Travel: Planning the Next Adventure

I realized recently that one aspect of travel that I like almost as much as traveling itself, is the planning and the anticipation, the looking-forward-to. Where, when, how, what, with whom? Where will we go? When—what season of the year? How—will we get there? And what exactly will we do once we get there, and with whom?

I love getting the maps, this time from AAA, and plotting the travel on my wall map.

This Thanksgiving we’re flying into El Paso, and then, thanks to my big brother, who likes driving and loves road trips, before family Thanksgiving in El Paso, we’re taking a road trip to Marfa, Marathon, and Big Bend National Park. All the West Texas hot spots!

It’s my brother’s gift to my husband, who is from Kentucky and Washington DC, and hasn’t seen this area. It’s five weeks away, but I already have our hiking poles and cameras ready for Big Bend, which is supposed to be spectacular.

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Delete CutE

Years ago I was working on a story about a friend of mine, Goldie, who at 90 was having the most erotic love affair of her life with Fred who was 68.

 Goldie at 90

Goldie at 90

“Isn’t that cute,” said a friend.

I bristled at his comment. How dare he. Goldie’s late-in-life love affair was a lot of things but “cute” it wasn’t.

Goldie had gone for years without sex before her husband died. “He lost the power of the erection,” explained Goldie. (This was pre-Viagra.) “We had a good, companionable marriage and I loved him for forty years. Except it wasn’t like this terrible physical attraction Fred and I have for each other. I just want to fly into his arms.”

To label that “cute” is a snarky putdown. A way to diminish it, to strip it of its authenticity, to classify it so it seemed small and harmless. To infantilize it. Cute.

For years, I’ve bristled when someone describes something important or valuable as “cute.’ I find it demeaning, dismissive, and I just stumbled onto someone else who feels the same way--Mary Oliver, the poet.”

In Blue Pastures, Oliver’s non-fiction collection, she’s writing about nature when she says:

And nothing in the forest is cute. Such words—“cute,” “charming,” “adorable”—miss the mark, for what is perceived of in this way is stripped of dignity, and authority. What is cute is entertainment, and replaceable. The words lead us and we follow: what is cute is diminutive, it is powerless, it is capturable, it is trainable, it is ours…We are all wild, valorous, amazing. We are, none of us, cute.

In Oliver I’ve met a fellow comrade-in-arms. Right on, sister!

A friend, commenting on a recent photo of my husband and myself, dashed back an e-mail response, “Cute!”

 Author and husband, Ed Warren

Author and husband, Ed Warren

Friendships can be tricky, and I was also certain she’d intended to be positive and enthusiastic, but I felt insulted.  Cute? At 6’3” my husband is tall, handsome, and healthy.  He has such a broad smile that when he smiles it lights up my life.  And in that photo of a happily married couple, arms tightly hugging each other, I was also wearing red, a power color--life-giving, radiant, but “cute” it is not.

I don’t want to come across as the vocabulary police, but how about this?  Let’s give each other the respect we deserve and agree that unless we’re talking about babies or puppies, we’ll delete the word “cute.”

 The author as a “cute” baby.

The author as a “cute” baby.

Babe's Lesson: How To Be A Good Guest (And Get Invited Back!)

Today is Mother’s Day.  Now that I’ve been a motherless daughter for 3 years, and a grandmother for 8 years, I’m thinking about lessons I learned from my mom, how she  passed them on to me, and how I might successfully pass them on to the many children in my life.

I realize now that the lessons that stuck with me, as fiercely as if they’d been velcroed on, weren’t what was said, but what I witnessed and observed over time, first-hand at home. 

It would have been out of character for my Mom, who was called Babe, to say, “I’m role-modeling the behavior I expect of my children.”  But that’s pretty much what she did. 

 I’m thinking of one lesson in particular, a social nicety that really stuck-- never show up empty-handed.  Even if the host says, “Oh, just bring yourselves.  We’ve got it covered.” I learned from watching Babe, and my dad, that you always bring something to welcome yourself into someone’s home, to show your appreciation. 

I’m pretty sure Babe never said this gentle etiquette lesson in so many words.  She didn’t need to because over the years I had observed her behavior.  When she and dad were preparing to go out, to visit someone—for dinner, to play cards, a sick visit—they always brought a few goodies.  When I was a child, my parents were middle-class, so the goodies were 1950s modest but still thoughtful. 

Even if she’d been a wine-drinker, which she wasn’t (Scotch and soda was her go-to drink), she would never have recycled to someone’s home a bottle of mediocre wine that had been brought to our house.  And by the way, how did one sad bottle of wine that gets passed from house to house start qualifying as a hostess gift these days?  Babe would’ve been puzzled by this recent practice of ultra-convenience.  Not to be too picky here, but not so long ago a acquaintance in the neighborhood arrived for dinner, and brought a half-quart of ice cream that was half-eaten.  True, she didn’t show up empty-handed, but how did that ice cream, complete with nasty little spoon marks dug in it, pass as a thoughtful gift for the hosts?

Babe favored bringing something she’d made—maybe her clam dip, which was everyone’s favorite, and flowers, fresh flowers, and sometimes a box of special candy from our favorite store in Seattle.

I learned always error on the side of generosity.   Not lavish, look-at-me generosity, but friendly, thoughtful generosity.  And I think just maybe I’m succeeding in passing Babe’s lesson on to the next generation, or at least it’s getting noticed.  Because recently when I was visiting my grandchildren, one of them yelled out, “Jo always brings stuff!”  Right.  And maybe they will, too, when they grow up.

 

 Jo with the next generation, Walker Giese

Jo with the next generation, Walker Giese

Eating local in Iceland

On a recent trip to Iceland, eating local was a memorable part of the adventure.

 The church at Budir.

The church at Budir.

The traveling trio--Ed, my husband, Finn, our 13 year-old grandson, and myself--wanted to sample local Icelandic delicacies.  Or, at least, I did!

At our second meal we ate whale.  "Whale blubber?" a friend asked afterward.  No, not whale blubber.  Whale meat.  It was served as an appetizer and marinated beyond recognition.  It was fine.  It tasted more like the marinade than the whale.

Our next Icelandic delicacy was puffin--the cute local bird.  We also ordered this as a appetizer.  When the server brought it to us he said, "It tastes between horse and geese."  Oh.  Our waiter when furious when he heard that.  "Puffin is a ocean bird," he said.  "It tastes of ocean breezes."

 Finn eating fermented shark.

Finn eating fermented shark.

We'd been warned about shark.  It's fermented and everyone said you can smell it from 2 blocks away.  They also said, "It tastes better than it smells."  At the Shark Museum we were served small cubes of smelly fermented shark.  To their credit, Finn and Ed ate theirs.  I spit mine out.  And just so you know, this shark is not caught on purpose. It's shark that's been caught accidentally in fishermen's nets.

 Reindeer Carpaccio

Reindeer Carpaccio

Although in August we were a little ahead of the Fall reindeer season, our guide-driver managed to find us some.  It was served as Reindeer Carpaccio.  The thin raw slices looked pretty on the plate, but was too red, raw, and fleshy for me.  Finn, an adventurous eater, ate the whole thing!

Our last and final Icelandic delicacy was sheepshead.  I'd never heard of this, but at LAX before we boarded the plane to Iceland, Finn was reading about Icelanders eating sheepshead.  We had to try it.

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The sheepshead is served whole--its itty bitty little teeth still intact.  Its taste was my favorite.   The tongue was succulent and soft and tasted like good roasted delicate meat.

If you're going to Iceland, I'd recommend trying these local favorites.  I'd also suggest waiting for your visit.  Iceland has a population of only 330,000, and last year had 2.2 million visitors?!  As our guide, who make this living off tourism, said,  "Icelanders have lost our country.  The country has got to impose a quota on the number of tourists."  Right.

 

The Story of a Real Tooth Fairy

 This is Tim today.

This is Tim today.

Nobody had ever called me the Tooth Fairy, but about two years ago I acquired that nickname.

 

My husband, Ed, and I were redoing our place in Montana, and, like thousands of others in the West, we were going for that rustic, reclaimed-barnyard wood look.  After the house had been gutted--think dusty, messy work site—Ed and I were stymied what to do with all the yellowed, knotty pine that lined every wall and every bookcase in his office.

 

 A young painter on a ladder, dressed in customary paint-splattered whites, introduced himself as Tim.  He jumped down from the ladder and said that with careful painting he thought he could transform the yellowed knotty pine into a faux weathered gray that would blend great with the barnyard wood floors and cabinets.  He talked more like a designer than simply another member of the paint crew.

 

As this handsome and enthusiastic young painter suggested artistic ideas with a confident authority, he seemed knowledgeable and smart—until he opened his mouth and I saw that he had practically no teeth.  Almost toothless, he seemed to me, dumb.  I understand that this could sound harsh, and I know we’re not supposed to be judgmental, but let’s face it, if you were confronted with a toothless person like this you’d probably form a similar judgment.

 Tim before the procedure.

Tim before the procedure.

I can’t explain what came over me, but on the spot it seemed unfair that this otherwise attractive and clearly talented young man—I thought Tim was 28; turns out he was 37—came across as so smart until I saw he was almost toothless.   It also only seemed fair that if Ed and I could re-do a house we could help Tim re-do his teeth, if he wanted to.

 

Luckily, Ed agreed with me.  I immediately spoke to the head paint contractor, and asked if he knew a dentist in town he trusted because we wanted to find out what would be involved in getting Tim teeth.

 

Just recently “The Story In Our Smiles” aired on NPR’s On Point.  In this program, Tom Ashbrook, the host, explored the status of dental care today.  He discussed the lack of access to dental care and preventative care among low income American adults that leads to rotting teeth, full extractions and dentures, and even death from dental infections. Ashbrook interviewed Mary Otto, the author of  “The Story of Beauty, Health, Inequality, and the Struggle for Oral Health in America.”  They discussed the giant disparity between those who can afford dental care and those who can’t.  

 

Ashbrook and Otto might as well have been talking about the painter, Tim Dobbs.  Tim grew up poor in San Bernardino, California.  Too poor for dental visits.  “Teeth were on the back burner, for sure,” he said.   Then in high school a pole-vaulting accident nailed him on the mat and knocked out his front teeth.  “I had a busted grill,” he explained.  From there things went downhill pretty quickly: He had a life of decay, toothaches, not being able to eat, and massive pain.  He said he’d hold his jaw and get in a hot shower for half-an-hour to try to reduce the pain.  

 

After a consultation with dentist, Dr. Kenneth Van Kirk, came up with 3 plans for Tim:  the cheapest—full mouth extraction and full dentures top and bottom; the most expensive—all implants; and a middle of the road approach—save the teeth he had, some implants, some crowns, and some partial dentures.  The dentist didn’t think Tim, who had never had any dental care, could tolerate full implants.  So we and the dentist opted for the middle plan.

 

I hate dental pain, and require a topical anesthetic when I’m just having routine dental hygiene work, so I warned Tim that this would hurt and be painful.  It turned out that some of his dental visits lasted 2-3 hours.  

 

After the temporary upper bridge, you could see progress.  This was also when in front of the full construction crew Tim presented me, shyly, with a thank you bouquet of flowers.  I had the distinct feeling that Tim Dobbs hadn’t bought many bouquets of flowers.

 

 Tim with temporary upper bridge

Tim with temporary upper bridge

 

When the extensive work required $5,000 more than the quote we’d agreed to, Tim painted the dentist’s office to make up the difference.   

 

His dental reconstruction took two years, longer than it might have since  unfortunately Tim was still a smoker, and the smoking left his gums tender and sensitive to the surgery.  

 

Last week Tim, who just turned 40, and his mom, Norma Wells, who happened to be in town, stopped by to show off his new teeth.

 

“I feel like a million bucks,” he said “I got my smile back.  I’m more personable.  I have a happy, sexy-looking smile.”  Though he admitted he didn’t have a girlfriend.  Yet.

 

He proudly showed his mother our remodeled house, especially pointing out the tricky weathered faux gray paint in Ed’s study.  

 

Then in front of his mother, Tim said, “Jo, tell me again why you helped me.”

 

“Because I believed in you,” I said.

 

As I learned from listening to Tom Ashbrook’s “The Story in Our Smiles,” there are millions of Tims out there who could use our help.  

 

My mother, who was called Babe, always said, Charity begins at home.  Tim was in our home, and once again, Babe was right. 

 

 Jo Giese, Tooth Fairy, Tim Dobbs, and his mom, Norma Wells

Jo Giese, Tooth Fairy, Tim Dobbs, and his mom, Norma Wells

 

Jo Giese, author, award-winning radio journalist. Up next: Never Sit If You Can Dance:  Lessons from Babe, a quirky mother-daughter memoir.

It's Fun To Get Together With Friends, and It's Critical To Our Health!

I always knew when I'm inviting someone to dinner, or they're inviting me for a hike, that more than dinner and walking is involved.  It turns out that the friendship and connection is lengthening and saving our lives.  A wonderful piece in the NYT Science today (June 13) reaffirms this.

 

My experience with EatWith

Seafood Feast at the Beach

 A few weeks ago I read about EatWith in the NYT (May 6, 2017).  I thought it sounded like a lot of fun.  A social-dining service that lets chefs cook at home.  For strangers.  For money.  I like to cook. I'm good at it.  I know a thing or two about food--I was Food Editor at WNBC-TV News, and I wrote The Good Food Compendium (Doubleday)  We have a gorgeous home on a beautiful beach with a professional chef's kitchen.   (Think 2 WOLF ovens, WOLF cooktop, 3 dishwashers.  Handy for events, right?)  And it would be fun to meet new people-- travelers who are in town, passing through and want to dine somewhere unique.   So I signed up!  My husband, who is a good sport, thought it would either be wonderful or awful.  To my surprise to be accepted on their platform I had to do a Demonstration meal, which required that I post a menu, invite and book guests, and then post photos of the event afterward.  A dress rehearsal for the EatWith folks, who apparently have had some chef-hosts leave patrons wary of the experience because the chef-hosts didn't live up to the patrons' expectations.  However, as several friends commented,  You  had to demonstrate for them?  They should have been so happy to have you, they should have recruited you!  Probably.  Anyway, this Sunday I posted and hosted my Demonstration Meal--a Seafood Paella rich with lobsters, shrimp, mussels, and delicious saffron rice.  For dessert--frozen key lime pie.  Heavenly.  This is one of my all-time favorite meals.  It is labor-intensive--the key lime pie alone takes hours to make.  Squeezing all those limes?  Although the idea is that this dining experience is mostly for strangers (who pay in advance), on Sunday I invited friends (no charge) and there was only one stranger--a friend of a friend, Scotty from Scotland, who happens to be in Malibu this summer working with Ringo Star.    Today my contact, Zach, at EatWith commented that the photos from the event look amazing.  That's nice.  Then he said that once I have a few solid 4 and 5 star detailed reviews on my host profile, I will be accepted on the platform and able to create additional events!    Wow.  Thanks.  However, their social site, and thus my host profile, is so cumbersome to navigate, and difficult to post photos (impossible?) that I asked Zach if my invitees could send their glowing reviews directly to him?  I haven't heard back from him yet.  Boy, what a lot of rigamorarole.  Is it worth it?  Stay tuned.  Maybe I'll research if one of the other social sites --AirDine, Feastly--are easier and more host-friendly to deal with.   

A few weeks ago I read about EatWith in the NYT (May 6, 2017).  I thought it sounded like a lot of fun.  A social-dining service that lets chefs cook at home.  For strangers.  For money.

I like to cook. I'm good at it.  I know a thing or two about food--I was Food Editor at WNBC-TV News, and I wrote The Good Food Compendium (Doubleday)  We have a gorgeous home on a beautiful beach with a professional chef's kitchen.   (Think 2 WOLF ovens, WOLF cooktop, 3 dishwashers.  Handy for events, right?)  And it would be fun to meet new people-- travelers who are in town, passing through and want to dine somewhere unique. 

So I signed up!  My husband, who is a good sport, thought it would either be wonderful or awful.  To my surprise to be accepted on their platform I had to do a Demonstration meal, which required that I post a menu, invite and book guests, and then post photos of the event afterward.  A dress rehearsal for the EatWith folks, who apparently have had some chef-hosts leave patrons wary of the experience because the chef-hosts didn't live up to the patrons' expectations.

However, as several friends commented, You had to demonstrate for them?  They should have been so happy to have you, they should have recruited you!  Probably.

Anyway, this Sunday I posted and hosted my Demonstration Meal--a Seafood Paella rich with lobsters, shrimp, mussels, and delicious saffron rice.  For dessert--frozen key lime pie.  Heavenly.  This is one of my all-time favorite meals.  It is labor-intensive--the key lime pie alone takes hours to make.  Squeezing all those limes?

Although the idea is that this dining experience is mostly for strangers (who pay in advance), on Sunday I invited friends (no charge) and there was only one stranger--a friend of a friend, Scotty from Scotland, who happens to be in Malibu this summer working with Ringo Star.  

Today my contact, Zach, at EatWith commented that the photos from the event look amazing.  That's nice.  Then he said that once I have a few solid 4 and 5 star detailed reviews on my host profile, I will be accepted on the platform and able to create additional events!  

Wow.  Thanks.  However, their social site, and thus my host profile, is so cumbersome to navigate, and difficult to post photos (impossible?) that I asked Zach if my invitees could send their glowing reviews directly to him?

I haven't heard back from him yet.  Boy, what a lot of rigamorarole.  Is it worth it?  Stay tuned.  Maybe I'll research if one of the other social sites --AirDine, Feastly--are easier and more host-friendly to deal with.

 

Blown Away...By Kusama

 Two weeks ago in Washington, D.C., thanks to a good friend, I got tickets to the sold-out Kusama exhibit at the Hirschhorn Museum.  I'm back home in Southern California, but Kusama's powerfully seductive colorful images linger and beckon.  Last night when I couldn't sleep (again), I wandered downstairs, sipped hot tea and looked through the pages of her book  Give Me Love .  I wish everyone could read her introduction where this artist writes...And I want to tell people across the earth: Stop nuclear bombs and wars, now see your shining life With my longing for eternity.  Having lived in a psychiatric institute for some 40 plus years, Kusama speaks freely about abusive childhood, her mental illness, and her suicide-prone life.  After I googled her and learned that her art explodes from the depths of her mental illness, this new understanding couldn't help but color how I felt about The Obliteration Room, for example.

Two weeks ago in Washington, D.C., thanks to a good friend, I got tickets to the sold-out Kusama exhibit at the Hirschhorn Museum.

I'm back home in Southern California, but Kusama's powerfully seductive colorful images linger and beckon.  Last night when I couldn't sleep (again), I wandered downstairs, sipped hot tea and looked through the pages of her book Give Me Love.  I wish everyone could read her introduction where this artist writes...And I want to tell people across the earth: Stop nuclear bombs and wars, now see your shining life With my longing for eternity.

Having lived in a psychiatric institute for some 40 plus years, Kusama speaks freely about abusive childhood, her mental illness, and her suicide-prone life.  After I googled her and learned that her art explodes from the depths of her mental illness, this new understanding couldn't help but color how I felt about The Obliteration Room, for example.

At the Hirschhorn Museum, we were each handed a small sheet of colorful stickers to apply wherever we wanted to what had once been an all-white room. It felt playful, happy, colorful, and participatory.   We were  helping the artist "obliterate" the white room.  I mean, when is any museum-goer ever asked to add their two cents, or colorful stickers, in this instance?  Most of the time we're told, Do Not Touch The Objects.  But here we were enthusiastically encouraged to slap on our stickers wherever we wanted.  It was fun.  And Ed even sat down and played at the colorful Kusama piano.  But after I learned that Kusama's mental illness had led her to want to be obliterated, to obliterate herself, my reaction to this exhibit is more complex and nuanced.  And I suspect yours would be, too.

Infinity Mirrors at the same exhibit.  So mesmerizing I didn't want to leave after the guard told me my 20 seconds in the room was up.  

19th century (female) doilies turned into 21st century (male) art?

I was dumbstruck today at the Renswick Gallery in Washington, D.C., when I came across a larger than life-size "figure" by Rick Cave called Soundsuit.   The art is made of numerous, colorful doilies of all sizes and shapes sewed onto a life-like shape.

My grandmother, Josie, a woman born in the 19th century, used to crochet doilies exactly like the ones the artist used.  I wondered how she'd feel if she were still alive and she came upon this work of art?  Would she be proud or puzzled, ashamed or flattered?

And I also wondered from where did the artist get his hands on this treasure trove of handmade lacey doilies?  From the older women in his family? 

And I bristled a bit at the idea of what was always a woman's hand work turned into a man's art?   I don't want to be part of the gender wars, but I would probably have embraced this work of art more warmly if it had been done by a woman.

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Crossword Puzzles

I was telling a friend about my crossword puzzle work.  

I don't do crossword puzzles.  I don't understand them, all their obtuse clues--Bestselling Michale Buble album--make my eyes glaze over, and all those blank squares waiting-to-be-filled-in make me tense.  So why every morning am I cutting these puzzles out of the newspapers we get delivered--The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, the Los Angeles Times--and  decorating them with stickers?  I wait until I have a pretty big pile and I stuff the whole bunch into a colorful envelope--turquoise, pink, orange--and send it to my niece in El Paso. 

"That's a random act of kindness," said Johnnie, bequeathing unto me a huge, unexpected compliment out of the blue.

I hadn't thought much about my crossword puzzle "work;"  and I hadn't labeled it one way or other.  About a year ago, my husband and I were visiting Chris, my nephew, and his wife, Jennifer, and somehow she mentioned about loving to do crossword puzzles.  She said they help her relax.  As the 30-something mother of two young boys, I could see how some relaxation, just for her, could be helpful.  She also said that she never gets any mail in her mailbox.  It would be fun for a change to get some mail.  

I had been so uninterested in crossword puzzles that I'd been oblivious to their existence.  I hadn't realized most newspapers carry them regularly, daily.   As soon as we got back home, I noticed crossword puzzles everywhere.  In the second section of the Wall Street Journal, the Arts section of the New York Times, even the sub-par Los Angeles Times has a crossword puzzle. 

Every morning I started tearing out the puzzles, and because I wanted Jennifer to remember me,  just a little, as she was solving the puzzles, I decorated them.  Depending on the season, and what stickers I had on hand, I glued on stars, pumpkins or Christmas trees.  I was careful only to put on the stickers where they wouldn't interfere with the puzzle.  

Jennifer said getting my colorful envelope was the highlight of her week.  That might be hyperbole.  But still nice.  She said that when she went away, she'd take the envelope on the plane and it was her way to relax.

When I started tearing, clipping, decorating, and mailing these puzzles I had no way of knowing that this activity would assume the quality of a daily zen ritual, and also send a message: We may live 1,000 miles apart, but I think of you daily, Jennifer, and I care about you.

I certainly had no way of realizing that once I started, I wouldn't stop.  And I had no way of knowing that my friend, Johnnie, would say, This is a random act of kindness.