Thursday, July 1, 2021

Saying Goodbye to My Burn Notice Buddies

I like psychological thrillers, but I’m generally not a fan of action-oriented entertainment with lots of gun fights, car chases and explosions. In fact, they bore me. That’s why it’s surprising that I recently binge watched all seven seasons of Burn Notice, a television show that ran from 2007-2013.

I wept when the last episode wrapped up, not only because of the show’s emotional content, but because I had bonded with the characters, whom I had come to view as my buddies, or at least substitute buddies after a pandemic year of too much isolation. The completion of the show meant that I was losing my connection with them.

Set in Miami, the show is about a former spy, Michael Weston, who gets “burned,” that is, cut off from all resources for mysterious reasons. The reasons are rather convoluted and take a while to resolve, but almost every show also features the satisfaction of a resolved sub-plot, so it doesn’t get too frustrating. It contains LOTS and LOTS of gun fights, car chases and explosions.

In a way, I hesitate to recommend the show because it does have some ridiculous moments. The first few seasons particularly feature lots of poolside and beachside babes in bikinis, as if Miami was almost  exclusively populated by young, shapely women and devoid of anyone over 30 or carrying extra poundage.

I’ve been in Miami twice and I don’t recall either the city overall or the people looking as good as they do in Burn Notice.

Clearly this show ran prior to the “#MeToo” movement because some casting director evidently had way too much fun getting young women to parade around in bikinis. I had to wonder what the young women told their parents. “Hey Mom, look, those are my butt cheeks on Burn Notice!”

All that aside, I loved the show.

It was fascinating to watch the character development. The main character’s relationship to his mother starts out acrimonious in the first episode but develops into a touching mother-son relationship. His girlfriend, or ex-girlfriend, is something of a caricature at first and not very likeable but evolves into a warmer, more likeable person who is simultaneously tough and tender. His friends epitomize cool confidence and evoke a bro-like, action-oriented masculine energy that I found very compelling and attractive.

The main character possesses an extraordinary ability to achieve his objectives. He can improvise weapons or explosives MacGyver-style (‘member him?) or instantaneously spin a convincing yarn to elude capture or detection. This makes him aspirational and somewhat mythic, but he has enough flaws and struggles to make him sufficiently relatable and realistic.   

A lot of the tips—like how to improvise explosives or break into a safe—seem spot on and I can only hope that they aren’t appropriated for nefarious purposes.

It’s embarrassing to admit this, but “hanging around” with Michael Weston and his pals provided me with a sense of belonging that I lack without the show, and I feel a bit lost without my “friends.”

Crazy, right?

I’m usually not this unhinged regarding entertainment, so I’ve tried to analyze why I got so emotionally involved. The ability to binge-watch a show does create a kind of escapist alternate reality. My life is generally boring and I’m fine with that. I enjoy simple pleasures: books, gardening, walking my dog, studying Scripture, a good cup of coffee.

At the same time, I crave at least some modicum of excitement and the Burn Notice alternate reality provided that. I could vicariously battle bad guys in pursuit of justice. But most of all, I think I craved the sense of camaraderie and belonging after a year of too much enforced isolation and not being able to see peoples’ faces.

I guess I’ll have to go back to watching HGTV, which seems very mundane now. A quartz-topped kitchen island can’t really compete with gun fights, car chases and explosions for excitement.

This year has been tough, even for a natural introvert like me. The extroverts I know have especially become unglued.

Please be kind, reach out to someone and let them know that they belong.

We need each other and the people from Burn Notice never really existed in the first place.


Sunday, July 12, 2015

Pondering Playboy, The Girls Next Door, and Eternity

Recently, I came across some YouTube videos from a 1959 television show, “Playboys' Penthouse,” featuring Hugh Hefner as host. The show oozed style, with a cool jazz soundtrack and Playboy “bunnies,” fully clothed, slinking around in those fashionable, quintessential 1950’s-style Mad Men dresses. It looked like a classy cocktail party that people felt privileged to attend. A sexual undertone permeated the atmosphere, prompted by association with the Playboy lifestyle, but people in the 1950s actually still adhered to a somewhat obsolete notion called “discretion,” so the show contained nothing overtly sexual.
Hefner came across as suave and debonair if not exactly scintillating. Playboy Penthouse featured some excellent musical performances but the conversational elements were more miss than hit. In my opinion, not even Lenny Bruce could infuse the show with enough energy to keep it from fizzling out. Hefner tried to replicate life at the Playboy Mansion life by having the show’s participants engage in then-nascent mansion rituals, like watching old movies—but watching people watch something doesn’t exactly make for compelling television. Cable wasn’t invented yet and decent public standards still prevailed so he couldn’t exactly show hardcore porn or hot and heavy grotto action.

Fast forward five decades and Hef (who, by the way, attended Steinmetz High School, the same Chicago public high school that I later attended) ended up on television again in the reality series “The Girls Next Door,” featuring Hefner and his three girlfriends, Holly, Kendra and Bridget. People watched with fascination and many men, no doubt, watched with admiration. By this time, the “if it feels good do it” mindset exemplified by Playboy had fully taken root, and the 60s revolution, with its abandonment of traditional morality, had catapulted hedonism’s self-indulgence, with its disregard for God's standards, into the mainstream. Consequently, public standards plummeted and the Playboy media empire overall seemed to be playing catch up, offering raunchy porn videos and who knows what else (really, I wouldn’t know—would I?)

Actually, I would know about some porn.  In the 1980s, I stayed at the house of someone who subscribed to The Playboy Channel and, while flipping through the channels by myself, my curiosity got the better of me. I watched a few too many videos with a mixture of arousal and disgust, witnessing sexual  permutations I had never seen before and would actually prefer to forget. Porn exists as a business because it achieves an objective, but in the end, it felt desperate and pathetic. I never watched The Playboy Channel again.

Years later, I did read a couple of articles about The Girls Next Door supposed “reality” series and watched a couple of episodes. The show portrayed a lifestyle that seemed deliciously fun, like a perpetual romp in an adolescent boy’s idea of a Sexual Nirvana, all blondes and boobs and nonstop fun. But like anything that promotes an immoral lifestyle, the tempting hype masked a dark pit of lies that are just now beginning to crawl out of the abyss.

I remember a story I heard once in church as an illustration of temptation’s deception. A man told about lusting after a woman’s shapely form in India, but when she turned around, he saw that she was severely disfigured by leprosy, and the repulsion of that reality jolted him out of lust’s grip.

I always suspected that The Girls Next Door was just an alluring facade covering a leprous core. Indeed, it turns out that The Girls Next Door was more of a drug and jealousy-fueled cesspool than a big, happy family or sexual Nirvana.  

Former Hef girlfriend Holly Madison recently released a book where she described life in the mansion as akin to being in a prison. She described her first miserable sexual encounter with Hefner: “There was zero intimacy involved,” she says. “No kissing, nothing. It was so brief that I can’t even recall what it felt like beyond having a heavy body on top of mine.”

Despite being surrounded by a bevy of beauties, she describes Hefner as more adept at Viagra-fueled masturbation than at pleasing or getting pleasure from women, whom he manipulated and pitted against each other.

And another former “Girl Next Door,” Kendra Wilkenson, reported that sex with Hefner felt like a "clock in-clock out" job and that she had to get thoroughly drunk or high to tolerate it—recalling a night when, after Hefner came to her bed for some brief, perfunctory sex, he inexplicably started to weep.

I don’t know why he wept and perhaps he doesn’t know either, but I suspect that he had a moment of clarity where the emptiness of his supposedly have-it-all life flashed before him. Perhaps he realistically saw himself as a decrepit old man, standing on the precipice of eternity, with nothing to show for his earthy journey except a lifetime of fleshly indulgence, superficial, broken relationships, and the promulgation of destructive, pornographic propaganda.

Perhaps he realized that his string of father-hungry, silicone-enhanced girlfriends and/or ever-revolving wives were seeking vicarious fulfillment through notoriety and would never have given him the time of day had he lived in obscure poverty. So they didn’t really love him, did they? Or if they did, he didn’t know how to love them back.

Wilkerson claims of Madison, “The one thing she truly wanted was a piece of that stock, a piece of Playboy and a piece of Hef’s will.” Or perhaps, as Madison counters, “Hef used money as a means to control each girlfriend,” and he tried to “buy” her with the enticement of leaving $3 million to her in his will provided she stayed at the mansion, an overture she viewed as pathetic.

Lovely, huh? Jealously, blackmail, manipulation, and that’s just the start.

A feature writer wrote about current Playboy mansion life and described how Hefner’s environment “looks less like a love nest than the cave of a hoarder, unable to let go.”

But he will let go eventually because, perhaps ironically for him, as Job said in the Bible, “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked I shall return.” And Hefner is the perfect example of Jesus' illustration that, “What will it profit a man if he gains the whole world but loses his own soul?”

The environment today is a far cry from my first exposure to Playboy Magazine in the 1960s when a neighbor friend showed me a page she had ripped out of her brother’s Playboy magazine. (On a side note, I shudder to think about what kids today are exposed to via the Internet.) The page featured a cartoon drawing of a bunch of naked people milling around in someone’s depiction of hell. It looked more like a bunch of bored people on an overcrowded nude beach than a painting by Hieronymus Bosch, or Christ’s description of hell as a place of “weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth.”  I don’t remember the punchline but it was probably something about hell not being so bad after all.

Hefner is 89 years old now so, statistically, he’s very close to finding out exactly what hell is like. In fact, most news outlets probably wrote his obituary feature years ago.
                                                The Judgment by Hieronymus Bosch

I don’t understand why my husband, who was an extraordinarily wonderful man, passed away recently at the relatively young age of 65 while someone like Hef keeps ticking. But I do know that as long as there is life, there is hope.

Hefner is alive because of God’s abundant grace. Maybe God can see beyond the bravado and the caricature of a sexual Lothario and perceive a wounded, lonely man who pursued a tainted fortune to overcompensate for feelings of rejection and who never really learned to give or receive love because he had no relationship with G-d, who IS love. Maybe the fact that Hefner had everything the world can offer and found that it is not enough has softened his heart. Or maybe not.

Regardless, the Playboy “empire” is what Johnny Cash sang about in the song “Hurt”—an empire of dirt. At some point, Hefner will not be able to trade his entire empire for even one more moment of life on this earth.

But the most amazing thing to me is that, even at this moment, God extends grace and mercy to him.  Just as the thief on the cross turned to Christ in the last moments of life, Hefner can do the same.  And if he’s sincere, and truly desires forgiveness, he can receive it.  Christ’s sacrifice is that all-encompassing and God’s love is that big.

The door is open for “Hef” or anyone else who wants to walk through it but the day will come when the door closes.  Don’t delay.  

One of the most poignant songs ever recording and the video just rips my heart out. 

Friday, January 24, 2014

Puerto Rico Redux: The De-Evolution from Warrior Princess to Wuss

My previous visit to Puerto Rico in December of 2011 unfolded as a major adventure involving sailing, an earthquake, plunging into the ocean and bioluminescent bays, kayaking and traversing dark waters at night.  It all added up to a revelatory metamorphosis of my usual mild mannered self as a brave warrior princess, fearless and daring.

What a difference two years makes.

On this last visit in December 2013, that brave person was nowhere to be found. Instead, I encountered a different self, my usual self, as someone who is wary, tentative, risk-averse and, frankly, a wuss.

Let me explain.

It may have had something to do with the fact that, since I wasn’t on a sailboat this time, everything seemed more normal. Plus, this time, one of my sons came along for about half of the trip. Most mothers are notoriously protective as sort of a counterbalance to the reckless daring of most fathers. I’ve seen some fathers swing babies around like they’re in training to become one of the Flying Wallendas.  The babies seem to love it, but a mother is likely to look at something like that and see an accident waiting to happen in the form of a baby flying into the kitchen knife rack.

Mothers seem to possess an inherent ability to picture worst case scenarios that go beyond the dire warning to avoid running with scissors. After all, my son is the fruit of my loins and I need to help protect him, not only for his sake and my sake, but for that of posterity.  That’s a good thing, actually. Protective maternal instinct, combined with lots of God’s grace and perhaps a guardian angel or two, is no doubt responsible for my son’s survival.

Of course, my sons are now grown and well beyond the reach of my protection, but once I was in a normal, protective mode, it was hard to break out. Jeanne Warrior Princess was totally AWOL.

Even after my son left to go back to the states, Vince and I pressed on to Ponce, Puerto Rico, where my cautiousness lingered.

For example, I can’t really relate since my family has no such tradition, but apparently, with many Latin families, visiting bodily remains is a ritualistic way to show respect for a person’s memory. So while in Ponce visiting Vince’s Dad, we went to show our respects by visiting the graves of Vince’s first wife, Carmen, and his mother, Patria.

Vince and I have had the obligatory “where-are-we-going-to-be buried-when-the-time-comes?” talk and, as weird as it sounds, he has invited me to have my remains buried alongside his and Carmen’s in the cemetery near Ponce.  Said Vince, “People will see my name with that of two women and think, ‘Hey, that guy had it goin’ on!’” 

When I told that to my Mom, she pointed out that Johnson family gravesites are also available in Chicago (Hey, who knew? I have options!)

We spent some time at Carmen’s grave, and then it took a while to find his mother’s grave, and once we found it, he lingered.

I didn’t want to be a pest but I couldn’t help looking at my watch.

“Umm, doesn’t the cemetery close at 5 o’clock?” I asked, feeling a bit guilty for bringing up the subject.

Vince gave me a withering look.  “Do you think that we’re going to get locked in here?”

“Maybe?” I said tentatively, feeling a little embarrassed.

“Realistically, what are the chances of that happening?”

I shrugged, chastised.  “I don’t know.”

Vince seemed convinced that getting locked in was an implausible and even impossible notion, and I definitely didn’t want to be responsible for disrupting his respectful reverie again, so I kept my mouth shut.

I felt relieved when we finally got into the car and drove to the cemetery entrance at 5:05, but as we approached the gate, we could see bars blocking the entryway, indicating a closed gate.  As we got even closer, I could see a heavy chain wrapped around the bars.  No doubt about it.  The gate was closed and we were LOCKED IN A CEMETERY, not just with a flimsy lock, but with a big chain and padlock!

It was remotely possible that Vince and I could climb the towering fence, but we couldn’t leave the car and his 90-year-old father behind.  I fast-forwarded in my mind. Dusk was falling and it would soon be completely dark. Would we have to stay here until morning, surrounded by monuments to the deceased and countless underground bodies in various states of decay? In my mind, the pleasant, pastoral cemetery morphed into a heaving cauldron of menacing forces, ready to emerge with malevolent intensity as a zombie apocalypse under cover of darkness.

Vince exited the car and I felt encouraged when I saw him talking to a man who had appeared outside of the gate.  Maybe a cemetery worker was still available to let us out.  Maybe our rescuer had arrived. Or at least maybe it was someone who could summon help.  I experienced a glimmer of hope.

But before I knew it, the man started climbing the fence to come inside the cemetery.  No, don’t come in, I thought, go get help!  “He’s drunk,” Vince whispered. When I looked next, the man had successfully scaled the fence and was teetering around inside the cemetery gate, with a goofy grin on his face, as trapped as the rest of us.  I looked again and he was on the ground, face down, and passed out.

Just great.

Vince found a telephone number posted next to the gate on a cemetery office and phoned it.  We could hear the phone ringing inside the empty office.  Another dead end, no pun intended.

Vince’s Dad called 9-1-1 and explained our predicament.  The police were about to send help when a real cemetery worker arrived and unlocked the gate.  He had some difficult-to-understand story about how we were warned to leave, which we weren’t, and how someone left the key with him, but I was too relieved to probe the murky details. All I knew was that, for the time being, we were alive and free.

Later that evening, back in Ponce, we walked around in the town square and noticed that preparations were underway for some kind of festival or performance later that night, featuring a well-known salsa band.  Back at his father’s condo, we asked Vince’s Dad if he would mind if we took a trip downtown to see the band.  “Oh, I wouldn’t do that,” he said.


He rendered his stunning assessment: “You look like tourists.”

WHAT?!?! Newyorican Vince, born to Puerto Rican parents, who lived in Puerto Rico for 15 years, looked like a tourist? Vince’s Dad added two more words that apparently explained it all:  “..wearing shorts.”

Since temperatures hovered around 20 degrees back home, the opportunity to wear shorts in approximately 80-degree weather seemed absolutely appropriate to us, but in Puerto Rico, I guess that wearing shorts on a December evening signifies tourist status, or at least arouses suspicions.  However, I surmised that the “shorts” excuse could be a polite way to not have to point out that Vince’s wife bore the most glaring tourist insignia of all – a vampire-like Swedish/Norwegian/Irish complexion that rarely encountered the sun unless protected by 50 SPF sunscreen. Clearly, I was not a native or even a long-term visitor.  In the end, we were perfectly content to stay indoors, discuss books and current events, and avoid any nefarious, shadowy forces in Ponce that might pounce upon unsuspecting, wandering Americanos at night.

So we spent the night happily ensconced in the condo.

It was all a far cry from two years ago, when my fearless alter ego emerged. That’s not to say that I did nothing adventurous on this vacation.  After all, I achieved my goal of visiting the rain forest and we hiked about half an hour into the El Yunque National Forest to see the waterfalls. But I didn’t venture too close to the waterfalls, or even go into the water beyond my feet, because it was cold.

We also bought a day pass to the El Conquistador Hotel that granted access to the hotel’s beautiful private island and beach. But my shark fears, renewed after reading Unbroken: A WWII Story of Survival, guaranteed that I would not venture far beyond where my feet could touch the bottom.

I actually had a wonderful time but, unlike my previous visit, I was tentative, safety-conscious, and rather reserved. Unless something drastic unleashes my risk-taking proclivities again, I’m stuck with my usual, cautious, security-seeking personae.

But once I unhook from the security of knowing that no terra firma is within easy reach of my tootsies, and I start drifting away from my usual moorings, watch out! Jeanne Warrior Princess is still lurking in there somewhere.

Read about the previous, more adventurous trip here.

Yo con mi hijo at El Yunque National Forest.

Monday, November 4, 2013

Back to the Future: Shaking my Booty at my High School Reunion

I recently saw a t-shirt that said, “Inside Every Old Person is a Young Person Wondering What the H**L Happened!”

The t-shirt seemed particularly appropriate after I attended my 40th high school reunion.

My high school days back the early 70s were pretty painful. Socially, I was a shy, self-conscious kid who only had a few friends. Now I realize that, from the outside, I probably looked more together than I felt, but from my perspective, apart from good grades, I pretty much failed at everything.  I failed when I tried out for cheer leading. And I failed when I auditioned for the school play because I was so nervous that I sang one of the worst renditions of Simon and Garfunkel’s “The Sound of Silence” ever!  By the time I finished that song, the audience must have been longing for the sound of silence because my singing was horrible as well as horribly LOUD. Somehow, I suffered from the deluded notion that singing louder could overcome my tremulous hesitancy, but instead, I just made others suffer from my high-decibel, screech-like “singing.”

Such were my embarrassing high school memories.

Now fast-forward 40 years. I get an invitation via Facebook to my 40th high school reunion and I’m flabbergasted that 40 years have flown by.

To provide some background, I went to a Chicago public high school that wasn’t exactly high falutin’ even then and it’s even less so now.  An anniversary booklet distributed by reunion organizers featured the most “famous” and successful Steinmetz alumni, including a fashion designer who was best known as a Playboy model and, without a doubt, our most famous alum of all time, Mr. Playboy patriarch himself, Hugh Hefner.  Apparently, interests other than academics flourished at my high school. 

Nowadays, from what I hear, you have to pass through a metal detector to even gain entry to Steinmetz and the place has the feel of a federal prison, which is perhaps appropriate since prison is not a totally unfamiliar destination for numerous Steinmetz alumni.

It reminds me of that scene in the movie Back to the Future, where Marty McFly goes back in time and, because he knows the future, he tells a baby in a playpen to “Get used to those bars, kid.”

For the most part, since I flew under the radar in high school, I didn’t know if anyone would even remember me, unless they were among the unfortunate few that had been subjected to my “Sound of Silence” audition, in which case, the aural assault would no doubt be unforgettable. Thus, the invitation brought out a number of conflicting emotions for me, not the least of which was the fear of, once again, feeling like a socially ostracized failure.

Still, there was the possibility that I could reconnect with the few friends that I had, as well as a desire to view high school from my current lens as a fulfilled adult. I’ve now lived long enough that I’m not as desirous of  group approval. On some level, I think that I wanted to assert my confidence and let those who had once intimidated me know that they could no longer make me tremble – or could they?  I wanted to know.

At the same time, I now see things differently and realize that most of my former insecurities were of my own making. I wondered how I would interact with those same people from the perspective of a mature, confident fellow survivor of life’s vicissitudes. Even if no one remembered me, I could have a nice meal, hang out with my husband, and visit with my Mom in Chicago. Plus, I was just curious.

So, off to my high school reunion I went.

Forty years is a long time, but it sneaks up on you. A 40th high school reunion is not unlike a senior prom for real seniors, or at least people who are old enough to get the senior discount at Denny’s Restaurant. We’re old enough to have grandchildren and many do. Perhaps most strikingly, forty years ago, we all had luxuriant, flowing 70s hair.  Now, that hair is often sparse, gray or nonexistent.  I was prepared for that. 

But I wasn't prepared for the mind-bending time loop of running into people I had known back in grade school – people like Mike H., Carol W. and Karen K., all of whom I remember fondly. When I was growing up with that crowd I was so innocent that I was just beginning to learn the meaning of cuss words. We were still experiencing growing pains and learning to do cartwheels. Now, we’re more likely to have lower back pain and remembering to take our cholesterol meds.

Overall, I was impressed by how well most of my fellow survivors had fared. There is probably a bit of self selection in who attends a high school reunion.  After all, if someone is doing terribly or looks terrible, they probably aren’t going to have the drive or motivation to attend. But overall, I thought that most of us looked pretty good for having endured four decades. I was impressed by the generally positive, unpretentious attitudes of those I encountered and I felt connected by culture, era and shared history. These were my PEEPS!

My husband Vince and I definitely had fun at the reunion. We love to dance so we danced up a storm.  People who didn’t remember me or who remembered me as a wall flower were probably wracking their brains to figure out who I was, but I knew that those kids from grade school remembered.  And I knew that Linda P., who grew up on the same block, remembered.

Still, I wonder what it will be like in another 10 years.  Or 20 years, if we make it.

My 87-year-old mother tells a story about how she and my father had a great time at her 50th high school reunion.  There was a great crowd, a great meal, a band and dancing.  So they went back for the 60th reunion. “That must have been when people started dying off,” she recalled, “because there was a much smaller crowd and a DJ instead of a band.”  Still, they went back for the 65th reunion, for which there was a definitely downsized venue and only a smattering of attendees.  And instead of a band or a DJ, the entertainment consisted of one accordion player.

The image of one accordion player performing for a smattering of aged former high school students is hilariously pathetic and, let’s all face it, we’re all inevitably headed for that same downsized reunion with a roving accordion player, or even worse, maybe a kazoo or performing monkey.

Reunions are great because they help you to put things in perspective in a fun way – kind of like attending a funeral but with an open bar. I only drink moderately, which is a good thing, because I definitely did not want to hear the next day that I did something crazy like get up on a table and sing “The Sound of Silence.”  Been there, done that (just kidding – sort of.)

I’m up for attending my 50th reunion, Lord willing. But I think I’ll call it quits before I have to hit the dance floor with a walker or endure a solo accordion serenade.  And judging by how fast the past has flown, that day will probably arrive before I know it.

Simon and Garfunkel reprise their song for a concert in Central Park in 1981. Believe me, you don't want to hear me reprise my version.

                                   Me with Karen, an old pal from grade school, at the reunion. She's the mother of seven children, whom she home schooled, and in my opinion, that makes her way more successful than Hugh Hefner.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Up the Down Escalator in High Heels - My Travels and Travails on the DC Metro/Transportation System

When the DC Metro works, it’s a marvel.  You can cut through backed up traffic, relax, read, people watch, listen to music and pay less for parking at the Metro station than you would downtown. It’s not the cleanest venue and the parking garage stairwells always smell like urine, but it’s cleaner than New York’s subway and at least the trains don’t smell like urine – sometimes there’s a faint smell of vomit, but I don’t think that I’ve ever smelled urine on the trains, which is pretty amazing considering that bathrooms in a Metro station are rare and often locked.  At least people wait until they make it to the parking garage.

But almost a quarter of the times that I ride the trains, there is some kind of snafu and several times those snafus have escalated into major events, like the time that the “derecho” storm went though and left my husband and I stranded at the Twinbrook station unable to get home for the night.  We ended up spending the night at a hotel that had no power, guided only by the light of our slowly fading cell phones. The Hyatt Hotel charged us $100 to stay there, even though they had no power, but they had to write down our credit card number old-school style on a piece of paper.

Another time, I was cooped up in a Metro train with broken air conditioning in about 100 degree heat, sweat pouring down my back, seriously afraid that I would pass out and they’d have to peel me off the train floor like stepped-on, flattened out gum residue.

Most recently, my husband Vince and I decided to try taking the Metro and then hooking up with a shuttle to travel to Wolf Trap to see the Johns Butler Trio perform.  The Metro ride went fine.  When we got on the shuttle, a man stood in front of the bus and gave a little speech.  “We will leave exactly 20 minutes after the show ends,” he said, repeating that line about three times. -- OK, I’ve got it -- Then, almost as an aside and in an accented voice, he said something about 11 o’clock or 11:30.  I didn’t quite make out what he said but I figured that it was irrelevant since the show started at 7 and we’d be out of there before 11 or 11:30.

The John Butler Trio was great, even though I felt conspicuously old compared to the rest of the audience. But I was surprised that the performers seemed blasé about an encore, and as we packed up and headed for the bus, something didn’t feel right.  We saw a long line for the bathroom and congratulated ourselves on our foresight in preparing to leave promptly without having to wait in line.  “We know how to do it,” we assured each other, nodding sagely.  “Yeah, that’s right. We’ve done this enough that we’re pros, as opposed to these young whippersnapper concert-goers, who are just novices.”

We were first in line for the bus but the drivers, who were socializing and eating Indian food out of Styrofoam containers, looked at us strangely.  “It can’t be over yet,” they said. “They told us it wouldn’t be over until 10:55.  It must be intermission.”  But hadn’t we seen the John Butler road crew dismantling the stage?  Could it be that they were just the warm up act?

So we headed back to the entryway and, sure enough, part two featured a group we had never heard of called Soja, a white reggae band from Virginia, who had drawn a sold out crowd that included friends and family from nearby VA.

So it turns out that we weren’t so sage and experienced after all.  In fact, we were dunces, who weren’t even familiar with the headlining group we were about to see.

At the end of the energetic, peace-and-love-and-ganja and yeah-it’s-the-young-people-who-are-gonna’-change-the-world concert (as if no other generation had ever thought that way) we wrapped up promptly, with the warning that the bus would leave in 20 minutes ringing in our ears.  We made it out to the bus location about seven minutes after the show ended, and at exactly 11:01 p.m., we saw the shuttles taking off.

“NOOOO!” I cried, my hand reaching out in disbelief as I breathed bus fumes.  How could they be leaving so soon?  Surely, there must be another shuttle coming!  But there were no other shuttles.

To make matters worse, a wasted guy who saw us out of the corner of his eye decided to loudly focus his attention on us in an embarrassing way that emphasized the disparity in our ages.  “Oh MAN,” he hollered sloppily.  “I TRIED to get my PARENTS to come but they said they couldn’t make it through such a looong concert.  But here you are – people your age can DO it –  the PROOF is in the PUDDING!”  He continued, “You know, what does that mean, the proof is in the pudding?  I’ve always heard that expression but what does it REALLY mean- that the proof is in the pudding?”

I could feel people looking at us and I felt peeved enough that had pudding been available, I might have shoved the proof right in his face. Or, if I had been calm enough to think about it, I might have responded in a way that would befuddle his alcohol and ganja-addled mind with an attempt at a clever retort, such as:

“It’s an expression that recognizes the inherent ability of substances to change their chemical composition and consistency when acted upon by an outside source at sufficiently high temperatures over a measured period of time.  It’s an expression  that recognizes the human propensity to doubt that  physical properties can change dramatically, but the gradual thickening of the pudding provides evidence that such changes can, indeed, occur, thereby also casting doubt upon other human doubts. And once you start doubting doubt, you’re in radical danger of actually becoming a believer, so watch out!”

Yeah, I think I could have blown his mind.

As it was, I just fumed and we trudged along to the Ranger’s Station to ask what to do and the ranger offhandedly recommended that we call a cab as he turned his attention to summoning assistance to break up a fight that had erupted among the crowd that was as ganja and alcohol-soaked as you might expect at a reggae concert.  Under such circumstances, “Peace, bro’” can easily morph into “I’m gonna’ #@$%!, you %!@#$!”

Vince called a cab company but they told us that it could take 40 minutes for them to show up and it was already 11:15 p.m.  I knew that, on week nights, the last scheduled Metro train traveled around midnight and we needed to make a connection.  There seemed to be little way that we could make it in time and the ranger station had started filling up with others who were in the same predicament.

“Didn’t they say they left 20 minutes after the show ended?” someone asked, mystified.  “Yes, but I think that they also said 20 minutes after the show ended OR 11 p.m., whichever came first,” I replied.  “At least that’s sure how it appears.”

I tried calling Yellow Cab and they estimated 15-20 minutes, which was more reasonable than the other company but still dicey. Two other guys asked to share our cab and we agreed.

We made our way to the front by the road, near the Wolf Trap marquee.  Clusters of other abandoned people were also waiting for a cab and one was on her phone, loudly complaining about having waited for an hour, which was clearly a lie since the concert hadn’t even been over that long.  Sure, during the concert it was all peace and love and ganja, but once the cab grab competition commenced, the claws came out it became a battle for survival, deviousness and all.

Yellow cabs started showing up and people swarmed to them, with the fastest and most aggressive winning out.  A cab came that could have been the one I called but I heard a would-be rider plead with a driver, “Please, I’ll pay you 40 dollars,” and I lost out.

My husband and I decided to split up with me taking the front guard, going as far forward as possible, and him taking up the rear guard near the marquee, where we had told the cab we would be.  By now I knew that someone must have grabbed the cab that had been summoned for me and I wanted to get to the front of the waiting area. Avoiding eye contact, I moseyed to the front until I approached a fortified cluster of about six people who I knew were younger and more aggressive than me.  I didn’t want another fight to break out so acquiesced and I let them take the next cab.

Another cab came and I nearly jumped in front of it until he stopped. I climbed in, feeling like a celebrity in a limo, gliding past the paparazzi, as I directed the driver past the other waiting clusters and picked up my crew – Vince and the two other guys with whom we had agreed to share a ride.

Still, we were in quite a pickle.  Even if the cab could get us to the green line before the bewitching hour, we still were likely to miss our connection to the red line.  We drove downtown with our co-riders with the aim of catching the last red line train. As it turns out,  we missed the midnight train but managed to catch the unadvertised post-midnight train that picks up stragglers, now off-duty Metro workers, and other assorted denizens of the night who probably don’t have to get up to go to work the next morning.

During one other Metro debacle, with swarms of people pressing in on me and no trains in sight, I had an overwhelming urge to escape but the only escape route was a down escalator and I need to go up.  So up the down escalator I went in high heels.  It’s not something that I recommend, and I almost tripped and fell, but I did prove that someone my age can do it.  Someone with a compulsion to escape the teeming hordes can reverse course, outpace a machine, and make her way to freedom. In fact, you might say that the proof is in the pudding.

Sunday, December 16, 2012


I was about to wow the inhabitants of the parts department at the local Acura dealership.

“Yes,” I said, standing proud and tall at the counter. “I need a fuel pump ‘O’ ring for a 2004 Acura.” I spoke confidently, the words rolling off my lips with the ease of an indigenous car person, speaking my native tongue.  I knew the reputation of dealership repair shops for taking advantage of car-challenged people in order to extract expensive repairs and I was determined to show that they couldn't mess around with me because I knew my stuff!

The guy standing next to me in the mechanic’s suit looked my way.  He must have been impressed that someone of the female persuasion could speak automotivese so fluently. The guy in the parts office pecked away at his computer but looked perplexed.

“I’m not finding a fuel pump O ring for a 2004 Acura,” he said.

“But I  called earlier and spoke to someone who told me that you had it in stock,” I said.

“Really?” He tried again. “Did you catch the name of the person you spoke to?”

“No, I’m sorry, I didn’t, but he said that you had it in stock.”

I started to feel exasperated, like maybe they were trying to pull some kind of bait and switch. Before long, three men were huddled in the office discussing my case. “Did you speak to someone earlier about a fuel pump O ring?” the man at the computer asked his co-workers.  “I talked to somebody,” one man confessed warily, as if this acknowledgment might lead to an accusation, “but I thought it was an O ring for a power steering pump.”

At that moment, I realized my error.  I had confused a fuel pump  –  the most commonly known pump in my  automotive lexicon – with the pump that was actually of concern to me, which was a power steering pump, resulting in an epic failure of my goal to impress the Acura parts department, despite my exhaustive web research.

“OOOhhhh, yeah,” I said, “THAT’s what it was! It was an O ring for a power steering pump!”

The three men smiled at each other knowingly, seemingly satisfied that they had solved the puzzle and collectively amused by the ditzy blonde who had momentarily caused them to question their expertise by confidently requesting a completely nonexistent automotive part.

 Chastened, I walked away with the power steering O ring, which appeared to be a flimsy rubber ring, about three-eighths of an inch in diameter and no thicker than a string.  It cost $1.53.

I had done my web research and my goal was to get the part from the dealership and then take it someplace where they wouldn't charge an outrageous sum to install it.

On a side note, in the fllm Office Space, which I've probably watched 20 times, one of the minor characters recounts that, if his date with an officemate that night goes well, he’s pretty sure he’ll be wearing his “O” face.  “You know what I mean,” he says mischievously. Then, with comical braggadocio, he scrunches his face up in a simulation of sexual release. “O, oh, oohh!”

I have to confess that I thought about that uncouth but funny scene at least 50 times during the “O” ring episode and now I’m thinking about it again because, there I was, traipsing around various auto repair shops, talking to complete strangers about O- ring-this and O-ring-that, and “o, o, oohh!”

Anyway, returning to the saga, I took the “O” ring to my local gas station, which was under new ownership and explained my case.  “I’m 90 percent sure that my problem is that I need a new O ring,” I explained.  “I looked up my symptoms on the Internet and some other people have had the exact same symptoms.  When I first start the car, there’s a whining noise, especially when turning.  The colder the day, the worse it is. Then, about five minutes after the car warms up, the noise stops and it seems fine.  Other people have described the same symptoms on the Internet and they say that the problem is a worn power steering ‘O’ ring.  Here’s an ‘O’ ring that I bought from the dealership. How much will you charge to install it?”

The guy shook his head. “It could be many things,” he said in a Japanese accent that added credibility to his presumed knowledge of Japanese cars.  He looked at me kindly but with a sort of pity.   I was the deluded neophyte, extracting a rash diagnosis from the Internet.  He was the wise, world-weary, gray-haired car sensei.  “Oh no, (grasshopper),” he said, “Do you want me to show you?”  I responded that I did and he opened the hood.  Brown power steering fluid  spilled over what I later discovered is the power steering reservoir.  The mechanic shook his head.  It was a perplexing diagnosis that would require hoisting the car up on the rack and peeling off the Acura’s protective, plastic epidermis to peer into its exoskeleton.  Power steering fluid obviously had leaked numerous places, but the car sensei didn’t settle for easy answers. He wanted to perceive the philosophical underpinnings of it all and enlighten his pupil that there could be many ways and many paths. He traced the cause back to the power steering reservoir.  “Very unusual,” he said, shaking his head. “I think there is a crack in the power steering reservoir.  You need a new one.”

I needed a paradigm shift away from my old O ring thinking into a new mindset, which would seek the path of reservoir healing. I went to the auto parts store in search of a power steering reservoir but they didn't have one, and when the man at the counter heard my explanation, he was suspicious, as if I had fallen under the spell of some manipulative Rasputin-type character.  “I never heard of anything like that,” he said.  “If I was you, I’d take your car across the street to the Acura dealership and get a second opinion.”

At the time, however, I felt stuck.  I had left parts of the car’s plastic epidermis back at the gas station, so I had to go back.  I felt like the die was cast, so I bought a new power steering reservoir at the dealership and had the car sensei install the replacement part at what seemed like the reasonable price of $40, which included draining and replacing the power steering fluid, plus the $40 or so I had spent on the part. “It might still make noise for a few days until the air gets completely out of the pump,” he said, “so if that happens, don’t worry.”  But happen it did.  I tried the path of peaceful contemplation and tried shifting my mind into a state of automotive harmony, but the noise was far worse than it had been previously. I tried to not panic, but each day, instead of getting better,  the noise got progressively worse until it was almost a screech and instead of taking five minutes to go away, it would persist for about half an hour or more.

 The car sensei had lost credibility with me.  It was time to turn my back on the mystical, Eastern approach to car repair and return to good, old-fashioned Western-style capitalism, no matter how expensive.   I brought the car to the dealership and received a devastating diagnosis.  “You need a new power steering pump and rack,” the dealership said. Even with using a used power steering rack, the total cost will be $1,800.

I was dumbfounded.

“Did you check the O ring?” I asked. “Really, my symptoms were exactly like those described on the Internet.”

 “It’s too late for anything like that,” the young dealership mechanic said confidently.  “You have power steering fluid leaking all over the place, even in the boots, so that means you’ll have to replace the whole thing'

"But I haven't budgeted for that expensive of a repair so I don't have the money right now."

"You could drive it for as long as you can and keep checking and refilling the power steering fluid.  But don’t let it go dry or you’ll ruin the whole system.”

“So you’re sure it’s not the O ring?”

“That year’s Acura model had a recall for the power steering hose, and it looks like the previous owner brought it in for the recall,” he said.  “When performing that replacement, we always replace the O ring, so it can’t be that.”

“But I've got the previous owner’s records and he didn’t bring it here, he brought it somewhere else.  And it doesn't say anything in the records about replacing the O ring during the power steering hose recall.”

“But we always do it with the recall.”

“So why doesn’t it say it was done?  Look, I don’t have $1,800 right now to spend on the car and the irony is that I recently bought this car because my old one had developed power steering problems and I didn’t think it was worth sinking money into that large of a repair, so we bought a used Acura with a good reputation for reliability.  And now it has power steering problems.   You’re going to charge me $120 anyway just for looking at the car, so if I pay you $120 will you at least replace the O ring just to appease me?  The part only costs $1.50 retail.”

He agreed.

Later, when I came to pick up the car, I brought in my husband for added clout. In his nice, polite but firm way my husband questioned the diagnosis, but the mechanic stuck to his story. “I replaced the O ring, but I took it for a test drive and now it’s making noise all the time,” he said, “I couldn’t get it to stop.”  (The subtext?  Nice try, ditzy blonde, but sorry, you were wrong.)

“So how did the O ring look when you took it out?” I asked.

For the first time, I detected a flash of uncertainty on his face. “It looked like it might be corroded, but it was hard to tell because it was covered with power steering fluid.”

The mechanic complied with our request for an explanation of the severity of the problem, complete with narration and the visual aid of a diagram of the car’s power steering system.  He seemed knowledgeable and sincere, which is why I’m not naming the dealership because I want to give him the benefit of the doubt.   When I got into the car I could barely detect any noise, even when turning.  By the next day, it was driving beautifully.  I waited for the weather to get really cold and for the problem to reappear but the car still sounds and drives with smooth, relatively quiet pleasure – all because of a tiny ‘O’ ring that had cost me quite a bit of time and most likely a useless $80 power steering reservoir repair, but really only cost $1.50, versus a $1,800 total repair, which would have inserted a used power steering rack that probably wouldn't even be as good as my original power steering rack.

Maybe it was graciousness, or maybe it was because they knew they were busted, but the dealership ended up not charging me anything additional.  Hopefully, now I've schooled a young mechanic in O rings (as salacious as it sounds) and, despite giving the parts department a good laugh, I’'e gained some credibility.

It turns out that, even though the ditzy blonde had her terminology wrong, she was right all along. O, oh, oohh, whaddaya’ know?

Monday, January 2, 2012

The Puerto Rican Magical Mystery Vacation

Vince briefly at the wheel under the tutelage of Captain Bill, aboard a 38-foot sailboat from Sail Caribe.

Prior to leaving on a vacation to Puerto Rico, I experienced a mix of excitement and trepidation, as I expect most 50-ish women nervously view any vacation that involves donning a bathing suit in merciless sunlight.  But even beyond that, it was the first time Vince and I had gone on vacation with another couple, and our friends Bill and Shari wanted to spend days at sea on a sailboat exploring undeveloped islands. My idea of a vacation usually involves mostly indoor activities. I like stylish restaurants, clean bathrooms, sun protection, maybe a 104-degree hot tub, and easy access to medical facilities in the event of an emergency.  Exploring undeveloped islands on a sail boat didn’t meet my usual vacation criteria.  In fact, to me, it seemed a little crazy. But we developed an escape plan that involved taking a ferry back to the main island in the event of seasickness or any other regrets so I decided to give it a try.  So, off to PR and sailing!

Even waiting to board the plane was an exercise in humility and a reminder of my limitations. I fly economy class and never opt for upgrades. AirTran isn’t as bad as other airlines, but on many airlines, especially United, there’s an optional upgrade fee for everything, with a boarding process that makes India’s historically entrenched caste system look like amateurish playground cliques. United has boarding categories like Premier, Premier Plus, Presidential Premier Plus, Gold Presidential Premier Plus, Gold Presidential Premier Elite We’ll-Kiss-Your- Fanny-as-You-Board-the-Plane Ultra Plus  …  then women with children, those in wheel chairs and those with special needs …  Paper, Plastic and – my usual category –  scum of the earth who bought your seats on (no kidding), whom we will shove into random, open seats to stuff the plane, just like those hapless souls in the cargo bay of the Titanic.  What?  There’s an emergency? I’m sorry, but you forgot to pay for the optional emergency oxygen mask upgrade, so prepare to die suckas!

I made the Walk of Shame to the back of the plane, took my seat and realized that my watch had stopped working.  Out of habit, I kept looking at my wrist, but the watch’s face just blinked back at me, flashing apparently random times that mocked me, as if to say,  “What time is it?  What does it matter, bimbo?  Leave me alone, it’s time for vacation!”

I often felt discombobulated until I decided to just let it go and rely only on the sun, moon, and stars as my time guides.  In the end, it was the best vacation evah!

Here are some highlights:

It turns out that, unless you’re the captain or co-captain (who sometimes have to do actual work) the main activity on a sail boat is relaxing, feeling the wind on your face, and gliding over the ocean blue.  Pretty blissful.  Then, you moor off-shore for the night and relax some more, maybe grill some steaks or dive off the boat for an evening ocean dip, enjoy the sunset, view a dazzling nighttime display of stars, and then go to sleep in the berth, letting the waves rock you to sleep. That is, unless you decide to dress up to go out for dinner on the  island of Culebra, climb into a dinghy (a kind of rubber raft) after dark and travel significant distances into unfamiliar territory where you suddenly realize that your dinghy has run smack into a coral reef.

 Shari, perched on the front of the raft served as look out, pointing her miners-style head lamp at the ocean. “Up now,” she’d holler authoritatively, and Bill would yank up the motor so that the dinghy could glide, propelled by momentum, over the coral reef.  They were a great team and, somehow, we managed to get near the shore without the dinghy doing damage or getting ripped or entangled in the reefs' sharp edges.

At one point, a flying fish jumped out of the ocean just in front of our faces and almost landed in the dinghy, which, if the fish had succeeded, probably would have freaked me out to the point where my wildly flailing arms and legs would either capsize the dinghy or I’d just fall out.

This was definitely not something I would do ordinarily.  In fact, it was something that I could only imagine a Navy SEAL doing –  “Your mission is to go by dinghy under cover of darkness and surreptitiously penetrate Culebra’s perimeter. The future of your country depends upon it!”

Our mission was more like some mahi-mahi and a refreshing drink.  We succeeded in making it to the perimeter but there was no dinghy dock in sight.

We shouted out to a security guard near the shore. “Can you direct us to the dinghy dock?”  He claimed that it was right around a nearby pier, but we rounded  the corner only to find a locked fence and swarms of long slithery tarpon fish with eyes that glowed demonically, reflecting back the light of our miner’s lamp. We proceeded down dark canals until we came to a foul-smelling residential area and then past that to a bright, festively lit restaurant deck with tables.

“Can you tell us where to find the dinghy dock?” we asked the waiter at Mamacita’s.  “You’re looking at it,” he replied cheerily.  There were some poles where we could attach a rope, but no ladder.  A couple eating on the deck watched in freaked-out amazement as they saw four people rise up out of the ocean and clamber onto the deck, two of them flopping onto the floor in dresses, and one of them with a miner’s light on her head and carrying a large, white plastic bag of garbage from the sailboat.  “Can you take our garbage?” we asked, somewhat sheepishly.  A look flashed on the waiter’s face like he wanted to throw us and our garbage back in the water, but he quickly suppressed the urge and ended up taking our garbage.

Suddenly, Vince disappeared.  He eventually re-emerged as we got our seats and, as it turned out, he had been busy scoping out possible sleeping accommodations for the night because there was no way he wanted to get back in the dingy, ostensibly because “the women” wouldn’t want to.   Ah-hem.  “I’m up for it,” I chirped.

I mean, we had already survived flying fish and traversing reefs that could rip our dinghy into shreds.  What else could there be?

Of course, if we ended up capsizing or sinking in a dark ocean at night, Vince would be vindicated (and it turns out that we came pretty close to that) but we finally made it back safely, at least until a storm the following night.  And then two earthquakes the next night, but that’s another story.

Overall, it was a thrilling vacation that involved snorkeling, sailing, exploring secluded beaches, kayaking in narrow, Mangrove-lined canals at night and plunging into the mysterious waters of a remote bioluminescent bay.

On the plane ride back I glanced at my worthless watch again.  Surprisingly, the time seemed accurate.  I had to check a few times before I was sure, but it had started working again as if on cue.  PR had been a timeless interlude, a magical mystery vacation, where I broke free of my usual time consciousness and play-it-safe mentality and, instead, morphed into Jeanne Warrior Princess, daredevil, adventuress extraordinaire, and fearless dinghy dock garbage deliverer.  Thanks Shari and Bill and everyone else who was a part of it.  You know who you are.

A Puerto Rican sunset as seen from the boat.
Gilling aboard the boat.
A beach on one of the islands.
A cute photo of our fearless leaders, Bill and Shari, on land in Ponce.
No one needs to teach us how to relax.  We are pros.