Category Archives: Observations

Various observations about family, nature, life and whatnot.

A Space for Travel

Cleaning my kitchen back in Florida I am reminded why I love traveling so. Even in the nicest of destinations you are stripped away from your comfort zone. And your routine, whether mundane or solid, is put on hold.

I just got back from 16 days in Italy, accompanied by my 13-year-old son, who had never been out of the eastern U.S. This was my third time to Italy, staying with the same beautiful and gracious people I met there so many years ago. Three different trips, all unique. Each during a different phase in my life.

It’s quiet here now at my desk. The usual Florida summer humidity holding steadily outside. The weeds in the cracks of the lanai having grown a foot in my absence. There is laundry to be done, floors to mop, bills to pay. There is work to go back to, alarms to set, exhaustion looming in the distance. Although I helped out in my Italian host’s kitchen (they cooked, I cleaned) it did not feel like a chore. Their lack of air conditioning use drove me insane a few times but my open window was a gateway to sounds I do not usually hear. The cooing of pigeons, lively conversations in Italian, the undeviating church bell song– became welcome melodies to my late nights and early mornings.

The back of the row of flats and the open window which carried sounds joyously.

And those early mornings. Determined not to come back with extra wobble, I jogged with every sunrise. In the peace of dawn a little world was at play– feral kitties hiding in the long grasses on the edge of fields of lavender and tomatoes. Hefty black and white magpies sitting stately on top of hay bales. Jackrabbits as big as raccoons scurrying across the skinny roads and farm landscape.

Good morning sunrise. 

The meals we shared will forever be etched in my memory, both the company and the food itself. Believe me, I have a photo of every dish I ate! There was the torta fritta, an appetizer of lightly fried pockets of dough wrapped with the freshest prosciutto, so good all our Italian friends tried to either duplicate it or find it at various restaurants and markets. There was the pasta of course, not really my favorite because it blows up my belly, but the way they cooked it with various fresh sauces, like real carbonara with egg, and spinach and pumpkin ravioli, melted in my mouth. I had to refrain from gulping my wine and coffee as the Italians are sippers. Plus you can’t really gulp espresso, not if you want any dignity.

My son finally experienced what the fuss was all about regarding real Italian pizza. He even requested it as our last meal there. I don’t think I’ve ever seen him finish a plate of food like that. And the few desserts we did have were totally worth the carbs—lemon, rich chocolate and tangy yogurt gelato, a pastry called a Susanna with ricotta cheese and dark chocolate surrounded by a biscotti type crust, a pistachio cream-filled flaky croissant.

Oh, Susanna!

Spaghetti Carbonara accompanied by Lambrusco

Fresh local yogurt from the happiest cows on the planet.

Two of my very favorite meals happened at restaurants we hiked to, enjoying the views and meaningful conversations and laughs along the way. And ah yes, the views! Everywhere my eye rested during those sixteen days there was something amazing to see. Medieval castles dotting the hillsides, Romanesque paintings on cathedral ceilings, vineyards and fields of wild flowers for miles, and white, rugged mountaintops against a clear-blue sky.

The baptisery in Parma

Lavendar and vineyards 

Castello di Torrechiara

Cremona Cathedral 

Pozza di Fossa and the Dolomiti

Possibly our favorite part of the trip occurred in a little town called Sesta, which really deserves its own story here. It’s the tiniest coolest town I’ve ever been. Nestled in a hillside surrounded by the mountains there are only 12 full time residents. Winding cobblestone streets take you past their mortared walls, which are elegantly and eerily marked with various paintings, some chipping away from weather and time. An old fountain rests at the edge of the houses, flowing forth cold, fresh drinkable mountain water. At night the paintings are softly illuminated and the neighborhood children play hide and seek among the shadows. I sat on a wooden chair and watched them as my Italian host’s father tried to communicate with me in broken English. We only stayed there for a night but that town will always be with us. Neither of us wanted to leave it behind.

Nighttime in Sesta.


Traveling, being away from home and away from all the things you think you have control over, is a lesson in self-reflection. There are things you come to both revere and loath about yourself and/or surroundings, as well as learn about yourself and other people, cultures, places. I appreciate American coffee and air conditioning and strangers who smile and wave. I revel in my goofiness, independence, and sense of adventure. I do not appreciate the loneliness I sometimes feel when the house is quiet and empty. Or the loud suburban noises reminding me of consumption and perfectionism and competition.

I do love my own neighborhood and my comfortable living space and my sometimes mundane yet solid routine. But I am mourning the flat and mountain houses back in Italy where my son and I could casually hang in that small space together without distractions or the pressing of time. Lazy moments reading. Dinner being cooked for us. Spontaneous games of Frisbee. Conversations with old friends making new memories. The promise of another day of adventure and enrichment and relaxation and effortless bonding. We must go back. Soon. And until then make time for such moments within the realm of our working days and fleeting weekends.

I am ever grateful for the space in time and circumstance in which we have to travel. Whether across the globe or down the road, everyone should have that space, too.

Take the trip, breathe it in. 

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Dumb-ass Things I’ve Done as an American in a Foreign Country

So I’ve spent the last 8 days in Italy with my son and some dear Italian friends of mine. 

The last time I was here was in ’95 and before that, ’89. I did some dumb-ass things back then. Like burping aloud whenever the urge arose, even at the dinner table as the respected elder sat at the head, grimacing in disgust.  I was young, had never been to a foreign country, and being from Antioch Tennessee not the most worldly person on the planet. 

Coming back 22 years later I have life experience and maturity on my side, despite the fact my country’s president is an embarrassing bafoon. But the Italians laugh about it and say, “Well now it’s your turn to have your Berlusconi!” 

That aside and maturity and being somewhat of a world traveler and all that, there are still things I just don’t get. Being in a foreign country you find out real fast you’re not as smart as you think you are. 

Keys
I have always had a battle with keys (and Saran Wrap and ironing) but with my condo’s simple door lock and keyless entry into my Prius I haven’t had to battle it out with these little demons of metal in years. 

When my Italian house hosts casually showed me the three keys I would need to enter their home I listened carefully and confidently, all the while knowing a screw-up was on the horizon. 

The next day after my morning jog not only did I fail in opening the first gate but was unsuccessful in reaching any of the housemates. So like some weirdo creeper I jumped the gate (which really is only waist-high) and successfully opened the next entrance. But trying to use the ages-old style key into their door was like watching, well, an idiot American girl trying to open a European lock. There was clicking and clacking and cussing for what seemed like hours. Finally the man of the house opened the door from the other side as I nodded apologetically, mumbling, “Me and keys do not get along.”

A similar incident happened the next day with the garage door. I had to go back downstairs and open it because I’d left my phone in their car. They handed me the garage door key and I happily took it as if there would be no problem opening the kind of garage door I’d never used my entire life. I’m sure the neighbors were shaking their heads as I clicked and clacked and shook and banged and cussed. 

On the fifth day of my visit I finally opened each and every lock with one try, patting myself on the back as if I’d won a major award. 

Espresso machines and other European-style kitchen gadgets
The only time I ever owned an espresso machine was in the ’90s and the one time I used it I turned the kitchen into a caffeine and milk froth murder scene. So imagine my hesitant attempt at making an espresso on my own as a guest while the rest of the house slept. Except for my son who was nervously sitting at the kitchen table. “Oh god Mom you’re gonna blow up the house.” Thanks for the confidence, kid. 

Well I did NOT blow up the house. But as usual there was clicking and clacking and cussing. This also happened with the gas stove (which I’ve never owned or used) and the microwave (which in my defense is a special one made by Barilla and only available in Italy). 

I am now able to use the stove and make an espresso, although I still seem to spill water out of the base of the thing every time. And I gotta be real. I miss my big ass cup of American joe. 

Bathrooms
I’ve popped a squat in some odd places in my days, especially on camping trips and traveling and outdoor concerts. I’ve done the peeing in a hole in the floor thing in Japan, watching the flushed toilet water go the opposite direction in Australia, and held my nose in various Port-o-johns around the southern U.S. But nothing quite prepared me for the embarrassment of honestly NOT KNOWING WHERE THE HELL THE TOILET FLUSHER WAS. 

In my host’s flat it is fairly simple. There’s a big “button” on top of the toilet tank that is pushed on the right to flush and a ‘stop’ to push on the left when I suppose there’s been enough water and force to expel whatever it is that was just, well, expelled. I felt pretty smart for figuring that out on my own the very first time. 

But then fast-forward a couple days in un bano in a very nice restaurant. We’re talking white table cloths and errything. After doing my biz, and thank god it was only number 1, I searched the top for the flusher. Nothing. The sides? Nothing. The floor. The ceiling. Niente. But wait a minute… What’s this cord dangling down from that box on the wall near the ceiling? 

The intelligent part of my brain told me that was not the flusher. The dumb and impatient and desperate part said, “pull it”.

A piercing alarm began ringing throughout the bathroom and into the entire restaurant. I hurriedly washed my hands and shamefully scooted past the kitchen where one of the chefs looked at me knowingly. And I’d never seen him before in my life. Needless to say I did not go back to that bathroom, even after countless glasses of water. 

One day we took a day trip to the seaside. Seems as though they also adopted the hole in the ground toilet philosophy. No worries. Been doing my squats. But then this happened…


What the frick? I’m waving my hand. Why isn’t the water coming out??

Oh yeah, there’s this…


A pedal. 

Dumb-ass.

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5 Glorious Scents

Because I last wrote about 5 songs that move me, and I am having trouble coming up with an interesting prompt, I’ll cover another list of favorites.

Smells, scents, aromas. Old man cologne will NOT be on the menu here. Don’t you hate when you hug someone who has way too much cologne and the smell transfers to your own hair and clothing for the remainder of the day? But I digress…

Cinnamon

This is probably my very favorite smell. I love to say the word, love to put it in my coffee every morning, love the spicy, sugary scent of it wafting through a kitchen or market. It reminds me of the tasty treats of autumn and the freedom of summer. It correlates to home, family, cooking, festivals, parties, cozy nooks, sweetness. When a rat died in my attic space and the pest control guy couldn’t find the body, the first scent I scoured the candle aisle for was cinnamon. But you can’t cover up the stench of dead rat, only suffer through its depressing and repulsive cloud with the strength of a thousand cinnamon sticks.

Gardenia

I could inhale this lily white beauty for hours. I’m envious of those in my neighborhood who have a gardenia bush. I’ve thought of stealthily plucking a bloom while no one is looking but then my conscience prevails over my olfactory. You may see me in someone’s side yard with my face buried within the pedals. Gardenia’s scent is not overly sweet and smells as fresh as clean sheets, baby skin, a cold spring after a cool rain shower. I’d wear them everyday in my hair if I could, and disperse them in my various little vases and jars in every room in the house.

Coffee

When I was pregnant with my son I couldn’t stand the smell of coffee. I chalked it up to nature’s way of telling me I should nix the caffeine for about 9 months. When the baby gloriously arrived into the air of the Universe so did my admiration for coffee bean. Every night when I prep the coffee maker for tomorrow’s brew I have to stick my face into the coffee can. It reminds me of breakfast (my favorite meal), my grandfather and his cling-clingy-cling-cling of the spoon against the mug as he mixed in the sugar. Nutty, robust, and warm, coffee in its various forms and flavors signifies both energy and relaxation. Add two Stevia and a dash of vanilla almond milk and my eyes are shut and I’m making that mmmmm sound along with a quiet “thank god for coffee.”

New Shoes

Not only do I get a high from purchasing a new pair of shoes (can I get a Yay-uh from my fellow shoe lovers, meaning all women?) but there is something about the smell of new shoes. I’ll walk into a shoe store in the mall, even if I have no use or money for purchasing a new pair, just to breathe in the scent of new shoe. I bet the employees there don’t even notice the smell anymore. Kind of like those people whose houses smell of cat yet profess rather matter-of-factly that see, “you can’t even smell Twinkles.”

Old Books

There’s an old book I keep on my bedside table. I don’t particularly love the writing but I love its worn leather cover and the brownish pages inside. I’m one of those weird people who sniffs things in grocery aisles or antique shops and bookstores are no different. Some of my students look at me in bewilderment when I inhale a book at school, but then they will also come at me with their finger pointed, demanding “Sniff this!” and then I am doing the wincing. Old books not only tell the stories within them, but the stories from all the places they’ve traveled,  the shelves on which they waited patiently, the hands of those who sifted through their mellowing pages.

So these are some of my very favorite smells. Also good are bacon, newborn baby, fresh-out-of-the-oven cookies, lemon, fresh basil, funeral home (because of all the flowers), the familiar and intoxicating scent of someone you love (who obviously smells really good to you). What are yours? I’d love to know…

smellgood

 

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5 Amazing Songs

As per request (and writing prompt) from one of my dear readers and a fellow music devouter, I’d like to share 5 amazing songs that build up emotion in my chest, take me to happy and far away places, or just leave me whirlishly dancing on the chipped-tiled kitchen floor.

Don’t You Forget About Me by Simple Minds

This song of course is married to the ever-universal teen angst classic The Breakfast Club, making it even that much more endearing. That last scene when the song smacks in and John Bender gives a requited fist pump in a freeze frame forever is one of the best movie endings.

Don’t You Forget About Me reminds me of precious 80’s nostalgia, the innocence and simplicity there regarding music and hand-written letters and Walkmans and trips to the mall sans security personnel.

And the meaning: Don’t you forget about me. We all want to be remembered. We cannot let time or circumstance or distance allow the brain to turn us into static and the heart unforgiving or worse, ignored.

This one is for belting out fearlessly and dancing feverishly.  My students have seen me do this. On my fortieth birthday this is the song I boldly requested at the skating rink among all the preteens and their Taylor Swift enthusiasm. I’ll be singing and dancing to this one when I’m an old, old lady.

Don’t you forget about me. I’ll be alone, dancing, you know it, baby…

 

Us and Them by Pink Floyd

I listened to The Dark Side of the Moon on a constant loop along with The Cure’s Disintegration on a summer stint in Italy in my early teens. I know Roger Waters was talking about war in his lyrics but to me the “us” and “them” represented both the subtle and not-so-subtle differences I experienced between Americans and Italians. We spoke different languages, ate at different times of the day, looked different, but in the way we were different we were also the same. Just people trying to make it in the world, experience life, try not to trip on pebbles.

To this day, every time I hear that keyboard intro I feel the welling up in my chest. I am completely transported back to that balcony in Sardinia, back to that innocent 15 year old taking in everything never witnessed back in Antioch, Tennessee. I’m reminded of all the people I met and their cultural and nurturing influence on me.

Us, and them. And after all, we’re only ordinary men…

 

The Fool on the Hill by The Beatles

The Beatles were a big part of my growing up. They were not forced on me but rather gently introduced as my parent’s record collections included many Beatles albums and 45s. My brother and I would sit on the shaggy carpeted floor of our basement-turned-playroom and listen to them on our Fisher-price turntable. We fashioned ourselves as rock singers, belting out tunes as the grated vinyl spun round and round.

But when Fool on the Hill rolled along and into the tiny speaker, we would quietly sing together. Never looking up, frozen in that moment with lyrics and melody I swear brought welling up in my goofy sibling’s eyes.

That is one of my strongest and most fond memories of us together as children. Later in our teens we traveled to Lexington, Kentucky with a group of like-minded friends to see Paul McCartney in concert. I was enthralled to be in the presence of a Great. And to enjoy it with my bro at my side.

But the fool on the hill, sees the sun going down, and the eyes in his head, see the world spinning round…

 

A Forest by The Cure

This haunting song is one of the reasons I will forever be a Cure fan and Classic Alternative junkie. I was first introduced to the Cure when Kiss Me Kiss Me Kiss Me came out. During this era I was blown away by this sound which at the time never reached the local radio airwaves.

A Forest mirrored my teen angst, depression, and need for creative inspiration as sheets of rain seemed to fall endlessly in the grey, Tennessee winter. This dirge didn’t exasperate my feelings as my parents agonized. Instead it encapsulated and provided solace. I wasn’t alone in my fervor.

And just the word forest. It conjures images of lush foliage where mystery hides and escape is possible.

A few summers ago I was driving alone in North Florida on a windy road away from friends and family with whom I’d just spent an unforgettable week. As soon as I entered Tate’s Hell State Forest, an unforgiving ominous expanse of swampy woodland, my GPS fell silent and A Forest shuffled on my auxiliary. I don’t know if there’s ever been more perfect timing between song and circumstance.

Come closer and see, see into the trees…

 

The Dead Heart by Midnight Oil

I could write an entire blog post about songs by Midnight Oil but for the purpose of not turning this into a biography I’ll sample this one.

I was introduced to Midnight Oil via the video for Bed’s Are Burning, seen on MTV’s Friday Night Videos. This unique sound from Australia fronted by a bald, passionate giant literally left me gasping in its strum guitar and water tank drum beats. I was instantly transformed. Life would never be the same. And then began a life-long love and adoration for the band, their extensive collection of songs throughout the decades, and their messages about equality and the environment.

The Dead Heart evokes singing and whirling, and to the tune of aboriginal rights in Australia. It’s as serious as it is heartfelt and in the end a hopeful dance. The Oils do a fantastic job of informing while entertaining and this song is no exception. When I hear it I’m in the Outback as well as on my old friend’s balcony (what’s with me and balconies) back in ’87 when all this alternative rock hoopla began voluntarily infiltrating my soul.

Midnight Oil will forever be my favorite band of all time. And The Dead Heart is just one of many that fill me with emotion, the need to research, to help bring about change, and yes, to belt it out and move.

These 5 songs helped shape who I am. What are yours?

 

 

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A Special Place

I’ve been listening to Midnight Oil nonstop for the past week. This wasn’t the case for chunks of time in the past decade. New music tastes, life occurrences, the band’s parting of ways on the stage and in the studio led my ears away from my FAVORITE BAND OF ALL TIME. But they were never gone from my heart. Ever since those warm Tennessee days in 1987 when I awoke to this new sound from a country so far away, they have stayed in my auditory cortex, in my blood.

Music lovers all over the world recognize this. If given the means and time I would have seen every show they ever did. But I’ve danced to them three times live, once just a week ago.

I traveled from Florida to Toronto to see them. It had been fifteen years. They are currently on a reunion tour. Fans all over the globe coming out in droves. Waiting in line for hours. Donning their old concert tees. Swapping stories. A quirky, nerdy, socially and environmentally conscious group of people sharing a diehard love for this Aussie band we only dreamed would reunite.

This rekindling of my love for the band has me sifting through all their albums and compilations and remembering why I started listening to them in the first place. They were different from any of the alternative bands I was listening to at the time and definitely different from the bubblegum pop dominating the radio. They brought global awareness even though many of the issues I did not quite understand, me living in Antioch. Who is Jimmy Sharman, where is Alice Springs, and what is a bullroarer? Midnight Oil inspired me to be more environmentally conscious, to research, to write, explore, travel, dance wildly.

I listened to them in my teens when I needed to be understood. I listened to them while waiting for my dad to have brain surgery. I listened to them while pushing my son in the stroller. I’m listening to them now as I write this, those teen years long gone, wrinkles on my face, my father alive and well, my son now a teenager.

Thank you Midnight Oil for sharing your gifts of music and awareness with the universe. Thank you for coming together, perhaps one last time, to re-instill all that we love about you and continue to. A special place in our hearts, always.

And damn did you rock the stage.

 

 

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As it Exists in our Minds

They say you can’t go back. Or perhaps you shouldn’t. But sometimes it’s inevitable.

Steely Dan Radio on Pandora. That’ll do it for me. A tinge of past immediately starts flowing through the neurons and blood stream. Back to childhood days in my dad’s mustard El Camino or hunched over the Fischer-Price record player with my brother.  Back to teenage days, cycling through songs on random play from the new CD player. Back to college days, blasting out the sub woofers in my ’87 Nissan Sentra. And about a hundred other memories involving a Steely Dan song.

Whether you want it to or not, music will take you back.

There are those songs you can’t bear to hear. Either they bring back a dark memory or someone you’d rather not keep in your consciousness. Those we turn off as soon as we can, if possible. Or perhaps we need a good cry out and we let it rip.

Then there are those songs that fire up our frontal lobe like fourth of July sparklers and we are transported to a time and place no longer existing. Even if our childhood homes are still intact, or the city in which we grew up, it is never the same.

I guess that’s why they say you can never go back. Because no matter how bad we may want it to be there, it is gone.

And that is one of the many beauties of music– enabling us to hold onto a moment as if we were right there. Right there in our dad’s old car. Right there on the front porch with the Walk-man. Right there in the school parking lot with our quirky friends. Right there dancing with Grandma. Or and old friend. Or an old flame. Those that have moved on or passed away. In this moment they are alive.

And this is why I play Steely Dan on Sunday morning. So I won’t forget.

El Camino

 

 

 

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Jealous of Boys

Seventh grade. Mr. Helton’s homeroom. He was the class clown and one of the most popular kids in school. I sat in the back row next to my Laotian friend and a girl who lived in a trailer park and once showed me a vile of some kind of powder (I winced at it and tried to ignore her the rest of the school year).

Even with my perm and freckles I was prettier than I ever gave myself credit for. The class clown sometimes acknowledged me but was more interested in the hottest girl in school with her long, shiny black hair, developed perky breasts, and cool mismatched socks.

I don’t know if I had a crush on the class clown or I just wanted to be the class clown. I think it was a bit of both.

He was confident. Kids giggled at his shenanigans. Even Mr. Helton found him amusing. He didn’t have the worry of covering up legs needing to be shaved, the inevitable arrival of a leaky menstrual cycle, or the proper way to curl unruly bangs into the perfect pouf.

I longed for his self-assured attitude and his fearlessness and talent for making people laugh. His tousled blond locks and casual, non-committal clothing required little to no maintenance yet he was gorgeous all the same. His wide, bright smile would surely take him far in life with minimal struggle.

When I look back at that time and the decades afterwards I think I was always jealous of boys. They were good at sports, didn’t have to wear make-up or an outfit that covered up the wobbly bits, didn’t spend hours pining over crushes that would never come into fruition.

For years I said if given the chance to come back in another life I would be Jeff Spicoli of Fast Times at Ridgemont High fame. His laid-back attitude and passion for surfing leaves little time to mull over the monstrosities of the world or the pressure of fitting into some perfect mold.

Now that I’m older and have a boy of my own I realize some of these prejudgements are just that. Not all boys get a free pass to blissfully ignorant-ville.

No, my son doesn’t have to worry about shaving his legs or getting a period. I don’t think he ever brushes his hair. But like me he worries about the world. He doesn’t always have that revered sky-high self confidence, especially when it comes to sports. But he’s miles beyond where I was at his age in seventh grade. He doesn’t seem to care so much what others think of him. He doesn’t slink away shyly in the corners of the classroom. For that I am thankful.

And in all honesty if I were a boy I would not have the experience of everything that goes with the unique ability to grow a human being in my body. That is some pretty fantastical and ever-bonding stuff. I wouldn’t trade that for any of the classroom joke-telling confidence in the world.

But…

It would be really cool to be Spicoli for a day.

spicoli

“All I need are some tasty waves, a cool buzz, and I’m fine…”

 

 

 

 

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