Saturday, April 24, 2010

Suppose you could call it a turf war

Talk about not taking a hint. They’re back. They leave phone messages and send me letters. They aren't stalkers, but if they were I might take them up on their offer. Because then, I’d know they’ve prowled around the property. They’d know precisely what the lawn needs, and might thus have some solution other than randomly spraying chemicals at everything wider than a blade of grass.

Yes, the lawn folk are back. They go by various names, but they might as well be the same company. Imagine if you went to your doctor for a physical, and—instead of doing the usual examination—he immediately handed you a prescription that most other people your age, gender, height and weight needed to take. That’s what your lawn gets. I might as well hire someone who spent the first two-thirds of his life in an apartment.

Come to think of it, that’s exactly what I have by doing the job myself. And as I dwell a little more on this matter, I realize I had all the necessary experience even before we got the house.

I hadn’t planned, as a teenager, to go into the yard-care business. What credentials could I have shown, living in the tenth-floor apartment with do-not-walk-on-the-grass signs everywhere I looked? It started while I was delivering for a corner grocer. Mrs. Harris, a widow from around the corner, asked if I knew how to mow grass, and I said “Sure.” (It works for politicians.) After a couple of times doing that, the widow next door asked if I could do some work for her. I wondered, while saying no thanks to all Mrs. Weber’s offers of soda, what it was with these dead husbands. And it turned out I wasn’t far off.

Mrs. Weber asked me to transplant some pachysandra from one part of her yard to another. I’d never transplanted anything before, though it didn’t look hard: Dig enough under it, put it in a hole the same size, pat it down and soak it. As I recalled with pride when I was done, the hardest part had been shoving some annoying flagstones out of the way with my foot.

When I reported back, Mrs. Weber seemed interested in one detail. “Did you move any of those flat stones?” she asked.

“Um…I don’t think so,” I’d replied.

“Because they’re where I buried my cats.”

My fine performance led to recommendations, then a job offer working with “Doc,” a local landscaper who often stopped in at the grocer. Doc needed a helper; for some reason, his son could no longer lend a hand. And I needed a lesson in what not to do for a living. At each job site over one very long weekend, Doc told me half of what I needed to know about whatever he needed me to do. The other half? It came, in a blood-freezing scream, after I botched up each job—as I was destined to do, armed with only half-instructions. “Open the hatch on the side of the truck and put away the tools…NO, ON THE OTHER SIDE OF THE TRUCK!” I believe he was an editor in a past life.

On our own property, I think I do okay. The front lawn looks pretty green; lawn-company mailings make good fertilizer. In fact, it looks healthy enough to ward away not only the weeds but also the most diligent of lawn-care company reps—were one to actually drive by to see the lawn. The back is another story. I do the best I can against dandelions whose roots extend down to the Earth’s mantle. I yank out the clover when I can, but much of it must be four-leafed; it seems to have more luck than I have time. Much of the rest has evolved over the past, oh, 16 years to grow with three broad leaves that resemble poison ivy or oak. So it gets by, untouched, for much of the summer.

Someday, of course, I’ll need more help with the property. If we haven’t fled altogether to the planet Condo, we’ll know it’s time to let in the landscapers and lawn-care pros and let them at the property. And by the time I’m ready to hire one of them, I’ll be more than polite as I walk onto the stoop to offer positive criticism on their work.


Sunday, April 18, 2010

Rolling with life’s challenges, sparingly

The good news of the week is that I’ve gotten the okay. After six months, my physical therapist says that finally my arm is up to this. I feel ready, at last. And boy oh boy, I’d better try to keep my mind out of the gutter.

I can already feel that bowling ball in my hand.

But I’d better keep my perspective, for bowling isn’t what it used to be. When I first played in St. Michael’s School’s league at Whitestone Lanes in Flushing, there were rules. I mean, there were rules. You wore bowling shoes, or you weren’t allowed onto the alley. You never stepped over the foul line—if you did, a buzzer went off and you lost your score for that throw. You kept quiet when someone was bowling. This meant you never hollered, since at a 48-lane bowling alley, someone was always rolling a ball on some lane. And if you valued your life, you let the bowler to your right roll first.

If you can find a bowling alley in New York’s Westchester County, you’ll find bowling today radically different. Big speakers constantly blare dancing music, and there’s almost no lane you can bowl without being near one or another children’s birthday party. Just try to bowl when next to you, two or three bowlers from one such gathering are going at the same time, on their own lanes and adjacent ones, while bowlers awaiting their turn stand immediately behind holding their bowling balls. And dropping their bowling balls. Whoever isn’t actually on the lane is buried to the belt into 55-gallon drums of Cheetos, moments before approaching the lane and grabbing a ball, probably yours, with yellowed, greasy hands. And those are just the parents.

Then there’s an invention that, at first blush, seemed a way to make kids enjoy bowling: bumper bowl. If you asked that your lane have bumpers, the counter folk would flip a switch. Guard rails would rise on both sides of the lane to block any ball from going into the gutter. So no matter where even a small child rolls the ball, if it makes it down the lane at all, it will hit pins. Loud cheers and clapping ensue to celebrate each and every glorious triumph.

To parents, bumpers keep their kids interested, so bowling-alley management has to oblige to stay in business. But there’s a dirty little secret to bumpers. Imagine if you spent your entire early youth bowling with these self-esteem guards safely in place. Eventually, you get into your teens, show up at the bowling alley with some friends. Then comes the shock. You all realize you’re too embarrassed to ask for the bumpers, so you tough it out. Gutter, Gutter. One pin, Gutter. Three pins. Gutter. More gutters. The upshot, once you’ve all gotten disgusted? “Bowling sucks!” You never go back, since none of you had ever learned to aim the ball in the first place.

Which is all fine with me. My concentration on bowling, you see, has developed in a unique way. Besides allowing the bowler to my right to roll first, I let the one on the left go, too. The same goes for the bowlers on the next lanes over. And the next ones from there. In fact, I've come to bowl best when no one in the entire bowling alley is rolling a ball at the same time. While we’re at it, off with the speakers. And none of that hooting and clapping, either. So for the likes of me, bumper bowl means more peace and quiet.

Much as I hate to admit it, though, bowling alleys are bound to go away—at least in the New York metro area—long before I can afford my own private lane. So for my own good as a bowler, I’d better learn to concentrate no matter what the distraction. Okay, then…I suppose I can bowl right next to the party; with three balls going down the lane, my average has to go up. If I’m shooting for a spare, the high frequencies of the screeching could well start the pins shaking before I even release the ball. I might even learn to get more spin on the ball, like the pros have. Just let me at those Cheetos.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

C’mon, team, sometimes it is whether you win or lose

Elena handed me the phone, anticipating the look she was about to see on my face. “It’s Eric,” she said, “from the Mets.”

Ever since I first bought four tickets online to a Met game, several years ago, Eric has been calling once a year. A call from Eric, soon after opening day, has become as much a part of spring as the rains, the first dandelions and the mosquitoes. But until now, the answering machine had always done its duty by taking the call.

Eric didn’t hear what he wanted to hear in answer to his question, that I was ready, able and willing to spend up to $29,950 for a season ticket . Or at least a multi-game pack. He couldn’t even be sure, in fact, that I was going to attend a game at Citi Field this year at all. What kind of Met fan, he likely wondered, was I?

It’s a fair question, and a familiar one. Probably before Eric was born, I was rooting for the Mets. I grew up down the long block from Shea along Roosevelt Avenue, the one that crossed Flushing Creek, fetid in the stretch where it made a few last bends before Flushing Bay and LaGuardia Airport. Our building was close enough for us to hear the cheers from every good play, let alone the Beatles, The Who and other bands that performed at Shea. Without me, my Mom might never have gotten to watch the Mets on TV. “Turn the antenna left—no, right—now back—a little more. Now stand right there—don’t let go!” I remember my Mom’s grin as she’d say that last part.

I paid attention from their first World Series win in 1969. I went a few times a year with my next-door friend Anton or best-friend Jack with tickets we’d get from saving milk-carton coupons. I kept track through my mid-teen years, after which I seldom watched other than the play. (Fishing and girls took precedence, in that order.) The exception was during the 1986 World Series—a year after I married my girl—when the Mets’ Mookie Wilson shot a grounder through Red Sock Bill Buckner’s legs.

If all my fandom dated back to the ‛80s, I wouldn’t be having this discussion with myself. I’ve better topics if I were going to do that. But once the kids got old enough to care about baseball, Elena’s suppressed Yankee roots also resurfaced. And all three of them began accusing me of not being a fan: What kind of Met fan are you? So…I got back into the game for, oh, about as many years as I did in the ‛70s. I can’t blame fishing or romance this time. But I could blame my team. It's what Met fans, after all, do best.

This is the team whose fans, during the opening-day pre-game ceremony, booed the trainers. Its best players spend much of every season on the disabled list, and even if I studied the roster closely every day, invariably some player would come up to pitch or bat and I’d say, “Who the heck is this?” Donna, a colleague of mine down the hall, gave an analogy that went something like this: Imagine spending hundreds for your family to go to a Broadway play, only to learn that understudies were in the top roles. And for a role or two, they had nobody. (I suppose they went to the nearest restaurant and snatched up the first waiter they saw.) And she has a weekend season ticket.

Gian, with whom I work, takes a bleaker view of the sport in a recent Facebook post. “It all ended in 1993, with the Worst Team Money Could Buy.” He then describes the Mets as mostly “a kind of bizarro simulacrum of a once-proud franchise, kind of like the Knicks.” I don’t know about the Knicks. I don’t know about 1993 other that it was when my son, Andrew, came into this world. And I will never, ever know how to pronounce or use “simulacrum.”

What I do know, at least, is that I’m some kind of fan of David, Jose, Carlos and the gang. If I’m thinking of baseball at all, I’m wondering about how they did. And no matter who’s on the team, who gets traded (and however idiotically), who should get fired but doesn’t, I’m a fan. I never could play the game well, but plenty of people do. And when the game is going well—never mind that they’re coddled millionaires on HGH—it’s a joy to watch.

That “if” about thinking of baseball? Sure, It’s a mighty big if. I suppose I could have responded to Eric’s question about buying season tickets with an offer of my own, considering my team’s already under-.500 record. I could even have conjured up a good New Yawk accent worthy of the Mets’ Brooklyn Dodgers roots: “What’s it woith t’ya?”

Saturday, April 3, 2010

About this experience? I’d like to sleep on it

My mother’s dad, at least, was one serious sleeper. The event I recall hearing about occurred when Grandpa, just a teenager in West Virginia, awoke to the smell of smoke in the middle of the night. He jumped out of bed and woke up his parents and siblings, all of whom got out safely. Minutes later, the fire department arrived and put out the fire without much damage. Once things quieted down, though, the family noticed someone was missing. “Where’s Clyde?” they asked of my grandpa. They eventually found him on the far side of the house, opposite where the fire had been. He was on both feet, leaning against the house. Fast asleep.

Despite what my brother Stephen told me for years, I really wasn’t adopted. I might even have inherited my grandpa’s sleep gene. I needed it while growing up amid the sounds of subways, buses, 18-wheeler trucks and jets that passed scant feet above our ten-story building—we just had to live on the tenth—en route to landing at LaGuardia Airport. Barring the occasional night, as a teenager, that I tossed and turned over this or that girl, I slept fine those years. Could it be these past twenty-five years in quiet suburbia that have brought me to an appointment at a sleep center?

After all the years I put off a sleep study, my imagination had had lots of time to prepare. In this fictional narrative, I’m be shown a room where I’ll spend the night. A big two-way mirror is there to monitor my every move, and I’m tempted till the lights go out to make faces and stick out my tongue. A nurse on the other side documents every flail of my arms and legs during the night, especially after I kick off first the polyester covers, then the loose-fitting hospital gown. The room’s temperature is too warm, or too cold, and feels more humid—or less—than home. Before I lie back, humorless nurses fit my head and body with electrodes designed to monitor my every thought, eye movement or smile. Myriad wires the thickness of those going into our cable box are connected to the electrodes, and when I turn to see the clock bolted to the nightstand, they pull at my hair. “Now sleep,” one snaps before disappearing for a smoke break. Fumes waft into my room, and I hear the occasional shuffle of cards. I cough once. Again. The sun comes up.

In truth, the setting was more soothing and professional. Two soft-spoken male technicians greeted me and showed me to a small room with a bed, a lounge chair, tranquilizing hotel art and dark-wood wainscoting. The pillows looked flat the way I like them, and warm air wafted into the room with a benign hum. Yes, I thought, I could sleep here.

But in the short while the technicians let me be as they wired up other patients, I learned I wasn’t exactly alone. I stepped over to the window to close the drapes and noticed two ladybugs on the sill. Except they weren’t those cute red ladybugs but rather Asian beetles. We’d gotten these orange bugs in the house over the winter, and unlike ladybugs they don’t come in one at a time by accident. They like the warmth of homes and gather in numbers wherever in the house it’s warmest. With the first few, we’d thought they were just orange ladybugs and courteously escorted them out the door. Asian beetles, though, aren’t so friendly. They fly in your face when annoyed. They’re known to bite. And in a room where I needed no distractions, I thought it best to rinse these two down the sink and be done with the problem. I found four more and dispatched them the same way.

Then I pulled back the curtain—to find at least fifty more.

The facilities guy and his vacuum took a good hour to show, during which the technicians weren’t sure I’d be there for the night. How scientific could the study be if I’m kept awake from the sound of little feet scratching across the rigid-plastic acoustical-time ceiling? (Yes, alas, my hearing is even better than my memory.) The man must have sucked up beetles for five minutes straight. A few more showed up before the technicians returned, and I resolved that whatever I didn’t hunt down while mobile, I’d be hearing till dawn.

That crisis over, the technicians returned and more than met my expectations. Granted, the wires were thin. But these fellows indeed stuck 22 electrodes to my face, neck, hair (think Rogaine in reverse) and calves. Three heavy straps around my chest weren’t too tight—unless I inhaled. The men attached a nasal cannula to monitor my breathing and draped the tubing over my ears. On one middle finger, they taped an oxygen monitor; I’d have to hide its red glow if I turned onto my left side. I didn’t think this would be a problem. Though I eventually did turn, and often, I felt at first that I could hardly move, let alone turn. I suddenly felt very sleepy. Just one night, and it’ll be all over. Just one night. Just one….

I didn’t really fall asleep that quickly. I took at least an hour, which included calling the technicians to get a green light on the TV to stop blinking. Also, little feet scratched across the ceiling above. Don’t yawn, I reminded myself. I’d just fallen asleep, though, when THE SOUND came. Never mind the beetles. Never mind the occasional flushing of toilets or the peg-legged pirate pacing in the room above. I awoke, startled, to what sounded like a 55-gallon drum of water being slowly poured down a metal pipe that emptied onto a plate of sheet metal—with a microphone catching every drip and gush. (Even without its utter loudness, it was not a relaxing sound given our family’s recent experience.) In a daze, I called out to the technicians to kindly inquire what the hell they were doing across the hall. The older gentleman came in, listened and shrugged. “It’s the heater,” he said. “Just a sound. Sounds are okay.” He left. Easy for you to say, Bub. After that 20-minute cantata I needed another hour to fall asleep, and I was awake again long before the 5:45 a.m. reveille.

As the pair of technicians yanked off the various tapes and electrodes, the older guy explained that they’d analyze my data and get back to me within the next couple of weeks. I didn’t care: I felt freer by the moment. And when the younger one removed the cannula from the front of my nose, I commented that it had been the most uncomfortable part of the whole ordeal. “Well, we only put that on the first time,” he replied.

“The first time? You mean….”

“Yes, some people need to come back a few times.”

Nevertheless, I’m grateful. I’m going to sleep well tonight. I’m going to sleep fine from now on. Because I’ve learned the purpose of a sleep clinic. It isn’t merely to monitor your sleep and diagnose, say, sleep apnea. It’s meant to provide a point of reference for all nights to come. It’s okay, I can tell myself. Whatever else is going on while I’m trying to sleep, no matter what’s troubling me, at least I’m not there.