A Different Kind of Birthday

Things were not going according to plan.

Three of our party of six were down for the count. The three happened to be the male members of the group. They were suffering from a food-borne illness easily traceable to fish tacos the night before. The women in the party (where did that term “fairer sex” come from?) were hale and hearty as always.

The plan — months in the making and now clearly unfeasible — was a big birthday bash for the lovely young woman pictured here. The “big” in the birthday bash was in honor of a milestone birthday. We won’t say which one, since a lady never reveals her age.

The bash would have involved a dinner at her favorite restaurant in Maui. There would have been copious amounts of wine involved. The day would have ended with a sunset and maybe even a little live music.

None of that was happening now.

Now, some people on their birthday faced with similar circumstances might lament with a cry of “why me?” But not this birthday girl. Since I know her pretty well, I can probably surmise as to why.

The first time I met this individual was on, coincidentally, her birthday. Well, it might have been a day or two after, I’m not really sure, since it was a long time ago and at that point in my life I was not conversant in days of the weeks, numbers, and, to be honest, I had no concept of life.


I do remember — at the age of three — the drive in our brown Rambler station wagon. We chugged up the hill to the hospital, Dad at the wheel. We swerved into the pickup area and a nurse was there with Mom in a wheelchair. Mom got into the car with a bundle in her arms.

I stood up and peaked over the seat to see what all the commotion was about. Mom pulled the blanket back to reveal the biggest mop of the curliest raven-black hair imaginable. It was clear my little sister planned to make a fashion statement to the world. Time would prove she intended to make more of a statement than that.

We come from a big family of nine kids. In order of appearance they are two girls, then four — count ’em — four boys all in a row. Then came this little curly haired girl before another girl and boy completed the ensemble. Mom thought this particular one was a delicate little thing and named her Francine Mary. We called her Frou Frou.

Frilly she was not. Sensitive, artistic, yes. But coming on the tail end of four boys was not easy. Teasing, shall we say, was commonplace. Frou learned to take it and dish it back. She learned to roll with the punches.

Fast forward an unspecified number of decades to this special day where she awoke at sunrise to be greeted by 1. A double rainbow in full, glorious technicolor and 2. The news that husband Mike (the guy who still looks a little pale in this photo) had had a very, very rough night.

So, without even a moment’s hesitation, she pronounced a Plan B. She soaked in the view for another moment and dashed off to the local store to pick up medical supplies for the wounded. After administering proper dosages to those in the makeshift hospital, she gathered up the girls and pronounced: “Let’s go snorkeling!”

The ladies did not think twice. They had been on a quest all week to witness some sea turtles in action. This seemed like as good a time as any.

(It should be noted, for the record, that the other female protagonists of this story also tended to their incapacitated spouses: Lecia, whose husband, Gene, you may remember from the previous episode, and Sherry, whose husband may or may not be the author of this story).

And so, off went the all-female army, in search of a decent snorkeling locale and, hopefully, to see a few of the leathery-bound reptiles. It was not easy finding a spot. Trails along precipitous cliffs and rocky shores led to nowhere. Private resorts posted large “Residents Only” signs at every other possible point of entry.

But Francine led the group, and kept their spirits high. It was a glorious day, after all. And a call from big brother Tom didn’t hurt. He informed Francine that he and his meditation group would be focusing their mental energies in her honor at 1 p.m.

Soon thereafter, the expedition found a promising beach, and it was open to the public. Braving the somewhat chilly waters, they began to swim out. Sure enough, soon thereafter, Francine found a large tortoise friend. Or perhaps it is more accurate to say that he or she found her. Not only did he/she find her, he/she appeared to be swimming in tandem with her.

The ladies returned home and Sherry whipped up a batch of Congee for the still somewhat feeble male members of the party. If you are not familiar with this Asian dish, it is a type of rice porridge that can be a palliative for those suffering from stomach illnesses (usually due to an overindulgence of alcoholic beverages, but just what the doctor ordered in this case).

By day’s end, the boys seemed to be on the mend and the sun set on cue for the birthday girl.

That was simply a bonus to a day with double rainbows, good vibrations from the meditation crowd, and a dance with sea turtles.

She didn’t say it aloud, but I’m pretty sure Francine was thinking: Life doesn’t get any better than this.

Happy Birthday, Frou.

Brotherly love

I had to make a decision involving one of the most basic of human needs: use the bathroom now or chance a long ride?

We — my siblings and our respective spouses — were on the upper northwest side of the island of Oahu, about to make our return to our vacation rental, a fair trek south in the direction of Honolulu. The public park, where we had just finished picnicking, offered an unequivocally beautiful view of the sand and surf. It also offered what you would expect for a public restroom in a beach town.

So the dilemma before me: Do I brave the germ-infested latrine or gamble on making it back home? I erred on the side of caution. Besides, brother Gene, who had just returned from said facilities, was still alive.

When you gotta go, you gotta go. So I notified the other members of our party of six that I was on my way.

“Hey,” said Gene. “Ask that guy over there what year his Chevy Blazer is.” I looked out to see a white vehicle parked right in front of the restroom. I never knew Gene to be an auto enthusiast. His first car was a Rambler station wagon. From then on, it’s pretty much been pickup trucks. But, no problem. I could do my younger sibling a favor. I assumed he had just had a conversation with the owner, and forgot to secure this one key data point.

As I approached the vehicle, the Blazer’s owner was standing on the running board and assiduously wiping down the top with a cloth. I bade him “hello” and asked the relevant question.

He jumped down immediately to greet me.

“It’s a ’96, he said. This thing is old.”

I looked directly at him now and realized he was about my age. He sported a wispy, gray beard and shaggy mane of hair.

“Well, looks like it’s in good shape,” I said. He smiled, revealing a few missing teeth and many others held together with gold crowns. His face was creased and tanned by the elements.

I said goodbye with a wave and went to the restroom. But as I returned, I had to walk by him again. He was back in his position on the running board and I figured there was no need to continue our conversation. But he spotted me and jumped down.

“Hey, what’s your workout regimen?” he inquired.

The question took me by surprise and it took me a moment to process. Sensing my confusion, he posed with his arms flexed.

“You know, like, what do you do, weights? You look pretty fit, man.”

“Oh, yeah. I do some weights,” I said, a little embarrassed that anyone would notice but admittedly a little “pumped up,” too.

Before I knew it, we were in a conversation that transitioned to a number of other topics, including getting old, retirement, his disdain for those who did not respect the beauty of the island, the best Chinese restaurant in town, among others subjects.

I glanced at my party at the picnic table in the distance. They were intensely observing the entire interaction.

I saluted him with one final adieu and returned once again to my group.

“So did you ask him about the Blazer?” Gene inquired.

I nodded affirmatively.

“A ’96 right?” he said, with a smile. And then the rest of the group erupted into laughter.

Gene then confessed he had no interest in the car. He explained that he had overheard our new friend discussing the Blazer and his request of me was just a joke. Gene had set me up. My own brother had pranked me.


At this juncture in this tale it needs to be noted that brother Gene is a gentle soul, and has possessed this character as long as I have known him.

“I didn’t expect you to actually listen to me,” Gene said, laughing. He underscored this claim by averring that his older brother had never heeded his requests before. And then, he asked, “So, are you going to get me back?”

The words on the tip of my tongue were, “You just wait!” But I refrained from resorting to such a childish response. I took the high road.

“Let me just say that vengeance is sweet,” I said. So much more mature.

We made the drive back to our house. And after dinner, we discussed the day’s events and this episode in particular. We laughed again. But as I thought about my new Chevy Blazer BFF, it dawned on me: I had unwittingly made the guy’s day. I was the second person that afternoon who had asked him about his vehicle. It made him feel proud that anyone would notice, let alone two people in one day.

In his groundbreaking work, “A Theory of Human Motivation,” Abraham Maslow said that we all need food, water, shelter, warmth, as our most basic needs. But above that, he posited, we crave a sense of belonging, of being respected by others.

We are all, after all, part of the same fraternal, sisterly, familial, order. We all desire the same things.

Mr. Chevy Blazer’s spirits were unexpectedly lifted on that day. And that’s not a bad thing. And, with his spirits lifted, he sought to repay the gift by complimenting me. And it worked, quite frankly.

Imagine if seven billion people on this planet did this maybe once a day with a perfect stranger. Could it hurt?

It was then that I realized my younger brother was off the hook. You don’t get any sweeter vengeance than this.

99 Miles From L.A.

If this title does not evoke a melody in your head, well, then thank your lucky stars you missed the schmaltzy tunes of the ’70s. The only thing worse than Art Garfunkel chirping away at this song is having it on auto-replay in your brain as you are crawling through the megalopolis of greater Los Angeles.

We thought — foolishly — that Saturday would afford us the luxury of a late start on our journey south from La La Land. No commute traffic. Just casual weekend drivers. How wrong we were.

Work commuters are replaced by beach goers of every type: surfers, tanners, swimmers, picnickers. And they are hauling trailers and boats and campers and every type of motorized and unmotorized accessory, piled up high, protruding from windows, strapped haplessly on roofs, or hitched to their tailgates. More than that, they are deadly serious about getting to their favorite spot in the sand to have some fun.

As far as we know, no one succeeded in making that pun a reality and actually killing themselves on this particular day, but it was not for lack of trying.

When you see an SUV hung vertically on the concrete barrier, with another vehicle underneath the SUV’s wheels, you can appreciate how crazy things get here.

As a result of the overzealous weekend goers, The 405, The 5, The 110 (all freeways here start with the definitive article for some reason) were either orange or red on the GPS for our entire trip.

You know you are in L.A. when your Google Map’s ETA goes up the farther you drive.

So I had to get that cheesy song out of my head, which was already buzzing with sinus congestion from all the pollen in the air. Unfortunately, the only replacement was just as much an ear worm, with lyrics coincidentally coined by the very same Hal David and made famous by the inimitable Dionne Warwick.

L.A.’s a great big freeway

Put a hundred down and buy a car

In a week or two they’ll make you a star

Weeks turn into days, how quick they pass

And all the stars that never were

Are parking cars and pumping gas

Much catchier tune and so apropos for the superficialities that pervade the area’s vibe.

But, after crawling another few miles and engaging in the occasional rubbernecking to dispel the boredom, I needed to advance the playlist. James Taylor came to the rescue:

Damn, this traffic jam

How I hate to be late

Hurts my motor to go so slow

Time I get home my supper be cold

Damn, this traffic jam.

And so our leisurely weekend drive, which Google promised would get us to our desired destination in 90 minutes, clocked in at over three hours. 99 miles from L.A., indeed. 99 miles isn’t far enough.


Water Sports


Every morning and even some evenings, unsuspecting travelers are involved in an activity of high risk. It is a game that has reached epidemic proportions. It must be stopped.

It is a game I call: “Shower Roulette.”

Perhaps even you, dear reader, have unwittingly participated in this endeavor.

You step into a shower at a hotel or AirBnB. If it is a combination tub and shower, there will be the bath faucet and then, of course, some kind of shower head. There will be a lever somewhere that diverts the water to one or the other. How that lever works is never clear. Perhaps it twists clockwise to channel the stream to the shower, or perhaps it twists counterclockwise.

In the good old days, there would be two other handles, one on the left for hot water and one on the right for cold. The degree to which you opened the valves also controlled the volume, or water pressure. With these handles you could dip your toe in the water, so to speak. When it reached a temperature and a pressure you found satisfactory, well then let it rip out of the shower head.

But just to make things interesting, the water fixture designers (and who are they, anyway?) decided that we might just as well combine the hot and cold water valves with the lever diverting water up or down. Again, no clear convention on which direction to turn these things. And how is the pressure of the liquid controlled? Anybody’s guess, because none of this is standardized among the manufacturers of these contraptions.

(We have a Geneva Convention so that the world can agree on war crimes. But the shower roulette atrocity? No one seems to care.)

But wait, this apparently wasn’t enough of a challenge for the designer gods. They decided that what would be really cool is to go over the top — literally — and add another dimension for water flow to be dumped right on the top of your head.

So now we have three potential ways to spray the water, which undoubtedly will come with the force of a fire hose and at a temperature reminiscent of a melting glacier. Will the icy water attack your toes? Will it spray directly into your face? Or will it just act as a proxy for the “bucket challenge” that was so fashionable a few years ago, and dump directly on your noggin.

Good luck figuring it out.


This is Africa!

Two women compare notes on how business is going in Camps Bay, South Africa

After a week’s worth of competition with other tourists to capture the ideal photo of all the scenic sites in and around Cape Town, we decide we need a vacation from our vacation and take a day off to go to the beach.

In Cape Town, you have the unusual choice of three oceans: Atlantic, Indian and Southern, aka the Antarctic. (I could be wrong, but I believe there is only one other place in the world where three major bodies of water converge and that is Cape Horn in South America.)

We throw the proverbial dart at the map and it lands on Camps Bay on the Atlantic side. After a scenic drive on the wrong side of the road (yes, South Africans drive on the left), winding through jutted mountains that appear as though they have been carved with a giant chisel, we descend into a quaint little seaside town.

It’s amazing how much coastal villages look the same throughout the world. Maybe it’s in the (salt) air. There’s always an element of kitsch, with cute little stores and shops, usually with names that are puns for something related to waves, sand, nautical terms and other maritime jargon. The “Surf’s Up” or the “Salty Dog,” for instance.

We hit a bit of the morning commute traffic but eventually see the beach stretched out parallel to the main road in town. All we need to do is navigate to find a spot to park. As we slow to survey any openings, we are greeted by a man adorned in a fluorescent, lime-green nylon vest, the kind crossing guards might wear. He is directing us to a better spot just a few car lengths ahead.

We are not sure if he is a city employee or just some Good Samaritan. But we follow his advice and take the slot. There are no meters and there are no signs for how long we can stay here.

“I think parking is free and we probably just give him a tip to watch our car,” says Sherry, ever the astute Third World Citizen.

We decide on 50 Rand, about $3.70 U.S. I hand him the bill and he is pleasantly surprised.

“Thank you, boss,” he says. He assures us he will take good care of the vehicle in our absence.

It is only a few steps to the beach, but before we set foot on the wide, white swath of sand, we are approached by a vendor renting umbrellas and chairs. We negotiate a price and he leads us to a spot with parasol in hand. He whistles to a colleague and signals to him to bring the chairs.

In a few moments we are set up, and just in time. It is only 9:30 a.m., and even though the weather is mild and a refreshing breeze is blowing, the sun is demonstrating its UV prowess and promising more of the same as the day progresses.

Going in for the close

No sooner are we seated, when we are approached by yet another vendor. Before we can even say “No, not today,” he has laid out some art work and he is explaining the situation in each painting.

He has a broad smile and a mop of dreadlocks perched on his head. He appears to be influenced by Bob Marley and within a few moments he coincidentally confirms his admiration for the late Jamaican singer-songwriter sensation.

One thing we don’t need right now is a painting. We are vagabonds, traveling the world. But the guy is making jokes and is clearly having a good time just trying to sell us something. His painting technique is not all that unusual or unique, and for all we know they aren’t even his original works. But man, the guy is a good salesman.

He has about 20 or 30 pieces on canvas. He rolls them out and starts describing the back story to each one. He is attentively watching our every reaction, our facial expressions, our interaction with one another.

He begins to build a pile of those we have outright rejected and another pile for those we have not yet summarily dismissed. He is clearly working to close a deal and he knows the algorithm for how to get there.

He shows us one of a man with two women.

“He has two wives. Two wives: twice as much trouble,” he says.

The lines are no doubt rehearsed but, hey, so are any stand-up comic’s. And he’s got the delivery and the timing down.

On several of the paintings he has inscribed the initials “TIA.”

“Do you know about TIA?” he inquires. We do not.

“TIA is ‘This is Africa.’ We give him a quizzical glance.

“If I am going to a party and I say I will be there at 8 but I don’t show up until 9, the guy will say, ‘Hey, you said 8.’ And I will say, ‘Hey, man, This is Africa!’ We don’t have hours!” His laugh is contagious.

The pile of paintings is eventually narrowed down to three. There is one we both agree on, and then there is one Sherry favors and one that I kind of, sort of don’t mind. We are clearly the perfect mark.

He gives us a price for the one we agree on.

“Now we bargain,” he says, “like at the bazaar.” He begins to explain how bargaining works, but we make it clear we weren’t born yesterday, just maybe two days prior.

So he gives us a price we cannot refuse for the three works of art, and it is then we realize we do not have enough South African Rand.

He inquires whether we have any other currency. He’ll take Euros, U.S. dollars, Japanese Yen. “But not Zimbabwe dollars!” He again laughs. “Not even a million Zimbabwe dollars!” Hyperinflation in that country has rendered their currency worthless.

I reveal, much to Sherry’s ever-vigilant Third-World wariness, that I do have some U.S. currency. The problem is that the smallest bill I have is a $100 denomination.

“No problem,” he says. “I will take it and get change from my brother.” He points to the other side of the beach.

Sherry’s look is enough for him to realize exactly how preposterous this proposal is. He offers to leave all his paintings and the 100 Rand bill he has to get the change. Sherry is still having none of it.

No problem, he says; he’ll just get enough Rand from his brother and be right back. He even leaves his paintings with us in good faith.

He is off in a flash and quickly returns with the change. We make the exchange.

“Man, 100 dollars,” he says. “I would sell my entire country for 100 dollars.” He is laughing. “But not my mother! No, not my mother. You can have my brother, though, just not my mother.”

We bid adieu to our new friend. We are still smiling. But Sherry shakes her head in disbelief that we just bought the paintings and she is now worried that the other vendors on the beach will see us as easy prey.

Sure enough, other vendors approach us. But they are pleasant and polite.

As the beach population grows, so too do the vendors. And as the temperature rises, there are hawkers selling Coke, ice cream and cold water. Each has a distinctive sing-song advertisement for his refreshments.

“Ice, ice, ice cream, cold water Coke,” sings one.

“Brrr, brrr, water, coke,” says another.

We make it through the rest of the day without unwittingly contributing any more Rand to the local economy. We return to the car, where our parking attendant shows us that everything is still in tact. No broken windows or scratches, he says.

As we drive away, Sherry is still in disbelief that we fell for the sale pitch, but also admits that the guy was good, a far better salesman than painter, in fact.

Me, I’m a bit more philosophical about the whole transaction.

It’s like going to Las Vegas to gamble. If you go and know you’re going to lose but you do it just for the entertainment, then you got your money’s worth.

We got our money’s worth.