In January, my wife contracted a severe case of stress and tension and there was a slight chance that I might have been the carrier. See, there was this incident just before Christmas...
"...Come quickly," I yelled. "I've found something unbelievable."
Pat sprinted into my office. "You found a job?" she asked excitedly. "With pay?"
"An agent who wants your book?"
"A producer who wants your screenplay?"
The excitement in her voice waned. "Somebody on eBay who wants to buy your ‘five decades of mismatched socks' collection?"
"Nope. None of those things."
She sighed. "What then?"
I picked up the remote control, pointed it at the small television in my office, and held it in the ready position.
"You know how you always ask me what I want for Christmas and I always say I don't know so you always get me a dress shirt but mainly I just wear sweats all day so I never really need a dress shirt and after about six months I give the dress shirt to Goodwill and then my birthday comes and you buy me another dress shirt and I wait six months and give it to Goodwill and then it's like Christmas again and..."
"You gave away that brand new $45 shirt I just bought you for your birthday?"
"That's not really the point I was trying to make."
"I bought that especially for you to wear to important events like my boss's holiday party."
"But I still have that perfectly good shirt you gave me when we got married."
"You're going to wear an eighteen-year-old shirt to meet the Dean?"
I felt like we were drifting from the point, so I turned on the television and switched to the Golf Channel.
"See," I said. "It's called the Hammer, and the guy on the infomercial can hit his drive four hundred yards without hardly even swinging and..." I paused for effect, "...it's only one hundred dollars plus shipping and handling if you act right now."
Pat turned and marched out of my office.
"Where you going?"
"Store," she said.
"But the Hammer's not available in stores, only through this special television offer."
"I'm going to the store to buy you a new shirt," she said, "for the big party which, as I'm sure you have forgotten, is tonight!"
Tonight. Oh, man, I'd been hoping to work on my new column — while I watched the Lakers game. Guess that was out the window. And, so it seemed, was my new golf club.
Then the phone rang.
"Ernie, it's Larry. Have you seen that Hammer infomercial?"
I explained the whole scenario to him.
"But you've still got that other shirt, don't you?"
Guys like me and Larry, we just plain understand each other.
"The reason I called," Larry said, "is I bought the Hammer. Trouble is I threw my back out and can't use it. I was wondering if you wanted to borrow it."
Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus. His name is Larry.
Within half-an-hour, I had gone to Larry's house, dispensed five minutes worth of heartfelt condolences, grabbed the Hammer, and headed for a driving range near the University of California at Santa Barbara (UCSB) where my wife works.
Man, I was whacking them. They weren't all going straight, but they were going far. Then... I hooked one. To you non-golfers that means I pulled it left — way left — toward the road.
I was back in my office when Pat came home with my new shirt. Bright blue to go with my dark blue suit, which I could only hope I hadn't accidentally given to Goodwill.
"Guess what? I saved you a bunch of money," I said. "Larry let me try out his Hammer and I didn't like it all that well."
Pat smiled. "Really? Why?"
"Well, see, one of my drives kinda bounced onto the road and hit a green sedan."
"Huh," she said. "The Dean has a green sedan."
"Yeah. I know."
"You don't mean..."
"I think so, but I didn't stick around to find out."
"You can't go to the party then. He might recognize you. I'll have to go by myself."
She grabbed the new blue shirt out of my hand, put it in the bag and headed back to the store. Me, I opened a beer and turned on the Lakers game — and thought about my column, of course...
Perhaps I should take a moment here and tell you about Pat, because as we go along I know you are going to be asking yourself: "How in the world did she end up with him?"
I moved to Santa Barbara, California to go to Brooks Institute of Photography, and after four years and thousands of dollars worth of film, photo paper, chemicals and equipment purchases, I somehow managed to graduate with a BA in Photography. The problem is that people come from all over the world to attend Brooks. On the first day they suggest that upon graduation you go back to where you came from, where you will probably be very successful. Unfortunately, Santa Barbara is just too beautiful to leave. I've heard it described as living in a postcard. The weather is near perfect. The people are friendly. There are tons of things to do every month of the year. So… most graduates never leave. This means there are approximately 400 photographers for every wedding, bar mitzvah, school and baby photo that needs to be taken. That's why many grads choose new career paths:
"You want fries with that? And how about a selective-focus, softlit, large-format family photo printed on archival canvas-finish paper?"
Shortly after graduation I was looking for a room and found one in a three-bedroom apartment. The person who had vacated the room was Pat. She remained friends with the couple who lived there and came over often to study. She was working on her Master's Degree in history. Yes, she is much smarter than me.
Anyway, we became friends and then later started dating. About the time I got my first job in publishing we decided to get married – yes, I was employed when we first met and no, I didn't quit the instant she said: "I do." It was several years at least before I decided to try a career at "freelancing." Little did I know how much "free" there was and how little "lancing."
Pat has a great sense of humor. She is understanding, encouraging, a great editor, and without her I'd probably be living on a park bench asking anyone who happened by: "Do you want to see my portfolio?" which would probably just get me slapped now that I think about it.
So considering all that Pat means to me, I may not have handled the situation with the Dean all that well, and it could have — though not medically proven — led to the aforementioned stress that she was now experiencing.
Therefore, it seemed only fair that I should supply a cure.
"Sycamore Mineral Springs. How may I direct your call?" the young male voice asked.
"My wife needs therapy STAT," I said in my best ER voice.
"One moment please."
A different voice came on the line. "Reservations."
"Yes, I do have some doubts."
"Excuse me?" the woman said.
"Well, see, I always try to do the right thing, but sometimes — actually, quite often — it turns out to be not as right a thing to do as I thought it would be, and instead of making the situation better I sometimes — actually quite often — end up making things worse. Just recently, for instance, there was an incident that involved a golf club and a car."
"Yes. Might I suggest our deluxe rub, tub and grub package?"
"That sounds great. How much?"
The young woman quoted me a price. It was more than twice my annual writer's income.
"Do you have a pawn shop?"
The woman sighed then quoted me the cheapskate husband special. It was still rather expensive and I briefly wondered if my wife wouldn't rather have a nice set of plastic worry beads instead, but finally I said "okay" and booked a room.
A few days later, we took the 101 Northbound from Santa Barbara toward the Five Cities area of Central California, just south of San Luis Obispo. The first part of our drive was along one of the last pieces of undeveloped coastline in Southern California. Pat was driving. I was watching dolphins that in turn were watching surfers zippered into their winter wet suits sitting in water that was fifty-some-odd degrees waiting for a giant swell to potentially smash them into the rocks. My son-in-law Carl is a surfer. So is my buddy Larry. They told me they see all kinds of marine life out there — sea lions, otters, whales, and of course the ever-present bottlenose dolphins. I've often wondered what dolphins really think about surfers.
"You mean they don't have to be out here?"
"Nah, they can leave anytime. Go home where it's warm and dry and watch Flipper on Nickelodeon."
"Wow. Flipper. Cool."
"What are you thinking about?" Pat asked.
"The complexities of the universe," I said. "And Larry."
Pat waited for me to tie those two thoughts together. When I didn't, she said: "Speaking of Larry, you'll be happy to know that it wasn't the Dean's car you hit with your golf ball."
"Really? Hm, bummer."
"How in the world is almost killing my boss and costing me — us — our only real job a bummer?"
"It played out better for my column if I hit the Dean's car. I'm not sure I can make the ending work if I just bounced my ball off some random stranger's car."
For some reason this last piece of conversation lead to a period of silence. Rather than ask what it was I had said, I decided to think about it. Somewhere north of Santa Maria it came to me. Either she was just as concerned as I was about the ending for my column or… it had something to do with the job reference. I decided the latter probably made more sense.
"You know, I've been thinking, if my freelance business doesn't pick up pretty soon I might just look for (I choked just slightly) a real job."
"Really?" Pat took the Avila Beach exit onto Avila Beach Drive.
"Yup. I miss some aspects of regular employment."
"Like paychecks that don't bounce?"
I was actually thinking about breaks and free coffee, but I was starting to pick up a theme here and just said: "Yes. Paychecks."
A few minutes later we pulled into the parking lot of the Sycamore Mineral Springs Resort and my wife seemed less stressed.
"This is a wonderful idea," she said. "Although, I was a bit disappointed when you told me the entire four-star restaurant had been taken over by the Pismo Beach Accordion Club."
The Gardens of Avila is one of those four-star restaurants that offers such gourmet delights as seared breast of guinea hen, Moroccan vegetable tagine and roast duck with foie gras stuffing, which I'm sure would be wonderful — if they came with a double pepperoni pizza on the side.
"Ah, yeah, that is a shame about the restaurant," I said. Then I handed her the brown paper bag. "But they say that peanut butter and jelly offers its own set of curative powers."
Our room, like all the rooms, came with its own private outdoor hot tub, which we immediately filled with steaming natural mineral water from the springs beneath us. The room also came with a television. Unfortunately, the interior designer — obviously not a guy — did not set up the room so that my poor stressed-out wife could watch ESPN, if she so desired, while in the tub. So, instead, she read me the history of Sycamore Mineral Springs from the brochure.
"Did you know that this place was discovered over a hundred years ago by two guys looking for oil, but all they found was natural mineral water? So they opened a resort, called it San Luis Hot Sulfur Springs, and famous people like W. C. Fields started coming here."
I pictured W. C. Fields naked sitting across the tub from me saying: "Go away, kid, ya bother me." Quickly, I downed half a glass of wine to erase that disturbing image.
Pat flipped through the brochure. "Wow, they have yoga classes and a labyrinth."
"You mean like a maze? Those things are cool. That one at the pumpkin patch took me an hour to find my way out of."
"A labyrinth is just a circular path, for contemplative thinking."
"Oh." I contemplated for a minute how I was going to get another drink without getting the carpet wet, then remembered that — what the hell — it wasn't my carpet. When I climbed back into the tub, Pat was still reading.
"They have a lot of treatments available. This one-hour facial sounds nice."
I glanced over her shoulder at the price. Then I put down my drink and began vigorously rubbing her temples.
"Ooh, that feels nice. How about the forehead?"
"Sure," I said. "Just let me get this out of the way so you can relax." I took the brochure from her and sank it, hoping all the ink would come off. My wife closed her eyes and smiled.
Fifteen minutes later, she opened her eyes. "I'm starting to prune, plus I think I saw something about deep tissue massages. I'll bet that's relaxing."
"Ah, yeah, but, ah, those dang accordionists are scheduled for hours. You'll just have to settle for me."
"Okay," she said.
After a little more than an hour of massaging, my fingers completely stopped working. I wouldn't even be able to operate the remote for days. But, Pat was happy. Matter of fact, she began laughing lightly.
"What?" I asked.
"Before we left home someone called to confirm our reservation. I asked her about the accordion club. She thought that was a good one."
"You mean you knew all this time that I made up the Pismo Beach Accordion Club and you're not mad?"
"Of course not. I'd much rather have you give me the treatment than some stranger. And it's worked. I feel totally stress-free."
She leaned over and gave me a kiss.
I reveled in my success. I only hoped she still felt as good when she found out I used her credit card to charge the room.
The next morning my wife decided a little quiet introspection would be good for me.
"Hey! Slow down you jerk! Can't you see we're heading for a relaxing spiritual
"Easy, Grasshopper," Pat said. "We're supposed to enter the labyrinth quietly and calm our minds as we walk the path."
I put down the large rock that I was about to throw at the idiot who obviously took country roads to see what he could run over. Then I ooohhhmmmed a few times, before we dashed across Avila Beach Drive and entered the Meditation Gardens of Sycamore Mineral Springs Resort.
We'd soaked the previous night pretty much until our bones melted and we went to bed smelling of sulfur and steaming like two giant white fish. I had dreams of being devoured with a nice chardonnay by cannibals with discriminating taste, but woke up in one piece, the most relaxed I'd been in years.
That's when Pat decided she wanted to center her chi before we left the resort and we had to risk our lives crossing the road to do it.
"Did you know the oldest labyrinth in the United States is in Galesteo, New Mexico and is 3,500 years old?" she said.
"Wow. It'd never last that long in California. Someone would have turned it into a condo development by now — The Mystic Circle Timeshares or something."
Turns out she was right, a labyrinth is different from a maze in that it is only made with small rocks instead of eight-foot tall hedges, so you don't ever have to freak out about spending the rest of your life wandering aimlessly and getting nowhere.
"You're heading the wrong way again," Pat said. "This is the entrance over here. Didn't you read the guidelines?"
Yes, believe it or not there are guidelines you are supposed to follow in order to maximize your meditative benefits. First you are supposed to quiet your mind and become aware of your breath.
"Mine smells a little like the crab cakes we had in Pismo Beach last night," I said.
"You're not supposed to smell your breath, but feel it. Then you can enter the first stage called Purgation where you let go of the details of your life, shedding thoughts and distractions."
Something rustled in the bushes, grabbing my attention, and I remembered reading about the increasing number of mountain lion sightings in Southern California. Great, I could just visualize the other guests who found us.
"Don't they look peaceful scattered about the labyrinth like that?"
"Yes, except for the unsightly claw marks, puncture wounds and missing extremities, they look centered."
"Are you relaxed yet, dear?" Pat asked.
"Oh yeah," I said. "By the way, you're looking tasty this morning." I yelled toward the yet-unseen mountain lion, wondering if I could outrun my wife if I had to.
Although it seems like you are going in endless circles and are never going to get there, if you follow the rock-lined path eventually you will get to the middle of the labyrinth. This is the Illumination stage. You are encouraged to stay as long as you like to meditate and, according to the guidelines, to receive what is there for you to receive.
"Here ya go," Pat said. She handed me a receipt.
"What's this for?"
"Our room," she said.
"But I used your credit card to reserve the room," I said.
"I know. That was smooth, but I gave them your card to actually pay for the room. Now I guess you'll have to write about the place so you can write it off."
I was well aware of my breath now, leaving my body in a giant sigh. My banking account has been looking a bit thin recently — actually for quite a while. Hopefully business will pick up soon or I'll win the lottery. I mentally added: "buy winning lottery tickets" to my to-do list.
We began the return trip out of the labyrinth known as the Union phase, where you might meet other sojourners on the path to enlightenment.
"Did you get an awakening?" a guy wearing a "Beer is the Answer" tee shirt asked.
"Oh yeah," I said, pocketing the room receipt. "A rude one."
Chapter Two takes us to Avila Beach, one of the most interesting dead-ends I know of ...
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