Driver’s Education

When I was sixteen years old, my step-father, the conservative banker, bought a new car. His previous one had been an English Ford Anglia, a car that made a Checker cab seem sporty. So my hopes for something cool to drive with my new license were limited.

He commuted from the Maryland suburbs into Washington every day and even then traffic was a somewhat organized fracas. He knew all the short cuts and detours and was quite good at navigating his way to work. And because of that daily challenge, he, as he told the Ford salesman, liked “a car with zip.” He came home with this:

1961 Ford Sunliner

Not this precise one, but an exact duplicate except for the mag wheels. And because he liked zip, the salesman kindly included a 390 cubic inch Police Interceptor engine and modifications and a 3-speed manual transmission. I was absolutely certain this car would get me laid. It didn’t. But on several occasions it got me screwed.

Occasion 1 was my first speeding ticket. Route 50 in Parole, Maryland – aptly named because that was what I was on with my mother for a long time after. I saw the cop entering the highway well behind me. I knew the curvature of the road would put me almost instantly out of his sight, so I never slowed down. Mistake. He had the same Police Interceptor, and he did.

But that was just the warm-up. My coup was actually hitting a traffic-directing cop with the right front fender of the car, knocking his butt to the pavement, and getting away with it.

My best friend and I were cruising the local high-school trying to achieve the getting-laid goal. Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School at quitting time was always chaotic. The school fronted on the four-lane East-West Highway and to go east, you had to turn left in front of two lanes of traffic going west and merge into the two lanes going east. So the city provided a traffic cop to prevent the inevitable result of teenagers in cars grappling with optimistic opinions of their driving ability.

So there I was, first in line, top-down, exhaust gurgling like liquid testosterone, my friend in the passenger seat with his arm on the door, looking cool. The cop stopped the traffic in both directions and blew his whistle for me to make my left turn. So I started forward to go out and around him which I, as a recent graduate of Driver’s Ed, knew to be the proper protocol.

The cop blew his whistle like Louis Armstrong with a trumpet, threw up his hand in an angry “stop” gesture, and then waved his arm, signaling me to go in front of him. By that time I had pulled out too far to make that turn successfully, so being the polite young man I always was, I raised up over the windshield and said, “But officer, there’s not enough room.” His response was another whistle and more angry arm waving. I sat down, shrugged, turned the wheel as far left as possible, and popped the clutch.

After he hit the pavement, I knew there would be trouble so I didn’t leave the scene. I just edged forward to get to the side of the road and await the consequences. The cop thought I was making a low-speed getaway and chased me, grabbing my friend’s arm and holding on while trotting next to the car. Did I mention that the officer might have been a little short and pudgy? Probably why he was assigned school-crossing duty. In any event, he had to work at keeping up with even a slow-moving car and needless to say, he was pissed.

I got a very serious ticket and an escort home to make sure my parents were clearly advised of my criminal behavior. My mother did not take this new infraction well. Escorted home by a police car that parked in front of our house? Oh, the scandal!

We had to go to court the next day and explain to the judge what happened. I told him my story, the traffic cop acknowledged the general accuracy of it with some stuttering, and the judge said I was right and sent me and my mother home. She, on the other hand, didn’t let me off quite so easily.

There are other stories about that car. The drag race with the Studebaker, my step-father’s belief that Ford made the cheapest clutches in the world because his kept wearing out, etc.

All-in-all, a very good start to my driving career.


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Canadian Hospitality

I do a lot of business in Canada. I like the country, I like the people, and Canadian dollars spend as well as American ones. Occasionally, better. But Canadian hospitality has reached a new high with my latest trip.

Yes, I was assaulted. I can finally scratch that off my bucket list.

My client here is in a Toronto suburb, and I stay at a nice, mid-level motel very close to their office. I’ve stayed there many times before, and I will again. They serve a nice buffet breakfast, and when I went to eat this morning, I was greeted by yelling from the lobby. When I got there, a clearly pharmaceutically-enhanced woman was terrorizing the desk clerk and shouting obscenities and breaking anything she could get her hands on, including ripping the security camera out of the ceiling.

She briefly went out the front door and the alert clerk tripped the electronic lock. Now, when I say pharmaceutically-enhanced, I’m not exaggerating. She attacked the door, and won, flinging it open in triumph and carrying on like she’d just knocked out Mike Tyson. Which I guessing she could have at that moment. She proceeded to celebrate by shouting more obscenities, breaking anything she could find, threatening guests, and generally making a nuisance of herself. She even accused me of being a lawyer!

Three of us hung around as the clerk called the police and tried to contain the damage. We were concerned for his safety but didn’t want to provoke anything, so we waited on the fringe of the action. When the police arrived, she chased the clerk to a corner of the dining area away from the door. And, of course, the door was locked.

So here’s the picture. The clerk is cowering in the corner with crazy lady threatening him, the policeman is at the glass door watching and trying to get in, and the three of us are in the hallway near the lobby. And just to prove my pharmaceutically-enhanced opinion, the policeman could not get the door open, although he tried with much vigor. Apparently not being as bright as she gave me credit for when she accused me of barrister status, I hustled to the door to let the cop in.

That was when I was cross-body blocked by a linebacker that I hadn’t previously noticed. After bouncing off the wall, I looked to see the linebacker was nowhere in sight, but crazy lady was shaking her fists at me and offering to perform some ad hoc dental work. The policeman intervened and my teeth were spared. Good thing because I don’t have dental insurance.

Everything after that was anti-climax. She continued to shout as they subdued her, accused everyone of rape and bigotry, confessed that she was on probation for assault, and said she loved the pain of handcuffs and body slams to the floor. While lying face-down with a policeman holding her there, she did a Meg Ryan in When Harry Met Sally and claimed to be sexually excited and having an orgasm.

All in all, a very entertaining morning.

Thank you, Canada.

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Grossly Unremarkable

The radiologist’s report of a recent ultrasound test done on me by a very prestigious California teaching hospital (nothing but the best for those of us who are medical insurance-challenged) read, in part, “the bladder and …”

Wait. Instead, let’s look at the Facebook exchange I envision based on my Facebook followers demented and disrespectful natures. I’ve cleverly disguised their identities by using totally random initials.

JCD: The radiologist said my “pelvic organs were grossly unremarkable.” Can he say that?

WAD: Of course he can. For it to be libel, it can’t be true.

JCD: I was waiting to see who would raise that particular point. One less Christmas present to buy this year.

WAD: One less ugly polyester tie to exchange for a pair of socks this year.

HMD: Your hoo-hoo is not a pelvic organ.

JCD: I beg your pardon. There are numerous pelvises who would dispute that. For one, just ask … Never mind. No need to embarrass a well-known celebrity.

HMD: Anthony Weiner?

JCD: Now that’s libel.

HMD: Only if it’s not true.

JWD: Unremarkable means nothing remarkable. You can’t get less remarkable than nothing, so why grossly unremarkable? I would focus on that. There can’t be more nothing than nothing. Either you’re something or you’re nothing.

JCD: Great point. At least someone is taking this seriously. That sounds subjective and therefore actionable.

JWD: Of course he did say “organs,” so grossly might not have been a commentary on your hoo-hoo as much as a lumping it together with gall bladders and such.

JCD: No had better be lumping my hoo-hoo with anything else. My hoo-hoo stands alone.

JWD: At your age?

JCD: Now that’s libel.

JWD: Only if it’s not true.

The whole thing started with a fairly innocuous bout of nausea and vomiting one Saturday morning.  I put that off to bad salsa and went on about life. That Monday, I flew from Maryland to California on business and got in around nine PM, went to the hotel and went to bed.  Woke up around 1 AM in as much pain as I have ever felt and after three hours of hoping it would go away, I went to the hospital where the aforementioned ultra sound test was conducted. Several times, along with a bunch of others. Four days of pain with no apparent cause.

On Friday, while the gall bladder/diverticulitis/pancreatitis debate raged in California,  I flew home in time to get the parking ticket from the hospital and go to my family doctor on Saturday. Claire, my fiancé, had worked some telephone magic and gotten the doctors in California to communicate with the doctors in Maryland, and my family doctor read the reports and said, “Now I’m just a little maggot doctor in Thurmont, but I see two tests they should have run and didn’t.” He ran the tests, the first one concluded it was without doubt my gall bladder, and out it came on Tuesday.

Laproscopic surgery and I have this Siren/Odysseus relationship – they make it sound so good and then, BANG, you’re on the rocks and sinking fast. My first laproscopic surgery was to take thirty or forty minutes and leave three little nicks to remove my appendix. Instead, it took nearly five hours and I woke up the next day with a six-inch vertical scar through my naval and a section of bowel gone to the biohazard bin.

This time, it was to be a simple 40-minute gall bladder removal, only to find my gall bladder had gone zombie on me and was one of the living dead, decaying in my abdomen. That took the doctor four hours to subdue, and left me in pretty sad shape.

The surgeon said afterwards, and I quote, “You’re family doctor probably saved your life.” He said the gall bladder was on the verge of bursting, leaving me with the mother-of-all cases of peritonitis. So, if Claire hadn’t convinced medical bureaucrats to expedite records transfer, and if my primary care physician really had been “a little maggot doctor,” and if he hadn’t ordered the tests that a huge teaching hospital had ignored, and if the medical lab hadn’t had an opening on Monday, well, this would be my obituary.

Instead, I live to write more of the exciting adventures of My Bathroom Biography.

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My Life of Crime – Part Kaksi

Te aari ala- ehkäistä

That translates from Finnish to mean “you’re under arrest.” Yes, this is it. My Life of Crime, Part Two.

When I was in my late forties (about four years ago, give or take), I somehow thought it would be a good idea to invest my money along with six Finnish guys and buy an electronics manufacturing company in Finland from its Swedish owners. The Swedes are, well … liberal, and the company was, well … broke. Now the Swedes couldn’t just put it out of its misery and leave all those people unemployed, could they? So they decided to sell it at a “good” price, and we decided to buy it. The fact that I worked for the Swedes at the time and knew the company thoroughly should have given me a clue, but it didn’t.

Here’s one vignette that tells a lot about the work environment. Before we bought it, a new president was brought in from outside the company into turn it around. As a welcome gift, the workers gave him a copy of Karl Marx’s Das Kapital. (For all you kids who enjoy this blog, that’s Marx as in Marxism. You remember Communism, right? The Cold War? No? How old am I?) Anyway, that was another clue.

In any event, over the following years I made many trips to Finland, developed some very good friendships with people there, and basically loved the place. Even in the winter when the sun was just twilight at noon. Balancing that, you could get tee times at 2 AM during the summer.

Sailing the archipeligo on a beautiful day

Sailing the archipeligo on a beautiful day

On this particular trip, we were celebrating something – I don’t remember what because the Finns will celebrate Tuesday given the chance – and going to a restaurant on the Baltic coast. It was decided that we would charter a couple of boats to take us there and see the beautiful archipelago off the coast city of Turku, where our company was headquartered. Well, it was rainy and foggy and we couldn’t see port from starboard, so we stayed below deck drinking.

The captain stayed on deck drinking and that explains why he dropped us off in some customs exclusion zone where we were prohibited for fear we would hijack one of the several thousand Toyotas parked there and sneak it through without paying duty. By the way, a parking lot full of brand new Toyotas should have told us all we weren’t at the restaurant, but as I said, we’d stayed below deck drinking.

Cut to the chase here – the police took a dim view of our spying or whatever they thought we were doing and loaded us into a Toyota van (what else?) and hauled us off to the little cop station in Naantali. On the way, my friend Jukka Salomaa decided that they would confiscate the film from my camera because we obviously had illicit pictures of Toyotas. So he whispers “Pssst, gimme your camera,” or the equivalent in Finglish. I did, and he actually huddled on the floor and swapped out the film for a fresh cartridge.

Juha & Me

Tuomo & Me

I was sure this would be seen and construed as an admission of guilt of something, and spent the rest of the ride trying to think about how I would explain this to the American counsel when I called him from jail. It’s a good thing he did it, because they did take the film from the camera, and we would never have had this shot of me in the bowels of a Finnish boat, getting drunk on Lahden, a Finnish beer, while Tuomo Saarinen cuddled a bottle of Finlandia vodka.

PS. If you haven’t already figured it out or gone to babelfish for a translation, kaksi means two in Finnish. I don’t know what it means in English.


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Welcome to New York

My first adult trip to New York City happened freshman year of college. My two best friends took me with them to a debutant party in Providence, RI. I was exceedingly naive and had no idea what a debutant was, or why they would celebrate “coming out”. Coming out of what? I went because they explained that a debutant was a rich girl, and there would be a bunch of them there. And beer. Going wasn’t a hard decision after that.

Colgate University - 1968

Colgate University - 1968

Travel from upstate NY to Providence was accomplished by the normal college conveyance – hitching a ride with someone. The party was everything it was supposed to be, but I didn’t end up with a rich girlfriend. The picture is all the explanation you will need to understand why.

OK – the New York part. One of my friends suffered from migraines, and when it was time to leave, he got a one. A gone-blind one. We got a ride as far a NYC and pooled our money to put him on a train home, and my other friend went with him. So I’m stuck in NYC, alone, hungover, nearly broke, and needing to get home to Maryland.

No problem – I have a checking account, and I only needed a couple of bucks more to get a bus ticket. Problem – no one, and I mean not even the Chase Manhattan Bank, would cash a two or three dollar check from me. I spent about four hours wandering from place to place trying. Hungover. Finally, a gas station attendant took pity and charged a couple of dollars on my gas credit card and gave me the cash. I do not heart NY.

Many years later, someone at a cocktail party was telling me about tectonic plates and how eventually Los Angeles would be somewhere in the frozen arctic. My immediate response was, “Could it take New York with it?”

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The Orange Cloud of Death

I’m at the National Radiological Emergency Preparedness Conference this week, and it reminds me of one particular radiological emergency that I wasn’t prepared for (for which I wasn’t prepared?). The parenthetical comment is there so I don’t end the sentence with a preposition. (

It happened in 1970, at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center, in the Inner Sub-Pile Room. A room you won’t find on your Clue board, and Colonel Mustard wasn’t involved, although the color of the gas-to-come reflected his name. The Inner Sub-Pile Room name implies that there is an Outer Sub-Pile Room (which in turn implies that there is a Pile Room somewhere above, but we’ll ignore that).The Outer Sub-Pile Room was where I was stationed when the Orange Cloud of Death chased my tech out of the Inner one. Is all that clear?

The incident took place in the middle of the night. They had a nuclear reactor in those days, used for research, and for creating super-cockroaches to be used in the inevitable Asian land war. But once again, I digress. I was in charge of a graveyard-shift crew that was tasked to clean the radioactive contamination out of a stainless-steel sump in the ISPR (that’s my new acronym so I don’t have to keep typing Inner Sub-Pile Room. Oops, I did it again. (Quick – who sang the song?)) (Nested parentheses – you’ve got to love that.)

I should call this story the Parenthetical Comment because I can’t seem to stop.

Anyway, the ISPR is this little concrete cave below the reactor. You had to crawl through a short tunnel into a room about the size and shape of a refrigerator laid on its side, and all it had in it was pipes and this sump – a kitchen-sink sized tub recessed into the floor.

I referred to the guy being chased by the OCoD (Orange Cloud of Death) as a tech, and that might be overstatement. In actual fact, he had about a sixth-grade education and his response to most conversations was to grab his crotch in a pre-Michael Jackson move and say “I’ve got your (fill in the blank) right here.” His qualifications to be working on a nuclear reactor were suspect. But then, so were mine.

Picking up where I left off three paragraphs ago, I was in the OSPR, biding my time waiting for the “tech” to complete his task. That was to take container of nitric acid and swab the steel sump to clean it. He was fully clothed in protective gear – gloves, plastic coveralls, hood, and a respirator to filter the air he was breathing – and supposed to work for a very specific amount of time for radiation exposure control purposes. Well before that time, the air-lock door to the ISPR opened and he came running out. My initial reaction was “What the …,” and then I saw the OCoD following him and realized we had a situation.

We closed the air lock doors, capturing the cloud, and then I had to figure out what it was and what to do. This is where my own suspect qualifications came into play. With no outside communications readily available, I decided that the solution was to get the acid out of the sump and stop whatever reaction was going on. So I put on all the protective gear and the emergency breathing gear (a scuba tank for dry land) and went in myself.

Let me set the mood. It’s probably 3 AM plus/minus, the rooms are mostly dark, it’s deathly quiet, my only backup is in the OSPR mumbling, “I’ve got your orange cloud right here,” and it’s crowded. Claustrophobia crowded. The trip in, with my crawling further impeded by the air tank, was quite unnerving. Getting the acid soaked up in rags and into many layers of plastic bags was simple enough, and the story might have ended happily if only the alarm hadn’t gone off.

My training with the Scott Air-Pac was woefully inadequate, and while I knew there was a finite amount of air in there, and that you would be alerted when it was getting low, I had never actually heard the alarm, and certainly not echoing off the concrete walls of an underground mausoleum. So when it went off, I had a seizure and banged my head on the ceiling, knocking the face mask loose, and getting a breath of what smelled like decomposing rust.

After I repositioned the mask, and determined I hadn’t done anything untoward in my pants, I gathered up my acid-soaked, plastic-wrapped rags, and backed the hell outta there. I stripped off the protective gear and got dressed, and we waited for the day shift to arrive at 7 to take over. By then, both of us had developed some unusual breathing symptoms, and we were eager for diagnosis and reassurance.

The Project Manager was understandably nervous about the problem (it was his idea to use the nitric acid) and dispatched us to the hospital for checking over. The problem, as it turned out, was that nitric acid and steel produce fumes that can cause severe lung damage and even death. (

According to the doctor who examined us, the solution was copious amounts of beer administered by cheap floozies. Years later I discovered this was not true. Floozies are never cheap – there’s always a price to be paid.

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I died, once.

First things first – there is no white light. Forget it. It just gets dark and silent.

Second thing – after it was all over, my heart doctor told me that death was one of the possible side effects of the drugs they had me on. Why do you suppose he didn’t tell me that before I died?

Third thing – OK, so I’m alive again. Death, apparently, is reversible.

Anne, my wife, was at work, and she had the car. I worked from home, and some mornings I would get right to it at 6 AM, and then shower at lunch time. Or not, depending on who might have to physically interface with me that day. This was one of those late-shower days. I’m finishing up in the shower and surprisingly tired. Noting that I wasn’t that dirty to start with, I figured it had to be something other than the effort to scrub.

I have an inconvenient heart condition known as paroxysmal atrial fibrillation. It causes an occasional rapid, irregular heart beat and shortness of breath, like I suddenly got real old. (Instead of getting real old slowly, which is the actual case.) At first I dismissed the symptoms as a-fib, but they felt different than the usual episode, so I called Anne to come and get me to go to the hospital.

I must have really been hurting because I never volunteer to go to the hospital. My default cure for anything is to wait and see. By the time we got there, I was in pretty bad shape, even considering my normal shape isn’t all that notable. As a 54-year-old male with chest pains, I jumped right to the head of the line. Even so, they took the time to be sure I could afford to be diagnosed and treated, and then wheeled me back to the emergency room, Anne coming along without any objection from anyone.

The nurse was connecting me to machines, and I was trying to look recuperative, smiling as best I could, to calm Anne. When the nurse had plugged in some device, she stopped and watched the displays behind me and then turned, calling to someone, “Doctor, you’d better look at this.”

I’ve never thought I was immortal, but for some reason, I haven’t really ever had a fear of death. It is simply too hypothetical too me. (See Asthma-induced Hallucinations, below.) And I wasn’t scared at that moment, just curious and concerned for Anne, who was still at the foot of the bed, holding my foot and trying to be brave.

A woman in a lab coat with a stethoscope came over and looked at the display, and I heard her yell a word that you only want to hear on TV – stat. It came at the end of a short sentence that I don’t recall, and was obviously an order because the next thing I knew, there were people hustling all around me, doing things in an orderly if somewhat frantic way.

Doctor using defibrillator on patientThe action was sort of stop motion. Everyone doing something urgently, then they would all freeze and stare at the monitors. Then someone would mutter something and they’d start all over again. They repeated the process several times before the doctor told me that I was in ventricular fibrillation and they were going to have to use the defibrillator. She said they usually didn’t do this without some kind of prep, anesthetic or sedatives or something, but there was no time.

“This is gonna hurt,” she said. And then she said “clear.” And it hurt.

Here’s how it hurt. Imagine an infinite number of Mike Tyson’s at the prime of his career. Imagine that they surround you from every direction, from inside your body and out, that your cells have all somehow become Mike Tyson. Then imagine that they all hit you in the chest at the same time.

Anne said I levitated, a hang time Michael Jordon would envy. I remember that much. I remember shouting, “Whoa! Jesus!” And I remember seeing Anne so scared I could have died from sadness.

Then there was no white light. All that happened was that my vision narrowed from the outside in until it was dark, but I was dead before I went blind.

When I woke 30 or 40 minutes later, Anne was at my side. She told me they’d used the defibrillator again, and got my heart going.

And probably hers as well.

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