Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Letters from camp (that are brief and inscrutable)

Months ago, when I signed up both kids for camp programs during this last week of July, I started thinking of it as "the West family All-Star break," because it reminded me of that brief interlude halfway through the Major League Baseball season when all the players get a break.

From that early vantage point, this particular week seemed to hold the potential to be a unique midsummer interlude for me. With Tim away at baseball camp in the Berkshires, it would mean significantly less cooking, less cleaning, less grocery shopping, less laundry -- and no evening baseball games to attend. And even though Holly’s program is at a local day camp, it still means no Disney TV shows yammering away in the background when I'm drafting articles, and no responsibility for me to plan her day's activities. I envisioned a stretch of five consecutive days when I had nothing to think about except my own tasks, errands, and work assignments.

But I didn't count on the fact that with it being Tim's first time at overnight camp, I'd be too anxious about his well-being to enjoy my All-Star Break Week Off at all.

Now that the week is under way, I'm trying hard to appreciate it for what it is: a week that provides a break from the busy jobs I juggle all summer long, typically an amalgam of meeting deadlines, keeping the house clean, and keeping the kids busy enough to be happy and social but unscheduled enough that they can relax and be resourceful about how to enjoy themselves.

But instead, I'm mostly just spending the time fretting about whether Tim is okay.

It's not that we have no way to be in touch with him. Though cell phone use isn’t allowed during the day, the camp allows the kids to text-message their parents for a few minutes before bed every night. But the texts we've received from Tim are not exactly what I would consider updates on his well-being; in fact, they require translation from Rick.

"What did he say?" I asked Rick excitedly when I heard Rick's text-message notification buzz at 9:03 last night.

Rick handed over his phone so that I could read their five-minute text-dialogue myself. "At SS, started off a 6-4-3," Tim wrote. "1st at-bat grounded to second off 80+ mph pitch; 2nd time walked."

"Why is he writing in code?" I asked Rick. "More importantly, how is he? Has he made friends? How's the food? Has he been sleeping well? Does he miss us very much?"

"He initiated a double-play from shortstop," Rick replied. "And he hit a grounder to second."

"But how is he?" I demanded again.

"He broke out of a season-long hitting slump and led a double-play!" Rick answered. "So he's doing great!"

I'm not sure I believe him. "Doing great," to my mind, would include phrases like "Camp has been fantastic!" and "I'm having a wonderful time!" and "The counselors are fun and the other kids are nice to me!" That's what a mother yearns to hear the first time her son goes to overnight camp. After all, he waited almost 15 years to ascend this milestone; now that we're here, I'd like a little information.

But very little more is forthcoming. The campers are allotted five minutes per evening for texting, and Tim apparently wishes to use those five minutes for telling his father his fielding and hitting stats rather than for allaying his mother's primal anxieties about his well-being.

Going to camp for the first time is a milestone for him, but I have to concede that it's one for me as well. As a kid, and well into my teen years -- okay, pretty much until my second attempt at college -- I had a terrible time leaving home. And my separation anxiety was, hands-down, the flaw I least wanted to see my children inherit.

Tim may not have much to say when it comes to communicating with me this week, but this much I can deduce: he's at camp and he's doing okay. And I'm doing okay too. He's learning to get by while away from home; I'm learning that he is his own person and may not choose to communicate his thoughts, feelings and experiences exactly as I might wish. I'm learning that this rite of passage for me as a mother means accepting that I simply won't know what he's doing and how he's feeling every moment of the day.

So I'll have to be content with the news that he executed a 6-4-3 from SS. It's not exactly the information I would wish to have, given that it tells me nothing about whether he's eating or sleeping well or even remembering to take regular showers, but for now, for this first week away, that's what he’s chosen to impart. I'll have to trust him to eat, sleep, wash, and be reasonably happy. And I'll have to trust Rick that a 6-4-3, whatever that might mean, is evidence enough of his well-being.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Summer games

Normally, when I think about games evocative of summer evenings, badminton, ladderball and Frisbee come to mind: games that I have memories of playing on warm nights as daylight lingers in the sky long after dinner.

But this summer, we've been on a ping-pong kick.

It doesn't make sense, because we could play ping-pong at any time of year. But we don't. In the two years since we moved to this house, the ping-pong table remained folded up in the garage until last month, when I wrestled it down the basement steps. And somehow, in the weeks since school ended, the kids and I have fallen into the habit of heading down to the basement after dinner for a few games of ping-pong.

There are a few reasonable justifications for this. The basement is always cool, regardless of how warm and humid it is outdoors. Whereas the yard has clouds of mosquitoes, the basement is generally insect-free. And the light doesn't change at all as the evening -- and the ping-pong match -- progresses.

And we all love ping-pong. This year, for the first time, Tim regularly beats me. I still beat Holly, but she's earning a respectable number of points each game. Holly plays with me willingly enough, but for her the real delight comes in a match against Tim. It doesn't matter to her that her big brother lacks the kindly grace to purposely cede a few points to her whenever he gets too far ahead, the way I do; the thrill is in getting his undivided attention for 21 or more points.

It's not terrific exercise, but at least we're upright and moving. It's not major bonding, but it gets us together having fun. It doesn't help us develop any critical learning areas, but Holly has become an ever more graceful loser and Tim has learned to take the occasional break from gloating over his net shot to compliment my topspin once in a while.

So even though a good game of badminton on the damp grass as the sun sets is one of the great pleasures of summertime, for us, so is a basement ping-pong match, at least this summer. The tradition may continue into the fall, but I doubt it. By then, evenings will mean homework for the kids, meetings and community events for me.  The pleasure of ping-pong is in its immediacy: it is what we are doing right now, midsummer of 2013. It’s a little bit fruitless and kind of silly, but it’s fun. Which in a way gives it the very best characteristics of summer vacation.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013


Every year when I'm in Colorado, I have to remind myself: It's like this because you're on vacation.

It wouldn't be like this every day if you lived here, I tell myself. You wouldn't spend hours sitting on the patio admiring the flower beds that the condo's groundskeeper plants and tends, and you wouldn't spend hours more hiking or biking or walking along the walking trails. You're doing that because you're on vacation. If you lived here, you'd do laundry and shop for groceries and plan meals and return emails and go to the dry cleaner (where is the dry cleaner in this town, anyway? I don't think I know. In 40 years of vacationing here, I've never taken anything to be dry-cleaned. That's because I don't wear anything when I'm here that requires dry-cleaning). You'd undergo dental procedures and host family events and volunteer to be a room parent in the kids' classrooms.

The fact that I do none of that in Colorado is, of course, what makes it vacation. Which is why it's so hard to leave once our two-week stay is up.

But this time, before leaving, I resolved to take a little bit of vacation home with me. Not just a sprig of fragrant sagebrush from the side of the jogging path, or a t-shirt with a witty message about life in the mountains, or the less welcome pile of credit card receipts from our various dinners out, since a big part of us being on vacation is me declaring a sabbatical from my usual daily meal-planning responsibilities.

This time, I'm taking vacation mindset home with me.

In part, this is due to the calendar dates. We often travel toward the end of the summer. By the time we get home most years, the date on the calendar dictates that it's time for me to start thinking about school supply lists and room parent responsibilites for the upcoming year. And in general, I like finishing our summer travels and knowing it's time to get back to real life with the looming approach of my favorite season, fall.

This year, circumstances were such that we vacationed at the beginning of the summer, less than a week after school ended for the kids. It felt wonderful to wrap up my graduation-planning responsibilities, wash out the kids' lunchboxes for the last time, and start packing.....but it also meant that we returned with the whole rest of the summer looming before us, and no more travel plans at all.

Which is what motivated me to be proactive about continuing to make it a vacation. I thought about all that I liked best about being in Colorado for the past two weeks. The family time. The abundant time outdoors. The fact that I was more lenient with my diet and never stepped on the scale. Getting to sleep beyond my usual weekday 5:10 a.m. alarm. Devoting much more time to reading than I normally do. 

I can do that, I told myself. Those are all things I can take home with me, just as easily as sagebrush or t-shirts.

So now I'm home but determined to keep making summer a vacation. Yes, I'm back at work, with piles of deadlines looming, interviews to conduct, research to implement. But it's also mid-July. So I'm being lenient with my diet. And taking walks after dinner. And reading novels instead of the New York Times. And reverting to last summer's standard of cutting back to one blog entry a week instead of my usual two.

It was a great trip, but there are still nearly two months left before the kids go back to school, and I'm determined to make the most of it. We may be far from the Rockies, but we're in New England, with beaches to visit, ponds to swim in, and smaller mountains to climb. I'll work around my deadlines and refuse to lose sight of the fact that summer continues even if I have no more airline tickets to redeem. 

And I'll even avoid wearing clothes that need to be dry-cleaned. Because if I've gone forty years without needing a dry cleaner in Aspen, I can surely go seven more weeks without one at home.

Tuesday, July 2, 2013