Back to School

lockerIn the morning, cars full of parents and kids are queuing into the drop-off lanes in front of schools; kids with backpacks are at the bus stops; in the train, a teen has a book open on her lap, finishing a math assignment. New shoes, stiff uniforms, and extra bags filled with athletic gear. I think of the interesting and semi-chaotic day they’ll have: reconnecting with friends, navigating through a class discussion and the lunch line. And I wonder, are they anxious?

Seventh grade was my first year in junior high school, where my elementary school was combined with two or three other feeder schools. When we reported to our new homerooms, I discovered that I only recognized some of the people. Who were these strangers, and what happened to some of my friends? This mild anxiety was only reinforced when I realized that a) we would move to different rooms for each subject, and b) the homeroom group would move as a unit so I assumed I’d never see any other kids.

In elementary school we stayed in a single classroom, our teacher managing to be knowledgeable in every subject, and we ventured out for lunch and recess. So now, we would go to different rooms and have to get to know different teachers for math, science, and English. Getting from room to room wasn’t too hard, though the scant number of minutes we had between classes sometimes meant hustling if you had to get from the first to the third floor in another wing of the building. In that surge of kids moving through the halls, I’d occasionally see friends from other homerooms. We’d wave as we ran into classrooms on opposite sides of the hall, sort of occupying parallel universes.

I would visit my locker before lunch to exchange books for the afternoon. It turned out that my real nemesis that year was the combination lock. I had never used one before, and clearly hadn’t practiced with mine enough, so I had to make multiple attempts. Minutes of my short lunch period slipped away, adrenalin washed over me as I frantically twisted that dial back and forth. Finally I got the lock open and I had to dash to the cafeteria. “Gaining lock proficiency” should have been a line item on my report card – as true an indication of coping in new circumstances as figuring out post-gym showers or how to complete a science lab without setting my hair on fire.

Years later, I stand confidently before my gym locker and turn the dial to reach the numbers 00:10:36. It doesn’t open. I try again – nope. I look around and realize I’m in the wrong row. I feel the unmistakable quiver of junior high panic as I stare down the line of identical locks trying to remember which one is mine.

Brothers

img_1585As kids, my brother and I built block fortresses together, and played chase and “touched you last” as we hurtled through the house. I tried to feed him worms, and sounded the alarm when he busted his head open. I also bossed him around a lot, sat on him, and howled when he would join my slumber parties (mom! get him out of here!). As adults with our own children, we’ve discovered that it all seems to comes back – like karma – as we experience our parents’ perspective. Kids in constant motion and high volume, vying for parents’ attention, and the challenges of sharing when somebody else has the cool toy.

Separated by many states, our visits are infrequent, but I feel like we can immediately connect. Whether it’s a continuing attraction to Star Wars and Star Trek, wondering how we managed to live through the 4th of July with all the fireworks we mishandled, or loving the cool, if unreliable convertible we shared, it’s part of our common fabric.

My mom is the youngest of seven. She grew up in a full house, and there were many years difference across the entire group of sibs. While my mom was still in grade school, her older sisters were dating and had jobs. So that often left my mom with her older brother, #6 of 7. Charlie did what most big brothers do – jumping out from behind doors to scare the socks off of his little sister – but was surely a protector as well. During a recent visit to Louisville, we drove to the neighborhood where mom grew up. At the end of the block there now stands an apartment complex, but when mom was small, this was an open field where she and Charlie would play. And in the winter, he would pull her there on a sled. I can just see him, grumbling that he had to watch his little sister, but smiling as they squealed in delight going down the hill.

Almost all of mom’s large family stayed in Louisville, so we saw everybody pretty regularly, especially Charlie. We got to visit his magical basement, filled with pinball machines we could play for free. And we laughed every time mom made corn fritters because it seemed Charlie could smell them from wherever he was and would show up just in time to enjoy them hot out of the pan. Years later I held out vain hope that Charlie’s tall genes would somehow be passed through me so our son could top 6 feet.

Occasionally I wonder what it would be like to have a sister. Someone who shared my room, lent me her much cooler clothes and shoes, and listened to my secrets. But instead I have a brother. What is it about brothers? Formerly annoying, but now a best friend, a pillar of strength, the best huggers in the world.

Flying

flyingI flew today. For 2 hours I surrendered myself to the airline, read my book while wedged between strangers, and tried not to let the hassle erase a fun weekend. This was preceded by 3 hours of train and bus travel to cross a few miles teaming with people and traffic. Once at the airport, my progress was slowed by the family trying to get their kids through airport security, and the couple traveling with way too many carry-on bags. I sprinted through the airport, hearing them call my name to “board now!”, and barely made my flight.

Once on the plane, I recalled my first experience – a short flight in a prop plane. My parents arranged this before I flew alone to visit my grandmother. Except, a small plane flying under the clouds is more like a crazy carnival ride where you can tell exactly how far above the ground you are. The jet to Detroit weeks later was much calmer, and I got some pilot wings to pin on my sweater. Over the years, I’ve flown a lot. For business, when it was often enough to become routine; for trips with the family, where entertaining small kids for hours was its own challenge. Overall, it’s been fairly drama-free. Sure, there was the loud barfing guy on a cross-country-trip, the inconsolable baby on a flight to Europe, and weather delays, with repeated de-icing treatments before we could take off. But never anything really bad.

In the early ‘80s, we learned that the flight my dad was on had been hijacked to Cuba. My first response was disbelief – did people really still do that? He had been in Key West for a fishing trip, and on the way home, the plane was diverted to Havana. Somehow, a guy holed up in the lavatory was enough to influence the pilots. After they landed, all of the passengers got off the plane and were taken into the terminal. After a few hours, they got back on the plane and flew to Miami. We never learned the objective of the hijacking, but during the time on the ground, my dad managed to buy a bunch of Cuban cigars. Telling us about the ordeal, he never seemed scared. Instead he just chuckled and lit up a stogie.

So who am I to complain about delays, and inconsiderate travelers? There were no mechanical failures, no emergency landings, and no one caused a scene on our flight. I got a free drink, and we even arrived early. But I’m glad to be back on the ground, and home.

Typing

typingTyping is second nature. I rarely need to glance down at the keyboard, I’m fast, and pretty accurate. Of course, I get lots of practice. Looking something up on the library’s website, instead of calling or stopping in; collecting coupons for a grocery trip in my virtual wallet instead of clipping the paper rectangles that would clutter the bottom of my purse; emailing friends and family instead of writing letters. My handwriting was never “Palmer method” perfect – I chose to print my letters instead – but even that has degraded. I will hand write notes in a meeting if I’m without a laptop, but later, I squint at those loops and bumpy lines wondering what I meant.

Typing was everywhere in old movies – newspapermen with their cigarettes and manual typewriters, paper rolled around the platen and yanked out triumphantly for a hot story; secretaries laboring over a letter with carbon copies; writers struggling with the next chapter. But typing was nowhere else in my life while I was growing up. School work was done by hand, and when given the option to take a typing class in high school, I never seriously considered it, probably because I couldn’t imagine why I would ever need to type. I made it to my senior year in college before I had to type a term paper. There were fliers posted around campus for typists who would do this task for a few dollars, but somehow, I managed to borrow a typewriter and produce a passable version of my paper – if you ignored those blobs of white-out.

As I interviewed for my first full-time job, the manager finished talking with me about my background and skills, and curiously starting talking about word processing. The office had recently gotten some of these magical machines that were like typewriters, but you could make corrections on a screen, and save the typing to make another document. I had no idea what he was talking about or why he wanted to share this with me. My desk, like everyone else’s in my department had a telephone, an adding machine, ledger paper, and legal pads. If something had to be typed, we placed the handwritten item in the basket on the front desk of the secretarial pool. These women were the only people in the entire office who had what we would call computers. Hours later, the typed item would be delivered to my desk.

This nirvana was disrupted a few years later when we all got computers. Now we had to learn to type, edit, and print. In a panic, I took a typing class at the local community college. The delivery of interoffice mail was completely replaced with email. Spreadsheets replaced paper ledgers. PowerPoint replaced markers and compasses for presentation visuals.

My mother has never learned to type. Maybe the stereotype of a secretary seemed too limiting. Maybe someone interviewing her assumed she’s be a secretary and never considered her other skills. For whatever reason, my mom avoided any work that would require typing and instead went into commissioned sales. That’s like choosing a gymnastics routine on the balance beam because walking looks boring. I realize now how brave and determined she was – and successful.

Computers and smartphones have made our work completely mobile – we can work anywhere and all the time. I’ll clean up this analysis for a few minutes on the weekend, I say, or brush up a few of my slides the night before a meeting. Sure, typing itself isn’t evil, but it crowds out other things. I’m beginning to see that my mom’s suspicion of typing was well-founded. I think it’s time I put this computer down and read a book.