Monday, April 23, 2012

Jane and Dick

There are few situations as chronically awkward as being the parent of a child on sports teams. Each season, even the most agnostic of us pray not only that our child will not get stuck on a team with the kid who hasn't gotten a hit since TBall, but also that we do not have to spend the next 12 weeks pretending we are not offended by the observations of the bore of a mom (Wow, thanks for summarizing another sermon for me!) or a drunken dad (No thanks, 9 am is a little early for me.).

Elementary school boys in uniform are completely interchangeable. Even the kids I have known since first grade are, four years later, completely unrecognizable to me when in a cap and matching polyester garb. To make matters worse, it seems as if the boys in my town come in two sizes: really short and really tall. So if I can remember whether the kid who was on my son's basketball team and is apparently now on his soccer team is from the short or tall category, it might jog my memory as to which kid he is. It takes a Venn diagram to figure out if the Jacob A. from my son's third grade class has now been reincarnated as a third baseman on his Little League team, or if the Sebastian in left field is the same one who threw up on my son in summer school.

Although the parents do not come in uniform, and are in more of a variety of shapes and sizes, they blend with each other as surely as if they were Rockettes. I have typically been the "Team Parent" which, for the non-sports parents out there, involves developing a sophisticated set of spread sheets, databases, and contact lists in order to ensure that no parent shirks his or her snack duty, potluck offering, or donation for the end-of-season coach gift. It requires a laser-like focus and attention to detail that is not even required in my day job. But I have to say as kick-ass as I am as a Team Parent, my parent-recognition skills leave a lot to be desired. I live in fear that a parent will come up to me and ask me a snackstand-related question without identifying themselves by their last child's last name and configuration of their email address. In a team with two Jadens, two Gabriels and three Matthews, there is no way I even bothered to commit your kid's name to memory. And that cheerful email reminding you of your imminent field-raking duties? It was a mass email sent to the entire team. I have no idea who you are. I continue to be haunted by one mom who emailed me that she was trading snack duty dates with "Jane" because she did not supply any of the identifying information that would compute in my Mr. Spock-ish Team Mom brain. I will have to wait until the kids are without an after-game snack and look to see who looks most mortified. That will be Jane.

Aside from the few moms and dads who I already know and like, the rest of the parental units are like a sea of Stepford sports fans in sunglasses, with an eerie number of them sporting baseball caps featuring logos from resorts in Aspen. I do have to wonder if there is some Parent Club that I am not privy to. A club so elite that my status as working class Team Parent renders me ineligible. Since I typically take an interest in their friends and am friendly with many of their parents, I don't want my kids to catch on to the fact that I have no idea who is on their teams, or who comprises this group of parents. Truthfully, hanging out with people with whom fate has  aligned you with for a number of weeks is akin to Middle School romances. You exclusively share emotional highs and lows for a short, but intense, period of time. But by the next sports season, you have moved on and are sharing similar shallow intimacies with technically different, but basically similar, members of your peer group. If my son refers to a teammate, I say, "He seems super nice!" even if I have no idea which kid he is. And if he asks if I know so-and-sos mom, I invariably reply: "Sure, she's super nice!" We live in a nice town, with nice people. So it is statistically likely that even haphazardly labeling people "nice" will usually turn out to be accurate.

However, my social faux largesse backfired on me recently. After a hard-fought game, members of the opposing team taunted my son's team with a phrase that was surprisingly crude for the gentility of the town. The ring leader apparently was a kid who also terrorizes others on the playground. Turns out it was a kid who had been on one of my son's teams, a kid I had cheerfully deemed "super nice!" As my son shared the indignities this kid inflicts on others during recess, the psychologist in me provided my son an analysis of the emotional and environmental forces that may be driving this child to behave in this fashion. At the same time, the mom in me thought, "That kid is a total dick."

Saturday, April 21, 2012


I am not a team player. I be neither a borrower nor a lender. I do not share well. I am happy to take my toys and go home. Yet, I still manage to occasionally feign being a productive member of society.

So what's the deal with kids these days being forced to "work collaboratively" on project after project? Does it really take more than one 10 year old to google a few facts about the state capital of North Dakota, print out pictures, and glue stick them to a poster board? I am trying to raise my children to be self-sustaining citizens. If they can't count on Social Security and Medicare being there for them, why should they be held hostage to whether a classmate remembers to save the report on her flashdrive in preparation for the next day's report, or whether a boy's mom has the starter yeast for the Amish Friendship Bread to represent Pennsylvania in the food festival? My children have been trained from an early age that while mommy will not step foot in your classroom or take even a token interest in your homework, she will go to Target on her lunch break and buy printer paper, Sharpies, and even the occasional dry erase board off the sale rack.

When I was in school, I do not recall being herded into groups under the pretense of demonstrating how the whole is more than the sum of its parts. It isn't. Let's be honest. Groups are made of two types of people: Bossy ones and lazy ones. I get the feeling that my children simultaneously fall into both categories: Bossy when foisting their ideas on the group, and subsequently lazy (and bitter) when their ideas are summarily rejected. Total chips off the old block.

Back in my day, the one "group" in which we were required to participate was for team sports. The nonverbal cue that we were to "work together" was the fact that we were also forced to wear identical outfits. Team sports are basically a group project with uniforms and an audience thrown into the mix. There were the dominant ("bossy") kids who had a natural affinity for the sport, and the chubby ("lazy") kids who died a slow, painful death every day at practice or games. To add to the futility of it all, the sports we had to endure were field hockey and lacrosse: two forms of recreation that we would never again encounter in any aspect of our lives. Ever.   

Despite the grueling years of pointless preppy physical pursuits, I noticed that my cohort of high school classmates includes a large spattering of lawyers, doctors and professors. Heavy on the bossy, light on the lazy. Alumni notes make little mention of professions where group skills might come in handy, such as camp counselor or NBA player. 

Oftentimes, I would be blissfully unaware of my son having any group assignments. I would be cruelly edified of the fact only at the end of the semester, when my son has to do a "self-assessment" of his accomplishments and future goals for the upcoming semester, school year, and, presumably, retirement. My son, knowing this "self-assessment" was being handed in to his teacher after being forced to share it with me (yes, I have to sign off that I reviewed it with him), would stick in a vague goal about "working better in groups." Me, ever the probing psychologist, am compelled to delve into this goal: "Who else was in the group?"I ask, as I guzzle some Pinot Noir and stick a spoon in a jar of peanut butter. It seems to go without saying that teachers lump "learners of different styles" together in these groups, resulting in him invariably being assigned to work with a number of take-charge girls, and attentionally challenged boys. He lists the others kids in his group. "Say no more," I assure him, and sign off on the "self-assessment."

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Where the Sidewalk Ends

I swear I do not live in a suburb. And I don't mean swear in "I do solemnly"... I mean swear in the ^%%^$#^%^& Eminem context. Although I prefer the word exurb, I will never cop to living in anything other than a metropolitan area.

My home is located literally within walking distance of the relatively large city of Pasadena and the even larger city of Los Angeles. Realtors might say our community is nestled in between these two metropoli. I, however, would say we are wedged, a term that sounds more aggressively urban. But, truth be told, where I live is a bona fide city of its own. We have a mayor (though I have no idea who that might be and, from what I understand, it is not a paid position) and our own Parks and Recreation Department and Unified School District. True, many erroneously refer to my 'hood as a "town" (but don't ever do that within earshot of me), but it is approximately the size of a university with a football team--even a pretty good football team.

Recently it occurred to me that prior to moving into our current home, I had only lived in places with either a sidewalk or grass, but never both at the same time. You know what I mean? The house-to-road flow goes house-lawn-sidewalk-grass-street. We are fortunate that our house's front yard is completely obscured by both a stone wall and some sort of free-flowing plant that cascades over onto the sidewalk. As a result, only the most prying eyes are privy to the state of our front lawn. And that is a good thing.

When we bought our house, we apparently didn't look too closely at the accompanying deeds and documents. In my mind, we own everything within the confines of the various walls and fences that were erected prior to our moving in. A gray area is a row of vegetation that straddles the phantom property line between us and our neighbors. My husband and our neighbor had a friendly discussion about the firework-like shrubs that form our earthily nebulous property line, and thirdhand description of the shrub's genus sounded to me something like Lycarituitumaneous. So we are the proud co-parents with our nice, horticulturally savvy neighbors of a flock of Lycarituitumaneous.

A few weeks after we moved in, we returned from a daytrip to see water gushing onto the grass patch that is sandwiched between the sidewalk and street. Wow, I remember thinking, we are benefiting from the city's kind largesse. I wonder if they provide extra sprinkler water to all new residents? My husband and I were reaping the city love until a different neighbor came running up to us to inform us our sprinkler had been gushing water all day. This is a neighbor who thinks my name is Carol, rather than Karen, so I secretly scoffed at his judgment on the issue. I politely thanked him, not recalling his name at all, and smugly began emptying the trunk from our day away. "Remember," he sternly warned as he crossed the street without looking both ways, "you pay for that water!"

What crazy talk was our previously sane-seeming neighbor spouting? We are already paying disproportionately higher taxes than everyone who bought before the housing boom. Why on earth would we be subsidizing the city's water output too? Was there a City Hall I could fight? I was pretty sure that building next to the folksy T-shirt embroidering store on the city's main drag might have had a "City Hall" sign on it.

I never made it to City Hall, or even bothered to review our real estate documents, but peer pressure clued me in to the fact that it was our job to maintain that slice of lawn freely used by passing dogs and seasonal political signs. Neighbors gave us the name of a gardener who worked on their lawns and gardens, including their slices of community property. Problem was, this gardener came whenever he wanted, so instead of the usual practice of leaving an envelope of cash at the door, you had to periodically mail him a check. Since I couldn't even master the names of my new neighbors, there was no way I was going to remember the name of the gardener in order to write out a check. And that would require having stamps on hand.

So we decided to be our own gardeners. How hard could it be? We are educated, active people. I went online and ordered various cutters and pruners. There were about a million things to consider for each gadget: electric, gas, or battery. Voltage issues. Horsepower. I knew I didn't want gas anything, and I didn't really understand the different between electric and battery, so I just ordered items that were not the most expensive, but not the least expensive. I was excited as the boxes arrived, but when I realized that things needed to be plugged in to really long extension crds, and batteries needed to be charged overnight, I lost interest. The joy left Mudville.

Fortunately, we live on the crunchy side of town... errrr, I mean city,  so our straggly back-hair patch of public lawn straddles the tail of the neighborhood lawn Bell Curve, but isn't a total outlier. A few neighbors have infested their patch with wandering ivy vines, eliminating the need to mow. Others have attempted to arrange stones in a decorative way on their patches to avoid any primping. Occasionally I will know that my husband has mowed our patch because the very same neighbor who calls me "Carol" will let me know that the sprinkler is again broken, most likely dislodged by an aggressive mower, resulting in water gushing. Good thing we have that Neighborhood Watch. And, he of course reminds, me, we are paying for that water.