A Goodbye: Coronavirus Chronicle, Part 13

On Friday morning around eight, North found our cat Matthew lying on the living room floor near the front door, half-paralyzed and crying in distress. We were all quite surprised because the day before he’d seemed perfectly normal, but now he had no control over his back legs. The first thing that came to mind was that he had type 1 diabetes and this was exactly how it first presented when he was about a year old. We’d just switched him and his brother Xander from high-protein kitten food to regular cat food and one day his legs just gave out and he collapsed onto the kitchen floor. After some short-term insulin, we got him on food for cats with diabetes and he never needed any more insulin or diabetes medicine. At the time, the vet told us as he got older, the special food might not do the trick anymore and then he’d need to go on insulin. That was sixteen years ago, so I thought that the time had finally come for more aggressive treatment.

We carried him to our bed, which is his favorite place, and brought him some water, which he drank, and for the next few hours, we took turns sitting with him alone or in various combinations. He seemed to calm down and stopped crying so much, but every now and then he’d try, unsuccessfully, to stand. Mostly he just lay quietly, breathing more quickly than usual, occasionally napping a little.

Beth was trying to reach the vet’s office but they never picked up the phone so she drove over there to see if there was anything posted on the door about holiday weekend hours. As it turned out, they were closed for the whole day, so she called an animal hospital in the city. It was the same hospital where our first cat, Emily, received treatment at the end of her life and died, eighteen years ago.

After asking a few questions, the staff person at the animal hospital asked us to bring Matthew in. We’d have to leave him in his carrier at the door and they’d take him inside and talk to us by phone as we waited outside. Even though we knew no one was going inside, North and I came along with Beth and Matthew, just in case we knew the answers to any questions, and for moral support. There weren’t many questions, though, and pretty soon after we left him, they told us to go home and said they’d call us.

Late that morning, the vet called with the bad news. It wasn’t his diabetes. It was heart disease, very advanced. They did an ultrasound and found fluid around his heart and lungs. The immediate problem was a blood clot that was preventing him from moving his legs, but his overall prognosis was poor.

We decided to go through with the euthanasia that day. This time all four of us went to the animal hospital. They are putting animals down in the parking garage because of COVID. This sounds really horrible, but they did their best to make a private space. There was a folding screen making a little room out of a corner. It was near a vent blowing cool air, so it wasn’t oppressively hot, and there was a wooden bench with a cushion on it and side tables with boxes of tissues and water.

Only one person was allowed to be there during the procedure, but we were all allowed to visit with him beforehand. The vet brought our loudly meowing cat behind the screen and stepped out, saying we could take as long as we liked and to call her when we were ready. We sat on the bench and petted him and talked to him and kissed the top of his head. He was wrapped up in a white fleece blanket and part of one of his front legs had been shaved, just above the paw, and the port for the drugs was already attached. My heart sank a little further when I saw that.

When we’d said our goodbyes, everyone but me left, and Beth called for the vet to come back from inside the building. I held Matthew while the vet administered the two drugs, the first to render him unconscious and the second one to stop his heart. They took effect more quickly than I thought they would. The vet listened to his chest with a stethoscope and said, “He’s gone.” She told me it had been the compassionate decision. Or at least that’s what I think she said. Between her face shield and her mask and the fact that we were in a garage, it was hard to hear. I just nodded and she asked if I wanted to stay with him for a while and I did. When I finally lay him down on the bench, I found Beth outside and asked her to call someone to come pick him up and I went back to wait with him again because I couldn’t bear to leave his body alone.

It’s three days later and we’re all sad and kind of shocked. One day we thought he was reasonably healthy for a seventeen-year-old cat—his most serious problem seemed to be a tendency toward constipation and some weight loss we thought was due to his digestive issues—and the next day a vet was telling us he was fatally ill.

We spent a quiet fourth of July. The Takoma Park parade and fireworks were cancelled months ago, so our observation of the holiday consisted of watching Hamilton and having a backyard picnic.  And because it was the most patriotic thing I could think to do, I wrote a small batch of postcards, encouraging Florida voters to enroll in the state’s vote by mail program. (I’ve written over a hundred postcards for this campaign alone.)

The next day, Beth, Noah, and I went to another park. We’ve continued to do this every weekend since mid-May and we have yet to repeat a park. The weekend previous we’d been to a charming little creek off the Middle Patuxent, where we could hear what I think was a good-sized bullfrog croaking underneath a mass of submerged tree roots and we could see dozens of these beautiful black-winged, turquoise-bodied dragonflies.

This week we went to South River Farm Park, which as you might guess from the name is on the South River, a tributary of the Chesapeake Bay. We waded in the salty river and in a little pond (until some kayakers warned us out of it, telling us there were snapping turtles and snakes in there). We saw a Great Blue Heron in the pond, and picked some of the plentiful raspberries we found growing along the trail.

I was sorry North had elected not to come because I think they would have liked it but we weren’t sure whether or not the park had beach access when we set out and they didn’t want to come without knowing for sure. (And actually, this park wasn’t even the one we thought we’d visit. Our first and second choice were filled to capacity and closed.) I was timing how long it took to walk from the parking lot to the water and noting the firmness and slope of the path for future reference. Speaking of North’s condition, after the MRI last week, we learned that they have a herniated disk. It may sound like an odd reaction, but Beth and I were both really happy to learn this because it means there’s a concrete reason for their pain and it should guide the physical therapist’s plan. They already have some at-home exercises to do and they’ll have their first full-length PT session on Thursday.

After we left the park we stopped at a nursery, where I got two dwarf sunflowers and a thyme plant, then we went to a farm stand and got some excellent peaches, peach jam, cantaloupe, and tomatoes. We each ate a sweet, juicy peach in the parking lot before picking up some Chinese takeout for lunch and following it up with frozen custard and Italian ice at Rita’s. It was a nice outing and kind of therapeutic to spend so much time outside.

We brought home some extra fortune cookies and gave one of them to North. It said their luck was about to change.

“That could be good or bad,” I observed, but given that they’ve been on crutches since February, our country’s been in the grip of a pandemic since March, and a cat they loved dearly just died, we decided to read it as a good sign.

RIP, Matthew Simon
Circa February 14, 2003-July 3, 2020

He was a beautiful cat and more than a little neurotic, he loved to play with lanyards, which I think he pretended were snakes, and he was a good mouser, even in old age. We will miss him very much.

Fallen: Coronavirus Chronicle, Part 9

Memorial Day is a strange and often jarring holiday, partly mournful for the war dead, partly celebratory because it’s a three-day weekend on the cusp of summer, so people are going to go to the pool, or have a cookout, or they usually would. This was an even stranger Memorial Day weekend than usual, with death so present in everyone’s mind.

The last time I wrote a Memorial Day post was thirteen years ago. We went to Harper’s Ferry with Beth’s mom and her aunts, which caused me to think about the Civil War and our ongoing wars. Here’s how we spent it this year, both in recreation and contemplation.

Saturday

We continue to take little weekend outings. It’s been nice to get out of the house after staying so close to it for so long. When Beth needed to fill the car with gas about a week ago, it was the first time in at least two months. This weekend we went on two outings. The first one was another drone-flying expedition, to Fort Smallwood Park in Anne Arundel County. It’s on a peninsula where the Patapsco River and Rock Creek flow into the Chesapeake Bay, so there are a lot of nice views of the water. I was surprised to see how many fewer people were wearing masks than in our neck of the woods. We were definitely in the minority, but people were keeping their distance for the most part. The beach was roped off, but I was able to get close enough to hear the little waves lapping at the shore and watch the sailboats and powerboats and ducks and geese. That was nice (though wading in the water would have been nicer).

Noah flew his drone out over the water and tried out some new maneuvers, setting it to automatically circle or spiral around us. He got some nice images of the roof of a pavilion and its shadow. North said it looks like an ad for the park. Have a look:

We also visited a grove of trees planted to honor fallen soldiers from Anne Arundel County. Each one had a flag and a plaque. All the soldiers died in Afghanistan and Iraq. I didn’t look at every plaque, but all the dates I saw were either between 2005 and 2007 or 2012 and 2013. The toll of our post-9/11 wars is always a sobering thing, even when you are looking at a very small slice of it.

Sunday

The second expedition was a picnic, at North’s request. The four of us drove out to a shopping center and got takeout from California Tortilla and Starbucks, which we took to Wheaton Regional Park. The picnic tables there are open for use and we had a six-table pavilion to ourselves. Well, almost. There was a surprisingly bold squirrel watching us eat from the next table over. Eventually it jumped up on our table and stood less than a foot away from Noah and me. I was starting to wonder if it was just used to being fed or if it might be rabid when it jumped down and scurried away.

After lunch, we drove to nearby Brookside Gardens and had a short stroll amidst the ferns and rhododendrons and slightly past prime azaleas. A family of geese with three half-grown goslings came pretty close to us while we were in a gazebo. I guess we were attractive to wildlife that day. I would have liked a longer walk, but I didn’t want to push North. I don’t think I’ve mentioned this here, but their chronic pain is back and getting worse. In February they fell in the bathroom and cracked their shin against the bathtub. As these things so often go for them, the pain never went away and now they’re feeling it in both legs and their spine. As a result, they’ve been getting out less than any of us, hardly at all really. I hope being out of the house for a while did them a little good. I know it helps my outlook.

Monday

Beth usually makes pancakes or waffles for breakfast on the last day of a three-day weekend and this weekend was no exception. It’s harder to time now that the kids roll out of their beds hours after we do, but we all managed to gather around the table and eat pancakes with blueberries and banana slices and vegetarian bacon. It was kind of a red, white, and blue breakfast, but I didn’t think to take a picture. I did remember to take a picture of the red, white, and blue dessert we had after our backyard picnic of veggie hot dogs, baked beans, potato salad, and watermelon. I make shortcake every year, usually on Memorial Day, because late May is strawberry season here and I love truly ripe strawberries beyond reason.

In keeping, perhaps, with the solemn part of the weekend, The New York Times printed the names of one thousand of the almost one hundred thousand Americans who have died from covid-19 to date. Chances are you’ve seen an image of it in your social media feed. Here’s an interactive version I explored Monday morning and found moving: https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/05/24/us/us-coronavirus-deaths-100000.html

Nearly one hundred thousand people in three and a half months. That’s more people dead than American soldiers who died in Vietnam, the Gulf War, and the those post-9/11 conflicts I was considering earlier. It’s absolutely staggering. I check the front page of the Post and the front page of the Metro section every day and look at the statistics. If less than a thousand people die in a day, and less than fifty in Maryland, it feels like a good day. There are more and more of those days recently. It seems as if the first wave at least is slowly receding. That’s something.

Looking Ahead

So now that summer’s on the horizon, what’s ahead?

North has three weeks of middle school left. Promotion will be online. We’re going to watch it and have cake afterward to make it seem more festive. We received word recently that the eighth-graders’ community projects are cancelled, unless students want to carry on without institutional support. North’s school usually has a community service requirement that goes beyond the school district’s requirement. Eighth-graders design and implement their own projects. North and Zoë were sewing teddy bears to donate to patients at Children’s National Medical Center. Between North’s migraine, chronic pain, and the gender clinic, we spend a lot of time there, so the idea of giving back was appealing. Plus, the teddy bear is their symbol.

Well, I understand a lot of students’ projects are probably unworkable now and why even if North and Zoë wanted to continue with the project, a hospital might not want to accept homemade objects right now. Still, it seems sad and frustrating that in a time of such increased community need and when so many teenagers have nothing but free time, someone couldn’t have found a way to re-invent the community project and direct those kids’ energy toward something useful. But I guess since I didn’t step forward to organize it, I can’t complain.

North’s last camp (musical drama camp at the rec center) was also cancelled. They’ve gone to this camp every year since they were five, so it will be missed. The director is considering running her own private camp, outside and socially distanced, but I’m not sure about it. We’re waiting to see what conditions look like closer to July.

As for Noah, Ithaca announced it will start the fall semester six weeks late, in early October. The school says it will be a full school year, but they haven’t released a calendar yet, so we’re not sure how that will work. But we do know he’ll be home for another four months and change. He’s in the process of looking for a summer job, internship, or volunteer gig.

It’s going to be a strange summer, but we’re fortunate in this: we’re together and we’re healthy and the world still has goslings and flowers and strawberries and brave people who serve their country every day in hospitals and grocery stores and other places in ways recognized and unrecognized.

Happy in Winter

Imbolc and Groundhog’s Day

Saturday morning Beth, North, and I were talking about the collection of early February holidays that fell that weekend: Imbolc (Wiccan), Candlemas (Catholic), and Groundhog’s Day (secular) and about how they are all related to each other and mark the midpoint between the winter solstice and the spring equinox. It’s not spring, but a time to look forward to spring.

North was supposed to have Jade sleep over on Friday night but she was sick and had to cancel. (All three of us have been sick, too, with different symptoms, united only by a cough.) North and Jade had been planning an Imbolc ceremony, so North asked if Beth would do it with them. (On that particular day I was the sickest of the family and had retreated to bed.) There was music involved and maybe some kind of craft, though I never saw evidence of it. Finally, they left an offering of juice, milk, honey, grains, nuts, and bread on the porch.

And then two days later, the Groundhog predicted an early spring. My daffodils seem to agree. They are poking out of the ground and some of them have yellow-green heads formed. Now they sometimes stay stalled like that just a couple inches above the ground for several weeks at a time, but I’d welcome spring, whenever it wants to come. Still, I am also sorry for Beth, who loves snow and has had to make do with two measly snowfalls, both a half-inch or less. There was some patchy snow on the ground at Blackwater Falls State Park when we were there at Christmas, but it didn’t snow while we were there either. But here’s the thing—those tiny snowfalls resulted in one snow day, one early dismissal, and one two-hour delay, so I can’t quite find it in my heart to wish for any amount of snow. Still, as I reminded Beth, we’ve probably got a month and a half left in the snow danger opportunity season.

As we were discussing the dearth of snow at dinner Saturday night, North said it must make me happy and I said, “Can I really be happy when Beth is unhappy?”

And then North, who can sometimes get right to the point, said, “So you can’t be happy in winter no matter what?”

I hadn’t thought of it that way and I said, “Maybe not.” But on further thought I decided it wasn’t true. After all, I’m not always thinking about the weather. And even with a number of challenges to happiness (being sick, missing Noah, the continuing erosion of democracy exposed by the toothless impeachment trial), we still had some nice moments over the past couple weeks.

Lunar New Year and Winter Greenhouse

This past weekend I was mostly taking it easy and trying to recover from my flu-like illness. You can put that squarely in the not-happy-in-winter column. But the weekend before that, after North’s cold was mostly better and before Beth and I were felled, we did a lot of fun things. We welcomed the Year of the Rat by going to see Winter Lanterns, a celebration of the Lunar New Year outside the Kennedy Center. It featured a collection of over one hundred large colored lanterns in various shapes—traditional Chinese symbols like a dragon and pandas, all the signs of the Chinese zodiac, plus other animals, flowers, and mushrooms. It was gorgeous and we all enjoyed walking through the display. And Beth only said, “This would be better if there were snow,” once.

In addition to the lanterns, there were white lights outlining the branches of the willow trees that grow outside the Kennedy Center, and an art installation of metal poles with lights on them. If you connect two of them by touching both, they light up more brightly. It also works if two people each touch a pole and then hold hands. That was very cool. Plus there were food trucks, and we got a funnel cake for North and a Nutella-banana crepe, which Beth and I shared.

Saturday we went to see A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood and on Sunday we went to Brookside Gardens, where we explored the warm and colorful conservatory, and then wandered on the outside paths. The landscape was mostly winter-bare, but I did spot snowdrops and some yellow acony. We walked through the labyrinth and tried to meditate, as the sign recommends, but the three little girls tearing through it soon after we started made that somewhat difficult. How can you be mad in a situation like that, though, when you’ve had your own small children? You can’t.

High School Update

I wasn’t going to say anything about where North’s going to high school until it was settled, but it may not be settled for a while, so here’s an update, which goes in the ambiguous column. Those of you who don’t live in Montgomery County, Maryland probably need a refresher about this whole complicated process: There’s a lottery to determine which high school you’ll attend if you don’t end up in an application program. Everybody enters this, ranking five possible schools. If you choose your home school as your first choice, you are guaranteed a spot, but they still make you fill out the form. Then if you want to apply to a magnet, you do that, too. If you get in and accept, your lottery results are moot. North had entered the lottery and applied to the Visual Arts Center magnet last fall.

Sometime in early January, North got their lottery results and they got into their second choice school. They were a little disappointed but within a few hours they had started to convince themselves of the good points of this school, principally that it’s one of two high schools that their middle school feeds into (assuming you go to your home school) so they would be more likely to know people than at their first-choice school. Since they seemed to be talking themselves into being happy about this outcome I decided not to say anything about the second chance lottery. Yes, there’s a second chance lottery. Students who don’t get their first choice are allowed to throw their hats back into the ring after all the application program spots are filled and there are some vacancies at all the schools. But after several days of mulling it over, North decided they did want to enter the second chance lottery and they did. We’re supposed to hear back sometime in late March. 

So then, on Friday, North heard from the Visual Arts Center magnet and they are waitlisted. The VAC expects to finalize the class by late April, so it could be almost three months before we know for sure where North is headed. But North’s genuinely happy to be on the waitlist because it’s very competitive and they didn’t expect to get in at all.

Crocuses and Poohsticks

Monday I was still sick and I had a scattered, unproductive day. As a result, when North got home from school, I hadn’t taken my daily walk yet, so I asked if they’d like to take one with me. They said the crocuses were in bloom down by the creek and we should go there. Usually I’m the one who notices that and takes them there. Ever since North was tiny they’ve loved to walk on the muddy path by the creek when it’s lined on both sides with thousands of tiny purple flowers. It was kind of a sweet role reversal to have them take me. We even played Poohsticks after I mentioned how the little wooden bridge reminds me of that doing that when they were little. They did not actually remember playing this game, but once I explained it, they said, “Let’s play.”

So for a little while, instead of looking forward, to spring or to high school, we looked back.

Walkin’ Around the Christmas Trees

Friday-Sunday: Before Blackwater 

North’s last day of school before winter break was the Friday before Christmas. This was also the day Noah was returning from college and we had a party to attend, so it was a big day.

The party was for the family of a preschool classmate of North’s. They moved to Switzerland three years ago (around the time we were all wishing we could move to Switzerland) and they come back to the States for visits occasionally. When they’re in the D.C. area, someone from the Purple School will host a party so they can see as many people as possible in a limited period of time. It was good to see the family of honor and a few of North’s old classmates, all teenagers now, and their families. The hosts made an excellent squash and black bean chili and the expats brought Swiss chocolate and there was a gingerbread cookie decorating station and a charming five year old who wanted to decorate more cookies than she was allowed to eat so she started circulating through the room offering thickly frosted cookies. It was a fun party. Unfortunately, Beth didn’t get to stay long because she was coming from work and by that time North and I had been there an hour and a half and North was impatient to get to their next social engagement, a sleepover at Zoë’s, plus we had stuff to do at home before Noah’s bus arrived, so she couldn’t stay long.

Beth and I arrived at Union Station around 9:25 and had about a half hour wait for the bus. We got Noah some pizza and a chocolate milk at Sbarro, because we knew he probably hadn’t had time to procure himself much food for the ride. Sure enough, all he’d had since breakfast was a rest stop soft pretzel. The reason for his hasty departure was that he had an unfinished, overdue paper he’d been working on until he left (and on the bus and for two days after he got home). The paper was for his ideologies class and he said he’d been reading Mein Kampf on the bus and hoping no one thought he was a Nazi. He ate his pizza in the car and drank “this mysterious liquid,” a comment that made me hope he’s not drinking soda every day at school. When we got home, Beth and I went to bed while he did whatever it is college students do at night.

The next morning at 11:30, when Beth and I set out to get a Christmas tree, he was still in bed, though he answered the text Beth sent to say we were leaving. We drove to Butler’s Orchard, where we go berry picking in the summer. We’ve never gotten a tree there, maybe because it’s forty-five minutes away, but they had a much nicer selection than Christmas tree lots generally do four days before Christmas, so we may make it our go-to place. We browsed in the farm market, got some apple cider and garlic dip mix, and then picked out a tree. We found one we liked a lot—six feet tall and very full and bushy.

Our next stop was Wegman’s, where we intended to buy eggnog and mushroom ravioli for dinner and where we checked out with $55 worth of groceries. We don’t live near a Wegman’s so we succumbed to the temptation to splurge on several kinds of fake meat they don’t carry at the co-op, cranberry stilton, pomegranate kernels, and lunch at the deli. I got a slice of mushroom-truffle pizza and a pomegranate soda and it was very good.

North came home from Zoë’s in the late afternoon and we all had dinner around the same table, which was nice. Then we opened presents from my mom and Sara because there’s never room in the car for all the presents and it made a nice little solstice celebration. We capped it off with a viewing of Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer.

Sunday Noah emerged from his room shortly before eleven, and spent most of the day working on his paper. At dinner he said he was stuck, so I read his draft and gave him some ideas. We were all hoping he’d finish it that night, so he didn’t have to work at Blackwater. He’s already done that enough times. I told him he should have a college student’s break and not a high school student’s break. Meanwhile I did three loads of laundry (a lot of which was his) and swam and packed.

Monday and Tuesday: Blackwater, Before Christmas

Hike: Pendleton Overlook and Pendleton Lake

Monday morning brought us the happy news that Noah had turned in his paper the previous night while the rest of us slept. It was three days late and shorter than it was supposed to be, but as I often used to tell him in high school (and middle school and elementary school), “Done is beautiful.” We packed up the car and hit the road for West Virginia around 10:15. There wasn’t much traffic and even with a stop for lunch, we arrived at 2:30. We waited in the lodge for YaYa and when she arrived, we checked into our cabin.

We spent the rest of the afternoon relaxing and for dinner we had takeout from Panera—vegetable soup, bread, and mac-n-cheese that YaYa had picked up on the road. Then we watched Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town. We’d saved all our Christmas specials except those we’d watched over Thanksgiving break until Noah was home again (at his request), so we had a lot. During the song, “First Toymaker to the King,” both kids sang along with brio. They knew every word.

On the morning of our first full day at Blackwater, North and I took the first of many walks while Beth and YaYa went grocery shopping. North took me to a path they’d found another year we’d stayed in a cabin nearby. It goes to a rocky outcropping with a view of the river canyon, dense with evergreens. It’s similar to the other overlooks, but smaller, more private, and without a protective railing. It was a little scary watching them stand closer than I would to the edge, but I stopped myself from saying anything because they weren’t really that close. Next we proceeded to an official overlook and North put a quarter into the swiveling binoculars to better view the lodge across the canyon and the narrow waterfall going down the canyon side. Then we took a path to Pendleton Lake, which was almost completely frozen, despite the current mild temperatures. North slid on the ice near the edge of the lake, and I watched from the earthen dam between the lake and the creek that empties out of it. There were some interesting ice formations on the creek side, near the culvert where the water comes out of the dam.

Back at the house, we decorated the tree with our ornaments and YaYa’s, too. It was like decorating a tree always is, with everyone exclaiming over ornaments that remind us of years, or decades past, and getting all nostalgic in a Christmassy way over them.

After lunch, the kids and I made gingerbread from the dough I’d made at home and transported with us. This is another nostalgic activity as the recipe is my mom’s and I’ve been making it first with my sister and mother and then with my kids since I was old enough to handle dough. We go different directions with the decorations from year to year, though. This year we used dried fruit, nuts, seeds, and hard candy. I discovered pepitas make good eyes and a cashew is just the right shape for a smile. North made a very satisfactory turtle shell out of green hard candies that melted into an approximation of a diamondback pattern. And as we always do, we made initial cookies for everyone. YaYa got two, an A for her real name and a Y.

Next North and I went swimming and hot-tubbing at the lodge. The hot tub was more of a tepid tub, but it was still relaxing. There was no one else there and the tub was big enough for me to float on my back.

Before our dinner of chili and corn bread (cooked by Beth), we watched A Miracle on 34th Street and afterward we watched The Year Without a Santa Claus. It was nice to watch something we don’t watch every year (the former) and something we do (the latter).  In between viewings, the kids opened a pair of new Christmas pajamas each, green and white stripes with a red collar for Noah and red and white stripes with a green collar for North. (I feel lucky that at thirteen and eighteen they still go along with this.) Just before bed, Noah treated us to a very dramatic reading of “’Twas the Night Before Christmas” and YaYa said he really should take an acting class in college someday.

Wednesday: Christmas Day 

Hike: Lindy Point

Christmas morning, as we woke singly and in pairs, we emptied our stockings of oranges, candied nuts, and other treats. Everyone was up by eight and we ate the lemon-cranberry muffins North had made for breakfast and then opened presents. A great many books, mugs, packages of tea, socks, and bars of soap were exchanged. Noah’s big present was an Apple watch. He was pleased with it and over the course of the next several days kept using it to check the temperature, note his movement goals, or dictate texts. He said it made him feel like Dick Tracy, though further questioning revealed he wasn’t actually sure who Dick Tracy was. North’s big presents were a papasan chair (which was actually at home because it was too big to bring with us, but we gave them a photo of it) and a weighted blanket, which they immediately and happily threw over themselves. “I will never need another blanket,” they said. YaYa especially liked the calendar Beth made of pictures of the kids, but what grandmother wouldn’t?

Around noon everyone but North left for a hike to Lindy Point. The day was lovely, sunny and cool but not cold—Noah and I didn’t even wear jackets. It was in the fifties most days we were there, actually, and there was not much snow, just the patchy remains of a past snowfall on the ground when we arrived, and that was all but gone when we left. Everyone was a little disappointed not to have a white Christmas, but the upside was pleasant temperatures for hiking and we did take walks every day. The year before had been snowy but bitter cold, which limited our outdoor time.

The trail to the overlook was narrow and lined with towering rhododendrons. It took us to a wooden platform on a rock outcropping that affords more views of the river canyon. Noah gave all his womenfolk a scare edging around the outside of railing to get photos from the angle he wanted. YaYa couldn’t watch. But he didn’t plummet down into the canyon, and we went home and had lunch and started one of the book he got for Christmas, American War. It’s set in the future during the second American Civil War and the plague years afterward. Then I read one of my Christmas books, Stephen King’s latest, The Institute.

Christmas dinner was YaYa’s signature spinach lasagna—she and Beth cooked every dinner we didn’t have takeout or eat out and that was a nice treat for me, as the primary cook in my family. We intended to watch Christmas is Here Again after dinner, but the internet was spotty in the cabin and it wouldn’t download, so we watched It’s a Wonderful Life instead because it was already downloaded and it was a more than adequate substitute. We haven’t been doing nightly poems since Noah left for college, but we are making an exception for Winter Poems, a book we’ve been reading read every winter for many years. We read the first five poems that night, including this one by Rachel Field I’ve always liked, which begins:

Something told the wild geese
            It was time to go
Though the fields lay golden
            Something whispered,– “Snow.”

And ends…

Something told the wild geese
            It was time to fly,–
Summer sun was on their wings
            Winter in their cry

 And then Christmas was over.

Thursday to Saturday: Blackwater, After Christmas

Hikes: Pendleton Overlook and Pendleton Lake (new route), Blackwater Falls

The day after Christmas I did three loads of laundry in the cabin’s tiny washing machine. Noah and I read some more of American War and I read some more of The Institute. Everyone but Noah had lunch at the White Grass Café and the kids went sledding on artificial snow in 56-degree weather while the mothers and grandmother watched from the bottom of the hill. They each went down four times. One the second run, they shared a sled to see if they’d go faster that way, but they concluded, in Noah’s words, that it was easier to steer, “when there’s one consciousness,” so they went back to separate sleds after that.

After sledding, Noah and I went back to the cabin and everyone else went to browse in the shops of  Davis, a nearby town. When they came home, we all did our own thing in the house for a while until Noah and YaYa went for a walk in the sunset before our dinner, which was a vegetable-white bean-quinoa soup. Christmas is Here Again had successfully downloaded so we watched our final Christmas movie.

Friday we went to the lodge for a late breakfast and from there Beth, North, and I proceeded to the pool, while Noah hung out in the lounge with his laptop editing the many pictures he’d taken so far on our trip and YaYa went back and forth from the pool deck to the lounge. I’d forgotten my goggles so I did backstroke for a half hour. I would have swum longer but it gets boring doing just one kind of stroke, so I went over to the hot tub, slipped on the steps, and fell into it. Luckily, I wasn’t really hurt, but it did give me a little scare.

Later Noah and YaYa retraced the steps of their walk from the day before because Noah wanted better light for pictures and for the rest of the afternoon some people read and some people watched Solo, and some did both and North did neither because they were having a long phone conversation with Jade in their room, as they did many days of the trip. (The two have become quite close recently.)

In the late afternoon I took a walk along the cross-country ski trail that runs behind the cabins. The grass was wet and muddy and I fell, soaking the knees of my jeans twice in quick succession, but I discovered a new route to the lake, which was still mostly frozen and quite scenic in the dusk. I was near the Nature Center and behind it I discovered two little skulls, one white and one green, wrapped in shrouds and mounted on sticks. I wasn’t sure if they were leftover Halloween decorations someone failed to remove. Or perhaps they were the ghosts of Christmas future.

When I got back to the cabin, Noah, Beth, and YaYa had finished watching Solo, and Noah was dragging the denuded Christmas tree back to the woods behind the house. We set out for a pizza place nearby, but there was a forty-minute wait so we went back to the park and had dinner in the lodge restaurant where we had breakfast.

There was a reading at the lodge by Ann Pancake, a West Virginian writer, starting shortly after we finished dinner, so we stayed for that, or the oldest three of us did, while the teens stayed in the lobby playing games on their phones. Pancake read three autobiographical essays, one about her childhood, one about visiting home as an adult, and one about her father’s dementia. I haven’t been to a reading in a long while, and I’d forgotten how much I enjoy them.

Saturday morning we packed up the house, checked out, and went for our last hike of the trip, down to Blackwater Falls, the majestic waterfall that gives the park its name. You descend down a wooden staircase with several viewing platforms along the way. As we progressed, we tried to remember which was the platform where North lost a croc over the edge when they were very little and which was the one where Noah and YaYa sat on a bench and played his West Virginia-opoly game, a board game he made in fifth grade. (All the properties are places in West Virginia and he and YaYa were trying to play it in all of those locations, mostly during his summer visits to her. I don’t know if they ever completed this quest.)

About halfway down, North (who had twisted an ankle a couple days earlier), Noah (who’d slipped on the wet boards, gone down and hurt his leg), and YaYa (who’d been hesitant about the hike to start with) all decided to stay where they were and view the falls from there. Beth and I went all the way to the bottom, where the boards were coated with slush and ice. There were big icicles hanging from the lower rockface as well and the boulders in the river below the falls were all encased in ice. It all looked impressively wintry given that daytime temperatures had been in the fifties for at least several days.

Around eleven we said our goodbyes to YaYa in the parking lot and drove back to Maryland. Noah will be home for another three weeks, and Beth and North go back to work and school on Thursday. I have to work starting today, but I’m planning to meet an out-of-town friend for coffee this afternoon, attend the neighbors’ annual New Year’s Eve party tomorrow, and go for another hike, this one along the Underground Railroad trail with Beth and Noah, on New Year’s Day, so there’s still a little time for celebration left.

All is Calm, All is Bright

It’s been pleasantly festive around here lately, especially the last two weekends. The first week after we got back from our Thanksgiving trip to the beach, I was really not in the holiday spirit, but I decided to see if I could force it and while this usually doesn’t work for me, this time it did.

Weekend 1

Friday evening we watched The Princess Switch, which is not a Hallmark Christmas movie, but it might as well be. Beth said it was “perfectly itself.” It’s not normally her type of movie, or mine, but somehow that night it seemed just right and a good way to usher in a Christmassy weekend.

Saturday afternoon we went to the U.S. Botanical Gardens to see the holiday display. Beth was already in the city for a Philippines human rights protest she had to attend for work. The protest was right outside Union Station, so North, North’s friend Lyn, and I met Beth inside the station by the big Christmas tree Norway donates each year. We picked up some coffee, tea, and hot chocolate, admired the model trains, and walked a few blocks to the Botanical Gardens.

The theme of the display this year was botanical gardens around the country, so there were many little buildings made of natural materials, with a model train running on elevated tracks through the room where they were housed. I was especially taken with the model of the flamingo topiary from Franklin Park Conservatory in Columbus, Ohio. Its body was made of pine cones. We were all impressed with the incredibly detailed miniature Biltmore mansion, as we visited there several years ago when YaYa was living part-time in Asheville, North Carolina. As always, there were also versions of various Washington monuments made of plant materials in the room where you enter the conservatory, and poinsettias everywhere. After seeing all that, we wandered through the regular exhibits—Mediterranean plants, desert plants, medicinal plants, as well as the main atrium. It’s so peaceful in there. I wonder why we don’t go more often.

We dropped Lyn off at home and then took North to Jade’s house where they were sleeping over. Beth and I took the opportunity to have a dinner date at Kin Da, a Thai/Japanese restaurant in downtown Takoma. Then we went home and cleaned out the refrigerator because we had to defrost it in preparation for a repair Monday. (Never say we don’t know how to have fun when we’ve got the house to ourselves.)

Sunday I made peanut butter cookies with Hershey’s kisses stuck in them to mail to Noah in the Last Care Package of the Fall Semester. I included a Pez dispenser in the shape of polar bear with a Santa hat—we have a big collection of these from when the kids were younger and really into Pez. I ordered some Pez online in lemon, orange, and pineapple and had them mailed to him. It occurred to me later that some healthy snacks would have been a good idea for finals. Maybe next spring, I’ll remember to send those.

Weekend 2

That weekend was so thoroughly satisfactory that I tried to replicate the one movie-one outing-one baking project formula the next weekend. I was thinking of suggesting we watch It’s a Wonderful Life or Miracle on 34th Street on Friday, but then North wanted to see a movie in a theater and Beth had read good reviews of Knives Out, so we decided to go see it. We met up at Mod where had pizza before the movie.

When I was about North’s age I went through a big Agatha Christie phase—I have about thirty of her paperbacks to show for it. (I haven’t managed to entice North to read any of them yet, but they did see a production of And Then There Were None last summer because a friend was acting in it, so they have a general sense of the genre.) As soon as I saw that familiar font that graces so many mystery novel covers on the screen, I knew the film would be good. It’s not entirely an homage to Christie—some other authors and genres get shout outs, too—but it’s well done, fun, and also has something to say about class, race, and the political moment we’re in. It got three thumbs up from us.

On Saturday morning, North had a portfolio review at the Visual Arts Center, where they’re applying for high school. The review was a two-hour session during which applicants wrote a paragraph about why they were applying and presented a portfolio of work to a teacher, who asked questions about it. But the bulk of the time was spent drawing a still life from an assortment of objects provided. We’ll find out in February if they got in or not.

North was putting the finishing touches on their portfolio right up until the morning of the review. The middle picture is what their desk looked like after they left. Right before it was time to go, North asked for something nicer than a backpack to carry their art in and Beth dug around in her closet and found her father’s old leather briefcase, which the teacher who interviewed them admired and called “vintage.” I wonder what Beth’s dad would have thought of that. He was kind of vintage himself.

After the portfolio review, Beth and North made a big batch of pizzelles. Well, two batches actually, one vanilla and one chocolate. Beth had made a lot of dough because she wanted enough to take to two work-related potlucks, plus some for home consumption, some to take to Blackwater when we travel there for Christmas, and some to take to our family friend Becky, who we were visiting that afternoon. I hadn’t seen Becky (who was North’s preschool music teacher) or her daughter Eleanor (who used to babysit for us and was home from college) in a while, probably over a year, so it was fun to catch up, meet a friend and bandmate of Eleanor’s who was staying with them, and eat Becky’s tasty homemade cardamom bread.

After a short interlude of Christmas card addressing and other Christmas chores, we drove to Brookside Gardens to see the light display. This is a big deal around here, but we’d never been, so we weren’t sure exactly when to arrive for prime viewing and ease of parking. We settled on forty-five minutes before the lights came on at 5:30. We didn’t have to wait in a line for parking—and there was a long line of cars waiting when we left—so it seems to have been a good strategy. We killed the time until the lights came on, ten minutes earlier than scheduled, wandering around the gift shop and listening to a choir sing Christmas songs.

The early crowd was full of families with small kids and when everyone was released into the gardens at the same time it was crowded and loud. “I thought this would be more peaceful,” Beth said. But as people dispersed along different paths, it got less congested and calmer. Calm and bright, actually, because of the lights.

It’s a lovely display. As befits a garden, there were a lot of plants and animals. You could buy your own hyacinth lights in the gift shop and they were out in the garden as well, along with sunflowers, mushrooms, and cacti. From the animal kingdom, there was a fox, a beehive, the Loch Ness monster (my personal favorite), a giraffe, a lion, a frog, a heron, turtles, a dolphin, dragonflies with flapping wings, something we thought might be a cicada because it was winged and had red eyes, a bear, a wolf, and more. There was a pond with lights strung along poles, which were reflected in the water. Trees had their limbs outlined in every color of the rainbow and there was a rainbow, too, with clouds and a lightning bolt that flashed on and off overhead. It was a lot of fun to walk around and see what was around each turn in the path. I would definitely go again.

North was sleeping over at Zoë’s but we hadn’t had dinner yet, so we swung by Zoë’s house, picked her up and had dinner at Cava and then got coffee and pastries at Peet’s, before dropping both kids back at Zoë’s house. (I’d been on the lookout for a replacement for Starbucks’ gingerbread latte, which they’re not selling this year and if you are, too, Peet’s holiday spice latte isn’t quite the same, but it’s as good, so I was happy.) It was nice listening to the kids, who’ve known each other since kindergarten, joking around in the back seat of the car and reminiscing about elementary school.

Back at the house, I resumed addressing Christmas cards and finished the stack. Sunday North attended the Christmas pageant at Zoë’s church to see Zoë play an angel in it, Beth finished the pizzelles, North and I finished our wrapping, and I went swimming, and started this blog post.

Last night we got a quarter inch of slushy snow—yes, I measured it– which switched over to rain in the early morning hours, so naturally school was cancelled and for North, the weekend was extended by a day. They went over to Zoë’s after they’d finished some chores I assigned them. I thought a little bitterly as they waited at the bus stop in front of our house that the whole reason they were off school was that it was supposedly too dangerous to ride in a bus. It’s no longer a disruption to my work day when they’re off school, but blowing through half our snow days for a minor snow event in mid-December just makes it more likely we’ll go over the limit and there will be makeup days at some point, which makes the school calendar uncertain. North told me I shouldn’t stress about things I can’t control, and this would be excellent advice if I were capable of taking it.

Anyway, the snow had all melted by the time I left the house for a walk around noon during a break in the precipitation, so we didn’t even get to see it lit by our candy cane lights this evening, which I thought would be pretty. Oh well. Noah will be home Friday night and he’s staying for a whole month and on Sunday we leave for West Virginia, where we’re spending Christmas with Beth’s mom in a cabin in a beautiful state park, so I really should not complain about anything.

Merry Christmas, everyone!

Eat, Shop, Sing

Wednesday

It was surprisingly easy to get to Rehoboth on the busiest travel day of the year. We’ve always driven on Thanksgiving to avoid the traffic, transporting our mostly cooked-at-home dinner with us. But this year we were planning to leave the beach on Saturday afternoon rather than Sunday, so Noah could catch his bus from D.C. to Ithaca on Sunday morning, so we pushed up our arrival by a day.

North had an early dismissal and got home at 12:50. We were on our way about an hour later. It took four hours to get there, even with a snack stop at the Taco Bell and Dairy Queen near the Chesapeake Bay Bridge. That’s about how long it would take on a summer Saturday, and now as then, the main backup was before the bridge.

When we got to the house, we initially couldn’t find the key box and then Noah found it in a flowerpot, disassembled and empty. This was puzzling, but we continued to poke around the porch and the side of the house. Shortly after Beth had called and texted the owner, Noah looked under the doormat and found a key there, so we could finally get in the house. We’ve stayed at this one before, three out of the five Thanksgivings we’ve spent in Rehoboth, actually. It’s a cozy, early twentieth-century, two-story house with a roomy kitchen, a fireplace, and a big clawfoot tub.

After getting settled, North and I took a quick walk down to the beach. I was surprised to be able to see so many stars because it had been cloudy the whole ride, but it must have cleared after the sun went down because the sky was sprinkled with pinpricks of light.

There were some off-leash dogs on the beach, too, and this was a problem because North is afraid of dogs. At least we could see where they were because their people had put lights on their collars. Eventually, the people put the dog that was running around in circles and wouldn’t stay with them on its leash and North was able to relax.

We walked back to the house and drove to Grandpa Mac’s for dinner. I got mac and cheese with broccoli, celery, and mushrooms. It’s what I always get, though I do vary the vegetables. From there we went to the grocery store and got necessities like milk, and some not so necessary items from the bakery. Back at the house we split into pairs and Beth and North watched Modern Family while Noah and I watched Orphan Black for the first time in over three months. It was a flashback episode (or maybe all of season 4 is a flashback) taking place shortly before the first episode of season 1 started. The plot of this show is very complicated, so it’s hard to say if looping back in time made it easier or harder to follow, but it was fun and I’m looking forward to picking up the thread over Noah’s winter break.

Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving morning we woke to find North had set out breakfast for everyone, with cereal for me and Noah and a muffin for Beth and juice for everyone. (Noah came down late so only his place was left and he didn’t realize it was his and he poured himself another bowl of cereal– but when North told him, he agreeably ate the original one, too.)

Meanwhile, North and I took a walk to the beach, boardwalk, and around town. A pool of water had gotten stranded on the sand, and North, remembering how they used to like to play in these temporary pools, said, “This would be great if it was summer and you had a small kid, but it’s not summer and you don’t have any small kids left.”

We found a small crab on its back, weakly waving two of its legs. I wasn’t sure if its habitat was in a burrow under the sand or in the water, so I picked it up, intending to turn it right side up and leave it near the waterline. I got pinched for my trouble and dropped it, but I can’t blame it for assuming I was a predator. I didn’t pick it back up, though.

On the boardwalk, we saw a big inflatable turkey wearing a pilgrim hat and North declined to be photographed with it. “I’m good,” they said, both times I asked. We went into town to see if anywhere that sold hot chocolate or coffee was open. Most places were closed, but we did find what we were looking for eventually at Dunkin’ Donuts and a German-themed coffeeshop staffed by a very talkative and enthusiastic French man. I’ve never frequented it, but it was busy, presumably because not much was open.

We returned home and North wanted to start on the turkey centerpieces we always make out of apples, toothpicks, raisins, cranberries, and green olives. We’d failed to bring enough toothpicks, so we had to improvise. First we tried uncooked angel hair pasta we found in the cabinets, but it was fragile and prone to breakage. Then, when it had been successfully stuck into the apple and threaded with dried fruit, the moisture of the apple would soften the part inside and the rest would snap off under its own weight. When Noah made his turkey later in the day, he used wooden skewers instead of toothpicks for legs, giving his turkey a freakish, mutant appearance. Someone said it was a turkey that had evolved for the post-climate change apocalypse. We eventually got all four of the turkeys constructed/repaired at the same time and quickly took a picture before they fell apart again.

After everyone ate lunch, Noah and I went to his room to read Little Brother for an hour or so and then we came downstairs and did some Thanksgiving k.p. We trimmed Brussels sprouts and then he kept me company while I prepared the brandied sweet potatoes. When we’d finished, Beth and North were watching Modern Family again. I invited Noah to take a walk on the beach and he said yes.

We walked a long time, with the wind to our backs, which is sometimes a mistake, but it was so pleasant on the beach—cool but not cold, with pretty autumnal mid-afternoon light—that I didn’t want to stop. Eventually we turned around and the sand was blowing in our faces, so we had to walk back through town. I always find it sad to walk parallel to the beach and not on the beach or boardwalk. We went by Silver Lake and saw a heron in flight over it, though, so that was nice.

When we got home I put the Brussels sprouts in the oven and tidied up the kitchen for Beth and North who were going to start the cranberry sauce and the mushroom gravy soon. When they were done with those dishes, they put the tofurkey roast in the oven and North split off to listen to an audiobook while Beth started boiling potatoes for mashed potatoes. While things were cooking, we all watched A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving and Mayflower Voyagers. Before we ate, we volunteered what we were thankful for, being together mostly, but also for Noah being happy with his college choice, and for my new job. Then, after our Thanksgiving feast, we watched a couple episodes of Blackish while eating pumpkin and apple pie and then I took a bubble bath in the big tub.

Black Friday 

North and I woke up before Beth and Noah and they wanted a bagel, so we took a walk down the boardwalk to Dave and Skippy’s to get one. On our return, we all drove to Egg, for a more substantial breakfast—I had a hankering for the pumpkin-pecan French toast and Noah wanted the lemon crepes he always gets. There was a wait, so we visited a table across the street where local boosters were giving away hot chocolate, mini muffins, candy canes, and coupons for local businesses. Then we took a walk by the canal and went back to the restaurant. It was ten minutes before the hostess had told us to return, but she’d given away our table. I understood, she had a lot of people waiting. Luckily, we didn’t have to wait long for another one.

After breakfast we split up—Noah with me and North with Beth—and we started our Christmas shopping. Or we tried to split up, but we all went to BrowseAbout Books first, where we carefully avoided each other lest we see someone buying our Christmas presents. Afterward Noah and I visited the Christmas shop and Candy Kitchen. We ran into Beth and North near there and North wanted to switch parents, so we did. We perused the tea and spice shop, made our own visit to the Christmas shop, and finally to the crystal shop. Between these three stores, North bought presents for most of the friends on their gift list and finished up their family shopping, too—all before lunch. They do this almost every year. They’re a shopping machine. I didn’t make as much progress on my list, but I bought a few things. It was good to get the ball rolling, especially with Thanksgiving late this year. Christmas is closer than it feels.

North and I had a late lunch at Greene Turtle. The food was okay; the service poor. None of this was a surprise. I keep going back because it’s on the second floor of a building on the boardwalk and the view is stunning. Beth and Noah won’t set foot in there, being more picky about food and service and less picky about a panoramic seascape, so they went out for Italian instead. Afterward, they met us on the beach where we had our annual Christmas card photo shoot. (I’ve included a couple of the runners-up here.)

That was fun, but we were a little preoccupied because Beth had just received the news that Noah’s bus from D.C. to Ithaca on Sunday morning was “very likely” to be cancelled because of a winter storm due to hit Ithaca and much of upstate New York and New England on Sunday. Back at the house, she investigated flights, but all the routes were circuitous, prohibitively expensive, or both. The closest train goes to Syracuse and that last bit of the trip could be challenging in a storm. So we decided to cut our beach weekend and Noah’s stay with us a little short and drive him up to Ithaca on Saturday morning, so he could arrive before the storm, then turn around and drive as far away as we could before checking into a hotel for the night.

No one liked this plan. We all had things we wanted to do Saturday morning and early afternoon in Rehoboth—more shopping, more beach time, some relaxing at the house—but that would have to be scotched. And North was supposed to sleep over at Jade’s house on Saturday night after we returned to Takoma. But it seemed like the least worst option.

With this settled, I set about doing a load of laundry so everyone would have enough underwear for an unexpected night on the road and organizing and packing up a little. I was sad that Noah and I probably wouldn’t get to read any more of our book in the rush of our abbreviated stay, so Beth kindly said she’d finish the last of the Thanksgiving dinner dishes I’d left to soak in the sink the night before so I could go up to Noah’s room and read a little before we left for the holiday sing-along and tree lighting on Rehoboth Avenue.  (We read two chapters and ended up with four unread that we’d have to finish separately.) We got in the car and made a pit stop at Starbucks for hot chocolate, then I took North to Candy Kitchen, because they hadn’t been there yet, and Beth went to place an order for two pizzas at Grotto, which we’d pick up after the sing-along and take home.

North was upset about missing their sleepover with Jade, but the sing-along seemed to cheer them up. We ended up in a part of the crowd where not many people were singing but we all sang and Noah was cracking North up by dramatically humming the parts where he didn’t know the words and then very loudly singing the ones he did. During “We Wish You a Merry Christmas,” I quietly sang “and a happy new Presidency” instead of “and a happy new year” to Beth and she nodded enthusiastically.

Back at the house, Beth made a fire and we ate pizza and watched How the Grinch Stole Christmas and A Charlie Brown Christmas. I noticed something I haven’t before, which is that the Grinch starts with the Whos singing around a tree and that’s how Charlie Brown ends and it’s also what we’d just done ourselves. I guess there’s something powerful about singing outside in a group.

Saturday

In the morning we got up early, ate breakfast, and packed up the house. The kids and I went down to the ocean and put our feet in the water—theirs were bare, I wore boots—to say goodbye to it. In the car afterward, Noah said, “I can’t feel my feet.”

“Neither can I,” North said.

“You usually can’t feel my feet,” he observed and North half-laughed, half-groaned.

About seven and a half hours later, at five p.m., we carried Noah’s things up to his monkishly austere third-floor dorm room and said goodbye to him, not lingering so we could drive our way out of the storm’s reach. It seemed too soon, but I reminded myself again, Christmas is sooner than it feels.

Cool As…

Thursday: Halloween

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday: Day of the Dead/All Saints’ Day

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday: All Souls’ Day

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

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

To Everything There is a Season, Part 2

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

High School

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

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

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

Halloween

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hershey Park in the Dark

Friday 

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

We just crossed the PA border

20 miles

15 

6

Traffic

We’re further than I thought

Counting down to the wrong city

3

Siri says 5 minutes

We can see the hotel

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday

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

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

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


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

To Everything There is a Season

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

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

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

A Time to Reap

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

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

A Time to Plant

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Time to Weep

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

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