College Talk Tips

2014-04-11 12.43.05It’s college decision time, but before parents of high school seniors engage each other in conversation, take heed! You are about to step into a veritable quagmire of double entendre regarding the seemingly innocuous topic of your child’s college pick.

One might think that discussing college decisions is as simple as:

Parent #1: “What college will your son/daughter attend in the fall?”

Parent #2: “He/She will attend XYZ University.”

Parent #1: “Oh, that’s swell.”

But, BEWARE. Hidden beneath this rudimentary exchange is a underground strata of complex connotations and confidential context.

How do I, a parent of a high school senior, know this already? During our last few tours of duty, my family has had many “empty nesters” as neighbors in military base housing. I have found that there is much to be learned by observing this unique breed of parent.

No, they don’t collect twigs, preen their feathers, or engage in elaborate mating rituals….well, not that I know of, anyway. But, empty nesters have “been there, done that” when it comes to parenting. Interacting with these seasoned veterans around backyard fire pits and at the dog park has taught me that some things in life are not as simple as they seem.

In order to help other parents, like myself, who will soon be expected to tell friends, relatives and colleagues about their children’s college picks, I will pass on the college talk tips I have gleaned from more experienced parents.

Most importantly, when people ask, “What college did Little Suzie decide to go to?” they really want to know, “Did she get any rejection letters?” And when you answer, “Little Suzie is going to State,” they are tabulating all prior conversations in an attempt to figure out which schools gave your kid the Heisman.

In order to diffuse their natural curiosity, it’s best to be frank. Tell them which schools, if any, declined to accept your child’s application for enrollment. However, do not be tempted to add, “We’re actually happy that Little Johnny didn’t get into Ivy U, it just wasn’t the right fit for him.” The listener will only hear, “Little Johnny’s ‘Ds’ in Chemistry came back to bite him, and besides, those ivy leaguers are so stuck up.”

Also, although it is considered gauche for friends to discuss money matters in the civilian world, talking about personal finances is quite common in the military community. Thanks to clearly defined rank structures, we military folks know each other’s pay grade. Regardless, be careful when discussing college expenses with friends and neighbors. As soon as they find out that your child’s college costs upwards of fifty grand a year or more, they will wonder how on earth you’re gonna pay for it.

You may wish to remain silent, and let them speculate that your child was offered a scholarship for some hidden talent like didgeridoo playing or curling. In a vacuum of information, your friends might think that you’ve got some long lost rich great uncle who graced you with a gazillion dollar trust fund, but this might be hard to believe if you drive a used minivan and buy buns from the day old rack at the commissary. Or, they might guess that your family’s heritage includes a recruitable ethnicity, like the long lost peoples of the Siberian Pot Belly Tribe.

But most likely, unless you tell your friends and family that you are paying for college with the GI Bill, loans, your Thrift Savings Plans, or your 529 plans; they’re going to think that you’re planning to sell your earthly possessions, take the night shift at the local 7-11, and move the family into a cardboard box over a heating grate in order to pay for college.

Most parents have faced or will face the daunting college application process, and as long as you deliver the news of your child’s decision without pretense, you will be met with understanding. Honesty is clearly the best policy to stop wondering minds from wandering to the absurd.

My child? He was rejected from two [stuck up] schools and accepted by six [fine academic institutions]. He has decided to go to Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, NY. We are using the GI Bill. And yes, it’s really swell.

 

The Hidden “I” in Team

 

At regular intervals throughout his 26-year military career, my husband has been promoted to the next rank. Each time this happens, there is a little ceremony, during which my husband gives a brief speech. After two decades of being married to a Navy man, I have that speech pretty much memorized.

“Captain So-and-so, thank you for the wonderful introduction. Also, kudos go out to Petty Officer Whatsisface for the lovely decor and delicious cake. *clears throat* When I joined the Navy [#] years ago, I never imagined making [current rank]. I merely aspired to learn, to travel the world, and to serve my country. But I stayed in the Navy because, simply put, I love my job. And the reason I love my job is because of the people I’ve been fortunate enough to work for and with. [Names various people in the command, to include Admiral Whooziewhat, seated nearby.] But there is someone else here that I need to recognize. Someone, without whom, I would not be standing before you all here today. Someone who has been my teammate for [#] years — my wonderful wife, Lisa.”

Women swoon, men wink, cameras flash, I blow my husband a kiss, and he smiles in return. And every time, at that moment, I actually believe it’s true.

Soon after, I find myself alone, changing the wiper blades, taking the dog to the vet, paying the exterminator bill, and ordering our son to shave. My teammate is not around, because he is halfway across the globe. It’s not his fault; he’s working to support our family.

But, when I become the sole manager of our family, I am often frazzled, overwhelmed, and unshowered, walking around with my arms held up like a crazed zombie in search of Sauvignon Blanc. My personality waffles between deranged inmate, vicious dictator, catatonic robot and hormonal sobbing mess, while I try my best to handle our chaotic home life on my own. This doesn’t feel like teamwork, but more like some bizarre form of solitary confinement.

My husband just left for Italy. He’ll be gone for a only a week, then back for a week, then gone again to Alabama for a week, then home another week before he’s off again to Texas for another week. These little work trips are minor annoyances when compared to the long deployments other military folks are enduring, and besides, managing the home front alone gets easier the older you get, right?

Uh, not so much.

Like an old umbrella stroller with a wobbly wheel, an old shirt with a loose button, an old desktop computer with too many image files, an old blender that gives off a burning smell every time you try to make a frozen margarita — I used to work really well, but the older I get, the more likely it is that I’m gonna blow.

The kids tiptoe around the house, hoping that I’ll wipe the smudged mascara away from my eyes before I take them to school, and wondering whether I’ll force them to eat cheese and crackers again for dinner. The dog senses tension, and follows me around the house, licking my pant legs. But with the distraction of the DVR, therapeutic happy hours with the neighbors, and a secret can of Pringles stashed in the laundry room, I know I will cope until my husband gets home.

I must admit, I have come to enjoy certain aspects of my temporary solitude — total control of the TV clicker, sleep uninterrupted by snoring, cheese and cracker dinners. And he, too, relishes his “me time” while on travel — total control of the TV clicker, sleep uninterrupted by his wife telling him to stop snoring, restaurant dinners.

Despite the suitcase full of dirty laundry and the generous gift of hotel mini-soaps he deposits with me upon returning home, we are undoubtedly happiest when we are together. But as a military family, we must often work separately toward our common goals. As sports writer Amber Harding once said, “… there most certainly is an ‘I’ in ‘team.’ It is the same ‘I’ that appears three times in ‘responsibility.’”

Spring Break, Eighties Style

Scan“Don’t crush the groceries!” I yelled as my teenage son smashed the car top carrier lid closed. With everything for our family spring break trip packed, we piled into our salt-hazed minivan and hit the road.

I wondered if all this rigmarole was worth it for a few days of so-called vacation. I’d worked myself into a pre-trip frenzy, making lists, doing laundry, kenneling the dog, getting the oil changed, packing, double checking, and packing some more.

All that hassle just to spend military leave time stuffing ourselves like sardines into our minivan for eleven long hours. And once we get there, we’ll be unpacking, making beds, cooking, cleaning and managing the kids just like we always do. Same work, different location.

Is Spring Break really worth all this hassle?

As we passed through the Naval Station Newport base gate and headed south, I recalled an easier time. It was 1986, and I used my new credit card to buy a Spring Break trip with my college roommates. I was broke, but all those Citibank sign up ads around campus promised a $1,000 credit limit, and all I had to do was pay a little bit off each month. “Wow, what a great deal!” I thought in my youthful ignorance.

After curling our bangs, my roommates and I boarded a bus, chartered by Sigma Epsilon Fraternity, headed from chilly Ohio to sunny Daytona Beach, Florida. The frat brothers thoughtfully included a six-pack of Little Kings Cream Ale in the trip package price, just in case the passengers got thirsty on the fourteen-hour ride south.

“Ohmigod,” my roommate exclaimed halfway through Tennessee, “like, I totally can’t find Lisa anywhere!” “No way!” “Way!” They didn’t know that I’d crawled up in the overhead luggage compartment to sleep off those Little Kings.

On the day of our arrival, I promptly burned myself to a crisp laying out on the beach. Later at a Bud Light Belly Flop contest at the motel pool, I tried to hide the pain, sipping wine coolers with my roommates while dancing to “I’ll stop the world and melt with you” – a la Molly Ringwald in “The Breakfast Club” — in our stone washed denim and Wayfarers. We took note of one particular college boy moonwalking in checkered Vans, red Birdwell Beach Britches, and a blonde mullet. He was the kind of cool guy who probably drove a Camero.

The loudspeaker blared as he climbed the high dive, “Next we have Mad [expletive deleted] Mike from University of Maryland!” We cheered with the crowd, but in the end, his svelte torso was no match for the linebacker from Mississippi State with a gut tinged pink from multiple flawless flops.

By the time we boarded the bus for our return to Ohio a week later, I had sloughed off the first three layers of my skin, lost my Jellies shoes, survived on happy hour nachos, been totally ignored by Mad [expletive deleted] Mike, and maxed out my $1,000 credit limit, totally unaware that I would be paying off the debt for the next eight years.

And it was totally worth it.

There was something special about the Eighties. Was it the big hair? Orange Julius? Hackey Sacks? Mr. T? New Wave music? Shoulder pads? Hawaiian pizza? The Cosby Show? McDLTs? The Sprinkler Dance? Tri-color pasta salad? Parachute pants? Boom boxes? Frosted eye shadow? Deely-bobbers? Alf? Fried potato skins? A carefree state of mind?

Whatever it was, the Eighties was fun. A lot of fun.

“Honey,” I asked my husband as we entered the New Jersey Turnpike, “find that Eighties radio station, would you?” The kids groaned, and began arguing over whether we were getting lunch at Wendy’s or Chick-fil-A, but I leaned back in my seat, put on my sunglasses and said, “I think this might turn out to be our best Spring Break trip ever.”

Like, totally.

Scan 2

I found these in my basement. Note the girl in the red two-piece, or is it a one-piece? And that’s Mad [Expletive Deleted] Mike in the long red trunks with the mullet. That’s me in the cool faux Vuarnet shades – you can see my skin sloughing around my neck. Turns out, guys are not into that kind of thing. The last photo is a party on our motel balcony — Good times!

Scan 1

These are my Miami of Ohio college chums, looks like they’re doing the Van Halen Jump! That’s me piled on the bed with my roomies and their boyfriends – notice my stone washed jeans and shoulder pads! Ah, to be young and stupid again!

Kiss me! I’m Irish today!

DSCN1581

 

St. Patrick’s Day is one of those ambiguous special occasions that can be quite confusing for non-Irish adults like me.

As a kid, the purpose of St. Patrick’s Day seemed clear to me: wear something green to school and get my mom to take me to McDonalds for one of my all time favorite treats – The Shamrock Shake. Mildly green, with a hint of mint, I savored that delectable annual delight and looked forward to this little tradition every year.

As a college student, having Irish heritage was still pretty much irrelevant. No one I knew was interested in getting in touch with their roots. To the contrary, St. Patrick’s Day was nothing but an excuse to drink green beer at the local bars until we made complete idiots out of ourselves.

But when I turned into a middle-aged adult, St. Patrick’s Day’s relevance in my life became muddled. My taste buds had lost their longing for fast food shakes, and it was inappropriate for a 47-year-old mother of three to be drinking pitchers of green beer at the bars, so I had a hard time figuring out what I should do.

It’s easier for people with Irish blood. Even if your only connection is that your great uncle thrice removed was one-seventh Irish.  Even if the closest thing you ever had to Irish culture was a bowl of Lucky Charms. Even if you were born and raised on a chili pepper farm outside of Albuquerque. As long as you are technically Irish, you have clear rights and privileges on St. Patrick’s Day.

You pseudo-Irish Americans have carte blanche to suddenly speak with the rolling “Rs” and over-enunciated “Ts” of Irish brogue. You’re permitted to utter phrases like “Top O’ the mornin’ t’ya!” and “She’s a fine young lassie!” You can unattractively fist pump to U2’s “Sunday Bloody Sunday” even though all you know is the chorus. Without the slightest bit of credibility, you can suddenly develop a hankering for the blandest Irish Soda Bread, and Crockpots full of fatty corned beef and mushy cooked cabbage.

On the other hand, we non-Irish, despite our identical American upbringing, are not afforded the same indulgences and liberties as our pseudo-Irish friends. We must stand back, dazed and confused, repeatedly listening to that insensitive saying about the only two kinds of people in the world – “the Irish and those who wish they were.”

The only way for the non-Irish to avoid this annual humiliation is to concede defeat, no matter how unjust it seems. And don’t try to reason with them because it simply won’t work. I once drew a comparison between my Welsh heritage, with its Celtic language and similar way of life, to the Irish culture. My analogy was met with indignant outrage, “Who cares? You’re not Irish!”

I have learned that, in order for we non-Irish to enjoy St. Patrick’s Day, we need to tell a little white lie – or green as it were – and exclaim that we wish we were Irish too. Like amnesty for illegal aliens, simple surrender will authorize us to wear tacky green beads and silly plastic hats, to guzzle Guinness and slop stew, to adorn ourselves with buttons that obnoxiously demand “Kiss me, I’m Irish!” and to shamelessly dangle shamrocks from our ears and rear view mirrors.

In other words, when dealing with the “fighting Irish” on St. Patty’s Day, it’s always best to roll with the punches.

How to Succeed in Parenting by Really Trying

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

This is how I surprised my son at school on his 12th birthday. I never thought he’d pick up my flair for dramatics.

Although I don’t talk much about it any more, my husband and I raised a child with what has become known as “special needs.” When I gave birth to him in April of 1995, there was no indication that he was anything other than a healthy nine-pound baby boy. But three years later, a developmental pediatrician would rock our world.

“In my opinion,” the Air Force doctor at RAF Lakenheath said looking into our widened eyes, “your son has Atypical Autism.” A couple of hours later, we were frantically grabbing every book on the subject in the library, determined to prove the doctor wrong.

I recall one passage in an outdated book that painted a grim picture of the “typical” scenario: Parents receive the diagnosis and are determined to get their child all appropriate treatments. They are encouraged when their child makes progress with aggressive interventions. But as the child grows, the gap between him and his peers widens. As an adolescent, he wants friends, but is confused by nonverbal cues, facial expressions and gestures. Unable to develop peer relationships, he seeks the comfort of his daily routine — watching the same television shows every day, and pacing around the perimeter of his backyard. The parents realize that their son’s delays are insurmountable and accept that he will never lead a normal life.

We put that book back on the shelf. It was the only time in our marriage I would ever see my husband cry.

This prognosis was too painful to consider, so we did whatever we could. The next eight years were a blur of home therapies, speech therapies, occupational therapies, physical therapies, gluten-free casein-free diets, prescription vitamins, sensory integration regimens, IEP meetings, monitored peer play dates, doctor’s appointments, and mountains of insurance claim forms.

Fortunately, in the fourth grade, our son’s doctor told us that, while he should continue to work through lingering social delays and sensory issues, he no longer fit the diagnostic criteria for autism or any other developmental disorder. We were ecstatic about our son’s progress, but kept our lifestyle of combating autistic symptoms in place. Just in case.

Now 18, our son will most certainly “lead a normal life.” He is in his senior year at his third high school, and has already been accepted to colleges. He has earned four varsity letters in football, is a gifted musician, has taken eight Advanced Placement courses, and is an Eagle Scout.

Despite his obvious success in conquering a serious developmental disorder, we still have regular moments of worry because our son is still “quirky.”

There are days when we see autism creeping around like a phantom, threatening our son’s future. A far away look in his eye. The sound of him muttering to himself in the shower. His stubborn aversion to certain textures in food and clothing. His social awkwardness. His tendency to avoid interaction.

We try to put it out of our minds and hope that these ghosts of his past are simply personality traits that won’t stop him from forming meaningful relationships in life. But I still worry.

Recently, our son landed the role of J.B. Biggley in his high school’s production of “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying.” We didn’t know anything about the musical, and as usual, our son was not forthcoming with any details.

We arrived on the night of the first public showing.

Buying our tickets and finding our seats, several parents accosted us, gasping, “Your son is the one playing JB Biggley?! He is amazing! He steals the show!” Knowing our son’s lack of interpersonal skills, we thought they might be misinterpreting his quirks as character acting. However, when he made his appearance on stage, we understood what everyone was talking about.

Simply put, our son blew everyone away.

At the curtain call, the actors took their turns bowing to the audience. When our son stepped up and bent at the waist, the crowd jumped to its feet, giving him the loudest standing ovation. And no one knows he was once diagnosed with autism.

Sitting in our seats in total disbelief, it was as if all our years of hard work had come to fruition. Like comprehending the vastness of the infinite cosmos, my mind was boggled by the magnitude of our son’s potential and the promise of his happy future.

He’s going to be just fine. 

293A5110

Skiing on Hot Air

ski3“Do I ski? Well, of course,” I’ve dismissed such questions with a pretentious chuckle. “I grew up skiing,” I’d say, hoping my haughty response conjured up images of me slaloming between moguls, skidding to snow-spraying stops, and mingling in Nordic sweaters around cozy lodge fireplaces.

They don’t need to know that my first skiing experiences were behind the YMCA in my rural Pennsylvania hometown. Two dollars provided my brother and I with mercilessly gouged rental equipment and unlimited rides on the slope’s only lift — a rudimentary rope tow with a sputtering motor that sounded as if it had been pirated from a lawn mower.

My 100% acrylic mittens not only failed to keep out the cold, but they made it nearly impossible to grip the ice-glazed rope tow. When I managed to clamp down hard enough, my body lurched forward unexpectedly, sometimes loosening my precarious grip and causing annoyed kids to stack up behind me like dominoes.

Eventually, our parents took my brother and I to the various local ski resorts: Hidden Valley, Seven Springs, Blue Knob, Laurel Valley. Having never heard of brand names such as Rossignol and K2, our family of four rented equipment and wore whatever we had in our closets, much of which was fluorescent orange or emblazoned with Pittsburgh Steelers insignia.

If we made it out of the slushy, clattering equipment rental rigmarole intact, we still had to get our skis on without making complete fools out of ourselves. Despite witnessing the experienced skiers pop their boots into bindings with minimal effort, I always seemed to find myself doing the splits right there in front of all the cool people.

It wasn’t pretty, but I persevered, getting up and falling down over and over again – putting on skis, getting on and off lifts, snow plowing, and sometimes, just standing there doing nothing. Besides knocking strangers over and forcing lift operators to stop the motors to clear my sprawled body off the exits and entrances, all that falling served to desensitize me to embarrassment over time.

One Christmas, my father outfitted our entire family in new ski paraphernalia. At first I couldn’t wait to finally be “legit,” but with the proper equipment and apparel came something I hadn’t anticipated: expectations.

In my brother’s old parka, no one batted an eye when I plowed into someone in the T-bar line. However, in my white Obermeyer jacket with the powder blue chevron and new Atomic Skis, people would actually expect me to know what I was doing.

In high school, my best friend, Patti, and I joined the Ski Club, boarding a coach bus to the ski resorts every Friday night. Other than rumors of who was making out with whom on the bus, Patti and I concerned ourselves only with the fake personas we would use to meet cute boys on the slopes. Even then, we understood the snobbery to which skiing lent itself. I became Brooke Taylor from a snooty town in Connecticut, and she, Claire Townsend, my rich cousin visiting from some stuck up prep school.

We never got to use our alter egos, but in the process of trying to reinvent ourselves, we finally learned to ski.

Recently, a friend asked me to go skiing with her in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. A middle-aged Navy wife who has moved nine times in 20 years, I had gotten rid of my ski equipment many moves ago, and had not skied in years. “Do you ski?” she asked. Swallowing my panic, I chuckled my pat response, “But of course, I grew up skiing.”

Adorned with hopelessly scratched equipment I rented from the base’s Outdoor Recreation Center, I tried to quell my performance anxiety as the quad lift reached the summit. I felt out of place amongst the well-to-do resort families decked to the nines, even though I knew that, based on my appearance, onlookers were surprised to see that I could ski at all.

Later at the lodge, while nonchalantly sipping a plastic cup of hefeweizen and trying to look like a regular, I had a minor epiphany. Down deep beneath my faux-Nordic sweater, I knew that none of it — YMCA rope tow humiliations, borrowed parkas, high school insecurities, rental equipment — really mattered.

Just like everyone else in the lodge telling tall tales and walking like idiots in ski boots, I could ski. Snobbery was optional.

How many idiots does it take to fill out a 1040?

“Oh crud, we need to do our taxes,” I recently told my husband as I do every year around this time.

After exhausting every reason to procrastinate – cleaning out the vegetable drawer, perusing old Hickory Farms catalogues left over from Christmas, clipping toenails, surfing E-bay for vintage bar signs, napping – we finally had to face the music.

Coffee and a folder haphazardly filled with paperwork in hand, my husband and I reluctantly plopped down in front of our computer to complete the dreaded annual tax forms.

We haven’t had the best luck preparing our tax forms over the years, and are conditioned to avoid the experience. Despite my law degree and my husband’s master’s degree in financial management, neither of us ever grasped the simple concepts relevant to our personal income tax forms.

In law school, I took a Tax Law course and could write a scholarly paper on whether the federal income tax is a direct tax or an excise tax based on the Sixteenth Amendment and the Supreme Court’s opinion in the Pollock case, but I struggled with my 1040EZ.

My husband’s master’s thesis was entitled “Congress, Defense, and the Deficit: An Analysis of the FY 1996 Budget Process in the 1O4th Congress,” but he couldn’t tell the difference between short and long term capital gains if his retirement depended on it.

But every year, we begrudgingly spread out our paperwork and somehow fulfill our obligations as taxpayers.

One year, we wanted to act like grown ups, so we hired an accountant while living in Virginia Beach. He was a charming southern gentleman with blue eyes, silver white hair and a matching tidy moustache. He called me “ma’am” and politely sat with us one balmy evening in the early days of spring. Over the season’s first lemonades, we casually chatted about our finances, and he gathered all the information he needed to prepare and file our returns. It was so easy, we wondered why we hadn’t been doing it this way all along.

The next year, we tried to contact our charming accountant to do our taxes again, but strangely, he never returned our calls.

We soon found out that he couldn’t call us back because he was locked up in the big house. Turns out, our southern gentleman was politely holding himself out as a CPA without a license, embezzling from clients, and obtaining money under false pretenses. Oops. Back to the drawing board.

Since then, we have been using Turbo Tax, a seemingly idiot-proof program which leads the user through a simplified series of questions designed to accurately calculate all income and deductions.  Somehow, my husband and I still have no idea what is going on.

“Do we qualify for the child tax credit?” I asked, as my husband slurped his coffee. “Hell if I know . . . just do whatever we did last year, that seemed to work,” he said nonchalantly.

“I forget, do we have Roth IRAs or regular IRAs?” I said a few minutes later. Riffling through a pile of papers, my husband found our statements, which might as well have been written in Chinese. “Roth, but what the heck is a recharacterized contribution?”

My eyes started to cross as I tried to decipher our mutual fund papers. “Is cost basis the same as purchase price?” I said, searching my faded memory bank. “I don’t know, just punch in $200 and see what happens,” my husband suggested.

After four hours, two pots of coffee, three calls to our financial manager, and at least a dozen choice expletives, we finally got it all figured out and dutifully sent our forms off to Uncle Sam.

We won’t get our return check for several weeks, but rest assured, we’ve already spent it, and lost the receipt. When our bank statements arrive, we won’t know how to balance the checkbook. And next spring, we’ll be back in front of our computer, dazed and confused all over again.  Apparently, a few more things in life are certain aside from death and taxes.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 3,697 other followers

%d bloggers like this: