About Steph

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Cool As…

Thursday: Halloween

It was kind of a strange Halloween. We’re missing a kid and the other one went straight to Norma’s apartment after school with Zoë and from there they went to Zoë’s house where they met up with Evie and all four of them trick-or-treated in Zoë’s neighborhood, so I barely saw North all day.

Around 5:15, I started playing my Halloween playlist and went out into the yard, righting fallen tombstones, and turning on the strings of ghost and bat lights and other light-up decorations and lighting candles in our mildewed, squirrel-bitten jack-o-lanterns. It was too light out to really see anything illuminated yet but I was about to start cooking and I thought trick-or-treaters might start to come soon so I wanted to have those tasks out of the way.

I usually make a quick dinner on Halloween so the kids can get out the door, but as there was no one who needed to get out the door, I made one of the more complicated dinners of the week—a vegetable-bean casserole topped with slices of sweet potato and sprigs of rosemary from my new rosemary plant. (I always like to buy some hardy herbs when the rest of the garden is dead or dying.)

The casserole was still in the oven when Beth got home around 6:30. By then we’d had about a half dozen trick-or-treaters, starting with the amusing juxtaposition of Michael Meyers and a cheerleader. I’d guessed correctly people might start coming earlier than usual because a storm with heavy rain and high winds was predicted, though over the course of the day, the storm’s estimated start time got pushed back from eight to nine, a boon for trick-or-treaters. The National Weather Service was advising people to take down their decorations if they didn’t want them blown away, but we decided to leave them up, at least for a while. It takes a long time to get our yard decorated and it was just too sad to think about taking it all down on Halloween. Plus, North was planning to bring Norma, Zoë, and Evie on a tour of our yard when Zoë’s folks brought them home.

While the casserole finished cooking, Beth gathered up the recycling (though she didn’t take it outside because of the wind) and set up the fog machines. The bigger one took some YouTube trouble shooting but she eventually got it going.

Beth and I had been wondering if we’ll tone down the yard display when both kids are gone, but while Beth was outside working on the fog machines, she heard a group of approaching trick-or-treaters say, “This house is cool as shit” and then as they got closer they lamented, “They don’t have smoke this year!” So it seems we might need to keep it up. We have a reputation to uphold after all.

We ended up with about twenty-five or thirty trick-or-treaters, a normal amount, just shifted earlier. The last group, two Hogwarts students and a soccer player, came at 7:45. North was home by 8:35, hungry because they’d applied the layer of latex over their mouth at 4:00 and had skipped dinner so they wouldn’t have to take it off and reapply. They showed their friends around the yard, and shortly after that, around 9:00, we went out into a gentle rain and started bringing in the lightweight decorations, but we left the heavier ones and the ones that were securely attached to something and an hour later we went to bed, hoping for the best.

Friday: Day of the Dead/All Saints’ Day

It did pour rain that night and it was quite windy, but the next morning, nothing seemed to be missing. Beth and North went to work and school. I had a scattered, abbreviated work day because I’d had trouble getting to sleep the night before and I needed to leave the house to take North to physical therapy at 2:25. I didn’t skip my customary morning walk, though, because I wanted to have one last chance to go down some side streets I hadn’t explored recently and check out those neighbors’ Halloween decorations.

North hadn’t had a physical therapy appointment in a few weeks. They’re doing much better, going to school and on outings without crutches or cane more often than not, and we’re wrapping up their treatment. (They have just one more appointment next week.) They were using a cane that day, possibly because they’d walked a lot while trick-or-treating, but they did great in therapy, impressing the therapist with their leg strength. For the first time ever, when the therapist asked them to rate their pain, they said they had none, just a little fatigue. I think the aquatic therapy really helped.

North was a bit agitated during the appointment, though, because they discovered early in the session that their phone wasn’t in their pocket, and using my phone to track it, we learned it was travelling away from the rehab hospital, presumably in the Lyft we’d taken there. I called and texted the driver, but got no response.

While we waited for the Lyft to take us from North’s school to the hospital and then after the appointment while we waited for the hospital shuttle to take us to the Metro, when North wasn’t fretting about the lost phone, we were busy negotiating discussing our evening plans. We’d considered going to a ghost story reading at Rhizome, a local art space (the one where Noah’s film camp met this summer). But looking at the promotional material made me wonder if it was really aimed at adults and older teens, plus there was a “necromancers’ cotillion” and the idea of dancing in public was kind of horrifying. (I probably haven’t done that since North outgrew Circle Time at the library.) The timing was also problematic. There wouldn’t be time to go home, eat dinner, and get there, but too much time to kill if we went straight there from the Metro.

Beth had texted me some information about a possible alternative, a showing of Phantom Carriage, a 1920s silent horror movie at AFI. It would have been right up my alley, since I love vintage horror, (and Noah would have liked it, too, since he has a soft spot for silent film), but it was a non-starter for North.

However, they didn’t seem wed to going to Rhizome, and countered with going to see either the Addams Family or Maleficent: Mistress of Evil. I was tired and thinking if North’s choice was to see a movie that wasn’t a one-time event, we could do it Saturday instead and just go home, eat frozen pizza, and watch something at home that night. But North pleaded successfully for pizza at Mod and a movie out. We texted Beth to invite her and to my surprise, she said yes, but she couldn’t make it to Mod in time to eat with us. So I stashed the leftovers in my backpack for her to reheat and eat at home, and we met at the theater, where we watched The Addams Family.

Saturday: All Souls’ Day

Saturday morning I had a message from Lyft about the lost phone and we made plans to meet up with the driver at a Starbucks to hand it off. Beth and I took down the Halloween decorations and boxed them up in the early afternoon and a little later, Beth and North went to get the phone. They were very happy to get it back and they had seventy-nine text messages to read, not to mention emails and Instagram messages. They were also glad not to have to pay half the cost of a new phone (per a prior agreement if the phone was broken or lost).

Our yard is looking a little sad and lonely now, without all its October playmates, but I have to say giving treats to costumed kids, seeing North get closer and closer to normal mobility, having a family outing, and not having to buy half a new phone is cool as… well, you know.

To Everything There is a Season, Part 2

Well, it’s still October so that means we’re still awash in high school applications and Halloween preparations.

High School

This past week we went to the last two high school open houses. These were for the two schools North was most interested in, for their arts academies. One also houses a visual arts magnet, to which North is applying.

All through this process I’d been wondering, since all the high schools have some kind of arts academy, why North couldn’t just go to our home school, which is closest and very well regarded. But I kind of understand. There was definitely a difference in the way the schools present themselves at the open houses. The last two put a bigger emphasis on the arts. There were more musical, dance, and dramatic performances interspersed between the informational speeches. (Our home school had some but not as many and the school that’s known as the most STEM-focused had none.) The last school, which is North’s first choice, was also the most enthusiastic. The principal kept prompting the audience to shout that it was “the place to be” at various points in her speech. (I later commented to another parent that it wasn’t clear if it was a high school or a cult.)

There was a short break-out session for the Visual Arts Center, at which we got some useful information about the application process—mainly that the online application is due this week but the art itself doesn’t need to be submitted until December—but not much information about the program itself, which was a little frustrating. Anyway, North filled out and submitted their school rankings on Friday, the day after the last open house. Beth and I were considering telling them they had to put our home school second because if you put your home school first or second you’re guaranteed a spot and the worst outcome would be if North ended up at a school that they’re not interested in and that’s far from our house. That could happen if they don’t get into their first or second choice because our home school is the most requested school in the system and if they gave up their spot by ranking it third, there’s almost no chance they’ll go there. But they were willing to risk it, so we let them.

Halloween

Meanwhile, costume preparations have been less intense with just one kid home (and with it being the one who doesn’t get quite as angsty about what to be at that). North decided to be a doll with its mouth sewn shut this year. They created this effect by covering their mouth with a layer of latex and sewing through that. Beth and North went shopping for clothes and a pink wig at Value Village (a big thrift store up the road from us) and they bought the latex and makeup online.

On Saturday, the day of the Halloween parade, they set off for Zoë’s house and applied the makeup there because North, Zoë, and their mutual friend Norma were going to the parade together. So when Beth and I left the house it felt a bit odd to be setting out for the parade without any kids at all, and with no deliberation about whether the paint on Noah’s costume was dry enough to go in the car or not.

We met North and their friends in the parking lot of a local middle school. Zoë was a cereal killer (dressed all in black, with a balaclava and single-serving size cereal box fronts attached to her torso, and carrying a wooden knife) and Norma was Wednesday Adams. The three of them were all in black and they looked like they belonged together.

People were milling around and admiring each other’s costumes until it was time to line up by age and have the judges come inspect the costumes. There were some political costumes, but probably not as many as there will be next year—one Bernie Sanders, one Elizabeth Warren, and a baby draped in whistles, with a cape that said, “Whistleblower.” There was a mad scientist on stilts, carrying a brain in a jar and a mime wandering through the crowd. Keira, a girl who went to North’s elementary and middle school and who is now in high school, went as a college brochure, for the fictional Takoma University. Keira is a many-time costume contest winner but this year I thought her mom, who has helped with many of these costumes might give her a run for her money in the teen and adult category. She went as Rosie the robot maid from The Jetsons. Before I knew who was inside (the cylindrical cardboard headpiece completely obscured her face) I commented to Beth that no one younger than us would know who she was and sure enough, of the many people I heard compliment the costume, I don’t think one was under fifty.

I sized up the teen and adult group, wondering who North’s competition for Scariest was. I kept coming back to a man wearing an Iron Maiden t-shirt and a rubber mask that looked somewhat like the monster on it. As a family, we do not approve of awarding prizes to people in store-bought costumes and while this costume did involve putting a couple of elements together, the main part of the costume was the mask. However, I know the contest judges do not use the same rubric that the Lovelady-Allens do.

After the judges had seen all the costumes, the parade commenced. The age groups were dismissed one by one. The parade had a new route this year, its third in the many years we’ve been doing it. We’re not crazy about change when it comes to traditions and this route has the decided disadvantage of not passing through any commercial areas where one could get coffee or hot chocolate on a chilly afternoon or gelato on a warm one. But so be it.

The parade ended in the parking lot behind the community center. Kids collected small bags of candy and juice boxes and there was a band playing. I was pleased to hear it was the Grandsons, a local band that often plays at the Halloween parade but last year didn’t. We chatted with a family whose oldest daughter went to preschool with North, talking—what else?—about where the kids want to go to high school.

When it was time to announce the contest results, we moved closer to the stage. It took a while to find a place to stand where we could see the winners, so we missed most of the under-fours, who I’m sure were adorable. When we heard the winner for Most Original in five-to-eight was a dragon Beth and I gave each other skeptical looks. A dragon? For Original? But then we saw the kid and we understood. His costume was made out of cardboard boxes painted black and the jaw was hinged so that he could open and close it from inside by pulling a string. It was a very cool effect. A pair of kids in gray angel costumes with their hair and faces painted gray, who I thought might be weeping angels from Dr. Who, won a prize in nine-to-twelve. I can’t remember if it was Scary or Original.

Finally it was time for teen to adult. Cutest went to Zoë, the cereal killer. Most Original was Rosie the robot and Scariest was…the Iron Maiden monster. We knew North would be disappointed and they were stewing about it a little, though they were gracious to Zoë, who was a little surprised to have won. “I just threw this together,” she said. What made North perk up, more than the hugs we gave them, was a text from Noah who said losing to someone in store-bought mask “doesn’t count as losing.” Sometimes he knows just what to say.

Beth drove the kids back to Zoë’s house where they stayed until that evening. I made a kale, white bean, and porcini soup for dinner and then we carved our pumpkins. Beth did the bats, I did the ghost, and North did the bee. Apparently, the theme was things that fly. Before bedtime, North was wrestling with their Visual Arts Center application, trying to trim it from over five hundred words down to two hundred. (Despite the fact that this kind of thing is what I do for a living, they didn’t want any help.)

On Sunday, after roasting two trays of pumpkin seeds, grocery shopping, and swimming, the three of us went to Cielo Rojo, a Mexican restaurant that was having a Día de los Muertos fundraiser for Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America. So we got guacamole, queso fundido, and a quesadilla and ate them on the patio because it was a beautiful afternoon with temperatures in the seventies. You could also decorate a sugar skull, which North did.

And when we got home, North finished editing their Visual Arts Center essay.

Hershey Park in the Dark

Friday 

Friday evening as we approached our hotel in Hummelstown, Pennsylvania, I started sending Noah a series of texts:

We just crossed the PA border

20 miles

15 

6

Traffic

We’re further than I thought

Counting down to the wrong city

3

Siri says 5 minutes

We can see the hotel

Can you guess if I was excited to see him? Ithaca had a four-day fall break (Thursday to Sunday) right after midterms and we decided to meet up and go to Hersheypark in the Dark.* What is Hershey Park in the Dark? It’s a Halloween celebration that takes place the last two weekends of October and the first weekend of November. There are decorations, they play Halloween music everywhere, kids twelve and under in costume can collect candy at various stations through the park, and some of the coasters have their lights turned off either after nine p.m. or all day for the Laff Track, which is an indoor coaster. We visit an amusement park most summers (either Hershey Park or Cedar Point in Ohio) but we didn’t manage it this summer and Hershey is in between Takoma and Ithaca, so it seemed like a good plan.

Noah took a shuttle from campus to downtown Ithaca on Friday morning, caught a bus from Ithaca to Scranton and then another one from Scranton to Harrisburg, managing the tight transfer like a pro and arriving in Harrisburg hours before we did because we couldn’t leave until North got home from school on Friday afternoon. So he got a late lunch and took a Lyft to the hotel. We were hoping he’d finish his homework on Thursday before he travelled, or while waiting for us, but when we got to the hotel we found him in the lobby working on a paper about 4chan for his Emerging Media class on his laptop. Beth had called ahead of time to authorize him to check in but when she did it the hotel staff failed to mention you have to be twenty-one to check into a room.

After a flurry of hugs, we settled into the room and presented him with a care package with so many items that we’d bought him a new duffel bag to carry it all back to school. There were Halloween cookies from the batch we’d made the weekend before, a string of ghost lights for his dorm room, batteries for the lights, a small pumpkin to put on his desk the way he used to every October at home, two pairs of fleece pajamas he’d left at home and wanted, a bottle of Fiji water (his favorite bottled water—yes he has one), and maybe some more things I’ve forgotten.

Once he’d received his tributes, we headed out to the park, where were going to have a late dinner and go on a few rides. We had to kill a little time because free evening admission on the evening prior to main day of your visit doesn’t start until seven-thirty. So we went to Chocolate World, which is a separate, free attraction, and took the factory ride. The kids are very fond of this ride, though they agree the song the cow statues sing is not as good as the one they used to sing when they were younger. Isn’t that how it always is?

We entered the park and got pizza and garlic knots. I had chocolate milk with mine because it was Hershey Park. We ate at an outside table and it just felt profoundly good and right to be eating a meal all together for the first time in over eight weeks.

When we finished we started walking through the park. There were autumnal touches—cornstalks, hay bales, and shellacked pumpkins everywhere, but I was surprised at the scarcity of Halloween-specific decorations. There were occasional light displays—a spider, a cat emerging from a jack-o-lantern—and a few real jack-o-lanterns, but not nearly as much as I expected. It was all G-rated, which is appropriate given how many small kids were in attendance. It was fun seeing kids in their costumes everywhere we went. The best costume was homemade, as the best ones always are. A preteen girl had made a cardboard roller coaster car with “sooper dooper looper” painted on the front and was walking around in it. There were also some people in group costumes—devil and angel, Winnie the Pooh and Piglet, etc.

The ride lines weren’t long, so we had time for several coasters and dessert before the park closed at ten. We all rode the Trailblazer, which is a mine ride and a family favorite, and the kids and I rode the sooper dooper looper (the only looping coaster I will ride—it has just one loop and isn’t insanely tall) and the Comet, the smallest of the park’s three wooden coasters. This was North’s first time on the Comet and they really liked it. It may be my favorite ride in the park. I love a classic wooden coaster, but the Comet is just about my speed. I have no desire to go on the bigger ones.

Noah always says the Comet is the scariest ride he does at Hershey Park, even though he goes on much bigger and twistier ones. It’s the way the wooden frame shakes a little. I agree with him that this makes it scarier than a similarly sized metal coaster, but it doesn’t make as much of a difference for me as it does for him. I think it’s because I took Noah on a wooden coaster that scared the pants off him at Cedar Point when he was twelve and he imprinted on it. So based on his (and my) description, North was always scared to try the Comet until they went on a wooden coaster at King’s Dominion on the chorus field trip last spring and found to their surprise, it wasn’t that bad. We all have our own limits.

We spent most of the rest of the evening walking around getting a chocolate-peanut butter funnel cake, a whoopie pie, and a soft pretzel. There was enough time to ride the carousel all together and then we went back to the hotel, happy and a little windburned from sailing together through the night sky.

Saturday

In the morning after breakfast North and I hit the hotel pool while Beth took Noah to a pharmacy to get a flu shot. (He didn’t get one the day they had them at school because he didn’t know what the hours were and missed it.) North and I stayed at the pool a long time, probably a couple hours. They showed me how to do some of their aqua therapy exercises and then I did sixty laps in the tiny pool while they splashed around. I think it’s possible aqua therapy may have helped North turn a corner with their leg pain because they are using the cane instead of the forearm crutches all the time now, and one day last week they went to school without either. So even though we’ve finished all the scheduled aqua therapy appointments, we try to get North to a pool once a week and they do the exercises on their own. (More good news: we found out yesterday a bone density scan came back normal.) After I finished my laps, I read a couple chapters of Orphan Train in one of the chaise lounges and then we went back up to the room to shower.

When we were dressed and Beth and Noah were back from the pharmacy, we all settled in to watch a DVD of It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown, which we’d brought from home. At one point I glanced over to the other bed, where Noah had thrown an arm around North’s shoulder and they were cuddled up against him. I half wish I’d taken a picture of this and I’m half glad I didn’t make either of them self-conscious by doing it.

By the time we’d finished watching, it was lunch time so we started our day in the park with a meal again. We went to a food court where the kids got pasta and Beth and I got two cheese pies, two spinach pies, and a Greek salad to share. I got salad dressing on my shirt and the kids were amused by my attempts to wash out the stain by repeatedly pouring seltzer on myself while we waited for rides.

We did the Wild Mouse together, which Beth will ride because it has no big drops, just some hairpin turns and an unnerving lack of structure around the track. Then Beth and North got in line for the Laff Track, an indoor coaster I can’t go on because it goes backwards. I can’t even sit backwards on the Metro without getting sick. Noah and I took off in the direction of the Sidewinder. Noah read in some park promotional material that it was “for guests who want to spend more time upside down” and he wanted to add a new coaster to his repertoire. I just wanted to watch. There was a bench with a good view of two of the three loops and after watching a lot of cars go by, I finally spotted him going through each of them forward and then backward. That was fun.

The line at the Sidewinder was shorter than the Laff Track line so Noah and did the Wild Mouse again and even so, we had to wait a bit for Beth and North to emerge. North enjoyed riding it in total darkness, but Beth was very ill, so she swore off riding anything else for the rest of the day, and we all sat with her for a while. Eventually she was well enough to eat, so she and I split a pumpkin milkshake with chocolate-covered pretzel rods stuck in it and a slice a pumpkin roll on top, while the kids got more reasonably-sized frozen treats. The kids and I went on the swings and then we decided to take a break from the park so Noah could work on his paper and I could nap. I’d been up past my bedtime the night before and I knew it was likely we’d do it again and I am just not good with late nights. North didn’t want to leave the park, but they contented themselves with another swim while Beth rested in a chaise lounge poolside.

In the early evening we went to Hershey Gardens to see Pumpkin Glow, a display of over two hundred carved pumpkins. We’d never been so we didn’t realize how popular it was. There’s a long wait to park and then a long line to get in. It’s also kind of pricey. But it was worth it. It was magical walking along the winding paths of the botanical gardens in the dark (again with tons of cute kids in their Halloween costumes) encountering carved pumpkins at every turn. They’re done by students at a nearby community college and they were quite artistic. There were traditional Halloween designs, but also a lot of animals, and characters from kids’ movies and superhero movies. The first ones you see are in a little pond in front of the conservatory so their reflections double them. Most of these had aquatic designs—a starfish, a pirate ship, etc.

After Pumpkin Glow, we went back to Chocolate World, where we had a late dinner, and then back into the park. It was past eight, we’d done all the crucial rides, and the lines had gotten a lot longer than they were Friday night, so we checked the estimated wait times on the app and decided the sooper dooper looper had the highest return on investment. After that we rode the swings again and then headed back to Chocolate World for some candy shopping. It was past ten before we left for the hotel.

Sunday

North didn’t want to eat at the hotel breakfast bar both mornings, so after we checked out of the hotel, we went to a coffeehouse that had excellent pumpkin scones and where I spilled my mocha down the same shirt from the day before, adding chocolate stains to the grease stain. The kids thought this was pretty hilarious. I bought Noah some celery sticks with peanut butter because he didn’t bring any food with him on the way to Hershey and that’s a healthy snack I know he’ll eat. (I used to make it for him when he was too busy with schoolwork to leave his desk.) He was about to leave and I was feeling the need to mother him a little.

It was good to see Noah. He seems well, likes his classes, and reports having a little time to socialize, though less I think than at the beginning of the semester. His editing job at ICTV hasn’t started yet. They hired a bunch of people and he hasn’t had a turn. He’s thinking of taking a semester off to do an internship or volunteer for a campaign next fall, or maybe studying abroad in the fall of the his junior year, or possibly both because he has so many AP credits he could graduate a year early but the structure of his program makes that difficult. Studying in Australia came up, much to everyone’s surprise. He’s thinking big.

Noah was departing from a mall parking lot north of Baltimore, so he rode with us most of the way home, trying to work on his paper in the car, and he had an early lunch of pasta at the mall before it was time to go out and wait for the bus. It was a chilly, rainy day so we waited in the car until the bus—charmingly called Chariots for Hire—pulled up. We said our goodbyes, hugged him, and pulled out of the lot. I successfully resisted the urge to look back at the bus and reminded myself Thanksgiving break is less than five weeks away.


*This is the only time I will spell the name of the park this ridiculous way in this blog post, but I feel obliged to admit this is how they spell it, apparently since 1971, if Wikipedia is to be believed. But this was one of the amusement parks of my youth and I honestly didn’t remember it being spelled that way. Clearly, I have feelings about it. If you’re from Pennsylvania and you can remember how it was spelled in the 1970s and 80s, please let me know in the comments.

To Everything There is a Season

To everything (turn, turn, turn)
There is a season (turn, turn, turn)
And a time to every purpose, under heaven

A time to be born, a time to die
A time to plant, a time to reap
A time to kill, a time to heal
A time to laugh, a time to weep

From “Turn, Turn, Turn” by Pete Seeger, adapted from Ecclesiastes 3:1-8

A Time to Reap

When we went camping with Unitarians two weeks ago, North carved a pumpkin with the words Spooky SZN (season). That pumpkin departed in the compost truck a while back, but the spooky season certainly has begun. Our yard is gradually getting creepier, mostly thanks to North’s after school efforts, though I pitched in with the ghosts and Beth set up the giant witch and put batteries in a bunch of things. The clown skeleton on the swing is one of this year’s new additions. In other Halloween preparations, on Saturday morning Beth and North made the dough for Halloween cookies and over the course of the weekend we all rolled them out and baked them and frosted them. I think they came out really well.

Saturday afternoon we all drove out to Northern Virginia to get our jack-o-lantern pumpkins, though we can’t carve them yet or they’ll join their predecessor in the compost before Halloween rolls around. Getting pumpkins at the same farm where we’ve been getting them since before the kids were born felt bittersweet without Noah and it didn’t help that the place seemed to be teeming with little kids, all boys. But we soldiered on. North wore a new orange (maybe more golden) sweater bought specially for the occasion and a single candy corn earring. (The other one is lost). We took the requisite pictures and bought decorative miniature pumpkins, banana bread, an herbal tea mix, cider, apples, two varieties of squash, and sweet potatoes at the farm stand. Afterward we went out for dinner at Sunflower, one of our favorite vegetarian Chinese restaurants, and then to Dessert Story, where Beth and I split a waffle sundae with crushed Oreos and North got mango snow—it’s like fluffy, airy ice cream, with mochi, boba, and little cubes of mango. Then we drove home, listening to our Halloween playlist, singing along to “Monster Mash” and “Psycho Killer” and admiring the almost full moon peeking out of appropriately atmospheric clouds.

A Time to Plant

October is also high school application season in Montgomery County (and middle school and upper elementary school application season, but all those applications are behind us). So far we’ve been to a panel of alumni of North’s middle school who came back to talk about their current high schools, to an overview of the different application and interest-based programs, and to open houses at two high schools, with two more to go.

If you’re a Montgomery County parent with kids in eighth grade or older, you might want to skip the next bit, because you already know all about this surprisingly complex process. To make it as short as I can, there are magnet programs at several high schools you can apply to and if you get in and choose to, you attend that school. There’s a math/science magnet, a communications magnet (Noah’s program), an International Baccalaureate program (both a magnet version and an open enrollment version at different schools), an engineering magnet, a Biomedical magnet, a Visual Arts magnet, a Leadership Training Institute, and more. Some of them are county-wide, some only take applications if you live in a certain part of the county.

If you don’t go the magnet route, you can attend your home high school, but you can also enter a lottery to attend any of the high schools in your consortium—there are five in ours. In fact you have to enter the lottery and rank all five schools even if you want to go to your home school. (I don’t understand this because you are guaranteed a spot in your home school if you rank it first, so I’m not sure why you have to rank all the rest.) And why would you choose a different high school? Each one has several academies, which is kind of like choosing a major, or maybe more like a minor—you take one class a year in your academy, or more if you want.

When Noah was in eighth grade, he was pretty set on going to our home school (which houses the two magnet programs he applied to) either in a magnet or in the general school population, so we didn’t visit many schools. North wants to keep their options open, though, so we’re going to most of the Open Houses. They’re also planning to apply to the Visual Arts magnet and working on a portfolio for that.

First we visited our home school. If North goes there, they would choose the Media, Music, and the Arts academy. This school offers the shortest commute, and more of North’s friends will probably go there than anywhere else because not only is it the closest to us, it’s also the largest public high school in Maryland. We always kind of assumed both kids would go there because it’s a very good school, but North’s not set on it.

The second school we visited is next door (literally) to a vocational-technical school with a culinary arts program that interests North. But you can attend the culinary arts program—a one-year, half-day program—while enrolled in any of the five schools in our consortium and the visit failed to convince us that going to the school next door to the vo-tech would offer any advantage other than convenience in that one year. And that convenience would be outweighed in the other three years by the fact that it’s pretty far away and none of the academies are a big draw, so North’s ruled it out, though they might consider enrolling in the culinary arts program while attending another school.

We have a one-week hiatus before the Open Houses at the other two schools North wants to see—one for its academy of Music, Theatre, and Dance, and another for its Academy of Visual and Performing Arts, so North has some time to work on their art portfolio before the early November deadline.

Speaking of school, it was parent visitation day at North’s current school yesterday, so Beth and I spent the afternoon there. We opted to go in the afternoon rather than the morning because North’s morning classes were gym and Spanish and Beth doesn’t speak Spanish. I would have liked to see art, because it’s a new class for North, and English, because I always like to see English, but North has each class every other day and didn’t have those two on the visitation day. What they did have in the afternoon was geometry and science.

But that morning the school had to shelter in place because there was a fatal shooting in a nearby parking garage and police were looking for the suspect. North got stuck in the field house for four hours because kids who had gym when it started weren’t allowed to walk back to the main building, although other classes were proceeding as scheduled. North ended up missing their Spanish class, but the shelter-in-place ended in time for them to go to lunch. It so happened that fifty-four French exchange students were spending their first day at the school. It must have been a sad and perhaps frightening introduction to American culture for them. North was unfazed.

Anyway, Beth and I had lunch at Busboys and Poets and then arrived to watch North’s geometry class. North really likes their geometry teacher and while math is still not their favorite subject, they’re liking it better than they have in a few years, so I was glad to be able to see her in action. The lesson was about isosceles and equilateral triangles and triangle congruence. The kids were moving through different stations, sometimes listening to the lecture, making their own triangles with colored sticks that snapped together, and answering questions on their laptops. The teacher could see how many people had answered and what their answers were, and she projected some of them on the screen (anonymously) to discuss whether they were right or wrong. When they weren’t in the small group with the teacher, students worked individually on laptops or composition books. The class seemed to run smoothly. There were a lot of Spanish immersion kids North has known since kindergarten so I recognized many of them and that was fun.

Next was science. There were fewer familiar faces here and the teacher did not have very good control over the class. We were expecting this, as North had mentioned it. They’re doing a unit on weather and the lesson was on air masses—polar, tropical, continental, and maritime. There were a couple videos and a worksheet to fill out. The teacher did an experiment in which he put food coloring in hot and cold water in separate mason jars and they compared how quickly it spread (faster in the hot water). Then he balanced the warm water jar face down on top of the cold water jar and they observed how the colors didn’t mix because the hot water stayed on top. This was the part of class during which everyone seemed to be paying attention and not having side conversations. The last twenty minutes was devoted to working on a four-paragraph essay (North’s was on natural disasters but there were other topics) that’s due soon. There was not full participation in essay writing, however. It’s the teacher’s first year and he seems a bit overwhelmed by his charges, even with an aide who was trying to keep the kids in line. This was the last class of the day, so we left with North and Beth drove them to their afterschool acting class.

A Time to Weep

I have some sad news. My uncle David died on Friday from sepsis following a kidney infection. He was my father’s younger brother, seventy-four years old. He was a math professor and once worked as a code breaker for the CIA. In recent years he’d been living in Costa Rica with his wife in a house with a lot of room for their many cats and dogs. Between the two of them they had two daughters and nine grandchildren. He was still teaching math at the Instituto Technológico de Costa Rica.

I didn’t see David a lot, only twice in my adult life actually, but he was a friendly, warm person and I was fond of him. The last time I saw him was at my father’s memorial service nine and a half years ago. He will be greatly missed by his colleagues, friends, and family.

A Weekend in the Woods

Friday

At physical therapy, the therapist made a startling suggestion. “Why don’t we go outside?” she said. Apparently, there’s a garden behind the rehabilitation hospital where North has aqua therapy and regular physical therapy. There are picnic tables there and some people were eating there on that warm late September afternoon, but it’s also used for therapy. There’s an asphalt path, some stairs, and a small grassy square. So North walked forwards, backwards, sideways, up and downhill, up and down stairs, and across the grass (while tossing a ball back and forth with the therapist to test their balance). I walked alongside the two of them for most of the session to observe but also because I’d had such a busy day I’d skipped my customary weekday morning walk. It was very cheering to see them do all this without crutches or a cane, somehow more cheering than watching them do similar exercises in the big PT gym. I guess it looked more like real life and it made it easier to imagine North making their way through life without any sticks at their side. Although, as North observed, walking sideways downhill is not exactly a “skill for everyday life.”

We grabbed two iced chais and some chips at the hospital “coffeeshop” (the espresso machine has been broken since we started going to physical therapy there in late August so I’m not sure it deserves the title) and met Beth outside. She was driving us home so we wouldn’t have to wend our way home on public transportation. We were about to leave on a church retreat to Catoctin Mountain Park. The Unitarian church Beth and North attend has been holding this retreat at this location for over forty years, but it was our first time going. (It’s North and Beth’s second fall at the church and last year North probably had play rehearsals that conflicted with the trip. And speaking of that, Highwood is “permanently closed” according to Google, though there’s been no official announcement to the actors and their parents.)

We drove home, packed, and hit the road around 6:20. There was a beautiful pink, purple, and orange sunset that seemed to go on and on, and with a stop for pizza, we arrived at the park around 8:45. There are multiple camps in the park and in fact, last November Beth and Noah camped at Misty Mount (without Unitarians) on their annual fall camping trip. The Unitarians camp at Greentop. If you’ve ever been to summer camp or to a national park built by the CCC during the 1930s, you have an idea what it looks like. There are rustic log cabins of various sizes, bathhouses, a dining hall made partially of stone with a high ceiling with wooden beams and a recreational hall with a stage. The two main halls are connected with a breezeway. There are also picnic tables, a fire pit, basketball courts, a baseball diamond, swings, and some facilities that are closed in the off-season, like a swimming pool and a horse stable and corral.

We signed in and got our cabin assignment. The cabin sleeps ten in two four-bunk rooms on either side and a two-bunk room in the middle. The bunks are built into the walls like window seats with mattresses about the thickness of yoga mats on them. We were in one wing, with another family in the other side and the middle left vacant. We unpacked and North and I headed to the bathhouse for showers. We had to figure out the system for flipping over laminated signs marking the showers as open to men only, women only, or temporarily private for the person or people showering there. We went with private. By ten we were all in bed, but I didn’t sleep much for the first half of the night because I’m sensitive to light and there were no blinds or curtains on the windows and a lamppost right outside our room.

Saturday

Around two, when I got up to go to the restroom, I surveyed the room and realized the empty bunk was in a darker corner than mine. So I stripped my bed, remade the other one and switched beds. I slept better after that.

The next morning we got name tags with our names and pronouns and there was a hearty breakfast served in the dining hall at eight o’ clock. I had spinach strata, hash browns, vegetarian sausage, watermelon, and coffee with a scoop of hot chocolate mix stirred into it. After the meal, when the retreat coordinator stood up on a chair and said she had some announcements, the following song, forgotten for decades, and last heard circa 1980 (the last time I was in a summer camp dining hall) popped unbidden into my mind:

Announcements! Announcements! Announcements!
What a horrible way to die! What a horrible way to die!
What a horribly way to be talked to death! What a horrible way to die!

We sang this every time a counselor made announcements at the Quaker sleep-away camp I attended the summers I was eleven and thirteen. Perhaps they still do.

During said announcements we were asked to applaud for the breakfast crew, which we used to do in the dining co-ops at Oberlin so there was all kinds of nostalgia. We also heard about the activities for the day, the first couple of which were a hike with a geologist to a waterfall and a yoga class. We decided to hike on our own so we could go at our own pace and we chose the Blue Blazes Whiskey Still trail.

The trail was flat and went along a small stream in the woods. It had informative Park Service signs about insect and fish life in the stream. Reading them made me wonder about the process of writing the signs, how many people had their hands on it, how revisions it underwent, many layers of bureaucracy were involved, how long it took. Let’s just say working on EPA reports has made me sensitive to questions like this. There were also signs about the history of illegal whiskey-making during Prohibition because back then there was a large distillery hidden in the woods, which was the scene of a raid that turned violent. The trail ends with a still, a real one from the era, but not one of the ones that were surely destroyed after the raid and not preserved for twenty-first-century hikers.

It was mostly green along the trail, but I noticed a sprinkling of red leaves here and there. It felt peaceful to be walking in the woods. We stopped at the gift shop on the way home and bought a book of spooky campfire stories for North. Back at the cabin Beth set up the hammock and we rested and read until lunch.

Lunch was various pastas with various sauces and salad. Afterward I took a sorely needed nap in the middle room of the cabin, which is the darkest room because it’s the only one with a door. It was so satisfactory, I decided I’d sleep there that night as well. Shortly after I woke up, Beth and North left for pumpkin carving, the first organized activity any of us took part in. I will carve no pumpkin before its time (which in my mind should be mid-October at the earliest) and Beth felt about the same, but she went along to keep North company. North’s pumpkin has the letters SCARY SZN (season) carved into it. When it got dark, the pumpkins were lit with tea lights.

I stayed behind and read in the hammock. I’ve been reading a book of French short stories for over a month (and it’s not even a very long book). Ever since Noah left and we haven’t been reading books together or reading poems at night, I’ve been reading a lot less. It also didn’t help that my book club postponed its September meeting until October. For context, Goodreads reports that this year, up to mid-August, I was reading books at a clip of about a book and a half a week, but in the past six weeks I haven’t finished even one. I miss it and I hope to get back into a reading groove. In the hour I was in the hammock, I read a story by Sartre and one by Camus, and I’m close to the end of the book now, so that’s a step in the right direction.

Around 4:20 I headed over to the dining hall because I had a 4:30 dinner prep shift. I got a little lost and arrived a few minutes late. Beth was already sautéing onions for an enchilada casserole and North was doing a babysitting shift. (I heard a scavenger hunt was involved.) The dinner crew made six big casseroles with various combinations of turkey and/or beans, and flour or corn tortillas and three big trays of salad. It was a bit disorganized at the beginning but we got ourselves sorted out into jobs and I spent an hour and fifteen minutes stirring onions and chopping scallions, cucumbers, and carrots. North was a server at the rice station, so Beth and I ate before them, then hung around chatting with people while we waited for North’s turn to eat.

Evening activities included Paper Bag Dramatics and a campfire. I’d never heard of the former and I was expecting a puppet show with puppets made from paper bags but it was something entirely different. Six teams of kids and adults were each given a bag of props and they had to write and perform a skit using all of them with only about fifteen minutes to prepare. Beth, North, and I all opted to be audience members.

The skits were fun. One of them solved the how-to-come-up-with-a-plot problem by making the skit about the process of brainstorming a skit. Another one was about a diverse group of people, including a fairy and several medical professionals trying to heal a sick baby. They all used different tools, which I thought was an elegant solution. The winning skit—there was voting at the end—was about a monster who tried to kidnap two children. It wasn’t my choice for overall best skit, but I thought it should have won for “best use of bag” because they managed to fit two small children in the bag that had contained their props. (It was a large canvas tote and not paper.) I think that honor went to the group that used theirs as a time machine. In that skit, people from the year 2050 come back to 2019 with the solutions to all our environmental and health care woes. The boy who played Donald Trump in that skit (a classmate of North’s) was nominated for “best portrayal of an inanimate object,” but the nomination was disallowed because Donald Trump is alive and the question of whether he’s animated in the sense of having a soul was cut short. (Possibly because it was not in the spirit of compassion and inclusivity.) The inanimate object prize went to the person who carried a lightbulb around the stage and ran over to hold it over the head of any character who was having an idea in the meta-skit. Also notable was “Animals at the Disco Restaurant” which had very little plot, mostly small children pretending to be animals, eating and dancing.

After the skits, we went to the campfire, but we only stayed long enough to make a S’more each and briefly listen to people singing and playing guitar and bongo drums. I was surprised North didn’t want to stay longer, but I guess they were worn out from hiking and chasing small children around.

Sunday

I slept much better in the darker room. After a breakfast of leftovers from the previous breakfast, we packed up our cabin and attended a short church service in recreation hall, which was mostly music and people sharing their favorite memories of the weekend. I noted with some amusement that the first person who shared, an elderly woman, said, “Watching the children play,” and the next one, a preteen girl, said, “Being a child playing,” and several people later, a middle-aged dad said knowing the camp was a safe enough environment to let his kids roam (in others words not having to watch his kids play). There’s the circle of life right there.

After church, we had some free time before lunch so we sat at the picnic tables outside the dining hall. Beth read The New Yorker, North watched something on their phone, and I wrote a big chunk of this. Lunch was leftovers again and then everyone pitched in to clean up the camp. We were assigned to the dining hall, so we carried stray belongings out to the lost and found, wiped off tables with soapy water, folded them up and carried them into the recreation hall so the floors could be mopped. Unused food was for sale out on the lawn, and we bought two chocolate bars, a jug of orange juice, a bottle of ranch dressing, a box of spaghetti, an orange, a pear, and a huge mostly full jar of garlic powder. We finished up around two, piled in the car and drove home. North had today off for Rosh Hashanah and they spent part of the afternoon hanging out with friends after aqua therapy, but Beth and I dove back into work after our little holiday in the woods.

Mixed Pie

Noah seems to be doing well at school. He reports his work load feels more manageable than it was in high school and he has some free time, which he’s used partly for socializing. He’s mentioned playing cards and going out to dinner in town with people. He’s also involved in an extracurricular activity—he applied for and got an editing position for a show on ICTV, the student-run television station. This all makes me really, really happy.

It still seems strange and often hard not to have him here, particularly when we went to the Takoma Park Folk Festival without him two weeks ago, after having gone with him almost every year since he was a toddler. But we went and it was still fun. Plus, I can’t say I really minded having only one Back-to-School Night to attend.

Having fewer meetings is just as well as I have been really busy lately with work. Both jobs picked up at the same time—I’m back on retainer with Sara– and even though it still adds up to part-time work, it feels like a lot. It seems I’m always rushing to prepare for a conference call or an in-person meeting at EPA. (Okay, I’ve only had two of those, but I haven’t been to a work meeting in ages, so it was a notable event for me.) I’m also spending a lot of time running North to aqua therapy or physical therapy at the rehabilitation hospital or appointments at the gender clinic, which are both in the city and something of a schlep.

We’ve had some time for recreation, too, though. Last weekend we went to a housewarming at Zoë’s folks’ gorgeous new house, where we saw a lot of people we know, unsurprisingly, as North and Zoë have known each other since kindergarten. And this weekend North entered the annual Takoma Park Farmers’ Market pie contest.

North’s entered this contest every year since they were seven or eight years old. They won “most unusual” pie when they were ten with their cantaloupe pie, but not since then. This year they decided to try a savory pie, a mushroom one. The filling was button, cremini, oyster, portobello, and shiitake mushrooms with a gravy-like sauce and the crust was whole wheat with parmesan.

We had some fun trying to name it. On Saturday, I told North, “It’s tempting to call it Magic Mushroom Pie, but you probably shouldn’t.”

“No!” North exclaimed. My next suggestion was “Marvelous Mushroom Pie,” but they thought that still sounded “druggy.”

Later North was talking about how high the mushrooms were piled in the skillet, so I suggested, “Mile-High Mushroom Pie,” and North said to Beth, “I think Mommy wants people to think there are drugs in my pie!”

In the end North called it “North’s Mixed Mushroom Pie with Cheesy Crust” and it came out very well. The filling was well seasoned and moist without being too wet to hold together when it was sliced and the crust was hearty enough to contain the filling. The judges must have thought so, too, because there was a tie for first place in the kids’ category and the Mixed Mushroom Pie was one of the winners. We actually found out before the winners were announced because the judges set the winner cards next to the winning pies ahead of time. But when they announced the winner, North got their picture taken with the mayor, and was awarded a ribbon, a free farmers’ market tote bag, and two five-dollar tokens to use at the market.  Then we got in line and bought six slices of pie, three for lunch, and three for dessert. We all got North’s pie for our first course, then I had a slice of peach pie, Beth had lemon custard with blueberries, and North had chocolate cookie pie.

It’s always nice to win something, but this one came at a particularly good time for North. They’ve been saddened and stressed by a few things lately. Highwood, the theater where they’ve been acting for the past couple years seems to be imploding. Of the two main staff people, one got another job and moved away and the other one was fired, and then most of the board quit. It’s unclear if it will be able to rise from the ashes or not, but there’s no fall musical in rehearsal right now, and North had been planning to try out for that. Highwood is a big part of North’s social world and it “leaves a hole,” as Beth said in discussing it with another Highwood parent. North’s taking an acting class at the rec center (the same one they’ve taken a few times before) and I’m sure they’ll enjoy it but it’s not the same thing as being in a full-scale production of a play. I’ve been suggesting they join the drama club at school, too, but it hasn’t started up yet.

There’s been some small progress with their leg pain—the aqua therapists at the rehabilitation hospital are impressed with their stamina in the pool and they’re using a cane instead of crutches on their better days—but it’s not as much progress as any of us would like. Some people’s reactions aren’t helping. North didn’t participate in gym class for nearly the whole second semester of seventh grade and at our request, their current gym teacher is having them walk around the track while other students are running or playing games. It’s not ideal but it’s an improvement over sitting and watching. So it was quite annoying that one day last week when they were walking around the track a fair distance behind their own class and another class came running by them the teacher for that class (who was North’s gym teacher in sixth and seventh grade) said “everyone knows” that they’re faking. And there have also been occasional comments along this line from students. North is sensitive about these accusations so that’s getting them down. But I’m happy to report when we told North’s counselor what happened she spoke to the teacher and he apologized to North. (The counselor is kind of fierce and we all think she may have read the teacher the riot act.)

So overall the beginning of eighth grade has been something of a mixed bag. On the plus side, North, who’s been negative about math for a couple years, likes their geometry teacher and her class, which is great and North’s also enjoying taking art for the first time since elementary school and having Zoë in some of their classes, unlike last year when they didn’t have any together.

Today is both the fall equinox and North’s half-birthday, so after dinner we had the traditional half-birthday cupcakes. We picked them up at a bakery over the weekend. I got carrot cake, Beth got chocolate chip, and the celebrant got red velvet. The weather is still hot here. The predicted high for today is 92 and I see a lot of 88s and 89s in the extended forecast, but I know eventually it will get cooler and the leaves will start to turn and it will feel like fall. I hope as that happens we see some other turning points at the theater and in North’s recovery.

Four Road Trips and a Bus Ride

Beth spent a lot of time in August driving. In fact, over the last three weeks of August (and the first day of September) she was on the road a total of ten days. We took four road trips, in various combinations, but as the sole driver, she was the common denominator on all of them.

Road Trip #1

A little over three weeks ago, Beth and I took North to camp. This was a day trip, as the camp is only three hours away, in South-Central Pennsylvania. We needed to feed North lunch before drop-off so we went to the same pizza place where we’d had lunch the year before. North actually remembered the name, Paradise by the Slice, which aided us in finding it. It has a subtle tropical theme in its décor and pretty good pierogies in addition to pizza. I think I may sense a tradition forming.

Road Trips #2-3

The second and longest trip, just over two weeks ago, was to fetch North from camp and drop Noah off at college, and if you read my last post, you know all about that. The third trip, a week and half ago, was to Wheeling. Beth took North to her mom’s house for the traditional week of one-on-one grandmother time the kids call Camp YaYa and then drove back the next day. (Noah attended his session of Camp YaYa in June, right after graduation.) While at YaYa’s, North swam and did leg exercises in the condo pool nearly every day, went shopping for school clothes, went to the movies, gave a reading about fracking at YaYa’s church, attended a performance of bluegrass singer Hazel Dickens songs at the library, ate out a lot, and made banana bread.

Home Alone

While North was gone, Beth and were alone for five days, which is the longest we’ve ever been alone since Noah was born. In fact, I think I can count the kid-free weekend get-aways we’ve had on one hand. I’ve always been a little jealous of parents we know who manage to send their kids to sleep-away camp or the grandparents’ house at the same time. So I’m sorry to report we didn’t really use the five days well. It was all work days and AT&T was on strike so Beth was working some evenings, sometimes long after I’d gone to bed. We did go out to dinner the first night, at the (relatively) new Mexican place in Takoma Park, Cielo Rojo. I’d only been there once before and I like it so that was nice. And then I made four adult-friendly dinners in a row, kind of a luxury. Beth’s favorite was zucchini-eggplant sandwiches with queso blanco. (She’s a big fan of eggplant, and up until this summer neither of the kids liked it. Noah’s the convert. North’s the holdout.)

On Thursday morning I went out to get the newspaper and I was startled to see a crowd at the middle school bus stop, then I remembered it was sixth-grade orientation. I found it slightly amusing how many parents stayed until the bus came, being the jaded middle school parent I am now. It made me think how school was just around the corner, though. I honestly hadn’t been thinking much about it, and I’m usually counting down the days.

Road Trip #4

The Friday before Labor Day Beth came home early and we hit the road around 2:45 for Wheeling. The traffic was awful and getting out of the D.C. metro area took forever. It was around 10:15 when we finally pulled into YaYa’s condominium parking lot— the drive usually takes five to six hours. We did stop for dinner in Cumberland, at a restaurant in a converted mansion that once served as a joint Union-Confederate hospital during the Civil War. There’s dining on at least three levels and the back stairways and narrow halls that connect dining rooms, kitchens, and restrooms are a crazy warren. We were eating in the brick-lined “pizza cellar.” We eschewed the chance to have pickles or penne on our pizza, going for the more staid mushrooms and spinach instead. We got the fried eggplant appetizer, as well, because we’d only had eggplant twice in the week before.

When we got to YaYa’s she was out at a season preview event at a community theater, but North was still up and making chamomile tea. (North had attended the event, too, but Beth’s aunt Carole brought them home because YaYa had volunteered to help clean up afterward.) I was tired—I haven’t been sleeping well recently—and went straight to bed, but Beth and North waited up for YaYa.

Saturday morning we went to Target to buy school supplies and some more clothes and had lunch out at a restaurant where you can get French fries inside your sandwich. Not having grown up with this delicacy, I didn’t see the appeal, but Beth did so she indulged. That’s how it is sometimes with food. We went to Oglebay Park pool in the afternoon and then up to the lodge gift shop where YaYa bought some t-shirts for Beth. We had Mexican for dinner and while we were out, Carole texted she’d left something on the porch for us.  She and YaYa had spent the morning (and in Carole’s case the day) at a Labor symposium and there was a sheet cake with the faces of labor leaders in the frosting. She brought us a big slice of it with Walter Reuther (fourth President of the UAW and civil rights activist, born in Wheeling) pictured on it. Beth was really tickled by this. Carole came over and we had cake with sliced up Klondike bars and then we watched the beginning of Fantastic Mr. Fox. (YaYa moved recently from one condominium to another and now she lives two doors down from Carole. I think they are enjoying being neighbors.)

Sunday morning we went to YaYa and Carole’s church. It’s a small Unitarian church right over the West Virginia-Ohio border. They’re between ministers right now, so services are member-led. It was Carole’s turn. The service was Labor Day-themed and YaYa gave a talk about women in the labor movement and there was a discussion about it afterward.

After church, Beth helped her mom with some technical and mechanical issues around the house and North collected some water from YaYa’s pool in a bottle to bring to church next week. (They’re having a water service in which everyone brings water from a special place.) We left for home a little after two, and had much better luck with traffic. Even with a stop for dinner at a shopping center sushi place, we were home by eight-thirty.

Home Together

We had a relaxing day at home on Labor Day, the last day before the new school year. Beth and North went grocery shopping and Beth worked on some home repairs and rested while listening to podcasts. I read the newspaper and wrote this and took a walk with North. As we approached the bridge over Long Branch creek, I asked North if there was anything they were looking forward to in the new school year, because they’ve been pretty negative about it. North guessed (correctly) that I was trying to get something positive out of them and if they didn’t come up with something I would. “So, fine, seeing my friends,” they said grudgingly. I decided to leave it at that. I remember eighth grade well enough to know it’s often no picnic.

But we did have a picnic that night because we do it every Memorial Day, Fourth of July, and Labor Day— I made veggie dogs, baked beans, corn on the cob, macaroni salad, potato salad, and watermelon. We ate it on the porch because it rained in the late afternoon and our patio chairs were wet. Afterward we went out for frozen yogurt, another last-night-of-summer-break tradition. As we were eating our frozen treats, another family was leaving and the dad said, “Another summer in the books.” And it was.

Bus Ride

The next morning North made themselves a smoothie for breakfast and packed a lunch in their new bento box. (They’re always enthusiastic about breakfast and lunch preparation at the beginning of the school year.) They posed for the traditional first-day-of-school at the front gate and five minutes later they were at the bus stop, waiting for the bus for the first time as an eighth grader.

At 3:20 they were home and moderately cheerful. They have Zoë in two classes and the two of them are on the same lunch shift after having no classes together last year. North also got into art, which was their first-choice elective. They had a little bit of homework (of the introduce-yourself-to-the-teacher variety) in two classes, but nothing taxing.

Most years I’m chomping at the bit for the school year to start, or a little melancholy about summer ending, or most often a mix of the two. But my usual impatience has to do with having a quiet house to work in, and North was gone so much of August that I wasn’t as eager for it as I usually am. And all the family traditions, the picnic, the ice cream, the picture at the gate seem a little wrong without Noah here, but at the same time, they also seem right. I think that’s how tradition works, stitching us together and easing us through the transitions.

August and Everything After

In August and everything after/I’m after everything
From “August and Everything After,” by Counting Crows

Sunday: Camp and Cousins 

“I’m ready if you are,” I said to Beth around 9:30 on Sunday morning. We were packing up the car for a four-day trip during which we’d pick North up at camp, spend a little time in Ithaca together as a family, and then drop Noah off at college. As soon as the words were out of my mouth I wondered if I really was ready for this trip, but ready or not, it was time.

We arrived at Camp Highlight around 12:30. Beth and Noah packed North’s things into the already full car while North drifted around the crowd saying goodbye to campers and counselors. It wasn’t goodbye for long, though, as we saw some of them again almost immediately. A bunch of campers and their families were meeting up at diner for lunch and North successfully lobbied us to join them. Beth, Noah, and I got our own table, while North went to sit with a big group of campers. Camp Highlight is a camp for kids of LGBT+ parents, which made me wonder if the staff noticed the sudden influx of middle-aged gay and lesbian couples along with their eight-to-fifteen-year-old kids in red t-shirts, but maybe it happens every year. It was difficult to peel North away and get back on the road, but eventually we did.

Our next stop was a few hours north at my cousin Holly and her daughter Annie’s house, near Wilkes-Barre. Holly grew up out West, but in the four years she’d been living in Pennsylvania, we hadn’t seen each other. In fact, we hadn’t seen each other in twenty-one years. I’m sorry about that, as I never got to meet her husband Mark, who died last November of cancer.

Holly’s house is a charming old farmhouse painted pale yellow and filled with old furniture and eclectic decorations, including her own paintings. We had what Holly called “a quick but lovely visit.” We chatted and ate. Holly set out a huge spread—cheese, olives, fruit, green beans, hummus, chips and salsa, and chocolate. We hardly needed dinner that night. And that was a good thing because we got to our Air BnB outside Ithaca later than expected. There was food provided for guests in the fridge, so North had eggs and potatoes, Noah made a baked potato, and I just had a bowl of cereal and we all went to bed.

Monday: Lake Cayuga

The next day we explored our surroundings. The house had a big yard with a hot tub (broken, sadly), a koi pond with goldfish and frogs, and a hammock. There was also a garden with vegetables you could pick and an apple tree with a couple of ripe apples and many unripe ones. There was a meditation room with a curved glass wall and ceiling overlooking the nearby hills, which you could also see from the porch. It was really delightful. We are already thinking about staying there again.

We were about a half hour from Ithaca and we drove into town to have breakfast at the famous Ithaca Bakery, which we hadn’t managed to hit on our previous two trips there. Beth got the rosemary-salt bagel on the recommendation of friend whose kid is a sophomore at Ithaca and she didn’t regret it. Next we hit Wegman’s for groceries and some prescriptions for Noah that Beth had ordered to arrive there. And sure enough, they were waiting for us.

We went back to the house, where we relaxed (the kids watched an episode of Dr. Who, finishing a season they’d been watching for months). Then we packed a picnic lunch and went swimming at Cayuga Lake. Shortly after we arrived, Noah, who’s not exactly the outdoorsy type, asked “What is the goal of this activity?” He did wade a little and throw rocks in the water, which he always enjoyed as a little boy. Mostly, though, he sat in the shade and looked at his phone while the rest of us swam. We stayed until late afternoon and then returned to the house.

Noah and I finished up Pet Semetary, the last book in our mother-and-son book club, at least for a while, and then Beth fried some green tomatoes from the garden and we had green beans (also from the garden) and deli macaroni and cheese with it. We ate out on the porch, enjoying the view and the pleasant temperatures. It had been quite hot and humid at home, so Western New York was a welcome change. After dinner, we drove into Ithaca to have dessert at Purity Ice Cream.

That night we had our last family poetry reading, a bedtime tradition we’ve had since Noah was in first grade. I don’t know why this was harder for me that finishing our book, maybe it was because the end of Pet Semetary isn’t all that suited to melancholy nostalgia, what with all the violent death and ill-fated resurrections. Or maybe finishing our last summer novel (of seven) and our last poetry book on the same day was just too much. The book was Honeybee, by Naomi Shihab Nye, and the last poem we read (out of order because it was seven pages long and we’d skipped it the night before when we were pressed for time) was called “Last Day of School.” It’s about a woman revisiting her old elementary school and it ends, “there will never, never be a last day of school.” After Noah finished reading the poem, I dissolved into tears and Noah gave me a long hug.  I know most fifty-something moms’ and teens’ reading lives are not as entwined as mine and Noah’s have been, and it could seem odd, but for me it’s been a beautiful gift.

Tuesday: Move-In Day and Robert H. Treman State Park

The next day Noah packed up all his belongings and we drove up to the college, with a pit stop for breakfast at Waffle Frolic on Ithaca Commons. Noah stood in lines to get his i.d. and his dorm room key and then we moved him into his room. It was a very smooth process and there were a lot of orientation staff there for the express purpose of helping carry things up to the rooms. We met his roommate and the roommate’s brother and mother, but only briefly because you’re only allowed to park in the small lot for fifteen minutes so we had to leave pretty soon after they arrived. We did some on-campus errands, including getting a photo by the famous fountain and buying a lot of Ithaca College swag at the campus store: a t-shirt for Beth’s mom and sweatshirts for me and North; I also felt I needed a mug, pencils, and a car magnet. We went to Student Health to see about the process for having Noah’s ADHD meds shipped to campus and visited the mail room for small packages and the other mail room for large packages—he had both. The large package was a box fan for his window.

Later on the Ithaca parents’ Facebook page we heard people complaining about the heat on move-in day, which made us shake our heads and decide that these people were definitely not from the Washington, D.C. area. It was a little warm in Noah’s third-floor room, but I didn’t even break a sweat carrying things up there. The roommate brought a narrow, vertical fan that stands in the middle of the room and Noah had his fan, so I think they’ll be fine until it gets cool, which I hear happens pretty quickly. (We almost returned Noah’s fan because he and his roommate initially couldn’t fit it into the window, but the next day they moved some furniture so it could tilt it into the window frame.)

Noah didn’t want lunch—we’d had a late breakfast and his was a waffle sundae that to his regret he couldn’t finish, so we left him there to unpack and attend a hall meeting and a dorm cluster meeting. Left to our own devices for the rest of the day, we ate lunch at the house (North opted for Taco Bell drive-through) and then went to Robert H. Treman State Park where you can swim in a bitter-cold swimming hole with a waterfall at one end. We’d been there last year on our visit to Ithaca but North wasn’t with us then and we thought they’d enjoy it. Well, they enjoyed it, to put it mildly. They swam for two hours in the 64-degree water, swam against the current to the waterfall and back three times, and did countless handstands. It was good to see them so active in the water and it made me hopeful about their aqua therapy, which was set to start later that week.

While we were discussing dinner plans, North pointed out we’d eaten at the house two nights in a row and we were on vacation. Beth asked what they’d like to eat and North found a sushi place on the Commons where we had a feast of bubble tea, hot and sour soup, seaweed salad, edamame, agedashi tofu, and of course, sushi. We got cucumber rolls because they’re North’s favorite and a kind that had thinly sliced mango and avocado on the outside and sweet potato inside. We walked to Sweet Melissa’s for ice cream afterward, though I skipped dessert because the bubble tea had been pretty sweet and there was leftover mochi at home.

Wednesday: On Our Way Back Home

There were events for parents most of the next day, but we decided we’d attend a couple before lunch and be on our way. Breakfast was provided, so we ate in the gym and Noah joined us after he’d had breakfast in the dining hall. We listened to some speeches from college administrators together and then the students were divided into small groups and left while we listened to more speeches—mostly about how not to be helicopter parents— and then we ate a buffet lunch. I’m not quite sure what the students did in their groups because we didn’t get a chance to talk to Noah much after that. He had a pretty tight schedule. We were initially hoping to go back to his room so we could drop off some clothes he’d left at the Air BnB (he’d put a few things into the week’s worth of camp laundry I did for North on arriving there and I hadn’t taken the clothes out of the dryer). Anyway, there was never time for that, so we brought the bag of clothes to give him as he was entering a session for new students of the School of Communications. We said goodbye quickly in the hallway outside the auditorium.

In the weeks and months before Noah left for college I’d imagined that moment of parting many times and it wasn’t anything like I expected, rushed and without tears. For a while it looked like we might not be able to find him at all and we’d have to leave without saying goodbye. He might have preferred that—he tried to say goodbye via text—but that would have been more than I could have borne.

After

Leaving a kid at college is hard to describe, such a mix of happiness and sadness. It’s not like anything I’ve ever experienced. We had two days at home as the threesome we’ll be most of the time for the next five years. North went to their first aqua therapy session, finished their summer reading homework, and made soft pretzels. Beth and I worked, North and I walked to Little Caesars and brought home a pizza (something they’ve been wanting to do all summer) and we all watched a movie called Lemonade Mouth. Then yesterday morning, Beth drove North to Wheeling, where they’ll spend the last week of their summer vacation with Beth’s mom. I stayed behind, alone in the house, which was sometimes lonely and sometimes restorative. I read the newspaper, had lunch out, mowed the lawn, cleaned the kitchen, went to the farmers’ market, and wrote this. Beth got home this afternoon and she and I will practice being empty nesters for a work week, until we leave on Saturday to spend Labor Day weekend in Wheeling and collect North.

I miss Noah terribly. How could I not? But I’m also proud and excited for him as he steps away from us and finds out what August and everything after will look like.

Seize Some More Days

Last Weekend of Sweeney Todd 

As I mentioned earlier, North’s last performance of the summer was last Sunday when Sweeney Todd closed. There were only two performances that weekend, a Saturday evening show and a Sunday matinee because Highwood had two shows running at once, and And Then There Were None had the theater on Friday evening and Saturday afternoon.

North wanted to see And Then There Were None because they thought their friend Cam was in it and I have a soft spot for the novel because I went through a big Agatha Christie phase in middle school, then I taught it in a class on genre fiction, and then Noah and I read it when he was in middle school. So, of course, I went with them. Highwood had to vacate its quarters on short notice earlier this year because of structural problems with the building and they’d been operating out of temporary space. The last few shows have been performed in a storefront-type space on the first floor of a medical building in downtown Silver Spring. We saw North’s friend Sadhbh play the title role in Macbeth there in May. When we arrived at the ersatz theater, got our programs, and took our seats it became apparent Cam wasn’t in the show, but Sadhbh was. That was just as good, so North wasn’t disappointed. (North thinks they may have lost track of who was who in a group chat.) It was a good production, just slightly scaled down from the novel. I was impressed with how Sadhbh breathed life into Emily Brent, given how flat Christie characters tend to be. Her judgmental glares were quite comic.

The next day I was back at the theater, this time with Beth and Noah, to see Sweeney Todd. North was in the ensemble. They didn’t play a named character but they sang in all the group scenes, died onstage as one of Sweeney Todd’s victims (sliding very nicely out of the barber chair) and had a few lines sung as a duet in “Not While I’m Around.” Some of the Toby’s lines in this song had been reassigned to North and another actor–the two were supposed to portray Toby’s conscience. This was a last minute adjustment that made North happy because they’d hoped to be cast as Toby. It’s a pretty song and well suited to North’s voice. If you’re familiar with Sweeney Todd, or any Sondheim really, you know how complicated the music is. The kids did a great job with it. The actor playing Mrs. Lovett was really excellent in the role. My only complaint was that the instrumental music was too loud, causing me to miss some of the dialogue and song lyrics.

After Sweeney

So, after a month jam-packed full of drama camp, choir camp, rehearsals, and performances, it was suddenly all over. The end of North’s summer break will be travel-heavy. They’re spending a week at sleepaway camp in Pennsylvania, then they’ll road trip up to New York with us to drop Noah off at college, and then spend a week in West Virginia with Beth’s mom. In a span of three weeks, they’ll be home just a couple days in between Ithaca and Wheeling. But before all that, they had a week relaxing at home.

Well, kind of relaxing. We packed a bunch of appointments for both kids into that week. Noah had his penultimate drum lesson of the summer, went to the psychiatrist who prescribes his ADHD meds, and got his hair cut. Both kids went to the dentist, but different dentists because Noah’s no longer going to the pediatric dentist as of this summer. North went for an evaluation at the rehabilitation center where they will be doing aqua therapy for their leg. We met with the physical therapist who will coordinate their care and got twelve appointments scheduled from late August to mid-October. The therapy pool has limited hours so they’re going to be missing a lot of school, which concerns me. The next day we went to the physical therapist North’s been seeing since March for a final visit. We’d decided it was better to have all the physical therapy coordinated in one location so we’re saying goodbye to her.

North worked on summer homework. They’d finished their summer math packet sometime in July but I had them to do some extra online review of algebra concepts and they finished the book they chose from the summer reading list, Outrun the Moon, historical fiction about the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. The kids cleaned the bathroom, kitchen, and porch, vacuumed and mowed and I taught Noah how to sew on a button so he can do that for himself at school.

We also found some time for fun. The kids recorded the audio for a music video of a new song of North’s, “Sweet as Cola,” on Monday and they shot the video on Wednesday and started editing it on Thursday. On Tuesday the three of us went for a creek walk, an annual late summer tradition. I wasn’t sure how steady North would be in the uneven surface of the creek bed on crutches, so we did a modified, shortened version. But they were actually fine and faster than me. I’ve been slow and careful in the creek since I fell and hurt my knee in there a couple years ago. It was nice to do even an abbreviated version of the walk. I found myself thinking nostalgically of one of the first times I took the kids to wade at that exact spot ten years ago.

North spent part of Monday and most of Thursday with Zoë, with whom they hadn’t had a non-camp week in common since June. From Friday morning until Saturday afternoon, Lyn and North had what Lyn’s mom called “an epic hangout.” They went to downtown Silver Spring by themselves to have lunch and see The Lion King. Later, Noah and I met them for pizza. North went to watch Lyn’s aerial silks class and then the two of them came back to our house and slept in a tent in the backyard. The next morning I took them both to the pool.

We dropped Lyn off at home around 3:30 and drove to the Montgomery County Fair. We spent the late afternoon and evening there, looking at farm animals, eating fair food, and riding our favorite rides. We finished with the Ferris wheel, the four of us in the little car suspended high above the ground, looking over the colored lights of the fair on a mild summer night, before our August travels scatter us in different directions.

Seize the Day

As Beth, Noah, and I walked toward the music school building at the University of Maryland for North’s choir camp concert on Friday afternoon, I said that after Sunday we’d be all finished with this summer’s performances.

“Yah!” Beth said.

“They’re not that bad,” Noah joked and Beth explained her comment had not been about the quality of the performances, which we always enjoy, just the logistics of rehearsals and performances. The past week had been one of the more hectic weeks of the summer with North at chorus camp in the daytime and Sweeney Todd rehearsals and performances at night. (And it happened to be a week when Beth was out of town for a week-long business trip to Las Vegas. She’d only returned the evening before.)

It’s true one of the ways I mark our progress through any summer is in performances. And by that metric, we’ve zipped past a film camp screening, five performances of Sweeney Todd, and choir camp concert since I last wrote. We have just two performances of Sweeney Todd to go (one of which is in progress right now).

Film Camp

Exactly a week after North was in Wicked at musical theater camp, the kids at the film camp where Noah was a counselor screened their films at Rhizome, a local art space where the camp was held. It’s a clapboard house with a front porch decorated with strings of large colorful beads, a screening room on the first floor, and gallery space upstairs. The house and the neighborhood offered a lot of diverse spaces for filming. In addition to the porch and interior of the house, the kids used a nearby alley and a small plaza in front of an office building and the lobby of the same building.

The camp director was Noah’s media teacher in tenth grade and he’s the faculty sponsor for Blair Network Communications (the school television station) and Silver Lens (the documentary team). Noah was on BNC his junior year and Silver Lens his senior year so he and Mr. M know each other well. For two weeks Noah helped him teach a small group of middle schoolers how to write scripts, film, and edit.

On the third Friday in July, the audience gathered in the screening room. Mr. M and some of the campers spoke about their experiences at camp and then Mr. M showed some of the practice film they shot while working on camera skills. There were two short feature presentations, interconnected films, the first about the persecution of animal-human hybrids (I’m guessing some of these kids saw Sorry to Bother You) and the second about the hybrids’ rebellion. Each film was about eight minutes long. In addition to his behind the scenes roles, Noah played two goat hybrids, a lawyer, and a pro-hybrid human protester. The films were a lot of fun and afterward Mr. M was effusive in his praise of Noah. One of the campers chimed in that he’d been “invaluable.”

Camp Mommy

Both kids were home the following week. Whenever there’s a week like this in the summer, we call it Camp Mommy.  North went to the U.S. Botanical Gardens with their Highwood friend Lyn and we made soft blackberry cookies for a family friend who was in the hospital. (They were kind of like scones, but crumblier.) The kids and I took walks together most mornings before it got too hot. They did house and yard work and North helped with dinner most nights and thought to bring in the laundry one afternoon while I was on a conference call and it started to thunder. Noah started deep cleaning his room and stripping it of knickknacks he no longer wanted (a lot of which were actually North’s, abandoned two years ago when they got their own room).

We took most of the castoffs to the fairy tree near the playground. Wait, your neighborhood doesn’t have a fairy tree? It’s a tree that’s hollow at the bottom where people leave toys and decorative items and then other people take them home. I am a habitual contributor as the house is still full of the kids’ old toys and this is more fun than taking them to the thrift store. One day when we went to drop off seven child-sized bracelets, we found someone turned the collection of items there into an art installation. A large Batman doll was seated on a brick, with a rubber duck keyring dangling from his wrist and a Chinese rabbit we’d left there earlier suspended over his head. I put one of the bracelets around his neck and scattered the rest on the ground around him.

Tech rehearsals for Sweeney Todd started that week so it was nice North didn’t have any place to be in the morning after late nights at the theater. And right before Beth left for Las Vegas we developed a cascade of interconnected plumbing problems that lead to multiple visits from plumbers and a contractor, the removal of our dishwasher, and water damage to a basement wall. So, that week and the next I spent a lot of time coordinating with workers and washing dishes by hand. Noah said I was “partying like it’s 1899.”

Choir Camp

This was North’s most transportation-challenging week of the summer. Sweeney Todd opened that Friday and I had to figure out how to get North home from the theater late at night with Beth out of town. I ended up finding rides for every night, so I didn’t need to take a Lyft out there to pick them up. Thanks, Lane! Thanks, Yulia! Starting Monday, North was in choir camp in College Park in the daytime. They had to miss the first day (Sunday) because they had a Sweeney Todd matinee, so I went up there to collect their music and find out what electives they had (songwriting, theater, and ukulele). Getting to College Park is a little trickier than North’s other day camp, which is in Takoma Park, but after Noah and I helped them navigate the trip there and back on Monday (it involves switching buses at a transit center) they were able to get themselves to camp and back on Tuesday.

To make matters more complicated, Monday and Tuesday were days off at the theater, but Wednesday there was a brush-up rehearsal and a show on Thursday night so they had to go straight from camp to Silver Spring, grab some dinner there and then go to the theater. Wednesday I picked them up at camp and accompanied them to Silver Spring and took them out for pizza and bubble tea before rehearsal started. Thursday they made the same trip alone (and even figured out a better two-bus route than the bus-train-train one I’d used the day before). This was good because it meant I could be home for the contractor, who at 7:56 a.m. had changed his arrival time from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Beth got home that evening, after seven and a half days away, and we were all very happy to see her. She ate dinner and crashed, napping until it was time to go get North at the theater. The next day she worked from home and we all set out for the concert a little after one p.m. This was our eighth year of going to band, orchestra, and chorus concerts at the University of Maryland so we knew what to expect. The fifth to seventh grade orchestra played first, followed by the eighth to tenth grade orchestra. (Orchestra and chorus camps take place the same week; band camp is the week previous). The chorus performed last.

Their first song, North’s favorite, was “Seize the Day” from Newsies. (It should surprise no one their favorite piece was from a musical.) The junior counselors who were accompanying the chorus on various instruments all wore newsboy caps, which was a nice touch. Next was a pretty sixteenth-century Italian song, then a traditional camp meeting song, “No Time,” (which North sang one year in Honors Chorus) and a traditional South African song with an accompanying dance. This was possible because rather than standing on risers, the singers were on wide platforms built into the stage, so there was room to move around and stomp. North managed the forward, backward, and side to side steps on crutches and even stamped lightly. The last song was Harry Belafonte’s “Turn the World Around” with steel drums to give it a Caribbean sound. It was an uplifting tune and I found myself thinking of the Democratic debates I’d stayed up late to watch earlier in the week, allowing myself to feel a little bit hopeful and wondering which candidate can turn the country around. It sorely needs it.

After the concert we went out for ice cream at the University’s ice cream parlor, then later that evening out for pizza. On the way home we saw a rainbow. I wondered if it was a good omen.

We’re going to see the closing performance of Sweeney Todd tomorrow. Then the kids have another week at home together before North heads off to sleep-away camp. I think the second session of Camp Mommy will feature a creek walk, a trip to Langley Park for a pupusa lunch, and the filming of a music video. I may also take North and Lyn to a movie and to splash in the fountain in Silver Spring.  It’s not looking like I’ll have much work for either Sara or Mike, and honestly, this week I don’t mind. Noah has only two and a half weeks of summer break left and North has four. I want to seize every day.