Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Mixed Troubles

Tennis is harder than it looks. For singles you need stamina, speed and gritty determination. Doubles is challenging in other ways. There is court geometry to consider as well as proper shot selection and execution. Often you'll see a player miss a shot and hear someone say something like, "Oh well, it was a good idea." At that point I think to myself that I'd rather have a bad idea - that worked. Playing doubles can be a very bad idea. In singles, you only have yourself to blame. In doubles, you only have yourself to blame. Really. 

A good doubles partnership involves chemistry as well as loyalty and patience. You don't need especially good chemistry - it just can't be bad. It is ideal to play with a steady partner. You know each other's games backward and forward. You can anticipate where they'll be and what they'll do. That's the good news. The bad news is that you can anticipate where they'll be and what they'll do. And won't do. But, if you play together on  a regular basis, you can cover the holes in the geometry as can your partner. 

Mixed doubles adds another layer to the mystery.  You need stamina, speed, gritty determination, patience, loyalty and chemistry. You also have to be very good at adjusting. Is it a slow ball from the woman, a bomb of a serve from the guy? Is the other man going to blast you at the net with all he's got? Is that going to royally piss off your partner? Is your female opponent going to consistently lob, interjecting that oh so annoying shot into " boy tennis"? I call it "boy tennis" when the two men get into long, hard rallies, almost as if they were playing singles. It gets confusing.

Mixed doubles has complicated dynamics which you can only learn with experience. Mixed doubles with your partner (as in spouse) is a whole other minefield, I mean ballgame. Most married couples who both play tennis won't play together for very long. If you start asking around you'll hear variations on the same theme. They fought too much, they argued, they got on each other's nerves.  Oh, that is the theme. The smart couples accept reality. They stop playing in competitions together. For a while they try to play socially and then they just stop. 

Some of us aren't that reasonable and rational. We keep doing the same thing expecting a different result. She wants him to be more of a caretaker and he wants her to care more about winning.  The irony is that if he could be more of a caretaker they would be more likely to win. For a wife, the tennis court is a microcosm of life. For a husband, the tennis court is a microcosm of life. It has so much to do with your upbringing. Do you respond better to a carrot or a stick? When I make a mistake I know it. I don't need my partner to tell me not to hit it up to the net player. If I could have made a better shot I would have. 

I have noticed that many men will point out our mistakes when they've just made a slew of their own. It's his serve and he whiffs an easy shot. He hits a ball long and then one into the net. It's Love-Forty and he says sternly, "I don't want to lose my serve." What?!? Then stop making so many mistakes, pal. I think it to myself, but there is huge attitude. We're off to the races now. I don't point it out when my partners make errors, so I feel somewhat superior. He knows he wasn't being supportive, but doesn't want to be called on it.  

So, why do we do something we know can end badly? Because we met on a tennis court. Because it's what we do for fun. Because if you do well in a tournament it can take up your whole weekend and do you really want to spend it with someone other than your spouse? Because we have built-in partners. Lots of guys will play on mixed teams, but it's challenging to get them to practice with you regularly. They'd rather go golfing or running or play tennis with the guys. Maybe even spend time with their family. Mostly we play tennis together because when it's good it's very, very good and when it's bad well, you have to sit in the car and talk about what went wrong. Again.   

As I said to someone recently, Eric and I have had some of our best wins simply because we were playing together. We've also had some of the most pointless losses that only happened because we were playing together and got into a bad dynamic. The other team didn't beat us, we didn't beat ourselves. We, the "partners" beat each other. For the record, I can't ever recall a bad dynamic when we were having an easy win. It's when the going gets tough that the fur starts to fly. 

Getting married partners to fight is a common strategy used by their opponents. When the man plays assertively, perhaps taking the woman's ball, the opponents may make a comment like "ball hog" to cause some controversy. A lot of women get miffed when their partner (especially their husband) steps in front of them to take a ball. I say go for it. You're a foot taller, with a longer reach. Be my guest. Just don't blow the shot. No pressure there. 

When I first started playing with Eric I was new to tennis,  particularly doubles, and he'd been playing since the dawn of time. We agreed that he would take three quarters of the court and I'd tend to my little area. This frustrated our opponents, but worked for us. They would become outraged FOR me, which just enhanced our strategy. Now he trusts me to do what I need to do which makes the game a lot more fun. 

The worst doubles dynamic is feeling you need to play for both of you. It never works. The stronger player can't play for the weaker player. They just need to play their game. The idea is to double the competence,  but in fact, it cuts it in half.  My coach used to say, "You're only as good as your partner." It's not like you're pregnant and you need to eat for two. The more you try to play for both of you, the worse you actually play.   

I remember one long, hard mixed match that we had no business winning, but we dug deep and got to a tie breaker at the end of the third set. That's a couple hours of being in the trenches. It got a little tense right at the end. Our opponent said something about us fighting on match point. I responded that we could still win even if we were fighting, which we did.    

We have tried different strategies to help us be happy partners. It took a while, but I taught Eric to say "nice try." We instituted some rules like "don't ask - don't tell" and "good shot, good shot, silence". Don't ask, don't tell is basically the cone of silence. I play best in quiet.  If you don't have anything nice to say, don't say anything at all. It seems complicated but it's not. Employ a bit of child psychology and catch your partner doing something good. Praise, reward and encourage.      

Eric has been bumped up to a higher rating which has solved some problems and created others.  We can no longer play together at the level where we had a lot of success, and we don't have a lot of success if I play up. We've had other partners, but that can create its own predicaments. If my husband isn't nice to me when we play together he's obviously an ass. If he's nicer to another female partner, then he's REALLY an ass. Over the weekend I watched a high level mixed match. One of the guys is a local teaching pro. He played with a member from the club where he teaches. She hit a good shot and he gave her a pat on the butt. She looked none too pleased. If you're my partner and you're not married to me, don't pat me on the butt, no matter what.  This isn't football.  

P.S. If anyone has a couple spare tickets to a first round match at Wimbledon, I promise to take my spouse.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Open House

It's a lovely spring Wednesday and we're touring homes for sale. Possibly your house. It's broker tour day and we're barreling down narrow, winding streets in a Lexus, Mercedes or (watch out) a Range Rover. We're going way too fast, possibly talking on the phone and, oddly enough, most likely won't park in your driveway. Your neighbors will definitely be irritated and there may be ugly words exchanged. Just another day in the life of your local, residential real estate agent.

There are a few things I have noticed over the past thirteen years of Broker Tour days. First and foremost, agents are motivated by food. It's not like it was back in the day when booze was regularly served, but sometimes agents will provide lunch, or snacks though it's becoming rare. If food is being served at the open house it's definitely an incentive to tour the property. More agents will attend, they will stay longer, and if the food is good, bond more deeply with the house. They'll also drip soy sauce and drop cupcake crumbs on your brand new bedroom carpet. Agents forget the etiquette which is: look at the house, THEN eat. In the kitchen.

Some sellers want visitors to remove their shoes. Floors have just been refinished, carpets cleaned and the idea is to preserve the recent investment in newness and cleanliness. Little, blue booties may be provided to be worn over your shoes. I always wear slip-on shoes on tour day. It's just easier, although there have been a few times when the carpets were so disgustingly filthy I couldn't bear to walk around the house barefoot. You must always be sure to take your OWN shoes upon departing the home. A few years ago a top agent, with very large feet, stole another man's shoes. A much better pair. Poor agent number two looked for his size thirteen, gorgeous Ferragamos but they were gone. A pair of worn Top Siders were in their place. The "thief" was tracked down at one of the later properties on tour, completely oblivious. Maybe it's just me, but I don't understand being so unaware that you don't remember which shoes you were wearing!

With modern technology we have the ability to see a house from every angle and inside out. You can get a lot of information about a house using a computer, including 360 degree photography. You may get seasick, but you can get a very accurate look and you might even be tempted to make an offer - except for one thing. The smell. And the sounds, for that matter. The important intangibles can't be quantified in pixels. They must be experienced and there a lot of ways a house can smell bad. Trust me. If your agent uses scented candles during showings, we assume you're covering up the smell of something like your pets or dampness or ... Never mind. You get the idea.

Preparing a property for sale is a lot of work. You start from the front and move back. How's that curb appeal? Maybe not so good. You de-clutter and buff and shine. You repair and replace. You paint and polish. You get rid of more stuff than you're keeping. It's time for the first showing. Or is it? Did you tidy up ALL your closets? I have never understood the compulsion people have to look behind doors and into cabinets, but don't underestimate it. It seems to be a universal phenomenon. You need to be prepared. It's all part of the Feng Shui. Don't you feel better in your house when the closets are and clean organized?

Back in olden times, when I first started in the business, there was very little supply and lots of demand, demand, demand. It didn't matter if a house was the best house in the neighborhood, by far. If it was a good house, with all the bells and whistles, Pottery Barn style, it sold. Talented builders were making a killing buying a tear down on a flat lot. They could build a mini-Tara, sometimes with actual columns, and it would sell. Then it all changed and once again, location mattered. Properties with columns on poor lots in less than ordeal neighborhoods languished. Prices were reduced and reduced again. Brand new homes were rented out to stop the cash flow hemorrhage.

It was easy to control the process when sales were quick and dirty. First open house on broker tour Wednesday, showings throughout the weekend and all offers to be submitted after the first Sunday open house. Multiple offers with love letters to the house attached. It was feasible to send your clients and their dogs and kids away for the weekend. One weekend to keep the place clean, stay out of the way and then it was a done deal. Now? It can take months of tidying up on short notice, vacating the premises every Wednesday and Sunday, keeping up the faith. Some distressed properties have been listed for as many as 500 days, but most of these homes have no occupants, and if they're bank owned, probably no appliances and fixtures.

The loss in home value has been a shocking, though not unexpected development. The difficulty in obtaining home loans adds another layer of stress. We just did a simple refinance on our house, with ALL documentation readily provided, the appraisal (phew) hit the number required and it still took over four months to close. The bank asked for verification of Eric's income and some of our assets three times during the process. They were afraid he'd lose his job and we'd spend all our money during the escrow period. No kidding! So were we.

The old days were not as easy as some would believe. It was cutthroat and emotionally draining for buyers and their agents. With the shortage of listings and preponderance of buyers, most of us were working with buyers. They all seemed to want the same house. I wrote seven offers for one client, five for another. However, we knew that once we got into contract anyone could get a loan. You didn't even need to be breathing to borrow money, which, of course brings us back to where we are today. I'd like to say more, but I have to go clean out some closets.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Believe it or Not

Pearls and Lemons has withered on the vine a bit lately. The Pearls need some polishing and the Lemons are a bit tart. I've been otherwise engaged. Fund-raising. And adjusting my attitude towards life. Again. I'm wrestling with my view of the world. The paradigm shifts like a kaleidoscope. Where it stops nobody knows. 

I spent several months planning an event that just didn't seem like it was coming together. I was awake at night for weeks thinking about how to make it work. Lana and I went door to door downtown asking merchants for auction donations. Tickets were not selling. The musician flaked. The people who contacted me to "help" invariably ended up telling me what more I could be doing or how I could do what I was doing better. Thanks so much. Other than that, everything was peachy. 

I was going negative at a rapid rate -  starting not to care about the cause, even though I believe it's worthy. Allie was home from college and sick with a cough.  A nasty, asthmatic cough. I urged her to go to the doctor but she wouldn't. Eventually, after barking like a seal night after night she relented. The doctor, who has treated me, my grandfather, my brother, Eric and my three daughters took care of her. He prescribed a steroid inhaler. When Allie went to pick it up at the pharmacy she was told it cost $170. With insurance. She refused to buy it. 

I checked with the doctor's office to see if they had any samples of the inhaler. They called back and told me the doctor had a generic brand of the medicine they could give us. Also, since we live in the same town, he'd drop it off at our house on his way home from work. Eric was away on business and we were talking on the phone when there was a knock. I told him I had to go because our doctor was at the door. Making a house call! The paradigm shifts. The world is a good place. The world is a good place.

That same week Allie attended the funeral of a friend who was brutally murdered by another guy she knew. A guy who stabbed the man sixty-two times. The assailant had already been in prison. There seems to be no justice. Allie started high school by losing someone she'd known since kindergarten to suicide.  There have been several other deaths since then. So utterly senseless. The vision gets cloudy again. What sort of world is this?

One of Allie's high school teachers (a gay man) was accused of sexual crimes against a student a few years ago. He lost his job and has been fighting endless legal battles. He is a kind and gentle man and a very competent teacher. Maybe he exercised poor judgment, but we always believed he was innocent - a victim of homophobia. 

I was called to jury duty in October. Jury duty makes me feel panicky. I don't like the idea of being stuck in those windowless rooms for an uncertain period of time. This time was no different. I was having major anxiety on the morning I had to report. When I got to the courthouse I realized it was an important case. The jury waiting room was overflowing. It became intriguing. I was in the first group sent down to the courtroom after a laborious security checkpoint. When I got there I understood what all the fuss was about. There was Allie's teacher. He was the defendant. When the charges were read a woman behind me gasped.

I've been called to jury duty many times, but never have been chosen to serve. Someone has always objected to me for being married to a lawyer. Sometimes I object to that myself. This time was different. I knew what I had read in the papers, but I didn't fully grasp the case. I wanted to be on that jury. I felt I could be objective and fair. This was my chance to hear all the facts and use my powers of reasoning. I was willing to serve in the windowless room for weeks and hear all the grisly details so I could help justice prevail. Pick me. Please, pick me. We filled out a twelve page questionnaire. I had to admit that I knew the defendant and twenty of the thirty potential witnesses. About ten days later I got a call telling me my services were not needed. 

The trial commenced. It took weeks. Over a thousand jurors were called before the panel was filled. I read about it in the paper and kept meaning to go watch some of the testimony but never did. The verdict was no verdict- a hung jury on all counts and the District Attorney dropped the case. The  defense attorney later said the jury was very smart. They did fine without me. The man can begin to rebuild his life. There was a party celebrating his survival of the nightmare. It seemed so unfair and pointless but justice was served in the end, at tremendous cost. More gray area in the paradigm.        

Worries about the benefit continued and I sometimes dealt with the stress by taking a long walk in the hills of Sausalito. December mornings were quite cold so one day I wore my favorite red gloves - the ones with shearling that Sally had given me years ago. When walking warmed me up, I took them off and stuck them in my pocket. Back at the car, I discovered one was missing. It made me so sad, but there was no time to do the whole walk again looking for the glove. A week went by and I was really getting nervous about ticket sales and auction items. I hadn't been sleeping well, but forced myself to take the walk again. I kept my eye out for the glove and just before the end I saw it. One week later. Someone had put it on a stone wall for me. I grabbed it and leapt in the air. Yes! I felt like Rocky. Tears streamed down my cheeks and I realized how much worry I'd been carrying.  It was a sign - just the sign I needed.  

There was another shift. Donations came in. Offers of help surface from unexpected sources. We got a better musician. The momentum was building. I experienced a cautious optimism and found another sign while getting clothes out of the dryer. A small, silver ring with blue stones that said "Believe". I'd never seen it before, but Allie must have lost it before she went back to school. I put that sucker on a chain and wore it every day. It worked. The event was successful. People came. We made money. The party had a great feeling of community.   

It's a struggle to know how to think. When the kids were little they would go through phases. During the more challenging stages (aka "bad" ones) I used to resign myself to it being that way forever. Then things would improve and I would be tricked into thinking it would always be thus. Easy. Happy. I would start to believe and there would be another shift- the pendulum never stopping at center very long. Lives taken. Careers and reputations destroyed. A doctor making a house call. Good people doing good things. To paraphrase some Buddhist philosophy - it may not be what we want, but it's what we have.