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Dead Zones

I just returned from a trip out west to our great national parks.

Where half the tourists were trying to kill themselves.

With a a selfie-stick.

Somewhere in northern Montana, not far from the Canadian border, we inch around a perilous mountain switchback in an enormous Cadillac Escalade.

Because the brainiacs of Budget Rent-a-Car gave away my reserved minivan.

And because Hairy Rental Dude (HRD) behind the tiny window likes to laugh when writers drive off in cars they could never actually afford.

Thanks to HRD, I’m traversing a cliff-side road 8,500 feet above sea level in a vehicle the same size as the Jersey beach house my parents used to rent back in the 70s for their six kids and a grandma.

And coming at me in the other lane is a shrunken, old couple wearing Donald Trump hats and peering out a windshield the size of a billboard.

Because they are driving an entire house on wheels down a road wide enough to hold a donkey cart.

“Oh, look how friendly they are!” my wife cries. “Wave back everyone!”

But they are not waving in a friendly “Hello there!” kind of way. It’s a frantic “MOVE OVER NOW!” kind of way.

Their RV’s bathroom is going to shove us into oblivion.

I frantically search the Escalade’s 75 automated buttons for one labeled “Keep Occupant Alive.”

But while the Escalade has dual seat warmers, automated seats, GPS, Bluetooth, satellite radio, seven USB ports, dual climate controls and airbags for your pet gerbil, no one at Cadillac has thought of a “Keep Occupant Alive” button yet. 

Bee, 11, gasps.

But it’s not the Abode for the Road brushing past that scares her.

She’s spotted a young guy balancing on the road’s shin-high rock wall.

The shin-high rock wall pretending to keep RVs and monstrous SUVs from hurtling into the abyss along Glacier National Park’s Going-to-the-Sun Road.

The 20-something (which may actually refer to the guy’s IQ) is smiling into the heavens like a deranged serial killer. He’s torquing his body over the edge to get just…

The…right…

Shot.

Bee, 11, slaps her hands over her eyes.  “Dad?” she squeaks. “Is he going to die?”

The dude is six inches from the two-breathe, terminal velocity scream that will immediately precede his transmutation into a human pancake.

“If he does,” our high schooler says. “He’ll get at least 63 likes on the way down.”

“That’s Darwin at work,” sniffs my wife. (Her healthy sense of fear keeps her perfectly safe from horrors like indirect plane flights, carny rides and Corvettes driven by her 75-year-old dad.)

The high school senior shakes her phone. “That guy on the ledge is wasting his time. He won’t get any bars until exactly two-point-three miles outside of the park’s west gates. Two-point-two miles if he sits up straight and holds his phone against his chin.”

She presses her phone under her chin to illustrate the most effective positioning.

“Like anyone can post stuff like that,” snorts Elf, our middle schooler.

“No, really,” the high schooler protests. “I’ll show you.”

Between them Elf and Madam Instagram have mapped every T-Mobile dead zone in Grand Tetons National Park, Yellowstone and Glacier.

And while those three national parks might have a lot of bison, antelopes and mountain goats, they are where cell phone service and wifi go to die.

The upside? 

The post-Millennials in your Cadillac Escalade (which can comfortably sit an entire family of Grizzlies as well as their prey) might actually look up and discover the sky is blue.

If they stop practicing circus-contortionist photo-posting.

“Put your phones away!” I demand.

(Travelling to Montana has morphed me into the Unabomber.)

I’ll say one positive thing about selfie-stick owners.

They are one level above the tourists that tramp around the great outdoors holding full-size Apple tablets above their heads.

Looking like they’re being mugged outside a 7-Eleven – or trying to get you to drive into its lot for a cheerleader carwash.

Because a video of all those 9,000-foot tall mountains ten miles in the distance looks markedly better when elevated another 30 inches off the ground.

They are completely clueless that the line of 15 hikers behind them has been waiting 10 minutes to pass and they’re now drawing straws to see which one will shove them Apple first off the next ledge.

Flashback three days.

We’re standing in Yellowstone’s Norris Geyser Basin, a moonscape of acidic cauldrons and scalding geysers. Helpful safety signs are posted at every entrance. They show a foolish little boy stepping off the boardwalk, breaking through the basin’s thin surface and getting his foot boiled off.

“Stay on the boardwalk,” I lecture my daughters. “Just two weeks ago some stupid guy stepped off this boardwalk, went for a stroll into the Norris basin and fell into a pool.” I paused for dramatic effect. “His body completely dissolved before they could rescue him.”

I look at the girls to see if my actually true story has properly terrified them.

Bee is covering her eyes with her hands.

I whirl around.

A tourist has stepped off the boardwalk. She’s backing up to a geyser pool. And – wait for it – she extends her selfie-stick.

“Dad,” Bee squeaks. “Is she gonna die?”

“Put away your phones!” I cry to my daughters.

They sigh and show me their empty hands.

Someday, a thousand years from now, an American History museum is going to have a big display titled “Worst Ideas Ever.”

And the selfie-stick is going to be sitting on the shelf right next to the 2016 U.S. Presidential Election.

By Chris Barrett, Publisher

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Suburban Slickers

As you read this, a video of a guy getting trampled by a herd of Yellowstone bison is likely going viral.

Featuring me shrieking for help.

And my daughters obliviously standing in the background taking a radiant selfie to prove to their Instagram friends that they just LOVE the great outdoors.

Which, as lies go, is bigger than the state of Wyoming.

For one, until she turned five, the oldest one cried every time she got sand on her legs at the beach.

Now she just avoids it by staying perched on a beach chair with a book and the kettle-cooked chips.

As a direct descendent of Casper the Friendly Ghost, I head off to my dermatologist for my annual round of compliments at the end of each summer. “You’re doing great,” she says, studying my freckles. “You’re clearly very diligent about wearing sunscreen at the beach.”

What she doesn’t know?

At the beach, I’m also quite diligent about wearing my three daughters.

At first, we appear like an almost normal, loving family, shuffling out into the Gulf together.

We make it about five feet before one of them steps on a seashell.

“AHMIGAHD!” she shrieks. “SOMETHING BIT ME!”

All three immediately leap out of the water like cats sneak-attacked by cucumbers. They fling their arms around my neck, hoist their feet, and hang like Christmas tree ornaments.

“IT’S A CRAB!” they howl. “A BIG CRAB!”

(And they actually find me embarrassing.)

This was cute when they were 8, 5 and 2.

It’s more awkward now that two of them are my height.

“It’s not a crab!” I cry, struggling to remain upright.

“It’s a crab! It bit me!”

“It didn’t bite you. When crabs pinch, they don’t let go!”

Not the most effective way to convince a 17, 14 and 11 year old to stop hanging from your earlobes.

When they’re finally peeled off, they shriek back across the sand up to the pool, carefully avoiding all the icky seaweed along the way.

Which is why I listened to my brother this spring.

My brother also hates beach sand. And, come to think of it, most of the people on it.

So this summer he successfully convinced us to head out West to the mountains and boiling mud pots instead.

Where the crunchy granolas travel the trails by foot and the Carnival Cruisers stick to their buses.

Prior to leaving for our trip to Grand Teton National Park, Yellowstone and Glacier, he guided us through the proper equipment procurement. Which was a bit more involved than sunscreen, a boogie board and the kettle chips.

“Do you have a compass?”

I looked at my wife and held up my phone. “We have Google Maps.”

“Rookies!” he shook his head. “There is no reliable cell service between St. Louis and Las Vegas,” he lectured. “Did you buy any bear spray?”

Had to be a trick question.

“Why would I want to smell like a bear?”

My brother looked grim. “It’s to ward off charging bears.”

My wife looked alarmed. “There will be charging bears?!”

My brother reassured her. “Statistically you’re more likely to die in Yellowstone from hypothermia, by falling off a cliff or being boiled to death by accidentally stepping into hot spring. But if you don’t have bear spray, try to stand beside an elderly tourist with a walker. There’s a reason the park rangers call them appetizers.”

He wasn’t finished. “Another big killer out there is dehydration. Do you have water bottles?”

I looked at my wife again. (She generally does all the packing while I carefully address some important, last minute chore requiring three trips to Home Depot.) But my brother didn’t wait to be briefed on our water bottle status. “Staying fully hydrated will ward off altitude sickness.” He added, “You’ll be surprised how little you pee out there.”

Given the amount of driving and my middle child’s ping-pong ball bladder, this was the most exciting news about our national parks vacation thus far.

“Did you guys buy hiking shoes?”

“I thought about it but it doesn’t seem worth it,” I said. “Whenever the girls look at exciting stuff, they’re usually lying down.”

He grimaced. “If you hike in the canyon in tennis shoes, you’ll rip your toenails right off.”

My wife was looking increasingly doubtful about our trip. “When I was a kid,” she said, “summer vacations consisted of lying next to a clean, cool, non-boiling pool while people in clean, neatly pressed clothes brought us drinks with those little umbrellas in them.”

So, since I was foolishly standing close by instead of carefully hiding at Home Depot, I was put in charge of acquiring appropriate footwear during the last week of school.

And the sand-fearing oldest and I were soon standing grumpily in a back corner of Sports Authority for its going out of business sale.

“I have shoes,” she protested.

“People generally don’t hike the Grand Tetons in sequined flip flops.”

“These are the ugliest shoes ever,” she announced, pointing to the shelves. “Why are they all just gray and brown?”

“Because they get very dirty.”

“Why would anyone ever wear these things?”

“They’re hiking shoes. You use them for hiking.”

Eye-roll. 

“Like I’m ever going to wear these again.”

Which didn’t stop her from selecting the most expensive pair of hiking shoes in the store.

Because they had colorful, blue soles.

But she WILL be wearing them again.

Next year in the water at the beach.

To fend off the crabs.

By Christopher Barrett, Publisher

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A Fond Farewell to Westchase Elementary

It took us a dozen years to finish elementary school.

We’ve had four different principals, five different crossing guards, 2,897 AR points, three bouts of rotavirus, 956 IXL skills, six Battles of the Books, seven STEM Fair projects, $147 in Freaky Hair and four years of Boostercon.

And a dozen winter concerts featuring Jolly Old St. Nicholas and The Festival of Lights.

My wife started weeping nostalgically back in May.

Here’s the difference between moms and dads. When their third and final baby attends her Fifth Grade Banquet, the mom weeps for a month.

And the dad, experiencing a shiver of exquisite joy, thinks, “I shall never ever have to listen to Festival of Lights played on the recorder again.”

This is why my wife thinks I’m damaged goods.

Twelve years ago, our stomachs churning, we dropped our oldest daughter off for her first day of kindergarten. Westchase Elementary seemed so enormous back then – and its cafeteria so skull-pounding loud.

A memory from that very first day is carved into my skull. At pick-up, I felt a tremor of anxiety. Sitting among the kindergarteners, our precious Maya looked like an exhausted zombie.

Next year Maya graduates from high school and heads off to college.

She still arrives home looking like an exhausted zombie. (The precious rubbed off somewhere back in middle school.)

It seems only yesterday I was shouting at Maya not to maniacally pedal her bike through the reclaimed water puddles on the way to school.

Prompting her to swerve and dive headfirst into a shrub dripping with reclaimed water.

From which I had to extract her.

Because her backpack had pinned her down headfirst, causing her wiggling legs to jut out of the bush.

Our precious first born looked up at me with her sad, puppy eyes when her sobs stopped. “This is all your fault, Dad.”

Another memory from those early days:

My wife signing up for cafeteria duty but begging me to cover at the last minute. My discovery that more than half the items that parents pack into kindergarteners’ lunches – including juice box straws – cannot actually be opened by any kindergarteners.

Yet we still give these humans drivers’ licenses a mere 3,650 days later.

But wait. I forgot the actual memory.

Let’s try that again.

My bravely covering cafeteria duty for my wife. My struggling to actually hear the kindergarteners in the cafeteria. My skillfully opening a parade of yogurt cups and yogurt tubes, milk cartons, juice boxes and string cheese. My skillfully wiping an entire exploded rainbow yogurt tube off the front of my shirt. A pixie kindergartener named Aidan, perpetually “on red,” looking up at me with big, innocent eyes and saying something.

I leaned over helpfully. “What is that, Aidan?”

“You’re a doo-doo head.”

To think, just a dozen years later, little pixie Aidan could actually be serving hard time.

Three years after Maya, we began the process again. This time with our dear Emma, the subject of Maya’s first STEM Fair project.

Which addressed the question, “Does sleep deprivation actually make little children grumpier and cry more?”

For which, when we tried to tap my two nieces as test subjects, prompted my brother to proclaim,  “Are you crazy?”

Three years later Grace, our youngest and quietest, landed wide-eyed in kindergarten.

And quickly broke us of the habit of pedaling maniacally to school.

Because bike helmets muss her ponytail.

Buried in dioramas, I easily missed it at the time. Looking back, it’s clearer now:

The tempo and flavor of my family’s life has been indelibly shaped by Westchase Elementary’s teachers and traditions.

The butterflies of open house, nervously meeting teachers (and excitedly visiting past favorites), crossing our fingers for familiar friends, inhaling the promise of new clothes, pencil shavings and crisp new notebooks, plucking sticky-note supply wishes from the classroom door.

Excitement building, threading through the willy-nilly parking of fall festival, sweltering summer temperatures, colored sugar tongues, frozen stiff Freaky Hair – a tantalizing promise that some sunrise soon would find Florida’s furnace had gone off on vacation.

A frantic search for a book magically matching your Princess-Ninja costume, a slap-mad competition for a friend and compound word making you clever and cool, the tummy-ache shiver of the never-ending Story Book Parade (“Look! There she is!”), the time-crawling anticipation of trick-or-treating, the official kick-off of the happiest time of year.

An extra special November Friday: Of poems and songs, of Native American feather headdresses and Pilgrim-themed centers, of lukewarm turkey banquets with a cornucopia of cookies heaped upon a paper plate (Grab another donut when mom’s not looking!), a whole, blessed week off!

Kris Kringle hats and soap bubble snowflakes, chattering parents and grandparents, iPad and camcorders aloft, those warbling recorders, the tantalizing excitement of Secret Santas, jingle bells and Winter Break.

The walk to your child’s classroom, a head brimming with to-do lists, the knot in your shoulders melting when your ears perk, Mr. King’s flute piping carols across the courtyard, a light-hearted joy, a promise that, in some small, beautiful corners, there is Peace on Earth.

The long-haul of January and February, the dread of Folk Dancing, of holding hands (or resentfully clutching shirt sleeves), the secret plotting during pre-dance count-off (“If I stand here, I will be paired with my crush!”), his sweaty, nervous hands, the generous, post-do-si-do spritzing with hand sanitizer. 

Now – too soon! – the clap out crowd, camcorders aloft, third graders peering over the second-story catwalk, the celebratory music, the fifth graders in their finest, mortified by all their stalking, proud parents.

And after a dozen years, your youngest baby, completing elementary school, walks by shyly smiling.

And despite all efforts to fight it off, you find yourself welling up.

And so I’ve been a complete doo-doo head.

My wife was right.

I will profoundly miss it all.

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All Hail the Shillelagh!

My Irish family does funerals like most people do Taco Tuesdays.

Except without the discount. The world’s funeral directors have not yet embraced BOGO death Groupons to drive business.

We ensure they don’t have to.

But if they did, my family would be stocking up. In recent months, we’ve lost two dear aunts. In November my Aunt Adrian, an IHM nun, passed. In March, her sister and constant companion, Marie, jumped on the party bandwagon.

And while it’s no surprise that my extended family skews leftish on the strange-normal spectrum, when I flew up to Scranton for the latest funeral in March, I promise you this:

I did not pack my carry-on thinking I would be marching in Scranton’s St. Patrick’s Day Parade.

That was sprung on me during my Aunt Marie’s wake.

The conversation with my cousin Matt went something like this:

Matt: “I’m so sorry for your loss, Chris.”
Me: “I’m so sorry for your loss, Matt.”
Matt: “You’re walking with me in the St. Patrick’s Day Parade on Saturday, right?”
Me: “Wait. What?”
Matt: “The parade is dedicated to Marie and Adrian. We need family members to represent them. Thanks for your participation.”

Matt rushed away to find his next victim.

So my upcoming days of deep mourning were shaping up thus:

Thursday: Wake
Friday: Funeral
Saturday: Family Parade

But my carry-on contained a pair of running shoes, two dark suits, two pairs of jeans, two casual shirts, a blue sweatshirt and my unmentionables.

No emerald. No olive. No mint. No chartreuse.

Nary a speck o’ green.

Marie and Adrian would be planning a good Irish haunting.

Scranton is a smallish city (population: 75,000) with a singular point of pride. No city’s Irish-Americans take their heritage more seriously. Scranton hosts one of the largest St. Patrick’s Day parades in the nation. While traveling just 12 city blocks, the parade, in which 12,000 people participate, is ten times longer. Lasting over three hours, it is attended by 150,000 people.

Leaving all Scranton’s bowling alleys completely empty.

According to the Official Line of March, the Parade’s Dedications (my family) were tucked right after the Parade Marshalls and the Parade President and right before the Parade Committee.

My family clearly held an esteemed position. We would be appearing before the floats of over 180 groups and local businesses. Among these were the Shriners, the Ancient Order of Hibernians, the Amazing Franko & Carl, the Victorian Highwheelers of Tamaqua and Shamokin, The Quiet Man Society, the Crossmolina School of Irish Dance, the Pipefitters and Plumbers Local 524, Pawsatively for the Animals, 1 Cross + 3 Nails = 4 Given (featuring a fake-bearded Jesus and more blood splatter than a CSI season finale), EJ the DJ (a former member of the Scranton School Board), the Crufeli Gypsy Freak Show, The Society for Creative Anachronism and Young’s Funny Farm.

Oh, and The Dutch Hollow Neighborhood Ass., but I completely missed the abbreviation period when first reading the parade program. (You can imagine my disappointment when I later discovered it wasn’t just one guy.)

Since the Parade President got the last convertible in Scranton, we would be walking behind him carrying my aunts’ dedication banner.

“We” being my very respectable cousins, their children, my nephew Drew (who wears printed Ts with slogans like “Dedicated to transforming par-TEES into a par-TAYS since 2006.”), my brother Brian (a somewhat high-strung Manhattan attorney whom I had guilted into participating) and me.

“What’s the dress code?” I pressed Matt.

“I’m thinking something green,” he responded.

“I was actually wondering if this is a coat and tie event?”

Matt remained stubbornly non-committal. 

“I’m going down to the Sally,” announced Drew. “To get something green.”

The Salvation Army being Drew’s haberdashery for all his fine parade wear.

Desperate, I tagged along. We walked the entire second-hand warehouse, where I passed on some gorgeous lime green dress shirts, a polyester green leisure suit and several hundred Mutant Ninja Turtle shirts before scoring an actually handsome forest green Lands End barn jacket for $9.75.

After additional prodding the morning of the parade, Matt finally detailed his attire. “I’m wearing jeans,” he texted.

So there it was.

I threw on jeans, a collared shirt and my new Salvation-Army green barn jacket. I rummaged through my Aunt Adrian’s box of past parade wear (including dozens of enormous green bow ties and hats) before carefully selecting a green beret whose brim was emblazoned with IRELAND.

“What do you think?” I asked my mother.

“I think you look like an IRA pub bomber.”

Arriving at the parade, I discovered my cousins wearing jeans. Along with dress shoes and very nice sweaters.

Behind us in the staging area, dozens of Irish Scrantonians from the Parade Committee were all meticulously attired in khakis, blue blazers, white dress shirts and various green ties.

The parade dress code.

We were woefully underdressed.

My brother Brian was wearing blue jeans and a gray sweatshirt. Last minute, he had seized an oversized, poofy white felt hat plastered in shamrocks from Adrian’s box.

As a further condition of his participation, Brian demanded to carry Adrian’s shillelagh, which she had swung in Scranton’s St. Patrick’s Day Parade for decades.

A family heirloom, the heavy Irish walking stick has a carving of St. Patrick casting the serpents out of Ireland. Family lore holds that it was carved by an Irish inmate in prison.

Because Irish prisons let all of their inmates use knives to carve large wooden clubs.

Then there was Drew.

Drew was adorned in a battered T-shirt featuring a Bob Marley Lion with dreads, American flag Chubbies shorts and an ill-fitting, Kelly green, women’s dress coat from the 80s. He was carrying a heavy circle of cork painted with the parade logo and my aunts’ names. Presented to us by the parade committee, it may or may not have been a commemorative dart board.

As the parade kicked off, Drew began dancing with it suggestively.

The crowd cheered.

My cousins laughed nervously.

Three blocks in, Drew and my brother, the somewhat uptight Manhattan attorney, began moon-walking past each other. 

The crowd cheered some more.

Matt’s wife, Lori, leaned over. “I don’t believe I’ve ever seen your brother have this much fun.”

I tried to shrink behind the commemorative banner.

One block before the parade’s completion, another contingent of 10 cousins finally located us and jumped behind the banner. I hid among them as we approached the judge’s reviewing stage.

Drew and Brian went crazy.

Jiving, jigging, moon-walking.

“All hail the shillelagh!” Brian shouted, waving the walking stick at the judges.

Drew rushed the local television cameraman like a rabid NFL fan, shaking, pointing and gyrating with the dartboard.

He returned to everyone breathless. “I got on TV!”

Finally, we crossed the finish line.

Officially ending the most surreal 30 minutes of my life.

Twenty minutes later, Brian, Drew and I were back at our childhood home. We found my mom sitting in her chair watching the live broadcast of the parade, still going strong.

“Did you see us?” Brian asked. “I was in front with Drew!”

“Did you see me dancing, Nana?” Drew laughed. “The crowd just loved it!”

“No.”

“What?”

Drew was shell-shocked. “You’re kidding me! I was right in front of the camera!”

“They must have panned away!” Brian cried.

My mom pointed at me. “I only saw Mr. IRA pub bomber here walking behind the commemorative banner with your cousins, who,” she added with emphasis, “were dressed very nicely.”

“Matt said he was wearing jeans!” I protested.

Brian was outraged. “Drew, your dancing ruined everything!” He looked around. “I even had the shillelagh!”

“What a stinking rip-off!” Drew cried.

My mom tsked disapprovingly. We all turned to the TV. A blood-splattered float was just arriving at the judges’ reviewing stand.

“Would you look at that,” my mother said. “That Jesus isn’t wearing any green.”

By Chris Barrett, Publisher

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