Cheaper than Mailing Christmas Cards

Dear Friends, Loved Ones, and Random People Who Are Bored Enough To Read This Again This Year,

It’s been another great year in the Graves household, especially since my wife and kids continue to acknowledge me as a relative in public.

Susan is thriving in her position as the CFO of a rural telecommunications company amid my hopes that she will eventually earn a salary high enough for me to sleep-in for a living. Until that happens, I’m enjoying my fourteenth year at the college, serving department chair and still trying to prove to my dad that my English degrees weren’t a complete waste of his money.

I’ve also started writing a humor column for the Cagle Cartoon syndicate, enabling me to annoy readers all over the country with my attempts at being funny.

In addition to our careers, Susan and I are still serving as Sunday School teachers of my daughter Abbie’s fourth-grade class at our church. (I’m beginning to suspect that I’m actually just a member of the class and they’re letting me believe that I’m teaching it to humor me.)

Our major purchase for this year was a new dishwasher. In an attempt to help save the Sears corporation (and because most of the customer service personnel at Sears have actually reached puberty and are potty trained), we purchased a Kenmore.  Our previous machine was 20 years old and featured a flattened stick and a large, smooth rock down by the river, so we’re still reading the instructions for our new Kenmore Elite and hope to figure out how to use it by next Christmas.

I’m happy to say that this year we have downsized in the area of pets. Due to the tragic demise of an elderly hamster and the rehoming of two hedgehogs to people we enjoy irritating, we now own a horse, a dog, a cat, a mouse, two (other) hedgehogs and, unfortunately, a more youthful hamster. Although the number of pets we have is slightly more manageable and affordable, the horse does require frequent massages (yes, massages), injections, and nutritional supplements to keep my eldest daughter from turning me in to the National Registry of Horse-Hating Dads.

In addition to her costly equestrian activities, my eldest daughter has also recently earned a spot on her high school drill team (The Bobcat Belles). I’ve been told that if I thought the horse was expensive, I’d better find another source of income, like selling my hair or participating in a paid clinical trial for a new drug that suppresses flatulence while sneezing. (My family is rooting for this one.)

My middle daughter is in her second year as a junior-high basketball player, and I’m enjoying watching her games and horrifying her with my enthusiastic shouts from the bleachers. She especially enjoys it when I yell, “Hoop! There it is!” about once every three seconds throughout the game.

My youngest daughter is still her quiet, sweet, artistic self. She spends her spare time taking art classes and wondering how she wound up in our family.

Overall, 2017 has been great, and (as always) I’m looking forward to seeing what the new year holds for my family and bank account. For those of you who have hung in there and made it to this point, I wish you God’s greatest blessings for Christmas and a new year full of health, happiness, and excuses not to purchase any more pets.


Jase Graves (Honorary Member of the National Registry of Horse-Hating Dads) and his embarrassed family.



Haunted Manners

In our family, we’ve always tried to focus on the fun, lighthearted aspects of Halloween. Imagine Charlie Brown and the Great Pumpkin (which always makes me cry a little), or Winnie the Pooh going trick-or-treating with Piglet. Our Halloweens have always been filled with candy treats, cute costumes, apple-bobbing, pumpkin carving, etc. (And occasionally, my wife convinces me to allow our three daughters to join in.) Besides, at my age, I considered myself beyond being scared by “things that go bump in the night” – unless it’s our dog nocturnally dispensing Tootsie-Rolls on the living room carpet. Recently, though, my eldest child took advantage of my inability to say “no” to anything that isn’t illegal, immoral, or beyond our maximum home equity line of credit, and requested that I take her to a local “haunted” house called Graystone Manor in Hallsville, Texas.

The first truly frightening aspect of this haunted house was its location¬–in the country¬¬¬–where there promised to be lots of dirt and a lack of proper restroom facilities. Once we managed to find the entrance without hearing a single rendition of “Dueling Banjos,” we were confronted with the second scare of the night–parking. The parking system consisted of a pasture and a couple of burly teenagers with flashlights, John Deere caps and enough snuff lodged behind their lower lips to start their own earthworm farms. After I was directed to squeeze my vehicle between a wannabe monster truck and a vintage Capris that had a sparkling primer finish, my daughter and I found our way to the ticket booth.

Purchasing tickets was the next terrifying component of the haunted house. With trembling fingers, I found myself forking over $20.00 apiece for the privilege of being startled repeatedly by some guy wearing a pillowcase over his head. I actually had to stifle a slight scream when I saw that I would have to pay $30 for a VIP ticket and be first in line at each of the haunted venues. Naturally, I fled in horror.

The first venue we experienced was Oak Raven Cemetery. The ticket puncher at the gate recited the rules in the disturbing voice of a persistent telemarketer: “No running, no touching the actors, no profanity, and no touching the props.” “Darn!” I thought, “I was really looking forward to giving everyone in costume a chest bump.” As we crept through the path of the pre-built graveyard, I was impressed with the sets that had been artfully constructed. There were aged tombstones, a crumbling mausoleum, and, if I remember correctly, even a well-dressed funeral director quoting exorbitant service prices. My daughter proceeded to ask each of the actors to be her best friend and told one that he had bad breath. (I need to get her out more.)

The second venue we visited was The Haunted Manor. Again, I was impressed with the set. There were several gruesomely decorated chambers (in circa 1990’s Martha Stewart) and more than one floor in the house to navigate. One room was manned by an imposing woman with a bloody meat cleaver screaming at us to get out of her kitchen as she chopped up something gruesome–like celery. As we exited the kitchen and walked down a long, narrow hallway, I could hear her waddling close behind me. I glanced back a couple of times, and she was still there–leering at me, like she wanted me to take her out to Olive Garden. I almost told her that I was married and the whole zombie scullery maid look just wasn’t my taste, but I decided to do the chivalrous thing–push my daughter aside and run.

After The Haunted Manor, we mercifully found the final haunted venue, The Karnival of Karnage. (Apparently, the place isn’t operated by English majors.) When we entered, I saw what all of the buzz was about–scary clowns. I’ve been dealing with scary clowns all of my life: Bozo, Ronald McDonald, the last four presidential administrations, and every adolescent male I had in my English class when I taught junior high. Nowadays, seeing a creepy clown just makes me hungry for a large order of fries and gives me the urge to grade a poorly-written essay.

Despite my cynical attitude toward the haunted house, my daughter seemed to have a good time, and that was the whole point. She even slept in her own room all night, which made me sort of sad. I guess my girl is growing up. Pretty soon, she may not be interested in the fun of Halloween at all, which means that, once again, I’ll be the only one bobbing for apples in my Winnie the Pooh costume.

Oh, well, there’s always Charlie Brown and the Great Pumpkin. Somebody pass the Kleenex.

The S’more the Merrier

Once every few decades, East Texas experiences a brief taste of early autumn weather. All East Texans know, though, that these few crisp days are simply a prank by Mother Nature, who’s hiding behind a door somewhere, waiting to jump out and give us all a wedgie in the form of a 90 degree Halloween. Despite the imminent return to sweltering heat and humidity that turns our undergarments into alternate water sources, we try our best to enjoy the cool while we can, often, ironically, by lighting a big smoky fire and gathering around it for warmth. It’s like we can’t stand it unless we’re in a constant state of perspiration.

I experienced one of these rare cool snaps, and the accompanying campfire, on a recent Friday evening at my in-laws’ home. My wife’s parents live in what I consider “the country.” In other words, their house is beyond a five-mile radius of Walmart. In fact, if it weren’t for my in-laws’ farm animals, my daughters would never have experienced real chickens, except in their natural nugget state.

On this particular evening, a weenie roast was on the agenda, followed by the obligatory s’mores. I was actually excited by the prospect of breaking out my rarely-used telescoping roasting forks, which are almost new because using them might require that I actually go camping.

To prepare, I was enlisted to help my father-in-law drag the metal fire pit out of what appeared–to the untrained eye–to be a large scrap pile (which he considers an outdoor equipment depot) behind his barn. All I could think about was when I’d last had a tetanus shot. In the meantime, my daughters and their cousins were tasked with foraging for kindling, undoubtedly attracting every tick and chigger in the greater East Texas region.

Once we had the pit ready, I started the fire using my advanced wilderness skills (a click lighter and a generous dose of Kingsford lighter fluid). I’ve always had a fascination with fire. I think it comes from our prehistoric heritage when the mysterious flames provided warmth and security to our ancestors–or maybe we just like to watch stuff burn up. (By the way, don’t ever throw a can of shaving cream into a campfire–unless the people standing around it have recently attacked you with water balloons.)

Apparently, my curiosity with combustion is shared by my children and their cousins because they immediately transformed into chronic pyromaniacs and started flinging in every flammable object they could find, unknowingly providing free groundskeeping services for their grandfather. (I’ll be sending him an invoice later.) At one point, we had to stop them from stripping the siding off of the house.

Because the lighter fluid and yard waste made the fire so hot that we were at risk of re-enacting the face-melting scene from “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” we decided to cook the hot dogs on the grill. But when the inferno had died down a bit, it was time for what I had been waiting for all evening–the trip home and a hot shower. No, seriously, it was time for s’mores. The word “s’more” comes from the Latin words for “We’d all just rather eat the Hershey bar and be done with it.”

Somehow, the children, who, moments earlier, were eagerly tossing everything into the fire other than their own clothing, were now complaining that it was still too hot and were insisting that I roast their marshmallows for them. Unfortunately, my roasting skills leave a lot to be desired, and my marshmallows always wind up catching fire and looking like big scabs. (Have you ever noticed how flammable marshmallows are? Fireworks stands should market them as pyrotechnic bonbons.)

Once we were all queasy from the s’more feeding frenzy, which usually includes one actual s’more, at least three king size Hershey bars and half a bag of raw marshmallows each, we sat around the glowing fire visiting, laughing, and asphyxiating on wood smoke. Ah, campfires–nature’s cigarettes.

I really do treasure these times with my family, and I feel they bring us even closer together, but not as close as we are when we get home and give each other a thorough full-body inspection for ticks and chiggers.

Somebody get the tweezers!


The Garage Sale Strikes Back

Once a year, or so, I feel an uncanny need to atone for my sins against our household budget by holding a garage sale. When our home begins to look like it should be featured on the season finale of “Hoarders,” I simply can’t resist the urge to put all of our surplus underwear and small appliances on display in the front yard, and invite complete strangers over to rummage through them. (Some even pay actual money to carry them off.)

The most punishing aspect of the entire garage-sale experience is the preparation. This usually involves arguing with my wife and daughters over whether we actually need four Easy-Bake Ovens, or if we might be able to survive the winter with just three. I then spend two solid days sorting through enough outgrown female children’s clothing to costume a synchronized dance troupe at the national birthday party of Kim Jong-un. Sometimes, going through the girls’ old clothes actually makes me kind of wistful and sad, not because I’m sentimental, but because I think of all of the Chick-fil-A chicken biscuits I could have purchased with the money I’ve spent on overpriced, matching designer clothes that the girls might have worn for twenty minutes until they whined enough to convince us to let them change back into their cut-off shorts and Hello Kitty t-shirts from Walmart.

On the day before this year’s sale, I got out of bed especially early (which, when I’m not at work, is any time before noon) to turn my garage into a miniature Hanna Andersson outlet. I had felt a little woozy that morning, but I figured it was just the shock of being out of bed and actually wearing pants at that hour on my day off. As I stood in the open garage enjoying the breeze and carefully arranging an enormous pile of fleece pajamas that appeared to belong to a family of polygamists living in the Arctic, I began to feel the unmistakable sensation in my gut that told me I was about to “L’Eggo my Eggo” all over my display of ballet leotards if I didn’t move quickly. Unfortunately, the closest semi-private vomitorium I could reach in time was a massive hedge along the side of my neighbors’ house. Luckily, they weren’t home at the time (and if they happen to read this column, I want to invite them to barf in my begonias any time the need arises).

Once I had thoroughly fertilized the shrubbery next door, I began to feel much better and managed to convince myself that I might have just ingested an expired waffle, instead of contracting a dreaded “tummy bug.” Since I was practically finished setting up the garage sale, I did what one naturally does after a good upchuck on the neighbor’s landscaping; I mowed my front yard. (I strongly believe in an aesthetically pleasing presentation when I invite the community onto my property to browse through my family’s unwanted belongings.)

About two-thirds of the way through my mowing, my bowels suddenly made it clear that they were surrendering to the dark side. It was as if Darth Vader found my lack of respect for the rotavirus disturbing and applied his telekinetic stranglehold to my large intestine. At first, I couldn’t move at all. I just stood there with the wheels of my self-propelled Husqvarna spinning in place and tried to clench every orifice shut for fear of turning into a human pressure washer in front of the entire neighborhood. Eventually, I gathered the strength to lean forward against the mower and waddle it back to my storage shed like a penguin with sciatica.

My only hope at that point was to retreat indoors and apply my traditional stomach virus remedy of taking a few warm baths, remaining isolated in my bedroom for an entire day, making my wife and daughters feel really sorry for me, and hoping to shrink my love handles in the process. (If it weren’t for the crippling nausea, near-fatal dehydration, and deprivation of Mexican food, I might do this more often.)

The next morning, other than feeling like a tube of hemorrhoid ointment that had been trampled by a stampede of water buffalo, I was well enough to carry on with the garage sale. As I sat in my garage, fielding awkward questions from shoppers about my partially mowed grass, I felt blessed to be alive and thanked the Lord for the inventors of Saltines and Gatorade. I even made enough money on the sale to buy myself a brand new pair of Darth Vader fleece pajamas.

May the hork be with you! (Sorry, I couldn’t resist.)

Drive-by Safari

Because my children have dragged our family through practically every other traditional zoo in the Northern Hemisphere, and because we needed one last financially irresponsible escapade before school started this year, we decided to make a trip to the Fossil Rim Wildlife Center in Glen Rose, Texas.

Unlike a traditional zoo where the wildlife is safely secured within enclosures and only pose a danger to your nostrils, Fossil Rim is a drive-through animal experience. It’s what would happen if a traditional zoo was managed by a really unreliable babysitter. The animals seem to be left to their own devices as they freely play in the street barefoot and are encouraged to take food from strangers. (I think I even saw some of them swimming less than thirty minutes after they’d eaten!)

After checking in and purchasing our tickets, which included a large paper bag containing grain pellets that I’ll be finding in my floorboard for the next decade, we began our drive into the wilds of Central Texas. At first we were a little disappointed that we were only seeing a bunch of freeloading squirrels (are there any other kind?) and some apathetic antelope-thingies that looked like they were watching the Golf Channel after eating a large Mexican dinner.

Speaking of large Mexican dinners, my comfort level on this excursion had been significantly compromised by our lunch at a Fort Worth location of Uncle Julio’s Mexican Restaurant, my own culinary utopia. With the combination of my salsa IV drip, a fajita dinner, my daughters’ table scraps, and the famous Uncle Julio’s chocolate piñata (a milk-chocolate shell full of strawberries, churros, chocolate-filled empanadas, and other treats certain to ruin my chances of competing on American Ninja Warrior), I had ingested my yearly allotment of calories in one sitting and was trying to avoid slipping into a Tex-Mex coma.

As we continued driving down deserted rocky trails and through empty fields of tall grasses, all I could think about, besides the trip being a total bust, was the likelihood that, with my windows down, I might be set upon by an especially acrobatic tick. Just as I was about to apologize to my family for insisting that this would be a lot more fun than Six Flags, all three of my daughters released one of their signature ear-shattering squeals of delight as a couple of overly-frisky ostriches advanced toward the car. In an extremely un-Big Bird-like fashion, these hooligan fowl invited themselves into our personal space and systematically probed our appendages for food pellets until we all felt thoroughly violated. (I’m fairly certain that they left some DNA on my interior.)

Just after the ostrich assault, we reached the halfway point in the course where the park designers had strategically placed the gift shop. Positioned to lull tourists into a euphoric state of careless spending, the gift shop stands atop a high bluff that overlooks the lush valley of the wildlife park below. As I stood gazing at the beautifully rugged landscape, a cordial Australian sales associate assisted my daughters in selecting the largest and most expensive plush animals possible–because we still have room for a few more inside our home if we cram really hard and give up breathing.

The second half of our self-driven tour ended without incident, and we did encounter an aloof zebra, some distant rhinos and even a few lethargic cheetahs, but the real highlight of our trip took place at dusk when we embarked on the Discovery After Dark tour. This special event was led by a spritely young guide and two conservation education interns, all of whom were hired specifically to make me feel old.

As our designated intern drove us out into the park in an open-air bus, she made sure to expose us to a series of authentic African potholes, one of which caused a Latino gentleman standing beside me to balance himself by instinctively grabbing me around the waist–tango style. I must admit that even though I laughed it off as he apologized (I think) profusely in Spanish, I was a little disappointed that he didn’t have a rose in his teeth.

Once the jostling had given us all epic wedgies, we finally reached the feature we’d been waiting for (other than the air-conditioned drive back to the hotel)–the giraffe encounter! Several of these majestic animals immediately approached the bus and leaned in to take our grain pellets. To express their appreciation, they left our hands covered in thick loogie strands from their elongated black tongues. Although our intern assured us that giraffe saliva contains antibacterial properties, she failed to mention, as I learned later, that they are also fond of using their tongues to taste one another’s urine. (Thanks, Animal Planet!)

With our hair blowing in the cool evening breeze, carrying only a hint of exotic manure, I felt a strong sense of satisfaction that we had ended the summer with a great family experience. And with my wife’s birthday coming up, this trip gave me an idea for the perfect gift¬¬¬–tango lessons! (I wonder if the Latino guy is available.)


The Pedicure is Worse than the Disease

Before my family’s most recent beach vacation, my wife suggested, under the guise of promoting some father-daughter bonding, that I go with my daughters to get a pedicure. This was actually her subtle way of suggesting that I do something about the fact that my toes look like mutant Fritos. Having had my man card revoked a long time ago, I agreed to undergo this procedure that I find about as pointless as chest hair waxing. (I prefer to have mine braided.) Only my middle daughter chose to join me in the ordeal, which makes sense as she is always game for any activity that might involve spending my money frivolously. My youngest daughter also came along to watch, presumably so she could test the limits of her embarrassment.

Because we also needed some lunch meat, we went to probably the only place on the planet where you can shop for smoked ham and enjoy a spa treatment under one roof–Walmart. Naturally, the nail salon is located at the front of the store so that everyone in the checkout lines can gaze with pity and hilarity at the freakish dude getting his toenails done. (Now I know why zoo chimps fling their poo at the spectators.)

When we entered the nail salon and indicated that we wanted pedicures, the receptionist asked us to step over to a massive display of nail polish and choose our colors. I almost reached for the Magenta Midnight Fantasy when I caught myself and informed her that I wouldn’t need mine painted. She just giggled sheepishly and said, “Oh, I forgot.”
Now, lest you get the idea that I’m narrow-minded and judgmental, I do realize that some men have their toenails painted–right before their performances at Cirque du Soleil.

Once my daughter had selected her polish, while I nervously pretended to check football recruiting stats on my manly ESPN app, we were directed by our technicians to have a seat in some suspicious-looking pedicure chairs. My worries intensified when the technician asked me to place my feet up on a little platform, lean back, and relax while she snapped on a pair of rubber gloves. I was suddenly stricken with the terrifying notion that I might have accidentally stumbled into a women’s health clinic and was about to have my annual pelvic exam. Instead, she simply lifted my feet and lowered them into a basin of warm, blue liquid that looked like water from a portable toilet. I then noticed that the back of the chair was moving. It felt like a pair of muscular mole rats had burrowed their way into the upholstery and were engaged in some kind of elaborate courtship ritual all over my spine. I figured that the massage was designed to distract me from the fact that I was allowing another human being to handle and groom a part of my body that even grosses me out.

My technician was a petite and intense Vietnamese lady who undoubtedly strikes fear into the heart of toe jam everywhere. She began by going after my calloused heels with an industrial-grade cheese grater. One foot at a time, she rigorously scraped off my built-in flip flops. I teased my daughter that I’d be sure to bring one of the graters to use the next time we ordered a salad at Olive Garden. (Cue the exaggerated eye roll.)

After stripping away my heel bark and de-clawing my digits, the technician ended the pedicure by exfoliating my lower legs with a gritty, orange paste that was exactly the same color as some massive tropical fish that had been glaring at me reproachfully as they drifted around in their tanks at the back of the salon. When the technician saw me peering at the bright orange fish and then at the paste, she said something in Vietnamese to the technician beside her, and they both laughed a little too heartily for my taste.

Putting aside thoughts that I might currently be enjoying a lotion made out of freshly ground Nemo, I turned my head and smiled at my daughter. Even though I felt a little awkward having a pedicure, I was glad that we shared this experience because I know that before long, she’ll be off on her own, and I’ll have to apply my Magenta Midnight Fantasy all by myself.


Chuting the Breeze

My main fear, other than those two hillbillies from “Deliverance,” has always been heights– otherwise known as splattaphobia. Somehow, though, on a recent vacation to Orange Beach, Alabama, my middle daughter, Anna, was able to convince me to take her parasailing, which involves paying actual money to be strapped to a parachute and then pulled behind a boat until the chute does the opposite of its intended purpose. Instead of gently descending to the safety of solid ground, the parachute transforms into a giant kite that carries its occupants to an altitude sufficient for sharks and other marine predators featured in horror movies to examine you carefully and decide which of your appendages to devour first.

The parasail company we chose allows three victims to parasail together, so my father-in-law volunteered to join us in order to provide adult supervision. Our ordeal began by signing a release form that absolved the company of all responsibility in case the tow rope broke and we wound up in Narnia or embedded in the spark logo on a Walmart sign. We were then led by an elderly lady (who appeared to be in charge of the whole operation) to a rack of faded Civil War-era lifejackets, from which she selected according to our body sizes. She seemed to have trouble deciding on a jacket for me and eventually settled on one from the maternity collection.

Once we were outfitted like evacuees from the Titanic, we were invited onto the vessel by the captain and his first mate, both of whom appeared to have reached puberty earlier that day. Despite their youth, they did seem knowledgeable as they went over the safety rules, which, among others, included reminding us to refrain from using another passenger’s swimsuit as a seasickness receptacle. As the boat pulled away from the dock, the captain also offered instructions for what to do in case he and the first mate became incapacitated. Unfortunately, I couldn’t hear what he was saying over the roar of the motor, so I naturally assumed that we would just languish in the open ocean until we resorted to cannibalism.

When we reached the lift-off point, the first mate equipped each of us with a harness that resembled an enormous jock strap and warned us that if we allowed the belt behind our thighs to slip upward, we would be hauled behind the boat by the crotch. (At that point, I knew why my wife had encouraged me to do this.) One at a time, we waddled in our harnesses to the rear of the boat and sat together gripping a padded bar while the first mate secured us and my father-in-law reminded me that crying would only upset the other passengers.

After a thumbs-up from the captain, the boat accelerated, and we gently made our ascent into the cool ocean air. When I regained consciousness, I soon discovered that all of my fears were unfounded as we peacefully sailed a few hundred feet into the sky, accompanied only by the wind in our ears and graceful seabirds that had been bombarding us on the beach all week with their droppings.

Suddenly the serenity of the experience was shattered by Anna’s excited exclamation, “Look, Dad, a shark–and some rays!”

Focused on the area where she was pointing, I could clearly see the ominous shapes cruising just below the surface. From our height, it was hard to tell whether these were a great white and a couple of his homies, or some of my missing bathtub toys. Regardless of their size, I did my best to appreciate the majestic wildlife we were witnessing and remind myself that I look nothing like Robert Shaw. Once we were well beyond the view of the local sea monsters, I was actually feeling pretty proud of myself for avoiding both the dreaded slipping-harness crotch drag and becoming the mystery ingredient on the aquatic carnivore version of “Chopped.”

The conclusion of the ride involved a slow descent that included a couple of “dips” into the water before finally landing feet-first back onto the boat platform where we started. Due to the speed of the boat, these playful splashdowns turned out to be supersonic salt-water enemas. When we landed and I asked the first mate if there was an extra charge for the cleansing treatment, he responded that my mistake was raising my feet before I hit the water. (Fine time to tell me now that half of the Gulf of Mexico was lodged in my colon.)

On our drive home from vacation, we all took turns sharing our favorite parts of the trip, and Anna and I agreed that ours was parasailing. In fact, our enthusiasm has convinced my wife to give it a try at her next opportunity. I’ve even written a little rhyme to help her prepare:

When you sail into the sky,
It’s ok to scream and cry.
When you come down, it’s really neat!
Before you splash, just lift your feet!
Take that, Wordsworth!