Monthly Archives: July 2013

Gym members of the world unite

Preface: I have lots of lawyers in my family whom I love dearly. They are not the lawyers referred to in this post. Further, I would like to commend Mr. Erwin Inc. A/C repair as a sterling alternative to the shady companies mentioned below.

I was 23 years old. Standing at the checkout desk of a nasty little hotel in Sarajevo, and I had been railroaded for the last time.

After four days of sharing a bed (not a room mind you, a BED) with a chain-smoking Norwegian who slept in black lingerie, being shoved by disrespectful men on public transportation, and otherwise made to feel completely ill-at-ease, I was not taking anymore crap.

When they presented me with my bill, which included two late night minibar raids by the Norwegian, 4 days of calls to Brazil by a third roommate, and miscellaneous charges racked up the fourth roommate, I simply said “no.”

Now, seeing as we were in Eastern Europe, this all played out in a very on-the-nose style. There were no forced smiles or corporate jargon. And thus it serves as a perfect illustration for railroading techniques employed by many huge companies, as they not only profit from selling legitimate products and services, but fatten the margins by imposing penalties, convoluted fee structures, and trapping people into contracts that far exceed the value of needed services.

1) The “There’s nothing that can be done.”

The desk clerk said, “there’s nothing I can do. The system won’t let me check you out until the bill is paid.”

This is a favorite. The helpless underling at the mercy of technology. But thanks to my impaired mental state at the time of check out, I replied with, “Well I’m sorry. I’m simply not paying. But I am leaving. You’re going to have to do something about that.”

This is what I said yesterday to the customer care representative at the billing company who handles my gym membership when I called to cancel my month-to-month membership with Blast Fitness (this is AFTER canceling at the gym itself, and being told that memberships must be cancelled 30 days in advance, so I would still be charged for another month, and then that I must call the billing company to complete the cancellation of services).

She said that she couldn’t help me because the system had me listed under a year long contract, and so I needed to contact my gym again to straighten it out. I wanted her to  patch me through to someone who could help me. Someone with an override pass-code. But she persisted in her victim-of-the-system routine.

2) The “Somehow This is Your Fault” 

Meanwhile, back in Bosnia, upon seeing that I was not just going to wimp out and pay the $350 bail she’d set for my release, the clerk involved the Bosnian conference-organizer who said, “You are responsible for this bill. You should have come to check out with each of your roommates to make sure they didn’t do this to you.”

Aha.  This is a gift that the legal profession has bequeathed upon the world. It’s a favorite of pastors as well. If there is some way that you could have prevented yourself from being defrauded, some moment where you chose to let you guard down or heaven forbid if you messed up even a little, then no one else is responsible for their actions against you.

Thank goodness I was a banshee on the loose at that point.  I replied, “Excuse me? My roommates left at 5 am. And it is NOT my responsibility to make sure that they didn’t leave without paying THEIR bills. In fact, they are your guests, and if those are the kind of people you invite to your conferences, then that’s the risk you take. Furthermore, I requested a single room, so these roommates were less than my responsibility, they were a burden imposed on me.”

This is similar to when we realized that we had misunderstood what a “grace period” was in credit card billing. Apparently, in a normal credit card agreement (billed in a monthly statement) the “grace period” is the 3 days between the due date and the day you start accruing interest. However, if at any point the terms of the agreement change (in our case due to a check written to ourselves against our credit balance), then a “grace period” refers to each passing day between when you swipe your card, and when you transfer money to your credit card company. That’s a fun one to find out when you see that you’d accrued $80 of interest on a tank of gas.

Again this “it’s your fault” tactic was employed during the gym cancellation saga when this conversation happened:

Customer Care Rep:”May I ask why you are cancelling?”

Me:”Because they are closing my preferred location.”

CCR: “I’m sorry to hear that. But there are two other locations within 10 miles of the closing location.”

Me: “Yes, 10 miles further from my house. It would take me 30 minutes each way to get there.”

CCR: “I’m sorry for that, but that’s just not reason enough to waive your cancellation fee.” [which we subsequently established that I was not supposed to incur]

So yes. My choice to live 30 minutes away from the gyms I do not use penalizes me when they close the gym I do use.

OR when Perma Pier leveled our house with the wrong kind of pier and beam system, did a shoddy job, and then offered to come back and fix it for $27,000 (minus $7000 for the shoddy original job…gee thanks). Since we’d signed off on the work, (after seeing ONE appropriately serviced pier) we were liable. Because we should have hired an inspector to crawl under the house to make sure they had not ripped us off before they left. Literally. That’s what they told us.

3) The Guilt Trip

Meanwhile, back in the twilight zone, the conference-organizer then tried to guilt me into paying.

“If you don’t pay, then it will come out of my paycheck.”

I’m pretty sure I just stared at her. But I also said, “That’s really not my problem.”

It’s like when you’re made to feel like a naughty car owner if you don’t upgrade to the super special oil for your oil change.

The happy ending of the Bosnia story is that the American organizers of the conference saw that there was conflict, intervened, and handed over their credit cards without hesitation. And paid for my cab ride to the airport.

The regional manager of the gym cancelled my membership without penalty.

We used another credit card until we could restore our original credit card agreement.

We pestered a foundation company until they reimbursed us for half of the shoddy construction job. (And we hired a wonderfully honest company to fix it, for half of what Perma Pier quoted.)

And from this day forward whenever I am given the runaround by someone who hired a lawyer to write a ten page contract absolving that person from treating me like a human being instead of a bank account, I will say this:

“I want you to patch me through to the person who can write me a personal check for [disputed amount], mail it to my house, and sort it out in the “system” for himself. Because I guarantee you, if he’s out [disputed amount] he’ll tell you the override code. I am tired of living in a world where people are just trying to see how much money they can get me to lose at no cost to themselves. ”

I also have a recurring fantasy of walking up to the lawyers who write the contracts for these horrible, slimy companies, and saying this: “Do you know how the little guy feels when he finds himself taken advantage of by the big guy? Do you know how he feels when he is powerless to free himself from the spiderweb of your contracts? You don’t?”

And then I’d kick him in the testicles. And then I would say, “Well I don’t have testicles, so I don’t know what that feels like.”

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Florence’s So-Called life: Season 1, ep 4

In which Florence faces peer pressure from her brother.

(read in the voice of Florence, which sounds uncannily like a 14-year-old Claire Danes)

Sometimes Wiley and I totally get each other.

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And sometimes it’s like we’re two different breeds.

Sometimes he’s like, the bravest, coolest, guy. He’s all confident… and swaggering… and peeing on everything. The trainer said that Wiley enjoys “marking his territory” more than he enjoys fetch and the other kiddie games she made me play. So she just let  him. Everybody just lets him. Sometimes he marks me…and I just don’t even…I can’t even stop him.

He just lays in the room like he owns it…

Wiley's so cool that PROFESSIONAL ARTIST sketched him once, at our house. by Jacinto Guevara

Wiley’s so cool that PROFESSIONAL ARTIST sketched him once, at our house. by Jacinto Guevara

while I’m constantly finding myself awkwardly in everyone else’s way.

I don't understand why yoga mats are not for sharing.

I don’t understand why yoga mats are not for sharing.

He’s just sort of…over it when it comes to food.  He never begs. He never chomps Bekah’s hand when she gives him treats. It’s just…not a big deal to him. I get so excited I jump in circles, fall down, and then end up biting her hand. And then I’m in trouble.

One day he asked me to keep a secret for him. I promised I would, because I want him to think I’m cool. Then he broke out of the fence. He goes through Delilah and Henry B.’s yard like it’s nothing. Like Henry B. is not the scariest dog on the block.  I’m just scared that one day, you know, he’s going to get into trouble. Not just because Bekah has to go running down the sidewalk in her nightgown screaming like something off of “Real Housewives of Appalachia.” I mean real trouble. What if, like, ACS gets him?

Here I'm in a funk because Wiley's mad at me for telling on him.

Here I am worrying about Wiley, waiting by the front door.

So I told Bekah. Then Wiley was mad, because I broke my promise. But sometimes being a good friend/sister means doing things your friend/brother doesn’t like. 

So… yeah… Wiley’s, like, totally brave. But then…it rains. And suddenly he’s a complete mess. There’s drool everywhere, he shakes, he hides in the shower. He has to wear this ridiculous shirt, that only half-fixes the problem.

And then I’m like, well, I guess maybe we all aren’t so brave sometimes. I’m afraid of maracas. Wiley’s afraid of low barometric pressure. We’re all just sort of a mess, but we’re family.

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Beer Journal: Local watering holes

Some people have wine journals. Liz James told me about beer journals. Mine will double as a travel journal. More than wine, when I travel, I find beer. Not haute beer. Everyman beer. Beer I can order in any restaurant. And these stories are not the stories of the most amazing places I’ve seen. They are about the times when I had a beer, and the people I was with.

These are our local watering holes.

The Friendly Spot - King William

The Friendly Spot – King William

Here is Lewis at the The Friendly Spot, which has apparently been around longer than I thought. It can be hard to find a seat, but when you do, it’s about as simple a place as ever did grace the hip side of town. And it is oh so hip.That’s why my bike helmet it here. Because we’re trying to be hip like the Southtowners.

We often meet our Southtown friends there.

I was particularly thrilled to see it mentioned in the biography of Ann Richards.

The Granary - Pearl

The Granary – Pearl

The brewmaster at The Granary went to high school with my sister, and the beer is worth a mention. The Root Beer is worth some sort of award.This flight of beers was shared with a group of Australian travel professionals visiting for a conference. More proof that Australians know how to have a good time.

The Granary is not a bar. It’s a restaurant, serving an elevated twist on Texas smoked meets and their accouterments. I, for one, am not a die-hard purist about Texas beer and bbq. People rail about the inherent evils of “high end” bbq and beer flights, but this is good food and good beer. What could be more purist than that?

The Esquire Tavern - Downtown/Riverwalk

The Esquire Tavern – Downtown/Riverwalk

There’s not any beer in the is picture, but Esquire Tavern is simultaneously 1) home to the longest bar in Texas, and 2) the only place downtowners go on the Riverwalk. History and relevance. Some other organizations I know of should take note. The food is all heavy duty, and the drinks are delicious. I’ve had more than one beer here.

On the night this picture was taken, I was with Liz James. We had just left a jazz concert and the Spurs were in the final round of the NBA championship. Liz is committing the crime of getting us to be very attached to her before she leaves us (probably for Boulder, like everyone else). But we’ll forgive her and have a few more beers before she’s gone.

The Luxury - River North

The Luxury – River North

We can reach The Luxury on our bikes, without peddling. We can leave our home, lift our feet, and roll the 7 blocks to this table right here.

You know  the beer in the picture is not actually mine because it’s opaque.

All seating is outside, and I love it. Large plastic animal toys substitute for numbers. In this picture, we are with our friends, the Sedgwicks who pointed out that Lewis’s pants match the saurolophus and the table. It’s cool to have people around who notice that sort of thing.

Blue Box - The Pearl

Blue Box – The Pearl

Blue Box has become a pretty common happy hour spot for me. It’s incredibly hard to find the first time, as there’s no sign out front, and it’s under the Pearl parking garage. But that doesn’t seem to stop it from filling up. People have a thing for places where you have to know. They serve fun cocktails and beer. These pictured were both recommendations of their incredibly knowledgeable head bar tender (who may be the owner, I’m not sure.)

I am here drinking with Haley, my primary happy hour companion for the last three-or-so years. Haley is that person who understands that some days happy hour needs to start at 2pm on a Tuesday, as well as the many reasons that someone might drink most of the bottle of wine in the course of a weeknight. Because, in the words of Haley, “I’m a grown-ass woman.”

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Dallas or (Mega)bust! A play in 3 acts

Prologue: I consider myself a pretty intrepid traveler. I have yet to meet a mode of transportation I can’t endure.

Further, I’ve gotten pretty city-savvy. I enjoy making the most of the latest fad in transportation.

Mostly though, I’m a sucker for a good deal. I’m the girl who plans my vacations around flash sales.

So naturally, hearing that Megabus was coming to town was the kind of good news that could only be topped if RyanAir or EasyJet decided to hop the pond and start offering 15-cent flights to Los Angeles. I took the Megabus to Austin back in December for a lunch date, and it was perfect. On time, low-key, seat to myself, read the whole way. So I didn’t even hesitate to book a trip to Houston for Monday-Tuesday, and a trip to Dallas for Friday-Sunday last week.

Sitting in the parking lot of Katy Mills for an hour with no sign of the 7pm Megabus, I should have seen the writing on the wall. As I griped about the lack of communication, my gracious ride (who was waiting with me so that I could stay in an airconditioned car, instead of sitting on the pavement) said,

“Yeah, I’d pay at least $4 per trip if they would be on time.”

Right. You get what you pay for.

Tickets were already booked for Dallas though. So Haley (who, in all fairness, would never have hazarded such an obviously fallible plan had I not been so exuberant about Megabus) and I boarded in San Antonio at 4:30 pm, and headed for Dallas. You can read Haley’s account of the trip here.

Act One: Austin. Where after seeing a pretty convincing Chris Farley double…

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we backed up right into the spot where he had been sitting, and felt an ominous bump. Followed by an announcement that we would be staying in Austin for an hour to address a “safety concern.”  They also told us to be back on the bus in one hour because they were leaving “regardless of whether or not we were on the bus.”

Though needlessly stern, that’s about as helpful as the Megabus people would be throughout the hours that followed. Also, we saw Chris Farley again, so I don’t know what the bump was, but it was not him.

We were in Austin, on Guadalupe street, though. I’ve been stranded worse places (Ljubljana, for instance). So we made the most of it and had Pho for dinner.

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Better than organic funyuns and dried cherries, which was what I had packed. We also had two bottles of wine and no corkscrew. Little did we know by the end of the evening we’d be willing to claw through and drink whatever cork bits fell into the wine.

The bus left at precisely 7:20. I don’t know how I feel about that kind of punctuality. What kind of safety issue is resolved in exactly one hour as scheduled? How well can you really fix something in an hour? I mean, I was ready to get to Dallas, but I also believe in the importance of actually fixing things.

Because if you don’t, you end up exactly where we were 1.5 hours later.

Act Two: After crawling along in the predictable North Austin/Temple/Belton traffic jam, we realized that while the rest of traffic was speeding up, we were still going about 5-10 miles per hour. Cars whizzing by, efficiently making their way north. No announcement, no explanation.

One concerned passenger jumped up and rushed down the stairs to check on the driver.

“Well, he’s still alive.”

Suddenly, we sped up. A collective sigh of relief. But wait…we were just going down hill. Once the road leveled out, we slowed to a stop.

Still no word from the driver. It should be noted that Haley and I were giggling like idiots the whole time, because we were neither hungry nor alone, and so this was all very entertaining. (The people in the Group Messages are Haley, me, and Amanda Brack, whom I still have listed under her maiden last name…we’ve been friends for a while!)

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Policeman #1 boarded the bus, asking us to please get off the highway. That’s when we got the first and only piece of true information we would get.  We peered down the stairwell, listening to the driver explain that our transmission was out. (the video Haley mentions is of this conversation)

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Policeman #1 explained that there was another southbound Megabus a few miles ahead…also stranded. Then he left.

Policeman #2 appeared about five minutes later, and the scene repeated itself. This is also about the point when our chronical of the trip on social media started generating some worried phone calls and messages from friends.

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“We’re going to die on this bus,” one particularly hopeless passenger said, as the clock neared 9:45.

“We’ve got wine!” Haley and I announced.

“It’s my 21st birthday at midnight!” another passenger exclaimed.

We felt like we’d saved the day. Even though we were still sitting on a bus on the side I-35, and no one from Megabus had spoken up to inform us of our fate.

Finally, another bus, Coach USA, pulled up, and we walked along the grass median to board the smaller vehicle.

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Haley and I could not find seats together, which is when this conversation happened:

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Act Three: The remaining 1.5 hours were uneventful. Over the course of the journey I listened to a confident young man tell his cute seatmate the following (which I relayed by text to Haley and Amanda).

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He then went on to explain that he was classically trained, but just had a knack for rhythm. And he’s an amateur mechanic. “I don’t know, I’m just good at that kind of thing. I’m good with my hands.”

The cute girl relayed her woes of car trouble, and the confident fellow offered to take a look at her car for free when they were back in Austin.

I wanted to take the girl by the shoulders, shake her, and say, “If there is one thing you have learned from this trip: when it comes to transportation, you get what you pay for.”

Epilogue: Our return trip was 2 hours late presumably due to traffic…which is always present…but not accounted for in the eta. If you plan to take the Megabus between San Antonio and Austin, just be advised, it’s a seven hour trip. You could literally fly to Peru.

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Florence’s So-Called Life, Season 1, Ep. 3

In which Florence resists the natural processes of getting old and lame.

(Read in Florence’s voice, which sounds uncannily like 14-year-old Claire Danes.)

My people depress me. When I look at their lives I just think, “That’s…it? Why are you so lame?”

i Phone upload July 7 2013 065

That’s what I’m doing all of this for? All of this “sitting” and “staying” and “get off the damn couch!” So that I can be a slave to the leash? I’ve seen pictures of my people as…whatever little humans are called…hummies? Anyway, I’ve seen pictures of when they were young. They had so much promise.

They ran around naked. They pooped standing up. They laid down to eat.

What happened? When did they just start working all the time? Why all the extra…stuff? Like silverware and toilets and people-only furniture. It’s so lame.

Bekah sits in her office all day! I could easily chew on a tennis ball for that long. She never chews on anything. It's depressing.

Mom sits in her office all day! I could easily chew on a tennis ball for that long. She never chews on anything. It’s depressing.

Even Lewis's friends come over to work. How much more fun would it be to lick our butts together???

How much more fun would it be to all lick our own butts together???

It makes me want to be young forever. And just, you know, roam the world. Like Delilah next door. The one who plays under the house. She gets out all the time. Wiley does too, and sometimes I think he hangs out with Delilah when our people aren’t looking. They poop where they want.

Here I am on a leash, tied to a bridge. This picture would be awesome without the leash. Because it would be of my tail as I ran from Mom.

How much better would this awesome picture be without my leash? Leashes…why???

Except…I heard them talking today about how they went camping. Apparently they pooped outside. And ate with their hands. I don’t think they ran around naked, but I blame that on their pink skin. Not everyone can be black and tan.

Maybe there’s hope.

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The Fascinating Lives of Car Salesmen

This is my old car, “Karen.”

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Karen’s a/c didn’t work, so she had to be retired. We “sent her away to a farm” where she could run and play and blow hot air out of her vents in 100 degree weather all day long.

On The Fourth of July we did what JFK told us was the most patriotic thing we could do: we shopped. I don’t usually pay attention to car ads barking at me about ZERO DOWN! and ZERO PERCENT INTEREST! But I did spend enough of my formative years in front of the television to know that “Independence Day” is just the prefix for “Sale.”

Really it was Lewis’s idea, after picking me up from the gym. I would never have tried to negotiate interest rates and down payments in my sweaty gym clothes, but I have learned that when Lewis gets the wild hair to spontaneously spend money, I’d better hop right on that, regardless of how I smell.

The distinct disadvantage was that I felt like anyone liberal enough to be nice to me looking like a vagrant the way I did, deserved to make a sale. I wanted to buy a car as a way of saying, “Thank you for not laughing at me.”

The day was fairly uneventful from a car-buying standpoint. We test drove three vehicles. Purchased one. Traded in Karen for  beans (more beans than she may be worth, however). Pretty efficient day of shopping, really.

This is the gorgeous German machine we bought. We named her Marlene Dietrich.

This is the gorgeous German machine we bought. We named her Marlene Dietrich.

But along the way we heard two stories that together convinced us that car salesmen might have a more interesting job than most us.

As we were getting into the Prius V, we asked how often people wreck the cars when they take them out for a test drive.

“You’d be surprised how rarely that happens,” our 30-something salesman replied.

“Have you ever seen anyone try to steal one?”

“Not really,” he said. I was thinking that the conversation was a dud, and that we would have to make halting holiday-based conversation (“Any plans for the fourth?” “Well…we’re buying a car…you?” “I’m at work…”).

But then he continued.

“But I did have a guy try to carjack me once on a test drive.”

Suddenly I thought about it. This guy gets in the car with strangers every day. Strangers who have wandered in knowing full well that there are hundreds of brand new cars available for joyriding. All they have to do is ask.

But even if people do have honest intentions, they might be hazardous. Salesmen have to pull out onto busy access roads with grandmas behind the wheel. Or slam to a stop 2 feet from the tailgate of the giant truck when a 16 year old finally applies the brakes at a red light. Bickering couples. Distracted parents. Dudes trying to impress their girlfriends. Women who drive like Cruella de Vil.

It’s a really dangerous job.

A highlight of our return to the Volkswagen dealership to trade Karen (no, we didn’t really euthanize her) was when Lewis found a stuffed monkey under one of her seats. We then had to proceed with negotiating, discussing interest rates, credit scores, and down payments with a stuffed monkey in tow, in addition to me being smelly.

Lewis and the monkey do some tough negotiating.

Lewis and the monkey do some tough negotiating.

“Is that your good luck charm?” people kept asking.

We would laugh, assuming they were being funny. I mean, they were definitely being funny, but we assumed they knew that. Finally, when the Finance manager, Frank, looked back at us, earnestly waiting for our response, Lewis clued in.

“Do people bring good luck charms to buy cars?”

From there we got a laundry list of the good luck charms he had seen in his time in sales. It crescendoed to this story.

Frank took a man out for a test drive, and it was clear on the drive that the man was loving the car. It was everything he wanted.  The deal was so close, Frank could taste it. Suddenly, while behind the wheel, the man said, “This is it. This is the car I want. I just gotta ask my wife.”

Frank totally understood, though probably rolled his eyes a little that the man hadn’t gotten the major purchase pre-approved by the home office. He tried to keep the momentum going, should they need it to overcome whatever obstacle the wife presented. He waited for the man to pull out a cell phone, but instead, they just drove further from the dealership.

And kept driving.

Until they pulled up to a cemetery. The man parked the car and told Frank he would be right back. True to his word, the man came back shortly thereafter, a smile on his face, and good news for all.

“She’s fine with it.”

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Last Call Adventure: Bruja Canyon Part II

When we last left our intrepid team of trekkers, they were setting off across the desert in the dark…

Part II: Up, over, around, and down

With our gaiters firmly in place and the desert air still dry and “cool,” we crossed Terlingua Creek (which was exactly as technical as Lewis nudging a rock into place and us skipping across), walked the dry tributary creek bed, and out on to the clay flats.

The terrain.

The terrain.

The expanse of soft clay felt like we were walking across a macaroon, leaving easily trackable footprints that we would later appreciate. The clay also radiated heat that it had been holding from the days before. Suddenly we all started doing math in our heads, wondering how it would feel to walk the flat in the scourge of the afternoon sun on our way back to the car.

My guess was that it would feel really hot. Like if you were put in an oven. Satan’s oven.

The open flat was soon interrupted by a stubble of desert plants. Mesquite, all thorn, prickly pear, lechuguilla, ocotillo, cholla, and the particularly sinister claret cup. Everything in the desert wants to kill you. Or rather, it wants to keep you from getting close to it, which I respect. Since some unfortunate childhood experiences, I have given cacti a wide berth. While my gaiters did reduce the diameter of my bubble, it was soon popped altogether by invading spines.

We got up close and personal with some very surly plants.

Bruja is a slot canyon, like a stab wound in the side of a Mesa de Anguilla. Standing on top of the mesa it would have looked like a fissure running across the ground. From where we stood on the plain, the vertical face of the plateau’s northeastern wall loomed, Bruja was just a void. A crack in the wall.

We picked our way through and eventually scrambled up the rocks at the base of the wall, still dodging the “pokies” as Jenna named them.

Then it was time for the adventure to begin in earnest.

The grade of the wall varies from report to report, but it’s in the high 4’s or low 5’s, if that means anything to anyone. There were some moments where those extra inches of arms and legs that the boys had on us girls really made a difference. My own first hurdle came somewhere near the bottom of the wall when it was fingers,toes, and pokies  between the ledge I was on and the ledge where I needed to be. There was a rope too, but we were not tied to it.

The little white dot is Colin on reconnaissance.

The little white dot is Colin on reconnaissance.

In life, I’ve made a habit of saying “one, two, three, go!” and jumping off of things. Or cutting things. Or pushing buttons. I can count to three and shut off my brain. But lunging at the next hand hold or sloped surface requires, “one, two, three, quickly-do-the-next-thing.” That’s harder.

Our feet on the first ledge.

Our feet on the first ledge.

Jenna on the other side of the gap.

Jenna on the other side of the gap.

So we needed a new chant. Fortunately as I hung there quivering, Colin said, “Trust yourself!”

And then I was on the next ledge. The rest of the wall was no problem, not simply because I now trusted my feet, but because it really was a lot easier. We just walked on up the sticky rocks.

From there we walked two miles along a ridge that was like the rim inside the rim of the canyon. This was pretty thick cactus habitat, but we were high on life after a quick ascent.

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At the back of the canyon we had snacks in a cave with burn marks on the cieling, and little Native American grain grinding holes outside. We were like ancient peoples…with Camelbacks, a decided evolutionary advantage.

From there we dropped down into the canyon itself. It was a fairly mild drop, just sliding down the smooth walls of the shallowest pool, which happened to be dry. From there we would slowly work our way back to the plane, dropping from pool to pool via rope, wiggle, and hopping.

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We moved along in full sun, finding shade along the edge or in crevasses where we could. We were almost to the highlight, the big rappel into water, when came to what would be, for me, the scariest moment of the trek. To get to our rappelling point for the first major drop, we first had to clear a gap. Colin suggested we take a running leap.

“Um…I don’t do run-and-jump,” I said. Playing the one princess card I would allow myself. I don’t. It’s one of those “one, two, three, be coordinated” moments that I avoid. Whenever I try to run and jump, I second guess myself at the last second, try to stop mid-flight, and fall.

Aborting this jump would end in death…or paralysis…and waiting to be rescued…in the heat.

Colin is setting up the rappel on the other side of the gap...while we pretend not to worry about the crossing.

Colin is setting up the rappel on the other side of the gap…while we pretend not to worry about the crossing.

So we figured out another method, which still required leaning across the gap, hands on one side, feet on the other, and pushing off into a precarious hand hold. But “trust yourself” did the trick and we all made it safely across.

From there Colin rigged the rappelling system. I say rappel. Really he lowered us into the pool of water beneath. There was little rappeling involved. Somehow even this uncomplicated plan still found me with my bare feet above my head, butt against the wall. Laughing too hard to help myself.

Once we were lowered into the pool, and safely past the floating cactus on the other side, we watched Colin actually rappel, put our boots back on and continued.

Before long we would rappel again. This time the drop was far more dramatic, into a bigger pool. The boys swam the pool with the packs on their back, keeping them amazingly dry while Jenna and I cleared cacti from the exit of the pool.

Just before we exited the canyon I got to rappel one more time, thanks to a particular feature of my anatomy wedging itself so tightly into a hole that everything from my ribcage on down was dangling in mid-air. I wiggled back out and opted to go over the boulder, rather than have a distinctly female reenactment of 127 Hours.

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We polished off the snacks, and made a mad dash for the mouth of the canyon, stunned at our quick pace thus far, and now just going for a quick finish. So many of these adventures fall apart in the last hour.

Ours did not. We were quiet, yes. My trudging was more trudge-like. I’d been wrong about what the clay flat would feel like in the heat of the day. Not an oven. A griddle. Satan’s griddle.

We ran out of water about 1,000 steps from the car. Part of the strategy game that is desert trekking is rationing water, and we were shocked at how well we’d done.

We soaked our top layers in Terlingua Creek (long sleeves are a must in the desert, in one of natures cruelest ironies), and made the final push to the car, where the beer was still cold.

Campsite number two, 1,000 feet higher, 10 degrees cooler.

Campsite number two, 1,000 feet higher, 10 degrees cooler.

That night at our 10-degrees-cooler campsite in the Chisos Basin, we marveled at how well the hike had gone. No injuries. No water shortage. And we all still liked each other.

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Last Call Adventure: Bruja Canyon, Part I

Prologue:

This was the big one.

When Colin first told us about canyoneering Bruja Canyon in a remote corner of Big Bend National Park, I was hooked at “rappel into a pool of freezing water.” I also knew that to make it happen, we would have to find a rare surplus of two extremely scarce resources: time and water. Looking for that magical moment when it had rained in Big Bend, and all four of us were free to skip town would be a challenge.

That magical moment was this weekend, July 5-7, 2013.

And whyever not? The forecast seemed totally amenable to a 10 mile desert trek. (Hike scheduled for Saturday)

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Part I: The journey West

So we loaded up Colin’s car with 4 friends, an ice chest, and every durable synthetic fiber known to man.

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Along the way we carefully rationed our David Sedaris Live CD, and did our best to listen to a Cormac McCarthy audiobook (by doing my best, I mean that I went straight to sleep). At some point everyone indulged in “I-only-eat-this-on-roadtrips” snacks. A sharp contrast to the meals we would be eating for the rest of the trip.

Yes, Lewis is using a sour straw to drink a Cherry Coke. We'd been in the car for many hours.

Yes, Lewis is using a sour straw to drink a Cherry Coke. We’d been in the car for many hours.

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What we ate outside the car.

 Once inside the Park we went through the rigmarole of permitting, paying fees, and not getting to go into Mexico.

We’ll save that for the next adventure, because it does involve 1) ferrying across the river, 2) possibly riding a horse into Boquillas, Mexico, and 3) chatting with U.S. Officials via virtual passport control upon return. All things I’m dying to do.

However, we were informed by the helpful NPS employees that we’d probably be stuck over there if we left after 4 pm. They reassured us, however, that there was no night life we were missing. Something about our sunhats and trekking shoes must have screamed, “I like to party hard.”

Here’s my question…do people really still go party at night in Mexican border towns? That’s terrifying.

This fancy border control station closes at 6pm folks.

This fancy border control station closes at 6pm, folks.

Jenna utilizes to topographical map at the headquarters to make tomorrow's hike look like "no biggie."

Jenna (who conquered Bruja back in March) utilizes to topographical map at the headquarters to make tomorrow’s hike look like no biggie.

So from there all we could do was set up our campsite along Terlingua Creek. We camped under the stars, being slow roasted by the desert floor which radiated heat through our inflatable sleeping pads like some device used by celebrity chefs to make the perfect braised duck.

It was far too warm for sleeping bags, so we slept largely exposed, which is thrilling in it’s own way.

Few things are more majestic than falling asleep under a glittering canopy of shooting stars with Scorpio rising up from the horizon as you drift off to sleep with no one around for miles… except the three other people lying shoulder-to-shoulder with you on a tarp.

Our first campsite, and the tarp we shared.

Our first campsite, and the tarp we shared.

We set our alarms for 4:40 am, only to awaken to a completely dark sky that looked no closer to daylight than when we’d gone to sleep. Big Bend is at the western edge of the timezone. So we slept another hour, until distant coyote howls woke us and the horizon was growing lighter.

Still, this is what “getting ready” looked like:

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Jenna and I added a clever, if not particularly trendy, piece of equipment to our desert gear: gaiters. Mine were “3 season” gaiters. I’m willing to guess that blistering summer is not one of those seasons. But I didn’t care. The desert is thick with pokey flora, and I intended to trudge like a pro. Gaiters on!

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From there we set out and the adventure really began.

Stay tuned for Part II of the story to find out if all four intrepid travelers remain intact as they climb, rappel, scramble, and swim their way out of Bruja Canyon.

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Trying to Write a Wedding Toast, Part III

So…Liz and Jason. As their wedding draws nearer, I know that they are overwhelmed with details. I also know that they are overwhelmed with all the things they love about each other.

Meanwhile, there have been some loose ends in my own thoughts on marriage.  I know that I heard all of this before I got married, but it’s just now starting to make sense. I just remember thinking everyone was killing my love-buzz. And now that I’m not a newlywed…where did all those sages go who had so much good advice? Suddenly insight bills at $125 an hour.

Pop culture to the rescue.

Summary: The no-escape clause

At some point, ironically, the sameness in marriage and the changes in your spouse might make you shake your head and say, “I don’t think I knew what I was getting into.”

GOB

But it doesn’t exempt us from the “til death do us part” part. So we have to figure out how to deal with the fact that forever has a lot more Mondays than we’d calculated, and our spouse seems to have grown an extra arm out of his or her personality.

There are three movies I’ve seen that had some telling insights into this. They are not particularly fabulous movies. At all. I didn’t even really like them, and I don’t think that their overarching themes hold the key to happy marriages. But there were moments in each one that made me say, “THAT’S IT!”

The first is an older rom-com starring Topher Grace (see disclaimer above!) called “In Good Company” (83% on Rotten Tomatoes). I remember exactly one thing about that movie:  this quote, right here. (Carter Duryea is placed by Topher Grace, and Dan Foreman is played by Dennis Quaid.)

Carter Duryea: Dan, you seem to have the perfect marriage. How do you do it?

Dan Foreman: You just pick the right one to be in the foxhole with, and then when you’re outside of the foxhole you keep your dick in your pants.

Carter Duryea: That’s poetic.

in good company

Similarly, another sort of lackluster rom-com was “Friends with Kids” (67% on Rotten Tomatoes) I watched it because I needed a Kristin Wiig fix. Well, she’s in it, but she doesn’t say much, and what she does say is not funny. But Jon Hamm plays her husband, sooo…yes, I kept watching.

In the movie, Jon Hamm’s character Ben says something along the lines of, “You pick the person you want to be with in the bad times.” Probably also good that they share the good times… but that’s the easy part.

I tend to get dramatic about my needs, my feelings, Lewis’s needs, and Lewis’s feelings. But in the end, it all comes down to committing to the partnership like your life depends on it, and then dealing with the flurry of bullets and grenades. And you have to remember that the person in the foxhole with you is the one person who has taken a sacred vow to be ON YOUR TEAM. Taking aim at them is totally counterproductive.

Does that sound like too much negativity? Well, here’s the reason it’s not: you are no longer alone in the foxhole. That fact alone should be the underpinning smiley face on the rest of your days (which are more numerous than if you really were facing sprays of bullets and hand grenades, so, again, hooray!).

Also, it emphasizes the importance of picking well. Pick your spouse well. Because the last thing you want is some screaming Mimi running out into the fray.

But even if you pick the right person, there’s still days where the foxhole gets a little…foxholey.

The next movie that I did not like, but that I did feel had some insight was “Take This Waltz” (77% on Rotten Tomatoes). It’s about an achingly hipster married woman who seems “restless in a kind of permanent way.” Basically, she’s jonesin’ (in a muted, listless sort of way that hipsters express longing) for excitement . And there’s a shiny new boy across the street.

It’s her alcoholic sister-in-law, played very nicely by Sarah Silverman, who falls off the wagon and delivers the moral of the story.

“Life has a gap in it…it just does. You don’t go crazy trying to fill it.”

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I’m keenly aware of the gaps in life, and the perils of my hunt to fill them. If Lewis was everything I wanted him to be every single day, he’d have to be psychotic, because I change my list of demands as often as I change my socks. Often to reflect exactly the opposite of yesterday’s demands.

The hip Christian way to say this is, “you never marry the right person.” The choice of words there is a little too let-me-blow-your-mind-nouveau-Puritan for me.  I propose this revision: “You can’t marry God, so cut your spouse some slack.”

It was actually Ira Glass, host of This American Life, who put this all together the best. He was talking to a man who had decided that marriage should have a contract expiration. That because people change, they shouldn’t have to stay in relationships forever. Honestly, I expected quirky, progressive Ira Glass to agree with him. Instead, he said,

from umamigirl.com

from umamigirl.com

I think it was the “no-escape clause” that gave me a panic attack two weeks before I got married…and has kept me from having one since.

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