Monday, October 16, 2006

The Prodigal returns... and he's got company

The Old Order Amish call it "rumspringa," according to a book review I saw this weekend in the current issue of the Wilson Quarterly -- "essentially," says the review, "an instutionalized period of apostasy, a rush of experience preceding the determination to reject the wider world and join the church permanently."

For many of the rest of us, that time is called "college."

The connection occurred to me after Oldest Son announced he'd be returning home for Fall Break after all. The issue was in doubt when he went away this August, but job interviews in Chicago, one of them this Friday -- plus the fact that he wouldn't have to pay for his food this week if he came home -- combined to lead him to this decision.

So that was good news.

Less warmly received in the Curmudgeon household was the announcement late Friday that he'd be coming in Saturday with two, or maybe four, friends. Long Suffering Spouse did not take the news well. "No!" she shrieked, but, anticipating this as the likely response, I had moved the phone away from my ear, thereby sparing my eardrum from the worst of the blast. "The house is a mess!"

And, yes, our house is not one of those places where you can drop in unannounced and find everything clean and tidy and sparkling. We live there; we do not entertain.

Just last night I was in a house where people entertain, a meeting of parents for Youngest Son's new travel baseball team. Our hosts had three plasma TVs, each one bigger than the next. And there was not a book, or a magazine, or a stack of unopened or unfiled mail, or a pile of newspapers anywhere to be found. And where was the recycling?

In my house, there are books and magazines everywhere. Some are mine to read for fun; some are professional journals which I intend to read and sometimes do. Youngest Son has sports related magazines and catalogs in the mix. Long Suffering Spouse has teaching magazines and catalogs. Younger Daughter does not contribute to this clutter, not on the main floor anyway, since all her teenage magazines ("smut books" I call them) are hoarded in her room, beneath piles of hair care product and make-up. And the Bluejay Park Library hasn't taken paperback donations on a regular basis since it moved from teeny-tiny cramped quarters to a spacious, modern building. You might think that they'd be more receptive to donations now that they have more room for them -- but, so far, no. So the paperbacks are stacking up.

There is mail everywhere, too, in our house because Older Daughter, Oldest Son, and Middle Son still receive mail at home. Creditors send me duplicate bills every month -- wouldn't you think that once would be enough? I mean, if I had it, wouldn't I pay it?

I am making progress on picking up the newspapers. I do tend to read and disgard them around whatever chair I'm sitting in. Sometimes they wind up in the kitchen on top of a counter or the toaster, if it's not being used. And when the newspapers do pile up, it's almost always my fault. Long Suffering Spouse likes to look at the food pages. They come Wednesday, and if she hasn't gotten to them by Sunday, I'll pick them up too.

The discarded newspapers go into paper bags in the dining room because the school collects newspapers for recycling -- and the school gets a little money out of it. A double winner in my book. And the plastic bags have to go in the "bag of bags" because the City doesn't recycle them, but a couple of stores around here will. And then there's the separate bin for paper as opposed to the one for plastic and metal.

And who says there's no faith in our modern, secular world? We carefully separate our garbarge into traditional garbage, paper recycling, and plastic and metal recycling, each in its proper bag, and we believe that they will somehow remain separate when the recycling blue bags and the rest of the trash bags are all mashed and crunched up together in the back of the same garbage truck. If you want an illustration of the 'simple faith of a child' look no further.

And then there's the bags of paper bags: We still get paper bags at the grocery store. The cashier will look at you funny, and sometimes make an announcement for a price check, but you can tell it's just a code because people come over to stare... but we do it anyway. We can grow more trees for paper bags. Plastic bags come from oil. We reuse the paper bags as garbage bags. Oh sure, we use black plastic trash bags, too -- because they'll keep the recyclables clean when the garbage truck mashes everything all down together. We believe! (Clap real hard if you want Tinker Bell to live. Clap harder!)

Oh, and did I mention we have to keep certain box tops for the school, certain soup labels, and now empty print cartridges? These have to go somewhere, as do the materials my wife keeps at home for school.

Sometimes -- like last night -- I wish we had plasma TVs, too. But this other stuff is what makes our house our home.

But it also makes Long Suffering Spouse apprehensive about letting strangers into our home. Oldest Son, if he ever considered the point, which he would not, would conclude that these people he was bringing were not strangers to him and therefore see no reason for concern.

I tried to console LSS by pointing out that Oldest Son and his comrades really were just planning to drop their stuff off at our house and then repair to the fleshpots and 'meet markets' of Lincoln Park or Old Town. There may have been a better way to put that....

Eventually it was agreed that the group would sleep in the basement -- as many of them had done the last time Oldest Son brought a group home. We have blankets. We have pillows. (We have an inflatable bed, too, although I'm not sure it survived this particular visit; I'm told that the group tried but failed to inflate it after they returned to our house.) I was confident that, if I just left things alone, Oldest Son would figure out arrangements for himself. And I was supremely confident that I was going to leave things alone if Long Suffering Spouse would let me.

Oldest Son and his four friends, each from a different part of the country, showed up around dinner time on Saturday. (Imagine that, five college kids just happening to show up when it was time to eat.)

Oldest Son quite considerately instructed me to order pizza when his group crossed the border from Indiana on the Chicago Skyway and, since I was short of ready cash, I found out the procedure for charging pizza from our neighborhood place. There is something about paying 21% interest on pizza that offends me. When I can explain it, I will.

The kids did bring their own beer (they are all 21). They arrived minutes before the pizza. I ordered more than Oldest Son had requested; oddly enough, none of it went to waste.

Then other kids started showing up.

When we would go to another person's house -- back in the Dark Ages -- it was customary to ring the doorbell, or perhaps knock on the door.

No more.

Now they use cell phones: "I'm outside. Open the door."

Thanks to the miracle of modern communications, word spread quickly that Oldest Son was back in residence. People showed up from Oldest Son's high school class, and a couple from his grammar school class. There were ten young men and one young woman. They all decided to leave. "I don't like the odds here," one of Oldest Son's roommates told me. I nodded in agreement. What else could I do?

It was now approaching midnight. The young woman's father came with a van and drove half the group and I was dragooned into driving the other half. We went down into Lincoln Park -- Disneyland for twentysomethings -- with hordes of young people swarming the streets. Mostly unattached -- and looking for attachments. Oldest Son's college friends had made plans to meet some other fellow students at a particular place; the rest of the group came along. Oldest Son and his group would take a cab back to the neighborhood.

I went home and went to sleep. Around 4:30 or so, I heard them come in.

Shortly thereafter, I had to take Younger Daughter to 7:00 am Sunday Mass (she had to be at work by 9:00). My plan was to first make coffee for Long Suffering Spouse and myself. It would be ready by the time I got back from dropping my daughter off.

It was a good plan. We'd have our coffee; then we'd take Younger Daughter to work and ourselves to 9:00 am Mass, maybe with Youngest Son in tow, depending on how, or whether, he woke up. (He'd aggravated a nagging ankle sprain in Saturday's football game and remained in considerable pain throughout Saturday night; we were willing to let him sleep as long as he wanted.)

I filled the coffee pot with water, opened the can... and, to my horror, discovered that it was empty. There were two spare cans... in the basement. Then Younger Daughter came downstairs... and discovered there was someone sleeping on the couch in the den. I didn't recognize him.

I got Younger Daughter to church and, after consulting with my spouse, decided to see if I could tiptoe round the sleepers in the basement and get to the coffee.

I crept down the stairs, but abandoned the project almost immediately: Even in the near total darkness I could see that there were too many bodies between me and door behind which the new can of coffee was waiting.

We hit on a new plan. We would take Younger Daughter to work and ourselves to church and then go to the grocery store. We would add coffee to the shopping list. Coffee keeps a long time in an unopened can -- and it never has a chance to grow stale in our house anyway. In the meantime, I'd gone to the bakery and bought donuts for the sleepers.

Fast forward now: We have returned from the grocery. Oldest Son is awake and the couch is no longer occupied by a stranger. It was one of the high school classmates, Oldest Son explained, and he had to leave early. As if that explained everything. Oh, and one more thing, Oldest Son said: Two of the girls came back with us, too. They're downstairs with the others, he said. True, they had a place to stay in Lincoln Park, but Oldest Son explained that he and the others had painted such an exciting picture of the 24 hour taco place where they were going after the bar closed, the girls felt they had to experience it too. Besides, one of the girls was the long-time girlfriend of one of Older Son's roommates; the other was her roommate when they'd lived in London last year as exchange students. No problem at all, according to Oldest Son. Long Suffering Spouse handled this revalation better than I thought she would.

Fast forward one more time: The sleepers have all awakened, more or less. At least they've moved their base of operations up to the den. Youngest Son is there, with an ice pack on his ankle, sitting in the recliner, trying to watch the early football game. I'm seated at the computer desk. Long Suffering Spouse is hovering nearby, being a gracious hostess. I'm making fun of Oldest Son's inability to pour coffee from one of those new-fangled serving pots where you have to unscrew the lid just so in order for coffee to come out. "And you a student in the College of Engineering," I tell him.

Oldest Son has assumed control over the TV remote. One of our houseguests is from the Philadelphia area -- the Eagles are in the early Fox game -- while another is from Western New York State -- and the Buffalo game is the early offering on CBS. In order to make fun of the girl from Texas, Oldest Son switches to the rodeo bull-riding on ESPN during commercial breaks in the football games.

At this point I turn to Youngest Son, too attentive to all of this, his painful ankle notwithstanding. "Pay no attention to any of this," I tell him, "it's all an Advil-fueled hallucination. None of it's real."

The college kids all laugh. But it's not real; it's rumspringa.


Anonymous said...

oh you poor little thing! i just cannot imagine that happening. i would have just had a cow. my nerves would have had me in the nut house for sure. i have a whole new respect for you and lss.

and tomorrow: DUCT TAPE!!


Jean-Luc Picard said...

What a tale and a half. As Empress Bee suggests above, duct tape is a good solution.

Mother Jones RN said...

You and LLS are good parents. Thanks for writing about your big adventure. I enjoyed your post.

Cynthia Bostwick said...

Great post. If you and LSS and assorted kids in tow are ever close to Ann Arbor, stop in. Call on the cell and tell me you're outside. You'll feel rtight at home, I swear it.

Anonymous said...

I hereby rescind and apologize for my earlier nagging about you taking the weekend off. You poor man, you had your hands full. Actually, it sounds like you had your hands, feet, and pockets full.
I feel for LSS, she gets to put the house back together after the influx...

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cmhl said...

haaaaaa! GREAT story!!

I clapped for Tinkerbell!!

your long suffering spouse is a GOOD sport,a nd I suggest you tell her that tonight and possibly present her with a bouquet of fall flowers, or a nice mum.

1. letting the unwashed masses (ok, with the exception of your son) crash at your house?
2. for a WEEK?
3. and extended friends, et al?
but, the real kicker...
4. GIRLS!!!!

your spouse deserves a shiny new medal for not losing her... err... mind over this new turn of events.. flowers? candy? weekend away with grandparents watching the kids?

The Curmudgeon said...

Oh, gosh, cmhl, no! Not the whole week! Not even Mother Theresa would put up with all of this for a whole week! They were gone by the end of the day Sunday -- the girls back to Lincoln Park and the boys (excepting Oldest Son) to a cabin in Virginia. (Where none of them are from.) You may well ask why they came 120 miles or so out of their way just to go out in Chicago when they were going to start driving 1,000 miles in the other direction the next day... and of course I couldn't answer.

But our house is a designated stopping off point because of its proximity to O'Hare Airport: In fact, Oldest Son is bringing seven people (and maybe eight, he warned, just this weekend) to stay at our house the night before Thanksgiving because he and the others are flying out to California on Thanksgiving Day for the Notre Dame-USC game.

And Bee, Mother Jones, Shelly, Cynthia -- you see the truth of it: If I come off well in any of this it's becaue LSS makes me look good.