Tales

Caution: Low Clearance

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After a day of mountain biking I tend to drive my car as if still on my bike— leaning into the twists and turns down winding Sunset Boulevard. Late for a party recently, this seemed to be working in my favor as I made it home in record time.

I pulled into the garage only to be startled by a thunderous crash from above. Oblivious to the cause, I backed my car up. This produced another alarming noise of crunching metal meeting aluminum and pieces of plastic shattering. The horror hit me. I’d just driven my brand new $1500 mountain bike mounted to my Saab’s roof rack into the garage.

My first thought wasn’t, “What damage have I done to my bike, car or garage?” but instead, “Oh God, I hope no one saw that!” Mortified, I bolted from the car.

If the loudness was any indicator, my car, bike or garage should have been totaled. By some Angel of Moronic Mishap Mercy, my car had only superficial scratches; the bike — a broken reflector; the roof rack — a broken wheel clip.

Now for the garage door – I braced myself and pushed the remote. A rumble suggested something still worked. The two-car garage door wobbled back and forth a bit but managed to shut.

I dashed upstairs to call my friend Shepard, who I was meeting at the party, to inform him of my catastrophe. “Oh honey, don’t feel bad,” he tried to comfort me, “I dropped my cell phone in a urinal last week…yes, after I’d used it …I’d have left it but all my decorating clients were logged in it so I had to fetch it out.” I felt a bit better.

A few days later a visit to a bike shop netted a bike repair at $30, the roof rack $20. Not bad.   The damage was looking pretty minimal.

Then a few weeks later, as I was getting out of my car, my landlord approached me. “Lori, do you know why your garage door is crooked?”

A long pause followed during which time I considered saying I had no idea shifting blame on the neighboring tenant with whom I share the garage. But instead I blurted out, “That’s because I hit it.”

“You hit it?” he echoed, aghast.

“Yes, I had my bike on top of my car.”

“The hinge is going to give any day and come crashing down on the cars. It must be fixed.”   He said sternly.

An even longer pause followed.

“Would you like me to pay for it?” I cowered.

“Well, was it an accident?”

“Well yes.” I answered, wondering if he thought I might actually do such a thing deliberately.

“Why don’t we split it,” he offered.

I was stunned at his generosity. “That’s very nice of you.”

He walked away only to return minutes later as I was unloading groceries from the trunk. “Lori,” he paused (I shuddered at what might come next) “I just wanted to tell you how much I appreciate your honesty.”

“Thank-you,” I melted.

That feeling could well be worth whatever this was going to cost I thought for a minute. Maybe two.

But what would a garage door cost? A few days later, the landlord informed me the estimate was a whopping $759. Was that the price of being honest? Or the price of being dumb enough to drive my car into the garage?

I wondered if my renter’s or car insurance would cover any of it. I had both policies through USAA.

I phoned them and got a recording. I was stumped, should I press two for renter’s insurance or three for auto claims? I pressed two. I told my tale of idiocy to the agent who asked, “Was the vehicle moving?”

“Well, yeah until it came to an abrupt stop right about when the bike made contact with the garage.”

She’d have to transfer me to auto claims as this was a “moving violation.”

“Were you wearing a seatbelt?” the next agent wanted to know.

At less than a mile an hour I didn’t see the point, but answered yes. She transferred me again to someone else so they could record my testimony.

“Was there any bodily injury?” the fourth agent asked.

“Just my pride” I answered. Not the least bit amused, she informed me my case would be reviewed and I’d get a letter in the mail.

The letter came.

California law requires we determine who was responsible for an accident and notify you if the driver of your vehicle was principally at fault (at least 51%). 

Was it possible if I drive my vehicle into a building, that someone else could be to blame? Like who or what? Could it be my bike’s fault for not ducking? The garage’s for not yelling, “Stop!”

The letter went on.

This accident occurred when the driver of your vehicle [okay that would be me, just say it] struck a stationary object [the garage, we can handle it]. Unfortunately, based on these facts, the driver of your vehicle was determined to be principally [okay, so not totally] at fault because under California law, a driver is responsible for steering clear of any obstacles.

Under another state’s law, like say Kentucky, could a stationary object be held accountable?

At any rate, there it was on the books. Here in California the garage was 49% guilty.

I phoned USAA to see about filing a claim. For property damage, there’s no deductible. But if the claim is over $500, my insurance rates go up $804 a year for three years. Ouch. I asked the agent if my landlord only holds me accountable for $499 would my insurance rates still go up?

“But didn’t you say the bill was for $759?” the agent asked.

“It is,” I explained. “That’s what the garage repair company will charge my landlord. If my landlord only holds me accountable for $499, and gives me a bill in that amount, would that suffice as a receipt for USAA? “

“Yes,” she answered. And “no,” my rates would not then go up.

The landlord was fine with this plan. I faxed off his $499 invoice and received a check the following week. Then I told my landlord, while I thought it was generous of him to offer to share the remaining cost, there was really no reason he should have to pay for any of this as in my mind I was 100% at fault.

He insisted he was getting a new garage door that would hold up longer than the previous one and convinced me we should split the cost of what USAA didn’t cover. $130 a piece. Fair enough. I wrote him a check.

All in all, the damage wasn’t too bad to my checkbook or, thanks to California law, to my pride. It still pays to be honest and a little ingenuity can temper a bout of absentmindedness.

Now when I drive home from mountain biking, I still lean into the twists and turns of the road but repeating my new post-cycling mantra “My bike is on top of my car, my bike is on top of my car.”

This story originally was published on divinecaroline.com

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Last Call: Answering the alarm of my biological clock

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Everyone talks about her biological clock ticking but how do you really know when it rings, or more specifically, how many times you can hit the snooze button?

Last call came for me in a tearful visit to an OB’s office. Fresh from a break-up with an on-again, off-again boyfriend of three years, I booked the appointment to discuss freezing my eggs. Supportive girlfriends always offer that “you can always freeze your eggs” advice when a relationship fails to someone who has hopes of becoming a mother.

Dr. Pelino asked why I was there. “I want to add to that.” I said, pointing to the bulletin board of babies and birth announcements of her patients. “Mr. Right hasn’t shown up yet, so I want to talk about putting my eggs on ice.”

“You’re how old?” She asked skeptically.

“Forty-two,” I said.

First, she informed me I couldn’t freeze an unfertilized egg. I mean, you can, but the odds of the egg surviving the thaw and implanting are less than 1 percent and those are with young twenty-something-year-old’s eggs, not my decrepit forty-something ones. “The odds are a bit higher with freezing embryos, but if you don’t have a partner you might as well just go for it now,” my doctor advised. “If I were you, I’d sperm-bank it,” she said, matter-of-factly. “You don’t have any more time to waste.” As if I was just loafing around, letting my eggs rot.

She handed me a flier for the California Cryobank, and she added, “Here are a few referrals to some REs. You’ll want to start with day three blood work for an FSH count. You can try IUI before moving to IVF but I wouldn’t spend too much time with that route.” Acronyms and fertility lingo clouded my head.

I got to my car numb, mouth agape and called my mom sobbing. “How did this happen?” I’d had my share of boyfriends over the years. It just so happened in the musical chairs game of romance, the fertility music was about to stop and I was going to be left standing without children.

During my writing group later that week, I mentioned this OB’s seemingly outrageous advice and one of my writing pals, Wendy responded, “Well, that’s what two friends from my church (Catholic, no less) did. They belong to a group called Single Mothers by Choice. You should check it out. Heck, I’ll be forty next year and if I’m still single I’m doing the same thing.” (Wendy now has a four-month old baby girl).

Single Mothers by Choice sounded to me like a bunch of man haters, or women you’d take one look at and think well no wonder they couldn’t find anyone.

I agreed to go to a meeting and to my surprise, they were mostly attractive professional women who you’d actually think, man, if she couldn’t find someone—really nice women that just weren’t paired up when their biological clocks rang. There was also one woman divorcing her husband because he’d decided he didn’t want children.

The group was divided by Thinkers (like me), TTCers (Trying to Conceive), Pregnant, and those with children already. It was less of a formal meeting and more of a get-together. Women ranged in age from early thirties to mid-forties: the Thinkers tentatively asking questions, a TTCer might be crying on someone’s shoulder because a recent effort failed, pregnant women aglow, mothers with new babies beaming, and other moms with toddlers milling about. The atmosphere was celebratory and supportive.

Some moms brought bags of hand-me-downs. Others drank coffee, nibbled on the healthy snacks, and compared notes on pre-schools, nannies, or potty training. It seemed like a lovely choice for these women.

I, on the other hand, set out for one last-ditch effort to pull out all the stops at finding Mr. Right. If my “Hey, if it’s meant to be, it’ll happen” approach was too carefree, this effort would bare no such criticism.

With the determination of a cave woman going out to club someone on the head and drag him back to her cave, I enlisted the help of the book Finding a Husband Past 35 (Using What I Learned at Harvard Business School) which suggests notifying everyone in passing that I’m available to be set up on dates. I shamelessly told all my friends, acquaintances—even my dental hygienist and a headhunter. That yielded one measly date. It was through the headhunter. Even if I hadn’t minded the circa 1983 feathered-back hairdo, diamond-studded earring, paunch, and the fact that he was considerably shorter than me, he announced he didn’t want or even like kids.

I also signed up for a couple of Internet dating sites. I had no shortage of first dates, yet few that I wanted to go out with on a second date, much less bear children and spend the rest of my life with. “Maybe you’re being too picky.” Married people loved to say. Down the bar lowered. As did the expectations.

I’d try and look at these guys as someone who just might have decent enough genes to make for an amiable ex. But when I’d graciously say, “You know, you’re a really great guy but I don’t feel that spark of something that tells me we’re a match.” I’d encounter angry guys from whom I’d have a hard time getting a sweater back had I left one in their car. If the sweater was our child and we had to share custody of her/him, these guys would be impossible. I felt like I was shopping more for an ex-husband than a lifelong mate.

During this time, I had five girlfriends across the country going through divorces. One woman’s husband changed his mind about wanting children, another woman’s couldn’t endure the stress of fertility efforts, another woman’s husband’s financial irresponsibility bankrupted the family, two other husbands cheated. The message seemed to be, even if I found someone that week, there’s no guarantee the relationship would last long enough to get pregnant, much less a lifetime.

Back to the SMC meeting I went. I was now halfway to being forty-three and the first Reproductive Endocrinologist I went to had shown me the stats on the chart. Age forty-two fell to somewhere under 4 percent odds of getting pregnant naturally and half that by age forty three. If I enlisted certain fertility measures like pumping up my follicles with fertility drugs, I could increase my chances to some degree but it was still no guarantee.

To think all those years I spent trying not to get pregnant. I was ready to make the plunge from Thinker to thinking I’d better get on it and TTC ASAP. I met two other TTCer friends at SMC a few steps in front of me. They had already picked out their donors from the sperm bank assuring me as soon as I covered that end of the equation, stepping off the fertility high dive would become so much more palatable.

The three of us would go hiking together and pass men on the trail. “He’s SW, one of us would say.” Suddenly men were categorized as sperm-worthy or not. I freelanced at an ad agency with an ample supply of SW-looking men—too young to date, but perhaps if they wouldn’t mind taking this plastic cup into the men’s room… Clearly, I needed to start shopping the sperm bank catalogs.

The two biggies were California Cryobank and Fairfax Cryobank. Little did I know the California one was headquartered right across the street from my grocery store in Westwood near the UCLA campus. To my shopping list of eggs, milk, and bread, I could now add sperm—all from one parking spot. Both banks had “branches” at top-rated universities in the U.S.

Mr. Right (Sperm vial on ice)

My date, Mr. Right (Sperm vial on ice) riding shotgun in my car

Shopping for sperm wasn’t much unlike Internet dating, except the guy didn’t have to like me back. Raising the bar as high as it would go, I spent many late nights downloading profiles, medical histories, Kiersey temperament reports, audio interviews, and baby photos. To protect the anonymity of donors, most sperm banks offer baby photos rather than photos of donors as adults. A bank out of Atlanta has open donors (those willing to be contacted by the child at his or her choosing once the child is eighteen) that supply adult photos, but none there struck my fancy.

What isn’t advertised, but I learned at an SMC meeting, is that an attractiveness rating is given to each donor by sperm banks. The rating is on a scale of one to ten, but eight is the highest score given. Fairfax goes to ten as well and rates can climb to nine (not sure if the men are really better looking or if the raters are more generous). It’s certainly a subjective call, but just another factor when weighing whose DNA you want your child to have.

I had to pick some criteria to search by. So I started with height, plugging in the search menu, “5’11” or taller and Caucasian.” That netted about a hundred results. From there I looked at staff impressions—two or three sentences summing up the donor’s personality and overall impressions. They’d tell it like it is. The “shy, quiet, seems to be the brooding type” also “composes and performs his own music as an accomplished pianist”.

Another “quick-witted, gregarious” type is also “a gentleman, seems to genuinely care about other people.”

Much of the information is free, such as: physical characteristics, blood type, ethnic origin, profession, or school of study (most donors are students). A short profile goes further to reveal favorite foods, hobbies, and GPA. My approach was to next download the baby photo for $20. For those that struck a chord or warmed my heart, I bought more detailed information such as medical history that went back three generations including immediate family as well as grandparents, aunts, and uncles.

Also available were donors’ facial features and audio profiles. In the Kiersey temperament report (a psychological profile) I looked for two things—extrovertedness, as I can be a bit shy at times, and optimism as depression taints my genes. The medical history held a lot of weight for me. I dismissed anyone whose immediate family members had cancer, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and even asthma. These were certainly things that I wouldn’t dismiss if they were included in the family history of the man I fell in love with. I’d simply I’d cross my fingers and hope for the best. But if you can pick someone with a clean bill of health, why not?

In many respects I gathered more information than I ever knew about most of my past boyfriends, certainly from a medical standpoint. I quickly learned if I liked a donor, I should stock up as the more popular ones’ goods went fast. Fairfax had a wait list so when a donor’s new sperm came to market, ten of us might be called to each have a shot at two vials rather than the top one on the list hoarding all he had to offer.

I’d narrow my selects to a half dozen and comb over every detail. Unlike Internet dating, this wasn’t like choosing someone to have coffee with. This would be my child’s DNA for life. I’d email friends the top pick photos to sound in. A few friends would come over and listen to the audio interviews I downloaded. For me, so much came through in someone’s voice.

I’d seen a TV show where a woman was reunited with her mother after being put up for adoption. They both had the same weird affected voice. More than voice, I wanted to hear if this person sounded nice. Whether or not that’s hereditary, I just wanted to feel good about telling my child, “This is who your DNA came from.” I wanted my donor to be kind and likable.

When the interviewer asked the question “What motivated you to donate?” I didn’t want a guy saying it was money to party on but rather something along the lines of, “We had neighbors growing up who couldn’t conceive,” or “ It’s helping with med school costs but I also like the idea of helping those in need.” I wanted someone who grasped the magnitude of what this meant.

Both banks take less than five percent of those who apply, so the lot of donors is pretty good stock. They aim to take those who they know they can market. Every sperm shopper wants stellar medical history, good looks, and intelligence. I also wanted someone athletic and kind-sounding. I didn’t aim for the very best looking as single criteria or just the most intelligent, but an overall best, well-rounded and a feeling in my gut that this one is right.

Arriving at a donor I liked made all the difference in feeling good about moving forward. I had this other DNA half in mind with which to make this baby. The first one I picked was a med student.

My first RE, Dr. Chang started me on Clomid, an oral medication to increase the number of follicles and eggs I’d release. I was like a jacked-up pinball machine. It felt like PMS times infinity. The hormones raged so we could get more pinballs to play this fertility game with—each ball/egg increasing my odds of fertilizing and implanting. Every few days, I’d come in for an ultrasound tracking my follicle growth. Four on one side, three on the other. Go follies!

I’d administer the trigger shot (which triggers the brain to release the eggs) at an exact hour the evening before I’d go in for my IUI or intrauterine insemination. I was so certain I’d get pregnant the first try, I even opted to have them spin the sperm to aim for a girl. I figured if it was as simple as “paper or plastic,” why not. My mom had two grandsons, let’s go for a girl. Only when the results came back negative did I learn that separating the sperm actually decreased my odds for getting pregnant as they inject only half the amount.

I had also ignored the fact that “Mr. Right donor” didn’t have a reported pregnancy yet—something my SMC cronies insisted was critical. Even though the sperm banks guarantee sperm count, motility, and morphology (quality) to a certain degree, some goods just thaw better than others.

I dumped my first sperm donor and went on to one with a success rate. Now my RE wanted to up the ante on the follicle promotion and put me on injections. Twice a day I’d give myself a shot of follistim to increase my egg count more than clomid. I’m someone who has to turn my head when I have blood drawn. I asked a married friend who’d been down this road if she had to, could she have given herself the shots. She said, “no way.” Her husband would leave work to come administer them to her or she’d have to enlist the help of a neighbor.

The first shot I did in my RE’s office. The nurse held my sweaty hand gripping the needle. “Okay, on the count of three. One, two, three.” I couldn’t do it. We’d start over again and again.

“I’ve jumped out of an airplane and bungee jumped five times. Why can’t I do this?” I said, now sweating profusely. It was more the psychological factor of stabbing myself in the stomach with a needle. I’d always thought it’s a good thing I wasn’t diabetic and had never been bitten by a rabid animal. Death would be imminent.

On the next count of three, I asked myself how badly I wanted a baby and plunged the needle in my stomach. “Ow!” I said.

“Did it hurt?” the nurse asked surprised.

“No, I guess that was just a reaction,” I said, taken aback that it really hadn’t hurt.

By the next week, I was giving myself the shots while talking on the phone, not even interrupting the caller to tell them what I was about to do. I’d give myself shots at work in the restroom. I wondered if those in neighboring stalls, who might have smelled the alcohol swabs or spotted the needle in the feminine hygiene bin thought I was a heroin addict.

Sometimes I’d be told to administer the shot in my thigh. The trigger shots went into my rear end which demanded more skill, a mirror, and good aim.

I named the donors based on their baby photo Mr. Right donor #1 was referenced as Kitty Boy as he held a kitten in his photo. Roll of the fertility dice #2 was Overalls Boy, my second IUI, but first medicated one. This popular fertility clinic had standing-room-only in the waiting area on several visits but was riddled with sloppy mistakes.

After my first failed IUI the RE said, “It’s too bad you didn’t respond to the estradoil,” a medication intended to thicken my lining that the clomid thinned. No one had ever given me a prescription for this. The blood work technician repeatedly drew blood for more tests than needed, which was more gauging as I was paying a la carte.

I’d been waitlisted for a reproductive endocrinologist whom I had seen giving a speech at a fertility conference at Cedars Sinai, months earlier. Then I finally got in to see Dr. Najmabadi. On his desk was a plaque of the serenity prayer. He ran a private practice, also in Beverly Hills, but with less fanfare than the other place. I was a few days into my protocol for my first IVF (invitro fertilization). Dr. Naj. thought an IVF might be premature and switched the cycle to an IUI with donor #3, the water polo player. I figured if the sperm donor was into water sports, maybe his sperm could swim stronger and faster. I figured wrong.

Roll of the fertility dice #4 was an IVF which increased not only the odds of getting pregnant but also the cost, from roughly under $1k to $15k. In invitro fertilization, the eggs are removed under surgery, fertilized and grown before being put back in a few days later. And in the case of older eggs, ICSI (another $1500) is also performed where they inject the sperm into the egg with a needle because the egg shell hardens in older women’s eggs, making it difficult for sperm to penetrate.

This round, I decided to have a duel. Every donor thus far had been from the California Cryobank. This round, I enlisted a new candidate from the Fairfax Cryobank based out of Virginia. I had Dr. Naj thaw both vials and review them in the microscope to see which vial had better swimmers: the water polo player or the rugby captain. It was a close tie. We went with water polo player. He sank again.

Now, feeling the toll of being jacked up on the roller coaster of hormones for four solid months, I took a break for a month. I met a guy.

My friend Nancy returned home from taking me to get my eggs transferred. Her husband and houseguest, a guy named Bruce, wanted to know where she’d been. Bruce was so intrigued with this bold single woman wanting so badly to have a child, she’d brave it solo, he wanted to meet me. Nancy and her husband had known this guy for years and years. He’d joined them on their trips to Telluride in the summers where they’d had long hikes and he’d talked about wanting to be a father.

It was a storybook beginning. I could hear myself a decade in the future talking about how I met my husband. It made for an interesting first date for him to already know I clearly wanted children and that I was on a very immediate timeline. This gave all new meaning to term speed dating. The relationship ended even more quickly than it began. I didn’t miss a beat. My one-month holding pattern was finished and I was ready for the next roll of the fertility dice.

Donor #5 was Mr. Tie-breaker from the previous spermathon. He was 6’2″, adorable (rated in the top five best looking at Fairfax) blonde-haired, blue-eyed, captain of his rugby team and as best I could surmise an alumni of my alma mater, the University of Texas at Austin. Besides the stellar medical history, scoring well in optimism and extrovertedness, he was smart and seemed likable. He was both athletic and musically gifted. Well, at least he played the guitar. He had a nice voice with a hint of a southern accent if you listened carefully on certain words.

His audiotape interview indicated the one celebrity he’d like to meet was Marilyn Monroe. I was born the same day and year Marilyn died. Under “best vacation,” he mentioned a trapeze school at a resort he went to. The only Club Med I’ve ever been to had a trapeze school, and after mastering a simple knee hang trick, they put me in the show. I’d liked it so much, I took a few trapeze classes when I got back home. It was meant to be. We were sperm mates.

I’d now sunk forty grand into this endeavor. My mother would say, “You can’t just keep dolling out fifteen thousand after fifteen thousand on IVFs.”

Other people would ask, “So how many times are you going to try?” or “Have you considered adoption?” Both are some of the worst things you want to hear when your goal of a baby of your own is all you can envision. My older brother, upon learning my decision to have a child on my own, stopped speaking to me.

A year had passed. I’d been seeing a fertility acupuncturist once a week and then twice weekly as it neared egg withdrawal and transfer. I brewed and drank stinky Chinese herbs three times a day. I had one acupuncturist at the transfer on IVF number one. For this round, I had someone else. I was now going to a fertility therapist as well to cushion the emotional toll.

IVF #2 yielded eleven eggs. By day three, they all died off except two, and one of those looked iffy. My RE phoned while I was in my fertility therapist’s office. He explained normal protocol would suggest with so few eggs we should put them back in on day three but if we did and they didn’t take, we won’t have learned anything. If we push them to blastocyst to day five and put them in then, and they don’t take, at least we know they can make it to blast and would warrant trying again. It’s more difficult for an embryo to survive outside the uterus but if it can make it to blastocyst (in layman terms, a heartier embryo) it stands a stronger chance of implanting.

I’d have to sign consent to take such a risky move. My therapist thought it was a bad idea. So did my fertility acupuncturist. My gut said, trust Dr. Naj.

Both eggs made it to blast, though it took until day six. The transfer was scheduled for December 23. I spent Christmas on bedrest alone. Two weeks later, I was scheduled for my blood test. In previous times, I was certain I was pregnant. This time, I’d mastered the art of being detached. It drove me crazy when well-meaning friends would ask if I felt pregnant. I tried not to feel anything, knowing any expectation could easily be dashed. Yet, being too negative might also sabotage the results.

My little blastocysts

My little blastocysts

One day, fourteen days past transfer, I cheated and took a home pregnancy test. They advise not to as they can give a false negative if taken too early, a false positive if it
picks up any HCG (human chorionic gonadotropin) from the trigger shot. I can never read the the home pregnancy tests with the bars, so I got the kind that say either pregnant or well, I’m not sure what it says when you’re not because mine said…

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Results are in…

pregnant!

It was 6 a.m. I got out my camera and took a photo before the pee dried and it went away. Later that morning I went in for my bloodwork and told my RE the good news. “Is it for real?” I asked.

He said, “No, not until you get the bloodwork results back.”

It would be a long day waiting. I was about to go watch the Rose Bowl game with friends to see UT play USC. I got the call. “I have good news. You’re pregnant!” I can’t even remember who in the RE’s office broke the news.

A flood of emotion from all the months of trying hit the Kleenex box. Most people wait until after amnio results to announce such news. I was ready to call the newswires. Instead, I sent an email out with the photo of the pregnancy test saying it was now official to practically everyone I knew.

When UT spanked USC later that day, I had to contain myself to not jump up and down for fear I’d rattle something loose.

The pregnancy went as smoothly as I guess a pregnancy can for a forty three-year old. I turned forty-four right before my due date. A few days after the first positive pregnancy test, they took another blood test to see my HCG reading. Mine first test measured 448. If it doubled in two days, it was a viable pregnancy. Mine was 1423.I was pregnant with twins.

My two buns in the oven

My two buns in the oven

Since I was a little girl, I’d always wanted twins. I pictured them dressed alike in a cute double stroller. Then I started thinking about the not-so-cute double cost of daycare, double diapers, double crying in the middle of the night and the fact that I was a single parent. It also dawned on me that since I was a little girl, I’d also always wanted a monkey and perhaps I’d now be raising two kids, wild as monkeys, on my own.

A few weeks later, I went in for my first ultrasound. I was warned I might not hear a heartbeat so soon. I listened intently. When the volume was turned on, a thunderous heartbeat belted out just as my RE walked into the room. “Now that’s a healthy heartbeat.” Dr.Naj. said.

"Little Thumper's" thunderous heartbeat

“Little Thumper’s” thunderous heartbeat

“Thumper,” as the little being inside me would be called throughout my pregnancy, was alive and kicking. The bittersweet news was that the other twin didn’t make it. It was sad to see the little embryo that could not, but I tried to focus on the relief of caring for just one kid instead of two. I think if I’d been married and more capable of caring for two, I would have felt more heartache. I was just so thankful to have one very healthy heartbeat.

Those hopes were almost dashed a few weeks later when I passed a blood clot the size of a golf ball. I was certain I’d lost the baby. I raced into Dr. Naj’s who assured me when I walked in with tears streaming down my face that it was all going to be okay. The ultrasound revealed Thumper minding his own business and thumping away. We don’t know if the blood was from the placenta adhering to the lining or the twin’s sack making its way out.

Ready for my first closeup

Ready for my first closeup

The rest of the pregnancy went fairly smoothly for an old hen. Everything underscored the term, “last call.” My age alone made me bear the title high risk. The CVS (chorionic villi sampling), which nowadays replaces the amnio, provides the same information as an amnio, but with results back much sooner (week ten versus week nineteen).

At the genetics counselor, I learned there are infinite genetic abnormalities and my age alone put me at a one in fourteen risk for one of the more common ones. I breathed a huge sigh of relief when my CVS results came back normal. At ten weeks I also knew I was having a…

I'm a boy!

I’m a boy!

boy!

As soon as I discovered Gymboree and knew they had just as cute clothes for boys as girls, I was elated. I made a celebration purchase of a little monkey outfit.

At thirty four weeks, my OB noted the girth of my stomach stopped growing (it’s supposed to grow one inch per week of pregnancy). I was sent to a specialist who determined my placenta was showing calcifications due to my age. I was told my baby had reached full term in size but likely wouldn’t fatten up much before delivery.

They’d monitor him now twice a week to see if he would grow and if indeed he stopped gaining weight altogether, they’d induce me early. A few weeks later my blood pressure was high. I’d now begun to really start swelling. I could only wear one pair of flip-flops and my feet looked like Fred Flintstone’s. My wrists swelled up too, causing them to feel arthritic. At night they were in such pain, I’d have to wear wrist gaurds.

At week thirty-eight, I was in for a cardiogram and I asked again if my blood pressure was still high. It was. They sent me right over to the hospital to see if I had protein in my urine which would indicate pre-eclempsia. There was. I did. They induced me right away and while the labor initially started out fine, by morning I hadn’t dilated any further and they thought I could have a seizure—putting my and the baby’s health at risk. They had to do a C-section immediately.

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My cute little monkey

On August 29th, I delivered a healthy baby  boy at 7 pounds, 3 ounces, 23.5 inches long.  He was beautiful and perfect in every way. I  named him Ames Somerset. Ames is a  family last name whose genealogy dates  back to the 1400s in the county of Somerset,  England. I remembered visiting Somerset  and standing in the church cemetery,  surrounded by thin timeworn tombstones,    feeling I’d discovered the end of my roots.

Throughout my pregnancy, there were times I wondered if I’d maybe romanticized this notion of motherhood. I also feared my late father’s depression might make me destined for postpartum depression. I feel like I have just the opposite: Postpartum nirvana. Ames is far more joyful than I could ever have imagined. The love I have for him is deeper than any love I’ve ever tapped into.

While Dr. Pelino didn’t end up being my OB who delivered Ames, I sent her a thank-you note for offering such outlandish advice and a picture of Ames to add to her bulletin board.

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Ames just before he peed on my hands

I’m blessed to have an exceptionally good-natured baby. His little hand clutches onto the top of my shirt, he looks me in the eye, purrs when he’s nursing. He grins ear to ear and has just learned to belly laugh. When I sing to him, he tries to sing along, cooing in harmony. And when I look down at him while he’s sleeping and think that I almost missed out on this, I well up in tears.

This story was originally published in Divinecaroline.com January, 2007. At age 8 now, I can report that solo motherhood was both harder than I imagined but also far more rewarding that I could have ever dreamed. I’d do it over again in a heartbeat.

 

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The Little Friends

lorimayfield-51d9b9331462bb5I balanced my half of the “little friends” on the welcome plate of chocolate-dipped strawberries on the bedside tray that had been left for me by the hotel manager, replacing his welcome note to me with a one for my boyfriend. He was due to arrive while I was getting a Nordic Princess massage at Stein Eriksen Lodge’s spa in Deer Valley, Utah.

Vic and I were meeting up for a close of the ski season weekend in late March. In fact, the only times I saw my boyfriend were on rendezvous such as these as I live in Los Angeles and he in Tucson. We’d met each other a few years prior on a mountain biking/river rafting/elephant safari/trekking the Himalayas multi-sport trip with REI Adventures in Nepal. We shared the same love of adventure travel and our long-distance relationship consisted mainly of traveling together.

The “little friends” collection began when we started dating more seriously. Or, when we started referring to each other as boyfriend and girlfriend. It was just before a hiking/cycling/kayaking trip to New Zealand over Christmas. I’d given him a card with a miniature Santa glued to the front. “Secret Santa”, he would soon be called, as he mysteriously appeared in unsuspecting places. A little friend who appeared with his red Santa hat peering out of a fleece pocket while hiking Mt. Cook or cinched into the harness on one of three bungee jumps we did in Queenstown.

At a roadside stop after sea kayaking in the Milford Sound, Vic got on the bus with a second new friend, a kiwi finger puppet luanching what would become a collection of travel mascots.

“Liddo lamb” joined the gang symbolizing the near-miss sacrificial lamb we worried about all night on New Years’ eve. We could hear him baaa-aaaing all night too close to a bonfire across the street from our lodge not far from Paparoa National Park. The lamb had been vandalized by what looked to be tourists with Swiss army knives hatching square patches of wool from his coat. Fearing we’d awake to the lamb on his side keeled over from smoke inhalation the next morning, I kept begging Vic to go free him during the night. He survived anyway and while I wanted to bring him back with me to Los Angeles, it seemed more practical to carry a 3-inch lamb with a hand-sewn smile instead. We went thru the entire basket looking for a perfectly symmetrical smile before arriving at “Liddo”.

Before going to bed at night after a long day’s hike, bike or kayak, we’d line the little friends up next to a candle like a religious shrine to watch over us. By mid-trip, they’d earned semi-celebrity status as other people on our trip wanted their photos taken with the little friends say, under the waterfall in the rainforest hiking up to Fox Glacier or in a meadow of wild flowers near Okarito.

In Fiji, we added “Turd-o” a brown wooden turtle. On travels we weren’t together on, the first thing we’d ask the other upon return wasn’t “how was the trip” but instead, “did you find any little friends?”

It was a tall order to qualify as a little friend. A little friend had to be well, little or under three inches more precisely and in proportion to the other friends. You couldn’t have a six-inch long lizard say from Baja no matter how cute or a troll in lederhosen from Germany with hair that towered over Kiwi, it just wouldn’t work.

Vic sent me “Bunstee” a little bunny on the Easter we spent apart that Spring. When we’d part ways at an airport after traveling together, we’d divvy up the little friends. They represented the absence and the longing we felt for one another. When Vic would call, he’d always ask about the little friends, wanting to know if they were bedside keeping vigil. When we’d rendezvous after exchanging hugs and kisses, the first thing we’d do is reunite the little friends. His set of little friends might send a postcard to the little friends I had during the long weeks apart.

I kept a photo of all the little friends sitting in the snow in Vail in a frame Vic got me in seaside village of Punakaiki in New Zealand. The little friends had been part of a Valentine gift surprise in Vail standing in formation inside the chocolate kisses that formed a heart with two necklaces wrapped in the center.

The little friends had conversations with each other the way couples talk through pets when they can’t openly display their feelings for each other. “Does Liddo Lamb miss Kiwi?” Vic would ask.

“Yes, she’s been baaa-aahing herself to sleep every night putting little Xs on her sheep herder calendar wondering when she’s going to see him again.” I’d reply.

The little friends had a rocky go of it the month leading up to ski trip to Utah. Vic almost didn’t come which meant one half of the little friends might forget who the other half was. We’d had tearful phone calls arguing about how long it had actually been since we’d last seen each other and his cavalierness about not committing to when the next time might be or if he’d actually come until minutes before the 14-day advance ticket had to be purchased. My friends grew weary of being backup for a trip I was off to when once again my non-committal boyfriend waffled back and forth on if he was going or not.

The relaxation of the Nordic princess massage quickly vanished when I returned to my room and noticed the little friends absent from the bed tray. The maids had obviously come for the bed turndown service. The bedspread was folded and set aside, sheets turned down with chocolates on the pillow and the bedside welcome tray exactly as I’d left it except for the little friends. I looked under the bed, around the perimeter of the dresser, or anyplace a little 3-inch friend could have rolled or leapt off. Nothing.

I checked my wallet to see if any cash was missing. All there. Credit cards, all in order. My jewelry, ditto. Initially, the idea of someone stealing the little friends seemed unthinkable.

The phone rang. It was Vic who, not surprisingly had missed his plane. He wouldn’t be there until the next morning. I was livid. He’d bragged countless times before about how close he cut it getting to the airport like a badge of tardiness that he could hold up an airplane with an entire flight steaming because he had to gate check his bag. Post 9-11, this no longer served him. They wouldn’t let him gatecheck his bag or let him get on the plane sending it on a following flight. His only choice was the catch the first morning’s flight.

When he called the next morning to tell me he’d meet me mid-slope once he got in, I broke the news about the little friends. I hadn’t realized it was first of the month and he took it as an April fool’s joke. When he joined me on the chairlift, the first thing I noticed is he hadn’t brushed his teeth. Smelled like a bad combination of Southwest airlines peanuts and stale coffee. He leaned in to kiss me and I turned to let him kiss me on the cheek. “You’re still mad? You’re not going to even kiss me?” He said, “How ‘bout Liddo Lamb will she kiss me?”

“They’re gone.” He gave me a look of disbelief. “Yes, Really.” We sat silently the rest of the chairlift ride up.

When we returned to the room, he kept waiting for Kiwi or Santa to jump out of a hotel robe pocket, peer out of a pillowcase or be sandwiched between the shampoo and crème rinse in the shower stall. Nothing.

We slept with our backs to each other that night. The next morning when it finally sunk in I wasn’t kidding about the April Fool’s Vic wanted to know if I had called anyone. “You mean like the police?” I said.

“Well, no but hotel security or management.” He said, implying I’d been careless to not have gotten on the trail sooner.

“What do I say? The little friends have been abducted? Send out an amber alert?” I placed the call to the front desk. “Yes, it seems there’s been a theft in my room.” They wanted more particulars. “Uh well,” I grasped. “They were little uh, small toys I guess you’d call them. A finger puppet, a stuffed Santa, a wooden turtle…” I went on. “No sir, we don’t have any children in the room.” “The value? You mean the monetary value? Oh, I don’t know about twenty-five dollars but they hold sentimental value.” I grew embarrassed taking such a serious tone about what he seemingly noted as insignificant items.

He dismissively said he’d check with housekeeping and get back with me. I went on to explain how I’d left them on a tray that might have been viewed as hotel trinkets you might find in say, a happy meal. Maybe they thought these were some end-of-the-season trinkets for guests with children. Perhaps the maids at a moment’s glance thought the room didn’t indicate children, didn’t know I hadn’t already seen the welcome plate and thought I’d never be the wiser if said missing toys were absent. I babbled on hoping if I didn’t sound too accusatory I’d give them an out to cop to lifting the little friends. The manager informed me these housekeepers had already left for the season and were headed to their native Guatemala.

I pictured a Maria somebody with the little friends stowed away in her luggage bound for the homeland to be adopted by little Guatamalan children. This image did not warm my heart one iota. Screw the poor children of Guatemala. I wanted the little friends back without any grubby Guatemalan hands on them. The manager said he’d take my contact information and call me on their return.

Back and forth my boyfriend and I argued over whose fault it was. I was accused of being careless leaving them out it plain sight, practically taunting the maids to steal them. I blamed him. If he’d caught his plane maybe he’d have been there when housekeeping came to turn down the bed linens.

The same sort of arguments that likely took place in the Lindenburgh family when their baby was kidnapped. I insisted my boyfriend, try and weasel the names and phone numbers of the Guatemalan housekeepers from the manager explaining he’s fluent in Spanish. Insist he only intended to have a friendly chat with them. Get them on the phone then reveal he’s an immigration attorney (who normally helps immigrants into the country but leaving that detail out) instead, he might mention only the words immigration, attorney and imply housekeeping might find themselves banned from the US with criminal charges if they didn’t cough up our pequeno compadres.

The manager, perhaps now fearing retaliation and something certain to end up on the six o’clock news, wouldn’t release their names much less their phone numbers. He assured us when they returned from vacation, he’d have a word with them. He insisted they’ve not had any thefts and surely I must have just “misplaced my items”. He kept calling them “items” which only annoyed me all the more.

Weeks passed. The Guatemalans returned with memories of the delight of their little ones back home overjoyed by the tiny items from America. The manager dismissively assured me his people hadn’t known anything about my items and perhaps a check might just put this matter to rest.

“How much were they worth?” the manager wanted to know again.

The relationship was now down the toilet. Vic and I hardly spoke since getting back from the trip. I’d stopped asking about his half of the little friends. What was the point really now that the whole pack was ripped apart. He’d given me Bunstee as a consolation but I didn’t want him sitting alone by the alarm clock –too depressing– instead he started to collect dust in a bowl next to some pocket change. I totaled the monetary value of the “items” and suggested the manager might kick in some postage to cover costs from Fiji and New Zealand.

By the time the check arrived from the Lodge, the relationship was completely over. Vic had flown out to try and salvage things. I’d since found he had a profile up on an Internet dating site. He’d come out to LA one last time but I’d lost all interest. He waited until I lost any fondness be it love or something else. I’d already shed tears in the countless fights we had over the phone. He insisted I still must care for him but I didn’t. He waited until after I had nothing left but numbness for him to tell me he loved me for the first time and had always thought I’d be the mother of his children. That made me misty-eyed but what really made me heave sobs was when he said, “what about the little friends. Tell me you’ll always keep the photo of the little friends in the frame.”

Editor’s note: This story originally was published on Divinecaroline.com. The little friends photo remains in a frame somewhere in my basement. After the breakup, I went to inquire about putting my eggs on ice. The visit to my OB would ultimately result in my decision to pursue motherhood solo enlisting the help of a spermbank and the marvels of modern medicine. I gave birth at the ripe advanced maternal age of 44. (Read: Last Call.)

 

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 Taken for a ride

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Which was the more painful part of her Indian camel safari: getting ripped off or all but ripped in half by her undergarments?

Jaisalmer, India  Visible pantyline should have been the least of my worries when I got dressed that morning and put on a pair of thong underwear. If only I’d had the foresight to know what a grave mistake that would prove to be later that day atop a camel in the Thar Desert of India.

My afternoon of woe began at the Sam Sand Dunes parking lot, 26 miles outside of Jaisalmer, in Rajasthan.

Eager camel guides descended upon my white Ambassador car like vultures the minute we pulled into the lot. My timid driver did little to shield them off—the whole flock all squawking loudly at once in Hindi. The most aggressive of them, with a toothy used-camel-salesman grin, cut a deal with my driver and I was quickly auctioned off.

Fresh prey in tow, my newly appointed camel guide paraded me over to what looked at first like a Hertz rent-a-car lot except that these vehicles were camels. Adorned in vibrant Rajasthani yellow, red and blue saddles, hundreds of camels sat 20 to a row. And then there was the back row. Clad in dusty, dingy, tattered blankets slouched a bunch of nasty Rent-a-Wreck clunkers.

This was my last adventure in a five-week trip to India and I was no stranger to being ripped off. So it wasn’t surprising when the guide motioned for me to get on the most pitiful four-legged beast.

I’d just careened across the western half of India in a seven-hour obstacle course dash dodging cows, goats and chickens, all in hopes of having my picture snapped on one of these creatures before the sun set. “Can I have one of those camels?” I said, pointing to a more photogenic one.

“No madam, you have number, you must take this one”. Back and forth we argued. Finally he said, “okay, that camel cost you 500 rupees (about $11) more.” My driver had already paid him the posted rate of 200 rupees ($4.40).

Armed only with a video camera, I hit the record button and asked him to repeat what he had just said so as to capture this all on tape. I wasn’t sure if its use would be with the tour company I booked this through for reimbursement purposes, or for the international investigator in determining my cause of death.

Wad of rupees in hand, I made certain I filmed a close-up as I handed the money over to the camel swindler. There began the first of my camel ride tolls.

This wouldn’t have happened had the itinerary gone as planned. Meticulously, I’d mapped everything out with SITA World Travel in Delhi—the car driver, the English speaking guide and the camel tour were all organized and pre-paid over the internet months ahead of time. Intending to save the best for last, I’d scheduled my sunset camel ride for my final night in Rajasthan. My driver was to pick up my guide in Jaisalmer en route to the desert to accompany me on the camel ride. But my driver’s limited vocabulary of eight words of English didn’t include key terms such as “pick up” or “guide” and my sole evening in the desert was fast fading with the setting sun.

I’d have to make do with this character and fend for myself.

This part of the desert wasn’t a mass of red and orange pyramid-shaped sand dunes like the photo in my guidebook, but a wasteland of trash-strewn piles of filthy brown sand. And what might have at one time been “musicians dancing and singing with gay abandon,” as described in another glossy brochure were today ill-tuned, screechy violin-sounding instruments sung by rusty vocal chords off-key. The noise was more of a wail or cry than a joyful song of any sort.

Fleeing the gaiety of the music as fast as possible, I boarded my over-priced camel, Raju. This was no simple feat.

I swung my right leg over what looked to be nothing more than a legless camel’s torso on the ground, as the guide whistled a signal.   Raju rose like a marionette, first his front legs went up and I almost back flipped off his rump, then the back legs went up as he buckled his front legs, nearly somersaulting me over his head. Video camera smacking side to side around my neck, my heart racing, we were off at a trot.

“Easy, I want to walk, no running,” I plead to the camel guide.

Grinning back to me he said, “no easy ” tugging on Raju’s reins to make him go even faster.

Horses, elephants and mules are but a few modes of four-legged transportation I have experienced, but nothing compares to the camel. Both legs on one side move at the same time in a seesaw motion that produced a bizarre tug of war on the front and back of my underwear.

My attempts to hover suspended between Raju’s two humps as he galloped failed miserably. The faster the camel went, the more frantic the sawing of my privates. If the sun would hold still, I’d have made arrangements to do away with my undies all together.

We trotted out only about five minutes when the out-of-breath camel guide announced, “Okay, here is where your driver pay me to take you. Look at all this trash,” he gestured with a sweeping arm to reveal empty water bottles, soda cans, candy wrappers and film canisters.   “You see beautiful sand dune over there? I take you for just 1000 rupees ($22) more!”

“You have got to be kidding me,” I said.

“You get off Raju or you pay me now!” He insisted, the sun sinking further behind the tan molehills.   I negotiated 500 rupees ($11), captured of course on home video.

We approached the somewhat scenic dune. Dismounting the camel (same ordeal as getting on only in reverse) I half-heartedly snapped a few pictures and climbed back on. The camel conman demanded 200 rupees to take me back to the parking lot.  I forked over the full amount without negotiation.

I winced in agony as the camel’s odd gait caused new pain on my raw flesh en route back. This was the mother of all wedgies. I considered becoming a thong underwear activist making it mandatory that manufacturers issue warning labels. Caution: wearing atop camels could result in full-body bifurcation.

Echoes of my mother’s warning rang in my head. She’d been less than thrilled I was going to India alone.   “I’ll bet a little bit of camel goes a long way,” she had replied when I asked if she thought I should do the short sunset ride or a full three-day camel safari. I confessed to the video camera that she’d been right.

Suddenly the smooth camel operator decided it was time to get chummy. “You are married?” he called back to me with a leering look.

“Yep,” I lied.

“Me not,” He said, “I don’t want Indian wife. I want tourist wife.”

Mmm-hmn, one with deep pockets, I thought to myself.

“Some tourists give me presents you know—wristwatch, rings, Walkman radio, even airline ticket.” He continued with a laundry list of possible gift ideas I might consider.

As soon as Raju’s hooves hit the parking lot pavement, I wanted off. The camel guide held out his hand for a final tip. I considered handing him the remains of my frayed panties, glared instead and limped to the car.

Back in Jaisalmer the next day, I met with three Mafioso-looking guys at Rajasthan Tours Pvt. Ltd.   They appeared to empathize with my ordeal initially and to want to reimburse me. Saying at first, “ah yes, the guide, we had him here for you waiting but you did not arrive to pick him up.” They begged that we resolve this matter here in Jaisalmer and not let the parent Delhi office in on this.   I asked what they proposed. Half an hour passed while they argued and yelled at each other in Hindi, pointing at me on occasion.

During this heated debate, I couldn’t help but remember a friend who’d been to India’s lone morsel of advice. He’d said, “it’s not a matter of if you’ll be ripped off, but how often and how much. Be aware but don’t let it spoil your time.”
Weary, I interrupted, “Listen, this isn’t how I want to spend my last day in India. You guys talk this over, decide what you want to do and come find me, I’ll be next door getting a bite to eat.”

Swatting flies between bites of chicken briyani, I looked up to see the big turban-clad racketeer barreling towards me.   Accusingly he shoved a piece of paper in front of my nose and yelled, “the itinerary say only Sam sand dune excursion. No camel ride, no guide. We don’t owe you!”

“What else would an excursion in the desert mean besides a camel ride,” I asked. “And why would you have a guide waiting for me if I wasn’t supposed to have one?”

He shrugged his shoulders and stormed off.

Thank goodness I have it all on video, I thought as I ignored stares from other restaurant patrons.

In Delhi, I phoned SITA, the company that had contracted with Rajasthan Tours. I was told they would happily reimburse me. Half disappointed they didn’t put up a fight, I was prepared to show them my hidden video footage like some news expose reporter. I’d watched India’s version of MTV, surely they have an equivalent of 60 minutes, 20/20 or Dateline. All my undercover film work would be reduced to mere vacation video now.

Flipping through my photos back home in Los Angeles, I found a shot of me atop Raju on his colorful, quilted saddle. The sun had already dipped behind the sand dune but it managed to cast a soft orange glow on the rippled sand. There even appeared to be a smile on my face (only I know it was more of a pained wince). I put it in a frame on the mantel in my living room.

 

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Later a friend saw it and remarked, “Wow, you went on a camel ride?”

It was more like I was taken for a ride in every sense of the word, I thought to myself —including the camel, the camel guide and most of all the thong underwear I have vowed never to step foot near again.

This story was originally published in the Los Angeles Times Travel Turkeys Travel Issue (of travels gone awry) by Lori Mayfield

 

 

 

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A Passage to India Paved With Bran Flakes and Mueslix

lorimayfield-51da00731462e79Parked in the alley behind my apartment in Los Angeles, I sat with an X-Acto knife in one hand, a pair of scissors in the other and as many boxes of cereal as I could cram into my compact car.

I had very little time to come up with the 16,000 miles I needed for free air fare to India. These 160 boxes of cereal were just the ticket.

I had planned my trip to India based on how far I could get with the miles in my American Airlines frequent-flier account. I had 94,000; I needed only 70,000 for a coach ticket to New Delhi, thus saving me about $2,000 in air fare.

I planned to go during the Christmas holidays, and even though it was only August, flights were beginning to fill. Taking one of the few remaining coach seats on Japan Airlines, or JAL, an American affiliate, with availability even close to when I wanted to travel, I reserved my seat and began planning the land part of my trip. JAL holds reservations for up to 30 days, but you can call back and reserve them again for another 30 days up until two weeks before departure.

I had remembered to re-reserve my ticket in September, again in October, but by November I was so engrossed in planning that I forgot to book my ticket.

When I checked again on the first Saturday in November, my reservation had expired. The only seats were in business class, which required 110,000 miles. I was 16,000 miles short.

I had already put down a nonrefundable $5,000 for my land costs, so I begged the agent to check for anything even remotely close to my now etched-in-stone land travel dates. Nothing.

My options looked dismal. I could buy a business-class ticket for $4,487. Or I could try to earn 16,000 miles.

My credit card is linked to my miles at a dollar-per-mile rate, but a $16,000 shopping spree didn’t seem cost effective. My long-distance service pays five miles per minute. To make it, I’d have to talk for 53 hours. Pass.

But halfway down the page on my mileage summary statement was a promotion: Earn 100 miles per box on participating Kellogg’s cereal on a promotion that lasts until November 2002 (or while supplies last). At 100 miles per box, I could get 160 boxes of cereal at, say, about $4 a box, for $640. That was better than a $4,500 ticket.

My quest had begun.

I zipped to the supermarket. Making eye contact with no one, I nonchalantly pushed my shopping cart to the cereal aisle, searching for the American Airlines airplane on the front of the boxes that read, “Earn 100 AAdvantage miles.”

The “participating cereal brands” were not the kinds of cereal I would actually want to eat. No, this offer was good only on the many brands formulated to promote health and regularity. Cracklin’ Oat Bran, All-Bran Extra Fiber, Bran Buds, Just Right, Complete Wheat Bran Flakes, Raisin and Strawberry-filled Mini Wheats, Product 19 and Mueslix.

I began to pile boxes into the cart, managing to cram in about 50. In line, I pretended I was just another shopper. No one said a word at the first two grocery stores. At the third and final store, the cashier asked, “Is this for your own personal use or a group?”

“Group,” I said matter-of-factly. I would worry about which group later.

No one thought to list it in the specs of the car owner’s manual, but you can fit a lot of cereal into a Saab–160 boxes, actually, with just enough room to see out of the rear window. How would I explain this if I got stopped or had a wreck?

Fortunately, I never had to work that one out, but I did have to figure out how to get the coupon off the back of all 160 boxes. Arriving home, I calculated the number of trips it would take to get 40 bags (four boxes per sack) to my second-story apartment and decided instead to remove the coupons in the car.

The operation entailed opening each box, prying the wax paper bag of cereal away from the sides of the box, then removing the bag without splitting or spilling it. Next, I used an X-Acto knife to cut two sides of the dollar-bill-sized coupon on the box, allowing just enough room to get my hand in to cut the remaining part with scissors. Then I put the cereal bag back in the box and closed it. One down, 159 to go.

By the time I reached 160, my thumb and index finger were swollen and numb.

Foot-high stack of cardboard coupons in hand, I went upstairs to begin filling them out. A roll of address labels took care of some of the writing; I added my frequent-flier number, and I was done.

Then I saw the fine print on the bottom of the coupon: “Allow six to eight weeks for processing.” I was leaving in three weeks. I would call Kellogg’s on Monday to sort things out.

By now I was late for a party, a slightly overdue celebration of Mexican Day of the Dead. Guests were to bring a memento of a loved one and place it on an altar above the fireplace. Reverently, I placed a box of each kind of cereal on the mantel.

“In honor of Gandhi,” I whispered. It was a sure-fire conversation starter and a perfect segue to getting complete strangers out to my car to buy my cereal. “Hi, I’m Lori. Say, are you folks breakfast eaters?” Perhaps not the best icebreaker, but next thing I knew, those who recognized a great bargain when they heard one were out front buying eight boxes for $20, a steal for them, a small return on my investment for me.

Two people said they would love to help me but didn’t have any cash or a checkbook. I gave them my card, said they could mail me a check and sent them on their way with arms full of fiber. One guy never sent me a check; I figured it was his karmic debt to pay in the next life. I drove home 60 boxes lighter.

Monday morning I phoned Kellogg’s headquarters in Battle Creek, Mich. The customer service rep told me my award coupons could not be expedited, explaining, “If we make an exception for you, we’ll have to make one for everyone.”

“Everyone who goes out and buys 160 boxes of cereal? I somehow doubt that’s going to be a problem,” I barked, holding my bandaged hand to the phone.

Following my motto of “the squeaky wheel gets the grease,” I hounded Kellogg’s day after day, demanding to speak to a higher-up. Finally I got someone to expedite my claim and give me an actual person to whom I could express-mail my coupons.

With that part of the problem solved, I now had 100 boxes of cereal in my car to contend with. In the warm Southern California sun, that new car smell had begun to be replaced with the sickly sweet smell of toasted wheat, whole wheat with crunchy fiber, strawberry and raisin filling, and whatever those gooey yellow things are that stick to your teeth in Mueslix.

By now I had told some friends and family what I had done. They greeted this news with long silences. No, my brother didn’t want any cereal, and he would not ask his co-workers whether they wanted some either. I considered carting a trunkful to Phoenix for Thanksgiving for my mother to hawk to her bridge friends, but now I just wanted to be rid of those boxes. It was like driving the streets with a dead body in the trunk, only weirder.

Driving in downtown Los Angeles, I spotted a Salvation Army store. The organization would love a donation of cereal, it turned out. I unloaded the goods and was later sent a receipt for a tax deduction.

While the blisters on my hand healed, I took time out during the next two weeks to check out JAL’s Web site. Under “Our Aircrafts” was the seat plan of the 747 I would be on: 315 coach seats crammed side by side and only 78 spacious, inviting business-class seats, of which I had one.

Besides just getting my ticket, I was now getting to fly business class instead of coach. For 20 hours of flight time trapped in the cabin of a plane traveling halfway around the globe, this could be well worth the upgrade adventure.

Finally on board the plane, stretched out in my comfy seat, I was awakened by the flight attendant asking whether I wanted a Japanese or Western breakfast.

“What’s your Western breakfast?” I asked.

“Cereal,” she said–Kellogg’s Product 19.

Who could resist the fruits of my labor?

Originally published in The Los Angeles Times in the Travel Turkeys Issue features travels gone awry.

 

 

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Scared Shitless on Safari

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by Lori Mayfield

Kenya Heavy sighs filled with terrorized angst woke me from a dead sleep. Wrung out at the edge of her cot was the silhouette of my best friend and worst-matched travel companion, Beth. “Do you hear the lions?” she quivered.

Yes, off in the distance, I could hear throaty growls punctuated with a yawn-like roar, but I’d dismissed it as hairball clearings.

“They’re probably just marking their territory, Beth. Go back to sleep.”
“I have to go to the bathroom so bad,” she pleaded.

Unlike Abercrombie & Kent, which strung electric fencing around their camps, Wilderness Travel simply hired a local night watchman armed with a spear.

“Shine your flashlight outside the tent opening so the Masai guard will come over and walk you to the toilet tent,” I suggested.

“And have the lion rip my arm off!” Beth snapped. She’d been afraid of everything on our African adventure to date, including fear of the airplane crash-landing in Johannesburg, someone breaking into our hotel room in Nairobi, and being swallowed by the river, camping along the Ewaso-Ngiro in the Sambura National Reserve. Tonight only marked the next item up for neurotic meltdown.

“Do you want me to walk over there with you?” I offered.
“No.” Beth began to sob.
“What do you want to me to do?” I said, annoyed.
“Would you mind if I peed in the tent?” she begged.
“Are you serious? Where?”
“I’ll go in my water bottle.”
“How are you going to whiz in a half-inch opening?” I asked, trying to drum some sense into her.

Relieved that I was open to even discussing the idea, Beth explained. “I can dump the water out, cut the top off with my Swiss army knife, pee, then toss the bottle out of the tent.” Clearly she’d been awake longer than I thought devising such a scheme.

Interpreting my stunned silence as a green light, I could already hear the sound of plastic being cut with tiny scissors, a rustling around at the edge of Beth’s cot and a stream of urine hitting the empty plastic bottle that seemed to flow and flow and flow. I rolled over in my cot to try and go back to sleep.

“God, dammit!” Beth announced.
“Did you miss?” I asked.
“No, I have diarrhea.”
My eyes opened wide.
“Would you mind if I…”

Bolting upright I said, “You are not diarrheaing in this tent!” I marched over and unzipped the front of the tent. “If you stink in here, you’ll lure one of those lions over here to eat us both.”

Pajama pants at her ankles, holding a half liter of pee, Beth was sacrificed to the lions. Crawling back into my sunken cot, I tried to get back to sleep only to be roused a few minutes later by the zip of the tent opening.

“Did the Masai guy walk you to the toilet tent?” I asked, astonished at how quickly she’d returned.

“No,” Beth said sheepishly. “I went in front of our tent.”

“You think a lion’s not going catch a whiff of that and come kill whatever left that god-awful stench?”

Beth chuckled and went right to sleep.

Listening to her snore, I lay wide-awake wondering how far away the lions really were.

The next hour I wondered what might provoke a lion to become man-eating. If say, a lion accidentally stepped in a pile of human dung, could that be enough to set it off?

The hour after that I wondered if Beth even bothered to kick any dust over her territory-marking given that she was in her bare feet.

And the hour after that I didn’t have to wonder anymore as it was now morning and I heard the six-year old from the family camping next to us scream, “Mom, look! Grrr- oss!”

Originally published by Lori Mayfield in Traveler’s Tale anthology, Sand in My Bra & Other Misadventures: Funny Women Write from the Road. Editors Choice Award,  Best Seller for categories of Humor and Travel.

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