Pass the Rice-a-Roni

Recently, I had the opportunity to take a grant-funded trip to an educator’s conference in San Francisco, California. Usually when I attend a teacher’s conference, I’m lucky if I make it to a locale where dipping snuff and pecan logs aren’t the bedrocks of the local economy. But this time, I’d be visiting the home of the Golden Gate Bridge, Alcatraz, and, most importantly, Rice-a-Roni!

My initial impression of San Francisco, though, didn’t quite live up to my expectations. Upon arrival, I wasn’t greeted by a single 49er cheerleader offering me a heaping bowl of “The San Francisco Treat.” Instead, I was astonished at the vast numbers of apparently homeless people I saw shuffling up and down the sidewalks. Many were hunched over with expressions of despair and hopelessness, and some of them were clearly mentally ill. When I asked the Uber driver about these folks, he assured me that they were just other teachers headed to the conference.

The conference hotel was immense, and the entire population of the city seemed to be in line to check in. It was worse than the checkout at Walmart on Christmas Eve – or a Monday. A hotel porter was rewarding our patience by force-feeding us squares of Ghirardelli’s chocolate while we waited. Apparently, Ghirardelli’s is the only candy allowed in the city limits. (In times of drought, I think they melt it down and use it for tap water.) I didn’t have the heart to tell the porter that I’d just as soon have a Snickers, but that’s what happens to your tastes when you constantly raid your kids’ six-month-old Halloween treats and blame it on your wife.

Speaking of eating, I have to say that the most disappointing aspect of my visit were my restaurant choices. Every meal I had in San Francisco was in a perfect geometric shape, was garnished with lawn clippings and could be eaten in one bite. It was like being served a miniature sculpture in the postmodern style. Now don’t get me wrong; I like art as much as the next victim of starvation, but it’s hard to dip the Mona Lisa in hot sauce (and I was almost as thrilled about it as she looks). No wonder everyone in California looks like they’re either training for a triathlon or preparing to audition for the starring role in the remake of “Gandhi.” Most restaurants did serve complimentary sourdough bread and butter, but what they call bread at these establishments could double for small shot put filled with rubber. As a result, I usually only managed to eat three baskets, or so. At one point I grew desperate enough to ask the hotel concierge for directions to the nearest catfish buffet. (I’m hoping that the Hilton Corporation will eventually lift the restraining order.)

The highlight of the trip was a short post-conference ferry cruise on San Francisco Bay to see the famous Golden Gate Bridge and Alcatraz Island-because who doesn’t long to enjoy relaxing views of sites associated with numerous suicides and brutal incarcerations? On the way out of Pier 39, we passed a massive colony of sea lions sunning themselves on docks. They looked fat and happy, and I wondered where they had found something decent to eat. Out on the water, the views of the city and the famous landmarks were impressive. I only wish that the frigid temperatures combined with the winds weren’t making my face and lips feel like I had just made out with a belt sander. For some reason, I had the idea that “sunny California” was full of blonde girls on the beach in bikinis. With the weather in San Francisco, though, the closest I came to seeing this was a particularly svelte sea lion in the process of molting.

Overall, I must admit that I truly appreciated experiencing a new city and gaining some valuable professional development. The time spent embarrassing my colleagues and challenging my culinary boundaries was enriching and fun. I’m still disappointed that I didn’t see a single grain of Rice-a-Roni on my trip, but I know that every time I have a serving back home in East Texas, I’ll be enjoying memories of “The City by the Bay,” even if I do have a pecan log for dessert.

Doo the Zoo

During Spring Break, it’s traditional that along with sleeping through at least two mealtimes per day (my revolutionary dieting strategy), our family takes our yearly trip to the Exotic Animal Poo Encounter, otherwise known as the local Zoo. (I’m sure by now we’ve paid enough zoo admission at this place to purchase a family of rhinos, or at least pay the salary of the guy who hoses out their pen.) This year was no different, despite my suggestion to our three daughters that it would be just as much fun to go see the aquarium fish at Walmart-and some of them might actually be alive this time.

When we visit the zoo, I always insist that we arrive right when they open in order to avoid the onslaught of daycare centers and families consisting of at least twelve unruly children. The chorus of urchins screaming out animal noises and bludgeoning each other with rolled up zoo maps is almost unbearable (and that’s just my own family.)

This year, our zoo trip took place in the midst of our yearly East Texas spring cold snap, meaning it was below 96 degrees, so many of the animals were still indoors wrapped up in their Snuggies and watching reruns of Family Feud.  In fact, when we reached the elephant enclosure, we were greeted with a sign that indicated they only come outside when it’s over 50 degrees. (A similar sign now hangs on my bedroom door.)  Because I take advantage of educational opportunities like this, I explained to my kids that elephants are cold-blooded, like turtles and politicians, and that if they get too chilly, they won’t be able to fly with their ears.

Our next stop was my daughters’ favorite zoo exhibit, which is basically a giant chicken coop full of parakeets that were expelled from the pet store for completely ignoring all human beings, even the ones that repeatedly tap on the cage and shout, “Polly want a cracker?” at the tops of their lungs. Everyone knows that parakeets don’t eat crackers, except the ones topped with sour cream spinach dip. (I never was able to get one of my pet parakeets to live more than a couple of weeks, for some reason.)

Once you enter the bird zone, you are offered the opportunity to purchase five grains of bird seed stuck to a popsicle stick with Elmer’s Glue. This allows you to spend the next two hours standing with your stick up in the air like a cigarette lighter at a Journey concert during an endless rendition of “Open Arms.”  The goal is to tempt a parakeet to perch on your stick while you frantically yell at your wife to hurry up and take a photo before he finishes.  Typically, though, most of the parakeets sit just out of reach waiting for the perfect moment to fly overhead en masse and make you wish you had kept your mouth closed.

After rejecting my proposal that we should now go home and let the animals rest, my daughters were ready for the reptile house, a carpeted building where the lights are kept very dim to allow you a better view of the fingerprints and toddler smears on the protective glass. Other than squinting and straining to catch a glimpse of the rare and poisonous spot-bellied three-toed spitting dragon newt, which was apparently taking an extended smoking break in his hollow log, we spent most of our time waiting in line.  We were lucky enough to line up behind an extended family whose sixty-five children were all too short to see the animals without being lifted, one at a time, by their elderly grandmother–while the other six adults in their group leaned against the wall experimenting with Snapchat filters.  Thank goodness Granny had her walker and oxygen tank!

The grand finale of our zoo trip was a visit to the gift shop. Unfortunately, the only gifting that goes on in this place is exchanging my hard earned cash for some plastic junk and plush animals (because we only have enough of those to open our own outlet mall).  I always encourage my daughters to choose a souvenir to remind them of some of the animals they’ve seen, like note cards depicting parakeets, exotic reptiles, or bored teenagers with terrible posture.  Instead, our purchases this time included a pair of plastic binoculars, a bag of marbles, and a small box of painted rocks.  Oh, well, at least they only cost a month’s salary.

On our way to the exit, I stopped at my favorite zoo exhibit, the men’s room, which, ironically, was the best smelling part of the zoo I had experienced up to that point. While I was washing my hands and listening to the walkie-talkie of the zoo employee in a nearby stall bellow out something about a four-alarm pooper scooper emergency in the black bear enclosure, I thought about how much my daughters had grown since we first pushed them through the zoo in strollers. Someday I hope to continue this tradition as I watch my grandchildren gaze in wonderment at all of God’s marvelous creatures at the zoo, and I’ll be sure to bring my walker and oxygen tank.

When Mommy’s Gone

As my wife’s career continues to flourish and make me look even more dispensable, I often find myself at home with the kids while she’s travelling to exciting cosmopolitan locations on out-of-state business trips. If I travel for business, it’s almost always to a city within a 10 mile radius of a Buc-ee’s. (At least I know I can get to some jerky and a clean men’s room-usually in that order.)

When I’m left to care for the children for a few nights on my own, I’m always reminded of how little I contribute to the operation of the household while my wife is there.  Who knew kids needed to eat more than a couple of times a week and that Pop-Tarts didn’t cover their nutritional requirements?  I mean, I buy the kind with fruit filling!

On her most recent trip, I knew I was in trouble on our first morning without her.  When I wandered through the darkness of the living room on my way to wake the children and livestock, I discovered that our cat had tried to make me feel more needed by barfing on the carpet during the night.  Even worse, she had strategically placed her offering directly in my walking path.  On the bright side, there’s nothing like cold feline vomit between your toes at 6:00 AM to bring you fully awake.

My next act involved agreeing to let my youngest daughter have a Diet Dr. Pepper with her Pop-Tart for breakfast. (Don’t judge! Both of these products are made in the USA! America First!)  I had actually intended to offer her some yogurt, but on my recent trip to the Walmart Neighborhood Market (which is like a regular Walmart, but without the fertilizer and toilet seats), I purchased the strawberry cheesecake-flavor, instead of the cherry cheesecake-flavor.  How thoughtless of me!  Where do they come up with these flavors, anyway?  When I was a kid, yogurt came in one flavor-vanilla blech.

I was considerate enough to provide my daughter with an old plastic Olive Garden kid’s cup with a lid so her drink wouldn’t spill.  Unfortunately, the lid I chose was from an old plastic On the Border kid’s cup that didn’t fit the Olive Garden cup because, apparently, part of the strategic plan of these two franchises is to make my life difficult.  When I tried to force the wrong lid on the wrong cup, the dog enjoyed lapping up the Diet Dr. Pepper off the floor. (We’re hoping her fur returns to its natural color soon.)

The fun continued when I asked my eldest daughter to use the Keurig machine to fix my daily mug of hot tea. (No, I don’t drink coffee.  To me it tastes like stagnant water out of an old tire.  Don’t ask how I know.)  While she was hypnotically watching the tea pouring into the mug she was holding, I reached across her to get a bowl from the cabinet for my Cap’n Crunch and managed to push her arm just enough to shift the mug from under the stream of piping hot tea.  She then began hypnotically watching the hot tea pour onto the cabinet and then onto my bare foot, freshly sanitized from the pet sputum fiasco.  At that point, I lost it.  In an act of manly strength, I shoved the mug and the Keurig into the sink, breaking one of our few surviving drinking glasses actually made of glass in the process. Naturally, I blamed the entire incident on the children.

I then prepared the girls’ lunches in stoic silence, with only the maniacal laughter of SpongeBob SquarePants echoing through the kitchen (because I believe in starting the school day with educational television programming).  The lunches included mini-sandwiches made with King’s Hawaiian Rolls, that miraculous bread created by removing all of the nutritious ingredients and leaving only the delicious ones.  I was also feeling guilty for my tantrum, so I threw in a few miniature York Peppermint Patties-the only candy in the pantry that I don’t like.  As I lovingly handed the girls their lunch bags, they timidly informed me that they were having pizza at school that day.

Once I had finished sobbing over the lunches, we had piled into the car, and I had gone back in and out of the house two or three times for things I forgot (my keys, my wallet, my phone, and at least one child), I told the girls I was sorry for acting like their mother and throwing a fit.  Of course, they reminded me that “Mommy never acts that way-only you, Daddy,” and they told me it was ok-they understood how hard it was for me without an adult in the house to take care of us.  This made me feel even guiltier, so I suggested we say a prayer as we drove to the school.

As I prayed that everyone would have a good day and that the Lord would allow my kids to stop spilling stuff, my middle daughter interrupted to remind me to drive with my eyes opened.  She assured me that God wouldn’t mind if I didn’t kill us all.  I just hope He also understands that the next time my wife leaves for a business trip, we’re going with her-and bringing our Pop-Tarts with us.

Breaking the Mice

As spring approaches and my nightmares turn to yard work, I’m reminded of the time when my wife and I would start dusting off the bird feeders so that we could enjoy a few of God’s creatures that don’t poop on our floor when we welcome them to our home.  In the past, I would hang a feeder right outside our kitchen window so that we could see the beautiful variety of East Texas birds up close as they pecked at the bird seed and occasionally crashed into the window glass.  It was kind of like watching NASCAR-where you pretend to like the race itself but are really just waiting for a good wreck. 

The last time we displayed a feeder, I had just purchased an elaborate bird feeder gazebo.  It was a Trump Tower for birds, but without the barricades, film crews, or Kanye West.  The night after I had proudly installed the feeder, I was up late polishing off an entire sleeve of Girl Scout Cookies (because I’m all about supporting the community), and I happened to glance toward the kitchen window to see the new feeder gently swaying from side to side.  At first I assumed the wind was blowing, but then I noticed that something alive was actually on the feeder.  I excitedly thought it might be a kindred spirit of the bird world who stays up late raiding the pantry in his underwear.   Unfortunately, what I saw when I reached the window made the hair on my back stand on end.  The feeder was squirming with about six hundred mice.  It was like Black Friday when they open the doors at Wal-Mart and the crowds rush in for incredible sales on televisions and aerosol cheese product.

This could not stand!  I wasn’t about to let a gang of greedy rodents loot my bird feeder while I stood by and ate half a box of my kids’ favorite snacks.  Therefore, once I finished my milk and cookies, I sprang into action and devised a brilliant plan.  The first step of my strategy involved creeping undetected up to the feeder with a large trash bag to open and raise up from underneath, enclosing both the feeder and the mice in the bag.  The plan worked perfectly. I had the mice and the feeder in the bag, and I had only screamed like a little girl with an unusually high voice twice. 

Unfortunately, that was also the last step in my plan.  I didn’t want to throw out my bird feeder, so I had to figure out a way to separate the mice from the feeder and remove the feeder from the bag without the mice escaping justice.  Naturally, I headed for the garage to get a hammer from my tool box.  I had never actually used the hammer on a nail, or anything else (I think it was still in the package), but my dad would be proud that I was finally using one of the many tools he had purchased for me out of pity. 

The plan at this point was to shake the mice off of the feeder down into a corner of the bag and then put the hammer to good use.  Once I had a lump of mice bulging in the corner of the bag, I suddenly realized that in my mouse-squashing mania, I had forgotten to put on pants and was standing in my open garage in nothing but my boxer briefs, holding a hammer and trash bag, and sweating profusely.  (For some reason, Chippendales still hasn’t called.) 

To avoid scandalizing the neighborhood and possibly being arrested, I shut the garage doors.  I then knelt down with my hammer, closed my eyes, prayed that the Lord would have mercy on their little vermin souls, and swung away.  This is the point when I realized that the “extra-strength” designation on household trash bags does not cover pulverizing a wad of mice with a claw hammer.  To my horror, on my first blow (which missed my target entirely), a massive hole opened up in the bag, and a stream of mice began leaping out into the garage.  At least two used me as a flabby aircraft escape slide as they scurried up my arm and down my back on their way to freedom.  Throwing caution (and suitable attire) to the wind, I raised the garage door and spent the next hour frantically running around half-nude between our cars herding out mice with an old broom.  If I weren’t in East Texas, this might have seemed really weird and embarrassing. 

These days, my prized bird feeder sits dusty and unused (along with my hammer) in my storage building, and I’m sure I’ve become the butt of jokes in mouse communities all over the Ark-La-Tex.  I’m actually kind of glad they all got away to live their lives in the splendor of nature-to be eaten by savage predators.  I just hope the birds understand that that the next time I’m tempted to hang a feeder, I think I’ll sit down for a NASCAR race and some aerosol cheese product, instead.


Victoria’s Worst-Kept Secret

As Valentine’s Day approached this year, I was at a loss regarding how to surprise my eternally patient and positive wife of twenty-six  years with a gift that would truly show my love and appreciation to her for not smothering me in my sleep or encouraging me to overdose on chips and salsa long ago.  My daughters had presented their Valentine’s wish lists (yes, wish lists) shortly after Christmas, so I had already financed their gifts. But my wife (who never asks for anything other than that I avoid playing with that app on my phone that makes 500 different bodily noises-in church) was a harder nut to crack-an ironic metaphor coming from me, I know.

Then the clouds parted when I checked the mail recently to find, addressed to me, a special offer from Victoria’s Secret. Aha! I had done a little online shopping with this establishment before, and now my creepiness was being rewarded with a coupon for free underwear.  When I first heard about Victoria’s Secret, I assumed the business was named after the legendary 19th-century English monarch, but once I realized what they sold, I knew I was wrong.  Based on the historic images of Queen Victoria I’ve seen, she would  have more likely done her shopping for the royal unmentionables at Sears-in the hardware section.  Whoever this Victoria was, I owed her one for keeping her secret between us as I did my online shopping in the semi-privacy my own bathroom (semi-privacy because I rarely manage to get the door shut and locked without interference from at least one child or pet.)

My internal rejoicing over my coupon was suddenly interrupted, however, when I read the horrifying phrase in fine print, “In-store only.”  I didn’t even think men were allowed in that place.  In fact, whenever I go the mall, I risk contact with the mall kiosk salespeople selling bespangled phone cases, Turkish beauty cream, and Dippin’ Dots as I veer away and avert my eyes from the Victoria’s Secret entrance, festooned with mannequins who forgot to put on their pants.  This time, though, I was determined I wouldn’t let my self-respect keep me from making a romantic gesture at a discount.

As I entered the store, my mind was racing with “what if’s.” What if one of my college students sees me?  What will they think, and how will it affect my instructor evaluations? “Well, Mr. Graves teaches a great lesson on Cavalier poetry, even if he is a creepy weirdo who snoops around in the clearance bras.”  Worse yet, what if someone from church sees me?  Would it endanger my third-grade Sunday School teaching position?  Would I be relegated to boy’s bathroom monitor or parking lot duty in the senior adult area?

Pushing these thoughts aside, I pressed on to find the items pictured on my coupon.  Apparently, underwear at Victoria’s Secret is categorized according to how much of it is missing.  At any moment, I expected to see a table display with nothing but spools of thread.  When I finally found something I could identify as human garments, I then had to find the correct size, which involved rifling though storage bins below the display table and constantly looking over my shoulder like some kind of maniac to see if anyone was watching.  Sure enough, it didn’t take long for a sales associate (wearing all black-presumably for my funeral) to show up and ask, “May I help you, sir?” just loudly enough for mall security to hear.   I had no choice but to be completely honest, so I told her I was looking for house slippers and socks, to which she replied at full volume, “You’re in the wrong drawer.  Those are the cheekies.”

Once I had finally made my selections with the help of the panty police and was making my way to check out, I did notice a few other men in the store with their wives.  One appeared to be examining a hairline seam in the wallpaper while his wife browsed through the hiphuggers, and another was counting ceiling tiles while his wife demanded that he smell the glittered body sprays with her.  One man who was there with his teenage daughters glanced at me with a defeated look of solidarity in his eyes, and I could have sworn he mouthed the words, “Please, help me!”

Unfortunately, I could offer no help to these fellow sufferers as my main goal at that point was to escape without further humiliation.  Those hopes were dashed, though, when I saw the enormous checkout line.  Of course, I was the only male in line, and I was determined to salvage what little masculinity I had left, which isn’t easy when you’ve got a handful of lingerie.  I tried to be nonchalant and held them in my fist like a baseball, and not very convincingly since my little league baseball career mainly involved chewing on my glove in the outfield.  While I stood there in disgrace, a woman behind me in line actually leaned forward to say, “Your wife certainly is lucky you shop for her here.  My husband would never do that.”  Of course he wouldn’t, I thought,  it’s called dignity.  She was probably just trying to convince herself that I wasn’t preparing for elective surgery so I could use my choice of bathrooms at Target.

The experience didn’t improve when I reached the cashier.  I tried to conceal my embarrassment by making jokes.  “Do you have a dressing room?  Do these match my eyes?”  The cashier just raised her eyebrows and avoided making eye contact.  She was probably reaching for a panic button under the counter.  Her response to my humor was to hand me my merchandise in a ridiculously scorching-pink bag that was specifically designed to humiliate me as I walked through the mall and out to my car.  This bag of shame, which was billowing with fuchsia tissue,  made me look like I was on my way to a baby shower for Lady Gaga.

As I sat in my car to recover with “We are the Champions” playing on the radio, I felt a wave of satisfaction come over me.  I had swallowed my pride (and a heavily-iced slice of Great American Cookie Company cookie cake), saved some money, and purchased something special for my wife for Valentine’s Day.  In fact, I’m already planning next year’s Valentine’s gift.  I wonder what she would think of some Turkish beauty cream and a Dippin’ Dots gift card?








Disfigure Skating

Each year my wife and I have three daughters’ birthdays to celebrate, and instead of following my suggestion that the girls are too grown up for parties (and gifts), we manage to make these events increasingly elaborate and expensive.  This year, my middle daughter, Anna (the one who plans to shop for a living), informed us that she wanted to celebrate her thirteenth birthday by taking a few friends to the Galleria in Dallas, Texas, to go ice skating.  That didn’t sound too bad.  The girls would get some exercise and enjoy an activity similar to my Skateland days on Saturday mornings down at the roller rink- where my big brother and I would spend half a day eating Pop Rocks, drinking “suicides,” playing pinball, imagining what it would be like to talk to an actual girl, and when we got bored enough, roller skating.  My wife and I should have guessed that ice skating was simply Anna’s ploy to get herself into a position to browse three shopping malls stacked on top of each other.

The Galleria (which, incidentally, sort of rhymes with “diarrhea”) is similar to other malls, the difference being that along with the typical houses of dad-horror like Claire’s, Justice, Aeropostale, and Hot Topic, there are scads of designer shops with Italian names that I can’t pronounce without sounding like someone from the supporting cast of Swamp People.  It’s probably one of the few places on earth where it’s perfectly acceptable to peruse the fashions at Gucci while wolfing down a tub of Auntie Anne’s pretzel nuggets.  Naturally, I spent most of my waiting time posing as a trashcan monitor in the mall concourse trying to guess whose hair was real and spot people who looked like Pokémon characters. “Look!  It’s a Squirtle, and he’s wearing yoga pants and a ‘Make America Great Again’ cap!”

Once the girls had finally exhausted their allowances (and mine) on unicorn keychains, stuffed animals, choker necklaces, stuffed animals, flavored lip gloss, stuffed animals, friendship bracelets, and stuffed animals, we headed down about forty-eight escalators to reach the Galleria Ice Skating and Public Humiliation Center.  The skating rink is the centerpiece of the mall and sits at the bottom of a massive atrium that ascends to a roof made of glass so God can join the hundreds of Galleria shoppers laughing at you while you skate. The rink area is surrounded by restaurants, presumably to remind you of what you’d rather be doing than ice skating.  When we had rented our skates that smelled like hair plugs from a shower drain (and I would know) and walked in them like crippled zombies to the rink entrance, I noticed that above the muffled strains of bad pop music, I could hear screaming.  These were not squeals of delight coming from overjoyed children, but actual cries of terror.  I would soon find out why.

I had been ice skating before during another moment of suicidal dementia, so it didn’t take me long to get my balance.  I remembered that the proper novice skating position is to lean forward slightly in a shallow squat with the feet shoulder width apart,  like you’ve just spent too much time at a cheap Chinese buffet.  In other words, I was practically an expert.  I did get overconfident a few times and eventually had a visit from the dreaded Skating Monitor-an arrogant teenager whose job is to watch you fall down and ask, “Are you ok, sir?” without laughing.  One of these embarrassing episodes involved my sliding into the ample back legs of a rather robust young lady who looked like Kim Kardashian- if Kim Kardashian was an offensive guard for the Pittsburg Steelers.  She was accompanied by several guys who looked like the rest of the Steelers’ offensive line-only bigger and more menacing.  The woman proceeded to cushion her fall by sitting in my lap.  Amid my horrified torrent of apologies and fears that this incident might lead to a police action, her strapping male companions burst into laughter and pulled us up.  Apparently, I had helped them win a bet.  (One even offered me money.)  The woman was really sweet about the whole thing, and she asked me to keep her updated on my physical therapy.

After I had recovered from this disgrace, I spent some time helping Abbie, our youngest and least talkative daughter, learn to master an activity that she’s likely to participate in a whole once every ten years or so throughout her life. (If only I could help her with her math homework).  When Abbie got the hang it, she skated close behind me like a barnacle on a spastic humpback whale.  To steady herself, she repeatedly grabbed and yanked the seat of my blue jeans, which had already started their daily trip to Plumbersville.  This meant I would spend the rest of my time on the ice trying to balance myself with a pant load of ten-year-old girl while hiking up my britches to my armpits.   It was like a performance of Geeks on Ice.

Despite the all of the falling and public near-disrobing, everyone had a really good time, and Anna is still talking about how much fun she had for her birthday.  Abbie has even been asking when we can go back and skate again.  I just hope she realizes that next time, I’ll be wearing more appropriate attire.  I hear Gucci is having a sale on yoga pants.



The Family Road Trip

On the last weekend of my Christmas vacation before I returned to work, I decided to distract myself from my depression by joining my wife on a family road trip with my in-laws to visit her aunt, uncle, and grandmother who live in Fouke, Arkansas.  Each time I travel to Fouke, I look forward to the possibility of glimpsing the legendary Fouke Monster.  Apparently, the Fouke Monster is the Arkansas version of Bigfoot, the difference being that the Fouke Monster wears a Razorback jersey and works part time at Wal-Mart.  Unfortunately, though, the closest I’ve been to seeing the Fouke Monster so far turned out to be a well-bearded man in Carhartt overalls carrying an obese pit bull terrier.

Included in the travelling group were my three daughters, two nieces, and a nephew. Naturally, all of the children were assigned to my vehicle.  This meant lots of whining, complaining, and other annoying noises, but everyone did their best to put up with me.  On the way to Fouke, the group decided to stop for lunch at a non-descript Mexican restaurant in Atlanta, Texas, called Amigo Juan.  The food was delicious, and I ate my usual cargo container of chips and hot sauce.  The problem emerged on the second leg of our journey when we realized that we all had taken on the odor of the grease traps in the kitchen of Amigo Juan.  This made my eldest and most dramatic daughter, Ally, declare that she felt sick and might throw up-or die.  This announcement was followed by all of the children in the car sharing in detail the last time they, or one of their pets, threw up.  My wife put a stop to this discussion when I described the time Ally spit up in my mouth when she was a baby and I was holding her up over my head.  I actually think it’s the most adorable story involving vomit I’ve ever heard, or told.

Once Ally’s life-threatening tummy ache subsided, our next incident involved my youngest and quietest daughter, Abbie, dropping a treasured microscopic plastic toy she had purchased from a coin-operated junk machine at Amigo Juan between the seats of the car and into the most inaccessible crevice imaginable. (My kids always complain when I call it “junk,” but I mean it in the most affectionate way possible.)  I’m convinced that auto manufacturers are in cahoots with chiropractors to design family vehicles with these miniature black holes on purpose because reaching them always requires the dislocation of at least one appendage.  Abbie would never ask me to get the toy, but her innocent eyes could melt any heart-even one already on fire after a large Mexican dinner.  Retrieving the toy involved the searing pain of stretching from the passenger’s seat (I’m only allowed to drive short distances), over the console and into the floorboard behind the driver’s seat.   Amid stale Cheerios, broken crayons, and a crusty, brown wad I couldn’t identify, I found the toy and proudly presented it to Abbie.  Feeling like the father of the year (despite a torn ACL), my glory was cut short when Abbie quietly informed me that I had found the wrong toy.

Once we had arrived at our rural destination and visited awhile, I decided to take the children for a walk down the winding country road where Susan’s relatives live.  I think it’s important for kids to be outside to experience the splendor of nature-as long as they don’t bring any of it back in the house or the car.  I was a little hesitant at first because the last time we visited Fouke and went for a walk, one of the first splendors of nature we witnessed  was an amorous donkey attempting to seduce a much taller horse.  It was like watching a drunken man try to climb a slippery extension ladder while carrying an armload of pool noodles.  The hilarity of the situation was only matched by my horror at the presence of my daughters and nieces, who immediately  engaged in an extremely awkward line of questioning.  Since I believe in being completely honest with children, I simply answered by saying that the donkey was confused and we should keep walking so we didn’t embarrass him.  Luckily, this time we were spared the sequel to 50 Shades of Bray (see how I did that?), but we did see a couple of mules and a paint pony. (Maybe the donkey was successful, after all.)  I was hoping we might find some interesting rocks and minerals, or even an arrowhead along the side of the lane.  Instead, we found a frozen dirty diaper and a discarded pair of Jack Skellington adult footed pajamas.  Ah, Arkansas, The Natural State!

The drive home was mostly uneventful, other than the occasional game of Who Ate Too Much At Amigo Juan And Is Now Trying to Suffocate All of Us In A Crowded, Enclosed Vehicle With The Heater On?  Obviously, I won. We were also assailed with requests to stop and go to the bathroom and get something else to eat.  After the gorging at Amigo Juan and its aftermath, the bathroom made sense, but I couldn’t see how these children could bring themselves to eat anything else, except maybe a light snack-like the four large bowls of Cap’n Crunch cereal I had when we got home.

Even though I may gripe a little, I really do enjoy these outings with my family, and I’m glad Susan is able to visit with her grandmother and Arkansan relatives.  I just hope they don’t mind the fact that I no longer really believe in the Fouke Monster.  I mean, how could such a famous figure of American folklore be a Razorback fan?