A door opens and the light shines for Irene

Irene has been in this country for only four years. When she came, she could not speak a word of English. The smugglers became frustrated with her because she kept mispronouncing the one word she had to get right in order to make it across — “American.” When the time finally came, she got it right, and her family was reunited at last, after four long years. Her mother had come previously, and was working as a cook in a local Mexican restaurant. She had hoped to get established and have her family join her. Finally, they did.

Due to Irene’s outstanding performance as a student in Mexico, she could have entered high school here as a sophomore. But she chose to go back a year because she wanted to make sure she learned everything she needed to learn before graduating high school. She didn’t want any short cuts. In four years, she has not only learned the language as well or better than most native speakers, she has excelled in all subject areas and graduated near the top of her class this spring.

She had high hopes of being accepted at Berea College, which had been one of few pathways in higher education available to young undocumented students like Irene, students who have earned a chance by virtue of their performance, but who find most doors closed because they lack a Social Security number. The news that came last winter from Berea was more bitter than the weather. Despite her excellent achievements as a student, she had not been accepted.

Then came her hour of darkness. Make that several weeks of darkness.

“I have always been a person who has a lot of hope and faith,” she said. “But when I got the news from Berea, I lost hope for awhile. It was just gone and I didn’t know what to do.”

Irene is one of those rare people who have a passion for both math and art, which is part of the reason she wants to become an architect, so she can combine these passions in her work. But that day, all she could do was take down the beautiful pictures and photographs she had put up on her wall for inspiration. Suddenly, they were too hard to look at.

Even worse, she had no idea what to say to her younger brothers, Angel and Daniel, who relied on her not only as a role model, but as the source of their own hope — if Irene could make it, maybe THEY could too.

“Our family dinners have always been so noisy,” she said. “My brothers are always talking about what they are going to be. One wants to be a doctor. The youngest wants to become a marine biologist. But after we got the news I wasn’t going to be going to Berea, it just got very quiet at dinner. For like two weeks, nobody said anything. We just ate in silence.”

It was then that I noticed Irene’s voice trembling. She tried hard to fight back the tears.

“The most important thing to me is that my brothers not lose hope,” she said. “I could see that what was happening to me was affecting them, too.”

Slowly, Irene got back on her feet. She focused on her studies, on regaining her lost hope somehow. And then, months later, came a letter from Meredith College. She had been accepted. She was in. Her response was not what you might expect.

“I couldn’t really feel happiness,” she said. “I knew if I didn’t get a scholarship, there was no way I could go.”

Indeed, it was going to cost somewhere in the neighborhood of $30,000 for Irene to attend Meredith. They might as well have sent her an invitation to the moon, as long as she could provide her own transportation.

A few weeks later, the transportation arrived as well, in the form of a major scholarship. It didn’t cover everything, but between that, a local scholarship, several private donations, and what she and her family could scrimp together, she will be able to go. In about a month, Irene will be just another freshman at Meredith College, the largest women’s college in the entire Southeast.

The question now is, what about next semester? And the one after that? Irene is an excellent student, but even she cannot complete a degree in one semester. The scholarships will cover most of her expenses — and there will be other scholarships, once she proves that she can excel on that level just as she has proved herself on every other level before — but what about the rest? She is willing to work, of course, to subsidize her own education. The irony is that it will not be easy finding a job because she is undocumented. Still, she expects she will find a way to find some work that will help her get by.

The last time I wrote about Irene, I received several supportive letters, including a few offers of monetary support. If there are people out there who do want to help, please email me and I will direct you to the proper funding source. Believe me, any donations that are given in support of this student are going to be paid back to the world, with incalculable interest.

Irene is finally excited about her future again — “I guess I know what happiness feels like now,” she said — but she is even more grateful for the change she has seen in her brothers.

“It is real for them now,” she said. “It has been noisy again at dinnertime.”

Sanford affair is either high school drama or Greek tragedy

There is only so much you can do to help a child recover from a broken heart, especially the first time it is broken. You can say, “Honey, I know it seems like you’ll never get over it, but someday you will. You’ll learn the difference between infatuation and real love. Your hormones will calm down and you will make better decisions. Being an adult isn’t all peaches and cream, but at least you will learn to control your feelings, instead of having them control you.”

You can say that the fire that consumes adolescent hearts will one day be replaced by something not quite as hot, but still warm, and more abiding. You can liken love to a blanket that protects you, rather than burning you up if you get too close. You can say that passion is great, but dignity is even better, and they will understand that one day when they are older. You can say that even though it hurts so much now, that one of the consolations of adulthood is that you no longer have no control over reckless impulses and obsessive thoughts. So what if they wrote an embarrassing letter that all their friends have probably read and laughed at? It’s not as if the entire country knows about it — no one is reading excerpts from it on the nightly news, are they? In two weeks, everyone will be talking about something else anyway, right?

Regardless of what you might say, you must admit that kids have a way of asking questions for which there are no good answers, no satisfactory metaphors or soothing platitudes.

“But mom, what about Mark Sanford?”

Can we just step back from this for a moment and admit that we are no longer shocked — or even mildly surprised — when stories break on the sexual indiscretions of politicians? Tom Brokaw might as well report that a truckload of produce was delivered to Ingles this morning. Oh really? You don’t say.

Can we also agree that, notwithstanding the sanctimonious posturing of the Republican Party during the Clinton/Monica Lewinski scandal, this is one issue that is definitely bipartisan? Want to start scandal swapping? I’ll see your John Edwards and raise you a Newt Gingrich.

The Sanford story is remarkable not because another politician got caught in a sex scandal. It is remarkable for how much it veers from the script we all know so very well. The story begins with rumors. Strong denials are issued. There is a “smoking gun,” either a scorned mistress or an “anonymous source” talks to the press, confirming the rumors. The press bears down, gathers evidence beyond a reasonable doubt. Documentation is discovered.

Now come the tearful confessions, the press conferences, the mea culpas, the promises to do better, the appeals for forgiveness. Always, ALWAYS, with the wife standing dutifully by his side, gaze steady, resolute. The unspoken message: WE will weather this. We will rebound. He really IS a good man, after all, and I am a strong woman, strong enough to forgive him, strong enough to endure this humiliation for the sake of the marriage, for the sake of his career, for the sake of our mutual ambition.

Evidently, Jenny Sanford did not care so much for this script. Indeed, she has written her own, one that resembles a Greek tragedy less than it resembles ... well, high school. In her drama, she and Mark are king and queen of the prom, popular students who have been going steady for a long time, which EVERYBODY knows. And then this exotic foreign exchange student appears one day, and suddenly he’s acting all funny and stuff. Things begin to change. She catches people whispering, shaking their heads sadly when she walks into her organic chemistry class.

Now she can’t get a straight answer from him. Finally, she gives in to her suspicions, begins looking into it. His cell phone records, text messages, Myspace, Facebook, whatever she can think of. And then she finds this:

“You have a particular grace and calm that I adore. You have a level of sophistication that so fitting with your beauty. I could digress and say that you have the ability to give magnificent gentle kisses, or that I love your tan lines or that I love the curve of your hips, the erotic beauty of you holding yourself (or two magnificent parts of yourself) in the faded glow of the night’s light — but hey, that would be going into sexual details ...”

Her tan lines? Two magnificent parts of herself? What was he now, William Freakin’ Shakespeare? Danielle Steele? Next thing she knows, the whole thing is published in the school newspaper, so now the whole school knows about it, and you know what, it’s good enough for him! Pathetic wretch.

Of course, he begs her to stay with him. BEGS her, in front of everybody! Maybe, she says. They do have a history together, all the way back to middle school. She can see he’s really sorry. She says there might be a chance, but he had better straighten up. Most of all, he had better NEVER see what’s her name again.

So what does he do? He tells her he’s going camping with Chowder and Big Stan to “clear his head,” and then spends the weekend with her at some hotel in Gatlinburg. Can you believe that?

It’s going to take a LOT to get her back. Everybody in the school is on her side. She’s the victim, but she’s also in total control. She has all the power, all the sympathy. He’s the schmuck, the fallen prince who has become the fool. It’ll be up to her if he ever amounts to anything in this school ever again.

She’ll keep a copy of his emails with her. If he so much as LOOKS at another girl in the mall or wherever, she’ll whip out his “Ode to Tan Lines” and read a couple of verses to him.

OK, so maybe adulthood is not the guarantee against a broken heart you may have told your kids it was. I guess you could say, “Kids, the good news is that you could grow up to be a governor some day. The bad news is even that won’t save you from getting a broken heart if you get a little reckless.”

Or your girlfriend from giving you hell from now on if you do. You may want to keep that in mind.


(The excerpt quoted from the email message is taken verbatim from Mark Sanford’s actual emails to “the other woman.” Everything else has been “dramatized.” Chris Cox can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.)

Save the kids – and me – from the madness

When people say that Jim Carrey can’t act and that his movies are terrible, I always point to “The Truman Show,” which is not only a great movie, but has a great theme, a warning of the pernicious influence of reality television. In some ways, the movie was prophetic in anticipating the atrocities to come, the exploitation of human beings in the name of entertainment. But if we could see shows such as “The Bachelor” and “The Apprentice” coming, who would have dared guess that “Jon and Kate Plus Eight” would ever be possible?

In the pursuit of instant fame and easy money, it is hardly surprising that people would subject themselves to various forms of ridicule. After all, in our culture, there is no greater wish that can be granted than to become famous, whatever the reason and by whatever means necessary. If someone is willing to eat a bowl of slugs, drink goat blood, or have their physical imperfections pointed out with a laser pointer by Lorenzo Llamas in front of a hooting audience, these are their own choices. The right to degrade one’s self is one bonus of being an American. You get to choose.

Choosing it for your own kids, well, that’s another matter. That is my objection to “Jon and Kate Plus Eight.” In the interest of full disclosure, I had better add that my wife is a fan of the show. Last year, I began noticing a bunch of episodes piling up on TiVo, and I asked her about it. She gave me her pat response.

“But those kids are so CUTE,” she said, so breathlessly that I feared if I pushed it, we might soon be talking about converting the upstairs bedroom back into a nursery.

“I’ll bet they are!” I said. “Have fun watching them.”

One afternoon, I walked in mid-episode and decided to give it a try. I didn’t want to be accused of passing judgment on something I’ve never seen. Then again, I’ve never eaten a bowl of slugs or drank a pint of goat’s blood. Still, I watched for about 10 minutes or so until I got a good whiff of Kate’s personality, Jon’s maddening passivity, and the show’s only real reality, which is that these children are a bunch of little Truman’s, whose lives are being recorded for the entertainment of others, without their consent.

Please don’t tell me that the children actually LOVE this and that it is good for them. Children would also love ice cream for breakfast, and to attend Chuck E. Cheese rather than school. We don’t let them because — all together now — we are the ADULTS, and as such, we are responsible for deciding what is best for them. It is best for them not to have ice cream for breakfast. It is best for them not to have their lives become a source of entertainment for the voyeuristic masses.

Even if you could make a convincing argument that they are accustomed to the cameras since they have always been there, what happens when the cameras — and the attention that goes with them — are suddenly taken away? Have either Jon or Kate ever done the slightest bit of research on the troubled lives of child stars? Go ahead and Google Danny Bonaduce. I dare you. For every Ron Howard, there are 12 Danny Bonaduce’s. Google the three child starts from “Different Strokes.” It’s not pretty, and these were child actors, not kids whose own lives are the plot and theme of the show.

Given the recent tabloid stories about alleged infidelity on the part of both parents, and the admitted friction between them, surely there is some squeamishness among even the most devoted fans. “Tune in NEXT week when the Gosselin children break down in tears while Daddy packs his clothes!” Riveting television! Maybe they’ll save the divorce proceedings for sweeps week.

I understand that raising eight kids poses a financial burden I can barely imagine, and that the appeal of getting some help — not to mention moving into a million dollar home, among who knows what other perks — must be very great indeed. But what price can be placed on an ordinary, healthy childhood outside the glare of the lights, away from the fawning masses all crowding in to hug children they know from seeing them on television?

I admit that I watched the premier of season two a couple of weeks ago, just out of morbid curiosity. I wanted to see how the producers — not to mention Jon and Kate — would handle the publicity frenzy surrounding their troubled marriage. It was a thoroughly depressing experience, and I immediately felt guilty for whatever part I might have played in keeping the ratings for this show high enough to keep it on the air.

If you really care about these kids, send a donation for their college fund, and then turn the channel. Let’s do the right thing and put this show out of its misery. Free the Gosselin Eight! Kick the reality TV habit, while you still can. Renew your library card. Become part of the solution.

(Chris Cox is a writer and teacher who lives in Waynesville. He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..)

The many rewards of home improvement

Lately, the days whiz by faster than usual. Now that we have finally decided to put our house up for sale after months of agonizing reflection, we have been trying to squeeze various projects into every available minute of the day in order to get it ready for people to see. We have a guy putting new wood floors down in all four of our bedrooms. We’re putting in a couple of new doors. We’re working on the yard, trying to coax the grass in a couple of places. We’re painting the bathroom, and, much to my wife’s dismay, the kids’ bedroom.

“Now remind me, why do we want to paint the kids’ room?” Tammy says.

I remind her that not everyone may necessarily be as charmed by the room’s pink and blue motif as our daughter has been. Well, then. Down come the decals of Snow White and the Little Mermaid, and up goes the primer. Even the kids get in on the action, and by lunchtime, we’re all speckled and ready for a big lunch. On the way to the Chinese restaurant, I can see my daughter working out a question in her head, her face having assumed the familiar expression that precedes such questions.

“Daddy, do you think anyone will love our house as much as we do?” she asks. “It’s a great house, you know.”

She’s right. It is a great house. We can walk to the library, which we often do. We can walk to Main Street, which is something we do several times a week in the summer, and as often as possible in the fall when the towering trees along Haywood Street bust out their autumn colors. As the weather warms, festivals pop up around us like dandelions. We live in a quaint, quiet neighborhood reminiscent of a Spielberg suburb, with kids riding up and down the street on skateboards or scooters, and dog owners walking their pets in the early morning sun. In our fenced back lot, our beagle, Walter, gives them what for as they approach and then pass by, waving at us on the deck sipping our coffee before work.

“I know it is, sweetie,” I say, searching for the slightest trace of melancholy in her voice. “I hope that whoever buys it will love it as much as we have.”

We hadn’t really planned on selling, or even thought about selling. But early last fall, we were approached by a realtor who had a client she said was interested in our home. Initially, we rejected her approach out of hand, but as we began discussing it and looking to the future, we considered possible advantages in moving, in buying a home together, in possibly moving out a bit to the country. We made an appointment to look at her other houses, and suddenly the idea of selling gained some momentum. We even took the kids along a couple of times, and discovered that they were actually excited about the prospect of an “adventure.”

Just as the idea of selling seemed to be close to a reality, the potential buyer backed out, opting instead to buy a bunch of foreclosed homes in Detroit. Since our home had never actually been “for sale,” the entire enterprise fell like the proverbial house of cards, and Tammy took it for a sign. She had been a little put out that we have, year by year, committed to a variety of home improvements expressly with the idea of staying put, only to turn around and sell the house after all that trouble and expense.

“We have a brand new roof, new plumbing, new windows, new siding, a new deck,” she would say. “Why would we want to sell it after all that? Where are we going to find another house that has what we have, where we can get to the school, church, or the grocery store in less than five minutes? We even have a good view!”

I told her that the work we were doing would either make the home more attractive to a potential buyer, or it would make it a nicer home for us. Our friends in the business tell us that although the market is not so great, homes in this price range are still selling fairly well, and that a four bedroom home in our neighborhood for under $190,000 should attract a lot of attention, especially with the upgrades we’ve done.

I guess we’ll find out soon enough. If you are interested in looking at it, drop us a line. If you come by soon enough, we may hand you a paint brush. You just have to promise to love it as much as we do. My daughter wants it in the contract.

(Chris Cox is a writer and teacher who lives in Waynesville. He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.)

Miss California takes on gay marriage

I cannot remember the last time I watched a minute of a beauty pageant. I never had much of an interest in the first place, even when watching them with my family as a kid. The contestants were sparkly and had nice teeth. Some of them could sing, but I didn’t care much for the songs they sang. Mainly, we watched so we could pull for Miss North Carolina, and because in the early 1970s there were only two other channels to choose from, and programming on Saturday nights was pretty sad. It was Miss America, or the Tony Orlando and Dawn Rainbow Hour variety show.

One thing I do not remember is the contestants being asked for their views on hot button political topics of the day. I certainly stand to be corrected by our resident pageant historians, but I simply cannot remember Miss Maine weighing in on Roe versus Wade, or Miss Idaho giving us her views on the SALT Treaty. I do remember that, regardless of the question, the contestants were all in favor of working to make this a better world, and this was the gist of every answer to any question. I guess we should have been heartened to think that 50 pretty young women should be so committed to working for world peace in a turbulent, complicated world.

I never expected to see another pageant, but due to a combination of completely random events, I ended up watching the last segment of the Miss America pageant a couple of weeks ago, partially because we were channel surfing, stumbled upon the pageant, and then realized that Miss North Carolina had made it to the final five. Soon, my wife and I were comparing stories about watching the pageant when we were kids.

We watched them in their sparkly evening gowns, and then came the questions. “This should be interesting,” I said.

Some minor Internet celebrity named Perez Hilton (what, they couldn’t get Rerun from “What’s Happening!!”) asked Miss California for her thoughts on gay marriage. She began to answer as if she were going to delicately sidestep the question and come out in favor of working for the betterment of the world before finally taking a stand that marriage, in her view, was between a man and a woman.

She made it to the final two, before ultimately losing out to Miss North Carolina. The next day she said that she felt her answer cost her the pageant. She appears to feel this way because Hilton is evidently gay and because we live in a time of rampant political correctness, in which the liberal elite media has pushed its agenda so far as to infiltrate the Miss America pageant! What’s next, Keith Olbermann promoting the movie “Milk” on a box of Corn Flakes? Where will it end?

Miss California might be consoled that gay marriage is still illegal in all but three states and is not recognized by the federal government. If it is true that political correctness has put people in the uncomfortable position of disguising their bigotry in the familiar garb of “family values,” it is also true that this same bigotry is very much still in force. In the 2008 election, voters in California, Florida, and Arizona overwhelmingly voted to ban same-sex marriages.

Now, Miss California has gone to Washington, where she will become a spokesperson — or, “spokesman,” since I wouldn’t want to indulge here in unseemly political correctness in identifying her as a person — for a group called the National Organization for Marriage. They are fighting “to protect traditional marriages.”

Well, when it comes to hard hitting journalism, I’m no Perez Hilton, but I do have a question for Miss California and anyone else who sees gay marriage as a threat to traditional marriage: Isn’t divorce a bigger threat?

If the conventional wisdom that half of the marriages in our country will end in divorce is true, isn’t divorce a much bigger threat to traditional marriage than if some same-sex couple down the street gets married? I’m in a traditional marriage, and I do not understand how anyone else’s marriage — gay or straight — is a threat to mine. The main threat to my marriage is forgetting my wife’s anniversary, or making one too many comments on how nice Miss North Carolina looks in her dark blue sequins.

Now, before folks go lunging for their laptops to send me quotes from Leviticus proving that gay marriage should be banned on biblical principles, please remember to show us where Jesus is quoted on the issue of gay marriage, and then explain why divorce is legal, since Jesus actually is quoted more than once on that issue.

Moreover, when can we expect groups to spring up in favor of putting to death all those work on the Sabbath, a sanction that is clearly spelled out in Exodus? If my son is disobedient, should I heed the words of Deuteronomy and have him stoned to death? When will we see groups boycotting Red Lobster because hardened sinners are inside eating shrimp or crab legs with no regard at all for Leviticus, which forbids us to eat shellfish? How can we stand idly by every fall when weekends are so cluttered with people touching the skin of dead pigs? Leviticus calls it an abomination. We call it football.

If we are going to base all our laws on the Old Testament, we had better get after it. When Miss California gets back from Washington, she’s got her work cut out for her.

(Chris Cox is a writer and teacher who lives in Waynesville. He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..)

Fighting the fear that comes at night

I don’t really know when nightmares begin. I guess it is possible that babies have nightmares, shaken awake in the night by dreams of stuffed giraffes turned suddenly sinister or a nipple that you chase and chase and never quite catch up to. I remember some pained expressions on my children’s sleeping faces, but we always assumed it was gas, not nightmares.

One thing I do know is that by the time they reach the age of 4, children have nightmares — vivid, terrifying , wrenching nightmares. The kind of nightmares that shatter sleep like an errant baseball shatters a living room window. The kind of nightmares that do not evaporate on contact once they are awake, burned away by the daylight like so much early morning fog, completely forgotten before the Cheerios begin dividing like cells in the cereal bowl.

No, these nightmares linger for hours, even days, making the prospect of going to bed not only a bummer, but a source of pure and profound dread, worse, even, than eating a brussel sprout, nearly as bad as getting a vaccination shot or being hugged too tightly and too long by a well meaning relative. Dreams ... the polyester pressing hard against your face, maybe a sharp pendant scratching you, and the smells ... sweet perfume like rotting peaches, some kind of powder, too.

But dreams lately are even worse than that, a lot worse, worse than anything. You get a shot, the shot’s over. You eat a brussel sprout, you wash it down with a shot of chocolate milk and a jelly bean you smuggled in your pocket. Your great-great-whatever hugs you, you hold your breath and wait for it to pass. These are horrors, but predictable, manageable horrors. What to do about these dreams? There is no way to predict them, no way to manage them.

Worse, your mind reels and reels and reels as darkness falls, and the machinery of your nighttime ritual pushes you toward bedtime. The taking of baths, the brushing of teeth, the reading of stories, the singing of the familiar bedtime songs, the old repetition of kisses and goodnights, more kisses and more goodnights, a couple of last minute random questions designed for last-ditch stalling — yes, we may have ice cream tomorrow, no, we can’t go to the beach yet — one last good night. OK, one more.

Now it comes. Images. Sounds. Sensations. What was that? Did you see something just then, right there? You remember something you saw in a book, a monster with terrible yellow teeth. You remember the big bad wolf, the poor pigs. You remember something your friend said, something very scary about enemies and bad guys, and even though you are not exactly sure what an “enemy” is, it can’t be good, not if they’re BAD guys. You hear something outside. The dog barks. Enemies!!!

Time to go get Dad.

I know these dreams are fueled in part by popular culture. As a kid, I thought nothing of Hansel and Gretel, Little Red Riding Hood, Aunt Rhody and her dead old gray goose, or any other of the time-honored twisted tales that parents inflict on their children, but as a parent, I look at the rich history of flat-out weirdness in children’s literature with some mixture of fascination and disgust. No wonder we’re so violent, so warped, so in need of therapy and self help books. Maybe I was more affected than I realize. I do remember tossing and turning in my bed at night, imagining always what might be outside, lurking, looking for a way to get inside. Isn’t that a persistent theme in children’s stories, after all, something out there trying to get in here?

I remember getting a CD of famous children’s songs from a family friend a couple of years ago when we were getting ready to go to the beach and spend six or seven hours in the minivan with the kids. “This will help entertain them,” the friend said. Sure enough, they listened attentively for a good while, and my mind began to wander aimlessly and quite pleasantly until the lyrics of a creepy little song about lady bugs crept into my consciousness: “Lady bug, Lady bug, fly away home, your house is on fire and your children are gone.”

And we wonder where the nightmares come from? We started skipping the “Lady Bug” song, opting instead to send the bear over the mountain about 1,200 times before we got to Charleston.

Taking the advice of another friend, I have begun using Monster Spray every night before bed — yes, it is now part of the bedtime ritual. I spray around the doors and windows, under the beds, over the beds, even give a good blast into the center of the room for good measure. According to the label, it also works well on enemies and bad guys.

Now, good night, guys. I love you, too. Yes, we can throw the Frisbee tomorrow. Good night ... what’s that? No, we aren’t having brussel sprouts tomorrow.

Sweet dreams, buddy. Yes, the spray lasts all night. Yes, really.

(Chris Cox is a writer and teacher who lives in Waynesville. He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..)

Get ready for life in the fast lane

It seems impossible that my niece is going to have a baby. She is 20 years old, which is about the same age as my favorite pair of Levis. I remember when she was born. We all crowded around the crib and agreed that she looked exactly like my sister, which she did. The next thing I knew she was waving a magic wand in a dance recital, and not long after that she was getting her driver’s license and writing tragic poems about teenage angst in her high school English class.

Now she’s having a baby, a girl she’s naming Betty that is due to arrive in about a week, give or take, and I have just this one question, addressed to no one in particular: Where did 20 years go? Why is the distance between the ages of 7 and 27 so very, very much longer than the distance between 27 and 47?


In keeping with the age, I have been following progress reports on her pregnancy — and the various moods that go with it — on her MySpace page. We have chimed in from time to time with chipper comments on her message board, where her friends congregate daily to see what is new. They offer help if she needs any, worry if she doesn’t answer the phone promptly, and gush over newly posted pictures of her belly, pushing out and filling her brightly colored cotton shirt so fully that it looks like some exotic new planet.

Oh, it will be a new world, all right. The world she has inhabited is about to go away for good, replaced by a completely foreign world in which she must learn the language, laws, and customs while trying to survive in it at the same time. One minute she seems to know this, the next she seems completely unaware of just how profound this change is going to be.

On the other hand, how could she be prepared? How could anyone? How could I? How could you? You can read all the books you can find, watch all the instructional videos, subscribe to all the magazines, write down every syllable of advice that experienced mothers give you, and still be utterly bewildered the first time your newborn gets a sudden fever, or can’t get to sleep no matter what you try.

You’ve done everything you are supposed to do, everything right by the book, everything you were told, and yet there you are, at 3 a.m., driving the back roads listening to the Eagles’ greatest hits, just hoping your baby will finally go to sleep in her car seat.

Nope, it’s not another tequila sunrise, but that won’t make it any easier in three hours when she wakes you up again, just as you are finally getting some desperately needed sleep. Welcome to the Hotel California. ‘You can check in anytime you like, but you can never leave.’


Although my brother is younger than I am, he and his wife had kids before we did, so he gave me some free advice to help me prepare at least in some measure for what was coming.

“It is overwhelming in every way,” he said. “Sometimes it’s overwhelming in a great way, and sometimes it’s overwhelming in a not so great way.”

I don’t know if that really qualifies as advice, but it is a fundamental truth about becoming a parent that any new parent needs to recognize and, if possible, embrace. It is learning to live in constant fear that you are doing something profoundly, irrevocably wrong, and that even if you don’t do anything wrong, terrible things can still happen at any time. It is learning the real meaning of patience, and balance, and resolve. These are just words among other words until you have a new baby in your home, when they suddenly and forcefully take on a much more profound meaning than you could have ever realized. You only thought of yourself as a patient, balanced, and resolute person. You were nothing of the sort. Now you’ll learn. You’d better.

You will also learn the meaning of love the first time you see and hold your baby, the first time the baby holds your finger, the first time she smiles. You are going to have a year of firsts — everything will be marked, noted, photographed. It really is a new planet after all, and you are discovering all of its countries day by day, recording every one.

It is overwhelming in every way.


So my niece is having a baby. I guess I should write something else on her MySpace page, while she still has time to look at it. I should tell her that this is it, the adventure of a lifetime. I should tell her to savor every minute of it, even the tougher moments. She is not going to believe how quickly 20 years can go by. Also, no matter how many diapers she got at her baby shower, she is going to need more. Lots more. Bon voyage!

(Chris Cox is a writer and teacher who lives in Waynesville. He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..)

Around here, March madness is a religion

March Madness is upon us, and if you or anyone in your house has ever played basketball or perhaps even seen a basketball, chances are that you spent a long weekend feasting on the first two rounds of the NCAA basketball tournament. As you know, as a resident of North Carolina, you are required by law to watch any game with an ACC school in it. North Carolina is to basketball what Italy is to spaghetti. Other states may brag about their Nobel Prize winners or what have you — we have Michael Jordan. I said we have Michael Jordan. That’s Air Jordan, or Mr. Jordan, if you don’t come from North Carolina. So, Mr. Nobel Prize winner and the state you came from, you still want some? Didn’t think so.

College basketball is a religion here, of course, and March Madness is our 18 days of Christmas. There are those who have complete faith that God favors the Tar Heels — why is the sky blue, as the bumper sticker saith. Others insist that the Duke Blue Devils are the Chosen People, pointing to the arrival of Coach Mike Krzyzewski as proof of divine intervention or Manifest Destiny or whatever.

At one time, in 1983 to be exact, it seemed all but certain that a higher power was manipulating free throw shots specifically in order to help the North Carolina State Wolfpack complete the most improbable run in college basketball history. The “Cardiac Pack” won the championship by coming from behind again and again throughout the tournament, before finally slaying Goliath — the University of Houston Cougars, and their two future NBA Hall of Famers Hakeem Olajuwon and Clyde Drexler — in the championship game. It was like Opie Taylor knocking out Mike Tyson.

Ironically, the point guard for the Cardiac Pack in 1983 was Sidney Lowe, who is the current head coach of N.C. State, a team that seems to have lost its way from the basketball promised land. This season, not only did the Wolfpack not make the NCAA tournament, it did not even get an invitation to the National Invitational Tournament, or the NIT. Now, the NIT once was a prestigious tournament back in the day when only the conference champion got a bid to the NCAA tournament. But with the field for the big tournament now expanded to 65 teams, failing to get into the big dance and having to settle for the NIT is roughly as exciting as taking your cousin to the prom.

And, failing even to get into the NIT, well, maybe this is the Biblical equivalent of the Wolfpack spending 40 years in the desert, “a great and terrible wilderness.” Can Sidney lead the Pack back to the Promised Land? Who knows? It doesn’t look promising.

I went to N.C. State myself. In fact, I went to school with Lowe, Derrick Whittenberg, Thurl Bailey, and the rest of that magical 1983 team. And though I had dropped out of college the semester before they won the national championship, I was in Raleigh with my friends the night the Pack beat Houston. To this day, it is my one transcendent moment in sports, greater than my hole in one at Lake Junaluska, greater than winning the first (and only) annual Alleghany Open putt putt tournament in 1981, greater than all my bowling trophies combined.

Lorenzo Charles grabbed and dunked the ball after a desperate last second shot by Derrick Whittenberg, and I spent the next several hours in ecstasy that felt like I imagine heaven feeling. Pure joy, shared by thousands all at once.

As I filled out my brackets last week, I remembered 1983, of course. Twenty-six years ago, I was witness to a miracle. Now, I just hope to win 20 bucks in the office pool. I completed my selections without much enthusiasm, fished out a dollar, and turned it in to the bracketmaster. Well, that was that.

Then, Thursday arrived, the first games tipped off, and I felt it all come back. Not just 1983, but 1973 (or 1976 or 1979 or...) when kids used to get out of school early to go home and watch the opening round of the ACC tournament. This being North Carolina, the first round of the tournament was an unofficial holiday. Everyone went home, including the teachers, to watch the games.

Before I knew it, I was home in front of the set, just like the old days. I’ll leave it to others to fight the holy war between Duke and Carolina. I’ll just enjoy the games and savor the memories. I plan on winning that 20 dollars, too. Manifest Destiny or whatever.

(Chris Cox is a writer and teacher who lives in Waynesville. He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..)

Mr. February, me and my wife make happy

I love dogs. Except during that period in my life when I lived in a seemingly endless series of shoebox apartments that did not allow pets larger or furrier than goldfish, I have always had at least one dog, and usually two. I have seen a good many dogs come and go in my life, but I have never, ever actually bought a dog. With so many dogs in shelters, it is simply against my principles. All of my dogs have been either shelter dogs or strays I found out roaming around.

But I’ll tell you something I’ve learned: There are principles, and then there is marriage. If you are not married, then you may not know this — I didn’t — but marriage has its own principles that may not always snuggle up cozily to your own. If you do not grasp this basic truth, you will one day wind up in the doghouse with your shelter dog and your precious principles for company.

Now my wife is not an acquisitive person and not really an animal person either — let’s just say she is more tolerant of our pets than doting and leave it be — but for years, she has fancied dachshunds, especially miniature dachshunds. If we are driving down the street and she sees one in a neighbor’s yard or on a leash, she falls into paroxysms of pure schoolgirl joy, the way schoolgirls used to get over catching an unexpected glimpse at David Cassidy in Tiger Beat. If my wife were still a schoolgirl, I guess she would go crazy over the Jonas Brothers, but since she is married with kids, a job, a mortgage, and a minivan with a window that will roll down but not back up, her passions have shifted. Teen idols are out, miniature dachshunds are in.

So I did the right thing and got her a miniature dachshund calendar for Christmas. I thought it was the perfect compromise for someone who loved the breed, but already had one dog, one cat, two gerbils, two children, and one husband on her hands. She could look at dachshunds every day of the week, every month of the year, and never have to feed one, clean up after it, take it to the vet, or complain that it had been gnawing on her best work shoes. She would have her daily quota of dachshund cuteness, without any poop or barking. Pretty good deal, I thought.

But there are the things you think, and then there is marriage, and these things do not always sit comfortably together in the same carriage on the Ferris Wheel. In other words, she did like the calendar — it hangs in our kitchen now, where every single day one of 12 adorable dachshund puppies will supervise one of us making breakfast or washing the dishes until the year is up. If I thought this would cure her puppy fever, however, it didn’t take long to see that it had just the opposite effect. With a cute dachshund staring her in the face every day — Mr. February was especially adorable, I must admit — my wife suddenly could no longer contain herself.

All I’ve heard for two solid months is “dachshund this” and “dachshund that.” She manages to work dachshunds into every conversation, regardless of how ill fitting it may seem to anyone not quite so dachshund-centric. Yes, it is true that we may be able to get another 50,000 miles out of the minivan, but how many miles would we get out of a brand new miniature dachshund puppy? Sure, she has seen the brochures that came from Florida, and maybe we should go there for vacation this summer, but have I imagined how great it would be to see a dachshund puppy encountering the ocean for the first time?

After several weeks of this, I knew what had to be done, so on Monday, we just did it. We found an adorable miniature dachshund puppy for sale online, and made arrangements to meet the owners in Asheville to “look him over.”

“We can just look,” my wife said. “We don’t have to buy him.”

Well, there are the things you don’t have to do, and then there is marriage. Needless to say, these things don’t always drink out of the same water dish. I grabbed the checkbook and we were off.

We met the owners at Alan’s Pawn and Jewelry, and within two minutes after we pulled into the parking lot, my wife had the puppy in her hands. He was six weeks old, the runt of the litter. He was unbelievably tiny, a cigarette lighter with short legs and floppy ears, a Pez dispenser with puppy breath and needle teeth.

He also looked exactly like Mr. February.

You know how this story ends. It ends with a new puppy in your house, chewing on anything he can get his tiny mouth around. It ends with you out in the yard at 4 a.m., watching a shivering puppy do his business in the yard with the moon as the only witness. It ends with your children excited, even delirious, over the arrival of the new “mincer dot son,” as your son calls him.

It ends with your wife doting on the puppy, smiling and happy. When she’s not doting on him, she’s doting on YOU. And why shouldn’t she? You’re a genius. It only took you about three years to figure this out. You congratulate yourself and think about grabbing a quick nap.

You’d better hurry, before Mr. February wakes up from his.

(Chris Cox is a writer and teacher who lives in Waynesville. He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..)

For young illegals, a coming-of-age quandary

Irene is not just a good student. She is one of the very best at her school, near the top of her class and hard working as they come. Under ordinary circumstances, she would be filling out applications to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Duke, Wake Forest, and other top universities. She would be competing for prestigious scholarships.

She would be visiting these campuses and talking over her options with academic counselors, comparing programs and getting a feel for what her life might be like in these different settings. It would be one of the most exciting times of her life. Having put herself in the enviable position of being able to pick and choose among excellent universities as a result of her extraordinary work and commitment to her education and future, she would have the whole world at her doorstep.

There is never again a time in person’s life quite like being 17 or 18 years old, especially for someone like Irene, a student with the potential and drive to do or be almost anything she wants to be. If the election of Barack Obama meant anything, it meant that the American Dream really does exist.

Unlike our most recent president, Obama was not born with a silver spoon in his mouth, did not have every break and advantage handed to him along the way. He came from a very poor background, but he worked hard, never letting the challenges of his childhood or the negative stereotypes about his ethnic heritage prevent him from accomplishing his goals as a student. Not only did he attend Harvard Law School, he was the first black student to ever become president of the Harvard Law Review. Now he is President of the United States. His story is an affirmation of what is possible if a person is only determined enough to succeed.

All of this stands as an inspiration then, for Irene? Well, no. In fact, it is a pill perhaps even more bitter to swallow. The one thing Irene cannot do, regardless of how hard she works or what she accomplishes in high school, regardless of how highly her teachers think of her or how bejeweled her academic record may be, is to make herself an American citizen. She cannot change the circumstances of her birth, or account for the decisions her parents made.

And what decisions are these, exactly? To come to America to find a better life? To work hard and earn a place of respect in the community? To open a restaurant and feed people? To send their children to a better school?

The issue of illegal immigration has been hotly debated, and people of good will can certainly disagree about it. Unfortunately, the debate has not always been waged by people of good will; we have all seen depressing examples of how quickly bigotry can be introduced into the equation. “Those people” are coming here to take our jobs, spreading their diseases and lowering the quality of life wherever “they” go. Yes, depressing, the ignorance and the hatred that so often goes with it.

Still, the issue remains, and it is a serious issue that must be addressed by serious people, not the louts who typically dominate public discourse with their shrill voices, sharpened to a point by the whetstone of talk radio. That’s all well and good. In the meantime, what I want to know is this: What about Irene?

Irene should be filling out applications to the best universities in the state, but she isn’t. She cannot, because while she has a grade point average that very few students can match, she does not have what even the laziest, least ambitious students all have: a social security number. Without one, she has no realistic shot at getting into any of those schools. The very best she can hope for is to get in, and then have to pay out-of-state tuition, which so far exceeds in-state tuition rates as to make it impossible to even consider, especially since she cannot compete for any scholarships.

Under ordinary circumstances, her achievements in high school would have brought her to the beginning of something bigger, perhaps much bigger. That would be up to her, because in America, as Barack Obama has proven, you can be anything if you work hard enough and believe strongly enough in yourself and your future.

But these circumstances are not ordinary, even if they are not unique. Irene may not be the only child of illegal immigrants to excel in high school, and not the only one with the potential to achieve wondrous things at our finest universities. And yet, there she is, at the door, which, for her, is locked.

Whether we agree or disagree about illegal immigration, there are fundamental questions that go much deeper than the issue itself, especially in the abstract. If an illegal immigrant appears at the hospital so badly in need of treatment that death is a real possibility, would we choose to ignore it and let him die? If a student does everything in her power to achieve the American dream, are we going to deny her the chance that any of our sons and daughters would have? Remember, even if you have little sympathy for what her parents chose to do, Irene did not make that choice.

Adversity teaches us things about ourselves, sometimes things we might just as soon not learn. In these bad economic times, when so many are suffering, it is all the more likely that anger toward illegal immigrants will be ginned up. The question is, even in tough times like these, do we really want to live in a country callous enough to say “No, you can’t” to Irene?

President Obama’s mantra before the election was “Yes, we can.” I sincerely hope Irene is part of “we” and not just another one of “those people.”

(Chris Cox is a writer and teacher who lives in Waynesville. He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..)

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