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.

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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.

Wasted Years*

(*The title is an Iron Maiden reference, off the 1986 “Somewhere in Time” album.)

It was a friendship built out of a kindly act and a wave of gratitude.

I was the new kid at school. I was always the new kid; we moved around all the time, like a ragtag band of trailer park gypsies. It must have been 7th grade (?) at H.D. Hilley Elementary School.

It was before class (I don’t remember what class it was) and we had all trickled into the classroom and were waiting for the teacher to show up. A boy asked to copy my homework. Me, being the little prig I was back then, said, “No.”

He kept trying to intimidate me, hovering over my desk, reaching for my assignment, but I held my ground and just kept saying, “No. I’m not going to let you copy my work.” He started calling me names—“stuck up bitch,” “ugly white girl,” “you think you’re better than me,” “puta,” —that sort of thing—on and on.

I could feel the tears starting to build up in my eyes, and my nose running and my lip trembling. I clenched my fists. I could feel the blood rushing to my face. I tried to stay looking down, not looking at him. I tried to block out the embarrassment as he humiliated me in front of the whole class.

All of a sudden, out of nowhere, a voice from the back of the room said, “Dude, she said no. Leave her alone.” I don’t know if I’ve ever felt more surprise or relief than I did at that very moment. And with that, at the ripe old age of 13, Jacque Jean Parks of Socorro, Texas got herself a Stage 5 Clinger Best Friend For Life. Whether she wanted it or not.

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Probably the last time the rocker chick  on the right ever wore shorts.

She was my best friend through the rest of middle school and most of high school. I practically lived at her house. The Parks had a swimming pool, a fridge full of sodas, a microwave (we did not have a microwave in my trailer), a VCR (Beta at first, then VHS), and they were always ready to throw a frozen hamburger patty on the grill if us girls got hungry. Hamburgers! Already formed into patties! I thought they were rich.

I would go over there to spend the night and to get away from all the chaos of my own home. They would let me stay for days on end.  Jacque and I would sit on the couches in our wet swimsuits, eating microwaved pizza rolls, and yelling out the lines from “Weird Science,” “Bachelor Party,” and “Labryinth,” which she insisted on watching in rotation, pretty much non-stop. I didn’t care. I was just so happy to be there, in a safe, normal house with normal parents. I never put up any opinions or questioned our entertainment options.

Jacque and me
Throwing up gang signs to piss off her mom, who was just trying to get a nice picture of us, probably on our way to church. As you can see, I didn’t know any gang signs.

Jacque (and her older brother) both loved heavy metal. They lived for it. They’d both crank up Iron Maiden, Ozzy Osbourne, Dokken, MegaDeath, Slayer. Which, of course, annoyed the hell out of her parents, who were already a bit older than other parents. They were also very Catholic and pretty straight-laced. I would try to play mediator, urging Jacque to just turn it down a tiny bit. I didn’t care much for metal either, but more importantly, I didn’t want the Parks to send me home as punishment for Jacque’s disobedience.

Jacque and Kenny
Oh man, I remember that look so well.

Jacque would spend hours on her hair and makeup, perfecting her rock chick look with lots of Aqua Net and black eyeliner. And she really was gorgeous. I would sit on the floor next to her while she did her makeup (Sidenote: She used to give me a heart attack using a safety pin to obsessively separate her individual lashes between coats of mascara. We’d both sit there with our mouths agape the whole time she worked on those damn lashes) and we’d make all these big plans for after high school. We were going to become photographers and writers and move to England. We were both obsessed with everything British, even going to El Paso’s only British food store to buy PG Tips and McVities Penguin Biscuits.

I wasn’t as into makeup and hair in middle or high school, but I did let Jacque talk me into bangs one time. I also let her talk me into allowing her to cut them. After all, she trimmed her own bangs all the time, almost obsessively. However, Jacque had straight hair. I had curly hair. I remember sitting in her kitchen, looking to her cousin for reassurance and watching her shake her head. Jacque kept saying, “Let me just even them out,” as more and more snipping occurred. I ended up going into 9th grade (high school!) with a half-inch fringe of tight curls sticking straight out from my forehead.

Yearbook photo of Jacque and I
(From my yearbook, which my sister marked up); Jacque and me at registration for 9th grade at Socorro High School. Note the “bangs.”

A couple of years into high school, our interests diverged. She liked boys and going out, I was still that little prig from 7th grade. We each made new friends and pursued new interests, but we always came back together. We worked on the yearbook together and started our high school’s Photography Club. She picked me up and drove me to school every morning. Sometimes we’d hang out after school or on weekends, but usually I had extracurricular activities I was pursuing and she had her new friends to hang out with.

Photo Club with Jacque Parks
The SHS Photo Club, Jacque the hatchet barber in the middle. Me, still growing out those bangs.

After high school, I got married and she was my only attendant. A few years later, she got married and we fought about it. I didn’t like the guy and I didn’t think she should get married. I was going through my divorce and I was bitter. I felt that I had put my life on hold for five years, had finally gotten away, and was now ready to make good on our high school plans. I was totally selfish and childish, and I expected her to just go along with my plans now that I was ready to pursue them.

Jacque and I on my wedding day
My wedding day. Can’t blame her for those bangs. Or that hair color. Or that lip color. That was all me.

Once my divorce was final, I moved to Dallas and Jacque and I didn’t talk again for about 15 years. She got in touch with me about 5 years ago through my work email. We caught up on each other’s lives—work, relationships, travel. We talked about loss—of time, of friends, of family members. We promised we’d stay in touch.

Jacque Jean Parks

Then I was let go from my job and all her contact information, including her phone number and email– was on my work computer. Occasionally, I would Google her, try to find her on Facebook, but I came up blank. She was using a shortened version of her name on social media. I figured she’d find me again, at some point, and just like the time before, we’d pick up right where we left off.

A mutual friend texted me this weekend to ask if I’d heard about Jacque. The same friend who had texted me about her brother. I reached out to former classmates on Facebook, made a few calls, and found out that she was gone. She had died on July 5 at just 46 years old.

Hearing that news—confirming that news—is like a punch in the gut. I feel like I did that day in 7th grade. I’m clenching my fists. I’m looking down, lip trembling, trying to keep the gathering tears from spilling out of my eyes. I’m trying to block out all the voices in my head chastising me for not doing more, for not being a better friend, for not sticking with her like the Stage 5 Clinger BF4Life I had been in the beginning. And I’m waiting for the sweet relief that came from that voice from the back of the room.

Yearbook
From our SHS yearbook. I was one of the editors and wrote this foreword. Gotta say, pretty corney, but also, pretty prescient.

 

 

 

 

Ode to Del Ray

delray

Every day I swear I’m going to sit down and write a blog post. And every day, I get sucked into the crazy news cycle coming out of Washington. Comey. Russia. Obamacare. EB-5 visas. Executive Orders. Emoluments. Sessions. I end up going down a news wormhole, spending waaaaay too much time scouring Google News and Twitter for the latest updates and news tidbits.

Every damn day.

And, today was no different. I’m finishing a couple of large projects, finalizing some paperwork and payment stuff, and finding and following up on new leads. I’ve had a fairly productive last couple of days, so today was going to be the day I could just sit down and focus on blogging.

I was having my coffee and watching CNN this morning (I know, I know. Tempting fate there.) when I saw a breaking news story about a shooting in Alexandria, Virginia. I live in Alexandria, Virginia. So, of course, I had to hop on the internet to find out what was going on, and that’s when I heard about the GOP baseball practice shooting that took place in the lovely Del Ray neighborhood.

Del Ray holds a special place in my heart….it’s where I lived when I first moved to D.C. 15 years ago. I was in a rush to start my new job and so I rented an apartment in that I found on Craig’s List, sight unseen.  A friend in the know assured me that Del Ray was a good neighborhood with an easy commute and cheaper than downtown D.C. She was right, although “cheaper than D.C.” is still a hell of a lot of money for someone just starting out in the area. But still, it is a charming, quirky little neighborhood and I loved living in the thick of it.

Del Ray is also very close to our current house in Old Town. In fact, the practice field where the shooting took place is just a mile from my front door. I walk/run past it quite often. I walk/run in that neighborhood when my own neighborhood – the historic and touristy Old Town with its grid streets, boutique shops and restaurants, and heavier traffic (ie: stop sign runners) — seems too chaotic or crowded.

In comparison, Del Ray and the adjacent Rosemont neighborhoods are very still with little to no traffic during the day. I go that direction when I want to avoid stop sign runners and mindlessly meander through quiet, tree-shaded streets lined with Craftsman-style bungalows with strollers parked up on their porches.

Besides, my favorite coffee place is right across from that very same baseball practice field and I like to stop there for a well-deserved (or not) iced coffee on my way home.

But this week has been really hot, even in the shade, so I haven’t gone for run (or even a walk) in Del Ray this week. And I still haven’t sat down and written a blog post.

Let’s try this again tomorrow.

What I Learned About Africa the First Time Around (and Why We’re Going Back)

I uttered what I think might go down in history as the most bougie phrase ever known to mankind last week.

“Weeeeell, last time we were in Africa, we stayed at…..”

I said it not once, but TWICE while catching up with friends, both of whom probably immediately regretted asking me what big exciting trip we had coming up.

My manpanion/life-partner XFE and I have become known as “those people” in our own individual circles—the couple who are always planning their next big trip. Finagling airline partnerships and air miles to upgrade to first class and work in the longest possible layovers on a multi-stop ticket, cashing in hotel points and free resort nights to stay in ridiculously luxurious rooms, relentlessly researching destinations and options and meticulously planning where we’re going to spend our time and money.

Our next big trip is a bit different. It’s XFE’s 40th birthday and there was only really one place he wanted to spend it, regardless of airline miles (we were able to use plenty of those), hotel points (nope, none of those being used this trip) or cost (yikes)—on safari in Africa.

This is not our first time in Africa. We actually went to South Africa for my birthday in March 2014, which is why I was able to say something as bougie as, “Well, the last time we were in Africa, we stayed at….”

elephant bud

Of course, with our next trip to Africa only three weeks away, I’ve been thinking a lot about that last trip.

South Africa was never really on my travel bucket list. As I’ve said before, I’m pretty risk adverse, and well, Africa seemed a bit risky, a bit unstable.

IMG_1355
Speaking of risk, I do not recommend ingesting the priced-to-move ostrich bitong, unless you want other parts of your body to also move. (Not mine: I learned my lesson about cured meats from the Great Northern Italian Food Poisoning of 2011. XFE, however…..)

Sure, I’m a huge animal lover and intellectually, at least, I’d like to see animals in the wild, but again, being risk adverse, I always worry something bad might happen. I have a huge amount of respect for animals in the wild and would not want to do anything that might set them off. And who the hell knows what might set them off? I have a lunatic house cat who meows at walls, corners and sometimes electrical sockets. No idea why.

IMG_1573.JPG
He is asleep, right? Like, really asleep, yes?

Plus, a lot of those animals in the wild look pretty dang skinny. I’ve been poor. I know what hunger feels like and when you’re hungry, you might just be willing to eat anything, including some stupid tourist distracted by their camera.

But it turns out, there was a whole lot I didn’t know about South Africa (shocker, I know).

Like, how much I would love beautiful, bustling, exciting Cape Town.

Cape Town collage

I also had no idea Cape Town had such a crazy good food scene. Like, really, really good.

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The Old Biscuit Mill where we had a couple of great meals.

Including probably my favorite meal ever at Test Kitchen. No big deal, just the best restaurant in Africa. No, seriously. Other, fancier people have said so, too. They even made broccoli super cool and delicious. BROCCOLI, people.

Test Kitchen collage

I didn’t know about South Africa’s amazing wine country (we only made it to Stellenbosch, but there’s also Franschhoek, Constantia Valley and Helderberg, among others).

Stellenbosch Collage

So much amazing wine.

SA Wine Collage

And so many really gorgeous hotels, especially our villa at the Clouds Estate.

Stellenbosch Hotel Collage.jpg

I didn’t know I’d be allowed to pet a cheetah (check that one off the life list).

IMG_1371
That’s my pudgy little pale hand on an actual young cheetah. Right there. I died.

I didn’t know about Sabi Sands, a 65,000 hectare private reserve bordering Kruger National Park. It’s very unique in that it’s privately owned by individual land owners/families.

Sabi Sands Collage

I didn’t know South Africa had places like the 5-star Savanna Lodge, where we stayed back in 2014.

Savanna Lodge Collage

I suspected–but didn’t know–that Africa had so many wonderful people like the staff at Savanna Lodge. We were treated like treasured family members (including a little post-game drive champagne party on the morning of my birthday).

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Or like our ranger Patrick and his nice gun-toting tracker friends who pointed out all the cool, dangerous animals and would protect you from said animals if necessary.

Patrick and friends Collage.jpg

The biggest revelation was the animals themselves, who aren’t really interested in eating stupid tourists at all when there are plenty of other, more tasty, less noisy food options available.

bored animal Collage

And actually would just really appreciate it if humans would leave them to their whole Circle of Life business.

Lion bros 2 Collage.jpg

In fact, they’d probably also appreciate it if humans would stop killing them into extinction.

Rhinos Collage
The African rhino (on the right) was our most elusive animal to find, mostly because they’ve been poached into near extinction. And we all know about elephant poaching.

So, we’re going back to South Africa. Sadly, we’re skipping Cape Town and Stellenbosch. And we weren’t able to book Savanna Lodge, despite planning this trip a year out (there is, understandably, quite the demand for their nine luxurious tent-suites).

We’re really excited to be staying five nights at Leopard Hills, another 5-star lodge in Sabi Sands.

Then we’re going on to another six nights of safari, this time in Tanzania, including stays in a glass-fronted tent suite at Lemala Kuria Hills and a bushtop tent at Serengeti Bushtops. We’ll finish up with four nights at the Manta Resort on Pemba Island, including a night in their underwater room. Yes, I said underwater room. The room is underwater.

Underwater Collage.jpg

It’s really an once-in-a-lifetime trip. But, for the second time.

Risking it All (or Not) for My Youth Back

I was at a sort-of networking/motivational speaker-type event recently, the kind of event where you have to wear nametags, but since this was an event for creative folks, they’re not just straight-forward, run-of-the-mill nametags…they’re free-expression, icebreaker-type nametags.

“Hello. I’m ­______________. I would RISK it all for ­­­­­­­_______________.”

I stood hunched over the registration table, Sharpie hanging in the air, totally stumped.

smug risk taker
That’s a throw back to my stumped face circa 1998, I think. And some brown lipstick/brown lipliner. RISKY. 

It was, after all, pre-coffee for me, and this was, after all, my first time attending the event, which was positively brimming with bright, shiny, young, creative faces—all of whom seemed to know each other and were totally comfortable in their own individual creative-y-ness. I was already questioning my decision to come.

With perspiration beading on my upper lip and after what seemed like an eternity–but was probably more like 45 seconds–I scribbled “more sleep” into that gaping, second blank spot, ripped the sticker off its backing, and slapped it on my blazer just below my shoulder. And thus began my morning-long fight against the insufficiently sticky nametag as each of the four edges took turns curling inwards and obscuring my most creative thought/answer.

I immediately regretted not writing “world peace” or, even better: “whirled peas.”

I walked around the pre-event, networking breakfast, reading other people’s name tags. And I was blown away by the responses some of these kids (well, yeah, mostly) had written on their name tags. Apparently, young, creative people will risk it all for just about anything, including coffee, breakfast, really good vegan cupcakes, and Cheetos.

scooter risk taker
Now this girl is a serious risk taker. Riding a scooter with mules? Dangergirl!

It seemed like a pretty weighty question and yet all the answers I saw were pretty frivolous, in my mind. I mean, not that mine was much better. Come on. “More sleep?” What’s up with that, old timer? Prostate acting up or something?

Then I remembered when I was young and embraced risk, and yes, all those frivolous answers reminded me of those days. Hell, I was not just a risk taker, I was downright reckless.

  • I thought nothing of accepting an internship and packing up my crappy car to move across country without a dime to my name. I ate trail mix three times a day for two weeks until my first paycheck because of that stupid move.
  • I sold all my furniture and most of my worldly goods for a short-term move to London, convinced that I would figure something out and never have to come back to the U.S. I had no plan beyond that first six months, nor any idea what I was thinking was going to happen. But it didn’t and I did come back to the U.S., now broke and with not a stick of furniture.
  • I accepted a job here in D.C. that I knew I was vastly underqualified for, sold my car for cash, and rented an apartment (sight unseen) before driving a U-Haul 24 hours straight to get to said apartment two days before starting that nightmare of a job. All of which was extremely risky. (The apartment turned out alright, though).

And that’s just the stuff I feel comfortable talking about on a public forum.

Risk taker
I guess we won’t talk about this questionable decision. 

Back then, I would have said, “I would RISK it all for a good time and a better story.” I was young, hungry (both literally and figuratively), and my hustle was impressive, to say the least.

But as I stood hunched over that nametag, I realized how much times have changed. I’ve settled down quite a bit and my hustle has, too. I’m way more risk-adverse in my mid-40s than I was in my 20s or even my early 30s. Gone are the days of Bill Roulette–that’s where you take all your bills, put them in a bag and pull one out, and that’s the one that gets paid that month. I pay my bills early. I put money into retirement. I keep my insurance up to date. I get regular dental cleanings. I try to not get involved and clear up every misunderstanding I see taking place on the DC metro system (I’m still working on that one, actually).

Angry risk taker
Riled up and giving ’em hell, even on Halloween, circa 1995 (?maybe?)

What would I risk it all for today? Nothing. There’s almost nothing worth risking it all for.

There’s a good reason for all this change of heart: I just have way more to lose. I’m no longer jumping at every perceived experience or opportunity, hoping that things work out. I don’t “fly by the seat of my pants” anymore. Now I like security: having a plan and a nest egg to fall back on.

Sometimes I miss that devil-may-care girl I used to be, the one with more guts than sense. But then I look at the really good life I’ve managed to build, and all the people that are in it, and I can’t imagine taking any risks that would jeopardize any of that. Not even for whirled peas.

 

Fairytales for Grown-Ass People: London Edition

Once upon a time….o.k, 1981…there was a young girl who lived way out in the dusty fields of West Texas who became infatuated with princesses and castles and royalty.

One day when she was nine years old, the little girl got up very, very early to watch a beautiful blonde maiden in a humongous poofy white dress marry a not-so-fine prince in a gorgeous spectacle in a faraway place called England.

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Princess-in-training. I think this might have been around 9, but honestly, I have no idea. None of the photos have any info on the back of them. Let’s just go with this one, which is embarrassing enough. Also, someday I’ll get unlazy enough to scan my photos in, instead of taking a photo of a photo. (#glare)

Everybody on the television was lining the streets, cheering and wearing jaunty party hats and waving Union Jack flags as very refined-looking people in brightly colored jackets and matching hats and red military uniforms made their way towards a giant, Gothic church in horse-drawn carriages. There were trumpets. And commemorative tea mugs and towels. And a big fancy photo op, complete with a kiss on a palace balcony.

It was nothing short of magical and about as far away from the reality of everyday life in a dusty West Texas trailer park as you could get.

And that was the day that I fell in love with England. Actually, obsessed is probably a more accurate word.

I become obsessed. Completely, singularly focused on all things British with the ultimate goal being to one day live there. And lo and behold, thanks to a student work visa, I did get to go live in London for six months in 1997.

London Poe

And it was freaking awesome. Everything I dreamed it would be. Believe it or not, England totally lived up to all the unrealistic expectations I had created. I embraced it whole-heartedly. I bought a bike and on my days off, I would take it on the train out to small country towns in Essex and Kent and Surrey and would ride around just gawking at the adorable small towns and the patchwork quilt fields. I joined my friends Jill and Gil on their drive through the Lake District to Edinburgh, then rode the train back to London. I went to museums, stately homes, churches, West End matinees for musicals. I sat for hours in pubs, just listening to the accents all around me. I went to Glastonbury and got stuck in the ridiculous mud. I made amazing friends, I made bad decisions, I made so, so, so many memories.

I loved it all.

So when my personal travel planner XFE asked if I wanted to go to London for my birthday, oh, and sorry it’s not as exotic or as exciting as Australia or Japan or any of the other places he’s taken me for my birthday the last several years, I jumped at it. It’s not every day that you get a chance to travel back in time and see a place again with completely different eyes.

And this visit to London was equally, if not more, awesome than my first stay. Because this time, I had a co-conspirator to share it all with. I got to introduce XFE to all my old friends and favorite places. We went to see a show and we didn’t have to line up for the cheap seats. We visited new places and sat in pubs–and also, really, really nice restaurants–for hours on end listening to the accents around us. And I got to make a ton of new memories with my beloved, ever-patient schmoops, who had to hear me wax nostalgic and tell the same damn stories over and over again, all of which started with, “When I lived here 19 years ago….”

Not pictured: my schmoopies, XFE, who prefers not to be on the blog. And no, that’s not him sleeping at the theater on the bottom right. That’s a grumpy old man who scolded me for having my coat sleeve hanging over his seat arm. 

Even if I have (technically) outgrown princesses and fairytales, and I no longer fantasize about living in England, I still pinch myself every day that I have my own super-fine prince–with a very nice mini-castle here in Northern Virginia–who has created this wonderful fairytale life for both of us to share and enjoy.

Back to the Basque

Hola, mis gentes. And Happy New Year! (Where did 2015 go? Seriously. I can’t believe it’s a new year. I’m woefully unprepared.)

My travel-compadre-for-life and I have had a sort of travel rule for the last 10 years, which is: “Let’s go to new places. Places that neither of us have ever been.” After all, the world is a large, wonderful and varied place. We’ve hardly exhausted our options. There’s always some place new to go.

It’s not a hard and fast rule, but it’s one we’ve generally followed.

Poe at soccer
Me at an Athletic Bilboa game in 2012. Per XFE’s preference, he’s cropped out. Except the tip of his thumb.

The thing is, as we get to a stage where we’ve done quite a bit of traveling, we find ourselves wanting to go back to places we’ve already been. We want a second chance at something, maybe it was another day at that secluded beach in Vieques or a trip to the Big Easy without stitches.

And so, in December, while the rest of the world was buying Christmas presents and attending holiday parties, we instead found ourselves revisiting the Basque region of northern Spain. We just had to go to our favorite pinxto place in San Sebastian again. And recreate that wonderful day of soccer in Bilboa. And stay in my favorite hotel again in my favorite European city.

La Cuchara san Telmo
A nice moody picture of La Cuchara San Telmo, our favorite restaurant in San Sebastian.

You know what? It wasn’t exactly the same as that first magical trip, when everything was unknown and each experience was completely new. For example, the late-night kebab place next to our hotel in Bilboa wasn’t as delectable as it was when we went there after the soccer match on our last trip (for one thing, I had had quite a few gin and tonics that evening….). But it was pretty fantastic, and in some ways, even better.

We did go to our favorite pinxto place in San Sebastian again. Twice. And it was freaking phenomenal. (Don’t worry: We also hit up a whole bunch of new-to-us places as well. We ate all of the pinxtos. All of them.)

My favorite hotel upgraded us to an even more ridiculously luxurious room than last time.

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This was our terrace. Just ours. We didn’t have to share it or anything.

We pretty much recreated that wonderful day of pub crawling and soccer in Bilboa, not once, but twice, watching two Athletic Bilboa games in the team’s fancy new stadium. We even got tickets to the swanky VIP suite for one of the games, which has completely spoiled me for any future soccer matches. Plus, we saw a match in San Sebastian, so we basically tripled our soccer gluttony compared to our 2012 visit.

IMG_3704

It was all slightly familiar and comforting in a lot of ways. While it wasn’t what some travel guides would call a “journey of discovery,” it was great to cut through all the angst of getting somewhere and not knowing what you want to do first or where to go for dinner. The whole trip had a bit of nostalgia to it. Almost every sentence began with, “Well, when we were here last time…”

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Another XFE hand shot. I feel like we’ve been here before….

The world is a very big and varied place and there are plenty of places to go, but sometimes, going to a place you’ve been before offers up the opportunity to take a little trip down memory lane and revisit old favorites. After all, we don’t stay the same and neither do our favorite destinations. And that late-night kebab place deserves a second, more sober visit (but probably not a third visit. I think we’re good on that one).

Oysters, Pistols and Tipsy Walking in New Orleans

October is a very big month for me, both personally and professionally, and we celebrated some seriously huge milestones this past month. In fact, we were so busy celebrating them, that I didn’t even have time to write about them! So just consider this the first in a three-part series. Or something.

First up was the birthday of my manpanion-for-life, XFE. We don’t usually travel for XFE’s birthday, what with Porktober® and all that being right around the corner. BUT, we decided to jump on some low fares and cash in some Starwood points for a quick weekend trip.

So, we went to New Orleans and acted like we were about 15 years younger than either of us are. We stayed up late, drank too much, ate too much, talked to random strangers, bought expensive artwork.

It's entirely appropriate to make finger pistols when buying artwork.
It’s entirely appropriate to make finger pistols when buying artwork.

Yeah, a little souvenir for my new office and to commemorate my first year of self-employment.

We saw this subtle little work of art while walking by the Hall Barnett Gallery on Chartres Street. They’re an LED reproduction of a neon piece called “Guns.” Supposedly, there were only three produced—one owned by the gallery owner, Holly, another owned by a couple in New York and then us.

They were absolutely unnecessary, but we just couldn’t walk away from them. I mean…neon guns? Hello? And they change colors! There’s even a remote control. We negotiated them down a teeny bit, but the final number still made me need a stiff drink afterwards.

(Update: They were damaged during shipping, so now we’re waiting for a new set. Or is it pair? Fingers crossed. Or is it guns crossed?)

Boo. Hiss.
Boo. Hiss.

Luckily, we were staying right across the street from the gallery at the W French Quarter. This is the infamous hotel where I cracked my head open five years ago. Actually, almost five years to the day. I know this because that super helpful Memories feature on Facebook popped up with that FrankenPoe picture right before we left.

Honestly, none of this is cute. The pout, the bags under the eyes, the airport bathroom stall. Oh, or the stitches.
Honestly, none of this is cute. The pout, the bags under the eyes, the airport bathroom stall. Oh, or the stitches.

Besides slippery dangerous showers, the W French Quarter is also home to SoBou, which is a Brennan’s establishment and therefore means: 25 cent martinis at lunch. (Note: if you ever do go this option—and you absolutely should—do not get one of the Kool-Aid colored/flavored pre-mixed martinis like a Cosmo. Get a classic, dirty martini).

I will say, we had a few issues with the W Hotel this time out. We were using points, cash and upgrades to cover our three-night stay, and they basically wanted us to move rooms each night. There was much finagling until they finally upgraded us to a carriage house studio type room that had definitely seen better days and had a non-working hot tub surrounded by cigarette butts on the patio.

W New Orleans Collage

The concierge also dropped the ball on the champagne I had ordered, despite the fact that I had filled out all the paperwork and called twice to order it and confirm that it would be in our room. There’s a whole litany of other annoyances (including XFE’s pet peeve: old, snagged towels with threads hanging everywhere), but, at least no one ended up in the emergency room, so that’s a half-hearted win. Sorry, W French Quarter.

We fared better in the eating category. On our first day we did a very scientific comparison/survey of two famous oyster places: Felix and Acme. We ate approximately four dozen oysters between the two places—raw, grilled and Bienville. XFE joked that we should have been pooping pearls after all that. Final consensus: Acme won by a shell sliver and honestly, it was their boo fries that had us coming back again the two days later (French fries covered with roast beef gravy and cheese).

Let's see, from left to right: oysters, oyster place, oysters, and oyster place.
Let’s see, from left to right: oysters, oyster place, oysters, and oyster place.

When we returned to Acme, we were not alone. We dragged along a couple of new friends we met during what was perhaps our very favorite tourist activity ever: the Drink and Learn Tour. We’ve been on a lot of tours in a lot of places, but this particular tour was hands down the best tour we’ve ever been on (and….didn’t take any pictures of. What can I say? I was too busy enjoying it).

The owner/tour guide, Elizabeth Pearce is a drink historian, fantastic historian, and an all-around hoot. You meet up (at a bar, naturally) and you receive a small, crossbody cooler containing four color-coded drinks. Then you take a short walk, stop, take a sip of your drink, and learn about the colorful history of New Orleans through adult beverages. Everything from how and why rum punch represents the early melting-pot days of the Crescent City to how praline liquor helped female slaves buy their freedom. It was so entertaining and we both learned a ton.

Then we went and got oysters and beer because that’s what you do in New Orleans. Or at least, that’s what we do there.*

(*We did a bunch of other galivanting and tomfoolery, but this is a family blog, so better left unsaid.)

New Orleans Collage

Cambodian Tuk Tuks

Cambodian tuk tuks
Cambodian tuk tuks from above

We had a ritual when we were in Siem Reap.

Well, it’s sort of a ritual we have whenever we travel, really.

It goes like this: Run around like crazy people most of the day, soaking in all the history and culture and sights we can lay our eyes on, make comments on all the assorted smells and sounds, file them all away into our jumbled brains. Compare. Contrast. Compare. Contrast.

Then head back to the hotel in the late afternoon for a swim, a shower, some downtime. Get dressed  and head down to the hotel bar for a drink and a round of dominoes before dinner.

For the most part, this routine in Siem Reap was the same as on any of our other travels. What made it different was the going to dinner part. Because then my very favorite part of the evening would occur: the tuk tuk ride.

Cambodian tuk tuks

Tuk tuks are everywhere in Cambodia, and we rode them in both Siem Reap and Phnom Penh, but my favorites were the ones in Siem Reap, where frugal travellers and bohemian student types would take them back and forth to the temples and/or Pub Street. A tuk tuk is kind of like a rickshaw. It’s basically a scooter with a covered seat attached to the back like a two-wheeled trailer. The sides are open, and there’s a roof overhead to shield you from rain or sun.

Cambodian tuk tuks

Each evening we’d go to the front of our hotel and the doorman would call us a tuk tuk. The sun would be setting and the gardeners would be lighting the lanterns in the trees, as some garish yet faded tuk tuk would pull up. To go from our hotel — Le Meridien — to downtown Siem Reap was about a mile, and would cost us $2-$3.

We’d pull out of the circular drive, pulling along the dusty shoulder of the road until our driver could find a gap in the traffic and nose his way in, the put-put of dozens of other tuk tuks and the chattering of the riders blending together.

We’d slowly inch our way along Charles De Gaulle road, past dozens of barely lit, open-air food carts, surrounded by customers and families sitting on plastic chairs. The smoke from the cooking would mix with the dust from the road and create a haze.

Siem Reap cooking

There did not appear to be any road rules or very many traffic signals. Drivers would just inch forward, give way, inch forward, hold back. Surprisingly, there really wasn’t much honking of horns, although, when there was, it was that tiny little non-threatening scooter horn.

We’d drive past a large circular, non-working fountain that nonetheless drew crowds of people sitting on its ledge and socializing, or picnicking on the sliver of grass between the fountain and the road.

tuk tuk ride

We’d make our way past what I think was a school, and next to that, a large building with an advertisement on the side advertising either an upcoming fight or a political race. I’m not really sure. Then the Angkor National Museum and the Royal Residence, where the air would finally clear of smoke and dust, and the smell of frangipani would hang in the humid air around you for a couple of blocks. This was my favorite part. I would breathe deep and try to fill my lungs with it, close my eyes and just hear the putter of the tiny scooter’s engine.

While waiting for passengers, the drivers would congregate and eye people walking by. We noticed that most of them wore pants, even though it was unbearably hot. We speculated it was to protect their legs from flying bugs, although a small bug hitting your leg at approximately three miles an hour seems very unlikely to cause permanent damage.

The drivers did, however, like to pull their shirts up over their bellies in a sort of half-shirt situation that reminded me of when I was a kid and my sister and I used to pull our t-shirt tails through our neck hole to make a sassy halter top.

Cambodian tuk tuk drivers
Cambodian tuk tuk drivers

Some nights we’d ride along the river, watching the traffic on the other side going the opposite direction, enjoying the brief breezes before turning down a small road or alley where there was no breeze and inevitably, a traffic jam.

Phnom Penh tuk tuk traffic jam
Phnom Penh tuk tuk traffic jam

On our way home from dinner, we’d often take the same or similar route, and the magic was still there. The controlled chaos of hundreds of little tuk tuks marching along like ants, ferrying tourists back and forth in the warm night air heavy with frangipani.

Siem Reap tuk tuks