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.
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.
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
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.”
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?”
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
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?”
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?’”
“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.”
“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?”
“You have not had any deadly diseases.”
She slaps her notebook. “How stinking unlucky!”
“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?”
“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.”
“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
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.”
“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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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