My husband’s mother has been ensconced in an upscale ‘retirement community’ in California since her stroke on my watch seven years ago. We frequently spend weekends in Southern California visiting her there, but my husband stays in hotels for his work so we began looking for another option. Air B and B. Duh.
Our first Air B and B experience was a house in ‘The Valley’, in what appeared to be a couples spare room. The hosts really took their hosting seriously and we had a coffee maker in our room and everything.
We got a tour when we checked in, but I couldn’t help but notice the scale of the furniture. Even the art seemed too big, as if it once resided in much larger, grander circumstances than the little white track house in the Los Angeles valley.
Okay, that was our first novice experience. We kept trying. I really wanted to fine-tune my instincts and possibly find the perfect place, so I downloaded the app, signed in, and started scrolling. I found a lovely house in Woodland Hills for our last trip to see my mother-in-law. We were ushered into our new, temporary quarters by our host and apparently his daughter was away at college because we got her room.
Now that was an odd experience. I could see probably every book the girl ever read in her life from my side of her bed, because they were all still in her bookcases, lined up like little soldiers. They were organized in alphabetical order from kindergarten (the bottom shelf of the bookcase) to her high school years (the top shelf and on a shelf over the desk). As I read the titles on their spines I’ll admit I was tempted. I love young adult fiction.
This Air BNB thing is odd, if you really look at it. You’re traveling, you don’t want a hotel but you don’t have any friends you can stay with. You download an app on your phone or look up a website on your computer and presto. Like magic you have dozens of folk perfectly willing to step in and let you stay in their house—for a price.
It’s kind of an odd combination of gambling and nosey-parker-ing, because you never really know what you’re going to get (no matter what the posted photos look like) and you acquire a brief glimpse into other lives. For the most part you aren’t connected to these other lives in any way except they have a spare bed and you need a place to sleep.
It becomes a weird, voyeuristic experience, intimacy without actual intimacy, like staying with friends who aren’t you really friends.
Quite often the hosts encourage you to use their kitchen, their pool, their hot tubs. I’ve never felt comfortable rooting around in a strangers kitchen, and there’s hardly ever time to use the pool. If our particular room didn’t have a separate entrance we would need to walk in through your hosts front door, with their key.
That’s the odd thing, when you think about it. It used to be a standard parental warning, “don’t get into cars with strangers” but now with Uber and Lyft, we do it all the time. And, pay some stranger person to sleep in their bed without ever meeting them first? Yes, we do this–we do this willingly.
It was my husbands birthday on the tenth of September. Since he travels so much we always try to plan to be together for our birthdays, wherever he happens to be, and this year it was Bolivia.
I left for the airport on the 9th and took my shoulder bag, small carry-on and one medium sized checked bag. Most ladies I know would consider this ‘traveling light’.
That day it poured. Weather delayed my flight into Houston. And delayed. And delayed. I landed in Houston ten minutes after my connection to Peru took off, and there was no flight into Peru from Houston until the next day.i would have to spend the night in Houston or search for an alternative.
A very sweet and helpful agent rerouted me, so four planes (Austin to Houston Texas, Houston to Santiago Chile, Santiago to Lima Peru, Lima to La Paz Bolivia) and 36 hours later I’m finally in La Paz. Unfortunately my checked bag was not.
Of course my husband’s birthday gifts were in that bag and that was that. So, the jeans and boots I had on, one light shirt, one long turtleneck sweater and the little leather jacket I bought in Rome were all I had to wear. But I was in La Paz, an incredible city. The airport was built on top of a mountain at the highest peak so driving down the mountain zig-zagging through those narrow streets was the beginning of a true adventure.
Everywhere were faces resembling ancient Incan sculptures. La Paz is the highest administrative capital in the world and you felt it. The hotel provided bowls of coca leaves and hot water for tea, supposed to relieve the altitude issues.
We went sightseeing in their new air tram system to the top of the mountains, astounded by the views of terra cotta buildings climbing up every square foot of mountainside as far as the eye could see.
After his show, Pat signed autographs for a young musician who promptly burst into tears—that night was his birthday, and he’d been a Pat Mastelotto fan since he was nine. Meeting Pat was a dream for him.
Bolivia is one of the poorest countries in the world, musical events aren’t cheap, even there, and I was reminded once again how often we make an impact on people’s lives without even knowing it—and put my lost bag into perspective.
On day four my bag magically arrived intact (minus a wheel). I opened it and stared at the contents in wonder. What made me think I needed all of that stuff?
I had an ‘a-ha’ moment of crystal clarity, comparing my first-world view of traveling with the truth: I had the clothes on my back and my husband. Everything else was just dust in the wind. Then I gave Pat his birthday presents.
From the moment our sleeper train pulled into the Vienna station, that old Billy Joel song began buzzing through my head and didn’t stop until our plane touched down 3 days later in Chicago. I found myself humming it through my tour of the magnificent Klimt paintings and statues of great men who died long before America was born.
I stood people watching by the staircase in The Belvedere Museum and had a moment of realization—I was probably surrounded by representatives of the whole world. All around me swarmed young families, little old ladies traveling together, groups of students, romantic couples, all chattering in languages I strained to identify. It would seem we had the same agenda that day: We would immerse ourselves in the power of art. And just by looking at us, you couldn’t separate us into countries or religious beliefs or political affiliation.
It was hot in Vienna, as hot as it was in Los Angeles, so it wasn’t only California burning up—Vienna was too.. And so was Sweden. Russian parents are worried about terrorism and a brutal government, just like us. Norway is so concerned about alcoholism they hit alcohols with a high tax. England fights pollution in London by attempting to limit the number of cars entering the city limits. If you buy a pack of cigarettes in Europe expect to see a giant black warning emblazoned on the front of each pack, bigger than the brand logo.
You’ve probably heard the statistic “Less than 10% of Americans own passports” so I googled it. While that may have been true in 1998, it’s not true today. Far from it—Americans are at 48% and rising. So, though over half our country still never leaves the comfort of their own borders, the rest of us travel like mad. And for those of us who travel, the world is a much smaller, friendlier place than some would have us believe.
It’s not “Us” versus “Them” anymore. We’re all one big, homogenized Earth family no matter how much that concept scares some people. Please don’t buy into the fear mongers who’s intent is to frighten us. Frightened anxious people are easier to control. The reality of our world is, we’re all in this together. If you need proof, just come to Vienna—it’s waiting for you.
A Facebook post I saw recently posed this question: Which astrological Sun sign would you choose to be instead of the one you are? Well, I was born when the Sun was in Scorpio. Black and white. Wrong. Right. All or nothing. Tell anyone you are a Scorpio and you get this raising of the eyebrow thing and an ”ohhhh”, like they really know. When I was a teenager (and back then everyone asked), I actually said I was a Sagittarius—it seemed to take the edge off.
Once I began to truly study astrology I learned I there were four planets in Scorpio and no planets in Sagittarius at the time I was born, so that whole, “I am really a Sagittarius” thing went right out the window. I was obviously very Scorpio.
Then I spent much of my adult life allowing the ‘all or nothing’ intense, passionate, ridiculous Scorpionic thing to determine my actions. Enough already.
Now I know. When you are born with the sun in a certain sign, it’s because you are in this life to master the aspects of that Sun sign, positive and negative. As astrologist Steven Forrest would say, I am not ‘a Scorpio’—I’m ‘Scorpio-ing’. We aren’t supposed to wallow in our stuff, or allow ourselves to be buffeted about by it, or use our Sun sign as an excuse.
We have the task to show the rest of the world how to do ‘this’ the right way, and it may take all of this lifetime to do it. Allowing a passionate nature or any other aspect of our personalities to control us can cause lots of problems for us and those around us.
Now, I try to take the middle road, the peaceful way. I find, like Robert Frost, The Road Less Traveled has made all the difference. Moderation is the hardest road, but it’s the most rewarding. Strange coming from a Scorpio. But I believe in the wave pattern as a physics and life principal.
Now I would rather float on the small, luscious, sweetly lapping waves off the beach in Playa Del Carmen than try to surf those intense, crashing, impossible-to-swim-in-and-freezing-waves (where someone was eaten by a great white, by the way) off the rocky beach in La Jolla, thank you. Every time.
How can I be the boss of anyone, when I am just barely the boss of my own life? I’m asking this as I check my bank balance because this week I deposited a check into my savings account instead of my checking account and now I’m overdrawn. I would love to blame the smiling tellers crammed into the Wells Fargo drive-through box like veal, but no. It’s me. Like the small sign on Teddy Roosevelt’s desk, ‘The Buck Stops Here’. The buck stops at me, or rather at my desk if I had one. This is the flip-side of small business entrepreneurship—It doesn’t matter who did or didn’t do what, at the end of the day it’s all your fault, all of it. As A Boss you give credit for the good stuff to your team, but if something isn’t working it’s up to you to fix it. And that’s a scary thought. I know my strengths and I know my weaknesses and the skills necessary for running a successful business, more often than not, fall on the side of ‘Stuff I Don’t Do Well’. For instance, I’m trying to sign up for an on-line Illustrator class. It’s taken me three weeks—three friggin weeks—to figure out how to even sign up on-line for that class. And they want to know I’ve taken photoshop first (which I haven’t). So of course this leaves the big, elephant-in-the room question: If I’m having trouble signing up, how am I going to manage the class work? Yeah. Now, imagine if I were your boss. It scares even me. I didn’t start out in life to be A Boss, but I’m naturally Boss-y. It’s a character flaw. So now, here I am. I actually have ten or eleven, maybe twelve, could be thirteen now, employees. They aren’t all full time, but I am in charge of their job. They all depend on me for rent and mortgages and groceries, and child care and car payments. They arrive to work every morning and leave every night and come to me when they have “issues” and get upset with me when I don’t solve their problems immediately, and never doubt that I can. Solve their problems, that is. Unlike me.
If you know me you tolerate my obsession with the original Great British Baking Show. Each season begins with about 12 amature bakers and progressively tortures them with difficult and obscure baking challenges designed to eliminate them one by one. It’s much like the TV show ‘Survivor” but very British. And very sweet. Nobody’s hair is perfect, no one is trash-talking anyone behind their backs. When one of them is asked to go, big group hug. We can learn a lot from this.
Here are some life lessons gleaned from The Great British Baking Show:
1. You can be really, really good at something and still meet someone better than you.
2. Mistakes happen. How you handle them is what’s important.
3. You don’t have to create drama or villify people when they (or you) have to, or choose to, leave. Hug, smile, and move forward.
4. More often than not, being consistent is more important than showing off.
5. If someone tells you they want you to do something, and you don’t do it but you give them something else, don’t be surprised if they aren’t happy.
6. You use math and chemistry more often than you think.
7. No matter how pretty a pastry is, it still has to taste good.
8. Meltdowns are never pleasant to witness. Nor are they productive.
9. Do your homework.
10. When you bravely stretch outside your comfort zone, what you can accomplish will astound even you.
11. There’s nothing wrong with learning as you go.
12. Really know your basics. This alone may keep you out of trouble.
13. You don’t have to be the star of the show to make a big difference.
14. The pursuit of your goal can be more important than what you actually win, ie: Spending ten weekends baking in a tent with a bunch of strangers to win an engraved cake plate and an armful of flowers.
But. Afterwards . . . contestant Richard Burr wrote a book on baking, ‘BIY: Bake it Yourself’, Luis Troyano wrote ‘Bake It Great’, Chetna Makan wrote ‘The Cardamom Trail’ and ‘Chai, Chaat & Chutney: A Street Food Journey Through India’. Martha Collison wrote two baking books, ‘Twist’ and ‘Crave’ and she also has a weekly column with Waitrose. Jane Beedle has appeared on tv, including a spot making muffins on TV’s ‘Lorraine’.
Ian Cummings developed recipes for food brands, created a classic Thai green curry for Cambridge News, and wrote about baking bread in an Icelandic volcano for the Telegraph.
Ruby Tandoh wrote ‘Crumb: The Baking Book’ and ‘Flavour: Eat What You Love’. Ruby writes for The Guardian, co-founded “Do What You Want” and wrote a new book about body image and feminism “Eat Up: Appetite and Eating what you want.
And by the way, NONE of these personalities and successful cookbook authors actually WON The Great British Baking Show—they just participated their hearts out.
I know lots of folks who are experiencing extreme change in their lives right now. Whether moving house, starting a new business direction or completely altering a long-standing family dynamic, to an outside observer these changes might look erratic and a little, well, messy.
But, when I have the opportunity, I always tell these stressed folks that I liken this state of affairs to “Cake Batter”. It’s like this: Lets say you love cake but have never seen it made from scratch and know nothing about baking.
Watching the process just might shock you. “Wait”, you’d say, “You’re breaking the eggs! Oh, you’re putting all that dry stuff in with the wet stuff! That’s just a bowl of goop. It looks nothing like cake.” You would not think it possible that a mess like that could actually become the cake you loved, and in a way you’d be right.
You could put that bowl of batter in the fridge and not do anything to it, just let it sit there for a month and it would never turn into a cake on its own. For the batter to turn into a cake you must first pour it into a pan, stick the pan in the oven and turn up the heat.
The heat is the important part. The temperature needs to get pretty hot in that oven for any significant change to occur in the batter and change is what you want. So you have to wait. You have to have faith. You have to believe in your recipe and trust your own personal baking process and intuition.
There’s no speeding this part up. Watching it through the window in the oven door won’t make it bake any faster, no matter how much of a hurry you may be in. After some time in the oven the cake may look done, but then you stick a toothpick into the center and . . . nope. Three more minutes of heat. Or five. Or ten. It takes as long as it takes to complete the magical alchemy of transforming a gloopy, inedible wet mess into something sweet, solid and delicious.
Well, big life changes are just like that. You must be willing to combine disparate elements, take risks, break eggs. Then you have to heat things up and allow enough time for the cake to bake completly. And have faith. Please. Don’t give up before your cake is done.
Tuesday morning is always a favorite time for me– I’m happy to be back in my little salon again after an interesting weekend, with a cup of coffee in my hand and a new interesting conversation to anticipate. This morning the conversation turned to aging, and a person’s reaction and relationship to it.
My first client was a realtor, in a people-intensive profession like mine. She confided some interesting observations to me. “I’ve noticed something about older people” she said. “They seem to be either ‘Lively older people’ or ‘Cranky old people’. I haven’t met many people in the middle.” This prompted an energetic salon discussion, with everyone in the room weighing in.
“I watched both sets of grandparents age” said my blonde assistant. “When my paternal grandfather retired, we couldn’t get him out of the house. He just sat on the couch watching tv and complaining about the world, and my grandmother. He seemed to get grayer and smaller, shrinking in on himself, not really living. Then he died. On the other hand, my maternal grandparents are exactly the opposite. They have more friends than I do. They’re always going to dinner parties and on cruises, really living their life. They both still drive and they’re in their eighties. And they always seem to be smiling.”
Aha. Smiles. The big secret to aging well. Forget ‘aging gracefully’—we all fight aging a little (or a lot) and we don’t necessarily do it with grace. What really gets us through this life is consistent and inexhaustible cheerfulness. We need to make smiling part of our daily spiritual practice. We need to stay cheerful in spite of the lines on our face and the pain in our joints.
If you’ve ever had the honor of meeting real Tibetan monks, their consistent cheerfulness is a defining feature of their persona. Standing in their presence, you get the feeling they know something we don’t.
Oscar Wilde once said, “Don’t complain about getting older— it’s a privilege denied to many.”
We’re alive right now, this minute. That in itself is a joyous miracle. But also, there is a physics principle: “The observer affects the experiment, always.” In other words, your cheerfulness creates a life to be cheerful about. And conversely, crankiness creates things to be cranky about. This has nothing to do with what actually happens to us—It’s more our attitude about what happens to us that determines our quality of life.
And best of all, smiling is contagious.