About Steph

Your author, part-time, work-at-home writer.

Joys and Sorrows

The new year got off to a bit of a rocky start. In the first two weeks after winter break, the kids had a snow day, two two-hour delays, and an early dismissal—all for three-quarters of an inch of snow, one unusually cold morning, and a little (I swear not much at all) ice on the sidewalks. It was disheartening, especially because it was a busy couple of weeks for work. I can and did work with the kids home– they’re old enough not to bother me too much when I’m working—but I just can’t concentrate as well when I’m not alone in the house, so each new cancellation or delay was frustrating. It’s possible I’ve been ruined for working in an office, after almost six and a half years of working at home.

Overall, it wasn’t a bad two weeks, though. North attended the first rehearsal for both the school play and Honors chorus. I didn’t have much post-holiday letdown and whenever I was tempted to wish we could just fast-forward through the next two months, have done with winter, and let spring come, I remembered two things. First is that Beth loves winter. Second is that Noah will leave for college in less than two years, so I really shouldn’t be wishing away any time. He’s been working on his senior year course schedule, which is why this is front of mind. I just can’t believe he’s picking courses for his last year in high school, as if that were truly happening any time soon. (Yes, I know, it is.)

Anniversary

Beth and I had an anniversary on Thursday. It was the twenty-sixth anniversary of our commitment ceremony and the fifth anniversary of our legal wedding. Beth’s mom posted this photo, taken in our apartment in D.C, of us opening wedding presents on Facebook. Look at us! We were practically babies. Well, twenty-four and twenty-five. I was a mere eight years older than Noah is now. Now I am trying to imagine myself at his wedding eight years hence and wondering where the baby who lived the first year of his life in that apartment with the salmon-colored wall went.

As of Tuesday, I didn’t have a gift for Beth. I’d decided to get her some gift certificates from AFI too late to order them through the mail, so I got on a bus to Silver Spring that morning and picked them up from the theater. While I was in downtown Silver Spring, I also got a mocha, lunch at BurgerFi, and spent a long time browsing for some small gifts at Whole Foods so I’d have something to wrap. I settled on treats one might eat at the movies (dark chocolate-covered almonds and milk chocolate-covered pretzels) to keep the gift thematically consistent, and got a card with a heart on the front and I was done.

Except when I got home, I opened the card and discovered it was a Valentine’s Day card. Why are these on sale already? Who buys valentines a month in advance? Clearly not me. And then I couldn’t stop thinking about another card I’d seen there, which was obviously superior. So, the next day, instead of being practical and going somewhere in Takoma for a new card, I went back to Silver Spring and got the card I wanted. It has different colored buttons all over it in the shape of a heart and it is blank inside.

Thursday I made our anniversary cake, the one we had at our commitment ceremony and at our legal wedding. It’s a spice cake, with a lemon glaze. I covered it in red and blue colored sugar. Because I didn’t leave myself quite enough time to bake a cake for forty-five minutes and scalloped potatoes for an hour at different temperatures, dinner was a little late, so Beth and I exchanged gifts before dinner rather than after. She got me Reckless Daughter, the Joni Mitchell biography that came out last fall and which I thought someone might get me for Christmas. That’s one of the advantages of a mid-January anniversary—it’s a chance to get (or give) what you didn’t get (or give) at Christmas.  North had dinner at Xavier’s, but when they got home, we all ate the cake we always eat together in mid-January and our anniversary was over.

MLK Weekend

Saturday I worked a little and Beth took North and Xavier ice skating and out to dinner, bringing back take-out for Noah and me. Yesterday, Beth, North and I went to church. We’ve never been church-goers, but recently North has become curious about church and asked recently if we could try out a Unitarian Universalist congregation. (We’ve been to UU services a few times when visiting Beth’s mom.) It was the third time Beth and North have gone to this church and the first time I went with them. There’s a part of the service called the Communion of Joys and Sorrows in which people tell the congregation about a joy or sorrow in their lives and light a candle for it. I recall Beth’s mom’s church does this, too, but with stones dropped in a bowl of water, if I’m remembering correctly.

Two of the people who shared we knew slightly. One of my colleagues from my teaching days shared that her son had won an award at college. And there was a lesbian couple who shared that one of their mothers had suffered a fall and broken an ankle and that a nephew was newly married. Beth thought one of them was a gym teacher from Noah’s middle school. Overall, there were more sorrows than joys. I asked Beth if that was always the case and she said so far yes, speculating that maybe people need more support for their sorrows or don’t want to seem to be bragging about their joys. If I’d had to share something I probably would have gone with a sorrow, too, because it was one day before the eighth anniversary of my father’s death.

I knew the day was coming and I wasn’t feeling very emotional about it. Some years I feel it keenly and some years I don’t. However, when I woke this morning, it hit me hard. I lay in bed thinking about Dad and about the fact that there’s snow coming tomorrow and Wednesday and if we get off with just an early dismissal and a two-hour delay on the affected days, we’ll be lucky. Everything seemed bleak. I didn’t particularly want to get up and I didn’t particularly want to spend two hours picking up trash around Long Branch creek, even though that’s our traditional MLK Day of Service activity. We’ve been doing it since the kids were small.

But Beth made homemade waffles, which made getting up a little more attractive and all of us except North, who was feeling under the weather, went to the woods near the creek and picked up trash and recycling, mostly beer cans and bottles. It was cold but we were moving around so it wasn’t too bad. I even got warm enough to unbutton my coat and take off my gloves, which I shouldn’t have done because I got cuts on my hands from the thorn bushes and they ended up smelling like stale beer. I also kept getting stickers in my hair, which I should have worn in a ponytail. Even with all the thorns, it was good to be focused on poking around in the brush, looking for the next can. It kept my mind off other things.

After a quick lunch at home, Beth and I went to AFI to redeem one of the gift certificates I got her for our anniversary. We saw The Post. Have you seen it yet? If not, you should as soon as you possibly can. It made me feel hopeful about journalism and democracy, and that’s no small feat these days. Now, as the fifty-year-old daughter of a journalist I must admit movies that take place largely in 1970s newsrooms are right in my nostalgic sweet spot, so you can take my recommendation with that in mind. From the movie, we went to Eggspectation for coffee and cake. I got a piece of chocolate-peanut butter Smith Island cake.

The best thing about the whole day was how it was a mostly unintentional tribute to Dad. He might not have taken part in an organized creek clean-up, not being much of a do-gooder, but he was in the habit of picking up all the trash on his block.  (I, too, often come home from walks with a tote bag full of recyclables.) He was a newspaper editor in the 1970s (and beyond) with a passion for investigative journalism and politics. He loved coffee and most desserts, but especially chocolate.

But we always do the creek clean-up on MLK day, The Post was opening this weekend and I’d just gotten Beth movie ticket certificates so it was natural we’d go see it. All the plans were made before I even thought about what day it would be. The only detail I added with him in mind was going out for cake.

My father wasn’t an easy man to get along with and we didn’t always get along, especially when I was in my late teens. But there’s no doubt that I am his daughter in many deep and lasting ways. And that’s more of a joy than a sorrow.

Note: The last photo is of a little altar my sister made for Dad today.

White Christmas

Solstice

Thursday after school North went to AFI with their new friend Xavier and one of his moms to see A Muppet Christmas Carol and Noah came home still wearing a party hat from a party in his calculus class and no homework due the next day. He was quite chipper—drumming and reading Wizard and Glass ensued. Beth got home late—she was out getting a Christmas tree—but we had enough time to open presents from my mom and sister and eat gingerbread cookies. We were opening some of our presents early so we wouldn’t have to pack them all and I’d made gingerbread dough so we could take it with us to bake at Blackwater Falls State Park, where we were spending Christmas again. When I’d finished the dough, I baked about a dozen cookies for our Solstice celebration—a mix of snowmen, stars, and Christmas trees. After we’d opened the books, essential oils, a narwhal puppet, a cookbook, and spices and other goodies from my mom’s recent trip to Asia, North went to bed. When, later that evening, I found Noah up past his bedtime and told him to go to bed, he seemed genuinely surprised. He felt so unencumbered he’d forgotten it was a school night. (He’d been drumming on things other than his drums all afternoon and evening, which is often how I know he’s happy.)

Rain to Snow

After everyone had finished another day of work and school and errands and packing, we left Saturday morning a little after ten-thirty and drove to Blackwater. It was raining on and off the whole way and the temperature dropped from the high fifties to the high forties. (I know this because we have a new—to us—car we bought just last week and it has a screen on the dashboard that tells you things like that. It also tells you the name and artist of songs when you play music, which is educational for people like me with poor recognition of currently popular artists.)

About twenty minutes into the drive I told Beth it was good it was raining because it would make her happy when it changed to snow. Although the week overall was very cold, it didn’t get cold enough for snow during the drive, though we did see ice in the road cuts and patches of old snow here and there at the higher elevations.

On the way, we sang along with Christmas music and the kids had a spirited discussion about mistletoe and consent. Noah finds the whole concept of mistletoe problematic while North thinks it’s not that hard to ask before you kiss someone and he should just lighten up. Another topic of conversation: are all songs that portray Santa in a sexual or romantic light—e.g. “Santa Baby,” “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus,” and “I Wish My Mom Would Marry Santa Claus”—automatically creepy? North is a definite yes on this one.

We got to the cabin just before three, where we found YaYa and a pot of delicious homemade vegetable soup, which we enjoyed between putting up and decorating the tree and watching How the Grinch Stole Christmas, as a light snow fell.

Christmas Eve

We woke to a pretty dusting of snow on the ground and all over the tree branches outside the window and spent a cozy and relaxing day. North and I made hash browns to eat with breakfast. Then the kids and I made gingerbread cookies from the dough and decorated them with colored sugar and dried cranberries. In the afternoon YaYa took North to the pool up at the lodge—they stayed for hours—while Beth and I took a walk down some muddy trails to the partially frozen pond and on from there to the edge of the gorge where we admired the deep slopes of snow-frosted evergreens and the Elakala waterfall on the far side.

When we got back Beth and Noah watched Rogue One while I read. I was trying to finish a book I got last Christmas in time to start a new stack. (I didn’t quite manage it by Christmas but I did finish it while we were there.) I recommend it if a true crime-based, Appalachian Gothic novel that inspired a classic noir film sounds like your thing.

I made kale and potato soup for dinner with North’s help, while singing Christmas music together. I thought we harmonized particularly well on “God Rest Ye Merry Gentleman.” After dinner, we watched Frosty the Snowman and Frosty Returns and just before North went to bed, Noah gave a very dramatic (and slightly menacing) reading of “’Twas the Night Before Christmas,” for some reason in an English accent.

Christmas Day

Santa’s first gift to Beth was seven inches of fluffy white snow that fell overnight. I’d given North instructions not to get out of bed until six at which point they could look in their stocking, and to be very quiet, as the fireplace was right outside the adults’ rooms. However, it was Noah who was up first, at 6:30, and he decided to wait for North to wake before they opened their stockings together at 7:10. Beth and I were up soon after that, and then YaYa soon after us. 

Everyone gathered around the tree with chocolate and clementines from our stockings to eat while we opened presents. (Did you know they call clementines “Christmas oranges” in Canada? I just found this out this year and now I want to call them that, except I’d feel like a poseur, since I’m not Canadian.) There was a great quantity of books, socks, soap, jam, tea, mugs, pajamas and clothes exchanged in all directions.  Noah’s big present was a new video camera and he also got three bags of pasta, while North got new headphones, an essential oil dispenser, and the promise of a hair dye job. Noah helped set up the oil dispenser and soon North’s room smelled pleasantly of peppermint.

Beth and North made a cranberry cake for breakfast and we ate it spread with lemon curd, along with eggs and veggie bacon. While we were looking out at the snow, I made an idle comment that someone should decorate the tiny evergreen tree in front of our cluster of cabins. Well, North was right on that, choosing several ornaments from our tree and adorning the little one.

While everyone else read, YaYa helped North run through their lines for the school play. It’s not Romeo and Juliet after all, but The Canterbury Tales. North is playing the Pardoner, which seems like a pretty good part, even though they were hoping for the Wife of Bath.

Noah worked on a puzzle of famous book covers he and YaYa had started earlier and everyone else went for a walk. We went back to the gorge overlook, but this time we took a more direct route, walking along the park road instead of the trails, because of the trails were covered with snow and it was quite cold. It was twelve degrees, three with the wind chill, which is about how cold it was most of our stay. Even so, it was good to be outside and moving in the fresh air and peaceful scenery. (Somewhat less peaceful while we were singing “Frosty the Snowman” and North was trying to make snowballs out of the powdery snow and throwing them at trees.) As we did many times during the trip, we saw deer with big fluffy white tails bounding across the road and into the woods.

When we got back to the cabin, Beth and North stayed outside to dig out the cars (Beth) and make a snow angel and a snowman (North). YaYa and I went inside and I made grilled cheese sandwiches and heated up soup for everyone’s lunch.

That evening we watched The Polar Express and most of us watched a Dr. Who Christmas special, which centered around the WWI Christmas truce. I knew that story but I wasn’t sure if it was real, apocryphal, or from a work of fiction. But then my friend Regina posted this on Facebook so now I know. I haven’t watched Dr. Who since the eighties, so I didn’t have the whole backstory, but I could follow well enough. The kids are both fans, especially Noah.

Post-Christmas

We spent three more days at Blackwater. Sadly, after taking the first three days of break off homework, Noah had to start working the day after Christmas—he had considerable homework, some of it due during break. There was a paper revision to submit online the day after Christmas and a history quiz (on two chapters of new reading) to take on New Year’s Eve. And that was just a small part of it. Homework over break is nothing new, but homework due during break is. I blame Governor Hogan, for compressing the school year and making us start a week late, even though the dates of the AP tests didn’t change.

Part of what Noah had to do was read in a four hundred-page book about how high-achieving high school students are overworked. I am finding this bitterly ironic, even though the book’s interesting. (I’m reading it, too.) He was working the rest of the time we were at Blackwater, though he took occasional breaks to work on the puzzle or read with me or go on outings. (Once we were home he worked straight through the last three days.)

The rest of us spent a lot of time reading our new books and we went to the pool two more times. I swam about sixty laps in the tiny pool each time, spending almost as much time turning around as swimming, but it was still good to be in the water and moving. North and I had it to ourselves the first time I was there and most of the second time. The pool was in a very pleasant room with a lot of natural light and windows looking out on snow-covered trees. And there was a hot tub, which Beth, North, and I all enjoyed the last time we were there.

We got three more inches of snow a couple days after Christmas and the kids tried out the park’s sled run. There’s a track that conveys your sled—with you on it—up the hill and then you sled down. They did three rides each, two together and one separately, after much negotiation about that ratio. The adults stood by the bonfire at the bottom of the hill or watched from inside the snack bar, which had a nice view of the hill.

Our last full day we all went out for lunch at an Italian restaurant in Davis, the nearest town. Afterwards Beth and I left everyone at the cabin and ventured slowly and carefully down a series of snow-covered wooden staircases that lead to Blackwater Falls. We’d all seen them the day before from an overview on the other side of the gorge, but they are lovely and close to Beth’s heart, so she wanted to see them up close, even in nine-degree weather. It didn’t feel quite that cold because it was a sunny day and we were exercising, climbing up and down all those stairs. (I did feel my nose hairs freeze, though.)

The falls were half-frozen, with water stained gold from the tannin in the hemlock and spruce trees tumbling over the bulging layers of ice. There were impressive icicles as well, of varying colors, from white to gold to brown, hanging from the rocks near the falls.

Later that day we watched as four well-fed looking deer pawed at the snow in front of the cabin, uncovering grass to eat. Earlier in the week I’d spent a long, fascinating time watching a woodpecker hollowing out a hole in the dead tree branch from the comfort of the cabin’s couch. I couldn’t tell it had just found a particularly tasty cache of bugs of it was making a shelter, but it kept climbing most of the way into the hole it was making, with just its tail sticking out and then getting back outside to make it bigger.

On Thursday, our last day at Blackwater, Beth and YaYa took the ornaments off the tree and dragged it out behind the cabin. North also removed the ornaments from the outside tree and then we all started to pack. As we sat around the table eating YaYa’s homemade cheesecake that night, Beth said, “I don’t want to go home.” I knew how she felt. It’s how I often feel when we leave the beach. But it’s not too soon to start dreaming about next year. On Friday morning as we were checking out, YaYa made reservations for another cabin, for Christmas 2018.

Year’s End

We’ve had a few days at home before work and school resume tomorrow. I’ve been extraordinarily social. On Saturday morning, I had coffee with a close friend from my grad school/adjunct days. Joyce now lives in Indiana but was in Maryland visiting family. I hadn’t seen her in a couple years so it was nice to catch up with each other. That afternoon we drove out to Northern Virginia to visit a high school friend of Beth’s who was having a small get-together with us, her son, nephew, and a co-worker. Heather put out quite a spread, including a homemade apple tart and a cheese pie made with puff pastry. We contributed pizzelles Beth and North made. (Later I made buckeyes and we continued taking sweets to everyone who invited us anywhere.)

On Sunday evening, we went to a New Year’s Eve party at our neighbors’ house, where Beth learned to play a card game called Hand and Foot. I don’t pick up games easily so I watched. I still have no idea how this game works, but everyone seemed to be having fun. Meanwhile North and the other kids jumped on the backyard trampoline in the dark. The kids had glow sticks so it was very pretty to watch from inside, but apparently, it was less harmonious out there because they all came inside with different versions of an argument the adults seemed uninterested in getting to the bottom of.

Back at home, we set the kids up with two bottles of sparkling cider and a wide array of salty snacks so they could welcome in the new year without us, as we preferred to go to bed. It was a big deal for North who had never stayed up until midnight on New Year’s Eve before. It’s possible Noah never has either but he was unimpressed with the television coverage of Times Square. “So we’re going to watch this for two hours?” he said after a few minutes and then it seemed like he might bail and North was upset because they didn’t want to be all alone at midnight, but a compromise was reached and he stayed in the living room along with some electronics to entertain himself. The kids were very quiet and we actually got to sleep before eleven and everyone got the New Year’s Eve they wanted.

On New Year’s Day, North and I met up at the U.S. Botanic Garden with one of my oldest friends, Brian, and his wife Jann who were in town for a wedding.  (I met Brian when I was twelve and he was twenty-four and renting the apartment on the third floor of our house and he used to babysit my sister and me if my mom was out at night or out of town overnight). The gardens are all inside a big greenhouse. We wandered from room to room admiring desert, tropical, Mediterranean, and medicinal plants and then we climbed up on the catwalk to see the plants in the atrium from a higher perspective. There are models of iconic D.C. buildings (the Capitol, Supreme Court, various monuments, etc.) all made of natural materials in the lobby and Brian really got a kick out of these. Finally, we toured the model train display. The tracks go through elaborate landscapes that change from year to year. This year the theme was Roadside Attractions, so there were models of Mount Rushmore and other less well known sights such as the Corn Palace in South Dakota, the world’s largest statue of a pistachio, etc. It was a nice place to stroll and talk for an hour and a half on a bitterly cold day.

Beth picked us up at the Metro and we dropped North off at Xavier’s. His moms invited us to come in and socialize later when we picked them up. They were having another lesbian couple with kids over for dinner. It so happens we know this couple. Their kids went to the same preschool as ours, though in different years. So, we ended our holiday with a brief, impromptu three lesbian couple get-together over tea and cranberry cake.

2017 was not an easy year by any stretch of the imagination and I doubt 2018 will be either, but I hope the combination of nature, family, and friends we enjoyed over the past ten days will help give us the strength to face whatever’s coming our way in the months ahead.

They’re in the Band (and the Chorus)

Overture

North’s play, School of Rock, is in the middle of its run right now and the past couple weeks have been intense. We’ve all been at the theater a lot, though no one more than North, of course. There were some pre-show events earlier this month—a combination talent show/preview of scenes from the show and a cocktail hour for parents of the actors which also featured a preview of more of the songs.

As opening night approached, rehearsals got closer together and ran longer.  During tech week, or the week before the show opened, there were three school-night rehearsals that ran until ten p.m. For context, North’s regular school night bedtime is eight-thirty. (We are an early-to-bed and early-to-rise family. Even Beth and I are generally abed by ten at the latest.) But we did know what we were getting into when we signed North up for the play, so we can’t complain too much. Okay, we can and have, but I won’t right now.

As a result of this unusual schedule, we learned North can sleep until eight a.m., which I don’t think has ever happened in their whole life, but it did a few times after these late nights (though not consistently). We let them sleep as late as they could and they went to school about an hour late two days during Tech Week. They also missed the whole day Monday for reasons completely unrelated to the play.  They got a very big, deep splinter in their foot Sunday night, which Beth couldn’t completely remove, and they couldn’t walk on it.

North didn’t sleep well that night and didn’t want to do anything but rest Monday morning, so they slept on and off all morning and I worked and after lunch I took them to urgent care, where a doctor removed the splinter with a scalpel after numbing their foot. Then I took them to Starbucks nearby where they had a restorative cup of mint tea and we made a pit stop at home so they could grab something to eat, pack their theater bag, and head to rehearsal. We were on six buses that day over the course of five and a half hours.

Act I: Chorus Concert

Tuesday there was no rehearsal but there was an orchestra and chorus concert. Beth’s mom and her aunt Carole came from Wheeling for a four-day visit to see the concert and the opening night of the play on Friday. Unfortunately, Noah was swamped with homework that night (he had a history test the next day and he hadn’t finished reading the chapter) so he couldn’t go to the concert. We were all disappointed about that.

The concert was at the high school because North’s school has no auditorium. Noah’s middle school didn’t either but they had their concerts in the cafeteria or gym and everyone sat on folding chairs. This new arrangement was much more comfortable and the acoustics were better, too.

The orchestra was on first. They started with the “William Tell Overture” and played several songs, ending with an arrangement of the “Hallelujah Chorus.” One of the nice things about having musical kids and attending a lot of concerts is that the musicians get better as they get older and the difference between this orchestra and North’s elementary school orchestra was pronounced.

The a capella club sang a few numbers next, including Cyndi Lauper’s “Time After Time” and Katy Perry’s “Roar.” I guess the idea was to appeal to both parents and kids. They also did “Só Danço Samba,” which was fun to hear, although it bothered me that there was instrumental accompaniment in this song. Singing without instruments is what a cappella means, after all. (Beth thinks I am being pedantic here.) All three singing groups had at least one song in another language. It was all very international, which makes sense since the word “International” is part of the name of the school.

After intermission, the sixth-grade chorus came on. North was using a cane to walk (after having been on crutches at school—due to their troubles last year we have a wide variety of orthopedic devices at the ready) so the chorus director had them sit in a chair in front of the risers. Beth was worried it would hurt their projection, but they projected just fine. I swear I could pick their voice out not only when they sang with the smaller sixth-grade group, but also when sixth-grade and advanced choruses (about eighty kids total) sang together.

The sixth-graders started with “Sing a Jubilant Song” and they did sound jubilant. Next was “De Colores,” which having had two kids in an elementary school Spanish immersion program is very familiar to us, in a nice, nostalgic way. “Dansi Na Kuimba” (“Dance and Sing” in Swahili) was next and they ended with “Peaceful Silent Night.” This song is “Silent Night” with some additional lyrics woven into it.

The advanced chorus sang a few songs next and then the two choruses sang together along with a several fifth-graders from the elementary school that shares a building with North’s middle school. (The new chorus teacher is cultivating ties with this conveniently located feeder school.) My favorite of the joint songs was “Carol of the Bells.” It was very complicated and intricate and they sounded great. They ended with “America the Beautiful.”

Intermission

Wednesday North went to school on time, still using the cane, because their foot was still sore. Beth and I both worried it wouldn’t be better by Friday night when they had to stand (and jump) onstage, but there was nothing to do about it. North had another rehearsal that night, I went to book club (where we discussed Janet Lewis’s The Wife of Martin Guerre) while YaYa, Carole, Beth, and Noah went out for Lebanese. After the history test, Noah had surprisingly little homework the rest of the week and was able to socialize with his grandmother and great aunt. Ironically, North saw very little of them because they were in school or rehearsal pretty much all the time they weren’t performing. This caused a little jealousy, even though (or perhaps because) North was the principal reason for the visit.

Thursday North was walking unassisted. Beth took the day off work and went with her mom and Carole into the city where they went to see an exhibit about Renoir’s Luncheon of the Boating Party at the Phillips Gallery and took in the Christmas decorations at Union Station. That evening all the adults and Noah went out for tapas and then to see Lady Bird (which you should see if you haven’t yet). Seeing a movie on a weeknight is highly unusual for us but Beth had to be up late to get North from rehearsal anyway so we made a night of it.

Friday I took the day off, too, and joined Beth, YaYa and Carole on a visit to the National Museum of African American History and Culture. It opened over a year ago but we hadn’t been yet—we were hoping eventually the crowds would diminish, but it’s still a pretty hot ticket. It’s free, but you need to get timed tickets either months ahead of time or very early on the morning of the day you want to go. Beth secured these by getting online at 6:30 a.m.

We had eleven a.m. tickets and needed to get back by mid-afternoon, so we didn’t have time to take in the whole museum. It’s divided into a history section and a culture section. I was the slowest in our party, only making it to 1968 in the history section before we needed to meet up for a late lunch in the café, and even so, I missed some parts of that (such as the whole room with Emmett Till’s coffin).

I was prepared for the child-sized shackles, or as prepared as you can be. What really did me in was a white cotton sack a woman had given her nine-year-old daughter when the child was sold away from her. At the time, it contained pecans and a lock of the mother’s hair. The bag was handed down through the generations and in the early twentieth century one of the child’s descendants embroidered the story on the bag. On the wall, all around the bag’s glass case were many published descriptions of people to be sold at auction—name, age, special skills and any physical defects, which really drove in the point that the nine-year-old girl sold away from her mother was one of countless others torn from their families. I think it might have been heartening to visit the culture section, after all that, but even the music I could hear drifting from other rooms—Billie Holiday, Sweet Honey in the Rock—lifted the spirit.

Act II: School of Rock

North’s call time was 5 p.m., which left the rest of us with three hours to kill before the show. We had leisurely dinner at Pacci’s, which is just around the corner from the theater. Standing in line, I saw parents with bouquets and remembered much to my chagrin that last summer when North was the beast in Beauty and the Beast at drama camp, I’d resolved to get them flowers at their next performance. Oh well.

Entering the little black box theater, we were alarmed to see a sign that said the running time of the show was two hours, forty-five minutes. This was going to be an even later night than we’d realized. We got settled into seats in the last and highest row, which offered a good view. The beginning of the show establishes the main character Dewey’s tribulations, both musical (he’s been thrown out of his band) and personal (he owes his roommates for the rent and is in danger of being thrown out of his apartment) so the early scenes are all between the adult characters, who are played by seventh to twelfth graders. Patty, one of Dewey’s roommates and his best friend’s girlfriend, is played by North’s friend Anna from drama camp. (Anna played Cogsworth in Beauty and the Beast last summer for those of you who watched the video.) When she came onstage in a power suit Beth exclaimed, “Anna looks like a grownup!” And she did, even though she’s only fifteen months older than North.

The fifth-grade students at the swanky private school where Dewey ends up working as a substitute teacher are played by second to sixth graders. North is playing Billy, an effeminate boy who hides his copies of Vogue behind a Sports Illustrated while at home with his football-loving father. When Dewey organizes the class into a band, Billy is their costume designer.

The first song the kids sing is their school’s alma mater, and as at the chorus concert I could pick out North’s voice. One thing they have learned from seven years of musical drama camp is how to project. Some of their other numbers were “You’re in the Band,” in which Billy is assigned to design costumes and gives a little leap of joy and “If Only You Would Listen” in which four students, including Billy, are shown with parents who misunderstand them and they all sing about it. North had a solo in this song and was very plaintive.

The whole cast was great and we all enjoyed the show. Beth (who did theater tech in high school) was impressed with improvements in lighting technology since her day. Andrea loved the red sparkly cap Billy wore in the final scene and at breakfast the next morning she pressed North to explain what the phrase “stick it to the man” meant to them.

After the show the actors stood near the doors in costume to greet the exiting audience. After that, the concessions booth was still selling treats and North wanted ice cream but like all the other parents I heard, I pointed out it was quite late—something like 11:15—and we needed to get home and go to bed. (North wishes it to be known that some parents did let their kids eat ice cream at that late hour.)

The next morning, we all slept in (for us anyway—we were all up between 7:45 and 8:30) and then we met YaYa and Carole at the restaurant of the hotel where they were staying in Silver Spring and ate a hearty breakfast as the first snow of the year fell outside. Shortly after, YaYa and Carole hit the road.

North performed again on Saturday night and Sunday afternoon. She had friends in the audience of both those shows. We’re in a three-day no-rehearsal, no-show lull right now. There will be a brush-up rehearsal Thursday night and then four more shows from Friday to Sunday. Beth and I will be attending the closing night performance, maybe with flowers if I get my act together.

You may not be surprised to learn there are more performances in our near future. North will be singing in the Montgomery County Honors chorus this winter. They were the only sixth grader from their school selected to participate. (It took a lot of self-restraint not to brag about that on Facebook but I am slipping it in here.) That concert is in early March. North is also going to try out for the spring play, Romeo and Juliet, at their school. If they get a part, it will be their first experience with Shakespeare, but possibly not their last because for North, all the world’s a stage.

Update, 12/13: Read a review of the show here: http://www.theatrebloom.com/2017/12/school-rock-students-theatre-highwood-theatre/

 

Happy Birthday, Happy Thanksgiving

Wednesday

“Happy Thanksgiving Eve,” Beth said to me as she came back into the bedroom after her shower on Wednesday morning. I was still in bed looking at my phone.

“Happy Birthday Eve,” I responded. Beth’s birthday was on Thanksgiving this year and we were kind of stumped about when we should serve her cake. For breakfast on Thanksgiving morning, before we drove to Rehoboth for our Thanksgiving dinner and a weekend of Christmas shopping? As an afternoon snack when we arrived? I checked to see when her birthday had last fallen on Thanksgiving so I could consult my blog and see what we’d done, but, alas, it hadn’t happened since 2006 and I started writing this blog in 2007 so the answer was lost in the sands of time.

For this year, we settled on the night before Thanksgiving. I spent much of that afternoon cooking. With North’s help, I made a birthday cake for Beth, a chocolate layer cake with coffee frosting. I made the cake and North made the frosting and frosted it. After North consulted with Beth, they decorated it with chocolate jimmies and red sparkles. Their conversation went something like this, after North showed Beth the topping options and Beth chose the jimmies:

North: That’s it? No sparkles?
Beth: Do you recommend sparkles?
North: I always recommend sparkles.

Later I asked, “Should we use the fancy platter” and North said, “Yes,” in an exasperated tone that clearly said, “Why can you never recognize your own best ideas?”

For Beth’s pre-birthday dinner, at her request, I made breaded tofu sticks, tater tots, and homemade applesauce. I also made cranberry sauce and brandied sweet potatoes for Thanksgiving and mixed a little of the cranberry sauce into the applesauce. After dinner, Beth took her shift in the kitchen, making stuffing and mushroom gravy.

Thanksgiving Birthday

In the morning, I made pumpkin-pecan muffins and served them with scrambled eggs, clementines, and vegetarian bacon and sausage. Before we ate, Beth opened her presents: fancy olive oil in a ceramic jug with multicolored stripes, a Christmas ornament shaped like a pierogi, and an assortment of dark chocolate bars.

We left for the beach around 10:30 and arrived at our rented beach cottage about four hours later—we had to make a lot of pit stops. We explored the house, admiring the charming alpine slope of the ceilings in the attic bedrooms and in the living room. Then we unpacked, made up the beds, and by 3:15 I was on the beach. Afternoons are short in late November so shadows were already long in the golden light. The waves that were tall enough not to be all foam were translucent at the tips. The angle of the sun hitting the sea spray was such that there was a tiny rainbow with almost every wave. Once I’d noticed a couple of them, I couldn’t stop seeing them. It was magical.

I took a long walk. At the south end of the boardwalk, where there are beach houses, I could smell wood smoke. In the middle, where it’s commercial, I could smell French fries, even though none of the food stalls was open. I guess that aroma lingers. At the north end, where the big hotels are, I smelled smoke again, presumably from the fireplaces in their lounges. The only business open was Victoria’s, the ground-level restaurant at the Boardwalk Plaza Hotel, where people were eating Thanksgiving dinner behind the big windows that face the boardwalk. I was not alone on the beach, far from it. I guess people were working up an appetite for their dinners.

Over the course of the weekend while on the beach, I’d see countless parents photographing their children dressed in everything from church clothes to Christmas pajamas, a bride and groom in full wedding regalia, and a group of a half-dozen middle-aged to elderly men releasing star-shaped balloons and embracing each other, which reminded me that on the other side of the country, my mom and a group of relatives were gathering this weekend to scatter my stepfather’s ashes in the Pacific Ocean.

Back at the house, Beth and I heated up the food we’d made at home, and she mashed potatoes and made a fire. We shared our gratitudes and ate. We are thankful for: each other, the beach, the fact that American democracy has not completely collapsed and all the people working to keep that from happening, smiles, cranberry sauce, and the Internet. We ate: vegetarian turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes with mushroom gravy, Brussels sprouts, rolls, and cranberry sauce. After a break for dishwashing and digestion, we ate pumpkin and apple pie in front of a fire and watched A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving.

Before we went to sleep that night, I said, “Happy birthday,” to Beth and she said, “Happy Thanksgiving,” to me.

**************************************************************************

I am thankful for many things, of course, but top of mind is the fact that Beth was born the day before Thanksgiving fifty one years ago, that the beach is just a few hours away, that we can afford to go there two or three times a year, that we can afford to buy Christmas presents for each other and our loved ones, that Noah had much less homework than usual and so had some free time, that the weather was lovely all weekend, so sunny and mild that I spent hours roaming the beach and boardwalk every day for four days in a row, and for our family togetherness whether we’re collecting shells on the beach, singing at the annual sing-along and Christmas tree lighting on Rehoboth Avenue, browsing in the little downtown shops, eating at our favorite restaurants, or watching Christmas specials together in front of the fires that Beth and North built. (Saturday evening North lit one all by themselves.) That bond will get us through the hard things in life.

Of course, there are hard times and sad times and we don’t always have everything we’d like. North decided this year they are too old to sit on Santa’s lap in his little house on the boardwalk, but they couldn’t quite let go of the tradition completely, so they left a note in his mailbox. Inspired by that, I left my own anonymous note in the mailbox Sunday morning, asking for something dear to my heart but unlikely to happen—and no, it wasn’t Trump’s impeachment. It felt somehow therapeutic to leave the folded-up piece of notebook paper in the little metal box and walk away down the boardwalk.

A Strange Halloween

Before Halloween

As I mentioned earlier, North went on the MCPS sixth-grade outdoor education field trip this week. They left on Monday morning and returned Wednesday afternoon. In some ways, this trip seemed less momentous than when Noah went on it because when he went it was the first time he’d been away from home and not in the care of relatives. I didn’t blog about it because he told us almost nothing about whatever happened on that trip. Really, it was something like, “we saw a snake and a turtle.” But I do remember missing him sharply, even though he was away less than three days. North on the other hand has been to sleepaway camp the past three summers, so I was used to the separation and didn’t faze me. But in other ways it was more complicated than Noah’s Outdoor Ed experience because the kids’ sleeping quarters were segregated by gender and this was distressing to North.

I should say here that the school has been pretty accommodating of North’s new gender identity. They are permitted to use the unisex restroom in the nurse’s office and the counsellor has briefed all their teachers on their preferred name and pronouns. Most of the teachers (with one exception) are on board and most of the kids who know have taken it in stride (again with one exception). But it took a while to figure out how we’d handle the housing problem.

North didn’t want to sleep in the girls’ area and they didn’t want to be all alone in a separate room and those were the choices on offer, either that or come home both nights. Coming home wasn’t an ideal solution because Outdoor Ed is supposed to be a team-building exercise for the class and breaking it up into three pieces would compromise that. Plus, Beth would have to drive forty-five minutes to Rockville to fetch them Monday night and then forty-five minutes back home and then do it all over Tuesday morning, Tuesday evening, and Wednesday morning. But if North chose the separate room, Beth would have to miss work, so she could act as a chaperone because they weren’t allowed to be alone overnight. This wasn’t ideal either, but that’s what North chose. I have to admit I asked if they could consider sleeping in the girls’ area just to simplify things. After all, only a few months ago they were quite happily attending Girl Scout sleep-away camp. They were not open to the idea, to say the least.

Beth drove North to school Monday morning. In the rush, they forgot the bag lunch they were supposed to bring so Beth gave them the apple slices and crackers from her lunch—North didn’t want the garlic cheese curds. When I found the forgotten lunch on the couch, it made me a little sad to see the plain brown bag.  I decorated every elementary school field trip lunch bag, covering them with stickers, and even though I didn’t think I’d keep doing it in middle school (for one thing North’s making their own lunch now). I hadn’t even thought about how I wasn’t doing it until that moment. Always with the growing up…

Anyway, I learned from Beth that when they arrived at school kids were piling their luggage up into two piles—boys’ and girls’. So rather than just dropping North off as planned, Beth parked the car and found the sixth-grade team leader to find out where North should leave their luggage. He said in either pile was fine—North was on both lists. But this is the whole point for North. They don’t want to choose, so Mr. O took their luggage with him.

Beth went from the middle school to work, came home, raved over the dinner of butternut squash fritters, apple slices, and vegetarian sausage I’d made (maybe because all she had for lunch was cheese curds and she was very hungry), and then she drove out to the environmental education facility, where she’d stay until Wednesday morning. (The kids would be there until Wednesday afternoon.)

Monday evening I kept thinking of how my time alone with Noah could be fun—we could read Stephen King, watch scary movies, put the finishing touches on the Halloween decorations—if only he didn’t have so much homework. Instead, on Monday he did a calculus packet, finished a biology lab report, and read and answered questions on a chapter of his biology textbook. I told him he should go trick-or-treating Tuesday no matter what his homework load, and he agreed.

Halloween

But he didn’t get a lot of homework on Tuesday and when he got home from school on Halloween, he got the electric things and the fog machine working, then read an essay about the role of joy in various ancient religious traditions for his World History class. Because he finished shortly before dinner time, we even snuck in a little Wizard and Glass. It was only fifteen minutes, but I’d hoped to read with him while Beth and North were out of town, so it made me happy.

Meanwhile, I got occasional updates from Beth—they were learning about watersheds and had done a Predator/Prey simulation. North was a carnivore and Beth was a habitat-destroying developer. “Not cast to type,” was her comment. Later she said they were going to see a presentation by someone called Reptile Man, who I assumed was a man who spoke about and displayed reptiles and not a half-reptile, half-man mutant. But you never know, it was Halloween. (Later there was photographic evidence of Reptile Man’s giant albino python.) The kids also watched a little of Ghosthunters on Icy Trails, but they didn’t have time to finish it. (This was one of my pet peeves at a kid. I hated it when we’d see just part of a movie in school.)

Noah set out to trick or treat around seven, and I listened to my new Halloween playlist almost twice through, read Austerlitz, looked at Facebook photos of all your kids in their adorable or gruesome Halloween costumes, and occasionally gave out candy, from the time the first trick or treater, a teenage boy in some sort of mod get up, arrived at 6:40 during “Werewolves of London” until the last two, a chef and a detective, arrived at 8:30 during the second playing of “Vampire Girl.” We didn’t get too many kids, probably less than a dozen. I kept thinking I heard people on the porch but usually it was just the fog machine switching itself on and off.

Noah came home and reported that among the people who gave him candy were a former employee of Equifax and someone who works for the federal government and is investigating Equifax. They both appreciated his costume. Noah and I blew out the candles and unplugged all the electronic things around 9:10, but I left the porch light on another fifteen minutes or so, just in case someone else came. It was a strange Halloween, without Beth and North, and I didn’t feel quite finished.

Day of the Dead

Beth dropped by the house the next morning, after Noah had left for school. She said everyone did a lot of walking outside and the kids made masks and the teachers were in costume. The theme was fantasy football so they were dressed partly in football jerseys but with wardrobe elements fantasy characters would wear. It was a nod to Halloween, I guess.

That afternoon I went to North’s school to pick them up. We went to the nurse’s office to get the vitamins and Lactaid they’d taken to Outdoor Ed and while we were there we had to iron out a detail about permission for North to use the nurse’s bathroom. We handled the vitamin pickup first and during this discussion the nurses kept referring to North as “he,” even though the name we’d written on the bottle was “June,” as we still use that name for official business. This wasn’t the first time I’ve heard someone take North for a boy since they got their hair cut short and started wearing more boyish clothes, but it still startles me. I let it go until we got the vitamins back, then I explained the situation with North’s gender identity and the bathroom to both nurses. They seemed open to the idea and then seemed to recall they’d heard something about a kid needing to use the nurse’s restroom, but they hadn’t been introduced to North. It’s a big school and sometimes communication isn’t seamless.

As we approached the bus stop, we saw a 12 pulling away. I knew it would be twenty minutes before the next one, but I didn’t really mind. I knew I was more likely to hear details about Outdoor Ed while we were in transit than once we got home, and I did. North cut their arm falling in the creek while taking water samples, they enjoyed the confidence exercise (a sort of obstacle course), there was a campfire. The predator/prey exercise was fun. They saw many snakes, not just the python. The food was okay, but not great. The vegetarians had cheese dippers, which they describe as an inferior sort of mozzarella stick with the tomato sauce on the inside, way too many times. All in all, they seemed happy with the experience and eager to get home and see how much candy I’d saved for them. I asked if they’d like to light the jack-o-lanterns one last time that evening, since it was still Day of the Dead, and they said yes.

I made a pumpkin-apple cake with a cinnamon-pecan glaze to celebrate everyone being home together and Noah wanted to know if we could have cake every time we were all at dinner together. North made dessert, too, little sugar skulls molded of a powdered sugar-and-water paste, and with that little gesture, our strange Halloween was over.

When Life Gives You Lemons

We’ve known since the middle of September that North wouldn’t be able to go trick-or-treating this year because they’ll be on a two-and-a-half-day outdoor education field trip over Halloween. (All the sixth graders in Montgomery County go on this trip but not all at the same time. North’s school was split into three shifts and they drew the short straw.) A friend of mine commented it was bad luck indeed, as Halloween is “the holiest day” in our family calendar.

We carried on as best we could, though. Beth and North went camping two weeks ago and the campground had some Halloween-themed activities—trick-or-treating from tent to tent, and a costume contest. North wore a yellow t-shirt with the word “Life” written on it in black marker and carried a bag of lemons. Get it?  They won the contest, but said they felt kind of bad about it because the competition was mostly little kids. But we do take costume contests seriously here. Both kids have won the Takoma Park Halloween parade costume contest (Noah several times) and Noah won a costume photo contest at his school in ninth grade. We continue to expand our costume contest empire, little by little.

We also went to our favorite pumpkin patch in Northern Virginia a week ago. This was a fun expedition, even though traffic was awful both ways. At one point, I told Beth we were on “the highway to hell,” because we were listening to a Halloween playlist Noah found and that song was on it. But we finally arrived after about an hour and fifteen minutes (a half hour longer than it usually takes). We got pumpkins, decorative gourds, and cider and then went out to dinner at Sunflower, where we ordered a veritable feast of vegetarian Chinese food (and ate almost all of it). Toward the end of the drive home, the playlist ended and we had our D.J. take requests. North wanted to hear “Purple People Eater” and “Monster Mash,” opining it was “a disgrace” any Halloween playlist should lack those songs. I picked “Season of the Witch,” and Beth chose “Werewolves of London,” which caused a lot of howling in the car.

And slowly, over the course of a few weeks, we decorated our yard with our ever-growing collection of ghosts, skeletons, zombies, etc. This year’s additions include a portrait that screams when you press a button (we hung it on a nail next to the front door), more spider webbing, a metal cut-out of a witch, a large window decal of a ghost, and pumpkin-head torso that emerges from the ground.

The Takoma Park Halloween parade was Saturday. North had considered expanding their Life costume to be the game board of the game of Life, still holding the bag of lemons, but they decided that might just be too confusing. So, they printed up business cards with a recipe for lemonade to hand out along the route and they were done. Noah decided to go as the Equifax data breach. He wore a thrift store trench coat with the Equifax logo painted on it and credit cards pinned all over it and glasses with bushy eyebrows and a false nose. There was originally a mustache under the nose but it was oddly narrow and both my and Noah’s first thought when he tried it on was “Hitler,” so he cut it off. I also warned him not to wear shorts under the coat, even though the day was warm, because “flasher” wasn’t the look he was going for either.

As often happens, Noah was engaged in costume-making right up until the deadline. North and I helped him pin the credit cards—they were all printed with his name and the number 1031 2017 0000 0000—to the trench coat. We decided to walk to the beginning of the parade route because no one’s costume was bulky this year and it’s always hard to find parking. (It was also the first year in recent memory no one’s costume required large quantities of cardboard—so of course this was the year Beth had been saving it).

The festivities begin in the Co-Op parking lot. There were games for little kids, a spider web background for picture taking and a can-you-guess-how-many pieces jar of candy corn. North and I both submitted guesses. Mostly though, people walk around and look at each other’s costumes. I was surprised at the dearth of political costumes. These are always popular and last year there were even more than usual. Maybe everyone needs a break from politics these days. The closest thing we saw was probably the group of famous artists (Leonardo Da Vinci, Vincent Van Gogh, Georgia O’ Keefe, Andy Warhol, and Bob Ross) carrying a banner that protested funding cuts to the NEA. 

There was a strangely large number of teenage girls dressed as cats and about the usual number of zombies.  We saw two adults dressed as bacon and eggs and a girl dressed as a deviled egg (egg with a trident, cape, and horns). Probably the best costume we saw belonged to a girl who’s a year older than North and used to wait at their elementary school bus stop. She always has memorable costumes. This year she was a bowl of fruit loops. She stood inside a giant papier mâché bowl filled with sliced up pool noodles of many colors. There was a milk jug suspended over her head with white cloth “milk” tumbling down into the bowl.

Eventually, people gathered under the banners with their age groups and began to walk the parade route. I walked with North in the nine-to-twelve group and they were concerned that the judges never asked their name. Some years they take everyone’s name and costume and some years they just take the names of the top contenders. (Beth and Noah were in the teen and adult area and once we got to the end of the route and found each other, we learned no one took his name either.)

Along the way North saw a lot of kids they know, one from drama camp dressed as an archer and another as Wonder Woman, two basketball teammates dressed as milk and cookies, a former classmate in an Octopus’s Garden group costume with her family.

There was a band playing and I thought I probably had time to get an iced latte at Takoma Beverage Company before the costume contest results were announced. It was a close thing, as it turned out. I missed all the four and under and some of the five-to-eight winners. A vampire cheerleader and a monster from Where the Wild Things Are won in that age group. The nine-to-twelve group was next. Scariest went to the girl with the half-unzipped face. (Google zipper face if you want to see it—there are a lot of make-up tutorials—but be warned, it’s pretty gory, so I’m not including any links.) Funniest went to the bowl of fruit loops, and cutest went to a Starbucks latte. North was disappointed not to win, but all the costumes that did win were very well executed, so it was hard to complain. “The judging was fair,” they said.

In its publicity, the rec department advertised the categories would be Scary, Funny, and Cute this year, which was a change. There used to be an Original category instead of Cute. I thought this worked against my kids, especially Noah, who when he wins, tends to win in Original. Before the parade I thought North had a shot in Funny and Cute and Noah in Funny and Scary—after all the Equifax disaster was pretty scary. As it turned out, though, categories were inconsistent across age groups, with some groups still using Original and others not.

Teens and Adults were up next. Scary went to a woman in a black Victorian dress with a bustle and a black, metallic-looking unicorn head. The effect was kind of steampunk and very cool. Most Original went to the chicken from Moana. We all instantly protested to each other that characters in Disney movies are not original, even though it was a very nicely done costume. Funny went to Seven Snow Whites (some of them cross dressing) and one Dwarf. More family protests—they should have been in the group category! So, Noah didn’t win either. It was the first time since 2012 that neither of the kids has won.

We stayed to see the group costumes judged. A Ghost Busters group won first prize (“First prize?” we all exclaimed. What happened to the categories?) But the protesting artists won second prize and I was glad to see them win.

We made our way home and before we had a dinner of pasta with pumpkin sauce and carved our pumpkins into a cat, Jack Skellington from Nightmare Before Christmas, a skull-and-crossbones, and a scary clown, North made lemonade out their lemons. Because when life gives you lemons, there’s just one thing to do.

Secondary

Almost a week ago, on Columbus Day, we visited the kids’ schools to observe their classes. This was our first parent visitation day with both kids in secondary school. It’s a little more complicated than when at least one of them was in elementary school because there are more classes you can potentially visit, and no set time you’re supposed to come. If you have only one kid and you want to, you can follow him, her, or them around from class to class all day long. But we have two kids. Beth was in favor of spending most or all our time at the middle school because A) It’s a new school to us whereas Noah’s in his third year of high school; B) North had a bit of a bumpy start to middle school, though things are improving; and C) North was more interested in having us observe their classes than Noah was. As in they would have been perfectly happy for us to tail them all day and he wouldn’t have minded if we’d skipped the event entirely.

I wasn’t ready to skip the high school, though. At Back to School Night at the middle school in September, Beth and I needed to split up because there was a meeting for 11th and 12th grade CAP parents the same night. We started Back to School night together but Beth only got to hear the gym and chorus teachers’ presentations before she had to leave so she hadn’t met most of North’s teachers and I had. And because I hadn’t been to the CAP meeting, I felt less familiar with Noah’s teachers and the eleventh-grade CAP curriculum, so I wanted to see at least one of his classes. The two I most wanted to see weren’t contiguous, so we decided to attend North’s Spanish and pre-algebra classes, plus part of World Studies before we cut out for lunch and then over to the high school to see Noah’s research methods class.

North was in a partial Spanish immersion program in elementary school and that continues into middle school (the school also houses a partial French immersion program). They have an hour and a half Spanish class that meets daily and they also have World Studies taught in Spanish, which is a change from elementary school when they had math and science in Spanish. All in all, it comes to about a third of the week in Spanish.

Spanish class was also the first class we saw on visitation day. The students began with a warm up in which they had to sort the words in a sentence into the different parts of speech. Then there was a lesson on adjectives. In North’s elementary school immersion program there was almost no grammar instruction, which I think makes sense for the early grades, but with both kids I noticed their Spanish grow by leaps and bounds in kindergarten, slow in first and second grade and then stall out in third grade. I think introducing grammar earlier would have helped, but I’m glad they are getting that now. I’ve heard from parents of older kids in the immersion program that their Spanish really improves in sixth grade.

The kids watched some videos in Spanish and spent some time working on the third drafts of the letters they are writing to their future (eighth-grade) selves. I couldn’t quite catch if they will actually be given the letters back when they are in eighth grade, but it would be cool if that was the case. Señor L seems warm and friendly and his room is decorated with prints of art by Latin American artists (I recognized some Diego Rivera), sombreros, flags from Spanish-speaking countries and pennants from all the houses of Hogwarts. That’s because he’s a big Harry Potter fan, and is reading the first Harry Potter book to them, in ten to fifteen minute increments every day. At first, I thought it would be more educational to read something written in Spanish, rather than a book translated from English, but then I realized it’s easier to follow along when you already know the story, as most of them do.

Señor L has also promised the class a pizza party once they’ve gone a certain number of days without him hearing anyone speak English all class. The chart they use to track their progress, is of course, a pie chart, or rather a pizza chart, with the number of slices growing. He showed it to them near the end of class.

There was a between periods session of PBIS (Positive Behavior Intervention and Supports), in which the kids in North’s homeroom had to brainstorm about respectful behavior in various locations in the school. It was well-intentioned, but I’m not sure a kid inclined to start a food fight in the cafeteria or stand up on the bus would be deterred by remembering in PBIS they talked about how that was not respectful behavior.

North’s pre-algebra class was working on using equations to solve problems about ratios (fractions and percentages), using something called the butterfly method. They worked in small groups and then presented their work to the class. The problems had to do with figuring out what percentage of her great-grandmother’s age a girl was, what was ratio of different species to each other in a pet store, or how to calculate a restaurant bill (with tax and tip) and then figure out how to choose a dessert to add to the order without going over budget. The kids seemed engaged but they got a bit rowdy at times.

The last class we visited was World Studies. I wanted Beth to see Señora P’s room, which I’d seen at Back to School Night, because it’s gorgeous, with almost all the walls covered in colorful murals, but class was being held in the media center (and mostly in English) because they were hearing a presentation by a librarian about how to take notes in preparation for a research project on ancient Egypt. The tables were all labelled with professions (artisan, embalmer, farmer, pharaoh, scribe, etc.) and heaped with books about ancient Egypt because later they were going to divide into groups and practice taking notes from the books on their chosen profession. We didn’t see that, though, because we left about twenty minutes into class to grab lunch at Lincoln’s BBQ before heading to the high school. (Verdict: vegetarian options there are okay but not great, though I did enjoy the banana pudding.)

We arrived right before eighth period started and reported to Noah’s research methods class. I wanted to see this one because it wasn’t really clear to me what they are doing in this class. It used to build up to a research paper but the teacher found the grading arduous so now it’s (probably) just going to be a series of smaller research projects. I have mixed feelings about this. Noah hasn’t written a long research paper since seventh grade and it seems he shouldn’t go through four years of a rigorous, communications-focused high school program without writing one, but then again, he’s so chronically overworked, it’s hard to get too upset about it. Plus, to be honest, the teacher seems pretty loosey goosey and I might rather Noah’s college freshman composition instructor handle this task.

What the class is doing right now is a unit on race. Mr. S led the class in a spirited discussion of the opportunity gap and how wealth inequality perpetuates itself. He had some provocative statistics to get them started. The kids were smart and idealistic and everything you’d want in a group of sixteen and seventeen year olds, though I noticed Mr. S wasn’t doing as much as he could to bring the quieter kids into the discussion. Every now and then he’d talk a bit about how the statistics were calculated (what counts as wealth for instance and how the numbers change when you add durable goods in, or exclude them). Afterward Beth said she thought he could have done more with that, especially to show them how different think tanks with different political orientations might calculate something like wealth to bolster their own arguments. If we want kids to be critical thinkers, they need to understand how arguments are constructed.

We could have stayed for another period, but Noah had Spanish next and Beth had already sat through a class in a language she doesn’t understand too well, so we headed for the grocery store and home, where we met North who had just arrived home.

Beth was worn out by her day in middle and high school, so she took a nap while the kids got started on their homework. When North finished theirs, they set to work making ice cream. While we value education, that doesn’t mean fun is always secondary.

I’m North

Guest blog post

Hi! I’m North. But you might know me as June from other blogs. That’s my old name. I’ll be North today. I like cats, and most every animal except for dogs. My favorite color is aquamarine, (specific, right?) my favorite food is olives, and my favorite animal is deer. Sounds like a pretty average kid, right? Well in some aspects, you are right. I’m in middle school, hate gym class, and love lunch (no, seriously. I’m in love.). But there’s one thing about me that isn’t ordinary. You probably already know it. I’m transgender. There, just officially came out on the internet. No going back from that.

Ok, let’s get something straight. When I say transgender, I probably don’t mean what you think I mean. I was assigned female at birth, which I am not. But, if I had been assigned male at birth, they would have been equally wrong. I’m genderfluid, which means on any given day, I could feel anywhere on, or off the gender spectrum. I could fell more feminine, masculine, in the middle, or genderless! There are countless ways I could feel on any given day. But no matter how I feel, always refer to me in the third person using they/them pronouns. If you don’t know what those are, look them up! I’m sure there are countless people on the internet who can explain it better than me. But the simple version is, that they are used to refer to a person not female, nor male. You can also always use these if you aren’t sure. Remember, it’s always ok to ask somebody about their pronouns. Just pull them away for a second, and ask. A lot of transgender people feel good when you ask them their pronouns. It indicates a sense of respect for that person. So, if you aren’t sure, just ask.

Ok, I’m going to tell you some things that you probably should, and shouldn’t do around transgender individuals. Keep in mind that I am just one of the many, many, transgender individuals out there, and I do not speak for everyone. These are just some generalizations that I believe most transgender people do or do not like.

Let’s start on the positives, things that most trans people like: Asking their pronouns. This indicates that you don’t want to offend this person by referring to them in the wrong way. Letting them pass. If you know your friend is trans, they are meeting new people, and think they’re doing a really great job at passing, let them pass. Let people think they were born that way, even if you know they weren’t.

Now, what most trans people don’t like: Dead naming. If somebody goes by a different name than their birth name, that name probably doesn’t make them feel good, so just don’t say it.

Using the wrong pronouns. If you knew them before, and mess up occasionally, that’s okay, but just try to use the right pronouns.

Well, I gotta go now. You might see me again, I don’t know. Well, Goodbye, Aloha, Ciao, Hasta luego, See ya!

Happy National Coming Out Day!

Acting Out

North’s going to be in production of the musical School of Rock this December. It’s part of an educational program at a theater in Silver Spring for kids from second to twelfth grade. They really wanted to be in a play and the process of auditioning seemed daunting, especially given the fact that I don’t drive, which limits my ability to get them around the D.C. metro area to go to a lot of different auditions. So, this seemed like a good compromise. You just register and it’s first-come, first-served.

They’ve had three rehearsals so far. After the second one they’d been cast in their first-choice role, Billy. If you have only a hazy memory of the characters, he’s the kid who designs the costumes for the band, and the one in the “You’re Tacky and I Hate You” meme you so often see on Facebook. North likes that’s he’s somewhat gender creative and that he has a solo. (The kid roles in the play are more developed than in the film, I hear.) After the third rehearsal, they were tickled to bring home an official script on loan from the current Broadway production.

In the spirit of preparation, we watched the first half of the movie on Friday night. I don’t usually let North watch PG-13 movies. This might have been their first (if they haven’t seen any at a friend’s house). At any rate, it was the first authorized one, but since the play’s not that different from the movie, I thought that particular horse was already out of the barn. The scene where Summer confronts Dewey about groupies wasn’t exactly comfortable for me to watch with them, though.

Because there are two to three rehearsals most weeks from now through December (and then six to eight performances), we told North they’d need to cut some of their regular extracurricular activities, and much to my surprise, they decided to ditch them all—violin, guitar, Girl Scouts, acting class, running club, and even basketball, which doesn’t even overlap much with the play, as practices start in late November and games not until early January. Most of these activities they’ve been doing for years, so I guess they just want a clean slate for middle school. They did try to get into a cooking club at school but it turned out you were supposed to register beforehand and it had filled by the first meeting. They’re also considering attending an LGBT support group at school.

Last Saturday’s rehearsal conflicted with the March for Racial Justice, which Beth and I had been planning to attend. The theater schedules rehearsals around people’s conflicts (the ones you declare by a deadline) as much as possible, but not every conflict can be accommodated, so we had to decide whether to skip the rehearsal, skip the march, task Noah with getting North there, or teach them the route on public transportation. It’s our goal for them to be able to get themselves to weekday evening rehearsals eventually, but I was thinking I’d do it with them at least a couple times first because it’s not in a part of Silver Spring we go to on the bus often. And we didn’t really want to cut into Noah’s homework time, either, so Beth suggested we skip the march and go to the evening vigil at the MLK memorial instead and I agreed.

We left the house around five, shortly after Beth brought North home from rehearsal. It was just Beth and I, as the kids were not interested in protesting anything, or as North put it earlier in the week, “chanting things no one will hear.” It does feel that way sometimes, but it also feels like we’ve got to do something, and I don’t have much faith in petitions, I only have so much money to give, and the elected officials in our deep blue county and medium blue state can generally be counted on to do the right thing without our writing or calling and pleading with them to do it. So, I write and call them occasionally, write moderate-sized checks more often, and I keep marching and showing up for rallies. And I guess North’s feelings about protest vary, too, because at dinner Monday night they asked with interest if there were any marches coming up.

Metro was single-tracking on the blue, orange, and red lines, which happened to be the exact lines we’d need to get to the Mall. Parking’s out of the question, there, though, so we allowed ourselves almost two hours to get to the vigil, which was supposed to start at sundown (6:51 according to my phone’s weather app).

We had good luck with the trains and arrived on the Mall around 5:45, so we decided to take advantage of the restrooms and food trucks near the Washington Monument. We walked down the long line of food trucks, looking for vegetarian options. The first one we saw falafel, also the second, third, fourth, and fifth. In fact, the only other choice was a veggie burrito, and Beth wasn’t in the mood for either, so she decided to eat at home later, but I got some falafel and humus. By 6:15, we were walking toward the MLK memorial.

It was a pretty evening, with the clouds touched with pink and the water of the Tidal Basin rippling and silver. When we got to the memorial around 6:35, there was no evidence of a vigil, but it was still light and there was no precise official starting time so we walked around and looked at the MLK quotes carved on the back wall and then settled in on bench.

Eventually some organizers, mostly white women, showed up and started laying down posters of black girls and women who have been victims of violence or organized against it on the ground. They were unrolling a long canvas with a painted message when some park rangers came over. I guess they didn’t have a permit because soon they were picking up the posters and the canvas. There was some discussion about the food they’d brought as well, a bag of apples and some granola bars to distribute to anyone breaking their Yom Kippur fast. I think the fact that the march had inadvertently been scheduled on Yom Kippur and the ensuing criticism was probably the reason for the sunset vigil in the first place. But it never really got off the ground. We waited until 7:25, by which point it was full dark, but there were never speeches or candles, or anything very vigil-like, only a small knot of people (ten at the most) standing together, and dwarfed by a school group (mostly teenage girls and adults about the right age to be the parents or teachers of teenage girls, so I’m assuming it was a school group).

It was a disappointing outcome, but not all bad. The MLK monument is always a moving place. We watched all kinds of people—an elderly black woman on a younger woman’s arm, a middle-aged black couple, white teenagers—snap pictures in front of the statue of MLK. Plus, the Tidal Basin with the monuments all lit up is beautiful at night—there’s a reason it’s a classic D.C. date spot. It could have even felt like a date, as Beth and I were there without the kids. But it didn’t really. I was feeling melancholy and Beth seemed subdued as well. It just wasn’t the evening for activism or acting romantic, I guess.

But there’s always tomorrow. When North asked what we could do for National Coming Out Day, I wasn’t sure. Beth and I don’t really have anyone left to come out to, but I asked North if they’d like to write a guest post about being non-binary and they said yes. Stay tuned.

A Room of One’s Own

The week before school started, June went to the middle school three times—on Monday morning to help teachers set up their classrooms and earn student service learning hours, on Thursday morning for a half-day sixth grade orientation, and late Thursday afternoon for the sixth-grade picnic. I was grateful for these activities both to keep June occupied and to make the school a more familiar place. Aside from our visit to Hershey Park, June had been kind of bored the last few weeks of break, at least until three friends came over in four days at the very end.

And as of the beginning of Labor Day weekend, we’d done none of the three water-related activities I’d told June we would do in the last three weeks before school started. We’d been thwarted trying to go to the nearest outdoor pool because of its limited schedule and my inability to remember it’s closed on Fridays. Three Fridays in a row I thought, “We should go to Long Branch Pool today.” Fortunately, the last two times I remembered why we couldn’t just a moment later and didn’t raise anyone’s hopes by mentioning it. Eventually I gave up on going, though it made me a little sad never to have gone to an outdoor pool this summer. (To clarify, June’s been many times—at camp, with YaYa in West Virginia, and with friends, but I never did.)

I set the Friday before Labor Day aside for a creek walk, an end-of-summer tradition the kids and I have. It consists of taking a walk down the middle of Long Branch (or sometimes Sligo) Creek. But Friday it was freakishly cold for the first day of September, in the sixties and overcast. Noah and I outvoted June and decided to put it off for later in the weekend when it would be warmer.

Back in early August I took June to see Kubo and the Two Strings at the one-dollar second run movies, but a sprained ankle prevented the usual post-summer movie trip to the Silver Spring fountain so I said we’d have a do-over movie-and-fountain date later in the summer. We invited a friend to see Leap on Saturday, with a visit to the fountain afterward. And it was just as cold that day and raining to boot. I would have let the kids go in the fountain if they wanted to, but Norma thought it was too chilly. June would have gone in, but it was fenced off as it often is on rainy days. So that activity was out, too.

Saturday night June was complaining of a sore throat and running a fever. On Sunday morning, there was no improvement it was off to urgent care so they could rule out strep throat. We normally wouldn’t go so soon but we didn’t want anything to scotch the first day of middle school on Tuesday. The rapid strep test came back negative, but June was lethargic and we decided to wait another day on the creek walk.

On Monday, Beth made pancakes for breakfast, as she often does on holiday weekends. June felt better, so shortly after breakfast, the kids and I headed for the creek, where we waded for over an hour and saw many little fish, three crawfish, and great quantity of spider webs. It’s been unseasonably cool for the past couple weeks and the water was surprisingly cold when we first stepped in and Noah was grumbling about it, but soon he was cheerfully throwing rocks and splashing June. When I said something about “if we do this next year” he insisted we have to do it, so I guess he had a good time after all. And I fulfilled one promise.

We always go out for ice cream the last night of the kids’ summer break and this year was no exception. (Well, Noah might say it was because June, being the one to start a new school, chose the venue and we got frozen yogurt, which he pointed out, is not ice cream.) It occurred to me if we went somewhere in downtown Silver Spring we could make one last-ditch attempt at playing in the fountain, but when I said it could only be for fifteen minutes or so, June didn’t think it was worth giving up the privilege of choosing where we got our frozen treats.

While all this was going on, Beth had been toiling during her evenings and weekends moving June out of the kids’ shared room into my office, which I’m sacrificing so the kids can each have some space of their own. This has been huge project, involving a lot of moving things around and assembling new furniture. Noah helped Beth put the new Ikea loft bed together and he showed some aptitude for it. (He has the right temperament—patient and calm.) Beth’s goal was to get June sleeping in the new room by Labor Day weekend and not only is the bed finished but a lot of clothes and belongings are in there, too. But I’ll hold off on pictures until the room is finished and decorated.

It was really June who wanted and advocated for the room switch. When we decided to do it, we offered Noah the office but he said he preferred to stay put, so June also scored the bigger room. My desk is in the living room now, which isn’t ideal, but in theory, when Noah goes to college I’ll get my space back. I think I want it for the same reason June does. It makes a difference to have a room of one’s own. But right now, at eleven, June needs it more than I do. And Beth did everything she could to make it easier for me, including buying me a new desk with drawer space. (My old desk was more like a small table.)

It’s a time of a lot of changes, beyond June starting middle school and getting a new room and new short haircut. Their decision a couple weeks ago to go by gender-neutral pronouns was surprising, and it’s been hard to remember to use them, though I’m trying. They also have a new name, North, which Beth is using sometimes, but so far, I can’t bring myself to say it, though I did write it on a school form in the preferred name space. Names are important to me, almost a hobby. I read and comment on a baby-naming blog even though I haven’t had a baby to name in quite some time. In fact, the only thing I regret about not having more kids is that we only got to name two people. The names we did choose are full of family history. For a while June was considering using their middle name (and I suggested their initials—J.D.—but I don’t think that was ever under serious consideration). I think it would be easier for me if the new name was somehow connected to the name we gave them. But maybe that’s the point, the difference.

Both kids went back to school on Tuesday, a week later than usual because the governor changed the Maryland school calendar to promote late season business in Ocean City. Now we have only two snow days built in even though the old number—four—was frequently inadequate, which is the main reason I opposed this move. It’s becoming rare to have an actual 180-day school year and this will make it harder.

But maybe you wanted to hear about the kids’ first day and not about my beef with the governor? I’d tell you, but neither of the kids told me much. I spied on June’s bus stop from the porch (the stop is right in front of our house), noting that about half the kids there are seventh or eighth graders who used to wait at June’s elementary school bus stop. I saw June talking to a seventh-grader, who used to walk to school with June when the two of them were in fourth and fifth grade, and another girl I don’t know. June wore sneakers for gym, intending to leave them in their gym locker and change into crocs for the rest of the day, but they lost the crocs somehow. Noah didn’t get into band yet again, because of schedule conflicts, but he’ll be in the intermediate band second semester, so that’s something. June had almost no homework; Noah had homework in three subjects. He’s working for the school television channel this year and the first broadcast is Monday. I think this will be fun for him.

I worked only fifteen minutes Tuesday because I had an orthopedic appointment for the knee I injured last summer, then I stayed in the city for a pro-DACA rally. It was bigger than the one I attended last month, and angrier, because it was held the day the President announced the program was being rescinded. I was moved almost to tears by the speakers, who were young, brave, hopeful, and fired up. They are just the kind of people we need in this country right now and I hope their organizing is successful. If you’d like to help, Beth’s running a fundraiser for CASA on her Facebook page.

I got home around 2:40, hot and exhausted, because the day was warm and a little muggy and June had insomnia the night before, which meant Beth, June, and I were all up until almost midnight and then Beth’s alarm went off at 5:40.

I had forty minutes before June’s bus was due. I could have exercised or cleaned or worked, but instead I put a glass of ice water on my bedside table, turned the ceiling fan onto its highest setting, fell into bed, and slept briefly. There’s a whole year ahead of us and I think I’m going to need to be rested for it.