Tuesday, August 11, 2009

A Prime Birthday

I like to think about my birthdays mathematically.

For example, on Monday, August 3rd, I turned 37. A prime number.

Metaphorically, I imagined this would mean I had reached my prime. You know how they say that women reach their prime – in a variety of ways – later than men? Well, I was prepared for that. And excited about it. I was ready to begin this year with gusto and vim and zest and all kinds of underused words.

But if what happened on my actual birthday is emblematic of the year to come, then 37 isn’t the prime year I was so looking forward to.

I should have known things were doomed when I couldn’t sleep the night before. I was supposed to be sleeping in a hotel room in Anaheim with my friend Tim and it was important that I sleep since the alarm was set for 6:30am. We were determined to get to Disneyland by 7:45am, so we could be in the park at the moment it opened at 8am. But even with two sleeping pills, I couldn’t sleep. And the one time I ventured out of my ineffective bed, I walked right into a chair, painfully stubbing my toe. On the way back to the bed, I stupendously did it again. But this time to a toe on the other foot, thereby successfully ensuring that I would begin my day of Disneyland walking with the faint linger of throbbing within both feet.

Once the sun came up, things seemed a bit better. We got our free continental breakfast (bagels and cream cheese in foil packets – the cream cheese, not the bagels) and caught the Anaheim Resort Transit (ART) to the park. (Which, by the way, has no redeeming sense of “art” about it.) I got my free birthday ticket with no problem and we were standing in the midst of Main Street U.S.A. when the celebratory opening of the day music began at 8am. We ran to Tomorrow Land and things appeared to be going smoothly: Buzz Lightyear’s Astro Blasters quickly followed by Star Tours. But when we took off for the coveted Space Mountain, we were met by a human wall of costumed 20-year olds who were informing everyone that Space Mountain was not open “yet.” They had been told to inform guests that it might be open within a few hours.

Okay, I thought, nothing to panic about. It’s just that Space Mountain is the most fabulous ride in the park. And it was my birthday. So, it had to open eventually, right? It would. I was sure of it. I just had to stay positive. Positive, positive, positive. But on the inside I had already started freaking out.

We continued our counter-clockwise journey: the Matterhorn, Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride, Thunder Mountain Railroad. Then all the way to Splash Mountain, back to the Haunted Mansion, the Pirates of the Caribbean, Indiana Jones. And then it all fell apart at the Jungle Cruise.

The Jungle Cruise is one of my favorite rides in the park. It’s absolutely unique as amusement parks go: relaxing and hilarious. I’ve been memorizing the guides’ patter since my first trip to the park in 1977. And the fact that it’s rarely changed in 32 years is comforting and amazing, since it’s still just that funny.

“If you look over here, you’ll see some beautiful limestone. Although most people just take it for granite.”

I love that joke.

But I didn’t hear it on my birthday. Because of Kelli.

Kelli with an “i” from Portland, Oregon. Kelli with an “i” hates her job. One of the most coveted jobs at Disneyland and she hates it. She is ruining visitors’ vacations with her rude, flippant, childish assault on possibly the best patter in tourism history. She tells jokes incorrectly when she tells them at all, which most often she doesn’t. And she races right past whole sections of the animatronic tour without saying anything. She complains about how she always gets the bad boat and how things don’t work. The only saving grace is that she mumbles, so some riders don’t have to hear her at all.

But then Kelli did something unforgivable. She announced to the boat full of paying passengers that she once fell in the water and “they” – meaning the park management, I guess – made her go get a tetanus shot. She continued, “so, if you fall in the water, they’re going to make you get a tetanus shot, too. So, try not to fall I the water because the water at Disneyland will give you tetanus.”

She actually said that! In the happiest place on earth! On my birthday! So, for the first time in my 32 years of blissfully going to Disneyland, I went to the Town Hall of Main Street. I stood in line for 30 minutes. And I made an official complaint. If Kelli with an “i” hates her job so much, then she can get fired, I thought. She’s ruining my favorite ride, my birthday and my non-tetanus view of Disneyland and this needed to go in her permanent record.

But I wondered to myself, as I stood in that line, had this happened before I was 37, would I have bothered. Would I have been so angry at the immature, ill-trained, selfish Jungle Cruise mean girl when I was younger? Or was this ire related to me reaching my “prime”?

When I reached the front of the line, Jason, the prince charming of customer service, wrote everything down, was appropriately appalled at the tale of Kelli with an “i” and promised that she would be reprimanded. In addition, he gave me something to hopefully make my day better: a magic fast pass.

A magic fast pass is apparently something you can only get if you make a complaint or have some upsetting thing happen to you during your visit to the happiest place on earth. It allows you and your friends or family to cut to the front of any fast pass line. Instead of having to get a fast pass ticket and then wait for your turn to come back, you can present the magic fast pass at any time and go right into the fast pass line.

With the magic fast pass glowing in my hand, I asked Jason if he knew if Space Mountain was open “yet.” One quick phone call later, he exclaimed: “It just opened! Rebecca, go now!”

So, Tim and I ran from the head of Main Street to the tip of Tomorrowland, panting with excitement. We weaved in and out of the ever growing mid-day Disneyland throng. The crowd navigational gods were with us as we were reaching Space Mountain in record time. But just as we arrived, we noticed something was wrong. The line was moving toward us down the ramp, not up the ramp toward the elation of the Mountain of Space. Jason hadn’t lied to us. Space Mountain had indeed opened. It’s just that it had closed just as quickly. And everyone was being evacuated from the line.

I put my magic fast pass safely in my wallet and we moved on, just a little more dejectedly. The anger from Kelli with an “i” combined with the melancholy of the closed Mountain was putting a particularly non-prime mood on my supposedly prime birthday.

Next, we moved on to Toon Town. I thought the wackiness of Roger Rabbit and talking mail boxes might lighten my mood. But as I stood in line for the diaper-smelling, toddler-raging Toon Town bathroom, I made the mistake of checking my email on my Blackberry. And that’s when I got the news that Stan Lapinski had died.

Surrounded by screaming children and wacky bulbous architecture, I collapsed on a bench to take in the news that the only man who has ever called himself my “father-in-law” had died on my birthday. My 37th birthday. My birthday that clearly wasn’t shaping up to be very prime.

It should have been perfect. What’s better than doing something that makes you feel young on a day when you would otherwise feel pretty old? Isn’t that the idea? Shouldn’t you try to convince yourself on your birthday that you are still in your prime? And that age isn’t going to catch up with you? But how am I supposed to fool myself into believing that when, on my birthday, death gets this close?

Getting the news that someone dies is bad enough. But on your birthday, while at Disneyland, it feels even more devastating. And it wasn’t just anyone. Stan Lapinski was a man who had drunk from the fountain of youth. A man who survived World War II, competed in the Olympics and worked as a golf pro well into his 70s. If a man like this can die, a man that never looked his age until the last few weeks of his life, then what chance do the rest of us have?

I did have the chance to recover some of my birthday spirit. And what better place to do it than Disneyland, a place of fantasy, adventure and a cartoonish future? A place where I could have fun while simultaneously feeling cloudy and mystified by the sad news about Stan.

I don’t remember exactly what we did next. I know we rode more rides. I know we took the Monorail to Downtown Disney, had cocktails and artisan cheese at the Grand California Hotel and did a little shopping. And I know that when we got back to the park, that Space Mountain had finally opened!

This was going to be my salvation. There is hardly any mortal experience more liberating, refreshing and air-conditioned than the thrill of a roller coaster – this particular roller coaster – in the dark. Of course, mere humans were forced to wait in a line for two hours. Slightly more clever folk were getting there fast passes to return at 11pm. But we were different. We had the magic fast pass. We were going to jump right into the front of that line.

We ran up the wide cement ramp, handed over the red piece of paper and rushed into the final stretch to greatness. And that’s when it happened. The final straw. The final realization that 37 isn’t a prime year at all. It’s a year burgeoning on old. A year when your body begins to fail you. A year when running to ride Space Mountain begins to seem like the folly of youth.

As I came around a sharp corner on my way to the front of the Space Mountain line, I felt a sharp pain. I can only describe what happened like this: my left calf seized. All of the muscles in my left calf just gave up and screamed in pain. Now, I have a high threshold for pain. But when I tried to put weight on my left leg, the sharp intake of air accompanied by my scrunched eyes indicated to Tim that I wasn’t kidding.

But there I was, so close to Space Mountain. So close to that roller coaster in the dark, where age doesn’t matter. Where my screams and laughter are just as young and prime as everyone else’s. I wouldn’t miss this for the world on any day, let alone this not so prime birthday.

So, mustering the Keri Strug inside me, I started to limp. Slowly, but surely, I was going to make it to the front of the line. I could feel the impatient courtesy of the line slowing down behind me. People desperately wanted to pass me, but they didn’t want to be rude to the injured old lady. Well, that and “line jumpers may be evicted from the park.”

I did ride Space Mountain that day. And I did manage to limp around the park until 11:30 that night. After all, it was my birthday. And I was going to celebrate it no matter how many deaths or injuries or Kellis with “i”s tried to get in my way. It was a despondent, gimpy, annoyed celebration. Certainly not the prime celebration I had envisioned. But unforgettable and I suppose prime in its own way.

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