Sunday, October 19, 2014

God, I Love Hotels

Meets all my basic needs
I am in a room at the Holiday Inn in Saratoga Springs, New York to visit my son during Parents' Weekend at Skidmore College. I find there are few things better than a hotel room and time on your hands.  This room meets all my basic needs. It has a coffee maker, it has a microwave oven, it has a refrigerator to store my orange juice and water, it has a flat screen TV, it has wireless. Plus, this room is huge. There is a workout room one floor away where I did the StairMaster yesterday and might do the stationary bike today (unless that bike hog is there again). There is room service. I just treated myself to breakfast in bed--granola, fruit and milk. The total was $8.50 including tip. 

Parents Weekend offers the maximum time to spend enjoying yourself and your child. I get up early, he gets up late, So for four or five hours I get to do some of my favorite things, read and drink coffee in bed (without the nagging feeling that I experience at home that I should jump up, put in some laundry, unload the dishwasher or start doing the bills), write, watch TV with full control of the remo, workout without leaving the premises. There is an assortment of wildly Technicolor trees outside my window. It's heaven.

I used to call business trips the working mother's vacation. This stay reminds me that I don't have to be at a luxury hotel to be happy. The gifts of time and freedom work in a variety of venues.

Here's what I really came to see--my thriving son, now a senior, music director of the Skidmore men's a Capella group, the Bandersnatchers:

Private performance for the visiting parents (Peter, right)

Monday, October 13, 2014

US Open Love-Love

 Billie Jean National Tennis Center awaits
The first thing you see on approach to the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center complex is a big “Globey” (ref. Pee Wee’s Playhouse) which was built for the 1964 New York World’s Fair, and not, in fact, as the gateway to tennis heaven. And make no mistake; the US Open is tennis heaven.

Pee Wee's Globey
As a fan of both tennis and travel, I have always dreamed of going to all of the Gland Slams. But even the small goal of getting to the US Open in New York was not achievable until I emptied the nest. By the end of August, the school system has us by the throat. But this year the nest emptied just in time to make my first slam dream come true.

My friend Kathleen, who is both a good traveler and companion, with a fine sense of direction, jumped on the idea. She lined up the hotel and the transportation. I bought a ticket package called the “Premiere Wrap-Up Plan” to attend five sessions Wednesday through Friday of the first week. That’s key, because all the players are still in contention and the prices are somewhat reasonable. Our seats in Arthur Ashe Stadium were in the nosebleed section, but somehow it didn't matter because we were rarely there. You only need the reserved seats for that one stadium. Beyond that you are free to roam to any of the 16 side courts, and see some of the finest tennis players on earth at close range.

The vibe of the US Open crowd is high end. It helps to have some sort of corporate affiliation such as American Express (all cardholders receive mini earpiece radios which stream the live broadcast. This tool was a multitasker’s dream. I could listen to the announcers in one ear, my friend with the other ear, while walking, talking and even eating). Chase Bank members (Kathleen) were granted entrance to  a big beautiful air conditioned lounge with cold beverages and salty snacks. All I had was a membership in the Starwood hotels chain, which entitled me to spin a wheel of fortune for a chance to win a free trip. No luck.
Kathleen and I and "the thing in my ear"
The food plaza had offerings you won’t see at many other sporting events. Like Moet & Chandon and Gray Goose vodka, oh and pretty good food too. The only thing I have ever been offered at a Redskins game is a free topping on Papa John’s Pizza for every touchdown scored.

A little something for the high flyers
And the bubbly crowd
The tennis lovers

Being there is completely different from watching tennis in the comfort of your home on a big flat screen TV (most people’s default excuse for not attending live sporting events). I have always preferred men’s tennis to women’s. So kill me, I like men better. But being in the stadium when Venus Williams is playing brings out the pride of a (largely) US  crowd with tens of thousands of people cheering and willing her to win. It’s powerful. And when you think about it, the Williams sisters have done more for American tennis in the recent decades than anyone else, Even if they are women. I like them now.

Venus is down there, I swear
The first question everyone asks when you return is who did you see? I saw Venus, I saw Andy Murray, I saw Djokvic, I saw Sam Querrey. We also got a good look at the broadcast set-up for Hannah Storm and Chrissy and Brad. Tony Bennett took a bow for the crowd at an evening game. 

As we were leaving the stadium the final night, I saw Geraldo Rivera posing for a picture. He attended our alma mater, the University of Arizona when he was Jerry Rivers. So I tugged on his blazer and said: “We went to U of A.” He looked at me and, genuinely interested, said “Oh yeah? Bear Down.”  “Bear Down Arizona” is our football fight song. All you have to do is say “bear down” to prove your legitimacy as a Wildcat. It’s like a secret handshake. My mother was always amused by this phrase because she thought “bear down” was something you would more likely hear from a birthing coach than a football coach.

But the best thing I saw was not the pros, broadcasters or celebs. It was the thousands of people who care as much about tennis as I do. 

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Whirs and Growls

The helicopters pads are started to fill up again, the blades are starting to whir. The gentle purring of the the tigers is beginning to turn to a low growl and the claws are slowing emerging.

Walt Whitman High School opened a few weeks ago and for the first time in seven years I do not have a student enrolled there.

My children attended the high school about which The Overachievers: The Secret Lives of Driven Kids was written. I can’t provide you with a review. I think my bookmark is still at page 10. My son was about to start freshman year, and the book simply made me too anxious.

Walt Whitman  is known as one of the best public high schools in the country. People move to neighborhoods with the sole purpose of being in the Whitman “cluster” thereby ensuring their children’s academic future. Sometimes they buy houses they don’t even like, but, by God, they are in the right school district. College recruiters light up when they see an application from Whitman. Students get a few extra points just for going there, in addition to the fact that their grades are very high and their SAT scores off the charts. The student body is dense with genius and sparse on density.

I have nothing but praise for Whitman. My children got an excellent education there and made friendships that will last a lifetime.

But Whitman is stressful. Being so smart and self-aware, even Whitman even knows it is stressful and is doing something about it. There is a “Stressbusters” committee for parents; and last year a period of mindfulness was incorporated into several classes.

There is something for everyone at Whitman, drama, robotics, fashion design, computer science, business internships, student government, international community service trips and a range of academic offerings sure to satisfy any brainiac and his or her helicopter or tiger parents. The kids have a tremendous sense of school spirit, and regularly break records for fundraising efforts.

Once in the Whitman community, you receive on average 15 daily emails: did you pay your PTSA dues, did you subscribe to the student newspaper, did you eat at a certain local restaurant to raise funds for x y or z club, did you pay for the parking pass, did you know the boys’ volleyball team is the playoffs, did you get your health forms in and have your baseline concussion testing, did you want to sign up for a trip to France during spring break, have you paid senior dues, returned all your books? Will you go to club night, international night, homecoming, prom, take the spirit bus to support the girls’ soccer state championships? Do you know a good physics tutor, a chemistry tutor, how about a writing coach for college essays? The artistic talent flows in that school just as thickly as IQ points. The annual student-run Talent Show approximates a Broadway production, and can sell out a 1,000 seat auditorium for up to three nights.

The County has developed two tools of torture that can cripple a stress-prone parent. About as much fun as water-boarding, Edline is a program that lets parents access daily reports of every grade in every classroom. It fluctuates wildly like the stock market. This can be a blessing and a curse, there is kind of mother (whirring sound) who checks Edline every day and confronts his or her child about a missed homework assignment or a poor grade OR the kind of mother I became with my second child, unplugged from Edline. He shot my helicopter right out of the sky. I have to thank him, there was a corresponding drop in my blood pressure.

Whitman hosts a meeting for parents and juniors on how to navigate the college search process. At this meeting you are handed a sharp and dangerous tool called Naviance. This program allows you to compare your student’s GPA and SAT to the records of how Whitman students fared in college admissions over the past five years. My favorite moment at Whitman was when I left that meeting and was followed by a member of the Stressbusters committee who went into a tirade about why that meeting is always geared to the student with the 3.75 grade point average. I wanted to tell her that’s who the audience is; if a kid who attends that meeting with a parent, there’s no doubt he or she has at least that kind of GPA. Most parents come alone.

When the bell rang on the final day of senior year, I felt as if I had finished a marathon. I felt as if I were the graduate, flooded by relief. When I see the WHSS bumper stickers on cars I can only read the acronym one way: Whitman High School Survivor.