Sunday, October 20, 2013

Closer to the Edge

Since my mom passed away a couple of weeks ago at the ripe old age of 95, I've experienced a strange mix of emotions; sadness and grief, because I will miss her, and relief, as I know her quality of life was low.  Deaf, wheelchair bound, and episodic dementia is a sad extension of a purposeful life.  She was ready to go, and died peacefully in her sleep.

Born on her grandparents' farm in then-rural Maryland in 1917 - just 14 years after the Wright Brothers flew the first successful airplane and 5 years after the sinking of the Titanic, she and her three siblings experienced great chunks of our country's historical events.  The U.S. entered World War I just six months before she was born.  She was 12 years old when the Great
Depression began.  The Dust Bowl's seven-year reign began when she turned 14.  World War II began when she was 24.  With children two and six years old, she said goodbye to her husband when he was drafted during the Korean War.

She saw the development of the television set.  Sputnik was launched when she was 38 and the race to the moon was on...the same year that Rosa Parks refused to give up her bus seat.  At 44, she saw the Berlin Wall constructed.  After that, the Vietnam War, the Civil Rights Movement and the tumultuous decades of the 60's and 70's became something my parents tutt-tutted about with their friends while it became part of my own tapestry. 

What I didn't expect to experience after her passing was a deepening sense of my own mortality.  As long as she was alive, she was my shield against the void of death.  Her very existence was a reassuring barrier, a little Dutch child plugging the leak in the dike.  My brother, my only sibling, died two years ago, and my dad has been gone for 13 years.  I am the sole survivor of my original family.  

Independence has always been important to me, and with children, grandchildren, cousins, nieces and nephews, I'm rarely lonely.  But I can't shake the feeling that I'm next in line.  It's the nature of things and I accept it.  It doesn't mean I have to like it.


Friday, August 30, 2013


There’s something delicious, hedonistic even, about a trip to a day spa.  If I close my eyes, I envision lying on a cushioned table, snuggled in one of those fluffy, heated blankets, straight from the warmer, while an anonymous someone applies fruit or herb scented concoctions to my face and body after a 60 to 90 minute massage.   I’ve been to a few, but not many, as they usually don’t come cheap.

When one of my daughters announced we were going to spend a few hours at a spa in Los Angeles recently, the appropriate pleasure area of my brain lit up.  She saw my eyes roll back and quickly added a disclaimer:  it was a place she had never been to before, but thought it might be fun to check out together.  And, by the way, it was a Korean spa.  

 The lighted things in my brain paused, realigning their expectations.  Stereotypes and preconceived notions swirled as a weird mosaic began to take shape.  I envisioned a spa-version of a Chinese laundry with sweaty Asian men dressed in white tee shirts, aprons and head wrappings punishing me with their hands, beating my back like a drum while judging my wrinkles.  Female attendants tsk-tsked as they smeared octopus ink, shark fin serum and oils made from slaughtered endangered species on my skin, reserving the magical potions for their well-heeled, regular customers.  After all, what could I expect from a place that is open 24 hours a day and only charges a fifteen dollar entry fee?

I smiled bravely and entered the double doors of the Wi spa, somewhat apprehensive about the exact translation of the word “jjimjilbang”.  At the front desk, we were given waterproof wristwatch-like devices that secured our lockers with a wave of our hands.  The receptionist explained that the lower floor was for women only, the middle floor for men only and the upper floor was co-ed.  She indicated that we were welcome to don an outfit of their well-worn signature tee shirts and shorts if we were uncomfortable with nudity.   

Wait….what?  My anxiety meter rose.  Who said anything about being nude?  I brought my bathing suit for the hot and cold Jacuzzis, so surely that would be allowed.  We changed into the logo-splashed uniform and walked straight into a room full of naked Korean women.  A large sign indicated that no clothing of any kind was allowed in the Jacuzzis, and instructed us to visit the washing stations before entering the water.  Oh, those must be the showers, I thought.  Why don’t they just call them that?

Well, because they aren’t.  Rows of women squatted on little molded plastic seats that looked like step stools to me, but tilted so you could see THAT in front of large lighted mirrors, wash basins and handheld shower heads.  They cleaned every inch of themselves as if they were preparing to be inspected afterward.  I told my daughter I would wait for her on the benches against the wall and sat behind a post so I’d have something to look at other than, uh, naked people.  There was no escape.  My eyes searched for something neutral to stare at, only to land on an open passageway that revealed a room full of tables that held more naked women whose body parts jiggled as they were massaged by female attendants dressed in bras and panties.  Said daughter knew I was hiding and suggested we check out the co-ed floor.

A little voice in my head warned, “If the women’s floor freaked you out, just wait.”  As it turned out, the co-ed floor was my favorite.  The stairwell opened up into a large gym-like area ringed by several saunas.  The first was small, and the floor was covered with large nuggets of salt.  We followed the example of the others already inside and lay down in the salt.  I was tempted to move my arms and legs to make the equivalent of a snow angel, but restrained my Caucasian self.  The temperature was 124 degrees.  After a prudent length of time, we decided to try the ice room, where the 41 degree air was a welcome relief.  The jade sauna was next, with mats on the floor of an enclosure where the walls and ceiling were constructed of various rocks and geodes which I supposed were types of jade.  Its temperature rivaled the salt sauna.  They clay sauna was closed for maintenance, but what we could see indicated it was made of little clay balls to lie on instead of salt.
The most intense sauna was the forest room where the temperature was over 200 degrees.  There were no places to sit, as our butts would have protested vigorously.  We stood on our towels for protection and fled back to the ice room after about 5 minutes.  

Mats and foam block headrests lay in rows on the floor, inviting us to relax after the saunas sucked away energy, toxins and bad karma.  Thank goodness everyone on this floor was clothed.  My daughter took a brief nap on one of the mats.  I rested beside her for a few minutes before fleeing to the familiarity of the computer terminals to check my email, in English.

So, would I go back to the “jjimjilbang” Korean Day Spa?  Definitely.  It was super-clean, and I loved both the alternating temperature saunas as well as the opportunity to relax.  Just close the door to that room with all the naked people. 

Monday, August 12, 2013


Air travel is a unique combination of wonder and horror.  Without it, I’d be stuck in a car or on a train for days in order to visit with family.  With it, I can be holding my elfin granddaughter within a few hours.  However, there is nothing like being imprisoned in a small, cramped space to bring out the worst in people.  Can someone tell me why people lose all consideration for their fellow prisoners during travel time? 

When I boarded a pretty full flight out of Dulles this morning, I was quite happy that the middle seat was empty.  Ahhhhh…a little extra room that I hadn’t expected.  I still appreciated the extra space, but the woman sitting on the end seat took that perk WWWAAAYYY too far.  When she first sat down, she raised her armrest and started spreading out her belongings.  That’s not horrible, and two can play that game, I thought, as I quickly placed one or two things of my own there before she could claim the entire empty seat.
My bad traveling luck usually falls in the olfactory category.  Okay, enough with the fancy words.  Something always stinks.  The most frequent offenders have been guys who sit with their knees splayed, creeping into my tiny leg space, before letting loose with machine gun rounds of gas.  I’ve taken to wearing a loose, blousy headband draped around my neck that I can pull up over my mouth and nose.  That’s not too obvious, right? 

The lady behind me decided to reapply her Lily of the Valley perfume.  The sickeningly sweet fumes curled around me like that green “Night of the Living Dead” fog. Sometimes it’s a combo ride, with a digestively-challenged guy sitting next to me and little boy kicking the back of my seat for the five hour flight.  I still can’t decide whether the kicks or the mother’s monotone reprimands are worse.  Then a nearby passenger will unveil his or her homemade ethnic lunch that reeks of some unknown oil and spice.

Engine noise and screaming children used to wear me down until my daughter and son-in-law were kind enough to present me with a pair of noise reduction headphones.  Auditory problems solved.

Today was a new low.  I prayed to be surrounded by gassy men, over-perfumed women and Mediterranean picnickers.  My fellow traveler across the empty seat finally cleared away her snack bags, makeup and books to stretch out and watch some satellite television.  Unfortunately, she thought it was perfectly okay to remove her shoes and put her BARE FEET within three inches of my seat edge.  Besides the ick factor of a stranger’s uncovered feet so close to me, well, quite frankly they smelled!

Perhaps I’m being too picky.  My feet don’t always smell like a bed of roses, but who does that on a plane?  I tried looking pointedly at her putrid peds, but she was clueless.  Where’s that Lily of the Valley when I could put it to some beneficial use?  I bit my lip to keep from turning toward her and saying, “Really, REALLY???”  The nuns who educated me would have told me to “offer it up”, but I don’t think I’ve done enough bad things in my life to keep my mouth shut for another 1,074 miles.
Maybe my seat in heaven will be one of those massaging spa pedicure chairs.       

Tuesday, July 2, 2013


Several months ago, I attended a unique marionette show with my daughter and granddaughter in Los Angeles, California.  It reminded me of a show I watched on television a long time ago…

If you were a kid in the 1950’s, you were likely a witness to television history.  What began as a radio program known as “The Triple B Ranch Show” with a character named Elmer who greeted listeners by saying “Howdy Doody” soon became “The Puppet Playhouse”.   By 1949, the circus theme was changed to a cast of characters who lived in a town called “Doodyville” hosted by a man named Buffalo Bob.

By now you’ve probably guessed that this was the nascent “Howdy Doody” show, which was a true pioneer in several ways.  Although it began in black and white, it was the first television show broadcast in color, the first NBC series to air five days a week, and the first show with more than 1,000 continuous episodes.   During its 13 year run, a total of 2343 shows had been performed. 

While most people today think of puppets in terms of the handheld variety, these were marionettes – puppets on strings.  Once called the ugliest puppet ever made, Howdy was joined by others such as Mr. Bluster, Flubadub (who was comprised of seven different creatures) as well as human characters.  Aside from Buffalo Bob, you were sure to see Clarabell the clown, Princess Summerfall Winterspring, Chief Thunderthud, Ranger Bob and Trapper Pierre.  The first Clarabell  was none other than Bob Keeshan, who went on to become TV’s Captain Kangaroo.  Ranger Bob was the second acting job for soon-to-be Star Trek’s Captain Kirk, also known as William Shatner.  Trapper Pierre was Camelot’s Robert Goulet.

As more updated shows such as the Mickey Mouse Club took away an ever-larger share of Howdy’s audience (known as the Peanut Gallery) and sponsors gradually jumped ship, the show ended in 1957. 

Although Howdy and his friends faded away, the show that brought it to mind has not.  Underneath a bridge in a gritty area next to downtown Los Angeles is a white building that is easy to overlook.  An 88 year old man still shows up for work nearly every day.  Bob Baker lives in the same house that he did when he pulled the strings of his first marionette at age seven.  It was a Christmas show at an L.A. department store that lit his passion for puppetry.  He was just eight years old when he performed his first puppet show at the Beverly Hills Hotel.  In the audience were members of the famed Rockefeller family and when the children came up to hug the puppets at the show’s end, Baker knew he had found his life’s work.

Baker helped unionize puppeteers and established the first puppet manufacturing facility when he was still in his teens. 

His theater is the longest running puppet theater in the United States and houses over 3,000 puppets.  But the theater is struggling financially as attendance has fallen over the last decade.  Baker still presents seasonal productions throughout the year.
The day we attended the show, we entered a large room with no stage , bordered by folding chairs.  A colored line ran around the perimeter of the room, outlining the no-go areas for the audience.  The two-year-old sat, entranced, as music poured from the speakers and the curtains pulled back to reveal a myriad of marionettes representing animals and people.  The puppeteers dressed to avoid distracting from the puppets, and Baker’s creations danced, hopped, and strolled around the room, interacting with the children.   Delighted by the personal attention, kids laughed and joined in the fun.  Set, character and costume changes kept up the interest level during the hour-long presentation. 

It’s easy to see that Baker and his puppeteers are doing this for love, not money.  The costumes and sets are well worn and even a bit shabby, but the kids didn’t notice.  They were too happy, watching the last days of one of Los Angeles' cultural and artistic giants, Bob Baker.