The New York City public schools are officially open until June 28, but my son is off as of last week. The next two weeks are dedicated to preparing for and taking New York State Regents’ Exams, and he has taken and passed all of his state exams already. He’s going to baseball camp for a week in July, he plays first base for a competitive team with an intensive summer schedule, and he plans to take weekly sitar lessons, but otherwise he’s a free agent until Labor Day.
On the one hand, this is great. He needs unstructured time, and he makes good use of it — he rides his bike, plays his guitar, writes songs and sometimes just lies in bed with his laptop, catching up on missed episodes of House and Lie to Me. He and some friends have chipped in on cricket equipment and are teaching themselves to play. He and I have been working on some duets; he’s a terrific accompanist and we harmonize well together. If all goes according to plan, this will be a wonderful summer.
I remember how important these free days were from my own adolescence. During the school year, there was always something I was supposed to be doing — homework, a paper that was coming due, lines to learn for a school play, and so on. Life was sometimes hectic and fun, sometimes full of scary drudgery (chemistry and calculus come to mind), but always tightly scheduled and often exhausting and overwhelming. I loved going to, and then working at, summer camp — but I also needed times when nothing was pending; when I didn’t have to be responsible for anything or anyone. I would read one novel after another, go for long bike rides with friends, and have sleepovers that could stretch out for days. I want this for my son as well.
The difference is, I grew up in a suburban house with a practically soundproof basement. When my friends and I got together, we would hang out in the basement to watch TV, listen to records, or sing. I rarely had parties when I was in high school, for a number of reasons, but my friends’ parties tended to take place in their basements or rec rooms. Parents might patrol through occasionally, but we were mostly shielded from their presence, and, more important from my current perspective, they from ours.
We live in a nice-sized apartment by New York standards. We have two fairly spacious bedrooms and a large combination living room and kitchen. Three people and a cat manage very well there during the school year.
But I do a lot of work from home. I am out in my offices three days a week, but I also take on freelance writing and editing assignments which demand uninterrupted quiet time to complete. During the school year, I take over the dining table during the days I’m not in my office, spreading out manuscripts, dictionary, thesaurus, notes, laptop, and food and drink; wandering around in my bathrobe trying out different versions of a sentence or cursing because I can’t come up with any; and frantically washing dishes or eating ice cream in a desperate search for inspiration. It works for me.
During vacations, our apartment tends to be full of boys, playing instruments, watching baseball games, talking until 4AM, and eating whatever is in the fridge that I had earmarked for my own raids. I like this, actually. My son has nice, interesting friends; sometimes they invite me to sing with them; and I’d always rather have him home where I can keep an eye on him. Besides, I just like having him around. I miss him when he’s at camp, and I dread his departure for college in a few years.
But we can’t finance college unless I can work, and under these conditions it’s hard to even think. I long for a finished basement and a backyard for him — and lacking that, a padded cell for me.