Thursday, April 29, 2010

Google-busted Cringe

Long before there was Facebook, there was simple Google-stalking. Come on, everyone has done it, especially the ladies out there. Bored, something triggers a thought about someone from your past. It could be the predictable old song trigger, or the unusual, like the sight of Cool Ranch Doritos in the supermarket that makes you remember someone’s bad kissing breath. Past romantic interests rate high on the “let’s just type his name into Google” list. Women like to engage in this type of snooping work in small groups, so we can all comment on how past partners look and if their wives are ugly, pretty, or so-so. So-so seems to be the most satisfying outcome.

I recall a friend staring, mouth agape, at the image of her high school crush.

“I swear—he used to be cute!”

I tend to be less interested in the old boyfriends I knew well. JohnBoy is married and has a nice family. I figured that. JimBob never married-- figured that too. And Lance, well, he won the Tour de France, again.

The aha moments come when we type in the name of a crush, like that guy who worked in the cube next to yours who always had a girlfriend, and you wished hadn’t. You throw in his name and his finishing time in a half-marathon might pop up. Damn, he still is in good shape. I bet he’s still cute. I wonder if he ended up marrying that girlfriend who always sounded whiney on his extension. Her voice was like Betty Rubble’s on the Flintstones when she called Wilma.

Young moms are susceptible to Google-stalking behavior. They have experienced a sudden, entire, change from the people they were before children. Thinking about that guy in the cube next to yours is really thinking about your old self and the independence you had, and didn’t even know it. You don’t want to go back to that place, but it is nice to check in with that girl once in a while. You’ve come a long way, baby. And when your girlfriend is showing you her past beaus, it facilitates interesting stories about life’s journey: funny, sad, reflective. You learn something new about your friend and what tidbits contributed to the way she is now.

So, it was cold and dreary and the kids were busy dumping bins of Legos all over the basement. My friend keyed in the name of an old high school boyfriend and told me a funny story about the time she caught him kissing another girl in a concert parking lot, and gave him a swift karate kick to the back of the knees. We don’t find much about him in cyberspace. I type in a name, the next-cubicle-guy’s name. Nothing interesting pops up. One more name. Nada.

Later that evening, Marty comes to me after using our home computer to research something like “tankless hot water heater systems” that he is considering installing in the basement with all of those Legos.

“So, Tracy, when you and your girlfriends are busy obsessively looking up old boyfriends’ names…could you remember to delete the search history? It’s only polite.”

Ahhhh….Google-busted! CRINGE.

“How would you feel if I spent my time looking up past girlfriends?”

Hmmm. My answer is not the one he expects. “I’d want to see what they look like!” An idea. I can Google-investigate his past flames.

“How do you spell that that one girl’s long Polish lastname with all those weird consonants?” I asked, looking for a piece of scribble paper.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Grateful Dead Concert Cringe

Marty in 1994 sporting a baja hoodie. All set.

Marty cringes that I have been to a Grateful Dead concert and he has not. He spent his college years enjoying the mellow sounds of The Dead, but had put off getting to a show. The untimely death of Jerry Garcia in August 1995 made the experience impossible. Poor Marty had Dead tickets in hand for Madison Square Garden dated September 1995. Sigh. On July 16, 1994, at the age of twenty-two, I was more familiar with Cherry Garcia ice cream than with the musical genius icon named Jerry Garcia. But there I was at RFK stadium in the throngs, almost accidentally.

On that summer morning, my friend and roommate, Karen, was expecting an ex- boyfriend and his buddies. They were driving through the night from Boston to Washington, D.C. to see the Grateful Dead. They had extra tickets for us. Did I want to go? An afternoon with potentially cute guys? Sure. Why not?

A foursome showed up at 9:30a.m. in a real hurry. And they weren’t particularly cute. Karen and I were whisked into their Pathfinder without time to grab a bottle of water or sunscreen. The ten-hour tailgate waited.

Have you ever been to a treeless field in Washington D.C. in July? It is soupy. We were hardly early. We rolled up to a car/truck shanty village, inhabited by followers who had set up camp for the previous shows and lingered. The air in that field smelled like body odor, pot, cigarettes, gasoline, and patchouli oil. We parked next to a middle-aged man splayed out, sleeping on the dry grass, with his head dangerously close to the rusty muffler pipe of his van.

I knew at a little after ten o’clock, that it was going to be a very long day. My combination of heredity and life experience left me unfit for the role of joyful Grateful Dead follower. I’ll explain. I was born to a woman with a host of sensory issues. I have come to realize that these sensitivities are encoded in my DNA, and I too suffer variations on them. My mother, Pam, is overly aware of smells and temperature. She is incapable of participating in an activity like camping, or camping's younger cousin, tailgating. I have no special childhood campfire memories. Pam would never be subject to sleeping in a tent, with heat, insect, and intermittently- bathed (stinky) campers in her radius. She sprints from the assault of body odor in a public place. She refused to do business at the local bank in my hometown because she sensed the carpet was musty. On a recent visit with her, she became obsessed with a foul odor of unknown origin in her kitchen, and took to throwing straight ammonia all over the place, hoping to rid the smell. Forget camping. Pam will not even watch a movie that she thinks may have “rough terrain” settings. This includes any war, jungle, or prison movie. The Grateful Dead RFK tailgate affair would definitely qualify as “rough terrain.” Pam would be running, screaming, and scaling fences to escape.

I am not a fan of bad smells and humidity (who is?), but my primary sensory issue involves an intolerance to loud, live music. I know this to be a family trait, because I have witnessed my mother’s Italian relatives at weddings sitting at their tables (which are always unluckily close to the band) with their hands clapped over their ears and excruciating looks on their faces. So I have this genetic defect. It makes me a very infrequent concertgoer.

But there I was. The Boston boys began to set up camp.

One guy, Tom, jumped out of the car and immediately stuffed his face into a Ziploc bag full of mushrooms.

“I’m GOIN’ SOLO,” he exclaimed, smacking his friends’ hands in a high-five salute, and venturing off into the Birkenstock-clad crowd.

We baked in the sun. Hot, skin-blistering sun. The humidity felt like wet blankets. The creases of knees cried. Karen and I took to walking around, trying to create a breeze. The beers got warm. People-watching lost allure above ninety-five degrees. Finally, the sun receded and we filtered into the stadium for the show. Tom was still goin’ solo. The rest of us found our seats and the guys in our group were delighted by each song, racing to scribble down the titles in a memo pad.

“CHINA CAT!....I knew it! I knew it!” Yup, knew it.” Apparently, the song list is a surprise each concert, and predicting the ones Jerry will belt out is great fun.

It was still so hot. And loud. Too loud. I had the sensation of someone sticking a knitting needle in my ear and moving it around. To the untrained Dead ear, every song sounded similar and uncomfortable.

And then someone jumps. From the upper deck. A hallucinating wackjob thinks he can fly and lands on several people about ten rows in front of us. There are screams and commotion. Security guards rush down, followed by emergency workers. Three people are carted away in neck braces on stretchers. I now feel nauseous. My minor fears of heights and crowds have been updated to include a fear of a human being or other large object falling randomly from the sky. Once the injured are out of the way, the crowd returns to happy swaying. Karen and I head for the air-conditioned car. She tells her ex-boyfriend that we will wait there until the concert ends. He looks annoyed. He has clearly wasted good tickets on us. Somewhere up in Jersey, a twenty-two-year-old Marty Ryan (who I haven’t met yet) would have loved that ticket. He’s probably cringing when he reads this, thinking of us idling in the cool car, as the concert lifts the spirits of masses inside.

Long after the concert has ended, Tom is a no-show. He is still goin’ solo, and may never find us for his ride home. I fear that he may be dead. Maybe he was the guy who jumped! An hour or so later, he shows up, exuberant, ranting like a wild man about his amazing GOIN’ SOLO experience. Karen and I are impatient, and not impressed.

“Get in the car!” usually mild-mannered Karen screams at him. I am certain Karen yells this frequently now, in the same frustrated distress, as she attempts to get her daughters to school in the mornings up in Boston.

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Thursday, April 15, 2010

Cringing About The Nudie Neighbors

To protect the naked, I’ll just write that at our old house, in our old town, we lived catty-corner to a nudist couple. They were the real deal-- co-presidents of a nudist social club connected to Gunnison Beach, the largest nude beach on the eastern seaboard, located just five short miles from our addresses on Sandy Hook, New Jersey.

Marty looked out of our kitchen window curiously when the new couple bought the small cottage across the street and immediately put up a new fence. They hadn’t even moved in yet. We didn’t know about their naturism then. The original fence was a board-on-board variety with narrow gaps.

“The old fence was really nice. And expensive. Why are they tearing it down to put up that stockade fence?” Marty scratched his head.

Around the same time as this fence installation, Marty and I had been engaged in a discussion about replacing our walkway. I hated the existing concrete approach; he found it to be extremely functional. Why spend money on replacing it with bricks? Because bricks would look nice, I whined. And here come these new neighbors replacing, replacing, replacing things with abandon.

The new owners were a friendly, middle-aged, couple. The cottage was their weekend house. In addition to the new fence, they worked meticulously on landscaping projects. One spring Sunday afternoon they invited us to see the work they had accomplished beyond the fence. We found a terrific outside entertaining area with pretty ornamental beach grasses, paving stones that led to groupings of patio furniture sets, and a large hot tub.

“Wow,” I commented. “This is an awesome yard for parties.”
“Yes, we really like to entertain,” the wife replied, and we moved on to discussing the perennials she had just planted.

The parties started with gusto that summer. About once a month, cars would line the street from end to end. Party music would drift out, along with the sounds of happy summer people, ice cubes clinking in drinks, laughter. When dusk fell, steam from the Jacuzzi would rise above the fence along with an occasional group shout of “Tequila!”

One Sunday morning after an obvious shindig, (five cars were still left in the street by drivers likely passed out on lawn chairs) I relaxed with my next door neighbor, Jane, as our kids ran around the yard.

“The new neighbors sure seem like they have fun,” I said. “I hope I have that much fun when I am their age.”

Jane looked like she was debating telling me something. Jane is an artist, and much hipper than me.

“Well, they are nudists. The parties are clothing-optional parties.”
“They run the social club at Gunnison Beach. They are really active in it. The wife actually invited us to go to the party last night. She said if we came early we might feel more comfortable because people usually don’t get totally naked until later in the evening.”

Now this was interesting. Jane’s invite story answered what would have been my first question. Do nudists drive to parties naked? Do they wear trenchcoats in the car? Do guests strip immediately when they get to the party, and if so, are there cubbies or old metal lockers on site to hold your belongings? Apparently not. The removal of clothing is gradual. This made me consider all of the summer barbeques I have attended. Not once did I feel that my sundress was too cumbersome to continue wearing, and that I just had to remove it, at any point in the evening. This subculture right across the street was fascinating. Oh, one more question. Is there a Facebook photo posting policy?

I went to report the intelligence to Marty. I walked up our ugly concrete path that never did get replaced. I was extremely pregnant with Brendan. When pregnant, I look more like a caricature of a pregnant woman. My short-waisted physique offers no room for growing baby; my belly juts so far forward that it appears I am carrying a foal that will be born standing up.

“What do you think would happen if I went to the next naked party like this?” I ask Marty, rubbing my non-Hollywood- style mountain bump. “Do you think I would provide visual interest?”

“I am not going to any naked party.” Marty proclaimed, seeing my wheels turning, my curiosity totally piqued.

The next time steam rose from beyond the fence, I found myself cringing. The first level of cringe had to do with imagining the mottled, imperfect flesh of middle-aged nudists. The guests getting out of their cars were not generally the sort one might dream about seeing in the flesh. But the second level of cringe was that we were never invited. We were clearly too square to ever get asked to the nudie party.
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Thursday, April 8, 2010

Cringing While Smoking

I guess I can blame Gina for my short stint as a Marlboro Lights smoker. She had fiery red hair and she took me to the movies in her light blue Volkswagon bug. The cassette soundtrack from Grease was turned way up as she weaved in and out of Los Angeles suburbia traffic. She was taking me to see Annie at a huge shopping center. It was the best day of my life so far. I’m ten and Gina is eighteen. She is the daughter of my grandparents’ friends, whom we are visiting in California. I had just taken my first plane ride, and now this. A movie date with a pretty teenager, and she is talking to me like a friend. She is singing along with the tape and is encouraging me to sing too. She opens the glove compartment and pulls out a pack of cigarettes. She is so cool. Later, as we pull into her parents’ driveway, she asks me not to mention to anyone that she had been smoking. Don’t worry, Gina. Your exciting secret is safe with me.

Fast-forward about seven years. I am feeling cool, transporting four girlfriends to the beach on a Friday afternoon in June, 1989. We have music blasting, cigarettes burning, earrings dangling, and effervescent chattering about our half-day off. We are so close to not being high school girls anymore; graduation feels minutes away under early summer sun. We are happily idling at a red stoplight. And please note that we are not in a cute convertible; we are in my mother’s minivan. And yes, I am flagrantly smoking in her car, and allowing four others to do so as well.

“Who’s that man looking at us?” Linda remarks. The smoke from her cigarette is pluming out of the passenger window. She taps her ash.

It’s my dad. I drop the cigarette I am holding and it burns my calf. I’m cringing, but I am also terrified. The strange thing is-- he is looking at me with amusement. He waves. My father loved pretty girls and there is a carload full. The stoplight turns green.

I didn’t understand the bemused look on his face in 1989. I understand it now, and I am not even halfway there in parenting years. My six-year-old son is just one-third of the age of that teenaged girl. I can just start to see the glimmer of a different, outside world personality that is his own. I see it when he laughs with a schoolmate, uses a weird tone of funny voice, or refuses to tell me about some piece of gossip I have lifted from another nosy mother. My father recognized in my cool, smoking moment that I was much more than the sullen adolescent girl that had withdrawn in the past few years. As I led a caravan of young women across the Connecticut state line, smoking cigarettes, dreaming about boys and the prospect of college, I was more like the confident four-year-old girl who used to meet him at the door at dinnertime and shout hello. He loved that little girl, even though now she was smoking a carcinogenic cigarette, and probably driving a bit erratically.

“I am so dead,” I moan. I can’t think of continuing on to the beach and worrying my fate until I get home. I have to take my lumps now. I motion for Dad to pull over so I can work some damage control. We both get out of our cars and meet in the middle.

“Are you cutting school?” he asks. I’m relieved that I can answer truthfully.
“No, we have a half-day.”
“Ok, then. Are you going to the beach?”
“Uh huh.”

I am waiting for him to bring up the smoking. He doesn’t.

“Have a good time then,” he smiles. “I’ll see you later.” He waves cheerfully at the girls in the car, who are slightly crouched down (in cringe mode).

If it had been my mother, there would have been a ghastly scene on the side of Route 123. Screaming, hair-pulling, general hysteria. It would have resulted in serious cringing for all involved, even passersby.

My father never mentioned the smoking stoplight again. It’s good to be a Daddy’s girl.

Friday, April 2, 2010

Cringing When Your Italian Masseuse Is A Masseur

I am aware that the correct term is massage therapist. I have the ultimate respect for this profession. I believe in the healing power of human touch as a medical discipline. But for the purpose of this cringe incident, I must differentiate between masseuse and masseur.

I was fortunate to spend my tenth anniversary on Italy’s Amalfi Coast. I accomplished this by browbeating my husband into a repeat honeymoon trip, a trip he happily agreed to in 1998 as we frolicked in post-wedded bliss amid trailing bougainvillea. In the ten years that followed, Marty realized the notion of returning to Italy for two weeks when we had two children under the age of five, a mortgage, and various other thirty-something responsibilities was just the na├»ve musings of clueless newly married twenty-somethings.

But I never let the deal die. Every June 6th, I mentioned the tenth anniversary trip. It was real. It was happening. Life is too short. We had learned that in ten years, right? On the ninth June 6th, I discussed administrative issues. I would book the tickets using frequent flyer miles, and how generous and thoughtful of me, I had found a sweet hotel at half the price of where we stayed for our honeymoon. Nana was on board to babysit for the entire trip.

“Are you really serious?” he asked, dumbfounded.

Marty is a man of his word, even ten years later. He finally relaxed as he looked out at the Mediterranean, flanked by bougainvillea once again. The best salami sandwich ever and a good-sized bottle of Peroni helped too, as we took in the view from our room balcony.

I went to the front desk to schedule a massage appointment at the spa on the morning of our anniversary. It did occur to me to ask the gender of the therapist, but somehow the effort to defy the image of picayune American tourist felt more important. I knew we looked overtly American (Marty’s Yankees cap might be a first clue), but I didn’t want to seem rude, inflexible, unsophisticated. So I made the appointment without any hesitation, without any question except what time I should present myself. Boy, I would present myself.

Positano, Italy is probably one of the most photographed places in the world. Old, brightly colored stucco buildings are stacked crookedly on cliffs that lead down to the sea. The rocky beachfront is littered with brightly colored row boats that support the fishing industry, which is second to tourism. The experience of Positano feels like being stuck in a postcard. The Villa Franca Hotel stood at the very top of a winding road. The lobby is airy and decorated in blues and whites. The floors are cool sparkling white tile, the kind that feel great under bare feet. Their spa is in the basement. It felt like I was walking into a dungeon. There were votive candles lit in the hallway to promote some sort of ambience, but the effect felt threatening. I put my hand out to lead the way.

“Mrs. Ryan?” a deep, heavily-accented male voice called. A very large, barefoot man stepped out from a shadow or cave.

I’m not sure I answered.

“I am Pasquale.” he informed. He moved his arm gracefully to gesture that I step into a tiny room off the dark hallway. The “treatment” room had more light. I could now see Pasquale’s face. He was not menacing. I took a breath. I consulted with myself. I can handle this. I am a modern woman. This will be a wonderful, relaxing, massage experience. Pasquale is not a gigolo. A gigolo would cost much less than 90 Euros, right?

“You getta undress. And you laya faca-down on the table.” He left me in the room and promised to reappear shortly. Pretty standard massage procedure. I followed his direction.

When I turned to arrange myself on Pasquale’s massage table, I discovered there were no linens. No top sheet. No soft blanket to hide my nakedness. This was a QUANDARY. I had accepted that a strange, muscular, Italian man was going to rub my entire body with oils, but I had not expected that I would be entirely nude for the event. My eyes searched for hidden sheets in the room. I could hear Pasquale approaching the door. I dropped and rolled onto the table, face-down, like a Navy Seal. This was screwed up.

“Ok, Mrs. Ryan,” Pasquale said in a serene, spa-voice. The whole “Mrs. Ryan” greeting was disconcerting. I felt about five years old in this vulnerable position with Pasquale, and I never really got used to being called “Mrs.” anyway, even after ten years of marriage. Was I going to have to flip over at some point? Where the hell is the soft sheet, Pasquale?

My massage with Pasquale was not relaxing. For the first half-hour, I anticipated the turn-over. When I did turn over (no sheet ever appeared), I kept my eyes welded shut. I would have been more relaxed riding the cliff-hugging roads of the Amalfi Coast unsecured in the back of a fruit truck.

Pasquale started doing a figure-eight maneuver around my chest. This was definitely not a technique I was familiar with in the states. I willed myself not to jump off the table and run upstairs to Marty, who was checking work email on his laptop by WiFi in the breezy lobby.

I wasn’t scared. Pasquale was as gentlemanly as could be, considering I was naked and he was rubbing my breasts. I was just incredibly exposed, and I fret, an unsophisticated American tourist. I was cringing bigtime.

I thanked Pasquale when our time together was over, and once dressed, climbed upstairs to find Marty. He was clicking away on computer keys.

“Hi,” he smiled. “How was it?”

“It was interesting. I just went to second base with some dude named Pasquale.”

“Hmmm. Happy Anniversary, Trace.”