Monday, March 30, 2009

Babes in the bush: a bit of comic relief

They dubbed us “the babes in the bush.”
But I was more like a babe in the woods.

Some years ago, Brookdale Community College, N.J., advertised a “Women in the Wilderness” weekend at the “primitive facility” of Wawayanda (aptly pronounced way-way-yonder) State park in northern Passaic County. An editor with a sense of humor thought I was the perfect choice for the assignment.

Up front, you ought to know I was a 46-year-old, out-of-shape woman whose idea of primitive is a place where there is no microwave. I don’t do the outdoors willingly. As a child, I only lasted two days at Girl Scout camp.

So, it was with understandable trepidation that I faced the weekend, a sort of overage slumber party--minus the house, the bed and the toilet. Oh, did I forget to mention that? For the uninitiated, “primitive” is a camping code for no toilet facilities – not even and outhouse. How’s that for fostering an up-close and personal relationship with Mother Nature?

But more about that later.

My anxiety didn’t decrease much as I met my fellow campers, all of whom had at least some experience in the outdoors. I was definitely there to provide the comic relief. And I didn’t let them down.

Bonding began at the base camp, which sported such luxuries as a water pump and three outhouses – one which was closed. (someone with a primitive camping sense of humor had propped a “NO DUMPING” sign at its door, creating a popular photo opportunity.) Our low-key leaders espouse the philosophy of “low-impact camping” -- all you leave is a footprint; all you kill is time. What they neglect to mention is that low-impact camping is high impact on the body. Each of us carried a full 50-pound pack containing the gear, food and two bottles of drinking water – all there would be until we returned to base camp the next day.

The hike to our campsite, Lake Lookout, was an uphill trek for miles on moist leaves interspersed with rocks. (A tip: If you want a walking stick, it’s advisable to find one BEFORE loading on your pack. It’s almost impossible to bend down once you’re strapped in. Trust me.)

The trail, actually an old mining road, was both beautiful and treacherous. The foliage was peaking, but the colorful leaves underfoot were slippery, so most of the time we stared at our feet. We hadn’t gone 50 feet when I began to sweat. A few minutes later, I began a fight for breath that lasted the whole hike. I was clearly in over my head and bringing up the rear, with a new understanding of those unfortunates forced to walk in the Bataan Death March in World War II.

In between the moans and groans, the mood on the trail was incredibly convivial. We hit it off immediately and there was a spirit of oneness that kept us going. If you stumbled, help was there before you could fall. It was impossible to fail.

By the time we reached the campsite, I couldn’t tell what hurt more, my chest, my back or my feet. We dropped our packs and took in the scenery. It was almost worth the pain. The orange, red and green leaves were reflected in the placid lake, mirroring the carpet beneath our feet.

The light was starting to fail. I realized I had better attend to basics before it was completely dark. So, I grabbed the shovel and some paper from the “toilet tree” and went to find a spot far from camp. The land was hilly, and my leg muscles quivered from exhaustion. I found a fairly sheltered area and set about to take care of business.

The real trouble came when I tried to stand up. My trussed-up legs gave way and I fell, tumbling down the hill. Before reaching the lake, I was caught by a rock and a tree--literally wedged between a rock and a hard place. I lay there in pain and humiliation, unable to even pull up my leggings. Finally, I made it upright, put myself back together and stumbled back to camp to the sound of leaves crunching inside my clothing.

Even in the gathering darkness, it didn’t take long for my fellow babes to sense something was wrong. That was the strangest part of the weekend. No one ever needed to ask for help; we had become so in tune with one another. It was spooky how quickly we bonded into a highly functional and loving family.

Regardless, Saturday night was my low point. If I had access to a phone, I would have called for my dad to come get me – just as I did at Girl Scout camp 35 years earlier. Instead, I swallowed some painkillers and slid into my sleeping bag, hoping like hell it wouldn’t rain. And determined not to open my eyes if something licked my face.

Sunday dawned to fog but no rain. Amazingly, my body rallied, and I could actually bend. My spirits lifted momentarily as I downed coffee made from the lake’s brown water. Then I realized there was no way to avoid another solo walk into the woods. This time, I braced myself by holding onto a friendly log. I relaxed. I felt greatly relieved. Until I stood up. My technique had improved but my aim needed work.

There was nothing to do but peel off my soaked leggings, slap a grin on my face and stride back to camp, sporting only my hiking boots and L.L. Bean anorak. It made such a fashion statement that--between shrieks of laughter--the cameras appeared.

It wasn’t a love of nature I carried away, but the kinship of the group, the sound of that laughter. I never had sisters, but I imagine that’s what the connection is like at its best.

Of course, I also leaned to appreciate indoor plumbing, and greeted my toilet warmly on Sunday night.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Has Atlas Shrugged?

“I swear—by my life and by my love of it— that I will never live for the sake of another man, nor ask another man to live for mine.”
John Galt’s oath

Atlas Shrugged.
The 1957 tome by Ayn Rand is making news once again. Recent reports show a direct correlation between sales of the 52-year old novel and the state of the economy. The lower we sink, the more of us reach for the epic, which runs in excess of 1,000 pages. They say it’s more popular than ever. I need no news article to know this. As a bookseller, I can personally attest to its rising popularity, as I place the book into the hands of one customer after another. And I can’t help grinning.

Atlas Shrugged.
The very name brings a smile to my mind. I own a first edition copy of Rand’s final novel. It’s as dog-eared and annotated as many folks bibles. I’m not going to go into depth relating her philosophy. A few strokes of the keyboard will take those interested to an abundance of links, including a recent Wall Street Journal article. And it’s easy to see how the economic apocalypse foretold in the book can be seen unfolding before our 21rst century eyes. (She even has a chapter called: The Utopia of Greed.) We watch as incompetence is rewarded and listen as the phrase “nationalize the banks” actually leaves the lips of our so-called “representatives.”

Atlas Shrugged
My relationship with the book and its author, however, is more personal, dating back to 1962 when I cracked it open. At age 16, I was already depressed and alienated from the world. Lost. I found a home between its dark green covers; people I longed to meet in her characters. I argued her philosophy with my Jesuit-trained history teacher. He presented Saint Thomas Aquinas; I countered with Aristotle. Yeah, I was one serious-minded kid. Philosophy became my minor in college. But I digress.

Atlas Shrugged.
From the now famous opening line: ”Who is John Galt?” I was entranced. (A note: When I came to investigate moving to Sarasota, I found a shop on St. Armands Circle called Who is John Galt and took it as a sign.) At first, I thought the book was historical and kept asking my mother when in the Depression these things had come to pass. It slowly sunk in as I was drawn into the mystery. The brilliant two-word title tells it all. In Rand’s world, the economic collapse is hastened deliberately by—oh, well the secrets been out for decades—the mind on strike. Those with the creative intellect propelling our world withdraw, allowing the world to become a festering economic black hole, sucking in everything.

But more than that, it’s a mondo love story. Naturally, I saw myself as heroine Dagny Taggart, a 36-year old railroad tycoon with “showgirl legs.” (It must be said here that Angelina Jolie, whose name always surfaces to play the part in the long-awaited movie, was likely not yet born.) She is adored by the each of the three male heroes and won by—you guessed it—the “perfect man,” John Galt himself. (Who, if memory serves, has hair the color of “liquid copper.” Ok, it’s been 25 years since I’ve re-read it so cut me a break here.)

I’ve never had much use for so-called “realism” in novels or film. I want to be transported—dare I admit it—uplifted by art. At the time, I had not heard of Rand and was not familiar with The Fountainhead. So I worked backwards through her works, devouring everything. Then went on to the philosophical tracts and as years passed, biographies. (The definitive being The Passion of Ayn Rand by Barbara Brandon.)

My obsession with all-things-Rand was well known to my friends and family. I once received a 2 a.m. call from a former boyfriend informing me that she was on the Tom Snyder Show. I was just shy of 30 and it was the only time I saw her in the flesh. Like her creation John Galt, though, Rand lives on.

So instead of Who is John Galt? perhaps we should be asking:
Where is John Galt?

Monday, March 16, 2009

the "F" word

So lately, the F word is inescapable. It’s on everyone’s lips, from the crudest of talk show host to the President himself.

Even for someone like me, who makes it a practice to minimize exposure to such “news”, its just about impossible to avoid being hammered by the statistics, especially here in Florida where they say the rates are now 1 in 70.

The new F word, of course is Foreclosure. There is nothing remotely sexy about this version of the F word. It also bears little relation to its official clinical Webster's Revised Unabridged Dictionary definition:

Fore*clo"sure, n. The act or process of foreclosing; a proceeding which bars or extinguishes a mortgager's right of redeeming a mortgaged estate

Translated in human terms, the F word means destitution, unspeakable misery. Here in this country, most of us working folk have assumed “a roof over our head” as a base line right. It is more than the loss of a physical place—as awful as that is—but of one’s place in society. More than belongings are lost, cherished memories, irreplaceable memorabilia, along with a sense of self. I can imagine disorientation, along with lifestyle issues too numerous to mention.

How do you maintain your job is you still have one? Get your mail? Keep your kids in school? Go to the bathroom? I imagine that the “luckier” ones bunk with family or friends, but that can get old fast.

And as the ranks of the “new homeless” grow, the rest of us tend to back away in fear. Just beneath our surface, most of us are just a few missing paychecks away from joining them. Don’t kid yourself into thinking only those “irresponsible” borrowers are at risk. A simple chain of events can bring any of us down.

I have a bit more empathy than many having dodged that bullet decades ago. I was single mom in my late 20s, existing on aid to dependent children payments and food stamps. One day, seemingly without warning, my bank account containing $400, my entire month’s welfare check, was frozen. The small local bank responded to my hysterical phone call with sympathy, apologizing, saying there was nothing they could do.

It was a judgment by Sears against a $720 debt. (If there was notice of court proceedings, I don’t recall receiving it. But it’s possible I was so overwhelmed it just didn’t register.) There is a bit of irony here, though.

Several months prior I had been “let go” from my management training position with Sears. They wanted me to be a store manager, I wanted to use my pysch degree and work in human resources. So they showed me the door one day in April. And now they were hammering mine down for the rest of their cash.

I called a lawyer friend and asked if it was legal for them to, in effect, garnish my whole “pay” and as it turns out, they has no right to any of that money and the action was reversed.

But I was already on a dangerous path. I couldn’t pay my real estate taxes. After two years a tax lien was sold. At one point, a sheriff was at my door, threatening to carry my somewhat shabby belongings out onto the front yard to be sold. It was two days before Christmas. Yeah, right outta a bad movie.

I can still taste the fear of all that, roiling in my gut, as those around me see the ground under their feet fall away today. I was fortunate. My parents were able to help me stay afloat for a few years. That isn’t an option available to many, especially now, when even the most affluent have seen their bottom line sink below the financial horizon.

I realize this bleakness is not my usual post, as I truly reject wallowing in the negative. I just feel it necessary to acknowledge the humanity at the base of those “toxic assets.”

And there is nothing toxic about that.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

sand in my shoes

There’s an old saw about how once you get sand in your shoes, you can never totally get it out—or something like that. It’s been that way for me. Since leaving the Jersey Shore for points south, I scamper back each summer for as long as my day job allows and my friends put up with me—or put me up. Whatever.

And I also confess, somewhat sheepishly, to running live webcams of the Point Pleasant Beach surf and the boardwalk on my computer. I don’t do this occasionally, you understand, but ALL the time. (The surf camera does shut down “when the lights go on,” though.)

Several times a week, I check in at my old paper’s website to see what’s doin’ in the state, and wasn’t at all surprised to learn the police were needed to get between the Point Beach mayor and a councilman at a recent Borough Council meeting concerning the mayor’s plan to expand paid parking onto every street to make up a budget shortfall .

Ah, parking—the third rail of Point Beach politics. Comments from residents left on the site touched on the vitriolic. Geez, I miss covering that place. To borrow from Saturday Night Live: It was always something.

The feisty Ocean County resort was my first beat when I started at the local weekly newspaper and again when I graduated to the Asbury Park Press, a large regional daily. I made my home in the less affluent adjacent Point Boro. To my children, “downtown” was Point Beach’s Arnold Avenue, which then included a Woolworth with wood floors.

In those long-ago days, (in addition to the parking) it was the town’s rusty water that filled the Borough Council chamber to overflowing with angry residents – many of whom brought their damaged laundry, including undies, as exhibits.

That’s about as racy as things got until the Spring of 1995, when sex came to The Beach in the form of The Love Shack, a small boutique selling lingerie, novelty sex items and offering body-piercing services.

In a small town where political grudges span generations, almost any happening is grist for the political mill. So, it’s no surprise that the then Borough Council President, a mayoral contender, used the shop to spark a ruckus at the last council meeting before the June primary election.

Newspaper reports had him railing against the shop in a manner befitting Professor Howard Hill in “The Music Man.” (The flimflam artist, you may recall, used the advent of a pool hall in the mythical hamlet of River City as signaling moral doom for its young.)

As evidence, he distributed photos he took at the store, including one of the manager’s young son next to a “fake penis.” One business owner, demanding the town take immediate action, complained the shop’s vibrators and dildos were embarrassing and made her feel “dirty.”

The Shack’s manager called the critics “uptight” and accused them of blowing things out of proportion. (Pun intended?) The Love Shack carries condoms and massage oils, but the only other sexual items in the shop are “gag gifts,” she said, denying there were any vibrators or dildos. That “fake penis” , she added, was not a sex toy, but merely “soap-on-rope.”

Well, that was enough to stir this reporter to action. Not one to take hearsay as fact, I made a quick trip to investigate. (Hey, “Hard Copy” had nothing on me.)

At the risk of disappointing the truly licentious, The Love Shack came across as more PG than X-rated: more “nudge, nudge, wink, wink” than drool; more playful than seamy. So, what was for sale, you ask? A fair question.

The vast majority of the floor space was devoted to clothing, mostly scanty versions of the thong-type bathing suit you can find in malls or clothing catalogs. OK, a few did have metal studs decorating the bodice. There also were “tear-away boxer shorts” And the by-now-rather-old-hat edible panties and “I love you” garters.

For the more adventurous – or mischievous – there were X-rated greeting cards and lipsticks, erotic oils, jellies and creams (including the whipped variety), fur-lined hand cuffs, oral sex manuals and something called a “penis ring.” And lest I forget, a kit to “Grow your own penis and amaze your friends.”

Oh, in case you’re wondering, the much discussed “fake penis” was indeed soap-on-a-rope – generously endowed perhaps, but benign and certainly clean.

I must agree with one lifelong female resident who said the only thing obscene about the place was that I couldn’t get my butt in one of those swimsuits.

One last note, The Point Beach Republicans did turn out in record numbers for that primary. But they proved more unflappable than the folks of River City, returning the veteran mayor to the ticket by a vote of 703 to 386.

Monday, March 2, 2009

no worries...

List making can become an addiction if one is not careful. But after my last post I’m on a bit of a roll.

My single yearly determination, if you recall, is to be happy—now. In an ongoing effort to fulfill same in “these times,” I’ve scribbled down a few items. Ready? Let’s do the “half-full” thing. The following is a partial list of stuff (in no particular order) about which I don’t have to worry:

Capital gains taxes
The outrageous cost of insuring my jewels
Becoming addicted to exercise
Needing a social secretary
The Globe rummaging through my garbage
Bringing home my report card
Practicing the piano
Repeating French II for the third time
Rushing home to fix dinner
Being too rich or too thin
Disappointing my parents
Sitting through endless school concerts
How to spend my “discretionary income”
Quitting Girl Scouts
Packing up kids for summer camp
Paying for said camp, or any day care for that matter
Losing my virginity
What comes out of George W. Bush's mouth
Whether to wear Calvin Klein or Donna Karan to the premier
Choosing between medical and law school
Lack of privacy
Back –to-School Night
If any hunks will come to my party
Somebody stealing the silver
Whether he will respect me in the morning
Where to park the Lear jet
Finding myself
Which coordinated Martha Stewart sheet sets to buy
Eating too much fiber
Making my bed
The proper way to dish up caviar
Halloween costumes

Getting a tan
How to dress for and audience with the Pope
My household staff writing tell-all books
Walking in spiked heels
Being killed in an avalanche while mountain climbing
Being too young to wear lipstick
Fighting for control of the remote
Where to sit for my interview by Barbara Walters
Antonio Banderas badgering me for a date
The “Guinness Book of World Records” misspelling my name
Tying up the telephone
However to manage on the maid’s night off
Getting carded
Missing the school bus
Finding the perfect prom dress
Eating in bed
Which bikini to buy, neon orange or plaid
Worrying when the kids are out for the night
Being tall enough for the boardwalk rides

That’s more than enough for now. Are there things you’re glad you no longer have to worry about? I’d love to know.