A TRAVEL (B)LOG by Me and My Granddaughter, Jillian Crocetta

Me:Hey, Jillian, that was some hasty retreat from your UK semester abroad.  You might call it your own personal Brexit! What was it like?

Jillian:You have no idea. I was a week away from my spring break when it all went down. The whole exit was a mess. It started with the recall of our European programs, sans the UK. (England was no longer a part of the EU, so we were temporarily removed from the mass hysteria and confusion of evacuation emails). That quickly changed, though. Within an hour we got another email, this time from a travel agent. We had less than forty-eight hours to pack up our flat, drink our last pint at our favorite pub, and go: a five hour bus ride, a four hour wait at London Heathrow, and an eight hour plane ride to New York, New York, the apocalyptic metropolis.

Me: Wow.  You said it. Apocalyptic metropolis is right. And we, on the other end, waiting for you.  Where were you planning to go during your spring break?

Jillian: Oh, practically the whole European tour. Bucharest, Budapest, Vienna, Florence, London, Paris, Amsterdam. I didn’t miss too much coursework, but a whole lot of travel.

Me: You must have been so disappointed.  Did you get your money back, by the way?

Jillian: Some. Sure, I’ll miss the money, but I was more disappointed about missing out on all that experience, you know? All the things I could have, would have, should have done.

Me: Like what?  Tell me. Could have seen?  Would have heard? Should have eaten?  What was it you most wanted out of your travels?

Jillian: I think my biggest upset is not seeing Bran Castle, the  inspiration for Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Or hearing someone singing Edelweiss in Austria. Or eating a good French cheese board.

Me:  Well, part of me gets it, but another part of me wants to comfort you by saying, “Ehh. No big deal.  It’s just another castle. Or, watch Sound of Music.  Or, remember, Trader Joe’s has plenty of cheese, too.”

Jillian: I know, I know. And part of me wants to believe that. But I wanted to stop looking at pictures, and stop thinking or imagining what these places looked like. I wanted that opportunity to see, to admire, to just be present.

Me:  I’ll tell you a secret.  I’m a reluctant traveler and an enthusiastic homebody.  I am always weighing the fuss and discomfort of going somewhere against the comforts of home.  Do I really want to see the Mona Lisa in the (painted) flesh, so to speak?  My answer is frequently no. I’d rather take a journey within. 

Jillian: You sound very spiritual, there, but I like it. Can you elaborate a bit about this so-called journey within?

Me: Well, it does sound like I’m talking about exploring my soul, a little.  Getting to Know Me. Getting to Know All About Me. And it is, sort of. But that’s only a part of it.  The other part is just what you said you wanted to stop doing: thinking and imagining how things look, and sound like, and are.  (The curse of a fiction writer?)

Jillian: I suppose I didn’t even think about that. Fiction writing and all. Do you feel like you’re traveling when you’re knee-deep in a manuscript? When you write are you actually somewhere else?

Me: Yes, fiction writing alters time and space for me.  Which makes me think, at a time like this, when we’re tethered to our armchairs, my kind of travel is probably the only way to go.  Have you ever had that feeling that you were in another place, in your imagination?

Jillian: Now that I’m thinking about it, maybe I have. When I write fiction, I usually feel like I occupy my narrator’s headspace. And time does get a bit muddled for me, (or maybe that’s because my computer still displays UK time).

Me: Ha. When I was your age, that used to scare me a little.  I think I felt if I went too deeply in I wouldn’t find my way out.  It took a while before I stopped worrying about that.   Or, maybe I never did, I just didn’t mind the possibility.

Jillian: I guess that’s both the gift and the curse of being a fiction writer.

Me: Very artsy.  But also true. But getting back to travel, I always felt that while I was seeing and being in a place I couldn’t write about it.  I had to wait until I was somewhere else, and I could see it in my mind’s eye. Then I could write it.

Jillian: So, for you, the inner travel trumps the outer travel in the end?

Me: Well, it isn’t necessarily better, now that you ask, because I wouldn’t have anything if I hadn’t gone on the initial trip.  But what I make of what I have seen, heard, and eaten is always more interesting after I’ve thought it over, and brought it into me.  So, I guess you could say I prefer the trip inward. But you’re right. That can’t be all.

Jillian: In other words, what you’re saying is, the cheese in France may be  better than Trader Joe’s but the full cheese experience only comes after you’ve returned home?

Me :I guess that’s what I’m coming around to. The English poet Wordsworth called it “recollection in tranquility.”  He was talking about poetry, but it rings true for fiction, for me.

Jillian: I guess now is a good opportunity for my own recollection in tranquility, then. Maybe I’ll find inspiration looking back at this wonderful experience in the UK that ended far too soon.

Me: And I hope you get a chance to visit Budapest, Bucharest, Amsterdam, Florence, Paris, Vienna and recollect those in tranquility someday soon.

Jillian: Me too, my lovely grandmother, me too.


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Screwy Thoughts and Habits of Mind

You know that feeling if something good happens, then bad will follow?  And, more to the point, the other feeling that if something bad has happened, you’re probably in the clear until it gets better?

I’ve been thinking a lot about those ideas, lately. Not quite realistic, you might say, but it is undeniable that they encourage hope by making us think that each event is finite, and that there is some pattern, or rhythm, to the crazy up and down of life.

Psychologists call it “magical thinking,” and in social media these days it is referred to as “aspirational.”  My mother used to put it this way: “dream on, young lady!”

Most of us grew up with some variation of that first category of belief, that good inevitably invites bad: “knock wood” and the Yiddish expression, kine hora were both used after someone vocalized a great thing happening, as if we were tempting the fates by recognizing our bounty, or telling it to the world.  Don’t invite the evil eye (malocchio, in Italian), it saidThe Arabic and Hebrew amulets, the nazar, (that glass eye believed to ward off the evil eye) and the hamsa (the hand of God) are both physical expressions of these same magical thoughts.  We decorate our walls and ourselves with them.  In hope.

And the other thought, that once something bad has happened, the pattern will hold and something good will come your way, is verbalized by people who say things like, “It’s about time you catch a break,” or “You’ve paid your dues.” It’s a comforting thought, isn’t it?

Or, how about “Karma,” that great notion that what goes around comes around?  Since (unless we recently killed someone), we all believe we deserve a little something on the upside, that’s generally comforting, too.

All of us, realists and fantasists alike, need a bit of magical thinking these days, whether it takes the form of believing in the seesaw version of life, up and down, up and down in that order, or in not taking our good luck for granted, or in thinking we are immune from a double dose of bad luck, or that surely our acts of kindness will predispose us to be cared for, or to be spared.

Be good to yourself.  Think magically.  Why not?

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Putting the Positive First

There are ways to do this.  Here’s what I’ve come up with so far.

The pandemic took my mind off becoming a widow, and resolving a tax fiasco took my mind off the pandemic which took my mind off becoming a widow.  Win, win.

The adage is true: misery really does love company, and we’ve got lots of (non) company because we’re “all in this together” as the new meme claims.

Crime is probably down because pickpockets are people too, and don’t want to risk close social contact.

My appetite is down, too, so I might at last lose those five pounds I’ve been struggling to shed.

I’m finally finding a use for the cans and cans of beans I kept buying every time Shop Rite had a Can Can sale which I couldn’t resist.

The scarcity of toilet paper makes the constipated population feel lucky for once?

All right.  It can be a stretch to think positively.  And it might even be obnoxious to read right now, so I’ll drop the jokey tone, and invoke my inner Pollyanna, instead.

This is a time to love our neighbors, get to know our kids, bake a cake.  Catch up on our reading or tv watching.  Clean out the attic and the basement.  This is the time to thank goodness if we have someone there with us, and thank goodness if we have a there to be.  Thank goodness for the people who are reaching out.  This is a time to reach out, too.  It is a time to keep busy, stay connected, be open, and most of all, resist being afraid.  If I have learned anything in my just-short-of-eighty years, it is that it is possible to find extra strength when you know you need it.  As long as we resist becoming victims, we’ll be all right.  (And that doesn’t mean victims of the virus, it means victims of our own fears.) And hard as it is, stop politicizing, for the moment.  Be kind. If we pass things along on the internet, let it be jokes.

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Someone I know reported a “toilet paper skirmish” in a local market.  He didn’t really need the extra rolls, but still somehow wanted to emerge victorious.

I think I understand.  I went to my local market two days ago, not needing anything, but gently driven there by the turbulence around me.  So I went browsing.  Will I…would I…if I were quarantined, need this?  That?  Shopping like that, as you know, leads to random and sometimes weird purchases.  I had some dog food in my cart, a package of vanilla wafers, a chocolate bar, two tomatoes, ant traps, sliced cheese…and then I came upon the big endcap display of toilet paper, and  BOING-G-G!  All that I’ve been hearing around me suddenly kicked in.  I didn’t need it, but I grabbed that eight pack with something like a feeling of triumph. I might have bought two except that there were so many I felt I could wait and come back tomorrow and get that flush of success (forgive the pun) once more.  But alas, a day later, my neighbor went to the same market to find the entire supply wiped out.

We’re people of contradictory impulses, and sometimes it’s funny even when it isn’t.  People who are going to work and flying to Florida to board a cruise ship, are hoarding…toilet paper?  Really?  It isn’t even a stomach virus we are worried about, it is an upper respiratory virus.   So why aren’t we hoarding tissues to sneeze into?  (Speaking of which, someone I know who couldn’t get toilet paper bought multiple boxes of tissues which could be repurposed as toilet paper if needed. Who knows, if it catches on, maybe there will be a run on boxes of tissues next.)

There’s a commercial that’s been running for several months now, about a particular brand of toilet paper that is so luxe that it can be mistaken for a soft robe, or a bouncy castle, and I always thought it was stupid.  But now I’ve been thinking, those creators of that commercial were really onto something.   They understood that toilet paper has a deep and underlying meaning, and we, each of us, spend god knows how many secret hours fantasizing about the product, whether we can find joyful bouncy recreation from it, or the warm envelopment of a great terry robe, equal to the one you would want to steal from the Ritz-Carlton if you stayed there.  And, how many former Halloween revelers who once TP’d their neighbor’s house are regreting the waste now?

Did you know that the most luxurious toilet paper in the world is made in Japan? The brand name is Hanebisho and it is made from a special wood pulp imported from Canada, and water from the purest river in Japan, and it costs between $13 and $17 per roll.   It is only two ply (!!) so to augment its fluffiness, it is dried for a longer period of time.  Sort of aged, like cheese, or wine. And when its time has arrived, the person who is responsible for that particular roll signs it.  Now that’s luxe.

An Australian entrepreneur advertises a roll of 22 carat gold toilet paper for somewhere over a million bucks.  No one has bought it yet (he’s only made the one), but after the week we’ve had, and the shortage of the regular kind, who knows?   (Next to the ad for the gold TP is one for a pill which, once swallowed, promises to turn your emerging inner stuff sparkly.  But that’s another story.)

So, we’ve come to this. The humble is exalted.  The once-available is unobtainable. The world has delivered another surprise and we have responded, and the response says something about us, though I still don’t know exactly what.  But I do know this: in all the scrambling and hoarding and panicking, we’d better try not to forget how to laugh at ourselves.

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How Not To Miss A Thing

Sitting with my daughter-in-law the other day, aimlessly paging through a fashion magazine, I suddenly remembered what my friend, P, taught me many years ago about how to read Vogue.  She went through it like this:  Start on page one and focus on shoes and nothing else.  Then, go back to page one, looking only at dresses.  Then hit the handbags.  Then scope the coats.

When I graduated from decorating myself to decorating my apartment, I became aspirationally addicted to House Beautiful, and I did the same thing:  window treatments first, then lighting, then living room furniture, then bedrooms, and finally floors.

Always in the market for new ways to exercise my powers of observation, I wondered how to apply this same focusing trick elsewhere. So, walking Pete one recent morning, I paid attention only to what I was hearing, and tuned everything else out.  It was amazing what a busy auditory display there was in the quiet 8 a.m. of my backwoodsy neighborhood. I heard geese on their way to someplace else,  a distant airplane, a crow, a mourning dove, a car turning on, Pete kicking up leaves, Pete kicking up the gravel, an idling car, a car honking, what a breeze sounds like in the dry late winter trees.  When I heard a woodpecker tapping a hollow tree, I cheated and tried to see where he was.

The next morning I zeroed in on only what I could see:  the pile of leaves Pete was kicking, all shades of brown leather. The grass, like tufts of hair on a mangy cat, blond, like Pete. Clumps and hillocks of upended earth and black sand along the sides of the road, flashing bits of mica in the pale sunshine, the remnants of the plows and sanding trucks which came after the last icy snow. My rhododendron bush in confusion, its tight buds wanting to pop into flower, while its depressed and browned winter leaves still drooped.  A single berm of dirty snow, as yet unmelted.  My shadow, cast in the long, pale streak of sunlight.  Downed trees which lean into the crooks of other trees. A fallen trunk, established on the side of the road long after its fallen mates had been cut up and cleared by the person whose land it rests on, its bark now stripped to a scoured, clean and pale wood and though brambles encroached at its ends, the middle part of the trunk, long enough for two people to perch on, enticed the imagination, reminding me of the old rhyme “him and her, sitting on a tree, k-i-s-s-i-n-g.”  The lone garbage pail at the end of the drive of the weekender’s house, still there since Thanksgiving, or Christmas, don’t they ever come?  The nice fellow dog walker from around the corner with his two little guys, one tan, one white.   Hard not to hear the yappy one.

Another day I tried to focus on what I smell.   Someone’s fireplace, a sweet wood burning, almost like breakfast with maple syrup.  I try to smell Spring, but it’s not here yet. I try to smell green, and though it isn’t here yet, it reminds me that “green” is more than just a color.

When I teach writing, I talk about sensory research, concentrating on what your senses reveal first.  It will make you a better writer.  But I understand that it goes beyond writing.  If you want to have more of the world, or, if you want, like I do, to reclaim the beauty of the world, it is a good thing to do.

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My older sister, who died in 2014, lived in South Florida, land of the gated communities and retired old and older people, which shaped her point of view and gave her a certain perspective.

We had just arrived for a visit and she and her husband took us to a local favorite. This, as near as I can remember, is how it went down:

You could smell it all over the parking lot, that distinctive, delicious aroma of fatty, salty, heart-clogging treasures New Yorkers of a certain age call Jewish deli: corned beef, pastrami, salami, brisket.  You know fugu, the prized Japanese fish which, if not prepared right, can kill you? Well Jewish deli does fugu one better.  With Jewish deli, prepared right or wrong, it can still kill you.

A small knot of people were at the deli’s front register, either waiting to be seated, or waiting to pay.  You could only tell one from the other by the toothpicks, and the close quarters do-si-so they did every time the elderly maitr’d arrived to say, “Next? Who’s next?” Everyone wore sweaters against the air-conditioned inside weather.  (I, having just boarded at Newburgh and de-planed in Lauderdale, was still sweating.)

We follow the maitr’d on his slow, limping progress to our table, threading our way past and around walkers, three-pronged canes, bullet-shaped canisters of oxygen and tangles of plastic tubing ending up the noses of diners, who, undisturbed, chomped away.

“Oh my god,” I said.

“Isn’t it fabulous?” my sister said.

“Are you kidding?  I lost my appetite,” I said.

“Oh, I think it’s wonderful,” she said.  “All these people, on their last legs, at death’s door, still seeking a little bit of deli.”

Someone at the next table choked on a piece of ice, and I thought by the time the waiter arrives to do the Heimlich manoeuver, the ice will be melted.

“As long as you’re here,” the formerly choking man said, “Bring me a refill of coffee.”

“It’s not ‘as long as I’m here’” the waiter said.  “I have to go back especially for the pot.”

The former choker shrugged.  “Well, that’s life,” he said.  “And while you’re at it, maybe a piece of Danish.”

The waiter brought the coffee pot and poured it to the brim.

“You didn’t leave room for the milk,” the man said.

“That’s also life,” the waiter said.  “Sip a little off the top.”

“You forgot the Danish,” he said.

“You didn’t tell me what kind of Danish, so how could I bring it?”

“Wouldn’t you assume, if I didn’t specify  that meant you could bring me any kind of Danish?”

“Why would I assume such a thing?” the waiter said.

At that point, my husband, whose tongue was stuck to the roof of his mouth by the peanut butter consistency of lean corned beef, tried to signal the waiter to bring him a glass of water.

“Hold your horses,” the waiter said.  “Can’t you see I’m involved here?”

“You tell ‘em, judge,” a man at the next table said, and then took a hit of his oxygen.

“He’s a retired judge, I know him from the pool, but he likes to keep busy,” my sister explained.  “The other guy is a retired lawyer.  He’s in here all the time.  He likes to give the judge the needles.”

“Better than he likes the food,” the man at the next table, overhearing my sister, said. “It’s a shame how much he leaves on his plate.  People could make a meal from it. Wrap that up for him,” he called after the judge, pointing at the lawyer’s plate.

“Mind your business,” the lawyer said.  But he made a circular gesture to the judge to wrap it.

One table over, two EMTs arrived with a wheelchair, which they weaved in and out of the tables expertly.  My sister saw me anxiously watching. “Don’t worry, she’ll be all right,” she said.  “Maybe she just didn’t have a ride home.  She looks okay.  Her color looks good.  Don’t worry.”  There were several people hovering over the woman.  “That must be her family,” I said.

“Uh uh,” my sister said.  “They’re waiting for the table.”

And as the EMTs wheeled the woman away, the rest of the people sat down.

The waiter arrived with my husband’s water.  “You gonna sit there all day?” he said to the man at the next table.

“I got a doctor’s appointment next door in half an hour.  I’m killing time,” the man said.  “You need the table?  I’ll get up.”

The waiter waved the offer away.  “Sit, sit.  Did I tell you to move?”

“No, I’m just saying,” the man said.

“It’s freezing in here,” the woman who had just sat down said.  “Waiter, can you get them to turn down the air conditioner?  I can’t eat in here.  It’s too cold.”

“Drink a cup of coffee.  It’ll warm you up.”

“So bring me a cup of coffee.  It’s not going to warm me up, though.”

He was still holding the water pitcher, as he went to get coffee.

A minute later he was back.  “What’s the matter with you?”  he said to my husband.  “Why didn’t you speak up?”

“It’s fine,” my husband said.  “I drank hers.”

“So what did you drink?” he said to me.

“I don’t drink this water,” I said.  “It has a funny taste.”

“Suit yourself,” he said, turning away, toward my husband. “And how did you like your sandwich?”

“It was lean,” my husband said. “I wanted corned beef with fat on it.”

“What are you crazy?” the waiter said.  “Fatty corned beef’ll kill you.”

“Not if you eat it once a year,” my husband said.  “I only eat it once a year.”

“Where are you from, New York?”  the waiter said.

“We are,” my husband said.

“I can always tell a New Yorker,” the waiter said to my sister.   “They do nothing but complain.”

“Complaining is good, too,” my sister said.

Signs of life.  Now that’s what I call perspective.

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One of the best things about being older is the wonderful long view you get, of everything.

See that?  That’s an example of perspective.  What I could have said, what I might have thought is, when you get older you count the arrival of the vernal equinox year by single year, because no more than that is guaranteed.  Rather a different view, you might say? Rather a downer?  But, with the remarkable flexibility that old age confers, I am able to see it another way.  (See it? Put it? Twist it? All in a point of view.)  Perspective, this most useful tool for living, is something I’ve been honing since I was young.

It may have started earlier, but my first specific memory is when my newborn baby wouldn’t stop crying. Bleary-eyed from lack of sleep, hormone-crazy and physically depleted, I summoned the thought that saved the day: she would eventually stop crying, eventually grow up, eventually go away to school and let me sleep. (Of course, I didn’t yet have the perspective or imagination for the long view of those events.)  But with each survival, and each experience, my ability to put things in perspective grew.  And when I say “put things in perspective” I mean change the way I see things, too.  Sometimes by force. Because sometimes putting things in perspective seems radical, cold.  And it is.  But it is the way we live, fiddling with the dials of feeling, up, down, as we need.

This morning, the sun is barely present in the sky. The tufts of snow from two weeks ago (and a planet ago), persist along the sides of the road, spackled with dirt now, crusted with a stubborn lacework of ice, despite the mild temperatures.  I try to look beneath, to see the bits of green grass peeking through.  I look hard.  I force it until I see Spring lurking. This change of perspective may change the temper of my day.

Perspective. For those of us who react intensely to everything, it can be a lifesaver.  I counseled my children to it.  I gave them practical advice: picture two weeks from now.  Picture the day after the wisdom teeth are pulled. Picture a year. This will not last forever.  Unexpected things will come of it.

If it had not been for breaking my foot, I’d never have met that interesting doctor who x-rayed it fine but lost his license, and will one day be a character in one of my stories.

The ant landing on my bagel out of nowhere?  Ohh, eek, ugh, blech. But with a change of perspective, ants mean warm weather, the frost is dissipating. Or, thought about existentially, I’m so big, he’s so small, I won’t be fearful or disgusted, I will wield my superior power gently and scoop him into the garbage still riding his little bit of bagel, without rancor.

Putting things in perspective is a lifelong pursuit, and one that favors the old over the young, because it takes experience and practice.  Sometimes it is easy to do, just by averting your eyes, or refocusing your thoughts.  But sometimes it is as hard as moving a chest of drawers filled with stones.

I picture the end of April.  I picture a year from now.  A vernal equinox once removed. Will I still be here, writing Vinegar Mother, being who I am, seeing things in perspective? Everything is an experience until you die.

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