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

In Concert

This is why we sing, why we lift our voice
Why we stand as one in harmony
This is why we sing, why we lift our voice
Take my hand and sing with me.

From “Why We Sing” by Greg Gilpin

North just had three concerts in the space of a week. The first two were at Highwood Theatre and the last one was with the Montgomery County Middle School Honors Chorus.

Friday: Fine Arts Night

Every month or so Highwood has an event called Fine Arts Night, which serves as a preview of  songs and scenes from upcoming plays as well a talent show for the kids who act there. North’s not in a show at Highwood right now, but they were set to give a solo concert just two days later and one of the administrators suggested they sing one of their concert pieces at Fine Arts Night, as practice and to promote their concert. It was a good idea, even if it did come only one day before Fine Arts Night. North’s pretty game for this sort of thing, though, so they said yes. 

The solo concert was an opportunity they won at an fundraising auction for the theater last fall. After a period of enthusiasm, they had cold feet for a while, especially when the friend who agreed to perform with them backed out. But they had a few coaching sessions at the theater to go over logistics, rehearse, and get performance feedback, and that helped.

Highwood’s next show is Titanic, so there were a few scenes from that. One of North’s friends from Peter and the Starcatcher, Sadhbh, is in it, so chances are we’ll be seeing it. Various kids sang or played instruments. There was everything from a nine or ten year old boy playing Bach on the keyboards to Sadhbh singing David Bowie’s “Life on Mars.”

North performed near the end. I accompanied them to the stage because they can’t carry their ukulele while on crutches. Once they were settled on the stool with the uke, I leaned in and whispered, “I’d say break a leg, but you already did,” which made them laugh. (And then they used the line at the concert two days later.)

They sang “Forget,” one of their original songs. It starts:

Forget the unforgettable
It’s kind of in the past
All those stories, all those secrets
Yeah, you know they’ll never last
So forget the unforgettable
Things done inside your mind
And just come with me tonight

I enjoyed the first half of the song, but there was an Improv Night going in one of Highwood’s other performance spaces, right next door, and in the middle of the song, it got noisy over there and it was hard to hear. North assured us afterwards that at the solo concert, there would be a mike.

Sunday: Solo Concert

Sunday afternoon we were back at Highwood. I wasn’t sure how many people would come and I was a little nervous about that because while the theater promoted the show on its Facebook page, North hadn’t told too many people about it. But there were ten or twelve people in the audience (including Beth, Noah, and me). A friend of North’s from Tri-M was there, plus North’s friend (from elementary school, Scouts, and basketball) Leila and her mother and brother, and the rest were Highwood friends. While people were filing in, Noah set up his camera to film the concert.

North sang eight songs, two of which had backing tracks Noah made for them. Four songs were originals, including “Chasing Stars,” the song North and Noah made into a music video last summer, plus some newer ones, “Trampoline,” “Eyes,” and “Forget.” They also sang Halsey’s “Without Me,” Billie Eilish’s “Bellyache,” Elvis Presley’s “Can’t Help Falling in Love,” (which they apparently only know from the Twenty-One Pilots cover), and Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.”

Of the originals I liked “Forget” best and this time I got to hear the whole song, though of course “Chasing Stars” will always be close to my heart because of the video. Of the covers, I liked “Hallelujah” best maybe because they’ve been noodling around with it since last summer and I’ve been able to hear it develop or maybe just because I really like Leonard Cohen. I thought the Presley tune might be a hit with the grandmothers, though, when they see the video.

Here’s a lyrics video Noah and North made for “Trampoline” over the Thanksgiving weekend and winter break and a clip of North singing “Forget” and “Hallelujah” at the concert. They’re about a minute and a half and seven minutes long.

After it was over Leila’s mom said to us, “I look forward to hearing North’s first album,” only half-joking, I think. Afterward, we presented North with a bouquet from Beth’s mom and their friends crowded around them in the hallway and said the kind of things theater kids say to each other after a show. If you were ever a young performer, you may know what I mean. Sadhbh asked if she could take North out for tea at a café down the street and then over to her house and that’s what they did.

Thursday: Honors Chorus Concert

Just like last year, the county Honors Chorus concert had two weather-cancelled practices, so they had only six rehearsals instead of the planned eight. I guess if they really want eight rehearsals it shouldn’t meet in January and February.

The concert was at 7:30 but the singers were supposed to arrive at six, so I fed North a frozen pot pie at 4:40, and then they got into their black and white clothes and we hit the road a little after five. Montgomery County is a large county, and we live at the southern edge of it so the centrally located practices and concerts are always a schlep. While North was rehearsing, Beth, Noah, and I went out for Japanese at a restaurant that turned out to be a bit further away from the school where the concert was taking place than we intended to go, but we got back in time.

The auditorium was large and set up in a steep amphitheater. North had previously complained about getting up and down those steps on crutches. Speaking of crutches, North told us right before we dropped them off that four of the sopranos were on crutches, all with broken tibias. The four injured singers came out first and sat on chairs in front of the risers and someone came and took their crutches away. The crutch-wrangler was busy throughout the concert bringing crutches back and taking them away because there was one song that was just tenors, basses, and baritones and one that was just sopranos and altos and kids kept exiting and returning to the stage, and re-arranging themselves on the risers. Another mobility complication was a song with a Zulu folk dance, which the kids did partly on the risers and partly on the stage in front of them. For that dance, those who were incapacitated stayed seated and waved their arms rhythmically.

There were seven songs. One in Latin (“Dies Irae,” which is part of Mozart’s Requiem), the Zulu song “Amavolovolo,” “Dawn’s Awake,” (based on a poem from the Harlem Renaissance), a Spanish lullaby, “Crióme Mi Madre,” “I Sing Because I’m Happy,” (a gospel-style adaptation of the hymn “His Eye is On the Sparrow”), “I’ll Make the Difference,” and “Why We Sing,” which is the traditional closing song for honors chorus concerts. I can’t choose a favorite song. They were all lovely. The program explained the theme of the concert was different roles music plays in our lives: music as change, music as expression, music as hope, music as comfort, music as joy, music as inspiration, and music for all.

This is what Beth said about the concert on Facebook:

Great to see these middle schoolers doing something they love last night. It’s not easy being a member of the honors chorus. Weekly practices were at a school that’s 45 minutes away, started at 7 and lasted an hour and 45 minutes after a long day at school. The directors pushed the kids hard. But each week North would leave practice happier than when they arrived, filled with the joy of working toward a common goal. So grateful for the teachers who work so hard and care so much about helping our kids learn and grow.

During the concert, which will be our third of five school concerts this year (two band concerts and three chorus concerts), I had the startling realization that because Noah will be at college next year and North wants to switch their elective from chorus to art in eighth grade, next year there will probably be none. North’s been drawing and painting more recently, so it makes sense to take a class to explore that, but I will be a little sad to give up my seat in the audience after nine straight years of school concerts. Music has changed my kids, helped them express themselves, given them hope, comfort, joy, and inspiration. And listening to them play instruments and sing has given me those things, too. That’s why I hope Noah will continue to drum in college. And of course, North’s not finished singing. Chances are there will be musicals and maybe concerts outside of school venues in their future. I should have plenty of opportunities to see them in concert.

Officially Done

Well, I said I’d tell you how the snow day went if there was one and you knew there’d be one, right? The snow picked up again late Sunday afternoon and evening. We had eleven inches by the time we went to bed that night and after that there was no more accumulation. School was cancelled Monday and there was a two-hour delay on Tuesday. Because the cancellation was announced on Sunday afternoon and the roads were messy, North asked to stay over at Zoë’s house, where they’d been since morning. They came home late Monday afternoon with tales of sledding and making snow sculptures and toting a bag of chocolate chocolate-chip cookies they’d baked with Zoë.

Beth’s office was closed, so she worked at home, and I did, too. Noah kept plugging away at his two Ithaca scholarship application essays and finished them. He’s now all done with applications, though he and I might be taking a trip to visit Boston University next month, as that’s the only school he applied to without visiting.

Champlain College, one of schools we visited last spring (though he didn’t end up applying there), sent an “Officially Done” sticker in one of their mailers, with the suggestion that he wear it when he finished all his college applications. I stuck it to his shirt when he submitted the application and he gamely agreed to let me post of picture of him wearing it on Facebook. Then he took it off and stuck it to his bedroom door, right next to the “2019” sticker he got during one of many gun control protests last winter and spring. It represents the year he can vote in federal and state elections. (In Takoma Park, the voting age for municipal elections is sixteen.) But it’s also the year he leaves for college, so it makes sense for those two stickers to keep company.

He didn’t have much time to celebrate, though, because he had an oral presentation and Logic homework due the next day. He didn’t end up finishing the Logic, but he put a dent in it. I’d been camped out in his room for a couple hours, still reading Jack London (short stories now, having finished The Call of the Wild the day before) and occasionally offering opinions when he’d get stuck with the essays. Once he switched over to homework, I went for a long walk in the snowy woods by creek and through a tangle of side streets in our neighborhood I’d never explored. I actually got a little lost, so the walk was longer than I intended, but I was home in time to make a mushroom and kale frittata for dinner, which we followed up with brownies Beth made earlier in the day. I won’t complain about the snow day. It was okay. I didn’t get as much work done as I would have if I’d had the house to myself, but was good for Noah to have more time to work. That’s a common trade-off.

I was glad there was school on Tuesday, even if it was an abbreviated day. One reason was that it meant North’s winter chorus concert would go on as scheduled. North found out about a week before the concert that they had a solo and they were excited about that, so I gently nudged Noah into coming to the concert, even though he had work to do (including the now overdue Logic). He’s already been accepted to two colleges and he’s missed a lot of his sibling’s performances over the years. Now that there are only a few left it seems more important that he be there. North was happy he came. And perhaps thirty-seven years from now, the two of them won’t be having social media exchanges like this one I had with my sister when I mentioned he was at the concert:

Sara: Just like when you stopped your homework to watch my one 5th grade performance of P.T. Barnum. Oh wait. No you didn’t. #notbitter

Me: He has skipped probably more performances than we could count for homework. I skipped one.

Sara: Yeah, but it was THE ONLY ONE.

Me: That’s not true. I remember going to a District Chorus concert. And various gymnastics performances and field hockey games.

Sara:  I mean the only performance of P.T. Barnum. And I had the lead. And a solo.

Sara: WHY DO YOU STILL NOT LOVE ME???

Anyway… We all had an early dinner and drove out to the high school where the concert was taking place. (North’s school has no auditorium.) The performers had to be there forty-five minutes before concert time so we took our seats and Noah opened up his laptop and worked on his oral presentation until the concert started.

There were three groups singing—the Glee Club, the sixth-grade chorus, and the Advanced (seventh- and eighth-grade) Chorus. North’s in the Glee Club and Advanced Chorus and because the soprano and alto sections of the Advanced Chorus joined the sixth-grade chorus for one of their songs, they were singing eight of the ten songs.

Their solo was in the very first song of the concert, “Remember Me,” from Coco. In fact, it was the first few lines of the song. So the concert opened with Mr. N introducing North and North stepping up to the mike and singing:

Remember me
Though I have to say goodbye
Remember me
Don’t let it make you cry
For even if I’m far away I hold you in my heart
I sing a secret song to you each night we are apart

It was lovely. We were very proud.  The next Glee Club song was “Never Enough” from The Greatest Showman. Apparently, there was a movie music theme.  There was also a songs-in-foreign languages theme, as the sixth-grade chorus sang in German, Hebrew, and Spanish. (Mr. N said they were putting the “International” into Silver Spring International Middle School.) And later the Advanced Chorus would sing a Polynesian song and one in Zulu.

Toward the end of the concert, the Advanced Chorus sang three poems set to music. “Night Fall,” by Roger Emerson, “Dreams,” by Langston Hughes, and a section of Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Bells.”  While they sang “Dreams,” the lyrics were projected on two screens to either side of the stage.

Hold fast to dreams
For if dreams die
Life is a broken-winged bird
That cannot fly.

Hold fast to dreams
For if dreams go
Life is a barren field
Frozen with snow.

Mr. N made some comments about how the day of the concert was Martin Luther King’s actual birthday and how if he could be there he’d be pleased to see kids of different races and social backgrounds all making music together.

“The Bells” is a particular favorite of mine. I used to teach it. They sang the first stanza, while one student accompanied the singers with jingle bells.

Hear the sledges with the bells—
Hear the sledges with the bells—
Silver bells!
What a world of merriment their melody foretells!
How they tinkle, tinkle, tinkle,
In the icy air of night!
While the stars that oversprinkle
All the heavens, seem to twinkle
With a crystalline delight;
Keeping time, time, time,
In a sort of Runic rhyme,
To the tintinabulation that so musically wells
From the bells, bells, bells, bells,
Bells, bells, bells—
From the jingling and the tinkling of the bells.

North said this song was their favorite and I liked it, too. I thought the music was well suited to the words and the singing was fast but delicate and precise, just like bells.

The whole concert was over in less than an hour. It was nice North got a solo because next quarter they’re switching their Wednesday afterschool activity from Glee Club to Drama Club and only Glee Club members got solos, so chances are they won’t have a chance for that at the spring concert.

As we left, I was thinking a little sadly about how my father, who died nine years ago on the day of the concert, will never be in the audience for one of North’s concerts or plays. Not that he’d be traveling down from New York for school concerts if he were still alive, but if North gets their way, they may someday have a performance in his adopted home town. And depending on where North’s adventures take them years from now, I may not make every single performance either, but I know I am far from officially done watching my youngest on stage.

Taking Flight, Part 2

We’ve had a very exciting few days around here. Noah got his first college acceptance letter on Friday, North’s show wrapped up on Sunday, and then Noah got his second acceptance letter on Tuesday.

College Letter #1

Noah applied early action to UMBC and Ithaca College. The UMBC application was due earlier—he was working on it on Halloween before and after trick-or-treating—and the notification was supposed to be in “late December,” but I’d seen so many of you posting pictures of your kids’ college acceptance letters I wondered if it might come early and it did.  There was no mystery about what was inside. “YES” was printed in gold letters on the outside of the envelope. The mail came late that day and Beth brought it in with her when she came home from work.

We took it in to Noah’s room, but he wasn’t that excited about it, as UMBC was his safety school. In fact, Beth had to prod him to open it so we could see if there was anything about aid in the package. There wasn’t. I was happier than Noah was, not because I’d been in much suspense about whether he’d get in to UMBC, but because it felt like the ball was rolling now. And UMBC is a solid, affordable choice, if maybe a little too close to home.

Closing Night

Two days later we went to closing night of Peter and the Starcatcher to see North in the younger cast. These actors were in third to seventh grade, so the performances were not as polished as those from the older cast, but the play was still fun. The principal characters, Peter and Molly, were well acted. The actor playing Peter brought out a whole different side of the character and his growth over the course of the play. And we all loved North’s melodramatic death scene as Slank.

This is what he says as he drowns:

Oh, the waves swallow me up in a great shroud of sea. And the sharks start nibbling at me feet, just like me mother’s kisses. Mother! You left me on the steps of a tattoo parlor, wrapped in a half-eaten bag of fish and chips, round me neck a note: Orphan Bill Slank, too wicked to end well!

They delivered these lines just perfectly as they flailed on the stage floor under a strip of undulating blue fabric meant to represent waves.

Beth pointed out later that North had a good almost-death scene as the Beast in Beauty and the Beast a couple summers ago. And I added if they want to do it again, Highwood is doing MacBeth next spring and no matter what role they play they have a decent chance for an on-stage death.

North was also quite animated and charming as Fighting Prawn, though the whole native-culture-as-comic trope bothers me, even though F.P. is sympathetic and given good reasons for his hostility toward the English. The script does comment critically on British colonialism during the time the story takes place and it’s definitely an improvement of the treatment of the Indians in Peter Pan, but still…

After the show, North was a bit sad about not seeing their friends in the cast for a while. There’s always a bit of a letdown afterward, but we’re all enjoying getting to bed on time and having North home in the evenings. Well, at least until Honors Chorus starts next month, but that’s only one evening a week.

College Letter #2

On Tuesday, I brought in the mail and noticed a large, plain envelope from Ithaca. Because Noah had only applied there a couple weeks earlier—while we were at the beach for Thanksgiving—and wasn’t supposed to hear from them until early February “at the latest,” which I took to mean sometime in January at the earliest, I thought it was just more in the stream of college mail he gets more or less constantly and in envelopes of all sizes. Most of these he never looks at, so I opened it in case it had anything interesting in it. (Boston University recently sent some relevant information about scholarship opportunities for National Merit semifinalists that sat unopened for a long time before I opened it.) 

Anyway, you know what was in the envelope because I told you in the first paragraph of this blog post. He got in to Ithaca. I told him when he got home. And this time he was happy because Ithaca is tied with R.I.T. for his top choice. He gave me a big hug and we did a little dance together. It wasn’t even until about fifteen minutes after he got home that we noticed another letter behind the first one in the folder, offering him a merit scholarship for students in media, named after Rod Serling, who used to teach at Ithaca. His archives are there as well. It would cover about a third of his tuition. If he goes there, we will have to call it his Twilight Zone scholarship. (It’s better than Agent Orange scholarship, which is what a college friend of mine who majored in chemistry and had a scholarship from Dow Chemical called his.)

Noah’s also applied to Boston University—he just sent that one in last weekend—but now he’s considering winnowing down his list. He may just apply to R.I.T. and forget the rest, which would make for a more relaxed winter break and January. Either way, he’s taking flight, as we watch fondly and proudly.

Taking Flight

Act I, Thursday Morning: CAP Presentation

“It was a big day for Noah,” Beth said when it was all over.

“It was,” he agreed.

It started with him dressing up in a suit for the first time ever. There have actually been a lot of occasions when we considered buying Noah a suit—mostly notably when he was in sixth grade and we got legally married, and for various oral presentations he’s made in high school. The C in CAP stands for Communication, so there have a been a lot of presentations over the past few years. But we got married in our living room, and he had a school-issued tuxedo shirt for band that year, so a suit seemed like overkill and then he had a habit of saying, “I really should have a suit for this,” a day or two before or he needed to make a presentation so we never bought one.

This time he thought to ask well ahead of his senior CAP presentation. The senior presentation summarizes five school assignments—two required and three of the students’ choosing—and explains what the student learned in them and in CAP in general. Noah spoke about and played clips from the movie he made this fall about the process of making his Halloween costume, the podcast of interviews with parents and alumni of his preschool, a dystopian film about social media, a paper comparing 1984 to the Trump campaign, and a research paper about a local hospital’s plans to move and the impact of the move on the community. The assignments spanned his four years of high school and gave a nice overview of his skills as a researcher, writer, audio technician, and filmmaker. It’s also the last big assignment he has in a CAP class because in their senior year, CAP students mostly take classes outside of CAP. The senior seminar will focus on interview and resume skills before it ends in late January and his AP Lit class will last until the end of the school year, but other than that, he’s finished with CAP.

Around one o’clock in the afternoon of his presentation day, there was a bomb threat at his school and everyone had to evacuate and stand out in the cold for an hour and a half until the time school would normally be dismissed. I think it’s telling that, after hearing from the school, texting him and ascertaining he was alive, the first thing Beth and I both thought of was to be grateful it happened after his presentation, which was during the second period of the day. While they were standing around and chatting, his senior seminar teacher told him he’d passed. (Anyone who fails gets a phone call from a teacher that evening and has to do the presentation again, a possibility much dreaded by CAP students.)

Act II, Thursday Evening: Winter Band Concert

Afterschool activities were cancelled while the police searched the building, but they completed their search in time for evening activities to go on as scheduled, which was nice because Noah had his penultimate high school band concert that night. He got home at his usual time and studied for a King Lear test before we had an early dinner of spinach quesadillas with black beans and corn on the side (which North ate an hour before we did before hopping on a bus to play rehearsal). By six o’clock, we were on our way to his school.

There are five bands at Noah’s school: two jazz bands, the ninth-grade Concert Band, Symphonic Band, and the Wind Ensemble. Noah plays percussion in the Wind Ensemble. There were a couple seasonal nods in the jazz selections. The Jazz Combo played “Autumn Leaves,” and “Let it Snow! Let it Snow Let it Snow!” The non-jazz bands play in order of expertise, so they get better as the concert goes along, not that any of them sound bad. Blair has a great music program.

So, the Wind Ensemble played last. Noah got to play drum kit in their first song, “Ride.” That’s a rare treat, though it also makes him a little nervous because it’s more visible than most percussion roles. He played snare, triangle, and chimes in the next piece. The real showstopper (and I guess it literally stopped the show, being the last song of the concert) was the “1812 Overture.” They played a version arranged without strings and also without cannons. Later Beth and I both made the joke that on a day with a bomb threat the cannon-free version might be better. But even without cannons, they rocked it. Noah played snare drums, triangle, and tambourine. And he got a chance to do it again the next day when they gave a shortened version of the concert for a group of visiting preschoolers. (He says the preschoolers were an appreciative audience, clapping every time the music stopped, even if the musicians were only warming up and doing scales.)

After the concert, Noah noted that at his next band concert, the band teacher will be calling him up to the stage and announcing where he’s going to college. It’s a spring concert tradition for all the seniors. It was something to think about as we drove to the theater to pick North up from their last rehearsal before Peter and the Starcatcher opened, because that happened the next day…

Act III, Friday Evening: Peter and the Starcatcher

Peter and the Starcatcher is a prequel to Peter Pan. I’d seen North play Peter in a scene during their acting class showcase last month and few more scenes done by the whole cast at a preview event a week before opening night, but other than that, I didn’t know much about it. North is playing four roles, two in each of the rotating casts. In the older cast, they are Alf (a sailor) and a mermaid. In the younger cast, they are Slank (the captain of one of the two ships), and Fighting Prawn (the king of the fictional island of Mollusk). Being in two casts meant North had to be at nearly every rehearsal for two and a half months. It’s been intense and it’s meant a lot of late nights.

Opening night featured the older cast, who are (mostly) in seventh to twelfth grade. The set was beautiful and quite elaborate, featuring two ships with moving parts and an alligator that runs along the ceiling. North’s part as Alf was bigger than I thought from what they’d been saying and I also didn’t know Alf had romantic scenes with a character played by an eighteen-year-old boy in drag. But that’s part of why we go to the theater—to be surprised.

Later North told me they’d been assigned some of another sailor’s lines at the last minute because of an illness that caused several parts to get re-arranged and there was supposed to be a kiss but the director nixed it because of the age gap between North and the actor playing their love interest. “Did you want to kiss him?” I asked and their eyes got big and they said, “No!”

It was a fun show, with good acting in many roles, but especially the girls playing the pirates Black Stache and Smee, who had excellent chemistry with each other. North’s often cast in comic roles and Alf was no exception. They’re playing more against type in the other version of the show, at least with Slank, who is something of a villain. Fighting Prawn is comic, too (though I think the script’s attempt to re-write the Indians of Peter Pan only partly succeeds in erasing the racism of the original).

As I write, North’s at the second of five shows this weekend. They will be at the theater from 11:30 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. today and from 11:30 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. tomorrow. And then they will do it all over again next weekend, with five more shows. We’ll go to closing night so we can see North in their younger cast roles.

You might expect flying in a show about Peter Pan, and other than the alligator and a stuffed cat, there isn’t in this one, but nevertheless, the theater’s announcements about the upcoming show said it was “taking flight.” It’s been quite an exciting few days here, watching our kids test their wings in endeavors academic, musical, and theatrical.

Chasing Stars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Middle School Coffeehouse 

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

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

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

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

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

Snow Day

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

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

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

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

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

High School Film Screening

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

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

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

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

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

The Middle of the Middle and the End of the End

The Last Few Days of Summer

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

Friday

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

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

Saturday

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

Sunday

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

Monday

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

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

Tuesday: First Day of School

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

“Why are you home?” I asked.

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

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

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

We Are Headed Northwest: College Tours, Installment #4

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday: Oberlin, OH to Niagara Falls, NY 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday: Trumansburg, NY to Ithaca College and Back 

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

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

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

Friday: Trumansburg, NY to Altoona, PA

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

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

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

Saturday: Altoona, PA to Wheeling, WV 

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

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

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

Sunday: Wheeling, WV to Takoma Park, MD

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

Post-Trip

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

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

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

The Sweetest Place

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

Before Hershey Park

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

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

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

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

Hershey Park 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Camp Highlight

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

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

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

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

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

Hear the Turtle, Believe in the Retriever: College Tours, Installment #3

UMCP Choir Camp: Monday to Thursday

North’s choir camp performance was Friday, which means after two plays and a concert, the performance-intensive part of the summer is over. North came home from the last performance of My Fair Lady late last Sunday evening, went to bed, slept, got up and went straight to their first day of choir camp Monday morning. And I say their first day of camp instead of the first day because they actually missed the orientation which took place Sunday afternoon because the My Fair Lady actors were required to stay at the theater between the matinee and the evening show.

Beth ran by the orientation to pick up North’s sheet music and elective class assignments. They were in Music and Movies, Theatre, and A Cappella Singing. North couldn’t remember how they’d ranked the myriad choices many months ago and so they didn’t know whether they’d gotten their top choices or not, but they were pleased with those classes.

Before Beth got the music North said they hoped all the songs would all be in English this year, because last year there was one song in French and one partly in Samoan. Well, this year only one song was in English. The rest were in Cherokee, French, German, and Latin. I think it’s good experience because choruses so often sing in foreign languages, but North was exasperated, especially about the German piece. However, the song in English was “You Will Be Found” from Dear Evan Hansen and North is semi-obsessed with this musical, so that might have been sufficient compensation.

Monday I picked North up from camp. They’ve been getting around Takoma and Silver Spring on public transportation by themselves for about a year, but getting home from this camp involves taking a bus from College Park to Langley Park and then crossing a street with six lanes of traffic and I’m not quite ready for them to do that alone.

I asked if there were any problems from missing the orientation and they said they did feel a little behind learning the choir songs and that the a cappella class’s location was different than what was printed on their identification badge (which had been presumably announced on Sunday), but other than that everything was fine. On the last day of camp, in addition to the concert for friends and family, the elective classes were going to perform for each other. The movie music class picked a scene from Coco to set to music and the a capella class started learning a song. North said the theatre class did warm-up games and hadn’t started working on their scene yet.

We stopped at Starbucks on the way home, then read a few chapters of Still Life, the last book in the Books of Elsewhere series, and they helped me make corn and spinach fritters for dinner. Noah and North worked some more on their video after dinner. That was the night they finished it. Thanks to all of you who watched it or commented on Facebook or YouTube.

The rest of the week passed a lot like Monday.  North dressed up for all the spirit days, wearing a 2016 music camp t-shirt on alumni day, part of their Tongue Twister Halloween costume for July-oween, a tank top and scarf worn sarong-style over bike shorts on Summer day, and a gold shirt and shorts on Maryland colors day (you could pick any one of the four colors or a combination). Never say North’s not a team player. They tried out for a solo in “You Will Be Found” on Wednesday, but they didn’t get one. There were around seventy kids in choir camp and only three solos, so the odds were long.

Beth drove North to camp most mornings, except Wednesday when she had an early meeting so I took them. Noah and I split the afternoon pickups. Whoever was bringing North home usually stopped at the Starbucks near the Takoma-Langley transit center, though one day I brought Oreos from the 7-Eleven to camp. North and I usually read after camp and then they helped me cook dinner most nights, except Thursday when they were cleaning their room and packing for their upcoming weekend camping trip with Beth.

UMBC Summer Preview: Friday Morning

Friday we all piled into the car at eight a.m. and drove North to camp, leaving them there fifty minutes early because we needed to be at another University of Maryland campus, UMBC, by 8:45. Beth noted on Facebook we were having “a very Maryland day.”

University of Maryland Baltimore County was having a summer preview day, similar the open house St. Mary’s had last spring. UMBC is on Noah’s list because I asked him to add another state school, so we have a couple financial safety schools. He chose UMBC because its computer science department is well regarded. Noah’s interested in computer science and has dabbled in it from a young age, but he’s mostly self-taught because he’s been in humanities magnets since sixth grade and hasn’t had a lot of room in his schedule for electives. He’s thinking of majoring in computer science or film or majoring in one and minoring in the other.

We arrived, stopped at the breakfast buffet, and took our seats in the gym for the opening presentation. There were a lot of balloons in Maryland’s state colors—red, gold, black, and white—and a banner that proclaimed UMBC an “honors university.” You’d think by the end of the morning it would be clear what this meant, but it really wasn’t. There’s an honors college within the university but a lot of universities have those, including UMCP, Maryland’s flagship campus. After a while I developed a theory that it’s a combination of the Honors College and a cluster of Scholars Programs in different disciplines.

For the breakout sessions we went to hear an overview of the College of Engineering and Information Technology, then another one about the Honors College, then we split up with Beth and Noah hearing a student panel on Engineering and Information Technology while I went to the Admissions panel. I was impressed with the Honors College presentation. It sounds like a supportive, tight-knit community that would be good for Noah. Most of the students live in the same dorm their first year, they take small seminars, and they have an Honors College advisor in addition to their regular advisor, who help them find internships and other opportunities. Noah thought it sounded like it could be a good fit, too.

We grabbed a bite to eat at the catered lunch in the ballroom. The vegetarian selections weren’t fabulous but we didn’t have time to look for food elsewhere on campus. We also didn’t have time for a campus tour because we had to get back to College Park for North’s choir concert. I would have liked to do a tour because I always find those interesting, but UMBC’s only forty-five minutes from our house and they have tours every weekday and some weekends, so it won’t be hard to get back if UMBC is high on Noah’s list after our big New York-Pennsylvania-Ohio college road trip later this month.

Before we left, I made sure to get a picture of Noah with a statue of the school’s mascot, a Chesapeake Bay retriever, named True Grit. There was a short line to do this. When I said St. Mary’s was really into its mascot (the sea hawk) I may have misspoken. That dog is all over campus, on flags in the parking lot, on signage (look in the background of the picture to the right), just everywhere. The student union is called the Retriever Activity Center. The dining hall is called True Grits. We saw a banner in one of the buildings that said, “Believe in the Retriever.”

When I stopped to think about it, UMCP is similarly enamored of its mascot, the terrapin (a species of turtle native to Maryland). I just don’t notice it because I was in grad school there for six years and then taught there as an adjunct for a while longer, so I just don’t notice the omnipresent turtles any more when I’m on campus.

UMCP Choir Camp Concert: Friday Afternoon

Speaking of the terrapin, the music camp both kids have attended for years changed its name this year from Summer Youth Music Camp to Terrapin Music Camp. If you look very carefully at North’s shirt, you may see a small turtle to the left of the word terrapin. Terrapin Music Camp’s hashtag is #heartheturtle, which will sound funnier to you if you’re from these parts and know “Fear the Turtle” is the University’s slogan. Noah kept teasing North all week by calling it the Terrible Music Camp. This might have hurt their feelings if not for the fact that Noah attended band camp there for four years so he obviously didn’t mean it.

We arrived in time for the concert and found seats. It was a joint orchestra camp/choir camp concert and the two orchestras (fifth to seventh grade and eighth to tenth) went first. I scanned the program for names of kids we might know in orchestra camp, but none of North’s friends who’ve attended in years past were there this year. They didn’t know anyone at choir camp either, except one girl who acts in Highwood shows.

The choir sang five songs. The first one was a very pretty Cherokee song, then two madrigals, one in French and one in German. The Latin song, “Festival Sanctus” was lively and complex. “You Will Be Found” was last and they did a very nice job with it. It really is a lovely song and sentiment, though if you know something about the plot of the musical—which I do because I hear the soundtrack almost every time we’re in the car and North also turned our dinner-making that week into informal seminars on plot and characterization in Dear Evan Hansen—there’s some irony there.

We’d promised North ice cream after the concert. The ice cream shop in the student union food court uses milk from the University’s dairy farm and we like to go there at least once during music camp weeks. It was a challenge to find parking, though, because of construction on campus, and then there was a long line, which we had to wait in twice in different combinations of people. Noah was off getting eggrolls at Panda Express because he hadn’t had much lunch and when we got to the front of the line the flavor he’d asked Beth to get was sold out and North couldn’t decide what they wanted so Beth got her ice cream and mine and then got straight back into the line. As a result, the ice cream was not as celebratory as it could have been.

Once we got home, Beth and North started packing the car to leave for their weekend camping trip, because the two of them had one more stop left on their very Maryland day.