Sunday, October 14, 2007

Last Sunday at 39

I woke at six o'clock this morning and dragged myself to the shower. When I entered the bathroom, I took a moment to examine my face. It was that early morning face, with odd creases from the pillowcase pressed into my forehead. Otherwise, it was the same: eyes where they belong, nose in place, mouth there with a little dawn crust around the edges.

I don’t expect any big surprises when I peek at myself in the morning. Each day I grow accustomed to the way I look.

Back in college, I remember once looking in the mirror and taking a vow that I would never let my skin acquire an old age roughness. I would not allow small creases to find their way into the areas around my eyes or to appear on my forehead.

Looking at my face this morning, I can see I broke my promise. Some small bumps exist along with a couple of bumps on my nose I can’t seem to eradicate. Although my forehead doesn’t sport deep cracks, it has a few small lines, the same lines that have found their way to my eyes.

It’s not bad. It’s not the worst thing to look older when you are older. I confess I apply some anti-wrinkly prune face moisturizer to ‘decrease the presence of fine lines’ but I don’t want to look like I’m in my 20s. I actually still am asked for my ID sometimes, but I think that’s probably because I’m short.

I got my early start today because I had to catch a flight to Phoenix. I’m typing from 39,000 feet right now. I’ll change planes there and be off to Houston.

At the San Francisco airport, I surveyed the waiting area and saw an available chair next to an old woman talking on her cell phone, so I claimed the seat. I started sending a text message and realized I was inadvertently eavesdropping on her conversation. I was attracted to her voice, a voice of an old woman who sounded professorial. I thought a little about how our voices change as we age, perhaps a bit envious that I would never sound quite so erudite as she did when I’m an oldster. She talked about spending the day at Stanford. She mentioned her daughter and talked about having a law scholarship named after her, with an initial endowment of 1.5 million dollars.

When I overheard that, I decided I’d better take a peek at her again. So, I stood up and knelt by my suitcase to unzip a pocket. I didn’t need to get anything but I thought it would be the most discrete way to take a good look at the person sitting next to me: Former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor.

She looked old. Spots and wrinkles. White hair pulled back in her signature hairdo. But she spoke kindly and comfortably to her agents who approached and guided her on to my flight, securing seat 2A, a window, in First Class.

I’m sitting 14 rows behind her right now, typing from US Airways Economy Class seat 16 A. I’m thinking I don’t really mind that this is my last Sunday at age 39. In the 15 minutes that I listened to her and observed her, O’Connor epitomized refinement and intelligence. I may not be as polished, nor as learned or powerful, but I can age with grace and dignity. And some anti-wrinkle cream (might as well try something).

They say aging is about doing what makes you happy, fighting for what’s important to you, and staying active. I know I have some work cut out for me, but I will do my best. And I’m having a big party next weekend, being thrown for me by Brad, Mark, my mother and others, which both thrills and embarrasses me.

Enough of this talk. Now I’ll look more closely at the cracks and crevices. Deeper and bigger. Dry. Pretty amazing.

I’m sure the Grand Canyon is even more impressive from the ground than from my window. From 39 (thousand feet, that is).

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Whoa-oh-oh-oh Mexico

American tourists shop for fine jewelery at sidewalk stalls south of the border.

Baja California. I spent about 90 minutes in Mexico today. Maybe a little longer. It was the shortest trip to a foreign country I've ever made. It wasn't glamorous Acapulco or silvery Taxco or even shabby-chic Tijuana. It was the capital city of Baja California: Mexicali.

This building seems to be missing something: the rest of the upstairs.

Considering I've been interacting with Mexicali residents all day at meetings in El Centro and Calexico, it seemed worthwhile to check out their place of residence.

Note to self: don't take bus photos in the middle of the street!

I don't have much to say about my visit, but offer just these few quick snapshots not sanctioned by the Mexicali Tourist Board.

It seems like an "after" photo might increase sales. Or is this the "after" photo?

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Engaging in engaging conversation

Taking off. I was on a quick flight down to LA, sitting next to my friend and colleague, Linda, who was taking a nap. I had been sitting, peering out the window from seat 11F, at the clouds below. Finally, the sun crept above the layer of gray.

Sitting on a plane, while a robust conversation is going on, gives one an opportunity to eavesdrop. The guy on the other side of Linda talked on his cell phone before takeoff about being out of the country most of the next few months. “I’ll be out of the country more than I’ll be in it during the next semester,” he said. He flipped through a Lonely Planet travel guidebook on the Arabian Peninsula. It was a boring conversation to overhear.

Much more interesting, due to the star power, but almost as dull was the conversation that took place between the French couple seated in12E and 12F and the man seated next to them in seat 12D. The man was wearing a turquoise string tie and a fleece vest embroidered with an acronym I couldn’t figure out. He introduced himself to the French duo when he sat down, clearly annunciating his name as Brian Schweitzer, the Governor of Montana. He made a quick joke, “Schweitzer, not Schwarzenegger,” perhaps to emphasize to the couple that indeed they were having the honor of sitting next to the actual governor of Montana. They smiled and nodded.

He asked them about themselves and they responded that they own a French restaurant in Palm Desert. Governor Schweitzer talked about how his ancestors were originally from France, but moved to Ukraine to farm before escaping the pogroms and moving to Montana. Just listening to him interact, I could tell he was a very outgoing, affable guy. I would imagine those are the characteristics one should possess to be a governor. He asked the couple several questions about themselves, to which they provided answers. He suggested they market their restaurant to French-speaking Canadians, selling them on the fact that they could visit Palm Desert and speak their own language. He lamented the US Dollar’s demise and the favorable exchange rate that Canadians can now enjoy when they patronize US businesses.

What I found very weird is that the French couple didn’t ask him any questions. I mean, come on! He may not be Ben Affleck, Larry King or Liza Minnelli, but he’s still an important person and I wouldn’t mind having a conversation with him. Besides, he’s only the governor of Montana. That shouldn’t be terribly intimidating.

I suppose it could be intimidating if you crack a stupid joke, and I imagine a lot of people do. “They let you cross the state line? You chasing a moose that got away?” or “Is Montana having a state budget crisis? Is that why you’re flying in coach?” I mean, sure, say something stupid and then ask the guy a few questions. This dull couple didn’t ask him why he was going to LA. That’s a pretty basic question for anyone to ask the person sitting next to them on a plane, especially a person who seems outgoing and interested in engaging in a conversation. They didn’t ask him about Montana. Or what it’s like to be governor. Or if he would run for president. They didn’t ask him about his stand on Medicare benefits or harvesting National Forest timber. Nothing about abortion or same-sex marriage or retirement benefits, or any other issue that might possibly be of interest to them. They didn’t ask him about who he knows in the world of politics. Or if he knows Larry Craig. Or if he saw the movie Across the Universe. Instead, after a while, they let the conversation drop off and went to reading their magazines.

Maybe they were illegal immigrants. Or involved in weird covert French smuggling activities. Or maybe they were just dreary restaurant-owning French people without the ability to carry on a conversation. The governor said, “I’d love to visit your restaurant when I’m in Palm Desert next month!” They seemed rather uninterested, but the woman volunteered a business card. The governor talked about how Wolfgang Puck cooked him dinner recently and also went skiing with him (or something like that… a slight lapse in eavesdropping). They said, "Oh yes. Wolfgang Puck. He is Austrian.”

I don’t really know what I would have said if I were sitting next to him. Maybe tell him I could do a nice transit plan for the State of Montana if he wanted to hire me. Maybe ask him what it’s like to be governor. Maybe ask him where in Montana he would recommend I visit. I don’t know. Something.

Toward the end of the flight, after about 30 minutes of silence in row 12, the governor struck up another conversation with his uninteresting neighbors. Smartly, he started again on the topic of food. He said he was a rancher. He also said they have a lot of bears in Montana. He said he’d even eaten a bear: “If they’re not lying around on the ground with a disease, they’re safe to eat, but they’re very oily.” He talked about suggesting to his wife that they eat their lame mare on the ranch, an idea that insulted her and she flatly rejected (even though they send their old horses to Canada to be slaughtered for meat in France and Japan!). Now, of course, he explained he lives in the Governor’s Mansion in Helena. He makes less money as a governor than as a rancher.

Upon landing in LA, the Governor’s assistant approached and had a quick chat with him. Then he followed behind me as I got off the plane and headed up the jetway. One man, with a frazzled look, went running down the jetway back toward the plane and the governor remarked to him, “Forgot your cell phone, huh?” Then we all entered the gate area and Governor Schweitzer was greeted by two official-looking Latino men who welcomed him to Los Angeles. Their delegation walked toward the main terminal; Linda and I walked in the other direction in search of food to nourish us on a 2 ½ hour layover.

It was nice to overhear a politician who seemed to be a nice guy. I probably disagree with his politics, but it was good to eavesdrop and not be left with a bad taste in my mouth. Well, perhaps only boring French flavors.

Monday, October 08, 2007

Old ladies love drug stores

Drug stores really fascinate me. I think they represent the perfect retail business model. Let me explain.

Where do you get your diabetes medication? At the drug store, of course. And where do you get diabetes? At the drug store, the place with the largest candy collection around. With Thrifty Brand ice cream for sale. With strange "European Deluxe Collection" Bulgarian cookies and Chinese gummies.

Where do you get your high blood pressure and heart disease medication? At the drug store. And where do you get high blood pressure and heart disease? In the aisles of chips and jerky and crackers at the drug store. Or from behind the counter, where hundreds of cigarette brands are sold. Or just waiting for the next surly employee to begrudgingly announce, "Next customer in line."

And where do you buy the stretch mark cream? And the weight loss pills? And the Nicorette? And the toothpaste? With insurance payments on medication – drugs that people depend on for the rest of their life no matter what the cost – the drug stores can make a killing.

Drug stores must have a reason to sell all of their remedies, so they create the problems.

It’s kind of crazy. As children, my sister and I would walk up to the neighborhood Eckerd drug store. Using our allowance money, we’d buy as much candy as we could carry and drag it home. Family friends whose parents restricted their sugar intake worshipped us and became our best buddies as we sneaked them sweets at dinner parties.

The drug store became the place for the good stuff. As we got older, my sister got to know the woman behind the cosmetics counter at Eckerd, where she would buy Rose Milk and makeup and nail polish. We’d buy Slush Puppies there, gum, and more and more candy. On Valentine’s Day, we would proudly present a red foil heart box filled with lousy Palmers or Russell Stover chocolates to my parents. Another purchase from Eckerd.

We’d visit Cleveland and go to Revco drugs with my grandmother. She would buy Aqua Net and Polident, and then other candies that old ladies like: Chocolate Parfait Nips, Andes Mints, and malted milk balls in the milk box container.

Old ladies love drug stores. I think I do too. I peruse the Walgreen’s or Rite Aid circular, inspecting the paper for any must-have products that will make my life more complete. I get my ten dollars worth of free things – hair gel, dishwashing liquid, lightbulbs, Pepcid – each month at Rite Aid, taking advantage of their Single Check rebates. I get a secret thrill when I can present a $1.00-off coupon for a tube of toothpaste that is already on sale for $2.49 (from the regular $3.89!), and that also comes with a $2.49 rebate. This means I am actually being paid by Rite Aid to buy the toothpaste. I get to stick it to the man.

I suppose I’m not the target demographic they had in mind when they established their rebate program, but considering it’s all now on-line and takes a few seconds of my time each month, I’ll happily line up with the predominantly old ethnic gals and proudly purchase that Porcelana Fade Cream that will be fully reimbursed, minus the sales tax. It will end up in a drawer somewhere in the house and eventually, when I get age spots, I’ll be able to pull it out and apply it, knowing that I not only prepared in advance for my speckled affliction, but that I paid not a penny for the even tones in my skin.

We need more drug stores. More candy bar coupons and gel insoles specials to keep me standing in line behind the oldsters. And I’ll continue to argue when the register flashes my prune juice at the wrong price. I'll point to the sign that says “If the price scans higher than the shelf price, the item is free.” And I'll type an email to the manager to complain. Then I’ll submit an on-line rebate request for the price of that juice.
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