The Battle for Mexico’s Beaches

It hits you in the face the minute you open a door or window. A virtual presence that is so primal, your brain goes into full denial, telling you it can’t possibly be what you think it is. Perhaps that disconnect is made all the more dissonant by the fact that you are quite literally walking out the door into a verdant paradise, where as far as the eye can see everything is perfect and manicured and designed to delight the senses.

But there is one sense that is definitely not delighted….

People, let me tell you about sargassum.

Photo from the Mexicanist

Sargassum, also known as Sargasso, stinks no matter what it’s called. It’s a seaweed (or microalgae) that is choking beaches from Mexico to the Caribbean to northern Florida. Here’s what Chemical & Engineering News (not my regular literary diet, but, ok) says about it:

Sargassum wasn’t a regular sight outside its native arena in the Sargasso Sea until 2011. That year, enormous mats of the algae started brewing farther south, in the central Atlantic, eventually washing onto beaches on the eastern and southern coasts of many Caribbean islands. By 2018, the mats had grown into the largest macroalgae bloom in recorded history, an 8,850 km long mass extending from the central Atlantic and Caribbean Sea to West Africa and the Gulf of Mexico. Chunks of Sargassum, circulated by ocean currents, now regularly wash ashore in the Caribbean, where they rot on the beaches, giving off a strong, sulfurous stench.”

That is putting it mildly. We had heard slight whispers about the sargassum problem when we first started researching our last-minute, mid-summer trip to Mexico, specifically, the Secrets Maroma Beach. But we thought it was just a bunch of seaweed washing up on the pristine white beaches and making them slightly less Instagrammable. Since we planned to spend most of our time lounging on the patio of our swim-up room or under an umbrella around the thoughtfully designed pool areas, we didn’t think it would bother us too much.

(Basically, us. Photo from Secrets Maroma Beach website)

Other than an occasional morning walk, we really don’t spend that much time on the beach and we don’t pick our vacation destinations based on the quality of the beaches. But there is so much more to sargassum than aesthetics. There’s that smell.

I would almost call it unrecognizable, but that’s not true. It is instinctually recognizable. In fact, we live in the lovely suburb called Old Town, which has a river-adjacent sewer system dating back to the late 1800s. So we are very familiar with the occasional, river-flooding-induced smell of excrement around these genteel streets lined with historic, million-dollar townhomes.

But this sargassum is a whole other poop game. And it is growing, reaching approximately 20 million tons, according to one NPR report. In fact, Inside Science noted:

“This spring, the seaweed invasion was comparable to last year’s, if not worse. In May, Mexico’s President Andrés Manuel López Obrador instructed the country’s navy to lead the beach-cleaning effort and to prevent the sargassum from reaching the coast. In June, the situation was so bad that the southeastern state of Quintana Roo — home of the tourist destination of Cancún — declared a state of emergency.”

And just like there would seem to be a disconnect between living in one of the most expensive areas in the Greater D.C. area and smelling sewage after every heavy rainstorm, so too, was it jarringly incongruent to smell the overwhelming stench of sulfide gas at the beautiful Secrets Maroma Beach, which happens to be in Quintana Roo.

Because SMB was gorgeous. Just beautiful. Here’s a description from Trip Advisor,

“Secrets Maroma Beach Riviera Cancun is tucked away on secluded Maroma Beach, voted the World’s Best Beach by the Travel Channel four years in a row. This unlimited-luxury heaven provides opulence to the most discerning traveler with a pure white sand beach, stunning ocean views stretching as far as the eye can see, elegant suites providing 24-hour room service, daily refreshed mini-bars and several of them with swim-out access to twelve smaller pools plus a shimmering infinity pool, gourmet dining options and chic lounges.”

Photo from the Secrets Maroma Beach website

And it’s true. You look at pictures of the beach (even recent ones) and it’s all white powdered sugar magical-ness. That’s because there are dozens and dozens of workers (aka: sargaceros) busting their butts to cart away literally TONS of seaweed around the clock. Trucks full of it. But they can’t cart away that smell.

Picture from a 2015 TripAdvisor review of SMB

Not to mention the fact that while sargassum might be bad for tourism in the region, it is even worse for coral, fish and other seagrasses. It smothers and destroys virtually everything in its path. Again from Inside Science:

“Since 2015, we have lost a significant number of seagrasses and they will take many decades to recover, assuming that the sargassum is controlled. If it continues to arrive, they will not recover. As of last year, we already began to record massive wildlife mortality — we began observing dead animals along the beach. Last year, we identified dead individuals of 78 species on the beaches, especially fish, but also crustaceans, lobsters, urchins, octopuses and others. As of May of last year, corals also began to die from a disease called “white syndrome.”

The good news is that there appears to be a season for sargassum. It’s not a year-round thing. The sargassum season runs roughly from April to August. And, the government, science community and resorts from Mexico to Florida are studying the issue carefully and trying to find solutions, everything from literal barriers in the ocean to finding alternative uses for the seaweed. Hopefully, they’ll come up with something before next year’s sargassum tide comes rolling in.  

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How to Answer the Question, ‘Did You Go Anywhere This Summer’ Without Being Awkward

I’ve discovered a new, annoying habit. Actually, I’ve caught both myself and my travel-partner-for-life, XFE doing it a lot over the past few weeks.

We’ll be talking to friends or neighbors or coworkers or the pet sitter or (in my case) the eye doctor. We’ll be chatting, catching up on our lives and the latest news when the conversation will inevitably turn to this question: “So, did you guys go anywhere this summer?”

I’ve actually never read this book, so I don’t even know if this is pertinent.

And the way we hem and haw and get all awkward over our answer is just so weird. We’ll look at each other and start mumbling about, “Yeah, we took a quick, last-minute trip but it was just to Mexico. Just for a week. Just a fly-and-flop at an all-inclusive resort. Really, it was no big deal. Nothing glamorous at all. What about you?”

It turns out, we are vacation apologists.

There are a couple of reasons this might be/is the case. For one thing, we tend to take really big trips to some far flung places. Like, safaris in Africa, driving tours through Sri Lanka, living it up in luxury in the Maldives, roughing it on a dive boat in the Barrier Reef, eating tours and temple hopping through Singapore, Cambodia and Hong Kong. So any vacation that’s less than a week or is in a location that takes less than two days to get to makes us feel like we’re letting our expectant audience down.

(OK, now I just feel like I’m bragging about all the great vacations we take. Which I am, because, hi, hello, Maldives? But I don’t mean to brag. I’m really, really grateful. I pinch myself all the time. Really, I have bruises from all the pinching. I can’t believe I get to go to any of these places. So then there’s that: I feel a lot of shame that I’m so fortunate. Thus, awkward apologies.)

Tough but fair.

Plus—to further belabor the bragging theme—we actually have a big trip coming up: three weeks in New Zealand. Which we are really, really excited about and has been our primary trip-planning focus for the last few months.

Then there’s the fact that we pretty much planned to not go anywhere this summer since we knew work would be so busy and we would be spending so much money on New Zealand. In fact, just this past spring, we had turned down an offer to go on a group vacation to the very same part of Mexico that we ended up running off to for six days in July. And the group trip was actually right around the same time (literally, we were only like two days off from passing each other at the Cancun airport).

Whatever it was, we have consistently minimized our Mexican vacation, both before we went and after we got back (Heck, I only posted one photo on Instagram). And we shouldn’t minimize it.

And, the one photo I posted: grilled fish.

We shouldn’t downplay our Mexican vacation for a lot of reasons but first and foremost is because we are just so privileged. Some people spend all year saving up the time and money to go to a beautiful, all-inclusive resort in Mexico. They are genuinely excited about their vacation and they should be.

Going on vacation is (obviously) a luxury that a lot of people—people who really, really work hard and deserve a break–just don’t get. We are both so damn lucky to have the means and ability to just go on vacation whenever and wherever we want. Yes, XFE has worked very hard at both his real job and his other job – racking up and managing all those hotel points and airline miles. No doubt. But again, we’re incredibly privileged. Just for the fact that we can carve out the time and make arrangements to cover our medium-sized obligations while we’re gone.

Secondly, our trip (which, by the way, was to Secrets Maroma Beach in the Riviera Cancun) was really, really nice. The resort was an adults-only, all-inclusive with all the amenities—great service, gorgeous grounds, delicious food, impressive entertainment and a variety of activities for those who wanted to partake.

Just look at this place. Beautiful.

We booked a swim-up room and that’s pretty much where we spent most of our six days. It was definitely low-key (we didn’t go on any excursions, but there are a lot of things to see and do in that region of Mexico) which was exactly what we were looking for.

Where I spent most of my time, reading three books.

To be honest, the trip planning for New Zealand has been a bit overwhelming. There are a lot of moving parts and logistics and decisions to be made, but with Mexico, we didn’t have to make any decisions. Plus, unlike New Zealand, Mexico was a short direct flight from D.C. We left in the morning and were drinking our first pina coladas by that afternoon.

So let me shout it from the rooftops: We got to go to Mexico this summer. And it was great. I got a few mosquito bites but I didn’t get sunburned. We met tons of nice people who worked very hard to make sure we had a good time, all the time. We ate the most amazing fresh, grilled fish for lunch every day (which I shared surreptitiously with some of the very friendly stray cats you’re not supposed to feed and which the staff pretended not to notice that I was, in fact, feeding). And the pina coladas were always delicious and refreshing. Everyone should absolutely go, if they can. Even vacation apologists.

Ode to El Paso

I’m from El Paso. It’s my hometown. Yes, I’ve lived in other parts of Texas, including Austin, and Dallas. I have family in San Antonio, and in Oregon, in Louisiana and other places, I’m sure, but we all came from El Paso.

My mother’s dad exited the military while he was stationed at Fort Bliss and they just stayed. It’s where my mother grew up, where she went to high school (the same one I would later attend), met my father and got married before they eventually moved to Dallas. It’s where she brought us (briefly) after my parents divorced a few years later while she figured out what to do next.

My grandparents lived in a makeshift double-wide trailer (they put two trailers together to make their own) at the end of a dusty farm road in a place called Socorro, Texas for years and years and years. Technically, Socorro is called “a city in El Paso,” but that’s quite the stretch. The population in 2010 was 32,013 and I guarantee it was a third of that back when I lived there in the late 1980s. There were like, no neighbors. There was literally an alfalfa field next door. The road wasn’t even paved until years later and that “road” dead-ended into a field of cotton. Socorro is a speck of spit on a cracked, dusty dune. And that’s where I spent my high school years.

This is literally a current photo for a property listing on the exact road in Socorro where I grew up.

It has taken me a very long time to claim El Paso as my hometown. I used to always say “My hometown is Austin,” or ““I was raised in El Paso, but my hometown is Austin,” mainly because Austin was where I lived before my final move to Washington D.C. and, well, everybody knows Austin, but (at least at the time) very few people knew anything about El Paso.

The other reason I never used to claim El Paso as my hometown is because I actually hated it growing up. Absolutely despised it. Couldn’t wait to get out of there.

I moved there under duress right around sixth grade, I think. We moved around all the time for the first 12 years of my life and I had a really hard time making friends. But right before El Paso, we had been living in Huntsville and I had finally made a group of friends. These girls, who were somehow related to each other and were probably a little bit older than me, were a little wild. They were already hanging out with older boys and drinking and smoking, which just made them even cooler in my eyes, so I really wanted them to like me.

But, for various reasons involving lousy men and even worse life choices, my mom up and decided that we were moving to El Paso.

I hated El Paso from the get go. In my pre-teen eyes, El Paso was big and sprawling and yet there was nothing to do and nowhere to go. I was crowded in by the Franklin Mountains on one side and the vast, scrubby desert on the other. I didn’t like the desert landscape, which was the opposite of the lush, piney greenery in Huntsville.

Everything was new and foreign, I didn’t understand the food or the culture. Everybody was laid back and not at all in a hurry. El Paso is where I learned the concept of “manana syndrome.” El Paso people spoke a different language that was a mix of English and Spanish and border slang and I could not keep up with it at all. Plus, everyone was way too Catholic for my anti-religious self.

Socorro Mission

Worse yet, people seemed to want to stay there or return to El Paso after college. They just didn’t leave. They wanted to stay close to their families, which was a totally foreign concept for me. I could not wait to leave. I wanted to get as far away from my family and El Paso as I could, as quickly as I could.

We first settled in a trailer park near Fort Bliss and I did not make friends. Nobody looked like me, nobody talked like me. I felt like an outcast. My new school (Basset Middle School) was especially tough….there were fights there on the daily, usually breaking out in between classes between the main school building and the portables. A lot of times those fights involved lengths of large metal chains the students had brought to school. Random locker searches were the norm. I got in a few fights myself and soon found out the hard way that my scrappy style was no match for these military and Mexican kids.

I retreated even further into myself and my hatred of El Paso–this horrible place my mother had dragged me to—grew. I spent all my time reading books as a form of escape and hiding in the library so I wouldn’t say something that would get me into another fight.

For whatever reason (again, involving a no-good boyfriend), we soon were on the move again, this time, down I-10 to Socorro. Things got moderately better by the time we moved to my grandparents’ abandoned trailer, but by then, my hatred had hardened and coupled with just general pre-teen/teenager surliness, I continued to hold out to the charms of El Paso.

In fact, it wasn’t until much, much later—like, when I was in my late 30s—that I could finally admit that El Paso was, in fact, a unique and wonderful place.

Dancers at Chamizal

I can now admit that the Franklin Mountains are a nice place to go for an evening drive and the giant lighted star is really something special. I slowly embraced the fact that the desert landscape that I had so detested, was actually incredibly beautiful and calming. I appreciate (in hindsight) that in the desert, you can smell the rain before it comes and when the sky finally does split open, it’s a miraculous, powerful thing. I’ve come around to (even if I don’t always practice) “manana syndrome,” because, really, can’t most things wait?

And, I am now oh-so-grateful to have had the opportunity to grow up in a border town, crossing easily back and forth over the bridge to enjoy all the best of both cultures—everything from late night rolled tacos at Chico’s Tacos in El Paso to dancing the night away and drinking 25 cent Colorado Bulldogs at the Kentucky Club in Juarez.

But most of all, I am now proud to call myself an El Pasoan because of the wonderful people that live there. El Pasoans are generally – with the exception of a few classmates early on — very welcoming and friendly. Those traits and that openness was wasted on my surly teenaged self, but slowly my walls have melted. I now appreciate El Pasoans’ focus on family and friends, the willingness to help out a neighbor or your daughter’s best friend, without expecting or asking for anything in return.

So, of course, the news that someone from outside the El Paso community would come in and kill innocent families out shopping for back-to-school supplies is just devastating. It would be—and is—devastating that such senseless violence happens in any community. But for it to happen in the El Paso community—which is so diverse and so warm and so open and so welcoming—it is especially galling and just egregious. It’s the last place you would expect something like this to happen. But we all know, it won’t be the last place that something like this happens.

Remembering ‘The Voice of Mission Control’ on the Apollo 11 Anniversary

It’s a pretty exciting time to be in Washington D.C. The whole town is amped up over the 50th anniversary of the moon landing. The Saturn V rocket is being projected onto the Washington Monument, Neil Armstrong’s space suit is back on display at the National Air and Space Museum and the National Symphony Orchestra is putting on a special tribute concert at the Kennedy Center. (See even more ways to celebrate here).

I mean, how cool is that? Image via @johnkrausephoto on Twitter

But all I can think about is my first boss, Paul Haney.

Paul Haney was the “voice of mission control,” providing live commentary on some of NASA’s earliest space flights. He worked at NASA in its early days, becoming director of public affairs at the Johnson Space Center in Houston in 1963.

Paul Haney at mission control via Popular Science

As a former newspaper reporter, he often butted heads with NASA bureaucrats in Washington on the need to have full agency transparency and provide the media and public with full access to information on NASA’s programs and astronaut training.

Without Paul’s input, it’s likely the American public would never have seen the moon landing televised in their own homes, the Houston Chronicle posited (although, they quoted Paul’s boss, Julian Scheer, where most other news articles I read, including his New York Times obituary in 2009 credit Paul for NASA’s transparency).

That insistence on full openness is also what got him fired 10 weeks before the Apollo 11 moon landing. Otherwise, we all would have heard Paul’s voice counting down the Saturn launch. Instead, it was Jack King. It must have been an especially bitter pill for Paul since the moon walk occurred on his birthday, July 20.

Paul on the right hanging out with Barbara Edin and Bob Hope. (image from NASA/CollectSpace.com

After further stints in reporting and corporate public affairs, Paul and his wife Jan “retired” to Horizon City, right outside El Paso and took over a small community newspaper called the Homestead News. In the 1980s, Paul wrote, edited and published the Homestead News. The staff was basically Paul, Jan, her son and his wife. Plus me.

I can’t remember when I first stepped into the Homesteader offices. It must have been the summer after my sophomore year, maybe? My mom drove me over and waited while I went inside and asked if they were hiring. Paul and Jan looked at each other incredulously and said no, they were already fully staffed. I went to the car dejected and my mom said, “So, you’re just going to take no for an answer?” With the prospect of a long, hot, boring summer at home stretched out in front of me, I went back into the office and offered to work for free. “I just want the experience,” I said.

That’s how I became the Homestead News “intern.”

I can’t remember how long I worked there. It was pretty sporadic, mostly in the summer, but a little bit during the school year, too. The Haney’s did eventually start paying me, mostly out of guilt, I suspect. It was something like $50 a month, I think. But it was an experience you could not put a price tag on. I learned all about the newspaper business, everything from ad sales, clerical work, writing, pasting and layout, and even accompanying Paul when he physically took the mounting boards to the printer (these were pre-e-mail days, kids).

Every day at around 5:30, Paul would make himself a screwdriver, grab a small cup of dry roasted peanuts and retire to the hot tub on the patio (they moved the office to their home shortly after I started.) While letting the day’s stresses float away, he would regale me and poor Jan (who had already heard it all) with stories of his reporter days in Ohio, Washington D.C. and later in Galveston and South Carolina, as well as his time at NASA. I remember I used to stare in awe at this plaque he had on the wall that was given to him by his former NASA colleagues. It said “happy birthday” and had the date of the moon landing, and a small moon rock mounted on it. Pretty incredible. I wish I had a picture of it.

Paul with turtle cue card. Picture and story behind it can be found at ApolloArtifacts.com

Being a know-it-all teenager, Paul and I used to get into some heated debates sometimes (refereed by Jan, of course) because—and here’s that age-old generational thing at play—while his generation had fought wars (he was in the Korean War) and put a man on the moon, subsequent generations hadn’t done very much worth admiring (in his words). This was when I was like, 17, so, of course I had no real comeback! Jan always stepped in and told him to stop being an old grump.  

Anyway, I distinctly remember when the Berlin Wall fell and communism was declared over. Paul grudgingly admitted that my generation might be on the right track after all. Which was pretty high praise coming from him.

I didn’t keep touch with the Haneys after high school and when I moved away. I heard that Jan’s son and daughter-in-law took over the Homesteader and the Haneys retired to a cherry orchard in New Mexico, before cancer (first melanoma, then brain) took Paul in 2009.

I, of course, wish I had stayed in touch. I think Paul would have gotten a real kick out of knowing I did pursue a career in journalism and so many of the journalistic ethics he taught me – treat your sources with respect and don’t betray their trust; check the facts not once, not twice, but three times; always be curious and follow up; be open and transparent; get both sides of an argument and be fair; don’t insert or share your own opinions in an interview and definitely not in a story – stayed with me forever.

So while I’ll be enjoying all the hoopla around the 50th anniversary of the moon landing, I’ll be thinking of Paul and trusting that he’s got a good view of it all somewhere.

Lessons on Professionalism from Bravo’s ‘Below Deck’

I have a client in the meetings and events industry and I was submitting a couple of story pitches to them this week, based on a new survey of event planners.

One of the key takeaways from the survey is that 59% of planners say a lack of professionalism among the venue management and staff is the primary factor that deters them from giving the venue repeat business.

As a former, failing member of the hospitality and service industry and as a current, small business owner, I thought that statistic on professionalism was very, very interesting. So I did submit a pitch on that topic/statistical point, but after reviewing the client’s website, I went with a pretty safe pitch.

But what I really wanted to pitch was something a bit more trendy, a bit more current, a bit more reality-television focused. I wanted to discuss my current favorite TV show, “Below Deck Mediterranean,” which the Washington Post’s Hank Stuever recently declared to be “TV’s ideal mental vacation.”

And while I respect and admire Hank, and read everything my former Austin American-Statesman cohort writes, I disagree about the mental vacation aspect. I actually spend a lot of mental time wondering just how the heck some of these yachties get away with hiding their total lack of professionalism from the charter guests and sometimes even the captain? From sleeping with the guests (and each other) to dropping a guest on the ground and breaking a glass that a child then cuts his foot on (both in one episode, aptly titled “Flesh Wounds Are Not Five Star,”) it’s all pretty ballsy.

So here are my lessons on professionalism from the crew of “Below Deck.” Because, really, doesn’t everything in life tie back to reality TV?

Don’t lie about your abilities and think no one will notice. Yes, I am specifically thinking about Chef Nachos de Mila this go round, honestly, she’s not the first “professional” to outright lie about her abilities to gain employment on a “Below Deck” superyacht and I don’t think she’ll be the last.

She looks in over her head. And, she was.

Remember third stew Kasey Cohen in last season’s “Below Deck Med?” She lied on her resume about having barista skills and being trained in silver service. It was soon obvious that neither of those things were true. And remember deck hand Andrew Sturby way back in season 2 of Below Deck? He lied about his experience level as well.

Real service professionals know that this is not an industry where you can just “fake-it-till-you-make-it.” That goes for event and venue professionals as well.

Sometimes, you just have to suck it up and throw a beach picnic or pull out all the water toys. Listen, I promise, as a former member of the service industry, I would never, ever ask the crew to haul half the galley to the beach (or worse, to the top of some mountain castle ruins) just so I could eat a meal in a different location. Eating a salad and sandwiches in a Jacuzzi on a SUPERYACHT is plenty exotic and entitled for little ole me. And don’t get me started on those water toys? What a hassle! I’m Team Chrissy Tiegen here: Just say no to the slide.

So believe me when I say: I totally get it. But listen, people pay big bucks (around $35,000 to $75,000 plus a 10 to 15 percent cash tip) to come on this amazing boat and make stupid, annoying demands. And apparently, rich people get really bored, really easily and have to be entertained constantly, preferably by watching others break their backs jumping through hoops for a tip.

Josiah Carter, the ultimate yacht professional.

Providing good service means an event professional has to make it look like they’re positively thrilled to do a back breaking amount of work for finicky, short-attention span clients.

It’s always a good idea to treat the client with respect, even if they look and act like Snooki and crew. In season 2’s episode 9, head stew Kate, who I love and adore, showed her not-so-nice, terribly elitist side, looking down her nose a group of (admittedly, questionable taste levels) charter guests from New Jersey, noting that she went into yacht waitressing to serve the Leonardo DiCaprio’s of the world, not the cast of Jersey Shore. Not very professional, Kate.

While she and the rest of the crew provided good, if albeit, chilly service on that charter, Captain Lee picked up on the attitude, calling out the entire crew for prejudging the guests and reminding them that they (the crew) work for them (the guests) before handing out the fattest tip envelopes of the season. As “Below Deck Med” alumni Julia D’Albert Pusey wisely said, “Five-star treatment is holding someone’s hair extensions and wrapping them up in a napkin, with a smile.”

Sometimes, being professional means looking the other way.

Always follow the preference sheet. And I don’t even mean for their likes, but mostly, for their dislikes. Chefs tend to get so much more heat not for ignoring something that the guest said they liked on their preference sheet, but for going along and making something they specifically said they hated. Like, onions. Honestly, “Below Deck Med” Chef Adam’s obsession with sneaking onions into everything that non-onion liking charter guest ate was self-sabotaging and borderline psychopathic. It was unexplainable.  

Particularly in the event and hospitality industry: clients spell these things out. It’s a good idea to hew close to those written guidances.

But, you also have to be flexible and accommodating. OK, I know I said always follow the preference sheet, but that “always” is really encased in invisible quote marks. A professional also has to be willing to shift gears, especially in the event or services industry.

In season 3 of “Below Deck,” Chef “Beef Cheeks” Leon butted heads repeatedly with head stew Kate over his lackadaisical service and lackluster menus. But even worse, he was very rigid and refused readjust his menu or cooking plans to accommodate guests. Listen Chef Leon, if a guest wants sliders and quesadillas after a long day of drinking and hot tubbing, you better get busy in that galley. Plans change. A professional can handle it.

Just look at how Kate improvised mojitos in season 2 of Below Deck, using mint extract and some mystery green herb (Parsley? Cilantro?) after discovering they did not have any mint on the boat. I’m not saying a professional shouldn’t come clean with a client, but I do admire her ingenuity. But yeah. She should have told the client they didn’t have the ingredient and offer to make them something else. A professional should definitely not lie (see lesson 1).

When Bees Don’t ‘Do It’ – Summer Gardening

My client’s big event wrapped up a couple of weeks ago, which means…..

Summertime GIF - Find & Share on GIPHY
Summer, summer, summertime.

I actually have two big, yearly client events that I provide content support for, one of which is usually at the end of May or June. And after it wraps up, things slow waaaayyyy down.

I mean, I have a few recurring assignments/projects, but nothing like the crush of deadlines I have during the first half of the year (or the last quarter of the year).

In the early days of my freelancing, I used to freak out about this summer slowdown. Now, I take it in stride and use it as an opportunity to meet up with friends and colleagues over lunch or drinks, attend networking events or conferences, update my portfolios and do all of the many, many other non-glamorous, administrative stuff that comes with running your own business.

This year’s other big thing: forcing plants to have sex.

I like big melons and I cannot lie.

We planted our contained bed garden in our backyard in mid-April. We planted green beans, carrots, jalapenos, cubanelles, a variety of herbs, and one squash plant and one mini watermelon plant.

So far, the carrots and green beans have been coming in like gangbusters, as have the herbs, but the squash and the watermelon need….a little help.

Apparently, gourds and the like only grow if they are pollinated, and well, we don’t have a whole lot of bees in our urban, concrete backyard landscape. Or any pollinating insects, really. (In fact, bee colonies in Virginia are dying at a faster rate than in the rest of the country.)

We’d actually run into this problem a few years back when we planted a zucchini. We got just one giant zucchini out of it the whole summer. During a late-summer trip to Austin, I was complaining about my lack of a green thumb to a nice older lady who clued me in to the problem: we needed to hand pollinate our gourds.

I was stumped: Is this true and if so, how do I even “do it?” Do I need to play some Barry White to get my vegetables in the mood for sexy time (Answer: Nope). Do I just stick my finger in every flower and swirl it around? (Answer: Nope). I had no idea on how this pollen transfer business was supposed to be accomplished.

So, when we went to plant our garden this year, I was a bit hesitant about trying squash again. And, to be completely honest, I didn’t even realize that the same pollinating problem could plague the mini watermelon. I didn’t really think of watermelon as a gourd. It’s a melon, right?

I may not know anything about gardening, but I do know where to go to learn everything about just about anything in this day and age: YouTube.

One short video tutorial from Scrappy Patch has made me an expert on hand pollinating. So now, during my summer slowdown from work, I’m adding plant sex facilitator to my skills set. Every morning, I rush out to our backyard to see if the squash or watermelon have any open blooms that I can cross pollinate.  

To be honest, it’s been pretty frustrating. Most mornings, there will be just one squash blossom open. Or, more often, there will be more than one blossom open but they’re all males, which, for these purposes, won’t work. I truly wish we could grow the first big rainbow-gay squash or melon, but alas, it appears we need a female bloom as well.

Damn. Mexico beat me to it.

The other tricky thing is that, at least in the case of the squash, the blossoms only bloom like, one or two days, so I’ve got to jump on that short window of opportunity. So far, I’ve only had one day where there was both a male bloom and a female bloom, so fingers crossed, we’ll be the proud parents of a squash in a couple of weeks.

And, we’ll keep trying. I see a couple of potential female blossoms just starting to bud. Plus, I’ve got the whole summer to obsess over plant sex.

Terrifying.

A Necessary Evil: Summer Sweaters

It’s mid-May and I am sitting in my home office, sipping hot tea, wearing fuzzy house slippers and a summer sweater over a button up shirt.

That’s right: a summer sweater.

This girl is freezing. You can tell by her body language.

Growing up in West Texas, I never understood the concept of a summer sweater. Sure, I’d see them all the time in catalogs like Spiegel, Chadwick’s and Alloy or in magazines like Glamour or Lucky. These loose knit, cotton sweaters paired with white linen pants or worn over bikinis.

I never understood why if it was warm enough for beach wear, it was still chilly enough to necessitate a sweater. (I felt similarly about sweaters with three-quarter length sleeves: what, your wrists are unbearably warm but the rest of your torso is cold? And do not get me started on open-toed booties.)

I did not grow up with seasonal confusion. In Texas, you have two seasons hot as hell and slightly less so. No need for too many sweaters and certainly not a year-round entire sweater wardrobe.

Then I moved north, or more accurately, the greater D.C. area.

Now, I get it. I understand the need for summer sweaters.


Get your summer on, my chilly cohort.

A summer sweater is what you wear when the calendar (and all the catalogs and magazines and your clearly lying eyes) tell you that the weather should be sunny and the temperatures should be in the high 60s or even 70s and yet, it’s cold and rainy and not even remotely spring/summer like.

Here in the real world, it’s currently 50 degrees out. Granted, it’s still early in the day but the high is only supposed to be 58 degrees.

Enter, the summer sweater. A hole-y, loose knit sweater that bridges the gap between your winter bulky sweaters and the sweet summer uniform of t-shirts and flip flops. A summer sweater says, “Hey, I like/respect/embrace the concept of a seasonal calendar, but I know better than to trust it and I’m not going to just go skipping outside without some sort of warming layer just in case.” (See also: vests)

Apparently, this girl’s shoulders are very warm.

Luckily, I have three loose knit summer sweaters to get me through D.C.’s godforsaken “early summer.” They’re stacked in a small corner of my closet next to my heavy winter sweaters and my slightly-less-heavy fall sweaters. Right next to my even-less-heavy, more pastel-toned spring cardigans. Sometimes I grab a winter sweater instead of a summer sweater and have to go through the whole exercise of refolding and reorganizing the stacks.

By the way, I just saw on Twitter that the outdoor pool season in my neighborhood begins on May 25. I’ll be there, with a bathing suit and my head-to-toe, loose knit summer sweater onesie.

Staring off into the distance, wondering where the back of her sweater (and summer) is.

Hotel Crashing: Mara Bushtops, Kenya

When we went to Bushtops Serengeti a couple of years back, we knew that if we ever got the chance to go to Tanzania again, we’d definitely stay there again and for a much longer amount of time. And, we did. For this trip, we stayed at Bushtops Serengeti for seven nights (Oct. 31-Nov. 8), which was a lot but also, totally amazing.

Since we were in the area(ish), we decided to check another country off our list and spent four nights at Mara Bushtops in Kenya.

We went on a “Behind the Scenes,” back of camp tour at Bushtops Mara and saw this hilarious sign hanging in the staff camp area. Hilarious because guess which tent we were staying in?

Now, even though both places are owned by the same camp operators and the two countries share a border, it’s not that easy to go from Tanzania to Kenya (or vice versa). The lovely folks at Bushtops helped us organize the transfer. Here’s the abbreviated version of that adventure: We took a very short flight from the Kogatende airstrip to Tarime near the Kenya border. Then we got in a van that drove us through Isebania, a small town straddling the border, where you get out on the Tanzania side and go through customs, drive across, then get out again on the Kenya side to go through customs. Then another very short flight from Migori airstrip to Siana Springs and Bushtops.

After a slight hiccup over whether in fact we actually needed a yellow fever card coming from Tanzania or the U.S. (both are non-yellow fever country) into Kenya (short answer: you don’t. Longer answer: But the customs officials will definitely try to shake you down for a nice little “fee” if you don’t have one), we were soon ensconced in our super-deluxe and way-too-roomy-for-two people tent, the Leopard Tent at Mara Bushtops.

The walk up to the deck of the Leopard Tent. Spa is just a short walk off to the left and the dining lodge is to the right.

The Leopard Tend has a large living room separating two large bedrooms with en suite bathrooms.

The living room and front entrance. To the left of the entrance is a bar area with a mini fridge and snacks.

It also has a huge wooden deck running along the back of it, with a dining table, built in sofa seating and a Jacuzzi tub.

Two master suites to choose from at the Leopard Tent.

The Leopard Tent is meant to accommodate a family, which it would do really well. As it was, we hardly ever went into the second bedroom or bathroom at all.

While we pretty much had Mara Bushtops to ourselves the first couple of days, a very large group of Chinese tourists were coming in on our last night and had rented out all of the other 11 tents (I guess there were no families to accommodate), so we were put in the Leopard Family Tent for our stay. Which was great, because the Leopard Tent is kinda off away from all the other tents (it’s located on the side of camp closest to the spa tents and is separated from the other tents by the main lodge/dining room/restaurant area – here’s a site plan if you really want to get into it). So even though the Chinese tourist group came in pretty hot and loud that last night, we hardly noticed.

In addition, our family tent had its own fire pit, so on our last night, we avoided the newly crowded dining room and asked to have dinner in our room. And we asked for our own campfire. Which came with its own Masai warrior/fire tender. Who I don’t seem to have a photo of. Grr.

Warrior-less campfire pit at the Leopard Tent.

As with our previous experience at Bushtops Serengeti, we use the term “tent” in the loosest sense of the word at Bushtops. These were some deluxe, luxurious digs. We had a butler (Frederick at Mara, Mustafa at Serengeti) who brought us rose wine, gin and tonics and homemade potato chips. They were also our morning alarms, bringing us coffee with Amarula (sort of like African Bailey’s) and shortbread cookies every morning at 5 am before our 5:30 game drives. They also made sure our laundry was done and returned every day and just generally took care of all our needs while we were in camp (and not out on a drive).

Best samosas in all of Africa.

We seriously, seriously loved Mara Bushtops. What set this camp apart, even from our beloved Bushtops Serengeti, is a couple of things. For one thing, Mara Bushtops is located on a conservancy of 15,000 acres bordering the Masai Mara National Park. Bushtops has a multi-year leasing agreement with the Masai Mara tribe and is the only lodge within the conservancy. So, along the edges of the conservancy, you can see a few Masai communities and the cows and goats they tend. Plus, since its on a private conservancy, you can do nighttime game drives, something that’s not allowed in the National Park (or in the Serengeti National Park, for that matter).

We saw these three teeny tiny baby bat eared foxes (and their mom) during our evening game drive at Mara Bushtops.

Second, the spa. The spa was amazing, both in terms of the quality of the services provided and in terms of all the setting and treatment rooms. We just got massages (twice) but they had other cool, state of the art treatment rooms including hydratherapy and sauna. Plus the pool area with all its fountains and different pool options including the main pool, which has fiber optic “nightsky” lighting on the bottom of it, was just breathtaking. As a spa junkie, I gotta say this one was right up there with any I’ve been to.

Entrance to the spa.

The other thing that set Mara Bushtops apart is the fact that they have a salt lick a couple of hundred feet away from the main dining deck, where all the animals come throughout the day to get some nutrients. Rather than chasing animals all over the Masai Mara, you can sit at a table and watch them all come to you. It’s a destination all on its own.

Finally, I mean, have we forgotten about Harry? Because I sure haven’t. A lodge with a friendly, resident giraffe? Sign me up again and again.

Harry the giraffe at Mara Bushtops
My best bud, Harry the giraffe at Mara Bushtops.

A List of Distractions: Things to Buy, Eat, Watch and Listen To

We have a friend who is a bit under the weather and is stuck in a hospital bed for the foreseeable future. Which just totally sucks. I mean, on the one hand: laying around just watching endless episodes of “Fixer Upper” is totally my jam. But on the other hand: there’s only like, five seasons of that show and then what?

(Plus, I can really only watch a few episodes of that show before I get all amped up and stressed out over how much further my housing dollars would go if I just moved back to Texas and I pull out the old laptop and start scouring the internet for real estate listings. WHEN WILL I HAVE MY OWN BARNDOMINIUM?)

More than anything, I’m sure my friend is totally bored and needs some distractions. So, in her honor, here’s a list of shit that is making me happy lately and might make her a smidge happier, too.

Because, if you can’t have a barndominium, you can at least have a jade roller.

That’s right. I said it. About a month or so ago, I jumped on the #basicbitch bandwagon and bought a jade roller and I am not ashamed to say I love that thing. I don’t think/know if it’s actually doing anything to improve my skin, but I do find it very cooling and soothing to roll all over my face and neck. I bought a mini one from Sephora ($20) and I use it in the morning with a serum (current favorite affordable option: Maelove Glow Maker) or the next love item on the list.

Whoa, girl! Two jade rollers? Slow your roll (PUN INTENDED)

Since its winter and I feel bone dry and cracked, I’ve been relying a lot on Trader Joe’s 100% Organic Argan Oil ($6). I was buying a more expensive version of this oil from Sephora but I saw this in TJs recently and decided to try it out. I use it on my face, obviously, but I also put it on my cuticles, which, for some reason really take a beating in the winter.

My other TJs obsession: Dark chocolate bar filled with Speculoos cookie spread. I don’t even necessarily have a sweet tooth, but these are amazing. It’s pretty much the only candy I like/eat and again, it’s not that often. Also, it seems smaller than the average candy bar (I think), so my hospital friend should just go ahead and eat them two at a time.

Speaking of hospital food, or actually, anti-hospital food: we made Chrissy Teigen’s mozzarella-stuffed chicken Milanese this week after watching her make it on Instagram Stories, and it was really, really good. Bonus: the recipe suggests serving with arugula salad, which has all the antioxidants needed to combat all the fried, cheese-stuffed chicken. It’s practically health food.

And it looked just like this.

After seeing all the memes on Twitter, I had to watch “Russian Doll” on Netflix. I’m so glad I did. It was fantastic. It’s a comedy about dying over and over and over again–sort of “Groundhog Day” meets “Sliding Doors” with a little “Adams Family” mixed in. The costumes and sets are amazing, the continuity completely on point, the writing is genius. Natasha Lyonne, who co-created and stars in it, is a total revelation to me. I had no idea she was so talented. Some people didn’t like the ending or were confused but I loved it from start to finish. Plus, all eight episodes clock in at just four hours, so totally doable, lunchtime watching.

Not to brag, but I read Circe by Madeline Miller in two days. I could not put it down. I read it all day Sunday until literally my eyes were tired, burning and watering. Not a good thing but I just had to finish it. It’s the modernized retelling of the story of the witch Circe from Greek mythology and the “Odyssey,” which wouldn’t necessarily appeal to me but this was the bomb. I’m at a loss on what to read next—always the sign of a good book.

I loved the book “Bad Blood” about the Elizabeth Holmes/Theranos scam so of course I was fully on board with ABC’s podcast, “The Dropout.” I think if you haven’t read “Bad Blood,” then you’ll like the podcast. It definitely just rehashes John Carreyrou’s excellent reporting. However, what really snagged me was the fact that they are using all the previously unreleased tapes of her SEC deposition testimony and well, I cannot get enough of that Holmes voice! I really wanted to hear her fess up to all her lies and how she defends herself.

Another podcast I recently plowed through was The Gladiator by the Boston Globe’s Spotlight team. I’m not a football fan (at. all. I think it’s barbaric) but I am fascinated by the Aaron Hernandez case and what role football and CTE may have played in his actions. I walked away thinking CTE definitely played a part in some of his decision making, but he was crazy and violent long before his ascent to the NFL.

That should be enough to get my hospital-bound friend started. We love you and miss you and hope you get out of that place soon!

Weird Crimes: Pringles Wine and Face-Licking Edition

In a world full of horrible, violent crimes, I find myself seeking out and clinging to the weird crime stories. Luckily, this past month has given us two excellent examples to ponder. Even better, they both involve women perpetrators (#whorunstheworld #girlcrimebosses).

First, a woman in Wichita Falls, Texas was banned from the local Walmart. Her crime? Driving an electric shopping cart in the parking lot while drinking wine from a Pringles can between the hours of 6:30 to 9 in the morning.

There’s a lot to unpack there. First off, wait a hot second….you can drink wine out of Pringles can???? How did I not know this?

Writer Matt Pomanz at Food & Wine had the same thought, so he got scientific about it, and Pomanz conducted an experiment “testing the viability of Pringles’ packaging as a wine vessel.” He found that, if you can get past the chip smell, a Pringles can is actually a pretty inspired drinking vessel. It’s waterproof, the plastic top does a good job containing liquid inside and it can accommodate 750 milliliters of liquid, the equivalent of a whole bottle of wine.

That durability and adaptability might also be why Pringles cans seem to be the vessel of choice for smuggling things like Californian coral to Mexico or king cobras from Hong Kong or a live bird from Malaysia or the can inventors remains, or yes, even something as pedestrian and expected as drugs or money. It really is a surprisingly useful and ingenious container.

I actually agree with VICE’s take, which declared the incident as indicative of the national mood of 2019. I can actually relate to this. The idea of just riding around in circles in a parking lot drinking wine out of a Pringles can while watching the sun come up before heading off down the road for breakfast at a restaurant actually sounds sort of meditative—a form of self-care. Vice stated that the mystery wine drinker “is truly the hero that we, as a country, deserve right now.”

For true enlightenment, scratch out “cup” and replace with “Pringles container.”

And, unlike our next weird crime, nobody got hurt. (Besides, there are certainly much worse things that have happened in Walmart parking lots in Texas recently.)

The other story involved the resignation of a Florida city commissioner who was accused of sexually harassing a fellow city official by licking his face back in 2012.

You read that right: she licked his face.

Words fail. Unlike our previous weird crime story, I cannot relate. I cannot imagine the circumstances that would drive someone to lick a relative stranger’s face and neck. And I do not understand how one would derive sexual pleasure from performing such an act. But I will say, it is certainly invasive and would be incredibly off-putting for the victim.

The Washington Post had a very thorough, 1,144-word story on Madeira Beach City Commissioner Nancy Oakley’s assault on then-City Manager Shawn Crawford.

“…after the otherwise low-key meeting concluded, Oakley walked up to Crawford again. She allegedly licked his neck and the side of his face, slowly working her way up from his Adam’s apple, and groped him by grabbing at his crotch and buttocks.”

And apparently, it wasn’t the first time she had used her tongue as an assault weapon, according to at least three other men who testified before the Florida Commission on Ethics that Oakley had also licked their faces in public without their consent.

The Crawford face-licking incident occurred at a commission meeting that occurred at the King of the Beach fishing tournament, and at the time, I honestly thought that there might not be anything is more Florida redneck than a city commission meeting held on the beach with alcohol at a fishing tournament.

Then I read about one of the other incidents involving another male former Madeira Beach city employee, who

“told investigators that Oakley had licked him during the opening of a Bubba Gump’s restaurant. Maxemow said that Oakley had been intoxicated at the time, and licked his face and neck in the presence of her husband, who quickly escorted her from the building.”

Yup, an incident at a ribbon cutting for a Bubba Gump’s restaurant in front of her own husband. Not to get all Jeff Foxworthy, but Nancy, you might be a redneck.  

For the record, Oakley, who has resigned as city commissioner, admits she had been drinking the day of the King of the Beach fishing tournament (“some beer and possibly a cocktail,” according to Oakley. “A Tervis tumbler filled with alcohol,” according to another witness. To which I say, as one does.)

Nevertheless, the woman nicknamed “Nasty Nancy” maintains her innocence against all complaints and charges, and says she’s looking into avenues to clear her good name.

My favorite quote is towards the bottom of the Washington Post story, where one co-worker is being asked by the state ethics commission investigating the complaint if she ever told anyone else about the licking assault she had witnessed. “I mean, she licked a lot of people, sir. So everyone kind of talked about the fact that she licked people. That’s what she did when she got drunk.”

Somebody needs to get Nancy this $57 Face Licker lollipop. 

At least she wasn’t operating an electric shopping cart.