Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Real Life 101

The moon must have been void or maybe Mercury was retrograde these last few months. That is how my older brother used to explain mechanical breakdowns during his astrology phase. That was in the days before computers, so I never actually looked up what void and retrograde meant. However, if it took the moon being void and Mercury being retrograde for mechanical problems thirty years ago, based on the list of repairs my son has had to endure, maybe Jupiter, Saturn, and Neptune are also retrograde or void or just spinning out of control in another galaxy.

Since June, every time my cell phone has rung and caller ID has told me it was my younger son, I have been answering with, "What broke now?" It is a joke, of course, and he knows I am kidding, but since he moved out of his dorm and into his own apartment, he has been plagued by real life's little inconveniences. In my son's case, though, I have been trying to act like a cheerleader so it won't get him down, because I truly believe he has had more than his fair share. Without attending a single lecture or lab, he has already learned volumes about surviving in a world where, if you don’t stand up for yourself, you might be stepped on and squished. Welcome to the School of Hard Knocks.

My son found the apartment on his own. Where I would have neurotically used a checklist of pros and cons to determine which apartment was best, my son, who tends to learn things the hard way, opted to do it his way. He showed me the piece of paper on which he took notes. These notes consisted of details about rent, amenities, and square footage plus the words “Good Karma” and “Bad Karma” written next to each complex he visited. He eventually opted to move to a place called the Bali Lanai because it had new wood floors, was being completely renovated, was within biking distance of campus, and because Bali Lanai sort of sounded like Dalai Lama, which in and of itself has to be the Best Karma of all.

During the weeks preceding his move, he was excitedly nervous. This was a giant step. He lived in the dorm last year with a roommate. Now it was just him with his pet tortoise. He prepared by shopping for furniture and packing up his belongings. I prepared by shopping for bathroom and kitchen things a person needs to start out and by mentally planning how I would decorate my new guest room.

When we saw the apartment the first time, there were workers all over the property. They were renovating what seemed to be a severely run-down complex. They were putting on a new roof and painting the walls. The pool at the complex was getting a complete overhaul. They were re-landscaping and repaving. According to the leasing agent, as each old tenant moved out, the vacated apartment got new carpeting, new appliances, fresh paint, new screens, and new countertops. As an incentive to sign a lease, the first month's rent was free.

My husband and I helped him move. I was put in charge of getting his kitchen and bathroom in order, and my husband and son lifted and hauled hand-me-down furniture, boxes, and some new furniture he purchased that they would assemble. I put a huge effort into pulling in my mothering reins and not hovering, the theory being that a college education doesn't just take place in a classroom.

My son has been on his own for two months, connected to us via instant messages, text messages, and occasional visits to do laundry at my house because he doesn't want to waste his quarters in the dirty washing machines and driers that management hasn't gotten around to replacing yet. The following are the life lessons my son has learned in the last sixty days:

Roaches 101 – No matter how much paint is put on walls, how many cans of insecticide are sprayed, how much roach bait is placed in your cabinets, how many products you store in plastic containers, and no matter what they said at the leasing office about pre-treating the apartment for potential insects, roaches will be your co-tenants. They and several generations of their friends and relatives will not sign the lease or pay rent, but they will inspect everything you have in your cabinets and show up whenever you have company. Eventually, you will be able to crush a roach from 30 feet by flinging a shoe at it. You will also have nightmares about the vengeance of roaches larger than Godzilla, and you may awaken with a roach on your face.

Air conditioning 101 – The air conditioning unit will not be working on the day you move in. The temperature on moving day will be 115 degrees. The maintenance man will eventually fix your air conditioning by replacing the compressor, but he will ignore 25 years of rust in the drip pan. Eventually, on another 115-degree day, the air conditioner unit will leak all over your new vinyl floors (that looked like real wood to a 20 year old.) It will take management ten additional days to repair the leak because the part needed will no longer be made. The repair will require cutting out a section from your ceiling. Replacing the ceiling will take another month, mostly because the walls have to dry out, and you cannot be home to let the dry wall guy in because you have classes, labs, and a job so you can pay the rent for your luxury apartment.

Plumbing 101 – When you take your first shower, you will find it odd that it takes about three hours for the water to drain from the tub. The Liquid Plumber your mother provides won't break through the clog. The handyman will quickly try to repair it because your dad is there helping you unpack and build your new Ikea bed, desk, and futon and because your mom is hovering over him, tapping her toe on the floor and mumbling about who she will call if it is not immediately fixed. The handyman's snake will break while in the pipe. A licensed plumber will be called who gets the snake out and sort of clears the drain. When you see the plumber the next day, he will say, "Hey, your apartment was NOTHING, man! We had to remove the floor in the other apartment with the backed up drainpipe in order to replace the section of pipe that was clogged. Lucky you!"

Plumbing 102 – Sooner or later, after two months of showering, the clog will back up again, and unless you let the repairmen rip out your bathroom, you may be showering in water up to your ankles until the lease is up.

Ikea 101 – This course is also called You Get What You Pay For 101. The odds that you have to make several trips back to the Ikea on the other side of town in rush hour traffic are high. Even though you thought you had the right boxes, two of the five bed boxes in their warehouse-like setup were for a queen-sized bed and the other three were for a full-sized bed. They were marked correctly but they were put in the wrong bins and you assumed the people at Ikea were good at furniture filing. The bed will be partially built when you realize the error, forcing you to disassemble the bed because you started building the bed and then realized it was too large for the mattress you purchased. You will have to admit to your mother that she was right about keeping all the receipts.

Hanging Things 101 – Hanging even the simplest of things will require several trips to Home Depot and taking extensive notes about how to drill into concrete walls and what anchors to use You will learn that anchors aren't just for boats.

Landscape Crew and Floor Installation 101 – Landscapers always start their mowing at 5 AM on the first morning you have no work or classes and you can sleep late. On the second morning you can sleep a bit later, they will begin renovating the apartment above you that involves ripping up the old floor and putting in a new one. With the renovation, the roaches upstairs will move into your apartment.

Friends 101 – Your best friend will help you move. He will help put together lamps and furniture, and he will keep you company on your many trips to Ikea. Your other friends will arrive to help after all the work is done and head right to your refrigerator.

Roommates 101 – Sometimes having a roommate is better than living alone and sometimes living alone is better than having a roommate. There are no right answers with this one. When you complain about it either way, your mother will cross her eyes and quote Gilda Radner: "It's ALWAYS something."

Cooking and Shopping for One 101 – It takes awhile to learn how to shop and cook for one. If you really think it through, you will become adept at cooking several courses in one pan and making several different main courses from the same ingredients. You will know that rice and spaghetti can be made in bulk and have a long refrigerator shelf life. You will accept all leftovers and doggie bags. And when your mom calls and says, "I’m making a roast. Wanna join us?" you will gladly accept her offer.

Pets and Leases 101 – If you decide to sneak a new kitten into your apartment (that requires a deposit on cats and dogs,) you will eventually have to fork over $300, especially if your new kitten likes to sit on the windowsill looking out and the apartment leasing agent happens to see him.

Parents 101- If you are lucky, they will be a phone call away and will happily be there to help keep your spirits up when Life 101 gets tough. They may offer to take you out to eat and listen to all your tales of woe about apartment life. Yet, when it gets so bad that you consider moving back in with them, don't be surprised if they don't start doing cartwheels.

© 2008 Felice Prager

(Originally published by the Irascible Professor.)

Tuesday, February 1, 2011


“But there are advantages to being elected President. The day after I was elected, I had my high school grades classified Top Secret.”

Ronald Reagan

When my son was in first grade, his report card included a form from his Physical Education teacher with information such as how fast he ran the mile and how far he could jump. To gain perspective before I state the obvious, this son has grown to be a physically fit adult and has black belts in Karate and Shinkendo. Yet, according to the form, my son’s time was far below the lowest acceptable level for a six-year-old child. What was equally strange was that he had an S (for Satisfactory) on his report card in Physical Education.

We decided to meet with the Physical Education teacher because not only did he include the form, but he announced the students’ running times to the class and told all the children that anyone with my son’s time should practice running all the time so they could get faster. My son was spending a lot of time running around my living room for no apparent reason.

The Physical Education teacher, probably because he had never had a parent conference over a first grader’s mile running time before, didn’t share much with us at the conference. In fact, we were positive he didn’t even know who our son was.

To comfort our child, we tried to give him an adult outlook about the his lack of Superman abilities. “When you’re a grownup,” I said, “no one is going to stop you on the street and ask you how fast you can run the mile.”

My husband added, “Your teacher is a jerk.”

My sons have usually excelled in school academically. With one son now in college and one in high school, I know the math and science is much more difficult than anything I ever had to learn. As an educator with a specialty in English, I know my sons write much better than I did at their age. Regardless, I also know sometimes their grades and their achievements don’t match up.

For instance, at the French III level, my younger son should be able to speak some French. He knows a handful of nouns and can conjugate a few verbs, but he has chosen not to take French IV this year because, in his words, “If I get a real teacher, I’m sunk.” Yet, his grades have been consistently A’s in this course. When I asked him how he managed the grade, his answer was, “Extra credit.” Apparently, the teacher traded points for classroom donations. My son said he donated glue, pens, markers, notebooks, rulers, and an old unused lesson plan book he found in my closet.

To be fair, this son also has had teachers who made him work very hard for grades. His Chemistry teacher had him working and studying until the sun came up most of last year. His Algebra teacher rewarded his hard work accordingly. He consistently has difficult, challenging reading and writing assignments in his English classes including assignments during summer break.

Yet, as we know, all grades are not created with the same set of standards. Nor are all teachers.

At one point several years ago, I considered getting my certification to teach in Arizona. It was a weak moment; it was fleeting in nature. However, I did go through the effort of collecting the documentation that proved I went to college, graduated with honors, and went on to have a successful teaching career in another state. When my college transcript arrived, my son looked at my grades over my shoulder.

“Whajaget in Spanish?” my son asked.

“A’s,” I answered, folding up the actual report of my grades (which weren’t all A’s.)

“Were they weighted A’s?” my son asked.

“We didn’t have weighted grades back then,” I answered. “We didn’t have digital scales to weigh them. It was the pre-computer age and all we knew how to do was divide and go to the hundredths column.”

Later in the day, I found my son looking at my transcript which I’d left on my desk. “You didn’t get all A’s,” he said. “I see B’s here. This isn’t straight A’s. You’ve been lying to me all my life.”

I smiled coyly. “I got A’s in what matters.”

“I guess Philosophy mattered more than Biology,” he said. “I guess Advanced Writing mattered more than Shakespeare.”

This brings me to my point:

I recently had surgery. A mammogram showed some abnormalities, so I was forced to find a breast cancer surgeon. The doctor I found had outstanding doctor and patient recommendations, excellent manners, and took a great deal of time discussing my case with me. When she asked me if I had any questions, I said, “Just one. Whajaget in Breasts?”

I have a way of making people stop and scratch their heads.

“What did I get in Breasts?” she repeated.

“Yes, what grade did you get in Breasts?”

“Oh,” she smiled at an excessively nervous patient. “I got an A.”

“Was it weighted?” I asked.

She smiled at me. “You’re in good hands. And the odds are in your favor. I also got an A in Statistics.”

When I called my son at work a few days after the surgery to tell him that the results from the biopsy were back and the growths were benign, my son’s reaction was, “Benign is the good one. Right?”

“Yeah, that’s the good one,” I answered. Then I added, “By the way, whajaget on the verbal section of your SAT’s?”


©1990 by Felice Prager. All rights reserved.

Originally published by the Irascible Professor.