About Steph

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

Chasing Stars

The night of the midterm elections we gathered in front of the television with popcorn and Halloween candy to watch the results. I thought I might overeat from the stress, but I soon found I’d crossed over into too-nervous-to-eat territory, especially as the House victories did not pile up as quickly as we would have liked and Noah, who was watching both the television and FiveThirtyEight on his laptop, announced that the probability of the Democrats taking the House had dipped. When it got down to 39 percent, he looked stricken and I thought how 2016 was his only reference point for following and deeply caring about an election. “It’s happening again,” he murmured.

But as you know, it didn’t. The Democrats took the House and there’s a remarkably diverse group of firsts headed for Washington, DC—the first Muslim women, the first Native American women, the youngest Congresswoman ever. Democrats gained seven governorships and didn’t lose any, and they made gains in state legislatures across the country. If it wasn’t for losing ground in the Senate, and some heartbreaking close misses at more Governorships in Georgia and Florida, it would have seemed like an unalloyed victory. We all went to bed past our bedtimes, more relieved than ebullient.

The next day I checked and the candidates I wrote postcards for did worse than average—only about twenty percent won—and that was disappointing, but Beth pointed out they wouldn’t recruit postcard writers for safe races, so I’m planning to write some more for Mike Espy’s Senate run-off in Mississippi this weekend.

And, as you also know, in the week and a half since the election, the wave only got bigger. Every time I hear how many seats the Democrats won in the House it’s a different number, but I know it’s in the mid-thirties and there are still undecided races, including at least one of my postcard candidates in California. Meanwhile the losses in the Senate are smaller than initially predicted. My postcard victory rate is up to about twenty-five percent.

Two days after the election, there were pro-Mueller investigation rallies all over the country after the President fired Jeff Sessions. There were two nearby, one in front of the White House and another one, which was more convenient but probably less impactful, in downtown Silver Spring. All day I was torn between which, if any, to attend. One complicating factor was that North had left the house without their ukulele, which they needed for a coffeehouse rehearsal after school, and they’d also forgotten their script for play rehearsal after that. I wasn’t sure if delivering the instrument and the script to school for them would constitute helicopter parenting but it would have taken me within walking distance of the Silver Spring protest, so I was considering that plan, even though it would have gotten me there very early and I’d promised to read several scenes of King Lear to Noah after school.

But then North texted me to say they’d found a ukulele to borrow and Noah came home and wanted to know if I could also quiz him on a huge pile of notes for a test in his Logic class on the history of mathematics and I hadn’t managed to make dinner ahead of time, so it seemed simplest to stay home, read Lear to Noah, quiz him on the Logic, and make a tomato-eggplant stew.

Beth went to the White House protest and because North thought I might be at the Silver Spring protest and they were in that neighborhood with time to kill between rehearsals anyway, they went to that one and sent me short video of people chanting. So the Lovelady-Allens were represented at each of the rallies even if we didn’t all make it.

Middle School Coffeehouse 

The next day we attended the coffeehouse at North’s school. They were going to play the ukulele and sing their original song “Chasing Stars.” I know most of you saw the music video Noah and North made of it when I put it on Facebook in July, but just in case you didn’t, here’s your chance.

The advertised start time for the coffeehouse was 6:00 and the performers were supposed to arrive at 5:45, so North left fifteen minutes before Noah and me. Noah had stayed after school to finish the Logic test and I was hoping he’d have time to practice his drums before we left but he took a long time to get started and after only fifteen minutes, I had to tell him to stop. Or I thought I did. The bus got us there at 5:50 and then we waited almost an hour for the coffeehouse to start. Apparently, there had been a mistake in the publicity and it wasn’t supposed to start until 6:30, then the band and orchestra teacher announced, much to Beth’s and my dismay, that they were delaying the start because the rain might be slowing traffic. So… let’s say it would have been safe for Noah to finish drumming. I was frustrated because he’s been so busy he’s been skipping practice a lot. I was also bored because in our rush to leave the house, I’d forgotten my phone and I hadn’t brought anything else to read either. I tried to take my own advice—given in a recent ghost-written blog post—about using unexpected waiting time as an opportunity for mindfulness, but I failed at it.

Once it finally started, the show was very nice. North went second out of ten performers. They sang well, but looked nervous, especially at the beginning of the song. They relaxed into it somewhat as they went on. As I told them later, when I used to give conference papers I always liked to go early so I could enjoy everyone else’s presentation and they nodded, either agreeing or humoring me.

And there was a lot to enjoy after North’s song. There are many talented singers and musicians at their school. Kids sang songs by Adele, the White Stripes, and Vance Joy and other pop singers. One boy played “Fur Elise” on the piano and there was a violinist who played a very impressive and intricate piece. North wasn’t the only one playing an original composition. A boy who went to North’s elementary school and attends the same church as Beth and North played a song he’d written on the piano and two more boys performed their own jointly written song for guitar and mandolin. Everyone did a great job.

Toward the end of the show, there was a sixth-grade girl whose background music cut out in the middle of her performance of “Feel Better When I’m Dancing” and she just kept singing, completely self-possessed. Eventually people in the audience started clapping and stomping their feet to the beat to replace the missing music. It was one of those moments that makes you feel better about humanity. Also, I think that girl is going places.

Snow Day

About a week later, North was supposed to have the chance to perform “Chasing Stars” again at their induction into Tri-M, the music honor society. They were elected the President of their school’s chapter last spring, so they were going to give a speech and sing.

But we got a couple inches of snow that morning and school and all after school activities were cancelled. This is the earliest measurable snow I remember having in all the sixteen and a half years we’ve lived in Maryland and the latest in the morning a snow day has ever been called. I got an alert on my phone at 5:00 a.m. saying it would be at least a two-hour delay, with a possible cancellation, to be decided by 7:00. This is pretty standard procedure. At 6:50, the alert said it would be a two-hour delay. I didn’t quite trust it, though, because it was still snowing and it was supposed to snow until noon. Sure enough, at 8:45, fifteen minutes before Noah was supposed to leave the house, Zoë called and North put her on speaker phone and I heard the dreaded words, “No school!”

North was actually disappointed when the two-hour delay was called because the seventh grade had a field trip to Medieval Times planned and the students had been explicitly told a two-hour delay would scotch it, but North was consoling themselves with the fact that the induction ceremony would go on if there was school. Well, so much for that.

Have I ever mentioned how much I hate snow days?  Yes? Okay. I’ll spare you the unreasonably emotional rant. I mean, what’s the point in saying it all again? It really makes no sense now that my kids are old enough not to be underfoot all day. Still, I felt really sad that morning, actually crying at the kitchen window as I watched it come down. I’m not sure exactly why snow days do that to me, but I have a theory it’s a trigger for me because my father died shortly before the big blizzard of 2010 that had the kids out of school for weeks. Fortunately, snow when we’re away from home doesn’t have that effect on me, so if it snows while we’re at Blackwater this Christmas, I can enjoy it.

North, perhaps wanting to avoid their morose mother or perhaps hoping to escape before I thought to give them a chore, left the house shortly after nine, meeting Zoë at a park. They spent the rest of the day at Zoë’s house, where the two of them made a snowwoman in a bikini, played with Zoë’s Guinea pigs, and watched television, not returning until after dinner. Noah spent most of the day in his room working on his senior presentation. I folded laundry, worked, and went on some errands, partly to get out of the house, partly because I needed stamps for the weekend’s postcard writing. I even stopped in a nearby store thinking I might try to do some holiday shopping but apparently that was a bridge too far because I started thinking about the impossibility of anything ever genuinely pleasing anyone and then I decided maybe I should just go home and leave the shopping for a less grim day.

High School Film Screening

The next day was Friday. There had been some speculation that there might be a two-hour delay but the kids went to school on time. That evening there was a screening of films made by students at Noah’s school and another local high school at a local art space. We got there about a half hour before the films started so we had some pizza and then went upstairs to look at the art on display. There was an exhibit of poems printed over each other, some abstract black and white architectural photographs, and a room in which visitors were encouraged to add a line to a collective poem written on the wall in marker.

The films started late, but comparing it to the coffeehouse the week before, it was remarkable how much less impatient I felt when I’d been fed and given something interesting to look at. The films were excellent. One of them we’d seen at the Montgomery County Youth Media Festival last spring, but most of them were new. Noah’s was about the White Oak duckpin bowling alley and the community of bowlers there. (One of Noah’s favorite parts of making the film was getting to go behind the lanes and seeing the pin -setting machinery.)

You can watch it here if you like. It’s about six minutes long:

We also really liked the film about a local tattoo artist who will cover gang and white supremacist tattoos for free. The students from Bethesda-Chevy Chase mostly showed footage from their weekly news show. In addition to screening the films, it was a chance for the students from the two schools to network and discuss possible collaboration. It was a fun event.

So, how to wrap this up? The election results were encouraging, but there’s still a lot of work to do, and we are all chasing stars in our own way, whether political or artistic.

Spooked, Part 3

Two Sundays ago I woke thinking of the synagogue shooting the day before. I was full of sadness for the world and the little spark of hope I usually feel after voting was almost extinguished. I muddled through the next couple days and on Monday evening I was idly checking my phone to see if there were any new Postcards for Voters campaigns; I was thinking I was probably finished because the deadline was the very next day and I was out of postcard stamps. When Senator Heidi Heitkamp’s name came up as one of the options I think I may have yelped with excitement. I know I went around the house telling everyone in my mildly amused family. A Senate campaign for an endangered Democrat who risked her seat by voting no on Kavanaugh was definitely worth a trip to the post office.

I initially started writing postcards with the goal of flipping the House and improving the ratio of Democrats to Republicans in the Senate. But some days the only campaigns on offer were ones I’d already written for and down ballot races. It was tempting to learn about a lot of different campaigns and I started thinking about the importance of party building and getting people (especially women) in the pipeline for higher office so I ended up writing for all kinds of campaigns, for Governors, state legislators, even a county commissioner and a school board candidate. I also wrote for a ballot initiative in Florida to restore the voting rights of people with felony convictions who’d served their time. All in all, I wrote 231 postcards, from mid-September to the first day of November. Forty of them were in the last four days of that span.

I tracked down postcard stamps at the second post office I visited—they’ve been hard to find so I think my neighbors had been doing the same thing I was. I’d committed to write twenty-five postcards for Heitkamp and I thought it would be nice to have some on hand for upcoming special elections so I bought forty. But they kept extending the deadlines so I wrote five more for Andrew Gillum in Florida and then ten for Tedra Cobb in New York on short deadlines. I would have kept going but I ran out of stamps again. 

On more than one night, I camped out in Noah’s room writing postcards while he worked on homework or his first college application. He’s applying early action to the University of Maryland Baltimore College and the Honors College there. There were four essays for the Honors College, separate from the main essay he’s using for all his college applications, so he had a lot to write, too.

It was a shame it was such a busy week for him, because I would have liked him to come to the vigil in downtown Takoma for the victims of the shootings in Kentucky and Pittsburgh Monday night. North had rehearsal so they couldn’t come either. Beth and I could only stay for part of it because we needed to go pick them up, but it was nice, the speeches, and songs and the candles in the darkness while we gathered with our neighbors to honor the lives lost. My friend Becky, who’s active in gun control groups, was one of the organizers. Thanks for everything you do, Becky.

Noah didn’t skip trick-or-treating on Wednesday, though he was working before and after. He also took some time before dinner to get the battery-operated decorations and the fog machines up and running. I fed everyone a quick supper of grilled cheese sandwiches and canned soup and the kids were off around seven.  I stayed home giving out candy to about forty kids dressed as everything from Astronaut to Zombie. Several people asked to take pictures of our yard. Our around-the-corner neighbor came by with her daughter and posted a picture of our porch on Facebook with the caption “Best House in the Hood.”

When the kids got home at eight-thirty, I was tempted to tell them they should trade candy later because North needed to wash off their bloody makeup in the shower and go to bed and Noah’s application was stuck. He’d tried to submit it before dinner and the Common App site wouldn’t recognize the PDF. But it wasn’t really a crisis because it wasn’t due until the next evening and I realized it was probably the last time the kids would ever trick-or-treat together, so I didn’t rush either of them along.  It all ended well. Noah tweeted to the Common App before he and North left and they responded quickly with a workaround and before he went to bed on Halloween, his first application was in the bag.

The next weekend, Beth and Noah went on their annual fall camping trip. They’d had to cancel a few weeks earlier because of Noah’s workload so I was glad they got it in before the cold weather sets in—it did get down into the thirties at night. This year they went to Catoctin Mountain Park and stayed in a charming but drafty cabin built by the Civilian Conservation Corp during the Depression. Noah worked on overdue logic homework that fell by the wayside while he was working on a presentation for his senior seminar and the UMBC application, but they also hiked and made S’mores and relaxed.

Meanwhile back at home, North and watched The Nightmare Before Christmas and The Corpse Bride, and I took them to therapy and to get their hair cut and to the pool and the library. It was Noah’s half-birthday on Saturday so we all had cupcakes, which we ate separately. That was a little strange, but it was nice when the campers came home and we were all re-united over a dinner of breaded tofu and baked Parmesan-squash rings Beth made for us. They’d also brought home a pecan pie from an orchard they’d visited on the way home.

Today North’s acting class had its last meeting and they performed the scenes they’ve been working on since September. Mondays have been a tight squeeze for North all fall. They generally got off the school bus and I thrust a packed dinner at them, they grabbed their scripts and got on second bus to acting class, which they had to leave fifteen minutes early to catch a third bus to rehearsal at the theater.

So we did the first part of that except I didn’t have their dinner ready because I was going to bring it to the performance. I finished making the curried lentil-vegetable stew, put a thermos full of it into a lunchbox along with a Reese’s peanut butter cup and a couple lollipops from their Halloween stash and got on a bus to the Rec Center.

The kids performed scenes from The Parent Trap, Peter and the Starcatcher, one of the Harry Potter books, and The Hunger Games. In a was a strange coincidence, North ended up in a scene from the same play in which she’s performing at Highwood next month. They’d hoped to be in a scene from Dear Evan Hansen but couldn’t convince any other students to do it with them. So I got a preview of that scene with North in the role of Peter. (In the Highwood version they’re playing four small parts, but more on that in a later post.) The play is a prequel to Peter Pan, and in the featured scene Peter is shyly approaching a girl who kissed him in an earlier scene and now seems to regret having done it or at least has mixed feelings. North did a good job conveying Peter’s embarrassment and hopefulness. I also liked seeing Grace (the teacher’s daughter who’s been in acting classes with North since they were both three) in the Hunger Games scene. She made an excellent Katniss. The scene was the one in which Katniss and Rue pair up. It made me wonder if I could entice North to read that series with me.

After the scenes, Gretchen had the kids discuss their scenes and explain what acting techniques they’d been using. North had left for rehearsal by that point and I was sorry not to hear what they would have said. Right when the improv exercises—with audience participation—were about to start I slipped out of the auditorium. When I got to my bus stop North was still at theirs (directly across the street) sitting on a bench, illuminated by the streetlight, eating lentil stew out of their thermos. We waved at each other. My bus actually came first, even though I’d stayed inside ten minutes longer.

Even though it was cut a little short, it was nice to see North up on stage. I always enjoy seeing them in their element. And it also kept me busy on a day when I was full of nervous energy about the election tomorrow. We’re all a bit spooked now, but soon we’ll know a little more about what the future holds, for better or for worse.

Spooked, Part 2

Most years Noah is working on his Halloween costume right up until the Halloween parade and usually we’re sliding it into the hatch of the car hoping the tacky paint won’t smear. (And almost as often he’s still applying the finishing touches he didn’t complete in time for the contest right before he leaves for trick-or-treating.) I thought we might avoid that rush because he made his costume so far in advance this year for the film he was making for school. But last Saturday morning found him on the porch, painting details he didn’t have time to include when he was filming. (He did finish the costume Saturday, though. No new work was needed on Halloween.)

Beth, North, and I had a busy morning. We had an initial meeting with a new therapist for North, then we went to Silver Spring to vote early. There was a moderately long line, but it moved quickly. When someone saw it and left, Beth said under her breath, “Get your ass back here and vote!” As I went through the stations, I made sure to thank every poll worker I encountered. It seems a more vital job than ever these days. From the polls, we went to Michael’s for more green spray paint for Noah, who needed it for his back panel, and then to Starbucks for coffee for the adults and a Witches’ Brew frappuccino for North.

We didn’t know it at the time but the shooting at the synagogue in Squirrel Hill took place while we were driving to vote. I read about it later in the day on my phone. Remember how I said in my last post we’d have a new political horror within the week? I didn’t have anything that horrible in mind. I just don’t know what to say about it, the loss of life, the President’s refusal to stop using the same inflammatory rhetoric about the migrant caravan that lead to it. Words fail.

So I had a heavy heart as we set out for the rec center Halloween party at 1:40. It was a party this year rather than a parade because the day was cold and predicted to be rainy. It never did much more than sprinkle and the parade probably could have gone on, but they have to make the call a few days ahead of time.

The party was at a local elementary school but not the same one where it used to be years ago when the parade terminated at a school. (The route has changed quite a few times in the many years we’ve been going.) I think I liked the old school better because it had a bigger gathering space in the gym. It felt crowded in the cafeteria where the line-up for the contest was. There was less mingling and I didn’t see as many people’s costumes. We did see Keira, an eighth grader from North’s school dressed as a mailbox. Over the years, Keira has been as serious about her Halloween costumes as my kids, maybe even more so. The details on the mailbox, from the rivets to the labels with the USPS logo and collection hours were just spot on. She could have been in the group category because her mom was dressed as a postcard, but she sized up the room and decided to enter Teen to Adult instead, which put her in competition with Noah. (Most years she’s in North’s age group.)

I could see why she did it, though. There were some good groups, one of people dressed as objects representing Takoma Park businesses, two men in prison jumpsuits marked “Cohen” and “Manafort” with a baby in a suit with a briefcase representing Mueller. Creatively used babies seemed to be a theme this year. There was a Frankenstein’s Monster and Bride of Frankenstein with a baby Dr. Frankenstein complete with a white coat and goggles, and a woman dressed as Professor Sprout from the Harry Potter books with a baby dressed as a mandrake in a fabric pot attached to her.

North assessed the nine-to-twelve year old line and decided their main competition was either the girl in Harlequin tights with bleeding eyes or Beetlejuice. North was going for Scariest. (They later told me they’d rather not win anything than win Cutest, but when you’re dressed as Lizzie Borden, there’s really not much risk of winning Cutest.)

The contestants went outside one category at a time for the judges to get a better look at them and take names. Noah and Keira were the only two people who came outside for Teen to Adult, which struck me as strange. There should have been more than that. Group costumes came close on their heels, though, so maybe people in those two categories got mixed up.

The parade took place in an abbreviated form through the halls of the school and we ended up in the gym for a concert and the contest results, which were announced in between songs. The band wasn’t the Grandsons for the first time I can remember and while the new band played a lot of crowd favorites—“Monster Mash,” “Ghostbusters,” and “This is Halloween”—they weren’t as good as the Grandsons in our collective (but admittedly change-resistant) opinion.

We watched the winners of the Four and Under and Five to Eight categories. North was not expecting to win because when they were outside, no judge took their name. This wasn’t a good sign but it’s not a perfect predictor. While the judges usually take more names than there are winners, occasionally they don’t get a winner’s name and the winner is announced by costume, so I thought there was a chance. Most Original went to Medusa. Noah immediately protested that Medusa is not original–“The Greeks thought of her thousands of years ago!”—but it was a very nice execution. The girl’s headdress was a tangle of snakes almost as big as she was. Scariest went to Beetlejuice and none of us remember who won Cutest because we are, as a whole, uninterested in that category.

We waited through another song to hear the Teen to Adult results. Most Original was Keira’s mailbox and it was impossible to begrudge her that win. She’s a worthy opponent. Then someone—again no one remembers who—won for Cutest. I had thought it was likely they’d find more teens or adults during the parade part of the festivities and I guess that’s what happened. There was no announcement for Scariest, which was disappointing. Even though Noah was going for Most Original, hackers are plenty scary so that would have worked, too.

I am always sad for the kids when they don’t win the contest because they put so much work into their costumes and it means a lot to them. But losing is part of competing. They both know that and they are generally good sports about it. That said, Noah seemed to take it harder than usual this year, either because it was probably his last year in the contest or because no winner was announced in a category he could have won. Rather than shrugging it off, he spent some time afterward fretting about whether the judges even understood his costume. He wondered if the news story on which it was based was too obscure. Anyway, we hung around to see the winners in the group category—the Takoma businesses group won first prize—and then North went through the inflatable corn maze and we went home.

We were in Halloween mode, so we launched into carving our pumpkins. Beth’s is the sugar skull, mine is the zombie hand rising from the ground, Noah’s is the cat superimposed over a ghost, and North’s is the cannibal pumpkin—yes, that’s a tiny carved pumpkin in the mouth of the big one. We ate candy corn while we carved and listened to our Halloween playlist and set aside the seeds to roast, all long-standing traditions. These are the things that hold us together and even in our sadness for our country, let us hold tight to each other. 

Spooked, Part 1

Last Saturday, we made out annual trek out to Potomac Vegetable Farm for our jack-o-lantern pumpkins, cider, kale, pumpkin bread, and decorative gourds. It’s a long drive out there, forty-five minutes when there’s no traffic and there’s usually traffic. It’s just a little farm stand in Northern Virginia, with no corn maze, hayrides, petting zoo, or rides like some other pumpkin farms have. But we started going there many years ago because it’s run by the family of a friend of ours from college, and we are a family prone to loyalty and tradition. The kids have never even asked to go somewhere else. They may not realize it’s possible.

It was a busy day. There was a homecoming at the kids’ preschool and we all went, though not at the same time because North had a rehearsal for Peter and the Starcatcher so they had to go at the very beginning and it made more sense for Noah to go at the end, so he’d have a longer uninterrupted block of time for homework. He was working on a film for his senior seminar about making his Halloween costume. He’s going as a Chinese spyware microchip. The film’s called The Halloween Hack. (One big benefit of choosing this topic was that his costume was almost finished a week before Halloween, which never happens.)

At the Purple School homecoming we hung out in the play yard and chatted with a couple families from North’s class and one from Noah’s and with more from other classes while Noah was inside interviewing alumni and their parents for more episodes of the podcast he produced for the school last summer. It was nice to catch up with some people we haven’t seen in a long time, particularly the family from Noah’s class.

We went straight from preschool to the theater to pick up North and then we drove out to the farm. Rehearsal was over at 4:30 and the farm was closing at six, but Noah’s interviews ran late so we didn’t get to the theater right at 4:30 and then there was a traffic jam, so it was around 5:40 by the time we got to the farm, but that was plenty of time to examine the pumpkins and gourds, make our choices, and take the traditional photographs.

Afterward we had dinner at Sunflower, a vegetarian Chinese restaurant we discovered a couple years ago, which has pretty decent vegetarian shrimp (or at least it seems like that to two adults who haven’t had real shrimp in over thirty years and two kids who’ve never had it). Then we went to Dessert Story for honeydew bubble tea and macarons (North and I split a serving of each) and Nutella-Oreo waffle sundaes (Beth and Noah’s choice). We listened to Halloween playlists all the way there and back, but even so it never got to “Purple People Eater,” which was the only disappointing thing about the outing, from North’s perspective. Beth said it was “a little melancholy” knowing it could be Noah’s last trip to the pumpkin patch with us and I had to agree.

This week Noah burned the midnight oil working on his film and other homework for several nights in a row. Tonight he’s working on his UMBC honors college application essays. Meanwhile I’ve been writing a series of Christmas-themed blog posts for a herbal supplement and tea company. One of them involved finding and testing holiday recipes using tea. Tuesday afternoon, while I was sitting down to compose that one, with a glass of freshly made hibiscus-orange punch at my side, I was amused by the contrast between the cheery tone of the blog post I was going to write and the decal of a ghostly woman with bleeding eyes who peers at me while I work in October, so I posted a picture on Facebook.

My friend Allison (hi, Allison!) responded, “You seriously don’t get spooked by this a hundred times a day?” And actually, I don’t. I did a few times last year, which was the first year she haunted my desk, but this year I’m pretty used to her. Maybe after almost two years since the election of Donald Trump, it takes more than a creepy image to scare me. I mean, consider the last few weeks: the indifference to the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, the pipe bombs sent to Democratic politicians and CNN, and the White House’s attempt to erase trans people out of existence. And by next week there will be some new horror. I can guarantee that.

So I’ve picked up the pace of my get-out-the-vote postcard writing, because the midterm elections are in less than two weeks and in many states early voting is already in progress. So far I’ve written 161 postcards to voters in California, Florida, Georgia, New York, Oregon, Tennessee, and Texas and I’ve got a batch of fifteen more stamped, addressed, and ready to write this weekend. Because no ghost or ghoul would terrify me more than another two years of the Trump presidency with both houses of Congress under Republican control.

The Sun Also Ariseth

“One generation passeth away, and another generation cometh; but the earth abideth forever…. The sun also ariseth, and the sun goeth down…”

Ecclesiastes, quoted in the epigraph to The Sun Also Rises

Well, life goes on. There was a party on Saturday night for the seventh and eighth-grade Spanish immersion students at North’s school to welcome the Colombian exchange students who are visiting this week. It was held at a vineyard owned by the family of one of the eighth-graders about an hour north of us. Everyone picnicked and the kids ran around in the dark with glowsticks and sampled grapes off the arbors and there was karaoke and man playing guitar and singing in Spanish and there were two bonfires for making s’mores.

Going to a party was just about the last thing I wanted to do on Saturday. I thought I was so sad I’d cry if anyone mentioned the Kavanaugh confirmation and that if anyone talked about anything other than the Kavanaugh confirmation it wouldn’t seem important enough to bother discussing.

But it was fine, better than fine actually. After all, all the adults there were parents and our kids always seem important enough to talk about. And when conversation did turn to Kavanaugh, it actually helped a little to talk to other broken-hearted people. I felt particularly bad for the woman who works for NARAL.

Two days later it was Columbus Day, otherwise known as parent visitation day at the kids’ schools. This is the last time we’ll have to balance both visiting both the middle school and the high school, which has proved challenging the past couple years. Both kids have so many classes it’s hard to know which ones to prioritize.

Both kids’ school operate on a block schedule, which means they have four long periods a day, rather than eight short ones and each class meets every other day. (Actually, the high school bell schedule is a little more complicated than that but you don’t need the minutiae.) The high school runs an all-period day on visitation day so parents have the option of going to any class they like, but the middle school keeps to its normal schedule, so our choices were North’s Spanish, English, chorus, and science classes. Except that day most of the first period (Spanish) was given over to another welcome event for the Colombians, a breakfast in the courtyard. We’d volunteered to bring bagels to the breakfast so that was our first stop.

There was a lot going on a the middle school. In addition to the Colombians’ first day at school and parent visitation day, it was also the departure day for the first contingent of sixth-graders going on the  annual outdoor education field trip. I made note of the piles of luggage in front of the school, one for boys and one for girls and remembered what a conundrum that caused North last year. (We’re planning a meeting with school administrators soon to discuss how to find an accommodating family for a non-binary kid when the seventh- and eighth-grade immersion kids go to Colombia in the spring.)

We arrived in the courtyard and examined the spread, which consisted of bagels, muffins, doughnuts, and coffee cake. I told Beth it was a nightmare for the gluten-free, though I suppose if you were gluten-free or otherwise low-carb you could have spread cream cheese on the tomato slices in the bagel fixings area. I’m not, so I had a sliver of raspberry coffee cake and half a whole-wheat bagel, with veggie cream cheese and some of the aforementioned tomatoes. North was excited that there were asiago bagels left when they got to the front of the line and that they got to spend some time with Zoë, who’s not in any classes of their classes this year. I talked to Zoë’s mom, who works as a lawyer for Health and Human Services and is about as discouraged as you’d expect these days.

We left before the breakfast was quite over because we’d decided to attend Noah’s third and fourth period classes before circling back to North’s school. Third period was the CAP senior seminar. This is the only required class CAP students have in twelfth grade (though they also have to pick from a short list of English classes). In the senior seminar they work on their college essays, do a service project, an independent academic project, and present a portfolio of several assignments from their four years in CAP. There are three sections of the class and Noah’s in the one taught by his ninth-grade history teacher, Mr. G.

At the beginning of class Mr. G had the parents in the room introduce themselves (it was just me, Beth, and one other mother) and asked us how we felt about the college search. Beth said it was sad to think about Noah leaving and the teacher was surprised. He said he expected us to say something about being worried about money.

Next he handed back their organizers for the senior presentation, gave some guidance on the presentation, and talked about their college essays. So far Noah has turned in three drafts of his Common Application essay. It has really improved, though the biggest change was between the first two drafts. (I’ve read them all.)

Then Mr. G started to expound on the importance of the essay, how tens of thousands of dollars could ride on getting them just right, because the better the essay the more schools they’d get into, the better the chance of getting into one with a large endowment, and the better the chance of getting substantial aid. Then I realized why he was surprised at Beth’s answer. He’d wanted us to set up this point for him. I was glad we hadn’t because while of course money’s a concern for almost any parent of a college-bound student, I don’t think cranking up the pressure on these kids is the right approach. They’re all high-achieving, highly motivated students, not slackers. They’re doing what they can and that’s all we should ask of them. So I found it ironic that the next thing Mr. G did was hand out a worksheet on dealing with negative emotions, including anxiety. They worked on these while he met with a couple students to go over their essays.

We followed Noah to his next class, AP English Literature. I wanted to hear the discussion on The Sun Also Rises because I’ve been reading it to him. Noah is a slow reader so I often read his school assignments to him, particularly if they are of interest to me, and any novel for an English class automatically falls into this category. We were not quite three-quarters of the way through it on Monday, and when Ms. A put the quiz questions for the last reading up on a screen, I realized with a little surprise I wouldn’t have done very well on this quiz, which was character identification from quotes. I think I’ve disengaged from the book because, as I mentioned in my last post, it’s not the best book for me to read in this particular moment. I read the words aloud, but I’m not thinking much about them. I resolved to pay better attention to the last four chapters. If I’m going to read this classic, I should know something about it when we finish. So that was useful, on a purely personal level.

Next Ms. A had the students edit a sample introductory paragraph for a four-paragraph essay on the AP exam in small groups. When they’d finished, the whole group discussed thesis statements, grammar, wording, and general AP exam strategy. Then it was back to The Sun Also Rises. The students had to read a passage, pick one important word from it and then explain why they’d chosen it. Ms. A used this exercise to get them to practice close reading. While most CAP students take AP English Literature, it’s not a CAP-only class like all his other high school English classes to date. Later I asked him if it was harder, easier, or about the same. About the same, he said.

After English, we went to the band room to drop off some brownies Beth made for a bake sale to benefit the band and then we decamped to Starbucks where we killed a little time until North’s chorus class started. We were going to chorus because it was North’s favorite class and the one they most wanted us to observe. As we waited in the room for Mr. N and students to arrive, I remembered chaperoning the sixth-grade chorus on a field trip last March and how rowdy the kids had been. North’s in advanced chorus (comprised of seventh and eighth graders) this year and I wondered if maybe after some winnowing and self-selection, the group would be better behaved.

The short answer was they were not. And it was a shame because Mr. N’s attempts at discipline kept interrupting the flow of his lesson. And as is always the case in these situations, it wasn’t all the kids, or even most of the kids causing problems. It only takes a few uncooperative students to throw a wrench in the works.

The class started with vocal warm-ups, then a sight-reading exercise, and finally they practiced two songs for their winter concert, sometimes in sections, and sometimes all together. Mr. N’s instruction and critiques made me reflect on how little I know about choral music, but I think many observers would have been puzzled by his praise of the altos for being “vampires.” Later, North explained it was because they were singing in minor key, which can sound creepy, so when people do that well he tells them they’re vampires.

We left after chorus. North had science next and they thought they were going to start working on their hydroponics project. This sounded interesting and I felt a tinge of regret about not managing to fit in any of their academic classes this year, but if Beth and I were going to have lunch together (a traditional part of this day) we needed to go. Later North told us they didn’t actually start the building the hydroponics equipment, that it was a lecture on cells instead.

Beth and I had time for a lunch at the arepas place in Silver Spring and a quick run to the grocery store for celery, which I needed for dinner. We got home shortly before Noah did. Soon both kids were home—North, who was in the house briefly before heading to acting class and play rehearsal, and Noah, who settled in to work on his National Merit essay. He’s a semifinalist and hoping to advance to finalist, which could potentially lead to some scholarship money. But even if it doesn’t, I’m proud of him and I hope he’s proud of himself. He’s worked hard and however things turn out, he’ll still go to college and the sun will keep rising every day.

Unfit

Jesus, where do I start?

I am not a survivor of sexual assault, not really. Just the normal catcalls and unwanted attention in my teens and twenties. Just being groped by a fellow student on a crowded stairwell in my high school and by a stranger on a street corner in college. Just being stopped on the street at night by a man who offered me ten dollars to have sex with him when I was sixteen or seventeen. (At least he didn’t touch me and left when I said no.)  I’ve heard so much worse from so many women I know, including my own sister, these past few weeks. It seems everyone has a story to tell. Every new revelation is depressing and the cumulative effect is staggering. Why is this normal? This should not be normal. But it is. 

Okay, I guess I’ll start with the hearings. A week and a half ago, like many of you, I spent much of the morning glued to Dr. Christine Blasey Ford’s brave and moving testimony in the Kavanaugh confirmation hearings. I didn’t mean to watch as long as I did, but if you watched, too, you know how riveting it was. (It was made even more so  by the fact she’s almost exactly my age and so relatable and because I know one of her lawyers who was sitting right next to her. The lawyer’s son went to preschool with Noah.) While I watched, I made a batch of postcards for Phil Bredesen’s Senate campaign in Tennessee.

I was thinking at the time I would have preferred to be writing for a female candidate (on that day especially) but the address-dispensing bot doesn’t always give you a choice. Some days there are addresses for two or three candidate available and some days it’s only one. To make matters worse, I read a profile of Bredesen in the Post the other day and when asked if he would vote for Kavanaugh (in some alternate universe in which the vote didn’t take place until next year) he wouldn’t commit. But I keep telling myself the individual, mostly centrist, candidates are not the main reason I’m volunteering to do this. Flipping the House and maybe even the Senate is the goal. And I did get addresses for a woman (Katie Porter in California) the very next day.

A week after those hearings I met Beth in the lobby of her office a little after noon. There was a CWA contingent marching against Kavanaugh’s confirmation and I was joining it. The march started at the federal courthouse where Kavanaugh currently works and proceeded to the Supreme Court. While we were at the first court house I heard someone say Elizabeth Warren was in the crowd, but I didn’t see her.

I did see a lot of signs. The ACLU was passing out ones that said “Women Must Be Heard” on one side and “Unfit to Serve” on the other. I took one of them. There were a lot that said, “Believe Survivors” and “Kava-Nope.” (Other variations I saw later in the day: “Kava-Naw” and “Kava-No.”) The President of Beth’s union had a hand-lettered one that said, “Were You Drunk When You Ruled Against CWA in Connecticut?” But my favorite was another homemade one that read “I Hear Merrick Garland Is Available.”

Once we got moving, I realized the crowd was bigger than I thought. We filled a few blocks at any rate. It was pretty good turnout for the middle of a weekday. But then again so many people—women and men, too—are just so sad and angry, how could we not take to the streets?

It was an unseasonably hot day for October—it eventually got up the mid-eighties and because we were standing on asphalt a lot of the time, it felt warmer. There weren’t as many people in costume as you often see at these things—a few people in Kavanaugh masks clutching huge beer cans, a woman in a Statue of Liberty crown. My favorite prop was the pair of cut-off khaki pants held up on sticks with shiny flame-colored ribbons attached to the knees. It took me a second or two to get it—pants on fire.

At the Supreme Court, there were many speeches from sexual assault survivors from the states of wavering Senators—Alaska, Maine, and Arizona. While we were there, Heidi Heitkamp’s decision to vote against Kavanaugh was announced to cheers from the crowd. I hadn’t even realized her vote was in play, but apparently it’s hard to be a Democrat in North Dakota. When the speeches were over, we headed over to the atrium of the Hart Senate Office Building. The original plan had been a direct action on the steps of the Capitol, but it was barricaded.

I have to say the atrium was probably a superior place to protest anyway. It’s eight stories tall, with marble walls and the acoustics are great. The chants echoed and swelled and just filled the space. I found myself yelling more loudly and with more emotion than I had in the street. (Beth later said it was “cathartic.”) Plus you could see into some of the glass-walled offices, where supportive senators had hung signs that said things like “We Believe Survivors” and staffers peered out to watch the protesters. Seeing them see us made it all seem very real. Bernie Sanders and Amy Schumer were both there—Schumer got arrested, but I didn’t spot them. I only heard about it later.

We didn’t want to get arrested—though Beth considered it—so we moved up to the second-floor balcony when the Capitol Police cleared the floor. We had a good view of people being arrested from up there. It was all very orderly. The people who wanted to be arrested got into line and every time the police took them away in small groups, the crowds who were standing on the periphery of the atrium or up in the balconies would burst into cheers and chants. “We Will Remember in November” was a popular one. A group of protesters unfurled a banner from the sixth-floor balcony that read, “We Believe All Survivors.”

By this point, I was getting choked up. “I hope she’s watching this,” I said.

One of Beth’s colleagues wanted to know if I meant Susan Collins, but Beth, who knows me better, said, “No, she means Blasey Ford.”

I left before Beth, a little after four, hoping to get home in time to make dinner and supervise homework. However, by the time I got home I was too worn out from the heat and the emotion of the day to do anything more elaborate than heat up frozen burritos and corn. I did read a couple chapters of The Sun Also Rises to Noah, though reading about the exploits of a group of continually drunk and poorly behaved expats was not really high on my hit parade that week.

But back to the Hart Building… before I left I went to the restroom. As we were washing our hands, a woman asked me, “Do you have any hope?”

“I’m not sure,” I answered honestly. Then I thought to clarify whether she meant for the short-term or the long term.

“Either,” she said.

I was not feeling particularly hopeful for the short term, even right after watching that stirring demonstration, but I have a little more hope for the long term… at least sometimes. We may be on the cusp of an important change in how we as a culture think about sexual violence. It’s important to remember more people believe Ford than Kavanaugh and we didn’t want Kavanaugh thrust upon us any more than she did wanted him thrust upon her thirty-six years ago. But with the current composition of the Senate, it just didn’t matter.

Later that night, at home, I told Beth that “The people united, will never be defeated” has to be one of my least favorite things to chant at rallies because it’s so patently untrue. We are defeated again and again and again. My favorite chant of the Trump era is the call and response: “Tell me what democracy looks like./This is what democracy looks like.” It’s factual but spirited. Democracy is loud and messy and a work in progress. It’s never over. No defeat is the end of the story.

That’s what I’m telling myself anyway, and I wrote another batch of postcards for two female candidates in Georgia yesterday.

Which Side Are You On?

They say in Harlan County
There are no neutrals there.
You’ll either be a union man
Or a thug for J.H. Blair

From “Which Side Are You On,” by Florence Reece

We’re a few weeks into the school year, which means North’s activities are starting. They’re taking an acting class at the rec center, they have rehearsals for Peter and the Starcatcher starting next week and they’re going to try out for glee club at school. Rainbow Alliance should start meeting soon as well. They’re also involved in a program at the rec center for middle and high school students to write TED talks and they get weekly coaching on their speech, which is on the theme of assumptions.

September also means a lot of meetings. We’ve been to North’s school twice, once for a meeting about the seventh and eighth-grade Spanish immersion trip to Columbia next spring and once for Back to School Night. We’ve also been to Noah’s school twice, once for a twelfth-grade CAP meeting and once for its Back to School Night. It was my very last Back to School Night for Noah. I might have been sad about that, but they keep you busy running from one classroom to another at those things, so there wasn’t really time.

Tuesday we went to Children’s National Medical Center for a meeting of their trans kids’ support group. We went for the first time in July and it was our first time back since then. (We were out of town during the August meeting.) The kids and parents meet separately. The middle school group is pretty small, consisting right now of North and two trans boys who are both in eighth grade. North seems to like it and it’s interesting to hear other parents talk about their experiences, although ours are often a little different because being non-binary presents different issues.

When it was over North asked what we talked about and Beth said, “Our kids. Did you talk about your parents?” North said yes, among other things. The group meets from five to six-thirty and I didn’t have anything started for dinner at home so we ate at the hospital cafeteria and then we went out for gelato, as it wasn’t a school night. (It was the night Yom Kippur began.)

Meanwhile, Noah’s working on getting materials together for his first college application. UMBC has a non-binding early action application deadline in a little over a month. It’s the only early application he’ll do as the others on his list only have binding early decision deadlines and he doesn’t have a clear front-runner. We went to tour the campus about two weeks ago. (The kids had the day off for Rosh Hashanah.) We’d been to their open house in August, but we couldn’t stay for the tour because North had a chorus camp concert that day. Nothing we saw on this tour really changed Noah’s mind about the school one way or the other, but I was glad we went so we wouldn’t wonder what we’d missed.

Last weekend we went to the Takoma Park Folk Festival. A few weeks ago when I mentioned that unless he goes to school close to home, it might be the last folk festival Noah attends with us, Beth told me I couldn’t get sentimental at every event all year because it’s the last one before Noah leaves for college. But still… we’ve gone almost every year since Noah was a toddler. When he was in preschool and elementary school he loved this festival and he always wanted a t-shirt so for a while we had quite a collection of them. (And I’m going to mention that as we left the festival, Beth and North were bemoaning the fact that Noah probably wouldn’t be there next year. So I’m not the only sentimental one.)

It was the same as it always is. We listened to a few bands and shopped at the craft booths, where North bought some bath salts and a bundle of sage for Xavier’s birthday (as well as some to keep) and we ate festival food (tofu burgers and plantains for the adults, fried rice or lo mein for the kids and ice cream for everyone). We visited Lesley at the booth for the kids’ preschool and she praised Noah’s work on the podcast and told us one of my former students from George Washington University (now in her thirties with a husband and a toddler) visited the booth and is considering the school because after she graduated from college she babysat for us for a long time and she remembered hearing us say good things about it. I had this student in two classes in the 2001-2002 school year and we still exchange Christmas cards. How’s that for a long-term recruitment plan?

The first band we saw was singing Hazel Dickens union songs. The audience skewed older and when we walked in, I wondered if the kids were going to find this boring. I remembered how when we’d seen Magpie perform (perhaps in the very same middle school gym) for a crowd of mostly middle-aged and elderly Takoma Park lefties seven years ago, North actually fell asleep in my lap. One reason I wanted to go to this session is that we know the lead singer. He’s the dad of a girl who has acted at Highwood and the rec center drama camp with North in quite a few shows. (She also attended the kids’ preschool in the year ahead of North. Why, yes, everything always does come back to that preschool.) I always appreciate it when people we know turn out for North’s performances and I like to pay it forward, and not just for kids.

I enjoyed the set and I even found myself unexpectedly moved when the whole room was enthusiastically singing “Which Side Are You On?” It made me want to make a difference and reminded me that I’d been meaning to get set up as a writer for Postcards to Voters, which is just what it sounds like, a campaign to get people to write get-out-the-vote messages on postcards to Democratic voters in districts with close races. My friend Megan (a mom from preschool, naturally) had posted about it on Facebook a few days earlier and it struck me as something I could easily do. Other than writing modest checks, I haven’t been very politically active recently and there is an election around the corner. But I’m not a natural organizer. The idea of calling people up on the phone or knocking on doors gives me hives, but writing postcards…Sure, I can do that.

So a few days later, I wrote a sample postcard, photographed it, submitted it, and committed to write fifteen postcards in three days. (You choose how many you want to do, from four to fifty at a shot.) Within forty minutes, I’d been approved as a postcard writer and I was sent fifteen addresses from the Cincinnati metro area. I went to the post office, bought some postcard stamps, came home and started writing postcards. While I was writing postcards North was (coincidentally) burning their bundle of sage in the fireplace in the same room. It felt as if we were both purging demons. The whole experience was very satisfying and I did another batch to people in the Anaheim area last night. If you’d like to do this, too, check out the Postcards for Voters web site.

The midterms are in less than seven weeks and they could make a real difference in the direction our country takes. I’m going to be writing postcards as often as I can between now and then because I know which side I’m on.

The Middle of the Middle and the End of the End

The Last Few Days of Summer

Well, it happened again. The seemingly endless summer break that stretched out before us in mid-June ended. Today Noah started his last year of high school and North embarked upon the middle year of middle school.

Friday

I took the kids on our traditional end-of-summer creek walk. We splashed through the creek, observed the spider webs that span it and the crawfish that crawl on the bottom. There were a couple of deer on the bank near where we got in and they were seemingly unimpressed with us and disinclined to run away until we were quite close. I could see the velvet on the male’s antlers. 

North swam in the deeper spots, but Noah stuck to wading, maybe because we discovered when we set out that his bathing suit was missing (left we thought in the changing room at the swimming hole in Ithaca or in the hotel in Altoona) so he was dressed. As I moved slowly and cautiously through the creek and over the fallen logs that blocked our way, mindful of the bad fall I took two years ago in the creek, Noah started to point out slippery rocks and good handholds to me. It felt like a role reversal, and a sweet one.

Saturday

We left the house at nine a.m. and drove to the Kennedy Center. Highwood Theatre was having its season preview in a small performance space there and North was singing in three numbers, one each from Peter and the Starcatcher, The Wedding Singer, and Footloose. They don’t actually know which fall show they will be in yet. They’re trying out for an audition-only production of A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder in about a week so we’ll know shortly after that. The preview consisted of songs and scenes from several plays, including The Glass Menagerie and Sweeney Todd. It looks like it will be an interesting season. I’m sure we’ll be seeing many of the shows. North didn’t have any solos but they were one of two featured backup singers in “It’s Your Wedding Day” and when the other kid forgot a line it turned into a solo.

Sunday

North was busy making a test run of the strawberry-yogurt parfait and cucumber-tomato-fresh mozzarella concoction they are assembling in mason jars for school day breakfasts and lunches. Noah spent most of the day editing podcast audio and updating his journal about the experience.

Monday

Beth made pancakes for breakfast, as she traditionally does on the third morning of three-day weekends. North was busy decorating their school supplies, making stripes on the binder with duct tape and affixing stickers of musical notes to it. In the afternoon Beth and North went to a church pool party and we had picnic dinner in the backyard. Beth asked the kids what they wanted out of the coming year. Noah said to graduate and get into college. Beth predicted he would get into one or more. North wanted to have their friends in their classes and to make new friends.

After dinner we all went to Ben & Jerry’s for last-night-of-summer ice cream, another family tradition. We let Noah choose the venue because it’s his last year of high school. It would have felt a little more celebratory if he was finished his essay about the podcast (and essay I didn’t know about until that morning) but you can’t have everything. As it was he was up late working on it. The podcast itself turned out really well.

Tuesday: First Day of School

The big day came and the kids went to school. Noah found his errant bathing suit while he was packing his backpack and was on his way to the bus stop at seven and forty minutes later North went to meet their bus (and then waited twenty minutes because it was late). I went about my day and I was startled when Noah came home about an hour early at 2:55.

“Why are you home?” I asked.

“This is when I get home now,” he said cheerfully. For the first time in his high school career he doesn’t have a ninth period class, which was happy news. He was pleased with his schedule, too, because he’s in Silver Lens (which produces longer films than the ones he made last year for the school television station) and the highest level band (where he’s percussion section leader) and while he didn’t get the teacher he wanted for the CAP senior seminar, he also didn’t get the one he’d least like to have. This teacher is awful, so he really dodged a bullet there. The other two are both good. He’s had all three before. (And even better he didn’t know the objectionable teacher was teaching the class so he didn’t have to worry about it all summer.)  He had no homework due the next day so we read The Book of Dust, which we’d just started over the weekend and then he took a nap.

North got home and reported they don’t have any classes with Zoë or Giulia, but their day was good otherwise. They also had no homework. We read Serafina and the Splintered Heart until it was time for me to start making dinner.

About a week before my kids went back to school, my niece Lily-Mei (aka Lan-Lan) started kindergarten, or the beginning of the beginning of her K-12 education, at a nature-based public charter school. Here’s to a great school year for my kids, my sister’s kid, and your kids, whether they are at the beginning, the middle, or the end.

We Are Headed Northwest: College Tours, Installment #4

The Friday before our big summer college road trip Beth left work early and met me in Silver Spring where we caught a matinee of Desert Hearts at the American Film Institute. The timing seemed serendipitous because we first saw this movie as college students at Oberlin and Oberlin was on the itinerary of our upcoming trip. How did we get from students to a prospective student’s parents? Tempus fugit.

Sunday: Takoma Park, MD to Camp Highlight (Central PA) to Wheeling, WV

We left Sunday morning and drove to central Pennsylvania. Our first stop was Camp Highlight, where we were reunited (briefly) with our younger child who was going to spend a week with Beth’s mom while we were on the road. North was happy to see us but sad to leave all their new camp friends. When I asked if they were ready to go, they said, “I have to hug all my friends,” so that took a while.

As we waited, one of the counselors told me “You’re doing it right with this one,” after relaying the story of a kindness North did another camper who was feeling left out on Twin Day. (North managed to get their scant hair into pigtails, which is how the girl wore her hair, so they could be twins.)

We had lunch in nearby diner, then settled in for the long drive to Wheeling. During the ride we listened to North talk about camp, and sing camp songs, and tell the camp ghost story until they wound down, leaned against the car door looking worn out and disappeared into their headphones. Then we played a Pride playlist Beth found and the Desert Hearts soundtrack.

It was almost nine o’clock when we got to Beth’s mom’s house where her aunt Carole and cousin Sean were waiting for us. Beth’s mom had made a blueberry-raspberry pie, but I wasn’t feeling well so I went to bed around ten while everyone else stayed up to talk and eat.

Monday: Wheeling, WV to Carnegie Mellon University (Pittsburgh, PA) to Oberlin College (Oberlin, OH) 

I had a slice of the pie—it was delicious—for breakfast in the morning, along with a couple veggie sausages. After saying goodbye to North a mere twenty-one hours after camp pickup, Beth, Noah and I hit the road mid-morning and drove to Pittsburgh.  Carnegie Mellon was our first college stop. There were no organized tours available that day because it was orientation for first-year students, but we walked around a little, took in the campus, picked up some materials from the computer science department, and had lunch in a noodle bar in the computer science building. Unlike Emerson, which kind of melts into a block of office buildings near Boston Commons, Carnegie Mellon has a more traditional campus feel, with pretty red brick buildings from the early twentieth century and a quad. Without someone selling the school to us, I didn’t feel I got a good sense of it, but as I ate, I tried to imagine Noah eating noodles in the sunny atrium after his morning algorithms class.

One thing we all noticed is that the campus had a slightly unfriendly vibe. The two different servers we encountered in the noodle bar were gruff and unhelpful. Then we sat in the admissions office a long time, going over our materials and maps and trying to decide what parts of campus to visit, not really needing any help, but given how long we lingered I thought it was odd the woman behind the desk never asked if we needed help. I’d expect admission staff to be the most friendly people on campus. But it’s possible we were all reading too much into small interactions because there was no presentation or tour to focus our attention on the school’s good points.

From Pittsburgh we drove to Oberlin, stopping for Dairy Queen along the way and listening to a playlist of Billboard hits from 1984. This was the year Beth started college and the year I was Noah’s age, so it seemed a fitting soundtrack for our journey to our alma mater. We checked into our AirBnB, an apartment in the back of a blue-gray Victorian house with dark blue and cream trim and an interesting history. It was built as an investment for a college President (Fairchild for you Obies) and one of the early owners was Conservatory director (Rice). It was also a dorm in the 1960s and then faculty apartments.

After we settled in, we took Noah on our own version of the walking tour, not a complete one because he’s been to Oberlin a few times already and there would be the official one the next day. But we took his picture outside of his namesake dorm, as we always do, and I directed his attention to points of interest (dorms where I’d lived, class buildings where I’d taken classes). “How do you remember all this?” he wanted to know, but the classes I took all those decades ago seem like not that long ago sometimes, and never more than when I’m at Oberlin.

We had dinner at a fusion restaurant that’s now on the old site of Campus Restaurant, where I’d worked as a busser and a waitress. I had goat cheese and chive ravioli in a sweet and sour sauce. It was very good and very different from anything you could get at Campus, whose idea of vegetarian fare was lettuce and tomato on a hamburger bun. (Remember the Meatless Fred, anyone?) Next we got dessert and ate it on a bench in Tappan Square, listening to the cicadas and watching dark fall slowly among the stately tall trees.

Tuesday: Oberlin, OH to Niagara Falls, NY 

Noah slept in a bit the next day so I sat on the back porch and wrote. It was cool and raining on and off and pleasant to be enclosed there. We had a late breakfast at another restaurant that wasn’t there when we were in college, but it was the kind of place where you can get smoked tempeh instead of bacon with your pancakes, so we felt right at home. Our table was right by the rain-streaked window, so I explained the term “lake effect” to Noah.

Next we showed Noah the house where I was living the summer Beth and I started dating and where we had our first kiss and the movie theater down the street where we saw Raising Arizona on our second date, the very next night. Noah was polite enough to pretend to be interested. We headed to the library, where we stopped by the computing center where Beth worked—both as a student and full-time for a year while she waited for me to graduate—and to the scholar studies students doing honors projects are assigned, though I couldn’t remember which one was mine.

Our library tour complete, we settled into the womb chairs to read or use electronic devices until it was time for the presentation.

The presentation highlighted some of what makes Oberlin special—the Conservatory, its active arts scene, student-run housing and dining co-ops, ExCo (the Experimental College, which consists of student-taught classes). I could walk around Oberlin’s lovely and architecturally eclectic campus all day, the tour was fun for me. Beth was hoping we’d get to see Noah Hall (where we met) and she even asked the tour guide if he could get us in there when it seemed we might be the only family in his group, though eventually three other families joined us. But his keycard was only programmed for one dorm (right next door to Noah Hall!).

We’d had breakfast late and no lunch so we had either a very late lunch or a very early dinner at Lorenzo’s, a pizza place that was open during our college days, and which I remembered with some fondness. It was fun to eat there again.

It was later than we intended when we hit the road and almost ten by the time we checked into our hotel room near Niagara Falls. We could see the end of the nightly firework show from our window. 

Wednesday: Niagara Falls, NY to Rochester Institute of Technology to Trumansburg, NY 

We wanted to see Niagara Falls before we needed to leave for RIT and it was a struggle getting out of the hotel on time, so much so that as we were pulling out of the hotel lot and I realized I’d left a really nice insulated water bottle in the room, I decided not to say anything about it and just keep going. (I found a replacement at the Niagara Falls gift shop and considered it $18 well spent.)

I’ve never been to Niagara Falls before and it’s quite impressive, though it didn’t look like my mental picture of it. We wandered around and viewed the various rapids and falls and walked out on the observation deck, but we didn’t have time for the boat ride or to take the elevator down to the series of decks near the bottom of the falls.

It was close to our information session time when we got to RIT and the campus is big and kind of confusing, so we only had time for quick snacks from a convenience store in lieu of lunch and we just made it to the session in time.

At the information session, we heard the things you usually hear at these events. One interesting thing about RIT is that most majors require several co-ops (full-time paid employment the school helps you find) interspersed throughout your education. It makes most undergraduate degrees take five years rather than four to complete, but you don’t pay tuition when you’re not on campus, and you graduate with almost a year of work experience.

The school is strong in both computer science and film, which appeals to Noah. He usually plays his cards close to his chest for a while after these visits, but while we were still there he said cheerfully, “All the schools seem good. I want to go to them all,” which was not a comment directly about RIT, but presumably something about the school inspired him to say it. I told him that was good because he’d be happy with his choices once he knew where he’d been admitted. Beth and I both noticed he seemed to be in a good mood there and he asked to have his picture taken with the statue of the mascot (a tiger).

The tour itself was long (an hour and a half) and tiring after having hiked around the Niagara in the morning. It looks a lot like UMBC, a lot of rectangular red brick buildings. They were both built in the 1960s, though RIT is older, having relocated from another campus in downtown Rochester. There’s not much green space, though there’s some in the residential areas. There are some decorative touches—most notably sculpture. There’s also a series of underground tunnels connecting buildings, but we didn’t get to go into them. It was orientation week so there were first-year students all over in matching t-shirts. Apparently, some schools can handle prospective tours and orientation at the same time.

We were pretty hungry after the tour and the main dining hall opened for dinner at four, so we headed over there and ate. The dining hall was not as pretty at the one at St. Mary’s, but it did have a whole wall of windows that looked out on some woods. Beth said it would be pretty in the fall.

Next we drove to our AirBnB near Ithaca. We got there about 7:45 and it was nice to have an evening to relax, do laundry, and write. Beth ran out for a few groceries so we could have breakfast at the house. 

Thursday: Trumansburg, NY to Ithaca College and Back 

The next morning we drove to Ithaca College, where we had not only the usual information session and tour, but another tour of the School of Communications, where we saw a bunch of film and television studios. Noah said later he was glad we went on the add-on tour because he wasn’t that interested before seeing the studios and hearing about the major in Emerging Media, which would combine his interests in film and computers. By the end of the second tour, he was quite interested. Like RIT, Ithaca is an older school that relocated in the 1960s, but it has more green space and architectural variety. Like Oberlin, it’s a selective liberal arts college with a strong music program. It started out as a conservatory and the School of Music is the biggest school within the college, with the School of Communications second.

After being on our feet for the better part of the three-and-a-half hour program, we were hungry and tired and we considered getting some food on campus, but decided to head into town because Ithaca is known for its restaurants. We had lunch at a ramen/dumpling place. Thus fortified, we took a hike to Taughannock Falls, “the tallest single-drop waterfall east of the Rocky Mountains,” according to a brochure at the AirBnB. It’s taller than Niagara, but much narrower. Beth, who is fond of waterfalls, called it “a little piece of paradise” and it was very pretty.

Back at the house we relaxed and read until dinnertime when we ate at Moosewood Restaurant. I’ve been cooking from several different Moosewood cookbooks for thirty-plus years and I even recognized the striped awning from one of the covers. It was a beautiful, mild evening so we ate outside under said awning. We started with a plate of local cheeses and salads. My entrée was a ragout of summer vegetables on saffron whole-wheat cous cous with grated Gruyere on top. Beth and I both had the iconic fudge brownie (served every day since 1973 according to the menu) a la mode.

Friday: Trumansburg, NY to Altoona, PA

We stayed in Ithaca part of the next day, leaving the house late in the morning and picking up provisions for a picnic lunch at the local food co-op. Do you love going to co-ops and natural food stores in new towns? I do. It feels so much more like an adventure than going to the co-op at home, which basically feels like grocery shopping. Anyway, we got cheese and crackers, and curried tempeh salad, and tortilla chips to go with a yellow watermelon, which our host left for us at the Airbnb. Beth and I got chocolate cookies with chocolate and vanilla frosting in the yin-yang pattern, sort of a hippie black-and-white cookie and Noah got a brownie.

Before we ate, we went to the swimming hole at Robert Treman State Park. It’s right under a waterfall and there’s a diving board and a lifeguard. I would have jumped off the diving board but the water was very cold, between sixty and sixty-five degrees according to three different chalkboards we saw in the area; I couldn’t bring myself to wade in past the bottom of my ribcage. Beth wishes it to be known she went in the deepest and stayed in the longest. After our swim, we ate our picnic lunch and hit the road.

We drove to Altoona, where we stayed the night. I told Noah to find us the best pizza in Altoona and he might have just googled that phrase because we ended up getting takeout from a place called Bestway Pizza. After dinner I swam for almost an hour in the hotel pool. I’d had a dizzy spell earlier in the evening and during the swim I started to feel sick to my stomach, so after a quick shower, I went straight to bed.

Saturday: Altoona, PA to Wheeling, WV 

In the morning, I felt better. We had breakfast in the hotel and drove to Wheeling. On the way we finished Making Obama, a six-part podcast about Obama’s early political career we’d been listening to on and off throughout the week. I thought hearing his voice so often would make me cry, but it didn’t, so I guess I’m tougher than I thought. I do recommend it, if you think you can stand thinking about the sheer sadness of how things turned out after Obama. (We listened to a lot of podcasts on this trip, mostly Making Obama and The Truth, a podcast of radio play-style fiction with a Twilight Zone feel, which was one of Noah’s contributions. We also listened to a couple episodes each of podcasts of people playing text adventures and The Moth, plus single episodes of a few more. Everyone was generally pleased with each other’s choices except I had the bad luck to offer the group the only gory episode of Spooked that I’ve ever heard—I swear it’s usually very gently spooky—and Beth didn’t care for that.)

When we got to Beth’s mom’s house YaYa and North and Beth’s aunt Carole were out to lunch so we had our picnic and pizza leftovers and read until they returned. When they got back Carole shared the news that she’s going to be a great grandmother again and we saw videos of North on the rock climbing wall at the pool. When you get to the top, you just drop off into the water. It looks fun. We also saw all the clothes and school supplies YaYa bought for North. I’d already bought North some clothes, so it’s possible they may be all set for school. Thanks, YaYa!

We spent the rest of the day socializing. A couple of YaYa’s friends came by in the afternoon. They were in town for a seventy-fifth birthday party their high school class was holding (because they all turn seventy-five this year). So in the evening, YaYa went to that and Beth’s high school friend Michelle, who’s recently relocated to the area from New York, came by and we got Chinese takeout and got caught up on each other’s lives. Michelle’s come home to be closer to her mother and she’s going to be in a show in Pittsburgh this fall.

Sunday: Wheeling, WV to Takoma Park, MD

We left Wheeling mid-morning and made the long, last drive home. The kids couldn’t watch Dr. Who together as planned because the iPad was out of battery and no one had a charger for it. And Beth and I had run out of podcasts, so it was a quiet drive.

Post-Trip

We’ve been home four days now. The kids had a pediatrician appointment; North invited Xavier for dinner one night and met Zoë at the playground another day; I took North to Chuck E Cheese for lunch one day; and North had two audition coaching sessions at Highwood plus a rehearsal for a performance Highwood students are having at the Kennedy Center on Saturday. It’s a preview of songs from the upcoming season’s shows. Noah had a drum lesson and he’s been finishing up his summer homework—reading Johnny Got His Gun, writing about it, and making a podcast of interviews with families of kids who went to the kids’ co-operative preschool back in the day.

School starts Tuesday. It will be a slightly bittersweet back to school, I think, because it will be Noah’s last one while still living at home. But I am happy to have had this trip with him, both for the time alone with my first-born, and because it really did help him narrow down and rank his list. Ithaca and R.I.T. are his current favorites, but he’s still considering Champlain and Oberlin, and he thinks he needs more information on Carnegie Mellon and UMBC because he didn’t get a full tour at either of those schools. Because UMBC is only forty-five minutes away, we’re headed back there in a week and a half. Emerson and St. Mary’s are off the list.

Someone I know who just sent her son to college advised me to cherish every minute of Noah’s senior year. I’m sure I won’t manage that. It’s a tall order for any year and there will be stress and frustration, but I am going to try to enjoy this last year with my boy at home, because I know it won’t come around again.

The Sweetest Place

We’re taking two road trips this month. We got back from the short one—a weekend getaway to visit Hershey Park and drop North off at sleepaway camp—on Sunday. Next Sunday we’ll be picking North up at camp and dropping them off at Beth’s mom’s house for a week-long visit while Beth, Noah, and I tour colleges in Pennsylvania, Ohio, and New York.

Before Hershey Park

The week before the Hershey Park trip both kids were home. This is the hardest kind of week for me during the summer, but not because it’s impossible to work with the kids at home. It’s not. They don’t interrupt me as often as they did when they were younger. It’s more I interrupt myself to make sure they’re doing chores, or summer homework, or reading, or doing anything vaguely creative or wholesome instead of staring at screens all day long, which is what they really want to do. So it’s hard to get into a good workflow because I am constantly monitoring them.

Still when mid-August approaches, I often start to feel nostalgic for the summer that’s not even over yet and I don’t mind working with two twelve-year-old kids playing Battleship on the living room rug right behind my desk and one seventeen year old playing drums in the basement, as I did one day last week when North had their friend Edwin over.

Tuesday afternoon when I didn’t have much work both kids and I tried to take a creek walk, but a thunderstorm scotched the plan before we’d been in the water for five minutes. So we came home and I tried to get one or both of them to make a peach-blackberry cobbler with me, but neither of them felt like baking that day. Noah did think to inquire if there would still be cobbler to eat if they didn’t help or if it was “a Little Red Hen situation.” It wasn’t. I made the cobbler and let them eat it.

I also tried to spend some one-on-one time with North, as they were about to be away from home for two weeks. We played a couple games of Clue and watched Alexa and Katie together on Wednesday. Thursday we cooked together—they made brownies for brownie sundaes while I was making veggie burgers and sautéed green beans with pine nuts for dinner. 

Hershey Park 

Saturday morning we left the house a little after eight and drove to Hershey Park. It’s only two hours away so we got there fifteen minutes after the park opened. Even so it was already crowded. We usually go on weekdays to beat the crowds but I guess there’s no beating the crowds on a Saturday in August. (Although, I have to say it didn’t seem to get any more crowded over the course of the day, so it wasn’t as bad as we thought it would be when we first got there.)

As soon as we arrived, we went to the measuring station because North wanted to see if they were a Twizzler yet. They didn’t actually want to go on any rides you need to be that tall for, but it was the principle of the thing. Most of their friends are already Jolly Ranchers. And yes, they are a Twizzler now.

We split up immediately so both kids could get to the their top-priority rides early in the day. For North, that’s the Laff Track, an indoor coaster with a funhouse theme. I won’t ride that one because it goes backward and I can’t even sit backwards on Metro trains without getting sick. So Beth stayed with North and Noah and I went to the Comet, an old-fashioned wooden coaster that’s probably my favorite ride in the park. Noah likes it, too.

Over the course of the day we hit all our favorites. We all rode the Coal Cracker (a log flume), the Trailblazer (a mine ride), the Wild Mouse, a little coaster with a lot of sharp turns but no big drops and the Sky View, a tram I like because it gives you a good view of some of the more daring coasters I will never ride. One of those is the Great Bear, which Noah really likes and rode earlier in the day. It’s a twisty hanging coaster with multiple loops. The only looping coaster I’ll ride is the Sooper Dooper Looper, which has just one relatively small loop near the beginning of the ride. The kids and I always do that one. I even have a t-shirt that says, “I Survived the Sooper Dooper Looper.”

After lunch, the kids wanted to sample one of the more bizarre sweets you can get in the park—BBLz, which are concoctions made of made of different flavors of soda with frosting on top and candy in it. Beth and I got ice cream instead. I got a Reese’s sundae and she got an ice cream cookie sandwich. While we were eating our treats, Beth told me about an article she’d read recently about how Hershey recruited dairy workers to violently break strikes at their factories in the 1930s. At the time we were seated in front of a wall that said, “The Sweetest Place on Earth,” so that seemed a little ironic. (Somehow this got omitted from the detailed Hershey timeline we saw the next day at Chocolate World.)

Late in the afternoon, Noah needed a break, so he went to sit somewhere air-conditioned and listen to podcasts. The rest of us headed to the water park. It wasn’t a particularly hot day but it was muggy and we were all pretty wiped out, so the wave pool and the lazy river seemed more appealing than the water slides. The river was very pleasant and relaxing—we went around twice.

By the time we left the water park and reunited with Noah it was starting to get dark so we rode the Ferris Wheel and watched the lights come on all over the nearby rides. Then we headed to Chocolate World and had a very late dinner. The original plan was to do some shopping in the candy store and take the factory tour ride, but it was already nine-thirty and the adults were done in, so we decided to return in the morning. I was too tired to even get dessert.

At our hotel we slept and woke and had breakfast and Beth and North visited the pool before going back to Chocolate World for the delayed shopping trip and factory ride. By the time we’d finished there, it was time to drive North to camp.

Camp Highlight

Last fall, shortly after coming out as non-binary, North started asking if they could go to a camp for trans and non-binary kids this summer. The one they had in mind was in New Hampshire, which posed a transportation challenge. Also, at the time, Beth and I were still kind of reeling from North’s disclosure and we weren’t entirely sure they would still be identifying as non-binary this summer. After doing a little research, Beth found a camp for kids of LGBT+ parents within easy driving distance in Pennsylvania. We figured it was a pretty sure bet that North being from a lesbian-headed family wasn’t going to change and the camp seemed welcoming to gender non-conforming kids. It has gender-neutral cabins, which was very attractive to North, who was uncomfortable with the gendered sleeping quarters at Outdoor Education last fall, a problem which would presumably extend to most sleep-away camps.

We arrived at the camp, which uses a YMCA facility, in the early afternoon. It was a lot bigger than the Girl Scout camp North attended the last three summers, and fancier, too. I saw a horse corral and a big climbing wall. Beth said she had seen the climbing wall but not horse-riding on the list of activities, though, so the horses might be for another camp. (Several different camps use the facilities at once.)

The counselors were outgoing and apparently excited to meet all the new campers and greet returning ones. That’s another difference from North’s old camp. They loved it, but because it ran one-week sessions for most of the summer, it wasn’t the kind of place where returning campers would see many of the kids who were in their session the year before. And the counselors were mostly different from year to year, too. This camp is small—just about sixty campers—and only meets for one week a year, so it seemed a lot of kids and counselors knew each other. It made me think it could be a comfortable place for North to return for the next few years, if they like it. I hope they do.

After we signed in, we bought North a water bottle with the camp logo, and headed to their cabin. It was high-ceilinged, with partitions between the bunks, so there was some privacy for the ten or twelve kids bunking there. We left soon afterward. North seemed happy and not nearly as nervous as the first time we left them at sleepaway camp when they were nine. They’re a pro at this now, I guess, and it seemed like a good place for them, full of friendly, outgoing people.

Still, I’m looking forward to picking them up in five days and hearing about all their camp adventures as we drive them to their next sweet place of grandmotherly spoiling, while Beth, Noah, and I set out on a journey that may lead us to find a sweet place for him.