Freshmen Orientation 101

If you are a college student or the parent of one, I don’t need to tell  you that your summer is over.

No matter what the calendar says, the fall semester is here, or almost. Most freshmen report for Orientation about now, with classes beginning shortly. Remember the good old days, when the fall semester started after Labor Day?

Yes, cars packed to the brim with necessities, like shower caddies and extra-long bed sheets and laptops, are chugging along the highways destined for college campuses. With a mixture of sadness and relief, parents move their children in to their new homes away from home, and return to the old homestead, tearfully wondering where the years went.

By then, however, the newly minted freshmen are getting to know their room mates and finding out how cool it is to be in college. And once they begin Orientation, the fun really begins.

If you are a new college parent, let me tell you that Orientation is a whole new ball of wax from what it was in our day. The tedious stuff, like registering for classes, is done in advance online. Orientation is now Party Central.

Do you remember your Orientation? It was like, what, one day of intense boringness? Perhaps something like this happened on your first day.

You arrive on campus and have no idea where to go. A cheerful upperclassman directs you to the gym.

The gym is at least 125 degrees because, after all, these are the dog days of summer and there is no AC. You stand in line to register for a course, beads of perspiration dotting your upper lip. Finally, it is your turn. An unsmiling administrator hands you a course slip. You suddenly realize, uh oh, there’s a conflict. You’ve made a mistake. Unsmiling Administrator is motioning to the student behind you. You back away slowly.

Ugh. You’ve scheduled Sosh and Econ for the same time block. You glance furtively around the gym. No one else seems to be having an issue. Students are happily exiting the gym with their well-conceived course schedules. You start to doubt your college worthiness.

You get back in line. This time to drop/add. You drop Sosh and add Ballroom Dancing. It’s the only course left.

Off to the bookstore you go. There are lines snaking around the store. You search the shelves for dozens of required textbooks. Almost finished, you manage to drop your armload  of books. All over the floor. Which you wish you could drop through somehow. You feel the intensity of many curious eyes as you scramble to gather your things.

Cute Guy standing in line offers to help. He asks you where you live, what your major is, what your sign is. Turns out he’s taking Ballroom Dancing, too. Things start looking better. Maybe college will be OK after all.

And now, as a college graduate and the mother of three college graduates, I still wax nostalgic this time every year. Freshmen, I hope you will soak up every experience during these once-in-a-lifetime, incredibly exhausting, amazingly wonderful four years.

And parents? You’ll miss them. But the empty nest can be kind of nice, too.

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Jon and Kate and Kendra and Tatum and Ashley

I’ve been harboring a secret that is bursting to get out. What I am about to tell you may change your mind about me. You might think I’m, well, shallow.

Deep breath.

I stand before you and shamefully admit to an addiction.

No, it’s not drinking. I assure you that I am a one-glass-of-wine kind of girl. Nor is it drugs. Are you kidding? I can’t even take a Tylenol PM without getting woozy.

My nasty habit is … dum da dum … reality TV.

I can trace my addiction back several years when, absently channel surfing one evening, I came across something called Jon and Kate Plus 8. With index finger poised to move on to the next channel, I stopped in mid click. Whoa! How adorable were those kids? Would you look at that, eight of them! I guiltily settled in for what felt like legal voyeurism, intrigued by control freak Kate, impassive Jon and the chaotic day in, day out with their lively brood.

I was hooked. I got to know each little tyke by name (the two twins, Mady and Kara, should have their own show). Like a doting grandmother, I oohed and aahed when Kate dressed them in identical outfits. I loved the little day trips they took — to the zoo, to a Phillies game, or simply the grocery store. Even the potty training episodes brought a knowing smile to my face.

Then came Keeping Up With the Kardashians, a Hollywood fractured fairy tale featuring whiny, raven-haired, olive-skinned princesses with fancy cars and an eponymous boutique, a bossy loudmouth mom and faded Olympics superstar stepdad Bruce Jenner. Their lifestyle fascinated me, as did the absence of any discernible talent on the part of the princesses.

Next were the Girls Next Door, starring Kendra, Holly and Bridget, with Hugh Hefner making an occasional pajama-clad appearance. I ignored the creepiness and happily followed the crazy exploits of the girls until Kendra decided that 20-somethings and 80-somethings don’t really have all that much in common and left the Mansion for younger football-playing Hank.

So of course I had to watch Dancing with the Stars since Kendra was in it and, although she was eliminated in just a few weeks, I got completely swept up in the drama with Kirstie and Max (were they an item off-screen, do you think?) and the amazing dancing of Chelsea and Mark. The addiction got worse.

Before long I was sucked into The Bachelor and The Bachelorette. Can true love spring from a reality show? I wondered. Ali and Roberto found their way, but sadly, like the withering petals on the final rose, romance died for Emily and Brad as soon as the season ended. The next season featured Ashley, a Penn dental student and Brad reject, now searching for another Mr. Right. And she found him in J.P., the studly construction manager from Long Island, leaving second-place Ben at the altar. Poor Ben.

Perhaps most achingly poignant is Ryan and Tatum: The O’Neals. After years of estrangement and bitterness, this father and  daughter have resolved to give their relationship one final chance. In stark and rather uncomfortable sessions with their psychiatrists, we watch them peel back layer after layer of resentment to try to uncover the familial love that existed long ago. I find it hard to watch, but hard to turn away.

Maybe it’s because I am secure in my reassuringly humdrum life that I can peek into these other worlds with fascination but not jealousy. I liken these forays to the thrill a sociologist must get when embarking on an anthropological dig, exploring unusual customs in a native habitat.

Life under a microscope must be lucrative, and fame must be irresistible, but I will contentedly remain perched on the outside looking in. And enjoy every minute. But that’s between you and me.

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Without Borders

This was a tough week. I unhappily bid farewell to a friend who was always entertaining, full of light and had an uncanny knack of drawing me in. Naively, perhaps, I thought our relationship would last forever. So I am in denial that things are over.

RIP, Borders.

My sadness is tinged with a bit of indignation. What does this say about our culture that a well-respected, successful, forward-thinking corporation that sells BOOKS has sputtered out of steam? Was this a long time coming, or did I ignore the signs of malaise? Was the writing on the wall, as it were, when mom and pop bookshops collapsed one by one like stricken toy soldiers?  We mourned the end of that era but understood the economics. Rising coats, competition, we got it.

But not big, strong, iconic Borders??

With the announcement of the closure came a collective moan could be heard across the land. Well, in my office, anyway. Author Jennifer Weiner tweeted, “Very first reading for my very first book was at Borders on Walnut Street in Philadelphia. Sad to see them go.”

Does Borders’ demise sound the death knell for the few bookstores that remain? For the record, let me disclose that yes, I do order books online. Amazon is easy and efficient, and the free shipping is enticing. But it is simply not the same experience.

Will the next generation of readers, the multi-tasking, attention-challenged, sensation-hungry demographic that it is, ever while away a couple of hours on a Saturday afternoon at the neighborhood bookstore? Will our grandchildren yawn when we describe the art of browsing bookshelves with heads tilted 45 degrees, contentedly shuffling sideways as we perused new titles and old favorites? Will they roll their eyes when we wax rhapsodic about the joy of selecting a book and rifling through its pages?

You can’t take your kids to Amazon and let them roam free in the children’s section while you nose around the cookbook stacks and your husband gets absorbed listening to tracks of new releases in the music section. Same goes for story hour, author appearances and girl scouts cookie sales by the front door.

Borders was my go to store more than any other. I caught up friends over a cup of coffee. As an alumni admissions interviewer for my alma mater, I sat with prospective students in the comfy armchairs. If I needed to buy gifts, Borders afforded one stop shopping, with free gift wrap, no less. Best of all, though, was the idle time spent looking and savoring, and often discovering literary gems just by happenstance.

I can accept that popular reading devices, like the Kindle, are rapidly usurping the hard copy book. I can acknowledge that newspapers and magazines are shrinking, if not disappearing, and books are being eschewed as pre-millennial. Even our libraries are reducing their inventory in favor of the electronic variety. But not having Borders … well, that borders on crazy.

And  now let me get back to my book.

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I Went Bananas When My Daughter Met a Monkey

“Mom,” the voice quavered through the crackle of the international connection, “I’ve got some bad news.”

Surely anyone hearing those words from a loved one would react as I did: a sharp intake of breath, a lump in my throat thudding into the pit of my stomach, palms sweating.

Whatever pronouncement would ensue, a reassuring hug would not be imminent. My 25 year-old daughter, Emily, was in Cochabamba, Bolivia for the month of July, volunteering as a medical assistant at a local clinic. Bolivia. Three long plane flights away.

I had a flash back to last winter when Emily began talking about it. “What a great opportunity,” she had enthused. “I’ll feel like I’m really making a difference. And I can improve my Spanish, too.”

Although I deeply admire my daughter’s altruism, to say that I was less than thrilled is putting it mildly. I pointed out the litany of negatives: poverty, diseases, unsanitary conditions, political unrest. Was there political unrest? I wasn’t sure, but I went with it.

So she launched into a full-court press, peppering my inbox with upbeat articles about up-and-coming Cochabamba. Even the venerable New York Times had touted the area as a “must see” for adventurous travelers.

I still wasn’t convinced. Just scanning the list of recommended vaccinations gave me the willies.

“Em, do you understand the risks?” I argued. “Malaria. Snakes. Big insects. What if you get bitten?’

This is, in fact, what she was calling to tell me. She got bitten. But not by a bug.

By a monkey.

I Went Bananas

Dear reader, do not apologize for suppressing a giggle. I confess to a fleeting notion myself: a teeny tiny thought in a remote recess of my brain that there might be an element of humor in this scenario. But that impulse quickly gave way to panic. My mind was clicking as I began to ask questions and process what needed to happen.

Does it hurt? Not really.

Did you see a doctor? No, there weren’t any doctors.

Did you get any medical attention? I went to a pharmacy and got antibiotics.

When can you leave? As soon as possible.

I told her to start packing while I called the airline.

Cute little monkeys? Not!What I would learn later was that Emily and a few friends were visiting a nature preserve outside of Cochabamba. This Bolivian version of Great Adventure served as recreation and entertainment for the locals. Swarms of people — including tons

All went well at first. But then ... everything went bananas.

of noisy kids — hiked on its trails. Monkeys roamed freely and, accustomed to the sounds and movements of humans, interacted calmly with the visitors. Until my daughter arrived, that is.

Yes We Have No Bananas

What turned this serene simian into a pernicious primate was likely Emily’s decision to crouch down to monkey eye level. With a monkey mama and baby nearby, this was a Bad Idea. SCREECH! SCREECH! The monkey alarm system was activated. As if in a scene from a horror version of The Lion King, an alpha monkey grabbed a tree and started shaking it violently. A hush shrouded the onlookers. The only sound was the ominous rustling of leaves. Monkey minions lurking nearby looked up with interest. One by one, they muttered their displeasure. The chattering intensified. Emily’s monkey friend, just a couple of feet away, bared his teeth in a fearsome grin, lunged toward her and sank his teeth into her calf.

She screamed. He gripped her leg. She tried to pry him off. What seemed like hours was probably less than a minute, but he finally released her. They glared at each other (another Bad Idea, for those of you who might be in monkey company some day). She backed away and slowly headed down the trail. Her attacker followed for a few steps, then thought to leave well enough alone. He probably strutted proudly in front of his bare-assed buddies back at the ranch.

At times like this, you think about what could have been, and you are thankful for escaping with minimal damage. I was able to get my daughter on the next plane home. It was a grueling journey, but she was seen by our local doctors just 48 hours after the incident, and except for the painful rabies shots she endured, with more to come, she is doing fine. Despite everything, she has fond memories of her sojourn in Bolivia.

And now … we can remember the story with a smile.

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Morning on Long Beach Island

Dawn breaks with the first shaft of sunlight dancing on the water. It is still but for the gentle crash of the surf and the squawk of a seagull in flight. A few fishing boats dot the landscape, and the ocean, sparkling like a cascade of diamonds, goes on forever.


I scan the shoreline in both directions, and there is no one in sight. Of course it’s empty. It is early on a Saturday morning, and sensible people are relishing the extra sleep. Duncan and I, however, both early risers, are excited to explore the beach.

We will find treasures: a piece of driftwood, a glistening pearly shell, a sand crab burrowing in the wet sand. With practiced precision, a bevy of sandpipers skitters away from the tide, and then back again as the waves recede. Duncan observes a gathering of gulls up ahead and races to join them. The birds, alarmed, trot a few steps and then flap their wings to freedom. Duncan looks back at me and wags his tail.

Our walk concluded, we sit on the deck. I sip my coffee and read the morning paper. Duncan gazes at the ocean, happily anticipating our next beach adventure.

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Words with Friends

It’s my guilty pleasure and OK, I admit it, my obsession. This little word game, so simple and yet challenging, so eager for me to log on via my iphone or ipad, beckons beguilingly with its shiny yellow icon: Play with me. Yes, you have time for a quick game. Just one. I promise.

I was destined to love this game. A linguistics major in college and lifelong crossword puzzle enthusiast, I find pure delight in a five syllable word. I heart alliteration. Onomatopoeia? I’m the geek who knows what that means. Now I no longer have to wait for the Sunday Times puzzle to give my vocabulary a workout. With my mobile device at the ready, I can blissfully play Words with Friends anytime I want.

My opponents are mostly nameless, faceless entities with names like Miss_Sixty, Crzy432 and Phatman. I am mildly curious about who they are, where they are from, are they anything like me? There is rarely conversation, aside from an intermittent “Good one!” or “Is that really a word?” With the occasional brilliant move on my part, I sense frustration, or even skepticism, seething through cyberspace. Is my opponent regretting this game? Does WhiskyGurl223 think I am, gasp, cheating?

I have been known to whisper “Aha!” with the magic combination of  letters that allows words like squint and ziti.  I sometimes resort to the usual crossword puzzle gems, like qi, etui and tav. It is often these smaller words that garner the most points if strategically placed on a triple letter square. Forget showing off with a flashy long word that opens up a counter attack. I learned that strategy early on.

So if you dare, hit me up on Words with Friends at hbludman. One caveat (warning): although I may appear ursine (bearlike) and prolix (verbose) or resemble a diva (prima donna), that is merely a facade (illusion). In truth, I am  a mensch (good person).

Let the games begin.

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Helicoptering

Congratulations to all the parents whose children have graduated from high school. Your darling sons and daughters are happily morphing from high school student to college freshman.  Commencement is over, yearbooks have been signed (they do still do that, right?) and the quest for a summer job is underway.

You, dear parent, have cried, exulted, worried and philosophized.  But now that your son or daughter is positioned for the next four years, I am here to tell you that it is time to plan for your future.

Consider this: no more “Back to School” nights, sitting uncomfortably in those student desk/chairs while trying to look interested in the expectations or recriminations of long suffering high school teachers. No more PTA meetings, bake sales, soccer tournaments, Halloween parades, choir recitals or  high school musicals.

What are you going to do with all this extra time?

Of course you have your 9-5 job, your gardening club, grocery shopping, fantasy football and all the other mundane tasks that we pack into our days. But be honest now. Is there a part of you that secretly yearns for the carpool line? Will you have to resist driving by the baseball field to catch a few innings? Are you still humming the tunes from last spring’s high school musical?

Good news: your prayers have been answered. These days, the gates of college are open not just to incoming freshmen, but their aging boomer parents as well.

Responding to the outcry of parents who want to retain their position in their offspring’s day-to-day lives, many institutions of higher education have adopted a full scale of parent programming and opportunities for involvement, giving you a way to extend the active parenting years a bit further. Do you have fond memories of serving on a school committee? There’s room for you. Miss volunteering at school events? Just sign up and the job is yours.

And whether your child reacts with glee or despair, you don’t have to cut the apron strings. Not yet.

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Duncan and Me

Duncan’s eyes shifted reproachfully to the suitcase I was hefting into the trunk of my car. His ears drooped. His shoulders slumped. As I retrieved my coat from the closet and returned to the garage, I found that Duncan had trotted silently out to the car and was sitting patiently in the front seat, ready to get this party started. My heart melted, but reality prevailed as I tried to sweet-talk him inside.

“Come in the house,”I pleaded.

No dice, said his body language as he avoided eye contact.

     “How about a treat?” I suggested.

       I can not be bribed, he told me.

I scooped him up with tender kisses.

“I need to go pumpkin,” I said, “but I promise I’ll bring you something.”

Unsatisfied, but with a sigh of quiet resignation, he watched the door close, and I was gone.

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This I Believe

There are many things that inspire me: the beauty in nature, the athletic prowess in a five-set tennis match or a basketball game in double overtime, a wonderful sense of humor, a perfectly turned phrase. But many years ago I stumbled upon a quote that spoke so meaningfully to me that I adopted it as my own personal philosophy.

“The three grand essentials to happiness are something to do, something to love, and something to hope for.”

I have seen the quote attributed to both Joseph Addison and Allan Chalmers, so I can’t attest to its true origin. To me, it is brilliant in its simplicity about what is really important in life.

Something to do isn’t just the job you perform during the day or the errands you run on the weekends. It’s having a purpose, making a difference, maybe not making the world a better place, but trying to make both yourself AND your little corner of the universe better. It’s having an agenda that matters. What do I do? I eat vegetables I volunteer at a homeless program, I weed my garden, I donate pretty decent clothing to Purple Heart, I wear sunscreen, I say thank you excessively, I support animal rights, I cheer on the home team, I take long walks with my dog.

Something to love, well, I interpret that very broadly. I am lucky to have a family and a circle of friends to love. What else do I love? Broadway, animals, the smell of salt air and suntan lotion at the beach, old photos, movies accompanied by popcorn, Thanksgiving, reading hard-to-put-down books, the aroma of bread baking in my kitchen, high school reunions, singing along with the radio, speaking French, yes, I love all those things and so much more.

Something to hope for: in times of distress, I tell myself that things will get better, and they do. Getting through a rough patch is tolerable because I know it won’t last forever. Hoping for things is not to say that I’m dissatisfied with what I have, but what do I aspire to? And what do I wish for humanity? What do I hope for? World peace, a cure for terrible diseases, a strong leader for our country, my children’s fulfillment in whatever they do, a pair of jeans that fits well, my unwritten novel will someday be written, health and happiness and many years of life for everyone I love, and the opportunity to keep learning and keep giving back as long as I can.

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A Gentleman and a Scholar

Arnold Markley died on Friday at the age of 47. He was my friend.

I was one of thousands, it seems, whose life was enriched by knowing him in his too brief stay on this earth. Arnold was an English professor at Penn State Brandywine. His area of expertise was old English literature, and he brought it alive for his students. He was also their mentor, advocate, supporter, and they thought the world of him. It was no surprise that he was voted Distinguished Teacher of the Year in 2007.

Arnold was uniquely genuine, a southern gentleman whose kindness and generosity never faltered. No wonder his childhood nickname was “Beau.” I don’t think there was a person in the world who did not love Arnold. He and I shared a love of literature and a passion for language, and I sometimes called him with questions about grammar.  He always seemed  happy to be asked. But he often initiated a conversation by complimenting me on my work. In fact, his emails were so sweet, so kind, that I saved all of them in my personal folder on my laptop. If ever I needed a boost, I could reread those emails and feel better. That was what Arnold MarkleyArnold did. He made people feel better.

Arnold suffered with leukemia for three and a half years. He fought hard but the disease prevailed, despite a stem cell transplant and multiple rounds of chemo. Throughout it all, his courage and dignity were an inspiration. His devoted partner, Brian, showed all of us how you deal with something so unimaginably horrific and with bravery, strength and grace. It was due to Brian’s faithful postings online that Arnold’s wide circle of friends and family were able to follow his ups and downs over the course of this battle.

So many of us wanted to do anything we could to help. I volunteered as a dinner provider, and one day in January I delivered a moussaka to Arnold’s home. Not only did Arnold thank me profusely over and over, he told others about it as well. In the last weeks of his life I delivered another moussaka, and he emailed me the following: “It is still the BEST I’ve ever had — and I’ve been to Greece and have had it several times. Too good to be true!”

Arnold, you were too good to be true. I will never forget you. Rest in peace, my friend.

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