Monthly Archives: August 2009

Burning Woman (Part One)

            Andy’s skipped town (L.A.) and will be in Reno for a few days, interrupting his current acting gig as part of a clown troupe. That’s just as well, considering he created a clown character called The Naked Clown. (Don’t ask.)

            After Reno, he’s headed to Burning Man, the temporary city near Gerlach, Nevada that erupts like chicken pox across the belly of the northern Nevada desert. Burning Man is a temporary community of five square miles in the Black Rock Desert, 120 miles north of Reno, on a mini-dry lake-bed playa. More than 50,000 people who value artistic self-expression and popular pharmaceuticals will pitch their tents to camp in extreme heat, freezing cold, dust and dust storms. At the end of the festivities a four story tall wooden man is burned to symbolize Burning Man’s major significance——to provide the fire for 50,000 s’mores.   

            This year’s theme is Evolution. The majority of attendees, who enjoy creating costumes, are expected to dress up as Charles Darwin, Clarence Darrow, monkeys, plant cells, human cells and sleeper cells. The remainder come dressed as Gideon Bibles or God.

             There is no water at Burning Man, but there are 400 port-a-potties, which in my book is more important. It is not commonly known that Nevada, (“The Sagebrush State,” “The Silver State,” “The Battle Born State,” “The Dust Mite State”) has, since it was first admitted to the Union in 1864*, lacked sufficient numbers of 20th century restrooms.  

         * [State of Nevada expelled from Union in 1865, wait-listed 1866-68, re-admitted by doctor’s excuse in 1869]

            Oh, I know what you’re thinking: places in Las Vegas have gargantuan hotels with ornate bathrooms like the one in the Venetian Hotel’s opulent world-renowned Zeffirino Restaurante, which recently won fourth place for “America’s Best Restroom.” The contest is sponsored by the Cintas Corporation, maker of bathroom hygiene products, which looks for nominees in answer to questions such as “What makes the experience of using a public restroom something special?” “Is it style? Is it elegance?” “Is that restroom so clean you are almost ashamed to go home?”

            Zeffirino’s restroom includes spacious men and women’s rooms that feature custom-made mosaic tile artwork, marble floors and private restroom suites where patrons using the toilets may simultaneously dine on Zeffirino’s House Speciality, Tuna Noodle Casserole with Peas. 

            This is fine for big-city folks, but in less populated areas— the major part of Nevada—- restrooms are limited, if they exist at all. When I was young, I took the Greyhound Bus several times with my mother and sister from Portland to Las Vegas. Going by bus, at least, we had access to restrooms in the Nevada towns of Beatty and Tonopah. During these rest stops, nickels or dimes were not for slot machines but for pay toilets. Yes, children, for those of you unfamiliar with the name “Nik-O-Lok,” it was not a candy bar but a bar to your ability to use a  public toilet unless you put money in the steel slot. This was country-wide. Generally all but one stall required a nickel or dime to use. For those unable or unwilling to pay, a free stall was provided, recognizable by its hay-covered floor and mucking rake.

            Fortunately, the courtesy developed to hold the stall door open when you exited, so the next person could go in, gratis. If you didn’t like the looks of the person next in line waiting for you to leave, you could hold the door open until she came close, then allow the locking door to slam shut in front of her while uttering “Oops!” to avoid being beaten.

Burning Woman (Part Two)

            Children like me were trained from toddler days to climb under the pay stalls to use the bathroom and open the door for family. To this day, I can adroitly slide under a locked stall door, but I’ve found this disturbs the current occupant.

            I understand the concern because I vividly remember my own shock whenever children’s faces suddenly stared up at me from under the stall door. As a woman, I found it uncomfortable as well to use a narrow stall’s toilet while listening to crying children next door to me, and to hear from the nearby free stall an occasional whinny.

            When Andy was young, I rarely required him to slide under a stall door unless it was accidentally locked. He accompanied me, of course, to the women’s room—mothers know what I’m talking about. A few times I’d get disgusted glares and mutterings from insensitive women because Andy was then slightly tall for a ten year old.

            The last time Alan and I drove from Las Vegas to Portland on Highway 95, I was accompanied by nasty, burning stomach flu that required urgent bathroom stops along the way. In the five hour drive across the Mojave Desert from Las Vegas to Tonopah in central Nevada, I found one good restroom in the town of Beatty. We tried stopping at the ghost town of Goldfield, slumbering under a blanket of spring snow, but at the only open business, a Chevron station, the restroom was locked because the pipes had frozen.

            One hundred miles from Beatty, we arrived at Tonopah. [A Native American word, variously translated as “greasewood water,” “greasewood springs,” “little water,” “brush water,” “brush water springs,” “water brush,” “water for you,” “water for us,” “not much wood little water,” “water with only a little ice please,” or “tonopah”.] I was treated at the Nye General Hospital’s emergency room where the bearded young doctor assured me his pills would see me home comfortably.

            “Don’t worry,” he added, “you’ll find plenty of restrooms from here to Reno. Hey, this is modern Nevada.”

            According to Nevada experts, there still aren’t any restrooms in the 100 miles between Beatty and Tonopah, and Goldfield no longer has its gas station. Had I traveled two and half hours north from Tonopah to Austin, Nevada, instead of Reno, I could’ve found the remote but interesting restroom at St. Augustine, Nevada’s oldest Catholic church. The church’s steeple bell can only be run by pulling on a rope located in the men’s restroom, which, in local parlance is known as the “dong ding.”

            I’m certain Andy won’t have similar Nevada restroom issues at Burning Man. Not with 400 port-a-potties standing by, adorned with beacon lights and car sirens for night visits. The organizers, two of whom majored in history of bathroom hygiene, are determined that Burning Man be a “Leave No Trace” event. Andy and his friends would do well to comply. I’m thinking particularly of the final caveat found in the list of Participant’s Responsibilities:

      Please Do Not Defecate On the Playa

“My Momma Told Me…..You Better Shop Around”

            I was driving by St. Mary’s Catholic Church here in Walnut Creek last week, and glanced over at a crowd spilling from the main door or standing around in groups. Rather than the usual bridal party and guests in colorful clothes, everyone appeared to be wearing black. I recognized at once what the sad and somber occasion was. They had shopped the recent Anniversary Sale at my (former) favorite department store, which I’ll call Snortstrum.

            For the past five years, Snortrum’s apparel displayed in catalogues and on captive manikins has been mostly dark, dowdy, and bizarre in keeping with their slogan “Reinvent Yourself.” People who’ve shopped at Snortstrum have been forcibly reinvented by sales clerks—– locked into dressing rooms and ceaselessly handed clothing so aesthetically nauseating that the tortured customers willingly yield their credit cards just to escape from the store. I have seen dazed, reinvented women walking around wearing white, oversized, off-the-shoulder cotton blouses that resemble king-size torn pillowcases, their swollen feet stuffed into four inch studded platform high heels, while carrying massive purses the size of small dog travel kennels, and poured into tight pencil skirts that force the women to walk as if they were waiting for a suppository to melt.

            I sent an e-mail to a vice president of merchandising at Snortstrum and grumbled about their disappointing fashion choices. When I received a reply, I was afraid to open the e-mail: The subject line was marked “F.U.”

            “Do I really open that e-mail?” I asked my husband Alan.

            “Maybe it means ‘follow up,’” he said.

            He was right. The vice president of merchandising claimed the store was “not trying to buy just for women under 30 and the extremely wealthy,” but suggested I might look elsewhere for more price-conscious fashion, such as Ace Hardware.

            I am grateful my mom isn’t alive to see how Snortstrum has evolved. When I was young, Mom dragged me and my sister to buy shoes at the store, which for its first 62 years of existence only carried shoes, and in Portland was the clear favorite for footwear. Mom complained I was hard on shoes, so she bought me sturdy saddle shoes— white tie shoes with brown around the middle that required lacing up through eight or more eye holes. Each of these shoes weighed about ten pounds.  

            The only reason I stopped whining when Mom insisted we shop for shoes was because Snortstrum added an attraction to its shoe department that tantalized every kid. The first time I saw the vertical wooden cabinet that resembled a podium, I wondered why a boy about my age and his parents were looking down through tubes that rose out of the top of the cabinet. After I tried on several pair of saddle shoes, the salesman, sensing a sale, led us to the wooden cabinet and told me to climb up and put my feet inside an opening at the bottom of the cabinet.

            “You can see how the shoes fit through this x-ray device,” the salesman said to Mom, “because you’ll actually see the bones of her feet and the outline of the shoes.”

            I wiggled my toes and watched them move under the fluoroscopic light that seemed to shine right through to the bones. While Mom paid for the shoes, I competed with other kids for the chance to watch my feet in the shoe-fitting machine. From then on I eagerly went to shop for shoes, even if they weren’t for me, just so I could repeatedly see my feet in the x-ray beam.

            Despite the advantages to Snortstrum’s shoe sales, the shoe-fitting x-ray device was finally yanked from all their stores, as I discovered to my disappointment. Most states outlawed the units—an estimated 10,000 nationwide—- by the late ‘50s because of the radiation hazard associated with the machines.

            I ended up, because of the styles of shoes perennially carried by Snortstrum, with a propensity for corns and permanently crooked toes. My little toes on each end curve to face the other toes, which are disgusted to share the same foot.

            These days when I see the perennial pointed toe and high heel shoes featured at Snortstrum, along with the expensive, homely clothes and purses, I flash back fondly to the years when Snortstrum was the best –and more affordable—place to buy. I’m also convinced I’ve never had as much fun shopping as I did when I was being irradiated by Snortstrum’s shoe-fitting x-ray machine.

Dive Bombers From Hell (Part One)

            We were eating dinner in the outside seating of a Middle Eastern-themed restaurant, enjoying the spectacular view before us of roaring motorcycles and cars gunning their motors as they cruised the city street. I was forking my pomegranate-sauced chicken as Alan wolfed down his blackened salmon when two black and yellow wasps—yellow jackets—flew to our table. They circled Alan’s plate, then touched down on the fish and began to eat.  Alan, partly to annoy me, kept eating placidly, which he had ordered as a side dish. 

            I glanced warily at the winged invaders, my forehead beading with sweat. Then I noticed everyone eating at the restaurant was beaded with sweat.  The outside temperature was 95 degrees. A waiter whose brow was beaded with sweat glanced around before surreptitiously wiping his forehead with pita bread. 

            The three of them, Alan and the two wasps, continued to eat together congenially, until one flew over to my pomegranate chicken. That did it. My brave front crumbled. Reflexively I pushed my chair back until it banged against a solid object behind me. When the wasp lifted up and hovered near me, I shoved my chair back again, smashing against something although the chair didn’t move.

            “What the hell is that lady doing?” said a voice behind me, evidently the female patron I’d been throttling with my chair.

            “Take it easy, Mom,” said Jordan, my 24-year son. I’d forgotten he was along for dinner. He was eating whatever was the most expensive meal on the menu.

            “Don’t show fear,” he said, with a disdainful smile. “They can smell fear.” 

            I noticed he was sitting at the far end of the table, one leg stretched to the street curb to give him a running start, and holding a tightly rolled up menu in his fist.

            I almost deserved the ridicule from Jordan because I broke my own rule: never eat outdoors beginning late summer until December because of the annual yellow jacket invasion. I always make a fool of myself when my personal space is invaded by a wasp. I squat down rapidly and waddle a few paces out of the wasp’s radar. People who’ve observed this behavior don’t know whether to sympathize or throw me bread crumbs. 

            At this time of year, the news contributes to my phobia by warning everyone that the yellow jackets have returned, and to avoid wearing fragrances and bright colors. I wasn’t always this paranoid about yellow jackets. It was an acquired habit.

            When I was in third grade, our teacher gathered the class in a circle on the playground.  It was a September morning, the prime month for yellow jackets. One flew over to our circle then landed on the nose of a boy named Winston, who was wearing a bright green t-shirt. Winston, the class pariah, always smelled like vinegar. I’m sure the wasp thought Winston was a Chef Salad.

            Growing up, I was always harassed by yellow jackets around tennis courts and golf courses. I could never figure out why they preferred these two sports. The only similarity between tennis and golf is, no matter how well you plan to hit the ball, you invariably suck. It’s the apparent duty of yellow jackets to ensure you have a rotten time.

            Once I accidentally (I swear) hit a yellow jacket while I was serving in tennis. It had been buzzing around, prematurely celebrating my loss, when I struck it with my racket. Like the cartoon bee who winds itself up in fury, stinger elongated, this yellow jacket tore after me as I, panting, raced out of the courts, down a winding path, and finally into a public restroom. It was the men’s room, but the first available door so I wasn’t choosy.

            Several times I have competed with yellow jackets for my soft drink at parks and zoos, including one time at the Arizona-Desert Museum in Tucson, when Alan, who in retrospect must’ve been annoyed at me for something, handed me his cup of cola to hold while he “rearranged his shirt” [his explanation]. I instantly realized I was at A ZOO holding a COLA, but it was too late. Immediately a yellow jacket—- larger than the ones back home, probably because, according to 1950’s sci-fi movies which are always based on accurate research, insects grow much larger in deserts, sometimes to 100 feet if they’ve been exposed to radiation from atomic bombs—- chased me in 98 degree heat uphill, around several cages of birds and animals, until I spotted a restroom.

            The lesson from all this can be algebraically stated: if yellow jackets fly from 6-7 mph, but you can run 7 1/2 mph, not counting an unknown wind or breeze factor [“x”], and you’ve previously mapped out locations of restrooms [“r”], you can reach safety before you’re stung, unless you’re followed by a wasp colony, or, as in the movies (if you’re female), you trip over a large rock. 

Dive Bombers From Hell (Part Two)

            Here in Northern California, many people blithely eat outside, sharing their meals with wasps, even encouraging their presence by intentionally serving meat and sweet dishes outside. It’s the green thing to do. The yellow jackets don’t object because, scientifically speaking, they’re called social insects who enjoy parties when they’re not entertaining each other with stories of mass stingings.

            I’ve been to barbecues where the wasps are virtually invited. Walking the length of an outdoor buffet holding my plate, I compete with guest wasps for the cocktail hot dogs and potato salad. One ecologically-conscious host I know puts up a separate and unoccupied circular table with a large can of open tuna as a centerpiece. I thought this was to steer the wasps away from other tables, but then I noticed the host kept going over to the tuna table and refilling its water glasses. 

            Despite my son Jordan’s assertion, wasps don’t check you out because of Fear Pheromones or B.O. All they care is whether you smell like a hamburger, hot dog, ham, fish, fruit, vegetable, juice, candy, cola or ice cream. Anything, in fact, you might put in your mouth. They’ve learned over decades of breeding that humans eat lavishly, while they, the wasps, are relegated to forging in garbage cans. This has done irreparable harm to wasp self-esteem. An insect that was once cheerful and helpful, that you could stand on your finger like a parakeet, is now sullen and chronically pissed off.

            It doesn’t help that people are always swatting at the wasps, who feel bad enough without being smacked by a hand or newspaper, or the worst insult, a fly swatter. Yellow jackets are also stigmatized because of their aposematic coloring. That means their striped yellow and black colors advertise danger to predators, so in addition to being hit, sworn at and sprayed by humans, yellow jackets, as their name reveals, must wear the demeaning striped clothes that resemble insect prison garb. This explains why there’s little inter-dating with honey bees and other wasps.            

            Don’t get the idea that yellow jackets are always undesirable. Romance in the nest is a different matter. Dr. Michael Goodisman of the Georgia Institute of Technology, an entomologist whose life’s work is studying entos, has determined that each yellow jacket queen mates with several males to create a complex family tree. Despite the fact the queen is, in entomological terms, a “slut,” Dr. Goodisman has discovered the multiple mating creates a more successful colony. Unlike for humans, where loose behavior leads to shame and decline unless one is a Senator or Governor, the yellow jacket queen’s promiscuity is acceptable, and hence not as Goodisman.

            The most abundant yellow jacket out west is known as Vespula Pennsylvanica, which originated, of course, in New Jersey. In recent years, a more aggressive species of yellow jacket appeared in Ohio—the German yellow jacket (Vespula Germanica)— which declared war and conquered the previously dominant species known as the Eastern yellow jacket.

            Even Hawaii has invading wasps, particularly on Maui and the Big Island. Up in Haleakala National Park, the size of the nests are usually the size of a football, but have grown, according to the Honolulu Advertiser, “to the size of a ’57 Buick.” In other words, the nest could be the size of the familiar ‘56 Hudson Hornet, ‘55 Nash Ambassador, or ‘59 Ford V-8. The nests hold 600,000 wasps, unless the nest goes in for servicing.       

            Lest you think I’m over-reacting to the threat of yellow jackets, be aware that at the Hanford nuclear reservation in Richland, Washington, workers are going after radioactive wasp nests, “fairly highly contaminated.” [This is true.] Fortunately, these are mud dauber wasps, those scary-looking thin wasps with the suspended stinger or anus or whatever it is that flies over kids in classrooms. As far as I know, mud daubers do not hook up with yellow jackets.  But then there’s that hot yellow jacket queen.

Cleaning Up in a New Career

            I’m one of the 9.5% unemployed in this country. I never thought this would happen to me. I did all the right things: I went to college, studied hard, and majored in political science. When I graduated I found everyone had majored in political science. No one knew what kind of job they could find now. A few people followed the traditional path of going to law school and then to jail. Others became teachers and discovered teachers were going to law school.

            Getting a job has always been difficult for me. Once, because I couldn’t find full-time work, I went to a temp agency. They placed me with a black doctor in the predominantly black section of Portland, my hometown. The patients, all African-American, were surprised to see a young white woman greeting them in the office. Some were annoyed. The doctor tried to make me comfortable, although he did insist I use a separate restroom. 

            Working for the doctor was my first exposure to the world of medicine, medical terms, and career opportunities in the field. Recently I’ve wondered if I should go back to school to train for a job in healthcare. What made me think seriously about this was seeing an online ad for ColoPure— “America’s Favorite Colon Cleanse”— that claimed you could “Flush as Much as 25 Pounds Instantly!”

            Huh? 25 pounds? Did my colon hold 25 pounds of food and debris? I’d heard a rumor that doctors extracted 40 pounds of gunk from John Wayne’s colon when he died, but that rumor was false because there was no autopsy.  Supposedly Elvis, who had poor eating habits, had 60 pounds removed after his demise. This was true, except his colon was impacted with “white, chalklike fecal [poop] material,” identified later as drugs and two adult male possums.

            Just how much could a colon hold? I checked with which said the average large intestine (colon) is 1.5m long. I knew colons were long and meandering, but a mile and a half? also said the small intestine was 6.7 -7.6m long. Six to seven miles long? Turns out that although is an American company, they were using the metric system to impress their unenlightened readers.

            Fortunately, I read on another website that the average large intestine is a mere five feet long, and the small intestine 22-25 feet in length. This 27-30 feet total is the equivalent of five Johnny Depps laid end-to-end. I was also relieved to find that the average American holds 10-15 pounds of undigested food and concentrated feces. So when you utter the declarative sentence that someone is full of….feces…this is the amount you mean. 

            Armed with this information and my past exposure to the medical world, I am exploring a new career as a colonic therapist. I’ve wondered what kind of education a person needs for this field. I discovered the background of one colonic therapist from his website: He was a philosophy major. What an ideal match between college major and career! While administering colonic treatments, the colonic therapist subtly or openly can share his or her encyclopedic knowledge of Aristotle, Plato, Dr. Phil and the like, to enhance the colon-cleansing experience.

            If I follow in that colonic therapist’s footsteps, I will finally have a career befitting my major, political science. I am confident that with my knowledge of politicians and how similar colon-cleansing is to politics, I can expertly flush out the tremendous volume of poop I expect to find.


(Last of) The Camp Chronicles

            I was 15, living with 13 boy-crazy adolescent girls in a cabin that came with indoor toilets. I no longer had to go outside in the middle of the night to visit graffiti-laden latrines. Graffiti was abundant inside my cabin with the same comfortably familiar “F” words, with helpful recommendations of who to contact.

            This Northern California camp was dusty, hot, dotted with poison oak, and featured water so disgusting I tossed flavored pellets called “Fizzies” into my drinking cup to mask the taste. But this camp came with a pool and teenaged boys. Paradise, I thought, compared to the years I sneezed through my summers at the damp Oregon Coast girls’ camp.   

            The previous camp, run by Portland’s Jewish Community Center, was unusual because campers actually played there all the time, except for cabin cleanup. They did arts, crafts, boating, swimming, tennis, badminton, the works.  By contrast, the Northern California camp, a Reform Jewish camp, was more typical for a Jewish camp: it offered themes with programs. Less play, more pray.

            This  explains why at Camp Schvitz, the Reform Jewish Camp I attended with its emphasis on social justice, the staff chose the theme of “The Junior Peace Corps.” We learned from the local director of the Peace Corps that volunteers went to third world countries to teach, build, or work in the communities. All of us campers were to be “members” of  the Junior Peace Corps.

            Everybody liked that idea until they gave us picks, shovels, saws, and hoes and directed us to climb up a K2- size hill to a plateau, where for the remainder of camp we dug holes in the 150 degree heat for several hours a day, clearing areas for picnics, a firepit and an amphitheater. Other campers were assigned constructing fences, clearing shrubs and bushes and landscaping around the camp.  To prevent the expected complaining, counselors  held a program, a sociodrama where kids were expected to squelch their first negative responses and respond “correctly” to loaded questions such as “Did our parents send us to camp for hard labor?” and “Are we work horses or campers?”

            In truth, all the campers needed were feedbags of oats.

(To be continued in next post. Find out who slept with who at camp. You’re such a perv.)