Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Look What I Found in the Trash!

Bulky Waste pickup is usually scheduled on a Monday, so people can clean out their basements over the weekend and put stuff at the curb on Sunday night.

By Sunday afternoon the prowl begins. I usually scan the outgoing trash as a secondary activity – on my way to or from someplace else. But many go out specifically to cruise the trash. I see them in old green pickup trucks, their wagons piled higher than Jed Clampett’s.

On a recent Sunday, I hit the Bulky Waste Jackpot. I was walking my neighbor’s dog and came upon a pristine curbside pile in front of a house around the block. The wicker patio set was beautiful and unbroken – in fact, it looked barely used.

The dog had not yet pooped and this instantly became an issue between the two of us. “Hurry and poop,” I commanded. “I have to go get the car.”

I’m not sure if any dog poops on command, but this one didn’t even try. He sniffed around seven lawns making it seem like he was about to do his business, but he had no intention of actually going, no matter how many times I implored him.

“Poop!!!” I hissed. I tried to make my voice harsh and strained, the way I do when I want my kids to obey me. (It doesn’t work with them, either.)

Finally, I brought him back and locked him in his yard, beseeching him to poop on his own while I went to do my business. I ran home and got the car, taking corners on two wheels so I could claim my prize before someone else got to it first.

I pulled up alongside the furniture, which had miraculously not been snatched up in my absence. And then…I couldn’t get out of the car.

Oh Lord, what if these people are home and they see me loading their castoffs into my car? We don’t know each other, but I’m sure they’d recognize me from the neighborhood. I felt my breath quicken as I sat quietly waiting to see which would win out, shame or greed.

I don’t think I’ve ever done anything in my life as fast as I loaded that furniture into the back of my car. I sped back home, unloaded, went back to tend to the neighbor’s dog and then I did what I always do after I’ve done something I’m really embarrassed by: I started calling people to confess.

“I just took a whole mess of wicker furniture from someone’s bulky waste pile,” I told Shelley.

“That’s great!” (I knew she would say that.)

“I don’t know. What if they saw me? And what if someone really poor came by and I took all the furniture first?”

“When I think of what poor people need, patio furniture is not what comes to mind,” she said. “Besides, when people put that stuff out they want you to take it. They’re hoping someone will be able to use it.”

I do think all that is true, and it did make me feel better. But what really made me feel better was when she named all the things in her house that had been acquired curbside. And then when several other people I called named their best finds.

What makes me feel best, though, is when someone comes up on my porch and sees my “new” wicker and, when I tell them where it came from, they respond with a big high five.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

It's Not Easy Being Green

One reason I like to write about tennis drills is that when I start to collect my thoughts about a clinic or a game, it reveals a lot about life. Well, about my life anyway.

The drill I have in mind is called Red/Yellow/Green, and unlike “Dink,” this one is a drill I hate. Red/Yellow/Green is pretty simple. Two people are up at the net, and the pro feeds lobs. Your job is to call out a color as you’re going for the ball. Green is an easy overhead put away. Yellow is a bit more of a reach, but still, you’re in control. Red is a lob that you have to back up for; a ball you can get but it’s tricky and it leaves you off balance.

The point is this: if you name the shot as it’s coming over the net, you know what to do with it. Whether to be aggressive, where to hit it. Or whether your only option is to just do the best you can. Naming it gives you a plan.

I thought I hated this drill because of the naming part of it. I never wanted to commit to a color. What if I was wrong? But lately I’ve come to realize that I hate the drill because of the planning part. I detest making a plan.

Someone recently pointed this out to me about myself and at first I thought he was nuts. I’m really organized, I told him. He said, it’s not the same thing.

He’s right.

Once I absorbed this new information, a million things became clear. For example, I thought I hated to cook – I’ve thought this forever – but I realize now that I really just hate the planning that goes into a meal. Ditto for vacations and throwing parties. My family doesn’t go anywhere or do anything because I’m plan-impaired.

Here’s another revelation. When Gina and I are up at the net together, Laura the Tennis Pro will feed us each the exact same lob, one after another. But what Gina calls Yellow, I call Red. Meaning, each of us is going for a ball with precisely the same trajectory, but I feel like it’s going to be a huge effort to get it back, and she thinks it’s just a notch beyond easy. To say this sums up the differences in our personalities would be an understatement as vast as the last depression. (You can take that to mean ‘the Great economic’ or ‘my own psychological’…the analogy works either way.)

You would think that coming off the tennis court with an understanding of oneself as gloomy and plan-averse might be a bit of a downer. But Laura the Tennis Pro said something that put it in a different perspective. “The point isn’t to label the shot ‘correctly,’ the point is just to label how you perceive it.” Meaning, if all the overheads feel like Reds to me, that’s fine. Just play them accordingly. Do your best to get the ball over the net and then focus on getting yourself ready again.

I’ve actually found the whole thing liberating. I have a plan to follow, but I didn’t have to make it. All I have to do is notice what’s coming at me, and how I feel about it. Which, I have to admit, becomes a lot easier when you stop insisting that life is always supposed to feel Green.

Monday, April 20, 2009

How Much Does Jessica Hate Teenagers?

I learned several important lessons today:

1. Those pull-out hampers – the ones that are part of your bathroom cabinetry, basically a huge drawer that you can fill up with a week’s worth of laundry – are not designed to hold a 14-year-old. Even if they are really good hide-and-seek hiding places.

2. When my kids were two-year-olds, and people said, “This is just practice for when they’re teens,” they weren’t merely talking about temper tantrums and defiance. They were also talking about teenagers thinking it’s somehow acceptable to leave their “used” lollipop sticks on someone’s living room floor.

3. If I leave my kids alone and the maple syrup bottle falls out of the fridge and explodes all over the kitchen floor, they are capable of cleaning it up so thoroughly that, except for finding the plastic bottle remains in the garbage, I would never have otherwise known.

4. It’s not really better with the girls here. I thought it would be easier having a couple of girls around to mitigate the testosterone and add that certain level of maturity that girls are always known for. But so far, I don’t see those benefits. I never thought I’d say this, but it’s easier with just the boys.

5. An old friend once emailed me about an incident that involved her pre-pubescent child viewing a porn tape belonging to his friend’s older brother. It was years ago, and she told the story in a way that had me doubled over in laughter. I remember she referred to a specific type of sex act that had been viewed, one that I’d never heard of, and that became the focus of our email exchange – my needing an explanation for the terminology, and then a few more emails to clarify certain details of said act. Today I was reminded how much easier it is to talk about the particulars of sex acts than to come to grips with the fact that teenagers simply don’t have good judgment most of the time. Especially when they’re in groups. And no amount of wishing they did will make it so.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

I Think the Gecko is a Democrat

Technically, the gecko belongs to my son, but we moved it out of his bedroom because the crickets were keeping him awake at night. The chirping. So we put the gecko in the Judge Judy Room.

The instant Spot’s tank moved, whatever small amount of responsibility my son felt for his pet’s well being vanished.

I drive five miles each way to procure Spot crickets. I usually make two trips a week. I used to delude myself into thinking this was just a small part I played in the larger gecko care arena. That he was a “family pet.” But, really, I am his only lifeline. I am my gecko’s keeper. And as such, I pride myself on knowing all the little nuances of his life.

The pet store guy always thinks he’s doing me a favor by filling the bag with 50 crickets. “I only want ten,” I say.

“I’ll only charge you for ten,” he assures me. He winks.

“Please only give me ten. The rest will die and Spot only eats live crickets.”

I know that Petco has nothing to do with the current economic downturn, but you’d think after a year like we’ve been having, store clerks would have stopped, well, giving away the store.

He rings them up with my Petco discount and hands me the receipt. (In case I want to return them?)

I bring them home and dump them into his cage. I love to watch him chomp on the crickets. He waits for one to stroll by and he just snatches it up. He only takes what he needs. It’s a good lesson on a lot of different levels.

Not long ago, I could always expect to find Spot inside his log or under his rock. But now he’s out more during the day. A veritable gecko-about-town. He doesn’t seem so sullen and alienated. Maybe he’s just finished with adolescence, but the difference occurred right around Obama’s inauguration.

Spot is happier here in the Judge Judy room. It’s true, he doesn’t seem to like Her Honor too much. (Maybe she intimidates him.) But we’ve watched most of Obama’s speeches together, and I think Spot, like most of the world, finds Mrs. O an absolute delight.

Friday, April 17, 2009

The Cheering Section

We all have that story about our mothers. The one we tell that sums up both the woman herself and our relationship with her. This is Ann’s:

“My mother had four boys. Then she had me. I don’t know whether it’s because she’s the nicest person on the face of the earth, or because she was just so relieved not to have had another boy, but in my mom’s eyes, I could do no wrong. When I was a teenager, I remember her carrying the clean laundry basket into my bedroom. Carefully stepping over the piles of dirty clothing strewn all over the floor, my mother would cast her eyes upward and say, ‘Ann, you keep the cleanest ceiling I’ve ever seen!’”

Relieved or not, Muriel is a pretty sweet lady – you can tell as soon as you meet her. Ann brought her to tennis today, and instead of sitting in the lounge, she came right down onto the court with us and watched us play.

I was charmed at first, but then panicked when I remembered what a foul mouth I have during these clinics. “What if we curse?” I asked Ann.

“Oh, no problem,” she said. “Well, not the F-word.”

That’s not the one that usually punctuates my game, but still I was nervous. The first time I missed a shot, I surprised myself with “Bugger!” (I’d never uttered that word before.) When Ann missed one, she shouted “Aw, Shucks!” Once I felt confident that we could all get through our mistakes without offending our distinguished guest, I relaxed significantly.

We all played a bit better, having a cheering section. I think we all laughed harder too, had more fun. She saw all of Ann’s great plays, and she also spent time thumbing through something tiny and orange that I imagined to be a prayer book. I was feeling so proud of how we presented ourselves today. Although it’s not hard to impress a glass-is-full-to-the-brim woman like Muriel. Everything we did seemed to delight her.

I’m going to go out on a limb here and say this: If we all had a Muriel on the sideline, stepping over the messes we leave on our floors, and reminding us of what we do best, we’d all play a better game. Every one of us. All the time.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Yes, Ferris Bueller

I have just been taken to task for my apparently too trite movie list.

First I have to say this: The challenge was “list your Top Twenty Movies.” Not “important” movies, or “directorial tours de force.” There was no criterion specified at all. So here was mine: It is a list of movies that I can happily watch over and over and over again.

Half the movies on my list I’ve seen at least five times. Most are movies that, once finished, I have reached over, pressed play and watched the whole thing again.

Yes, The Lord of the Rings Trilogy was a great movie. But I don’t ever need to see it again.

Maybe it’s a girl thing. (Most of the lists I got back were from men.) In general, I like movies with lovable, quirky characters that are unpredictable and intriguing. It’s not too far off from how I choose my friends.

I am always surprised when Ferris takes the car; always surprised when he gets away with his “day off.” It’s movie magic. If that makes me lowbrow, so be it.

That said, should everyone want to spend the evening with Sissy Spacek watching her put her house in order before she blows her brains out? Probably not.

I love that people have posted their own lists. (Although, if I may say so, if you add honorable mentions or “if there were a 21…” that’s a little like cheating. The reason it’s hard is because you have to leave some movies out.)

One day I might have to switch out Raising Arizona for Good Will Hunting. But not today.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Sunday Night is Movie Night

When your handyman has a degree in Philosophy and listens to NPR, you just know that those small jobs like leveling a door or replacing a floorboard are going to take a little extra time. There’s a lot of discourse involved, although rarely about the projects themselves.

I can’t remember whether he was fixing our shower door or the lattice under the porch, but during a recent visit, Griff challenged me to send him a list of my top 20 movies.

Always looking for new ways to waste time, I got right on it. It’s a tougher task than you’d think. The first five or ten are effortless, but when you get to 19 and 20, sometimes you have some heavy decisions to make. Does Godfather need to be on this list? If so, what needs to come off to make room?

We watched 12 Angry Men last night and, because of the elegance, the simplicity, and the brilliant way characters were developed (in a single room, no less) I had to revisit my list. I’m switching out The Usual Suspects, which I watched recently and mostly slept through.

Plus, who doesn’t love a movie that takes place in real time?

New list:
(in no particular order)

Ferris Bueller’s Day Off
Little Miss Sunshine
Lost In Translation
12 Angry Men
‘Night Mother
A Beautiful Mind
Mystic River
American Beauty
Donnie Darko
Legally Blond
Stop Making Sense
Annie Hall
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
Sex, Lies and Videotape
Raising Arizona

Anybody else up for this challenge? Anyone? Anyone? ...Bueller?

Saturday, April 11, 2009

The Thrill of Easter Past

While Scott was rubbing my feet tonight (an activity that could happen far more often, as far as I’m concerned) he reminded me of an Easter Egg decorating stint we had long before our children were born. Neither of us had bothered to boil eggs or even buy an egg-dying kit, but on the spur of the moment we felt the urge, so we made do with what we had. He blew the gunk out of the several eggs, leaving himself with a big headache. I pulled out my art markers and we started to draw.

We began with just stripes and polka dots, but I was feeling ambitious and set about rendering the Thriller album cover on one of the eggs. I remember feeling so proud at the time, and also spending a lot of time wondering how I could take this rare gift of mine and somehow turn it into a vocation.

We took pictures of our creations (black and white, because we were too cool for color back then) and they moved with us from apartment to apartment, house to house.

I’m astounded that it only took me 10 minutes to get my hands on this old picture. More astounded at some of the other photos I came across during my search: the portrait of Bob Dylan I made from refrigerator alphabet magnets; our old cat Xerox, as a kitten when he could fit inside Scott’s sneaker, then as the Jabba cat he became, barely able to fit inside a file box; the picto-journal my old roommate and I created of Gumby, before one of us (okay, me) accidentally hid him in the oven and he succumbed to a pre-heating meltdown. There were a few pictures of people I loved who died way too young. Pictures I’d forgotten I had. Those slowed me down.

It’s kind of crazy to sift through a batch of old photos like that. Chronicles of silly art projects and lots of mugging for the camera. Pictures that make you feel like you had way too much time on your hands. And then the other ones – of Carol and Ralph and Tom and Dad – that remind you in no uncertain terms, you don’t.

Happy Easter

Thursday, April 9, 2009


Some of us spent the first night of Passover developing an entirely new tradition. This is taken from my friend Gina’s Facebook page. I think Gina describes herself as a recovering Mormon. But what I love even more is that aside from Gina, I don’t even know these people.

Her original post was at 7:06 pm:

Oy! Such a shiksa
unpacking Seder meal from
brown Whole Foods cartons!

Jessica Wolf at 7:09pm April 8
Why should this night be
diff'rent from any other?
My kids ate hot dogs.

Gina Taylor at 7:29pm April 8
What? No matzoh here?
Surely Sylvia's first-born
son deserves better!

Sal Nunziato at 7:45pm April 8
Can I play this too
Though I'm really not a Jew
My friends think I am.

Eric Stover at 8:01pm April 8
Not Jewish either.
Had hash browns and eggs for dinner.
Goats blood on door, right?

Eric Stover at 8:18pm April 8
I love Haiku too,
Sometimes I just don't count right.
I should try Tanka

Gina Taylor at 9:12pm April 8
As long as it's not
Sanka, which, so I've been told,
is much like brown swill.

Gina Taylor at 9:12pm April 8
What? Not Jewish, Sal?
Your neurotic tendencies
Suggest otherwise.

Gina Taylor at 9:14pm April 8
Replacing hash browns
With matzoh makes matzoh brei.
A Jewish delight!

Sal Nunziato at 9:17pm April 8
See? What I tell ya?
Last names mean nothing these days.
Please pass the matzoh.

Richard Goldman at 9:47pm April 8
Passover? Yeah, right.
To cope with the dental hell,
soft tofu for me.

Erika Brockhouse Machamer at 7:50am April 9
Adam Sandler sings:
"OJ Simpson, Not a Jew."
No Matzoh for him.

Me, here, now
I’m exhausted from
a stimulating night of
Passover Haiku!

Monday, April 6, 2009

Jersey Girls

Last week I dropped the F-bomb for the first time with my son.

This is noteworthy not because I finally cursed in front of him, but rather because I’ve been able to hold out for so long. In general, I curse like a – I was going to say longshoreman, but the fact is, I curse like a girl raised in New Jersey. Which is to say, easily and often.

Every Monday, when I show up for my tennis clinic, I make the same resolution: “I will not curse on the court. Ever again.” I rarely make it through the warm up.

In doubles, we are taught to “call the ball” – meaning, if the ball is on your half of the court you’re to yell out “Mine!” (if you intend to hit it), or “Yours!” if it’s sailing over your head and you need your partner to chase it down. I try to comply, but whether I’m going for it, or I’ve been lobbed, my call is always the same.


The decision not to curse around my children was never very high-minded. I simply didn’t want them to grow up cursing, so I tried to model non-cursing behavior. This was easy except for two instances. 1. Whenever I drove the car. 2. The day my son became a middle schooler.

For a long time – years – I could feel the F-word creep up my throat and try and make its way out of my mouth, but I was able to fortify myself and hold back. Once, when my son was in 5th grade and had really tested my resolve, I said something like, “I’m so mad right now I just wanna curse you out.” And remarkably, that was good enough for both of us.

But the tide turned through the middle school years and I stopped biting my tongue over anything that you’d hear in a PG-13 movie. I still danced around the main event, with friggin’ this, or freakin’ that. But we all knew it was just a matter of time.

The experience itself reminded me of losing my virginity. It was a bigger deal in my mind than in actual fact. I got my son’s attention, yes. But the earth didn’t move off its axis. Two seconds later I was off yelling about something else.

I don’t really like that I curse. I admire people who can express themselves without resorting to profanity. (One of my tennis mates sounds like she’s about to curse when she misses a shot, but ends up with something Italian-sounding. “Oh focaccia!” she says under her breath.)

Today, my tennis friends and I went to lunch after our game. The restaurant was buzzing with older ladies – a long table full of women in their seventies. We recognized some of them as the women who play on the court next to ours. “Hi! Hi!” we said.

“I play on court five,” I said to one lovely, gray-haired lady. “I’m the one who curses a lot.”

“Yes, I know,” she said. “You need to learn some new words.”

Oh, geez. I honestly thought they couldn’t hear me. I certainly didn’t think they were paying attention. “I’m sorry,” I said.

“No,” she said. “I mean you need some better words. I saw that shot you missed. What came out of your mouth was pretty tame, considering.”

It took me a second to realize what was happening. The old woman was practically offering to teach me how to trash talk. She was probably a Jersey girl, too.

Fuckin’ A!

Saturday, April 4, 2009

I Just Can’t Tweet

I’ve tried. I’ve made an account and stared at my home page. I notice what I’m doing: nothing. I consider writing something, but nothing comes to mind. I look at the little group that I follow. Four tiny boxes, only two of whom actually Tweet. I have seven people following me, and whenever I see that number, I feel like I’m letting someone down.

I’ve watched the tutorial and I’ve read the instructions. A friend I respect a lot is a Twitter devotee. She’s tried to mentor me in, but I resist.

There have been lots of articles written about Twitter. The one that caught my attention was by a journalist who claims that Twitter made him a better writer. That having to write in a short little bursts – 140 characters per post is the limit – forced him to choose his words more carefully. That makes sense to me. I think we all can benefit from a bit of succinctitude. In fact, I’m limiting every sentence in this post to 140 characters (including spaces) as my own personal tribute to brevity.

Still, I can’t tweet.

I have a friend – an award-winning magazine writer – who credits his career success to his MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. His pieces are character driven and soulful and unusually crafted. The Iowa program is an impressive credential. Will Twitter, years from now, carry that kind of prestige? Will any writer worth his salt be “classically Twitter-trained?”

I don’t want Tweets sent to my cell phone and Twitter says it can’t access any of my friends because my e-mail is AOL. Certainly those things take a lot of the fun out of it. But besides that, nothing about Twitter seems inviting. FaceBook feels to me like walking into a big, bright party. You never know who you’re going to run into, or what they’re going to say. Twitter feels like work, but I can’t really put my finger on why.

Maybe someday I’ll eat these characters. All 1,962 of them (including spaces). But for now, I just don’t tweet.