Wednesday, December 14, 2011

SAT Words for Gas Money

The Teenager’s friend parks in front of my house and walks in without knocking. He says he’s been video chatting with my son but was dumped when The Teenager received a chat request from his girlfriend. “Not his Real Girlfriend,” says the friend. “That other girl who he pretends is his girlfriend.”

All of this made complete sense to me. I knew the friend was talking about a girl from the mid-west that The Teenager had met on his Alaska trip over the summer. What I didn’t know was who the Real Girlfriend was, so I start grilling the friend, naming names. I’m met with only a coy smile.

I name the girl that The Teenager made a pact to pierce his ear with. And the other girl he spends Sunday nights “studying” with at CafĂ© Eclectic, a local antidote to Starbucks, with couches and loud music and table service. I know he pays for her when they sit for hours writing papers. I’ve had to remind him that even though they only order coffee, he still has to leave a tip.

I get no information so I go back to folding the laundry on the dining room table.

The Teenager and his friend bounce from room to room, snacking, playing with electronics, preening in mirrors. They stop in to the dining room to complain about the high cost of gas, perhaps hoping I might take pity and throw them a twenty.

Later, when the laundry is done and I’m back at my computer, they infiltrate my tiny office and whine about how bored they are. I suggest going to a movie. They can’t find a good one, they say. “You can go grocery shopping for me,” I tell them. I’m unable to fathom how two teenage boys, each with a car at his disposal, can’t seem to find anything to do on a Friday night.

The Teenager is picking things up off my bookshelves and putting them back in the wrong places. His friend has discovered that if he pulls down on my office door while moving it open and closed, he can make it creak like the doors in horror movies.

They complain more about gas money and the fact that I don’t keep enough drinks chilling in the refrigerator and I shoo them out and try to go back to work.

I’m not sure what made me think of the SAT flash cards, but a quick succession of ideas assembled in my mind – a phenomenon that has become so rare it left me marveling that the process could still take place.

I stick my head into the TV room. “We’re going to play SAT Words For Gas Money,” I say, knowing that the phrase “Gas Money” would get their attention.

“What’s that?” asks the friend and I quickly explain how I would ask them SAT words and give them each a quarter for every word they can define. I get the flash cards and my bowl of change and set up at the living room coffee table. They sit on the couch facing me, ready for action.

In my usual fashion, I revise the rules before we begin. “Not a quarter, a nickel,” I say. I was afraid I would go broke.

They pooh-pooh a nickel and we settle on a dime per word. As it turned out, my fear was needless; they botched up one word after another – words that I was sure they would know.

The Teenager is scheduled to take his first SAT in six weeks and I really had no idea how grim the vocabulary situation was. I’m not talking about crazy-ass words, either. Comprehensive. Notoriety. Altruistic. Words that I use all the time in sentences. Sometimes even correctly.

“Nuance,” I say to them.

Blank stares, both.

“Teenager, I used this word the other day when we were talking during breakfast,” I say to His Blankness. “Do you even know what I’m saying when I talk to you?”

“Not usually,” he says.

Occasionally, they get a definition or synonym correct and I slide a dime across the table into their small piles. If their definition is not quite right but was in the ballpark, I give them a nickel. By the end of the round, they each have $1.75, barely enough to drive to the next town.

“One more, one more,” says The Teenager, determined to win a full $2.00.


I think, How cute that his favorite hangout came up as an SAT word.

However, The Teenager does not look amused. Worse, he looks resigned. He doesn’t seem like he’s even trying to figure out why his Sunday haunt might bear that name.

“No,” I tell him, scooping up the rest of my change and dumping it back into the bowl. “Eclectic, does not mean ‘Coffee and Tea.’”

Friday, December 2, 2011

Roadrunner, Roadrunner

Early on I would just go to see who vomits. Which is really out of character for me. I usually can’t abide anything bilious, but somehow, in the runners, it didn’t make me gag, but instead left me with a feeling of awe that was at first unexpected and which later I feel like I became almost addicted to.

When people talk about runners, they usually focus on the Runner’s High. The euphoric feeling afterwards that you can do anything. That you’re gorgeous and invincible and, well, perfect. However, that is not how these runners present when they’re walking beyond the finish line, holding their sides, leaning forward to gently hurl. Still, I find it so captivating, I can’t take my eyes off them.

This is just one of the things I’ve discovered about high school cross-country, a sport that I knew virtually nothing about three years ago. In fact, when my son was a freshman and a dad in town asked if he was playing a fall sport, the dad responded with a snort when I said cross-country. “That’s not a real sport,” the dad said. At the time, I felt like I knew what he meant. You’re not embattled in head to head combat. There is no ball. There’s nothing about it that reeks of good ol’ boys.

I nodded when the dad said that, because, as usual, I wanted to fit in. But if he made the same declaration now, I would snort right back.

Because I would now find that statement dismissive and disrespectful of what these kids endure over the course of their season, and, yes, it’s different than having a drill sergeant for a coach who makes a whole team run suicides for an hour if one kid forgets his mouth guard. There is a soul and a humanity to running a long distance race that I find utterly humbling.

Kids come through the finish line and, even if they don’t vomit (and many don’t), they are in agony; it’s displayed on every pore of their face. There’s not much hooting and hollering; they’re someplace inside themselves and to witness the quietness of it feels both intimate and raw.

Some kids just walk off and back to their groups. They’re finding their breath and calming their legs. Others need to be held, and their teammates rush towards them, two kids flanking on either side. They walk the runner slowly, holding him up, bringing him back to life.

These kids do look like they’ve jut come off a battlefield, like they’re the walking wounded and you can see in their eyes that they’ve just been to a place that they’d never expected to go. It hurts. Some cry. Many walk off for a few minutes to be alone.

I just came back from the team banquet, an event that was about as low key as you can get. Pot luck, field house, no slide shows or trophies. Mostly just pasta and camaraderie.

The two captains, one senior and one junior, spoke about how the boys train six days a week, run four to seven miles every day, in the August heat and the October rain. And, as the team captain said, “when it’s time for a race, there is no one to blame things on. All there is is you and your time.” If that’s not a little microcosm of life, I don’t know what is.

Finally, the captains each told the story of how he’d gotten to cross-country. They had completely different styles, but their tales were similar. “I didn’t make the soccer team…” “I needed to get faster for baseball…” After years of these banquets, I feel like it’s a cross-country refrain. “I’m here because I wasn’t good enough.”

If not for the mortal humiliation my son would feel, I would have stepped right up onto the table at the end of those speeches and sang out a refrain of my own, one that may have been implied but needs to be spoken, loudly, to any and every kid who is willing to test himself this way: Look at you! Look what you’ve accomplished! You guys are plenty good. You’re fucking amazing.

This piece ran on Montclair Patch today and the comment there are very heartfelt. You can see it HERE.