Quin's Progress


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Beauty Night In Mandalay

P1140812There’s an old saying in Asia that the most beautiful women have Indian eyes, a Thai smile, and Burmese skin.   I wouldn’t dream of disputing that, but it’s not as easy as you’d think to verify the last component of that combination. Why? For the same reason that the adage is true. Thanaka. Burmese women cover their faces with it.

P1140469When it comes to unique norms of beauty coming out of Myanmar, most of us who grew up with National Geographic automatically think of the Padaung or Kayan women of the Karenni ethnic group, who wear brass coils around their necks, making them look long and stretched. But the Long Neck Ladies of the Kayan are an oddity even within Myanmar. A far more widespread cosmetic custom—and just as much a cultural identifier to all the people of Myanmar as the brass neck rings are to the women of the Kayan—is the use of thanaka.

IMG_8751Thanaka (pronounced “tah-nah-KAH”) is a cosmetic made of the ground bark of the thanaka tree that grows in the drier areas of Myanmar. Combined with a few drops of water, the ground thanaka bark makes a thin, creamy paste of a color my mother would have ever so daintily referred to as “baby shit yellow,” but that I’ll call more of a Dijon mustard color. Thinly applied to the skin while wet, the thanaka dries to a soft, powdery, buttercup yellow.

P1140400The people of Myanmar have used Thanaka for centuries. You can see ancient thanaka grinding stones in museums, so it’s been a part of their cultural identity for a long, long time. Today, all over Myanmar, even in the big city, people use thanaka as a daily cosmetic, sunscreen, fragrance, and overall skin protection/improvement treatment. It’s supposed to perform all manner of complexion magic, from preventing acne, lightening sun damage, shrinking pores, even killing fungal infections on the skin. But, mostly, folks just think it’s pretty to paint it on their faces. Or their arms. Or hands, especially if the person works outside. But mostly faces.

Usually swiped lightly across the cheeks and forehead, or boldly painted into decorative patterns, thanaka is used by everyone.  It’s an equal opportunity beautifier. You don’t see it on grown men too often, but pretty much everyone else uses it every day.  Women:

Girls:

Boys:

Babies:

 

Thanaka Logs

Thanaka Logs

In the local markets, you can buy a chunk of a thanaka branch, and use the special round stone and some water to grind your own thanaka paste, like so (if video doesn’t show below, click here):

IMG_8946If that looks like too much of an upper arm workout for every day, you can buy a cake of pre-ground bark paste, and just rub that on a wet surface—even your palm—to create the thin lotion to put on your skin.

P1140901Alternatively, it comes as a prepared concentrate, in jars, sometimes mixed with other cosmetic additives or fragrances.  Everyone I talked to said to avoid the ones with added stuff and just get the plain, organic one. Don’t mess with a classic.

IMG_8815Everywhere I went, women were trying to smear me with thanaka. I had a thanaka massage—which was lovely and refreshing—and before she let me up, the massage therapist thanaka’d my face, to go. I visited a rural village, and the matriarch dragged me to the thanaka stone and fixed my face (that’s her in the video above). I just looked unfinished to them without it.

IMG_8842It smells nice, kind of soft and fresh, faintly woodsy, and herbal. But the most awesome thing is that it gently tingles and cools your skin, which is so welcome in the Myanmar heat. It also keeps your skin dry, when it would otherwise be glistening with schwitz.

IMG_8745I got some expert advice from some girls who work in a department store in Mandalay. They busted me, in what I thought was an empty aisle of the store, singing and doing the cha-cha to the Asianized instrumental version of Copacabana that was on the piped music system, and once we were all done laughing at what a dork I am, they started patting my cheeks and saying “you need thanaka!” So, I enlisted their help in choosing a prepared product to try at home, because I wasn’t investing in a stone to grind my own anytime soon.

IMG_8746I knew to get the plain, organic kind, but still, you have to be careful which brand you choose. Some factory-made thanaka products are banned all over Southeast Asia because of dangerous impurities that have caused nasty cases of lead poisoning. Apparently, some kids in Missouri died of lead poisoning after using tainted thanaka paste (it was news to me that there was a Burmese community in Missouri, but apparently, there is). So, beware, and make sure you get the pure, organic kind. P1140898The girls at the store told me this one—“Shwe Pyi Nann”—is good. Several other women later told me, yes, this one is their trusted brand, too. I think you can even get it on Amazon now. I just never would have known to look for it before, or what to do with it if I had discovered it by accident.

IMG_8749My department store girlfriends told me to dig out a small glob of the paste and mix it with a little water until the consistency is right—like paint—and then go to town. So, I went native and had myself a little thanaka party. I think I need some practice.  Okay, so maybe this was a lesson in how NOT to wear thanaka!

It goes especially well with my KISS t-shirt.  What?  KISS wore lots of makeup.

It goes especially well with my KISS t-shirt. What? KISS wore lots of makeup.

Although I don’t think I’ll be sporting thanaka-face in public outside of Myanmar, I didn’t toss that jar of thanaka when I left. It makes for a nice weekly facemask that really does shrink your pores, and leaves your skin feeling so clean and fresh. In fact, I’m using it now, as I write! So, thanaka you very much for the wonderful beauty tip, Myanmar! My pores and I are ever grateful.


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Korean Soap Operas Will Change Your Life

This is Chilwu

This is Chilwu

I have been addicted to Korean soap operas for years, since long before K-Pop mania started sweeping the world.  Ask anyone.  It all started one day when I was sitting on the floor folding laundry, and my TiVo went to change the channel to record something, but the receiver misread the signal and changed the channel to KBS, the Korean Broadcasting Something-or-other.  There was this weird show on that kind of looked like a Korean version of Xena: Warrior Princess.  I was too lazy to get off the floor to find the remote to change the channel, so I just watched it as I folded the laundry.  It was called “Chilwu the Mighty” or “Strongest Chilwu” depending on who’s translating, and it was…hilarious.  It was set in the 1600s, and Chilwu was this lowly civil servant guy who was a masked mercenary ninja dude by night.

Screen Shot 2013-06-23 at 1.05.21 PMScreen Shot 2013-06-23 at 1.05.35 PMIn that episode, three little girls paid him in rice cakes to kill a “monster”–that turned out to be an elephant–who had supposedly killed their father.  None of them, including Chilwu, had ever seen an elephant before, so they didn’t know what it was.  Turns out, some emperor in China had given the noble of this region the elephant as a gift, and because the nobleman didn’t know what to do with it, he gave the elephant a government job as a magistrate in this little town where the little girls were from.  (I know, right!?)Screen Shot 2013-06-23 at 1.06.17 PM

Screen Shot 2013-06-23 at 1.04.24 PMThe evil magistrate who got demoted to make room for the elephant was using the elephant to trick the townspeople into paying super high taxes–which they paid in bags of rice–because he said the elephant ate so much rice that everyone had to pay more to support it.  So, the poor townspeople were starving, having to give up all their rice to this elephant.  But, in actuality, the evil magistrate was taking the rice and selling it on at a profit that he pocketed, of course, unbeknownst to the townspeople.Screen Shot 2013-06-23 at 1.07.16 PMScreen Shot 2013-06-23 at 1.07.25 PM

The beleaguered townspeople were, one by one, trying to kill the elephant to ease their tax burden, and allegedly getting killed by the elephant in the process.  Screen Shot 2013-06-23 at 1.09.18 PMBut, it was the evil magistrate’s henchmen who were killing them with a big mallet made to look like an elephant foot, and blaming the poor innocent elephant in order to scare people into compliance.  Right.  So, fast forward to Chilwu’s entrance on the scene, and they discover that the elephant eats grass, not rice, and the scam was revealed.  Screen Shot 2013-06-23 at 1.17.01 PMIn the ensuing ninja fight between Chilwu and the evil magistrate’s henchmen, Chilwu vanquished them, and the elephant broke loose and trampled the evil magistrate in a moment of perfect cinematic justice.

The Evil Magistrate, about to get it from the elephant

The Evil Magistrate, about to get it from the elephant

It was cheesy and silly and absolutely awesome.  I had to have more.  But KBS and TiVo had different schedule information, so I ended up having to record three to five hour blocks of KBS in order to capture an episode of Chilwu, and scanning through the recordings to find it.  Of course, this got me hooked on the shows that came on before and after Chilwu….and an addiction was born.

Smoosh!  Die evil magistrate!

Smoosh! Die evil magistrate!

KBS was just a gateway drug to dramafever.com, crunchyroll.com, dramacrazy.net….oh yes, the sources are many.  At any given time, I’m watching between three and five Korean serials.  I usually have at least one modern drama, a romance or romantic comedy, and a historical going, you know, so depending on my mood, there’s always something.  The production values are usually very high, the plot twists oh-so twisted, and the people are very pretty.  Plus, it’s low commitment, as most of them have only 20 or so episodes.  Some have a lot more, but most are around 20 or 30, so it’s not like American soaps, where, once you start watching, you’re on the hook for a lifetime.

One of the most fascinating things to me about watching Korean soaps, especially the ones set in modern times, is the background stuff that is just understood by the Korean audience, but is so odd and new to me.  I am constantly pestering my Korean friends with questions like: “why do Korean women eat rice in ice water for breakfast?” and “what’s with the Princess Leia towel hats Koreans wear at the sauna?”  It’s fascinating.  Some folks have no furniture in their bedrooms, and sleep on the floor; dainty, beautiful women talk unabashedly about how they poop and fart; single straight guys sleep in the same bed together without awkwardness; you always eat seaweed soup on your birthday; there are these red canvas tents on the sidewalk where people go to get drunk on soju; “side dishes” are more important in meals than the entree…oh, and the sauna!  Ahhhh…the sauna.  This is big.

The awesome Korean sauna towel hat

The awesome Korean sauna towel hat

Koreans love the “jimjilbang,” a.k.a. the sauna.  In almost every show I watch, if it’s set in modern times, people are always going to the sauna.  They go there to hang out with friends, to nap, to eat, to get massages, to sweat out a cold, to get their dead skin scrubbed off…it’s an integral part of their culture.  There’s even a talk show set in a sauna, and the hosts and all the guests wear “spa clothes,” i.e., shorts and t-shirts provided by the sauna, and the ubiquitous Korean sauna towel hat.  My friend Yvette is from Seoul, and her daughter showed me how to make the sauna hat.  It goes something like this:

Not one to be left out of the fun, I did my research and found a few Korean saunas here in the Bay Area.  Oh yes, we have them!  There’s one in San Francisco, one in San Leandro, and a couple in Santa Clara.  I personally don’t like the one in San Francisco, so I usually go to the one in San Leandro or, if I’m going with Yvette, we go to one in Santa Clara, which is probably the best one up here.  That one has a bunch of special sauna rooms, like a clay room, an ice room, and a salt room, where you dig yourself in to a thick layer of salt on the floor and bake like a salt-baked sea bass until your pores open up and gush sweat like faucets.  Oh, so good!  It’s pretty no-frills, but oooohhh, do you feel good when you leave.  Although, I have to say, after my first time having a traditional Korean sauna scrub treatment, I practically needed crisis counseling.  It’s not for the faint of heart or the modest.  Leave your body issues at home.  Seriously.

The "treatment area" at the Korean sauna

The “treatment area” at the Korean sauna

After I got naked and got all pruney in the various steam rooms and hot and cold pools, a paunchy, middle-aged Korean woman in leopard print bra and panties came and hooked her claw-like fingers around my wrist, and dragged me to the “treatment area,” and threw me on what looked like a morgue table.  She then proceeded to douse me with a bucket of water, and start vigorously scrubbing me all over with a mitten that I swear to Madonna must have been made of sandpaper.  But that wasn’t the traumatic part, that actually felt pretty good.  What I wasn’t prepared for was how they get all up in your business with this scrub.  I’m not kidding, people, they go EVERYWHERE.  That little scrub lady threw my leg over her shoulder and scrubbed my bikini zone, practically sanded my nipples off, and flipped me over and scrubbed my ass (even between the cheeks)!  I was so shocked that I just started laughing, and she threw a towel over my face to quiet me down and kept scrubbing.  She scrubbed my earlobes, the tips of my toes, my armpits…basically, every centimeter of my body.  She then doused me with another bucket of water, and started over with a mitten of a finer gauge sandpaper.

These are the scrubber mitts they use at the sauna

These are the scrubber mitts they use at the sauna

Dead skin was flying off of me like sawdust off of a piece of timber being sent through a band saw.  It was gross and viscerally satisfying all at the same time.  Once she had given me the full Karen Silkwood treatment, she  grated up a cucumber and patted the pulp all over my face, and then yanked my head up to the top edge of the table and washed my hair like she was pounding laundry on a washboard in a creek.  Then she squirted hot soy milk all over me from a condiment bottle, and sent me to the shower to rinse off, before she slathered me with Kirkland brand baby oil, climbed on top of me and gave me a bone crushing massage with her elbows and knees.  When it was over, I was all red like I had a sunburn, a bit shaky from the violation/embarrassment, noodley from the massage/beating, and missing a weird mole that had been growing for a while on my collarbone.  I was also soft as a Swedish baby bunny’s bottom.  All over.  I couldn’t keep my hands off myself!  And the softness lasted for, like, three weeks!  Needless to say, I was hooked, and I’m a regular customer now.  I go every four weeks, without fail, to keep the barnacles away.  Oh, it feels so good!  I don’t even care about the Korean scrub ladies cackling away in Korean over my big ass; I know they’re talking about me, but I figure it’s their right.  If my job was to scrub dead skin off of people’s behinds, I bet I’d want to crack jokes about it, too, just to make it more bearable.

I didn't take this picture, but you get the idea

I didn’t take this picture, but you get the idea

Ooh, I almost forgot!  Some of the Korean saunas are open 24 hours, and you can even spend the night at those.  I noticed in a few of the Korean soaps I watch that people would sleep at the sauna when they went out of town, instead of getting a hotel.  You put your stuff in a locker, enjoy the sauna, have a meal in the cafe, watch tv in the common area, and then toss a mat on the heated floor in the sleeping area and sack out.  All for the regular price of admission to the sauna, which is nothing compared to even a cheap motel.  I asked Yvette if this really was common in Korea, and she said it is, and that there are a few Korean saunas in Los Angeles’ Koreatown that allow it.  “Shut up!” I said, “we are so going.”  So, last week, Yvette was going to L.A. to pick up her daughter from college anyway, so we drove down together and had ourselves a full blown Korean sauna slumber party.  We spent the first night at the Wi Spa, which is the one everyone knows and writes about–you see it mentioned in the L.A. Times on occasion.  It’s new and fancy and huge.  I didn’t like it.  The hot pools didn’t look that clean, and most of the people there were non-Asian, and didn’t seem to get the whole “peace and quiet and relaxation” concept, and were yapping away and on their cell phones and generally being obnoxious and inconsiderate to everyone around them.  Plus, the heated floor in the sleeping area was so hot that I was sweating buckets, and had to get up and go sleep on the floor in the ladies’ locker room.  It was not restful.  But the next night, we stayed at the smaller, less well known Grand Spa, which I liked a lot.  Super clean, nice facilities, comfy rest area, and they had little separate sleeping rooms that could accommodate only about five sleeping mats at the most, so we commandeered one for ourselves, and had more peace and quiet.  Although, this woman wandered into the room in the middle of the night and dragged off the extra mats in there, and yelled at us for bogarting them.  I guess we deserved that.  They had a little cafe, and a tv room, and I think I was the only non-Asian there, so it was really quiet and orderly.  It was nice.  I had a scrub and a massage, so they waived the entry fee, meaning my overnight stay cost nothing!  But, even if I had paid the entry fee, it would have only been $20 for the night.  You really can’t beat it.  The next morning, I was so excited when I woke up and heard this little old Korean lady talking on her cell phone, and I could understand what she was saying!  I thought “oh, my years of watching Korean soap operas have paid off, the language is finally sinking in!”  But, then I realized, she was speaking Spanish with a very heavy Korean accent.  That’s why I could understand her!  Oh well.

Blow-Your-Mind Dumplings at Myung In in K-Town L.A.

Blow-Your-Mind Dumplings at Myung In in K-Town L.A.

In between sauna sleepovers, we ate and shopped our way through Koreatown.  There are tons of little malls, with all sorts of shops and restaurants.  We had the most badass dumplings I’ve ever put in my mouth at Myung In Man Du, which I knew about from a recent episode of Anthony Bourdain’s show.  The artist David Choe took Bourdain to this “man du” shop for dumplings, and now I know why.  Big and pillowy and fresh and perfectly seasoned, we ate shrimp dumplings and chicken dumplings and pork dumplings and red bean dumplings until we were stuffed like dumplings and about to pop.  (Choe also took Bourdain to Sizzler and made him meatball tacos from the buffet, which I thought was hilarious, but we didn’t do that.)

These should be sold as a set, don't you think?

These should be sold as a set, don’t you think?

IMG_2818

We went to the beauty supply and bought face masks, and the music store for karaoke practice music and K-Pop socks, and had our feet reflexologied, and went to the bakery and had fresh Korean red bean donuts, which are way better than they sound.

Patbingsu

Patbingsu

"Miss Coffee" in K-Town L.A.

“Miss Coffee” in K-Town L.A.

We ended the day at “Miss Coffee,” where we did not have coffee, but “patbingsu,” a Korean shaved ice dessert.  The house classic came with berries, bananas, chocolate sauce and the ever-present red bean paste over green tea flavored shaved ice, all served in an 8-cup Pyrex measuring cup.   No individual bowls, everyone just dug right in.  I must say, it was delicious!  Lighter than ice cream, but not as crystalline as a sno-cone.  I’m a fan.

I’ve had Korean friends for a long time, but until I expressed interest in their culture, they didn’t think to include me in all of the wacky, wonderful Korean rituals that are part of their daily world.  I never would have known to express any specific curiosity or interest had I not gotten addicted to Korean soap operas, as a result of being too lazy to get off my butt to get the remote that day I was folding laundry on the floor, and Chilwu ninja-chopped his way into my life.  So, thank you, Chilwu.  I am forever changed, and eternally grateful for it!  Kamsahamnida!


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Bathtime Drama

I shoulda stayed in bed yesterday

I shoulda stayed in bed yesterday

Yesterday, I had a senior moment and accidentally overflowed my bathtub and flooded the bathroom, and caused a Niagara Falls of delicious lemony bubble bath foam to cascade down into the downstairs neighbor’s unit.  It wasn’t a shining moment.  By the time I got everything cleaned up, and made sure everything was okay downstairs, I seriously needed that bubble bath–for olfactory as well as nerve-related reasons–but alas, I didn’t have a dry towel left in the house.  So, I threw a load of soaked towels in the wash, poured myself a drink, and watched Bridget Jones’ Diary while I waited for the towels to be done.  When I finally was able to get in the tub, I couldn’t bear the sight of any more bubbles, so I opted for this vivid blue-green jasmine scented stuff, and a mystery face mask, both of which I found at the Nijiya Market in Japantown.

From the picture on the package, I figured the item on the left was a face mask, but the one on the right could be a closet dehumidifier, for all I know.

From the picture on the package, I figured the item on the left was a face mask, but the one on the right could be a closet dehumidifier, for all I know.

I love going there and buying something that I have no idea what it is, and bringing it home and figuring it out; is it food or furniture polish?  You never know until you try!  I have had some interesting trials and errors on these expeditions.  But, I figured this one was probably not food, given the color and scent, but you can’t ever be sure in that place, particularly since they tend to stock cleaning products, cat food and marmalade right next to each other on the same shelf.  Anyhoo, I’m pretty confident this one is actually a bath soak, but it could be carpet freshener, I don’t really know for sure.  But doesn’t it make pretty bath water?  So far, it hasn’t given me a rash, so I’m going with bath salt.  We shall see.  Cross your fingers.


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Well, Slap My Face and Call Me Sally

Flotation Tank

Flotation Tank

You all know how much I love wacky spa/beauty treatments.  Nothing against a nice aromatherapy facial or Swedish massage, those are lovely, but my taste runs a little more toward the outré. The experience is really what draws me, more than the potential effects.  Once, I read in a magazine about a “Past Life Regression Massage” treatment available in NYC, and I actually flew there just to do it. (Well, I also got to visit my bestie, James, while I was at it.)  Basically, a massage therapist massages your feet while a hypnotherapist sits by your head and tries to get you to recall your past life.  It was a hoot and half, and I don’t even believe in past lives.  And then, there was the “Mayan Experience” treatment in Playa del Carmen, where you lay in a hammock and a girl in a traditional dress lays on the ground underneath and kicks you in the back.  All I could think the whole time was how that girl was going to go home laughing that night, saying to her family “Guess what this crazy Gringa paid me two hundred bucks to do to her!”  So far, I’ve only found one weird spa treatment that is just too out there for me, and that is the snake massage in Israel, where you get naked and they drop a big tangled cluster of about a dozen snakes on your back and let them unwind themselves and crawl all over you.  No thanks.  I would never stop screaming.  But, flotation tanks, flesh-eating fish pedicures, bird poop facials, Korean herbal hoo-ha steam treatments…bring it.

Tata the Thai Face Slapper

Tata the Thai Face Slapper

Well, imagine my excitement when I found out that, right here in San Francisco, we have the only genuine, certified Thai “face slapper” in the U.S.!  Oh yes, you read that right.  Face slapper.  Her name is “Rassameesaitarn New Series World,” but she goes by “Tata.”  She and her husband, Mawin, run Face Slapping Natural, where Tata will use her extensive training, and the back of her hand, to slap the years right off  your face.

Five dollars, please!

Five dollars, please!

Now, I know what you’re thinking.  Several of my friends offered to slap me for free when I told them I was doing this.  Fernando even offered to pay me to let him take a shot.  But, none of them are certified by the master in Bangkok, so I had to make an appointment with the real thing.  And I am so glad I did!  From the moment you walk through the door at Face Slapping Natural, you know you’ve entered another world.  It’s a festival of bright colors and mirrors, with giant images of Thai elephants in yoga poses.  Tata herself is a work of art.  Petite and soft-spoken, she wears lamé MC Hammer pants with t-shirts, and each time I saw her, she had on a different headdress, each one rivaling a Rose Bowl Parade float.  The first one had about five full-size stargazer lilies on it, and a gossamer butterfly that was as big as an open volume of the Encyclopedia Britannica.  The one pictured here, with the parrot, was the fourth and final one, and I wasn’t even sure for a minute if it was a real parrot or not.  (It’s not.)  Oh, and she wears a surgical mask all the time, because she has allergies.

You have to pay five dollars for the initial consultation, and they mean it, they collect that fiver up front.  But once you hand it over, the two of them take it to a big box in the center of the room that has holes cut in it like swiss cheese, and say a Thai prayer over it, drop the five dollar bill into the box, and bow.  Then  you can begin.

The Slapping Room

The Slapping Room-Where the Magic Happens

The actual treatment takes place in a special, mirrored salon equipped with TVs, on which Mawin plays whatever music video Tata is feeling that day.  My first time there, it was Beyoncé’s “Single Ladies” and something by Justin Bieber.  So, you sit on a tree stump stool, Tata stands behind you with her hands on your shoulders and fixes your gaze in the mirror.  When she’s ready, she gives Mawin the signal, he turns on the music, and she starts to bounce…and then dance around you…and then bitch slap you to the beat of the music.  I swear, I will never hear “Single Ladies” again without flinching.  But once you get used to it, it isn’t bad.  She has a definite technique, and it doesn’t hurt as much as it’s just kind of jarring.  She uses the back of her hand, not the open palm, so it doesn’t sting, and she is very careful to use the fleshy side of her hand over any boney areas, like your brow bones.

For me, Tata said I needed “contouring” more than wrinkle reduction, so she concentrated most on my chipmunk cheeks.  By the fourth session, she was really letting me have it.  And you know what?  After I finished my four session slapping series, a number of people asked me, without prompting, if I had lost weight, saying my face looked thinner.  Tscha.  Just sayin’.  And Tata says, if you rinse your face with cold water every day, the effects should last a year.  Not bad, considering Botox is only good for a few months, and costs way more!  Ahem…or, so I’ve heard.

Anyway, at the end of my last session, Tata asked my permission to draw my eyebrows in better, because she said their sparseness had been bothering her.  So, she drew me some honest to goodness Thai-brows to match hers, but that kind of made me look like a maniacal ventriloquist’s dummy.  But, I thanked her for them anyway.  As I was leaving, Mawin told me to check back with them soon, because Tata is going back to Thailand to get certified in “Butt Punching,” to firm and shape the derriere, and to prevent what Mawin called “Cellu-butt.”  If that’s not a real word, it should be, because it’s about as disturbingly graphic as someone promoting butt punching services could hope for.  So…you know I’ll be back.