Thursday, November 26, 2009

Hanging Out A Little While Longer

What the heck, I'm on a roll. And a pie is cooling in the laundry room with a timer to put it in the fridge in an hour. So let's knock out one more Oberlin story and finish this interminable story about our trip there...

I think Ben was expecting us to leave just after breakfast on Sunday morning, but he didn't flinch when as we were walking back towards his dorm I told him we wanted to hang out with him for a few more hours. Not the slightest flinch. He took us to his room where we printed out our Southwest Airlines boarding passes, and then he took us out to Wilder Bowl where we found a warm, sunny spot of greenery and sat down.

Actually, I sat down. Ben and Trudy laid back on the grass. He curled up a bit, closed his eyes and seemed to be sleeping after we had been chatting a while, although he would periodically chime in on the conversation without opening his eyes.

And then after a while, we all sat up and talked. I couldn't resist it. There were some pearls of fatherly wisdom I wanted to share before we left town. Pearls about making good use of this time in his life. Pearls about studying as hard as the Music Conservatory students practice. Pearls about ... I don't know what all else, but you get the idea.

And then in a flash, several hours of hanging out had passed and it was time for us to leave for Hopkins International airport.

"I'll go with you to the car," Ben said. "You don't have to walk alone."

So he walked us back to Tappan Square, where we had parked along Main Street. We hugged goodbye. We told him we're proud of him. I said to work hard. And then we got into the rental car and waved goodbye.

I sat behind the steering wheel watching him walk across the square in his disheveled shirt and his flip-flops. He pulled out his phone to check his messages. And he didn't look back again.

I sat there watching as he walked on the grass under the leafless trees to the far side of the square and then crossed Professor Street and was gone.

I sat there watching my son, my only child, walk back into this new life that he is making for himself in this place I hardly know, making brand-new friends, doing brand-new things, figuring it all out for himself.

Tears streamed down my cheeks.

"Do you want me to drive?" Trudy asked.

"No, I'm fine," I said, and I started the car.

...So there you have it: our Parents' Weekend trip to Oberlin College. And now, about that pie in the laundry room.

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Finding His Own Way

On Sunday morning, we were supposed to meet Ben at the Black River Cafe at 10:00. But he went to a dance marathon after the swing dance, whereas we went back to the hotel to get some sleep. So we weren't particularly surprised when there was no Ben there.

The weather had been fantastic that weekend (given the cold weather the week before), and that morning was the warmest since we arrived on Thursday night. So we walked the half-block back to Tappan Square and found a bench in the sun and sat down to wait.

A few minutes passed, and we saw Rachel and David across the street. They waved and came over to where we were sitting. Ben had invited them to breakfast. They reported that he had gone over to Keep Cottage after the dance marathon and spent the night there.

Keep Cottage was two blocks north from where we were sitting, and as the four of us turned our heads in that direction, there he was, walking towards us with his hands in his pockets and his long hair looking like ... looking like he just got up a few minutes before.

"Does he study?" my mother asks me after reading these stories. "Does he get grades?"

Yes, of course he does. And he did talk about them a little. But we didn't want to spend our time grilling him about those (obviously important) things. It's his first semester at school a long way from home. He's been tossed into a completely new world and has a little exploring to do. And the thing of it is that his parents have way more visibility into how he is doing than my parents had into what I was doing during my first semester at the University of Illinois 30+ years ago. So even though we really wanted to ask him those questions and more, we just didn't need to grill. I just need to be patient for a little while longer, give him some space, let him start finding his own way.

Find his own way within limits, of course. But ragged hair and wearing the same clothes on a Sunday morning that you had on Saturday night are well within limits, as I see things right now. Especially since it was only 10:10. And especially because we were just so happy to see his sheepish, smiling face.

There'll be time for questions later.

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 Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Two Dollars

After the swing dance in Hales Gym, there was going to be a dance marathon at The 'Sco. When the swing music stopped, David and Daniel and Rachel and Ben were talking about it, and David mentioned that it would cost $4.00 to get in.

When Trudy walked to the other side of the gym to get her coat, Ben leaned over and whispered in my ear.

"Dad, do you have two dollars? I need four for the dance, but I only have two."

Two dollars. I got out my wallet and gave him two dollars.

Does Oberlin plan these things with the kids so that parents feel they're still needed when they come to visit?

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Swing Dance Lessons

After dinner we dropped Ben off at his dorm and went to change into our fancy clothes. Then with some time to kill, we went to Finney Chapel to hear the Oberlin Jazz Ensemble. Knowing we'd have to leave early, we sat in the balcony in the back. The music was great, and the view of the band and the stage and the (quiet) organ pipes at the far end of the hall was stunning. Our 30 minutes passed in a flash, and we snuck out the doors in the back corner and crossed the street to go to the gym.

It turned out that Ben was in the chapel, too. As we walked out, we could see his silhouette crossing Lorain Street ahead of us. We called to him. He turned and smiled and came over to join us. We walked up the steps and into the gym together.

There were a few parents there for the lessons, but it was mostly kids. Most of us were beginners, although it was obvious that some were more beginners that others. The swing club hosts dances periodically, and each starts with a half-hour lesson, so many of the students were at least partially familiar with the steps. Of course, Trudy and I weren't.

Slow, slow, quick/quick. Slow, slow, quick/quick. We'd talk ourselves thru the songs so as not to get lost. But everyone was pretty much going thru the same thing, so it wasn't as intimidating as it could have been. And as the time went by, it got more fun and was particularly fun to watch the kids (and to watch Ben). I've never had that chance before. He was dancing with different partners going thru the slow, slow, quick/quick steps faster than we were, periodically waving to us from the other side of the gym with a broad smile on his face.

So the time went by, and the steps got a bit easier, and then the 30 minutes were over. That's when the real swing dancers showed up. So there they were, flying around the gym twirling and swinging with arms and legs (literally) flying in the air. And there we were, Trudy and I, at the periphery doing our slow, slow, quick/quick, trying not to lose count, getting better with our turns and most of all trying not to get hit. We kept at it. We got better. But at that point, despite our best efforts, we didn't see any slow, slow, quick/quick in any of the steps those guys were taking.

Ben's friends, Rachel, Daniel and David, showed up. We said hi. They danced. We danced. We all got hot and sweaty. And around 10:30 the dance ended. We said our goodbyes to Ben and his friends, who had plans for another dance at the Sco in the basement of Wilder Hall, and we walked (slowly) back to the car.

I was sore for four days.

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 Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Dinner at Old B

The doors of Old B. open for dinner at 6:20pm, but when we got there (right on time), the line had already disappeared inside, and the house was full of people (students and parents) eating. Evidently they had opened early -- a near disaster for us, since the food (quesadillas and black beans and guacamole and salad) was almost gone.

They run their own shop there, so I guess they don't want to over-cook. And as a consequence, if you don't get there on time, you might be out of luck. Still there was enough to make us happy, and there was spicy hot chocolate that chased away the chill of the Midwestern fall evening.

There were people eating at tables in both living rooms. There were people eating on couches and sitting on the stairs with plates balanced on their laps. There were people eating on the veranda outside. And there were two people playing the piano. The three of us found a spot on the floor and leaned against the wall and chatted as we ate.

Afterwards, Ben gave us a tour of his domain. He's a kitchen-coordinator, and he showed us the refrigerators and freezers he monitors and the supply room in the basement where he keeps the cleaning supplies and other things in stock. He talked about their processes and procedures, and I took pictures of him explaining it all.

Explaining kitchen operations

It hasn't been yet a full semester, but you can see the changes in even the little things he does. For example, as we were walking to thru the kitchen at the beginning of his tour, we passed a cabinet with an open door. As we walked by, he gently swung the door shut. One year ago, I doubt he would have noticed. But this is his place. He's invested in seeing the co-op run well. And so seeing a door ajar, he just reached over and shut it without even thinking.

Not in high school, anymore, that's for sure.

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Beneath the Ginko Tree

And so our Saturday with Ben continued.

At the arboretum, Ben led us along paths that took us by an old stone water tower, around city drinking water supply ponds, thru the forest and by an old barn in the side of a hill. He said the school once planned to have a large gathering in that barn, until they realized that the beams holding up the floor were suspect, and that a mob of college students bouncing on them might not be a good plan. I wondered about the barn's ground floor but then had images of the beams falling in from above, and so I kept my thoughts to myself.

We came to a place where a path left the sidewalk and disappeared into the undergrowth along a creek. I pointed down the path and wondered aloud where it went. Ben wondered too and suggested we follow it. It lead us to a bridge that crossed the creek where a large Ginko tree stood on a green lawn covered with golden leaves.

We sat on the ground with our backs to the trunk of the Ginko tree as the sun set. We were early for dinner at the co-op, so we were in no rush. The weather that day had been spectacular, so the ground was not particularly cold to sit on. And in any event, my feet were sore, and I was grateful to be off them, so we just sat for a moment.

The sun setting Throwing Ginko leaves

A smile came back to my face as my feet began to recover. Ben and I threw bunches of golden Ginko leaves into the air. Trudy captured it on the camera.

Most of my days pass with shockingly little left behind for me to remember. My life is a moving window: the future that I wonder and worry about but can do little about, the present that I try to live fully even though it's sometimes struggle to stay awake, and the past that fades into oblivion far too quickly. But this moment, sitting beneath the Ginko tree on that carpet of soft golden leaves with my college son and wife next to me and the sun setting before our eyes will not fade. This golden moment will stay with me for a very long time. Besides, Trudy captured it on the camera.

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 Monday, November 23, 2009

Big Spender

In the antique store just a half-block from campus, Ben found an old Thermos with a glass liner and a retro (was it green?) plaid pattern on the outside.

"Are you going to pay for that, or should I?" I asked.

What the heck. It was Parents' Weekend, and it was only a Thermos.

"I don't know," he said, perhaps not to seem presumptuous.

"Do you have any cash?" I asked.

"I can use my new credit card," he said. (He had activated it earlier in the day.)

"How much is it?" I asked, peering around him to look for a price tag.

"Eight dollars."

"I'll pay for it," I said, handing him a ten.

It was Parents' Weekend; it was only a Thermos; and it was inexpensive to boot! What the heck, indeed.

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 Sunday, November 15, 2009

Bathroom Adventures


When we went to the Cat in the Cream to watch some of the Conservatory kids perform, I wandered down a hall, around a corner, down some stairs and into a locker room that looked as if it hasn't been used in a very long time. The lockers were grey and rusting. The ceiling felt low. The hallway felt like a tunnel. But in the back of the locker room, I found what I was looking for: the bathroom.

A day later, I retraced my steps to the same place to change into my dancing clothes for the Swing Dance that was open to parents. There was nowhere to sit. ... Well there was somewhere to sit. But fortunately, there was another where to sit: a single, lonely chair sitting against the by a doorway into some dark room. I chose the chair.

That was my first bathroom adventure. Old building. Dark tunnel-ish halls. I felt like I was in a multiplayer role playing game.


In my second adventure, the building was older, and the hall was darker and tunnel-ish-er. Ben had been giving us a tour of the Bicycle Co-op, which has storage and mechanics rooms in the basement of Keep Cottage. As he finished the tour, I saw a bathroom and told him I'd catch up.

As it turned out, I'm not sure this bathroom was ... shall we say ... on the list of approved destinations for Parents' Weekend. There were bottles of ... something oily and brown on the floor. The walls were bare, rough concrete. The porcelain since was stained in rust orange. Old pipes came down the walls, and a steel rod stuck up out of the floor an inch, waiting to capture some victim who had strayed from the straight and narrow. And the toilet, well the water was running, but that's about all I can say.

So let's move on to adventure number three.


After dinner, I asked Ben where the bathroom was. He pointed to the stairs and warned me that it's multi-gender. Fine. I can lock the door. No biggie.

I excused myself as I wound my way between four girls sitting on the stairs eating quesadillas. And I found the bathroom just where Ben had said it would be. It was dark inside, but there was a switch just inside on the wall. I flipped the switch. A fan came on but no light. I looked outside the door. No switch. I flipped the switch again off and on. No light, and the bathroom was dark. I felt on the other wall. No switch.

Time was ... shall we say ... wasting. I could see a sink and the toilet at the end of the narrow room, so I walked in and shut the door behind me. Pitch blackness except for a little light coming in thru the window at the far end. I reached down to lock the door. NO LOCK. Oh for heaven's sake. A multi-gender bathroom with NO LOCK? I fumbled around, certain there must be a lock. I found none.

Time was still ... wasting. So what the heck. Live on the edge. I felt my way toward the window and the sink and the toilet. And there I found a light switch. So I went about my business as quickly as I could ... but not quickly enough. The door opened. Fortunately, the toilet was partially hidden in an alcove and my shins and feet sticking out were evidently enough to tell the unfortunate soul at the door that he/she had walked in on a ...


Ben says there is a lock on that door!

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 Friday, November 13, 2009

Friends on the Quad

After breakfast and the kittens, they showed us around campus. We talked about life as an Oberlin freshman as we crossed Tappan Square. They walked us thru the Bike Co-op at Keep Cottage with its basement that feels as if it was just uncovered in a recent archeological dig. They talked about registering for next semester. They talked about Winter Term projects. And we finally ended up at Hazel's dorm on the north side of campus, so we took a picture of them and dropped her off and turned around to walk around a bit more with Ben.

We sat on the grass outside the Library. The sky was blue. The sun was shockingly warm. The grass was green, soft and dry. And we met some of his friends as they came wandering by.

There was Rachel, who started prancing and skipping across the quad when she saw Ben waving to him. She and he are also good friends, and talked about how many little things they discovered they have in common, including their summer work in Latin America two summers ago. There was Layla, whom Ben flagged down as she was riding by. Layla knows Ben's cousin, Colin, and Colin told them to find each other, which they have. There was Daniel, who was barefoot (which must have felt nice on that grass) and was itching to go back across the quad to get his banjo back from another guy before he could get too good at it. And there was David, who has just scrounged a unicycle and was headed to the Bike Co-op to see if he could spruce it up. David also knew Colin (if I'm getting the story right—or was it Daniel?).

After a while, Daniel went off to recover his banjo and sat down beneath an Oak tree and started playing. And David left to fix his old new unicycle. And Rachel went skipping off across the quad. And we continued our walk across campus toward Ben's dorm, where we dropped him off before we made our way to the Frank Lloyd Wright house with plans to meet meet him afterwards at the arboretum.

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 Thursday, November 12, 2009

Meeting for Breakfast

Saturday morning we had coffee and biscuits at the Bob Evans next to our Motel 6. (Don't laugh until you've had those biscuits. And don't have the biscuits without the honey.)

After that little snack, we drove the 8 miles south thru the farm fields to Oberlin, parked next to the tennis courts on the north side of campus, and walked to Tappan Square in the middle of town. That's where Ben was supposed to meet us.

We sat on a bench for a while in the morning sun watching people come and go, keeping our eyes peeled for him. He's not hard to spot at a distance — the hair, the hands in his pockets, the way he walks. And soon enough, there he was, at the far corner of the square in a green pullover sweater. We got up and began walking toward him. I waved, but he wasn't looking in our direction. He disappeared behind a massive Sycamore tree and didn't come out the other side. When we got near and walked around the tree, he was on the sidewalk talking to a friend.

It was Hazel. Hazel, who also works at the Old Barrows food co-op. Hazel, who calls Ben on the phone when they have to make a trek across campus to ask if he wants to share her bike. Hazel, who came from a boarding school so small that Oberlin seems large to her.

Ben smiled when he turned, and he introduced us. Then we went to breakfast at The Feve just down the street (large pancakes and omelets for them, one egg each and some bacon for us, since those Bob Evans biscuits were still hanging on).

Afterwards, we walked across the street to Ginko Gallery.

A bell rang as we opened the door. Hazel and Ben walked straight into the store, past the pottery, past the weavings, past the artsy greeting cards, even past the colored pencils (which Ben pointed at when he got my attention). They walked past the cash register into a artist's work area and then into a room in the far back.

And there in two cages were kittens. Tiny little mewing kittens. Gray kittens. Orange kittens. Kittens who still had blue eyes. Kittens who fell asleep in the crooks of your arms as you held them.

And with that, with biscuits and eggs and bacon and coffee and ... kittens, we were ready for the rest of the day.

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Friday at Oberlin

So on Friday morning we got a look at life in the freshman dorm. The piles of laundry. The closet doors wedged open by stuff. The posters on the wall. The computer printer sitting on a bed. We got a look at all that, and if felt ... normal.

We asked him if he could give us a tour of campus, tell us what he does where, give us a day-in-the-life intro to Oberlin.

"Well, I've set aside all day tomorrow and Sunday to spend with you guys. Right now I really need to sleep."

Uh, ok. Frankly the college set up lots of stuff for parents, so that was ... ok. We made plans to meet later outside his Political Theory class, which was open to parents. And we left him to nap.

We walked a bit around campus ourselves among the Oak trees that still had their leaves. We saw a huge Beech tree beside King Hall that still clung to a few remaining golden leaves. We had lunch in Stevenson cafeteria. We went to The Cat in the Cream to hear students playing Salsa and Jazz. We took pictures of campus. We went to the science building, where there was wine and cheese and other snacky things and the Oberlin steel drum band playing outside and other parents to talk to and a science library where I found two books that I want to read. And we went to the main library, where I lingered too long in the QA section, making us miss the a cappella choir. And we went to Finney Chapel to hear the Oberlin orchestra play Beethoven and Saint-Seans beneath the huge wooden beams that hold up the roof with the towering stainless steel organ pipes climbing the far wall behind the stage.

Somewhere in there, we went to meet Ben at his class. The students trickled in. The professor showed up. We could see them rearranging the chairs into a circle. And then Ben walked up, smiling when he saw us from down the hall.

No other parents had shown up, so Trudy asked, "Are you sure it's ok for us to come in?"

He looked at us.

"Are you sure?" Trudy asked again.

"It's ok, just say yes or no," I said.

He looked at us and then pouted and shook his head.

"Ok, that's fine. It really is."

And we walked away.

Tomorrow. Tomorrow and Sunday. He said he'd spend tomorrow and Sunday with us.

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