Not Cut Out for Grit Labor

When I was 19 years old, my eldest sister was in the Air Force, stationed in Holland. Between my freshman and sophomore years in college, she invited me to go there for the summer. What, are you kidding? Of course I said yes, with visions of jet setting around Europe dancing in my head.

Upon arrival, she mentioned that, oh, by the way, she had gotten me a job on the Air Force base. I was to mop floors and stock soda machines all summer long. I could hardly complain, could I? She had brought me to Europe, after all.

So, after pretty much zero training, I was sent off to fend for myself. And the verbal directions I was given as to the locations of the various vending machines was sketchy at best. To say I got lost is putting it mildly. That base was huge. A job that should only have taken a couple hours took me all night.

The next night, I was to mop the floors, using one of those metal industrial rolling buckets and a heavy stringy mop. I was a skinny little thing back then. At one point, I knocked the full bucket over in a hallway and flooded the place. I spent the whole night desperately trying to sop up the gigantic puddle. When my boss came in the morning he was furious.

I’ll never forget this. He called my sister and told her that I was “not cut out for grit labor”, and that was the end of that summer job. In retrospect I should have been a lot more insulted. At age 19, he was writing me off for life. And it turns out that the bulk of my career has been all about grit labor, so poo poo on you, bossman.

There were no other civilian jobs that I qualified for on base, and I had no work visa to work in country, so guess what? I traveled around Europe for the rest of the summer. It was great.

I swear to God, I didn’t do it on purpose.

Mop Bucket

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Rick Steves Makes an Impact

It was years of watching Rick Steves’ Europe on PBS that gave me the courage to go to some of my most exciting travel destinations. Turkey. Hungary. Croatia. Slovenia. I doubt I’d have ever gone to those countries were it not for his suggestions. I also rely heavily on his guidebooks whenever I travel.

Suffice it to say that I’ve been a fan of Rick Steves for a long time. But in recent years, I’ve also come to know his politics, and that has made me admire him even more. So imagine my joy in finding out that now that I’ve moved to the Seattle area, he lives just down the road from me.

I have this fantasy of running into him and being able to actually tell him what an impact he’s made on my life. I’m sure he gets that a lot, but it’s true. I live to travel. I wrote about that just the other day. It has formed my worldview. It has made me more compassionate. It has educated me in so many ways. It has made me who I am. And Rick Steves has been a big part of that.

As if he weren’t already a personal hero of mine, I read today that he donated a 4 million dollar apartment complex to the YWCA so that they can house homeless women and children. It’s in Lynnwood, Washington. I’m sure I’ve passed it quite a few times, not realizing what a wonderful place it is. As someone who is struggling to find affordable housing myself, it thrills me to think that he’s paying it forward for so many people. (Read more about this, in his own words, here.)

That is the very definition of a life well lived. He’s inspired millions and directly improved the lives of hundreds. How many of us can say that? Thanks, Rick Steves! It’s a pleasure to be your neighbor!

Rick Steves

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My Magical European Summer

Recently, I came across a diary that I wrote when I was 19, and I read it for the first time since I wrote it. That summer was the high point of my life. (So far, at least. Who knows what the future holds.)

I was traveling through Europe, and I was falling in love. Those were heady, intense, joyful days full of exploration and adventure. Love, with a backdrop of Holland and Belgium and France and Germany and Luxembourg and Switzerland… it just doesn’t get any better than that. It really doesn’t.

Reading about the events as they unfolded, with the benefit of hindsight, has been quite a unique experience. It’s kind of left me in a weird head space, if I’m honest. That summer shaped the rest of my life.

I don’t know if I’m the exception or the rule, but when I fall in love, I am all in. T was the one for me. I was convinced of it then, and I’m convinced of it now. That summer was full of laughter and endless conversations and making sweet, sweet love in strange places. I recount those things in my diary in intimate detail. I would have done anything for him. I would have sacrificed anything to make it work.

Unfortunately, he was of a more practical mindset. I truly believe that he loved me, but love was not his priority. I’ll never understand or relate to that, because in the end, love is all that matters, in my opinion. So the summer came and it went and he moved on — fairly quickly, I’m told, but I didn’t know that at the time. I kind of wish I had, because it might have made things easier for me.

I, on the other hand, went for, oh, decades, feeling like I wasn’t living the life I was supposed to be living. My life was one big detour down a really messed up side street in which I tried to settle for a happiness which always eluded me. I even trapped myself in a 16 year loveless, sexless, extremely safe relationship. What a waste.

I did fall in love a second time, with another California guy who also didn’t have the staying power or the confidence in our love to make a go of it. That’s a shame, because it could have been an incredible life. (I should probably run screaming whenever California guys cross my path.)

Meanwhile, T got married, and then divorced. But by that time I had fallen in love for a third time, with Chuck, who was amazing. For the first time since I was 19, I felt like life was “right”. I finally felt like I was over T. Chuck was passionate and intense and devoted and hilarious. And best of all, he loved me back in equal measure. He was all in. He was a gift. And then 4 years later, he went and died on me. Well, shit. That wasn’t the plan.

So now, on a whole lot of levels and for a whole lot of reasons, I’m even more convinced that I’m living a life that I’m not supposed to be living. Grief will do that to you. It changes you. But I’m sort of getting used to loving people who aren’t there to reciprocate.

After I read the final page of that old diary, I did something stupid. I went snooping on Facebook, only to find that T is once again in a relationship. He seems quite content. They travel to exotic places. They cuddle on the couch. They have family dinners. He managed to land on his feet, but then I always knew he would. He’s a land on your feet type of guy. I even saw a video clip in which he talks, and sure enough, my heart started pounding the second I heard his voice.

T once told me I wasn’t the kind you marry. Apparently not. Because the ones I wanted to marry didn’t want to marry me, and the ones who wanted to marry me, I didn’t want to marry. Things shouldn’t have turned out that way.

But I’m finally in a place where I think T got it wrong. I’m exactly who someone should marry, because when I love someone, that feeling never ever dies. (It’s the liking that comes and goes, and takes work to maintain.)

I have come to know that that never-ending kind of love is a rare, precious, priceless gift that should never be discounted, never be passed over. Because you may not ever see it again. Cherish it, nurture it, if you are lucky enough to have it.

It’s a strange feeling, having so much love to give and nowhere to put it. If I could go back and talk to that 19 year old, would I tell her to do anything differently? No, not really. The feelings she had were authentic and pure and undeniable. I might tell her to savor it even more. Devour that love, because you’re going to be on short rations the rest of your life, honey. When you’re young, you think there will be always be more opportunities, and that the possibilities are endless, that good luck will come to visit you over and over again, but that’s bullshit.

Before my comment section fills up with platitudes such as, “Before someone can love you, you must first love yourself,” or “You’ll find love when you stop looking for it,” or “There’s someone out there for you,” let me be practical for a minute and say that the older I get, the longer my odds become. It is equally possible that I’ll be living the rest of my life completely and utterly alone. I need to come to grips with that possibility. Don’t get me wrong. I’ll still hold out a certain amount of hope, but it would be much healthier to live the life I have and try to make the most of it rather than hold out for some fantasy. I’m working on it.

That diary, after that glorious summer, is full of so much pain and confusion and struggle that the re-reading often reduced me to tears. “Why is my love not enough?” “What did I do wrong?” “Why is this happening? I don’t understand.” I wish I could go back and hug that girl. But I couldn’t really offer her that much comfort. I’m still asking myself those same damned questions 33 years later.

Here’s a secret that no one tells you: Life just isn’t like a Hollywood movie. Hollywood is in California, too.

Suddenly I feel the need to go home and hug my dog.

Eiffel Tower

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Too Much of a Good Thing

When I was young and thin and had the metabolism of a hummingbird, I worked for a few months in a place that sold, among other things, ice cream. I was in heaven. All the ice cream I could eat!

Well, that lasted, at most, a couple weeks. I took such advantage of that perk that it got to the point where I didn’t care if I ever saw ice cream again. And the secret they don’t tell you is that if you have a booming business, those ice cream scoops can give you a nasty case of Carpal Tunnel Syndrome. Ice cream jockeys really earn their tips.

There really can be too much of a good thing. We Americans have an exceptionally hard time accepting that fact. We don’t just go out to dinner. We have to have an all you can eat buffet. We don’t eat, we gorge. Portions at American restaurants are obscenely enormous. If we don’t leave an eatery feeling slightly sick, we feel like we haven’t gotten our money’s worth. I was at a friend’s house the other day, and after stuffing ourselves, we were asked, “Did you get enough?” Actually, I got too much, thank you.

Europeans know how to sample small amounts of a given delicacy, fully confident that they will be able to do so again on another day. Americans act as if every meal will be our last. It’s as if we’re still in the throes of the Great Depression. The problem with that concept is that the rest of the world went through it as well, and yet they seem to have snapped out of their depression era need to grab and gobble.

The other day, in honor of Easter, I bought what at the time seemed like a reasonably sized ham for a single person. But I was apparently looking at it through American eyes, because I suspect I will be eating the damned thing every day for the next two weeks. It sucks to be single. Especially if you’re single and have an American-sized sense of acquisition.

huge portions

[Image credit:]

Pillar to Post Vacations

I have a European friend who absolutely hates the way I plan my vacations. I tend to cram as much into a holiday as I possibly can. I view them as a smorgasbord, where you only take little tastes of a wide variety of delicacies. I spend a lot of time rushing about, seeing as much as is humanly possible. Unfortunately that means that I rarely experience anything in depth. She, on the other hand, likes to go to one place and sort of settle in for a 5 course meal. She will savor a place, really know it, and come back all the more relaxed for the experience.

It’s not that I wouldn’t love to travel the way she does. Maybe if I were based in Europe, where different cultures are but a short train ride in any given direction, I would do so. But here in America, just getting to another culture takes a lot of time and money, neither of which I have in abundance. I never know if my current trip will be my last, so I have to make the most of it.

Neither travel style is superior to the other. It’s just different. I enjoy the random situations that crop up during my zipping from point A to point B. Often those are the most memorable moments of the trip. I’ve met some amazing people and have become stranded in some amazing places. I love having a million stories and even more memories. And I do have the scheduling challenges of crammed itinerary down to a science. I think I’d be an excellent candidate for the Amazing Race, because I may not have ever raced around the world, but I’ve definitely raced around several countries.

Maybe I’m commitment phobic. I don’t want to get too in-depth in a country. I don’t want to get to know people, meet families, become a regular at restaurants and learn the routines of a specific neighborhood, because if I do that, I’ll fall in love with them. There’s too much of the world to see, so I know that with every given trip I’m seeing a place to which I’ll never have a chance to return. What’s the point of falling in love if it means you’ll only pine away for something you can’t have for the rest of your life?

No. It’s better this way. I’ll be pleased to make your acquaintance, dear country, but I’d prefer that we don’t get on a first name basis. Kiss me if you will, but nothing below the waist, please. That way we can part as friends.


Countries are Artificial Constructs

One of my friends applied for a high level federal job many years ago and put me down as a personal reference. Some guy in a suit showed up at my door to interview me about her, and one of his questions was, “Is she a good American?”

That made me blink. Uh, what does that mean, exactly? I suppose one could agree that the Unibomber was not a good American, but did that turn him into a good something else?

I’ve always found it rather absurd to judge people based on the nationalities that are placed on their shoulders simply by virtue of birth. Cultures know no borders, and I’ve yet to meet a single human being who agrees completely with the actions of his or her government.

That’s why I can’t get worked up about immigration or buying American. What makes me so special? I’m only a second generation American myself. Why do I have more of a right to be here than anyone else? And why is it better to support a hard working American who is producing a product so much better than supporting a hard working person from Bangladesh? Do they not have families to support as well? I suppose the fact that I have traveled has given me more of a global perspective.

In many places, national boundaries run right down the center of city streets. How different are you from the person who lives just across the way? Are you more different from them than from the person who lives right next door?

In Istanbul you can walk from Europe to Asia and still be in Istanbul. What does that mean to the people who do that every single day? Do the Istanbullu-Europeans distinguish themselves from the Istanbullu-Asians?

When the Berlin Wall was constructed, we considered this barbaric, and watched as people desperately tried to escape their confines. Prisoners, too, do not want to be where they are. What does that make them? Some countries have border disputes with their neighboring countries. What does that do to the mindset of the people who are living in those disputed areas?

In Saudi Arabia the crowds must applaud at public beheadings. Can we really believe that not a single person in that crowd is not inwardly horrified, inwardly too terrified not to applaud? Are those people less or more Saudi than the guy who did the beheading, or for that matter, from the person being beheaded?

In many areas of the world groups of people wish to break away from the country of which they are a part, but are not allowed to, usually because the real estate in question or the industries are too valuable. It’s not that those countries necessarily want to keep those people who don’t want to be there. But they want those property values and that gross national product.

When children in Iran are made to chant “Death to America”, they are quite often as disaffected as their counterparts in America who are required to say the pledge of allegiance every morning at school. They are just going through the motions to make it through the school day. At least that was the case with me. I didn’t feel a surge of patriotism during my chant. If anything, that forced chant about the death of total strangers probably has the opposite effect. It does not make them hate us. It makes them sick and tired of all the stupidity.

If someone in a democracy stages a protest, are they not being even more democratic and therefore more patriotic than the person who sits idly by and doesn’t question anything?

In many parts of Asia, cohesive tribes exist that straddle borders. The Hmong people live primarily in China, Vietnam and Laos. Do they relate more to the people of their own country, or to fellow Hmong from other countries?

We tend to think of the Aborigines in Australia as one cohesive group, but they actually consist of more than 400 groups, each with its own culture and language. Still, I’m sure they feel more like each other than they do those descendants of criminals which seem to have moved in, from their perspective, just yesterday.

If you know you are gay and your country decides that that is a crime, do you feel less of a citizen, or do you just have less respect for those who are in charge of your country?

When China stole Tibet from its people, the Tibetans did not wake up the next day feeling Chinese, and I’m sure they still don’t.

We all have more in common with each other than we do with our governments. We live, we laugh, we love, we struggle to survive, we take care of our families. Politicians, governments, walls, and checkpoints do not define who we are. The more we all realize that, the less we will feel the need to wage war.


Obsolete Plot Twists

I was watching an old suspense movie the other day for lack of anything more appealing to do, and I had to laugh because this story would never work in the modern era. This woman was trapped inside her house and a creepy stalker guy was trying to break in. She rushes to the phone to call for help, only to find it dead. “He’s cut the phone lines!” High drama. Much tension. If you’re in an era without cell phones.

It must be a lot more difficult for writers to come up with a viable plot these days. For example, it’s harder to turn a story on a secret in an age where no one seems to keep them anymore. It’s harder to shock a small town with a scandal when we no longer find anything scandalous. And conspiracy theories are a lot harder to pull off in the age of camera phones, surveillance videos, satellite imagery, and twitter.

I saw the movie Summertime recently, in which Katherine Hepburn, “an aging spinster” (Their description, not mine. She was my age when she played the part.) goes off to Venice on holiday and has a steamy romance, much of which you don’t see because they cut away for, I swear to God, fireworks. But the whole premise of this movie is that this highly repressed woman has to go to Europe to let her hair down. It is a lovely romantic story, but it probably will never be remade because nowadays she wouldn’t go to Venice, she’d just go to That’s hardly exciting.

I think future generations are missing out on quite a bit. Gone are the days when we will see people being threatened by impatient thugs as they make a call from a phone booth, or cub reporters click clacking away on typewriters, or operators listening in on your conversations (theoretically).

It kind of makes you wonder what’s coming. I’m waiting for the first movie that employs a 3D printer.


Split, Croatia: The Coolest City You’ve Never Heard Of

Roman Emperor Diocletian, best known for his brutal persecution of Gnostics and Christians in general, but also for his many wide sweeping positive reforms, had a 20 year run as Emperor which is nothing to sneeze at in that dangerous office. But in 305 AD, he was not feeling well. Not feeling well at all. He was so emaciated he was barely recognizable. In fact, due to his long seclusion during his illness, people had assumed that he was dead. He decided it was time to retire. He became the first Roman Emperor to voluntarily abdicate.

He went back to his homeland, in present day Croatia on the coast of the Adriatic Sea, where he lived in a sumptuous palace that he had started building 12 years previously, and remained there until his death, some say by suicide, in 311 AD.

Split Palace

(This is what the palace looked like when Diocletian was there.)

But here’s where it gets cool. That palace still stands.

After Diocletian’s death, the palace was abandoned for a long, long time, and the area was war torn and many of its citizens abandoned it as well. But in 639 AD, peace was restored and the people came back…and moved right inside the palace. And they never left.

modern split

(This is modern Split. As you can see, the people built their homes within the palace walls.)

So, much of the city is the palace now. As you wander through, you can feel the history surrounding you. When you walk the streets, you’re walking the halls of the palace. The market is in the palace basement. It’s truly amazing.

I’m stunned that more people don’t know about this place. If someone told me they could only visit one city in Europe, I’d recommend Split first and foremost.

What follows are some of the photos I took during my visit. I’d love to go back!

IMG_1682   (The peristyle in front of the Cathedral of St. Dominus)

IMG_1696 (The iconic bell tower by night.)

IMG_1685 (One of the sphynx statues taken from Egypt by Diocletian.)

IMG_1709 (The Oculus. When the sun is just right, it fills the room with a rainbow.)

IMG_1729 (An original bronze statue of the God Jupiter, considered to be one of the most intact statues of that god still extant from that period.)

IMG_1732 (Statue of Bishop Gregory of Nin. People rub his toe for good luck, so the shiny bronze color shines through.)

IMG_1741 (The port side wall of the palace as it looks today.)

Location, Location, Location

The first time I fell in love I was 19 and in Europe for the first time. Everything was exotic and new and delicious and exciting. We held hands and made out and explored that world and each other, and everything was magical. So magical, in fact, that the rest of my life has paled by comparison. How can you possibly compete with being in love in Paris, Berlin, and Amsterdam?

The second time I was in love was in the virtual world called Second Life. In that amazing place the moon is always full, your house is always waterfront, everyone dances well and dresses well and is always young and gorgeous, and you can be in Morocco one minute and in the hanging gardens of Babylon the next. But you can ask anyone who has spent any time in Second Life and they will assure you that the feelings are real. The connections are real.

This time around I’m in love in Jacksonville, Florida, a city I’ve been trying, unsuccessfully, to get away from for the past 30 years. It’s not an exotic love. It’s not a gorgeous love. It’s a more realistic one, and perhaps that’s why the relationship is more rocky, more roller coaster-y, more uncertain, but priceless nonetheless.

What would love be like while dodging bullets in Compton, or on the crowded streets of Bangladesh, or starving in a slum in Rio de Janeiro? How much of love is strictly a function of location? I wonder.

Shanties gutted in the city

(Image credit:

Views from my Windows—Part Two

For the beginning of this story, check out part one.

No matter our circumstances, my mother never let it be a question in my mind that I’d be pursuing higher education. She wanted more for me than she ever had herself. I got scholarships and loans and grants and she helped me as much as she could, and off I went to Warren Wilson College in the Blue Ridge Mountains, where I learned what true beauty was. I made sure that there would be several state lines between me and my stepfather. As long as I draw breath, I will never know such a beautiful sight as those rolling hills in every shade of azure, and every shade of orange in the fall. I have been trying to get back there ever since. My soul resides in the Blue Ridge Mountains. It is where I feel at home. It is where I am as safe as I could ever be. I should have never left.

WWC Barn

But I was young and stupid, so when my college did away with my major (only 3 of us had chosen it–it was a very small school), I transferred to Flagler College in St. Augustine, Florida. I wanted to be closer to a boyfriend with whom I broke up a few months later, and I liked the architecture, too. What stupid choices we make when we’re young, not realizing they will change the direction of our entire lives. But for the next year I looked through Tiffany stained glass windows over the beautiful tourist choked streets of St. Augustine. But I never felt at home there. I was the only liberal poor kid amongst mostly rich kids who breezed through school as if it were a 4 year baby-sitting service. For them it was a way to avoid work. For me it was my life. I just didn’t fit in.


But I was focused on much bigger things, because that summer my sister, now stationed in the Netherlands, sent for me to keep her company. From there I traveled throughout Europe, and my views were varied, and each more spectacular than the last. All this was enhanced by the fact that I fell in love for the first time. My eyes were opened, and the world seemed full of possibilities. What an amazing world we live in! That was the happiest summer of my entire life, without a doubt. But the recurring theme in my life is that all good things must come to an end, and so this miraculous summer did. I left Europe while feasting upon a bitter smorgasbord of rejection.

After 10 days at home, I started my Junior year studying abroad in Guanajuato, Mexico. This was an adventure as well, but a scary one, because it was my first time living without some member of my family within a half day of me. I was walking this tightrope without a net, and with a completely broken heart, and temptation was all around me. Suddenly I was exotic, with my light blue eyes and my pale skin, my taller than average height (for Mexico, anyway), and my entirely undeserved “American” reputation, and because of that I was popular for the first time in my life, and for all the wrong reasons. I had adventures and misadventures in this beautiful little city, and I had a sweeping view of it from my window, along with a stone wall topped with broken glass, and a sloping cobblestone lane.


I learned a great deal about myself and about others during this amazing sojourn, but I was glad to get back to the familiar halls of Flagler College. Even though I didn’t fit in there, at least I understood the game. Going from being the exotic center of attention to fading once again into the background was a bit of a culture shock, so I’m afraid I copped a bit of an attitude as I gazed through the Tiffany glass this time. When the opportunity to graduate a semester early came up, I leaped at it.

For the next two years I remained in St. Augustine, trying to get used to the fact that a college degree didn’t automatically bring me the success I was always led to believe that it would. That took some getting used to. So I sort of drifted rudderless through my life. I’ve got to say, though, that I had an AMAZING view yet again. I was in this horrible disintegrating house on the waterfront. It was built in 1888 and I’m convinced that it had the original plumbing. It was a big apartment, but there were entire rooms I could not enter because the floors were so soft that I would surely have fallen through. But I could sit on my balcony and watch the sailboats on Matanzas Bay, and if I stood on tip toes, I could see the Bridge of Lions from my kitchen window. I loved that place, but it should have been condemned. Instead, long after I left, someone bought it and must have poured millions into renovations to make it a bed and breakfast. People pay more in one night to sleep in my bedroom now than I paid in an entire month. That makes me smile.


This was actually MY balcony. Sure wish it looked this good when I lived there!

But again, all good things come to an end. I lost my job, and spent a miserable, awkward and uncomfortable 6 months under the same roof with my stepfather while I searched for gainful employment. Just when I was about to lose all hope, I got a job with the State of Florida, and relocated to Jacksonville. And for 3 ½ years I had yet another spectacular view. I lived in a little studio apartment on the Cedar Creek. I could sit on my patio and watch the Muscovy ducks on the banks of the creek, and see the occasional manatee breaking the surface. At night the stars would reflect in the water and I felt like I was floating in outer space. All I had was a mattress and some lawn furniture, but I was young and didn’t care.

And then my mother got cancer.

To be continued……