Sunday, March 27, 2011

Nagging Evolution

The teenager has already unfriended me on Facebook and is now threatening not to respond to my phone texts. “Are you TextNagging?” he wrote me one day, in response to what seemed (to me) like an innocent question. Although one I had posed in three prior text messages. Describing his responses as “selective” doesn’t even come close.

He has been charged with raising a substantial sum of money for a trip he wants to take this summer. So in addition to odd jobs, he’s been spending the last many weeks tutoring after school and on weekends.

I have become his ad hoc manager in this endeavor, first sending out an email to my Mom List, asking if anyone knew anyone, blah, blah, blah. But also keeping track of his appointments – since I need to drive him to most of them, they need to fit into my schedule as well. Basically, all he has to do is make the appointment and show up.

How hard could that be? Right?

“Please call your Wednesday people and tell them you have a game that afternoon. See if they can reschedule,” I say to him in the morning as he’s walking out the door.

When he arrives home, I ask, “Did you call them?”



“No one answered,” he says.

“Did you leave a message?”


Initially, I had thought this might be a shortcoming of my teenager alone, but upon closer inspection I have discovered that this is standard operating procedure.

“Why didn’t you leave a message?” I ask.

“They’ll see my number as a missed call,” he says. “They’ll just call me back.”

“No. No they won’t,” I explain. “Because you are calling grown ups. And that’s not how we roll.”

My son believes that if he calls one time and there is no answer and he hangs up, the ball is in the other person’s court. This is how many (maybe even most) young people operate. They don’t listen to their voicemails. They don’t read their emails. If you need to be in touch with them, it’s either by text message or through Facebook. And for me, with my teenager, half of that access has been denied.

“If you don’t leave a message, it doesn’t count as calling back,” I nag. “And if you don’t call back, they think you don’t care or aren’t interested.”

He looks at me as if I were speaking in tongues. No they won’t, he says.

But they already have. He’s lost one “client” already because the mom left a message on his voicemail that he never responded to. In this case, it wasn’t that he didn’t call back, he just never checks his voicemail to begin with.

I remember being at a lecture a few years ago with Michael Thompson, author of Raising Cain. Among other things, he spoke about boys’ brains and how they develop and asked the male audience members when they remember becoming “organized.” “Not until I was in college,” said one. “In my thirties,” said another. “Never,” proclaimed one courageous soul. The point, according to Thompson, is that we sometimes need to moderate our expectations of boys. They’re built a certain way and often cannot perform the way we wish they would.

I remember coming home from that lecture and slipping into my son’s room. He was in 5th grade at the time and just about to fall asleep. “I’m sorry I’ve been treating you like a defective girl,” I said to him, using the author’s own term. My son had no idea what I was talking about and I’m sure didn’t even care.

But these communication issues don’t seem like organizational impairment. They seem like the mores of an entire generation that are, well, stupid. Or so I thought, before I read Pamela Paul’s article in The New York Times last week, “Don’t Call Me, I Won’t Call You,” which posits that it’s not just teenagers who eschew voicemail, but practically everyone except, apparently, me.

Whether or not that’s all true – that voicemail is passé and that boys can’t manage their affairs – doesn’t matter a whit to me. I can nag just as facilely in a text message as I can face to face. And in a way that Mr. Darwin would surely be proud.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Socks: A Love Story

Sometimes someone will offer me an idea for a column or a blog post. “Oh, you should write about such-and-such,” they’ll say – and it will make sense, their suggestion, because such-and-such might be somehow related to things I’ve written in the past, or such-and-such might be a very funny idea or event, so I always completely understand where they’re coming from. But the truth is, while I might think such-and-such is interesting, I find that I don’t really have a lot to say about it. And that’s because when I start to write, even if it seems like I might be writing about someone or something in particular, what I’m really writing about is –well – me.

But if I did write about other people though, I might have to write about my friend DH (not his real initials), because there is really no end to the satisfaction that comes with knowing that someone else is crazier than you are.

DH told me long ago that he numbers his socks. He said it in an offhand way and at the time I didn’t press him for details. But recently the subject came up again in an electronic exchange and then when I saw him today for lunch he halted the conversation, stuck his leg out into the aisle, slipped his shoe off and displayed his left foot clad in a white athletic sock with a neat number 50 rendered in black Sharpie marker just around his instep.

“What sense does it make to number your socks?” I asked him. Everyone has asked him. And his answer could fill a short book.

Originally I thought maybe he used a binary system, but he corrected me. “Whole numbers, base ten,” he said.

The 50 on his left foot matches the 50 on his right foot. This is so they can be properly paired after washing. These white socks are a wide assortment of Hanes, or Fruit of the Loom, and various bargain brands. It’s very difficult to tell which go with which, he tells me.

That’s the beauty of men’s sweat socks, as far as I’m concerned. Possibly the only beauty. They all look enough alike that you just pair ‘em up as you lift them out of the laundry basket. “No, no. They wear at different rates. You don’t want to put on a left sock that’s nearly new with a right sock that’s seen better days,” he says.

DH lives in that fairy tale world where every sock has its perfect mate and they will live happily ever after. When Left Sock Number 50 goes, Right Sock Number 50 is tossed right along with it. Here, in my laundry land, that’s not how we roll. When one of my kid’s socks has a hole, I assume it has a few weeks left until it turns into a Big Hole. Then that sock gets thrown away and its mate is stowed as a replacement for the next sock casualty.

DH explains how his socks wear out more quickly in hiking boots than in sneakers, but that the real problem for him is the elastic going, which seemed to occur on both socks simultaneously. I suggested he not ball his socks (I’ve heard that increases the life of the elastic) and he was nearly aghast at the idea of balling socks at all. “I don’t need to ball my socks,” he said, sounding the littlest bit high and mighty. “They’re numbered. I can just keep them in a stack.”

He flipped over the placemat and drew me a picture of his drawer of stacked socks. He showed how Number 51 sits on top of the other Number 51, and how they, in turn, lay on top of their sock brethren. He explained his numbering system, his sorting system, some of his past trials and failures relating to sock care, and by the end of the conversation I was almost ready to pull out my own Sharpie and start numbering the socks in my household as well.

“Does your girlfriend know you do this?” I asked. It was a rhetorical question. Or at least one to get him to admit his own kookiness.

If I wrote about other people, I would then relay perhaps the sweetest exchange I’ve ever heard.

“The last time I saw her she asked me which socks I had on,” he told me. “And I said Number 54. And she said, ‘Oh, I think you look really good in those!’”

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Lucky Charms

My husband and I met when he lived in Hoboken, NJ, a town known, in recent decades, as a party destination for the young. St. Patrick’s Day hails big in Hoboken. There’s always a big parade down the long main street that bisects the town. The parade rarely ever ran on St. Patrick’s Day proper. Rather, you would wake up one day, notice that the yellow stripe down the middle of Washington St. had been painted green and would know that the parade was not too far behind.

Hoboken would schedule their parades based on the bag-pipers’ availability. Being a small town with a small operating budget, they couldn’t really afford bag-pipers on the prime weekends – directly before or after St. P’s Day – so they would schedule them when they weren’t in such high demand. Often, the St. Patrick’s Day Parade would emerge in the middle of February, and revelers would come out and get toasted as if it were March 17th itself.

We were never big revelers, so we had our own way of celebrating St. Patrick’s Day. One that, thankfully, had nothing to do with either corned beef or cabbage. On March 17th, we would assume Irish names and use them for the entire day. My husband became Timmy O’Shea, and I, Cassidy Muldoon. I’d like to take credit for this idea, but it was my husband’s. I think he was even responsible for naming both of us. I was happy to go along with it, as it had nothing to do with eating fatty meat or ingesting green libations.

Once we had children, we thought the naming ritual might be a fun way to celebrate a day that had nothing to do with any of our heritages. When our oldest son was a toddler, my husband dubbed him Brian O’Brian for the day. It was something we giggled about for 10 minutes in the morning and then it was over. When the next child came along, years later, we resuscitated the ritual, but my husband gave him a name that he didn’t like. So, since the little one is a bit moody and easily offended, we just dropped the ritual altogether.

Today at tennis I was telling the women on the court about our Irish names. We all decided to take on our own Irish names and it added some (extra) silliness to our play. Then one of the women told her own story about St. Patrick’s Day and I loved it so much I wanted to pass it on.

When her youngest daughter was in preschool, the teachers would bring them outside to play on St. Patrick’s Day and when they returned to the classroom all the chairs would be askew and the books out of place. The teachers told the kids that the chaos must have been a result of leprechauns who had obviously entered the classroom while it was unoccupied. Her daughter came to associate leprechauns with the quiet mischief of rearranging furniture, setting bric-a-brac awry.

This morning, when her daughter came downstairs, she announced how excited she was to see what the leprechauns had done in her own house. Her mother (who is Italian) had done nothing to commemorate the day, but she, like me, is a less than stellar housekeeper. So her daughter was not disappointed when she came down to find chairs pulled away from the table, clothes dropped on the floor. “Oh, look what the leprechauns did!” she said. Delighted.

It’s true, I don’t expend an awful lot of energy picking things up and putting them away. But I do silently berate myself for being so lax about housekeeping. No more. Ever since tennis this morning I look at my counter full of dirty dishes, the eight of clubs playing card that has been sitting under the hall table for two weeks, my son’s socks on the TV room floor and it no longer appears to me as a personal (or even a familial) failing. In fact, there’s something about it all that now seems delicious.

I don’t know if that’s why the Irish consider themselves lucky, but that seems like the real key to living a charmed life. To be able to look around you and see the magic in things just the way they are.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

The Perfect Partner

“I feel bad if I’m losing. And I also feel bad if I’m winning. It’s kind of an impossible situation.”

This sentiment was uttered by one of my tennis mates. I’m not sure which one, but I’m pretty sure it’s a true statement for all of us. There’s never any pleasing us, in tennis.

If you appear to enjoy winning, you can easily be branded as Too Competitive. If you seem not to care whether you win or lose, you risk being Not Competitive Enough. So besides all the craziness that goes hand-in-hand with feeling worthy of or entitled to a win, you have the added worry of how you’re perceived. And of not disappointing your partner.

If this isn’t the most stressful aspect of Ladies Doubles, I don’t know what is.

In that way that Tennis is a microcosmic version of Life, it seems that we all bring to the court all our habits or insecurities that we bring to our relationships. Am I doing enough? Will you still like me even if I screw up? Should I take risks to please you? Should I just play it safe even if it means blowing the point? Do you have my back? Is it ok if I whine? How much can I whine? Can I trust you to tell me to back off?

It’s endless.

Some of the women I play tennis with don’t even like doubles for that very reason. “I don’t like having to deal with the whole partner thing,” they’ll say. “I’m better when I’m on my own.”

I’m definitely better with a partner. But it has to be just the right partner. Someone who wants to win, but not too much. Someone with an excellent sense of humor. Someone who is supportive if I’m making mistakes, and who will maybe offer advice, but only if it’s advice that I like and doesn’t make me feel bad or incompetent. (Are you getting the sense of what it must be like to be my husband?)

I need someone with unconditional positive regard, but not someone who tells me how great I’m doing too often because that really botches up my game. But she has to tell me sometimes, because otherwise I will assume she thinks I suck. But it has to be genuine, because if not I’ll know she’s just saying nice things because she feels sorry for me for spending all this time and money and still being such a bad tennis player.

I don’t really respond to tough love or to being chastised, although sometimes I need a little kick in the butt to remind me to stop doing stupid things. I need someone who abides by the same laws of tennis karma – calling the opponent’s balls “in” if they’re questionable, understanding that it will all work out in the next point.

And of course it helps if she’s a partner who’s fast and can cover the whole back of the court.

I play tennis with a lot of different women – different ages, different levels, different strengths, different styles. I don’t really ever feel disappointed in my partner, even if she is acting spacey or playing lazy or is just having an off day. I imagine none of the women I play with do.

Yet we are all so worried all the time that we’re letting each other down. That our ability to hit a backhand on any given day has anything at all to do with how much we need and adore each other.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Old Lady Tennis

Blond Tumbleweed sent me an email at 5:30 AM asking if I wanted to take her place at tennis yesterday morning. It seems she missed a step on her way downstairs and took a little spill. I would normally jump at the opportunity to play for her, except that I was already scheduled to play and I already didn’t want to.

I had my own injury going on. A pain and stiffness in my hip that seems to come about from writing. Well, from sitting. Dr. H has diagnosed it as Gluteal Amnesia, a term that I thought he’d just made up to amuse himself or humiliate me, but I googled it and it appears to have, if not widespread notoriety, at least familiarity among a few sports coaches and practitioners. (Laura the Tennis Pro has also been diagnosed with GA. It makes me feel a lot less old and decrepit to have the same malady as a 32-year-old athlete.)

I urged Blond Tumbleweed to come to tennis despite her injury. I told her how much pain I was in from my hip problem and reminded her that Curly Tumbleweed was coming off a respiratory infection that has left her sinus cavity so clogged up she can’t hear and it would be surprising if she could run at all without coughing up a lung.

On Fridays we play on Court 5, at the very end of the club. Court 4 usually remains empty for the whole time we play. The older women who used to play on both Courts 3 and 4 last year have winnowed themselves down to a single court (3) this season, so we are down at the end all by ourselves.

The three of us confessed our disabilities to Kelly (our fourth) and she reminded us that she has had a torn ACL or meniscus or some other knee related problem for the past year. Since we were all injured, I suggested we just play a nice game of Old Lady Tennis and call it a day.

This group that plays together on Friday is a high testosterone conglomeration of power hitters despite their all being middle-aged women. Aside from me, everyone was an athlete in high school, many in college, and a few have even joined women’s soccer and volleyball leagues as adults. Balls fly around the court at crazy speeds. I usually just pray a lot.

But we all agreed to play mellow tennis and I instantly felt better about not having to worry about running after speeding bullets or leaping tall buildings in a single bound.

Blond Tumbleweed served first and Curly Tumbleweed returned. The ball whooshed past me so fast in each direction I barely had time to register that a point was going on.

“That’s not OLT!” I said, using what I considered a clever code for Old Lady Tennis so that the old ladies playing a court away would not be offended.

“What?” said Curly T, ears entirely clogged with week old mucous.

“Never mind,” I said.

The game went on like that for an hour and a half. No one played like an old lady except, of course, for me.

“That wasn’t an Old Lady Serve!” Kelly yelled out as she received a serve from Curly Tumbleweed that nearly knocked her over.

“Shhhh!” I said, trying to protect the feelings of our Court 3 elders.

“They can’t hear us,” said Blond Tumbleweed.

“What?” said Curly again.

Curly Tumbleweed and I took the set, and maybe played the best tennis we ever had as partners.

“Do you have that?” I’d yell back to her as a ball ripped past me.

“What?” she’d say, running up and hitting it.

I play better tennis when I’m injured. It doesn’t make any logical sense, but I think I do certain things that garner a better outcome. I pay attention more, because I know I’m going to be slower to react. I don’t run after crazy balls, but try and take them in a smarter (safer) way. I make sure I’m completely stabilized before I take a shot. And maybe most critical, I keep my expectations (about winning) really low.

I watch the Court 3 ladies play and I love how confident they are. No one is reckless. Their points go on forever.

“We belong on that court,” Blond Tumbleweed said to me after the set was over. She pointed to the old ladies and I shushed her again.

“They know they’re old,” Curly Tumbleweed said.

“And they know they’re better than us,” said Kelly.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Pump the Shackle. Twice.

It seemed like an easy assignment. Pick up a combination lock at the hardware store and drop it off at the high school before the teenager goes off to lacrosse practice. But I know how things can go with all that's related to the teenager, so fortunately I gave myself a little extra time.

The guys at the hardware store are usually extremely helpful. I’d hoped to get a lock whose combination could be reset to something memorable. This is because we currently have several combination locks in our kitchen Junk Drawer and I have no recollection how to open any of them. We also have several codes that are printed on the back of the MasterLock packages. However, none of those codes seemed to match any of our locks.

The hardware store guy was nice, but couldn’t direct me to a resettable lock. They had the kind that you can make a word for the combination, and I called my son to see if that style would fit on his lacrosse locker. Just get a regular lock, he said.

I had one in my hand, standard silver with a black face. I think it cost three or four dollars. But then the inevitable happened. My eye was drawn up to the top of the peg-board display to a line of colorful, newfangled locks.

“What’s this?” I asked, removing a bright blue $11.99 specimen. It wasn’t even in a typical MasterLock hanging package – the lock was affixed to a snappy, pyramid-shaped case. It looked as though the lock itself was onstage.

“Those are new,” the guy explained. “They’re directional.”

Meaning there are no numbers. The combination is a series of arrows – up, down, left, right – and you just move the face in the proper sequence, like a joystick.

I reached up to replace the blue lock, quietly deeming it too flashy. “They’re really popular,” the guy added.

So of course, I bought it.

I drove to the high school, pulled up to the front door and began fumbling for all the various ID I was about to need in order to drop something off at the front office. As I pulled my paperwork together, the teenager strolled up to the car from his lunch hour and knocked on the window. “I got you a lock!” I said, elated that I would not have to enter the school after all.

He grabbed at it, but I realized he should just take the lock, not the whole pyramid package, so I flipped it over to see what the combination was so I could release it from its plastic home. No combination on the back of the lock. None on the back of the package either. I squinted at the infinitesimal instructions and learned that the information we needed was inside the pyramid. I literally had to saw open a trap door on the package with my fingernail to get at it.

Two small paper rolls fell out; they looked like tiny treasure maps. I opened the first and it was useless, just a bunch of stickers to decorate your lock. The second contained the information we needed, so I carefully ripped off the tiny circle of tape that held the roll intact and let it unfurl before me. It did indeed contain the combination, but when we entered it, it didn’t work.

“I have a class that starts in three minutes,” said the teenager. As if I were somehow dragging my feet.

He tried the combination. No luck. I looked back on my treasure scroll and at the very top was a tiny little sentence or two that explained how you had to clear the lock before the combination would work. That seemed simple enough. Except I didn’t know how to clear it. And the instruction that explained how had just been partially destroyed when I removed the tape. Literally, the first six words had been ripped off and I couldn’t find them anywhere.

“How do I do this? What did it say?” I said, frantically jamming my hand into the crevice next to the front seat to try and retrieve the itty bit of paper.

“Mom, I have to go,” said the teenager.

“Read it in Spanish!” I told him.


“The instructions are written below in Spanish. Read that. What does it say?”

“I have no idea,” he said, validating anew my disappointment in our school district’s language program.

I’m not sure how I figured out that you need to pump the shackle twice, or how I even knew what the shackle was, but once we did that and entered the code, Bright Blue gave it up and the teenager dashed off with his popular, overpriced combination lock while I tried to imagine the over/under on how many days it would take before he’d lost the thing entirely and I was back at my junk drawer, racking my brains for combinations long gone.