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Archive for October, 2010

On Target, Mad Freeway Drivers and Road Rage

31 Oct

Around daybreak, as I’m turning onto the 605 freeway, my back end is struck by an angry motorist’s travel mug.  The sound, as loud as any blowout, startles me.  I’m supposed to take my grandmother, my yia yia, to an early doctor’s appointment.  She wants me at her home at the crack of dawn as proof she won’t be late.  Apparently my blinker wasn’t enough warning for the driver behind me that I was coming over into the lane.

In California a flashing taillight is no yield sign.  It signals the need to speed up before that poor sucker who is abiding by the traffic rules gets to edge in front.  A rattling old construction truck has swung into the other lane.  I imagine the driver is cursing at me.  But I have on my favorite radio station, KROQ, and I can’t hear over the alternative music.  Not getting the reaction he’s looking for, I’m cut off, faced with a dark puff of environmentally unfriendly smoke from his muffler.  That might cost him a hefty smog ticket if a cop was around, but of course, there isn’t.  No real damage is done to my car when I get out and inspect it, just a lot of beige liquid.  The badass must’ve used dairy creamer.

This is only one instance of a freeway driver behaving badly.  A former student of mine once saw a man on the 91 freeway become so enraged at the bumper to bumper traffic that he decided to pull a baseball bat out from his trunk and bash in the car windows of a fine looking Jaguar in front of him.  Given the slow crawl, it didn’t take long before he was caught a couple exits later.  There were, after all, plenty of eye witnesses.  The local nightly news report countless stories about drivers being pulled out of their cars and beaten.  Many have been shot and killed.

Much later after the incident on the 605, I find myself on the 215.  Ironically, my car is headed for Target when I’m accosted by a man in a Mercedes SUV.  He’s furious I’ve cut him off and for all I know, maybe I have.  Like so many other potential customers of that super store, I’m mentally racking up all the items from all the different departments I need to pick up, and I’m probably not paying enough attention to the road in front of me.  This driver takes it a step further than cursing, airborne travel mugs and spilled coffee creamer.  He follows me off the freeway and stalks me all the way through the parking lot.

I don’t realize this because he uses another exit and circles back.  I’m retrieving a shopping cart when the mad driver confronts me.  He calls me names against my sex.  He calls me names against my color.  The verbal shouts become real physical threats with every step closer I take toward the entrance of the store.  He wants to hurt me, he says, really hurt me, for what I’ve just done to him.  To other customers in the lot, it must sound like an impassioned lover’s spat because nobody does anything to help.  They just stand around clinging to their shopping bags and stare, shocked by the scene.  Inside the store, as the maniac driver is keying my passenger’s side door, I call 911.

The cop who takes my report says I’m lucky I got away with just a scratch along the side of my door.  He says it was a good thing I got out of my car and went on foot.  He has been called out to minor traffic confrontations that have turned into deadly accidents – all twisted steel and bloody body parts.  Road rage, the cop says as matter-of-factly as any shrink, typically brings out the psychoses in a person.  The California Highway Patrol, the ones I’m always checking for with dread in my rear view mirror, the ones I complain are never around when needed, now escort me like I’m the only live member in a funeral procession out of the city and to the exit that will take me safely up the highway to my home in the mountains.

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The Night the Bat Girl Connects with Her Father’s Melon Ball Head

23 Oct

My father is sitting on the couch watching football when I take a crack at the back of his large head like it’s a pinata with my Louisville Slugger.  It’s an accident, of course.  I’m seven years old, playing batter in the family room, the only room airy enough for me to practice my swing.  The night before my father and I had gone to an Angel’s baseball game and I want to prove to him that I can bat just like home run hitter Brian Downing.  My mother and older sister are out shopping.  It’s just me and my father inside the house.

The hollow sound of wood against flesh and bone isn’t what fills me with fear.  It’s the way my father rolls onto his belly splayed  heavy on the dark shag carpet like a dead sea mammal found beached on shore.  For a few seconds as my father lies there knocked out cold, I’m convinced I’ve committed involuntary manslaughter.  Even at my age then I know the unlawful terms for what I’ve just done.  My father was a defense attorney and I learned the modes and years of punishment for serious crimes the way some kids learn their multiplication tables.  This means no more skidding out on the sidewalks in my Big Wheel, no more Scooby Doo and Pop Tarts on Saturday mornings.  I’m going away for a long time to a scary kid’s prison until I’m at least eighteen.

The sight of my father just lying there paralyzes me, that is, until I see him coming to.  Slowly, he pushes up on his elbows, rocking his head in his hands, trying to make sense of why he is in so much pain.  Then he turns and squints, and I see he’s putting me into focus.  Immediately I drop the bat, screaming at my Dad how sorry I am all the way into my bedroom where I slam the door, lock it and brace it with everything from my sturdy desk chair to my Star Wars Death Star Space Station that’s made of lightweight plastic.

My father was not a small man.  When mad I’ve seen men just as big as him but not as crazy back down if he came toward them daring them in Greek to go ahead and take the first punch.  That way it would be self-defense and my father has free license to beat them good.  By the time his foot falls right down the hallway, I’m wedged in tight under my bed that’s littered with games and other junk.

He rattles the knob.  “Paula,” he mumbles groggily.  “Paula, open up.  I just… I just want to talk to you.”

“No!”  I’m crying now, afraid I’ve made him sound this strange, this brain damaged where he will have to repeat himself over and over again forever.  He’ll lose all of his clients and my mother will have to stay home all day and spoon feed him cups of brightly colored Jello.

Then abruptly my father is gone.   By the time I’m brave enough to remove the obstacles against the door and open it, he’s all the way in the kitchen helping my mother with one hand unpack the groceries.  The other holds a frozen lamb chop against the back of his head.  When he notices me in the dark of the hallway, he gives me a funny look that says it’s okay that I come out now, that I’m the one who’s not thinking straight.  He’s not a father that is going to hurt his daughter simply because she unintentionally hurt him.   He knows I was not trying to kill him, yet I’m banned for life from ever pretending like I’m an Angel.

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The Pervert, His Wiener and Other Unsavory Airplane Passengers

17 Oct

I am flying first class when a businessman in a suit and Stetson cowboy hat suddenly locks his tray table, then asks if I’d mind holding his wiener.  It’s a joke apparently, a real stupid one.  He’s on his way to the cramped lavatory and has no other place to put the jumbo hot dog he picked up at the food court in the airport before boarding.  I’m young, maybe sixteen.  This was on a trip bound for the Lone Star State and the thought of sitting paired up with this sleazy fool for the remaining two hours makes me want to pull out the air sickness bag in the seat pocket in front of me and use it.

Years later on yet another flight to the South when I’m slumming it in coach, I notice a geek in a plaid short sleeve shirt seated on the aisle openly gawking at images of women in wet t-shirts and thong bikini bottoms on his laptop.  At one point during his high elevation peep show, a flight attendant comes by and takes his drink order.  Boldly, he doesn’t try and cover up the screen.  He orders two tiny bottles of vodka and passes on the plastic cup.  I’m surprised that he doesn’t put the cash for the alcohol in the flight attendant’s modest cleavage.  For nearly an hour he scrolls up and down, up and down on the blur of hot body parts under his fingertips.  By the time the pilot gets on the speaker to point out Dick’s Knob, the third highest peak in the Georgia wilderness, I look away as the geek abruptly gets up for I know what is coming next.

Men are not the only high flying gender that are taking full advantage of the friendly skies.  I’ve seen plenty of women putting the moves on unsuspecting men who are bound in their seats by a  belt, a warning light overhead, and a deadly drop of nearly thirty-five thousand feet.  There was an older, silver-haired New York woman in heavy make-up and expensive clothing who kept offering up an internship at her firm to a good looking male college student if he’d just help her with her luggage, not just out of the airport but all the way into her apartment on the Upper East Side.  Her husband was out of town was her come on line and she needed someone to help her unpack her unmentionables.  One female flight attendant recognized the former star football player from her high school and spent the twenty minute descent into Phoenix defying the captain’s orders of finding a seat.  She pushed and pushed on the corner cushion of mine, taking the top half of me with her, as she leaned on the poor guy, grilling him about the satisfaction of his sex life with his current girlfriend.

It is no wonder then on a returning flight from Nashville that I complain to a Southwest worker after he tries to separate me and my stepson – at the time he is only ten years old.  There are no actual seat assignments given.  Instead a passenger gets a plastic placard with a number of when that group is allowed to board and ours are in the lowly C section.  “I’m sorry, ma’am,” the Southwest representative says in his persnickety, uptight airline speak.  “But the rules only apply to small children who can’t care for themselves.”

Who will protect my stepson, I ask him, from the kind of sexually driven passengers I suspect might be on the near four hour nonstop ride?   The airline worker doesn’t have an answer, but I do.  My stepson and I will be seated together, period.  However, not before the plane is delayed and airport security is called.  I am put on what could possibly be a permanent Southwest watch list.  I am the real problem passenger that prudish stepmother determined to shield her child from those on board who are most noticeably shameless, practically R rated, in their manner of amusing themselves until touchdown.

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A Young Muslim and the Pornographic Pink Carnation

11 Oct

My Christian friend wears long sleeve shirts she finds at Goodwill when she goes on her yearly mission to the heated Middle East.  Even if she pairs them with unfashionable baggy pants, the kind I wouldn’t be caught dead in, she’s still seen among many Muslim men as just another loose American woman.  She and her group are anything but that.  They do many generous, selfless things in a country where practicing Christianity is not only unpopular, it’s dangerous.  On this trip to Egypt they’ll be standing out in the open painting a church in triple digit temperatures.

I try and understand her motives for going to spread the word of God in such a place.  She plans to privately counsel the young girls about key passages in the Bible that might pertain to their lives.  She has brought them gifts.  In some ways I think she would like to bring them our independence here in the U.S., too.  As for the Christian women there who are most definitely in the minority, they don’t abide by the predominant dress code of  burkas and other cultural cloak and dagger norms used in disguising their most disarming qualities – their curves, their softness.  While still conservative dressers, these women may break out a light scarf or a long skirt, but their hands, faces and toes are most always in plain view.

In class I cover an essay by New York Times writer Nicholas Kristof called “Saudis in Bikinis” about Saudi Arabian women who wear flattering, form-fitting Western clothing, even swimsuits, but they do it together behind closed doors.  These women don’t see themselves as oppressed.  They staunchly defend their way of life, the need for male chaperones to walk with them in public, the need for two separate lines at the local McDonald’s – one for men and the other for families.  They are respectfully following the traditional rules of their religion.

And they make a good case that it might not always be this way, that the younger female generation is taking great strides by heading to other countries and becoming educated.  Some of them are bringing their hard-earned knowledge back to Saudi Arabia as doctors and other professionals.  While my friend is not in this particular country where she is at is not so far removed.  The men, uncomfortable with their own sexuality, prefer to safely view women behind the bulk of heavy material.

After her last trip my friend told me a story about being in a van full of fellow missionaries and how they were temporarily detained by a stern looking soldier.  One of the translators got out of the van with a male pastor to see what the trouble was, and as it turned out their having been stopped had nothing to do with any of the carefully covered up Western women inside the vehicle.  It had to do with the pink carnations on the dash.  “The color of the flowers is too sexually exciting for the young men,” the translator explained.  “Better put them away.”

Better put them away?  Who knew porn had such a short shelf life?  That it must be kept wet in order to maintain color and freshness?  If a flower with frilly pink petals and a long green stem is as provocative to look at as a busty Playboy Centerfold, what this reveals is that it is the men in this region of the world who deserve our sympathy for they are truly the oppressed sex.

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The 1.28 Million Dollar Suicide

06 Oct

Just as in the movie “Money Never Sleeps” this story of economic disturbance and subsequent death over the recent Wall Street crisis seems to have played itself out in Chino, California.  In the film an older, seasoned  stock trader not only loses his most precious asset, his company, he also loses his self-worth during the market crash in 2008.  As he meets in a boardroom filled with fellow suits, he pleads with these various heads of financial institutions for a bailout.  But he is silenced by one particularly handsome CEO who smells the blood and wants to rub it in by dissolving the flailing company for a couple dollars a share.  Shortly after, humiliated and heartbroken, the older businessman buys a paper and finishes a small snack in a subway station, then pushes his way across the crowded platform and steps in front of a  fast moving train.  The image is supposed to be dramatic.  It is supposed to draw gasps in the theater.  But there are none, not in the one I’m seated in.  Here in the Inland Empire that actor’s  despondency is actually all too real.

In Chino where I used to live, Timothy L. “Lenny” Woods, the former owner of a longstanding car dealership, was found dead one morning by an apparent self-inflicted gunshot wound inside the Ford dealership that he’d run for nearly thirty years.   Buried in the back of the local paper, it states that his dealership had once been successful earning over a billion dollars in tax revenue for the city.  Finding that man’s body at his former place of business was obviously no accident.

The economic slowdown has sharply plowed its way through the car industry.  President Obama’s first stimulus package may have initially pumped in massive amounts of money to the top executives at these car companies but it did little to regenerate the kind of cash flow needed to reach the ventricles, the small dealership owners where  jobs  were really on the line.  People were no longer buying, especially not anything American, and Cash for Clunkers, as well-meaning and fleeting as it may have been, didn’t exactly make up the difference.  Not much more than a year ago Woods asked the City of Chino for an increased share of sales tax revenue and a loan for 1.28 million.  He was denied both.  As a consequence, his business shut down in April.  Woods had been selling off his assets ever since.

The rate of suicide among middle-aged men has abruptly risen in the past few years.  Unemployment and financial ruin top divorce or illness as the reasons why so many of them who are often educated and enterprising, would rather die than start over.  Typically the means of killing themselves is by gunshot or an overdose of prescription drugs.  Before he was a once prosperous businessman, Timothy L. “Lenny” Woods was a husband.  He was a father and grandfather.   May his family be confident in knowing that a community mourns him.  As for the City of Chino, may they wonder whether they have blood on their hands for their part in cutting off financial aid to what had in fact been a man’s very livelihood.

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Doggies, not Diapers…and Dog Killer Michael Vick

01 Oct

Dog BoneI was once at an upscale dinner party when a chatty elderly woman stopped me so that she could show me her “beautiful babies.”  Patiently I waited while she dug inside her purse, assuming she was going to retrieve school pictures of her sweet, freckled grandchildren.  Instead she pulled out a series of professional shots, framed in cardboard with the photographer’s stamped signature on it, of two Siamese cats stretching up a scratching post.  I looked at her, then at them.  I was speechless.  They were skinny.  They were ordinary.  They’re the kind of animals that like to get it on in bushes.  They were, well, just cats.  I passed back her pictures, passing this strange encounter off as having actually met a real life old cat lady.

While I may not keep black and white glossies of my pet dogs on my person, a childless neighbor couple down the street refer to me as Auntie Paula to their two adorable Australian Shepherds that I dog sit and just the other day at the groomer’s the owner reassured my little Bailey through her cage not to worry,  “Mama’s here to pick you up.”  Some of my friends with kids of their own speak about their pets so freely and lovingly as they do their own children that I wonder if the table next to us at lunch can differentiate which story is about the toddler or the toy poodle.  Recently in New York there was a public outcry by dog owners demanding a clear delineation in a local park  marking the area for dogs to roam from where children are allowed to play.

Generally people may disagree on a lot of things such as race and politics or even if a convicted murderer is in fact guilty, but most of society will agree that a sick man like Michael Vick, who not only profited from his dogs fighting but strangled them with his bare hands and a nylon rope and buried them in the backyard when they were no longer any use to him, deserved his public lashing and prison time.  During his trial he was jeered when he came in and out of court.  And, after having served his sentence, he may’ve finally gotten back in the game of football yet he’s still hearing the disapproving boos from fans in the stadium.  He’s still wearing the invisible letters DK for dog killer on his jersey.  There is even a bestselling book “The Lost Dogs” by Jim Gorant detailing what happened to the remaining Pit Bulls Vick didn’t get to snuff out.

We see dogs and pets of all kind as members of our family. We give them human names.  Think of the popular pet memoirs “Dewey” and “Marley and Me”.  In many ways we treat them as small children, helpless and happy, that need the utmost care.  Even in our soft society of second chances, Michael Vick should’ve thought a little harder before he committed the cold equivalence of homicide on man’s best friend.

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