Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Cuz pimps be needin jackets

Take a guess at the number of jackets I own? Seriously. Guess. Then multiply that number by 4.

I have a light Columbia rain coat for the constant threat of Seattle precipitation. A mid-weight North Face jacket perfect for outdoor Fall hiking. A brown corduroy winter jacket. A Calvin Klein black long dress coat made of the finest wool. A bright yellow thick ski jacket. A light fleece jacket.

But you know what…I want more. I find myself walking down the street looking at other people’s jackets and thinking “Man I really need that.” I mean think about it…I don’t have a long black rain coat, a vest, a winter shell that will fit over my fleece, etc.

We live in a world where I feel like I never have enough jackets. (Insert whatever your item is here…watches, shoes, cars, stocks)

And the Western world revolves around getting more jackets. A few weeks ago somebody decided “I am so desperate for more jackets that it’s necessary for me to smash thru the window of this innocent Nissan Maxima”. And once they got into my car they took a book of burned CD’s which might get you $5 tops on the black market. But the big jackpot came when they opened the glove compartment and found a GPS…now they can easily learn the quickest route to Jackets-R-Us!

Recently I was in NYC for a conference and on a Sunday morning I was walking to the Metro at 7AM. Let me reiterate…this was 7AM not 3AM. But at 7AM I walked past a group of 3 transgendered men-to-women prostitutes on a street corner. And lurking in the background was the pathetic pimp hiding out in the shadows of a recessed entrance to the Metro. And as I passed these women (i.e. men dressed as women or possibly femininely enhanced by hormones) I caught the look in their eyes. Helplessness. Hopelessness. Not to mention pure exhaustion. But I understand why these women were being psychologically manipulated as cash cows…this pimp had a surprisingly drab coat. And everyone knows if you be pimpin you need some seriously colorful jackets!

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Fateful Fall Day

Last weekend we went hiking and a series of events were spun into action that led to a quite improbable outcome.

First, at some point Katie and I realized that we had diverted off the trail and were now walking up a mountain river-bed. Neither of us objected though because we kinda dig climbing rocks and scaling the side of small waterfalls. We reached one particular cascade and a group of other hikers were gathered at the base. They acknowledged being in a similar situation as us: lost the trail. Two of the guys told me they had tried to climb this waterfall but were unable. Well this was obviously a royal invitation to prove my adventure prowess, which I readily accepted. And with a few daring moves I had climbed the rock face. Unfortunately, in my eager haste I made a fateful miscalculation: I hadn’t removed my backpack. And as I tried to come back down the precipice I realized the bulky backpack was going to seriously hinder my mobility and endanger my musculo-skeletal safety. Fateful error #2: I decided to throw my backpack down ahead of me (about a 25 foot drop). After bouncing off Katie’s leg (leaving a huge black- and-blue bruise) it proceeded to bounce off a few boulders. The end result was a cell phone that didn’t turn on and sounded horrible when I tried to slide it open.

I sat dejected. The adrenaline high of my waterfall ascent had worn off leaving me morose. I loved that cell phone- its smooth sliding action, easy email access, and full texting keyboard! So I did what was required…..I sulked. I stewed. I whined.

And then out of the blue a guy comes walking up the river-bed. As he gets closer our glances met and a look of perplexed recognition came across our faces. “Brandon?” “Dave?” In the middle of the woods, sitting on a rock, not even on a trail, I had bumped into a friend from college I hadn’t seen in 6 years. Crazy!

We ended up spending the entire day hiking with him and his fiancĂ© Amanda. They helped us find the trail which ultimately led to a scenic alpine mountain lake. And then they took us to a place where I had the best root beer float I’ve ever tasted.

And just to think…What if we didn’t get lost in the first place? Or what if I hadn’t scaled that cascade, or smashed my phone into oblivion? Maybe we never would have met up with them.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Seductively Salmon Days

Last weekend we went to Salmon Days, a festival with a slightly deceptive name.

I didn’t eat anything all morning because I assumed I’d be eating all things salmon related. I pictured rows of vendors with salmon steaks grilling on a bbq fed by cedar chips. Delicious Coho, Sockeye, Shinook varietals. But I couldn’t find them. Perhaps a salmon sandwich or something creative like salmon crepes. Nope. At the very least I’d procure fried salmon on a stick (ala corn-dog style). Zilch. Nada.

Then we discovered why it’s called Salmon Days. A stream runs through this town (Issaquah) giving the salmon a passageway to return to their birthplace in the mountains. What we learned (from a fish docent wearing 82 pieces of flair on her vest…very reminiscent of a TGIF waitress) was that the fish are actually in the process of dying when they return. They stop eating and shut down their immune systems so that days after they lay eggs they die.

At one particular junction in the stream there is a fish hatchery that creates an artificial dam and diverts the salmon into large holding tanks. Then they wait for the salmon to lay eggs and artificially spawn the eggs ensuring that the population of salmon remains stable. If they didn’t do this there would be no salmon left because industrial development has left the river too warm to sustain large populations of salmon. However, one stage of this process involves volunteers killing the fish after they have spawned in the hatchery (others are released upstream).

I stood behind this one woman as the fish docent explained this process. She was incredulous and kept repeating “You mean you kill the fish?” And the kind old docent would say “You see, the fish are already dying, it’s inevitable.” And she would say “But you hit them with a mallet on the nose?” To which he replied, “Lady, normally the fish’s lungs will start stop working, it will wash up on a log or the river bank, and it will struggle and flap around until it suffocates out of water. Instead we end their life quickly. It’s actually less painful for the fish.” The woman shook her head with disapproving eyes.

Another interesting aspect of the Salmon Days festival was a subtle undercurrent of sexuality. Keep in mind this is a family affair. First, the firefighters of Issaquah had put together a racy calendar which they were selling (mostly to teenage girls). Second, a stand was selling chocolate-covered strawberries called Dingleberries (yikes). This dessert entails a row of strawberries on a stick with a strikingly phallic shaped chocolate-covered banana at the end. Third, we passed a booth advertising “the only credible voice of reason in the fight for nude recreation.” The sign displayed over-weight retired couples with strategically placed bush branches. A hail to our ancestors Adam and Eve. Finally, there was a contraption for kids to play on involving a series of ropes, harnesses, and nets. The wording of the sign used ropes to spell out the name of the device. Unfortunately the graphic designer hadn’t thought this thru very well. It read: Rape-a-Phobia. I believe the intended spelling was “Rope.” It didn’t help that all 3 kids currently on the Rape-a-Phobia were crying hysterically. Although this kind of environment was perfect for me to find a Christmas present for my brother Steve, who has a strong academic interest in sexuality.

Other noted notables of the week: Did you know that women’s deodorant advertises “Extra responsive in emotional moments.” For example, when we’re shopping and bump into a girl I went on a few dates with in college.

A Shrink goes Spelunking

How do you know you have what it takes?

Recently I was back on the East Coast for a wedding of our good friends Jon and Kelly in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia. The day of the wedding we had some time to kill so a few of my friends and I went to Luray Caverns. Before I get into the story too deep I just want to mention how good it was to see old friends. Well not really old friends but I hadn’t seen these folks for 2 months. I missed them.

We’re at the caves and I’m walking through them listening to my audio-guided self tour. All of a sudden two teenagers come barreling past me. It’s a boy with his arm around the shoulders of a girl who looks like she is about to collapse. She is audibly panting to catch her breath and even without much ambient light I could see a look of fright in her eyes. It’s obvious to me what’s happening. She’s having a panic attack. The kids get past me and further up in the tunnels I can hear an adult chaperone with the kids. The adult is doing the best he can to calm the girl down but my guess is that it was probably making things worse. Voices echo down there but it sure sounded like he was screaming at her “BREATHE, BREATHE, LISTEN TO ME, BREATHE!” Good advice but maybe not the best delivery. Then a cave docent comes running past and I hear someone saying “Call 911!” Later when I got out of the cave my friends told me they heard the boy shouting “TAKE OFF HER SHIRT.” Teenage boys will do anything to get a girl’s shirt off!

On my car ride back from the caves I took a look back at my internal dialogue during that event. As soon as those kids passed me I started listing reasons why I shouldn’t go and provide assistance. “I don’t want to get in the way”; “Too many cooks in the kitchen”; “They are too far ahead now”, etc. In fact the only thing I had done was make a half-audible announcement to the crowd in the cave who looked on helplessly, “Don’t worry everyone, she’ll be fine, its probably just a panic attack.” Nobody even paid me attention. But the reality is that more than likely I was the most qualified person in that cave to handle that situation. I should have leaped into action. Calmed the panicky-teenage girl down. Educated her friends and teachers about panic attacks. Instead I was busy coming up with reasons I shouldn’t get involved.

It’s made me reflect on other times I froze in the heat of the moment. When I was a lifeguard and should have made a save but instead I sat in my tower incapacitated. My mind was going over reasons why I should let the other lifeguard finish the save even though she was swimming like a sloth. Or the handful of times in high-school or college when punk kids have challenged me to fights. I wuss out. I don’t rise to the occasion. Sure it’s easy to say later “Its better not to have fought them.” But it leaves me wondering if I had what it takes.

I’m realizing now that a lot of my freeze response has to do with the environment. If I’m solo then I go into immediate response mode (I did have a save the previous summer when I was the only lifeguard on duty). But if other people are around I immediately think about my potential actions through their eyes. I analyze how I’ll look from their perspective. This is a well studied aspect of human nature called the bystander effect. So I’m not alone in being its victim but somehow that doesn’t seem to matter to me.

After something like that happens I always make a promise to myself. Like “I will always intervene if I’m in a cave and someone is having a panic attack.” Or “I will always jump in to save someone if they are drowning.” But the problem with this post hoc strategy is that these situations rarely arise again. I’m still left wondering “Do I have what it takes?”

Monday, September 7, 2009

Walla Walla ding dong

Katie and I notched another hole in the sophistication belt this Labor Day weekend.

We went wine tasting in Walla Walla, Washington. Any time you drive more than 4 hours away in order to specifically eat or drink something; this is called “Culture.” And you know you have become cultured when your wife looks over at you and says “I really liked the nose on that one but not the hint of bacon I detected.” And I actually know that she’s talking about a red wine and not the schnauzer we pet in the tasting room. Yes, we are moving up in the world. Eating fine cheeses. Taking in gorgeous vineyard views on the veranda. Admiring the architecture and art work of the various wineries. I even know how to pronounce Apogee and Perigee, of which I prefer the latter for its suave finish and structure.

However, there is a catch when it comes to self-describing as cultured. After going wine-tasting you normally go stay in some 4 star hotel or spa kind of resort. Likely it has a golf course attached and people address you as Mr. and Mrs. Johnson. Or I could imagine a scenario where a cultured person would even go stay at a Best Western or Days Inn (if the resorts were all booked up). And then at the very lowest percentile would be those people who stay at a Motel 6 or Super 8 (in order to save money so they can buy a case of wine costing over $500).
And then there is us. When it comes to sleeping accommodations we fall out of the cultured zone into a redneck hillbilly nomad categorization. We spent the evening driving around looking for a nice patch of dirt to pitch our tent. We can’t stand the idea of paying $20 to camp on a slab of cement in an RV park where people are sitting out in lawn chairs watching TV. So we found a remote dirt road and drove down it. Then we pulled Maxine off into the farmer’s fallow field and bedded down for the night.

However, when sleeping in a stranger’s field, what you make up for in financial savings you lose in restful sleep. Every rustle of the tent is perceived as a pitchfork poking through the rain fly. Every cricket noise must be a coyote’s wail of hunger. At one point I woke up and truly believed that an animal was pawing at the tent. But in my soporific stupor I could not understand why this paw would bare a striking resemblance to the letters REI.

One of the things I took away from this experience is more of an understanding of the term “hypervigilance,” which is a core symptom of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). I started working at the Veterans Hospital last week and it was an intense week. I have dealt with clients who have trauma histories but this was different. Imagine never waking up in the morning feeling rested because for years you sleep in 30 minute increments during the nite. Or every time somebody drops a plate at a restaurant you jump up and knock your own table over. It’s hell. Last nite I had finally fallen asleep only to be woken up to a truck driving down the dirt road right past our car camping spot. My heart went from 0 to 60 mph in .2 seconds and I thought it was gonna pulverize my ribs. And in that moment I got a glimpse of what it might be like to wake up from a nightmare every night and feel like your life is in mortal danger.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Barber shop butchering

Sometimes you’ve got to know when to cut your losses.

I needed to get my haircut this weekend so I went to the neighborhood barber shop just down the road. Convenient and judging by the looks of it…cheap. Right up my alley. One of those places that was about the size of a large walk-in closet with old paint chipping off the wall. I took a seat to wait my turn. While I waited I blew some dust off a book of Smithsonian pictures of Native-Americans, which I have always wanted to learn more about. Unfortunately I didn’t get to read much because of the exceptionally short wait (Bad sign #1). I was called over to sit down by an older Native-American gentleman. We exchanged pleasantries and then he said “High and tight?” and began grabbing for the clippers. Now at this point in the story it is important for you to know that I am VERY particular about my hair. My haircut must be perfect. So when this barber just assumed what I wanted and then almost started cutting without me getting in my specific orders, well that was bad sign #2. I informed him that I’d like a number 6 on top with a number 2 on the side, high fade. I mean pretty standard in the barber business. He looks at me and says, “Number 6, where do you get your hair cut? I’ve never even heard of a number 6.” It was like I was asking him for some new Hollywood hairstyle that had just come out last weekend. Bad sign #3! I glanced towards his barber accoutrements…holy crap Mr. Barber doesn’t use clippers with different length adjustments! A flash of panic washed over me. But there was no time he was already running the clippers up my head! At this point I decided to try some cognitive strategies to calm my rising anxiety. “Maybe this guy is a master barber who has been cutting hair since the time of Buffalo Bill. He is so good he can intuitively calculate hair length with just the use of a simple comb.” And this started working. My innate sense of hopefulness was having ameliorative effects on my stress level. I was even able to divert my attention away from the intrusive visions of a botched haircut long enough to start watching some baseball highlights on the tiny flickering TV screen. What felt like 10 seconds later, I was being wrapped on the head like Biff would do to McFly in “Back to Future.” Like a broken record Mr. Barber was saying “Look at it, look at it, look at it.” I don’t think I realized he was talking to me because my brain was saying “Surely, he can’t be done already. Surely.” But no, he was done. At this point another surge of anxiety came over me and I hesitantly raised the mirror to my face. I looked into the mirror and my first thought was “Did he do anything?” So in my most polite manner I asked “Do you think we could go a little bit shorter on top?” At which point he starts acting like I have asked him to perform a face transplant on me. “Oh you want it a little bit shorter! I guess I can do that.” Now as he raised the clippers to my head I am literally biting my lip. Dear God, what have I got myself into! A little zip and zap and 3 seconds later he shoves the mirror into my hand demanding I look again. The hair on top of my head looks like its been cut in perfectly random clumps with only a random number table deciding which sections will remain untouched. And here is where I made my biggest error. If I weren’t so cheap I would have just kindly thanked the man and walked to another barber shop to have them fix this monstrosity. But I demanded of the universe that I only have to pay for 1 haircut. So I meekly asked if he could make sure the front of my hairline was straight. He reaches for the clipper and says “I’m not running a stylist shop here. This is a barber shop and I can’t spend all day on your head.” After that comment I knew I’d made a big mistake. I looked into the mirror and realized that he had shaved my widow’s peak down to the scalp receding my hairline back to balding proportions.

Now given that I am cheap, I am always enduring these heated internal battles about the amount of a tip to give someone. At a restaurant I will suffer 3 minutes of self-flagellation after tipping the waitress. And it goes in both directions “You cheap bastard, you should have left her an additional dollar.” Or “You idiot, you didn’t have to tip her that much.”

This was one time I had complete confidence in my tip calculator. Zero dollars.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Mike Tyson's sucker punch

When we left NC we sold Katie’s very old car (200K miles) which had no air conditioning, a windshield wide crack and some screeching rear brakes. Needless to say we were ok selling it instead of breaking down somewhere in the Corn Belt trying to drive across the U.S. Our goal was to try and buy a car within the first week of arriving in Seattle. At first we were considering a SUV mainly because I think it’s so cool to sit in the back with the hatch open. Big selling point for me. However, major disadvantages: 1. insatiable thirst for costly petroleum 2. evil stink eye of environmentally savvy Seattleites. So Katie helped me let go of my fantasies of driving to the mountains for a picnic in the back of our Xterra. And her consolation prize…she said we could get a Nissan Maxima! Now some of you know that I used to own my parent’s old 93 Maxima named Maximus, which I felt strongly about despite the car’s inability to go in reverse (Katie got really good at pushing us out of parking spots).

Off we go to the used Nissan dealership to look at a car we’d seen online. A 2000 pearl white Maxima- pretty sharp looking. Immediately they offer a test drive so we take it for a spin and after 5 minutes Katie is sold. She loves it but she’s learned a few things about negotiating so she manages to keep a lid on her enthusiasm. The car is starting at $8K and as we walk inside I transformed into “Negotiator Dave”. The salesman is a real slick Willy with a shaved head, goatee, and a lip full of chewing tobacco (although I never saw him spit so it may have just been that he had a large pouch-mouth for storage purposes). I sit down and do my best to try and slouch lower than him to overemphasize my “I don’t really care about this car” attitude. I even fold my hands on my lap which obviously says “I’ve bought hundreds of cars before…I know exactly how this is gonna go down.” Meanwhile a game of internal pinball is occurring with my stomach rocketing back and forth off my pancreas and gallbladder. He leads off with “What do I have to do to get your business?” Classic. I start rattling things off that I don’t like about the car… “Well we were really hoping for a sunroof, and I don’t know about white, it’s just so hard to keep clean. And I wasn’t planning on a car with that many miles already on it.” And with each criticism of the car he drops the price another 500 bucks! I’m realizing “This is working.” But I’m worried my anxiety is starting to show since I’ve completely sweated through my shirt in his air conditioned office. I create a diversion saying I really need to get some lunch and we high tail it out of there.

At lunch I replenish my fluids. Then I look up and see Katie’s pleading face and her not so subliminal message of “Why are you doing this? Just buy the car.” I quickly realize that my strategic approach with Katie needs to be the total opposite of my tactics with Willy the salesman. With her I enthusiastically exclaim “Sick spoiler and fly chrome rims!” and with Willy I screw up my face in consternation and say “I don’t know…I heard that these flashy cars have high insurance premiums.”

I take the car for another test ride and manage to hear some slight ticking noise when I accelerate at around 85 mph. Perfect! Another criticism I can use to drive the price down. He drops the price and of course tries to close the deal but I tell him we aren’t doing anything until my mechanic does a full inspection. The next morning we come to pick up the car and take it to a mechanic. But Willy is late so I leave him a message subtly expressing my disappointment that he made us stand out in the cold. I’ll use that later to knock another 50 bucks off the price! Our mechanic inspects it and gives it a clean bill of health. So now the drive back to the dealership I’m envisioning the greatest heavyweight battle of all time. Dave “The Negotiator” Johnson versus Willy “The Slick” Salesman. I’m picturing body blows to the ribs and swollen eyes. And baby am I nervous. So I go to my corner of the ring and get a few words of wisdom from my coach (my Dad…a class act old school negotiator). And he gives me some good stuff. So I go into the ring and the bell sounds “Round 1.” I start off “Look, I’m no business man. I know how this usually works. I say one number then you say another number and we do a little dance back and forth. I don’t want to do that. I’m gonna say a number and then I want to hear a Yes or No from you. I don’t want to hear another number or a this or a that. I want to hear a Yes or a No.” But oh crap…my voice had cracked at the very end of my spiel! A sign of weakness he would surely notice. My mouth was so dry it felt like I’d swallowed a spoonful of attic insulation. And then I did it…I said a number. It was a solid right hook to the face. And he leaned back in his office chair…I’d stunned him momentarily. So he starts hemming and hawing and “Well I don’t know...” I realized this is it. I need to go in for the uppercut. And then I mustered the courage to look him straight in the eye, steady my faltering voice and say “Yes or No, Willy?” And he replied “I’ll do it but I can’t include the floor mats for that price.” I had him! He was on the ropes and this was his feeble attempt to bite my ear Mike Tyson style. I scoffed and made to get up from my chair and before my left gluteal muscle had left the cushion, he had said “Ok, I’ll do it.” I’d knocked him out! I couldn’t believe it. He barely even put up a fight. I hadn’t even sweated through my first shirt (I wore two this day).

I sat back down. Partly because I was so dizzy from my anxiety and I didn’t want to collapse and knock myself out on his desk. I’d done it. My first successful car negotiation. I’m an adult now!

Final steps. Sign this. Copy that. Print this. Yada Yada. And then he comes back in and says “The dealership doesn’t make the floor mats anymore for the 2000 Maxima so I’ll just go ahead and knock 20 or 40 bucks off the price we agreed on.” What! The fight isn’t over? I thought the score cards were in. The “Ladies and Gentleman…Your new heavy-weight champion of the world…” I muster up the energy to say “Make it 40.” I can’t let slick Willy get the last sucker punch on me. He smiles and agrees.

40 minutes later I’m in a totally different building being shown the final paper work. Willy is nowhere to be seen. But as I look at the final sale price I realize Willy did get a little nibble out of my ear. He only took $20 off the price, not the agreed upon $40.

I lose sleep because of that $20.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Urban berries

It’s the juxtapositions that brighten life.

Shortly after arriving in Seattle Katie and I were out exploring Pike Place Market where we found the most delightful delicacy- blackberries. However, this tasty treat comes with a hefty price tag- $4 dollars for a tiny little box (a lot for an intern). So imagine our delight when we were climbing the steep stairs out back of the market and discovered a blackberry patch under the highway overpass! Needless to say I’ve been going back on a daily basis for a fresh bumper crop of succulent berries for my morning cereal. The only downside to blackberry patches are the lethal vines literally covered in razor sharp double-edged thorns. One afternoon I made my way to the blackberry patch (with my reusable bag…very eco-friendly) and on this day I really tried getting deep into the patch, which is tricky because it’s on the side of a steep hill. Unfortunately I had opted for the ever-inviting open toed option of the Rainbows (best flip flop on the market). You can picture it: leaning into the innermost sanctum of the bush for the ripest fruit only to come sliding out of my Rainbows and take a bigfoot sized step into a carpet of flesh penetrating thorns. Now each step trying to excavate myself becomes an exercise in pressing thorns deeper into the sole of my foot.

So I came limping out of the bush and tried steadying myself while I gingerly removed each micro-thorn. But I was startled when a voice from nowhere called out “You ok there buddy?” I looked up and a guy was kneeling on the ground behind me with a needle sticking out of his forearm. Here I was below a highway overpass with a blackberry patch and a guy shooting up. And right before he got his fix he had the compassion to ask if I was ok. I’m not sure why this was so profound to me…but it really was. I was so happy to be sharing that moment with this stranger. Obviously not happy that he relied on this substance to get through life but so touched that he delayed his addiction a slight moment for me. And for some reason I just felt like “I’m really living life now.” The juxtaposition- sweet wholesome innocent blackberries and the chains of drug addiction. It’s the same way I felt when I was solicited for sex by a prostitute on the streets of Vancouver. Stunning beauty of a city of glass and the utter destitution of selling one’s body for income.

I’ve been observing a lot of people these first 3 weeks here in Seattle. It’s fantastic…there is every kind of person you can imagine in the city. The diversity is truly remarkable. I’ve seen a family of little people, a man with gigantism, a man with a hunchback, a transvestite dressed just like the female mannequin upper torso he was carrying like his Siamese twin, a group of naked bicycle riders dressed only in ridiculous hats, and a tiny Chihuahua wearing a pink sweater with dollar bills sticking out the neck arranged like a lion’s mane. With the exception of that last one, these are all people. Members of the human race. We come in all shapes and sizes and accessories. What unites us? What do we share that makes us all human beings? I believe it’s the capacity for goodness and kindness to each other. It’s easy to fall into seeing our uniting characteristic as inherent evil, the capacity for harm, or addiction. But if we look closely in the midst of the urban chaos, there are berries. God-breathed berries and they will force you to stop and savor their goodness.