Friday, July 31, 2009

First Impressions

“I can’t believe you got dressed up.”

This is what Dawn said to me when I arrived at the restaurant.

“I’m not dressed up,” I started to say. Dawn raised one eyebrow.

Dawn and I are in the same book group. “I’ve seen you once a month for seven years,” she said. “This is dressed up.”

“Okay, okay. I did make a bit of an effort.” (It wasn’t like I put make up on.)

My “date” was talking to another woman. She hadn’t seen me yet. Dawn did not relent. “You dressed up!” she practically spat.

My jeans were torn and secondhand. And beyond that I was wearing a tee shirt. But my shirt matched my shoes, and my hair was blown straight, and simply those two concessions transform to elegant my usually shoddy self.

My date’s name is Gina and I met her through Dawn. That is to say, Gina and I became Facebook Friends because Dawn was a mutual acquaintance. And after six months of bantering off of each other’s status lines, it was her brave idea to finally meet.

“I’m nervous,” I wrote on her “wall.” “What if we meet and we don’t like each other?”

“I will like you plenty,” she wrote back. “Minus the tennis/scrabble/writer stuff.”

Gee, what else is there? I thought.

“Well, I’m just warning you, I don’t care about shoes or handbags,” I wrote. But there I was, wearing the cutest shoes and carrying the smartest handbag I own.

It wasn’t like a typical blind date. First of all, we’re both married, and second of all there were six other women with us. Nevertheless, I was still worried that I may not come across either as clever or amusing as I like to think I do on Facebook.

I know very little about Gina except that she’s witty and has an extensive shoe and purse collection. Oh, and she has curly hair – perhaps the single common trait upon which our relationship has been built.

Dawn and I, on the other hand, have spent countless evenings together dissecting plotlines, arguing character’s choices, sharing secret truths and, perhaps most notably, bluffing our way through a book discussion without ever having read the assigned book. So, of course, I couldn’t really believe she felt threatened.

When the night came to a close and Gina suggested we all get together again – maybe someplace quieter, easier to talk, like, say, Dawn’s house – Dawn looked at me and snorted. “I don’t know if I can take watching you two moon over each other all over again,” she said.

I shot her a big smile. She was really on a roll with this jealousy stuff.

“I’m not kidding,” she said to the both of us. And then, quietly, just to me: “You dressed up for her.”

I know that Dawn’s behavior seems a little crazy. But you know what’s crazier? I feel exactly that same way, almost all the time.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Cleaning Woman Calamity

I think my cleaning woman has it in for me.

Without speaking a word of Portuguese, I managed to ask if she’d seen my new, favorite, life-changing bra. And she, with no hablos Ingles, managed to let me know it had gone through the washer and was now in the dryer. In ten years, this woman has never put an undergarment in the washer. Hmmmm.

Marisel wrecks a lot of things. A lot of things. And I’ve tried to part ways with her a couple of times because of it. But, she’s very nice. And I trust her. And she’s fast. And she’s good. So our partings don’t last long.

She wrecks big things and she wrecks little things. An example of a big thing would be the way she severed the string that holds the vertical blinds together. Or the way she’s managed to demolish my overpriced German vacuum. She wrecks things I never even thought possible, like the 40 lb. cast iron stove burner grate, which ultimately needed to be welded back together because it was too old to replace. She doesn’t ever tell me that she’s destroyed something, and sometimes she even hides the evidence. It’s a little like having another kid in the house – though admittedly, an astoundingly clean and productive one.

A big branch from one of our houseplants was recently lopped off. That would be an example of a little thing. As would the glass coffee pot from the Mr. Coffee maker. She broke that directly following my asking her to slow down a little when she cleans so she doesn’t break so many things.

She comes twice a month and I usually spend the day before her arrival securing our possessions. It’s not that I can predict what she will ruin, or in any way prevent it. But she also (in her incredibly well-meaning, non-English speaking way) puts things in places they don’t belong. Most of my friends “pre-clean” for their cleaning woman so the woman can spend time more cleaning rather than tidying. I pre-clean so I can find my coffee cups the next day.

Every other Monday I walk the house slowly, scanning for out-of-place belongings the way the Terminator would scan for Sarah Connor. Each time I tuck something back where it goes, I experience a huge sense of relief. I feel as if I’ve added hours to my life.

I don’t take her wreckage personally. She’s efficient. She’s klutzy. So am I. But the bra incident felt different.

Why, I kept wondering, would she throw my new bra into the machine if not as sabotage? I asked her as much and stood, dripping in my robe, quietly waiting for an answer. I didn’t dismiss it as inconsequential as I’d done with the burner grate, the vacuum, the blinds and the coffee maker.

“Sorry,” she meowed. One of the few English words she knows.

“Ok,” I hissed back. Letting her know that this time, amiga, you are playing with fire.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Getting Bettter = Meaning Less

I’ve written myself into a little bit of a corner on this blog. One or two poignant posts about my husband and my son have left me feeling like I now need to say something worthwhile here.

That was never, ever my intention.

My intention was to simply have a place to keep writing after the magazine folded. Because when I write more, not only do I feel like I become a better writer, I actually feel like I become a better person.

I was thinking today about what it means to feel like a better writer. The truth is unlike most other professions it’s not always necessary to keep up with the latest developments of the craft itself. It’s not like anyone is likely to invent a lot of new punctuation that I need to bone up on. And as for vocabulary, even if I do learn a few new words now and then, I don’t remember them long enough to go ahead and use them.

For me, writing better is usually about three things:

1. Seeing things more clearly.

2. Being able to communicate what’s going on in my head.

3. Being willing to feel lost.

It may be a big coincidence that many of my current life struggles revolve around those same three principles. In fact, sometimes I feel like I can no longer do any one of them at all.

In the meantime, my blog is suffering. So I’ve decided to regroup. Meaning: I’m recommitting to writing about whatever dopey, meaningless thing strikes my fancy. For now, I’m going to stop worrying about whether any of it adds up to anything.

I don't know if this will help either my writing or my personhood. But it may help get me unstuck, here, on my blog.

And then, perhaps, like ripples in a pond...

Monday, July 20, 2009

Tennis Lesson Number 268: Hurry Up and Wait

Here’s what happened last week in tennis:

Monday, we played on a new court. It was sunny and 75 degrees, and we all played amazing tennis. We’ve been playing together for a while, the four of us, but something clicked on Monday and we were so enamored of our performance that we took time after every game – sometimes after individual points – to marvel at how well we were doing.

“Wow,” said one of us. “It almost looks like we really know how to play this game.”

Buoyed by Monday’s great match, I trotted off to an evening clinic on Tuesday night. The wind was calm and I ended up on a court with women I knew and liked, so I fully expected to have another peak tennis experience.

Unfortunately, the drills were all about hitting overheads. Some people call these shots “overhead smashes,” but my overheads don’t smash. At best, they plop. They’re my worst shots, I dread working on them, and it quickly became clear that we weren’t going to do much else that night.

Within 20 minutes I could feel all my self esteem drain from my body. I plopped one after another crappy overhead over the net. No snap. No smash. Just plop, plop, plop.

When the drills were finished, I thought perhaps I could redeem myself during some actual games. But as well as I played on Monday, was precisely how poorly I played on Tuesday. It was like some physics law involving equal and opposite energies.

I’d been feeling that same irksome physics law in my day-to-day living as well. One day on top of the world. The next day spent pulling myself up out of the gutter.

Disgusted with my inability to hit a high ball, I called one of my tennis instructors and splurged on a private lesson. “I need to learn overheads,” I told him. “And I need more power to my serve.”

He watched me for ten minutes and then summed up all my problems:
You have to go to the ball.
You have to wait for the ball to come to you.

“Well, which is it?” I asked him.

“It’s both.”

I’ve been thinking about that advice all week, frustrated that it makes no sense at all.

Then tonight I started thinking about it in terms of my life – in relation to getting work, to writing, and maybe most profoundly, in relation to raising a teenager – and suddenly it did begin to make sense. In fact, it made all the sense in the world.

Monday, July 13, 2009


My husband’s morning meeting was cancelled last Thursday, so he decided to go see a professional hugger. She was in Manhattan for a three-day stint – part of her North American Tour. I was on the tennis court when he texted me at 9:45: " I’m waiting for my hug from Amma." I don’t think he received it until close to noon.

Mata Amritanandamayi, more commonly known as Amma, is known as the Hugging Saint. People come from far and wide to fall into her arms. She’s devoted her life to soothing the suffering of all living beings. I fancy myself a good hugger, so at first I was a little miffed that Scott felt the need to see a pro. In fact, hugging is one of the very few things I do particularly well. But after reading her credentials, I have to concede: we are not in the same league.

Some days, when I’m all about finding my spiritual purpose, I reflect on the principle that every spiritual teacher brings you back to: that the path to fulfillment is in serving others. The key to happiness is to stop thinking about yourself.

I confess: I find this incredibly difficult. It takes all my stamina and a good deal of my reserve to spend even 15 minutes not thinking about myself. What I need… how I feel…whether my hair is cooperating.

Serving humanity seems so complicated. There’s something very alluring about the idea of simply doling out hugs to serve your higher purpose. But, unlike me, Amma hugs everyone. Not just those she’s taken with at the moment.

I used to consider myself a World Class Hugger. The period of my life between middle school and college was spent doing little else. Amma, however, has hugged over 20 million people. Even without counting, I know she has me beat.

Years ago, when I started working in an office, hugging began to feel unnatural. I remember throwing my arms around one of my coworkers after he’d said something especially endearing and his squirming out of my arms. “I don’t really hug,” he said.

You don’t hug? I was in my twenties at the time and that sentence didn’t even compute.

Twenty years later, I can count on one hand the people I hug regularly, and the list does not include some of my closest friends. One believes she is too bony for hugging. Another simply doesn’t like to be touched. There are the germaphobes and the personal-space extremists. Even I have turned into a person who finds social hugging sort of awkward and uncomfortable.

It makes me wonder whether we spend our entire adulthood learning how to let our fears and our suffering stand in the way of getting what we truly crave?

Sometimes, though, a hug is unavoidable. We see each other’s pain and, clavicles and bacteria be damned, we hold onto each other. But I imagine Amma’s hug as something even sweeter; a big wonderful woman to fall into – quietly and without much fanfare. A woman whose only purpose is to hold you together, even if she doesn’t know how it’s come to be that you’ve fallen apart.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Midlife Morticia

Sometimes I think the term “social tennis” is a misnomer. It implies that the players are either not out for blood (which is often blatantly false) or that we spend a lot of time chatting (which most of my tennis mates would like to do, but I shame them into silent play).

Aside from quick water breaks, our only real chat time takes place during the mini-tennis warm-up, when everyone is at the service line hitting gently back and forth. We’re close enough to hear each other talk, and it’s easy enough that no one has to think too hard about the ball. It’s during these little intervals, five or ten minutes once or twice a week, that we all have come to know each other.

The last time I played with Ann, we spent the warm-up complaining about hair color. We’d both just gotten our hair “done:” I felt too dark, she felt too bright. Then, somehow, the conversation moved quickly from hair color choices to mid-life crises and Ann wondered how exactly a respectable woman of a certain age was supposed to shake things up a bit. We agreed neither of us was about to buy a Harley. Or get a belly button ring. Or run off with Sully or Slash. I was totally shocked when goldilocked Ann, with her concomitant sense of fun, said she wanted to dye her hair brown. “Like yours,” she said.

She went on, “I’ve been like this for close to fifty years. I’m thinking it’s time for a change.”

“You do not want to do that. You belong blonde,” I called out across the net, and it’s true. She’s whimsical and fanciful and has a knack for making everyone around her feel good all the time.

“But I want to be serious and intense.” I don’t know if she used those exact words but she said something to that effect and I could feel the shudder reverberate through my entire body.

I tried to imagine how her original thought process might have gone down. "I’ve spent half a century being playful and light, and now I want to be like Jessica." I always thought a mid-life crisis would inspire some action to make a person feel young and exuberant. But maybe not. Maybe it’s just a matter of wanting to feel different.

I would love to be a different me sometimes, although probably not a blonde me. But perhaps a me who showed up on the tennis court mellow and easy and feeling like I had all the time in the world.

Similarly, I don’t think Ann needs to do anything as radical as going brunette if she is hell bent on moving from fun-seeker to fun-sucker. I myself find that simply an evening listening to The Smiths, or even spending too much time with teenagers, seems to be all it takes.

Friday, July 3, 2009

My Husband The Spiderman

My husband’s Spiderman costume cost more than my wedding gown. Yes, my dress was simple and I bought it off the rack, but still.

When he sent the first email to me about it – explaining that he was thinking of having a custom Spiderman suit made for himself for Halloween – my reaction was predictable. “You’re kidding, right?” Someone else had already reserved the Spiderman suit he rented each Halloween, and apparently there were no other quality contenders available on the Eastern Seaboard.

He quoted me the seamstress’s price and quickly explained how, amortized over years and years of Halloweens, it was actually reasonable. I’m big into cost-per-use, and employ those calculations as a matter of course on every article of clothing I buy over $20. So I grumbled back an email that said, “Fine,” and I made a mental note to declare the suit his birthday gift.

That was five Halloweens ago, and even at five wearings it still seemed pretty pricey. But all that changed last year, when Tom asked Scott to join him in the July 4th Parade.

Tom lives two doors down, and, like Scott, is another ersatz grown-up. In a way that only someone like my comic book-collector husband would understand, Tom has an abiding passion for vintage and collectible cars. Eighteen months ago, he bought himself a 1977 white stretch Limo on eBay and announced to his wife that it was to be the new family car. She is good humored, so he was permitted to keep the car. But its main purpose in the household has never been to fetch the dry-cleaning. Instead, it’s the novelty shuttle for large groups of kids to and from soccer games or the neighborhood taxi for a spur of the moment sojourn to the ice cream store. And now, it’s become a parade float for My Husband The Spiderman.

It’s not a huge stretch that my husband so fully relates to Spiderman as to insist on adopting his persona year after year. His last name is Webb. He’s slim and boyish, like Spidey’s alter ego, Peter Parker. He’s yogicly nimble and has his own true version of Spidey Sense. There are simply not many middle-aged men that could pull off that costume, but he happens to be one of them.

Tomorrow morning, Scott will ride his bike to yoga. He’ll come home and suit up for the parade. And somewhere around noon, while my attic-dwelling wedding dress clings wearily to its satin hanger, I’ll be on my front lawn, watching my husband squat and lunge on the roof of a white stretch limo, kids screaming to him at the tops of their lungs, and I’ll practically burst at the thought of his being able to feel like his own version of a rock star.

And currently at only about $100 a pop.