About Steph

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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.

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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.

Monumental Getaway

Gettysburg: Thursday

Three out of the past four summers we’ve gone to Hershey Park at the end of August. And, no, I will not write it Hersheypark, I just won’t, and you can’t make me. This year our trip wasn’t quite at the end of the kids’ summer break because our school calendar changed and they won’t go back until after Labor Day, but was close enough. We didn’t want to go too near Labor Day weekend, for fear of crowds. That’s also why we went during the week instead of on a weekend.

The kids had dentist appointments on Thursday morning, so we left early that afternoon. We’ve been squeezing in as many medical appointments as we can before school starts—two pediatrician appointments, two dentist appointments, one orthodontist appointment, and Noah got his wisdom teeth out, all in two weeks. I got in on the fun, too. I contracted a raging case of poison ivy on my right arm and left hand while weeding in the yard and had to go see my doctor to get a prescription for steroids after aloe, apple cider vinegar and some OTC remedies failed me. Between all the appointments and needing to work, most of my tentative plans to do some fun things with the kids during the last three weeks of summer break when their camps were all over went by the wayside. But this should make up for it.

We hit the road, drove an hour and fifteen minutes and had a picnic lunch at Cunningham Falls State Park at a pretty spot near the dammed lake. After we ate we went down to the water and watched the sunfish swimming in the shallows. June, hoping to get nibbled, waded in and stood still, but the fish did not oblige.

Our next stop was Gettysburg. One of Noah’s summer homework assignments is to write a short paper about monumental architecture and he didn’t want to use any of the many examples in our back yard, because he thought that’s what a lot of his classmates would do. He asked me if there were any monuments on the way to Hershey Park and I suggested Gettysburg.  There are dozens of monuments there. He chose the Pennsylvania State Monument, which is an excellent example of this kind of thing, having columns, a dome, the names of thousands of Civil War soldiers on metal plates, statues of many historical figures, plus Nike the goddess of Peace and Victory. It doesn’t get much more monumental than a goddess with a sword and an olive branch standing on a dome.

We spent most of our time at Gettysburg at this monument so Noah could photograph it and June and I could climb to the top. (There’s a staircase inside.) There was a nice view of the battlefield from up there and you also get to see the back of Lincoln’s head from a tiny window part way up the stairs. We looked at the lists of soldiers who served and learned that of the 34,000 Pennsylvanian soldiers who fought at Gettysburg, 1,200 were killed or mortally wounded and almost 4,000 more were wounded or went missing.

We also visited the Virginia State Monument and the statue of Abraham Lincoln outside the visitor’s center, where we read the Gettysburg Address on a big metal plaque. We could have read it many times, as it’s all over Gettysburg and not just in the park. I saw a motel that had the text of the address written all along the balcony rail. I was quite taken with that. The Visitor’s Center is also not without whimsy. The coffee shop is called Battlegrounds. I was a little surprised by that and thought they might as well have called it Hallowed Grounds, if they wanted to go there.

But a battlefield is a solemn place and while of course I did think about divisions in our country now and then while there, what hit me the hardest was watching my sixteen-year-old son walk along one of the trails and thinking about the fact that a lot of the soldiers—twenty percent by some estimates—were boys under eighteen. I also thought about the fact that while the last seven months have certainly felt like an ever-deepening crisis, it’s far from the worst crisis our country has seen. I think we’ll survive it.

And speaking of the present moment…as Confederate monuments are much in the news these days, Beth posted this essay to Facebook the day we were there. It’s a reflection by an African-American resident of Gettysburg about the Confederate monuments there. It’s worth a read.

Hershey: Thursday to Saturday 

We arrived at our hotel in the late afternoon, settled in, and headed to Chocolate World. Chocolate World is a separate attraction, adjacent to Hershey Park, featuring a huge store, a food court, a simulated chocolate factory tour and other activities such as chocolate tastings. We ate dinner there and entered the park. June wanted to be measured for her ride classification immediately and was disappointed to be a Hershey bar, having missed the Twizzler cutoff by a fraction of an inch.  I don’t think there was ever a time June wanted to ride a Twizzler-and-Jolly-Rancher-only ride, but it was the principle of having the options limited like that.

That evening we rode the mine ride and the swings, which were all lit up with red lightbulbs. Beth, June, and I had had a late night Wednesday because June had insomnia so I was exhausted and we only stayed until 8:30.

Friday morning Beth and June went to swim in the hotel pool while Noah and I stayed in the room, reading The Waste Lands. We’re up to the third book in the Dark Tower series and I’m really enjoying sharing it with him, as I love these books. Mostly I’m impatient for the kids to go back to school, so I can have some peace and quiet to work, but the fact that it will slow our progress through Roland’s world is one drawback.

Being in such a chocolate-centric place had put me in the mood for mocha so Beth found a coffeehouse and I got one, plus a hot chocolate for June and at 10:07 we were walking through the gates of the park. We’d stay for almost eleven hours. (When we left, Noah said, “Why are we all so tired?”).

We were tired because we walked between 18,000 and 22,000 steps according to Beth’s and Noah’s phones. We went on all manner of rides, together and in different combinations. The picture is of us on the Wild Mouse, a little roller coaster with lots of sharp turns but no big drops. The picture is like every amusement park ride picture we’ve ever purchased, with all of us looking excited or scared except Noah who is unperturbed.

We also rode the smaller flume ride, which is a favorite of June’s, and the sky tram, which I love because it winds between the tracks of big coasters I’d never ride, and gives me a vicarious view of them. One of these is the Great Bear, which Noah always rides alone because no one else in the family wants to do quite that many loops. Noah, June, and I rode the sooper dooper looper, though and I even bought a tie-dyed t-shirt that says, “I survived the sooper dooper looper.” It’s one of only two coasters I’ve ever ridden that goes upside down (the other is the Corkscrew at Cedar Point) so while Noah thinks the slogan on the shirt is a joke given the small size of the coaster, for me it’s only partly one.

While Noah was off riding the Great Bear a second time, Beth, June, and I went to the water park. We didn’t stay too long there so we didn’t get to do the lazy river, which Beth and I would have liked or any of the water slides, which June and I would have liked. Instead we went in the wave pool for a couple of its cycles. It was refreshing the first time but by the second cycle I was starting to feel claustrophobic, because it was quite crowded.

Over the course of the day, I was dithering about whether to go on the Comet, the smallest of the three wooden coasters at Hershey Park. I’ve always loved wooden coasters best but as I get older, I get more scared of them and I always think maybe this is the year it will be more scary than fun, but I went on it with Noah and it was more fun than scary so that day hasn’t come yet. Beth probably knew I was going to go on it but she listened patiently while I talked myself into it. I do this every year. While we were riding the Comet, June went on the Laff Track, an indoor, glow-in-the-dark coaster that goes backward.

Of course, since it was Hershey Park, we didn’t just go on rides, but we ate a lot of sweets, including but not limited to sundaes and shakes with various kinds of Hershey candies in them. The strangest thing anyone consumed, though, was the soda Noah got that had frosting on top (not whipped cream, but buttercream frosting) and pop rocks at the bottom. It was advertised as an “immersive, multi-sensory beverage experience.” Before he drank it, Noah regarded it and said, “It’s like soda for Millennials… I see the Instagram potential.”

After a pizza dinner, June got a caricature drawn and we started repeating rides. June would have liked to stay until closing time at ten, but the rest of us were ready to call it a day by nine. (Well, some of us were ready earlier than that.)

We were finished with the park, but not with Hershey.  On Saturday morning, we spent a few hours in the botanical gardens on the site of Milton Hershey’s original rose garden, visiting the butterfly atrium, the rock, ornamental grasses, and herb gardens, and of course, the roses. With Beth’s help, June (who has decided to use gender-neutral pronouns) shot a short film about what they would do all day if they lived in the gardens.

We had lunch at an Italian bistro in Hotel Hershey and then went back to Chocolate World for dessert and to shop for candy. June also came out of there with a doll wearing a dress with Hershey’s kisses all over it. Its name, of course, is Candy. And as tradition dictates, we rode the factory tour ride, though the kids were distressed to find they’d changed the theme song the cows sing.

Finally, around mid-afternoon, we drove away from Hershey and the last of our summer getaways was over. But someday we’ll be back. And when we are, June will be a Twizzler.

While She Was Gone

Trip 1, Beth and June: Thursday to Wednesday

Beth had two back-to-back work trips the first two weeks of August. Except for one night at home, she was gone for ten days.  June was gone most of that time, too, because Beth took her with her when she left for the first trip (the CWA convention in Pittsburgh) and dropped her off in Wheeling with her mom for a week of what the kids call Camp YaYa. She hung out with various relatives, ate cupcakes with Beth’s aunt Carole to celebrate her eightieth birthday, went swimming three times, saw a production of Godspell and The Emoji Movie, and spent the night in a treehouse cabin with YaYa. Noah’s been visiting YaYa for a week every summer since he was about June’s age or a little younger, so she was glad to finally get her turn.

At home, Noah and I were left to our own devices. He was at drama camp during the day the last three days June was gone, but we found time to finish the first book in the Dark Tower series, start the second one, and watch Psycho and The Birds. I didn’t cook anything much more demanding than pasta or frozen foods for dinner (except one night when I made a big vegetable stir-fry) and I got a lot of work and a little reading of my own done. It was nice to have both the one-on-one time with him and some time alone.

I started thinking about our fall garden, as a lot of our summer plants are dying prematurely this year and I didn’t want the garden to be over in mid-August. I planted carrot seeds in an unused plot, cilantro in a couple pots, and cauliflower, chard, and lettuce seeds in a starter tray because those seeds were a little old and I wasn’t sure what would come up. When I have a better sense of what’s going to germinate and survive the seedling phase, I may buy some starts to fill in the gaps. So far, there’s cilantro and carrot tops coming up and I see several promising-looking chard seedlings.

Since I had time sit on the porch a little while every morning, I also enjoyed what we already have in the yard. The resurrection lilies bloomed right on time the first week of August. They’re all done now. One morning during a delightfully cool spell, while I was sitting on the porch, wearing long sleeves and socks and drinking hot tea, I noticed a hummingbird sipping from the flowers on the volunteer trumpet vine that’s taking over our side fence. And as I was looking in that direction, I further noticed that the black cherry tree I planted in the side yard nine years ago was bearing fruit for the first time. (This is about on schedule apparently. They start to produce fruit when they’re ten years old and it was a sapling when I planted it.) The fruit is tiny and bitter, so I’ll leave it for the birds, but I’m glad the tree is healthy and developing as it should, especially since we have a couple of ailing silver maples in the front yard that may need to come down, which makes me very sad.

Intermission: Wedensday

Wednesday afternoon, Beth returned with June. I was happy to have everyone under one roof, if only for night, so I made a summery feast–yellow squash and corn soup, blueberry muffins with frozen berries we’d picked last month at the berry farm, and slices of one of the last garden cucumbers, and peaches from the farmers’ market. Beth left for Netroots Nation in Atlanta early the next morning, before I was even awake. Having seen her for a few hours made me miss her sharply, more than I had during the six and a half days she’d just been gone. But this was a shorter trip. She’d be returning late Saturday night.

Trip 2, Beth: Thursday to Saturday

I worked Thursday and June helped me clean the bathroom and make dinner (blueberry pancakes with more of the frozen blueberries). Friday I took off work. I was intending to take June to the library and the Long Branch pool, as I haven’t been to an outdoor pool all summer. But when I looked up the hours, I found it’s closed on Fridays and the Piney Branch indoor pool where I swim laps every Sunday is only open early in the morning and late afternoons and evenings on weekdays. This might have worked most days, but late afternoon was out because Noah had a drama camp demonstration we were planning to attend.

It was already shaping up to be a challenging day. I’d woken with a mysterious itchy rash on my right arm. Then while I was making a run to the Co-Op for milk, I lost my SmarTrip and my phone gave me an ominous warning about a virus I thought was probably fake but just to be safe I decided to power it down and leave it off until Beth got home and could look at it. Nothing seemed to be going according to plan.

So, I thought about it and made a new plan. June had been wanting to go on a picnic for a while so I suggested that. She was right on it, making pasta salad and sugar cookies while I was running my errands. I suggested something with protein might be a good idea, so we also took some veggie turkey slices, and I threw some fruit into the bag as well. The sky was looking threatening, but we packed umbrellas and headed out for the playground. We ate at the picnic table and then June waded in the creek. She didn’t want to swing or use any of the equipment, which made me think about how my kids have been coming to this playground since we moved to Takoma when Noah was a year old, but now our playground days are close to over.

Back at home, June helped me clean the kitchen, without complaint. Before he left for camp that morning, Noah had mowed the back lawn, also without complaint. It made me reflect that kids growing up is not all bad.

The trip to Round House Theatre was nerve-wracking because the first of the two buses we needed to take was twenty minutes late and for most of the trip I was sure we’d miss the second one and possibly Noah’s presentation. But we just barely caught it and we arrived ten minutes early. I breathed a sigh of relief and felt the weariness I often feel after stress settle over me.

The topic of the camp was theater design and for a week the campers focused on a play that Round House is producing this fall, working on sketches of costumes for characters, brainstorming props, experimenting with lights, painting scenery, and designing background sound. Individually and in groups, they gave presentations on each of these topics. Noah and two other boys presented on the sounds they would use in a specific scene in the play. This was Noah’s third time in the theater design camp and he presented on sound the last time around, too. I guess he’s specializing. He brought home some blueprints he made, the cue sheet for his sound plan, and some faux marble tile he’d painted. It was all very interesting and Noah said the camp put him in the mood to see a play sometime soon, so I hope we do.

I would have liked to stop in Silver Spring for dinner where we switched buses, but Megan was supposed to sleep over, so we needed to get home. We arrived at home to find a phone message letting us know she was sick and couldn’t come after all. June took it hard because the sleepover had been planned for a while and Megan’s family was about to leave for a three-week trip so it couldn’t be re-scheduled any time soon. It was seven when we got home and I ordered a pizza which didn’t come until past eight o’clock. We were all hungry and tired it was a discouraging end to the day, but we tried to salvage it with a game of Sleeping Queens before June went to bed.

Saturday was my rash was no better and now June had it too on her leg. The day was better, though. I took her to the library and the indoor pool because it looked like rain, although it didn’t until evening. We’ll go to the outdoor pool eventually. There’s still three weeks of summer break left. I was also glad Beth was coming home, though thunderstorms in D.C. delayed her flight.

We were messaging a lot all through that day and since she was at Netroots, it sometimes turned to politics: “All the sessions have been interesting but it feels a little precious to be talking about messaging when armed white supremacists are marching in the streets to protect symbols of the Confederacy,” she wrote.  It made me remember when she was at Netroots two years ago and the big drama was a blowup between Black Lives Matter activists, Martin O’Malley, and Bernie Sanders. That seems like it happened in a different country. We have slid so far backwards, so fast, it’s frightening. Except that’s not exactly it. People haven’t suddenly gotten more racist, they have gotten more willing to show it. In any case, it was a good reminder that Beth was doing important work on her travels, however uncertain the results.

First Day Home

But I am glad she’s home (as of 12:15 a.m. Sunday), because I miss her when she’s gone. And even though she was probably exhausted, the first day she was back she went grocery shopping and then we went to the Montgomery County Fair to look at farm animals, eat unhealthy food, play carnival games, and go on rides. The whole time we were there I was struck by the diversity of the crowd and our county—blacks, whites, Asians, Latinos, women in headscarves and others in the garb of Orthodox Jews. I told Beth that night as we were dropping into bed, a little past our bedtime, that everyone wants to eat fried dough and go on rides that take us high into the sky. “Those are culturally universal values,” she joked.

Meanwhile all four of us are planning to go to a rally in support immigrants (specifically the Dreamers) tomorrow morning in front of the White House because there’s important work to do at home, too.