Thursday, February 27, 2014

Pajama Party: Of One

The clerk at Barnes & Noble eyed me suspiciously. He followed several yards behind me, peeking around the corner each time I wandered down another aisle. Maybe I was just being paranoid. Maybe it was the oversized tote I carried as a purse, which potentially could be filled with a half-dozen shoplifted books.

Or maybe it was due to the way I was dressed that afternoon: in pajamas and slippers, with a headful of curlers.

As crazy as I felt for venturing out in public this way—as part of The 52/52 Project—it was likely only half as crazy as I looked.

When I originally envisioned this experience, I imagined climbing out of bed that Sunday morning and simply heading out for the day with no preparation. But I often sleep in a pair of drawstring pants and a T-shirt: an outfit that loads of people now try to pass off as daytime public apparel.

So, that morning I perused my PJ drawer until I found a pink set that would be recognized unquestionably as the pajamas they were. I peered in the mirror. Perfect. Except for the minor detail that the sheer fabric clearly showed off my boobage. That particular exhibitionist ship had already sailed, during a nude beach experience I didn’t care to repeat. I strapped on a bra below my PJ top.

Next, I slipped into a pair of fluffy pink slippers. I might look ridiculous, but I would do so while being fashionably color-coordinated.

The coup de grâce was the package of multi-colored foam curlers I’d purchased the day before at Dollar General.

I hadn’t worn curlers since I was a sophomore in high school. I still remembered how uncomfortable foam curlers were to sleep in, yet I failed to recall how difficult they were to put into place. I spent twenty minutes attempting to roll and clasp them shut. They either hung limply by a strand or fell out completely.

Afraid I’d be late for my morning breakfast date, I stopped on the way at a nearby friend’s house. When she didn’t answer my repeated banging at her door, I was left again to my own inadequate beautician devices. While parked in her driveway, I managed to get a dozen curlers entwined in my hair, and then headed off to the restaurant.

I shook my curler-covered head at the irony. I’d taken a hell of a lot of effort with my appearance to look as if I’d made no effort at all.

Breakfast was at a place called Chowders ‘n Moor. A fitting nautical name for a diner feeling like a fish out of water. As I crossed the parking lot, I passed a middle-aged couple leaving the restaurant. The woman glanced at me, then shook her head and muttered, “Okaaay. Looking good, honey.”

I kept walking. I could be wrong, but I doubted it was a compliment.

While I gathered many strange looks at the restaurant, our young server barely blinked an eye, even as a foam curler dropped off my head. Neither did Julie, the friend I was meeting for breakfast. A good sport, she simply laughed and didn’t seem a bit embarrassed to be sitting with me. Ironic once again, since I’d often embarrassed my friends, although unintentionally.

My next stop was grocery shopping at my local Kroger. As I roamed the frozen food section, I noticed that many of the customers were dressed in their best Sunday-Go-to-Meeting clothes. I was not.

At first, I tried to avoid the stares. Then, I forced myself beyond my discomfort by looking people in the eye and smiling. Interestingly, those who were thirtyish or younger proved more likely to smile back. Those middle-aged or older either averted my glance or offered me a disapproving look.  And then, they often peeked into my cart to see what I was buying.

I don’t know what they expected a presumably unstable person’s cart might contain, but I hoped a head of lettuce and package of chicken breasts might offset a twelve-pack of beer.

My final public appearance was at a Barnes & Noble store in an upscale suburban shopping center. The same pattern followed. Younger customers barely glanced at me, and the older crowd watched me reproachfully, especially as I sat awkwardly in the café for a half-hour, attempting to read a newly purchased book and drinking a venti mocha. While this was a new experience for me, I guessed it was a new one for most of these seasoned bookstore shoppers, too.

The amateur psychologist in me tried to analyze this discrepancy in people’s attitudes. Was it due to the fact that younger folks were more open-minded and had not yet grown as judgmental? Or did the younger generation simply have more lax standards of what was acceptable to wear in public?

I’ll probably never know, unless I continue to research this through repeated excursions of shopping and dining in my night-time best. Yet I’m not so sure I can handle more of that kind of embarrassment. And lord knows I can’t safely secure another foam curler in my hair.

Still, I figure there’s always Walmart.

I’m guessing I might find a kindred spirit or two there.

How informal do you get in public? Would you blink an eye? Anyone looking to buy a package of barely used foam curlers?

Friday, February 21, 2014

We All Float Down Here

With nine months of The 52/52 Project under my belt, I’d grown brazen. On a bravery scale of 1-10, I was feeling about an 8.5. And that sort of cockiness, as anyone knows, is precisely when the Gods of Fear and Humility show up to knock you on your ass.

As I faced New Experience #39, I was only a tad uneasy about testing the waters, even though that water would be pooled below me: in a fully dark and soundproof tank.

I was uncertain how I’d react to an hour in a flotation tank—also known as an isolation tank or a sensory deprivation tank. Because I’d been under more stress than usual, I remained hopeful the session would live up to its mission of inducing relaxation, meditation, and even increased creativity.

On the other hand, floating in a closed box of water while virtually blind and deaf might seem frighteningly akin to being buried alive. At the bottom of the ocean.

I figured this experience would either relax me into a nearly comatose state or it would put me over the edge entirely. I was betting on the optimistic slant, partly because I’d never been claustrophobic and also because—let’s be honest—I’m not always very bright.

The nearest flotation tank was located at a progressive health center just a short drive over the Michigan line. When making my appointment, I was told little preparation was necessary. The receptionist asked me to bring soap and shampoo, since I’d be required to shower both before and after my session. In addition, she said the eight hundred pounds of salt in the water, which provided the buoyancy for an individual to float, also could irritate the skin. Therefore, she advised me not to shave my legs.

I snorted. Shaved legs? Apparently, she’d forgotten it was February.

The isolation tank was situated, fittingly, in a room in a remote area in the back of the building. I was instructed to start a timer before I entered the tank. The receptionist assured me that even while inside a soundproof tank and wearing wax earplugs to keep out the salt water, I’d be able to hear the timer to know when my time was up.

If I wanted to stop sooner, for any reason, she said I could just open the door at any time and call it a day. This was reassuring. However, I’m a gamer, and I told myself I’d give it the whole hour in order to get the full experience.

After showering, I set the timer, climbed in, and shut the door.

Floating in the silent darkness, I tried to close out the world—while opening my mind. I discovered a lot, very quickly.

Lesson #1: Time passes very slowly when you’re lying in a sightless and soundless tank of water.

Lesson #2: If you are already experiencing sinus issues, the humidity inside a small, closed tank of nearly 99-degree water will rise enough to induce an asthma attack.

Lesson #3: Time seems to stand still entirely when you can’t breathe.

At a rough estimate, I’m guessing only five minutes passed before I realized I was facing asphyxiation. Regardless, I knew I couldn’t last one minute more.

I splashed and crawled my way toward the lid, which was situated at the opposite end of the tank. I felt around for the door and began pushing.

The lid didn’t open. It didn’t even budge.

And then, I allowed myself to panic.

I thrashed around the tank. I contemplated screaming, but I knew no one out front would hear me from inside a soundproof box in a locked, remote room out back. I had the last appointment in the tank that day. How much time would pass before someone might ponder, “Hey, whatever happened to that weird lady in the flotation tank? Did you see her leave?”

Worse yet, I suddenly envisioned Pennywise the clown, in Stephen King’s It, grinning at me with a mouthful of razor-sharp teeth, and growling, “We all float down here.”

I was pretty certain no one would find my mangled, salt-encrusted body until the next morning.

Even within the small space, I grew increasingly disoriented in the darkness. And then, as my hands continued to press relentlessly upon the walls, I finally found the lid—the actual lid—and pushed it open.

Bright light and a rush of fresh air greeted me.

Able to breathe once again, I calmed myself. Then, I questioned my next move. I figured I still had at least another forty-five minutes to go in my session. I couldn’t quit now. I sucked in a few more breaths and then sucked up my courage. I closed the door again, this time trying to commit its location to memory.

Five minutes later, I found myself scrambling once again for the lid.

I lay inside the open tank for several minutes more. With earplugs and closed eyes, it remained dark and quiet. Surely, now that I could breathe, this purportedly tranquil experience might still squelch any anxiety and take me to that longed-for meditative state.

I tried to leave my mind blank. I tried to sing soothing songs. I tried to find my “happy place.” But soon, I found myself pondering everything on my extensive to-do list. For ten minutes, while I tried to relax, I contemplated all the work, writing, and personal tasks which had plagued me into a state of stress for the past couple of weeks.

What the hell was I doing, wasting my afternoon lying inside a vat of water? And, wasn’t the opened door just slightly defeating the purpose, or at the very least, cheating?
Whether I was too tightly wound that day or whether an asthma attack thwarted my experience, I allowed myself to finally climb out, after about 25 minutes. I was forced to admit that floating in a tank simply didn’t float my boat.

Like many of my 52/52 experiences though, I figured I’d given it a decent shot. I’d gone outside my comfort zone and tested the waters for something new. And I realized, as open-minded as I’d grown, that maybe closed-spaces—especially in high humidity—just weren’t my thing.

As I left the Center, I saw a sign posted: “Flotation Tank for Sale: $8,000. Comes with all equipment and 100 pounds of salt.”

Ahh, relaxing in a pool of warm water. Yeah, that could be nice.

I’m saving my money for a Jacuzzi. 

Claustrophic or not? Where do you float? How do you find your Happy Place?

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Please Allow Me to Introduce Myself

We met as eight strangers, brought together for a single evening as part of one woman’s odd, personal challenge. We left each other as old friends.

Funny, how life—when you choose to put yourself out there—is full of the warmest of surprises.

Once upon a time, I was a skilled party host. In fact, much to my mother’s bewilderment, my high school senior class voted me Best Party Giver. Upon reading this news in the school paper, she asked, “When did you have parties?” “Well,” I answered with a shrug, “every time you were gone.”

Still, my party skills nose-dived through the years. Most of the parties I hosted after my 20s included juice boxes, pin the tail on the donkey, and little boys peeing their pants while waiting in line for the piñata.

I assumed hosting a “party of strangers,” a new experience on the list for my 52/52 Project, would prove to be a somewhat awkward venture, at the very best punctuated by a few moments of levity and laughter. I was fairly nervous about entertaining a group of adults I’d never met.

To form my guest list, I asked several friends and co-workers to invite someone they thought could be convinced to attend. The rules were: We couldn’t have ever met (not even online); the guests couldn’t know each other (although two inadvertently did); and they had to attend alone (oh, these were brave souls, indeed).

The next challenge was, how does one plan a party, knowing virtually nothing about the guests? I figured, unlike high school, a couple bottles of MD 20/20 and a bag of Doritos wouldn’t suffice. I bought an assortment of beverages and tried to prepare a feast of hors d'oeuvres that would offer something for everyone, whether their diet was vegan, gluten-free, low-carb, or Kosher.

My mother forgave my high school misdeeds and helped me clean my condo more thoroughly than I’d done in the seven months since I’d moved in, and I planned a few games to break the ice.

As prepared as possible, I awaited my guests. And then the Hellacious Winter That Would Never End threw more snow showers our way. And soon after, the phone calls began, from lost guests trying to meander their way into the boonies of Waterville, Ohio. Two of the guests got lost, one for over an hour.

Still, all seven persevered and eventually arrived. That alone proved this would be a remarkable group of women.

Yes, we were all women. Although I had suggested to my friends that they invite guests of either gender, any age, and all backgrounds, all the takers ended up being female. Yet other than our gender, we shared few other similarities.

We ranged in age from 23 to 73. We included an eclectic assortment of careers. We were divorced, married, and single. Some had young children, some had grandchildren, and one was young enough to still live at home with her parents.

These were the kind of details that came out early in the evening, during small talk. But the small talk segued quickly—amazingly fast—into much more.

Perhaps the pool of guests was already narrowed to our advantage. After all, who else but a fairly fun, outgoing, and courageous individual attends a party with total strangers, alone? And, maybe, we felt we had nothing to lose by sharing so much of ourselves with a small group of people we figured we’d never see again.

Within an hour, we segued into deeper, more philosophical topics. Moral, religious, political: We shared all our thoughts, with few serious quarrels. And then, our most personally embarrassing and hilarious stories: like one woman’s anecdote about a horrific “burning crotch” and another’s tale about the huge “spit bubble” she produced while talking to a prospective date.

We laughed and nodded in empathy. We conversed like we’d known each other forever.

I’d never been at a party quite like it, never met people quite like these.

No one held back much. And no one seemed embarrassed by much. Well, no one except the hostess, who was suddenly blindsided when she hit a brick wall of inebriation.

The short remainder of the evening—somewhere between my guests taking the challenge of dining in the dark, eating worms and crickets, and then the plan of belly dancing—was a bit blurry. Let's just say I wouldn't be drinking wine again until my trip to Italy in the spring.

I sent off an email to all of them, thanking them, apologizing for being "over-served," and hoping we still shared the love.

The heart-warming thread of emails flew for two days.

“I had more fun with you ‘strange’ ladies than I have had at any other party I have attended.”

“I can honestly say I’ve not enjoyed myself like that in quite some time.”

“We did agree that ‘What happens at the Stranger Party, stays at the Stranger Party, right?” (I breathed a sigh of relief and agreed.)

And this one: “Each one of you is so unique and has so much to contribute to this group, which I suggest we call ‘The 52 Club,’” she wrote. She suggested this single experience should become a book in itself for me to write: “Our story of eight ladies of diverse backgrounds and ages, and the developing friendships that ensued.”

Because she was right: We are already planning our next get-together, maybe yet this month. We have the feeling it will be the second of many. I’m pretty certain The 52 Club will have much to discuss when we see each other again.

Strange how the most random experiences of our lives sometimes end up among the most significant.

And sometimes strangers aren’t nearly so strange after all.

Extrovert or introvert?  Tell us about the best party you ever attended. Any embarrassing stories you care to share?

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Tiptoe through the Tulips with Meeee

As a child of the 60s and 70s, I was weaned on scary movies. Just like our parents allowed us to run—shrieking and giggling—through the poisonous fog spewing from mosquito-control trucks, they didn’t monitor our movie or television-watching either. We were free, at a young age, to poison our brains. Maybe it was due to our parents’ simple innocence or ignorance. Or maybe they were just too busy bowling and playing Bunco.

I saw all the classics, including “The Omen,” “The Exorcist,” and “The Other.” What still haunt me most, however, were any films featuring an aged and categorically creepy Bette Davis.  I can’t listen to the song “Bette Davis Eyes” without seeing Bette turn to a lunch-eating Joan Crawford and saying oh-so-nonchalantly, “Oh, Blanche? You know we’ve got rats in the cellar?”

Sometime around my twenties, I grew weary of shielding my eyes from freaky images and trying to erase disturbing dialogue from my mind as I lay awake in bed. It wasn’t blood and gore that troubled me; it was pure psychological terror. The last horror movie I watched was the 1990 TV mini-series of Stephen King’s “It.” Thanks to Pennywise, I never watched another scary film. And clowns haven’t been able to find work for nearly 25 years.

So, at the age of 52, I decided to test my wimpiness by adding a night of watching horror flicks to The 52/52 Project.

The added challenges were that I had to stay up the entire night—until dawn—watching these. And, I had to do so while totally alone in the house. My mother suggested I should up the ante by keeping all my blinds open and doors unlocked. Thanks for that, oh sweet, nurturing mother of mine.

I armed myself with a 12-pack of fully caffeinated Diet Coke to keep me awake and every form of junk food known to slowly kill a human. If I was going to die of fright, I’d do it while binging on Oreos and chips and dip.

I also advised Ringo, my golden-retriever mix, that he was on door-watch duty.

With suggestions by Son #1 and several readers, my Horror Fest line-up included “The Ring,” “The Blair Witch Project,” “Paranormal Activity,” and “Insidious.” WARNING: The rest of this story contains spoilers. If you haven’t already seen these movies, I apologize. If you have seen them and are a horror film aficionado, you clearly have other issues.

Shortly into “The Ring,” just as the main character answered her ringing phone (WHY? WHY did you watch that friggin’ tape, and WHY are you answering the damn phone?), my own phone rang.

I stared, wide-eyed, at my ringing phone. It was after 11 p.m. No one ever called me this late. Was it possible that just viewing that deadly tape WITHIN THE MOVIE was enough to curse me? Would I die in seven days, too? No, it was just my mother, wondering how my movie-watching was going. Of course. And, also, thank GOD.

A few minutes later, Ringo began pacing the house, frantically barking. I bit my bottom lip, paused the movie, and let him outside. I peered out the sliding glass door as the dog patrolled the yard and peed. Once it appeared no straggly-haired demon was lurking around the corner, I quickly let Ringo back in. Then, I locked the door. Screw my mother’s added caveat to the night.

“The Ring” indeed proved to be a bit freaky, but still, not as bad as I envisioned. SPOILER: The evil, immortal little girl had me hugging myself a couple times. However, if the main characters endure a series of awful events, yet don’t die a horrible death, it’s practically a Hallmark movie.

Next up was “The Blair Witch Project.” Except for the cellar scene in the final two seconds, which was clever and beyond disturbing, I found nothing else frightening about this film. In fact, only 20 minutes into it I was so annoyed by the three main characters’ constant whining and bickering, I PRAYED someone would kill them.

”Paranormal Activity” was another pseudo-documentary movie. I didn’t totally hate the characters, but I couldn’t conjure up any love for them either. Especially the husband, who lost me at his first moment of stupid. SPOILER: They both die. And I didn’t care.

By the time I got to “Insidious,” at nearly 4:30 in the morning, I’d learned a bit about what really frightens me in movies. Perhaps it’s the writer in me, but I knew I needed likeable characters who eventually get horribly screwed over, a good tight plot without pointless and irritating dialogue, and lots of shocking “OH SHIT” moments. “Insidious” had this all, as well as a childlike demon dancing to “Tiptoe through the Tulips.” SPOILER: Just when you think it’s a happy ending, it’s so not.

I panic-popped a lot of Ballreich chips with French onion dip during this flick.

I finished up my night of terror around 6:30 a.m. Remaining awake until dawn wasn’t much of an issue; even in my middle-age, I proved to still be a night owl. Who says all-night college parties don’t help prepare you for real life?

And as far as my long-time fear of scary movies? I discovered I’m mostly over it. Perhaps horror films weren’t as terrifying as I remembered. Or, maybe, The 52/52 Project had just helped me grow a set of big ones.  I never once hid under a blanket or toyed with the idea of turning off the TV. Ringo, on the other hand, eyed me nervously every time a scream emitted from the TV.

While I proudly survived my Horror Fest with only a handful of heart palpitations, I can’t say I truly enjoyed any of the movies. Give me a good drama or rom-com anytime. Before I headed off to bed, just around sunrise, I watched two episodes of “Parks and Recreation.” I might have felt braver than eight hours earlier, but I wasn’t totally stupid. I figured a good laugh would soothe me to sleep better than any lingering scream.

I tossed and turned for hours. I’d like to blame it on the onion dip. But truth be told, it was the refrain from “Tiptoe through the Tulips.” Three days later, I still couldn’t get that creepy song out of my head.

Somewhere, in an alternate horror universe, Tiny Tim, Pennywise, and Bette Davis are dancing and cackling together at my expense.

Evil bastards.

Horror fan or not? What’s your favorite scary film, and what one haunts you still? Will you ever tiptoe through the tulips again?