case of lice the teacher has ever seen,” the preschool mommies whispered.

And scratched their heads.

Once my daughters reached elementary school, it became apparent that the Florida educational system is comprised of three types of families. (1) Those who have had lice. (2) Those who will get lice. And (3) those who still pretend they’ve never had lice.

We dodged it for years, until we got the call of shame from a friend of my youngest daughter, a friend who had spent the previous day maniacally rolling around on my daughter’s bed. “What lovely weather we’re having,” she said. “Maribel has lice.”

Thud. My stomach cracked a kitchen floor tile.

“Um,” I responded, “Would that be just a little lice or, um, like a lot?”

The memory is fuzzy (the subsequent fumigation had me hallucinating for days), but I believe the word she used was “teeming.”

As any self-respecting germaphobe would, I panicked. I passed hours studying gross photos on the Internet.

Where I learned that mayonnaise is a great and perfectly safe killer of lice.

Where I also learned that while mayonnaise left in the sun can kill the entire Denver Bronco’s defensive line, it won’t actually kill lice unless you lace it with kerosene and a match.

Where I also learned that essential oils will get rid of lice, but I quickly discovered that essential oils are not so essential that one actually keeps them in the house or in a drug store.

Where I also learned that vinegar works great.

Where I also learned that dousing your children’s skulls with vinegar will temporarily blind them and cause them to hyperventilate before vomiting in your lap.

But they will live to 120 because of vinegar’s remarkable health properties.

We did mounds of laundry. We vacuumed the ceilings. We studied our daughters heads until they wept in fury. And after the fourth day of combing and finding little things that might have been dandruff, or dog biscuit crumbs or dried boogers, we called The Nit Fairy, who charged us $60 to study our daughters’ scalps before stating, “You people are crazy. You don’t have lice.”

Flash forward three years. The bug lying on my kitchen table didn’t lie.

A lice veteran, my saintly sister-in-law pulled out a rusty nit comb and set to work. Meanwhile, my sister Kate and my mother offered moral support from a safe distance.

“This really is a blessing,” my mother said. “Imagine if you caught this any later. They could have spread to the whole block.”

“You know,” my sister added, “Having lice is actually a sign of really clean hair. They hate dirty hair.”

So if you’re louse-free, people, please kick up the personal hygiene a notch.

“This really is a blessing,” my mother repeated. “It’s not like it’s a tumor. This is actually fixable.”

“I once had a friend who had so much lice, birds would land on her head,” my sister added.

“Having taught public school for decades,” my mother added, “It’s really amazing you haven’t had it before now. This is a blessing, if you ask me.”

To rid ourselves of the pests, I clearly had to take strong action.

So I slathered my mother and sister in mayonnaise and threw them out.

Then we laundered until the washing machine smoked. We vacuumed the ceilings (and the cars). We entombed stuffed animals in garbage bags for weeks. And we combed until my daughter wept.

And even visited the Nit Fairy for good measure.

Throw away the bells, people. We be clean.

By Chris Barrett, Publisher

COMMENTS

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Facebook Comments I Stopped Myself from Posting

One of my New Year’s Resolutions was to be a lot less judgie.

It is definitely not going well.

See? Look how I’m criticizing myself.

In order to keep my head from exploding, I thought I’d let share all the snarky thoughts my new and improved self hasn’t written on Facebook in recent months. Feel free, however, to post them for me:

Thank you for that inspirational Dalai Lama quote. Does this mean you’ll stop screaming at the other moms in the elementary school car pick-up line?

I read that clever little test you’re running. The one where, for us to remain Facebook friends, I have to prove I read all 100 lines by posting a single word on your page and then copying and pasting your drivel on my wall so all my annoyed friends can ignore it too. Do me a favor. Just delete me now. Because I have a strict policy against befriending middle schoolers on social media sites.

Well, that certainly was a remarkably cryptic Facebook post. Here’s the number to a reputable psychologist…

BTW, the Most Interesting Man in the World rip-off memes stopped being interesting last year.

Thank you for those song lyrics. Are you aware they have the lyrics cleverly combined with the actual music on YouTube?

Have you considered actually getting your facts and news from, say, a newspaper as opposed to that crazy guy whose misspelled, ungrammatical political memes you keep posting?

If you are going to continue to share all your symptoms with me during your current episode of the flu, I’m going to have to insist upon a $35 copay to continue to read them.

For the love of gahd: Keep Calm and Get a New Catch Phrase.

Look at that! Another selfie! You’d think someone with 1,785 friends might have one of them standing nearby to take an actual good photo of them.

Your cat is highly unattractive.

Thank you for that very interesting point of view. You’d be on far safer ground, however, going back to repeatedly inviting me to play Candy Crush.

I have to tell you a secret. Sometimes I just click like but I don’t really watch your videos. Because, frankly, there are so many videos I want to watch of your kids in a week.

I notice you keep posting photos of alcoholic beverages. In five years will you also be posting photos of your AA meetings?

Abraham Lincoln never said that. He was actually intelligent.

Thank you for sharing that fascinating photo of your pus-filled injury. While you’re at the hospital, be sure to have them check out that concussion too.

Yes! That’s EXACTLY what I needed to feel happier while avoiding my job: another dozen photos of you on vacation.

Wow! Just loved that photo of you holding that really big gun next to that unarmed, defenseless animal you shot. Please keep sharing your victims with us!

Of course cheerleading is a sport. It requires superhuman strength for a little girl to keep her head erect while wearing elephant hair bows and all that makeup.

Hey, I loved that movie too. But here’s a thought. Do think there’s any correlation between taking your 6-year-old son to all those PG-13 movies and his recent suspension from school for light sabering his teacher?

Wait! You’re running another little Facebook friend test?! What the heck!? I completely failed the last one but you still didn’t befriend me! For the love of gahd, please put me out of my misery!

Given that you could post on Facebook that you just shot your husband and quickly get 52 mindless likes, do you really think it’s a wise place to go for parenting advice?

Every time you post your honor student’s report cards, I want to award you an A in Social Cluelessness. Good job! I’m so proud of you!

Dude. Stop accepting friend requests from scantily clad Russian girls. They’re not really scantily clad Russian girls. They’re fat, hairy, vodka-drinking Russian men who want to send your friends spam. And I’m not talking about your favorite breakfast meat.

It’s been three months since you last posted a legal notice to protect your Facebook privacy and to carefully copyright all your drinking photos from Moms Night Out. Did you know Facebook changed their legal disclaimer so it now states they can seize your house and your 401K unless you immediately post a counter disclaimer? It’s true because it was on Good Morning America.

Abraham Lincoln didn’t say that either. He did, however, regularly check the factual accuracy of stupid political memes before reposting them.

Thank you for posting another horrific photo of a bloody and beaten dog to elicit sympathy. Due to your behavior, I will not be adopting you and giving you a forever home. I will, however, gladly take the dog as it probably has better judgement.

Yeah, so you said there was nothing to lose by posting that Zuckerberg stock giveaway hoax? I’m assuming this is because you previously held a random give away of all your self-respect to various Facebook posters.

I apologize for thinking your cat was ugly. I had no idea it was taxidermied.

This has been a test to determine if you really are a keepable Facebook friend. If you you’ve read this far, carefully tattoo the entire contents of this article onto your back and post a photo of it to your Facebook wall. If you don’t, I’ll completely understand. But I’ll still dispatch a team of Stormtroopers to your home to burn it to the ground and enslave your sniveling, overachieving children.

Thank you for letting me get that off my chest.

COMMENTS

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Overcoming Inertia

“Are your teeth chattering because you’re cold or scared?”

I have to shout over the chain hauling us to the top of Sheikra.

Lilly, Bee’s best friend in fifth grade, appears catatonic. We climb fifty feet higher before she answers. “A-cha-cha-cha-little-cha-cha-cha-of-chicky-cha-cha-both.”

We reach the top and begin the slow roll around the loop to the precipice. “Look at that view!” I cry.

Because the fact that we are now precariously looping two miles above the surface of the earth with a clear view of all Busch Boulevard’s pay day lenders and used car dealers will help take Lilly’s mind off the fact that we are now precariously looping two miles above the surface of the earth.

The guilt gnaws at me. Lilly has never in her life set foot on a roller coaster. And Sheikra is about to brutally baptize her in a chilly lake of liquid fear.

“I-cha-cha-cha-kind of-cha-cha-cha-have to-cha-cha-cha-go to-chicky-cha-cha-the bathroom,” Lilly says.

“Whoa!” my brain screams.

“This is all Mrs. Raab’s and Mrs. Carujo’s fault,” I shout, blaming her teachers. “They made me go on this thing!”

Welcome to Fifth Grade Physics Day.

Where every object in motion stays in motion unless an external force (e.g., a mom stopping everyone to take photo for Facebook) is applied to it. And where for every action (e.g., a parent chaperone clearly saying, “No.”), there is an equal and opposite reaction.

OK. I’ll be honest. I might be to blame for the fact that Lilly is about to plummet to her death while Bee enthusiastically sings Adele’s Hello and happily kicks her legs back and forth beside us. Bee and I are Lilly’s ride home. I could have stood my ground like I did the first time.

“Come on, Dad! Are you coming!?” Bee had cried then.

I pointed to the coaster’s warning sign. “I better not. I might be pregnant.” I looked around. “I should just stay down here with the moms. Otherwise, I might miss a big sale at Whole Foods.”

Bee had walked away, shaking her head.

Forty minutes later, Bee emerged with a joyful smile.

And when she learned we had 30 minutes left?

“Come on, Dad! Are you coming!?”

I wanted to go on.

Kinda really.

On my very first Physics Day with Number One six years ago, I was all about the coasters. I even got mopey when my oldest, whose idea of high-stakes, thrilling adventure was the Tomorrowland People Mover, refused to ride any.

“Who goes to Busch Gardens without riding the roller coasters?” I growled.

Now, six years later, when my youngest coaster-loving daughter shouts at me to join her, I’m the one begging, “Please don’t make me! Mama said you can’t make me!”

The mid-forties will do this to a man.

When I turned 43, right around the time I began dabbling in mature hobbies like colonoscopies and busting a Z during movies that start after 10 p.m., something flipped in my ear. Now, if I leap on a coaster with loop and a corkscrew, my brain keeps cork-screwing with me after I get off, hurtling me right into the bushes. Throw in a theme-park order of lo mein and an egg roll and we’re talking gastrointestinal disaster of Chernobyl proportions.

“Come on, Dad! Are you coming!?”

Mrs. Raab shot me a daring look. “I love Shriekra,” she said. “I go on it at least twice every time I’m here.”

“I don’t think there’s enough time.”

“Even old people love Shiekra,” said Mrs. Carujo. “It’s so smooth. And – oh, look! – the line doesn’t look nearly as long as it was a half hour ago.”

I turned to Lilly. She would certainly bail me out. She was terrified of coasters. “It’s up to you, Lilly. If you don’t want to go on it, that’s no problem. We can just leave now.”

“Come on, Lilly!” Bee begged.

“Don’t feel any pressure, Lilly. It’s absolutely, perfectly OK if we leave.”

“Lilly, please,” Bee begged.

Lilly looked at me. “OK,” she said.

“Then it’s time to leave, Bee,” I said.

“No,” Lilly’s voice trembled. “I’ll go on with you guys.”

The ruthless street gang called Raab and Carujo giggled.

The line for Sheikra went disturbingly fast. “Are you sure about this, Lilly?”

Her head quaked.

We climbed into our seats. Lilly’s hands trembled as she secured the buckle. The ride heaved and we began our ascent. Bee began singing.

“Are your teeth chattering because you’re cold or scared?” I shout at Lilly.

“A-cha-cha-cha-little-cha-cha-cha -of-chicky-cha-cha-both.”

At the top, we begin the slow roll. “Look at that view!”

“I-cha-cha-cha-kind of -cha-cha-cha-have to-cha-cha-cha-go to-chicky-cha-cha-the bathroom.”

“This is all Mrs. Raab’s and Mrs. Carujo’s fault!” I scream.

Suddenly we are hanging over the precipice, dangling, waiting for the stupid, awful, idiotic Sheikra beast to drop. The car trembles in the wind.

“Mr. Barrett!” Lilly cries out. “I’m scared!”

Her arm flies free. It quickly loops and locks around mine and nearly breaks my heart.

“Lilly, it’s—”

The coaster makes an awful click.

I instinctively close my eyes. We are free-floating, zero-G plummeting toward the pay day lenders and used car dealers. I suddenly realize I’m groaning like a mortally wounded Yeti.

“It’s almost over!” I croak.

Right before dropping again.

The ride finally rolls to a stop. Dead silence.

Lilly is suddenly laughing with crazed relief. I peel my eyelids open, surprised the world isn’t spinning.

“I did it!” Lilly cried.

We leap from our seats and Bee high-fives us both. “That was awesome!”

Lilly digs in her pocket and waves her park ticket at us. “That was my first coaster ride ever!”

Her face explodes with a proud smile as big as a new year. “I am never throwing this away!”

By Chris Barrett, Publisher

COMMENTS

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Overcoming Inertia

“Are your teeth chattering because you’re cold or scared?”

I have to shout over the chain hauling us to the top of Sheikra.

Lilly, Bee’s best friend in fifth grade, appears catatonic. We climb fifty feet higher before she answers. “A-cha-cha-cha-little-cha-cha-cha-of-chicky-cha-cha-both.”

We reach the top and begin the slow roll around the loop to the precipice. “Look at that view!” I cry.

Because the fact that we are now precariously looping two miles above the surface of the earth with a clear view of all Busch Boulevard’s pay day lenders and used car dealers will help take Lilly’s mind off the fact that we are now precariously looping two miles above the surface of the earth.

The guilt gnaws at me. Lilly has never in her life set foot on a roller coaster. And Sheikra is about to brutally baptize her in a chilly lake of liquid fear.

“I-cha-cha-cha-kind of-cha-cha-cha-have to-cha-cha-cha-go to-chicky-cha-cha-the bathroom,” Lilly says.

“Whoa!” my brain screams.

“This is all Mrs. Raab’s and Mrs. Carujo’s fault,” I shout, blaming her teachers. “They made me go on this thing!”

Welcome to Fifth Grade Physics Day.

Where every object in motion stays in motion unless an external force (e.g., a mom stopping everyone to take photo for Facebook) is applied to it. And where for every action (e.g., a parent chaperone clearly saying, “No.”), there is an equal and opposite reaction.

OK. I’ll be honest. I might be to blame for the fact that Lilly is about to plummet to her death while Bee enthusiastically sings Adele’s Hello and happily kicks her legs back and forth beside us. Bee and I are Lilly’s ride home. I could have stood my ground like I did the first time.

“Come on, Dad! Are you coming!?” Bee had cried then.

I pointed to the coaster’s warning sign. “I better not. I might be pregnant.” I looked around. “I should just stay down here with the moms. Otherwise, I might miss a big sale at Whole Foods.”

Bee had walked away, shaking her head.

Forty minutes later, Bee emerged with a joyful smile.

And when she learned we had 30 minutes left?

“Come on, Dad! Are you coming!?”

I wanted to go on.

Kinda really.

On my very first Physics Day with Number One six years ago, I was all about the coasters. I even got mopey when my oldest, whose idea of high-stakes, thrilling adventure was the Tomorrowland People Mover, refused to ride any.

“Who goes to Busch Gardens without riding the roller coasters?” I growled.

Now, six years later, when my youngest coaster-loving daughter shouts at me to join her, I’m the one begging, “Please don’t make me! Mama said you can’t make me!”

The mid-forties will do this to a man.

When I turned 43, right around the time I began dabbling in mature hobbies like colonoscopies and busting a Z during movies that start after 10 p.m., something flipped in my ear. Now, if I leap on a coaster with loop and a corkscrew, my brain keeps cork-screwing with me after I get off, hurtling me right into the bushes. Throw in a theme-park order of lo mein and an egg roll and we’re talking gastrointestinal disaster of Chernobyl proportions.

“Come on, Dad! Are you coming!?”

Mrs. Raab shot me a daring look. “I love Shriekra,” she said. “I go on it at least twice every time I’m here.”

“I don’t think there’s enough time.”

“Even old people love Shiekra,” said Mrs. Carujo. “It’s so smooth. And – oh, look! – the line doesn’t look nearly as long as it was a half hour ago.”

I turned to Lilly. She would certainly bail me out. She was terrified of coasters. “It’s up to you, Lilly. If you don’t want to go on it, that’s no problem. We can just leave now.”

“Come on, Lilly!” Bee begged.

“Don’t feel any pressure, Lilly. It’s absolutely, perfectly OK if we leave.”

“Lilly, please,” Bee begged.

Lilly looked at me. “OK,” she said.

“Then it’s time to leave, Bee,” I said.

“No,” Lilly’s voice trembled. “I’ll go on with you guys.”

The ruthless street gang called Raab and Carujo giggled.

The line for Sheikra went disturbingly fast. “Are you sure about this, Lilly?”

Her head quaked.

We climbed into our seats. Lilly’s hands trembled as she secured the buckle. The ride heaved and we began our ascent. Bee began singing.

“Are your teeth chattering because you’re cold or scared?” I shout at Lilly.

“A-cha-cha-cha-little-cha-cha-cha -of-chicky-cha-cha-both.”

At the top, we begin the slow roll. “Look at that view!”

“I-cha-cha-cha-kind of -cha-cha-cha-have to-cha-cha-cha-go to-chicky-cha-cha-the bathroom.”

“This is all Mrs. Raab’s and Mrs. Carujo’s fault!” I scream.

Suddenly we are hanging over the precipice, dangling, waiting for the stupid, awful, idiotic Sheikra beast to drop. The car trembles in the wind.

“Mr. Barrett!” Lilly cries out. “I’m scared!”

Her arm flies free. It quickly loops and locks around mine and nearly breaks my heart.

“Lilly, it’s—”

The coaster makes an awful click.

I instinctively close my eyes. We are free-floating, zero-G plummeting toward the pay day lenders and used car dealers. I suddenly realize I’m groaning like a mortally wounded Yeti.

“It’s almost over!” I croak.

Right before dropping again.

The ride finally rolls to a stop. Dead silence.

Lilly is suddenly laughing with crazed relief. I peel my eyelids open, surprised the world isn’t spinning.

“I did it!” Lilly cried.

We leap from our seats and Bee high-fives us both. “That was awesome!”

Lilly digs in her pocket and waves her park ticket at us. “That was my first coaster ride ever!”

Her face explodes with a proud smile as big as a new year. “I am never throwing this away!”

By Chris Barrett, Publisher

COMMENTS

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Checking It Twice

A week after Halloween, Bee dramatically presented a piece of paper.

“What’s this?”

“My Christmas list.”

I quickly eyed the page. Six items total. Compared to my childhood, when I’d seize the K-Mart toy catalogue and circle three items on every page, Bee was showing remarkable restraint.

She gestured for me to read them.

“A horse swing,” I began.

“Yep,” said Bee, a bit obsessed with horses since she started riding lessons.

“OK,” I said. “But how do you plan to get the horse into the swing?”

Sigh.

“It’s not a swing for a horse. It’s a horse swing for me.”

“A horse swing.”

“Yes, but I’d like it as big as an actual horse and made of metal.”

We’d have to come back to that one.

I moved on to item two. “Red or blue regular Converse,” I read. “For you or the metal horse?”

“Horses shoes are metal.”

“Just like the horses,” I observed.

The list went on: “Lotsa books,” it read. “I like that one,” I said.

Number four?

“More stuffed animals.”

To keep the 46,000 animals already stuffed in her closet from getting lonely.

“I’ve not seen any toys on your list yet,” I said. “When I was a kid, my Santa list always included awesome toys.”

She considered this. “What were your favorite ones?”
Checking It Twice

A week after Halloween, Bee dramatically presented a piece of paper.

By Chris Barrett, Publisher

“What’s this?”

“My Christmas list.”

I quickly eyed the page. Six items total. Compared to my childhood, when I’d seize the K-Mart toy catalogue and circle three items on every page, Bee was showing remarkable restraint.

She gestured for me to read them.

“A horse swing,” I began.

“Yep,” said Bee, a bit obsessed with horses since she started riding lessons.

“OK,” I said. “But how do you plan to get the horse into the swing?”

Sigh.

“It’s not a swing for a horse. It’s a horse swing for me.”

“A horse swing.”

“Yes, but I’d like it as big as an actual horse and made of metal.”

We’d have to come back to that one.

I moved on to item two. “Red or blue regular Converse,” I read. “For you or the metal horse?”

“Horses shoes are metal.”

“Just like the horses,” I observed.

The list went on: “Lotsa books,” it read. “I like that one,” I said.

Number four?

“More stuffed animals.”

To keep the 46,000 animals already stuffed in her closet from getting lonely.

“I’ve not seen any toys on your list yet,” I said. “When I was a kid, my Santa list always included awesome toys.”

She considered this. “What were your favorite ones?”

“Hmm,” I thought a moment. “I loved my Kenner SSP Smash up Derby Set. Once you pulled the cars’ T-strings, they sped across the floor, shot up ramps and smashed into each other, exploding into a million pieces.” I put on my best southern twang and sang the jingle, ““Crash! Bang! Smash ’em up! Put ’em back again! Crash! Bang! Smash ’em up! It’s smash up time, my friends!”

She looked at me strangely. “You just smashed your toys together?”

“I also loved my brother’s Electric Football set. It was this vibrating metal table that sounded like a jet landing. When you turned it on, you just hoped your guy with the football would vibrate in the right direction.”

“That sounds lame.”

“No!” I protested, “The players had these little plastic thing-a-ma-jigs on the bottom that you could adjust to make them go in the direction you wanted.”

“Did it work?”

“I don’t know. One of my sisters stood on the metal football field, kind of denting it. So every football game pretty much just ended with both teams vibrating into the dent.”

I thought some more. “I also loved my Merlin. It was one of the earliest electronic toys,” I said excitedly. “It was a red and about the size of a skateboard. You held it in your hand and poked a bunch of buttons that would light up so you could play Blackjack and Tic Tac Toe.”

“Today we play that on paper,” Bee said, apparently under the impression that paper was invented around the time of cell phones.

I moved on. “One Christmas we also got Bing Bang Boing.”

Bee looked at me.

“While it sounds like a Florida college drinking game, it was like a big Rube Goldberg maching. It took hours to carefully place all the lift devices, chutes and rubber-covered drums so that when you released small metal balls, they would properly bounce to the next thing.”

“Huh?”

“You started by sending the metal ball down the bingo flinger, where it went across the hum drums, up the bangle-vator, through the flicker ticker and into the boingo bucket.”

Bee stared.

“It took my brother and I all of Christmas day to set it up in the living room, perfectly spacing all the hum drums so that balls bounced through the entire course. Then my Uncle Paul arrived for Christmas dinner and started moving them around.”

“What happened?”

The truth?

My brother screamed, ran across the living room and pile-drived Uncle Paul in the crotch with his head.

Egg nog flew everywhere.

I opted for a simpler answer. “We just had to start over,” I told Bee. “That was the fun of it.”

“What other toys did you get?”

“Lite Brite. Toss Across, which a combination of Corn Hole and Tic Tac Toe. Mouse Trap. An Etch-a-Sketch.”

“I’ve seen that!” Bee said. “That’s that thing that can’t draw diagonal lines.”

Apparently because they were invented around the same time as paper.

“I also got Gnip Gnop. Each player had to press three buttons to shoot their three balls through through three vertical hoops to the other guy’s side before he shot his to yours. While you were trying to outgnip him, he was trying to outgnop you. It was very 1970s. There was a lot of shrieking and pounding.”

“Is there anything you really wanted but you didn’t get?” Bee asked.

I sighed. “Stretch Armstrong.”

“What is that?”

“It was this ugly, orange, mushy guy. You could stretch his arms and legs out really far. Then, when you let go, he’d contract back to his original shape. He was really cool.”

“Why didn’t you get it?”

“One of my friends had Stretch and brought him over to play one afternoon. I stretched one of Stretch’s leg. Then I stretched one of Stretch’s arms. And then I tied Stretch’s arm and leg around my sister’s neck.”

“That must have put you on the naughty list.”

I changed the topic. I returned to Bee’s list and read the next entry. “Art supplies,” I said.

“Specifically colored pencils,” she clarified.

I nodded, putting the finished list down. “Looks like a pretty good list.”

“You forgot my last thing.” She pointed to the paper.

I looked down. “A horse,” I read.

“Not a plastic one like last year. A real one.”

I picked up a Target toy catalogue and a pen, and shoved them into her hands. “Your list needs improving,” I announced. “This year we’re going old school.”

By Chris Barrett, Publisher

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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.

Shrug.

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.

I think.

By Chris Barrett, Publisher

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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!”

She waits.

But I’m tapped out.

Because my counter arguments can be summed up thus:

I’m terrified.

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.”

I nod.

We’re gonna need those therapy bunnies.

By Chris Barrett, Publisher

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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.

The truth?

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

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