Sunday, July 18, 2010

Letting Go

In roughly six weeks we’re dropping our son off at college, the first of our children to officially “leave home.” The Dude (thus named in an earlier post on Perils of Skype, May 2010) is a fairly low-maintenance fellow, and other than clothes, a PC, bedding, towels and a desk lamp … oh, plus his hiking boots and backpack for his orientation trip … isn’t bringing much. He does seem interested in acquiring his grandparents’ mini-fridge, even though there’s a fridge down the hallway in his dorm … hmmm ….

Of course I can’t help but compare this sendoff to my own, 31 years ago. Unlike The Dude with his two duffel bags, I filled our family’s station wagon to the ceiling. Determined to transform the cinderblock-and-formica-tile floored hovel into a cozy bedroom, I brought wall hangings, a carpet, assorted decorative items … my poor roommate didn’t know what hit her.

We had no phone or fridge in that room: the phone was down the hall, in a closet of sorts. Once a week I called my parents to check in, and if they called me someone might pick up the ringing phone, knock on my door, find no one about, then leave a message on my white board that “Mom called.” No daily emails or cell phone contact or texting with the ‘rents.

We unloaded the car, my folks helped me set up my bed and fill my dresser, then they took a couple of photos of my roommate and me before they turned right around and drove the four hours back home. There was no Parents’ Orientation Barbecue, or speeches by the President, or Welcome Pavilion for them. They paid my bill, dropped me off, and left.

The Dude’s college has a Welcome Pavilion. They have scores of helpful volunteers to unload our car and carry his stuff up four flights of stairs. The President will indeed address us parents, and yes, we get lunch. But there’s more.

They have an entire office devoted to Parent Affairs, and there are even opportunities for parents to “volunteer” at the college. There is a Parents’ Group, we get regular Parents’ Mailings and … there is a Listserv. Where parents ask each other questions, vent, share information … you name it.

This is at once helpful and anxiety-provoking. For example, The Dude and I decided that it would be convenient and inexpensive to order all his bed linens and towels from the vendor the college recommended. Then the Listserv sounded off: “MY son only sleeps on 100-percent cotton sheets, and these are a blend!” “The towels are much too thin!” “My daughter hated the colors!” Oh. Well. I felt like a bad parent, sending him off with blended sheets.

Of course, The Dude shrugged. “Thin towels dry faster hanging on a hook,” he said. “I like plain blue.”

Have I mentioned how incredibly cool The Dude can be sometimes?

Then came the Laundry Service debate. An ad for a new laundry service at the college came in the mail, and my initial reaction was, “The Dude will improve his life and time management skills by washing and drying his own clothes. We are not paying for laundry service.” He agreed: “Aren’t there washers and dryers in all the dorms?” Simple enough. But debate raged on the Listserv.

One pro-service parent felt doing laundry would take away from her child’s chance to explore other meaningful opportunities at college. But another worried about allergic reactions to the chemicals used by the service. Another felt the service sounded good, but a two-day turnaround for clothes wasn’t quick enough, because her son’s football stuff needed washing every day …

Finally, there was a post from California. One mom asked her son, who is a rising junior at the college, to weigh in, and not only on the laundry issue. It was priceless.

Re. the laundry service: “I’d be embarrassed if dudes picked up my dirty crap outside my door but I’m not other people so no worries if it works for you. Everyone at school does their own laundry. We hang out while the dryer’s goin or whatever. Btw, I saw the mom thinking her kid needed service for his football gear. Dude, don’t let your mom do this. We’ll talk.”

Re. clothing: “Good socks are like, mandatory. Not what you want to learn the hard way.”

Re. books: “Buy books on Amazon. I saved a buncha dough.”

General advice: “It’s all good just chill out and let your kid go to school. It’s tough enough to earn this journey just getting into [college], but the best thing is being there ….”

Yes! Yes, thank you, Chill Fellow From California! We survived, and our kids will survive, even if their towels are paper thin and their sheets lined with plastic! Even if they lose their room keys, hate their roommates, dislike the food and have to study for a big test while their laundry dries!

I’m simultaneously looking forward to and dreading drop off day. I’m excited for The Dude; I’ll miss The Dude. I’ll enjoy making his bed with those blended sheets; I’ll definitely cry on the drive home. And probably, on days when I’m really missing him, I’ll check in with the Listserv for some advice.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Why Would Anyone Do This?

As someone who writes for teens, I often find myself racing to catch up with them. I try not to add too many details in my books that will "date" them, but if I'm writing something contemporary, inevitably I'll have to reference some current music, clothing, or technology.

I'll confess, my musical tastes are locked somewhere in the 80's (not my fault, really, since I used to work at an 80's radio station and their entire playlist is embedded in my mental hard drive ...) so I regularly query kids on what they've recently added to their iPods.

Styles are easy enough to figure out: just carpool to the high school a few times or chaperone a dance (if you dare) to check out what kids are wearing. Technology and the Internet is tougher. I've leaned on my kids multiple times to walk me through Instant Messaging, Facebook, and texting. This process becomes highly comic when one of my manuscripts reaches a copyeditor who is older and even less tech-savvy than me. Confusion reigns, and problems are resolved only when a very young, junior editor can be found to explain it all.

Recently, I had reason to explore a new site on the Internet which has apparently taken off with teens in the past few months, and has left me absolutely bewildered. It's called Formspring, and I'd describe it as the Wild West of Cyberbullying. According to a recent New York Times article it's particularly prevalent among middle schoolers, and most parents have never heard of it.

Formspring is free, public, and mean. It's essentially a blackboard where anyone who signs up can ask you questions about yourself or simply post comments about you. And unlike sites such as Facebook, which only your "friends" can access, anyone can sign up for Formspring and post comments. Anonymously.

Yup. It's like taping a sign on your own back that reads "Kick Me." It begs an interesting question with a troubling answer: Why would anyone in their right mind subject themselves to this?

Now, it is possible to block or delete questions and comments that are sent to you via Formspring, and the site managers claim to have methods for tracking reported cyberbullies. But that doesn't explain the horrible, rude, often obscene comments which teens do make public. Why? Why would anyone purposely post horrible, untrue comments about themselves?

Shrinks and school counselors have explained the Formspring phenomenon as extreme attention seeking, as well as too much reliance on what other's think of you. Rachel Simmons, who has a wonderful site for girls, posted this insightful commentary on Formspring:


Much of what I've found as I explore the world of today's teens is exciting and fun and creative. But some of it is troubling, and I'd put Formspring in the latter category.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Summer Job

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about summer jobs not only because … well, it’s summer … but also because the teens in our home are in the thick of theirs. I’m reminded of the myriad horrific summer jobs I had back when I was a teen growing up in New Jersey, and I wonder why I remain such an ardent believer in the Value of a Summer Job.

Here’s the summer job I always dreamed of having: waitressing on Long Beach Island on the Jersey Shore. Now, I realize the skanky television show Jersey Shore has completely co-opted all that is grand and glorious about that stretch of beach in the Garden State (yes, Jersey is the Garden State) and yes, hospital waste did on occasion wash up back in those days, but the waves were warm and perfect for body surfing and the place swarmed with other teens. I dreamed of earning thousands in tips while hefting trays at night, then swimming and tanning during the day. Sleep was not part of the plan …

Instead, I remained home in the suburbs with my parents during the summer, scavenging for work. I cleaned houses. I filed bills and answered phones in a doctor’s office. I stuffed diet pills into little pink boxes that rolled mercilessly toward me on a factory conveyor belt (sort of like Lucy and Ethel in the bon bon factory, only these were capsules filled with legal doses of speed).

These jobs were dull, lonely, and occasionally gross (one of the houses I cleaned was absolutely filthy) and paid minimum wage. They made me yearn for the unthinkable … summer’s end … and certainly strengthened my resolve to get a decent education so I wouldn’t get stuck doing those jobs forever. They also made me appreciate the plight of someone living day after day in a job she hated. They also made me think about the lives of those who would have been grateful to have even those jobs. It was, in retrospect, a good lesson for an entitled, college-bound kid from Bergen County.

Fast forward some thirty years to my kids’ current jobs, and I’d say they’re pretty lucky. My son is a counselor at a boys’ camp on an island in Maine. He sleeps in a platform tent with four little boys every night, listening to the water lap and loons call each night just beyond the tent’s opening. His days are spent teaching them how to play tennis, making sure they don’t drown while swimming, and helping lead them on hiking and canoeing treks throughout the state. Tough, huh?

But there’s more to it: last year, when he was a counselor-in-training, he dug ditches, hauled trash, and “raked” and sanitized the composting toilets. This summer, after a senior year spent thinking almost exclusively about himself (my college applications, my prom, my graduation) he’s spending seven weeks thinking almost exclusively about the happiness and welfare of others. Are the boys safe? Are they homesick? Are they treating each other well? Are they keeping the tent clean? I must confess I take a special delight in hearing my 18-year old complain about how he hates to nag kids to clean up, hurry up … heh heh.

Our daughter is getting a first-hand look at the world of local agriculture as she works Saturday mornings at the farmer’s market for Bob the Turkey Guy. 70-year old Bob drives all the way to Brunswick from New Sharon, Maine, where he raises and slaughters and packages organic, free-range turkeys. At the farmer’s market, he sets up his tent, unloads heavy coolers packed with ice and “product,” and entertains summer people and locals alike who stop by to purchase his sausages, cutlets and ground meat. Our daughter comes home filled with stories about Bob and all the other vendors. She’s been amazed at how hard a 70-year old man can work. She’s gotten a peak into what it takes to run your own small business and to earn a living one cutlet at a time.

That’s the value I see in a Summer Job. Sure, you earn some cash, and that’s good for a teen. But it takes you out of yourself, out of the usual rut of school and homework and all the wonderful and terrible things you deal with as a teenager, and plops you down into some other reality. You might end up seeing the world a little differently, and that’s always good.