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Thursday, August 17, 2017

Words of Wisdom as You Leave for College

Dear College-Bound Freshmen,

Because I’m somewhat certain that whatever words your own parents may impart regarding your impending departure will be met with eye rolls, slammed doors, or worse, I’ll go ahead and do it for them. Keep in mind that I do realize that you’ve got this and that nothing anyone (least of all someone of a rapidly aging generation) could possibly say would ever begin to change the course of your life.  

But, still.

I can’t resist sneaking my words of wisdom inside your Bed, Bath and Beyond comforter set and hoping they’ll sink in as you sleep soundlessly upon your new Tempur-Pedic pillow.

It’s been more years than I can count since I left the bosom of my happy home for the open canvas of a college campus. But don’t think for a minute that I’ve forgotten the exhilarating feelings of hope, joy, excitement, enthusiasm, eagerness and boundless opportunity.

Nor have I forgotten the overwhelming pangs of panic, fear, uncertainty and anxiety. Or that ever- growing pit in the bottom of my stomach that radiated to the pulse of my heart and the depths of my soul with every approaching day.

That summer before I left for college I was mean to my parents. I lashed out at my siblings. And I spent a minimum of 20 hours a day with my high school cronies. Because I knew for sure that never in a million beers would I find a new set of friends who would understand me, love me and put up with me as my hometown homies had. And so, I had to pack as much fun and friendship into a summer as I possibly could.

I was the third child in three years to leave my parents’ nest and I got what my older sisters left behind. My bedspread was a pink woven thing with some blue and white threaded accents that conflicted horribly with my freshman roommate’s Holly Hobbied comforter. You know, the little girls in patchwork dresses with the big bonnets on their heads holding sprigs of wildflowers. Those Holly Hobbies.

There were no matching sheets or in-room television sets or pink plastic hangers. There were no Rubbermaid containers or rolling suitcases. We collected boxes from the local liquor store to transport our personal items and stole milk crates from behind the WaWa to store our record albums. We carried our toiletries to the common bathroom in gallon-sized paint pails. We didn’t have microwaves but rather electric popcorn poppers and hot plates on which we heated up mugs of Lipton-Cup-a-Soup.

When I left for college freshman year, we loaded up the family station wagon. What didn’t fit didn’t go. Nothing got tied to the roof, tugged from the trunk or shipped from the post office. We pulled up in front of Harley Hall, made our ten trips in and out of the dorm, my father sighing heavily with each box he dropped on my floor. My parents hugged me goodbye. And they left. I made my own bed. Put my own clothes away. And began my own life.

There were no cell phones so we wrote letters. Lots of letters. My parents called me once a year on my birthday, dialing in to the pay phone at the end of the hall. One year I got two calls, only because the death of my grandmother warranted quicker communication than the US mail would bring. When winter break came along, if we weren’t successful with the Ride Board in the Student Center, we would take a Trailways bus home, even if it added three hours to a two-hour drive. Or hitchhike.

I know, I know, your eyes are beginning to glaze over. This isn’t your life.  It’s mine. But I tell you these things not so much as a “When I was your age, …” kind of tale, but rather to point out that certain life lessons transcend the test of time.

I know every person is different. Every circumstance is unique. And every school has its own vibe. But, I can’t help but wonder just how my life would have panned out if I had known then what I know now and had followed some wise old woman’s advice instead of insisting on blazing my own trail.

So, here goes. 30 timeless tips for the college-bound:

  1. Don’t play baseball.
    If you don’t love it anymore, don’t play. Don’t run. Don’t ski. Don’t pluck the cello. Don’t join the debate team. And don’t major in theater. Just because you’ve done something your whole life doesn’t mean you have to keep doing it. Now is the time to think about the whys behind the whats and figure out if you’re doing it for yourself or because it is expected of you.
  2.  Kiss the fat boy, not the frat boy.
    While the world has turned out thousands of upstanding fraternity brothers, don’t limit yourself to those who rank. Look beyond the coke bottle glasses, the Wrangler jeans, the unbranded sneakers and get to know people for who they are, not what they represent to the high school version of yourself.
  3. Eat pizza at midnight.
    And ice cream for breakfast. Just because you can. But keep in mind that the freshman 15 is rectifiable. The subsequent sophomore, junior and senior 15 are harder to shed. 
  4. Leave your car at home.
    Do you really want to be the designated driver for the next four years? God created Uber for a reason.
  5. Call your mother.
    Humor her as she asks if you’re studying hard. If you’ve made any friends. If you miss her. Just say yes. It’s easier that way.
  6. Pull lots of all-nighters.
    Drink copious amounts of Red Bull so you can finish that paper and go to the Kendrick Lamar concert. Because a good education is well-rounded. 
  7. Give it the old college try.
    Whether you chose this school or it chose you, if it’s not a good fit, it doesn’t have to be your final destination. Keep your options open (which means keep your grades up), and think about transferring somewhere better suited to your hopes, dreams and reality.
  8. Be color blind.
    Experience different cultures. Learn different languages. Love different people. 
  9. Change your major.
    Stop worrying about disappointing your grandmother. If you want to study philosophy instead of going pre-med, do it. You’ll get a job, eventually. I promise.
  10. Don't ask for money.
    Call home to say hello. I love you. I need your advice. But, don’t ask for money. Get a job if you’ve blown your budget by October 1st. You may be used to getting anything you ever asked for, but it’s time to stop expecting your parents to bail you out. 
  11. Do something alone.
    College flocks are fun, but you also need to spend quality time with someone more important. Yourself. 
  12.  Never take a Thursday night class. 
  13.  Talk to strangers.
    Every friend was once a stranger. 
  14. Call her in the morning.|
    Don’t be that guy. Be respectful. Be kind. Make your mama proud. 
  15. Protect yourself.
    Never, ever, until you are married, and maybe not even then, have sex without a condom. Parenting should be a privilege, not a problem. 
  16.  Overdrink. Understudy. And stay up too late.
    You’re going to do it anyway, so permission granted.
  17. Do your laundry.
    The smell of your own sweat may be sweet to you, but the ripe scent of three-weeks-worn jeans will turn up a lot of noses. And don’t bring home a suitcase full of dirty clothes at Thanksgiving. Contrary to popular belief, your mom really doesn’t want to do it.
  18. Get involved.
    There are dozens, if not hundreds, of extra-curricular things to do in college. Be the geek you’ve always wanted to be. Check out the computer club, the animation club, the badminton club. You might find a passion you’ve been missing your whole life long.
  19. Take care of your friends.
    Don’t leave them to fend for themselves when they’ve drunken themselves into a stupor. Be there to hold their hair and their car keys when they puke and don’t tell them the stupid things they said the next morning. 
  20. Be brave.
    Do one thing every day that makes you feel uncomfortable. 
  21. Don't go into college looking for a spouse.
    Love comes along when it’s good and ready. And if you graduate without ever having had a college sweetheart, it doesn’t mean you’re going to be alone for the rest of your life.
  22. Live in a hovel.
    There’s plenty of time to live the high life. College is not one of those times. Everyone should have the experience of swatting swarming cockroaches.
  23. Take notes.
    Not in class, in life. Jot down how you feel, what you’re thinking, who you’re hanging out with and what you’re doing. Who knows, you may become famous and the world will want to know what made you tick and what ticked you off in college.
  24.  Be loud and proud.
    Wear the school hoodie, go to the football games, embrace school spirit and be proud of where you go, even if it wasn’t your first choice. 
  25.  Introduce your parents to Venmo.
    You may be surprised how easily a mom or dad can click that PAY button and how much fun they’ll have adding their stupid little emojis.
  26. Don't go home on weekends.
    You can’t find fun on a college campus from hometown USA. And trust me, your parents don’t miss you that much.
  27. Don't take it so seriously.
    Just have fun. Never again, unless you age out in an over-55 community, will you be in one place with so many people your own age. Savor every minute. Grab every opportunity. And make the most of the most overpriced experience of your life. 
  28. Don’t get a credit card.
    Sure, you can have everything you want for $25 a month. Until, of course, it becomes everything you want for $250 a month. Those minimum payments don’t go away. Forget worrying about building credit. Build your bank account instead. 
  29. Be resilient.
    Losing your fake ID is nothing compared to the real-life losses your future will bring. Toughen up now so when you lose a spouse, a job or a house, you’ll be able to cope.
  30. Don’t drop out.
    Or flunk out. Or party out. Or peter out. Just graduate.

And now, go. Leave your happy homes and have yourself some fun. Find out who you are. What you want to be. And how you want to live your life. And while you're doing that, remember to be kind. Always, always be kind.

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Horsing Around on the Food Truck

“Just imagine how hard it would be to actually be my friend,” I said to Sarah in defense of yet another food truck rule I had imposed that morning. It was probably something on the lines of you can’t touch my calculator or the Green Mountain coffee cups are stacked too high.

“Uh, hello,” she responded. “I kind of do consider us friends.”

“I mean, like if we hung out together.”

“As opposed to what we’ve been doing?” the whippersnapper retorted.

After all, we spent over a month together, working six days a week, 12 hours a day, shimmying for space, reaching for change and bumping butts inside a 14-foot food truck with a view of nothing more than gray gravel, hungry faces and begging dogs. If we contorted our bodies to a 90-degree angle and craned our necks the right way we could catch a glimpse of the mountains, a bridled horse, or the porta-potties across the way. But, basically, we were sequestered to the confines of our aluminum-lined kitchen, the workers within it and the folk who frequented it.

“You’re right,” I concurred.

Sarah is younger than my youngest child and I’ve spent more time with her in one fell swoop than I’ve ever spent with my oldest, middle and youngest combined.  

Sarah is funny. Sarah is smart. Sarah is a hard-working, people-pleasing, multi-tasking, full-loving friend. Not to mention an accomplished speed skier and Vermont-via-New Jersey transplant.

“Do you think we’ll ever see each other again?” she asked in another one of our inane conversations. The one in which her legs were crossed tight as she buckled over in belly-heaving guffaws.

“You’re too old…and, for that matter, too young…to be peeing yourself,” I cautioned.

She kegeled tighter.

“But to answer your question,” I said after she returned from changing her shorts. “Yes, we will absolutely see each other again. You’re my new best friend.”

Which got me to thinking about the crazy ways we come together in this world and how our lives end up being enhanced by the least likely contenders. I gazed out onto the grounds of the Vermont Summer Festival where the food truck was planted, scoping out the red-and-white checkered picnic tables filled with people of all different ages, sizes, shapes, ethnicities, social statuses, riding abilities, pecking order positions, political affiliations, sexual preferences, religions and wallet sizes. And I wondered how many of us would ever have even spoken two words to each other in a life outside this six-week-long horse show in Manchester.

I thought about Paige who was working in the stables for the summer and how she came for her BLT sandwiches doling out dollars from the bank envelope that held her weekly paycheck. I thought of Chelsea and how she convinced us that we, too, could get followers on Instagram. Of Haylie who has liked every single post we’ve ever posted and Sydney, Betta and Maeve who went so far as to be photographed with the old lady from the food truck. I thought of Pippa and Franki, the cute little riders who are still lucky enough not to know how lucky they are. Of Jess with her smile, Maddy with her shrimp and Colby with her account. Of the Hillsborough crew and the Baby Bagel. Of our first-week friends, Kim and Hannah and Julie and Daphne. Of Dawn and her big gray dog, Stella. Of Lisa and her over-easy eggs and her ever-easy husband, Paul. Of Carla, lamenting over her first-born heading off to college in Ohio as her second-born landed on her head in Vermont. I thought about how much fun it was to recognize old friends like Jared and Trevor and Shawn and KC from previous shows.

We loved meeting and greeting our customers as they rotated in and out of the show, bantering with the best of them as we tried to figure out the world in which they rode.

"Are you rich?” I asked Shawn after learning that he travels to Europe to “try out” horses. He laughed and I charged him double for his Caprese sandwich.

“Just how much does a horse cost?” I asked Heather, one of my first and favorite friends.

She smiled that you-don’t-really-want-to-know smile.

“What in God’s name (besides being Betsy) prompted you to do something like that?” my friend Nalls asked when I announced via Facebook that I was home from a month-long stint working on a food truck at a horse show in Vermont.

Which prompted me to give it some thought. What popped into my head was an image of the tiny woman from Mexico standing on her tiptoes trying to grab three burgers and an order of chicken fingers from the counter. My two-Red-Bull-in-the-morning boyfriend who worked in the stables. The golden-toothed groom who knew that only I could place his order for a steak sandwich with no horseradish sauce without bellowing, "What? I can't understand you" half-a-dozen times. The multi-Grand Prix champion who drank the same bottles of water that everyone else did. The blacksmith who never once rolled his eyes when he stood in line too long. The vet and his staff; Dottie and John; Billy and Jenn who all talked to us like we were friends, not hired help.

I thought about James, Mr. Please and Thank You, and the sordid life stories that we shared. And about how he jumped aboard the truck on my last day and gave me a hug that made my heart swell.

I thought about the people we fed. The grooms, the trainers, the farm owners, the stable managers, the office workers, the show staff, the vendors, the breeders, the braiders, the riders, the barn hands, the ring sweepers, the show managers, the judges, the photographers, the dealers, the dogs, the jump designers, the stall cleaners, the announcers, the handlers, the potty pumpers, the trash collectors, the parents, the grandparents and the friends and families behind all the financial, emotional and physical sacrifices.

I thought about the people with whom I worked. My best friend Sarah and my sister Nancy who put smiles in every sandwich; Doug and Carrie who powered the production; Autumn and Andres who added the spice in the Mexican food station; Hannah, Courtney and James who all could press a perfect grilled cheese sandwich; Leo and Jake who learned a lot about lattes;  Richard who quickly saw just how different cooking in Vermont could be from bartending in Phoenix; Christine, the best bill facer west of New Hampshire; and Oscar, the fast and furious cook who never missed a morning FaceTime call to wake up his wife and kids in Guadalajara.

“Aren’t they all a bunch of rich people?” a friend asked when I tried to explain the horse show circuit.

“Rich is a relative term,” I answered.

I can pretty much guarantee I’ll never sport an Hermes belt buckle, wear an Ariat jacket or hack a horse. But my life has been enriched by those who do. Our paths would surely never have crossed had they not been looking up to us on that food truck, trusting us to leave the tomato out of their tuna, add extra salsa to their breakfast burrito or spike their passion iced-tea with just the right splash of lemonade. 

No matter where we fit in to the grand scheme of life, there's one thing I've learned from my many fun-filled experiences. We all have our parts to play in this great big world and not one of us is any better than the other.

And that whether we are riding horses, serving sandwiches, brokering a business or ruling the country, it always takes more than money to run the show.

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Katelyn Catches Up

“How did THAT happen?” I asked with bulging eyes when I saw Jean’s bulging belly at Bryant School, some eighteen years ago. We were attending the all-important kindergarten orientation for our still-important second-born children. I had long ago turned Max into a middle child, but was surprised that Jean would do the same to Brian, so many years later. 

Jean and I were not yet friends. Our girls were in the same Brownie troop, but that was about the extent of it. We both had jobs outside the home and were in that phase of parenting where simply getting through a day was as much as we could handle. We weren’t actively looking to increase our stable of friends. 

But, I’ve always been somewhat filterless and couldn’t help but blurt out my words of flabbergastery, even to a casual acquaintance.

It wasn’t that I thought having a third child was a bad idea. After all, I had lobbied heavily for mine. But, her older two were out of diapers, out of sippy cups, out of cribs, and oh, so close to being out of daycare and safely incarcerated, tuition-free for 13 long, blissful  years. Why, oh, why would anyone put themselves into that position again? And because somehow, I sensed that we’d one day become fast friends, I couldn’t help but think about how this new baby would come to affect me. 

As it turned out, Katelyn never had an adverse affect on anyone. 

I actually befriended Jean’s husband, Tom, long before she and I became bosom buddies. He and my spouse were both Little League coaches and I spent way too many hours on the stands, followed by dinner and drinks at Geronimo’s with the kids and coaches. Meanwhile, Jean was home doing her babying. 

But, before long, little Katelyn was toddling about and big enough to be deposited in the piles of yellow infield dirt that doubled as a sandbox for the ball players’ younger siblings. Meanwhile, her older sister, Heather, and my daughter became the pre-pubescent queen bees of Teaneck Southern Little League. 

And once Jean and I started out-embellishing each other with three-time parenting stories and lamenting over how easy life would have been with just two, we realized we had a lifetime of Xanax, bottles of wine and strained vocal cords ahead of us. And that while our six collective children, not to mention our spouses, would bear the brunt of it, there was strength in numbers and solace in commiseration. 

From the day she was born, Katelyn captured her father’s heart. That little blond-haired beauty kept him smiling even as he protected her from big dogs, big brothers and big trouble. 

But, Katelyn was the last of the brood, so trouble had a completely different definition.

Our poor oldest daughters endured curfews and curses and were watched like hawks. Our somewhat more fortunate second children were allowed out late, were never yelled at and could go to parties without us questioning the parental hosts. And the third children were the luckiest of all. They didn’t get in trouble for anything. Because their siblings or siblings’ friends or siblings’ friends of friends had already slammed us with some version of whatever crime they committed, and somehow, we all lived to tell the tale.

Sometimes, though, our last-of-the-line, look-the-other-way parenting practices teetered dangerously on risky behavior (ours not theirs). Like the time when Katelyn was almost lost at sea in Jamaica or when, had we been paying attention, the gin bottle would still be full. Just kidding on that one, Kate. We know you wouldn’t go so far as to break any laws. Especially not underage drinking.

Through the years, we’ve shared many meals, milestones and holidays with Katelyn and her family. While we tormented the older ones with endless questions about prom dates and cheerleading competitions, SATs and summer jobs, Katelyn learned to keep her ears open and her mouth shut. She watched what was going on around her, learned which offenses were forgivable, figured out when she could sneak out and when she was better off staying in her room. It wasn't always easy being the baby. It wasn't always fun being the baby. It wasn't always advantageous being the baby. But there wasn't a dang thing she could do about it.

Last weekend we celebrated Katelyn’s graduation. 

I thought, having been through three high school graduations and two college commencements with my own kids, that I could simply show up the party with a money-infused card, make small talk with the relatives and wish Katelyn well without feeling a thing. But, when it came time to cut the cake, I found my hardened heart begin to melt. 

Because, when I looked over at her patiently smiling as her mother cut the cake and applauded her achievements, I saw someone I hadn’t seen before. 

I saw someone who is not only beautiful, but intelligent and interesting. Someone who has empathy and energy and ambition. Someone who graduated not just from high school but from the moniker of being the eternal baby. 

Katelyn may be the last in a long line of trials and tribulations but she has survived our scrutiny, our slip-ups and perhaps most annoying, our incessant chatter. I saw for the first time, not a care-free toddler kicking her chubby little legs back and forth in a baby carriage, but a fully-grown young woman ready to tackle the world with kindness and confidence. 

And, I saw a baby sister who proved to us, herself and the rest of the world that being last in line is sometimes the perfect place to be.