Last week, as I watched Rich paint the upper reaches of my office wall, I thought — hoping it wasn’t blasphemy to paraphrase the Bible — “Greater love hath no man than this, that he picks up a paint brush for his wife.”
Because verily, Rich really, really hates to paint. But he loves home improvement projects, and he’s accepted the fact that some entail changing a wall's color. As it happened, one of our first projects, back when we were newlyweds in Ohio, was repainting our boring white bathroom a cheery buttercup yellow. Our “master bath” was the same size as our closet, and I kept saying, “It’s a tiny room. How long could it take?”
We labored intensely for an entire weekend, painting everything — walls, trim, even the mullions on the window — that rich buttercup. When we were finally done, we cleared away the tarps and stood in the doorway to admire our handiwork.
“Dear God,” said Rich. “How did it get so bright?”
The yellow bounced from one wall to the other, each reflection ramping up the saturation level until it was like looking directly into the sun or the headlights of a flying saucer.
“Yellow paint color intensifies drastically when used on the walls,” I read later in a home improvement tutorial. “Interior decorators even have a joke about this — “Every can of yellow paint should come with Caution: Handle With Care.” Sadly, our paint can had kept that little tidbit to itself.
“I guess the good news is we’ll get our entire day’s requirement of vitamin D every time we walk in here,” Rich said.
I kept staring at the color, aghast. “Maybe we should —”
“It’ll be fine,” he said firmly. “We just have to get used to it.”
But after a week of flinching and groping for sunglasses every time we opened that door, Rich finally agreed we had to fix it. The following weekend the bathroom walls became a warm, cozy ivory.
Thirty years later, the emotional scars from that incident having faded, I took it into my head to give my Seville office a perky accent wall. The idea of take-home paint chips hasn’t caught on in Seville yet, so standing under the fluorescent lights in the paint store, I chose what seemed a tasty creamy coral. On the wall, however, it revealed itself to be a howling Halloween orange. Again, the paint can failed to give me a heads-up about the danger.
“Repaint?” Rich said incredulously when I voiced my concern. “It’ll be fine. We just have to get used to it.”
I tried to get used to it for seven long years, but it was no good. Last week, with Rich’s help, I finally bid a not-so-fond farewell to that obnoxious orange and replaced it with a restful shade of green. I’d wisely bought paint guaranteed to cover in a single coat, so we only had to put on three to obliterate the orange completely.
While I was still celebrating that jolly transformation, our household was blessed with a new (albeit temporary) addition: Fred.
A bit of background: Here in Seville, live holiday trees are as rare as paint chips and hen’s teeth. If you can find them at all, they tend to be small, spindly specimens with their roots shriveling away inside a very dry dirt ball. I can only assume they dig them up early, over the summer, to get a jump on the season. One year, ours blew over on a windy day, and when I went to heave it back into position, the needles — all of them — stayed on the floor. I rushed out and bought garlands to wrap around the pitiful sticks that remained, but it was a sad sight indeed.
This year we asked our florist to reserve one of his largest arboles de Navidad for us. When we went to pick it up, we were astonished to be presented with a hulking seven-foot fir with the kind of robust girth I associate with Fred Flintstone. The florist's assistant strapped it to our dolly with endless meters of plastic tape; Fred was not going to be allowed to escape on the way to his new home! For a week Fred loitered around, hinting he was ready to branch out, until we finally had time to free him from the tape and dress him up properly.
One reason live trees aren’t common here in Seville is because everybody wants the kind they see in Hollywood movies: perfectly proportioned artificial pines hung with a matched set of ornaments and color-coordinated ribbons and lights. Around here nobody has little kids coming home from kindergarten proudly bearing hideous Styrofoam orbs garnished with popsicle sticks, pipe cleaners, and glitter. Vacationers don’t buy the kind of oddball ornaments that you soon realize are aesthetically questionable but hang up anyway because they are emotionally resplendent. It's not fashionable to have a glorious hodgepodge that's as messy and warmhearted and convivial as life itself.
I love my rag-tag band of random ornaments. Like the angel Rich’s dad brought back for him from Bangkok back in the 1960s. Oh sure, it may be missing an eye and some of the gold trim, but its many decades of service have earned it a place of honor near the top of the tree every December.
The dog angel was purchased when we lost our beloved Eskimo Pie. She was certainly no angel, but she was fun to live with. I’ll never forget the year she found a rum cake under the tree and ate the whole thing. Rich and I came home from the movies to find her sprawled on her back, fat, drunk, and happy, with the shreds of the package all around her.
Every year we add another ornament to the collection. Twelve months ago we were feeling pretty anxious, especially as half our friends had to bow out of our traditional December 25 feast thanks to Omicron. I thought the sight of flask in his stocking might cheer Rich up. (It did.)
This year, in celebration of finally liberating my office wall from the menacing orange hue, I added this to the tree.
And then I got to thinking. Hmmm. We had an orange wall for Thanksgiving. A green wall for the year-end holidays. Maybe I should change it up every season. Pink for spring, perhaps? But for heaven’s sake, don't say anything about this to Rich. What he doesn’t know won’t give him time to come up with any reasons not to re-paint.
And in other news: today Fred got his first email. My sister-in-law Deb wrote, “Fred, meet Barney. (Yabba dabba do. Or ... yabba dabba Yule.)"
YABBA DABBA YULE, EVERYBODY!
Enjoy the winter solstice this Wednesday and whatever holidays you may be celebrating. Thanks for a great year. You guys always make me laugh and cry and think; my life would be much duller indeed without you. I suspect you’ll be too busy playing with new toys to read blog posts for a while, so I’m taking a short break. See you in 2023!
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Sunday morning, while drowsily opening emails and taking my first sips of coffee, I was jolted fully awake by the sight of an ad in which machines offered to take over the pesky little chore of writing this blog.
Until recently, I never considered robots serious competition as writers. In my experience, most bots seemed bent on proving they were total knuckleheads possessing zero common sense and only a passing acquaintance with the English language.
But recent improvements have culminated in the interactive super-brain ChatGPT that has inspired awe, fear, and fascination around the world. More than a million people have signed on to test its linguistic virtuosity. A spokesperson for its creator, the for-profit research lab OpenAI, warns that ChatGPT "may occasionally generate incorrect or misleading information." Ya think? Clearly we’d all be wise not to trust it too far.
Not everyone shares my concern. “I’m sorry,” tweeted one Thomas Ptacek, “I simply cannot be cynical about a technology that can accomplish this.”
Jesus crust, I have to admit that’s pretty good writing, even if the author will never get why humans think it’s funny. Sadly, the AI that wants to take over my blog isn’t nearly as talented. The ad I got Sunday is full of grammatical errors — ten howlers in just fifty-two words. See if you can find any in this fragment, starting with the headline.
Alert readers will have noticed the singular subject (Writing) is inappropriately paired with a plural verb (are). Rich keeps reminding me that I’m overly picky about this stuff but hey, it’s my job. And if AI is serious about wanting my job, it’s going to have to try considerably harder than that.
But truth be told, I’m not really worried machines will replace me as a travel writer. High-end chatbots are good at reprocessing existing information, and no doubt our inboxes will soon be flooded with articles about the five top things to see in this city or that, all based on TripAdvisor (whose ratings are notoriously unreliable). While bots can regurgitate content, they are never going to be able to savor mouthwatering Mediterranean comfort food or feel the transcendent joy of raising your voice in a vast, ancient space.
Let's face it, ChatGPT isn't about to jump on a train and seek out random adventures in strange lands. In fact, I imagine its giant brain would blow a gasket or fry an actuator if it heard about the next trip Rich and I are planning: The Nutters Tour.
The idea came to me when I was writing about forged Vermeers and ran across mention of the Fälschermuseum. “Hey, Rich,” I said, “some nutter has created a museum devoted entirely to art fakes.” We got to talking about eccentric people creating wacky places, and before you could say “bonkers to the max,” we’d agreed our next road trip would be spent discovering oddball places designed by people who clearly had more than a few screws loose.
“We'll call it ‘The Nutters Tour,’” I said.
“But then everyone will think it means us, that we’re the nutters,” protested Rich.
“Well, that’s not entirely inaccurate... OK, no, you’re right, we’ll find another name.” We’re still casting about for one, but until we find it, The Nutters Tour it is.
What exactly are we looking for? Five hundred years ago, the people designing Seville’s cathedral declared, “Let’s build a church so large that those who see it will think we are mad.” Today visitors often say, “Man, this church is insane!” That’s the kind of nutter spirit I’m talking about.
Hearing about the trip, my friend Deborah immediately recommended the Villa Torrigiani di Camigliano near Lucca, Italy. The gardens were built in the seventeenth century, when giochi d'acqua (water games) were all the rage. On rainy days the marquis would chase his guests into the garden, where they would try to shelter in the Temple of Flora, only to find the ceiling raining water down on them. Obviously this was much more amusing for the marquis than his soggy guests.
Another of the villa’s loony features is a grotto of sexually explicit stalactites. Yes, Deborah sent me a photo; if there are small children peering over your shoulder, you might suggest they go play elsewhere while you give it a gander.
Whoa! Steamy stuff!
My friend Maer suggested a visit to Bomarzo, Italy, home of the Park of the Monsters. The landscape is a sixteenth-century version of a horror movie, a shocker built by the grief-stricken Prince Pier Francesco Orsini. He’d fought a brutal war, been held for ransom for years, and finally arrived home only to have his beloved wife die. He expressed his feelings by building this park of howling torment.
Obviously the world is full of nutters just waiting for us to discover them. So far, our tentative route begins in Valencia, where we’ll catch the run-up to the Fallas, a loony, city-wide festival. Then we'll cross into France, stopping in Montpellier, Marseilles, and Nice before heading south through Italy; our itinerary isn’t fixed, but we’re thinking of Lucca, Bomarzo, Rome, and Naples. With luck we’ll visit Bagonregio, home to Italy’s only UFO museum, currently closed but possibly willing to open for us if asked nicely. We’re hoping to have time to continue south as far as Sicily. In May, we head to the US, flying out of … wherever we find ourselves at the time.
Should I ask ChatGPT for suggestions? I don’t think so. For a start, doing the research is half the fun. I’ve passed many delightful hours browsing through the suggestions of Atlas Obscura, Rough Guides, and other sites I’m pretty sure were authored by humans.
Besides, I don’t want to encourage ChatGPT, which industry insiders suggest may soon be ruling the planet, with or without my support. AI expert Calum Chace says the software will continue learning, and humans may soon discover we're "the second-smartest species on the planet. It will be the most important event in human history. Bar none. The outcome may well be fabulous for humanity, but that is not guaranteed." So when you do interact with robots, play nice with the species that’s about to become our new overlords.
But what, me worry? ChatGPT may be able to beat chess experts and adopt the writing style of the King James Bible, but it will never embrace the kind of wacky, off-the-wall places and experiences that give this planet — and so many travel blogs — that nutter zing.
I'm not taking suggestions from robots, but I'm happy to hear yours. Do you know of any places I should add to the Nutters Tour? Please tell me about them in the comments section below.
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I think we can all agree, as this year staggers to a close, that we have plenty to be thankful for. Admittedly, as measurements of success, many of this year’s benchmarks of achievement are underwhelming. It’s like we’re all pilots joking about a good landing being any one you can walk away from — and a great landing being one where you can use the aircraft again.
Here’s something I’m grateful for: Scientists are digging around in Russia’s permafrost, unearthing “zombie viruses” that have lain dormant for tens of thousands of years. Wait, no, that’s not the part I’m happy about. Somewhere around paragraph five of the Washington Post article, just as I was starting seriously to hyperventilate, the author casually mentioned the pathogens they found only infect amoebas. See? There’s a silver lining right there! Not for the amoebas, obviously, but it’s looking a bit better for us humans.
Now let me ask you this: Do you feel like you never have enough time, almost as if the days were getting shorter? You’re absolutely right — they are! And my hat’s off to you for noticing the difference in the Earth’s speed, which occasionally results in a single, random June day that’s around 1.5 milliseconds shorter. It has something to do with slight irregularities of movement at the earth’s poles, technically known as the “Chandler wobble.” To put it in layperson’s terms, the north and south poles occasionally do this:
The phenomenon was discovered by astronomer Seth Carlo Chandler in 1891, and his colleagues today insist they’re pretty sure we have almost no reason to think these random slowdowns will cause the planet to spin off its axis any time soon, if our luck holds. So there’s something else to put in the plus column!
And then, I’m genuinely pleased about the surprising announcement from Merriam-Webster that their word of the year is “gaslighting.” I'm horrified that it's happening, but hey, at least people are noticing.
The term comes from the title of an intense psychological thriller, set in 1875, in which an evil husband attempts to drive his wife insane by constantly manipulating her perception of reality — including dimming the gas lights in their house and telling her it’s just her imagination. Merriam-Webster’s dictionary explains this kind of abusive behavior “causes the victim to question the validity of their own thoughts, perception of reality, or memories and typically leads to confusion, loss of confidence and self-esteem, uncertainty of one’s emotional or mental stability, and a dependency on the perpetrator.”
Ever feel like that’s happening to you? I’m sure just your imagination.
The online look-up rate for “gaslighting,” which had been rising steadily for four years, jumped a startling 1740% in 2022. Oddly, it wasn’t sparked by any single event (as most words of the year are) but by a serious, long-term, widespread social concern about the way we are all being manipulated these days.
“Gaslighting is a heinous tool frequently used by abusers in relationships — and by politicians and other newsmakers,” explained an AP article in the flurry of reaction over Merriam-Webster’s announcement. “It can happen between romantic partners, within a broader family unit and among friends. It can be a corporate tactic, or a way to mislead the public. There’s also ‘medical gaslighting,’ when a health care professional dismisses a patient’s symptoms or illness as ‘all in your head.’”
Why is it good news that we're talking about gaslighting? “As a person who writes about honesty and deception, I felt a spark of hope Monday when I found out that Merriam-Webster had made ‘gaslighting’ the official word of the year for 2022,” said Judi Ketteler, author of Would I Lie to You? “Maybe, just maybe, people are finally ready to engage with dishonesty and how it operates in their lives.”
Research suggests the average American tells eleven lies a week; obviously some are already way over their quota halfway through a typical Monday. How does all this lying affect us? A pair of psych professors at the University of Notre Dame decided to set up a “Science of Honesty” study to find out. Over a ten-week period, half the participants were instructed to make a conscious effort to stop telling major and minor lies. Both groups came in weekly to report on their physical and mental health, and, yes, take a lie detector test.
“We found that the participants could purposefully and dramatically reduce their everyday lies, and that in turn was associated with significantly improved health,” said study leader Anita Kelly. She explained participants who cut down on falsehoods, including little white lies, enjoyed better mental health — feeling less tense or melancholy, for instance — and better physical health, reporting fewer issues such as sore throats and headaches.
Why are lies so bad for us? Turns out telling whoppers increases our stress level, which is tough on our psyches and bodies. "Research has linked telling lies to an increased risk of cancer, increased risk of obesity, anxiety, depression, addiction, gambling, poor work satisfaction, and poor relationships,” says psych professor Deirdre Lee Fitzgerald.
On the other hand, an excess of brutal honesty isn’t always healthy either. Telling your new lover that your ex was better at sex is not going to improve your relationship. In fact, it usually winds up with your lover saying to the judge, “And that’s when I shot him, Your Honor,” while the jury nods sympathetically.
“Honesty is the best policy, right? I say no,no, no, no. And let’s add on one more no, just for good measure,” began an article in Mental Health @ Home. The author suggested that being straightforward about objective facts — yes, you do have spinach in your teeth — is great, even if it can be a little uncomfortable at times. “Then you’ve got opinions, which are inherently subjective. They don’t have any objective, literal truth to them; they’re just chitter-chatter inside our heads... There’s no need to inflict that on the world without a good reason.”
Objective fact vs. subjective rant; that’s an excellent litmus test to apply before blurting out our innermost thoughts. We can ask ourselves, “Is what I’m about to say true? Is it kind and helpful? Is it likely to get me killed?”
Yes, in the end, it all comes down to survival. How can we boost our chances of making this another year we can walk away from — or, if possible, dance our way through? Back in March, doing research in connection with Rich’s new obsession — sorry, I mean hobby — of birdwatching, I stumbled on this video of an American Woodcock (whose aliases include timberdoodle, bogsucker, and hokumpoke). I couldn’t resist posting it again here while talking about survival. Why did Nature endow these birds with the gift of dancing like John Travolta? What's the evolutionary advantage? Maybe it's to remind us that we'll all live longer if we stop occasionally and celebrate staying alive.
That's my post for this week, folks!
Thanks for joining me on the journey.
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I'm an American travel writer living in Seville, Spain. I travel the world seeking eccentric people, quirky places, and outrageously delicious food so I can have the fun of writing about them here.
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