The Landmines

So, I have one kid in college. People keep asking me, “how does it feel? Did you cry when he left?”

Actually, I was less sad than I expected. I didn’t cry. Sure, I miss him, but he’s doing what he needs to do, and it’s all good. In some ways, it’s a huge relief. Not just because there is less laundry and less driving. It’s also because I’m done.

I had a college-bound kid. I got him there. Boom. It doesn’t always happen. The teenage years are full of land-mines ranging from mental health issues to drug dealing friends to sheer laziness. But my kid is in a good school that we can afford and, hopefully, he’s mature enough now that we’ve left those dangers behind.

Ian is a separate case. I have no idea what will happen to him, but at least there’s no worry about the landmines.

A friend told me that two days before her son left for college, the kid got stinking drunk, puked on the sofa, and curled up in the bathtub. I told Jonah about this kid and he laughed. He asked, “aren’t you glad that Ian will never do that?” First, I said YES. Then I said no. Jonah told me that the correct answer is yes, because Ian finds his own happiness, and it doesn’t involve destroying his liver and ruining upholstery. Because Jonah is a very, very good kid.

I suppose that there are still landmines that Jonah will face in college. He could sleep through his classes, fail his exams, and drink too much at fraternities.

So, let’s talk about fraternities. I’m not a fan. I’m trying not to be too judgy, because they serve a real purpose on large college campuses. They help to create communities. But, but, but. The drinking. The dubious traditions. The exclusivity. The group think. The everything I hate.

Jonah has been attending the fraternity parties. He’s got open access to booze without any bother with a fake license or anything. The cops and the school don’t care, which surprised me. I thought they would be cracking down on drinking after Penn State.

The only barrier to the booze and the parties have come from the frat brothers themselves who usually don’t want too many freshman boys at their parties. They want the girls. But Jonah has been getting in, because he’s good looking and because he learned how to fix taps and kegs, while at his job at the tavern this summer. Jonah is on the guest list at several fraternities already after three weeks of school. Ugh.

The only mercy is that I don’t have to see this. I will admit that I have monitored his activities using the “Find My Friends” app. (Shhh. Don’t tell him.) But he’s forty minutes away, so I can’t smell his breath or know what time he stumbles in.

He’s taking a heavy math-science course load, so he isn’t going to be able to get into too much trouble without us knowing about it. His grades will reflect his ratio of studying to partying time effectively. Hello, FERPA form! And he’s an adult and he knows it. College is on him. If he fucks up, he goes to community college.


Summer Driving and Learning

Every summer, I do a ridiculous amount of driving. Ian’s far-flung camps and special programs are usually the cause of my pain. This summer, the driving chores were even worse, because I had Ian in ten or so small programs, and Jonah had a job, but no car.  I had high hopes of making headway on a long-term project this summer. Instead, I barely wrote a blog post or two.

My summer may have been a wash in terms of work, but for the boys, it was a huge growth experience.

Jonah took a job at a tavern in town as a bus boy.  On the face of it, the job was exploitive. He made $5 per hour with tips, but tips were often times minimal. He worked 60 hours a week, six days a week. He opened up the restaurant at 10, worked for two and half hours, then came home for three hours where I fed him dinner (which meant I had to make dinner in the middle of the afternoon) and washed his uniform (they only gave him two shirts).Then he went back at 5 and worked until 12, 1, or even 2. (Don’t even ask how we juggled cars, so we wouldn’t have to pick up Jonah at 2. It was insane.)

He lost weight, because he wasn’t allowed to eat on his job. He survived on customers’ leftover french fries and, occasionally, a half-finished steak.

Doing this job for more than the two months would have been a bad idea, but for those two months, it was great. He missed a whole lotta of parties where nothing good happened. He started identifying with the more mature 20-year olds that worked there, rather than high school kids. He learned how to set up a bank account and manage his own money. He kept track of his hours and got to work on time. He knows how to properly fold napkins and clean up poop off a bathroom floor.

Jonah developed a very healthy disgust for the functioning alcoholics who, after getting off the train at 5:00, immediately walked across the street to his tavern, where they drank until closing time.

He worked until the day before he left on a two-week trip in North Carolina, where he lived in the woods for two weeks without cellphones or showers. They didn’t even have tents. He did white water rafting, put in service hours at a wild life refuge, hiked at midnight, and camped alone for two days. We picked him up later in Asheville, very hairy and happy.

Ian isn’t the same kid as he was when we began the summer. We tried a bunch of new things, like horseback riding. He rides like a cowboy. His anxiety melts away when he sits on a horse. We’ll have to continue that in the fall.

We honed in on his strengths, which we wouldn’t have been able to do if he had gone into a program designed for special ed kids. It’s a little more stressful when he’s put into non-special ed programs, because sometimes the teachers aren’t patient or are weirded out by people who are different. This summer, it worked out. He did several computer and engineering classes. The teacher in his Maker Space camp said that he finished the programs 15 minutes before the other kids in the class. He even took computer classes for kids at the local community college. I dropped him off for three hours without an aide, and he did it. HUGE win.

Ian also started marching band at the high school. We knew that he could handle the music, but we didn’t know if he could handle other kids who played badly, the heat, the sun, the marching, long hours of waiting around, the weight of the drum, standing on his feet for that many hours, and the worry about making mistakes. Ian is actually an amazing musician. One music teacher think he’s a savant. Not sure about that, but he’s definitely the best drummer they have. And guess what? He’s managing all that other stuff, too. He’s got another six hours of band camp this afternoon. If he does it perfectly again, he’ll get a new game controller as a reward.

Jonah isn’t going to college until Labor Day. His college is one of the last to start up. So, we’re catching up on life, as we slowly make piles of school necessities — shampoo, pillows, bean bag chair. He got his wisdom teeth out. We’re throwing out papers from high school and packaging up track medals. He’s cleaning up his laptop. He and new roommate are exchanging diagrams for furniture placement in their room.

With all this change, my life is on hold. I’m the air traffic controller that makes sure that the planes are getting to the right destinations without forgetting a passenger. In two weeks, things will be boring, I’m sure. The house will be way too quiet, and I’ll be mourning the loss of my oldest. I can’t even think about that day when we leave him at school. I’m pretending that it isn’t going to happen.

Thoughts on Charlottesville

I just returned from a long drive to the South. In twelve days, we were in NJ, DE, MD, VA, NC, VA, WV, and PA. Needless to say it was too much driving, and we have vowed that the next vacation will involve staying in one place for the entire time.

We were driving through VA when the problems in Charlottesville broke out. I momentarily considered a detour to Charlottesville to get a story, but I had two very tired kids in the backseat. They just wanted to get home. I feared them more than I feared the skinheads, so we stayed on course back to home.

I’ll be the first to say that I don’t really understand the South. The first time that we visited my in-laws in North Carolina, we toured Fort Macon.  When the guide started talking about the War of Northern Aggression, I whispered to Steve, “what is he talking about?” I had never heard of this term for the Civil War.

But what I do understand is compromise, because that has been the way that the North has dealt with the South since the Revolution. For good or for ill, the country has turned a blind eye to evil practices in order to keep the nation together. When compromise hasn’t worked, there’s been conflict, riots, and war, of course, but then we very quickly return to compromise.

The compromise that we’ve had since 1960’s is that as long as African-Americans can vote and are not overtly discriminated against in terms of education and employment, then we will allow Southerners to maintain certain myths about their past – the whole tragic nobility of the South. We would allow them to honor their ancestors. We would allow them to pretend that slavery casts no shadow on today.

Well, when we uproot statues in their parks, when we punch holes in their myths and traditions, when we point out that grand-daddy was kind of an asshole, then that compromise unravels. There’s no question that the Nazi’s that marched through Charlottesville were a mentally unwell minority. However, there are a number of people down there who have been unhappy about the unraveling compromise. They might not wear swastikas, but they voted for Trump.

Honestly, I am not quite sure of what to do about this situation. Clearly, we can no longer have statues of Robert E. Lee in public parks, but how can you tell a group of people that their past and their ancestors are shit, and then expect that they will vote for our candidates and support our platform?

One way to have Southerners walk away from their culture is to heavily invest in modernity. We stopped in Raleigh on our long drive across North Carolina. Steve’s old college roommate lives there with his adorable wife. They are just about the nicest people that I’ve ever met. And like all super happy people, they started up an ice-cream store. Their business is booming like just about the rest of the town. Raleigh is a mix of Northerners who have come down to the new banking centers, university eggheads and students, and employees in all the new science and tech businesses. They have the largest, newest, shiniest high schools that I’ve ever seen.

Maybe by creating a better future in those states — more places like Raleigh — the South will more easily walk away from the past.

Summers With Disabilities

A couple of years ago, I wrote an article for the Atlantic about how long summer breaks from school are brutal on parents who work, on parents who can’t afford camps, and on working class and poor kids whose academics skills suffer. I left out a major group in that article. Summer breaks are brutal on parents like me, who have a kid with special needs.

If your child has special needs, the child might qualify for something called an Extended School Year (ESY) through the school, which is intended to prevent academic regression. The school district makes it extremely clear that the purpose of an ESY is not to teach the kid anything new – God forbid. No, all that happens during this summer program is that school maintain basic reading and math skills, so the kids aren’t starting from square one in September.

And, as your case manager will tell you, an ESY is not camp, so there will be no fun, exercise, or exposure to other children. It’s a room, a teacher, some worksheets and that’s it. For four weeks out of the eleven weeks of summer break. Some schools provide a full day of ESY for July. Ian is getting 2-1/2 hours for 20 days. And, I’m just finding out that he’s been grouped in with the kids in the lower functioning life skills class, so he’s really going to get nothing out of it.

Because 2-1/2 hours per day of activity is not enough for any kid, I spent April scrambling to find other programs and activities for him. Ian doesn’t have any friends, so if I don’t have him in activities, he’ll be basically mute by the time we go back to school in September.

In the end, I patched together about seven or eight different smaller activities for the summer. I’m acting as the Uber driver taking him from thing to thing. We have a color coded schedule on the fridge. Today, he has four different activities – ESY, swim lessons, speech class, and marching band practice.

The tricky thing is finding the right activities for Ian. He doesn’t fit into any category neatly; sometimes he needs help and sometimes he doesn’t. For example, last week, I put him in a half day Maker Space camp for typical kids. Maker Spaces are basically robotics and art classes, which is something that Ian is really, really good at. Since the camp was offered through the school district, I got them to pay for aide to shadow him around to make sure that he wasn’t being too weird or to help him with verbal instructions. Turns out that he didn’t need the aide, because he is even better at computers than I realized. He finished all the programming fifteen minutes faster than the other kids.

The Maker Space camp was a major win, but the afternoon swim class isn’t. The town swim club is one of the murky, vintage ponds. They have extremely strict rules about swimming in the deep end, because kids have drowned in there. Even though Ian is a strong swimmer, he doesn’t know how to do the alternate breathing trick, which is a requirement to pass the swim test. The town pool offers swim classes for teenagers who haven’t yet passed the deep water swim test. When I read the description in the pool bulletin, I thought that “teenager who can’t pass the swim test” was code for “skinny teenagers with Aspergers.” Turns out it was code for “immigrant teenage girls who have never put their feet in the water before.”


So, I’m sitting at the side of the pool watching Ian among the girls in bikinis, who can’t float on their backs, I’m freaking out for two reasons.

First, Ian is teenage awkwardness in swim trunks. His skin glows so white that it is almost blue. When the teacher had him practice stretching out his arms over his head for the proper crawl stroke, I could see each one of his ribs. There is an archipelago of zits over his shoulders. He’s a mess. Now, Ian has always been a beautiful kid, which has always meant that teachers and therapists gave him extra love and attention. His looks were always a major high card in his hand. We need to clean that kid up.

The second issue is that Ian’s boy part has been doing what teenage boy parts do — it springs up at all sorts of random times. Not being in possession of one of those parts, I’m not really well versed on how one controls the up and down motion of said part. I’ve heard tale of dead kittens and multiplication tables. Because Steve’s at work all the time, it has become my job to point out that the part isn’t where it should be and that it is not socially acceptable to walk into the swim club with one’s thing pointed in that direction. Typical kids, like Jonah, seem to figure all this out on their own, but kids who aren’t well connected with their bodies and have poor social skills need a lot of direct instruction on these matters.

So, I’m watching Ian surrounded by a gaggle of non-floating teenage girls in bikinis worrying that something really bad is going to happen. It didn’t. I actually think for Ian that the up and down motion has nothing to do with girls. It happens when he’s excited about other things, like music, numbers, or SpongeBob videos on YouTube.

Sometimes Ian can manage the typical world really well; other times there are bumps. He also had a rough time this week with managing the heavy drum sets in matching band and switching from the math program in Kumon to their reading program. But the bumps are small enough to mean that we have to keep muscling through the activity. But it also means that I have to be really on top of things.

I’m not entirely sure that I’m going to survive the next ten weeks.


Suburban Elegy

Yesterday afternoon was my first block of free time in weeks, so I brushed off the dust of Hillbilly Elegy, which has been sitting in my pile of books-that-should-be-read for months. I read it in one big gulp; it was that good. As soon as Jonah wakes up, I’m going to demand that he reads it.

The memoir is about one kid who managed to escape the culture of poverty thanks to luck, the Marines, and his Mamaw, who saved him from his own bad decisions and his mom’s bad decisions. He talks about the positive aspects of the Appalachian, Scot-Irish culture – loyal, family oriented – as well as the bat-shit crazy parts of the lifestyle, which has resulted in generations of poverty and misery.

I read the book from the comfort of our Crate and Barrel armchair that swivels, so I can put my feet up on the large picture window. I glanced up from the book from time to time to watch the women speed walking in their $100 running pants and the teenagers zooming by in their graduation-gift Cameros. It’s a world apart from the J.D. Vance’s Middletown, Ohio.

Yet, it’s not.

People fuck up here, too. In between the speed walking and the calorie counting on iPhone apps, there is a whole lot of wine drinking, which is somehow a more socially acceptable form of addiction than weed. There are teenagers who screw up in exactly the same ways as teenagers in every other community across the country. There are dubious debts, like second mortgages to pay for private colleges that aren’t worth the $300,000 price tag.

And while our community doesn’t have the divorce rates and rotating boyfriends that plague other parts of the country, we’re the only family that I know that actually eats dinner together every night. Kids spend long periods of time by themselves or with nannies that have no authority to reel them in. Kids work very hard at times, especially in the highly regimented sports programs and tutoring worlds, but other times, they are supremely lazy. They have no expectations for home chores or sibling babysitting. Even though they all go to college, the parents and consultants micomanage the process for them.

There have been lots of recent studies (too lazy to find the link right now) that show that the wealthier families are spending more on educational programs for their children than ever before. And that’s all true. But in between those scheduled activities, there is a parenting vacuum. Parents set up the activities and even drive them from place to place, but don’t talk with their kids or guide them or yell at them when they screw up.

My parents, who were the first generation college attenders and who came from very rough family lives themselves, are appauled at the bad habits that they see around them in their own UMC town and in ours. Entitlement is its own evil culture. Wealth can protect people from bad habits for a short time, but it’s not fool proof.

Summer is Here

Hi, y’all. We’re slowly shifting to the summer schedule, which turns out to be more frenetic than the regular schedule. I overscheduled activities for Ian, and Jonah has a work schedule that is throwing a major wrench into our two-car household. We are not ready to expand our car fleet to accommodate Jonah’s 5-dollar per hour bus boy schedule.

And $5 per hour? That’s what Jonah makes. Restaurants are allowed to pay servers less than minimum wage because they supposedly get tips. Jonah’s gets handouts from the bartenders and waitresses, so he’ll come home with $15 per night in tips. His first check for 35 hours of work was for $100. Meh.

Alright, I need to get my brain together here and get back to blogging/work. I’m going to go light this morning and just share some links.

This Iraqi refugee is doing amazing work with miniatures.

Upper middle class Americans are 21st Century Victorians.

New England style prefab houses are totally cute.

American workplaces are slowly realizing the potential of people on the autism spectrum and are making accommodations.

Professors on the chopping block. I’m going to come back to this one.


Massively Burnt

I am massively burnt out. Yesterday, I cleared my plate of all work obligations to get my head back together. I wasn’t totally happy with those projects anyway, and they had begun to hang around my neck like a week-old sausage necklace.

So, this morning, for like the first time in months and months, I don’t have any responsibility. The family chores are done, and there are no interviews to schedule. What ever shall I do? Nada.

I’m answering some e-mail, finishing this blog post, and then going out for a long walk. I’m enjoying the moment. Because things will get awful again soon. I couldn’t find a proper camp for Ian this year, so I signed him up for half a dozen short activities – swim lessons, Kumon, music, summer school, computing classes, horseback riding lessons. The last two weeks of August will be band camp at his school; if my mom can’t help out, I’ll have to drive four hours a day for that one.

Driving has also gotten tricky around here, because we only have two cars, and Jonah is using Steve’s commuter car to get to his summer job. So, I need to pick up Steve at the train station at 6:30 every day.  Most of the time, I’m cool with it, but yesterday, I kinda flipped out on him, because I was juggling a whole lot of parenting chores that day.  I may or may not have ranted for a full forty minutes about the goddamn Pony Power medical release form.

Jonah’s new job as a bus boy at a local restaurant is working out. He loves being the young guy who gossips about soccer with the bartender and listens to the waitresses bitch about each other. 

Those half-finished French fries and barely touched steak that got sent back to the kitchen? Yeah. Jonah ate it. He feels no shame.

And the next time that you rely on wikipedia for information, I want you to keep in the mind that Ian has apparently become a wikipedia editor and is inputting information. He won’t admit which pages he’s changed, because he thinks he’s in trouble. Steve figured it out what was going on, after examining the search history on his internet browser.

I’m really glad that we’re in summer-mode. Even with the driving problems, I need something new. After I go for my walk, I’m going to throw open the windows, blast some music, and clean the house. I love changes.