Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Albuquerque, NM

Like most of our out-of-state travel, last week’s trip to New Mexico was work-related. I was asked to attend a library e-learning (i.e., online teaching) conference in Albuquerque. Tim decided to go, too, since he’d never been to New Mexico. We arrived on Wednesday afternoon and returned home on Sunday.

The conference was held at the Hyatt Regency in downtown Albuquerque, so that’s where we stayed. Based on our experience in other cities—like Portland, Chicago, NYC, San Francisco, and even Sacramento—we opted not to rent a car, thinking there would be plenty for Tim to do within walking distance of the hotel. Boy, were we wrong! Not only was there nothing to do, but the only other people out on the street were conference-goers (librarians usually walking in pairs) and the homeless. Poor Tim was, therefore, pretty much stuck in the room while I was downstairs learning about electronic teaching. I did manage to break away for lunch on Friday and join him at Drew’s Dang Good Dogs, a new hot dog stand that was having its grand opening that very day. Apparently I was the only person in Albuquerque who doesn’t eat hot dogs because Tim waited an hour before placing his order. Was it worth the wait? I think the picture says it all!

On the way back to the hotel, we noticed that the Kimo Theater was open. Recently renovated, the Kimo is a 1927 movie house and old vaudeville stage built in a fabulous “pueblo deco” architectural style. Happily, the public can visit for free on days when there are no rehearsals in progress, so we decided to take advantage even if it meant getting back to the conference a little late. The lobby was amazing—walls and stairways festooned in southwest murals and Native American artifacts. Every detail was just perfect. I could easily imagine how wonderful it must have been watching a movie or live stage show at the Kimo after driving for miles on old Route 66. This was truly the highlight of our trip.

The first thing we did when we arrived in town was walk over to the main library to check our email. Although free at most libraries we’ve visited, Albuquerque charges three dollars for a “smartcard,” which enables the user to log onto the Internet and other online software in perpetuity—or at least until the technology changes! Like all the other displaced people in town, we spent a lot of time in the library checking email and various favorite websites. So it was no surprise that we found ourselves outside the library, Saturday morning, waiting to get in and use the computers. There I talked to a nice homeless man, who told us how to get to Old Town by bus and which bathrooms to use when we got there (!) He also advised us to get transfer tickets when we first boarded the bus because they allow riders to travel anywhere for free for up to two hours. (We did and he was right!) I also met a friendly woman who claimed to have a lawsuit pending in Los Angeles, where her husband fell down some stairs in front of McCormick & Schmick’s. I wished her luck as I slipped into the library.

After checking email one last time, we hopped the #66 bus to Old Town, the area’s earliest known Hispanic settlement (ca. 1700s). Today, of course, it is a huge tourist destination, where one can buy everything from mass-market sand sculptures to finely crafted jewelry and artwork. I had read about a fresh bakery that sounded particularly intriguing, and so spent an hour-and-a-half following my nose until we finally found the place. By then, most of the pastries were gone, but I did buy some homemade Mexican wedding cakes, which we are still savoring.

At Old Town, we hopped on the bus going east in hopes of finding the New Mexico State Fair. We’ve ridden mass transit in many towns from LA to NYC, but this ride was, by far, the most interesting. Unlike other buses, which seem to serve riders from all economic strata, the #66 provides transportation to mostly homeless and low income people. At one point, a young couple boarded with their newborn baby and my heart just about broke. The mother, who couldn’t have been more than sixteen years old, looked completely exhausted and miserable. She stared into space as the father, a young man possibly in his early twenties, folded up the stroller and got the baby’s things organized. Later, after they left, a pair of drunken women sat behind us and loudly laughed and cursed in three languages: English, Spanish and Native American. The bus took us along Route 66 (now Central NW), through downtown Albuquerque and points east, past the University of New Mexico, Nob Hill, and finally to the fairgrounds. I knew we had arrived because I could see the big ferris wheel in the distance, but the bus driver and riders all had differing opinions on where we should exit. Anxious to be on our way, we got off and headed north.

Well before we got there we could see the fairgrounds’ most famous attraction: the Slingshot, a bungee-cord type of ride that shoots strapped-in couples up over 250 feet in the air. Whether you’re horrified (me) or fascinated (Tim), it’s impossible to look away, so everyone entered the grounds with head craned upward in amazement.

Although only a quarter the size of LA County’s fair, the New Mexico State Fair was pure kitschy fun. We laughed at all the crazy food (deep-fried Oreos and meatloaf on a stick) and strolled by countless vendors selling their wacky wares. I then insisted that we visit the Hispanic Arts pavilion, chockfull of Day of the Dead skeletons and religious icons. Who knew St. Michael could slay his dragon in so many different and colorful ways?!

After walking around for two hours, we headed back over to Route 66, where we caught the bus downtown. Luckily we had just missed a onboard scuffle, which the driver and his passengers gleefully deconstructed throughout the entire ride.

Finally, back at the hotel, we decided to see a movie and so walked three blocks to the new cineplex across the street from the train station. (The concierge warned us not to walk over there at night). The ticket-taker, who used to live in LA, recognized the radio logo on Tim’s t-shirt. “Are those guys still on the air?” he asked incredulously. “Yes,” Tim answered and then told him that he works at the station. The ticket-taker was suitably impressed.

After the movie, we tried to get into the trendy new Brazilian restaurant right next door; but it was too crowded, so we headed down Central instead. Amazingly, there were cars everywhere, looking like a scene out of "American Graffiti"! All cruising stopped at nightfall, however, when the police—who were in full force—put up road blocks to keep traffic off Central. By now I was starving, so we ducked into The Carom Club, a nonsmoking billiards hall with a dress code and small, but upscale, restaurant. The food was good, but was certainly no Ford’s Filling Station. I was more than ready to return home...


Thursday, September 07, 2006

My "Katie Couric" Moment

I was diagnosed with high blood pressure a year ago during an especially stressful period. We had spent the summer remodeling the kitchen; plus I had accepted a new job just four months after starting another job that I was now going to quit. No surprise then that my blood pressure was off the charts when I went to the local Kaiser Medical Center for my annual checkup. The doctor took one look at the figures and quickly accompanied me to a darkened room, where I was given a sedative and directed to lie down. Apparently they expected me to stroke out right then and there. When you’re treated extra nicely at Kaiser then you know something is wrong!

My blood pressure is now under control; but while the doctor had me captive, she scheduled a sigmoidoscopy, which I had managed to escape when I turned fifty. Three months later, I watched in rapt fascination as a tiny camera made its way up my colon. All looked good, except for a small polyp that would have to be removed. The technician put me on the waiting list for a colonoscopy. I decided that if “Today Show” host Katie Couric could undergo a colonoscopy on TV in front of millions of viewers, then I certainly could have one, too.

Kaiser being Kaiser, I didn’t get a call until the following August to schedule the procedure. I selected Tuesday, September 5, a week after summer school ended and three days after our big party. I was then sent a letter, advising me to eat a low-fiber diet the week before the procedure. Also included were prescriptions for the laxatives I was supposed to take the day before. The pharmacist repeated the instructions, emphasizing the importance of refrigerating the liquid laxative. As I was leaving, a woman, who looked strangely like Whoopi Goldberg, grabbed my arm and said, “Honey, when they tell you to chill that stuff, you better get it good and cold, because that stuff is NAAASTY...!”

Since I wasn’t allowed to eat up to 24 hours beforehand, I decided to have a big breakfast on Monday. My last meal: Dinah’s famous apple pancake with cottage fries and bacon. In fact, if I ever find myself on death row, I would definitely order this as my last breakfast as no one makes a better morning meal than Dinah’s!

At noon, I took four laxatives and then shut myself inside the house while Tim went to the movies. Six hours later, I started to drink the liquid, which came with five flavor packs: cherry, lemon, lime, orange, and pineapple. I picked pineapple, which masked the nasty taste well. But it would be difficult to drink three liters of even the most delicious elixir on earth—especially over just three hours!—and so I ended up slugging down only two liters. I’ll save you the gory details on how effective they were...

My appointment was at 9:15 the next morning. Although I was awake for the sigmoidoscopy, I knew I’d be anesthetized during the colonoscopy. Tim, therefore, took the day off from work so he could take me to and from the hospital. We arrived early, as instructed, and then waited while other victims disappeared behind a door. Eventually, my name was called and Tim was told to come back an hour-and-a-half later. I was directed to change into an old hospital gown and put my clothes into a large plastic bag, which was then tucked under my gurney. A nurse named Rick proceeded with preparing the needle for my i.v. Looking at both arms, he tsked and said, “Oh dear, what tiny veins you have!” He then frowned at me like I was a bad girl for not having bulging arteries. After a couple of attempts, another nurse was called in and I was finally prepped. A third nurse, who sat in the corner busily crocheting something yellow, quickly stood up when the doctor walked in. He explained what was going to happen and then asked me to lie on my side. I kept waiting for them to start the anesthetic...when suddenly I was being wheeled out of the room into a long hallway divided by curtains.

“Is it over?” I groggily asked Rick. “Yes, all done,” he answered and then asked if I wanted some fruit juice. I waved him away and fell back to sleep. He returned a few minutes later and said I needed to start waking up. Oddly enough, they allowed me to wear my glasses the entire time, so I could see lots of other colonoscopy patients in various stages of sleep. We looked like stacked-up airplanes waiting to take off at LAX.

Rick fetched my clothes and told me to get dressed. Apparently they were desperate for space and wanted people to leave as soon as possible. He then took me out to a small waiting room, where I sat with Tim until the doctor came. Now I get woozy on aspirins, so you can imagine how I felt. The doctor said we’d have the results of the polyp biopsy within ten days and then said he’d see me again in five years. (“Not if I can help it!” I thought to myself). We then got up to leave.

I could barely make it to the elevator, so Tim went in search of a wheelchair, which he borrowed from somewhere. “Where did you get this chair?” I yelled in my stupor. “SHHHH!” was all he said.

At home, I went immediately to bed, where I passed out fully clothed. I woke-up an hour later madly craving a club sandwich, but settled for toast instead. Two hours later, I was back to normal, answering the slue of emails that had accumulated over the day. After being deprived of roughage for an entire week, I drove over to CPK for my favorite smoked bacon and gorgonzola salad and savored every morsel. My “Katie Couric moment” was now officially over.


Wednesday, September 06, 2006

The Big Party

Our 20th wedding anniversary was August 16. Because we had eloped to Las Vegas, where we got married in a ceremony that was witnessed by only our most immediate family, I thought now might be a good time to renew our vows. But I changed my mind when I realized I’d probably cry through the whole thing, making a fool of myself. Instead, we decided to go in another direction after attending a fabulous dance party hosted by our friends Mary and Roger.

We held our own party this past weekend and, although we didn’t dance as much as I wanted, we and our guests had a good time. The real story, however, was in the weeks of planning that always go into pulling off an event like this. And so here is a recreation of our journey as we counted down the days till our big anniversary party...

Three months to go:

I started to seriously think about potential party venues. Our house is too small to comfortably entertain more than twenty people, plus there’s no room to dance; so we needed to rent a space that didn’t reek of a Radisson ballroom or VFW hall. The historic Culver Hotel has a long corner room, but it, too, was too small. Mary then suggested the Rita Hayworth Room at Sony Studios, where they had thrown their party. We had attended at least one other event there, so were very familiar with the layout. But who knew non-Sony employees could rent it? I was thrilled, but decided to email Karen to see if she thought people would come to a party at the studio. “Are you kidding? EVERYONE will come!” she replied and so I made the call.

As it turned out, Wolfgang Puck had just assumed management of the Rita Hayworth Room and was not quite ready to whip up a quote. We did tentatively reserve a date, however: Saturday, September 2, which would allow folks to fly in and spend the Labor Day weekend in LA. We emailed a “save the date” message to several friends and family members and then waited for Puck’s quote. I insisted that we were “simple people” (i.e., poor) and so requested the least complicated menu (e.g., their famous chinois chicken salad and pizza). Still, it took several days for our contact to get back to me.

In the meantime, I made an appointment to check out the Culver Events Center, which the ever-resourceful Mary also recommended. The building, tucked behind the bright green Leaf restaurant on Washington Blvd., was a speak-easy in the 1920s and has lots of charm and character. Plus the owner, Alex, was very nice and accommodating. But I had my heart set on Sony Studio and so made no commitment. I did make sure, however, that the Center was available September 2 and promised to get back to Alex as quickly as possible.

Two months to go:

Still no word from Puck despite my, by now, daily emails and phone messages. I was starting to really worry about distant friends and family having enough time to make airline reservations, etc. Finally, on July 10, I received a lengthy email detailing the catering and rental costs for the Rita Hayworth Room. It was almost twice what Mary and Roger had paid and three times the cost of the Culver Events Center! Puck had apparently boosted the fee beyond reason—and obviously well outside our checkbook!—and so I called Alex to have him hold the date. My dreams of dancing again where movie stars used to dine were dashed.

We now needed to find a caterer, since the Center strictly rents space. Alex recommended a couple of places he’s used in the past. Tim then suggested Santa Maria Barbecue, one of our favorite downtown Culver City restaurants. So we made a little field trip to eat (of course!) and check out their prices and were pleasantly surprised by their very affordable menu. With a minimum party of fifty people, they would even cook the meat on site, plus provide all side-dishes, like salad, beans, potato salad, and (my favorite) garlic bread. We reserved September 2 on the spot and then waited for RSVPs to arrive.

One month to go:

Only 10 people had responded and, of those, several said they could not come because of other obligations. It was starting to look like throwing a party on a holiday weekend was not such a good idea after all! We called Santa Maria Barbecue and canceled the onsite cooking.

Although we each secretly doubted that anyone but us would dance, we spent hours going through our CD collection, looking for ideal rock, swing and salsa tunes that would (hopefully!) get people’s feet atappin’. This part was the most fun!

Three weeks to go:

I met with Alex to pick out linen colors and lay out the floor plan. The Center has a nice patio as well as two reception areas and a dance floor. Tables would be setup outside and in, since it was bound to be a beautiful night. He had lots of ideas how to jazz-up the place with lights, etc., but I wanted things to be as simple as possible. Besides, at this point, it was looking like it would be just us and a handful of guests.

Two weeks to go:

RSVPs start to pour in! We called Santa Maria and rescheduled the onsite barbecue. When the receptionist asked for details about the Center’s physical layout, I explained we’d like the barbecue to be setup in the patio. After describing the fence and three short steps to get into the patio, she proclaimed that the barbecue owner would have to visit the site before they could commit. I called Alex in a panic. He said not to worry. And indeed, a few days later, Mr. Santa Maria chatted with Alex and both agreed that the barbecue could be setup in the parking lot next to the patio. Phew!

I noticed an ad in the newspaper for personalized M&Ms and, though I can’t eat chocolate, proceeded to order five eight-ounce bags of M&Ms that say: “Tim and Cindy” and “20 years XOXOXOXO.” There was no guarantee they’d arrive on time, but I was willing to take the risk because they were just so darn cute...

One week to go:

Even though Santa Maria provides plates and utensils, I wanted something more exciting than boring old institutional white, and so headed over to Party Time on Sepulveda Blvd. There I spied some colorful paper plates on sale and went hog-wild picking out platters, napkins, etc., to match. By now it was looking like fifty people would be joining us at the party and so I bought mass quantities of everything. I could see the cashier trying to be tactful as I kept adding more and more stuff to my check-out pile. Restraining himself no longer, he asked, “Having a big party, are we?” I told him that it’s so big we had to rent a hall. He was impressed.

I then headed over to the nightmare that’s known as “Big Lots.” Alex convinced me to decorate with candles and so I was on a quest to find the cheapest, yet safest, candles possible. I also decided to create scrapbooks filled with pictures of Tim and me, since some of our guests would be relatively new friends. I bought six scrapbooks, thinking I’d put one on each table, forcing the partygoers to mingle if they wanted to see all the photos. When I got home, I asked Tim to help me pour over hundreds of pictures that I keep in an oversized wicker chest in our den. It was fun, but exhausting work. Ultimately, it was worth it, though, because the scrapbooks were the biggest hit at the party, getting people to reminisce and laugh.

Three days to go:

Tim tested the stereo system at the Center and was unhappy with the sound. I insisted that it was just his overly sensitive radio engineer ears; but he used some special electrical plugs on party day and all was well. We told Alex we’d bring beverages by at 1PM on Saturday and then headed over to the market to buy an assortment of soft drinks and beer.

One day to go:

The M&Ms arrived. I almost kissed the UPS guy when he knocked on the front door. I was now ready to party!


I went to Trader Joe’s to buy flowers and desserts as soon as it opened. Unlike weekday mornings, when no one but retired couples and stay-at-home workers, like me, go to TJ’s, the place was filled with puffy-eyed yuppies filling their carts with food for the long weekend. The vibe was definitely low-key even though the lines were starting to snake toward the door by the time I left.

As promised, we showed-up at the Center at 1PM with drinks and paper goods in hand. Alex was already busy setting up tables, etc. The party was to start at 6PM and so Santa Maria promised to start cooking by 4:30PM. We agreed to return between 4:00 and 5:00 to help with any finishing touches.

We arrived at 4:15PM to the smell of barbecued meat. It smelled so good that Alex predicted no one would get beyond the parking lot! I began decorating the tables with sparkly confetti and scrapbooks, but forgot the M&Ms (after all that!), and so Tim ran home (five minutes away) to get them.

Everything was ready by 5:45PM and looked just beautiful. The weather was perfect and the meat was almost ready to serve, when our first guests arrived. The moment we’d been waiting for these past three months was finally here.

Tim turned up the dance music and the party began...