What emoji do you use when your kid hates college?


“Whoever said college was the best time of your life was lying.” — The Dude.

This was followed by the poop emoji.

How quickly things change. Just a few weeks ago, he couldn’t wait to leave. He was ready for college.

He is ready for college. He may have had a few unrealistic expectations, that’s all. Those unrealistic expectations will get you every time.

He has a nasty cold. I’d send him chicken soup if I could. He’d like that too, since he says the food sucks and isn’t very healthy. I’ve suggested vegetables and salads, but he isn’t taking advice at the moment. If there was a stone wall emoji, he’d use it.

Over nineteen years, we’ve made it through colic and croup, new math, buying a jockstrap, “Medieval Day”,The Iliad, Homecoming, driver’s ed, and the first and second transgressions that will not be named. I thought I was old hat at this, but when he’s unhappy, it twists me worse than a telephone cord (I had to use that analogy before it became irrelevant. I think I only had a few minutes left.)

He texts my husband about more mundane matters, like money. My husband says that’s a sign that it’s not so bad. I am parent A, the one that does out cookies and sympathy. Parent B tells the child that this is life, suck it up and soldier on.

So much of his life is going well. He has a terrific roommate, who he likes and gets along with. They were paired at random, so this was not a given. He’s playing intramural sports and has joined a couple of clubs. He’s even learning how to play golf. Classes, however are harder than he anticipated, and the old high school habits aren’t enough to get the grades he’s hoping for. My sage advice draws nothing more than a “maybe.” I have a feeling I know what emoji he’d use if he could find it, but he’s smart enough not to use it. I’m the one with the cookies and sympathy, after all.

His friends at other colleges have it so much better, he says. Life is one big party for them, and he has major FOMO. He doesn’t consider that they might be embellishing. “Why would they do that?” he says. He believes people are inherently truthful. Cute, isn’t it?

I tell him that I begged to transfer halfway through my first term and my counselor told me to hold tight and it would get better. I tell him that it did, and I stayed where I was. I knew it wouldn’t be any better somewhere else. It was not the time of my life, but it set me on the path I wanted to be on. There’s a lot to be said for not peaking too early.

He’s forgotten how long it takes to build friendships and how long it takes to feel at home somewhere new. He’s forgotten that he once said moving to Virginia, the place he so longs for, was the worst thing that ever happened to him. Patience is not his forte. Neither is perspective. After all, he is a nineteen year old. It’s exactly what he needs, though, along with some decongestant and a perhaps a box of pop tarts.

I text to ask how he’s doing and he answers “sick.” I suggest he visit the health center, but he’s “busy.” I won’t even bother suggesting he go to CVS. I tell him to go to Noodle and Co and get some chicken soup, and if he’s running a fever, by all means go to the health center. He texts back “How do I know if I’m running a fever?” I ask if he’s hot and achy. He answers “My dorm has no AC. I’m always hot and achy.”

I know this conversation could go on forever. He has made up his mind to be miserable, and there is nothing I can do to change it. I ask my husband if he’s heard anything from the Dude. My husband just laughs.

Overcome with motherly concern, I break down. I know it’s unhealthy, like a drug addiction. I do it less often than I did in the beginning, just after he left. I’m down to once or twice a day. I open the Find My Phone app to see where he is.

He’s playing golf. I guess that’s why he’s busy.

I send him a blowing kiss emoji and say I’ll check in later, then put together a gift package; decongestant, a thermometer, tissues and a box of pop-tarts. We’ll both make it through another day.

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The not-so-last supper with my college bound son

IMG_0460Dinner wasn’t how I imagined it. What ever is?

I’d planned multiple not-so-last suppers. These dinners would give us memories to sustain us until Thanksgiving, when the Dude would return, all collegiate and wise, asking for wine with dinner while discussing the Greek debt crisis.

If only he’d show up, they’d be great.

It was the day before the day before he’d head off to Indiana, but he had plans, maybe, or maybe not, or yes, but not sure when, or if they included dinner, and he’d let me know when it was settled. It wasn’t a surprise. We’d been dancing this tango all summer long.

By the time he’d figured out he needed dinner, it was too late to cook something and have it done in time for him to eat it. Shrugging off his overwhelming disappointment, he told us he was going to get carryout. My husband and I offered to take him somewhere, but that would risk us being seen together, so my husband offered to bring in dinner for all of us. The Dude liked it because it meant he didn’t have to pay for it. I liked it because it meant I didn’t have to cook. My husband said it would give the Dude more time to avoid packing.

“Why rush things,” said the Dude.

Despite heading off to college, the Dude has the eating habits of a toddler. One steak and cheese, no onions, no mushrooms, no peppers, no sauce. Only meat, cheese and bread.

Something this simple should not be hard to accomplish, yet when the Dude unwrapped his sandwich it was clear that the order was all wrong.

“I’m out of here. See you later.” We heard the rev of the engine, the thump of the base line, and with the opening and closing of the garage door, he was gone.

Beyond opening the wrapper, the Dude never touched his dinner. No amount of scraping or removal of the offending items could salvage the culinary travesty. The sandwich stared back at my husband and I, wondering what it had done wrong.

I took a deep inhale. My husband closed his eyes and snapped his plastic fork in two.

“May he fall in love with a vegan foodie,” I said. Nothing cuts the tension like a good joke. This one wasn’t good enough.

“He’s tone deaf to everyone else’s feelings.” My husband found a new fork. “He could have at least said thank you.”  He continued to vent. He took time he didn’t have to get take out he didn’t really want so he could share dinner with his son who couldn’t be bothered to stay and eat. “It’s a slap in the face.”

I have little sympathy for my husband. This happens to me almost every week with food that I actually prepare. But I didn’t bring that up because I know it wasn’t the real issue.

Knowing goodbye is coming is almost as hard as the actual goodbye. The Dude is pulling away because he is as afraid of missing us as we are of missing him, only we’re allowed to acknowledge it. He’s heading off to the best time of his life. Just because he’s ready to leave, however, doesn’t mean he has the emotional lexicon to do so gracefully.

We are dealing with the omnipresent “last”.  Our scuttled dinner was only the second to last, meaning we still had more, but only one more. We could pretend one more time that it’s just another dinner in a thousand dinners we’ve shared around our table, but this was the last time we could.

“I’ll talk to him tonight.” It was our own ritual of “last”;The Dude and I, both night owls, would stay up and watch television and talk, sharing foot space on the ottoman. Sometimes I made popcorn, sometimes he made pancakes.

“Dinner was uncool,” I said to the Dude as we both reached for the last few kernels in the bowl. He knew. He has a tell–a particular expression he wears when he’s already composed a response to the question he knows is coming.

His reasons sound so much like the ones his father dishes up. The workday was long, He had too much to do, and too little time. The weather was too hot, and the kids uncooperative. His friends can’t seem to make up their minds about plans, and change their minds too easily. He never asked for his Dad to get dinner, and then it was the wrong sandwich. It was all too much.

Goodbye is so hard.

“I’ll apologize to him tomorrow.”

The next day, while I was preparing dinner, the real, last dinner, my husband came home. He poured himself a scotch, and I told him I’d talked to the Dude about the prior evening.

“I have a few things I’d like to say.” I hoped my husband could find the emotional lexicon to get his point across while preserving our last “last”.

The Dude sidled up and shoulder checked him, and said, “Hey.”

My husband put him in a headlock.

All was forgiven. I went back to cooking dinner.

I guess he had all of the emotional lexicon he required, although it wasn’t the conversation I’d imagined.

What ever is.

Speaking of relationships…

megaphone (2)I’ve tuned my strings and rosined my bow, which should mean it’s time to practice. I know however, that it is time for the Dude to pose some deep existential question we must discuss right now. I barely make it through the first scale when I hear him clawing up the stairs on his elbows. When he’s finished, he collapses in the hallway outside my practice room door.

What will it be tonight, I wonder? The abandonment of scientific evidence by mainstream media outlets? Perhaps the feasibility of isolationism in a global economy? Or the perennial favorite, why do ESPN commentators rank Peyton Manning above Tom Brady?

None of the above.

“How do I talk to women?”

“Your lungs create air pressure which causes the vocal chords to vibrate, and then…” He gives me his best “Why do I ask you anything” eye roll. I’m still holding the violin, although I know it’s a lost cause. I don’t mind. I’m aware the sand is running out on my chick-in-the-nest hourglass.

“I mean beyond, hi, how are you, great party.” He gives a manly sigh. “Guys are easy to talk to. I make a sarcastic remark about Nick, Nick comes back with an even more sarcastic remark about me. Then I make another sarcastic remark, and…”

I stop him before this becomes the conversation that gets on everybody’s nerves, namely mine. “Ask questions.” I used to do this for a living. It’s amazing what people will spill when they believe you’re hanging on their every word. “Everyone’s favorite subject is themselves. Ask about her hobbies, her favorite classes, and her family. Ask follow up questions to get more detail. If she’s an equestrian, ask about her horse. If she plays an instrument, ask about composers.”

“But what if I’m not all that interested in her answer?”

“Do you think I’m all that interested in the history of debt?” My husband reads a lot of non-fiction. For the record, the history of debt is actually kind of interesting,  Maybe not four days worth of interesting, but interesting. “If you’re truly interested in her, you’re interested in what she has to say.”

He’s not convinced.

“Trust me. A–I’m a woman. B–I’ve had enough successful relationships that I’ve had sex.”

“With Dad.” Like that disqualifies him somehow. I’m glad my husband isn’t in the house.

“Still, I’m a woman, and you talk to me all of the time.” Usually when I’m writing, practicing, or about to go to sleep, not that I’m being picky.

“It’s different. You’re like a guy. You can even talk about Tom Brady.”

“I’m like a human being.” I get all woman-power on his ass. We’ve had many discussions lately about feminism vs. humanism, Gamergate, and why I go batshit when someone says they don’t like feminists because they’re “shrill.”

“Women are people. We have thoughts and ideas to share. We don’t just talk about shoes and our emotions. Women care about politics, and current events, and yeah, even sports. We’re just like men, except with boobs.”

He cringes. “You had me until the men with boobs thing.”

“And it wouldn’t hurt to share your emotions from time to time.”

“I don’t have emotions.”

“If you didn’t have emotions, you wouldn’t have crawled up the stairs and flopped the doorway of my practice room to ask me this question. Look Dude, these things aren’t automatic. They take effort.”

Effort. It’s such a nasty word.

“I’ve always heard that relationships should be easy, that if they require a huge effort, something is fundamentally wrong.”

“I’ve always heard one shouldn’t quote relationship advice until they’ve actually been in a relationship, which, by the way, I have.”

“With DAD.”

I know that this particular conversation has reached diminishing marginal returns, and I have a gig the next day I need to prepare for, so I pull out the best conversation killer I know.

“There are a few things I could tell you about your Dad, Dude. Like this one time…”

He plugs his ears and runs down the stairs. “Lalalala. I can’t hear you!”

“…he read this amazing book on the history of debt.”

Photograph : Suessian Megaphone, by Michael © 2007 Creative Commons/Flickr

 

My son applied to college and all I got was this essay

draftMy son is applying for college and our entire household is on Valium. The source of our stress, however, is not the shift in our family structure or the cost of out of state tuition. It’s the college application process.

I applied to two colleges. The Dude is applying to eight. I’m told this is on the low end of average.  Each application has anywhere from one to three essay questions. And we’re not talking about lame, tell me about yourself, what you’re studying, why you’re buckets of awesome essay questions. These are theses worthy of a philosophy doctoral student or an entire White House Cabinet. Nothing separates the wheat from the chaff than having to outline a position on the Affordable Care Act in 300 words or less, in a way that shows the reader the real you. After all, it works for the Miss America pageant, right?

One of the essay questions is actually “Why do you do what you do?” I’ve been asking the Dude this question for years (although it’s generally worded “What were you thinking?”, and he’s yet to come up with any answer, let alone an articulate one. The best I can get out of him is an indiscriminate mumble and the head hang of chagrin.

Another question gives a quote about momentary connections with strangers that can have profound emotional impact. It asks the student to share a similar experience. We’re talking about a 17 year-old boy. Connecting with human beings would require him to look up from his phone, and compared to his friends, my son is freaking Oprah.

Show, don’t tell. Share something unique about yourself. Show that you’ve done your research. Articulate your career aspirations. Have career aspirations. No wonder the Dude is having a nervous breakdown. They’d might as well ask for the history of ball point pen spelled out in interpretive dance.

I understand that colleges need some means to distinguish between applicants, so let me suggest a few questions that will actually help illuminate the character of prospective students.

You have two critical assignments that will take all day, and both are due tomorrow. You could provide partial work on both, or complete one in its entirety. How long have you been procrastinating and what did you do instead?

Your mother has just asked you to answer her question and you have just realized she’s been speaking for the last five minutes. What is your response?

Which is the greater offense, driving the car home without enough fuel to make it to the gas station, or spilling your Caramel Crunch Frappuccino on the driver’s seat? Defend your choice.

Which is more transparent to you, the mass of  tortilla chip shards surrounding your desk, or the pile of dirty Kleenex next to your bed? Which one will your mother notice first, and why?

Your mother is a writer who churns out 500 word essays on a daily basis. What makes her uniquely unqualified to critique your rough draft?

I tell The Dude that writing is fun, and he looks at me like I’ve told him his Dad and I have sex. He’s actually a good writer, funny and creative. Adults, however, have done everything they can to suck the joy out of stringing words together, transforming meaning and cadence into points on an AP exam. Is it any wonder we tell them to show us who they are and they’re afraid of giving the wrong answer?

I don’t know where he’ll end up going to school. I only know both the Dude and the school are lucky to have each other. I only wish I could be there to see him find what he loves. As for knowing why he does what he does, I’m not holding my breath.

Photograph “Drafting” by Sebastian Wiertz © 2012 Creative Commons/Flickr

 

Our tour at Come-here-U

squirrelWelcome future Hedgehogs! My name is Ryan and I’m your tour guide for today. I’m a senior studying Medieval Organizational Strategy, with a minor in walking backwards while dressed like an academic Best Buy salesperson. I congratulate you on your wise choice in considering this wonderful university. After all, we’re the first land-grant medium-large institution in cities beginning with the letter T!

I’ll be showing you the highlights of our beautiful campus. Feel free to ask me any questions along the way. Chatting up the tour guide probably won’t help you get you the fat envelope, but it doesn’t hurt. Some of us have student loans, wink, wink.

Where are you all from? Come on people, this isn’t an AP exam. Wherever you’re from, you’re not alone. We have students from every state in the Union, including Alaska and Hawaii. Our representative from Montana graduates in June, however, so if you’re from Big Sky Country, our admissions office has an extra-large swag basket with your name on it.

Our tour begins here on the Academic oval, or as we call it, “The Beach.” Hel-lo Ladies. How are you doin? I love the smell of Hawaiian Tropic in the morning. Whoa! Watch out for the ongoing hacky sack tourney! One hundred thirty-two days and counting.

We have over 500 clubs here on campus , so there are plenty of diversions from actually studying. We even have a squirrel watching club, Quidditch team, and the autumnal leaf rakers. There’s plenty of grass to go around! The legal kind, of course.

For our more musical students, we have 67 a capella groups. They battle outside of the Union every afternoon.  My personal favorite is the Thelonius Monks—they use cue cards. That way they’re always in tune. Come on you stragglers, get those feet moving!

Our campus covers over 5000 acres. We have a transit system that can take you anywhere you want to go. Just show your student I.D. It’s all free!

Gather round, peeps. This is a statue of our first dean, Millard J. Phillpot. It’s a hedgehog tradition to goose his booty after you’ve graduated. No one leaves campus without a squeeze and a selfie. Don’t try it until you have that sheepskin—legend has it that if you jump the gun, Millard’s ghost will make sure you end up living in your parent’s basement until you’re thirty. Just ask my brother. Let’s roll!

This is the undergraduate library. There are books around here somewhere. At least that’s what I’ve been told. There is, however, a Starbucks and a Chipotle on every floor. Just swipe your student I.D. It’s all free! Guy’s gotta fuel up, know what I mean? But not today, we’re just passing through.

While we walk to McCready Hall, I’ll tell you about our study abroad program. There’s nothing like spending a semester in a foreign land. I myself spent a term in Belize, and my roommate studied French in St. Martin. Welcome to our university, now get out! Just kidding! I know you’re thinking, “what kind of Medieval Organization Strategy did they deploy in Central America?” All kinds! Who knew? Just pack your sunscreen.

Here, let me hold the door. Come on through. This is McCready Hall, home of our humanities department. You can tell by all of the marble busts of writer dudes. The main auditorium holds 600, but don’t worry—our average class size is 15. You’ll only have a large lecture hall for classes that end in a 0 or 1. And sometimes a 2. Or if it’s required for your major.

I hope our dean of admissions told you that we’re a premier research institution. Starting from freshman year our students have the opportunity to work for work for free for someone they aren’t related to. One of my buds got lost on the way to class and ended up on an archeological dig. He sends his laundry home on a weekly basis. The University has a shipping office in every dorm. Just swipe your student I.D. It’s all free!

Speaking of dorms, that’s our next stop!

We offer several housing options. Freshmen are typically placed on South Campus, which we affectionately refer to as Troll Village or The Sauna. The rooms are coed by floor, theoretically, with a communal bathroom. If the showers are full and you’re pressed for time, just flush a toilet. In universal student language, that means “sober up and get out.”

All dorms have wireless access to satisfy even your most avid Call of Duty operative, and we allow any appliance smaller than a convection oven. You can also rent a fridge so you have someplace to store your…mineral water. The building isn’t air conditioned, but every room is equipped with at least one functioning window.

After freshman year, we offer suite-style housing where two units share one bathroom. Each unit houses four students and includes a kitchenette and common area. It’s just like living at home—only Mom doesn’t nag you about the dirty dishes in the sink or the state of your bathroom. Over the summer, the university brings in a hazmat team to ready the rooms for another year of academic exploration.

This is a typical University Dining Hall. As you can see, they offer absolutely anything you can think of. We have a kosher section, vegan section, and the lacto/gluten/peanut-free section. And over there is the Nostalgia section, which serves hot chili fritos and hash seven days a week, and our ever-popular grill, The Freshman Fifteen.

During exams, the snack bar stays open all night for our hardworking students with a hearty supply of Red Bull and Pixie Sticks. Say it with me. Just swipe your student I.D. Yup, you got it. Free!

This is the study lounge. Don’t you love the leather sofas and the stone fireplace? It’s just like Hogwarts without the students. Imagine your son or daughter cozying up with a book around a roaring fire. Go ahead. Imagine it. Denial is healthy.

Each campus has its own recreational facility complete with basketball courts, an inside running track, a climbing wall, unisex hot tub, and 24/7 personal trainers. Just swipe your I.D. That’s right. Free!

Greek life is another option for post-freshman housing. I’m a member of Alpha Got Good Gamma, dedicated to good works, scholarly pursuits and rocking the weekend. We also have a number of students that rent apartments off-campus. Most apartments are furnished. Just sign a lease and move in. Don’t look under the cushions.

This brings us to our final stop—the Placement office. Because that’s what we’re all looking for, am I right? Rest assured, our placement rate is well over 90%, not including those students going on to graduate school.

What’s that? My major again? Medieval Organizational Strategy. Of course I have a job.  In the admissions office.

Thanks again for visiting us, and make sure to fill out the evaluation form in the back of your welcome packet. Good luck with your senior year, and I look forward to reading all of your applications! Go Hedgehogs.

Photograph : Squirrel on Campus by Corey Seeman © 2010 Creative Commons/Flickr

 

The exponential complexity of teenage dating

puzzleboxWatching the Dude negotiate his teen years, I’m reminded of some fundamental truths of  high school life.

1) You are not as dorky as you think you are. It all balances out over time.

2) Similarly, you are not as awesome as you think you are. It all balances out over time.

3) There is some subject you hate because you think it’s confusing and useless, and you’ll end up needing it some day. For me, it was logarithmic functions. I was fifteen years into my research career, and I was like, really? Now? This is why I became a writer.

4) Combination locks were invented by a sadist. So were logarithmic functions.

5) Dating sucks. Having a boyfriend/girlfriend is very nice. The road to there, however, is convoluted, confusing and no matter what you do, it’s the wrong thing. Sort of like logarithmic functions.

Social life at my son’s high school works like a puzzle box. He must move the pieces in precise order and placement for the top to open, and just when he thinks he’s got it right, someone adds another layer of complexity. You can only use one hand. Touch the wrong piece and and the box resets. The box holds another puzzle box.

I remember the teen caste system as pretty unforgiving. The Dude is in a good place. He has nice friends and seems to move across social strata without much trouble, yet like many teens still feels on the outside looking in a lot of the time. Come to think of it, many adults feel that way too.

He’s counting on college to be different. After all, he’ll have no parental supervision. I reminded him that we sent him to a four week Spanish language program over the summer where it appeared he had very little supervision, and by the looks of the Facebook pictures from the week, plenty of girls to pick from. In fact, given the No English policy, if he’d dated a girl from the French camp, he wouldn’t even have had to talk to her.

“Mom, no one hooks up at camp.”

Generations of band camp attendees beg to differ.

I told him that it gets better. After all, his father and I found each other at a big group event where the Venn diagram of our social circles had an intersection of one person. That’s all it takes. I look for hope and understanding in his face and all I see is you had choices and ended up with each other? I’m not sure if I should be offended or not.

It could also be worse. Malia Obama went to her first prom. Her secret service agents wore ties that matched her dress. Dating is hard enough without having to introduce a young man to your father, the Commander-in-Chief. Your parents are only Prius-driving dorks that use the term “Venn diagram” in regular conversation.

The thing about a puzzle box, is that you just have to try until you find the combination that works. It will open in its own time, when you least expect. It only feels like it goes on and on without end. Sort of like a logarithmic functions. On second thought, maybe you ought to talk to your father.

Photograph : “A Mystery Box” by RBerteig © 2007 Creative Commons/Flickr

Stay away from the light

bugzapperI was chatting with the mother of a rising freshman. We talked about the social scene, dating, drugs, drinking and all of the rumors and realities of high school life. I reassured her that her son would be fine, but it was time for her to build up some armor.

You will attend a parent coffee, I said. You will find a group of moms near the food table, and they will be comparing notes about their children; how many AP classes they are taking, how many years ahead they are in math, and how they’ve already taken the SAT to get a baseline as they start their college preparations. As freshmen.

They will ask you how many sports your child plays, who they study oboe with, and insist that colleges like to see at least one study abroad experience before junior year. They will give you the business card of a consultant who will begin to build your child’s curriculum vitae, and will tell you to call today, since you should have started in kindergarten.

Be strong, I said. You are the bug and it is the big blue buzzing light. Stay away. The room is full of sanity. Find it.

The Dude always knew when I’d gotten scorched. I’d start talking about the cello and lacrosse and maybe he’d like to spend a summer learning quantum physics.  I’d worry that I was too busy writing to pay sufficient attention. The Dude assured me that if I paid any more attention to him, I might as well put a microchip in him like a family pet. I didn’t remind him that his cell phone served the same function. Find Friends is an awesome app. Eventually, I believed him.

But the Dude came home last night from an evening with some friends all freaked out. The colleges he was considering were all lame. If he wasn’t going to Northwestern, UVA or Michigan it wasn’t worth it. His life was over.

I wasn’t paying enough attention. He got zapped.

Having a razor thin definition of success is the easiest path to failure. The shortest distance between two points is a straight line, but it’s not the only way to connect them. Wearing blinders doesn’t keep you focused, it keeps you from seeing new alternatives. The chances he’s going to Michigan, UVA or Northwestern are small. His chances of being awesome are 100%. All he has to do is get there, step by step. His steps won’t look like anyone else’s, not because he’s the Dude, but because everyone’s does.

Besides, I said. I know plenty of people who took a rocket ship from A to B only to find that B wasn’t all that great. All he had to do was look at his parents. Money is an easy measurement trap to fall into.  Salary isn’t always correlated with happiness. It doesn’t hurt, but it can’t make up for the misery of being in a life that isn’t yours.

The Dude took it all in, and I searched his face for a reaction.

His face said, blah blah blah, my mother’s mouth is moving. After all what do I know?

Well Dude, I know a lot more than you think. I’ve been there, I’m your Mom, and I’m also a badass.

And if that’s not enough, I have a master’s degree from Northwestern. You might have heard of it.

Words by J. B. Everett

Photograph “Bug Zapper” by David Keyser © 2007 Creative Commons/Flickr