operation favorite

In my lifelong quest to become my father’s favorite child, I was always looking for ways to elbow my way towards the forefront. Since I couldn’t do it by being a naturally loveable person, I had to attempt it in other ways.

For example, there was the little wooden rocking chair that had come into our possession via someone’s death, Uncle Steve’s, most likely. Its cane had worn out years ago, and it was missing a back and a seat, but flaws like these were never enough to warrant sending it into the trash heap. It was old and it came from a dead relative, which was enough to qualify it as a Precious Family Heirloom, and we’d no sooner have thrown it away than we’d have thrown away the grandkids, although if it was up to me I’d have thrown away the grandkids. Its lack of a seat was a mere flesh wound, especially in the hands of my father, who – if he didn’t have the perfect tool for a particular job – would just make the tool himself, and who had a vast library of “how to” books in the basement, books we were always encouraged to borrow, as long as we read them sitting upright at the dining room table in a stiff-backed chair, with no food, drink, or highlighters in sight. And if his “Art of Chair Caning” book had been personally autographed by Plato himself, none of us would have been surprised in the least.

The little rocking chair had been earmarked for Corey, who’d planned to read the Art of Chair Caning and do the project herself, but then Corey went off and got married and basically gave up all rights for ever starting any project ever again. The rocking chair was now up for grabs, and this is where, in a screenplay, it would read: Exit COREY, stage right. Enter STACEY, stage left. Time for me to make my move. Lights off, Corey, Lights on, Stacey!

“The Milford Adult Education offers a chair caning class,” I said to my dad when I was home that year for Christmas.

“What’s a chair caning class?” interjected a random brother-in-law in the background. “Is that some kind of an S & M course?”


“And I’ve always wanted to take it,” I finished, nailing the hammer home.

Now, while it’s true that I “wanted” to take the class (I had a set of dining room chairs that badly needed to be re-caned), I never really WANTED to take the class. It ran for 9 straight weeks, 3 hours every Monday night: 27 hours spent doing manual labor and learning a new skill, and I wasn’t a fan of either. “No new people; no new skills” is the motto by which I live. But once the ball was set in motion, it couldn’t be stopped, and that is how, on the evening of Monday, February 11th, 2002, I found myself pulling into the parking lot of the Milford Adult Education Center with Uncle Steve’s cute little rocking chair perched on the seat next to me, just as eager to be restored to its former glory as I was eager to be propelled to the top of the Favorite Daughter Ladder.

The class itself – Chair Caning 101 – was taught by a cheerless man named Charles Plasky and his equally cheerless son, whose name, upon introduction, I immediately forgot. Instead, I simply began referring to them as “The Charles Plasky Father and Son Chair Caning Team,” and their first act that night was to explain the two basic methods of chair caning (the traditional hand-caning method, i.e., the hard way, and the pressed cane method, i.e., the easy way). Their second act that night was to determine into which of the two categories our chosen projects fell.

Now, if your chair had a series of drilled holes around the perimeter of the seat then sorry, but you had the “hard” kind. Channel your inner Pocohontas because you’re going to need her as you sit crossed-legged in the sand baking under the desert sun, weaving your entire seat completely by hand, one individual strip of cane at a time, in and out and in and out and in and out of every single one of those tiny little holes. “Woe is me,” said one of my classmates despondently. “I started this chair last spring. No way am I gonna finish this in nine weeks!” No, no you’re not buddy, so shut up and get weaving.

(For the record, whether your chair required the hard method or the easy method is completely dictated by the original design of the chair itself, and is not, I repeat, NOT a testament to the laziness of the person who’s re-caning the chair.)

On the other hand, if your chair had a narrow groove lining its perimeter (instead of a million drilled holes), you had an “easy” kind of chair: all you do is buy a piece of prewoven cane out of a catalog (if you look stupid enough, Charles Plasky will even measure your chair and tell you what size to buy), press it into the groove, and glue it in place. Voila! Done, just like that, in a few short hours.

So you can imagine my delight when the Charles Plasky Father and Son Chair Caning Team determined that I alone in the class was the sole possessor of a chair that fell into the easy category. If I felt the immediate disdain and loathing of the rest of my classmates, I couldn’t have cared less. It wasn’t my fault my chair wasn’t the hard kind. I wasn’t the one who’d built the chair. I wasn’t the one who decided to drill one narrow groove around the perimeter instead of a million individual holes. I’d simply rescued the chair from the Land of the Misfits and was playing the hand I’d been dealt. I would be done with my chair in the NEXT class! Yes!

And, I was. And, under the expert guidance of Charles and Son, the little rocking chair turned out great. How could it not? The two were talented, seasoned professionals who did most of the work on it themselves and didn’t let me get involved until the very end. The rocking chair was perfect, which was great, since my dad hated a job done badly so much that one time, when he was putting up a wall, he didn’t like the way the wall looked, so – even though it was a perfectly functional wall and he was going to cover it up with another wall anyway and no one was ever going to see it – he tore it down and rebuilt a better better-looking wall. Then he covered it up with another wall and no one ever saw it again. That is how much of a perfectionist he is, and I say that in the best sense of the word. If you want a job done right, get my dad to do it.

So, having done such a great job myself, you can imagine my surprise when, after regaling him with the details of The Great Caning Project of 2002, he said, “WHAT? You did WHAT??? You used PREWOVEN cane and GLUED it into the chair?? What’s the point of that? You were supposed to weave the cane by HAND! I even had all the stuff to do it with … it was in the bag!”

The bag. Oh. I’d forgotten the bag. I think it was still in Pittsburgh. I didn’t even know what was inside the bag but its contents obviously would have changed my life. (If this were a movie, this is where somebody would open the bag in some dusty old warehouse and it would glow from within as if it contained somebody’s soul, accompanied by a heavenly chord.)

In my defense, what did I know about caning chairs? That’s why I was taking the class, not teaching the class. If there was something the Plaskys weren’t telling me, how was I supposed to know? They didn’t exactly strike me as the kind of men who’d be open to idle chitchat and method-questioning. They had a successful chair caning business of their own and if they looked at my chair and told me how it needed to be re-caned, who was I to question them? Further, how were they to know that the fine specimen seated before them who couldn’t even measure her own seat backing correctly was fully expected to hand-weave her own sheet of pressed cane, and that assigning her the quick and easy route (when there was always a harder, longer, more painful alternative) flew directly in the face of the Fonas Family Creed of “Assembly Required”? I’d refinished a valuable family heirloom with a piece of prewoven cane? I might as well have told my family I was living in sin with an atheist.

Upon learning what I did to poor Uncle Steve’s rocking chair, my dad slammed down the phone, jumped on his Harley, and rode all the way up to Connecticut, not even stopping for gas when he needed it, just riding on the fumes of his fury alone. Swashbuckling grandly through the classroom door, he pushed past the Charles Plasky Father and Son Chair Caning Team, ripped the prewoven cane out of the rocking chair and threw it out the window.

“Do it right or don’t do it all!” he warned, rasped and threatened all at once, not meaning to sound like Clint Eastwood but sounding like Clint Eastwood anyway. He then made the entire class start their projects all over again, even the guy who started his chair last spring, but instead of it being a nine-week class, he changed it to a thirty-five week class, three nights a week, six hours a class, plus mandatory open studio on weekends, and we weren’t even allowed to buy the loose individual strands of cane we needed for our chairs from a catalog: we had to grow them ourselves in the Housatonic marsh out behind my house, and fashion our own chair-caning tools out of cat paws.

And, while that might not be exactly the way the story ended, that’s how it ended in my mind.

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baby eels

In January, I had to go to Madrid for work. And when I say work, I mean work. Early in the morning until late at night, and no time to see the city itself. But I wanted to do something memorable, since I wasn’t sure if I’d ever be back, so I decided to go to a couple of really good restaurants and have some typical Spanish food. Since no one eats dinner until late at night in Madrid anyway, this fit into my schedule nicely.

To get started in the right direction, I asked a taxi driver what his favorite restaurants were. “Casa Botin,” he said, “and Casa Lucio,” and a quick search on the internet proved that the taxi driver wasn’t joking around. I decided to hit up Lucio first, due to the following picture I found on their website, which I couldn’t stop dreaming about:

baby eels

“The young of the European eel is an authentic luxury that Casa Lucio offers only when it is in season,” I memorized from their website. “This dish is the precise amount of oil and hot pepper in order to preserve its rich flavor.” Mmmm, hot pepper. Mmmm, garlic. Mmmm anything that looks like a big plate of pasta but isn’t a big plate of pasta but is really pure protein instead. I hate pasta. I love pure protein. I couldn’t wait.

I couldn’t wait so badly that on the night before I planned to go to Lucio, I went to the little tapas bar across the street, saw that they had a baby-eel-on-toast tapas for 4.50 euros, and ordered one for dinner. It was tired and marginal, but I loved it anyway, and looked forward to how good it would be when properly prepared in a nice restaurant, instead of sitting around for days in a crappy one.

The next night when I got to Lucio, however, I almost wavered. I often dream about food poisoning – it’s an excellent accidental weight loss technique – so when I saw “steak tartar” on the menu, I briefly wondered which would most likely contain salmonella. Probably the steak tartar. Steak tartare, however, I could get in the States, but I’d never even heard of baby eels before now, so baby eels it had to be.

The baby eels, I noticed, were not listed on the menu with a price. If there’s no price on the menu, I know you’re supposed to ask, but 1) I didn’t want the waiter to think I was cheap, 2) the baby eels from the night before were only 4.50, and 3) maybe in Spain (they did invent the Siesta, after all; who knows how far their sleepiness might carry them), if something doesn’t have a price, it’s the same price as the item above it. The price of the item above the baby eels was 28 euros, which was the average price for most things on the menu. Even if that seemed kind of expensive, I’d known that this experience wasn’t going to be cheap, and I was just going to have to live with whatever it was.

When the waiter brought out the eels, he sort of sizzled them around in some sort of portable cooking receptacle before placing it on the table in front of me. The ritual was impressive, and I tried to remember what he was doing so I could recreate this wonderful dining experience for my parents the next time I went home. The only thing that wasn’t impressive was the size of the plate (small) and the amount of baby eels (even smaller), and my first thought was, “Crap, I’m going to be really hungry after this.”

What little there was, however, was delicious. Like the best plate of el dente pasta imaginable only it wasn’t pasta but tender baby eels. I savored all three bites in about two minutes flat. Not because I wolfed it down, but because it doesn’t take a long time to eat two minutes-worth of food. When I’m finished, the waiter asks if I want coffee or dessert. I say no, so I’m a little surprised when he comes back with a delightful plate of tiny cream puffs and exquisite candied nuts. I’m still hungry, so I eat them all.

While waiting for my check, I play a quick little game of “guess how much the bill will be,” where I guess the absolute highest amount I think it could possibly be, as a way of bracing myself, so when I actually get the bill, no matter what it is, I’m prepared. Seventy euros, I’m guessing. Sixty most likely, but I can live with seventy.

Nope! Not 60 euros, not 70 euros, but 112 euros! 112 EU! That’s 157.45 USD, I later learn, when I get the US version of the bill. That’s grocery money for a week! In all fairness to the baby eels, I also had the seafood soup, which itself was 18 EU, but still. I’d never spent so much on a meal in my life, and to make matters worse, I didn’t have any cash on me, was paying with a credit card, and in Spain, they don’t let you add a tip to a credit card payment, at least not at this restaurant.


And, I know tipping in Spain is not as big a deal as it is in the US, and you’re not even expected to do more than throw in the extra change, but somehow, when your bill is 112 EU, you feel cheap not leaving anything, and frankly, a little obligated. I rifle around in my pockets, rustle up about 5 euros in change, hide it under the check to buy myself some time, and then walk out of the restaurant as fast as I can, head down, not looking at anyone, thinking, “Just get out of here quick, they’ll never see you again.”

I’m about thirty feet down the street, thinking I’ve successfully escaped the humiliation of being a cheap American, when I hear feet running behind me, and someone calling, “Miss, miss!” I kind of duck. Did someone just throw a bomb? Is this my two-second warning? Am I about to be blown to bits like it happens to tourists in foreign countries all the time on CNN? No. Worse. It’s the maître d, or the owner or someone. CRAP! I knew 5 euros just wasn’t enough! “I’m sorry about the tip,” I blabble when he catches up to me. “I couldn’t put a tip on the credit card, and that was all the cash I had …”

“No, no!” he says. “I wasn’t talking about the tip. People don’t tip in Spain. It’s just, I want to make sure everything was ok. I want to make sure all of our guests have a good experience, and I wasn’t sure that you had. I also own this pub here across the street,” he said, pointing at the pub across the street, “Would you like a drink or something?”

What, had he seen the look on my face when faced with a $157.54 restaurant bill? Did he feel bad that he’d charged me that much money and I was still hungry? Suddenly, the magical plate of puff pastry and candied nuts made sense. The entire establishment might be secretly laughing at the only person who ordered the ridiculously-priced baby eels all season, but they were still nice enough to feel guilty about it.

I convinced him that everything was fine, told him the restaurant was great, thanked him for his offer anyway, and laughed about my stupidity all the way back to the hotel. A $157.54 restaurant bill. How STUPID could I be? Who orders a seasonal delicacy without asking about the price? I deserve a $157.54 bill, for my stupidity alone. In fact, there should be a stupid tax, and it should be exactly $157.54.

Around 3:30 the next morning, I wake up feeling TERRIBLE. Food poisoning always seems like such a great idea until I actually have it (which is not nearly enough, I add in retrospect). I lay there for a half hour, waiting to become sicker, and then make it to the bathroom just in the nick of time. Two violent thrusts, and out comes $157.54 worth of baby eels and seafood soup with the force of a fire hose, and all I can think of is, “Crap, what a waste of money,” but actually, I’m not too upset about it. I always like how my clothes fit after a rousing bout of food poisoning. I briefly consider fishing the eels out of the toilet, returning them to the restaurant, and demanding a refund on principle, or at least warning them about their contaminated stash of eels because probably not everyone likes being food poisoned as much as I do, but I’m so sick and weak the entire day, I can’t get out of bed.

At around 5 PM, I finally force myself out of the room, and walk the three miles to Museo del Prado because I can’t go to Madrid and at least get SOMETHING out of it that sticks. Fortunately, they no longer charge admission after 5PM so I feel like I’ve at least recouped a little of the money I flushed down the toilet the night before. However, it’s really hard to appreciate masterpieces when I’m about two seconds away from repurposing them with my own artistic inclinations, and since I’ll never be able afford the restoration charges they’d surely hit me with, I decide it would just be better for everyone involved if I studied the paintings later online, to see what I missed.

I sit down one of the stone benches with my head between my legs for about 20 minutes like my parents made me do when I was little and carsick, and as soon as I feel a moment of quiet, I get outside as fast as I can.

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your children are not charming

If there is one thing people will never look at me and say, it’s “Hmmm, I wonder why she never had any children.”

I hate children. Especially undisciplined children that run around and scream for no apparent reason, in places of work, in restaurants, in shopping malls, on the beach. For a recent example, I’m laying on my beach towel, and this fat mindless truck of a child runs right over my head (right over my head!) in his beeline for the water, covering me with sand which I have to “pffft pffft pffft” out of my mouth. I’d like to confront the little idiot, but by the time I realize what’s hit me, he’s already down at the water, chasing after the tide like he thinks he can catch it, and I don’t feel like getting into an argument with someone who thinks he can catch the tide. I can tell from here that there’s absolutely nothing going on inside that meaty little skull of his. The blinds are up and the shingles are painted, but all the people have moved away!

We have a name for these blank, personality-less little blobs of humanity in my family: block babies, because they have about as much going on inside their heads as those little red-brick cardboard blocks we used to make houses with in kindergarten.

And then there are the ones who aren’t just babies but full grown toddlers who can talk and express themselves, but are being carried around in their mother’s arms, crying incessantly, apparently about nothing. What in the world are they crying about? Wahh! Wahh! Wahhh! all day long. It’s not like they can’t talk. Why don’t they stop their crying and TELL US WHAT IS WRONG! And what is wrong with their mothers? They must realize that they have a full grown toddler with speaking capabilities in their arms. Why don’t they DO something about it? While I like to blame the parents, I can’t help but blame the children too. At some point in our lives (the ripe old age of one, I vote), we all need to rise above the inept disciplinary skills of our parents, pull ourselves up by the bootstraps, and shut the hmmmph up.

And what’s with this one little girl, who I’ve known for about 5 years, but in all these years she never seems to age or grow old or mature? She’s that same, unoriginal, washed-out little void with a pig nose, just as pointless as ever. It’s not just me, other people have confirmed it as well: this child has not aged a day since we’ve known her. Other children grow up and grow old, but not this one. It’s like she’s stuck in a time warp, or her own version of The Shining. I already know what her high school graduation picture will look like, and her wedding picture, and 50th Anniversary picture, and I’m half tempted to photoshop her likeness into grown up situations just to save everyone the trouble of taking pictures of her, since we already know how she’s going to look in every situation imaginable for the next hundred years.

So what I can’t understand is how people know this about me, but somehow still think their children are going to be exceptions, that I’m somehow going to think that their children are any different. They pull out their wallets to show me pictures, or present them to me in person, these frightful little blobs, like they present them to everyone else, with awe and pride, and I’m supposed to coo and speak to them and ask them questions and compliment them on how cute they are, but I just stand there, with a look of disgust on my face. I try to rally and say something appropriate, but whatever I say is the wrong thing, and instead we all get to enjoy a moment of stilted awkwardness. It’s not fair that they do this to me. They KNOW how I feel. Yet they’re inevitably disappointed by my reaction.

When I was little and used to meet adults, I used to think it was the adult’s job to initiate the conversation and draw me out and get to know me. Now that I’m the adult, the tables have turned, and I expect the children to initiate the conversation and draw me out and get to know me. I don’t know what to say to kids. Every time I try to speak to them, it falls flat anyway, so I’ve given up. It’s their turn to try, and if they can’t be as quietly extroverted and conversationally forthcoming as I’d like them to be, they should at least have an interpretative tap dance or a well-rehearsed juggling act all ready to go, so I can applaud sincerely at the end and be on my way. Otherwise, my NO CHILDREN ALLOWED policy remains in force, and I recommend that people wait until their children have achieved full adulthood before presenting them to me.

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carousel of hopelessness

One of the things I liked best about living in Los Angeles was that there was always the possibility of running into a big Hollywood Star. Not that I ran into many, or any at all, for that matter, although I did see Johnny, the mean kid who sweeps Danielson’s leg in the final showdown of The Karate Kid, on Malibu Beach one day. He was wearing a big Mr. T-type gold chain around his neck, which would have otherwise been a turnoff, but on Johnny from The Karate Kid? I wouldn’t have kicked him out of bed over it.

All day long, I sat there on my beach blanket and launched smoldering glances at him, all of which hit that invisible barrier that separates Stars from Nobodies and plopped dejectedly into the sand, a good 15 feet short of his beach blanket. But, it was L.A., Home of the Stars, and it was fraught with possibility. It was exciting just to be there.

Thus, when the entire Guess? Sales Department was invited to work the Silent Auction at the Carousel of Hope Ball, which raises millions of dollars in support of treatment and research programs for Childhood Diabetes, I felt like my moment had finally arrived. All the big stars turned out for the Carousel of Hope. Yesssss!! This is why I’d moved to LA: time to party with the stars, and maybe even marry one of them!

In a surprising twist, we, the volunteers, were not only given permission to drink while working the event, but were given the drinks for free. It wasn’t what I’d been expecting. I’d been looking for a little more structure, rules to be followed and obeyed: i.e., no drinking on the job, and I’d have been fine with that. I hadn’t been planning on drinking. However, while the rest of my coworkers had the sense to save the drinking until the end, I, unfortunately, did not, and kept availing myself of the handy little men who came wandering by every few minutes with their little silver drinks trays.

I’d been so excited about the event that I hadn’t eaten a thing all day, so I had quite a nice little buzz going in minutes flat, which gave me all the confidence I needed to not only approach every Star in Hollywood, but to think that they actually wanted to be approached by me, a crummy little volunteer from the Guess Corporate Headquarters, all dressed up in her little black dress, two sheets to the wind within the first five minutes.

Kevin Nealon was my first target. “Kevin!” I gushed. I was effusive, I was familiar, and I acted as if we were long lost friends. We even hugged! I gave a brilliant performance, Oscar-worthy, and I could see him struggling, really trying hard to remember how he knew me, reaching into the catacombs of his memory (“Where do I know her from? Where do I know her from?”) and then – of course – coming up with nothing.

And all poor Mike Myers wanted to do was look at the cute little purebred puppies that were being auctioned off in peace, but could I leave him in peace? Of course I couldn’t. I stood next to him for a half hour, pretending that I, too, was interested in the little purebred puppies. I don’t even like puppies!

“What are you DOING?” asked my coworkers, pulling me to the side.

“I’m driving up the bid,” I said, proud of my own brilliance, convinced that Mike Myers would be so afraid of losing the little puppies to such an interested party that his opening bid would be a record quarter of a million dollars alone. The Childhood Diabetes Society might even thank me personally!

Fortunately for the rest of the Hollywood Elite, the three glasses of wine pretty much knocked me out within the first half hour, and after that, I may or may not have spent the remainder of the night passed out in a bathroom under the counter. I have no recollection of the Silent Auction, and I completely missed the best part – the handing out of the goody bags, which I’m told the Stars really appreciated. When I re-entered consciousness, the night was practically over, and I was sitting at a dining room table, listening to my coworkers speak about me as if I wasn’t there. “How did she get so drunk?” “What are we going to do with her?”

All I know is I needed to be home now, in my own bed, before I completely passed out. The last thing I wanted was to be someone’s drunken responsibility. I slurred something unintelligible, pretended I was just going to go to the bathroom for a moment, and then took off, stumbling through the corridors of the Beverly Hilton Hotel, listing to one side like a sailboat. I don’t need to mention how scandalized the rest of my coworkers, bosses, and employers were over my condition or the fallout I experienced on Monday morning, back at work. It’s a wonder I still had a job.

And don’t ask me how I got out of the hotel, how I got to my car, or how I got to my apartment 30 miles away in South Pasadena. While I’d like to think I did the responsible thing, like handing Brad Pitt my keys and asking George Clooney to follow us in his Benz so Brad would have a ride back, that may be a bit of a stretch.

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are you sure nobody’s follow us?

CRAP. Crap crap crap crap crap. I am DONE with Match.com. DONE with it. I don’t know why I do this to myself. I know this is not a good medium for me. I know this. So why, after every couple of months, do I keep signing up, giving it another try?

This is not good. This is the email I just got, seconds ago:

“You are real! Saw you at Shaws salad bar. I didn’t say hello as you have not responded to any of my messages and figured you have your reasons. All fine. Anyhow, we both looked at each other and I was the guy who looked surprised!”

NOT good. No bueno. This is getting way too close. It was all fun and games when I lived on a deserted island with the closest “candidates” Five States Away, or too geriatric to make it down the steps, but that I can now be spotted in my local Shaws at the salad bar, without any control over the matter whatsoever?

First, I don’t remember looking at anyone. I was hungry and all I cared about was getting lunch. Second, I certainly didn’t notice anyone looking surprised by the reality of my existence. Who did he think he was seeing … Santa Claus?

I can’t even have the email in my inbox (by my logic, if I can’t see it, it never existed), so I panic and delete it immediately, before realizing that I’d forgotten to hit “Display Image.” I need to at least know who I’m now actively avoiding. I log onto match.com and click on the original email, which wasn’t even in my inbox, with the rest of the unopened emails. It was in the FILTERED box, which, if you’re being filtered electronically, there’s an even more important reason I haven’t responded.

I immediately decide to take down my profile.

I immediately decide never to return to Shaw’s, never to go to the salad bar, any salad bar, ever again. Salad bars are harbingers of bacteria with everyone illegally sampling with their dirty old hands and coughing all over the goods anyway, and my mother always said never to go to the salad bar. No good ever comes by going to the salad bar, and I immediately decide to start listening to my mother. My mother is always right, and if I listened to her in the first place I’d never be in the mess I’m in now, worrying about some strange person staking me out at the salad bar, following me home, hiding in the bushes, and peering into my windows at night.

I don’t know, though. We’ll see how long all these immediate decisions last. The salad bar is just so convenient.

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citizen’s arrest

I wasn’t even going to go to the gym that night. I mean, I was originally going to go, but then I stopped at home first, which is always a mistake. I got distracted, and soon decided it was just easier not to go to the gym at all.

But when the phone rang at 6:30, and it’s the CEO looking for a difficult report, I lie (yes, lie) and tell him that I’m at the gym but will work with the IT Department as soon as I get back. To make myself retroactively honest, I immediately hop on my bike and pedal to the island’s only gym, which includes a couple of treadmills, a couple of bikes, a bunch of black-and-silver automated weight-lifting machines, some barbells, and most importantly, one 45-lb bar. I repeat: one 45-lb bar – one – which is the equivalent of a Laundromat having only one washer: it’s in constant use, there’s always a line for it, and occasionally someone gets shot over it.

Further, it’s a universal rule of the gym world that whenever you use a bar, you’re supposed to re-rack your weights. Everyone knows this. Not everyone does this, but everyone knows this. And even if everyone didn’t know this, there are signs all over the gym that explicitly state this: re-rack all weights when finished. All you have to do is be able to read, and – while this is not always a given on the island – the “regulars” are now pretty good about running back to the bar and un-racking it whenever they see me coming. It was hard the first time, but by now, everyone is pretty good about cleaning up after themselves when I’m around.

But this night, when I walk in, there’s this new guy I’ve never seen before. He’s not bench pressing … he has the bar on the floor and he’s deadlifting, with pretty good technique, too, so I have to give him points for originality, but of course, this means he’s using the gym’s only bar, upon which he’s loaded a total of six 45-lb plates. It is not easy or fun to rack or unrack all those weights, so when I see it, I automatically think, “This better not be one of those times when he leaves it for me to do.”

While waiting for the bar, I busy myself with a workout involving a series of hand release pushups with a 200m run in between, but I’m keeping an eye on him, so I can use the bar when he’s done with it.

He does a bunch of deadlifts, then goes and does something else, then comes back, takes two plates off each side, and does some more deadlifts. It looks like he’s doing some sort of Deadlift/Other Exercise combo, and that he’ll keep coming back to deadlifts throughout his workout, so even though the bar’s just sitting there with two 45-lb weights on it in the middle of the floor where everyone can trip over it, I’m not about to just take his bar and start using it. That would be rude. I’d be pissed if someone interrupted my workout like that and stole my bar, so I continue to wait until he’s finished.

But after about 20 minutes or so, I start to get the idea that he’s in fact finished with the bar, and that he has no intention of ever putting it away. He’s just going to leave it there, for someone else (ME) to clean up, and I’m tired of getting stuck cleaning up after inconsiderate strangers. I’d never just leave my stuff around like that and expect someone to clean up after me, but for some reason, HE thinks it’s okay. (I guess bad parenting skills of an indulgent mother to be the culprit.)

To confirm my suspicions that this is going to be “one of those times,” he goes over to the corner where’s he stashed his stuff, slings his bag over his shoulder, and swaggers to the front door.

“Hey,” I call, but he doesn’t hear me and keeps walking. Except for the three lumpy Yoga ladies going one mile per hour on the treadmills, hanging onto the handles for dear life, we’re the only two people there. “HEY,” I say again. Nothing. He keeps walking, so I keep walking too, past the lumpy Yoga ladies who don’t have to be mind readers to know that I’m mad; they can just see the look on my face. Their eyes follow me curiously: ahhh, some excitement, finally!

He’s halfway to his truck by the time I make it out the front door. “Hey!” I yell. “Hey!” He finally turns around. “Are you done with your bar?” I say. It comes out nicer than I thought it would come out – just an innocent person asking an innocent question, except he’s out in the middle of a parking lot, miles away from the bar. It’s obvious that he’s done with it.

At first, he looks at me like he doesn’t know what I’m talking about, and then he remembers. “Oh, yeah, sorry,” he says, with a smile and a Southern drawl. “I was rude and just left it there for somebody else to put away.” He even admits it! This is the moment when his indulgent mother – charmed by her strapping son – would pick up his dirty clothes from the bathroom floor instead of insisting that he comes back and does it for himself, because, instead of coming back inside, he just keeps walking off to his truck.

I’m not his mother, nor am I charmed. “So you’re just going to leave it there?” I continue.

He turns around, not smiling anymore. Good, because neither am I. This is obviously the first time in his adult life that someone has followed him out into a parking lot and made him be accountable for his actions. “You want me to come back in and put it away?” he says incredulously, like I’ve just asked him to sacrifice his first born son.

“Yes,” I say, “That’s what I want you to do.” I’m kind of holding the door open for him, and I use this opportunity to gesture at it illustratively, like I’m Vanna White presenting the prize behind Door #3.

Now, I know. What’s the big deal. Just put away his stupid bar for him already. But when it’s happened as often as it’s happened, enough is enough. One last straw and the camel goes down, and this was it. And, I know that some girls could have sweetly pulled this whole thing off in a charming manner and probably have turned it into a dinner date, and there’s also the whole thing about catching more flies with honey, but 1) I am not one of those girls, and 2) who wants to catch flies? Flies are disgusting. Flies spit on your food every time they land on it, and I could not care less about charming some lazy person who admittedly leaves his sweaty crap around and expects other people to clean up after him. If he’s like this with the general public, imagine what he’s like in private.

We both kind of angrily walk back in and I drop down and do 10 more hand release pushups right next to the bench press rack (not because I’m monitoring him but because that’s where I’d done all my other pushups that night), so I just so happen to have a front row seat when he picks up the whole bar with the weights still attached to it, slams it onto the rack, and begins to walk away.

It would have killed him to finish the job?

“Hey, no problem,” I say, sarcastically. “I’ll just take care of the rest.”

“I’m SURE you can handle it,” he says, just as sarcastically, the big jerk.

“READ THE SIGN!” I say, and then I read him the sign just in case he doesn’t know how to read (a distinct possibility on this island): “RE-RACK YOUR WEIGHTS!” But this time I lose. He just keeps walking and doesn’t come back and I can tell that this conversation is over. I’m so mad that I’m having an out of body experience. I storm up to the front desk, past the twittering Yoga ladies, because THE FRONT DESK are the ones who should be doing the dirty work and not leaving it up to the Vigilante Society of One all the time, but are they? No.

Three girls are standing there, and with a 3-to- 5 worker/member ratio you’d think they’d have their place under a little more control, but do they? No, they’re just chitchatting and gossiping, and it takes them a few seconds to finish their very important conversation about NOTHING and realize that I’m standing there forcefully staring at them. “THAT GUY IS A COMPLETE JERK!” I say, pointing out at the complete jerk who was now getting into his truck, having the exact same thought about me, no doubt.

They strain their necks to see who I’m talking about, and then all kind of talk at once. “Who, Matt?” says Paulette. “He stopped coming for a while and now he’s back.”

“Why, what did he do?” said the second one. “I saw you go out there and wondered what was going on but I just thought you were friends with him.”

I tell them what happened.

“How rude,” says Paulette. “You’re always supposed to rack your weights. Everyone knows that.”

“You actually went after him and made him come back in?” says the second. “Good for you! I never really liked him either.”

“You’re my new hero,” says the other one. “He’s a cop!”

Crap. He’s a cop? Not that I would have acted any differently had I known. What does he think, that he’s above the law? But, here’s the thing: the island only has about two cops, and while I wouldn’t normally worry about running into him, since I’m not involved in criminal activity, unfortunately, almost nobody else on the island is involved in criminal activity either. So, there’s not a whole lot for the two of them to do except sit alongside the road and wait to pull you over for going 56 in a 55 mph speed zone, and everyone knows how easy it is to go 56 in a 55. Considering that I drive the island’s only bright yellow jeep with four big headlights on top, which makes me easily recognizable from a mile away, you can pretty much guess how this is going to end for me: with points.

The good thing is that my jeep wasn’t there that night. I was on my bike, so he doesn’t yet know what I drive. Give it time, though, give it time. I can’t be riding around on my bike forever.

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double identity

After graduating from college with a useless degree in Advertising, I couldn’t get a job. Plus, it was the Eighties: I had big sticky-uppy hair and wore brighty-colored miniskirts with white wrestling boots, a look for which Corporate America was not quite ready. The only job I could get was a job where no one could see me, as a telemarketer for a company that sold $3000 water purification systems to unsuspecting homeowners. This was before the bottled water craze, when people were still drinking tap water. I was the annoying cold caller that disturbed them during their dinner hour and tried to convince them to let one of our random salesmen into their homes to perform a free analysis on their tap water.

If the salesman could just get his foot into the door, he almost always made the sale. It was actually a good product, with the most stunning, disturbing, and effective product demonstration I’ve ever seen. The salesman would merely fill a drinking glass with tap water from the kitchen sink, and hand it to the homeowner, who would drink it. The salesman would then fill up the glass again, insert a special magnetic rod into it that would separate the positive and negative ions (apparently undoing the job that all the chemicals did during the water recycling process), and in a few short minutes, the glass would be filled with brown poopy water, thick with semi-solid oozing waste, which not even a person dying of thirst in the desert would be desperate enough to drink.

Having realized what he’d just drunk, the homeowner would puke into the nearest bucket, and then purchase the purification system immediately, even if it meant auctioning off his least attractive child in order to pay for it.

The problem, for me, was getting the salesman into the door. I am not a born orator, hate talking on the phone, and would have a difficult time selling air conditioning to a billionaire during a heat wave in Miami. They never should have hired me for the job, but I was the only person who showed up for the interview, so they didn’t really have a choice.

By the end of the first night, I hadn’t booked one appointment, and had been hung up on twenty five times. I felt personally rejected, as I should have, but I needed the job. Maybe if I pretended to be someone else, I thought, it wouldn’t feel like “I” was the one being rejected, and I wouldn’t now be sitting here at the end of the night, crying in the bathroom, wishing I had the nerve to drown myself in the toilet.

So that’s what I did. The next morning, it wasn’t Stacey who showed up to work, but a bubbly, engaging person named Jennifer. And boy, was Jennifer good. She booked a record three appointments in one night, resulting in two actual sales. Her employers loved her and her co-telemarketers tried copying her effortless banter, but unfortunately, “Jennifer” was exhausting. Naturally gregarious with a loud, exuberant personality, she used up a lot of gas, and I just couldn’t sustain her. Stacey, who spoke mostly to the dial tone in a half-hearted, apologetic tone, was much easier to maintain. “Where’s Jennifer?” my boss would say. “Bring back Jennifer!” But in the end, I just didn’t have the energy. Two days later, after only two weeks on the job and not one booking of her own, “Stacey” was “laid off.”

It was one of the happiest moments of Stacey’s life.

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911 Revisited

The summer immediately after 911, my niece came to visit me in Connecticut, and we hopped on Metro North and rode south into the city. We only had a few hours, there was a lot to see, and I was worried about how we were going to fit it all in.

First stop: Ground Zero, where now, in place of the Twin Towers, stood a canyon-sized hole in the ground. Except for the occasional Midwestern couple bizarrely commanding each other to “Smile” and “Say Cheese” as if they were standing in front of Cinderella’s Castle, the atmosphere – despite thousands of people – was freakishly silent.

Next, the Empire State Building, which was apparently on everyone else’s to-do list, too. As we dejectedly turned away from the three-hour line for the Observation Deck, we happened to see the following sign, propped on an easel like a fine piece of art: “Avoid the Wait! Only $10 More! Unique 20-Minute Flight-Simulated Skyline Tour! Observation Deck Immediately Following!”

A special tour of the city AND get to the Observation Deck in record time?

After reassuring the man at the ticket counter that neither I nor my 12-year old niece was pregnant, we’re ushered (with about 50 other people) into a very small movie theatre equipped with special rows of seats that looked like they’d once belonged on a roller coaster. Once we’re all seated, a large bar stretching the length of each row is lowered over our laps, and we settle in, prepared for a boring yet educational tour of the city’s most important sights.

As the movie starts, however, it immediately becomes clear why pregnant ladies were banned from the “tour.” The take-off is fast and furious, and we catapult through the city at a speed so great that any landmark, even if the pilot had bothered to point it out to us (he hadn’t), would have been unrecognizable, lost in a dizzying cinematic blur.

First we fly into the East River, and as we bounce in and out of the water’s surface, the seats wiggle and jiggle wildly, and it feels like we’re actually there, prisoners of a drunk or incompetent pilot. We shoot off the river, straight up into the air at a 90 degree angle (“Whoa!” screams the audience), narrowly missing the side of a bridge (we aren’t told which one).

Next we’re racing towards the Financial District. The Twin Towers loom large in the distance, and we’re headed right at them, at breakneck speed. Given the pilot’s track record of crashing into things, I begin to fear for the fate of the World Trade Center. And then it hits me. Are we really sitting in this theatre pretending to be riding on a plane that’s about to crash into the Twin Towers? Didn’t that … ummm … already happen, but for real, and didn’t … like … thousands of people die? Couldn’t this “ride” be considered a breach of some patriotic code of honor?

Everyone starts laughing, or at least I think they’re laughing, so I start laughing too, hysterically, loudly, the loudest in the theatre, and I don’t know why but I can’t stop. “HAHAHAHAHA,” I scream. It shouldn’t be funny, it’s not funny, but I don’t know what’s come over me. It’s like I’m stuck in church having a mildly funny thought and I’m not supposed to laugh but knowing I’m not supposed to laugh just makes it that much harder not to laugh, only a hundred times worse and with a handful of crazy thrown in for good measure.

And then, it happens. We crash right into the Twin Towers! We slam into the side of one building, and ricochet off into the other one. There’s an on-screen explosion … a simulated crashing fuzziness … but that doesn’t stop us. We just keep going, like cartoon characters who get run over by a bus but who get up and run away anyway. Disoriented from the blow and unable to control the plane, the pilot swoops through the city, plowing into anything that gets in his way. The scene on the streets is panic and mayhem. People see us coming and try desperately to get out of our way. They run from us in terror, some to no avail. The casualties are numerous. A pizza delivery man gets side-swiped, and as he goes rolling into a gutter, the pizza boxes fly from his arms and land with a cardboardy thunk on our windshield.

Despite, or because of, the horror, I laugh so hard and continuously that I start feeling it in my abs. For a total of twenty minutes, we plow through the city, too fast to notice any sights but at this point, I’m enjoying the sight of flying and harried bodies so much that I don’t even care anymore about Alex’s lack of an educational experience. “Look at that woman! We’re going to hit her!” I scream. “Hahahahahha, we did! Did you SEE how she landed on that fruit cart?”

Suddenly, abruptly, the tour ends, and we’re back at the launch pad. The lights come on, and the bar across our laps goes up. We’re free but none of us move. We sit there in shock, me with a huge grin still frozen on my face. Now that the lights have come on, it almost feels like I might have imagined the whole thing. As soon as we’re able, we file out of the theater.

“You were laughing so hard,” Alex says to me with her teeth clenched. She’s walking slightly in front of me, and has eyes affixed firmly to the ground. “Why?” she spits.

“Uh, what?” I say. “It wasn’t just me. Everyone else was laughing pretty hard too.”

“No,” said Alex, angry and accusing. “YOU were the only one laughing. All of the kids were crying, and EVERYONE ELSE was screaming in terror!”

We finish off the night with tickets to Beauty and the Beast, but even the cheerful singing of dancing candlesticks cannot get my mind off the ride. I spend the rest of the weekend in a mild state of shock, and on Monday morning, I call the NY Times. “Someone has to check this out,” I say, “It’s unbelievable,” which is perhaps the wrong thing to say to a guy who doesn’t sound like he believes you in the first place. The more I try to convince him, the more I sound like I’m making things up. Eventually, I don’t even believe myself anymore, so I just hang up.

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The Burial of Butters

Despite the tragic circumstance surrounding his demise (he thirsted to death in his cage), the Burial of Butters seemed, to me, af first, a jocular affair, ironic at the very least. Here we were – my parents, my sister, her two daughters (one the former “owner” of the little blond hamster, and hence, as I saw it, “the perp”) – gathered out in the side yard, back by the fence where all the other family pets were buried, solemnly laying to rest a fondly-remembered much-loved pet who – had he been this remembered and this loved in life, I couldn’t help but think – wouldn’t now be laying wrapped in a paper towel inside a cigar box.

No one else was joking, however. My dad – minister and grave digger – was somber and serious, and my mom – always careful with her grandchildren’s feelings, even the guilty ones – was kind and nurturing. My sister, who’d once killed a pet of her own in a similar manner and was most likely working through her own unresolved feelings of guilt, was making no attempt to hide her tears. My niece the chief mourner was putting on a brave face, but as soon as the first handful of dirt was thrown onto the box, the gravity of the situation – death, any death – impressed itself upon all of us, and there I was, suddenly sad about so many things at once: a dead hamster, the tragedy of life, funerals in general … and as I looked around at all these people I loved most in the world, I was overcome by a feeling of gratitude, that we were all, now, here in this moment together, and I was sad in advance for the time when this would no longer be the case.

I escaped to my room to put away my video camera and compose myself, grabbing a handful of Kleenex out of the bathroom on the way, and was soon joined by my niece, who laid herself sadly down on my bed. I busied myself with battery chargers and camera cases until I could speak without a shaking voice, then laid on the bed beside her and held her in my arms because I knew she wouldn’t have wanted to be alone. Slowly we began talking of happier things, the way she was when she was little, the funny things she said and did, and we eased out of the sadness, and my other niece came and joined us and it was nice, all of us in a pile together on the bed, heavy and light, happy to be there with each other, happy to all still be alive.

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valentine yoga

It’s 9:45 on Saturday morning.   In addition to a 25 minute kettlebell/burpee/pushup/box jump workout, I’ve run 3 miles, done 200 inverted weighted situps, and maxed out my clean and jerk.   Cocktail hour, however,  isn’t for another eight hours, and I need to fill the time, which isn’t easy to do out here on the Outer Banks in the winter.  There isn’t even a MOVIE theater out here, for crying out loud.

I go over to the bulletin board to check the class schedule to see if there’s at least a class I can take, and there is:  Gentle Yoga.

Gentle Yoga?   Yoga’s already gentle.  Do they really need to insult it even further by describing it as “gentle”?  I don’t want Gentle Yoga.  I want a 45 minute met-con beat down that leaves me lying in a fetal position, soaked in a puddle of sweat, sobbing quietly to myself in a darkened corner, but Gentle Yoga’s the only option,  so I take it.

Five minutes later, I’m standing in a dimly lit room on my Yoga mat, with soothing music playing in the background, waiting for class to begin.  Also in the room waiting for class to begin are an older Latino couple, a younger couple who have come to class because they ran out of gas outside the building, and one other person, a 65-year old woman that looks about as flexible as a barn door, quite possibly suffering from Brittle Bone Disease. 

“In honor of Valentine’s Day,” says the smiling, friendly instructor, “This is going to be a Partner’s Class.  I just wanted to let everyone know beforehand, because you have to be comfortable touching and being touched by people you might not know.”

I freeze.  What happened to Gentle Yoga?  I’m not even comfortable fist bumping people I DO know,  let alone touching and being touched by people I might not know.

“And if you’re NOT comfortable with that?” I ask, in what I hope is an equally smiling and friendly voice, trying to sound normal and well-adjusted, like I’m just making conversation, and not outing myself as a person who’s deathly opposed to being touched by complete strangers during a workout.

“That’s perfectly fine,” she says happily and non-judgmentally.  She doesn’t scoff at me like I’d be scoffing at me if I’d been in her position dealing with a person like me, and merely tells me it’s not a big deal, that I don’t need a partner,  and that I can find alternate ways to do the moves, using the walls or something … whatever makes me comfortable.

I relax a little, but I can already tell that, despite my playful tone, I’ve managed to ostracize myself from the warm circle of communal Yoga love that otherwise envelopes the room.

I’m clearly the Island of Do Not Touch. 

Yet, when it comes time to partner up,  and everyone has a partner but the 65-year old lady, suddenly, she becomes my responsibility.  She’s staring at me with a look on  her face that says,  “You could make this really awkward for all of us and insist on doing the partner class by yourself, which means I’ll have to do the class by myself too, and we’ll be a disruption to everyone, or you could just be an adult about this, and be my partner.”

It’s a Mexican Stand Off moment that feels like it lasts for about ten minutes, with everyone standing around looking at me expectantly, waiting for me to ruin their Valentine’s Day Workout.

As much as I want to, I just can’t do it.

Which is how, on a Saturday morning in February, I find myself being hoisted up and precariously balanced on the back of a geriatric senior citizen who doesn’t look like she’s lifted more than a 5 pound barbell in her life, but who is determined, against all odds,  to show me what Partner Yoga is all about. She’s breathing hard, bent over double like the Hunchback of Notre Dame, and I’m laid out in a backbend on top of her with my chest to the sky.   We’re supposed to be standing in place, but we seem to be covering a good bit of real estate, as she teeters back and forth on shaking knees and arthritic hips, a circus act threatening to topple, first to the left,  then to the right, with the audience anxiously following the teetering procession with their heads like we’re a gripping tennis match.  All I can think  (besides “Whoa! Whoa! Put me down!”) is how, if she drops me and I break my neck during a class that bills itself as Gentle Yoga, I’m going to be really really mad.

We looked nothing like this (although I’m pretty sure she thought we did):

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