U.S. Open–Not This Year (concluded)

I expect whenever I go to the U.S. Open some experiences similar to past ones: I will get lost coming out of the parking lot and I will wonder where we are going to find dinner in Queens. But one thing will have changed since we first started going to this tennis tournament—the role of the ball people. Each tennis match has six ball people: two stationed behind each base line and two at the net. Their basic job is to scoop up the loose balls when not in play and get them to end of the court where the server is.

          When I started watching tennis, the American ball kids threw the balls. Those at the net only had to toss them from mid-court to the back wall, but those behind the baselines threw the entire length of the playing surface. To be a ball person, one had to be able to throw the ball, and I thought that was right because, in my opinion, real American athletes should be able to throw. In contrast, ball people at tournaments in other countries rolled the ball as if they were involved in some sort of kiddy game. The ball kids beyond the baselines would bend down and roll the balls to the net boys and girls, who would then collect them, turn and roll them to the kids who were going to supply the servers. Of course, I thought, those Italian, French, English, and even Australian people had to do this because they could not throw. That thought made me proud to be an American where we can do so many things.

          The NBP has always been able to throw well and knows and played tennis. A natural to be a ball person at the U.S. Open, I thought. So one year I took the NBP to the ball-person tryouts at the National Tennis Center about six weeks before the Open. I had brought a ball for the NBP to warm up with, and we found a vacant court on which to practice.

The person in charge of the tryouts explained that people who could only throw from the net to the baseline and not the full extent of the tennis court might still be hired, but their odds were lessened since they would have to be stationed at center court instead of being able to fill any of the six ball person positions. The NBP did well and was better by far than most of the tryouts. Part of the reason was that the progeny was a gifted athlete, but also because many of the kids could barely throw. I had expected that many of the girls might not be able to loft the ball from one end to the other, but I was surprised at how few of the boys could. When I was growing up, almost all the boys I knew could throw reasonably well, but perhaps my memories were distorted. I hung out primarily with guys who played sports; maybe there were lots of boys I did not know who could not throw a ball sixty or seventy feet, but I still think they were not the majority. At the U.S. Open tryouts, however, it seemed that maybe only a quarter of the male teens could throw adequately.

          The NBP was going to be a shoo-in to be a ball person, and I already was trying to figure out transportation and other logistics, but then I started to feel some guilt. Unlike the progeny and me, many of those seeking the position seemed to be from the less affluent classes, and probably the weeks-long pay could be important to them and their families. Was it right that the NBP took a position that otherwise would have gone to one of them?

          At the time the NBP was identified as a girl, and as a ball girl she was going to have to wear a tennis skirt designed by one of the sponsors—Ralph Lauren or Puma or Adidas. And here I failed as a father. Even then, I should have known that skirt-wearing was a problem, a major, major problem. The NBP, although not then openly identifying as non-binary, fiercely resisted skirts or other “girls” clothes. I should have gone to those in charge and at least asked if the NBP could wear shorts, but I did not think of it. A few weeks later, the NBP got the official notice that she was accepted but declined the invitation.

          Somewhere between those tryouts twenty-five years ago and today, however, the role of the ball kids at the U.S. Open changed. They no longer throw the tennis balls, but as in Europe, awkwardly roll the balls as if they were in some sort of hurried, miniaturized lawn bowling event. They no longer seem American but Frenchified, fussy, foreign. I don’t know precisely when the change came or why. Of course it could be that wild throws might endanger spectators and it’s the fault of the insurance companies. But I believe that at least part of the reason is that fewer and fewer American kids can throw a ball as well as American kids ought to be able to do. Abilities have changed, and, apparently, so must American standards.

          Alas. I mourn the result. But I still like the way the NBP can throw.

(I urge you to read the guest post from the NBP on August 3 where he narrates some of his tennis experiences including the U.S. Open tryouts. I hope that I will not be blamed too much, even though I feel as if I could have been a better father.)


Little bear/jumped on the chair/and blinked./A good song/and not too long. . . .

A company says that it will clone a wooly mammoth from preserved DNA. I have questions. I have heard of wooly mammoths, but were there cottony or silky ones? And would a hairless mammoth be hypoallergenic and make a good pet for a toddler?

The spouse asked me when I wanted to leave to be on time for our restaurant reservation. I answered. She immediately said she wanted to go five minutes earlier, and it was clear that we were going at her preferred time. As I started to ask why she asked me what time I wanted to go, I, of course, knew the answer. If by happenstance I had picked the time when she wanted to go—the time when we would go–she could look like she was merely acquiescing to my wishes. I love this clever woman.

“To tell a woman what she may not do is to tell her what she can.” Spanish proverb.

I do not have any biological children. (I know, I am supposed to jokingly add, not that I know of.) But the NBP is my child, an adopted one. Of course, sometimes I have wondered what a child with my genes would have been like, but I know that my genes are a mixture of DNA descended from many others, and I had nothing to do with the genetic material I have. When I was in the hospital for a heart procedure, something that does tend to make you think about your death, I talked with the NBP. I said that my genes were not in him, but I hoped that some part of me would live on in him after I did die. That was more important than the genes, which I did not control. If part of me survived in him, it would be because of the time we had spent together; things we had taught each other; connections we had. That seemed to me, and still seems, more important than the passage of genetic material.

Peacocks were part of my youth. I grew up a half-dozen blocks from a small-town zoo, which contained peacocks, and it was always impressive when I saw one in the feather display. But even when at home, I could hear the call of a peacock, which from a distance sounded mysterious and sort of romantic. My view of that call changed when I spent a season on Longboat Key, the barrier island off the west coast of Florida. In the funky part where I stayed–a collection of old (for Florida), small cottages–peacocks roamed freely. I sometimes had to brake for them, and I would watch them from the porch where I read. I was used to their calls and did not think much about them at first. That changed. The cry came not just during the day, but also at night. One peacock seemed to have an affinity for my bedroom window’s air conditioner and would perch there. When it would emit its cry at 2 a.m., which it did frequently, I would bolt awake, and its reiteration would stop me from falling back asleep. Too often I would stumble outside to chase it and its companions away. I started to have dreams of hunting the birds. Romance turned to vengeance.

“We’re born arsonists and we die firemen.” Andrea Camilleri, Treasure Hunt.

Two Things

I have been reading Dreyer’s English: An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style by Benjamin Dreyer. This book gives advice similar to all the books I have read on usage: “Go light on exclamation points. . . . Some writers recommend that you should use no more than a dozen exclamation points per book; others insist that you should use no more than a dozen exclamation points in a lifetime.” Dreyer continues: “We won’t discuss the use of ?! or !? because you’d never do that.” And double exclamation points should be left for comic books.

Even so, readers of this blog (I assume all read carefully and have excellent standards) may have noticed the high rate of exclamation points and even an occasional use of those double punctuation marks. Almost all have been inserted by my editor—the spouse—who does have high English and copyediting standards but believes that if a punctuation method exists, it should be employed. (The exception may be the en dash. She claimed to know its proper use, but not necessarily how to create one in Word on a PC.) When I get back my draft from the editor and she has again inserted an exclamation mark, I almost always leave it in. It is my concession to our version of marital bliss. But that dozen-in-a-lifetime mark was passed long ago.

Our Brooklyn house has a backyard. This is not apparent from the street where all that is visible is a block-long stretch of rowhouses. The width of the lots varies slightly, from eighteen to twenty-five feet, but the lots are routinely one-hundred feet deep while the houses are usually about fifty feet in length. Thus, as in our case, a backyard of fifty by twenty-five feet.

Our yard may not be big, but I feel that I have spent an inordinate amount of time through the years working on it. A patio of bluestone was reconfigured, causing sore muscles. A stand of lilacs was divided and replanted, causing sore muscles. After many unsuccessful efforts to grow various things (we don’t get much sun and we don’t have bottomland soil), English ivy was planted and divided by a stone walkway lined by rocks imported from Pennsylvania, all causing sore muscles. Hedges lining the boundaries were planted, some by me, causing sore muscles and some by a nursery, causing a sore checkbook. The yard may not be Instagram material, but it is satisfactory.

It is not a high-maintenance place, but it still requires some tending. The ivy has to be cut back several times a year, causing sore muscles. Leaves from neighboring trees have the gall to fall into our yard and occasionally have to be dealt with. And the hedges periodically should be trimmed. Now, however, that I spend most of the summer in Pennsylvania, that maintenance is a real pain since I have fewer days to force myself to do it.

Last fall I realized that the aforementioned hedges were out of control. The original thought was to have them grow as high as the stockade fence behind them, part of which was installed by me, causing sore muscles, and part installed by a company, causing a sore checkbook. The hedges, which I had not dealt with for quite a while, were higher than the fence, straggly, and not what you’d call level. They had grown horizontally impeding the useful patio space. I decided a serious cutting was necessary, and it would give me a chance to use a seldom-used power tool, a battery-powered hedge clipper that replaced the manual ones I had used for decades, which had caused especially sore forearm muscles.

I charged up the clippers and hauled them and, because the hedges were so high, a step ladder out to the yard. I decided that now that I was undertaking this long-delayed project, I was going to be ruthless in hopes that I could ignore the bushes again for quite some time. I cut them way back. This did yield a lot of green boughs for Christmas, but the hedges now showed more brown, chopped-off branches than green ones. They did not look good. Ok, they looked as if I had killed them. I had undertaken severe pruning in the past, and the hedges had always come back. I was (reasonably) sure that would be the case again. However, looking out the back windows during the winter, it was not a pleasant sight, and the spouse and the NBP (nonbinary progeny) did not have my (reasonable) confidence in their health.

On the first days of spring, I went out to the hedges for a closer inspection. A lot of them looked–how shall I put it–dead, but a few weeks later, with a close, almost microscopic, inspection I could see the tiniest green needles on hacked-off branches. They are going to be fine, I said to myself with (reasonable) assurance, and that is how they still looked when I shifted my locale to Buck Hill Falls for the summer season. Only the true believer—I was the only one and my faith was not strong–could see that the hedges would again be a sight of Brooklyn beauty.

Although I spend most of the summer now in Pennsylvania, I return to New York every week or two to have dinner with the NBP. After we exchanged communications to find a convenient time to go to Black Iris, our usual neighborhood restaurant where we have not been since the pandemic began, I got an additional message. I told the spouse that although only ten words long, it contained three pieces of good news for her.

The first piece of good news for both her and me: The NBP wrote that “I just did the yard.” My now always-sore muscles eased a bit and gratefulness spilled out of my heart to the NBP for relieving me of a backyard maintenance day.

The second piece of good news: The NBP followed the introduction with three dots and then “you didn’t murder the bushes.” Marv Albert–like, I muttered a yes.

And the third piece of good news for the spouse: The NBP concluded the text with an exclamation mark.