Saturday, May 31, 2008

Dear Dr. Hottie

This is your nickname. Didn’t know that, did you? All my friends know it, however, because I’ve told them just how darned cute my surgeon is. Yes, you are one fine looking fella. When you’ve got your nose bumped up against mine, scrutinizing my jaw, I have to confess, my heart skips a beat or two.

But lately, I’m not feeling the love. Because four months after my maxillofacial (jaw)
surgery, the inside of my mouth is still completely dead-as-a-doornail numb. My teeth feel like wooden stumps and my gums feel like concrete speed bumps. Go ahead, try pounding a nail into my gums or take a hammer to a tooth….see? Can’t feel a thing. And I’m getting just a teeny bit concerned that there could be permanent nerve damage as a result of this surgery.

So here’s the thing, Dr. Hottie: when I emailed my concerns to you recently, you responded and I swear, I could practically see your eyes roll and hear an audible sigh as I read your words.

As I told you, nerve regeneration usually begins at month 3 and can take up to 18 months,” you wrote. Okay, yeah you have mentioned this before. But it was your next sentence that got my heart pounding, and not because of your deep, blue eyes. “And as I told you,” (another audible sigh) “20 percent of patients experience permanent nerve damage.”

Hold on there, Bucko. Did I read that right? 20 percent? Did you say 20 per friggin’ cent? Uh, no, I don’t think you mentioned that minor detail before. Because if somebody told me I had a one out of five chance of winning the Lottery, I’d buy a ticket. One out of five chance of kissing George Clooney, I’d pucker up. One out of five chance of never feeling the inside of my mouth again? I’m pretty sure I’d remember that, too.

And so, Dr. Hottie, I’m trying to be a
patient patient. Honest. I’ll just continue my newfound appreciation for cottage cheese. Yogurt. Soup. Eggs. Really, I dun’t need no stinkin’ teeth, not when I have a handy-dandy blender to pulverize everything for me. In the meantime, you can continue rolling your eyes and reassuring me that, given time, the feeling in my mouth will return. Maybe. Perhaps.

Now might be a good time for me to buy that Lottery ticket. And pucker up.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

The Downside of Digital

In the mid-eighties, when vinyl LPs were forced into retirement with the onset of CDs, I didn’t bat an eye. CDs were just as tangible and hey, no flipping required! But today, music is making yet another transition, from the slow death of physical CDs to the virtual popularity of digital downloads. A recent Associated Press article noted that in 2007, album sales plunged 9.6 percent with a 45 percent surge in digital sales.

And this time I’m batting both eyes. Not just because the audio quality of digital music is compromised, as noted by San Francisco Chronicle writer,
Joel Selvin. More disheartening is the “click, delete” factor: how easily a song can be erased and replaced with another muffled tune du jour. Because for me, music is personal.

Back when concert tickets didn’t require taking out a second mortgage and I could actually afford to see favorite bands, I saved ticket stubs and reviews and taped them to album covers or slipped them inside CD jackets. And it’s a habit I’ve kept. When saddened over the 1998 death of Beach Boy Carl Wilson, I clipped a moving newspaper tribute and tucked it inside “The Beach Boys in Concert” album that I bought in 1975 after seeing them at a Day on the Green concert with Chicago. Before returning the album to its dark closet corner, I played it. Closed my eyes. And instantly I could smell the suntan lotion and feel the heat of the sun. I remembered feelings of pure joy as my friends and I held hands and danced in a circle, kicking our legs and bellowing “Help Me Rhonda.” My scratchy album recalled that day as vividly as a YouTube video, because my LPs and CDs aren’t just about music: they’re about memories.

That’s why my favorite Christmas gift a few years back was a turntable. Now I could enjoy my old 45s, still wrapped in their paper sleeves and covered with notes I scribbled while listening to the music. Today these sleeves are like snippets of a diary. “Spring, frosh year, ’73, hanging out with Tricia” I wrote on “So Very Hard to Go” by Tower of Power. “Junior Prom with John, Spring ‘75” on “Color My World” by Chicago. “Jenny’s birthday party, watching ‘Fernwood 2Nite’, July ’77,” on “Down the Hall” by The Four Seasons.

Try scribbling notes on an MP3 player.

Bypassing CDs also eliminates the potential discovery of new favorites through forced repeated listening. The first time I heard the 1998 CD introducing Rufus Wainwright, I wrinkled my nose at his distinctive nasal drone. Buy there was one song I did like, so I’d play the CD and tolerate the other tunes. Gradually, I grew to appreciate the entire collection. So much that I’ve seen him in concert four times and own every CD he’s since released. A muffled digital download wouldn’t have given me the fortitude and patience to appreciate such an amazing talent.

And what about the artistic legacies of LP and CD covers? Creative, teasing, experimental, and often reflective of the zeitgeist, album covers were a beautiful marriage with the music, offering enticing visual images of the content within. Who could ever look at the cover of the Rolling Stones, “Sticky Fingers” and mistake it for a Johnny Mathis album? Remember the iconic covers of “Nevermind” by Nirvana or “Glass Houses” by Billy Joel? Squinting to admire artwork on an iPhone just doesn’t cut it.

With the demise of CDs, the final threatened loss is the thematic and lyrical infrastructure of many albums. Their very genius was often presented in the preconceived order of the songs themselves. In the Beatles, “Abbey Road,” each song is enriched by its predecessor and flows seamlessly into the next. As stand-alones, the songs are good. But played in its entirety, from start to finish, “Abbey Road” is a musical masterpiece. I’m still as amazed by it today as I was in 1970 when I received it as a gift for my 12th birthday. When I offered the CD to my 16-year old niece, she declined, saying that she would download a few songs instead.

She doesn’t know what she doesn’t know.

But I do. Which is why I use my iPod as I did my old Sony Walkman: For exercising and plane rides, and not much else. As long as CDs are available, I’ll keep buying them because I don’t want my music collection to be reduced to a tune du jour.

With memories as fleeting as click, delete, replace.

Friday, May 23, 2008

A Night Noir

So Paris Hilton and I are walking down the Santa Cruz Beach boardwalk, chattering away, or chin wagging as the British call it. It’s early morning, around 1:00 am. The air is damp and at that desolate hour, few people are about. I’m tired and ready to head home, but Paris wants to grab a bite and you know Paris. When she sets her mind to something there’s just no saying no, and she’s really jonesin’ for a burrito. Okay, fine.

We stop at an open-air café on the boardwalk. Under the fluorescent lights, the café’s bright yellow décor screams and offends my sleepy senses. The place is deserted, except for the Hispanic cleaning woman who is lugging around a large orange bucket and mop. Pools of water remain in spots that haven’t quite dried and she keeps telling us, “
Recoja los pies.” Pick up your feet, while trying to mop underneath our tables. I tell Paris to hurry up and eat her damned burrito because I’m tired and she’s my drive home, but, oh no, here comes Nicole Richie and a couple other guys I don’t know. Great. Now we’ll be here forever.

Paris lights up when they join our table and I realize with dismay that this evening is far from over. Nicole is always getting on my case about being a party pooper and there’s no way she’ll let me flake out this early. After running the Iron Man Triathlon in Hawaii that day, I am dead tired and want nothing more than to go to bed. But I’m at the mercy of Paris, who shows no signs of leaving. Damn.

One of Nicole’s friends is an older man with curly gray hair, a white goatee and round, rimless glasses. He is furious with Rush Limbaugh, he tells us, furious! He explains that Rush has sketched a very offensive portrait and this man at our table is quivering with anger, so livid is he.

What did Rush draw, I ask? From the side of my eye I notice that the cleaning woman has mopped around a large clump of mud that has suddenly appeared in the middle of the café’s black and white checkerboard floor. She should clean up the mud, I think to myself.

But back to Rush. Seems he sketched a color portrait of a black bear cub squirting a golden arch of pee on a hardback autobiography written by President Dwight Eisenhower. Hmmm, I quip. Sounds like someone doesn’t like Ike. Paris groans at my lame attempt at a joke and Nicole points out that the mud that was on the floor has been rolled up inside a burrito and is now on a plate before me.

I’ve never tried a mud burrito before so I take a bite, but don’t care for it. Paris and Nicole decide they’re tired of eating and want to go shopping. Go, I tell them. I’ll find my own way home because I’m too tired to join them. They leave the café and I find myself stuck with the angry man who keeps ranting about Rush. Whatever, I tell him. Get over it. While he continues dissing Rush, the cleaning woman is mopping around us and I munch on the mud burrito. It’s not so bad after all.

And when I wake up, thick-headed and disoriented, I vow to never again binge on brownies and ice cream right before bedtime.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Please, Don't Play it Again, Sam

Lately, my favorite radio station has been getting the heave-ho on the ol’ dial. Because, frankly, I can’t take the repetition anymore. Just how many times in one day can they play tired oldie moldies like, “Friday I’m in Love” by The Cure or “Burning Down the House” by Talking Heads without making my ears bleed? Honestly, stabbing my eardrum with a fondue fork would be a preferable alternative to hearing “Under Pressure” for the bazillionth time. At one point, I did like these songs. That is, until they became this century’s musical version of a medieval water torture.

Maybe I’m sensitive since I spend two hours a day commuting, which pretty much makes me a slave to the radio. Yeah, I know, I could plug in my iPod or play CDs instead, but I usually forget them each morning as I race out the door. And switching stations doesn’t help because all are guilty of the repetition sin, only it’s worse because these other stations are repeating music I never liked to begin with. And so, when I find myself tortured by yet another hourly rendition of “Listen to the Music” or “Here Comes the Rain Again,” I simply switch off the radio and drive in silence.

So here’s the problem. I can turn the radio off, yes. But dear God in heaven, can anyone tell me how to turn off my head? Yes, that’s right: I’ve been afflicted with the dreaded
earworm, a term used to describe a song imbedded in the brain against one’s will.
Because for weeks now, I’ve had the same insipid song stuck in my mind, playing over and over and over.

I wake up every mornin'

I stumble out of bed
Stretchin' and yawnin'
Another day ahead

It’s not a current song. I do recall liking it ever-so briefly when it was first released in 1981, but honestly, I can’t remember the last time I heard it on any radio station. Nor have I heard it as background music on a movie soundtrack or in a TV commercial. Nada, zip, zilch.


It seems to last forever
And time goes slowly by'
Til babe and me's together
Then it starts to fly

I just woke up one morning and there it was. Playing in my head nonstop, one, long continuous loop. Each note emanating as clearly as if my ears had been replaced with Bose® stereo speakers. And it’s been that way for two blasted weeks. All day at the office, I find myself whistling the song. Humming it. Singing it. Tapping my fingers to the beat inside my brain. This has not made me popular with my coworkers.

Night time is the right time
We make love
Then it's his and my time
We take off

Because now they’ve got the damned song stuck in their heads, too. Peter doesn’t say anything, but he glares at me as I walk by and I know exactly what tune is playing in his head. Ellen is more open. She emits a hostile, “Thanks a lot!” and Wendy wails, “How could you do this to me? I don’t even like this song!”

Nor do I, my friends, nor do I. But (insert demonic laugh) misery loves company. And hey, I’m desperate. Perhaps if we lift our voices together in perfect harmony, we can exorcise this satanic earworm out of our heads, out of our systems, and alleluia, out of our lives. Let’s join together, shall we, and smite this evil plague, once and for all. United, we can extricate this blight upon our brains and free ourselves from the mental anguish afflicted by none other than that 80’s singer from Scotland, the notorious wee Scottish lass known as…yes, that’s right…Sheena Easton.

Oh, here comes the chorus. Let us sing, sing!

MY BABY TAKES THE MORNIN’ TRAIN
He works from nine till five and then

He takes another home again
To find me waitin' for him

And woosh! Suddenly, the song is gone and there is nothing but silence. Blessed silence. For the first time in weeks, I’m relieved of this lyrical scourge that’s been looping in my head as endlessly as the radio’s playing of “Open Arms” by Journey.

So now I come to you,
with open arms
Nothing to hide, believe what I say
So here I am with open arms
Hoping you’ll see what your love means to me
Open arms

Oh, noooooo….

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Hey Mom: This One's for You

Readers of my column in the San Francisco Chronicle may feel as if they know my family and friends due to frequent references. Which, as you can imagine, has made my loved ones a little paranoid about what they do and say in my presence. C’mon guys. As if (snort) I’d ever really rat you out.

But in honor of Mother’s Day, the following tale is a fitting tribute to my Mom. At least I think so, given the great restraint she showed when she chose not to off me back in 1969.

That was when Mom thought it might be nice if she started joining me and my younger sister on our after-dinner bike rides. And so, with 8-year old Jenny on her Stingray bike and me on my brand new yellow Schwinn, my Colombian mother hopped aboard my old bike. Never mind that the last time she’d put her pedal to the metal, she was a tyke living in South America and her sole method of transportation was a tricycle. How difficult could this bike business be? And she was right: with a few tips from me, her cycling skills quickly returned as we took flight, roaming throughout our suburban neighborhood, around blocks, through parks and up hills. It was great.

That is, until we got to the downhill part.

Of course, Jenny and I loved going downhill, the ultimate payoff for all that uphill huffing and puffing. We whooped with delight as our bikes picked up speed and our pigtails sailed in the breeze, going faster, faster, faster. Mom, however, wasn’t quite so enthralled.

“I’m going too fast,” she shouted nervously. “How do I stop?”

“Use the brakes,” I yelled back.

“I am,” she hollered, her accent thickening as it did whenever she was stressed or panicked. Like now. “Ay, caramba, they dun’t work!” And then I noticed that she was pedaling backwards – she thought the bike had foot brakes. She didn’t know that bikes today had handbrakes.

Uh oh. Maybe I hadn’t shared this minor detail?

“Handbrakes, handbrakes!” I tried bellowing, but to no avail: my words were lost in her screams as she whizzed past me, frantically pedaling backwards. And then, I watched in stunned disbelief as she slammed into the back of a parked Chevrolet, noting that for one brief comical second, she looked like Superman with a beehive hairdo, taking flight over the car roof with her arms stretched before her to break her fall. She crashed with a sickening thud on the asphalt in front of the fender, and for a panicked moment I feared she was dead. But she wasn’t. Just banged up.

And mad. Really, really mad. At me. Okay, maybe I did forget to mention the handbrakes.

It was this anger that fueled her ability to walk home with a broken knee, chipped chin and cracked elbow. During the mile-long walk, she would occasionally glare at me, all the while mumbling in a steady stream of Spanish that I’m pretty sure didn’t translate as, “Whoohoo, let’s do THAT again!”

But decades later, the very fact that I’m here to tell this tale is a testimony to my mother’s infinite ability to love, forgive and forget.

That her subsequent crutches and casts impaired her ability to catch me had nothing to do with my survival. I think.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

The Spinal Tap Dilemma

As an avid music lover and fan of Christopher Guest movies, my friend, Jim, was shocked when he learned I’d never seen, “This is Spinal Tap.” Shocked, I tell you. Like I just confessed to barbequing babies or something. “How could you miss it?” he asked over the phone (that is, after he retrieved his jaw from the ground). “It’s the quintessential mockumentary.” And before I could catch my breath to respond, I opened my front door to find a wrapped copy of the movie on my front porch.

Who knew men could move so fast?

Now I was under pressure. I couldn’t just watch the movie, I had to love it. I had to share the universal consensus that this was one of the funniest films ever to hit the silver screen. To be honest, the glimpses caught on cable TV never grabbed my attention, but maybe I wasn’t giving the movie a fair shake. Because any Christopher Guest fan knows that his movies are all about the dialogue. Sharp. Witty. Clever. Ripe with double entendres and innuendos. How attentive could I be while channel surfing between “Sex and the City” and “The Twilight Zone?” (Hey, there's an idea for a new show: "Sex in the Twilight Zone.) Plus, Jim has a great sense of humor. If he was delivering “This is Spinal Tap” with accolades and blessings, there had to be something to it.

So one night, after weeks of ignoring the DVD case on my counter, I finally popped the CD in my player. It had been a busy day at the office and my hour-long commute left me in a sour mood, but I had to get this over with. I had to watch “This is Spinal Tap.” Not only that…gulp…I had to love it.

Except I didn’t. Oh, the first twenty minutes were funny enough. And the ending made me laugh, but really, I was bored and even dozed off for a minute or two. Well, at least now I could say that I’d seen the darned movie and cross it off my list: change the car oil. Check. Give the dog a flea bath: Check. Watch “This is Spinal Tap.” Ah, blessed relief. Check.

So the movie went back in its DVD case and back on the kitchen counter, where it would stay until I saw Jim for our next sushi date. Except my Spinal Tap dilemma wasn’t over. Now, I found myself under a new kind of pressure. Every time I saw the case, I wondered: why hadn’t I liked it? I felt like I failed some sort of pop culture litmus test. After all, I love everything else by Christopher Guest. I respect Jim’s opinion. Adore irony, appreciate wit. What was wrong with me? Why, oh why, had I failed the Spinal Tap test?

This movie was starting to stalk me.

After a week of enduring the accusing presence of the DVD case, one Saturday afternoon I couldn’t take it any longer: I popped the CD back in the player. I simply had to know why I didn’t like Spinal Tap. Not that I’m anal retentive or anything. Okay, maybe a little.

But just twenty minutes into the movie came a scene I didn’t recognize. Nor the one that followed. Or the one after that. And so on and so on. None of this was looking familiar. And suddenly, the light bulbs flashed over my head and glory alleluia, I experienced the epiphany I’d been waiting for. Now I knew why I didn’t like, “This is Spinal Tap.”

Because I never saw it. I hadn’t just “dozed off for a minute or two,” like I thought. I’d been in a downright coma. Flatlined. Pushed the daisies. Ceased To Be. I had slept through the entire movie.

Which reminds me of a line from the film, one of many I laughed at when I managed to stay awake the second time around. A music critic asks, “'What day did the Lord create Spinal Tap, and couldn't He have rested on that day too?'"

Hey, rest is over-rated. And trust me, I should know.

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

What, Me Worry?

Darn those yearbook photos—they always come back to haunt us and remind the world that yes indeed, we once thought puka shell necklaces were the epitome of fashion.

But yearbook photos do more than verify bad taste. A few years back, I remember reading about a study that was performed at U.C. Berkeley. Researchers analyzed old photos from the 1958 and 1960 yearbooks of Mills College, in Oakland, and discovered that women who looked the happiest went on to live the happiest lives. The study concluded that, “…individual differences in positive emotional expression were linked to personality stability and development across adulthood….”

This would explain why, in my college photo, my eyebrows are stitched together and I look gravely concerned. Perhaps I was afraid someone would steal my puka shell necklace. But even more so, this particular photo captured my essence as a professional worrywart, which really comes as no surprise when you consider my mentors.

Dad worried that every time it rained, California would enter its little-known, but very real, monsoon season. As a construction worker in San Francisco, each day of rain meant he couldn’t work. Before long, he’d be out of a job and we’d all end up in the poorhouse, which is, you know, that big, red brick two-story building on the outskirts of town, so shut the door for Pete’s sake, were we trying to air condition the entire neighborhood and what did we think, that he was made of money?

Mother worried that if I left our neat and tidy home suburban home to visit San Francisco, I would be kidnapped by an international ring of evil organ thieves who would rip open my abdomen and steal my appendix. She swore that she had once read that in some third-world countries, deep-fried appendix in peanut oil is considered an aphrodisiac.

I was 21 before I realized that crossing the Bay Bridge to visit San Francisco was not tantamount to suicide.

Today, of course, I realize how needlessly my parents worried. Unfortunately, however, that awareness has not stopped me from turning into them.

I worry about growing old alone because I couldn’t find someone to love me. Or I worry about finding someone who loves me, except maybe this isn’t a healthy love but rather, some sick obsession in which my admirer wants to shoot a president in order to impress me, because why else would he stare at me the way he does?

Or is he staring at that mole on my neck? The edges are a bit irregular. Maybe I have melanoma. But wait, wasn’t I recently turned away as a blood donor for being anemic, which can sometimes can be a precursor to leukemia? And what about my dizzying headaches? Dr. Greene on “ER” had the same symptoms and he ended up dying from a brain tumor. Dear God!

I race through my dog-eared medical dictionary and discover an illness in which I have every single symptom. According to this book, I’m a doomed woman, doomed! Oh, but wait.

I don’t have a prostate. Never mind.

I read about a woman who awoke one morning to discover she had lost use of both hands. Completely and without cause. Her hands are now like two slabs of dead meat attached to her wrists and her doctors are bewildered as to why.

I worry that I too might awake one morning with two slabs of dead meat attached to my wrists and wonder: how will I pluck those four stubborn hairs on my chin, the ones that have defied years of electrolysis, bleach and waxing? I phone my best friend, Pam, and make her promise that if I ever wake up with two slabs of dead meat attached to my wrists, she will pluck my four chin hairs for me.

I’m sure she’s rolling her eyes as I hear her sigh and reply that yes, she’ll pluck my four chin hairs for me if I should ever wake up with two slabs of dead meat attached to my wrists. She’s heard all this before.

My paranoia doesn’t set with the sun. When it’s time to go to bed, I worry that I’ll fall asleep and forget to blow out my scented candle, which is just waiting to explode into engulfing flames the second my eyes are shut. It could happen, you know. Although I’m not yet sleepy, I blow it out.

And with my clock radio playing softly, I lie in bed and think about new things to worry about as the night DJ plays one of my favorite songs. The song I have declared my personal mantra: Bob Marley’s, “Three Little Birds.”

Don’t worry about a thing, ‘cause every little thing’s gonna be alright.”

I like that particular song because it echoes a favorite Bible scripture that states: "Don't worry so much about what might happen tomorrow, that you miss what is happening today.” Excellent advice, I’d say.


Now if someone could just convince that stern-faced girl with the puka shell necklace.
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