Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Inn Trouble: These Green Thoughts: A (non) Love Story in Three Acts

Running this enterprise requires a balance of professionalism, diplomacy, and tact--and sometimes a certain amount of restraint.  Oh, but how still waters run deep:  I am a girl (woman? broad?) after all and sometimes my thoughts are not, shall we say, Puritanical in nature.

This should really be called My Blue Thoughts or My Impure Thoughts, but the Smithereens have this great song called Green Thoughts that's technically about envy and jealousy, so I think it applies in this case.

Of course, the fact that my guest crushes are beyond wildly inappropriate and completely unattainable makes these tales all the more entertaining.

Act One:  My Big, Fat Greek Crush:  one of my first airbnb reservations came from a couple:  she lived south of the Mason-Dixon line, he lived in New England.  They decided to literally meet halfway for a birthday/tryst/lovefest in Pittsburgh.  The guy, let's call him Nick, made the reservation and was the first to arrive early in the afternoon.

Ah, Shucks, Julie, I ain't nothin special!
And there he was, looking like that guy in My Big, Fat Greek Wedding/Carrie's fiance from Sex and the City/the shaggy guy from Northern Exposure.  In a word:  yum. 

OK, and let's make this matter worse:  he was nice.  Super nice.  And funny.  Wickedly funny.  His first suggestion while we wait for his girlfriend to arrive?  Let's go get a beer!  Sure, I say, and we saunter up to Brillobox for a lovely cold one.

In the 2 or 3 hours we spent together, I almost forgot about the reason for his visit (the girlfriend), I was having such a good time.  He was an artist, he had an interesting job, and incredible taste in music.  Score!

Then the girlfriend appeared and of course she was young (15 years his junior), drop-dead gorgeous, with a body like a dancer.  I tried really hard to hate her, but she was as interesting and wonderful as he was.  DAMMIT!  DAMMIT!!  DAMMIT!!!

They stayed with me two times after that, and I still have the little, folksy notes they left for me.  "Thank you kindly for opening your home to us," wrote the Greek God.  "It was so sweet of you to remember my favorite kind of yogurt-thank you so much!" wrote the GF.

The last time I saw them was over three years ago.  I think they broke up, or maybe that's wishful thinking on my part. But no more trysts at the old B&B, although I do hear from the Greek God from time to time...

Act II: He ain't no Brat(man): So this was a reservation not unlike any other:  the guy makes the reservation, mentioning that his fiancee had an interview at Children's Hospital and they wanted something close to the hospital and in a central location so they could explore the city while they were here.

The guy, let's call him Ben, make the reservation through one of my booking agents, where registrants create profiles of themselves.  In this case, Ben included a picture of himself with aforementioned fiancee, and they looked like any normal, happy couple.

Like the Greek God and his GF in Act One, Ben and his fiancee arrived separately and Ben arrived first.  I think that gobsmacked is the best word I can use, because I have never, ever met someone more charismatic.  And Hello?  He was a DEAD RINGER for Benjamin Bratt, albeit from the Law & Order
Julie, I only have eyes for you--until my fiancee arrives!
days.  You know that total cliche about someone listening and concentrating to you so intently that you feel like you're the only person left on earth?  Yep, that was him.  Oh, and he was warm and funny and very witty.  And very in love with his fiancee.  Wah-Wah!

And the fiancee?  She was nice.  Super smart.  Gorgeous, in that all-American, J. Crew kind of way.  The kind of girl that would be easy to hate, except that she was super nice.  Figures.

Ben seemed amused by my slacked-jawness, and I never heard from them again.  She could have gotten that job at Children's and I could run into them at the Wild Card.  Or J. Crew, if Pittsburgh had a J. Crew.




Act III: You say Cougar, I say "more experienced": I have the opportunity to host a lot of artists, and a painter contacted me from the deep south about staying with me--she had an exhibit of her work not far from Pittsburgh.  She said that she would be traveling with her son, and that they'd bring a sleeping bag for him.  "He camps a lot, he's used to sleeping on the ground," was her response when I offered to set up a second bed for him.

Because she had asked me if the B&B was "kid friendly" and mentioned camping, I envisioned some middle schooler.  Please try to picture my face when this walked through my door: 
Um, Julie, who's James Dean?

Yes, it was her (barely) adult son, looking all "Rebel without a Cause"-like in his hipster hair and skinny jeans. 

Because of their schedule, I didn't see too much of him.  And when I did see them, yes, I was a little slack jawed.  Two days later, they're packing up their stuff and heading down the road in their Mini Cooper.

And...scene!

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Inn Trouble: I prefer the term "Saltine"

The old saying goes that no good deed goes unpunished.  I learned this firsthand last summer.  A woman called me, looking for a place to stay for an upcoming weekend, explaining that her son was moving to Lawrenceville and they wanted something close.  My parents were visiting that weekend and I had forgotten to mark "their" room as booked on my calendar.  So I told the woman (let's call her Jackie) that she could stay at my one bedroom rental for the same price as staying at the bed & breakfast, which was a considerable discount.  For those of you counting, that was mistake number one.

Jackie booked the room through my booking agent and told me she would call when she and her husband were ready to check in.

That day I got several calls from her, all indicating she was clearly out of her element.  Although Jackie and her husband lived in a major midwestern city, it became evident immediately that they were suburbanites.  The traffic scared her, parallel parking was a near impossibility, and the cars whizzing by?  They were a nightmare.  You get the idea.  But they were done moving--finally!--and ready to check in.

Five minutes later, the phone rang, and a dejected sounded Jackie told me that they weren't going to stay at my place.  "We don't feel comfortable in this neighborhood.  We don't feel safe."  I told her that I'd meet her down there and we could talk about her concerns.  So me and my Dad take off in the Camry to the property.

Jackie and her husband were ensconced in their car, about 60 feet from the house, with the windows tightly closed and the doors locked.  They both get out of the car and relay this story to me:

They walk up to the property and sitting on the stoop are a couple of kids.  Mr. Jackie asked what are they doing, sitting on these steps.  They have no business sitting on these steps.  Who exactly did they think they were, sitting on the steps?

One of the kids, Mr. Jackie said, "called him a bad name."  Right around this time, my neighbor across the street heard the commotion (apparently) opened his door and told the kids to go home.

Um, what did the kid say?

Mr. Jackie jutted out his chin, and declared, "He called me a CRACKER!!!!"

Before I had time to react, a large, black van pulled up.  It was the father of the two kids that had the exchange with Mr. Jackie.

"Bobby!!"  the guy in the van shouted (to a boy at the end of the street who was, at the most about 8).  "What did you say to this man?"  The kid said he didn't say anything.

Mr. Jackie (almost tearfully, I might add) wailed to the guy, "He called me a CRACKER!!"

"BOBBY!!!  WHAT. DID. YOU. CALL. THIS. MAN???"

"NOTHING!!!!!"

Since we were clearly at a stalemate, the guy in the van apologized again and drove away.

"We can't stay here.  It's not safe here," Mr. Jackie said.

"Don't you at least want to go inside the house," I asked.  "It's very nice and I think you would like it.  This neighborhood is actually very safe and I think you would feel better if you took a look at the house."

Jackie shoot her head, Mr. Jackie shook his head.

I should probably mention that all this time, my Dad has been in his Camry across the street from where Jackie and Mr. Jackie are parked.  But out of the corner of my eye, I see my Dad ease out of the car and start to inch toward the Jackies' car.

Jackie asked about alternate places to stay, so I suggested the Marriott up the street.  "And how do we go about getting our money back?"

I explained my cancellation policy to her, mentioning that it was on my site as well as the booking agent's site.  "So we won't get any of our money back?" Jackie wailed.  No, I replied.  I said I was very sorry but it's summer and a busy time and since she made the reservation I had turned people away.  I added that I was sorry that they felt uncomfortable but the house had been rented for nearly a year and no one felt uncomfortable and in fact I had a five-star rating from the people who stayed with me.

Now, I see my Dad is getting closer to the Jackie car and is smoking a cigarette all Cool Hand Luke-like.  I should mention that my Dad is an affable, genial person.  But you don't want to get him mad (trust me, I speak from experience).  Mr. Gentle Giant can morph into Commando Bill at the drop of a hat.  I remember thinking, well this is great, we officially have a three-ring circus.

Then Mr. Jackie intervened.  "Well, I can tell you what," he growled.  "You WON'T be getting a five-star rating from US!!!  Jackie, get in the car and LET'S GO!!!"

I went back to the car, where my Dad had returned.  He looks at me in a "what happened?" kind of way, and I explained that they weren't going to stay here.  "Some little kid down the street supposedly called him some kind of name." 

Jackie and Mr. Jackie took off, leaving behind a cloud of dust as they left for the safe security, and hopefully all Caucasian, Marriott Hotel.  They never left a review and I never heard from them again.  






Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Inn Trouble: They Gave Me Their Two Cents

About three years ago, I decided to add a third room to the bed & breakfast's offerings, so guests could rent the entire second and third floors.  I charged what I thought was a lot of money, so when an attorney contacted me about renting the two floors for nearly a week, I thought I'd hit the jackpot.

The attorney was from the west coast and was coming with his business partner to launch a new product at a trade show.  He said he looked forward to his visit to Pittsburgh, and surprised me when he said that the third sleeping room was actually for his parents, who lived about a day's drive away.

He seemed, as my Mother would say, "a nice young man."  His parents were due to arrive first, and at first blush they seemed like a spirited couple, full of piss and vinegar. It was then I began to notice that the wife started talking in stage whispers whenever she had something she felt was daring/risque/conspiratorial. 

You're in deep doo-doo if you don't get me more TP!
Then I found out that they had considered starting a bed & breakfast.  They owned a big house, kind of like mine ("Ours is much nicer than yours, dear," Wifey whispered), nestled in a private forest, away from civilization in what sounded like a picturesque setting. 

Their son and his business partner was due to arrive at the airport at 11, which was my usual cut off time for check in, but since they were throwing a lot of money my way, I figured I'd make an exception and stay up for them.

That was a mistake.  Midnight came and went, as did 1 a.m.  At about 1:30, I got a call from a giddy/giggly/possibly drunk Lawyer Man.  It seemed he and the business partner forgot the directions I gave them ahead of time, didn't bother to ask the car rental people for a map, had no GPS in their car, and now they were lost.  Wasn't that hysterical?!

I tried to figure out where they were, and Lawyer Man's business partner was heard in the background shouting out random "landmarks", which Lawyer Man gleefully passed along.  "Ooh, we're at a traffic light!"  Me:  "Do you see a street sign, or any businesses?"  Background bellowing:  "Tell her there's an Exxon station here!  And a car wash!".

It being now nearly 2 in the morning, I could only generally tell them how to get here, since they could give me no idea of where they were.  I suggested finding a gas station that was open and get directions to Children's Hospital and call me for specific directions from Children's.

Of course, navigating them the two blocks or so from Children's to my place was another ordeal.  Seems both parties in the car couldn't remember their left from their right.  Wasn't was SO FUNNY!!

In the middle of all this Ma and Pa Kettle are tromping down the stairs, demanding updates.  When I semi-glumly told them about their getting lost, they exchanged knowing looks and chuckles.  Apparently this kind of thing happened on a regular basis.

They arrived at nearly 3 in the morning seemingly none the worse for wear.  The next day the real fun began:  Lawyer Man thought I was his personal assistant/trade show coordinator/logistics manager.  Since they had no GPS or no maps, they needed directions.  To everywhere.  Multiple times, because they kept losing the directions I printed out for them. And when they changed their plans, which was frequently, they needed more sets of directions.  Which they promptly lost.

I needed to help them find a place to buy a carpet remnant for their trade show booth, a dry cleaners with same day service (Lawyer Man brought no clean dress shirts, apparently), to different museums.  Could I call this place and make dinner reservations?  Could I email this place and ask them about something? 

Then there were conversations like this.  Usually at night, like at 9 or 10.

Ma:  "How old are your smoke detectors?"
Me:  "I don't know, a few years old."
Ma:  "They look old.  Do they work?"
Me:  "Um, yes - we can use the button to test it."
Ma:  "Oh, no, that's too much trouble.  Are you sure they're OK?  I don't know if (her husband) will be able to sleep, this could be a real fire hazard!"
Me:  "I can get new batteries, if that would make you feel better."
Ma:  "Well, putting new batteries in an OLD detector wouldn't do much good."
Me:  "I'll go get new detectors."
Ma:  "Well, if you feel that's best, dear."

My favorites are at 9 in the morning, when I have my 10 minutes in the bathroom each day.

Pounding on the bathroom door.  "Julie?  Julie!  JULIE!!"
Me coming out, after getting out of the shower and putting on clothes.
"Oh, I didn't realize you were in the SHOWER.  I guess it can wait."

Their advice was invaluable:

"Do you know your butterfly bush is SERIOUSLY OVERGROWN?  Do you have hedge clippers?  Let's trim that RIGHT NOW."

"Did you know that you are running SERIOUSLY LOW on several things? I've made a list for you to take to the store with you:  toilet paper, napkins, coffee, um, what?  You keep that in storage.  Well, I didn't know that, dear."

"You know, with a little bit of cleaning and some paint, this could be a really nice place!"

And did I mention the Lawyer Man was here with his business partner to launch a new invention?  I'm not going to say that the premise was ridiculous or that their presentation was cheesy or they were selling snake oil.  All I will say is that it's entirely possible they were inspired by the Solarman 2000 contraption shilled by Ed Begley, Jr. in the mockumentary "Pittsburgh."

So the week finally came to a close, and ordinarily I don't expect or want a tip.  But with all the running around and extra things I did for them and the aggravation they caused me, I thought they might be obliged to cough up a little extra.  So I left tip envelopes in all of the rooms.

So what did they leave me?  A few pennies on one of the nightstands.  Good thing they were long gone, because I have a pretty good throwing arm.

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Dyeing for a Room/Cereal Killer: Qu'est Que C'est?

As many of you know, I've sold my house and I'll be moving out in a few weeks.  For the past nearly five years, it's also housed what became a bed & breakfast.  I've hosted people from all over the world, and am lucky to call some of them my friends.  For the most part, guests were friendly, normal people looking for an affordable place to stay.

Of course, people that ask me about my B&B aren't interested in these people.  They want dirt.  They want to hear about the weirdos, the strange people my Mom warned me about.  I've been entertaining friends and family with some of these stories (thankfully, few) and in honor of my B&B closing, I thought I'd share a few of them on this blog.

My Mom keeps saying that I should write a book, but honestly I don't have enough offbeat/weird/funny stories to tell to make up a book.  But if I did write a book, I would call it "Inn Trouble"--get it, get it?

So I present story number one, which I'm calling "Dyeing for a Room".  A few years ago, I got a reservation for a two-night stay from a man who was coming to Pittsburgh with his wife to attend the graduation of their child at a local university. 

They arrive in the early evening and seem like a nice enough couple--I showed them to their room and gave them a chance to settle in.  They stayed in the less expensive room here, which comes with a bath shared with me.

Later that evening, the wife approaches me and says, "Where can I do my hair?"  I wasn't quite sure what she meant, but said that she can use the bathroom to "do her hair", and even though the bath was shared, it would be available to her most of the time. 

She seemed satisfied with that answer and then explained that she needed to dye her hair.  "I want it to look good for graduation tomorrow."  Um, OK.  Who exactly brings a box of hair dye with them to a hotel?  I would think most people do that kind of stuff at home ahead of time, in their own, familiar bathroom.

She said she would be "real careful".  That should have been red flag number one, because she was anything but careful.  Being of Asian descent, she had inky black hair and was dyeing it to match her natural hair color.  So the hair dye?  It was inky as well.

After they had gone to bed, I was doing my final sweep of the first floor:  turning off the porch light, turning on night lights, etc.  I went to the bath to brush my teeth when I saw my recently painted blue walls now looked like a Jackson Pollock painting.  There was black dye everywhere.  It was like you tried to dye a sheepdog and halfway through he shook himself dry. 
It's OK if I dry my hair by flinging it around, right?

There was goopy black dye everywhere:  behind the toilet, on the walls, on the floor, on the sink, you name it.  There wasn't even any evidence that she had even tried to clean it up: no wadded kleenex in the wastebin, just the box, bottles of solution, and discarded gloves.

OK, I was mad but also realize that sometimes these little family events can be stressful not just for the children, but for the parents as well, and gave Miss Saigon a pass.  For now.

The day they checked out, they left very early to catch their plane home, so I wasn't awake when they left.  But it seems that they left a little departing gift for me:  they tipped over the dispenser containing the equivalent of two boxes of cereal.  If that wasn't bad enough, after the entire two boxes of cereal cascaded onto the floor, they walked all over it, crushing it into the floor and the rug.

No attempt was made to clean it up (I'm noticing a trend).  They did leave a note:  "Sorry - we don't know how this happened (I do--you knocked it over).  We couldn't find anything to clean it up with (how about your hands?)."

Did they leave a tip for the mess they made?  No.  I have a tip for them:  don't come back.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Never Before, Never Again: A Special 1976 Olympic Moment

The 2012 Summer Olympics will begin soon--and I say, who cares?  The Olympics of my youth are over.  Gone are the days when we all hated the Russians and the East Germans and the Chinese governments for taking promising athletes under their wings, and providing everything they needed to do to win.  We all knew that the Olympics were for amateur athletes, not ones paid a salary, given housing, food, state-of-the-art training, and God only knows what else (well, I do, steroids).  We hated their communism and their socialism and their tainting the Olympics with their professional athletes.

To paraphrase Bob Dylan, the times, they have a changed.  The Olympics have morphed into this slick spectacle of highly trained, professionally-paid athletes who want a a chance to win an Olympic medal to add to their trophy case.  The Americans we now send to the Olympics stand shoulder to shoulder with countries that we used to tsk tsk about their training habits and financial remuneration.

I used to be somewhat of an Olympics junkie.  Our local PBS station regularly ran Bud Greenspan's series, The Olympiad.  Not only did it cover the Olympics as a whole, but told stories of athletes from countries we viewers had barely heard of, fighting to finish races rather than medal in them.  His was the story of the underdog, the comeback kid, the "close but no cigar" races, the athletes who persevered through one Olympics after another.

The 1976 Montreal Olympics was fraught with drama even before the games began.  Construction for the stadium and other key venues fell so far behind schedule that the Canadian government had to intervene and take over construction efforts.  Completion came down to the wire, with fingers crossed that the paint would be dry before attendees were ushered into Olympic stadium for the opening day ceremonies.

And as it began in dramatic fashion, these Olympics were filled with memorable moments.  Who can forget that lithe teenager performing tricks no one had seen on the uneven parallel bars, a doe-eyed Nadia Comanchi--who scored a perfect ten so unexpected that even the scoreboard couldn't accurately display it (it was shown as a 1.00).  Or Bruce Jenner crossing the finish line to clinch the gold medal, wresting it away from the powerhouse Russians and breaking an Olympic record for number of points garnered in a decathlon?  Or rooting for that young boxer with the movie star face by the name of Sugar Ray Leonard?

As an homage to Bud Greenspan, my favorite story of Olympic courage and achievement lies in the 400 meter intermediate hurdles.  I actually have a personal connection to this race.  A guy by the name of Mike Shine lived in the next town over from mine, Youngsville.  Youngsville is where my Dad and his family grew up and where my grandmother still lived at the time.

In 1976, Mike Shine was a recent graduate of Penn State University and ran track there.  And while he preferred the high hurdles, he ran the intermediate hurdles and gained the third slot for the 400 meter intermediate hurdles during the Olympic qualifying trials. 

You might say that my Nana Ruby took a "shine" to young Mike and played an integral role is raising what was then the enormous sum of money to help support his trip to the Olympics.  We all were delighted that this hometown boy was going to the Olympics.  But we all knew that for Mike, the dream would be to finish the race; earning a spot on the podium would be tilting at windmills.

My parents, sister and I were traveling to Edinboro to start our summer vacation the day Mike raced.  I think my parents forgot that this was the day, but as soon as we reached our cottage, I leapt out of the car and starting unloading the 19" black and white we brought with us from the house.

As soon as I got it in the house I plugged it in and twirled the dial to ABC.  Unbelievably, it was a medals ceremony.  Yes, for the 400 meter intermediate hurdles.  Standing on the top podium was the expected winner, Ed Moses.  In third place was a Russian, Yevgeny Gavrilenko.  And second?  A slim guy with a mustache, the sleeves of his track suit shoved up his arms.

"Isn't that Mike Shine?"  I asked my Dad excitedly.  He said no, then looked at the grainy image more closely and said, "Oh, yeah, I'll be damned, it is him."


It was no surprise to anyone that Ed won.  Moses was a wunderkind athlete: a tall, wiry junior physics and engineering major at Morehouse University, there on a scholastic scholarship.  Ed took up the hurdles a handful of months prior to the 1976 Olympics, but took to it, as they say, as a duck takes to water.  Morehouse had no track of its own, he had no formal coach or training.  He took ballet to help his stretch and tone his muscles, unheard of at the time.

I had to wait until weeks later, when my parents and I went to a banquet feting Mike, to see the actual race, which they showed on a giant projection screen. The day of the race, Mike Shine was literally on the outside looking in.  In lane number one, Mike had the worst position, due to his qualifying time. He had an unorthodox 15 step method--too many steps the US Olympic track coach said to give him the time he needed for a medal.  He overcome these obstacles and  ran the race of his life, capturing the silver.

What followed after the race was magic:  the heavy sigh and relief on Moses' face, the absolute jubilation on Shine's face.  The guy was downright giddy.  The two hugged, and hand in hand began a victory lap around the track.  The walk became a run, and they re-ran the race, knocking over hurdles, waving American flags people in the crowd had given them.  

I got tears in my eyes that night in the banquet hall, watching that kid from the neighborhood.  And I thought, "This is what the Olympics needs, the world needs, to see a black man and a white man who couldn't be more different than each other, compete, win, and celebrate those differences."

There were many moments like this in the 1976 Montreal games, and I think it helped to heal the Olympics, to bring people of diverse backgrounds to compete in sport, and to honor the fallen Israeli athletes that came before them at the Munich games of 1972.

I've never forgotten that race, but it had been over three decades since I had seen it.  Someone forwarded a clip on youtube that shows the race, part of the victory lap, and the medal ceremonies.  You can watch it here.

But the Olympic gold, for me, quickly tarnished after that, with the Reagan boycott in 1980 and the Russians boycotting four years later.  Then somewhere down the line it became OK for athletes to be professional.  That was the age of innocence for me.   So I won't be watching the games this summer in London, but I'll be checking that youtube clip of Ed Moses and Mike Shine for years to come.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

I Think I'll Have a Son and Name Him Sawyer

OK, anyone who knows much knows how much I loved the TV show LOST. Countless hours watching and then discussing with my co-conspirator Nutbar and of course on the ABC chat boards discussing the latest theories.

And then there were the bloggers: my favorites were Andy Page's phenomenal DarkUfo site, Vozzek69's weekly post-episode blog, and Erika Olson's LongLiveLocke blog.

And I'll admit it: I was a little obsessed with LOST. I even snuck out of work early when Season 3 came out on DVD so I could be one of the first to get it (plus, someone had tried to mug me a few days before and my twisted ankle was killing me). Never mind that I had already seen every episode, but now I could watch them again, and again, and again. Plus-there were special features!

But I think that you'll agree that there's a line that runs from the obsessive fan to living in Crazytown. Exhibit A--one of the people who was an active contributor to the ABC lost boards, who went under the moniker of "LostMommyofFour". When ABC/Disney Studios auctioned off many of the iconic props used in the show, LMOF was front and center, participating in the costume contest. Not surprisingly, she dressed up at "Mother", a character in the show.

The point where it takes a bizarre turn is when LMOF casually mentions in the New York Time's article about the auction that all four of her children had names associated with the TV show: one "accidentally", the rest "on purpose." Isn't that...special?

Another person that has apparently bought a ticket on the LOST baby-naming crazy train is none other than Olson, or "e" to her buds. She recently revealed in her blog that she and her husband were expecting her first baby in January, joking that they were calling it Baba Ghanoush from some random Wedding Crashers reference. Because naming the baby that would be really WEIRD, right? Right?

That, boys and girls, should have been a red flag there that they would be giving the baby some kind of crazy baby name in real life. Because she and husband didn't disappoint! Exhibit B: they named the baby Desmond Fox. Yes, Desmond, as in the character of Desmond in LOST. Yes, Fox, as in Matthew Fox (or "Foxy" to his friends, but I digress), who played Jack Shepherd, who "e" not-so-secretly confessed was the character she most identified with.

Um, LOST? IT WAS A TELEVISION SHOW. This was not what we call "real life" or "reality", it's make believe brought to you each week by ABC. OK, I'm done, you can go back to your regularly-scheduled show....

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Yay! You're My FB Friend! Oh, Wait, Wait, Maybe Not...

I am a reluctant participant of Facebook. A few years ago a friend of mine (we'll call her Kaylee) sent me an invite to sign up for the cult that is Facebook.

As what probably happens to everyone who joins, people start coming out of the woodwork, who seem to earnestly, desperately, want to be FB friends.

While some are people you legitimately know and fall under the category of "Oh, right, Jim, hey, I wondered what happened to him. It would be nice to catch up with him", many are people you had little or nothing in common with at the time, and now they JUST CANNOT WAIT to be your friend! Like that girl you were on the bowling league with 20 years ago, or a co-worker from eight jobs ago, or the cousin of a friend of the guy you went out with (yeah, I can't follow it, either).

But let's get back to Kaylee, that girl who roped into Facebook in the first place. Kaylee and I were friends, as in friends in the real world as opposed to friends in the Facebook world. We regularly exchanged emails, occasionally got together for coffee, and exchanged horror stories about our house renovations. But I'm finding that being friends in Facebook is a fickle, fickle thing: to quote Heidi Klum, "One day you're in, and the next day, you're OUT!"

Kaylee unceremoniously dumped me from Facebook. Yes-she dumped my sorry ass! Apparently she don't want to be friends no mo. And, yes, the irony of the Facebook initiator morphing into the one who unfriended me is not lost on me.

Then I noticed others that dumped me: a friend from the cult college I went to. Yep, he friended me, only to unfriend me. Was it the stories I posted from those liberal rags slate.com or salon? Was it my snarky remarks about, well, everything? Or did he just decide he didn't really like me after all and didn't want anything to do with me? Well, I guess I'll never know, because that's what happens when you get FB dumped. It's a cruel, cruel thing, or a very funny thing, depending on how you look at it. I think you can guess what camp I stand in.

I have to scratch my head over this form of buyer's remorse, Facebook style: let's 1) do a search to find people you know on Facebook, then 2) send a Facebook request, next 3) become friends on Facebook, then, 4) unfriend them. Yes, in retrospect this does make perfect sense--if we were all in the fourth grade again!

My theory on Facebook is that for many people, it's a way to get attention, not really to share noteworthy news, but rather a play to garner sympathy. When you post about being miserable six months after your boyfriend dumps you, or say "I'm a loser and I'll never find a job" you can practically write the posts FB friends are going to write: "oh, GF, you are so smart I just KNOW there's a great job out there" or "Jennie, you need to FORGET about that loser and get out there and find someone else!" Those comments are really helpful, aren't they?

Telling the truth like "well, you did kind of major in anthropology and yeah, it's going to be next to impossible finding a job that doesn't involve a nametag and your saying 'do you want fries with that'", apparently, this is not part of being a good Facebook friend. In fact, that'll probably get you on the fast track to unfriend-ville each and every time.

If I were a really insecure person, I'd be wringing my hands and emailing Kaylee and my college friend Peter (not his real name) or my former co-worker Lulu Belle (obviously not her real name) and everyone else who friended and then unfriended me. What went wrong? Why don't you like me any more? Why did you dump me on Facebook?! I thought we were friends! I thought you liked me! But really, who cares? Be my friend, not be my friend on Facebook. There.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

The Order of the Hand Will Rule!


A section of my street is closed due to construction. And using your GPS to get to my house will put you face to face with a big "Road Closed" sign. Your GPS and all of its high tech technology will literally get you nowhere.


So my guests have had to resort to--gasp--actual maps. And it's not going well. Have we gotten so moronic that we can't get anywhere unless some disembodied Stepford Wife on the GPS says in a semi-coo, "turn right onto Main Street".

The whole thing reminds me of a sketch on Saturday Night Live. Will Ferrell and Nancy Walls are Oliver and Diane, the co-hosts (w/ David Alan Grier as Weatherman Tim) of "Wake Up and Smile!", one of those regional Good Morning America knock-offs.

The wheels on this vehicle come off as soon as their teleprompter breaks and they are literally at a loss for words. After a few fumbled exchanges:

Oliver: "The teleprompter on which everything we say appears on...is broken!"
Diane: "Please! Let's get that teleprompter fixed!"

the three of them turn from panic to a variation of Lord of the Flies:

Oliver: "We will live! WE WILL LIVE!!!!!" [cuts to commercial, then back from commercial, the set is on fire, Oliver's shirtless and a hand symbol is painted on his chest]
"The order of the hand will rule us!"
Tim: "But what if the box still refuses to give us words?"
Oliver: "You challenge my authority?!"
Tim: "I smell from your scent that you are weak. I challenge you!"

[a scuffle ensues, Oliver emerges with Tim's severed head]

Oliver: "The weatherman is DEAD! I KILLED the weatherman! His strength is in me!"

Then of course the teleprompter is fixed and there's nothing more awkward than holding your dead co-worker's head by the hair! Oopsie!

While as far as I know, none of my guests have resorted to cannibalism, they've made it a whole lot more difficult than it needs to be.

On Sunday, after giving a guest directions by email, her Pittsburgh contact directions by email, no one could either follow them or bother to get them out and read them. The guest's driver called in a panic, "I'm on 44th Street and it's closed! How do I get to your house?" I gave her directions to complete the 2 minute drive to my house.

Thirty minutes later they still didn't show up. I called them, and the guest, sounding very annoyed, said "We are on your street and there is a big "road closed" sign and don't know where to go." This time, I navigated the aforementioned very put out guest to my house.

Her driver, of course, did not know how to get to the theater for the event they were going to. I drew them a map (literally two turns to get there) and sent them on their way. Fifteen minutes later the guest is back, handing her keys to me.

"Your location is too far away and there are just too many detours," she said. "I'm going to stay with a friend."

Um, okay.

Yesterday I had another guest coming in for the same event and it was Groundhog Day all over again. This time, his GPS directions weren't helping him! This guy, who from what I understand is a world traveler and lives in New York City, is too freaked out to drive his rental car to the same theater (you know, the one that it takes two turns to get to from my house?) so he's got this poor girl carting him around.

Last night, he tells me, they returned around 2:00 in the morning and he couldn't get his key to work! He's in a panic -- what can he do? Should he call me to help him figure out how to work the deadbolt?

Turns out Einstein wasn't even at my house -- he was at one down the street (I suspect some cocktails were involved, no?). He's lucky we don't live in NRA territory, or I suspect trying to use a key to enter a house that doesn't belong to you may be cause for justifiable homicide.

This Sunday the worst direction follower on the planet is coming to my house: my dad. Now, despite the fact that my parents have been coming to this house for well over 15 years and the detour involves going up a street they've traveled for 15 years, how much do you want to bet that they will somehow end up downtown?

My Dad: "44th Street is closed - there's a big "Do not enter" sign there! So we kept going straight and then I saw the Convention Center and knew we'd gone too far!"

Pray for me, people, pray for me!

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

What "Wii" Really Care About

I've come to the conclusion that we Americans, for the most part, are stupid, selfish, and self-centered. Sure, we respond to a natural disaster halfway around the world with aching hearts and open checkbooks. However, the real elephant in the room is that Japan is on the brink of a meltdown, not just with six dying nuclear reactors, but in every sense of the word.

I'm not suggesting that everyone run the streets in panic, but people, this is the worst nuclear disaster in history, with its effect long-term and far reaching. Am I the only one that's a little panicky about this?

I'm not demeaning the suffering the Japanese people are experiencing now, because of the earthquake and tsunami. But--how about a lifetime of radiation sickness and a generation or two radiation-inducing cancer? How about a country that could be on the brink of economic collapse? Citizens whose reality could be where electricity is a luxury, fleeting in a world of rolling blackouts and power cuts.

The only person I've seen on TV that said out loud all of the things I've been thinking about the power reactor disaster is CNN guest commentator Jim Walsh. The veins nearly popped out of his head when he heard the news that the "Fukushima 50" (my phrase, catchy, huh?) had abandoned the six reactors and the first person I heard talk about the IAEA and its involvement--or non-involvement--in this situation.

Who's the IAEA? The International Atomic Energy Agency is a non-partisan, international organization that promotes, monitors, and oversees all things nuclear. They're the ones that look into whispered rumors about nuclear weaponry and are tasked to look into "mishaps" at nuclear power plants.

If you want to read something truly disturbing, read the news updates provided by the IAEA's web site. Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO), the private company that runs the Fukushima power plants, has a long and rich history of distorting the truth, covering up the truth, and omitting the truth. Between 2002 and 2005, these reactors were shut down as a result of TEPCO falsifying safety records.

Yet despite TEPCO's extremely spotty safety record and their history of lying about safety, it has been permitted to handle this situation without the direct, on-site involvement of the IAEA. TEPCO/Fukushima reported to the IAEA on March 13th that Reactor #3 was "in a safe, cold shutdown" and that other reactors were "under control". Yet 48 hours later, they were reporting fires, exposed fuel rods, and asked IAEA to send an envoy, which IAEA reported that they have done. Yet at this point, it's a bit like closing the barn door after the animals have escaped: what, realistically, can the IAEA do at this point to help the situation?

With the Fukushima 50 fleeing at approximately 9:00 p.m. EST yesterday, one has to question Fukushima's statements not 48 hours prior. Can a reactor truly be "safe and cold" and less than 48 hours later, be on the brink of a meltdown?

It should be noted that power plants are recognized to have a life capacity of approximately 40 years, when the integrity of certain materials in the plants comes into question. Yet just last month, Japanese regulators granted an extension of ten years for the continued operation of these reactors, which range in age from 36 to 40 years old.

Some reactors cores and spent fuel rod compartments are being cooled using sea water, which CNN expert Walsh reported was a "last ditch effort" to extinguish fires and keep key areas cool. Certainly salty water in a concrete structure is not going to help maintain the integrity of the structure.

But how else can Japan provide electricity for its residents? The country does not have its own supply of natural resources, such as coal, natural gas, or oil. It does not have vast amounts of land that could be used to create a hydroelectric dam. Wind power and solar power are viable sources of electricity, but could not create sufficient power (at least not at the present time) to electrify a country of millions.

The likelihood is that all six of the Fukushima power plants will remain off-line and will have to be de-commissioned. Will the build new reactors (and will the IAEA allow them to do so)? And in the meantime, how will the country survive with limited electrical power? How will this affect manufacturing production?

A new Japan is going to have to emerge from this crisis: one less reliant on electricity, at least until new power plants are built. Energy will have to be diverted to manufacturing facilities and key infrastructure, to help keep commerce going, maintain order in the country, and to avoid going into the next disaster: an economy in a quick and deadly downward spiral. And while Americans feel this sympathy towards the Japanese people now, I predict that this sympathy will quickly turn to anger and frustration when little Billy can't get his new electronic toy or Tommy can't get a new flashy computer. Because it's really all about us, isn't, it?

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Secret Paean to DePalma Movie?


Does anyone remember the movie from 1984 called "Body Double"? Written and directed by horror/suspense genre genius Brian DePalma, it's the story of Jake. Jake is an actor and has been toiling in supporting roles for years. Now comes his big break: the lead in a horror movie.

But Jake has a problem, an acute case of claustrophobia. While under ordinary circumstances, he can keep his phobia under control (and under wraps), a major scene in the movie forces him to face his phobia head on: where his vampire character has to climb into (and out of) a coffin.

At the crucial moment, he freezes, paralyzed by his claustrophobia. The director doesn't understand Jake's dilemma and goes into a fury, talking about the time and money that this is costing. The director intimates that he had "better get his act together" or risk getting re-cast, a/k/a his big break.

Jake is having issues at home, too: having caught his girlfriend in bed with someone else, he needs to find another place to live. He quickly finds a new, swanky place to live in the Hollywood Hills by way of a fellow actor, Sam, who befriends him in an acting workshop.

What follows is a hallucinatory journey led by Sam into a world of voyeurism, the pornography industry, and lots of interesting characters and such outrageous gore (a woman getting stabbed to death by a giant drill) that it's difficult to say what's real and what's imagined.

Or - what's staged. Toward the end of the movie, Jake is involved in a footchase with a bunch of gun-toting bad guys when he trips and falls into a large hole. Sam is soon there, offering Jake the handle of a shovel. "Just grab the handle," Sam yells, "I'll pull you up." But Jake has claustrophobia, remember? But if he can't get himself out of this hole, the bad guys will soon find him and kill him.

In this literal do-or-die moment, Jake overcomes his claustrophobia, grabs the handle, and is lifted out of the hole, which morphs into a coffin (Jake's back on the set of his movie), where he lifts the lid of the coffin, says his line, and the pleased director yells "Cut!"

You think that's the end of the movie, but then the camera pans around to show some people on the set, people who really shouldn't be there: his "friend" Sam, porn star Holly Body. You realize that only the beginning and the ending of this movie is "real": the sudden appearance of Sam and his luxury home, his neighbor who stripteases in front of the window, the "murder" of this neighbor, it was all fake. Fake! Merely a set up, a long con if you will, to put Jake in a situation where he had to experience a life-or-death situation that would put him face to face with his claustrophobia.

Why am I mentioning this movie? Yes, why, Julie, other than a trip down memory lane? Because after watching "Black Swan", it seems like the same long con could be taking place to dancer Nina.

This storyline should start to sound familiar: Nina is a dancer, who has toiled away as a member of dance troupe but never given the lead. However, her luck changes when the Company Director awards the lead of Swan Lake to Nina. However, Nina has a problem: while she dances perfectly, she dances mechanically, without passion, without losing control. In order to succeed at Swan Lake, Nina must explore--and embrace--her dark side.

On the day that the announcement is made, a new dancer arrives to the Company, Lily. Lily is everything Nina is not: one might say a yin to Nina's yang. Where Nina is technically perfect, Lily is a free spirit personified, dancing from her heart instead of her head.

What follows is a hallucinatory journey led by Lily into a world of designer drugs, sex, and such outrageous gore (a woman getting stabbed to death by shards of a mirror) that it's difficult to say what's real and what's imagined.

Finally, it is the night of the premiere, but all of these obstacles get placed at her feet. Nina's mother locks Nina in her room, telling her daughter that she's gone ahead and told the Company that Nina cannot perform due to illness. When Nina escapes her room and arrives at the theater, the Company Director tells her she cannot perform, it's too late. But nothing is going to stop Nina, nothing!

In the first act (White Swan), Nina catches Lily in the wings, making out with Nina's co-lead, the Swan Prince. Then, after this co-lead drops her in an uncharacteristic fumble, Lily (conveniently, her understudy) appears in her dressing room and the following exchange occurs:

Lily: A rough start, huh? Must have been pretty humiliating.
Nina: Get out of my room!
Lily: Gee, I'm just worried about the next act. I'm not sure you're feeling up to it.
Nina: Stop. Please stop!
Lily: How about I dance the black swan for you?

How's that for spurring someone on? When Nina appears on stage for Act Two--the Black Swan--the question is whether or not she can free herself of her phobia, her need to be perfect, lose control, and embrace her shadow side?

Well, the answer is yes and no. Nina does dance an incredible, amazing, Black Swan. However, unlike Jake, who was able to face his phobia and triumph, Nina takes the metamorphosis too far, losing control not only of her quest for perfection but her very sanity. She appears to have a total, psychotic break from reality, ending up literally becoming the Black Swan, complete with a suicide at the end.

So was the middle of this movie, like Body Double, just one big long con to get someone to face his or her fears and see his or her full potential? I say yes. It just seems to be too many coincidences for this not to be staged.

Let's review the "conspirators". Her overprotective (to the point of smothering) mother, a former dancer, only wants the triumph and success she never had. She'll stop at nothing to get her daughter the lead, vicariously basking in the glow of Nina's success.

The Company Director, having just retired his last prima ballerina, is eager to begin grooming a new protegee, and while having reservations, thinks Nina may just fit the bill.

Lily, the free spirit, is in a no-win situation: she'll conspire to push Nina toward triumph (may see this as a bit of fun, a departure from the otherwise stuffy and rarefied world of ballet). But Lily is in a position to come out ahead if Nina stumbles, because she's been named the understudy.

Black Swan Darren Aronofsky has stated that he is a fan of Brian DePalma. The question is, is Black Swan his paean to his director idol?