How Much Would You Pay for a Clean Bedroom?

The high cost of a clean bedroom.

The high cost of a clean bedroom.

Sometimes, I can’t stand to hear some of the words that come out of my mouth.

Usually, they are the same words that used to come out of my own mother’s mouth. The ones that addressed particular behaviors and were repeated at regular intervals:

“Chew with your mouth closed.”

“Don’t pick your teeth.”

“Put your napkin on your lap.”

“It’s ‘most fun,’ not ‘funnest.’”

“Make your bed.”

“Clean your room.”

As it turns out, those same reprimands that were so annoying to hear as a kid are doubly irritating having to say as a grown up. As a child, I perceived those reminders as assaults against my character. I bristled every time my use of the English language was called into question or uncouth table manners pointed out by my mother.

It hurt my feelings.

But in the end, I walked away with very nice eating habits and an excellent command of the English language (in thanks, no doubt, to all those times I complained of boredom and was instructed to go read a book).

It’s a parent’s job to instruct. We are like the audio versions of the “How to Be a Person” manual. Sure, some of us are missing pages – hell, some of us have entire chapters ripped out– but for the most part it’s our duty to guide our youngsters towards becoming functioning members of society.

I always felt like my mom was a little too vigilant in this regard. It always seemed like she was jumping down my throat about the littlest offense. But then I had my own set of children and began to see things differently.

I am the oldest of eight siblings and now realize that while my mother was really on top of instructing me in the finer art of cleanliness and good manners, I’m pretty sure my younger siblings’ habits were not so hyper-scrutinized. I know my youngest is not held to the same standards as his big brother. Dinners when the eldest was younger included a lot of correcting of improper use of cutlery or failure to spread his napkin upon his lap. But when my little guy put his head down and started licking his plate not long ago, I found the act simply charming.

“Are you pretending you’re the cat?” I cooed, while his siblings looked on in horror.

As a result of more militant housekeeping when they were younger, my first two children still keep pretty neat-and-tidy bedrooms. Dirty laundry makes its way into the hamper and beds are generally made most days.

You would think such good behavior would have trickled down to the younger two siblings. You would assume they’d observe that type of lifestyle and embrace it as their own.

You would be wrong.

My youngest two children – an 18yo girl and 12yo boy – are lovely people. They are easygoing and team players and have great senses of humor. They also happen to be pigs.

The boy doesn’t seem particularly stupid. I mean, he’s done some dumb things that other boys his age sometimes do, but he just got promoted to the seventh grade so he must be doing something right. And man, he is a sweetheart.

And the girl – oh, my messy, messy girl. She resists doing laundry. Instead, she spreads her dirty clothing across every square inch of floor space in her bedroom, perhaps under the assumption that she is airing those items out for future wearings. Then there are a few piles of worn jeans and t-shirts shoved into corners in which she seems to be employing a method akin to composting. Whether she stirs the clothes at regular intervals remains a mystery but the piles definitely seem to be heating up.

And she’s not lazy. This school year she juggled three paying jobs and a full course load of honors and AP classes. Obviously she is capable when it suits her.

But how do you explain the empty plastic water bottles strewn across her desk and nightstand or the garbage can overflowing with crumpled printer paper and empty bags of Trader Joe’s veggie sticks?

So I’ve wasted a lot of breath over the years telling these two to clean up their acts.

“Make your bed.”

“Empty your garbage.”

“Put your clean laundry away.”

Blah. Blah. Blah. Blah. Blah.

But these two do not perceive these admonitions as an attack on their collective character. Having a clean bedroom is simply not high on their priority list.

Over time I’ve struggled with how high cleanliness should be on my priority list, too. I mean, in the scheme of things, is an organized desk that important? I’ve learned over the years in the mom business that I’d rather have someone practicing their saxophone rather than making their bed. I am, however, pretty dedicated to not letting loose someone who chews with his mouth open into the world.

Which made what I walked in on Sunday night after I returned from dropping that messy girl off at college all the sadder.

In the days leading up to her departure, there were clothes all over her floor, which were joined by two giant suitcases awaiting the stacks of American Eagle jeans and Urban Outfitter tops to be squeezed inside. Her college crap had even spilled out of her bedroom and down the stairs into the den where a mound of Target bags filled with sheets and towels and lady products had started to grow.

When I last saw the room it was late Saturday night and I went in to say good-night and make sure we were still on for our 5:30 a.m. departure. By then, most of her stuff had made it into some type of bag. The giant duffel bags had been dragged downstairs and all that remained on her floor was her little turquoise Vera Bradley bag stuffed with what seemed to be the last-minute items – her packet from new student orientation and a tangle of chargers – and the new tote bag we bought online for carting her books in style around campus.

But the nightstand and desk were still in disarray and the pillows that decorate her bed – the queen-sized Ikea number she got for her 15th birthday with big drawers underneath and headboard with stacks of shelves, which took her three days to assemble by herself – were still scattered everywhere.

“Please try to leave your room clean,” I said as I kissed the top of her head. “At least make your bed.”

I know she had a lot on her mind. She was less than thrilled to have to leave for college just a week after graduating from high school. She didn’t really have time to wrap her head around all the changes awaiting her when she was diving right into it the thick of it.

So, like, why did I feel compel to nag? Can I not learn to control that dastardly impulse?

We hit the road a mere 15 minutes behind schedule, probably a new record for me, and I drove the four hours in the rain while most of the other passengers in the car dozed intermittently. We squeezed into a lot about a quarter-mile away from her dorm and tracked down a cart to carry her stuff upstairs. A college move-in day in never complete without a trip to the nearby Target or Wal-Mart so we climbed back into the car and set out to purchase another $200 in last-minute throw pillows and power strips. And of course, there’s the obligatory trip to the bookstore to check out her textbook requirements for the two courses she’s taking over the summer and to outfit her two siblings in her new school’s logo. Finally, after her bed was made and we oohed and aahhed over how cute it all looked together matched with all her Target dorm essentials, we decided to say good-bye.

And it was sad.

Very. Very. Sad.

The other two kids and I drove home in still more rain listening to David Sedaris’s “Me Talk Pretty One Day,” which was good for lifting our spirits. We got home and heated up some stuff in the frig and I went upstairs to get changed into my pajamas (read: finally take off my bra), but when I got to the top of the stairs I took a left rather than a right into my own bedroom. I walked down the hall to the first room on the right to find the door closed, as usual, to ward off any ideas our cat might have about rolling around on my daughter’s bed (which grosses my 18yo out to no end).

I pushed open the door and my heart almost stopped. I couldn’t believe what I saw.

In all those years of asking/suggesting/demanding that she clean her room, my daughter would eventually comply but never 100 percent. There was always crap piled under her printer table or clothes shoved onto her closet floor.

But on Sunday I opened the door to something out of a magazine. The bed was made and the throw pillows artfully arranged. The desktop had been organized and no clothes lurked at the bottom of the closet. The hangers draped with clothes that usually hung from her floor lamp had also been put away.

She had outdone herself.

And now it all just sits. Empty. Lifeless. All that energy that used to fill up every last inch of that room has now relocated 263 miles west of here.

So now I have that made bed I’ve been dying for, along with the clean clothes put away and emptied garbage pail.

I just hate the price I had to pay to get all of it.

But good luck to her new roommates. They’re gonna need it living with that girl.

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Why Sending Our Kids to College is Making Us All Stupid

The fun of paying for college.

The fun of paying for college.

The more kids I send to college and the more tuition I pay towards that effort, the dumber I am starting to feel.

I just don’t get it.

Let me preface this all by saying that I’ve just returned from a whirlwind 48 hours at the ginormous state school my third child will begin attending this summer, which required a total of eight hours of driving, sitting through about 10 hours of information sessions like “The Business of Being a Student” and “Student Health, Safety and Personal Responsibility” and the spending of many of hundreds of dollars on a hotel room for me, putting cash on a card she will use throughout the year to do her laundry and buy bags of chips late at night when she’s drunk and of course, swag at the bookstore so that everyone will know who we are when we’re driving around back at home (subtle reference to where the kid is going).

So I’ve already invested a ton of time, money and energy into this effort and we haven’t even stepped foot in Target yet to load up on sheets and towels and colorful stacks of drawers for her to store all the shit we’ll probably buy at Bed, Bath & Beyond and we haven’t even thought about all the textbooks she’s going to need for the actual learning part of college.

However, I understand that part. I get wanting to make your room cute and this third time around have a much better sense of what my kid really needs to survive her freshman year away from home. Like, what was I thinking about when I sent my oldest child – a boy – off with not only three sets of sheets but also an ironing board? The latter returned home in its wrapper and sits in my crawl space gathering dust.

But I came away from sitting through hours of PowerPoint presentations by various university officials scratching my head over two very big pieces of the college puzzle that don’t make a lick of sense:

Fucking FERPA

For those of you who haven’t yet had the pleasure of sending a child off to college, let me be the first to tip you off to a very interesting phenomenon that you will be forced to contend with: FERPA or The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act or, as I like to call it, bullshit.

This illogical law passed in 1974 puts students in control of what information their parents may or may not have access to, like grades or tuition bills. It’s been a pain in the ass over the years trying to wrestle information out of the other giant state university that my older two kids attend – like why their account’s been frozen – when you can’t find your child’s student ID# or gain access to their bills.

It’s the exact opposite of the way you’ve been operating for the kid’s first 18 years.

I tried to keep it in perspective at first, imagining that maybe more kids than not were financing their educations independent of their parents or bowing to the idea that, as legal adults, maybe it was time for 18 year olds to step up and manage their university accounts.

But now I know that that’s bullshit. I’m still the one troubleshooting frozen accounts and setting up budget tuition plans and now I am fairly certain that while kids might be contributing scholarship money or loans of their own to the college tuition kitties, most parents are up to their necks in home equity or other types of loans as well to foot the majority of the bill.

Navigating poorly-designed university websites to pay bills, and then the actual paying of said bills, is torture. Why, then, must we be forced to participate in the charade that imagines our children as active participants in this process and get them to authorize us to pay for all of it? It just seems like a waste of all of our time and energy.

Those tuitions are painful enough.

Which leads me to my second observation:

Who can afford all of this?

We were told during one session that focused on the financing of our incoming students’ educations that the tuition for the fall semester would not be set until the university’s board of trustees meets in July but to expect an increase. The woman standing up on the stage from the bursar’s office and fielding questions from parents said there’s pretty much always an increase, which was met with a lot of murmuring from the audience. I’m surprised no one started to boo or throw tomatoes at her.

I’ve never been really good at math and am sometimes challenged by even simple counting but somehow this doesn’t make sense to me. Like, okay, there are about 46,000 students on campus and while there’s a huge disparity between what in-state vs. out-of-state students pay for tuition, let’s say each one is paying about $20,000 annually. You guys, that means the university is raking in about $920 million. I know there are plenty of people who need to get paid and I saw first hand all the construction going on all over campus – was duly impressed when I walked by a couple of the new fancy science buildings – but do we really need to pay the univeristy president the anticipated $6 million he’s expected to receive over the next five years?

Talk about bullshit.

I really need someone to explain to me how much longer regular people are supposed to be able to afford these exorbitant tuitions. How much longer is it going to seem normal for parents to spend all the equity on their homes and kids to be loaded with an average $35,000 in debt all in the name of a college education?

In my spare time, I’ve been trying to get some work done around my house and have had a hard time finding workers to get the jobs done because they’re either too busy or too expensive. I mean, my kingdom for a mason who returns my call or is not booked through October or a pool company that doesn’t want to charge me $600 to open my pool.

“Fuck college,” I joked to my girlfriend the other day, “our kids should just learn a trade.”

It’s probably the smartest thing we could do for our kids.

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Letting It Go

2364When my oldest was a junior in high school, I couldn’t wait to start looking at colleges. He and I drove north over his spring break that year to stay with friends just outside Boston to visit a couple of schools, and you would have thought I was going to Disney World.

Libraries! Dining halls! Dorms! I don’t think Space Mountain could have rivaled the excitement I felt as I walked around those campuses.

And I really love Space Mountain.

My son, on the other hand, was mostly annoyed with the entire process and refused to sit through any of the schools’ information sessions. He did consent to removing his ubiquitous headphones for the actual tours but would then quickly pop the buds into his ears when we got back into the car.

I would spend hours – like a nut – paging through the big college guides we had bought at Barnes & Noble and trolling the Internet, plugging in his SAT and GPA to determine whether he had a chance of getting into this school or that. I often joke that he was lucky I was also going through a really messy divorce at the same time, which prevented me from getting totally weird about the whole thing.

In the end, we probably visited seven or eight schools before he applied to about 10 the December of his senior year for regular admission.

And when the letters started to trickle in that spring, there was really no rhyme or reason to where he was accepted, rejected or wait listed. He ended up going to a school we didn’t visit until after he was accepted, to which he had applied more as an afterthought because some of his friends had visited and liked it. It seemed like a good fit because he wanted to major in engineering (or maybe that was me) and the school was known for its engineering program and then, of course, he ended up switching out of engineering by the end of his freshman year and all reasoning went out the door.

Kid #2 the following year was pretty easy in that she was all about applying early to her brother’s school and by mid-December we had the whole thing wrapped up and she was looking for a roommate on Facebook.

In retrospect, she should probably be at some small, liberal arts college closer to home, but at the time I was happy not to have to go through the whole rigmarole two years in a row.

So now, this third time around the college merry go round with my high school junior, I am trying to keep things in perspective. But it’s totally not easy and I fluctuate between being really into it and totally over it.

We went to visit a couple of schools at the end of last week, bringing our total number of colleges visited to four, and I can tell you one thing: I’ve got Chronic College Tour Fatigue (CCTF). I don’t want to walk through one more student union or hear one more anecdote about a bench or chiming bells.

And please don’t make me shout something about who we are. I’m not fun like that.

I found myself back home this weekend going through the Fiske Guide to Colleges 2010 and plugging in my daughter’s data on Cappex, and after about an hour of studying various schools’ acceptance and retention rates, I was like, “What am I doing?”

I don’t want to get caught up in a lot of hand wringing about finding the perfect school for her and whether or not she can get into it. Because now that I have a sophomore and junior in college, my concern has shifted to what they’re doing AFTER college. The thought of anyone I just spent, like, 50 grand to educate sitting in my basement unemployed playing XBOX or watching Breaking Bad really makes me agitated.

There’s no science to any of this. Getting into the perfect school is some great American myth, brought to you by the same folks that came up with the legend of the white picket fence and the fantasy of the Victoria’s Secret swimsuit catalog.

There is just no such thing.

So, I think I just need to take a deep breath and put it all in my daughter’s hands. She’ll figure out where she wants to go and how to get in if that’s where she really sees herself. I will inevitably relapse and get crazy about something — SAT subject tests or a pending deadline — but hopefully I’ll have the wherewithal to calm down fast.

I will need to, in the immortal words of Princess Elsa, let it go.

But I take comfort in the fact that I won’t have to traipse around one more quad or tell one more kid walking backwards that she’s about to slam into a light pole for another six years when it’s my little guy’s turn to look at schools.

Hopefully, my CCFS will be in remission by then. Or maybe, like learning to tie his own shoes or riding a bike, my youngest will just take care of it himself.



The Secret to a Perfect SAT Score

photo-13“That is so not fair,” observed my 16-year-old daughter as she drove us around yesterday afternoon to do some chores while we listened to “All Things Considered” on the radio.

She had just heard about the changes coming to the SATs and, as she prepares to take the college entrance exam for the second time this Saturday, was agitated.

As things don’t always go so well for us when she’s behind the wheel of our car, I decided not to try to downplay the cruel twist this news presented, coming on the heels of about five months of classes she’s taken to prepare for the exams.

It sucks.

Starting in 2016, the test will revert to the 1600 score format and make the writing portion optional. The vocabulary section will focus more on words that crop up in every day school and work environments – like synthesis vs. sagacity – and test takers will no longer be penalized for incorrect answers.

The College Board has determined that the current iteration of the SATs doesn’t focus on academic skills – the things kids are learning in the classroom – and puts low-income students at a disadvantage.

Amen to that.

I’d estimate that over the course of three children I have spent around $3,000 to prepare them to take the SATs.

The older two kids went and sat with a local woman – you know, the SAT prep expert you HAD to use, was IMPOSSIBLE to get in touch with and was THOROUGHLY booked months in advance. She charged $90 an hour – although the weekly practice test kids took as a group was free – and met privately with each student at her office.

This time around, we decided to try an outfit about 20 minutes away that does group classes – at $80 a pop – and kids can pick and choose what they’d like to focus on. I don’t know if it’s the environment or my daughter, but she seems more focused on studying for the SATs and is already talking about taking it a third time in May if her scores don’t go up to where she’d like them to be.

As usual, I struggle with making any type of commentary about SAT scores, not only because I know that ultimately it’s their lives and I can only push so much (or can I?), but also because the little darlings go on the attack and ask how I did on my SATs.

“Yeah, Mom,” one would hiss. “I’d like to see you take it.”

Because the general consensus around here is that I am a complete screw up. (I might have mentioned to them that my one attempt at the test looked like this: I was completely unprepared, had gone out the night before and was slightly hungover and got a speeding ticket rushing to get to the school where I needed to take it at the appointed early morning hour. This was not a recipe for success.)

I’d like to prove my children wrong. In fact, there’s a part of me that would like to prove to myself that I could have performed a lot better on the test, had I just been a little bit more prepared. And not hungover.

Sometimes I’ll do one of those SAT practice questions on the College Board web site (the reading ones, not the math, silly), and I usually kill it. The vocab words aren’t that hard either if you ask me.

But the math section would obliterate any of my reading and writing success.

This is why I got such a kick out an article I recently read in The New Yorker about another mom who had the same urge but actually went ahead and took the SATs. And not just once but multiple times, which she writes about in her book “The Perfect Score Project: Uncovering the Secrets of the SAT.” 

Debbie Stier, the author of the book — a divorced mother of two and successful book publicist — discovers somewhere between her fourth and fifth SAT rounds that she has tested on the third grade level for math. So while she goes on to score a perfect 800 during one try on the writing section and 740 in reading, her math never gets over 560 despite devoting herself full-time to the endeavor and availing herself of numerous test prep operations.

“Taking the SAT is not something to do lightly,” points out Elizabeth Kolbert, the author of The New Yorker article “When Mom Takes the SATs.”

She, too, decides to take the exam and towards the end becomes confused by her answer sheet, inadvertently filling in bubbles in the wrong section and unsure which to erase.

“In the confusion, I felt my chances of getting into the college of my choice slip away which, considering the circumstances, says a lot about the power of the SATs,” Kolbert writes.

So I’ll be glad when it’s my daughter getting out of the car early Saturday morning with her #2 pencils to take the SATs and not me.

I’ve got to get to spin class.



What About College?

IMG_0557Anyone who has seen the Hungtington Learning Center commercial on TV — “Face it! I’m not getting into college!” – has had the pleasure of hearing a dramatic scene taken from the pages of my own life.

Let me clarify: I am lucky in that I haven’t had anyone failing out of school. The kids have taken rigorous course loads, held down after school jobs and gotten involved in things like “Model U.N.” and played the saxophone.

But I am starting the third round of the college search process and while I just assumed things would get easier with each consecutive child—that there would be some type of buy-in at the very least – I find I’m running into the same bullshit now that I did a few years ago when my oldest was a junior in high school.

At issue is the broad assumption held by my children that going to college is a figment of their mother’s imagination. They act as if the four-year academic experience practiced by gazillions of people in the United States is some crazy scheme I cooked up, akin to the notion that beets are delicious and NPR is interesting.

They act like where they’re going to spend the next four years is my problem. They have failed to understand that that ship has long since sailed. I’ve already proved to be a fair-to-mediocre student more interested in a certain boy than things like homework and studying and ended up in a big, state school filled with a lot of people from New Jersey just like me.

And I’ll admit: It’s not easy preventing my own dreams and regrets from getting caught up in the process. There’s tons of things I wish I had done differently when I was their age – starting with turning off the TV in my bedroom – and see their futures as a chance to make better choices. A do-over.

But if I can put all that other stuff aside, what I hope my children come away with is expanded horizons. I want them to understand that while this little upper-middle-class-suburban-microcosm that they’ve grown up in is very nice, there is a whole world out there filled with all kinds of different people and different experiences. I want them to be open to the idea that the possibilities are endless.

Because it took me a long time to understand that the ideas I was operating under were way too small.

I am most surprised that my third child has proved to be as resistant to discussing college as her older siblings. It was no shock that those two quickly dismissed any conversations that began with, “So, do you see yourself at a big school or a small school?” or “What part of the country would you prefer?”

They seemed to view every question I posed as a personal affront.

My oldest son and I took a couple of trips to look at schools, driving together across highways bisecting Pennsylvania and along the Northeast coast, and we probably shared about 10 minutes of conversation for all those hours we sat side-by-side.

That might even be an overestimate.

He’d sit next to me in the passenger seat, or if it was a really long haul he’d stretch out in the back of our SUV, wearing headphones from which blared some very intense-sounding rap music, drowning out not only any attempts at conversation, but the audio book I had downloaded for the trip.

There’s nothing like trying to imagine what it’s like to be shipwrecked in the Pacific or get a handle on characters’ crazy Swedish names with Lil Wayne and Eminem shouting vulgar and angry words in the background. It’s disconcerting.

But I am shocked that Kid #3 isn’t embracing my attempts at helping her find the right school. I actually thought that when her turn came to look at schools, we’d have a lot of fun going on tours together and talking about what we liked best here vs. there while lying on our beds at a Hampton Inn in some college town.

Those are the getaways I should have taken with her three years ago, when she still liked me.

I tried again to start a conversation about college at dinnertime the other night. She bristled as I wondered aloud if a certain state school might be worth looking at, and hissed, “I don’t know,” and I really felt like she was seconds away from barking, “Face it! I’m not getting into college!”

When I in turn got all snippy and informed her that the time had come, like it or not, to start talking about college, she agreed but then told me, “You just go about it in the wrong way.”


And I get it: She’s probably feeling like she’s under a lot of pressure (first round of SATs this weekend!) and in a little bit of denial.

Growing up is scary and talking about it makes it all seem so stinking real.

The Huntington commercial came on early this morning, while my daughter and I bustled around the kitchen with the TV tuned to the local ABC news that comes on before “Good Morning America,” and the familiar, “What about college?” line seemed to hang in the air.

We both looked up from what we were doing and made eye contact and laughed.

“I am so writing about this,” I told her.

And if that’s the only satisfaction I can derive from this whole stage of my children’s lives – aside from the joy of paying for it – I’ll take it.



The Girls

IMG_7658Between us, we have 19 kids, 9 weddings, 3 ex-husbands, 2 boyfriends, over 25 years of memories and a lot of opinions.

Since we met as students at the University of Delaware in the mid-80s, our gang of 8 friends has come a long way from our days of sitting around dorm rooms and sorority dens in oversized Forenza sweaters and big Jersey hairdos, telling each other what to do.

We’ve seen boyfriends – and those bad hairstyles – come and go. We’ve danced at weddings, celebrated the births of all those babies and when the towers came crashing down in 2001 and took one of the husbands with them, the group swooped in to support our friend bowing under the pressure of all that grief.

We’re scattered now up and down the East Coast – with one West Coast outlier – and don’t keep in touch like we should.  We don’t send cards for birthdays, reply-all to group emails and only a couple of us are active on Facebook (which is confusing to those of us who can’t imagine a day without it).

Without the Internet grapevine, we still know the big stuff – like who’s getting a divorce or moving to a new state – but the little things – like where the kids are headed for college or news on a parent’s hip replacement – gets lost in the shuffle of daily carpools and holidays.

So when we do get together every few years, catching up is our number one priority. We are expert interrogators.

We gather around dining tables and lounge around sofas gleaning as much information as we can about kids, jobs, husbands, parents, siblings and every facet of each other’s lives while slipping back into the easy friendships that began in college.

There’s always a carbohydrate involved and we laugh a lot.

But it’s a challenging crowd. They put the “Boss” in Bossypants. In fact, there are so many chiefs in the group, I just get in the back seat and try to keep my mouth shut like a good little Indian.

And I can be a bit of a loudmouth in my regular life.

But in much the same way that we revert to old behaviors when we get together with our families, when my college girlfriends and I gather, we assume the roles that originated almost 30 years ago.


View from me and the Jet Setter’s room at the swanky Wythe Hotel in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.

We convened this weekend on the east end of Long Island – after a quick night of eating and drinking in Williamsburg, Brooklyn (ground zero for hispsterdom) – and by the time we drove the few hours out to the beach on Friday, we had fallen back into familiar patterns.

There was the Spy, the Smart One and the Jet Setter. Bossypants, the Nice One and the GDI (Godddamn Independent). The Senator was declaring her allegiance to Chris Christie’s presidential campaign by nightfall and I am supposedly the Funny One, but I think I am way more amusing on the page than in real life.

During previous gatherings, I had discovered that I tend to lose sight of 30 years of personal growth and become thin-skinned around the group. This year, I didn’t want our gathering to be clouded by hurt feelings and all my, like, stuff.

So I went back and skimmed my copy of “The Four Agreements.” I reminded myself not to take everything so personally or to make assumptions. (They happen to be two of my favorite internal hot buttons.)

My resolve was quickly put to the test Thursday night when we were freshening up in the hotel room before dinner when the Boss – who has been in the fragrance and cosmetics industry for 25 years – cut me off in mid-sentence to question my lipstick choice.

“I don’t like it,” she said, rubbing the dark stain from my lower lip with her thumb.

Five years ago, I would have been crushed. I would have taken her words as a personal affront. She was the same person who, when I made a comment about the group of girls sitting around her dorm room bleaching their mustaches with Jolen, came close, stared at my upper lip, and said, “Not for nothing but you might want to think about it.”

But as I listened to her explain that at our age, we should veer away from deep stains and formulas that sank into the crevices that have formed in our aging lips and opt instead for more neutral tones that used more of an emollient to literally gloss over our old mouths.

She was helping a sister out.

And that was that.  I didn’t dwell. I thought it was funny and moved on.

We spent the rest of the weekend eating great food, drinking lots of wine and discussing our sluggish digestive systems at length. We also got some very detailed information about somebody’s bikini waxing preferences — using raingutters as a metaphor and ensuring I would never look at the outside of my house the same way again.

We walked along the soft sandy beach in Amagansett and shopped in tony East Hampton stores where I found the perfect pair of short black boots, only to discover that they cost over $900.

Sunday came much too quickly and soon, we were all heading home via planes, trains and automobiles knowing that we would gather again next September and get serious about planning our oft-discussed 50th celebration.

The emails started that night, everyone chiming in to say what a great weekend it was.

“I adore all of you and love having you in my life even if it’s just once a year,” wrote one pal.

“It was so nice to see everyone and you haven’t changed much, funny thing,” chimed in another. “It’s so easy to be with all of you and to just continue on where we left off.”

The way good girlfriends do. Who could feel bad about that?


Old School (Or That Time I Drank Jungle Juice)

2334_53244111157_1008_nI drank something called jungle juice this weekend and as I lifted the Solo cup brimming with the icy yellow liquid to my mouth, I realized that I needed to retract a statement I made recently – that you couldn’t go home again – because dudes, sometimes it’s like you never left.

Let me explain.

I drove eight hours south for parents’ weekend at my son’s fraternity this past weekend and found myself standing on the back deck of the “house,” as the brothers call it, Saturday morning and being handed the alcohol-laden beverage.

Here are the ingredients: 30 cans of Keystone Light, a handle of Aristocrat vodka, a package of powdered lemonade and ice.

The fraternity had organized a lovely dinner the night before at a local country club for the parents and the next day we gathered at the fraternity house for an early tailgate before the football game kicked off at noon.

I had watched earlier as one of the guys wheeled a cooler across the deck and set it on top of one of the picnic tables. You could tell that this was not the cooler’s first tailgate. He lifted the attached lid and boys surrounded the cooler and started popping open cans and pouring beer directly into it.

“Here, just try it,” said my son, who had gone right over to scoop himself a Solo cup full of the juice. I took a sip and felt Amy, circa 1986, start to come to life.

“Go get me some,” I told my son.

When in Rome, dudes, when in Rome.

I have to confess that I know my way around a tailgate. And fraternity houses too, for that matter. I went to a big state university and joined a sorority and while I’m pretty sure I never missed one tailgate in the four years I was there, I also don’t think I ever made it in to see one football game.

So I get the excitement of game day. I understand the culture that makes a cooler into a cauldron of high-octane booze to be enjoyed at 10 a.m.

But 25 years later, I discovered that you notice more of the details. You’re no longer seeing things through the hazy filter of someone enamored with drinking cheap beer surrounded by friends and that cute guy you want to ask to the sorority formal. The beer and the boys, those were the focus points back then. I hung out in dank bars that had quarter mug nights and musty fraternity basements where you knew not to go near the punch.

But when you briefly return to Greek life after a 25-year break, you realize that your standard of living has risen dramatically. Like, I now enjoy things such as toilet paper and clean floors, neither of which was available at Saturday’s tailgate. I was so skeeved-out standing outside on the deck that I had to switch out of the flip-flops I was wearing and put on the pair of flats I had tucked in my bag, just to increase the distance between my feet and the rotting wood below.

And don’t get me wrong: the boys had worked hard to provide a well-stocked bar and put out a barbecue spread with a pulled pork so tender it would make you weep. There were just some details the guys neglected to take care of, like the aforementioned toilet paper. And, okay, I’ve had to go without paper a time or two in my life, but then there was the actual condition of the ground floor bathroom.

You. Wouldn’t. Believe. It.

I guess the best way to describe it is the tell you to close your eyes and imagine what the bathroom in the “Animal House” fraternity must have been like, and then imagine yourself standing inside it with your pants pulled down and squatting.

And then there was the mop.

As it had started to drizzle, the guys set the buffet up inside and we all filed in to stand on line. As I was waiting just inside the back door, I noticed to the left a mop propped up against the wall and was so glad I had switched out of the flip-flops.


I can guarantee you that in 1986, I would not have thought twice about that mop. In fact, we probably had one propped somewhere in our own sorority house. And if you interviewed any of my former roommates between 1984-1990, they would probably tell you that I was not the cleanest cat in the litter box. It never would have occurred to me to change my sheets, vacuum a rug or scrub the tub. I was oblivious to filth.

Today, I can’t walk by a littered counter without wiping it and I pay a woman to come and clean my floors and wash my sheets once a week.

I have standards.

The biggest difference, though, between 1986 Amy and the woman I am today is that now, I know exactly where my off button is (well, for the most part).

The old Amy would have had three or four cups of jungle juice instead of sharing one with a couple of the other people I was standing with. The old Amy would have had a hard time tearing herself away from the back-porch-fun to hike the mile or so in the rain to sit in the stadium and watch the game (well, the first half anyway). And the old Amy definitely wouldn’t have decided, after stopping back at the fraternity after the game and assessing the trash strewn across the deck and the girls dancing on the table, that it was best to turn around and leave.

Instead, we headed back to one of my daughter’s friends’ apartment where we peeled off our wet jeans to throw in the dryer and lounged around in borrowed sweats watching “Pitch Perfect” and “He’s the Man.”

And when nighttime came, I drove the whole crew of girls back to my daughter’s apartment and sat around and gabbed with the girls for a while, and then when it seemed they might want a drink or two, I packed up and went back to my hotel.

I posted a bunch of photos of me and the kids on Facebook over the weekend and one friend commented, “I wish I could go back to college!”

And I’ve decided that college is a nice place to visit, but I wouldn’t want to live there.



the college good-bye

I drove eight hours yesterday for the big college move. Again. He’s a junior and she’s a sophomore at the same school, and the novelty — at least for me — is wearing off.

And while things aren’t as shiny and exciting as they were two years ago, I can guarantee that the two-day excursion will still include a very expensive trip to WalMart, at least one meal at a fast food restaurant and chardonnay (that last part is for me).

It makes me think back to the big moment, two years ago, when I said good-bye to my oldest, and what a milestone that was in my life, and thought I’d share an essay I wrote in retrospect.

I’ll let you know how it feels to be an old pro when I return next week (I figure at this rate, by the time my youngest goes in 8 years I’ll be able to just send him by himself).


There’s a picture pinned to the bulletin board in my kitchen — half hidden by silly greeting cards and bumper stickers that I’ve collected — which has become our iconic family back-to-school photo. In it, my two oldest children stand on the front stoop of our old house, a basket of late-summer impatiens drooping behind them, on the occasion of the oldest kid’s first day of preschool, just shy of his fourth birthday.

Pinned to the front of each of their shirts is a construction paper nametag that had been sent by the teacher to be worn on the first day of school. My son’s has his name on it and my daughter, who is only 17-months younger, is wearing the tag that had been sent for me to wear, but she assumed it was for her and who was I to burst her bubble? So I pinned it to her little white polo shirt and, if you didn’t know any better, you would have thought that it was her first day of school too, the way she puffs out her chest and looks directly into the camera, her lips forming the “ch” of “cheese.”  Her big brother stands beside her, looking away from the camera and grins at her, as if to say, “Can you believe this?”

That picture started a trend that we’ve continued on the first day of each school year ever since – even with the addition of two other children and when our world got a little rocky when the kids’ dad moved. Of course, as they got older, the kids would gripe about my “obsession” with organizing the first day of school photo op. Last year, that sweet oldest son, who looked at his sister with such love and excitement on his first day of preschool, actually flipped the camera the bird after I wrestled him to the front stoop to document the first day of his senior year of high school.

I kid you not.

Over the years, I have not been as diligent about documenting certain events that I did when the kids were younger. The Christmas slideshow is no longer an inventory of each gift the kids received and really, do we need to memorialize every Easy-Bake Oven or Harry Potter Lego set that comes into our house?

But back-to-school photos I strictly adhere to.

I got creative and copied that iconic first-day-of-preschool photo to make a card for my son to open after we dropped him off to start his first year away at college. It was tucked into a bundle of frames his sisters and I had picked up at Target and filled with family photos, all tied in a big bow and left on the desk in his dorm.

In the note, I reminded him of the occasion of the photo and how proud I was of the person he had become in the years since the picture was taken. I wrote in the note that I knew he would continue to excel in college as he had throughout high school and looked forward to watching what he would do next.

The whole family had driven the eight hours south to see him off and get him settled in this new chapter of his life. We hung his posters and made his bed and all took a ride over to the local Wal-Mart for extension cords and light bulbs. We walked around the sprawling campus with the rows and rows of imposing grey stone buildings and picked up his software for his major and the million-dollars worth of textbooks at the bookstore.

And when it seemed we could do no more, I left the bundle of photo frames on his desk and had him walk me and his sisters out to the car in the lot behind his dorm to say good-bye.

It’s that moment you’ve kind of been anticipating your whole career as a mom. The moment when you have to push your little bird, whose gaping mouth you’ve been lovingly placing worms into for years, out of the proverbial nest. It’s scary to imagine how hard he’ll need to flap to stay aloft. Or how empty the nest will seem without him.

We stood by the car and my oldest daughter, who had stood next to her brother so proudly on our front stoop so many years before, turned and wrapped her long arms around him to say good-bye.

Then my son stepped in front of me and I knew the moment had arrived to say all the things I had meant to say — like reminding him to floss daily and to say no to drugs and study hard — but all I could do was throw my arms around his neck and cry. Then I felt his back moving as he sobbed and was grateful that he, too, was sad. And it was then, that my younger daughter snapped our picture with her camera.

It’s the newest addition to our first day of school photo gallery and perfectly captures what it’s like to watch your child leave your nest. In it, my son’s back is to the camera and his head leans down towards me in an embrace. My face is contorted in an ugly cry and my arms hug him tight around his back with my left hand wrapped around the back of his neck, holding it the way I did when he as an infant.

We pulled apart and wiped our eyes and said our final good byes and I somehow navigated the car through the traffic-clogged roads surrounding the dorms and eventually back onto the highway. The girls and I sniffled a little bit more, and then settled in for the long drive home.

I sent him a text the next day to see how he made out his first night in the dorm and if he had found the pictures and card we had left on his desk.

“Yeah I got them thank you,” he texted back. “Sad card.”

His text continued, “When you get the chance, can you send me my basketball I left in the garage?”

And it seemed that his wings would work just fine.