• The Ritual of Moving Out of the Dorm — With No Long Speeches

    June 6, 2015 // 7 Comments »


    This time of year everybody talks about the ritual of college graduation. But no one seems to focus on the other college right of passage that’s unfolding now, the move out of the dorm and back home for the summer.

    Perhaps the dorm thing gets less attention because it happens more than once; three or four times (we hope not too many more times) for most traditional students. But humping boxes and suitcases out of my daughter’s dormitory like I’m a roadie for KISS had as much to say about college, life, and parenting as any commencement. And without the long speeches.

    Making sense out of moving-out of the dorm only makes sense in the context of moving-in to the dorm. That far back in history, everything was folded neatly, socks were in pairs and kitchen supplies still smelled of Walmart. Roommates were all friends-for-life to be, full of fun comments about how much the same/how different everyone looked from the Facebook profiles that had been stalked mercilessly all summer. Empty notebooks, clean dorm rooms, all that hope and promise ahead stuff.

    We parents moved-in heavy things, and exchanged friendly chat about how all that could fit into a dorm room, about how we were all sure the girls would become friends-for-life, and said “Oh, this is nice” in a tone of voice we hoped sounded credible in reference to the bathroom. With our kids, quiet words about some silly thing from their childhood we just recalled were exchanged even as they turned to ignore us after some kid stuck his head in to announce a crucial floor meeting, and a tear or two (ours exclusively) marked our being shushed out the door. There seemed to have been so much to talk about on the way up here. It was a long trip home with my spouse to have suddenly not a word to say.

    And now nine months later we were back.

    If any packing had preceded our arrival, it consisted of tangled clothes, some still damp from the gym, stuffed into suitcases. New things – clothes we hadn’t bought her ourselves, including a very adult black dress – made an appearance. A fresh coat of grime had been applied to the tub. What one hoped was part of that hard-won A- in Advanced Biology we’d heard about was left in the refrigerator. No, we didn’t need to take the Tupperware home, thanks.

    The friends-for-life roommates had turned out to be people, with all the good things and bad things people bring along into dorm rooms. Some goodbyes seemed to mean more than others. We parents watched awkwardly; we had heard it all, or at least a very, very one-sided version of it all, from our kids. Parental eyes did not meet. The tales I heard about so-and-so and her acrobatic boyfriend might have had twin sister versions that involved my own kid. It was better to simply ask the other dads about traffic on the way up, until –

    Damn, I just saw her not too long ago for a visit, and we had two weeks together at Christmas, but what happened to my daughter? The kid who needed to be pushed and shoved a year or so ago to finish a university admissions essay that tragically failed to tie together the symbolism of the river in Mark Twain and some boring summer job now wants to talk about the Cold War mistakes of the Truman administration (cool) and 19th century French poetry (I just nod.)

    We’ll all be together for the summer, but only the parental side of the equation can see the clock running. There used to be a lot more summers. Now there are just a couple more dorm move-ins and move-outs to watch as time runs away. One of those moves will mark commencement, and that’ll be an emotional day of its own. But everybody knows commencement is a big deal. My worry is it is too easy to miss the three years of early warnings signs that precede it.




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    Saying Goodbye, and Sorry We Messed This Up

    August 31, 2013 // 7 Comments »

    (Off topic here, but I wanted to say a few words after dropping my child off at college. Regular readers who hope to see evil and corruption exposed, tune in again. There’s still plenty of it out there, also in a way the topic of this essay. This originally appeared on Huffington Post)

    Mrs. We Meant Well and I sent off the last of the heirs to the We Meant Well fortune to college. She’s a good kid, smarter than me hopefully, and she should do well at school. Though she is more embarrassed than anything about half the stuff on this blog, her heart’s in the right place. It would be very odd if as a teenager she would be any different. Hell, if she was as cynical as me at her age, we’d need to have her see a doctor.

    I kept my mouth shut at the college– there are rituals to these things and dad-confessions are not among them– but I wanted to say sorry to her more than simply goodbye. My kids all grew up overseas while I served with the State Department (though they of course did not accompany me to Iraq). Despite the occasional job hassles, it was not a bad life. For most of the time the world was mostly at peace. We started the adventure around the same time that Desert Storm happened. After a week of silly paranoid concern that the Iraqi Army might somehow attack us in Taiwan, life went back to normal and continued that way until September 11, 2001. We were assigned in Japan at that time, and like all of you, watched the terrible events unfold on TV, albeit late at night because of the time zone thing. As the second plane hit the World Trade Center, I got up to make some sandwiches to bring in to work, knowing the phone would ring soon and I’d be called in to the Embassy. I remember as clear as glacier water my wife saying “Why would they call you in? That’s in New York and we’re in Tokyo!” Then the phone did ring and that was that. Forever after I would feel like a shadow looking for the sanctuary of a light.

    The world my kids grew up in no longer exists. We destroyed it. In reaction to the terror attack, we set the Middle East on fire (still burning), nearly bankrupted our own economy, turned air travel into a form of bondage play, and did away with our democracy in return for a security state that exists only to keep us perched on the edge of fear. Nothing pressed us into these actions; we did them all on our own, the Patriot Act, Guantanamo, the NSA amok, all that.

    That night twelve years ago in Tokyo, when I was called in to the Embassy after midnight? As I approached the gate, I could see a large crowd gathered, not usual for after midnight and certainly not usual in calm-as-dust Tokyo. About a hundred Japanese had spontaneously gathered there, some with flowers bought who-knows-where at that time of night. They clapped for us as we walked in to work. They wanted to touch us as we walked by. It did not last long. Fast forward to March 2003 and a larger crowd gathered to protest the invasion of Iraq, and protest calls blew out the switchboard. Our security people let us out a back gate, saying it wasn’t safe to exit through the front door. In Tokyo. One bomb threat and false positive al Qaeda warning after another followed, hitting a low point when, after weeks of denying it, the State Department admitted that they had shipped diplomatic pouches into our Embassy that might have been infected by the anthrax that was in the U.S. mail system at the time. My office was near the pouch mail room and I had to take Cipro as a precaution and wonder if anything got into my home and my kids’ room off my clothes. Threats and terror alerts became a daily part of our new normal, there and in the U.S.

    So I wanted to say I was sorry to my child. Sorry we messed up the world for you. Sorry for, what, how many dead? Sorry countries where Americans used to be at least tolerated with our awkward shorts and sandals ‘n socks are now too dangerous to even visit. Sorry you’ll never see the ruins of Babylon in Iraq, or the Pyramids, unless you join the Army. Sorry you will never know what privacy is. Sorry that you, and your children, will live in an America that exists in a constant state of low-fever war. Sorry you will never know peace. Sorry that we not only did not defeat the terrorists but, by our actions, gave their cause new life and seemingly endless new recruits. Sorry you will never enjoy an airplane trip, sorry you will never trust your government, sorry you will always have that tiny glint of reservation when you hear the anthem, read the Constitution or wonder what happened. And while I am sorry that you’ll blame us, you are right to do so. We did it. Some of us actively participated, some passively let it happen. Some that tried to make changes failed to make them significant enough to hold back even some of the water coming over the levies. Sorry, but if anyone is going to fix this, it is going to have to be you. Do a better job than we did if you want to really find a way to say thanks for the piano lessons and ballet lessons, the puppy, for using the car, for me not being too mad when you violated curfew to spend more time with that boy, for the college tuition.

    Funny, but I also just sent my last draft for the new book off to the editor. He’ll make it much better and I know that, but I have given up something that used to be all mine at the same time. It’ll come back different.

    We sent my daughter off to college this weekend and while my wife cried about 99% of the time, I held back some tears until the very end. While some kid my daughter had never met before said “C’mon, we’re going out with the guys from the next quad!” I stood there hugging her not in that room but in a million places where she had fallen down or asked for ice cream or needed a diaper changed or the causes of World War I explained. I didn’t hug an 18 year old woman but a six year old, a 13 year old, an infant in diapers, a two year old angry about being wet in the snow.

    And despite my need to hold on to her for just that much more she felt closer in that moment to the anonymous roommate demanding she go out the door with her than to me and I knew simultaneously how I hurt and how right she was to need to leave. The space between us was a fraction of an inch but it was a distance I would never cross.

    Back home it was quiet. Just my wife and the stupid, now old dog. I walked outside and saw the trees were still an unbelievable green, but just a hint of yellow, almost too little to really see, more of a feeling. There were nine empty beer cans in the recycling bin and I could hear cicadas. I swacked a mosquito. I’m gonna really miss summer.



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    Sending a Kid Off to School

    September 8, 2011 // Comments Off on Sending a Kid Off to School

    (We’re w-a-y- off topic here, but I wanted to say a few words after dropping my daughter off at college. Regular readers who hope to see evil and corruption exposed, tune in again tomorrow and we’ll have more Apocalypse Iraq atrocities for you)

    I walked outside in my flip-flops and saw the trees were still a gorgeous green, with just a hint of yellow, almost too little to really see, more of a feeling. There were 20 empty beer cans in the recycling bin and I could hear cicadas humming in my ears. I swacked a mosquito on my leg. I’m gonna really miss summer.

    We dropped my daughter off at college this weekend and while my wife cried about 60% of the time, I held back some tears until the very end. While some kid my daughter had never met before said “C’mon!” I stood there hugging her not in that room but in a million places where she had fallen down or asked for ice cream or needed a diaper changed or the causes of the Civil War explained and cried. I didn’t hug an 18 year old woman but a six year old, a 13 year old, an infant in diapers, a two year old angry about being wet in the snow.

    And despite my need to hold on to her for just that much more she felt closer in that moment to the anonymous roommate demanding she go out the door with her than to me and I knew simultaneously how I hurt and how right she was to need to leave. The space between us was a fraction of an inch but it was a distance I would never cross.




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