The Nut Ninja

Photo by Frida Aguilar Estrada on Unsplash

The fight moves from the stairs to the living room floor.  Little fists of fury swing wildly, hitting air, occasionally connecting with a pillow that Bubba Hoss holds up to defend himself.  The toddler, Bacon, tries to push it aside so that he can get a clean shot.  He is small and the pillow is large, his target just out of his reach.  He's a four-year-old that just wants to hit his older brother in the balls. 

Bubba dodges left, feints right, tucks and rolls like Captain Kirk escaping a green alien.  He slides past the dog and near the couch.  The toddler follows, stalking with heavy footfalls and the sour-stink breath of too many juice boxes but somehow not enough sugar.

There is a laugh, it is maniacal.  A high-pitched cackle that would give Wicked Witch of the West goosebumps.  Whose laugh is it?  The toddler determined to destroy nuts or the older brother that is clearly toying with this little welp?  I do not know because I'm sitting in my chair placing bets on who will win first. 

The dog jumps on my lap, tail wagging enough so that it smacks the fake leather.  We can't afford real leather, we have children.  The fake leather makes a sharp pitch when his tail hits it.  It sounds like the dogs own version of maniacal laughter.  The dog licks my face once, turns and presents his butthole inches from my face.  He is showing dominance.  He jumps, one of his feet pushing squarely off one of my own balls and somehow I have become a casualty of the nut hitting game I currently watch

The dog crashes against Hossmom, she holds her wine glass up high to prevent any spills onto our wine stained couch.  She grumbles, mumbles under her breath at the dog or the children.  It's tough to determine which because I have re-entered spectator mode.  My two boys continue to go at it with Bubba Hoss using his superior 10-year-old reach to keep the toddler at bay. 

The fight has been going on for at least 15 minutes.  The opening bell was my announcement "go upstairs, your mom and I would like to sit in peace."  What they heard was "Go to your corners and then come out fighting."

This is our quiet time routine in the middle of the evening, that twilight time of "after dinner" and "just before bedtime."  In this strange dimension, quiet time means something completely opposite than what one would think. 

The boys are locked in combat now, arms intertwined in the struggle.  They leap to the couch, stand on it.  Together, they bounce on the cushions, leap off the arms and dig their dirty little nails into the fabric.  Hossmom again holds up her wine on instinct.  The dog joins the fray.  I should make a sign that says "our furniture is not playground equipment" but I find that the statement has the same effect as asking for quiet time. 

Can the toddler get the nut shot in?  I give him 4 to 1 odds.  He is outgunned and lacks the tactical knowledge of his older brother.  However, he charges forward with the confidence of the fanatic.  Swinging, swinging, missing the balls of his older brother.  The dog barks his encouragement. 

Bubba Hoss goes down.  His foot got stuck in between the cushions and he tumbles.  His head hits the soft padding of the wine-soaked couch.  The toddler sees his opportunity, leaps forward, a battle cry erupts from his lips.  His fist goes back, the tension of a taut bow ready to be released. 

Bubba puts out his foot, his hands fly to his crotch in the universal protection gesture.  He lashes out, catches the toddler in the chest.  The blow is deflecting, not solid, but good enough that it catches Bacon Hoss unaware.  He slips, goes to a knee and then starts to slide off the couch backward towards the floor.  Before he makes contact, in that moment that lasts for an eternity, he yells his final words before he will start crying.

"God Damnit!"  From the mouth of babes.

Hossmom's eyes snap up, away from her phone and whatever article of pop culture she is reading.  The wine glass, still held in the air, tips a bit.  We have a new stain on the couch.  Those eyes don't look to the toddler, who lands with a thud, but to me.  Lazer focused right to the middle of my soul. 

Bubba Hoss goes quiet and his gaze also goes to me.  He knows the phrase just uttered, the final desperate cry of the nut ninja.  I hear my daughter start to thunder down the stairs as the swear was yelled loud enough, and in that toddler way--all lispy and cute, that it has taken her away from the four million texts that she sends each night.

The toddler whimpers and sits up.  Everyone is looking at dad.  The dog jumps up on my chair, once again presenting his butthole to my face. 

God Damnit.  The boy said God Damnit as he was pushed off the couch.  The room finally gets quiet, which it only does when someone does something that they know to be wrong. 

I throw my hands up into the air.  This is it, the pinnacle of fatherhood achievement.  Nine years as an at-home-dad, countless misadventures, enough cusswords uttered to complete a New York Times crossword puzzle. 

All my children have used an appropriate cussword, at the appropriate time, before the age of five.  Little Hoss once told the cat to "fucking move" when I was attempting to put together a random toy and had just said it to the cat five minutes before.  At age three, Bubba Hoss said "shit" when he dropped a toy behind the couch.  And now Bacon Hoss, four years old, let's loose with a God Damnit. 

I would like to thank all those that have supported me through this training.  To Hossmom for all of her evil looks, to my children that have stood by me in the toughest of times, and to my niece that gets out a swear jar every time I spend time with her.  But most importantly, I would like to thank the divorce lawyer that will be serving me papers next week. 

"Ok, that's it.  Bedtime!" I bellow, ending fight night in the Hossman household. 

"Did he just say..." my daughter begins.

"No questions!  Upstairs!"  I gather the children and begin to start the bedtime routine that I am sure I will be doing alone tonight. Hossmom still has some wine in her glass.   "Move!" 

I grab the toddler by the shoulder and turn him toward me, letting the other two hide away upstairs from the upcoming swear lecture that we seem to give an aweful lot in this house. 

"We don't say God Damnit, boy.  Got it?"

"Yes, Daddy." 

"Seriously, don't say it."

"Ok," he says. 

He holds his arms wide.  We are going in for the hug to seal the pact we have just made.  Don't cuss.  I take a step towards him. 

His right arm drops too quickly for me to understand, he takes a step forward and I notice that his thumb is on the outside of his fist.  I admire his proper technique for a quick second, distracted by it.  The punch hits me in the balls, square, catching both the left and right like a 7-10 split.  I double up and pitter-patter feet zoom upstairs to the music of that maniacal laugh. 

"God Damnit." 


Surviving The Wife's Office Party

Photo by Matty Adame on Unsplash
It all starts with the crusted ravioli.  Is there cheese inside or meat?  Since this is a fancy party, maybe it's something that I haven't imagined yet.  Perhaps a jelly of some type infused with gold leaf foil.  That would be fancy as fuck and this is a fancy fucking place.  I take a bite, fried goodness crunches and I contemplate the ravioli instead of paying attention the conversation that my wife is having.

There is another couple with us on the couch.  This is a party for my wife's boss and his new bride, a celebration of the nuptials.  They are around here somewhere, I met one of them.  They are mingling while we hang with the couch couple.   The couch couple seems very nice, tell pretty good jokes, and have no obvious evil intentions.  I have to be on the lookout at my wife's work social functions.  As an at-home-dad, I have been out of the office politics game for a pretty long time.  The ulterior motives that I usually run into involve scamming another cupcake or juice box.  On a side note, there are cupcakes here.  I'll get to them in a bit.

Around us are all the work people and various family members of the happy couple who just got married.   Everyone seems nice and I have absolutely no connection to any of them.  I am the +1, the rando guy that shows up just to judge you on the quality of food that is served and if there is free alcohol.  I give this party a plus 10.  There is free whiskey, pizza, and these ravioli things.

I go to these parties every year with Hossmom.  In that time, I have become the master at blending in and small talk.  I find it easy, there is no pressure here on me at all.  My wife has to say all the right things, talk to the right people and basically not make a fool of herself.  But for me, I'm different.  I have no one to impress.  No one even knows who I am and my wife can safely distance herself from me at any moment.  I'm two glasses of whiskey in as I study the ravioli.  I think it's got cheese in there.

Hossmom usually does a terrible job with me at these things.  I don't mean that she embarrasses herself.  I mean that she forgets to introduce me at all.  At the beginning of the party, she left me hanging talking to some guy about hair dryers and steak.  I love steak so it was all good.  Hair dryers, not so much.  My wife is in advertising so you would be surprised at the conversations that get linked together.  Such as the meat hair dyers--both clients that her company represents.

I have learned that it is better to roam around and just introduce myself, networking for no other reason than practice.  I've gotten pretty good at it.  Once you learn that there are no real consequences for what you say, because these people will never see you again, I can crack jokes left and right all night.  No accountability, that is how you survive these things.

Hossmom is talking to her work friends and the husband about advertising.  They are deep into shop talk, as one of the other husbands works in advertising.  I nod at the appropriate places, maybe tell a joke somewhere, then get back to my happy place--the crusted ravioli.  Now I think there is some meat in there.  I should see if anyone has a hair dryer handy so I can use it to figure this ravioli out.

That's the next thing I learned about surviving my wife's work parties.  Always appear busy.  No one wants to the be odd duck sitting next to the wall appearing to do nothing, looking longingly at people having fun.  No, that won't do at all.  So I usually find something to keep myself busy like a mysterious fried ravioli.  So many questions, so many things to discover.  As my wife and her work friends go deeper into which advertising company has lost which clients, I Indiana Jones the ravioli.

I met my wife's boss at the beginning.  Seems like a nice guy, tall as a pine tree in rural Arkansas.  A friendly smile, manly handshake and easily sized up.  This is my next trick--determining who I could take in a fight.  I'm not a violent person, not at all.  I just like the mental exercise of it.  It keeps me busy as everyone discussed whatever advertising deck they are preparing.  Tall guy probably has a pretty good reach.  So I would have to close that distance and get to his legs.  Once he is subdued, I can get to the ravioli.   Advertising people don't look very tough, throughout the years I've decided that I could take most of them.  Maybe not the meat hair dryer guy though, he looks serious.

I've eaten about eight of the ravioli things so far.  My stomach feels full but I'm going to keep eating.  I imagined a whole fake fight just to get to this point, I better keep eating.  Definalty meat and cheese in here.  Erin and her friends have started to discuss which companies are on the downswing.  They are bringing up names of people that I don't know, doing jobs that I have no idea exist.  I wonder how much they bullshit each other at these things.  Probably a lot and it's sad that they don't get a chance to truly taste the delicious ravioli.

I spy the cupcakes in the corner.  They are fancy too.  Not normal cupcakes bought from the grocery store.  These have been catered, they have only a wisp of frosting on the top.  I think I see a red velvet one in there.  I call dibs.  I eat four of them before Hossmom announces that it is time to go. I say goodbye to my ravioli and the experience that we shared. 

This is my last lesson of surviving the spouse work party.  When it's time to go, go out with a bang.  Shake the hands, smile and leave a lasting impression.

We say goodbye to our couple friends.  Hossmom says something in advertising or Klingon, I'm not sure which, and we head to the door.  The bride is there!  I haven't met the bride yet.  As usual, Hossmom doesn't introduce us.  So yeah, do my thing.

"Hi!  Great party!  Really lovely time.  Congratulations."

"Thank you!" she says.  She really does look wonderful, pure happiness on her face but she also looks a bit confused.  Who the hell is this guy with ravioli crumbs in his beard?  "I don't think we've had a chance to meet yet."

"Nope.  I'm a plus one.  We should hang out next time.  I'm very fun."

As I leave, I hear one of the other guests start laughing asking "Who was that?"

I'm basically a +1 ninja.


Stop Trying To Be Mom

I hate writing advice columns, so naturally, I've decided that it's time to do one.  So there you go, this is the moment that I have become a complete sellout.  Mark it on your calendars, boys and girls, Hossman is going to dish out advice like Dear Abby just took a shot of Redbull and vodka.

At-home-dads--stop trying to be mom.  There, fuck it, I've said it.  I can hear a whole lot of browser's closing right now and feel those eye rolls.  Who the hell is this guy?  Is he trying to piss off everyone?

Pretty much.

But here's what I mean.  Mom's are awesome.  I have one and I'm married to one.  They are good Ford people, salt of the earth women that should be put up on pedestals.  They should be celebrated and acknowledged for all the truly heroic things that they do.  If you haven't called your mother in a while, then stop reading and do that.  Mom's worry all the time.  Seriously, all the fucking time.  It comes with the pregnancy hormones in the first trimester.  They were carefree before kids, then the change happens, and worry is born nine months later.  So pick up the phone and call your mom, she's worried about you.  It's Friday, mom is always worried on Fridays.  Help the lady out, don't be a douchebag.

However, that doesn't mean that us Dad's have to be mom.  And if you are trying to be mom, fucking stop it.  You can't compete on that level, my man.  It's a losing game.   You don't have the skills for it, you are ill prepared to roll in that game.  They will be doing deep corner routes while you are trying to figure out where the first down marker is.  They are the star athletes and you are the water boy to the water boy.

Nine years, I have spent nine years doing the stay at home dad thing.  I've joined Mom's groups, I've tried to join more when the first one didn't work out.  I've done the mall playground thing, I've died a little bit inside when I get the side-eye at the outdoor playground.  I've tried to craft things out of flowers, devoured Pinterest to come up with ideas about what to buy at Micheals.  I've hot glued my fingers to paper plates.

And then I stopped trying to be mom.

It doesn't work, can't be done.  The Mom standard is so ridiculously high that it's a goal that we will never reach, nor do I want to anymore.  I would love to have the respect of moms, that's about it.  I would love to not hear "Are you babysitting, today" anymore.  It's not going to happen.  So let's be dad, let's do the kid raising thing the way we want to, the things that we are good at.

Crafting--put down the scissors and grab a fucking hammer.  Go build something majestic.  Want to know how to build a real trebuchet?  Leave a comment, I'll tell you how it's done.  Then do the ballista with flaming arrows.  Some dad around here knows how to craft a bitching robot that throws marshmallows.  Go find that guy and ask them if it's cool to light the marshmallows on fire. 

Reading time--you ever go to the library and find yourself the only man there?  Embrace that shit.  And I don't mean in a Homer Simpson bumbling way.  You know what you are doing, fucking have confidence in it.  Maybe your kid likes reading about purple dinosaurs, fine, cool.  But maybe your 6-month-old also wants to listen to you read a book about the dangers of the Galactic Empire and the importance of Do or Do Not.  Grab that book, be that guy.  That means that you are going to spend a whole lot of time alone.  It's cool, I love you, you do you.

Cleaning--a shop vac is better than a regular vacuum cleaner.  "But those belong in a garage," people will say.  Bullshit.  Those belong near the dining room table next to the entire box of cereal that your kid has just dumped over.  Get a shop vac.  Let the kids decorate it and cover it with stickers.  Give it the name Mad Max and tell your daughter it's time to rev the engine.

Playground--if you are going to the mall playground, stop it.  Sorry man, I know it's easy but we all know that you are there because something is dying inside of you.  That's not you, that's not dad.  Sure, they are good for a quick adventure on a cold morning.  But what is going to happen is that you are going to be sitting there all alone. And a guy all alone is going to freak people out at those types of places.  I wish it wasn't true, but it is.  I know a guy that was yelled at this last summer because he did this.  He was just chilling, watching his daughter.  You know where it's cool to be alone and also won't shrivel your soul up?  Civil war museum.  Your kid doesn't care where you go.  They just want to be with you.  So take them to places you actually want to go to.  And that is not the mall.  Maybe it's a tour of the local major league baseball stadium.  Grow a pair, get it done.

"Oh, he's just a dad"--I swear to all that is holy if you hear this, you better correct that shit immediately.  Your kid shows up to preschool wearing a tutu with a clashing red top.  Fuck it, the kid wanted to wear a tutu with a red top.  Own that shit.  If it's a dad thing to let your kid be them, then be a fucking Dad.  Having a bad day and things not working out very well?  "Oh, he's just a dad," you might hear.  Speak up.  No, I'm not having a bad day because I'm a dad.  I'm having a bad day because the toddler doesn't want to eat vegetables and I'm parenting the shit out of this situation.

Don't wait to be invited--Look, it's your kid and no one else's.  If they need a bottle in the middle of the night, volunteer for that shit.  Feed your kid, watch some Star Trek while you do it.  Don't wait for someone to ask you, do it.  We, other dads, expect that shit out of you.  Don't be passive.  If your kid is screaming and someone (in-laws, looking at you) tries to take them out of your arms because "You're just a dad", then you put that kid in a football hold and don't give the ball up.  You have the ability to comfort your kid.  You know this, don't be pushed aside because you have a dick.

Teach your kid how to grill a steak.  Pretty self-explanatory there.

Diaper bags--none of us carry diaper bags.  Jesus Christ, stop calling it that.  We carry backpacks of awesome.  Most times that bag does have diapers and wipes. and sometimes that bag has duct tape and pliers.  Because we all know your kid is going to break shit and it's your job as dad to fix it.  Carry the tools to do it.  And for the love of all that is holy, your bag should never be "mauve, maroon, or burgundy."  It's either green, red or a different red and the color completely doesn't matter.  What matters is if it has a cooler section for breast milk and beer.  Go to the camping section of your local store and gear up.

It is not considered special or sweet that we hug our kid or take them places.  I hear it all the time.  Look at that dad, he's such a good dad for spending time with his kid.  No, I'm not a good dad for being with my kid.  He's my kid, why wouldn't I want to be with her?  No one else is going to teach her to put her thumb on the outside when she punches so she won't break it.  I'm not a good dad, I'm just a dad.  And dad's love to hug their kids.  Don't let other people hold us to lower standards than Mom's hold to themselves.  If it is unusual for a dad to spend time with their kid, well, that's fucked up.

Acknowledge and embrace the fear--We are going to have some bad days.  And some bad days turn into bad weeks.  Then that shit gets in our head.  We start to wonder if we are good enough, that maybe we suck balls.  Hello to depression and a feeling of poor self-worth.  You don't have to face any of that shit with a stoic outer appearance.  It's ok to feel less than awesome sometimes and it's ok to talk about it.  I know that dads are supposed to be these rocks that aren't afraid of anything.  But you know what, sometimes when I hear a weird noise downstairs, it freaks me out too.  I make the dog come with me because he's way braver than me.  And it's ok to let your wife or your kid know that sometimes your head gets a little messed up.  We aren't John Wayne.  John Wayne wasn't even John Wayne and it's ok to talk about it.

Finally, and I swear I'll never write an advice post again, have some confidence in yourself.  Being different does not mean being worse.  Don't worry about the perceptions out there, I know that it can be tough.  This is not a competition and we don't have to do things because that's how it has been done.  Don't care.  Be a dad, be the guy you would want to hang out with.   Don't get sidelined, don't get caught up in expectations.

Because the only person's opinion that should matter to you is that little two-foot individual that sits in your lap and occasionally hits you in the balls.  Take care of that person and the rest of the world will fade away.


How To Pet A Spider

"Do you want us to take Elvira out o the cage so you can get a better look at her," the Spider Wrangler asks me. 

"Uh, hell yes I do!" I say.  Because honestly, who doesn't want to get a better look at a giant tarantula?  Actually, no I don't but I can't back down in front of the Wrangler, can I?  That wouldn't be very manly, not manly at all.

But as she gets the tarantula out of its cage/evil lair, I start to question a couple of things.  Do I really care if I look manly in front of a random stranger at this new nature center?  Why the hell does this matter to me?  It doesn't matter to Bacon Hoss, my four-year-old.  As soon as the spider cage is open, he yelps and then buries his head in the back of my knee, his little hands clenching parts of my blue jeans. 

The lady in front of me, who seems like she has no fear, starts to try and coax the spider out. 

"Come on, Elvira.  Come on out," she says.  She clicks her tongue like she is calling a dog or a pig on the farm.  I begin to question her qualifications.  Is she really a spider wrangler, is that a thing?  I assume it is but I'm not sure the one in front of me is part of the guild.  I haven't seen any paperwork nor any kind of official badge.  Something gold plated with her name on it would be nice, just to put everyone at ease here.  Is her only qualification for handling this little gem of nightmare fuel is that she isn't dead yet and hanging from the rafters in a cocoon? 

"So, it's a she?" I ask, mostly to break the tension and to remind my self to breath. 

"Yup!" the Spider Wrangler says. 

"Does she bite?"  There you go, probably a question I should have asked before I agreed to this.  I try and be polite about it, I really don't want the Wrangler freaking out here as the spider approaches her hand. 

"Oh, of course not.  She's gentle," the Wrangler says.  I notice that she's wearing a glove as the tarantula climbs from the cage. 

Bacon Hoss digs his face deeper into my knee as the spider climbs aboard.  I stop breathing myself, make no sound what so ever.  The thought of spooking the Wrangler sends shivers down my neck.  What if she gets freaked out and accidentally throws the spider at my face?  I bunch my fist as I think of this, fully prepared to come out swinging at myself if anything goes wrong. 

Elvira makes the transition to the Wrangler's hand. The wrangler stands a little straighter now and takes a step towards me.  I should punch the spider now.  Suddenly, I'm a very big believer in pre-emptive strikes. 

The tarantula doesn't jump.  Its mouth seems to be working overtime.  Is this the tarantula equivalent of licking its lips?  It's 8 legs (I did indeed count) shuffle a bit forward, but slowly.  The Wrangler still seems to be in good spirits as she comes even closer.   It is possible that the tarantula has sucked out her soul before I got here and now she only does Elvira's bidding? "Bring me closer to the fresh meat, Wrangler!  YESSSSSSS, CLOSSSERRRRR."  I know spider's don't hiss, I get that.  But it's what is in my head as the wrangler brings the tarantula up closer to my face so I can get a better look at it. 

I close my eyes. 

"Oh, she's nothing to be afraid of," Says the Wrangler. 

Bacon Hoss takes off.  I can feel him let go, he squeals as he runs back towards the bunny cages.  The nice safe bunnies.  I should follow him but I'm of the mindset of "NO Sudden Movements!" 

I open my eyes and look at Elvira.  I learn a very weird lesson.  Tarantulas grow 12 sizes the minute they get out of the cage.  Who knew, right?  In the cage, Elvira seemed very small, no bigger really than Bacon's little hand.  Outside the cage, and a foot from my face, she looks about the size of a dump truck.  A dump truck with mandibles that want to rip my lips off.  I breathe and see the hairs on the spider's legs bend back in the breeze. 

"Do you want to pet her?" the Wrangler asks me. 

"Hell yes, I do!" I say.  I want to punch my own self in the throat, blocking those stupid vocal chords from speaking any more.  That is not what is on my mind, not at all.  Do I want to pet satan's pet?  Fuck no, I don't.  But I don't say that.  Is this that macho thing welling up in me again?  Motherfuck, I hate that.  It can't be suppressed though, it's too ingrained, a natural mechanism that I'm sure has gotten plenty of cavemen killed through our evolution.  Why it remains, I have no idea. 

I reach out my ungloved hand.  Moving the speed of a glacier, I put one finger forward.  The payoff, the moment.  I either make friends with the beast or it rips me apart like I'm in some sort of John Carpenter movie. 

I touch the abdomen, and I swear to all that is holy, it looks like it was pulsating.  Elvira goes still.  No turning back now.  I stroke her and whisper "Good, Elvira.  Aren't you a pretty girl.  Human meat tastes sour, doesn't it?  Good, Elvira."

She's softer than I would have imagined.  The hairs are a bit prickly, but once you stroke they go a bit flat.  If I closed my eyes and go to my happy place, I could imagine that I was petting a docile garbage disposal.  But honestly, it's actually a bit pleasant.  I wonder if tarantulas purr? 

I take my hand back, again slowly.  The fear has been faced, I thank my ancestors for their macho bravery, forcing me to do something that I didn't want to do. 

"Thank you," I say.  I also figure it's a good idea to be very polite to the lady that is holding the giant spider.  "I really appreciate it."  I smile, no threats here.  I'm a good boy. 

"You're welcome," The Wrangler says.  She steps away and puts Elvira back in her cage.  I head to the bunny cage to collect my boy.  He's probably freaked out and I need to show him that dad isn't cocooned.  I text Hossmom as I walk.

"Guess what we just did..." I text Hossmom.

"What?" She responds. 

"We got to pet a tarantula!" I text back. 

"Don't come home.  Getting divorced."

Hossmom is not a big fan of spiders.  So I make sure I send her a picture that I took of Elvira, out of her cage. 

I still believe that I can hear my wife scream 40 miles away. 


Jennifer, Jason and Dumpling

Call me Jennifer.  That's the name that is on my ticket.  Jennifer.  For tonight and tonight only, I will gladly be Jennifer.  If this is what it takes to get me into the fundraiser for the local library, then Jennifer suits me just fine.  There's free food in here!

As a Jennifer, I look way more manly than I think normal Jennifer does.   My beard is a dead give away.   My date, Jason, doesn't seem to mind at all though.  Oh, his real name isn't Jason either.  It was what was printed on his ticket.  And according to those tickets, I'm his girlfriend.  Free food is an easy way to get to a man's heart named Jennifer.  

I take a bite of my free bruschetta thingy, I've had like 12.  I wash it down with a free local beer.  The judges are tallying up the votes and I'm passing the time by stuffing my face.  Later, after the trivia contest is over, I'll mosey on over to the free BBQ booth.  It's near the children's section for some reason.  

"We have a tie!" one of the judges say.  Cool, whatevs.  Let's hurry up and announce the winner because I'm worried that the fudge booth will be out of brownies by the time we get there.  Jason is a cheap date but at least he takes me to nice places.  When he asked me to come, with a free ticket, I was pretty excited.  When he told me about the food and beer, I would have slept with him right then and there.  Turns out Jennifer is easy. 

"P.T. has a total of 12 points," the judge says.  I look over at the table where Team P.T. sits.  Distinguished and regal comes to mind.  Two men, Two ladies, a whole lot of black formal wear between them.  They laugh and give awkward high-fives--the kind that people over 50 give.  It's like their trademark.  I'm still in my young 40's so I've got plenty of time to practice the missed high-five that turns into an awkward handshake.  I'll get it down eventually and be ready to use it after I visit accountants on the weekends because that's what it looks like these people do.  

"They are tied with Anyonomous Nerds!"  

Woah.  Now this shit just got real. 

Jason and I are Team Nerds.  Holy crap, we are in a tie for first place.  I almost choke on a cracker thing when I heard our team name called.  

I didn't think we would make it this far in the trivia contest.  There were two rounds, eight questions each.  Some of the questions were easy:  What Star Trek actor hosts reading rainbow?  Jordy, of course!  What is this sequence of numbers called:  0, 1, 1,2,3,5,8...?  That one I knew, thank you very much Da Vinci Code.  It was the only literary question that I was able to get tonight.  If it's popular book over the last ten years, I've got a pretty good chance of at least a solid guess.  

Jason handled the other areas.  A book cover came on the large screen in front of our table.  There were no words.  A weird looking horse in red and white.  I had no idea which book this was from.  Jason did though.  

"Catcher in the Rye," he said.  Jason is a literary bastard.  His Achilles heel though is recent popular fiction.  The man hasn't read Harry Potter yet.  When I tease him about it at writer's group, he keeps promising me that he will eventually get to it.  It's an empty promise but I nod because I like to keep the joke going.  I know he'll eventually read it and then talk about the "prose" for 20 minutes while ignoring the fact that the Dursley's are complete assholes.  He writes beautifully though, words weaving stories with sub-text intertwined with sub-plots.  

I've learned a lot from him over the last 8 months.  That and he apparently can get tickets to a free swank fundraiser.  

"We will now have a final round with just the two teams," the judge squawks over the loudspeaker.  I study our competition a bit more closely now  

I'm betting that we have at least one banker in that group of four.  Maybe the balding guy.  His suit looks tailored and his tie knot appears intentional.  His wife is probably not his wife at all.  A mistress for sure with a guy like that.  He has no morals, probably has a steak dinner while foreclosing on someone's family farm.  

His buddy, the trim guy with freshly cut gray hair, is smiling like he just ate some of that bruschetta.  I can forgive him for that, the bruschetta was fucking good.  But there is something behind that smile that I can't quite place yet.  Perhaps a proclivity toward Satan worshiping?  He has a goatee, it's certainly plausible.  Which would make his date, some woman in a black strapless hoochie mama dress, the supreme grand sorcerous to their cult.  I'm betting she calls all the shots in the group.  Her eyes are stern and focused, seeming to cow the others.   

Four of them, two of us.  Jason and I lack their experience.  Both in our early 40's, we haven't become bankers and manipulators of global interests just yet.  We write.  That's what we do.  We don't have time for nefarious plots (writer's joke, sorry).  They out number us.  Shit, I really want first prize now.  Victory goes well with locally sourced cheese curds--found by the adult fiction section.  

First prize is a book, which isn't surprising since this is a fundraiser for a library.  But the books are signed.  I want a signed book.  I'm an author, I deserve a signed book.  It's like getting your first forclosed farm as a banker.  You tend to cheerish those things.  But we are out numbered and out gunned.  

"The final catagory will be book titles, with bonus points for the author," the judge says.  

I want to stand back from my table and throw my hands up in victory.  Book titles!  I've got Jason!  Fuck yeah, book titles!  This is over, cash in your 401(k) and your golden parachute Team P.T.  We are going to take this home.  

"And they will be written in emojis!"

That sick fuck.  

Son of a bitch.  So close, so very close!  I'm a middle aged man.  I understand emojis as some sort of cyrillic language written by Eastern monks.  I want to call Vivi, my 11-year-old daughter.  She practices in emoji speak like a painter works in oils.  But I can't, it's cheating and I'm not ready to become part of Team P.T. just yet.  They are probably calling up interns to begin research because you know cheating at a trivia game is easy for people that suck the life force out of nuns.  Fucking emojis.  So close.  

The screen goes black, there is a beat before anything happens  40 people look forward, waiting for the final five questions to pop up on the board.  One of the librarians mumbles under his breath as the technology seems too great for him.  This is the guy that picked the emojis.  We are doomed. 

The screen flashes white and then the questions come up.  Immediatly, I know that we are lost.  

Who knew that Freddie Mecury could be an emoji?  But more importantly, what the hell does Freddy Mecury have to do with a title?  He's followed by dead looking face, stars, and ant.  Then some sort of bug again.  

The whole list is like this.  I go from one to the another, starting by going top down.  Once I confirm that I don't know what any of these emojis mean, I start bouncing around.  I'm willing myself to understand.  I'm thinking of my daughter, my sweet girl.  She would know what these mean.  She texts me all the time in emoji speak and I have to tell her to knock it off because Dad can't understand her.  

Jason is deep in thought.  Not breathing, concentrating.  His face seems blank for a second, then his forehead creases like he's got something.  It goes smooth again when he discoves that he does not.  

Team P.T. is starting to write on their slip of white paper now.  Long nailed hands scribble, laughing that shrivels angel's wings, heated whipsers planning our downfall.  

God damnit.  I want a signed book.

"A Clockwork Orange," Jason says.  I look over at him.  "Number four, A Clockwork Orange."

He's right.  There is an alarm clock and then something that I thought was a peach.  He's right though.  Now that I see it, I can't unsee it.  

"Do you know who wrote it?" I ask him.  I don't know why I asked, of course he knows who wrote it.  He's Jason.  

Somehow the dam breaks.  Jason is off and running.  I'm cheering him from the side.  I'm trying not to distract him but I may mention the stakes that these emojis now have.  We either go home winners or Team Evil sacrifices a bus full of babies. No pressure.  

Jason writes fast, the pen leaving deep indentations on the paper.  A part of the paper tears where he was writing to hard.  He doesn't slow down.  

  I don't know how but he is reading emoji speak like a teen girl breaking up with her boyfriend.  Title after title comes.  He pauses once to remember who wrote a book, remembers and starts to scratch the page again.  

He gets to Freddie Mecury.  

"Metamorphisis," he says.  The title of the book is Metamorphisis.  How the hell he got that out of Freddie and an Ant, I have no idea.  "Kafka. Kafka wrote that."

And then it is over.  

The judges don't announce the final score because I imagine it wasn't close and he doens't want to upset his evil overlords.  Jason and Jennifer, the Anyomous Nerds, go to the front to collect our prize.  There is applause but it's muted like these poeple are afraid to show favor to the underdogs in front of Team P.T.  I don't care, I'm going to get a book.  

On the table is the book "All The Light We Cannot See."  It's been on my list for a while.  But next to it, a little pushed back is another one.  A black cover, a woman on the front in a red dress  The YA novel Dumpling.  The kind of book that my daughter would love.  It's signed by the author Julie Murphy.  I barely think it over before I grab the book and run away before Team P.T. gets some literay thugs dressed in tweed jackets to rip it out of my hand.  I'm just kidding, I would destroy guys like that.  Jennifer can throw a punch. 

At home, I give the book to Vivi.  I show her where it's signed.  She jumps up and down, she twirls and falls over the dog.  She tears up a little bit.  Vivi tells me that she is going to take it to school to show all her friends.  After that, she wants to visit her writing teacher so she can show her very own author signed book.  

Sometimes being a hero means just hanging out with the right people.  I don't have a copy of a signed book myself.   Instead, I have a duaghter that thinks that Daddy and his friends are awesome.  That's a feather in my cap that says something way better about my qualifications than a dusty book.   


We Are Going To Be Late

8:55am.  We are going to be late. 

Out of bed.  Get dressed, go quickly, scream while I head downstairs.  Where are the kids?  Why aren't they answering me?  The dog decides that this is a perfect time to stick his nose in my butt.  I'm wearing yesterdays shorts, he appears to like my musk. 

At the bottom of the stairs, I see the children.  Two of them are on the couch.  Neither one is dressed.  The toddler plays with a Barbie at the breakfast table, dipping her hair into a bowl of cereal milk.  Cartoons are on, loud and obnoxious, an ear-splitting car wreck that has their undivided attention.

"What the hell!" I say.  "We are going to be late for school!"

"What school?" Wyatt says, my 10-year-old boy.  "We don't have school today." 

The kid is bright but clueless at the same time.  Last week we had to discuss what the term "Kafkaesque" meant.  He came across it while watching one of his science videos.  However, he doesn't seem to know his days of the week.  I'm hoping that he is a forgetful genius, a nutty professor that will one day invent flubber. 

"It's Tuesday!  Saturday?  We just had the weekend.  It's Tuesday!"

The kids don't move.  Ollie, the four-year-old at the table, has moved on from Barbie and is now just sticking his whole face into the cereal bowl.  He's trying to drink the milk like our cat. 

"Move!"  I give the command like a general, one that has slept late and is going to miss the offensive that starts in five minutes. 

The kids don't move.

"Move!"  I say again.  We need to have some time this evening so that I can fully discuss listening.  The cartoons on the TV switch to a commercial. 

Now the kids jump up.  They run upstairs, taking the time to push each other over by the third stair.  Someone crashes into a wall, a picture frame tumbles from it and the woman on the TV is telling me about ABC Mouse. 

In the kitchen, I grab the lunch boxes.  I start throwing pre-made snacks and chips in.  Two bologna sandwiches.  For some reason, I place the bread in a sandwich bag, zip it up and throw it in next to the juice boxes.  Then I take the bologna and put it in its own sandwich bag.  It is lost on me why I did this instead of just making the sandwich.  No time to think, we must react.  The clock says 9:05.  Shit.  We're already late.  The bus has come and gone. 

"Ollie!  Get down and get your shoes on," I tell my toddler.  He doesn't have to get dressed.  He can roll the whole day in pajamas.  He stays home with me, we can look like crap when we need to.  Today, apparently, we need to.  The older kids come down the stairs. 

"Why did you let me sleep in?" I ask them.  It's a fools question that is asked only to make myself feel better.  They aren't responsible for me getting up.  I'm responsible for them.  But this way I get to deflect my blame.  Let's call it payback for a 1000 nutshots over the years.  They can take a little bit of this blame for me. 

"We didn't know," Vivi says.  11 and she pleads ignorance of the law as an excuse, puts the blame back on me.  "Why didn't you get up?"

"Had a late night, had to work," I tell them.

"Dad, you don't work.  You stay home with us."

"I binge watched a show on Netflix," I say, giving the truthful answer. 

We hammer the kids on honesty, lecture about it often, rarely practice it ourselves.  Little white lies get called out constantly.  How come you and mommy sent us to bed early?  To have alone time (sex).  Where is the dog?  He went to the farm (he's dead).  Where do babies come from?  From alone time (unprotected sex).

  They are right, I am wrong and we are also late. 

Lunches packed, I throw them at the children's heads.  Backpacks get things stuffed in, jackets get put on, I grab the toddler.  Ollie screams as I yank him from his chair.  He was dipping his fingers into his milk and using that to paint some sort of picture on the table.  His masterpiece wasn't finished.  Don't care, got to get to school. 

In the car, everyone gets buckled up.  Hurry.  Stop fighting  Stop pushing.  Stop screaming.  One of the children throws something at one of the other children.  One of the boys fart.  They all laugh.  I pull out of the driveway like I'm the coach master of the insane wagon.  The laughter sounds maniacal, sharp and unhinged. 

School is less than three minutes away.  The morning radio lets me know about politics--someone said something stupid.  My toddler says that later today he is going to fart on his brother's pillow while they are at school.  The next election I decide that I'm going to vote for him rather than any candidate. 

9:20 and we pull up to school.  Vivi and Wyatt jump out, I unbuckle the toddler from the car seat and put him on the ground.  He's not wearing any shoes.  We run up to the front door and ring the bell.  The school stays locked during the day now, a defense against possible crazy people.  I look up to the security camera above the door and realize what I look like now.  My shirt's on backward.  I am a forgetful genius like my son. 

The school lets us in, double doors lead to the office. 

"Hi!" Donna says from behind her desk.  I refuse to look at my reflection in her glasses.  She is the friendly gatekeeper and I know what she is going to ask next.  She hands me a pen and a clipboard so that I can sign the children in.

"And why are we late this morning?" Donna asks. 

"Doctors appointment," I say hoping that she doesn't notice the no shoe wearing toddler and my backward shirt.  I also notice that it's inside out. 

"Dad..." Wyatt says. 

Shit.  He's calling me out.  Right here in front of Donna.  Donna used to like me.   I hate that my son is right.  Make a mistake, own up to it. 

"Dad.  Dad is the reason we are late," I tell the gatekeeper.

Donna makes a clucking noise behind her smile.  I hate that I'm being seen as a bumbling father.  I'm not.  Usually, I have my shit together.  Stupid Netflix. 

"Oh, we all have bad days sometimes," Donna says, letting me off the hook.  I kiss the kids, tell them to have a great day, give them hugs.

And notice that neither one of them has their backpacks.   


Sharks Inside Volcanos

Sharks can live inside volcanos.  It's true.  I read the paper online.  Everything posted online is true.  Scientists have found a shark living inside an underwater volcano.  This is it.  This is how the world ends.  Good.  

3 am and I can't sleep.  Too much is on my mind.  Fatherly stuff, stuff that makes you lay awake and plot revenge.  Justice.  The world needs more justice.  My wife, daughter and two sons are asleep.  The dog is heavy on my feet.  My eyes are closed but I can't get there, to dreamland.  Dad's got heavy dad things on his mind.  I'm not all jokes and good times.  Sometimes, when the kids are asleep and my wife is snoring, I'm wide awake.  

My daughter is a reader.  If she doesn't have a book in her hand, even for a two-minute drive to the grocery store, I wonder if she is sick.  She reads way above her grade level.  It's freaky and I have to read a lot of things with her so that we can talk about what she is seeing.  YA novels.  So many YA novels.  I could use them as stepping stones in the backyard, we have so many.  

Do you know what YA novels have in them?  Jackass love interests.  Jerks and peckerheads that treat the main female character like shit.  Oh, she's so mad at that boy.  He's so rude!  But ya know what, she loves him.  Yup, there it fucking is.  The main character will eventually love him.  Every fucking single time.  It's ok though, the main character can change him!  He's not really a bad guy, no really.  He just needs someone who can understand him.  If she is determined enough, her attention will teach him that being shitty to her is a bad thing.  Then he will love her.  What the Jesus fuck.  Seriously.  I have to give her a lecture every day to let her know that if a boy is a dick, he will always be a dick.  The real world doesn't work that way.  If the demon vampire goes to your school, he's not going to be all shiny and love you oh so much Bella!  No, he's going to want to suck your blood.  I've lectured my niece on this as well.  

I talked to my wife tonight.  The "me too" conversation that is going around twitter and the internet.  I've been with my wife since she was 18.  22 years of being by her side.  When I asked her, she said "Well, nothing physical, but in college...."  Jesus fucking Christ.  How did I not know about this, about what she has to go through?  The demeaning comments.  The "because you're a girl," bosses have said to her over the years.  

I demanded names.  I want to make a list.  How many fists of justice can I dole out throughout the day?  Can I track someone down from 20 years ago?  I bet I can.  Who fucking catcalls?  Seriously?  I don't even need a name.  I can just follow behind my wife when she walks downtown.  I'll take notes.  Give her a kiss on the cheek when I hear it, then go do the justice thing.  I tell my wife this.  

"You know you can tell me anything, right?" I say. 
"Of course," she says and rolls her eyes.  
"Look, I'm a big guy.  And it's all yours.  Every stitch of it.  Yours.  Just say the word and things can happen.  That's all I'm saying."  
She snorts at my bravado but it's all I got.  It's the only thing I know how to do.  

I'm an ex-football player.  Sure, not in shape anymore but a lot of that strength remains.  It's all right here.  And, not to be humble here, I can take a punch.  Never, not once in my life, have I felt attacked or demeaned like my wife has felt.  I have never felt belittled.  It's rare that I was even challenged.  I suppose as kids but then my brother and I would go and have us a good old-fashioned fistfight.  Good times.  I miss my brother.  He's got a wife and daughter, we should talk more often.  

And as I lie here, wide fucking awake, thinking about my wife and daughter, I can't forget about my sons.  Two of them.  10 and 4.  Little guys.  And what makes me worry, what puts that ball of tension in my chest, is that I know exactly what they will have to go through.  

Competition.  Day in and day out competition.  Can't be helped, it will always be there.  Subtle things, peer pressure things.  Things that will be in their own heads.  Little boys are constantly one-upping each other.  I can go faster, I can hit harder, I can jump further.  I dare you  I double dog dare you.  I'm tougher than you are.  It doesn't stop when you become an adult.  For a while there, in your twenties, it gets worse.  I have no idea why.  Then your own thoughts come in.  Am I good enough, am I tough enough? 

Don't cry.  Only the weak cry.  Stay level-headed in a crisis.  Don't panic.  Sissies panic.  Are you a sissy?  Control your emotions, can't let them get out of control.  Don't disappoint dad.  Be like dad.  But what if I'm not as tough as dad?  What if dad is cross with me, have I failed dad?  That's the rub, that's the one that is the hardest to deal with.  Dad always loves you, without fail or condition.  You are always tough enough for dad.  But in your own head, as a young boy, you never think so.  I didn't.  I think being 10 is exhausting.  

So I can't sleep.  I can't sleep because I know that there is not a whole lot I can do.  It's a thought that is defeating.  My one job, my one real job, is to shield them all from the shit in the world.  To right the wrongs, to protect them from those things out in the shitty world.  To confront those thoughts that they might have.  To get into their heads to make sure that it doesn't lead them down the wrong path, make them jaded and lie awake at night.  My job is to take on the world.  

And I can't. As big as I am, as strong as I am, as tough as I am--it's not enough.   

I can teach.  I can read the YA books with my daughter.  I can reassure my sons that dad always has their back.  I can teach all of them that confidence is your shield and that Dad is never disappointed in you.  And I can hug my wife, keep things away.  Sometimes.  Not all the time.  Because the bottom line truth is that Dad can't fight all their battles for them.  My wife knows this.  She's the beacon of strength that I hope my children see.  I want to fight all their battles for them.  I can't.  They have to.  I can be in their corner, I can cheer them on.  But I can't fight them.  Now I feel powerless, and perhaps for the first time, I can really feel like they all do sometimes.  

That's why you find yourself in the middle of the night worried about all of them.  A father's worry, deep and gnawing.  

This is how you find yourself rooting for the sharks in the volcanos.