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Thursday, May 29, 2014

Bases Loaded

I’m no mathematician, but two sons, six years of high school baseball, an average of 25 games a year, adds up to about 150 games.  If I got a step further and factor in an average of 60 travel games a year for the past 15 years (a conservative estimate), that brings me to 1050 baseball games. I’ll even cut 50 of them out so we can work with an even 1000.

Let’s talk hours now. I’m going to go with an average of two-and-a-half hours a game. My iPhone calculator tells me that’s 6250 hours of baseball I’ve watched.

If I multiply in my (again, conservative) hourly rate of pay, the total would be enough to pay cash for two college educations; including one over-priced private school. If I factor in schlepping kids to practices, travel time to games, weekend tournaments, and maybe time-and-a-half for sitting in the rain, or 90-plus degree and 50-minus degree games, I could eke out the Rutgers tuition as well.

This is baseball alone. And just my watching hours. I'm not counting my spouse's coaching hours, travel expenses or the costs of actually playing. I'm not including anything but baseball; no basketball, football or cheerleading competitions. No soccer games, gymnastics classes or the long, painful year of wrestling. 

Much to my daughter's chagrin, I love nothing better than baseball. It is in my blood. I was a Phillies fan in the era of Mike Schmidt, Pete Rose, Steve Carlton, Manny Trillo and Shake-and-Bake McBride. I played softball as a kid and my spouse, who grew up as an Orioles fan, played baseball. It was only natural that our kids gravitated toward the game. 

Little League was the epitome of happiness for me. I served on the board, emceed the year-end banquet and survived the merciless mocking of Coach Leon, who was Leo's travel coach for thirteen years. I believe I shed real tears when in his very last at bat at Phil Apreda field, Leo hit a grand-slam over the fence.

I didn’t think any sport anywhere could ever beat Little League baseball.

And then came high school.

Betwixt and between and all the time, Leo played travel baseball at an intense level with tons of trips up and down the east coast. But travel ball is an entity unto itself and deserves an entire blog, if not an entire book, extolling its value and virtues.  Yet, for me, high school sports became the best of the best. Beating out my love for Little League.

Whether it's baseball or any other high school sport, I find nothing better than sitting on bleachers filled with students, parents and local fans cheering on kids we’ve known and loved since kindergarten. For years we’ve touted their successes, lamented their indiscretions, mourned their injuries. The first wave of town athletes who I knew personally are just getting out in the world, graduating college and starting their lives. Some went to college to play a sport, but most didn’t. Some played intramurals or pick-up games or majored in sports management. And some didn’t. But whatever they did, their place on the team helped create who they became.

Last week, my last child played his last high school game. It was held in the same complex where he had played as a seven year-old in Little League's locally-famous 8U Lyndhurst Tournament. 

Many of the kids on both teams had played in that very same tournament. Back in the days when we didn't think it would get any better. Back in the days when we had only racked up dozens, not thousands of watching hours. 

We had come full circle. But, I didn't cry. 

Because if there's one thing this baseball watching business has taught me: Just when you think it can't get any better, it does. Leo is going on to play baseball at the next level, so my watching days are not over. For some of his teammates, it might not be baseball. It might not be college. It might not be anything they ever dreamed they'd do. But I can bet my bottom dollar, it will get even better than this.

Some of us will get lucky. Our kids will become rich and famous and be able to pay us back for all the time and money we spent on the game they loved. They'll buy us beach houses and take care of us when we're old.

And if we're really, really lucky, they'll pay us back simply by watching, coaching and supporting their own children's dreams.

But hopefully, not for a few more years.

Sunday, May 25, 2014

The Way We Were

Twenty-two high schoolers, along with their snap-happy friends and families, gathered at my house on Thursday evening before Teaneck High School’s senior prom. I spent most of the day fretting that the skies would open and 50 plus people would be traipsing in and out of my house, jockeying for prime picture-taking position. But, as it worked out, the rain held off except for a few passing sprinkles.  

Of the eleven couples who rode in the limo together (yes, one limo can actually hold that many people), only one, maybe two and sometimes three (depending on who you ask) are truly boyfriend and girlfriend.

Leo went with a beauty named Brittany who used to live in town but had moved to New York a few years back. They were friends and nothing more but took lots of pictures together. After an hour-and-a-half or so, the lengthy limo left my house and headed to the Show Off, a town tradition at which the kids do a red-carpet parade around a parking lot, showing off their gorgeousness to hundreds of onlookers. Then they all file back into the limos and party buses and rented Rolls Royces and head off to the prom to make their memories.

When I got back home from the Show Off, after propping up the stomped dahlias and downing a bottle of wine with Angela, the mother of Leo’s oldest and dearest friend, I dug around until I found my own senior prom picture. Singular.

I was standing in front of the living room fireplace in the least offensive polyester print gown that fit both my mother’s budget and my obese-by-teenage-standards size-14 body. It was green and orange and white and flowed to the floor with a deep V-neck, safety-pinned to prevent any bosom from peeking out. I clashed terribly with the light blue walls in the background. My date, Constantine, is not in the picture.

My group of friends in high school spanned two grades so we concocted an elaborate scheme to assure everyone would be able to go to the prom. That meant a senior girl may go with a junior boy, or vice versa. We’d all go together as friends and have a ball despite our 70’s contempt for anything as traditional as a school dance.

I almost didn’t go because I drew Const as my date. A normal girl would have swooned; he was the epitome of cool with his introspective blue eyes, half-cocked smile and understated swag. He played a mean Stairway to Heaven on his guitar and held the heart of many a girl of a certain ilk. But I knew he was only going with me because his ex, and future, girlfriend Patty arranged it. I knew he was currently in love with Debbie who was the blondest and thinnest of the bunch. But she was already going with another of one our friends. I was insecure enough to believe Const was embarrassed to be going with the likes of me.

Const wasn’t in my prom picture because I told him to meet me at Patty’s house. There was no way I was going to force him into coupledom when the whole date thing was so contrived. I had to act as cool as he was and pretend that I wouldn’t have loved a picture of the two of us to have and to hold for all eternity.

The dozen of us who went together borrowed parents’ cars for the evening. Only the rich and famous rented limos in our day. We went to dinner first at Tiffany’s in Blue Bell and then off to the prom at some random country club in the middle of somewhere. We had spent hours lamenting the choice of The Way We Were as our prom theme, lobbying heavily for something more appropriate like, One Toke Over the Line. Yet when the sappy sound of Barbra Streisand belted out “Memories…like the corners of my mind,” even the coolest of couples couldn’t resist. I, of course, beelined to the sideline, but Const grabbed me and led me to the dance floor. I had never slow-danced in my life, but it turned out he was no Fred Astaire himself. We kind of hugged each other and pushed each other around in a circle until the song ended. When he tried to give me a friendly kiss at the end of the dance, I did what I did best. I ran away.

I had the time of my life at my senior prom.

As those twenty-two glamorous girls and good-looking boys trampled my newly-planted dahlias on Thursday, I couldn’t help but think how some things never change.

They may spend more money on the prom than we did, but like us, they know what it's really all about. It’s not the dresses or dates, hairdos or limos that make the night. It’s not about awkward photos or even more awkward kisses. It’s about being with the best of your best buddies, both boys and girls.  It’s about making memories that will last a lifetime. Memories that ten, twenty, fifty years later will make us all stop and smile, and remember with fondness the way we were.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Full House

I am not a laugh-out-loud kind of gal, but my friend Jean can make me roar from the belly like no one else. We carry on full conversations via text, amusing each other with comments on everything from the screamers on our singing shows to the breaking news that paints our poor town in a bad light yet again, to our over-indulgences, both liquid and solid. Most recently we have had a running commentary on the return of our children from college.

Like me, Jean has three children. Heather and Brian are the same ages as my older two, Molly and Max. While we stuck to the every-other-year pattern in producing our third, they skipped a bunch of years; Katelyn is a freshman in high school, but Leo is on his way out.

We spend holidays, watch Jets games and party heartily with the Santostefanos. We are much more often at their house than ours, simply because Jean is better at entertaining than I am. Her house is always clean, her dinners are always delicious and their living room television is at least eight times the size of ours. She also cooks family dinner every single night, so really, what's five more?

Heather and Molly were best friends through high school and spent many, many hours together in their respective attic bedrooms figuring out ways to torment their mothers. Brian and Max, who went to the same college, couldn’t be bothered with the back-and-forth banter and much prefer sports talk with their dads. And Katelyn and Leo learned long ago that keeping their mouths shut would help them slide under the radar.

And that is precisely why our lives have been so much calmer since the older ones left for college.

But, they are back.

“This is awful with all three home!” Jean wrote, following a text about the girl who can’t sing because her dentures get in the way. “I can’t remember it being like this last summer. The two of them are fighting over the car, still nothing put away, dishes piled up in the sink every night. I’m going to kill someone!”

I looked around my house at the six pairs of sneakers strewn between the front door and the basement stairs. I saw backpacks and car keys and a hair brush with long, long hair wrapped around its bristles. There were cups, lots and lots of cups, on the kitchen counter. Some half-full, some half-empty, but all dirty. The Brita water pitcher was empty in the refrigerator next to the empty egg carton and half-eaten container of yogurt. Graduation cards were scattered across the kitchen table, money gone (I checked), but crinkled envelopes left as reminders for me to nag about writing thank you notes.   Massive amounts of soda cans and pizza boxes fill the recycling bins, though I do give them credit for not filling them with beer bottles.  The dog, previously not a beggar, follows them around for the crumbs that accidentally-on-purpose fall from their hands. Their bedroom doors are kept shut.

The bathroom stays steamy all day long, my mascara disappears along with the twenties from my wallet. There’s not enough food in the refrigerator, not enough televisions in the house, not enough money in the bank account to keep them comfortable.

“Relax, Mom,” they say. “Relax.”
Last night, Molly sat cross-legged on the floor next to my throne in the living room and tried to teach me the fine art of tweeting. We watched the grand finale of The Voice together and she didn’t mock me for investing the past five months in such folly. We motivated each other with talk of getting ourselves back in shape, lasting until we rediscovered the brownies we had baked over the weekend. We talked about her excitement and trepidation of the life looming before her and how in one short week she'd be in New Orleans with a new job.  

And then her brother flew through the house demanding the car keys, the other filled the basement with his friends and the sound of a deep, pounding bass. Her father came home from hot yoga, yelled at us for bickering when we weren't, and the dog started running around like the lunatic that he is.

It’s been a long time since we’ve all been together under one roof. I can't help but wonder how we did it for so long. How could we have shared one shower (of course, no one but my spouse will use the basement bathroom), how did they all share one car, how did we survive the constant chaos?

Did they always eat so much? Play their music so loud? Entertain so often? Did they always sleep until noon, stay up until dawn, leave the house at will and deplete us of so much money?

Jean and I understand each other when it comes to our kids. Our friends have been know to cringe at the things we say because neither one of us minces words. But when we complain about the suitcases on the stairways or the fourth gallon of milk gone in a week, we know what we really mean.

And so do our kids.

Despite the mess, the commotion, the fretting, the frenzy, there's nothing like a full house to remind us just how full our lives have been.

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Is There Life After College?

I graduated from West Virginia University in May of 1979 and I have absolutely no memory of it. The ceremony may have been held at Mountaineer Field as a grand finale before it was demolished and replaced with academic buildings. Or it could have been inside the Coliseum on the Evansdale campus. I just don’t remember.

What I do remember is sitting on the roof of our rented house with Fran, Linda and long-lost Kevin on warm spring days with the Allman Brothers blaring from two-foot high speakers perched on the windowsill.  I remember chasing down a certain football player with my friend Betsy, hoping to memorialize ourselves for when he turned pro. I remember sitting on my friend Kathy’s bed as she told me she was pregnant and being happy because I knew she’d be an incredible mom. I remember philosophical talks and heart-felt gifts exchanged with my nature-loving friend Lauren. I remember my friend Sue who always got my sense of humor and loved my rough edges even though the rest of our advertising-major buddies were beauty queens. For real. And I remember walking up the hill of Sunnyside with every one of them, 3.2% beers sloshing over the sides of our to-go cups.

But, what I remember most of all was the overwhelming fear that this was as good as it got.

When I graduated from college 35 years ago, there was not a part of me that believed that there was life after college.

I knew I would never again be immersed in an environment filled with thousands of people my own age, all of us spinning on life’s carousel, the golden ring just out of reach, taunting us with opportunity, begging us to grab hold and take the ride.

And, so I resisted. I bought a one-way ticket on a Trailways bus and went out west with my college buddy, Ann.  

But, eventually, that too ran its course. I came back home and took a job as a bookkeeper, despite my line of work being words not numbers. I took the train into Philadelphia on the Chestnut Hill local every morning along with thousands of other suburban commuters, wondering if everyone hated their jobs as much as I hated mine.

When I was two years out of college, I randomly dropped a resume at TV Guide magazine on the very same week that they were forming a new training group. The job itself wasn’t any great shakes; I was responsible for the half-computerized layout of four different editions of the magazine. There was nothing creative about it and it didn’t use my degree by any stretch of the imagination, but there were lots and lots of young people and that made all the difference.

Most of my friends left TV Guide after a year, or two or maybe three. I stayed for nine long years, my claim to fame being that I never, not once, called in sick.

I finally was able to move out of my parents’ house and into Sherry Lake Apartments with my sister, Nancy. We threw great parties and in our persistent pursuit of love, tried everything from corner bars to Main Line society functions.

But it wasn't until I stopped looking that I found my ever-loving spouse. In a blink of an eye, our group beach house days were over and I became a bride, moved to New Jersey and landed a job as a writer at CNBC. I became a mother. We bought a house. I became a mother of two. Then three. Before I knew it, we had a Labrador retriever in the backyard and a minivan in the driveway.

As thousands of Carolina blue tassels were flipped from right to left at my daughter’s graduation last week, I couldn’t help but remember what I was thinking thirty-five years ago.

I will always look back on college with fondness for my fun-filled days and rabble-rousing ways. I will always remember the energy and intensity, the anticipation and excitement and the promises we made to stay true to ourselves. We would be brave and successful and never, ever become boring old people.

I may not be boring, but I am a completely different version of the person I expected to become. I have not wowed the world with the Great American Novel nor have I made a significant mark on society. But I have had a very, very good and happy life.

And the best of it began after college. 

Friday, May 16, 2014

Carolina in my Mind

The graduates with the UNC Clef Hangers
Sutton's Drug Store
May 11, 2014

It all began on a flight from Denver to Durham. It was August of 2010 and Lauren Gennaro was heading to the University of North Carolina as a freshman. In a simple twist of fate, her parents, Carla and Joe, struck up an across-the-aisle conversation with Stephen and Sandra Rich who were returning home to Chapel Hill after visiting their son in Colorado. 

Every now and then in life you meet someone with whom you instantly click. You feel as though you’ve known them your entire life and when you get off the plane and exchange numbers, you know that you will indeed call.

And that’s exactly what happened. Sandra and Stephen became surrogate parents to Lauren and her four roommates plus incredibly gracious hosts and cherished friends to their families.

Molly wanted me to come to Family Weekend her freshman year. I flat out refused, vocalizing my distain for inflated hotel room costs, crowded campuses and fraternizing with her friends’ parents. I had no doubt that they’d be pleasant enough folk, but really, did I need friends that came with an expiration date of May, 2014?

But, I eventually gave in and subsequently spent many weekends at UNC with Sally and Dan Wajahn, Jackie and Tom Shea, Ruth Gonzalez, Carla and Joe Gennaro and Sandra and Stephen Rich. I adore them all and have no doubt our friendship will continue.

The four years went faster than any so far and it just didn’t seem possible that graduation was upon us. As the parents group texted and made plans for the weekend, we felt our hearts growing heavy at the thought of goodbye.

But time passes as it will and graduation weekend arrived. Families came in spurts with various glitches, but we all got there. No surprise to anyone, the Voreacos travel plans were the most convoluted. I took a train a few days early, Max hopped the red-eye from California, Leo’s baseball game was canceled, so in the end we managed to spend a solid 24 hours together in Chapel Hill.  

It was a beautiful but tearful weekend. The girls loved every minute of their four years at UNC. They found the loves of their lives, the louses of their lives and unearthed their passions in life. All of them graduated on time, three of them with honors, one with the highest honors you can get. The five of them will never live together again.
Which is why, when Julianne’s father surprised us all by hiring UNC’s renowned acapella group to serenade the girls at Sutton’s on the final night, there was not a dry eye amongst them. The Clef Hangers sang Happy, which they all had been, Crazy Love, which they all had found in one form or another, and ended their show with Carolina in my Mind.

In my mind I'm going to Carolina.
Can't you see the sunshine, can't you just feel the moonshine?
Ain't it just like a friend of mine to hit me from behind?
Yes, I'm gone to Carolina in my mind.
Gotta make it back home again soon, gotta make it back on home again soon,
Gotta make it back to Carolina soon, can't hang around, no babe, gotta make it back home again,
Gotta make it back to Carolina soon.

When all was sung and done, the tears in our eyes and the lumps in our throats affirmed that we had done our job as parents.

Jenny is off to medical school at Ohio State, Lauren is pursuing a career in public relations in DC, Julie will be working at an ultra-hip research company in Atlanta, Molly is going to be a Teach for America corps member in New Orleans and Julianne, well when Julianne stops crying, she hopes to start her new life in Boston. Not one of them plans to live at home.

As one of the commencement speakers quoted, “A ship in harbor is safe, but that’s not what ships were built for.”

We did it. We raised our children in safe harbors, but somehow gave them the courage to venture out. We taught them to trust their instincts and their hearts. We taught them the value of education, the significance of commitment and the importance of making the right friends.

This is what we spent the last twenty-two years doing. Yet when the time comes and the ship is set to sail, we can’t help but feel that hole in our hearts.  

But I know that I have not lost a daughter. Like Julianne, Julie, Jenny and Lauren, Molly will shine her way through life and come back home when she can. They will all be happy in love and successful in life. They will aim high and stay strong. The ocean is vast, their ships diverse. But wherever they go and whatever they do, they will never, ever forget the parents who shaped them and stood behind them all the days of their lives.

Nor will they ever forget the families who loved them all the way through their college years.

Because they know as well as we do, that there is absolutely nothing in this world we wouldn’t do for each and every one of them.