Dancing Through Life

It’s just life
So keep dancing through

From “Dancing Through Life,” Wicked

So, for some reason we came back from the beach. Oh, wait, I remember why: Beth’s got this job and North was enrolled in musical theater camp and Noah had committed to being a counselor at a film camp for middle schoolers, so we couldn’t just spend the whole summer as beach bums.

We’ve been back two and a half weeks and they’ve been busy weeks, especially for North. In addition to going to the camp which culminated in a production of Wicked on Friday, they had rehearsals for Sweeney Todd six evenings and one weekend afternoon, and one day they babysat in between a six-hour day at camp and a three-hour rehearsal. But they had enough down time to go to see Yesterday with Beth and me one weekend and go swimming at an outdoor pool the next.

Meanwhile, Noah was largely free the first week we were home (other than working on his nursery school alumni interview podcast) and film camp started the second week. He needed some shots and medical forms for college and now that he’s eighteen he can be vaccinated without parental permission, so he went to the doctor himself. Somehow of all the things he does by himself now, that seemed particularly adult. He also had his first two drum lessons of the summer.

No one had camp or school on the fourth of July, so we went to Takoma’s eccentric little parade, complete with Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, marching bands, people playing bagpipes and steel drums, walking dogs, and pushing reel mowers. These are standard parts of the parade but there was also giant wooden rooster festooned with American flags (the rooster is the symbol of Takoma Park) and a Trump Baby balloon, which is a new addition.

Speaking of the President, he presented us with a fireworks dilemma. We usually watch the fireworks in Takoma, but they’re doing maintenance on the lawn of the middle school where they’re normally held so it was cancelled and D.C., which would be our natural backup plan was obviously out of the question since the whole day had been turned into a campaign rally. So on the recommendation of North’s physical therapist, we checked out the College Park fireworks.

People set up chairs in a parking lot on the campus of the University of Maryland, and I thought it would be miserably hot sitting on asphalt, but it had rained in the afternoon and the lot was still damp, which kept it bearable. There were food stands and live music and people selling glow sticks to the very diverse crowd so it was a festive atmosphere. The display was impressive and long, too, like a half hour. I’d do it again if Takoma ever cancels again.

The other day North didn’t go to camp (except for the last two hours of the day) was the Monday of the second week. That was because we had an intake appointment at the pain clinic at Children’s National Medical Center. We’re thinking of switching their pediatrician to one there since between neurology (for their migraines), the gender clinic, and now the pain clinic, they get the majority of their health care there already.

Anyway, the appointment lasted all morning. We spoke to various members of the team together and separately. Their recommendation was for behavioral cognitive therapy for coping strategies, desensitization to try to stop whatever misfiring is causing North’s pain, and aqua therapy to work on strengthening the affected leg. We’re still trying to set up all these new appointments. I left the appointment feeling cautiously hopeful because all the medical professionals we spoke to seemed very matter of fact, and not at all baffled by what’s been going on.

Before we left North also let some medical students take pictures of their pupil while an electrode fastened to their toe transmitted electrical signals—it was part of an experiment to see if changes in the eye can help doctors measure physical sensations (like pain) more objectively. I thought that was kind of interesting.

On a lighter note, Thursday was free slurpee day at 7-11. It was a hot day (unsurprising for mid-July in the D.C. area) and I’d spent a long time unsuccessfully trying to find the apartment building where a writers/editors meet up was happening and I’d gotten hot and sweaty and discouraged and it seemed like ice and sugar would be cheering. As my bus pulled up to the 7-11, who should I see but Noah, the director of his camp, and four campers, all walking into the store. By the time I got back there, they were all exiting with their frozen drinks. “I swear I’m not stalking you,” I told him and then the camp director had enthusiastic things to say about what a help Noah was at camp and that was nice, too.

Friday was performance of Wicked. Beth and I met up at the community center. Noah had to leave his camp early to come see the performance and he was a little late, but he arrived during the first song and set up his camera in the back of the theater.

If you’re not familiar with Wicked, it’s a prequel to the Wizard of Oz and much of it takes place at a prep school in Oz. North’s playing Nessarose, the future wicked witch of the East and the sister of Elphaba, the future wicked witch of the West. (North’s character is the one who gets squashed by a house at the beginning of the film.) Here’s a clip (eight and a half minutes) from when most of the main characters are students at the school.

It was convenient there was a character in a wheelchair in the play, but when all the characters ran up the aisles of the theater, North was able to keep up on their crutches. The production was very good. Gretchen always gets impressive performances out of the kids in just two weeks. Elphaba was played by four different girls (all in green face paint) and Galinda/Glinda by three and they all managed to inhabit their roles. North’s old preschool classmate and basketball teammate Maggie was a very charming wizard and Gretchen’s older daughter had some nice song and dance numbers as Prince Fierro (who later becomes the straw man). I learned later she’d studied the dance moves in Saturday Night Fever for the ball scene.

There was a cast party at Roscoe’s that evening. Beth, Noah, and I got a separate table, partly because Beth and Noah were going to the White House to attend Lights for Liberty, a protest of conditions at the migrant detention centers. We thought they’d get in and out more quickly if they weren’t part of a large group. I’d have liked to go to the vigil, too, especially since I haven’t been nearly as active as I was in the early days of the Trump administration, but North objected to the whole family deserting them after their show, so I stayed behind with them. Once Beth and Noah had departed, I joined the big table at the grown-up end and reminisced with Gretchen, the camp director, and another mom of a long-time camper about the shows the kids did when they were tiny.  (North’s been doing musical theater camp since they were five years old.) Eventually the kids drifted off to get gelato and hang out in a nearby playground. It’s always hard for the actors to say goodbye to each other after the intense experience of putting a play together in two weeks.

It was almost ten when Beth and Noah got home. He said it wasn’t going to be as easy to get to the White House to protest when he’s in upstate New York, so he has to do it now. And speaking of that, I can’t believe how close his departure is, just five weeks away. In the summer I’m always happy to do the things we usually do, like going to the beach and the Fourth of July parade and watching North in drama and chorus camp performances and berry-picking (which was on the agenda this weekend), but usually at the same time I’m ticking the weeks off in my mind, counting down to a more normal schedule when the kids go back to school. But this year when that happens it’s going to feel less normal instead of more so, with my firstborn gone. That’s part of life, though, and a good one, too, so we’ve got no choice but to keep dancing through it.

Coda

And speaking of the passage of time, Beth and I marked thirty-two years since our first date on Monday. On Saturday we went to see Booksmart and then had dinner at Jaleo’s and then on Monday North and I made a blueberry kuchen with some of the berries we’d all picked the day before for an anniversary dessert. Noah went to the 7-11 to get some vanilla ice cream to top it. It seemed fitting everyone had a part in bringing the kuchen to the table, as if it hadn’t been for that first kiss one long-ago July night, we wouldn’t be a family.

The B-52s

A New Job

A few days before my birthday something unexpected happened. I got a new job. The week before that Sara had called to let me know that because she lost three major clients all at once she was going to have to take me off retainer temporarily until she could rebuild her client base. She’d still have some work for me, but no guaranteed hours. It wasn’t a good time for our income to dip. We’ve had some unusual one-time expenses recently and soon there will be college tuition. So the next day I put out some feelers with a couple people I know, hoping to find a little stop-gap work.

One of these people was Mike, who used to be North’s basketball coach and is the father of a preschool classmate. He has a business helping non-profits and government agencies interpret their data and make it more accessible. We’d talked about working together several years ago, but at the time he wanted someone to work more hours than I wanted to work. He asked me a to send a resume and some writing samples. On Wednesday, five days after I contacted him, he’d hired me. My first job is to work on report about coastal conditions for the EPA website. I’m editing a chapter on the Great Lakes.

It was a surprise to find work so soon and it was pretty stressful at first because it’s been a really, really long time since I’ve worked for anyone not related to me and that felt intimidating, even though Mike’s a very nice person. Also, office work involves learning a lot more computerized systems than it did in the mid-nineties (when I last worked somewhere other than a two-person family business or academia). It actually surprised me how complicated it seemed to figure out how to navigate an unfamiliar email and calendar system, find shared files, record my hours, etc. I started to wonder if I was too old to learn how to work in a modern environment. A week in, it’s getting better, though I do still have moments of panic and time management is a challenge. As a result of starting during a production rush for this EPA report, I’ve had to delay working on some projects Sara does have for me, which I regret a little. But once I learn how to balance the two jobs, this combination could just the thing, since I was hoping to be working more hours next fall when Noah’s at college. It just came earlier than I anticipated.

A New Age

So back in the realm of things I did expect, I turned fifty-two on Saturday. That morning I was in the dining room with Beth when North walked in and said, “It’s the fifty two year olds.”

“We’re the B-52s,” I said, “Because we be fifty-two.”

But North had never heard of the B-52s and Beth was engrossed in her phone and not paying attention, so the joke fell flat.

Despite this inauspicious beginning, it was a nice birthday. I spent a lot of time reading the weekend sections of the Post and there was a little street festival going on about fifteen minutes from our house so Beth and I headed down there in the early afternoon and had a lunch of bean and cheese pupusas, plantain chips, and agua fresca. (Mine was cucumber-lime. Beth got mixed fruit.) While we ate it we listened to a band play and watched a juggler. The kids had stayed at home, so it was a little like a date.

That evening we went out to a Thai/Japanese restaurant and then came home for cake and ice cream and presents. The cake was chocolate with peanut butter frosting, which is what I asked for and what Beth delivered. Though I am the family’s main cook, she’s the main birthday cake baker. It was delicious, as always. The frosting was just like the inside of a Reese’s peanut butter egg.

My presents included a new reusable tote with a Japanese print on it (I am always losing them and needing more), a big pot for growing herbs, a gift certificate to the hardware store to get more pots, but not “more pot,” which is what the kids insist I said. They aren’t selling marijuana at ACE, at least not yet. Noah said “they’d totally sell it at the farmers’ market” if it were legal. Before my actual birthday I’d already received a check and some charitable donations in my name (to the Arbor Day Foundation and RAICES) from various relatives. Thanks, everyone!

Mother’s Day

The next day was Mother’s Day. There were more presents in the morning. Beth got a new phone case and a bottle of raspberry syrup she likes to use in summer drinks. I got gift certificates for Starbucks and Takoma Beverage Company and the promise of a new Guatemalan cloth coin purse.

North wanted to spend part of the day with each of us, so they went grocery shopping with Beth, and then to the pool and the library with me. (These are Beth’s and my normal Sunday errands.) I was glad to get North in the pool so they could exercise their injured leg. We’ve been trying to get them to rely less on the crutches, but they still have pain, so it’s been difficult.

Beth drove us to the pool and then drove home and then drove back to the pool when I called to tell her both North and I had forgotten to pack our bathing suits (well, North had half of theirs). And then when we were finished at the pool and library, she picked us up and took us to Kung Fu Tea, where we had a little Mother’s Day tea, though not the kind with fancy china. (I’ll note here Beth doesn’t even like tea so she abstained.)

Finally, North wanted to make this Mother’s Day video with us to post on Instagram:

Then Beth posted it to Facebook and said, “North has magical powers to get me to do things outside my comfort zone. Nevertheless I am glad to be their mom.” I feel about the same.  

It was hard to decide what to do about dinner because Sunday is Beth’s night to cook and that didn’t seem right on Mother’s Day, so we got Italian takeout, but she paid for it and drove to go pick it up and I did the dishes so maybe that wasn’t much better than a normal Sunday when she’d cook and I’d do the dishes. Some aspects of Mother’s Day are tricky when both parents are moms. But it’s easier than when the kids were smaller and needier. Plus, the food was good and the leftovers lasted for a few days of lunches for me and a dinner alternative one night when Noah didn’t care for what I’d cooked.

Monday everyone went back to work and school. That afternoon we received some good news in the mail about Noah’s merit aid at Ithaca. We were expecting a small award for his being a National Merit finalist, but it went up by more than we expected, which was a nice surprise.

Fifty-two is off to an interesting start.

That Went Well

There always seems to be a week in fourth quarter when all the things happen. This year it was the week that spanned the end of April and the beginning of May. Noah’s band went to state band festival on Tuesday, North’s school play ran from Wednesday to Friday, Noah’s spring band concert was Thursday, and Noah turned eighteen on Friday.

Tuesday: State Band Festival

In mid-March Noah’s band did well enough at the county-level band festival to advance to state. This wasn’t a surprise as he’s been in a band that went to state most years since he was in sixth grade. The only exceptions were seventh grade when his band didn’t qualify and ninth, when he wasn’t in band, due to schedule conflicts. This record is a testament, in part, to the talented and dedicated band teachers he’s had over the course of his elementary, middle, and high school years. Even though it wasn’t a surprise they went to state, I was pleased because these competitions mean a lot to Noah. At state this year, the Blair Wind Ensemble earned all superiors. They were judged the best high school band in the county and one of the five best in the state.

Thursday: Spring Jazz and Band Concert

Just two days later it was time for the spring concert. North had to miss it because they were acting in the play and that was sad because it was Noah’s last high school band concert. I am not going to say it was his last concert because I hope he continues with percussion in college. For nine years, it’s given him a much needed artistic outlet.

There are five bands in Noah’s high school so the concerts tend to be on the long side—three hours isn’t unusual. They are also very good, so the length is fine if you’re expecting it and you’re not worried about how much homework your kid has to do when he gets home. We were expecting it and arranged for another actor’s mom to drive North home from the play. And I wasn’t worried about Noah’s homework, because he didn’t have any that night. So we settled in.

The Jazz Combo and Jazz Ensemble go first and second. Among their numbers were standards like “All of Me,” and “Girl From Ipanema.” The female vocalist sang a Dinah Washington song I’d never heard of but liked, called “Relax Max” and the male vocalist sang, “Crazy Little Thing Called Love” which works surprisingly well as a jazz piece, though I don’t tend to think of Freddy Mercury as a jazz musician.

Concert Band was next. This band consists mostly of ninth graders. It’s the only non-audition band of the five. They played a song written to commemorate a mining disaster (these band pieces often have morbid back stories), “Arabian Dances,” which sounded familiar so I imagine Noah’s played it at a concert at some point, and “Eye of the Tiger,” which is a perennial band concert favorite, for reasons I don’t understand at all. I know Noah played part of it at least once at band camp during an 80s medley and I’m pretty that wasn’t the only time. I mean, I don’t have anything against it and there’s definitely some nostalgia for the parents, but still, it’s puzzling.

I guess it’s a sign your kid has been in band a long time when you recognize at least one piece all the bands are playing. For Symphonic Band (the intermediate band) it was “The Heart of Madness,” which was inspired by three stories by Edgar Allan Poe. At one point, you can hear the tell-tale heart beating away. Noah played that at band camp one year. He might have even played the heart part.

The Wind Ensemble played last. As usual, Noah was busy running back and forth between the different instrument stations. He played snare, marimba, xylophone, and triangle. The marimba and xylophone were positioned off the side of the stage instead of the back, so we actually got to see him playing, which was a treat. On the marimba, he used four sticks at once. I’ve seen him do that at home on his bells, but never on stage. It’s an impressive sight. The Wind Ensemble played three songs. The last one, “First Suite in E-flat for Military Band,” had three movements and apparently it’s very difficult. The judges at festival praised the band teacher for being “brave enough” to try it.

Before each band’s last piece, the director called the seniors to the front of the stage and read a paragraph the students had written about their experience in band and in which they announce where they are going to college. I’ve always liked this part of the spring concert. I thought I’d cry when the band teacher read Noah’s blurb, but I managed to keep it together. Noah was the only senior going to Ithaca, but between the band concert and the orchestra concert Beth and Noah attended on Tuesday there were at least a couple each going to RIT and UMBC.

After the concert was over, as we walked to the car, Noah said “I think that went well,” which for him qualifies as exuberance. He still has one more band performance—he’s playing at his own graduation—but I couldn’t help thinking he was right, that it’s gone very well, all of it.

Friday: A Midsummer Night’s Midterm

Friday we finally got to see the play, on closing night. Rehearsals for the play started in January or February. Both Beth and I had been a little concerned because there weren’t as many as we’d come to expect from last year’s school play, especially at the beginning, and North kept mentioning that people didn’t know their lines alarmingly close to opening night. From what I could tell the director was pretty laid back compared to most directors North’s had, either at drama camp, school, or Highwood.

We needn’t have worried. It was a fun play and a really good performance. It’s about a group of students studying for a test on Midsummer Night’s Dream and it consists of scenes from that play, interspersed with dialogue from the students, who offer explanations of what’s going on as well as commentary. Noah said he didn’t think the frame narrative offered much, but I think it’s probably very helpful for middle school audiences unfamiliar with the play, and it added humor, too, especially when the Shakespearean characters responded to the students.

There were two dozen kids acting in the play and everyone did a good job. The kids playing the four lovers delivered their long Shakespearean speeches with feeling and without stumbling over their lines. Puck and Oberon were endearingly mischievous. Hippolyta was a majestic Amazon queen. The kid who played the wall in the Pyramus and Thisbe skit (the play-within-the-play-within-the-play) was a ham in the best way. North was another one of the players performing at Theseus and Hippolyta’s wedding. The director had asked them if they wanted a male or female part and North said either, so he gave them Flute/Thisbe, a man playing a woman. It was in the Thisbe half of the role North really shone, speaking all their lines in a warbling falsetto and dying with great aplomb. (A good death scene is always fun.)

After the play it took a while to get out of the school because the actors took a cast photo and then they all had to hug each other and it takes a long time for twenty-four kids to hug each other. (Does figuring out how many hugs that comes to sound like an elementary school math problem?)

We stopped at the grocery store on the way home for ice cream because it was Noah’s birthday. Yes, he did spend the evening of his eighteenth birthday attending his sibling’s play, after a pizza dinner at Mod with me and Beth, while North was at school getting ready for the play. (We also had fettucine alfredo for dinner the night before his birthday and went out for Italian the night after. Noah’s birthdays tend to involve a lot of pizza and/or pasta.)

At home, he opened presents. The big one (a zoom lens for his camera) he’d opened early because he thought he knew what it was and he wanted Beth to use it to take photos at his band concert. But he still had a few to open— a raspberry pi (https://www.raspberrypi.org), a USB controller, a bag of sea salt caramels, two books, and two t-shirts, one from Ithaca and one from Takoma, so he remembers where he’s going and where he came from. It’s a bittersweet moment as he’s balanced between these two places, but I didn’t dwell too much on it, at least not that night. It was late in the evening, after all, and we had cake to eat.

Teenagers, Part 2

As of Saturday, I’m now the mother of two teenagers. This wasn’t exactly a surprise. I knew it was coming. Here’s how it all went down.

The Week Before

North remembered that the week before Noah’s last birthday, I made him pasta for dinner every night for four nights in a row, so they wanted to menu plan dinners from Monday to Thursday the week before their birthday. That’s why we had a vegetarian pot pie topped with tater tots for dinner on Monday, mac and cheese from a box with broccoli on Tuesday, cheese fries with broccoli on Wednesday, and bean and cheese tacos on Thursday. Basically, we ate a lot of potatoes, broccoli, and cheese. Could be worse, right? Each meal had at least one vegetable and some protein. (This was the nutritional baseline I set for them.) North helped cook most nights and Wednesday made dinner entirely on their own. On Friday we went out for pizza. This was supposed to be a get-together with a couple of their elementary school friends, but, sadly, neither of the girls North invited was free that night.

The Big Day

Saturday morning, I made cheese grits for North’s breakfast, another culinary request. Before I even got out of bed, I knew Noah had gotten into Boston University because it was the day you could check the portal and Beth did. We didn’t say anything to him, though, so he could discover it on his own. BU was the last school on his list to notify him and he got into every school where he applied. Later in the day he wondered if that meant he should have aimed higher, but I think he has a good group of schools to consider. Plus given the trouble he’s having deciding—it’s a three-way tie and he only applied to four schools—it might be a good thing he didn’t apply to more. (The official letter pictured arrived a few days later.)

At breakfast North opened presents: summer clothes and pajamas, a card from Noah that said he’d purchased Dr. Who series 11 so they could watch it together, a necklace, and a wallet with spending money for Colombia in it.

Late in the morning, Beth, North, and I headed out to Silver Spring to have an early lunch at Mod Pizza and to get their ears pierced. The manager at Mod apparently had recently had his own leg injury and in solidarity, offered North a free milkshake. And he didn’t even know it was their birthday.

From there we proceeded to the tattoo and piercing shop. Beth and North had been there ahead of time and North mentioned being a little unnerved by all the devil artwork on the walls (paintings, not sample tattoos). And it’s true there was a painting of the Hindu goddess Kali, holding a severed head over a blood-filled basin right near the display case of jewelry. But devils aside, the space was clean, well-lit, and professional looking. Beth filled out the paperwork and North picked out three studs in two different sizes. They were getting a double piercing in one earlobe and single in the other.

We accompanied North into the piercing room. The man who did it had a reassuring manner. He explained everything very thoroughly and took care to make sure the piercings were exactly where North wanted them. Overall it was a good experience and they are already planning to go back there when and if we let them get a helix and/or industrial piercing (and to get a tattoo when they’re eighteen and we no longer have any say in it). We had celebratory drinks at Starbucks—North complained on the way there that the wind hurt their ears—and then headed home.

North had guests arriving soon, but there was time for one for item on their turning thirteen checklist before they were due, so Beth helped North set up an Instagram account. (They waited a few more days to get a Facebook account and the main purpose of that one is so they can keep tabs on Beth and me.) They followed their preschool on Instagram and a result now some teachers and classmates are following them. I think it’s like the early teen version of when adults get onto Facebook and suddenly find a bunch of high school classmates they haven’t been in touch with for years.

Zoë and Cam arrived in the late afternoon and the three kids hung around eating candy from goody bags (North had reluctantly concluded thirteen was too old for a piñata but they still wanted the candy) and then they had root beer floats and North opened presents—rainbow striped socks and a rainbow cat necklace.

A little later we went out for hibachi. I’ve never done this before so it was interesting to watch the chef cook theatrically on the grill in front of us. Beth, Noah, and I ordered off the menu because of concerns about eating vegetables or noodles that were on the same grill as meat, but North ate noodles from the grill and didn’t get sick. And now that I’ve seen how it’s done—noodles and veggies first and meat and seafood last and the grill cleaned, actually sterilized with fire, in between groups of diners—I might not worry next time.

Noah got on a bus and went home after dinner, but the middle schoolers and Beth and I went to see Five Feet Apart. It’s about two teenagers with cystic fibrosis who fall in love in the hospital, sort of like Fault in Our Stars but with a different disease. It was North’s first PG-13 movie in a theater and they loved it so much they want to buy it and “watch it over and over” when it’s available, so that was a success.

At this point I left to catch a bus home while the rest of the party proceeded to Dave and Busters to play arcade games for a little while to kill time until it was time to go to Highwood Theater. North’s friend Sadhbh was acting in Titanic that night and was coming to our house for the sleepover portion of the festivities after the show. (North’s original plan for the evening was to go to the play with their guests, but it sold out.) The reason I was taking the bus home was that there wasn’t enough room in the car for everyone, but I just missed one and had to wait forty minutes for the next one so I got home just barely ahead of everyone else.

We got the kids set up in the living room in their sleeping bags and we went to bed. They were pretty quiet and I didn’t hear anything from them after 11:30, although North said they were up about an hour past that. Sadhbh’s fourteenth birthday was the day after North’s so North wanted to stay up so everyone could sing “Happy Birthday” at midnight. It must have been during this time that Sadhbh gave North a giant stuffed Peep and North gave Sadhbh stuffed dolls from a video game that they play.

In the morning, we served everyone bagels (with candles for the two birthday kids), strawberries, and watermelon and everyone was gone by ten a.m. Sadhbh had another show in the afternoon was off to a late morning call time.

The Week After

So North’s been thirteen almost a week now. The week after their birthday was busy, as most of their weeks are. They went to physical therapy Monday, sang at a chorus festival Tuesday, attended a school play rehearsal on Wednesday, and a Rainbow Alliance meeting on Thursday. Tomorrow morning they’re going to the orthopedist and in the afternoon they’ll be back in the physical therapist’s office. The sprained ligaments in leg they broke back in February have been slow to heal and we’re all hoping they improve in the next week or so they can keep up with their classmates during the school trip to Colombia.

After many months of parent meetings and fundraising, the seventh and eighth grade Spanish immersion students will be leaving for their trip in just over a week. It seems like a fitting adventure to usher in North’s teen years because this kid has always wanted to go places. And the very day we drop them off at the airport, we’ll be hitting the road for Rochester, to attend an Admitted Students weekend, which should help Noah eventually decide whether that’s the place he’ll be going.

Teenagers, Part 1

Teenagers, kick our butts. Tell us what the future will bring.

From “Teenagers, Kick Our Butts,” by Dar Williams

Sometime in late February, North presented us with a list of things they wanted to do for their thirteenth birthday. Get an ear pierced and see a PG-13 movie were on the list. (They’ve only seen one, School of Rock, that we let them watch in sixth grade because they were acting in the play.) They also wanted to go out for hot pot, because about a year ago Beth, Noah, and I went without them and they’d wanted to try it ever since then.

While most of the festivities will take place closer to their birthday, the date for hot pot was Saturday, two weeks before their birthday. The reason was that North was giving a TEDx talk that day, and a friend from Peter and the Starcatcher was coming to watch it and they thought it would be fun to have Cam come over afterward and then go to dinner with us.

TEDx talks are locally organized events, loosely affiliated with official TED talks. This one was for young people (middle school to college-aged) from Takoma Park. North, at not quite thirteen, was the youngest speaker and the oldest was nineteen. North’s been writing, editing, and practicing this speech, with coaching at occasional Saturday meetings at the community center, since last spring.

We arrived at the auditorium and took our seats. North was up first. Their topic was assumptions, different situations in which people might make false assumptions about each other and the importance of asking questions instead of assuming. Of course, gender was their central example because people generally assume boy or girl when they meet North. (The exact ratio seems to vary with their hair length. They got it cut about a week and a half ago and I recently heard someone call them “he” for the first time in a while.) As I watched North and then the other speakers, I thought about how hard public speaking can be, and how North makes it look easy.

After North, there were three more speakers: a high school sophomore who spoke about immigrating from Ghana and made an argument for pro-immigration policies, a senior who advocated for more student-focused pedagogy in schools, and a college student who spoke about finding one’s purpose and succeeding in school. There was also a breakdancer and a couple of singers, one of whom sang “Can’t Help Falling in Love,” while accompanying herself on the ukulele, which is apparently a thing kids do now. The kids’ presentations were interspersed with videos of two adults and one kid (Greta Thunberg, the Swedish girl who’s on a school strike for climate change) giving their own TED and TEDx talks. The MCs read poetry about gun violence and climate change before the talks on those topics. It was kind of a hodgepodge, but the point was to showcase what’s on the mind of Takoma youth, so it was probably a good representation of that. And hearing teenagers speak out always gives me hope. After all, it shows us what the future will bring.

Shortly before the event, Representative Jamie Raskin met with the speakers and MCs backstage, a fact we might never have found out if he hadn’t tweeted a picture of himself with them because North didn’t think meeting a Congressman was worth mentioning. It can be hard to impress kids who live near D.C. sometimes.

Cam had an appointment and couldn’t come straight home with us, but came over later in the afternoon and joined us for hot pot and frozen yogurt. There was a lot of giggling coming from North’s room while they were in there and the two of us them were singing Billie Eilish songs all the way to the restaurant, which is about a half hour away. North was happy to finally experience cooking their own noodles and veggies on burners set into the tables and grabbing ingredients from the conveyor belt that runs between the tables.

I managed to get my taro cooked all the way through this time and tried quail eggs, which I’ve never had before. (They taste pretty much like chicken eggs, but tiny.) It was a fun outing, but it’s just the beginning of the celebration. North is fond of birthdays and thirteen is a big one. Here’s a little advice for my almost-teen. I gave Noah the same advice, from Dar Williams’ song, on his thirteenth birthday. It still holds.

Find your voice, do what it takes 
Make sure you make lots of mistakes 
And find the future that redeems 
Give us hell, give us dreams 
And grow and grow and grow

Orange You Glad?

The new year is almost two weeks old. On the first day of 2019, Beth and I went for a hike at North Point State Park. We invited the kids, but they both declined. (They’d both been up to see in the new year and we had not, having left the neighbors’ New Year’s Eve party early in favor of a regular night’s sleep.) There was an organized First Day hike at the park, but high winds felled a big tree, which caused the rangers to re-route the hike off the trails, and along the park road and down a pier into the Chesapeake Bay. The rangers had said it wasn’t actually forbidden to walk the trails and it didn’t seem that windy, so we rambled in the woods a bit and then went home. That night I made a pot of black-eyed peas for good luck, but I ended up burning it. I salvaged just enough so everyone could have a scoop on brown rice with smoked cheddar on top and vegetarian sausage on the side. Still, I had to wonder if the fallen tree and burned peas were some kind of bad omen. 

It certainly could have been, if Beth or I were federal workers, but luckily our livelihood doesn’t depend on the President’s tantrums. My friends who work at the Department of Justice and the Smithsonian aren’t so fortunate. Even though I had work, I was out of sorts, a bit of post-holiday letdown, I guess. (Even the swearing-in of the new Democratic majority in the House didn’t help much.) I’m in the habit of taking a short walk every weekday I don’t have some other errand getting me out of the house and I’ve noticed since I started doing this a little over a year ago, it improves my mood, so I decided longer walks were in order. I tried to get off sidewalks and onto the muddy paths by the creek at least a couple times a week and I found even a half hour walk in the gray and brown winter woods can be restorative. Truth be told, though, the chocolate chip cookies I made one evening were even more cheering, if less healthful.

Our wedding anniversary was Friday. It’s been twenty-seven years since we committed ourselves to each other in the living room of our D.C. apartment, in front of friends and family, and six years since we made it legal in the living room of our Takoma Park house, in front of the kids and an officiant. 

Every year I make the same spice cake we had as a wedding cake on both those days. The first time around, it had white frosting with little purple frosting violets, but I’m not much of a cake decorator, so ever since then I’ve made a lemon glaze for it. But this year, I switched to orange, because my gifts to Beth had an orange theme. I wasn’t originally planning this. I got her a bottle of orange-olive oil that caught my eye in a catalog and then I saw a bar of orange-infused dark chocolate at the co-op and that was when I knew I had to go all the way, so I found an orange, pink, and white striped gift bag and a card with a still life that I think included an orange—it’s an orange fruit anyway, so I’m calling it an orange—and put it in an orange envelope. This is what I wrote on the card:

Knock, knock
Who’s there?
Orange
Orange who?
Orange you glad you married me?

North was unimpressed with my reasons for switching to the orange glaze from the traditional lemon one. “How could you?” they asked, right before I made it, and then demanded, “Does Beth know about this? It’s her anniversary, too.” We are all a little set in our ways sometimes and I am certainly no exception, so I can’t blame them. Anyway, I finished the cake with orange sprinkles. It was pretty. I should have taken a picture for you, but I forgot.

I ordered pizza and hoped it would arrive around the same time as Beth, but it was a half hour late. When it finally came we ate and then exchanged gifts. Beth got me a pair of rain boots, which I very much needed, as my old ones were in bad shape, with multiple cracks in the rubber around the ankles. 

After dinner, we ate cake in front of the television, watching the second episode of the new season of Series of Unfortunate Events. We probably could have watched two before North’s bedtime, but this is the last season, so we are trying to savor it.

A snowstorm was predicted to start late Saturday afternoon and it arrived on schedule. When the snow started, I stood at the window and watched it a long time, trying to see the beauty in it, because my bad attitude about snow doesn’t do anyone any good. It even worked, at least a little. It’s undeniably pretty.

We woke to six inches of snow and it kept falling on and off throughout the day today. There was a cascade of cancelled events, including a dinner party friends of ours were throwing Saturday night and church the next morning. The pool and the library (my normal Sunday afternoon destinations) were closed. North was supposed to have a meeting at the theater about a talent show they’re directing (they won this opportunity in an auction) that was also rescheduled.

When I got up this morning and couldn’t find the newspaper, which was never delivered, I gave up on the day having any semblance of normalcy and I decided to forget about breakfast for a while and went back to bed with The Call of the Wild, which North’s reading for school, and read the last four chapters. Later in the day when North asked what I’m glad about, I could say, in all honesty, that I’m glad I’m not a sled dog in the Yukon.

By this morning, eight surrounding counties had already cancelled school for tomorrow, but there’s no word yet from our county. I am trying to resign myself to a closure so if the kids go to school on time, or with a two-hour delay, it will be a pleasant surprise and if school’s cancelled I will greet this news with equanimity. I’ll let you know how that goes. It wouldn’t be a bad day for Noah to miss school, actually. He had a ton of homework this weekend, including but not limited to two oral presentations, and a chapter in his logic book with questions, and he’s working on an scholarship application for Ithaca that requires two five-hundred word essays. It seems unlikely he will finish all that today. So I know he’d be glad of an extra day.

And I’m glad of a lot of things other than not being a sled dog: that I married Beth and we have two great kids chief among them, but I’ll also be glad when Noah walks to the high school bus stop and the middle school bus pulls up to our curb, whether that’s tomorrow, Tuesday, or sometime after that. 

From Twelve to Fifty-Two

At the trans kids’ parents’ support group on the Tuesday before Thanksgiving people were talking about holiday plans and extended family who were less than supportive of their kids. When asked, Beth and I reported that we were spending Thanksgiving at the beach, just the four of us (and Christmas with an accepting grandmother). Some people were a little jealous. We’ve spent four of the past five Thanksgivings in Rehoboth. It’s a nice tradition that certainly inspires thankfulness.

Thanksgiving

I was out the door of the rental house headed for the beach around 3:30, about an hour after we’d arrived. (I was disciplined enough to unpack, get food in the fridge, and make our bed first.) I promised to return between 4:30 and 5:00 to help put the finishing touches on the dinner we—well, mostly Beth—had made at home the day before and transported with us.

I swung by Café a-Go-Go for a café con leche before I hit the beach. It was cold, 31 degrees. But my coffee was warm and the late afternoon sun was turning the dry beach grass gold, the sea silver, and the clouds and sea foam faintly rosy.

After a short stay on the beach, I headed back to the house to trim and roast Brussels sprouts and to heat up the brandied sweet potatoes. Beth had everything else under control and after we’d made our traditional centerpieces (turkeys made from apples with feathers consisting of raisins and dried cranberries stuck on toothpicks and olives for heads), we sat down to feast on the aforementioned vegetables, plus a tofurkey roast, stuffing, mashed potatoes with mushroom gravy, cranberry sauce, and rolls. Later we ate pumpkin and apple pie and watched an episode of Blackish.

Beth’s Birthday & Black Friday

Beth turned fifty-two the next day and we brought her presents while she was still in bed. The kids got her toffee and a chocolate coffeecake. I got her gift certificates from AFI and the promise of a dessert date. We ate the coffee cake with breakfast before North and I headed out to Christmas shop.  People always assume we’re headed for the outlets when we say we’re Christmas shopping in Rehoboth and while we do sometimes visit them, we mostly stick to the downtown shops. The bookstore and the tea and spice shop are favorites of ours.

Actually, for me it was more watching North shop than doing any of my own. They were a shopping whirlwind, getting all of their shopping done in one day, most of it that morning. Our last stop was the bakery for Beth’s birthday cake, which I’d pre-ordered. It was a chocolate cake with coffee frosting, which is what I usually make for Beth’s birthday but since I wasn’t going to be the one decorating, I thought it I should have the bakers do something beyond my capabilities—so I asked for a playing card made out of frosting, specifically the Queen of Hearts. Can you guess why? It was because there are fifty-two cards in a deck and she’s the queen of my heart. (North had known about this plan for a few weeks and they were quite taken with it.) It was a long hike out to the bakery, which is up near Route 1, and then back to the house so I was glad to have North with me to wear the backpack full of gifts while I carried the cake box. We even managed not to slip and fall on the ice-slicked sidewalk near the canal.

We had Thanksgiving leftovers for lunch, followed by birthday cake and ice cream. Then Noah, who’d been at the house that morning doing Logic homework, came shopping with me and North. After that, I took a solo walk on the beach and saw a ragged V of geese flying south before going back to the house to collect everyone and walk back to the beach for our Christmas card photo shoot. Beth used Noah’s camera to take pictures of the kids standing on a jetty and some of them jumping or doing cartwheels (that was just North) on the sand.

From the beach we walked to Grotto, where we had pizza, and then to the bandstand for the holiday singalong and tree lighting. It was still pretty cold, probably near freezing, so a half hour seemed about right for this activity. Beth had a hot chocolate in a thermos she’d procured earlier from Starbucks for her free birthday drink. She was pleased it had stayed warm. The kids tried to get hot chocolate at a nearby coffeeshop but the line was crazy so they gave up.

The singalong started with “It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas” and then proceeded through the usual selection of secular Christmas songs, plus “Let it Go,” (which we all agree is not a Christmas song). While we were singing “The Christmas Song,” when it got to “kids from one to ninety-two, I nudged North and sang, “kids from twelve to fifty-two” instead, because that’s us and it’s the last year it will ever scan because it’s North’s last year with a one syllable age.

We walked home via the boardwalk. The moon was either full or close to it and it made a gorgeous white column on the black water. Back at the house, we warmed up with leftover pumpkin pie (and cake) and inaugurated our Christmas special viewing with A Charlie Brown Christmas and How the Grinch Stole Christmas because those are Beth’s favorites.

It was a nice day, with the tail end of Thanksgiving, the beginning of the Christmas season, and Beth’s birthday all rolled up into one. Beth says she likes it best when her birthday falls on the day after Thanksgiving. (It’s usually before.)

Saturday

The next day wasn’t quite as busy. I knew it was going to rain in the afternoon so after breakfast at Victoria’s (a boardwalk hotel restaurant), I got in some more shopping, and then settled myself on the sand with an apple-carrot-beet juice to drink while I watched the choppy, gray waves. It was much warmer than the previous two days, in the fifties, so it was pleasant to sit still and just be.

North and I met up for lunch at the Greene Turtle, which I patronize mainly for the view. It’s on the boardwalk, one story up, and we got a corner table, surrounded by floor-to-ceiling window on two sides, so I could watch the panorama of boardwalk, beach, and ocean while I ate my apple-pecan salad and split an order of mozzarella sticks with North. Afterward we took a walk on the boardwalk and beach and I took them to a juice bar for an açai bowl. While there I realized I didn’t have my debit card and North exclaimed, “Again?” because I’d just finished telling them a story about how I’d lost one at the Greene Turtle years ago. So I gave North some cash and went back the restaurant in hopes of retrieving it. And luckily, they had it and they didn’t even make me feel like an idiot, saying cheerfully they had a pile of them in the office as people left them on the tables every day. By the time I left the restaurant the second time, the rain had started, only sprinkles, but it was supposed to get heavy so I headed back to the house.

We spent a cozy afternoon variously playing Connect-4, reading King Lear and Six of Crows and the New Yorker, and working on college applications. Noah sent off his Ithaca application and started his Boston University one. By dinnertime it was pouring rain and windy, but Beth and North braved the elements to pick up takeout from Grandpa Mac’s. We ate our pasta bowls in front of the television, watching Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.

Sunday

In the morning we packed and had breakfast at Egg (where for some reason I was the only one to order their scrumptious pumpkin-pecan French toast) and came back and packed some more, and left the house. Noah helped clean out the fridge by eating ice cream, garlic bread, cranberry sauce, and drinking milk and eggnog. It’s handy sometimes having a teenage boy.

The kids headed for a hotel lounge where they could squat and watch Dr. Who on a laptop while Beth and I went to sit on a bench on the boardwalk and enjoy a lovely sunny day. Beth read while I wrote most of this blog post by hand in a composition book because I am cutting edge like that.

Being slightly more up-to-date than me, North had been vlogging our trip all weekend, constantly recording themselves narrating what they were doing. I find it a little odd, but who I am to talk, really?

After I finished writing I took a short walk on the beach and then we all met up on the boardwalk having acquired fries, pizza, and a smoothie for a makeshift lunch. (I also fetched cheese, fruit, and water from the nearby car.) After a trip to Candy Kitchen, the kids and I went down to the water and got our feet wet. They accomplished this by wading barefoot into the water. I was wearing rainboots but I might as well not have been because the very first wave went over the tops and soaked my feet. As I removed the boots, turned them upside down, and peeled my sodden socks off my feet, I regarded the holes in them and decided to just throw them in a trashcan on the boardwalk.

As we drove home, I wondered how often they empty those trashcans off season and how long that little part of me will still be there, near the sea and the sand.

I Wish

Cinderella:

I wish
More than anything
More than life
More than jewels

Jack:

I wish
More than life

Baker and His Wife:

I wish
More than anything
More than the moon

From “Prologue,” Into the Woods, Stephen Sondheim

We’re just over a month into summer break and each week has had a different configuration of family members in different places. Last week (the fourth week) North was still at drama camp in the daytime working on a production of Into the Woods and either home or at My Fair Lady rehearsals in the evenings, and Noah was at a sleep-away camp for the first time ever.

It was a Java programming camp at George Washington University, where I used to teach. In fact, it was at the small satellite campus where I taught my last four years there. It’s close enough to home that he could have commuted (there were both day camp and residential options), but I remember it being at least an hour and a half each way on public transportation—though he wouldn’t have needed to stop at the University day care at the main campus to pick himself up, so I guess that would have shaved some time off the trip. Anyway, the sleep-away aspect was actually what we were looking for because other than a five-day field trip to New York in eighth grade, Noah’s never been away from home out of the care of relatives and it seemed like a good idea to do it for at least a week some time before he leaves for college.

The camp turned out to be less than ideal in some ways. It wasn’t challenging enough for him and the campers didn’t have much freedom to wander around either campus by themselves, so it might not have fostered as much independence as we would have liked, but still, he was away from home in the company of strangers and that was one of the principal goals. And he did design a game, which I played at least a half dozen times Monday night. You have to navigate a man through a set of openings in obstacles. I don’t know how many levels there are but when he was demonstrating it for me, he got up to level 22. I don’t think I’ve ever gotten past 10 and the one that trips me up most often is 8, because the opening is all the way over to the right side of the screen and I can’t get the avatar over there fast enough.

As for North, I didn’t anticipate how tiring it would be to rehearse six to nine hours a day, depending on whether they had to go to the theater after camp. I know that sounds ridiculous when I write it out that way, but I thought it would be equivalent to being at school all day and then having a three-hour rehearsal, which they often did in sixth grade. The difference was drama camp is more physically active than school. And My Fair Ladyis a dance-intensive show, so it made for some pretty long and exhausting days.

That might be why when on Wednesday evening as North and I were eating dinner and Dire Straits’ “Money For Nothing” came on, North had more objections to the “money for nothing” part of the equation than the “chicks for free” part, because “Writing and performing songs isn’t nothing! It’s hard work!” Still, I felt the need to have a little discussion with them about the difference between the speaker of the song and the songwriter.

Friday was the Into the Woods performance. Unfortunately, the kids at Noah’s camp were also giving presentations on the projects they’d been working on at the same time. I considered going to the dress rehearsal for Into the Woodsand then taking a Lyft to Noah’s presentation. It might have worked if everything had gone just right, but when I asked North they said they’d rather I come to the real performance…so Beth and I split up, with me at the play and Beth at the computer camp presentation. I was sad about it, but there was no good solution.

The night before the performance, Beth taught me how to set up Noah’s tripod and use his camera so I could film the performance for Beth and Noah. This responsibility was somewhat nerve-wracking as I am the least tech-savvy person in the family. (Disclosure: I don’t even post this blog myself. Beth does it for me.)

But I needn’t have worried. I remembered my lessons and though it took me awhile to position the camera and tripod so the whole stage was in the frame (I ended up moving two rows back from my original seat) I managed to film the show. The narrator who stands off to the side of the stage is rarely visible, but otherwise, you can see everyone.

What to say about the show? It gets more ambitious every year. When North was five it was just a revue of several songs from The Sound of Music with a puppet show for the song about the lonely goatherd. Eventually—I can’t say exactly when, maybe it was just last year when they did Beauty and the Beast—it started to feel more like going to a scaled-down version of a play instead of a selection of scenes from a play. Their version of Into the Woods was an hour and fifteen minutes long. If you’re familiar with this show, you know the singing is almost non-stop and very challenging. It’s been so rewarding to see the kids, many of whom have been in musical theater camp with Gretchen since they were small, grow as singers and actors. The age range of the camp keeps shifting upwards as the kids get older. This year the kids were ten to fifteen.

Some years there’s one actor who really steals the show, but performances were strong across the board this year. Maggie made a very menacing wolf, Grace was a spunky Little Red, Lottie and Anna shared the role of the witch (who changes appearance in the middle of the play) and both actresses skillfully portrayed her villainy but also the very human pain and neediness underneath it. The princes were appropriately smarmy and I could keep citing performances but I’ll just say again that everyone really shone. And the singing was great. Some of those kids I’ve always known were talented singers, but I heard powerful singing from others that hadn’t sung as much in previous productions.

In my unbiased opinion, North did a wonderful job playing Jack, both in his comic and earnest moments. They had good chemistry with Little Red in their bickering scenes and their singing was lovely, as always.

Here’s their big solo, “Giants in the Sky.”

And here’s “Your Fault,” which is a good example of multiple actors singing rapidly interwoven lyrics, which is common in the show. North’s in this song, too.

There was a cast party at Roscoe’s that evening, and after we’d finished our pizza and gelato, a gang of the actors left the adults at the restaurant and went next door to get their fortunes told by a psychic, then wandered down the block to a nearby playground. We eventually followed them there. Seeing them draped over various pieces of playground equipment, looking like overgrown children, I thought back to Lottie’s tender delivery of the witch’s plea to Rapunzel to “stay a child while you can still be a child.” Some of them are still children, some are poised on the brink of adolescence, and others are in its early years, but to hear this girl, a rising ninth-grader, sing those lines was poignant, almost heart-breaking. They can’t stay children and I wouldn’t really want them to, but still…

Time marches on and if we needed any reminder of that, it was the thirty-first anniversary of Beth’s and my first date on Sunday. We did most of our celebrating Saturday. We went to see Three Identical Strangers (which I recommend) and enjoyed a delicious dinner at City Lights of China in Bethesda. On Sunday all four of us went blueberry and blackberry picking but before that, right after breakfast, we exchanged small gifts—Beth got me two kinds of tea from the tea shop in Rehoboth (mint and peach-turmeric) and I got her a gift certificate to ACE hardware, which I know doesn’t sound very romantic, but she’d just said it makes her happy just to walk in there, so it seemed appropriate.

In the summer of 1987 when we were twenty and tentatively flirting with each other, Beth wished on a falling star for me to fall in love with her so for our summer anniversary (our wedding anniversary is in the winter) she often tries to find a card with a star or stars on it and this year her card was studded with stars and the text said, “Got My Wish…You.”

Into the Woods starts with each character making a wish—to go to the king’s ball, for a dry cow to give milk again, to have a child, etc. By the end of the first act those wishes have all come true but things start to unravel in the second act, thanks to a rampaging giant. By the end of the show most of the characters’ losses have been at least partially recompensed (orphaned children adopted, widowed or separated characters in a new pairing). It’s a realistic acknowledgement that no-one’s life is one long happily ever after, but human connection is still possible, even after loss. That one wish Beth made all those decades ago did come true, and I’m glad it did. My card said, “Damn, I love you so much,” and I do.

Have Your Cake and Eat it, Too

Thursday: Pre-birthday

“I’ve never been to any part of this hospital other than the emergency room and neurology,” North noted on Thursday morning as we were walking through the corridors of Children’s National Hospital. It was true, we were in a different part of the hospital than the one where we go for the specialist we see about North’s migraines. We had an intake appointment with a doctor, a social worker, and some other staff members in the Gender Development Program. We were there all morning, filling out forms and talking to people. We’re getting into their system now in case we ever need their services. We also signed up to get on the email list for two support groups we may attend, one for trans and non-binary kids and one for their parents. We have a follow-up appointment scheduled for July.

After the appointment was over we dropped North off at school and Beth and I went out for a pre-birthday lunch at Arepas Pues in Silver Spring. It was very good. Beth says she is going to be craving the cilantro sauce that came with the tequeños (fried cheese sticks) because cilantro has that effect on her. Arepas Pues is next to Smoothie King and I remembered I had a frequent buyer card in my wallet I hadn’t used in years because I am not actually a frequent buyer at Smoothie King. But the card was full because I used to be a frequent buyer, back when both kids used to go to drama camp in Silver Spring every spring break and summer and we’d often go get smoothies after camp.

Well, when I tried to redeem the card for a free smoothie, the cashier looked at it like she’d never seen such a thing, then called another employee over, then talked to someone on the phone and the upshot was there was no free smoothie for me. I was mildly annoyed because even though they clearly don’t use these stamp cards any more (they have an app now) the card had no expiration date. It would have been pretty easy to give me a smoothie, but I didn’t make a fuss because I’ve been a young person working retail and I didn’t want to be that customer.

Friday: 51/3 = 17

The next day was my birthday. Fifty-one is kind of an anti-climactic birthday, but it’s pleasing to me that now that Noah is seventeen and I’m fifty-one I’ve been a parent exactly one-third of my life. The day was pretty ordinary, at least until the evening. I sat on the porch and read a short story from this collection as well as the first few pages of Romeo and Juliet because I want to brush up on the play before I see it next weekend (North has a small part as a servant in the Capulet house). Then I finished ghost-writing a blog post on GMOs, exercised, and cleaned the kitchen. I had nice talks with both my sister and my mom on the phone.

When North got home from school I reminded them Beth was going to pick them up in a half hour for an appointment to get their braces off (the first phase is finished now and they have two years’ reprieve before the second phase) and then I left to go to Starbucks to redeem my birthday reward. Here I had better luck and successfully obtained a free iced strawberry-green tea and a couple cake pops.

When I got home North was gone but Noah was home, so we read Wolves of the Calla for almost an hour. We’ve been reading this book since January and we are tantalizingly close to the end, but I knew he’d be studying for AP exams all weekend and it was unlikely we’ll get to it again until next weekend. Then he practiced his bells and drums and Beth and North got back from the orthodontist with no braces and a new retainer and we all piled in the car to go to Highwood Theater.

It was Fine Arts Night, which is part preview for the two shows they have in production (Romeo and Julian and West Side Story) and part open mike night for the kids acting in these or previous Highwood shows. We had to drop North off for rehearsal at 6:30 but the event didn’t start until 8:00, so North while ate at home (a small pizza Beth picked up for them on the way home from the orthodontist), the rest of us had my birthday dinner of wood-fire oven baked pizza with eggplant and mushrooms and Greek salad on the patio of Pacci’s on a near perfect spring evening. We skipped dessert because we were going to have a red velvet-strawberry ice cream cake after the show.

The scenes from Romeo and Julian were the play prologue, the fight scene, and the balcony scene. The play was cast gender-blind and will be performed in modern clothes. Both leads are played by trans boys. I’m looking forward to seeing the whole thing on Friday. The kids in West Side Story did the scene in which Tony is convinced to come to the dance and the scene in which Maria sings, “I Feel Pretty.” Chances are we’ll go to that show, too, although North’s not in it. We pretty much go to all Highwood shows now because North always has friends in them.

Because kids come back to act in this student-based theater season after season, they get to know each other and they’re bonded. During the open mike part of the show, every single kid got thunderous applause from the other kids and many of them were enveloped in huge group hugs after they sang.  That’s what happened to North after they sang their original song “Guess What?” Beth said later it made her happy that North has found their people. Here’s how the song starts:

Guest what?
I’m not like anybody else
And guess what?
Maybe sometimes I mess it up myself
But guess what?
Maybe someday I’m going to be
Something you could never even see

‘Cause it’s not in my light hair
Not in my blue eyes
Not in my fair skin
Not in my freckles
Not in my big feet
Or the way I hold my tongue
But in the way I sing
And have always sung
‘Cause music takes the bad parts out of everything
And somehow kind of picks and chooses for me
And I love it oh so much
When I need it, it’s my crutch
Music’s always there
For me.

The show was diverse with teens singing songs from musicals, an adorable boy of eight or nine singing “Movin’ Right Along,” from The Muppet Movie, a girl about the same age singing “Octopus’s Garden” and accompanying herself on the ukulele, and a band of high school students that focused on classic rock (Pink Floyd, Toto, and Talking Heads). The teenage girl who sang “Hold the Line,” really rocked it.

The show was a lot of fun, but it was also long, about two hours instead of the one hour we were expecting. I was thinking I might rather delay my cake and presents until the next day (as Noah had the week before) rather than rushing through them at the end of a long day. I still wanted to pick up the cake, though, because Cold Stone was right around the corner, and it seemed silly to go make Beth go back to Silver Spring the next day.

Well, Cold Stone is open after ten on a Friday night, but thinking back to my own days as a Baskin Robbins employee one summer in college, I might have realized this isn’t the best time to pick up a cake. The staff was busy and unprepared for what I assumed would be a simple transaction. (I was in the store alone while Beth and the kids waited in the car.) I thought just giving them Beth’s last name would be enough but apparently there were a lot of cakes in the back and they didn’t have names on them. And because I hadn’t ordered the cake I didn’t know what size it was or if she’d ordered lettering. I said it might say, “Happy Birthday, Steph,” thinking that might narrow things down, but there was no such cake. (I later learned it just said “Happy Birthday.”) Employees kept coming to talk to me and wandering off and then new ones would come. Eventually Beth texted me the receipt and I thought that would help but it didn’t. Finally, they just took a cake from the display freezer and wrote “Happy B-day, Steph” on it right there and then and I was free to leave. It was ten-thirty by the time we got home and everyone went to bed, with no cake.

Saturday: Birthday, Belated

We had the cake after lunch the next day, after I organized a campaign to get everyone to finish their lunches by 12:15 (because North had to leave for rehearsal at 12:45). I opened my presents—an umbrella, headphones, a promise to get my Birkenstocks resoled and to buy Stephen King’s new book The Outsider when it comes out later this month. Earlier I’d received a Starbucks card from my mom and a card telling me Beth’s mom had a tree planted in my name in a national forest. I was very happy with the gifts. Beth’s card said “Have Your Cake and Eat It, Too,” which I thought was funny given the trouble we’d had with the cake.

Sunday: Mother’s Day

The next day was Mother’s Day so there were more gifts. Beth got a pink carnation at the supermarket, where they were giving them away to moms. The kids got Beth some treats—a dark chocolate bar and a bag of chocolate wafer cookies. I got another Starbucks card from Noah and a little herb garden in a pot from North. It has oregano, rosemary, sage, thyme, and nasturtiums. It was a thoughtful gift, as I’d been saying I thought I’d focus the garden on herbs and flowers this year because I’m tired of squirrels, rabbits, and deer eating our vegetables and melons. I already had basil, chives, cilantro, and parsley in various stages, so this makes a nice assortment. (And because I can’t stop myself sometimes, I do have some lettuce plants in the ground already and cucumber seeds planted in starter pots. And when North brought kale seeds home from church on Mother’s Day, I planted some of those, too, though I’m saving most of them for a fall crop.)

Monday to Thursday

We’re near the end of a busy week for both kids. Noah took four AP exams—in Biology, Calculus BC, English Language and Composition, and World History. He just took the last one this morning. It’s tech week for Romeo and Julian, which means North has had rehearsal until ten o’clock on Monday, Wednesday, and tonight and then the show runs from Friday to Sunday, three evening shows and two matinees.

North also got to go to a ceremony at school honoring kids who were on the honor roll and/or got straight As third quarter. It was their first time getting straight As so that was exciting. And then they were nominated by their chorus teacher to join the Tri-M Music Honor Society and that was even more exciting. Finally, after an article in the school magazine in which North was interviewed about why separating boys and girls in gym class was problematic for non-binary kids, their gym teacher started having them do their pacer tests all together. North is proud to have made a difference. And we’re proud, too.

Life seems full these days, in a good way. I’m appreciating this more keenly because early spring—from early March to mid-April or so—was a hard, out-of-sorts time for me. Now it’s better. It’s like I have my cake and I’m eating it, too.

Edge of Seventeen

Not His Birthday 

As we walked into Roscoe’s on Friday evening, Beth offered to sing “Happy Birthday” to Noah in the restaurant and he declined adamantly, adding, “It’s not my birthday.” It was in fact the day after his birthday. He’d had a band concert on the actual day so we’d decided to go out for pizza, have cake and ice cream at home and open presents on Friday instead, when we’d have more time and be more relaxed. So repeatedly over the next few days when he’d ask for something, like for someone who was in the kitchen to bring him a fork, we’d say, “Why? It’s not your birthday.”

His Birthday

There was some festivity on the day of his birth, however. He opened his presents from Beth’s mom when he got home from school on Thursday because she was going to fly to Ireland the next day and we knew she’d call, so Beth wanted him to be able to thank her when she did. She got him some Amazon gift cards, a t-shirt from Oglebay Park, and some Cow Tales caramels and M&Ms. I also had him open one of his presents from us, a loaf of bread from Zingerman’s, his favorite online food catalog, because I needed it for dinner. I gave it to him with a birthday hat on it, with little curls of ribbon hanging from the elastic chin strap. Never say I skimp on presentation.

I needed the bread to make garlic bread. When I asked Noah want he wanted for dinner on his birthday, he said lasagna and then surprised me by upping the ante and asking if we could have pasta every night from Monday to Thursday; he knew we were going out for pizza on Friday. He doesn’t ask for much, so I said yes. Monday I prepared fresh spinach fettucine with asparagus and a lemon-cream sauce; Tuesday I made lo mein; Wednesday I lowered the bar a bit and served the kids macaroni and cheese from a box with broccoli while I had something else (Beth was working late and ate at work); but on Thursday I rallied and made homemade lasagna with garlic bread (which is one of the best ways to show Noah you love him).

We had to eat the lasagna on the early side because we needed to leave at six for concert, which started at 6:30. There are five bands at Noah’s school—the Jazz Combo, the Jazz Ensemble, the Concert Band, the Symphonic Band, and the Wind Ensemble. Noah plays percussion in the Wind Ensemble, which you might think was an ensemble of wind instruments from, you know, the name, but it’s actually just the advanced band. I’ve often wondered if there’s some history behind the nomenclature, but I’ve never heard an explanation.  Noah also pinch hits for the Concert Band and the Symphonic Band when they need extra percussionists. At festival this year he played in all three bands and at this concert he was playing in the Symphonic Band as well as the Wind Ensemble. In the past when this has happened he’s had advance notice and the chance to practice with the other bands, but this time he was going to be sight reading a piece for Symphonic Band. He didn’t seem too nervous about this and I remembered how jittery he was before his first high school band concert just last year.

Once we were seated, I scanned the program. Each of the five bands had three songs, except the Jazz Ensemble, which had six. This was going to be a long concert. I wouldn’t have minded, as I enjoy my kids’ performances, but Noah still had two homework assignments left and one of them was a one-a-half page paper on Hurricane Katrina, which he hadn’t even researched yet. I tried to put it out my mind and listen to the music.

After both jazz bands had played, the jazz band director recognized all the seniors, speaking a little about each one and noting where they were all going to college and their intended majors. I am finding this ritual more interesting as my own musician gets closer to being a senior. It will be him in that lineup next spring, if the powers that control scheduling let him into band. (He’s only been in band three of his six semesters in high school because of conflicts with required classes.)

In the break between the Jazz Ensemble and the Concert Band, North and I went out to the lobby to use the restrooms and to patronize the bake sale. Either we missed the announcement to go back or there was none and we missed half the concert band’s set, re-entering the auditorium in the middle of their second song, and waiting to go back to our seats until that song was over. I was a little abashed and glad Noah wasn’t playing with that band.

When the Symphonic Band was setting up we were excited to see Noah standing next to a gong, as that’s an unusual instrument but it turned out this was the piece he’s never practiced and he missed his cue and never played it. He did play the suspended cymbals, though.

Finally it was time for the Wind Ensemble. The band director noted the ensemble had advanced to state festival this year and got top marks there. Then they played their three festival pieces—“The Liberty Bell March,” which you might recognize if you are familiar with the Monty Python theme song; an excerpt from “Appalachian Spring,” (the part based on the Shaker song “Simple Gifts”); and “Children’s March.” Noah played crash cymbals, suspended cymbals, triangle, xylophone, and chimes. In the last song he was playing three different instruments and running around a lot from one station to another. (In the photo you can see him in the back holding the crash cymbals.) Afterward, Noah said the band had made some mistakes, but “percussion sounded pretty good.” For Noah, this represents a high level of satisfaction. And for the record, I didn’t hear the mistakes. I never do, except sometimes in elementary school concerts.

It was almost ten when we got home and Noah was too tired to start a research paper, so he did the other assignment and went to bed, I’m not sure when because it was after Beth and I had gone to bed.

Not His Birthday

The next day, after we got home from pizza, we sang “Happy Birthday” to him in the privacy of our own house, ate Beth’s homemade chocolate cake with strawberry frosting (a common birthday request from both Noah and me) and ice cream and then he opened presents. He got a gift card to 7-11(for $17) because he often stops there on the way home from school, a book in a series we’re reading, more food from Zingerman’s (chocolate-caramel shortbread cookies, two kind of imported Italian pasta, Piave Vecchie cheese, which is supposed to taste like a cross of Parmesan and Gruyère—his favorite cheeses), a wireless charger, a headphone splitter, and a wallet.

The next day a check from my mom arrived and we completed our last birthday-related ritual, going out for Thai food. My last meal before going into labor with Noah was Thai food, so we often go out for Thai near his birthday.

Noah is seventeen years and three days old today. I am increasingly aware of how short our time with him still at home is. Why do you think that is? Could it be those college tours? And I’m also mindful of how much I will miss him when this boy on the edge of seventeen crosses over to eighteen and his adult life. But I’m proud of him, as a student, a musician, and increasingly, as an active citizen. I’ll be sad to see him go but I’m also eager to see what kind of man my boy will be.