Sunday, January 30, 2011

The Stealing Game

The first time I played The Stealing Game was probably eight years ago at a PTA holiday party. We were asked to bring a wrapped gift worth about $10. Everyone picked a number out of a hat and it was in that order that we selected our gifts from a big table display. You chose a gift. Opened it. Showed it around. And then the next gift selector could choose from the table display, or steal your gift.

It shows how much I’ve evolved over the years that that first time I played I was completely horrified by what I thought was the most barbaric game ever invented, and now I count the days until one of these gift exchanges takes place.

There are now two of these events that I’m invited to every year. One with the women in my neighborhood and the other with my tennis group. Both gatherings have the same rule – no one is to buy a gift new. We are to bring something that we’ve received as a gift but don’t want. A White Elephant exchange, if you will.

My neighborhood group got together a few weeks ago at a local bar and we filled a table with wrapped boxes and gift bags. It is inherently understood that every gift on the table will be awful. No one has high hopes of coming away with a prize. The whole point of the game is just to go through the process of giving. And getting. And stealing.

Some people are better stealers than others. And, as is true in most situations where (even) a (crappy) prize is available, people’s true colors are bound to come out.

The gift I brought was a square glass cheese plate – pink, green and blue paisley -- with a matching cheese knife. It was not something that would go well with most entertaining accessories unless perhaps it was 1969 and you were entertaining the cast of Laugh-In. However, I’m a bit of a sucker for paisley, so I “stole” this gift during last year’s tennis exchange. Unfortunately, I never once used it. I never even took the ribbon from around it. So I stuck it in a gift bag and offered it up to this new group.

We all picked numbers. I was Number Seven. The best number to get is One, because you get your choice of every gift and you get another turn at the very end to steal whatever anyone else has chosen. For most of us, this game provides the perfect real-life opportunity to practice non-attachment to things you erroneously believe are yours.

When my turn came, there were already a few interesting things that had been opened. A cookbook. A nice grill brush. A curious little indoor waterfall. There’s a whole Let’s Make A Deal mentality when it’s your turn to pick: should I go with what I see before me – or should I take a chance and pick Door Number Two?

I did select a new gift, mainly because I liked the tissue paper that it was wrapped in. I opened it up and it became immediately clear that there actually was a “prize” in this game, and that I’d just unwittingly picked it.

My gift was a beaded evening bag. It was tasteful, beautiful and elegant. I held it up to show it off and it was like ten hungry wolves just feasted their eyes on dinner.

“I love this!” I said.

“There’s no way you’re going home with that, girlfriend,” said one of the women. You could see the gears beginning to turn in all their collective heads.

Number Eight’s turn was next and she apologetically (but swiftly) took the purse from me. “You can borrow it whenever you want,” she said.

Number Nine took the purse from Number Eight, less apologetic, but just as swift. Number Ten made it seem like she was going to take a gift from the table but she, too, took the handbag.

Then it was Number One’s turn again. Number One, who had ended up with a butt-ugly piece of jewelry as her initial selection. Who had proclaimed herself a “terrible stealer.” Who looked longingly at the purse – the only appealing gift at the table.

We all held our breaths to see what she would do. And then she made her choice.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

The Hazards of Reading

Here is why I’m not playing in my beloved Wednesday Tennis Clinic this morning.

Last night, I was lying in bed, minding my own business, reading my Kindle, and decided it would be a good idea to flex my leg muscles as tight as they could be. I did this for a few reasons.

One is, I had taken a particularly rough spin class in the morning and whenever we are “climbing hills” the instructor is always quick to point out how we are building muscle, up there, at the top of the leg. That it isn’t just rampant sadism on his part, these hills, it’s actually a torture that he throws in for our benefit. I don’t have muscular legs – I never have – and so last night, out of the blue, I decided to see whether my sadistic spin instructor was speaking the truth.

The other reason is that I don’t like reading on a Kindle, and no matter how good the book is – and this book I’m reading (To The End of The Land by David Grossman) is very good – I find little ways to distract myself, because deep down I hate the fact that what I’m holding in my hands is an awkward, confounding piece of electronic gadgetry and not a nice, refined, tree-wasting paperback. Flexing my leg muscles – the upper muscles, tightening my right thigh as much as I can, then pounding on it with my fist – that’s exactly the type of small distraction that keeps me from finishing my book in time for my book group meeting.

I don’t recall that musculature being tight or compromised during the day, but it must have been. Why else then would a few flexes and pounds result in the type of throbbing ache that prevents me from falling quickly to sleep?

A little after midnight, my leg ached so badly I had to get up and take some Advil, and hobble downstairs to get the icepack. After that I was able to sleep, but when I woke up this morning that whole area was tight and unmoving. I considered the possibility of playing tennis anyway – something I would have tried to do in the past – but my experience has shown me that doing so only makes this kind of thing worse. So I quickly resigned myself to a tennis-free day – perhaps a tennis free week – and, overall, I have to say I’m taking it quite well.

The silver lining here could have been that my muscle flexing antics produced thighs of steel. That my oft-jiggly legs were so toned and tight that I actually hurt my fist in pounding.

Or that I set aside my cheapskate tendencies and, despite having paid for my Kindle version of Grossman’s amazing novel, I go out and buy the book (which is only available in hardcover right now, dang!) so I can actually enjoy it.

But, more likely, it’s that I’m going to get to see my beloved Dr. H before the week is through.

How I've Become So Well Adjusted

Gina shows up to tennis 15 minutes late. “Sorry, ladies. I was at the chiropractor. He gave me an extra long hot oil massage before my adjustment,” she says in my general direction, “and I completely lost track of the time.”

I shoot her a look. “Hot oil massage?”

“Oh. Doesn’t he do that for you?”

Gina tries to make me believe that Dr. H. likes her more than he likes me, but it’s just not true.

“Who are you talking about?” asks one of the other women.

One of us utters his name and the rest of us nod dreamy eyed. Half the women I play tennis with see him. “We all love him,” Gina says.

I met Dr. H. a decade ago, when I crawled into his office, unable to lift myself onto his examining table. I was brand new to town and the former owners of our house had done an amazing thing: they had gone to the trouble of writing up a 7-page guide of all the Need to Knows about Montclair. Best hardware store, best liquor store, best bagels, best haircuts, and thank heaven, best chiropractor.

“I don’t know if you go in for this type of stuff,” wrote our house seller, “but Dr. H. is no voodoo practitioner. He’s helped me and my wife out many times over the years,”

That number came in handy when I threw my back out and found myself completely incapacitated, not even able to drive myself the mile to his office. That was the first time Dr. H. put me back together again, but it would not be the last. Since then, we have gone through a lot together.

I can’t speak to chiropractic technique; I’ve been to lots of practitioners and they all seem to do similar things. But Dr. H. is a master handler. And I need a lot of handling.

Once I pegged him as a Doc Who Listens, I began seeing him for everything under the sun. “My toe hurts. I have a toothache. I can’t find my keys in the morning.” He was somehow able to fix it all.

“Is this sepsis?” I asked him one day, referring to the rash running up and down my legs. “How do you know about sepsis?” he asked back. “I watch House,” I said.

The rash ended up being Fifth Disease, but no more House for me. Dr. H forbade me to watch it ever again, along with ER, Gray’s Anatomy and every other doctor show. I was also not to read the Linda Sanders, MD column in the New York Times Magazine. And I must stay off the CDC website.

Much of my relationship with Dr. H. involves his digging his thumb deep into my muscle tissue and my cursing him out. But there is also his unique ability to counsel me through my myriad health worries. He’s taught me how to gauge the seriousness of my maladies, so I don’t have to run in and see him every three days with this or that problem. He’s taught me how to manage my particular brand of health anxiety and he’s also taught me how to keep myself from kicking him in the groin if he hits a tender spot. Or maybe he’s just figured out how to move more swiftly out of harm’s way.

I know he doesn’t give hot oil massages, and I know he likes me better than he likes Gina. Dr. H. and I have real history together. She’s just a recent fling.

“He gave me his cell phone number,” Gina says in a stage whisper as she takes her spot next to me on the tennis court.

“Well, he gave me his home number. Ages ago,” I say.

“Home number? You mean the number where any family member could answer? That doesn’t seem very private,” says Gina.

“I have his daughter’s cell number, too. I’m like part of his family!” I say.

I know I’ve gotten to her with that, but she appears imperturbable. “Yeah. If you say so,” she says.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

My One Day At A Time Winter

Seventeen years ago, we had a winter like this. I remember it well because I was pregnant with the teenager at the time. I did not have a good pregnancy and to commemorate that fact, I wrote a 25-page essay entitled My Miserable Pregnancy that still makes me shudder when I read it. It was an unprecedentedly grumpy forty weeks for me, and a big part of my malaise was a result of that winter of unrelenting snow.

It was 1994 and if it didn’t snow every Wednesday, it came close. Not just a few flurries or a shimmery coating that makes everything look crisp and clean. That year offered up a substantial snowstorm – at least 8-12 inches – every Tuesday night.

The reason I remember this is because we lived in Hoboken and although I was working from home at the time, I saw my therapist in New York City on Wednesdays around noon. I know it’s hard to believe that someone so well-adjusted would even need to see a therapist on any Wednesday, no less every Wednesday. Yet there I was, pregnant, nauseated, grumpy and mental, pulling on snow boots every Wednesday morning, praying that my slick and slushy walk to the bus stop would not land me on my procreative derriere.

Like Manhattan, Hoboken is a walking town, so neglecting to shovel your sidewalk was beyond irresponsible – it was practically an act of aggression. The streets are narrow. No one has a driveway. When someone shovels out his car after a storm, he's invariably dumping his car snow onto your freshly cleaned sidewalk, and so you must shovel it all over again. It’s a tiny, crowded city and there really isn’t much room for snow. Although that didn’t keep it from coming.

Besides being pregnant that winter, I also had to quit smoking. I am not a cold-turkey kind of a gal, so that was a long, drawn out process that added to my general misery. I systematically broke all my cigarette habits, one by one – all the million ways that I smoked which ultimately added up to the uber-pleasurable experience that constituted smoking. I changed my brand. I stopped having a cigarette with coffee. I made myself smoke only in the basement, hold the cigarette only with my left hand. Once all my happy little rituals were gone it became so unpleasant an experience it seemed more appealing to simply endure nicotine withdrawal than to continue.

Eventually, that winter resulted in my quitting therapy as well. I was so stressed out about getting there every week (in the snow) that I wasn’t even dealing with my childhood misery when I arrived – I would spend my time talking about fresh, snow-related misery – misery that would have been greatly diminished if I’d simply never left the house to begin with.

This winter reminds me of that one. But different in some big, important ways. First, I’m not pregnant – and for that reason alone, we can all be grateful. Next, I don’t have to be anywhere. If the snow is bad enough that school is cancelled, we just hunker down until there’s movement again. I’ve missed some tennis, and I get a little petulant about that, but in time it passes.

Right now there are mountains of snow in the supermarket parking lots, mounds that flank my driveway. I risk life and limb every time I scale one of the snowdrifts to put money in a parking meter, and that’s if I can even find a place on the street to park. There’s another storm predicted for this coming week and even though this town is big and expansive compared to Hoboken, I can’t imagine how another foot of snow is going to fit. How will it ever all melt? How will it ever go away?

But somehow, miraculously, it will. Ninety days from now it will all be gone. Ninety days seems like an eternity when you’re miserable. So that’s why I’m just taking it one day at a time.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Spin Gas

The fire department was just here (for a false alarm; long, unrelated story) and the two guys who came in were in full fireman regalia – coats, hats, gas masks – and it took every ounce of my faltering maturity not to say to the both of them, “Gee, that gas mask would have come in handy in my spin class this morning, because someone was cutting farts like you would not believe.”

I had actually been thinking about gas masks (as well as those little surgical masks that doctors wear) as the only reasonable antidote to this morning’s gas crisis. In fact, it was one of my suggestions when I was recounting my class experience to my husband. I found it a very big coincidence that just a few hours later, there were two men in my house with gas masks. That almost never happens. It was almost as if they were a gift from the heavens.

In case you’re wondering whether a grown woman feels like it’s déclassé to devote a whole conversation – indeed, a whole blog post – to farting, the answer is yes, she does. I pride myself on having a lot of gastrointestinal empathy in general, even if my conversation is not especially high-minded. It was with this empathy (and immaturity) that I relayed to my husband the events of the class.

“It was a hard class,” I told him, “made harder by the fact that some guy was farting big, smelly, guy-farts, and it became really unpleasant to breathe.”

“You know who was farting?” he asked.

“Not specifically,” I said, “but it was surely one of the big guys.”

“Doesn’t that declaration seem a little sexist?” my husband asked.

He had a point. But, “these were definitely six-foot-three farts; not five-foot-six farts. Plus they were awful. Eggy and sulphuric, like the Secaucus swamps.”

“Does that always happen on Sundays?” he asked. My husband and I can have long, drawn-out conversations about intestinal gas, and this was well on its way to being one of them.

It had happened once before on a Sunday, but the truth is I’m usually up in the front of the class, impervious to any line of fire. But today I was late and took a spot in the back row – riding off into a sea of behinds.

“Not only guy-gas, but Sunday-morning gas,” my husband said, he in his own way empathetic about the ways of methane. “That’s gas accumulated from Saturday night. God only knows the source.”

Just thinking about it made me start to gag all over again.

Spin Gas is tough. It’s not like being in an elevator where everyone can hold their breaths for 20 or 30 floors. You’re already gasping for as much air as you can get just to get through the next song. And I’m certainly not faulting the guy (ok…or girl), but the whole experience has motivated me to move a little more quickly on Sunday mornings, and snag a teacher’s pet seat right in the very front row.

Thursday, January 6, 2011


The ladies that play on the adjacent court on Wednesdays are old. Not older than the hills, but they all have at least 20 years on our group. They’re all gray and braced and slow and accurate. They wear Christmas sweaters over their tennis clothes during the holidays. Sometimes during water breaks, we speculate which one each of us will grow into. (I think I’ll become the one who wears her tennis duds just a little too tight – the skirt is too short, the top rides up on her belly. Sometimes I think I’ve become her already.)

If I had to pick one word that described yesterday morning it would have been “stuck.” At the last minute, the teenager texted me that he’d forgotten his gym shorts, could I please drop them off at the main office at school? Because the teenager is more apt to get into a college on his grades, rather on any sports scholarship, I agreed. I’ll be damned if I’m going to let the school ruin his GPA because of gym. So, already a little late for tennis, I ran into the high school with gym shorts in hand, only to be stopped by the Entrance Monitor. These are people who, at first, appear as if they might function like a concierge, directing you helpfully toward points of interest at the high school that you surely don’t want to miss. But in fact they’re there to thwart efficiency, requiring photo ID and a monotonous sign in process before you’re able to proceed to your destination. As if there are so many adults in this world who actually want to spend that much more time with a teenager that they would try and sneak into a school and attempt to procure one. That desk at the high school – that was the first place I was stuck.

Next I was stuck behind a school bus. No further explanation needed there.

Then, the parking lot was full of snowdrifts and plowed piles, reducing the available parking spots by a third. Women were stuck in parking lot limbo, waiting for others to get in their cars and leave so they could take their spots.

When I got inside, the older women from the next court had just amassed in the lobby and were descending the stairs. They take the stairs slowly. One step. Then a little rest. Another step. Rest. It’s hard to believe these are people who are about to play tennis for 90 minutes. I was stuck on the stairs behind them.

I wasn’t even the last one to arrive. After I’d gotten settled in, Laura the Tennis Pro announced she’d just received a text from Gina. “I’m in the parking lot but I can’t come in. My effing key is stuck in the ignition.”

I always marvel at Gina’s ability to be ladylike. To use “effing,” instead of “fucking” even in a private text message. Even when she’s stuck.

Eventually, she did get her key out and came down to join us. During the break, she and I imagined ourselves twenty years hence, taking the court steps one at a time – maybe having a twinge of arthritis that slows us down even further – and when we do, pulling out our trusty iPhones to message the other ladies in the group. “I’ll be a little late today,” we’ll tap out with our rickety old thumbs, “I’m stuck on the effin steps.”