A Bad Day Gone Good

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What happens when your day takes a sharp turn to the left? Your plans shot to hell? Do you just roll with it? Or do you flip out and throw a tantrum? I’ve done both. But last Monday, it wasn’t me letting off steam, it was my car. 

There’s not much one can do in the middle of the eighteen lane toll plaza of the Bay Bridge when steam starts billowing from under your car’s hood. There’s no place to turn around and not many places to pull over – if you can even maneuver across all the lanes  before you hit the toll booths. Told to keep going by the toll taker, the only thing I could do was continue on to the bridge, wondering if I could make it the eight miles across to the other side. 

Fortunately the new eastern span of the bridge has breakdown lanes, so after some debate on whether I wanted to risk the engine seizing up in the middle of traffic and getting into an accident, I pulled over. I made the requisite phone calls and waited. I also wondered why I wasn’t mad or upset. 

Yeah, my day was ruined but….. it was a beautiful day. The sky was blue. And my viewpoint was exceptional:  the architectural glamour of the new span; fast moving blurs of color and noise of the other vehicles whizzing past me on the right; small figures – workers – dismantling the gray hulking skeleton of the old span to my left; the lush green hills of Yerba Buena/Treasure Island in the distance.

Then there was Tony, the terrific and generous CalTrans tow truck driver. While I did have to wait awhile for Tony to arrive, he not only pushed me to Treasure Island, where he turned my car around, he even towed me all the way to my mechanic in Berkeley. That may not sound like a big deal, but it is. CalTrans is interested in only keeping the bridge clear. They’re supposed to take you in the direction you were headed and dump you off at the end of the bridge where you’re left to your own devices. But Tony said he wasn’t busy, so he did me a favor, and we had a nice chat about family and summer plans. 

Then there was Gallegos, the Mexican restaurant my mechanic at Oceanworks, Angus, recommended for lunch while I waited for my car to be repaired. Best darn refried beans I’ve had in years. ImageGreat food. I’d never been there, never even heard of it before. If not for my car’s thermostat getting stuck closed, causing the coolant to boil over and the engine to overheat, I might not have ever gone there. And I wouldn’t have had the time for a nice post-lunch walk during which I chatted on the phone with a couple friends I hadn’t had the time to catch up with lately. 

Yes, I’m $230 poorer now, but I know I did the right thing. With no coolant left, I would have seriously damaged the engine had I continued much further, and it would have cost me a lot more money. I wouldn’t have encountered new people or new places. I wouldn’t have had the time to be outside enjoying the gorgeous weather when I ordinarily would have been stuck inside, surrounded by my cubicle.  

And for you – the asshole riding in the passenger seat of the vehicle which passed me by just before I pulled over – you’ll get yours someday. Did you think it was funny, as your driver slowed down, to lean out your car window and scream “oh my god!” while staring at me? Really? You looked disappointed I didn’t freak out like you expected. Did you like the hateful glare I gave you instead? Jackass. Next zombie story I write, I’m going to zombiefy you. 

Zombies, Aliens, and Congressmen

There’s been much speculation in the popular media as to how the long-awaited zombie apocalypse would begin. A virus? Bacteria? A new strain of rabies? Spores from a meteorite crashed to Earth? A plague introduced by aliens or a madman? A curse cast by a sanctimonious zealot? Divine retribution for some perceived sin? A super-top-secret government experiment gone awry?

Well, the government part is right, but who would ever think our dysfunctional Congress could ever create anything?

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Discover the real cause in “A Congressional Zombie Love Story” – the newest flash fiction piece in the Second Edition of my humorous horror e-book collection “Zombies and Aliens” on Amazon Kindle (Only 99 cents!). Also included: Adopt-A-Zombie.

The new edition should be available by this time tomorrow!

I Lost on Jeopardy! (on-line test), baby, ooooh-aah-ooooh

Jeopardy! fans, anyone? Cue the Jeopardy! theme music. Can you hear it running through your brain now? (Will you be able to banish it from your thoughts? or will it haunt you for days like “It’s a Small World” after a visit to Disneyland? You’re welcome.)

Like many longtime viewers, I too have dreams of being a Jeopardy! champion. And have now taken the test three times. Try Number One was a few years ago, when they happened to be in San Francisco for in-person tests. I think I did fairly well, but they never tell you your score. They only announced the names of those who passed and the rest of us shuffled quietly out of the hotel conference room, hopes dashed. Out of approximately 60 of us, only 8 or 9 were asked to stay.

Some time after that they started doing on-line tests, so Try Number 2 was last year in the comfort of my home. (Kudos to whoever it was on the Jeopardy! team who came up with that idea!) Again, I think I did fairly well, with five questions in the “I definitely missed those” category and maybe a couple others.  Not only do they not tell you your score, they don’t even tell you if you passed, only that if you did pass you might get a call sometime in the next year to come audition. But, alas, no call came.

So last Thursday evening was Try Number 3. Even though I was again at home, I didn’t feel quite as relaxed as during previous attempts for whatever reason, and that showed in my test results, or maybe it was just the questions, but I definitely did not do as well as before. I missed eight questions that I know of, and probably 2 or 3 others. (Out of 50 questions, that’s one-fifth. Ugh.) I feel like Weird Al. And I don’t even get a year’s supply of Rice-a-Roni.

I suppose my brother and sister-in-law will have to disown me for not being able to name the current Broncos quarterback. Naturally I missed the Opera Question, and the President Question, and the Classical Musical Question. And while I’m usually good at word categories, like homophones, that one left me blank.

On the other hand, I sailed through the history questions, the geography questions, and quite a few others. The only Speaker of the House from California? Pelosi. The Sicilian volcano famous for eruptions? Etna. That desert in Chile? The Atacama (I remember that from my college courses in Archaeology.) The Mohs Scale measures what in minerals? Hardness (Introduction to Geology). The national park located in Utah which is the last alphabetically? Zion. Of the three rivers in Pittsburgh which is first alphabetically? The Allegheny.

I admit that last one threw me for a loop. Not the question. But my answer. I’ve never been to Pittsburgh. Never studied Pennsylvania. How did I know that? Maybe I heard it during a broadcast of a Pittsburgh Penguins hockey game. I don’t know.

That reminds me of a different Jeopardy! experience, many, many years ago, back when Alex Trebek still had his mustache. The clue had something to do with Shakespeare’s Hamlet. The correct response was “Who is Ophelia?” Sitting at home, a cat on my lap, I blurted it out with no hesitation. And then I stopped and thought to myself, How do I know that? I’ve never read Hamlet. I’ve never seen Hamlet. (This was prior to 1990, before Mel Gibson released his movie version.) And then I thought to myself, yes I have, many times, in innumerable repeats of Gilligan’s Island. Yes, you read that right, Gilligan’s Island, the 1960’s sitcom. In the third season, they aired “The Producer” with Phil Silvers guest starring as film producer Harold Hecuba, where the castaways staged a musical version of Hamlet to showcase Ginger’s talent, using dialogue from Shakespeare mixed with music from various operas.

Don’t ask me why that episode stuck so solidly in my memory. But it must be why, when I see more current movies like Pixar’s “Up!” and you’re enjoying the overture from Bizet’s “Carmen” in that one scene, I’m hearing Alan Hale Jr. sing “Neither a borrower nor a lender be.” 

Hopefully, on Try Number 4, that bit of trivia may again come in handy. Or, who knows, by the time I pass the test I’ll be old enough to qualify for the senior’s tournament. Either way, I will keep trying. And hope I don’t get eliminated from the contestant list like I did in late 2002 from “Win Ben Stein’s Money.” I was all set, selected for the last day of taping (late October, if I remember correctly), when I got an apologetic phone call from the producers announcing they had to randomly choose three contestants from that last day per an order from Comedy Central. Our replacements? The geeks from the short-lived “Beat the Geeks” in a network publicity stunt. Seriously? “Beat the Geeks” sucked and didn’t last much longer anyway, making the whole gimmick pointless. (We unlucky three were promised to be brought back the following season, but the show got cancelled.) Thanks, Comedy Central, for nothing!

To be (a Jeopardy! contestant) or not to be, that is the question I ask of me. Yes. If you, too, have taken the test once, twice, thrice (or more) with no luck, keep trying. Maybe we’ll face off against each other on national television. May whoever has the most seemingly useless trivia stuck in their brain – and can hit that button fastest – win.

Can you now hear Bob Denver singing “To be or not to be” on endless loops through your brain? You’re welcome.

Adventures in Babysitting

You are about to enter another dimension, a dimension not only of sight and sound but of mind. A journey into a wondrous land of imagination. Next stop: the twilight zone world of a seven year old!

When I’m between wordly travels (usually due to lack of funds), I have to seek adventures closer to home. Really close to home. Most of my friends either have children too old to need a babysitter or don’t live near enough for me to help them out, so my babysitting opportunities have been rare lately, which is why it was a treat – and an education – to watch over seven-year-old JB the other evening.

I’d forgotten how destructive (yet creative) little boys can be: how a living room can become a demolition derby for trucks, cars, and even Lego robots. The sequence went something like this: crash the trucks into the wall, fling the robot across the room whereupon it disentegrates into pieces, change positions, crash the trucks into the opposite wall, re-assemble the Lego robot, repeat.

And all the while spinning a zombie story that went something like this: the zombie robots invade, there’s a lot of fighting, they eat brains, and then…everyone loses their heads. It’s not the first time I’ve heard JB, or other small boys, tell tales of decapitation. What is it about little boys that they want to remove heads?

At the same time there is astonishing creativity. Just feet away from the truck graveyard was a racing track which JB had designed and laid out on the floor using only masking tape. There was also a cardboard box containing a diorama of some futuristic-looking space station (I think that’s what it was) made from glue, tape, Legos, old CDs, thread spools, and other miscellaneous junk objects…and some headless action figures of course. All from a kid who doesn’t watch t.v.

It was a display of imagination I tend to only see in the children of friends who don’t rely on the television to be babysitter and pacifier. (One friend, who is a teacher, told me that imaginative play is more prevalent in such children than those who spend hours in front of a television with their brains disengaged.)

I’m not knocking television. I’m not a hater. Admittedly, I like my t.v.  I’m one of those people who like to have the t.v. on even if I’m not watching it for the background noise. It’s comforting.

But I do remember that my childhood was equal parts t.v. watching, reading, and free play – running around outside with the other neighborhood kids, unsupervised, until the various mothers began yelling that dinner was ready. What did we do? Pretty much anything. No, we didn’t get into trouble…well, maybe minor trouble…but we always let our imaginations run wild with all sorts of silly adventures (all contained within that neighborhood which is all we knew of the world at that time).

I appreciated spending the evening with a child who played (not playing a video game – although that can be fun too), especially a kid who loves zombies like I do. I need to get some more zombie inspiration from JB, and write new zombie stories. Heads will roll.

Fear in the Far Places

In last week’s post, I wrote about traveling solo, something which intimidates a lot of people who are otherwise quite outgoing in different aspects of their lives. While I always encourage people to step outside their comfort zones, I will never judge negatively anyone who won’t or can’t, especially when it comes to travel. There will always be legitimate reasons a person is too afraid, or nervous, to travel to a dream destination. The current volatile state of world affairs being first and foremost. Heck, I’m the first person who will admit that it’s not always wise to travel to a particular country. (I often joke that someday – far, far in the future – my tombstone will end up reading “Brave, but stupid.” but that doesn’t mean I want that to come true.) So I plan my travels with the right amount ot caution, the right amount of respect for those I might impact, whether it be those I encounter while traveling or the loved ones waiting for me back home.

Still, I must say in reality, the world is not always as dangerous as the media wants us to believe, a tactic they employ for sensationalism and ratings. The majority of people all over this planet are kind, helpful, generous, and curious, and they eagerly welcome the adventurous, especially those open-minded individuals whose goal it is to experience their way of life, their culture, and their history. Even in countries that hate “America.” (They still love Americans, although it can often be for your tourist dollars rather than your sparkling personality.)

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LIke the old woman in the bathroom at the Cairo Airport back in 2002. It was my first encounter where, in many places, the elderly or poor will appoint themselves as bathroom attendants, handing out towels and toilet paper in exchange for a few coins. I remember how her eyes lit up at the handful of British currency I pulled from my pocket (acquired during my layover at Heathrow). Even though the total was probably a lot more than the average tourist gave her, she was so happy to see it, I dumped all the coins into her eager hands.

And, of course, there were all those shop keepers eager to sell me any number of trinkets.

But then there were the teenage school girls on the Cairo Metro who surrounded me and, via the only girl who spoke some English, proceeded to ask me where I was from and (a question which seems to arise primarily in the Middle East) if I was married. I wasn’t, but I had thought it wise – traveling solo to Egypt – to wear a plain wedding band. I still remember the laugh of the old woman sitting on the floor after a translation of my answer to the question “was my husband pretty in face?” (handsome). I said “I think he is.”

And I still remember the girls, sensing my concern about missing my stop (they had surrounded me so completely I couldn’t see the names of the stations we were at), and how they made sure I got off the train at the right place.

Those are the moments which show me that other people – complete strangers – care, the moments which humanize the “other” that we in America seem to be so afraid of.

Yes, being surrounded like that made me nervous, but the girls were so warm and curious, I quickly lost any fear. I found myself wrapped up in our “conversation.” I use quotation marks on that word because it was only a partially successful exchange due to the language barrier. For example, I’m not sure they understood my explanation of where California is, but they knew “Hollywood” and that was close enough.

Given the current turmoil in Egypt, I wonder how those girls are. Happy? Facing their own fears? Married to their own husbands who are “pretty in face”?  Are they alive?

I will not go back to find out, however. At least not any time soon. Egypt is simply too unstable. And even I’m not brave enough to face that. Instead, I will have to find a way to memorialize them by somehow incorporating those encounters into one of my stories.  I haven’t yet, but I’m sure they will show up some day when my readers least expect it.

In the meantime, there are so many other Far Places on this gorgeous planet to visit, so many other ways to encounter, and conquer, new fears.