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I was reminded recently of a trip gone afoul back in September by someone who read a review I wrote of a cooking school I attended. Not that the experience was easy to forget; I still wince when I think of where else $3000 could have gone. Then again, that money might have disappeared like ashes strewn in the wind on nothing significant.

I won’t go into the gory details. Because in the end details don’t matter as much as we think they do. When we focus on the details, we miss what really matters. And sometimes we use the details to avoid looking at what really matters.

But a couple details for context. I’d been dumped via email when I got to Italy, which I guess is better than being dumped via a post-it. I was far better off without the relationship, but it was still lame and cowardly. I was alone thousands of miles away and watching randy Italians nuzzling each other on every street corner. They do that…a lot…everywhere.

I set my sights on the cooking adventure I was about to embark on. But because of sloppy handling of details on the cooking school owner’s part (enough to justify a refund I was too chicken to ask for), and a rather morose personality to boot, I found myself in place that should have otherwise been pretty blissful. In light of my recent cyber dumping, exhaustion from travel, speaking in my non-native tongue, and a nasty cold coming on, I was in a pretty fragile state.

Here I was doing something I love—cooking—and seeing the joy sucked out of it. And I was pissed off that I was letting someone suck my joy.

Is there anything good in this story, you might be wondering right about now?

Well, yes, I did enjoy a lot of good food and wine. It all sounds pretty privileged to have this opportunity, which was one reason I had to get hold of myself. I reminded myself that travel isn’t supposed to be all fun. I thought about how it would sound when I returned home. Friends and family would want to hear about my amazing week cooking in southern Italy. And how much of an ungrateful jerk I’d sound like if I told them I’d been pretty miserable.

Jonah Lehrer talks about the cognitive benefits of travel, which you can read here. In it, he says “…if we want to experience the creative benefits of travel, then we have to re-think its raison d’ètre. Most people, after all, escape to Paris so they don’t have to think about those troubles they left behind. But here’s the ironic twist: our mind is most likely to solve our stubbornest problems while sitting in a swank Left Bank café.”

We travel, I decided, to go up to and beyond the edges of our comfort zones. We don’t envision missed trains, hotel rooms that smell funny or someone stealing our credit card information to charge $777 worth of WalMart goods. (There went my never-shopped-at-WallMart streak.) We want not to bawl on a sidewalk at 6:00 in the morning in a town in the middle of nowhere because we’re exhausted, confused and missed the only bus of the day. But bawl we do (or at least I do). But then angels with packages of tissue swoop down from above and you have no choice but to embrace your sloppy mess of humanity right then and there.

It doesn’t traveling to force us to embrace the uncomfortable. But when we travel, we’re not at the top of our game like we are when we know our surroundings. We take this familiarity for granted. Familiarity is great. But it doesn’t push us.

We’re more alive when we’ve gone to, and beyond, our edges even if what’s happening sucks by most travel standards. We look back months or years later and forget the mishaps. That’s all well and good. But there’s gold in these mishaps. Mining it in the moment, instead of looking back much later on the good stuff, makes us learn more about ourselves and what we’re made of. Those necessary evils of deciphering train schedules, avoiding cultural gaffes, and calculating tips in a foreign currency are when the brain synapses really get going. This is the gold.

The same gold is found in other discomfort zones when we learn to paint, swing a racquet, utter foreign words, play the guitar—and stink at it. We’re too eager to make the uncomfortable part to go away. Embracing our fumbling is what they mean by Beginner’s Mind.

One night at the cooking school, we had dinner guests. A kind, soft-spoken man named Alessandro sat next to me. A writer and an olive oil producer, he and I talked in half English-half Italian most of the evening. I sensed he was a kindred spirit, and when we were alone I asked how I could travel halfway around the world to find myself in a kitchen with this guy (reliving experiences with my father). He told me three things. As soon as he said them, I knew I had gold. I was thankful for the presence of mind to know I had gold despite my pounding head and stuffy nose. (He was the second angel.)

One of them was this: “Perhaps you had to travel all this way to figure out something important. And you must write about it.”

I’m not sure yet what I figured out. But I do know it’s perfectly normal to come back from a vacation feeling like you’d wandered into a war zone.

Got a travel-weary story and a lesson learned? Share it!

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Speaking to a friend, chef and creator of Lovejoy Food, about her first day back at the OHSU farmers market, I asked her how her day went, given the tremendous downpour we’d had. “Were there a lot of people you recognized from last year?” I asked her. There were, and she said it was a bit surreal, seeing all these familiar strangers.

The term was coined by Stanley Milgram in the 1972 paper The Familiar Stranger: An Aspect of Urban Anonymity. He is also credited with developing the concept of six degrees of separation.

The true definition of a familiar stranger is someone who is seen regularly (like a person on your morning bus commute) and one with whom you don’t interact. Intel did a study using mobile devices to connect strangers, not necessarily to be friends but, to explore how strangers interact. The concept of familiar strangers is that they are an important link that bridges the gap between friends/family and total strangers. They play an essential role in fixing us in a community and providing us context. We wouldn’t want everyone to be a friend, and nor could we tolerate only strangers and people we know. The familiar strangers act as a buffer.

In my friend’s case, her customers aren’t true familiar strangers. But one friend has been creative with her daily commute (fodder for another post—ways to make the mundane more interesting) by documenting via her iPhone, her fellow commuters’ tattoos, pets, fashion statements and books. She has a non-judgemental, endearing way about her daily documentary. There’s a richness about it because she’s bringing strangers to life and making us look at these people closely, whom none of us know!

An interesting aspect of familiar strangers is that we have an unspoken agreement to not communicate. But we are much more likely to interact if we find ourselves in an unfamiliar setting, like bumping into the person you see each week at the farmers market while on vacation in Rome.

Has this happened to you? Did you introduce yourself? How long should a familiar stranger remain a stranger? Do you ever want to acknowledge your shared presence, especially if your lives seem to overlap in more than a couple places?

In a city as small as Portland, there are people you see over and over in more than one place you frequent, even if there doesn’t seem to be a significant connection among the locations. Maybe this person should be part of your social or business circle.

1. Make rhubarb rosemary mini galettes.

2. Draw pictures of yesterday’s farmers market produce.

3. Rethink strategy to keep cats out of garden bed.

4. Harden off seedlings.

5. Deliver galettes and bean starts to friends down the street.

6. Return to garden store for more potting soil. Inquire about plans to reward customers who spend too much money there.

7. Pick up library book to add to the stack.

7. Put the sand paper next to the dining room chairs in the vain hope that the chairs will one day be resanded, repainted and recained.

8. Finish tilling the garden bed.

9. Do yoga because your back hurts from tilling the garden bed.

If time allows, work on business plan.

It isn’t every day that calling the IRS to complain about tax-evading politicians turns out to be entertaining. I had a few minutes to spare, and my new method for letting things go that make me incensed is to take some action. Even a small fruitless action helps me to move on.

What had me incensed was the news of Tom Daschle’s little tax hiccup causing him to withdraw his cabinet nomination for Health and Human Services. Is he too good to lose? Opinions abound, but many of us would rather take a draconian view and get rid of him. Our goodwill towards people in high positions is threadbare these days. Let some political forest fires rage and they might leave fresh ground for new growth.

I had just witnessed Barack Obama’s inauguration in person. Two days later I see news of my city’s mayor facing questions about his teen sex scandal. Opposing factions are calling for him to stay or resign. Is it my civic duty to consider his governing abilities before casting my verdict? I used to think so but who has the energy anymore? My fear is that events like this are becoming quotidian. How does remain interested and involved in the face of looming cynicism—our own and theirs?

Having just written a check for a $90 underpayment on last year’s taxes (that’s $90, not $900, $9000, or $90,000), I couldn’t help but wonder how the IRS could miss $128,000 of Daschle’s unpaid taxes. Sure, his taxes are more complicated than mine are. But that’s not my problem.

So I called the IRS expecting not to get through or to be taken seriously. I was transferred to the Procedures and Rules department. I pictured the cubicled workers snickering at the whack job who called to ask why the IRS wasn’t doing their job. I hope I wasn’t the only one calling.

I waited on hold for long enough to hear Mozart’s Symphony No. in G minor, then his Eine Kleine Nactmusik, and finally Tchaikovsky’s Waltz of the Flowers from the Nutcracker. It was all quite lovely. I can thank my sister’s long-ago ex-husband, who was a violin teacher, for why I know the titles of these pieces.

I couldn’t help but laugh listening to Tchaikovsky. Anyone who has seen the movie Top Secret is familar with the famous ballet scene in which the Nutcracker’s Waltz of the Flowers is performed. Nearly every scene is a parody, and here the male ballet dancers have enormous codpieces on which the female dancers eventually leap to and fro. There are so many ridiculous lines and scenes in this movie. And this, coming from someone who doesn’t like slapstick.

Just recently, my brother and I were inspired, while inside a Catholic cathedral, to recite the scene in which a prisoner is given last rites by a priest before being executed. He reads from a bible every Latin phrase having nothing to do with last rites—veni vidi vici, e pluribus unum, ipso facto, pro bono and so on. We never fail to collapse in laughter and see which of us can remember the most lines. Perhaps Mr. Daschle had a little lapsus memoriae

An IRS woman finally answered the phone and I was yanked out of my YouTube reverie. She assured me that “Mr. Dashle would have received notices from the IRS.” And that she “was also a taxpayer who pays her taxes and thinks the system should be fixed.” Oddly, it made me feel a little better. I say a little. This is either reassuring or disturbing to know that you can owe that much money to the IRS and not be thrown in jail.

At least the time I spent on hold and in YouTube meant no dollars earned and, thus, fewer taxes to pay.

(Names have been changed to protect the innocent.)

Sure, no problem, I’ll accept your Friend Request. What have I been doing for the last 25 years? Do you mind if I get back to you on that? There’s an awful lot to cover and…well I see another Request just came in from…do I know you?

Well, I do love Thailand and I never did make it south to Phuket when I was there years ago. Oh, what the hell, sure I’ll let you kidnap me in pink fluffy handcuffs or was that giant gooey fly paper? I think I prefer the handcuffs, not that I’m into that sort of thing. Oops, gotta go. My friend Rick has just updated his status asking if anyone “knows how to get coffee out of a scanner.” Ugh, I hate when that happens. I did that once to my Syquest drive. It was like a sideways toaster, the disk like a piece of toast. Some of you weren’t even born when Syquest drives were around. Now look how far we’ve come. We’re virtually hugging and poking and sending each other phantom gifts right and left. Now that’s progress.

No, I don’t want to clean her virtual garden. Yeah, I see all the garden tools, but my own garden, the real one, needs some tending. Do you mind? Do I have wrinkles? Yes, but that’s really none of your business. That ad gets a thumbs down for “offensive”  but thanks for letting me participate anyway.

Oh, when I clicked the Skip button, I thought that meant Skip. So I just sent everyone on my Friend List a Christmas Party? Oh well, Happy Holidays one and all. I hope I didn’t offend any of you non-Christians. We do have a tendency to think it’s the only show in town. Well, at least I only have to clean my virtual toilet and buy some virtual snacks for the party.

What does this little button do? Nifty. And they won’t find out I removed them? No offense Dirk but since I haven’t spoken to you in 10 years, you don’t mind if I see what my other friends are doing, do you? You seem to join an awful lot of groups and causes and change your status a lot. I want to know if my real friend Nadine is sick because she ate too many burritos for lunch or if Roger finally got to take that nap after all. (Note: Dirk received the axe before I was told about Options for News Feed.)

How did I get here anyway? Oh, yeah, it was that game of Scrabulous you challenged me to months ago. A game that took us weeks to each take a few turns. You were winning anyway so it’s a good thing the game got pulled. Phew, I almost dragged Mom into this just to play. I might have eventually Unfriended her like my friend Kate is thinking of doing to her mom. Go for it. It’s painless and she’ll never find out, except she probably will find out. I know she got upset about that photo of you and Shane where he proudly and publicly claimed you for his own, other guys be damned. If your mom wants to play in the kids’ sandbox, she’s going to have to deal.

Speaking of which, is there any way you can remove that photo of you grabbing my ass at Halloween. Sure it was fun, but look who popped up today—a client of mine making a Friend Request. Okay, yeah, that would be great. Confirm. It’s good thing I decided against posting that link to the Huffington Post of Obama shirtless with the comment “Hot Digity!”

No I did not meet the man of my dreams. Why do you ask? Jeez. No, I am still single if you must know. I was just trying to foil the advertisers by stripping down my profile to see if the ads changed to something less humiliating. But I do see that Craig and Samantha are No Longer In a Relationship. That’s too bad. I wonder if they know that we all know too.

So, you are alive and well after all. And successful I see. Boy, it’s been a long time. Remember in high school when we joked about how we’d marry each other if we were still single by the time we were 40? Whoa, who’s that gorgeous gal in your Photo Album. Oh…your girlfriend. Never mind.

Look, I gotta go straighten the books on my virtual shelf. I’ll have to get back to you on that Friend Request. I’m trying to remember if you were the one who stole Sarah’s jacket out of her locker in junior high or if that was someone else.

I move the never-worn dress from spot to spot in my bedroom—slung over this door, then in a heap over there—as a reminder to get it shortened. This gown is probably worth several thousand but its mistreatment is no different than the way it arrived to me years ago. A friend in the fashion business had been unceremoniously “laid off” after toiling for a Devil-Wears-Prada type of boss. On her way to negotiate a severance she had little hope of getting, she spotted an espresso brown, cut velvet, halter-back gown and snatched it off the rack after noting it was my size. She shoved the dress in a padded yellow envelope, stapled the package shut and mailed it to me.

And it has hung unwarn in my closet since the day it arrived. Since moving to Portland, I am even more hard pressed to find an occasion to wear it. In the Pacific Northwest, unworn fancy clothes become a zen fashion riddle: If a dress hangs in your closet and you never wear it, does it really exist?

The idea of a ball might have been half the reason I purchased a plane ticket the day after election day to go to DC for inauguration. Most people are worried about being trampled to death with four million people swarming the Metro stations. I’m worried that this may be my last shot to wear this va-va-voom dress. I plan to wave bye-bye and yell “Thanks for nothing George!” in this dress…if it’s the last thing I do.

It seems like a lifetime ago when in 2001, just before relocating to Portland from the DC area, I did what any self-respecting citizen would do; I protested at George Bush’s inauguration. Along with thousands of others (though you wouldn’t know by the news coverage the next day) we carried our snarky handmade signs and waved them in the freezing rain for hours. At a banner-making get together at my sister’s, a young girl sat sprawled on the floor coloring in the letters of a sign that read “Illegitimate Son of a Bush.” Others read “Supreme Shame” (with a gavel), “The People Have Spoken: All Five of Them.”

A lot of good protesting did—though we had a small amount of satisfaction watching George’s limousine race by after he heard there was a block of protesters on the parade route. I always said I would return for another inauguration, one there was reason to celebrate.

All this talk of inauguration brought back the memory of a ball that a few friends and I threw for Clinton’s second election in January of 1997. We all wanted to attend a ball but could little afford it. Who needs peanuts and a cash bar for $150? And that was cheap, as ball tickets go.

We dubbed it the Inaugural Ball for the Not-Well Connected. For $25 attendees got food, an open bar, a live band, an Elvis look-alike and a woman dressed as the Statue of Liberty. And just in case Clinton didn’t show up, we had his cardboard effigy.

Sure, there was no heat and there was the issue of extra fire insurance due to all the space heaters we had to rent. There were no toilets so we had to rent those, too. We made the best of it, decorating the Jiffy Johns with Christmas lights and stocking them with toiletries. As these things go, about halfway through the planning arguments ensued about the band, there was worry over sub-zero temperatures or else a fire caused by the space heaters, and concern over filling the place and paying the bills.

My friend Scott, who I was prompted to call the other day after not having spoken in years, had sent a press release to the Post. The clever wording got us a blurb in the newspaper and said something like: “You can dine with the federal fat cats on filet mignon at the Ritz for $20,000 a pop or….” We had to turn people way, having sold all the tickets in the final couple days leading up to the ball. Incidentally, I reached Scott and he acted as though we’d spoken every day. “I can’t really talk now. I’m sitting shiva,” he said. I started to laugh because he would say something like that. I realized I missed his humor and wondered why we’d lost touch. Only he wasn’t kidding. A family member had died. Here’s to you Scott.

The other co-organizer just tracked me down on Facebook. We’d barely known each other then and possibly drove each other crazy in the planning of that event. Yet all these years later, I remember only the fun parts. It’s hard to believe that was 12 years ago. The last eight have created a weary populace, battle worn and cynical. With the economy in the hole, wars still raging and scandal after scandal, there’s little to celebrate.

But there are going to be parties, lots of them. I have just the dress.

Dear Barack and Michelle Obama, David Plouffe, Ellen R. Malcolm, Joe Biden and Marianne Markowitz and all the rest of you:

First, let me say “thank you” for the great campaign you ran. You guys are great. I’ve eaten my nails for you, I’ve given my money to you, I’ve donated my time to you, I voted for you, I cried for you.

But here’s the deal. I lost a lot of sleep over you people, not to mention a lot of billable hours. In these troubled times, this wasn’t wise. But I couldn’t help myself. Spurred on by fear, love, loathing (you can guess which one of those is for you) I emptied my pockets for you on a few occasions, as did many of us.

As misguided as my thinking was that Sarah Palin would go away after the election, so was the idea that my Yahoo in-box would cease to be filled with your emails. I mean, we won, after all. You do know that, don’t you? Yeah, I know the real work is only just beginning. Aware as I am of your vast network of foot soldiers who can’t afford to stop working just because you were victorious, I, nonetheless, didn’t expect the volume of communications to continue as they have been.

A note here and there just to keep the peanut gallery informed is welcome. But here’s the problem, you guys keep shaking me down for cash. Every time I think you’re just reaching out for a little chit chat, I feel used when I scroll to the bottom and see that you still want my money, the red “donate” button conveniently not visible till I’ve already been sucked in. By now, I should know better.

Your online survey the other day was a great hook. Trying to fend off my cynicism, I dutifully answered all the questions, admittedly proud to know you wanted my opinion on how you should govern. It hadn’t occurred to me that at the end you would ask me for money again. To my surprise you asked only for the humble amount of $5, except that once I clicked on “donate” the lowest amount available for selection was $25. Of course, I wasn’t going to put $5 in the “Other” category. I imagined your staff on the other end snickering at my frugality. So I gave you $25.

I’m inclined to believe that it was this donation that entitled me to advance to the next level of your survey, kind of like a video game for political geeks. You let me expound on my greatest fears and hopes for our country. I’ll never know whether it was my donation that allowed me entry into level two of the survey. You guys are too smart not to realize that we want a return our investment. This is more than we can say for the bailout. What’s up with that thing anyway?

obamathanksSo, it was with unbridled delight today when I thumbed through my mail and saw “Barack and Michelle Obama” in the return address–only a name, no address. You are in between addresses, after all. Sure, the envelope was barcoded and form-letter looking, but inside was a thank you letter. Just a thank you and nothing else. I peered into the envelope three more times to look for the telltale donation envelope. Not there. I shuffled through the stacks of catalogs wondering if I’d absentmindedly mixed the donation envelope in with the rest of the junk mail. Nope, nothing. Just a thank you. And for that, I thank YOU.

Now, you got any money I can borrow?

I have a growing collection of odd-shaped foods usually found at the wonderful Portland Farmers Market. Some Saturdays I can be found cooking at the Taste the Place tent, letting market shoppers try various seasonal foods. Otherwise, I’m found wandering in a daze trying to remember just what it is I need to buy. I’m often so overtaken by the abundance of gorgeous produce that I will have made several loops and still have nothing in my bag. A display of purple cauliflower sitting next to orange pumpkins leaves me speechless. Despite my obsession with artichokes, I’m almost paralyzed at the mountain of greenish purple thistles not knowing if I should eat them or paint a picture. Or I consider buying an array of peppers, each one representing a color of the rainbow, all except for blue…thank god.

The “carrot guy” as he is unofficially known, has the most splendid pile of just-dug beets, potatoes and carrots in more colors than you knew existed. Aside from the dual-colored purple and orange ones, these two carrots were my most inspired purchase. (I never claimed to be a poet.)

kindred-carrots1