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.

Noah in the Bardo

My book club met the Wednesday before Memorial Day to discuss Lincoln in the Bardo, a book that imagines President Lincoln’s grief when his son Willie died of typhoid and Willie’s first night in the afterlife, or rather the bardo, which is a Tibetan Buddhist concept of a holding area between life and rebirth. In this book it’s located in a Georgetown cemetery and populated by all the dead folks buried there who can’t accept their own deaths, insist they’re just sick, and therefore refuse to move on to the next place. Some of them pass through the bardo in minutes, others linger for years or decades. The bardo is also used as a metaphor. The Civil War is a bardo. Grief is a bardo. This weekend, Noah found himself stuck in a kind of bardo as well.

Friday

The school year ended for seniors on Friday. (All the other grades have three weeks left, much to North’s consternation.) Going into the last week Noah had homework in all his classes due, mostly at the end of the week, and mostly big, time-consuming assignments. He also had all of the mornings from Monday to Thursday off or partly off because the ninth to eleventh graders had standardized tests. I thought that might help and I guess it did, but Thursday night he still had homework due in five or six classes. He ended up staying up half the night and went to school Friday morning on four hours of sleep…and with undone assignments in four classes.

He’d given up on the statistics chapter and a bevy of little assignments for health, but he wanted to finish two things he’d been working on all week—the storyboard for his hypothetical film version of Isben’s Enemy of the People for English and his film on 5G cell phone networks for Silver Lens (his school’s documentary-making team). It’s his third movie of the year and the second one on 5G. The first one was about safety and regulatory issues. This second, shorter one was about how close the technology is to being finished. And, like 5G technology, it wasn’t ready.

At school he secured permission from his English teacher to stay after school for about an hour and turn in the storyboard then. And he got an extension on the movie (the second one—it was originally due Wednesday).

On Noah’s last day of eighth grade he came home and yelled “Middle school is over!” so loudly and so many times that he went hoarse. He came home Friday more subdued, maybe because he’d had so little sleep the night before and maybe because high school wasn’t really over, not quite. We were planning a celebratory pizza dinner at Roscoe’s, followed by gelato, and we still did it, but because he got home late we scrapped plans for Noah and North to hose the dust and pollen off the porch that afternoon. We do this once a year sometime in in May and the kids get into their bathing suits, spray each other with the hose and make a game of it. It’s their favorite chore, but it would have to wait.

And Noah wasn’t the only one with undone work. I hadn’t finished a draft of my Great Lakes chapter that I needed to send to the graphics person that evening so we also postponed our weekly Friday movie/TV night until Saturday night. I finished the draft after dinner and we were all in bed by ten.

Saturday

The next day I took care of some less urgent work tasks and Beth, North and I went to the pool, an outdoor one, not the one where I swim laps every week. Noah stayed home to work on his movie. It was a near perfect late May day, sunny, warm but not hot, and not too humid. I should have realized everyone would want to linger for a few hours and brought something to read, but I didn’t so after I’d swum as long as I wanted to and relaxed in a chair on the grass for a while, I got restless and wanted to leave. Beth and North wanted to stay, so I considered walking home—it’s only about a half hour—or going to a nearby grocery store and fetching a few dinner ingredients.

I settled on the second plan because it seemed practical. At the register with my frozen ravioli, mushrooms, and asparagus, I put my hand in my shallow, diagonally cut front pocket and found the twenty that should have been in there was missing. (Later in telling Noah this story I had to explain how a lot of women’s clothes either lack pockets or have non- or semi-functional pockets and he was really surprised.) So, I put all the food back and started to walk back to the pool. My route was mainly along a busy thoroughfare. Imagine my surprise when I spotted my twenty in the grass just off the sidewalk, fifteen or twenty minutes after I must have lost it. I went back to the grocery store, purchased the food, and Beth swung by on the way home from the pool to get me and then Noah and I made dinner. After we ate it, we had our delayed TV night, watching two episodes of Blackish.

Sunday

Beth and I were busy with errands, house and yard work for much of the middle day of the weekend. Between us we menu planned for the next week, grocery shopped, mopped the kitchen floor, weed whacked, mowed the back yard, and prepared a bed for tomatoes and planted them in it. Then Beth and North made miso soup, asparagus, carrot, cucumber and tofu sushi, edamame, and seaweed salad for dinner. Noah continued to work on his movie all day. North spent the afternoon at Sadhbh’s house. Beth, North, and I wrapped up the day with an episode of The Great British Baking Show.

Monday

Beth made homemade waffles for breakfast because that’s a three-day weekend tradition and she and I did more work in the yard and garden in the morning. She weeded along the fence line and I transplanted kale seedlings into the bed she’d prepared for the tomatoes the day before as there was some extra room. While I was weeding an overgrown area near the pea plot, I was surprised to find a ripe strawberry on a stem with some little white ones in my hand. We once tried to grow strawberries there—maybe last year, maybe as long as a few years ago—and apparently the plant survived and seeded outside the garden bed without us ever seeing it in the tangle of weeds. But looking for something with similar leaves in the ground I couldn’t see it, so I quit weeding in case it was still there, but I fear I uprooted the poor thing, just as it was fulfilling its destiny. The berry was quite good, though. I split it into four and we all had a bite.

Around noon Noah said he needed a title for his movie, which made me think he was almost finished. I suggested Talk to You Later. He was tepid about it but didn’t have any better ideas, so that’s what it’s called. (Get it? It’s about phones and the future. I swear, I am underappreciated sometimes.) Sure enough, he finished the movie little after two. There were already plans in the works to go out for frozen yogurt, but now we had a decent justification for dessert on a day when I was already planning to make strawberry shortcake to go with our Memorial Day picnic dinner—with berries from the farmers’ market since our crop consisted of a single berry.

When I asked Noah if he’d like to wash the porch after we got back from frozen yogurt or the next day, he initially said the next morning, because it would be cooler then. I reminded him North would be in school tomorrow morning so it had to be that afternoon or the next one. “Oh, I forgot about that school thing,” he said breezily. And then as we drove home from frozen yogurt, we passed his school and he said, “Oh, look, it’s Blair, where I used to go to school.”

I think he’s out of the bardo.

Our Funny Valentine

“This will be a memorable Valentine’s Day, even if it’s not the best one,” North commented as we ate our Valentine’s Day dinner of tomato, cabbage, and rice soup with heart-shaped grilled cheese sandwiches. They were wearing a large new brace with a hinge and a cutout for the knee on their left leg.  They fell on some wet pavement in front of their school Monday morning and fractured the growth plate at the top of their left tibia, though it took several days to get the right diagnosis.

At first we thought it was a sprained knee and not even a severe sprain as they could put a little weight on it. But it wasn’t better after two days and a night and they needed a doctor’s note to keep using the elevator at school, so Beth took them to urgent care on Tuesday night. The doctor there thought it was a fracture, but the radiologist who read the X-rays the next day disagreed. By Thursday morning, we had a more definitive opinion from an orthopedist who had examined North and person and seen the X-rays and he said it was fractured in a different place than where the urgent care doctor had thought. This was the same orthopedist we saw when North was breaking bone after bone in fifth grade (with some sprains thrown in for variety). I desperately hope we are not on the cusp of another series of orthopedic injuries, but in case we are I’m glad the doctor is familiar with North’s case history.

North was out of school for the first two periods at the orthopedist the morning of Valentine’s Day, so they missed getting candy from any friends who brought some in because apparently it was all distributed by the time they got to school. I wasn’t that sorry for them as North hadn’t brought any candy to school for anyone else and they got white chocolate-strawberry truffles and gummy cinnamon hearts at home later in the day.

North’s gift to the whole family was a bouquet of four yellow roses, one for each of us. We’d discussed this plan before they were injured so I decided to go to the florist and buy them myself while I was out on Valentines-related errands on Tuesday morning because I thought when they got home from school they’d rather rest, rather than going out into the cold rain on crutches in search of flowers.

In lieu of their normal chores, I had them do KP for dinner every night from Monday to Thursday, seated at the dining room table with a big cutting board, a knife, and a pile of vegetables, fruit, and/or herbs. Some days I didn’t need much chopped and this was a very short chore, but on Valentine’s Day it was more involved. They chopped vegetables for the soup, including a big pile of cabbage, and then they juiced half an orange and sectioned five and a half more, grapefruit-style, to get the flesh free of the membranes. (The only reason I didn’t have them zest two more oranges was that I forgot I needed those until after they’d left the table.)  I was making an orange pound cake with chocolate whipped cream as a Valentine’s dessert.

We exchanged cards and gifts after dinner. Some of the cards were funny like the one from me and Beth to Noah of waffles holding hands that said, “We love you a waffle lot,” and some sweet, like Beth’s to me with stars in a heart shape that said, “You are the stars in my sky.” In addition to the roses, there were three pairs of socks with hearts on them for North, a long sleeve tie-dyed t-shirt for Noah, a Starbucks card for me, a loaf of chocolate-cherry bread for Beth, and candy for everyone. So there was some sweetness in the day for everyone, despite our youngest being hobbled again. And North didn’t let the injury stop them from going about their normal routine at school, rehearsal for the school play, honors chorus rehearsal, therapy, practice for their youth TED talk, or church. It would take more than a broken leg to slow down this child.

It was a good week for Noah, too. He got into RIT, which Beth knew before anyone else because she has access to the email account he uses for communications from colleges. (This was the first time an email has come in advance of the letter. When you open it you see the letter that’s coming in the mail with confetti graphics streaming across it. It was quite festive.) Beth was waiting for him to discover it on his own, but she finally suggested he check his mail on Wednesday evening. The official letter came on Friday.

On that same day he got another letter informing him he was a National Merit Scholarship Finalist, which was welcome news indeed, because it will probably mean money for college, and possibly significant money, depending on how the college he eventually chooses rewards that distinction. I’d been forcing myself not to open the National Merit letter since it arrived that morning, five hours before he got home from school, so of course when he did get home, he drew out the suspense by opening it after a Valentine from my mom and the RIT letter, which had “We have some good news for you” printed right on the envelope, in case he’d forgotten the email.

So now he just needs to hear from BU and to find out whether he was admitted to the honors college at RIT and more about scholarships and need-based aid at various colleges and he’ll have all the information he needs to make his choice. Some days it seems strange that we’ll know where he’s going to college in a two and a half months at the latest and other days it seems that’s a long time to wait, given that this whole process started in March of last year.

After opening all that happy mail, we read a little of our new book, Welcome to Night Vale, and then he drummed for an hour and a half. Practicing that long is usually a sign he’s in a good mood, so I was happy to hear it. Second semester continues to be a slog for him—it’s looking like it’s not going to be an easy one after all—so it’s good for him to see the tangible rewards of all his hard work.

We’re two days into a long weekend. Noah’s been working most of the time, of course. What else would he do? But we’ve also enjoyed a few small pleasures. We all watched the penultimate episode of A Series of Unfortunate Events on Friday night; Beth, North and I watched One Day at a Time last night; and the kids watched Dr. Who together this morning. I had a nice talk with my sister on the phone yesterday and swam some extra laps at the pool today. Beth made soft tacos with homemade queso and avocado cream for dinner tonight and she’ll make pancakes or waffles for President’s Day breakfast. It’s a tradition. We have a lot of those in our everyday life, and when you’re in the right frame of mind, those comforting rhythms can seem like a valentine, sometimes a funny one, sometimes a sweet one.

Orange You Glad?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Little Cabin in the Big Woods

Saturday: Arrival

We arrived at the cabin at Blackwater Falls State Park around five, after a drive that featured heavy traffic at the beginning and driving through snow on untreated roads with very little visibility at the end. YaYa was already there. She’d laid out crackers and cheese with a little container of honey mustard as a welcome. We snacked and rested a little between unpacking and setting up the Christmas tree that had made the journey from Maryland with us on top of our car.

This was our third Christmas in a row at Blackwater, but the first one (at least with the kids) in one of more rustic cabins that Beth and her family stayed in when she was a child and where Beth and I spent a Christmas with her family a couple years before Noah was born. The older cabins are a little smaller, wood-paneled, and quite charming.

YaYa wanted to hear the recording of Noah’s winter band concert, so we played the three Wind Ensemble’s three songs, while Noah pantomimed playing the different percussion instruments he’d played in the concert so she could hear which sounds he’d made.

North and I started dinner—grilled cheese and soup—and almost immediately North cut their finger badly on a soup lid. It looked deep and Beth and I were afraid we were going to be heading back out into the snow to drive to the nearest urgent care, which is forty-five minutes away in good weather. But ice, pressure, and elevation stopped the bleeding, so I resumed cooking and we ate dinner, watched Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town, and called it a night.

Sunday: Settling In

In the morning Beth strung the lights on the tree and we hung ornaments on it. We had brunch at the lodge, and browsed the gift shop, where YaYa bought me a Blackwater Falls State Park windbreaker as an early Christmas gift. Back at the cabin we collected sticks for kindling so we could have a fire later and the kids explored the teepee previous guests had left in the woods behind the cabin. Later I kept seeing these all through the park and I wondered if there had been a teepee making tutorial at the nature center recently.

Beth and YaYa went grocery shopping and the kids and I made gingerbread cookies with dough I’d made at home on Friday. I was using my mom’s gingerbread recipe, the same one I use every year. In fact, when I’d called her on Friday to thank her for the Christmas gifts we’d opened early to lighten our load in the car and to celebrate the solstice, she was in the thick of making gingerbread cookies with my five-year-old niece, Lily-Mei. They seemed to be having fun but also “’xasperating” each other in Lily-Mei’s words.

When Beth and YaYa got back from the grocery store, the gingerbread was done and the kids were watching an episode of Dr. Who. North then launched into a solo baking project, chocolate-peppermint cookies, while Beth and I took a short walk through the snowy woods to the top of the sled run. There wasn’t anyone sledding—it must have been between sessions—and there was a truck grooming the snow.

After we returned from our walk, YaYa got out the tinsel and she and North put the finishing touches on the tree, while YaYa reminisced about hanging tinsel on the Christmas trees of her youth and how her father insisted on all the tinsel being perfectly straight. North listened with interest and said they were glad YaYa was more relaxed about it. Then they sang a song from Peter and the Starcatcher at YaYa’s request.

People split up to read, commune with their electronic devices, and nap for the rest of the afternoon. The kids collaborated on dinner—fettucine with tomato sauce, broccoli, and Greek olives. The olive were among the treats my mom bought us on her travels in Greece this fall. When the kids started cooking I wondered why I’d never given them joint responsibility for a meal before. Then they started squabbling about whether the water was boiling sufficiently to add the pasta and whether it was “naughty” to sample more pasta than strictly necessary to test for doneness… and then I remembered. But they did put a decent meal on the table, with no adult help, so perhaps we’ll try it again someday.

After the dinner dishes were done, we watched Christmas is Here Again, which was longer than I remembered so North was up late, but Beth reminded me, “It’s vacation,” and so it was.

Monday: Christmas Eve

It snowed overnight and in the morning there was seven to eight inches accumulated on the picnic table behind the house and our bedroom window was fringed with icicles. The longest one was probably eighteen inches long.  There were even bigger ones out the kitchen window. I asked Beth what she wanted to do that day and she said she hoped to read, make a pot of black bean soup, work on a puzzle with Noah, and not leave the house except maybe to take a walk. That sounded pretty good to me, though North opined “that doesn’t sound very exciting.” I think that was the point, actually.

And that’s basically how the day went. Beth didn’t leave the house, even to go for a walk, though North and I took a walk down the park road to the end of the cabins. Beth made soup, which simmered in the crock pot for most of the day, and she worked on the puzzle with Noah. It was a jumble of different images of Santa Claus. Beth, Noah, and YaYa watched The Last Jedi. I finished a Joni Mitchell biography I’ve been reading since October and listened to David Sedaris’s “The Santaland Diaries.” We had the NORAD Santa tracker (muted) on the television screen most of the day. Every now and then someone would glance at it and comment on Santa’s location and the number of gifts delivered. In the evening we watched Frosty the Snowman and Frosty Returns.

After that, North wanted to open one present each. This is a tradition Beth had growing up and I didn’t. North likes it and Noah doesn’t, so we made it opt-in. I decided to sit it out with Noah as I’d already opened my gifts from my mom on the solstice and then I’d received the jacket from YaYa early, too. YaYa opened a calendar Beth made with pictures of the kids (always a popular grandmother gift). Beth opened a fleece jacket and North got a t-shirt that said, “Stay Bold.”

It was a nice, low-key day, except for the fact that the cat sitter called to tell us the heat was out at our house and Beth had to make and receive a lot of calls, as she tried to coordinate a time when the cat sitter could let the heating company technician into the house. And then the tech called the house phone instead of Beth’s cell or the sitter’s to say he was coming, so of course he was locked out and he left. When he came back he needed a part and left without fixing the furnace. The sitter set up a space heater in our bedroom, the cats’ favorite hangout spot. It wasn’t too cold outside, mostly in the forties, and the house has thick walls and holds its heat for a couple days, which is good because the heat was still out when we got home three days later, despite Beth’s persistent efforts to convince the oil company to send someone to the house.

Tuesday: Christmas Day

By eight a.m., everyone was awake and ready to open presents. Most of us had already opened our stockings. A great many gifts were exchanged while we ate clementines, nuts, and candy and Noah took pictures. Noah got camera equipment, including a new lens and a camera bag. North got a certificate to get their hair dyed and a weighted throw blanket with cats on it. Everyone got at least several of these things: books, socks and other clothes, tea, mugs, soap, scented candles, Amazon gift cards, and tiles.

I knew this ahead of time because I saw it unfold during our Christmas shopping trip to Rehoboth, but Beth and North got each other the same pair of fuzzy blue socks because when North was showing them to Beth to gauge if she liked them, Beth thought North was dropping hints that they wanted them. Not exactly a “Gift of the Magi” situation because nobody sold their feet to buy the socks, but still a bit of Yuletide irony.

North made breakfast, a skillet pancake with lemon curd and homemade cranberry syrup. But before we ate Noah wanted to try out his TARDIS mug. When you fill it with warm liquid, the image of the TARDIS fades from one side and appears on the other. It’s a pretty cool effect. One of Noah’s other gifts was Crooked Kingdom, the sequel to Six of Crows, which we’d just finished on Christmas Eve, in a serendipitous bit of timing. So we read the first two chapters of that.

When we’d finished, Beth and I hiked the Balanced Rock trail. The trail was covered with snow, but well-marked with orange blazes. We had to step carefully because you couldn’t tell what was under the snow. It could be rock, a spongy layer of wet leaves, mud, or an inch of ice covering another inch of water. It was a lovely walk, though, with evergreen boughs and rhododendron leaves covered in snow. We had the trail nearly to ourselves—there were no footprints other than ours, except near a place where the trail crossed another trail—and just once, I glimpsed another person ahead of us on the trail. We had to scramble and crawl at the end when it got steep near the two boulders, one atop the other, that give the trail its name. When we got up there it was so quiet we could actually hear the snow creaking as it shifted on branches and showered to the ground. That was the only sound, other than the occasional cawing of a crow.

Beth and I had leftover black bean soup for lunch with crackers, cheese, and olives, and the cranberry sauce that was the byproduct of the syrup North made. Beth, North, and YaYa went swimming at the lodge after lunch. I would have gone, too, but I’d forgotten to pack my suit. I was sorry to miss it because the pool is in a room with big windows and I enjoy being in the pool or hot tub, looking out at the snow.

But having the afternoon free in the cabin meant I could read Elevation, one of my Christmas presents, in one sitting (it’s only 146 pages and they are small pages) and make a batch of peanut butter-chocolate kiss cookies. They were just going in the oven when the swimmers came home. Beth made a fire and I relaxed in front of it while YaYa made her signature spinach lasagna for Christmas dinner. After dinner, we all watched a Dr. Who Christmas special from a few years back.

Wednesday: Boxing Day

The next day was our last full day at Blackwater and there were a lot of things we hadn’t done yet that people wanted to do. In the late morning we went to the sled run and the adults watched the kids sled. North had neglected to bring their waterproof gloves (purchased last year at the sled run gift shop/snack bar) or any gloves at all, so the adults all lent them our cotton or fleece gloves in turn, each pair getting soaked as they used their hands to brake. After three runs, they were out of gloves, so they quit. Noah did a fourth run and then the session was closed. It was a beautiful, sunny day, the snow was sparkly, and there was a bonfire going at the foot of the hill (behind a barrier so no one can sled into it).

From the sled run we drove to the White Grass Café where we had lunch. On the drive there and back the kids were alternating songs from North’s favorite musical, Dear Evan Hansen, and Noah’s, Hamilton, while North expounded on plot and characterization in Dear Evan Hansen for YaYa, who hadn’t heard of it. We dropped YaYa off at the cabin and then the four of us were going to hike down to see Blackwater Falls, but halfway down the series of stairs and platforms, they were closed due to packed snow and ice. Beth was disappointed because the falls are special to her, especially in winter when they’re partially frozen. We could still see them, but we weren’t right up next to them. It looked like there was just a little ice on the falls, with water pouring around it. We drove to the other side of the canyon to take a different trail that affords another, more distant, but less obstructed view, and took some pictures. Watching the falls made me think about the last waterfalls we visited, in Ithaca, and wondered if we’ll be making regular visits to any of them in the next several years.

North would have liked to go to the pool again but the roads were slushy and Beth was afraid they’d ice up as afternoon temperatures fell, so we settled into the cabin to read and work on the puzzle, which Beth and Noah finished. This turned my mind to college, too, because Noah wrote his main Common App essay on puzzles, how he likes to do real ones, and also enjoys the puzzle-like aspects of film editing and computer programming. I was glad to see writing and re-writing that essay several times has not ruined puzzles for him.

Noah’s also become more interested in still photography lately and he’d taken a lot of pictures on this trip. Using his laptop to project them on the television screen, he showed them to YaYa so she could pick the ones she wanted. Then he set up her new tiles on her purse, phone, and wallet.

Beth made one last fire, we had a supper of leftovers, and set to work taking decorations off the tree and packing. We had a discussion about whether to rent a modern or rustic cabin next year. Beth voted for rustic, because they remind her of her childhood, the kids voted for modern, I abstained because I prefer the look of the old cabins, but I missed having a washer/dryer. YaYa cast the deciding vote for modern because it’s more convenient to have two bathrooms.

Thursday: Departure

In the morning, there was the usual end-of-vacation scramble to clean out the fridge and pack the car. Actually, more than the usual scramble. We are still discovering things we may have left there—a thermos of Beth’s, a shirt of Noah’s, an almost full box of Greek pastries and candy. But we were on the road by ten thirty and home by three. When we got home we found the house cool but habitable. It really hadn’t been that cold outside and with the space heater going our bedroom was sixty-two degrees, with the other rooms maybe ten degrees cooler.

Sorting through the mail we found many Christmas cards and another merit scholarship offer, (from UMBC) and a somewhat disappointing statement from Ithaca about Noah’s total aid package there. We went out for Chinese food, after having decided we’d rather eat in a heated restaurant than have take-out in our unheated dining room. After dinner, Beth dropped us off at the house and went to the hardware store for another space heater to put in North’s room that night.

Friday and Saturday: Home

Over the past couple days Beth succeeded in getting someone to come fix the furnace and ran errands, I did an endless stream of laundry (five loads so far) and blogged. Noah applied to RIT—his last application—and did some homework, but only for an hour on Friday and a few hours on Saturday. One nice thing about our vacation was that Noah didn’t have to work at all while we were gone. North met up with a friend from Peter and the Starcatcher Saturday morning and in the afternoon we went to see Mary Poppins Returns and then went out for tapas. We’ve got few more days to ease into our normal routine, and while there’s an orthodontist appointment, a visit to the MVA, and a mammogram on the agenda on Monday, I hope we’ll find time for fun as well.

From Twelve to Fifty-Two

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

Thanksgiving

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

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

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

Beth’s Birthday & Black Friday

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday

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

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

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

Sunday

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

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

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

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

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

Spooked, Part 3

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Spooked, Part 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Spooked, Part 1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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