Wednesday, June 30, 2010

From the Archives - Diaper Meltdowns

NOTE: this post is rated PG for very mild strong language and insinuations of antisocial acts.


The other night was rough. First, our cat Misha—despite getting her typical middle-of-the-night breakfast—continued meowing plaintively and scratching at the kitchen door, a short flight of stairs down from our bedroom. Then our six-year-old, Lindsay, climbed into bed with us, having had a nightmare. (The nightmare was probably my fault; my bedtime story was a bit on the scary side, involving an ancient girl who was terrified at mistaking a helicopter, which she’d never seen before, for a giant dragonfly.)

In our bed, Lindsay did her semaphore routine, all elbows and knees, continually jabbing me, all the while loudly sucking on her fingers. Countless times I dropped back off to sleep only to be reawakened. She kept resituating herself, smoothing down her special blanket or adjusting her special pillow, which she’d brought in with her. When morning came and my alarm went off I was pretty much awake anyway, but far from rested. Of course, following all this Lindsay slept like a baby all morning. Here she is, still lounging in bed with Misha, our other nighttime nuisance, hours later.

Not that I’m complaining! These are the salad days, after all, sandwiched between the terribly difficult infant/toddler years and the dreaded teen years (which I’m told are particularly hard on parents of daughters). What’s a bad night of sleep here and there compared to the rigors new parents face, of night after sleepless night, and all those diapers on top of it? I’ll never forget the shock of bringing our firstborn, Alexa, home from the hospital and faking it as parents as we tried to learn the ropes.

The following stories are taken from an e-mail I wrote to my brothers and parents, probably as a plea for sympathy, when Alexa was about three weeks old. I reread that e-mail with a shudder, and a delicious sense of relief that those tough times are behind me.

Diaper Meltdowns – October 1, 2001

Erin, to my surprise, is handling the lack of sleep much better than I am. Perhaps it’s a new-mother hormone thing, or perhaps she’s just a better person than I, but she has a lot more patience. She does complain a lot about the cat, though, or so it seems. Every few hours she points out another thing the cat is doing wrong, the poor cat who micturates in her catbox and thus requires no changing, and never cries but instead meows rather demurely and sweetly, who is trying to adjust to the new household situation, which includes cruel banishment from the bedroom because she won’t stay out of the baby’s bassinet. But other than her complaints about the cat, Erin is pretty stoic. (Actually, she probably doesn’t complain about the cat all that often, but in my deranged, frazzled state, it seems to me that she does.)

Yesterday morning I pretty much boiled over. I was trying to change Alexa, and the towel we’d put down on the changing table was wet from an earlier changing (she tends to let loose right when you’ve got her diaper off), and so I wadded it up so that I wouldn’t soil her still-dry outfit, and set her down on this wadded lump, and then saw that she had this major boogerage in her eye (clogged tear duct), so I ran to the bathroom, jumping over a massive pile of bedding that was right in my way (it had been torn off the bed the previous night when Alexa had a diaper blowout).

The reason I ran to the bathroom, instead of walking, is that Alexa was screaming her head off, as though I were shoving bamboo beneath her fingernails. Then it took forever, like it always does, to get hot water out of the tap, and the screaming continued, loud enough to drown out my cussing, and then when the hot water finally came out, I knew that the washcloth would never hold the heat long enough to be comfortable because it’s a “baby” washcloth with less fabric in it than a Post-It would have it were made of molecule-thick cloth. Then I realized that the baby was in a precarious place because of the way I’d wadded up the towel on her changing station, and I feared she’d roll into the space heater we have on the table (to keep her warm during changes) and burn herself.

I leapt over the pile of clothes again, cleaned up the eye, changed the diaper, then realized that despite my best efforts, hazardous as they’d been to the welfare of the child, her outfit was in fact soiled, so I had to leap over the pile again to find an outfit from the bureau near the door. We have approximately 300 outfits for Alexa, many of which won’t fit for weeks or months, some of which haven’t been washed yet (we always wash new clothes lest the chemicals used in their manufacture irritate her skin), and some of which are the wrong type (i.e., sleeveless vs. sleeved) for a chilly morning. I finally found one, after a frantic period of searching (frantic because of the screaming, and because of the knowledge that my lovely daughter at any moment might roll into the space heater, which had become a half-ton ball of burning thermite in my mind), and again hurdled the giant pile of bedclothes.

Now I realized that I couldn’t change her on the changing table because of the vast flood of urine that had soaked everything despite my most irresponsibly dangerous wadding measures. So I moved her to the bed, and tried to wrangle her into her fresh garment. It had about 300 or so snaps, and not all of the male pieces are on one side of the garment. You need a degree from MIT to figure out how to snap everything into place. It’s not symmetrical either, and of course no two baby garments have even a remotely similar design. My fury at this point had invaded every cell of my body except from the wrists down, which I managed to control lest I accidentally harm my child. Finally I gave up and shouted “F––– THIS THING!” and hurled the offensive garment to its death. Actually, it didn’t even suffer from the landing, the damn thing, and I couldn’t pick it up and rend it into a thousand pieces, which would have been my choice, because it had Erin’s friend’s initials on the tag, meaning it’s only a loaner and has to go back, clean and intact, to its rightful owner, who can bloody well have it back right now as far as I’m concerned, perhaps soaked in my own urine since this godforsaken garment from hell will never touch the skin of my precious daughter.

So instead of rending the garment into a thousand pieces I did the flip-off dance. [Note to albertnet readers: you’ll just have to imagine this dance. I’m not posting a video.] It only helped a bit. Then I had to hurdle the fiendish pile of bedclothes once again, find another damn outfit from the 600 in the drawer, evaluate it not just in terms of size and laundering status but also in terms of the likelihood that I’d be able to properly fasten all the snaps along its bizarre appendages and whatnot. I found one, hurdled the pile of bedclothes yet again, and put the new garment on Alexa, who had been continuing to scream bloody murder the whole while, at a decibel level that guarantees she has a V02 max surpassing Lance Armstrong’s.

Having finally got my daughter changed, I picked her up, carefully ascended the Col du Bedclothes, made it safely down the other side, and brought the squalling youngster downstairs to her mother, who I hoped would be sitting on the couch, boob out, ready to nurse the baby into silence. Instead, Erin was vacuuming, further rubbing my nose in her superior ability to withstand lack of sleep. I sat down with Alexa and bounced her on my knee, trying to calm her down, and then Erin says, “Well, the cat is ruining this expensive rug.” This pretty much put me over. “Well, should we just put her to sleep then?” From my standpoint at the time this response was perfectly justified. Of course, from Erin's perspective—the more lucid one—my utterance must have seemed utterly bizarre. After all, she had given me the night off by sleeping with Alexa in the guest room, and was occupying her short period of respite from the baby by vacuuming, and had made a fairly innocent comment about the state of our handmade Turkish rug, and got shocking vitriol in response. Not a perfect domestic scene.

That’s not my first blowup, nor perhaps my most spectacular. The other night, I was trying to assemble the Diaper Genie, and could not get the damn thing to work. I don’t even want the Diaper Genie, and we’re only using disposables for a short time, but I figured we have it and should go ahead and use it. But I absolutely could not figure out how to install the bags that are supposed to hold the soiled diapers into a long linked-sausage configuration. Finally, after what was really only a couple of minutes, I became furious at it. It had no instructions, and didn’t seem particularly intuitive. The “refill,” which seems like a stupid name for the bag cartridge that was really the very first one ever installed, had directions on it, but they become obscured in step 2 out of 5 when you put the cartridge into the Genie. Now there’s a smart design! I had to keep pulling the cartridge out and reading ahead. It just didn’t make sense. I figured this thing had to be intuitive enough for the least educated, least intelligent trailer trash Diaper Genie owner to use; why couldn’t I, a college-educated Network Design Engineer, get it to work? I beat on the top of it with my fist, and then hurled it noisily down the stairs, much to the amazement and amusement of Erin and her friend, who’d come over to cook us a meatloaf and help out.

I phoned a couple of other new parents, for whom we bought a Diaper Genie years ago, and after a long period of intense discussion and troubleshooting we determined that what I have is an old, small-mouth DG in the box of a new, large-mouth DG, with the “refill” for the new, large-mouth DG. This is why it wouldn’t fit. Probably somebody re-gifted us a barely-used but obsolete DG, throwing in the modern-style refill to make it look new. But that won’t stop me from marching into Target with it and demanding a replacement. If they don’t pony up, I’m going to spread model airplane cement all over the damn thing and torch it right there on the showroom floor.

Baby peripherals aside, child-rearing is a hoot. Alexa is great. She’s getting cuter by the day, and is generally a very sweet baby. She’s a bit gassy, which is a bummer for everybody, and we can’t seem to burp her. But she’s eating up a storm nonetheless. I love to hold her and offer up my index fingers, which she grabs in her fists. We’ve even figured out how to get her, sometimes, to take the pacifier. That’s a big help because I can’t just sit there 24-7 with a finger in her mouth, and she does love to suck.

dana albert blog

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Fiction - The Phantom Solace

NOTE: this post is rated R for mild strong language.


What follows is a work of fiction, my second short story on albertnet. All the “work of fiction” disclaimers apply here. None of the places mentioned, words spoken, feelings felt, or themes explored in this post actually exist. Even the language used is my own contrivance. Okay, kidding aside, any resemblance of any character to any actual human, living or dead, is purely whimsical and/or jocular. The central plot elements of this story and actions taken by its characters are not to be construed as fact.

The Phantom Solace

I couldn’t believe this was happening, but here I was stuck in stop-and-go Father’s Day traffic, late for work. I’m not a father and I don’t watch Nascar but I should have known the two things would combine to make my life hell. All around me were crazy clean cars, like the idea of a perfect day for these dads would be washing the car, Armor-alling the tires, then heading out to watch Nascar. And because of this, I’d probably lose my job.

Losing my job would be bad enough, but I can’t take another lecture from Diekhoff. First it was about the shaved head, then about the tat, then about the chin stud, as if all these spa dudes really want to be taken care of by Doogie fucking Howser. He told me one more screw-up and I’m gone. This would be that screw-up—being late to work because I had to sit for twenty minutes behind a giant Ford Expedition with the whole rear window painted like an American flag.

So when I got to Wilkenson’s, twenty minutes late, I couldn’t bear to go in, and just sat in my car listening to the engine tick as it cooled off. After a minute or two this sweet Jaguar convertible rolled up and parked right next to me. The driver looked rich as hell, not just the car but nice shades, expensive shirt, and good looks. Why would he be slumming it here? And yet, here he was, and looking stressed. Maybe, just maybe, this was my twelve-o’-clock spa appointment, and was running as late as I was, and nobody would have to know I kept a customer waiting.


I was in Calistoga promoting my winery. Not really my winery—I don’t know a thing about making wine—but the winery I have a financial stake in. When I first got into this, I thought I was just an investor, putting some money into a solid business, but of course it morphed into the typical celebrity scheme: using my movie fame to promote a totally unrelated product. Go to that well too many times and all you end up with is a trashed name. Paul Newman can get away with it—his films are so well respected he’d never run the risk of being remembered as the salad dressing guy—but I have the sneaking feeling my advisors are steering me away from acting, figuring it’s a better bet to gradually draw down my very finite stores of celebrity.

So, Calistoga. I was here to attend the grand opening of a tasting room right on Lincoln Ave. When I got roped into this I thought it would be a little ceremony among the stakeholders but if course it turned out to be this “grand opening.” The very phrase repulses me—it’s something you use for an auto mall or kids’ pizza place. And then, taking a walk when I arrived here yesterday evening, I saw they’d put a giant framed picture of me right in the window. It’s a terrible picture—I’m trying to look clever and cheeky and can’t even get that right, and might as well be wearing a goddamn bow tie like Roger Moore. The whole affair is just painful, like the idea that people should drink this wine because a big movie star is a financial backer.

On my way to the grand opening today, just a few blocks from the place, I completely lost my resolve and swung off the road into the first parking lot I saw. No sooner had I pulled up and stopped then this young guy with a shaved head jumped out of his ratty old car parked next to me. He asked me, “Hey, did you just get here for a spa appointment?”

He obviously didn’t recognize me. I was strangely impressed by this. But a spa appointment? I’d thought this was the parking lot of a motel, but checking out the sign now I realized it was actually a motel and spa. I looked the guy over. He was a wiry little man, but looked strong, wore a thin white t-shirt over a tight tank-top. I’m pretty sure he was Hispanic but so many Californians still get dark tans—just like in Hawaii—it’s not always easy to tell. He was really jumpy, seemed really upset about something. I told him no, I wasn’t there for a spa appointment.

He looked crushed. “Dammit, I’m really screwed now,” he said. “I’m super late. My boss is going to fire me. No, worse, I’m going to have to work through the end of my shift, and then he’s going to lecture me, and then he’s going to fire me. Fuck, fuck, fuck! I can’t take this.” He whacked the top of his car and said, “Fuck it, I can’t take another lecture. I’m gonna have to no-call/no-show.”

He wasn’t really talking to me, but I was intrigued. “Excuse me, but what did you just say?” I asked. He looked startled, like he’d forgotten I was there, and then said, “I said I’m gonna have to no-call/no-show.” I asked what that meant. “It means I’m not going to show up to work, and I’m not even going to call and tell them. That way I’m sure to get fired and I’ll never have to talk to anyone there again.”

My god, what a brilliant idea. Just to walk away, leave it all behind. Could I do that? Well, why the hell not? If this kid can seize his freedom that way, surely I could too, couldn’t I? I wouldn’t even suffer the same consequences. I’m sure everybody would run around and rearrange things to smooth it all over with me, and that would be annoying, but those first few hours of a no-call/no-show would be even better than a spa. And suddenly I had an inspiration.

I asked the kid, “How long does a spa treatment normally take?” He thought for a second and said, “Depends on what you get. The guy this afternoon is doing The Works with a half-hour massage, so about two hours.” I asked him if he went in through the lobby, or what. He smirked and said, “What, you think I’d scare the ladies or something? Huh. Well, I do go in the back so I don’t track mud on the carpet.” I said, “Okay, here’s what we’ll do. Take these”—I handed him my sunglasses—“and we’ll trade keys. You take my car, and hell, I’ll give you a couple hundred bucks, and you go take a break. Have a nice lunch, go for a drive, whatever. And I’ll cover your shift. Anything goes wrong, I’ll deal with it. Leave the car across the street, maybe a few blocks down. Don’t steal the car or you’ll just make real trouble for yourself. Leave the keys behind the front left tire. Oh, and leave my sunglasses in the glove box.”

The kid laughed out loud. “You think you can do my job?” he asked. I shrugged and replied, “So what if I bugger it up completely? How’s that worse than a no-call/no-show?” He stared at me, a grin forming throughout his face, trying to decide if I was serious. He put on my sunglasses. The tortoiseshell looked good with his skin tone but the look was of course completely off; nobody that young wears Persols. The effect was just right: a totally unconvincing disguise. He looked at his reflection in the window of his car and chuckled. I pulled out my wallet, took out a couple hundreds, and held it out to him. He hesitated, eyeing the bills in my outstretched hand. “Come on,” I said, “when are you going to get a chance like this?”


The traffic on Highway 37 was totally heinous. There was a billboard about a big Father’s Day NASCAR race and I thought that was the problem: all these dads celebrating by watching NASCAR. Even in the Bay Area, that did make more sense than dads going to get mud baths and massages. I thought I’d miss my spa appointment completely, but after the exit for the fairgrounds—which got really bad—it eased up. Even so, I was fully half an hour late getting to Wilkenson’s. I had the family drop me off and ran on in. The woman behind the counter shook her head and did one of those backwards inhaling-type sighs and said she thought they could still fit me in. She gestured to the door leading to the men’s bath house and said, “Just go through there, and Jose will take care of you.” She was frowning, though, as she peered towards the door.

I went inside. There was a little dressing room with wooden lockers to my right, then a long hallway with curtained massage rooms off of that. At the end was the mud bath room, and a tall man was standing there. “Just, ah, put your clothes in the locker and grab a robe,” he called out. Two things struck me right away. First, nobody calls out in these spas. Everybody knows to just whisper, to preserve the rarefied, enchanted feel of the place. I’d have expected him to walk out to me and greet me. The other thing that surprised me was that he spoke with a thick Irish brogue. I mean, how many spa valets named Jose speak in a thick Irish brogue?

I undressed, donned my robe, and strolled down toward the mud room. Had I heard the valet’s name right? Sure enough, on a chair at the end of the hall was a handwritten sign—“Jose ‘The Mud Guy’”—and a few tip envelopes labeled “Jose.” In the mud room I saw a tall man with thick dark hair, just starting to go grey, meticulously styled. He was wearing a short-sleeve linen shirt, casual but very elegant, and khakis rolled up at the ankle. He was barefoot. He stood at one of the large, blocky concrete bathtubs of mud, dragging a shovel across the mud to rough it up. He turned to face me, and gave me a little nod, and I got a strong shock of recognition. He looked exactly like Pierce Brosnan.

He finished stirring the mud and leaned the shovel against the wall. It started to tip over and slide down the wall, and he caught it. He frowned and took it over to a corner and set it there. Then he came back and looked at me uncertainly. “Okay, then. Ah … first, you take a shower,” he said. I tried not to stare. Finally I had to ask: “Are you … are you Pierce Brosnan?”

A pause. “The name’s Bond,” he said. “James Bond.” Then he winked, and with that wink I knew this wasn’t just a lookalike, but the real actor, in the flesh. It was that rare eyelid-only wink, as opposed to the kind most people do where the whole side of the face crinkles up. No mere mortal has that facial fluidity, that practiced charm. I didn’t know what else to do, so I hung up my robe and stepped into the shower. Soon enough he had the water going, and after a brief rinse I stepped out to where he was waiting by the mud tub. “Step on in there,” he said. “Lower yourself in, wiggle yourself down then.”

I squished myself down into the hot, vaguely sulfur-scented mud. It was coarser and lumpier mud than I’d bathed in last time, and the tub was shorter, but as always I enjoyed the delicious sensation of having absolutely neutral buoyancy. Soon my limbs and hands were completely buried, and Brosnan—Pierce Brosnan!— scooped more mud up to completely cover my chest. He thumped it down and said, “There we go now. Enjoy.” I lay there and pondered my situation. What possible explanation could there be? But soon the heat and ooze of the mud made me sleepy and, like Alice on her downward plunge, blithely accepting the shelves of knickknacks lining the rabbit-hole, I decided just to roll with it. What’s not to like about having a famous actor be my personal valet for awhile?

I closed my eyes and let my mind drift, taking in the soothing rumble of the machinery, the low, anodyne spa music (halfway between elevator music and what New Age musicians play at street fairs), the stillness of the room. After a few minutes, I felt something against my cheek. “This is a mask,” Brosnan said quietly. At first I pictured a Greek theatre tragedy mask—nothing would have seemed odd at this point—but quickly realized he meant a facial mask for cleansing my pores and whatnot. But he didn’t spread it all over my face; he dabbed it on my nose and then spread it on my cheeks in thick lines, starting near the nose and going outward. He did three of these on each cheek, then disappeared for a moment and returned.

“Here,” he said. I opened my eyes. He was holding out a hand mirror, like the barber does when he invites you to check out your new haircut from the back. I pulled my right arm slowly from the mud—it make a loud sucking sound like when you pull your shoe out of a thick mud puddle—and took the mirror. I examined my reflection. My face was painted to look like a cat’s.
“How does it look?” Brosnan asked. I said it looked just fine. I handed him back the mirror, then closed my eyes again. I sensed him leave again, and when he returned he placed something cool on each of my eyelids. “These are cucumbers,” he said, a light note of wonder in his voice, as though he were remarking on this fact to himself. I wiggled down further into the mud, and then heard something being dragged across the floor.

“You know, I could really use a spa treatment myself,” Brosnan said. I gathered that he’d pulled up a stool and sat down right next to me. “I’ve been under a lot of stress. Not pressing stuff, but … more a gradual accumulation of things. Kind of a, ah, minor crisis of identity you could say. Nothing I can quite put my finger on, but a general sense of dissatisfaction.” He paused. “Since nobody would believe you anyway about me being your spa attendant, I might just get a few things off my chest, if you don’t mind.”

I slowly gave a very small nod, not wanting to disrupt my cucumber slices. Brosnan sighed deeply, then said, “That ‘Mama Mia’ movie took a real toll. My god, what an embarrassment. I really hope you didn’t see it. I hope nobody saw it. My agent really felt it was the best way to get some distance from the Bond character. Which I gather it did, but my God, what a disgrace. I don’t know how or why I let myself get sucked into that. It was a humiliating experience. You know what they called me on the set? ‘Colonel Chunky.’ I couldn’t even get their respect! I’ll probably never get a good role again after that travesty. What an ass I was in that! So now I’m working on a goddamn sequel, to the ‘Crown Affair’ movie.

“Not that ‘Crown’ was a bad movie. I have some great memories of that, those were some good times. Now, Rene Russo”—he sucked in his breath—“that is one gorgeous woman. It made me nervous, like a bloody teenager, just being with her on the set. But a sequel? Is this all I have to show for my life—recycling my old roles, one version of secret agent after another, trying to recapture my prime, when it’s hard enough just holding my looks together? I turned fifty-seven this year. Christ.”

He was silent for a time. “But you know, the truth of it is, I’d have gladly done more Bond pictures, before Daniel Craig took over, if only they’d given me some better scripts. I gave up on Bond because the last film I did was pure shite. I was driving a stupid car around by remote control, and then Craig gets to beat the crap out of people. Why didn’t I get ‘Casino Royale’? Why didn’t I get the revamped franchise, the return to decent, basic plots?

“There was a scene in ‘Casino Royale’ that was pure genius. Some rich gobshite mistakes Bond for a valet parking guy and throws him his keys. Bond takes advantage of it—now he can get into the resort, and once he’s in he deliberately crashes the car in the parking lot, thereby getting back at the rich gobshite while luring all the security people away from their posts so he can infiltrate their office and steal the surveillance tapes. Brilliant scene, such a clever, efficient Bond. Why couldn’t I get that kind of movie?

“It’s not because of my age. Roger Moore was older than Sean Connery; he was fifty-eight when he did his last Bond. The writers could have played with the age thing, like with Connery’s Bond in his last one. He tells Moneypenny, ‘I’m to eliminate free radicals,’ but doesn’t mention those were orders from his doctor. Great line, that.”

He sighed. “Well, I guess I should let you get to your mud bath,” he said. I’d have liked to hear more, but didn’t want to ask. As it was, I felt like an eavesdropper. So I just lay there and enjoyed the sensation of neither sinking nor floating, and having tiny air bubbles, trapped in arm and leg hairs, creep along my skin before making a slow dash for the surface. I felt a bead of sweat slide against my cheek until it hit my facial-mud cat whisker.

Time passed. Much more time than I’ve ever spent in a mud bath. In fact, I was being gradually poached alive. Finally Brosnan’s voice said, “Okay, come on out.” He wasn’t doing bad as spa attendant, but I did note various minor breaches of protocol. For example, he was supposed to give me needless instructions about how to pull myself out of the mud, and to caution me about moving slowly (lest I faint away from the sudden shift in temperature). I wondered if he would learn the ropes over time, or if this was a one-shot deal.

He gestured toward the shower. This time he had the water running in advance—see, he was learning!—and I began the labor of excavating the mud from my body. Wilkenson’s has peaty, tufty, almost crumbly mud that really lodges in the hairs. My thoughts rambled: something about a spa treatment really sets the mind wandering, and Brosnan’s soliloquy had only enhanced this. I pondered how much of his own hygiene he still has to do. Surely nobody outsources the removal of caked mud from his armpits?

I stepped out of the shower. Brosnan looked me over with the frank, appraising eye of a tailor. “What happened to you?” he asked. Puzzled, I didn’t reply. “Your physique,” he went on. “You look like you’ve got the frame of a much larger man.” I suppose I could have felt hurt—he’d just commented at how rail-thin I am—but I was actually flattered. Pierce Brosnan, no less, had just called me a man! I’ve never felt like I made it past “guy.” True, I’ve passed forty, and my hairline is making a slow retreat as my scalp gradually surrenders to age—but I still feel like just a guy. “I’m a cyclist,” I explained. Brosnan give a little nod—a slight lift of the chin.

Next he led me to the mineral bath. It was a basic bathtub, and for bubbles had a perforated mat in it, with a little bubble-making machine at one end, a vacuum-cleaner tube coming up out of the water. I climbed into the tub. It wasn’t quite long enough, so my knees stuck out the top, the left one brushing against the bubbler hose. “You know, over at Solage they have proper tubs. I’d say you have in inch or two on me and I wouldn’t settle for this,” he said. “Economic downturn, eh? Let me get you some water.”

When he returned I’d already closed my eyes, and now I felt something cold on my forehead. He’d balanced the cup of water there. I took a drink and set it carefully back on my head. I felt very poised, like a girl walking with a book on her head to improve her posture. What a brilliant idea, I thought. My spa had become a validation of my health and balance.

Eventually Brosnan returned and summoned me from the bath. I climbed out. “So … I suppose you have your massage now?” he said, looking decidedly uneasy. “No,” I replied, “first there’s the towel wrap. I inclined my head toward the little curtained cubicles off the hallway where the towel wrap beds were. “Ah, of course,” he replied, leading me to one. I lay down on the huge white towel. There was a brief awkward moment—me naked, he a famous movie star—before he asked, “So I just wrap you in the towel then, and that’s it?” I nodded. “Seems kind of pointless,” he said. I replied, “Yes, it’s completely pointless, which is what I love about it.” He thought for a moment and said, “Right. Yes. We’ll wrap you up then.” He swaddled me in the towel, gave me a little pat, and left the cubicle, closing the curtain behind him.


I glanced at my watch. That’s one thing I didn’t like about Daniel Craig in “Casino Royale”—how he pronounced it “Oh-MEE-ga” when it’s “Oh-MEH-ga.” But all in all he did a great performance, I have to hand it to him. Anyway, it had been an hour and a half, and any minute the masseuse would come around, and the game would be up. I took a moment to put a few twenties in an envelope marked “Jose,” put on my socks and shoes, and left out the back door. I walked around to where Jose’s car was parked. It was a crappy little thing, Ford Fiesta or something. I had to stick the key in the door to unlock it—kind of nostalgic, really. It was baking in there. I was surprised to find it was a stick-shift. I got the engine going and the AC, which instantly filled the car with a damp, moldy smell. Backing out, I noticed a string of beads hanging from the rearview mirror. A rosary! Good for him. I swung out onto the main road and headed toward where I hoped my car would be. Slowing for a stop sign, I instinctively double-clutched, than laughed at myself. I’ve still got it!


I lay wrapped in towels for a really long time. I think I actually fell asleep. Then I felt the slight breeze of the curtain being pushed aside, and opened my eyes. A fifty-something man with light hair and wire-rimmed glasses whispered, “How is everything?” I said fine. “My name is Mark, and I’ll be working with you on your massage today. Are you ready now or would you like a few more minutes?” I sat up: I would not be needing a few minutes. The spell was already broken.

Mark led me into another curtained cubicle and I lay on my stomach on the massage table, resting my face in the little padded ring. I guess I hadn’t really expected to get a massage from Pierce Brosnan, but I hadn’t ruled it out. At least this Mark guy was a professional masseuse. That’s not such a bad thing.


Believe it or not, it all worked out. I didn’t crash the rich guy’s Jaguar, though I drove in fear the entire time. I didn’t scratch the guy’s sunglasses either. After a nice long drive through the wine country, I parked across from Brannan’s and sat in there having a Coke, keeping an eye on the Jag, and next thing I knew, the rich guy parked my car right behind it, got out, and hid my keys behind the front tire. He found his keys, got in his car, put on his shades, and left.

When I got back to Wilkenson’s, my twelve-o’-clock was just starting his massage. Everything was fine! Nobody said a thing! I checked in with the receptionist and she was as blah as ever, no mention of anything wrong. Unbelievably, the rich dude had actually covered my shift! And you know the best part? He must have done a great job, because the customer tipped me sixty bucks!
dana albert blog

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Football With Hemingway

NOTE: this post is rated PG-13 for mild strong language and thematic elements.


I see crazy people. Walking around like regular people. They don’t see each other. It can seem like they only see me. They probably don’t know they’re crazy.

Last week, I accompanied my daughter Alexa’s third-grade class on a big field trip to San Francisco and Oakland via mass transit. I confess I underestimated what would be required of me. I figured I’d be driving a few kids to Bart, and then simply tagging along while the kids marched along behind their teacher in two straight lines. Okay, I guess I didn’t really picture that, but I figured they’d be secured somehow, maybe all holding on to a rope, like rock climbers. Okay, I guess I didn’t really think that either. Really, I didn’t know what to expect. I didn’t think much about it. I certainly didn’t expect to be told, in writing, “Please remain with your group of students at all times. You are responsible for them.”

Not that this alarmed me. I’m a capable adult. I had only three kids assigned to me: my daughter and two others. Each was instructed to stay with her adult (i.e., me). Surely Alexa would help corral them. Above all, I didn’t expect a crazy person to seek me out; I mean, how often does that happen?

Alas, I actually have a track record of being singled out by crazy people. I don’t know why. I mean, we all encounter the occasional nutjob—the woman standing on a street corner holding a coffee can at her chest, pointing it at cars and shouting profanities; the guy who comes into the bike shop spouting vitriol about the inferiority of steel to “cawbun fibuh” as a bike frame material; the dude on the department store bike zigzagging wildly down Wildcat Canyon Road yelling at my bike club, “You’re all dog crap!”; the woman angrily ripping leaves off a tree and stuffing them in a trash can—but crazy people seem drawn to me and often engage me in one way or another. I suppose if I’d thought to mention this to the school, they’d have found somebody to replace me as chaperone.

In this post I’ll tell the story of the field trip in which I was targeted by a crazy Hemingway lookalike. Along the way I’ll share some tales of other strange people with whom I’ve been briefly enmeshed.

Chaperoning rigors

Serving as chaperone for three kids was much harder than I’d expected. First of all, I’d only encountered my daughter’s classmates, whom I’ll call Yuko and Anna, a handful of times, and thus couldn’t pick them out from the crowd very well. Second, I didn’t realize all of the third-grade classes would be going on the field trip, meaning our group (including adults) numbered about 120. On top of this, the kid trios really made no effort at all to stick with their chaperones, running this way and that like little puppies following scents, and in some cases running off to visit with friends from other classes.

Early on, I made note of what I figured would be easy ways to identify my kids: Yuko had a camouflage-colored vest, a pink sweatshirt, red backpack, and a green ball cap with the logo of some small grocery store, while Anna had a black Cal cap, a mauve backpack with three-inch-tall stuffed animals hanging from it, and a light blue hoodie. Easy signifiers, right?

In practice there were several problems with this strategy: throughout the day the kids would ditch their caps and their jackets; red or mauve are actually popular backpack colors; it turns lots of kids have three-inch-tall stuffed animals hanging from their backpacks; and after lunch Yuko asked me to carry her backpack and I obliged, only to have Anna follow suit, so not only was I burdened with three heavy backpacks (what do these kids carry around, anyway—bowling balls? anvils?) but had lost another shortcut in tracking my kids.

This shape-shifting ability wasn’t my only problem. These kids were fast—one second I’d have all three in my sights, and the next second one would vanish, and by the time I spotted her fifty feet away, the other two would have vanished. It was like Where’s Waldo, or being trapped in a giant pinball machine with four balls in motion at once.

My first big trial was at Bart, our subway system. It turns out it’s very difficult to keep kids away from the edge of the platform. I gave a quick and stern lecture about the danger of the electric third rail. I quizzed Alexa about what would happen if a train hit you even at just one mile per hour. (“You’d be crushed flat and killed,” she correctly replied.) But my lectures didn’t capture the kids’ imaginations; Yuko and Anna wandered off to explore the nubby safety strip with their feet as visions of the climax of Anna Karenina traipsed through my head.

When the train arrived, things only got worse: it seemed impossible to shepherd my three kids into the train car in one group. What if one of them ended up on the wrong car, or worse—didn’t make it on at all? When I finally accounted for all three kids (probably only a second or two after boarding, but it felt like much longer), I got a vivid flashback of a Bart-boarding that was even more stressful.

Flashback tale #1

During my last year of college I was taking Bart from Berkeley to San Francisco to meet my then-girlfriend, Erin. As I waited on the platform for my train, a voice from behind me said, “Hey, could you help me out?” I looked over: it was a guy in a wheelchair with a giant boom box on his lap. “I just need some help getting on the train. I’m blind and they wouldn’t let me take my seeing-eye-dog into the station.” I asked him why. “Well, I don’t have the right papers,” he said. “Plus, my dog bit somebody.” I asked him where the dog was now. “I, uh, had some friends come get him,” he said. The guy was looking me over, which unnerved me because, well, he was blind. He didn’t have dark glasses or anything, but his eyes looked like Charlie X’s, from the “Star Trek” episode, when he’d acquired special powers and became evil.

I was really nervous about getting both my bike and the blind wheelchair guy on the train before the doors closed. When the train arrived, I hurriedly put the bike in, then went back for the guy. It seemed he was taking an awfully long time getting his stuff together. He’d put the boom box on the floor and now struggled to get it back on his lap. Finally, breathing a sigh of relief as we made it through the doors, I got him on the train. “Wait!” he cried. “My leg! You forgot my leg!” He pointed at the platform. Sitting there—or actually standing, I guess—was a prosthetic leg, with a sock and shoe on it.

I had to make a split-second decision: do I go after it, running the risk of not making it back on the train and having my bike whisked off without me, leaving me stranded on the platform holding some guy’s prosthetic leg? Or do I tell the guy sorry, it’s too late, you’ll have to do without it? My snap judgment was that it would be worse for this poor blind guy to lose a leg, after already losing his biting, non-registered seeing eye dog, than for me to lose my bike. I raced out there, snatched up the leg, and leaped back through the doors just as they were closing. Whew!

Cable car

At the Powell Street Station our field trip group got off the train and headed up to the street level to catch a cable car. My kids vanished instantly, briefly reappearing here and there like in that Whack-a-Mole game as I desperately tried to keep tabs on them. I tried in vain to exhort them to stay together but evidently all they heard was “blah blah blah Ginger blah blah blah” (cf. Far Side cartoon about “what dogs hear”). All the kids jostled for position to be the first onboard the cable car, so as to get the best seat. This was problematic because not all the cable cars that rolled up were going to the right place. The first cable car that arrived on the right line quickly filled up with another class, and only after it left did I ascertain that none of my charges had stowed away. My greater fear was that a kid would get on the wrong line and end up lost in San Francisco. How terrifying that would be! (My nephew Jake, when he was only like three or four, got lost in a supermarket, and when he was finally reunited with his family through the help of a clerk and the PA system, he told his parents, through his tears, “I was only one guy!” There’s a deep existential undercurrent in that, I think.)

Finally a cable car arrived, on the right line, with room for all of us, and we piled on. I had several small heart attacks as my kids ran around, threading through the throng of other passengers, racing along the running board, separating, regrouping, hiding, popping up, vanishing, reappearing, jumping down and running around the back of the car, climbing back on, sitting down, standing up, relocating, removing their hats, removing their backpacks, and in every way throwing me off their scent, like fugitives. As we rolled up Powell Street, I finally made positive IDs of all three kids and was able to relax and enjoy the ride.

Flashback tale #2

When I first moved to San Francisco, right after college, I would take the bus to work from my apartment in the Lower Haight, making a slow trip down Market Street every morning. During the commute hour on that bus there was a higher than usual concentration of office types like me in a suit and tie, but you still had a wide variety of people from every walk of life. I kind of miss it, actually. One morning, this guy sitting across from me was giving me undue attention, basically staring at me as the bus rolled and lurched along. He was tall, old but robust, bearded, unremarkably dressed. Block after block he looked me over, and I supposed I’d have gotten up and moved except I was lucky to have a seat in the first place. Besides, what if I offended the guy? When I encounter a seemingly unstable person, I generally prefer not to do anything that could possibly upset him.

Finally, the man looked me right in the eye and spoke. “You have a huge schlong,” he said, very distinctly. I struggled to convince myself I’d heard him wrong … but what else could he have said? He had articulated the word quite clearly. Evidently the people around us had heard the same thing, as they were giving me vaguely panicked looks and shifting awkwardly in their seats. His remark could not have been based on any actual visual perception, as I was wearing a long trench coat. I really couldn’t say what had gotten into him.

I didn’t know how to respond. I’m pretty sure there was never a “Miss Manners” column on this. As I sat there, stunned, the man’s face gradually turned bright red, as if he’d only just realized what he said, and then he got up and walked toward the back of the bus. He stood by the door and I thought he’d get off at the next stop, but he didn’t. He just stood there, block after block, and I’d only just begun to relax again when he suddenly strode back up to the front of the bus, looked at me again, and said, “You have nice teeth, too.” This time he did leave the bus, to my very great relief.

Hyde Street Pier

The third graders and their high-strung, weary chaperones took the cable car up Powell Street past the Fairmont hotel, took a left on Jackson Street, and went west a few blocks before turning right on Hyde Street and going over Russian Hill. It was a fair morning, the breeze brisk, the sun and clouds duking it out overhead in a protracted stalemate. The cable car operator did complicated things with a long crank and a couple of antique pedals. I enjoyed watching the clockwork gears visible beneath a large rectangular hole in the car’s floor. Periodically I swung my head around to convince myself my charges were still on the car, and about half the time I could make out their heads as they weaved and bobbed like boxers. We went through my old neighborhood, past where I Fratelli, our favorite Italian joint, used to be. At the top of the hill we enjoyed a view of the bay, with Alcatraz in the background and another cable car just ahead. Much oohing and aahing as we descended the steep grade.

At the bottom of the hill we climbed off the cable car and the kids ran a few laps around it just to keep us grown-ups on our toes. Here is Alexa, having been one of the first off the car, blithely walking in front of it as though it couldn’t possibly begin rolling again.

The group assembled for a photo and then we made our way down toward the Hyde Street pier, where a small triangle of beach faced the old sailing ships, the Balclutha and the CA Thayer. For a minute or two I could relax, as two of my three kids joined several others in trying to drag an anchor out of the sand by a rope. (I figured the mostly-buried anchor was probably six feet across and they could spend the rest of their lives in this vain struggle.) Then a teacher directed me to the water’s edge to prevent kids from getting wet. Several kids helped me by drawing a line in the sand with their feet.

Suddenly, a loud adult voice called out, “Hey, white guy!” I looked across the beach to the near edge of the pier where a tall, bearded man was standing, looking in our direction. He was wearing what looked like pajama bottoms—neither baggy nor particularly tight—and no shirt. His belly hung down over the waistband. His hair and beard were mostly white. He looked a lot like Ernest Hemingway in his later years; I could easily picture him in boxing gloves. Instead, he held a football. “White guy!” he repeated, staring right at me.

This dumbfounded me: if I had been the only white guy on the beach, or perhaps if this guy were black, his salutation might have made some sense. But there were various other adults in our group, including several other white guys (our group overall was the ethnic mix you might see in a prospectus photo of a company’s board of directors). “White guy”? I tried to convince myself he was addressing somebody else, but it was hopeless. I’d been singled out once again.

Flashback tale #3

I was playing basketball at an outdoor public court in my neighborhood with a friend from out of town. We were both playing terribly: not because we were having an off day, but because we’re both terrible at basketball. A spectator appeared. He was a large, stocky black man, probably in his early twenties, wearing a dark grey overcoat despite the warm day. I couldn’t imagine what he was getting out of watching us flail around and repeatedly miss shots, but hey, free country. He silently watched us for several minutes. Then the ball hit my foot or something and went bouncing off in his direction. Instead of throwing it back to us, he joined our game. I figured I’d let him take a shot or two, and then I’d catch a rebound and resume the game, and perhaps then he’d move on. But instead of driving toward the basket, he drove toward me.

He stood before me, dribbling clumsily, and then tried some fancy move and lost control of the ball. I started to run after it, but the guy stepped toward me and, to my shock, caught me in a bear hug. Most disturbingly, he didn’t have booze on his breath. That would have explained not only his strange behavior but his sudden loss of motor control, and of strength: for, though he had started out in wrestling mode, he now slumped on me as if needing my support.

I was immediately reminded of a boxer who, late in a match he’s losing, has a crisis of resolve. His lizard brain takes over, and all he wants to do is hug the other boxer, to keep from getting hit any more. I always despise the heartless referee in this situation, who comes over and pushes the two boxers apart so the loser can be punched in the face some more. It’s particularly touching when both boxers are in the same boat, and mutually seek the hug. It’s like some kind of sudden unspoken truce there in the ring. At such times only the barbaric rules of boxing keep the fight going, with the referee doing more work than either fighter. But I digress.

The basketball long forgotten, I tried to stand the crazy guy up, but he was really heavy. My friend looked on aghast, not knowing what to do. I didn’t either. I tried to maneuver us toward the edge of the court, still holding the guy up. We did a sad, slow dance. Finally, like a wobbling bowling pin, the guy righted himself, sighed, and shuffled off.

Football with Hemingway

Back to the ordeal at the pier: I’d just about convinced myself that the Hemingway-looking guy wasn’t yelling “Hey white guy!” at me, when he threw his football to me. (Ask not for whom the ball is thrown … it is thrown for thee!) Dude had a real arm on him, too—he fricking drilled that ball right to me, a perfect spiral pass, over a distance of about fifty feet. I suppose I could have decided to have nothing with this whacko, which would have meant stepping aside and refusing to catch the ball. But remember, I was surrounded my small children. If I didn’t catch the football, it might have nailed one of the kids, after I’d have seemed to dodge it. Wouldn’t look good. So I caught it.

The most disturbing thing of all about this strange episode was that the ball was flat. It didn’t even have enough air in it to hold its shape. What kind of weird old man goes around shirtless on a cool morning carrying a flat football? Suddenly this guy went from possibly being somebody’s grandfather to possibly being homeless and/or insane. Looking down at this flat, misshapen football, I wanted nothing to do with it. But I couldn’t just toss it aside, because then the crazy man would probably come after it, carving a swath right through our group of kids. I couldn’t have that on my conscience. What could I do? I threw it back.

Of course this was a mistake. Before, the guy had only hoped to get my attention and begin a game of catch. Now the game was in full swing. I felt the teachers’ eyes on me now as the guy threw the ball again. This time the throw was not so good, and the ball ricocheted off my hand and went right into the ocean. It started on its way out to sea and I was seized with the fear that the crazy guy would come after me to avenge its loss. I exhorted myself to have grace under pressure (wasn’t that a major theme in The Sun Also Rises?). The ball came back in with the tide and I scampered after it, managing to retrieve it without getting my shoes wet. Of course I realized that by running out there I’d just done what we’d spent our whole beach visit exhorting the kids not to do. More nonplussed looks from the teachers. Hey, I thought, I don’t remember any mention of this scenario on the handout!

My next throw (no, I had no plan) was even worse than his last one. It fell far short of reaching the guy, and I watched with a strange mixture of panic and relief as several third-grade boys ran after it. One threw it to the guy but also fell short. “Oh, come on!” the guy yelled. “That kid”—pointing at some other boy—“could throw better than you!” At this moment Alexa approached me asking where she could wash her hands, which were up to the elbows in that oddly sticky, salty sand you find at the beach. Without another look at the crazy Hemingway guy, or any of the teachers, I marched my daughter off to the public restroom, to wash my own hands of this football business. When we returned to the group, Hemingway was gone. Whew!

After much reflection, I’ve decided that next time I’m asked to chaperone school kids, I’ll politely decline.

dana albert blog