Thursday, January 26, 2012

Travelling with Arthur and Robert

Our man Arthur
When Gary and I traveled to Europe on our honeymoon (first time on a plane for both of us), we consulted Arthur Frommer's Europe on $5/day.  Arthur was our bible and if Arthur liked it, we liked it.

In less than two weeks Eric and I head off to Rome. Not ideal tourist weather, you say? Well, my son has such a busy schedule that the only available time between now and September is balmy, lovely, uncrowded Febbraio. And does Arthur agree?

Well, I wondered if Arthur at age 83 was still with us when I picked up Frommer's Italy 2012 and saw his name had been dropped from the title. Not to worry, Arthur has a blog (  and an internet radio program with his daughter Pauline.  (

Is Arthur really keeping up this pace? -- several blogs a week, a 2 hour radio show on Sundays? I'm proud of him, even if he has a ghost writer helping out. I suspect my hefty original Europe on $5/day paperback had fewer pages than the Italy 2012 edition which weighs in at 966 pages. I downloaded it to Kindle. (Arthur is so 21st century!) Of course, there are a lot more choices of travel books now than in 1973. In addition to Frommer and Fodor, there's Lonely Planet, Rick Steves, Let's Go, Rough Guides and many more. Eric is going to download a rival book, so we can have dueling itineraries.Can you picture us on a street corner, consulting our Kindles, while the gypsy children swarm around us and pick our pockets?

Critic Robert Hughes, not looking too happy
More importantly, we're both reading Robert Hughes' new book: Rome: A Cultural, Visual and Personal History. The book jacket promises "Equal parts idolizing, blasphemous, outraged and awestruck...a portrait of the Eternal City as only Robert Hughes could paint it." Though not a guide book, will Robert's view of the world capture my imagination the way Arthur's view had so many years earlier? Will we be quoting Robert throughout our trip?  If Robert devotes five pages to the story behind  the statue of Giordano Bruno in Campo dei Fiori, do we dare miss it? Do the musings of this sometimes pompous but always entertaining Australian art and culture critic warrant changing our 'must see' list? 

I can't wait to see if we'll be the only tourists at Pompeii looking for certain scatological graffiti (page 64 ) or marvelling that the Pompeiian house of Marcus Lucretius Fronto looks like "the terrace of Luigi's Pasta Palace in coastal New Jersey." (Why always the Jersey jokes?) I detect a certain insecurity in Robert, as if he hasn't completely resolved his Australian roots. Lamenting the overly pious plaster statues he grew up with in Australia in the 50's he comments: "as far as I could discover there was not one work of religious art in Australia that anyone except a weak-minded nun, and a lay one at that, could call authentic." Italy was his grand awakening.

Eric and I are ready for authenticity:  real art, architecture, ruins, real pizza, speedy trains, crazy Italian drivers. Two weeks left to finish reading Arthur and Robert, filtering through their recommendations and stories. Will it be Arthur or Robert who gets the most attention? The practical vs the philosophical, the garrulous light hearted adventurer getting the best deals vs the intellectual curmudgeon, awed by art and history. 

I have a feeling they'll be room for both.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Thoughts on MLK

A few random thoughts on Martin Luther King Day, observed this past Monday.

As I was watching the Golden Globes on Sunday, I couldn't help but notice a number of Sears ads for the big MLK sale on Monday. Now that's acceptance. Never mind what Martin Luther King said or fought for, once your name/cause can be ignored or better yet linked to retail sales, you are a true American. Will his holiday soon be synonymous with the President Day sales in February. ( Who were those two guys again?) Whether it's civil rights, founding fathers, great emancipators or pink ribbon breast cancer, let's boost the sales economy!

I did hear a very interesting program on NPR on what is arguably one of the greatest speeches in history, the famous "I have a dream" speech. As a former Toastmaster, I was surprised to learn that Dr King veered from the written version of his speech, originally entitled "Normalcy - Never Again" to deliver the now famous ending. As he was speaking, he was gauging the reaction of the audience and he knew his speech as written was inadequate. Mahalia Jackson, shouted from the crowd, "Tell them about the dream, Martin," referring to a speech he had delivered in Detroit two months earlier and ideas he had been trying out in smaller venues. As a preacher first, he knew the power of a good sermon and he was always honing his craft. I actually listened to the full 17 minute speech (the luxury of retirement), although it's the last 5 minutes when he improvises on the dream message.  If you're interested, here's an illegal copy on youtube:

(Listen to it immediately because apparently the muddle of copyright law applied to the Internet and the new SOPA - Stop Online Piracy Act have caused free copies of the speech to disappear from the Internet. Not sure how this version survived on YouTube.)

My third observation:  I'm reading the book: "Jacqueline Kennedy: Historic Conversations on Life with JFK," her series of interviews with Arthur Schlesinger, four months after the assassination. Only two pages are devoted to MLK and Jackie describes him as a "tricky person" and relates what a "phony" she thought he was, after JFK told her that the FBI's wiretaps and room buggings had revealed a whole lot of partying going on after the Freedom March. A bit ironic, wouldn't you say, in light of the president's own reputation for frequent extramarital affairs, but the conversations don't address that point. 

A footnote from Schlesinger acknowledges that Jackie was still "bristling at King" after learning from Robert Kennedy that MLK had made disparaging remarks about the president's funeral, including that presiding Cardinal Cushing was a bit tipsy. 

From the point of view of King and the other civil rights leaders, John and Robert Kennedy were publicly supported but privately criticized, as overly cautious and slow in pushing for desegregation in the South. Vice President LBJ gave a speech at the 100th anniversary of Gettysburg in May of 1963 (2 months before the Freedom March) that was critical of the slow progress of the government. JFK responded the following month with a more forceful TV speech characterizing civil rights as a "moral issue."

And who says history is boring?

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Missing the "SPA" Gene

Hard to believe, but I'm in the 1% of women who are missing the SPA gene. Relax and read on---I'm not talking about new breast cancer research. No, I'm speaking about every woman's innate longing for relaxing, rejuvenating spa treatments to restore the body and de-stress the soul.

I am spa-challenged, but I'm wondering now if it's nature or nurture? Perhaps I just got off to a bad start with spas? Can I trace it all back to my first Nordstrom spa seaweed wrap? Many years ago, with 3 kids and the hectic suburban child-centered lifestyle, I remember being thrilled with my husband's gift of a spa adventure. The seaweed wrap seemed perfect-- I love the ocean! So, why not be painted with soothing green paste of mashed kelp and fragrant herbs, wrapped in a warm blanket and allowed some alone time to just breathe in and out without a care in the world? Alas, if only it were so. The green seaweed was fine, but I began to sweat in the cocoon-like wrap and worried about the green goo dripping into my eyes. I would have snuck my hand up for a quick wipe, but my Houdini skills failed me and I was unable to liberate my arm from my organic cotton strait jacket. It was too hot and the lingering, faint odor of lightly simmered seaweed was giving me a headache. My attendant finally returned and I gratefully followed her directions for the cleansing finale. I'm sure there was a shower involved, but my memory returns only one image--the attendant manning an elephant-sized hose aimed in my direction, blasting me sparkling clean, my body plastered against the wall.

I wrote all this off as beginner's bad luck, and persisted over the years in giving it "one more try." I learned to avoid Swedish massages, since they often involved a large Swedish-like woman who would comment on how tense my neck and shoulders were and then proceed to isolate a knot of muscle which she would "work" until it became rock hard, permanently ensuring that it would remain a proud emblem of my tenseness for all eternity. Perhaps this was part of the strategy for return visits?

I decided to switch to water cures. Sitting in a $120 hot bath of brownish cappucino-colored water, I thought: "Could I get the same results in my own tub at home by just not cleaning the tub?" Of course not!  

I progressed  from plain water cures to a hot mud bath. I knew I would never have the energy to drag bags of mud up to the 2nd floor bathroom of our house, so it was worth a try and, after all, we weren't just talking plain old ordinary backyard sandbox mud. I was in the Northern Napa Valley and this was primo Calistoga deep earth primordial ooze. My daughter and I shared a gloomy room with 2 huge metal tubs filled with bouncy oatmeal-laden mud. It was springy to the touch, warm and welcoming, until Beth asked: "How do you think they clean this mud between customers?"  Hmm... I pondered this as I sank deeper into the lumpy, chunky mud. Before leaving us alone for a half hour of slippery solitude, the attendant had covered our eyes with a soothing eye pillow--soothing?... or a way to discourage us from examining our muddy entrapment too closely?

"Beth," my lonely, disembodied voice floated over the tubs. "Have you stopped sinking in? Do you feel like the mud is creeping up your neck, your chin...?" Was I being pulled slowly downward to death by suffocation? "Don't struggle," I yelled, remembering the quicksand from the Tarzan movies of my youth and the admonition to stay calm. (not my strong suit!)   "Stay calm. Stay calm. Stay calm!"  I screamed, unable to free my arm to remove the sensory deprivation mask. Could the attendant not hear me? I finally pulled my arm out and pushed the mask back, tried to breathe slowly, until our attendant returned to liberate us from the black holes. Sucked out of the mud bath by the hefty arms of Shana of the Jungle (names have been changed to protect the guilty) we were momentarily relieved until Shana produced --- yes, you've guessed it --- the elephant-sized hose. 

All of this was valuable research for future experiences. We composed our guidelines for reading a spa menu, concentrating on red flag words to avoid: 
scrub -- being scoured with a brillo pad
removing dead skin -- (they neglect to tell you that live skin can go with it)
exfoliating -- same as above
pressure points -- see knot story above
petrissage--French for muscle torture
brisk friction -- see brillo pad 
grit  -- best left on dusty roads
sea salt -- best left in the ocean
invigorating, stimulating -- it will hurt, but you will rationalize that it was worth it.

I was beginning to get really worried. It was enough for me to be a spa-less outcast, but was I poisoning my daughter and relegating her to a life of misery when female friends suggested a "fun weekend getaway." Did Beth lack the SPA gene, too, or was I just starting her down my path of experience? I decided the second annual mother-daughter spa-cation at Mohonk Mountain House would be a test and my last ditch effort to let Beth happily join the 99% of women who love to spa.

It didn't start out well. Beth had to catch the NFC wildcard final of the Giants vs Atlanta, as soon as we arrived on Sunday. Can you say football and spa in the same breath? Luckily there was a tv room, filled with all males who looked like they had been reluctantly dragged by their wives to a romantic getaway vacation. The Giants won convincingly and Tebow and Denver won the 2nd game. After all those body slamming tackles and punishing falls, I hope the teams all got relaxing aromatherapy massages after the game. Yes, there is a football-spa connection!

Beth must have been identifying with her football heroes, because unlike her weaker mother, she successfully managed the Swedish massage. She did arrive at her appointment a little late, was whisked through the application process and spent the first few minutes of her stress free treatment wondering what she had signed and worrying about whether tips were included.

Her downfall came with the Moss Hydrating Body Mask with Exfoliating Body Glow. Had she not listened to the spa wisdom her mother had tried to convey over the years? Does moss hydrating mask not sound suspiciously like organic seaweed paste? Did she not fear the elephant hose? She had some choices for the exfoliating scrub, but I've bolded the red flag words:
  • Rosemary Citron – a traditional stimulating sea salt scrub
  • Espresso Mud Scrub – a rich, earthy mud scrub featuring ground Arabica beans    -- ground up beans? really? 
  • Lemongrass Mimosa – micronized walnut shells and bamboo; remove dull, dry skin --Getting more serious now grinding up walnut shells and bamboo. Hope nothing goes under fingernails.
  • Lemon Verbena -- the most gentle, yet effective exfoliation, for sensitive skin, with jojoba beads and oat proteins --Ah, not to worry . Here was the perfect choice.

Trouble was when Beth entered her treatment room, her 250 pound, ex-roller derby attendant said she was out of all those choices and substituted the Mohonk Fragrant Earth -- a melange of dandelion and pine essence mixed with Mohonk Preserve rock salt from the parking lot. To be fair, Organic Osama (names have been changed...) warned Beth the first part would be rough, but it would get better. Despite Beth's protests that it hurt and Organic Osama's attempts to ratchet down the intensity, OO really only knew one effort level--full speed ahead. That evening at dinner, I could see Beth was becoming a convert. She extended her arms out and proclaimed to our table: "Feel my skin- it's soft as a baby's butt!"  It got a little embarrassing when she got up and visited three other tables of strangers, exhorting them to stroke her soft skin.  "Beth," I said, maneuvering her gently back to her seat, "they just want to finish their dinners."

me and Beth
I'm glad there's hope for Beth and spas. As for me, I've identified the one foolproof treatment -- the hot stones massage. No probing fingers knotting and unknotting your muscles, just smooth pressure from warm stones and lots of moisturizing oils. Heavenly.

All kidding aside, it was a wonderful vacation-- relaxing with friends, enjoying fabulous food and good conversation in a beautiful mountain setting. Here are some pix:
Me and Carol

At the entrance
sitting room

on the trail
Nancy and Cindy
Nancy and Megan

Rocking chair pavilion
The shining?

Mohonk Mountain House and Lake

The green team

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Favorites of 2011

Fourth day of the new year and I already have a 4 day string of exercising and decluttering one drawer/closet per day. Yes, the threatened black garbage bag is really out! New Year's resolutions-a piece of cake. You'll notice I didn't go for the tough ones, like writing a novel, getting more money for stage 4 cancer treatments or bringing peace to the Middle East (finally!)

Looking forward to a great year and of course looking back over 2011, I have to offer up some of my favorite things. First, the easy ones:

Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese (fiction) A sprawling novel set between Ethiopia and America of twin boys with a special bond, tested by life events. Hard to put this one down.

The Emperor of all Maladies by Dr. Siddhartha Mukherjee (non-fiction). A history or, as he describes it, a "biography" of cancer. He talks about all cancers, not just breast cancer and relates some pretty amazing stories. I particularly liked the description of  how difficult throughout history it's been to gain acceptance of new procedures and ideas.

Life by Keith Richards (biography) 20+ disks, but well worth the listen. (You know I love Keef!)

Do you have to even ask? Alaska, hands down. As my Park Service son would say my "place attachment" remains strong. Wonderful family travel, beautiful scenery and things I thought I'd never do--kayak to a glacier, hike in close proximity to the bears, and fly in a Cessna 210 around Denali.

Bright Morning Stars by the Wailin' Jennys- discovered this group at Bergen Community College performance and practically wore out the CD, playing it in the car. Also loved their earlier album, Forty Days and especially the single Arlington, which starts with a lovely Irish drum and has beautiful poetic lyrics.  (click on link to listen)

I have to restrict this category to Shakespeare, since I saw 14 plays by the bard this year, ranging from Bergen Community College production of As You Like It to King Lear with famous British actor Derek Jacobi at Brooklyn Academy of Music and also with Sam Waterston at the Public Theatre. (You know you're in trouble when you start seeing the same play and comparing different versions of it) Gary saw an additional 2 plays, but I drew the line at military history plays--Richard II and Henry V.
A Midsummer Night's Dream - a fun, easy to like Shakespeare play by the NJ Shakespeare Festival in a perfect setting: the outdoor stone amphitheatre at St Elizabeth's College.

Now the harder categories in which to pick a favorite:

BLOG: "Gee, I love them all," she said modestly.  

My pick for 2011 would be:  I still buy green bananas. Yes, Tim, I still chuckle every time I sit in the family room with my feet up in couch potato luxury.

MOVIE: Lots of good ones, none really great.

I liked The Descendants, War Horse, Midnight in Paris, The Help, The Artist.  Off beat: The Guard and Win-win. But as for best picture, I'll leave that to the Academy.

This post is starting to look like a Pinterest page, so I'd better stop. No, I can't get involved in yet another website!! (although it's fun to browse.)