So this friend of ours is entertaining a group of clients at a posh restaurant. Late in the wine-soaked evening he goes to the restroom, then forgets he has a tableful of guests awaiting his return, sends the valet for his car, and drives home. We can only wonder how long the others waited, what sentiments they expressed as they settled the bill, and whether they were soon ex-clients.
I like to recall that story whenever I do something particularly foolish and forgetful. Which happens more and more often, and not just to me. Nowadays what mind isn’t reeling from the latest alarming news about the Delta variant, Afghanistan, hurricanes, floods, wildfires … need I go on? Being distracted by catastrophes undermines our focus and efficiency, so when I occasionally misplace my reading glasses, I know it’s normal and not a sign that I’m losing my memory or my mind. (No, it's not!)
So I wasn’t worried a few weeks ago when I went in for my annual physical, which included a memory test.
“Remember these three words,” my doctor said. “Popsicle, banjo, giraffe.” As regular readers will recall (or maybe not, depending on your level of distraction today) Rich’s memory course taught a visualization technique. I pictured myself eating a popsicle and holding a banjo while riding on a giraffe. Then I thought, maybe the giraffe should be playing the banjo. No, not with hooves. Could he be eating the popsicle, so I could play the banjo? Did giraffes like popsicles? Weren’t they leaf-eaters? My doctor’s voice faded to “blah-blah-blah cholesterol blah-blah-blah” as I pondered these questions. And then he said, “So what were those three words?”
My mind went blank. Hooves? Leaves? “Popsicle,” I managed. “Uh, banjo…” I paused, then finished triumphantly, “Giraffe!”
“Don’t worry,” he said kindly. “You pass if you get even one right.”
Whew! While I was congratulating myself on acing this modest test, I happened upon an article about Griffin, a parrot famous for feats of memory.
Harvard researchers created a version of the shell game, putting different-colored pompoms under cups and shuffling them around, then naming a color. If Griffin identified the cup concealing that color pompom, he got a cashew. Griffin outperformed human first-graders, then Harvard undergrads — arguably some of the smartest minds on the planet. Not bad for a birdbrain! Boy, was I glad my doctor didn’t test me against Griffin.
But if I wanted to measure my mental acuity, I wondered, were online resources available? Yes, but I should be very careful about unqualified, unscrupulous, predatory websites that were just out to frighten me into spending money, warned “Online Memory Tests You Can Trust.” This public-spirited message was frequently interrupted by banners saying “Need a mental lift? This brain supplement can do that” and “Personalized music boosts focus time up to 400%” with links to sponsored “product reviews” that read like hymns of praise and rapture. Could this be a case of the pot accusing the kettle of using scare tactics to profit at my expense?
I did find one elegant test designed to debunk a productivity myth affecting memory: multitasking. More accurately called “switchtasking” — that is, alternating rapidly between jobs — this so-called productivity booster actually slows work speed, results in sloppy work, and fries our brains. In fact, a University of London study found those who multitasked during a cognitive test showed the kind of IQ drop you’d find after smoking pot or staying up all night — reducing their scores to the average range of an eight-year-old child.
But don’t take my word for it (or the University of London’s). Try this test.
First, time yourself writing “Switchtasking is a thief” on one line and the numbers from 1 to 21 on the next. You might need 30 seconds. Next, try writing the same thing, but switching back and forth between two lines. First write the letter “S”, then drop to a lower line and write the number 1, then go back up to write the next letter, down for the next number, etc. This typically takes 60 seconds and becomes so riddled with errors it looks like the work an eight-year-old, or possibly your dog.
Obviously multitasking isn't helping. So how can we corral our scattered brains? For a start, we can use commonsense tools like leaving ourselves notes, making lists, and checking online for facts that elude us.
“Many of you are worried that if you use Google to look up your blocked words then you're cheating and contributing to the problem, weakening your memory. You're worried that Google is a high-tech crutch that's going to give you digital amnesia. This belief is misinformed,” says neuroscientist Lisa Genova. “You don't have to be a memory martyr. Having a word stuck on the tip of your tongue is a totally normal glitch in memory retrieval, a byproduct of how our brains are organized. You wear glasses if your eyes need help seeing, you have my permission to use Google if a word is stuck on the tip of your tongue.”
What warning signs suggest a bigger problem? “If you start forgetting common words frequently,” explains Genova. “So if I'm like, ‘Oh, what's the name of the thing you write with? The thing you write with. What's that?’ ‘Pen?’ ‘Yeah’ — if that starts happening, that could be something. Doesn't have to be Alzheimer's. There are lots of reasons for having issues with retrieving memories, making new memories. It can be sleep deprivation, it could be B12, it can be lots of things.” If this happens to you often, write a note saying “Schedule a checkup” and tape it to your phone.
For those of us experiencing low-level lapses, self-care is the key. Among my top remedies are travel and getting plenty of exercise (which often go hand in hand). When it’s not practical to journey far, experts recommend learning a new language, making music, dancing, taking an art class — basically anything that gets the neurons fired up and connecting in new ways. Diet can help; make sure, for instance, you’re getting enough memory-supporting vitamin B12, which for me means including fresh fish and eggs in my largely plant-based diet. For energy, I do yoga and qigong — and I drink coffee, which studies show improves alertness, attention, and concentration. Chocolate helps too, obviously.
OK, time for a pop quiz: What were the three words my doctor asked me to remember?
If you recalled even one, you’re doing great. If you decided not to be a memory martyr and scrolled back to check, you’re doing great. In fact, if you can still remember what a pen is, you’re doing great. Chances are there’s nothing wrong with your memory that a saner world wouldn’t soon put right. Sadly, the chances of that happening are slim to none, at least for now. But take heart. If you haven’t driven off into the night leaving a tableful of clients in the lurch, you’re still ahead of the game.
And now a few words from Einstein, the Talking Parrot.
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How many times have you walked into the kitchen and wondered why you were there? Can’t remember? Can’t count that high? Can’t even recall what the question was?
Don’t worry, this kind of forgetfulness is perfectly normal at any age, says neuroscientist Lisa Genova. The culprit isn’t memory loss, it’s distraction. We’re simply not paying enough attention to make those moments stick in our minds.
“I often drive from Boston to Cape Cod,” Genova says. “About an hour into this trip I cross the Sagamore Bridge, a really big, four-lane, cannot-miss-it structure. And then about 10 miles and a mere 10 minutes later, I'll suddenly wonder, wait, did I already go over the bridge? I can't recall going over the bridge because that memory was never created in the first place. It's not enough for my senses to perceive information. My brain can't consolidate any sensory information into a lasting memory without the neural input of attention. So because I've driven over that bridge countless times, and because I was probably lost in thought or listening to an audio book so my attention pulled elsewhere, the experience of driving over it slipped out of my brain within seconds, gone without a trace.”
I often cross bridges over San Francisco Bay — including the iconic Golden Gate — and minutes later I’m trying to figure out where I am and if the bridge is already behind me. I’m usually with Rich at such moments, so I tell him it’s because he’s such a scintillating conversationalist, but I’m not sure he’s buying it.
Thankfully, we can all stop worrying about such lapses. “Your memory is not a video camera recording a constant stream of every sight and sound you're exposed to,” Genova says. “You can only remember what you pay attention to.”
Paying attention is a lot more difficult than it used to be, and I’ll give you three guesses why. Yep, you got it in one: the pandemic. The BBC reports 80% of us are experiencing some memory loss these days, as tested by such questions as “Did you forget to tell people something important?” and “Did you start reading something only to realize you’d read it before?” Of course, going by that, I’ve been experiencing memory loss since … I can’t remember when I didn't do it. But yes, it happens more often now.
I’m not the only one. “I had a great idea for something to put in your memory post,” Rich said at breakfast. “Only I can’t remember what it is.”
This may sound like memory loss, but it’s fragmented attention. While we’re doing other things, our minds are busy processing the latest terrifying headlines about the Delta variant and stressing about whether to cancel plans to attend that wedding in Florida. It’s like our brains have become the guy at the meeting who’s constantly texting under the table and can’t keep track of anything we’re discussing.
To “tame the monkey brain” as the Buddhists put it, a Harvard Health article suggests, “Establish some control over your situation.” Gosh, why didn’t I think of that? Just stop this pesky virus from spreading. That shouldn’t be too hard. What else? “Get a good night’s sleep.” If only! Who can sleep easy knowing that the Doomsday Clock, which Einstein created to measure how close we are to global catastrophe (represented by midnight), currently reads 23:58:20?
My point is, there’s plenty to worry about without fretting about memory loss as well. Most people can remember, at best, five to eight days out of the previous year (and considering our previous year, that’s a good thing). The recollections we have are constantly being edited, altered, and recombined. Ever sat around telling family stories and heard versions so wildly different from what you remember that you wonder if your siblings actually grew up in the same household?
Why would nature give us such faulty programming? Because memory’s most important job isn’t holding on to the past but letting us construct models of possible futures.
Prepping for a first date, a job interview, or a wedding, we collect bits and pieces of memory to create something new: a simulation of the upcoming event. Going back to the office for the first time since March of 2020, we draw on memories of the workplace, Zoom meetings, company mask policies, movies, and memes to create a narrative about what’s likely to happen and how we’ll navigate it.
This goes a long way toward explaining why people are responding so differently to the current health crisis. For instance, I know people who refuse to get vaccinated because the most persistent horror movie in their head is about the dangers of medications without full FDA approval — overlooking the fact that we all take older medications, such as thyroid tablets and acetaminophen (the active ingredient in Tylenol), that have been sold for many years without the kind of FDA approval required for new drugs today. I didn’t hesitate to get vaccinated because the scenario in my head — a mix of the movie Contagion plus the latest Covid statistics (4,382,155 deaths and rising) — feels far more compelling.
Others I know cling to a narrative that says once they’re inoculated, the pandemic is no longer about them. They should be able to skip masks and socialize at will. Unfortunately for that viewpoint, Delta makes us all potential carriers. Nobody gets to sit on the sidelines; we are all back on the playing field.
I know what you’re thinking: why couldn’t we get total amnesia about all this grisly stuff and devote our minds to finding the car keys? Because our brains are doing exactly what they’re designed for: working with the data we have to make decisions that will up our chances of survival.
Here’s some good news: age is no barrier to mental acuity, according to Genova. She writes about Akira Haraguchi, who at the age of 69 memorized the infinite, non-repeating numbers of pi to 111,700 digits. “He’s a regular guy with a healthy, aging brain, which means something even more mind-blowing — your brain is also capable of memorizing 111,700 digits of pi.” Sorry, Genova, not on my best day at any age. But she has a point: the science of neuroplasticity has demonstrated that the synapses in our brains are not hardwired but change throughout our lives. We can upgrade our brain power at any age.
“I’ve got it!” Rich exclaimed at lunch. “The thing I forgot. You should write about all the stuff we can do to boost our mental capacity.” Hmmm, I thought. Like travel. And learning which "memory boosters" are urban myths. “If you don’t have room,” he added, “write about it next week.”
So that’s the plan. In the meantime, if you have any anecdotes to share on the subject of memory and how to nurture it, I’d love to read them. With luck, I might even remember to include them in next week’s post.
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When country relatives came for lunch last Thursday, naturally the first thing we did was ask them to sniff the inside of our tool shed. As regular readers will recall, last week Rich and I were struggling to identify and eradicate the hideous smell coming from under that shed. A powerful pest repellant had driven away the skunks foraging in the garden, but now we had this new problem to solve. Or was it actually the same problem?
“Skunks,” Andrea and Matt said in unison.
“But it doesn’t smell like skunk spray,” I objected.
“It’s not spray. This is how the animals themselves smell,” said Matt.
We all staggered out into the fresh air, wiping our eyes and taking deep breaths.
“Any ideas —” I began.
“Talk radio,” Matt replied promptly. “Drives them nuts. Doesn’t have to be loud, just continuous. They can’t stand it.”
“Just like that restaurant in Ohio — remember, Rich?” I said. “It got rid of teens loitering in the parking lot by playing classical music.” I reached into the shed and flipped on the radio. An NPR host was discussing the Delta Variant. “Take that, varmints!”
For the next several days I pictured our skunks huddled under the shed with their paws over their ears gasping, “Stop! Stop! No more!”
I suspect the story that really drove them over the edge was the one about Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro.
Bolsonaro's efforts to help Covid spread (Brazil's infection rate is second only to the USA’s!) included mocking masks and telling everybody the vaccine would turn people into crocodiles or bearded ladies. Luckily, people realized this was malicious nonsense and wisely turned to a more reliable source: the viral music video Vacina Butantan. Filmed in one of Brazil’s top biomedical research facilities, the hypnotic tune makes inoculation look so cool that people are flocking to clinics. Bolsonaro is now wearing a mask and telling anyone who will listen he has always supported the vaccine 100%.
You see the kind of fun stuff you can learn on talk radio? And yet, after a mere 40 hours of non-stop human yakity-yak, our irritated, sleep-deprived skunks gave up and stomped away. We kept NPR going another day and a half for good measure, then shut off the radio. Into the sweet-smelling silence I said, “It’s like a miracle.”
Yes, I am counting my blessings, especially after reading about a couple in nearby Mill Valley who found a skunk that had been stuck in their dryer vent for days.
This being softhearted Marin County, experts tenderly extricated the exhausted, dehydrated animal and nursed him back to health. Come to think of it, they never revealed where they released him afterwards. San Anselmo, perhaps? Could this be our visitor?
In a normal year (remember those?) skunks were exceedingly rare in our village, but with so much of the state going up in flames — more than 900,000 acres so far this year — everybody’s habitat is changing. Including ours. Rich and I see all sorts of wildlife around now: deer, bobcats, wild turkeys, raccoons. Earlier this summer a bear was discovered in my neighbor’s tree, creating pandemonium as officers escorted him back to the wild. Shortly afterwards my sister’s dog got loose, and we were all running through the village shouting the dog’s name, not pausing to reflect that cries of “Bear! Bear!” might incite general panic. Luckily Rich found Bear (the dog) before anyone called 911 or the news media.
Close encounters with the animal kingdom always brings back memories of our days in semi-rural Ohio, where our home was constantly invaded by bats, snakes, squirrels, moles, mice, roof rats, wolf spiders, and more insects than we encountered in the Amazon jungle. On several memorable occasions, mice got trapped in an inaccessible section of one wall, where they’d scrabble around frantically for what seemed an eternity before expiring and decomposing. Obviously this was far worse for the mice, but it was pretty distressing for us as well, and one morning, when we awoke to the sound of frenzied scratching, Rich sat up and said, “That’s it. No more.”
He flung on some clothes, strode outside, and came back with a crowbar. “Take this towel,” he said, pulling one off the hook. “When I open up the wall, catch the mouse.”
“Catch the mouse?” I pictured myself flailing around with the towel, snagging the creature, and dealing with the business end of its teeth and claws. “Are you nuts?”
He shrugged. “OK, fine.” And raised the crowbar.
The crowbar smashed a hole in the wall. Instantly the mouse shot out, flying right past my head, landing on the floor, and taking off at a dead run. “You are the luckiest mouse in Ohio,” I called after it.
Peering in, we saw the hazard: a hole in the horizontal 2x4 left behind when some wires were moved. Generations of unsuspecting mice had trotted across the 2x4 only to plummet through the hole and become trapped between the framing and the drywall. The carnage in that space … no, even now I cannot bring myself to speak of it. We cleaned everything and plugged the hole, making that 2x4 safe for mousekind. And incidentally saving the noses and sensibilities of the house's human residents.
Getting closer to nature and the animal kingdom always sounds so romantic, but in reality it’s a messy business. We share this planet with 8.7 million other species, and it can be tricky to co-exist peacefully with the mice, skunks, and bears that wander into our lives — to say nothing of the viruses. Luckily for us, our fellow sentient beings haven’t yet figured out we’re the ones altering the landscape, heating the atmosphere, burning their habitats, flooding their dens, and generally wreaking havoc. With the possible exception of our NPR-listening skunks, most creatures aren’t aware of what’s coming. Sometimes I wish I wasn’t either.
On Monday 234 UN scientists sounded the alarm: we’ll soon blow past the degree of global warming that marks “code red for humanity.” Climate change is happening now, it's bad and getting worse, and there's "nowhere to run, nowhere to hide," said the report’s co-author Linda Mearns. Some governments are embracing inaction, hoping for an eleventh-hour technological fix — the cosmic equivalent of Rich’s crowbar opening up a way out. Oh come on, political leaders; do you really think we’ll be that lucky? Senior climate adviser Ko Barrett says, “It is still possible to forestall many of the most dire impacts.” Which is rather like saying, “We can’t get rid of the skunks under the shed, but we can keep them out of your house and maybe your garden.” And that’s what passes for good news now.
In the midst of all this, I keep thinking of Rich’s happiness course, which suggests it’s all about helping others and gratitude. I’ll say this for hard times: they offer plenty of opportunities for being kind and appreciating the little things. Today I’m grateful for a shed that smells of nothing in particular. And that’s enough to celebrate for now.
What are you celebrating these days? How are you adapting to our changing climate? Let me know in the comments section below.
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It all started with a skunk digging for grubs in our garden and leaving behind a vigorous amount of spray. For European readers who may not have had the pleasure, a skunk fires off a noxious, sulfur-laden defensive spray so powerful it can deflect a bear attack, temporarily blind a predator, and be detected by the human nose over distances of more than three miles. You do not want these critters hanging about your garden where you might stumble over one on your way home after a wine party.
Rich bought skunk repellant and lavished it on the garden and then, for good measure, the inside of the tool shed. The good news: that skunk is long gone. The bad news: a new, hideous odor has taken up residence in the tool shed. While not as eye-watering as skunk spray (what is?), it clobbers you in the nostrils with a pungent, musky scent — the precise words the Nature Channel uses to describe muskrat secretions. Which is why we dubbed the malodorous mystery in our tool shed “An Excess of Muskrat Love.”
I know what you’re thinking, and no, the smell isn't coming from the pest repellant; that's more like pine. And we’ve checked every bag of fertilizer and each bottle, box, and tin of Sluggo, ScootMole, Captain Jack’s Deadbug, etc. in our collection; they’re all sealed tight and definitely not the source. Nor is it the final resting place of some hapless woodland creature or domestic animal; the smell isn't right and hasn’t changed over time. Expensive commercial air fresheners have failed to make a dent.
“We’re going to have to take this to the next level,” I said grimly on Saturday morning.
So we emptied the shed, sniffing everything before hauling it outside, then scrubbed the interior with a pungent mixture of ammonia, vinegar, and baking soda. The concoction stripped paint off sections of the floor, cleared up my sinuses, and reduced the smell very slightly for a short while.
“It’s The Thing That Couldn’t Die,” I said.
Sniffing our shed has become a daily ritual along with ever-wilder schemes for finding and eradicating whatever-it-is. Today we take delivery of a spy camera with an endoscopic tube for peering under the floor, and tomorrow we're consulting a pest expert. Rich and I are determined to get to the bottom of this soon. Because next month we’re finally (yay!) going back to Spain.
Or are we?
You won’t be surprised to hear that traveling to Europe has gotten very, very complicated, requiring all sorts of QR codes on our phones (and printed on paper, too, just in case).
First we signed up for California's new Digital COVID-19 Vaccine Records — which the governor insists are not vaccine passports, just voluntary backups to printed shot cards. I figure they should at least get us through the doors of the airport.
To board the plane to London Heathrow, we have to show proof we’ve had a negative Covid test within the past 72 hours. Oh, good! I thought I might miss out on the fun of having someone shove a swab up my nose; this will round out my pandemic experience nicely.
A British friend warned us that once we're in Heathrow we mustn’t set foot outside the airport or we’ll lose our in-transit status. What would happen then? He didn’t elaborate. Possibly we’d be quarantined for ten days in a hotel room full of skunks. At any rate, we’re staying in Heathrow until we can catch a plane to Spain. Unfortunately, Heathrow has no direct flights to Seville, so we’ll land in Madrid and take the train from there.
Entering Spain requires filling out an online Health Control Form in advance. What does that entail? Who knows? We can’t even glimpse the form until we can provide details of our arrival flight into Madrid, and we don’t have those tickets yet. We’re planning to buy them later this month.
Or maybe not.
This pesky Delta Variant has everybody rattled, including me. Three weeks ago, I felt confident about getting on a plane and spending 11 hours in an enclosed space with 150 strangers who would be masked at all times — except, of course, when flight attendants came around with drinks, dinner, coffee, snacks, breakfast, more coffee, and yet more snacks.
“People often think of planes as major vectors for transmission,” said Dr. Amesh Adalja, spokesperson for the Infectious Diseases Society of America, “but overall, we have not seen much data on transmission on a plane, except for people that are in the immediate vicinity of that person.” Whew! So all I have to do is verify nobody around me picked up the virus in the 72 hours since their test.
And hope that I’m still healthy, too. Although completely vaxxed, I no longer feel very bullet proof, knowing I could contract the Delta Variant. While it (probably) wouldn’t kill me or send me to the hospital, Delta could lodge in my body like a muskrat in a garden shed, sharing the love with everyone in the vicinity. Researchers say Delta spreads like chickenpox; if you get it, you’re likely to infect eight or nine others. Even hard-core anti-vaxxers are lining up to get their jabs; as my sister-in-law Deb put it, “There are no atheists in foxholes.”
Dallas mom Heather Simpson was an anti-vax influencer until she realized her own health, and that of her daughter, really were at stake. She followed the science and got her shot. “It’s nice to know that I’m going to be protected against COVID,” she says. “This is the way to end this pandemic, and I’m glad to be able to do my part.”
Just when we thought it was safe to take off our masks, the news has turned scary and confusing again. The State Department says “Do not travel to the United Kingdom due to COVID-19. Exercise increased caution due to terrorism.” (Great, something else to worry about!) It also says “Do not travel to Spain due to COVID-19. Exercise increased caution in Spain due to terrorism and civil unrest.” Friends in Spain say, "Nonsense, things are peaceful, come on over." The NY Times considers travel viable, as long as you dot all your i’s and cross all your borders with the correct documentation. “The welcome mat is being extended most enthusiastically to vaccinated travelers,” gushes Travel Weekly, adding more soberly, “Each country is able to set slightly different entry requirements, causing complications.” The European Union says, “EU countries have agreed on a coordinated approach to the restriction of free movement in response to the coronavirus pandemic.”
The situation is changing so rapidly the only thing you can count on is that nobody has a firm grasp on what’s happening now, let alone what's next. One clear truth stands out: this virus isn’t finished with us. We’re still in a pandemic and we may have to give up a lot of plans and dreams that we’re holding dear. But as author Ally Condie says, “In the end, you can’t always choose what to keep. You can only choose how you let it go.”
Letting go is never easy, and I find myself anxiously scrutinizing the present for clues about the future. Am I going to return safely to Seville in September? How bad will Delta get? Will I ever figure out what’s happening in my tool shed? Could it be a bizarre revenge plot by the ousted skunks? The Buddhists tell us that learning to live in mystery is good for the soul. If so, I think we’ll all be several notches closer to nirvana before the pandemic is finally over.
How are you navigating the Delta Variant? Are you altering any plans over the next few months? Taking extra precautions? Let me know in the comments section below.
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It took me days to realize what was so weird about downtown San Jose. At first, second, and third glance, it’s a pretty good downtown, with wide avenues, a few solid old buildings, glittering skyscrapers, plenty of housing, and cheerful banners urging the populace to dream and thrive. It’s not breathtaking, like Rome or Bangkok, but as the hub of Silicon Valley, it is one of the wealthiest cities on the planet. San Jose glows with the glossy sheen of new money. It’s not hard to see why it’s rated the fifth happiest city in America.
“Well, it certainly didn’t earn that rating through the food,” I grumbled the first night, when Rich and I couldn’t find anything downtown but cookie-cutter food chains and ended up with gloppy pasta and wine that tasted considerably cheaper than its price tag.
We had better luck the next morning at Peanuts, an unpretentious café near San Jose State University. Our fellow customers included four uniformed firefighters, a sex worker, three nerdy guys, and two youngsters who clearly had just crawled out of bed after a night of energetic frolicking. It was the kind of place where you help yourself to the coffee, and after my third cup I struck up a conversation with Joseph, who’d taken over Peanuts when his uncle retired.
“Happy? Yes, San Jose is a happy city,” Joseph said. “Most people who come in are happy-go-lucky. It’s very diverse. Everyone hangs out with everyone else.”
That refrain was repeated in countless conversations over the next few days. San Jose is rated the most diverse city in America and my own unscientific, statistically insignificant, random observations agreed. Nearly 400,000 people from around the world have been drawn there by tech companies such as Zoom, Adobe, eBay, PayPal, and Google — which is building a new downtown campus with 7.3 million square feet of office space, 4,000 housing units, and 15 acres of parkland.
Are diversity and jobs enough to make this town soar high on the happiness charts? The cost of living is more than double the national average, and the $1 million median home price is twice California’s average, four times America’s. True, San Jose enjoys superlative weather, but if we’ve learned anything from the Nordic countries’ high rankings on the happiness index, weather doesn’t count for much.
Then it hit me: maybe San Jose wasn’t happier than other cities — maybe it just thought it was. Long ago I’d worked at the information desk in UC Berkeley’s student union and asked hundreds of people where they were from and if they liked it. The only ones who waxed enthusiastic about their home town? Bostonians. Now, Boston’s a great town; I know, because I moved there for ten years. But Boston isn’t the only decent place to live in the USA; it just happens to have a culture that constantly reinforces the idea it’s the greatest. Seville has the same collective narrative, as do many New Yorkers. Apparently San Jose has that attitude, too. And as we all know, attitude counts.
Rich and I were discussing all this at a cantina with plenty of attitude: Iguanas, home to the famous Burritozilla — a five pound, eighteen-inch “hunger killer” burrito. Eating a whole one earns you a free t-shirt — and lifetime’s bragging rights.
“Does anyone really order that?” I asked the Louis, the cook.
He grinned. “Yep. One woman ate it in a minute thirty-two seconds. Her name is Molly. Look her up on YouTube.”
Wow, that woman can eat!
I’m no Molly, but I did my best to consume my share of San Jose’s Caribbean, Greek, Portuguese, French, Mexican, and Vietnamese fare. At the popular Nha Trang, our friend Joe showed off his fluent Vietnamese ordering an insane number of dishes — which we heroically managed to finish.
All this time, I kept trying to figure out what was bugging me about San Jose’s downtown. When it finally came to me, I was shocked and aghast. “Hey, there’s no retail around here. We haven’t seen a single clothing store, bookshop, sporting goods place, or food market anywhere downtown. Does everyone do all their shopping online? Even groceries? Is retail really dead? Say it ain’t so!”
We decided to find out.
First we hit Little Saigon’s Grand Century Mall, where a marble statue of 13th century Vietnamese naval hero Tran Hung Dao presides over shops selling art, trinkets, and cosmetics. As we approached a small grocery store at the back, my nose began to wrinkle. “What’s that hideous smell? Decaying chicken? Rotting garbage?”
“No, durian.” Rich had told me about Asia’s beloved yet stinky fruit, but now I realize that’s like talking about the scent of skunk; you can’t really appreciate it until you smell it for yourself. Yowzer! They say it tastes like almond custard, but I don’t care; I have added “avoiding durian” to my lifetime goals list.
Next we visited the Barryessa Flea Market, said to be a vast treasure trove with a farmer’s market and a carousel. Sadly, on the weekday we visited, it was a ghost town, with a few dispirited vendors listlessly eyeing the handful of customers drifting down the aisles.
“They just put in a BART station,” Rich explained. “The family that’s owned this property since the 1960s sold the land to real estate developers. The flea market is shrinking from sixty acres to five.”
“I feel like I’m presiding over a funeral on the Titanic. Where else can we try?”
We considered Santana Row, said to have all the high-end shops we’d find in other cities, but instead, we went to check out Nihonmachi (Japantown). And here’s where I really fell in love with San Jose. For a start, there was actual retail — not much, and mostly closed because of Covid, but still, you could actually go into some buildings and purchase things, just like you used to do in the old days before Amazon ruled the earth. There was an atmosphere of cheerful bustle and plenty of colorful street art.
One poster read: “Stop Asian hate. Protect the elderly.” I noticed an older woman with a shopping bag pushing a walker down the street, chatting companionably with a young man in a vest marked “Safety Patrol.” He was part of a volunteer group protecting vulnerable residents while they go about their errands. Seeing this in action was heartwarming. Knowing why it was needed? Heartbreaking indeed.
A century ago, San Jose was nicknamed “the valley of heart’s delight” for its bountiful crops and the entrepreneurial attitude that gave the world its first radio station, first computer hard drive, and first Grateful Dead performance. Today people still arrive there from all corners of the earth seeking their heart’s delight: the chance to create technology that will reshape the future. “Two million people live in Silicon Valley,” said journalist Ben Smith, “and one million of them believe they've discovered the next big thing.” Perhaps that’s what makes San Jose so happy — it’s a place that encourages you to dream big, even if it’s only about your chances of someday consuming an entire burritozilla.
Wondering how 182 US cities were chosen and rated for happiness? See the methodology here.
About to write and ask me why I didn't visit San Jose's most famous landmark, the Winchester Mystery House? We went a few years ago on Our Magical Mystery Tour of California's Roadside Attractions.
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“No hotels?” I said. “You’re saying Fremont, California — a city of 240,000 people — doesn’t have a single hotel?”
“Yep.” Rich was struggling to find us lodgings in the metropolis rated "the happiest city in America" by a recent poll. “The closest hotels are outside the city limits in nearby Newark.”
Eventually we found one place listed in Fremont: the All-Suites Islander Motel. A glance at their Yelp page was an eye-opener. “Worst place I ever stayed rather sleep in my car than here ever again. The carpet was dirty dog pee stains every where smelled like a boys locker room mixed with dog. Cockroaches everywhere beds old out dated, super uncomfortable bedding and linen dirty. Worst place ever. Trap house! Stay away, unless u want to bring home roaches and bed bugs.” One guest wrote, “Helpful hint #1 carry some sort of weapon if you decide to venture out for a late night ice run.” Good to know!
We stayed at a cookie-cutter corporate hotel in Newark.
Bright and early on our first Fremont morning, we stopped at the Country Way diner and found bottomless cups of coffee and a hostess who called Rich “hon." Our waitress, Cindy, hadn’t heard about the poll but didn’t seem surprised at Fremont’s happiness rating. “We have good neighborhoods, good weather, it’s clean, good for kids, and it’s safe.” What’s not to like?
To walk off the eggs and home fries, we strolled down Fremont Boulevard, a broad thoroughfare lined with diners and store fronts — about the closest thing this centerless city has to a downtown. Passing the old railway station, Uncle Joe’s Liquors, an Afghan market, and an Indian wedding photographer, we fetched up at the Holy Spirit Catholic church.
On a Sunday morning we were surprised to find the 1886 landmark church locked. Wandering around to the back we discovered 200 people attending an open air mass.
“Do you smell that?” Rich whispered.
My nose stuffy with allergies, I didn’t at first. “What, incense?”
We slipped away from the service and followed our sniffers around the parish hall to find The Holy Spirit Filipino Society making pancit bihon (stir-fried rice noodles), lumpia (spring rolls), and sweet-salty grilled chicken (recipes below). It was too soon after the hash browns to think of lunch, but we chatted with the cooks, who laughingly agreed Fremont was a happy place to live and invited us to return later. We did and it was the best food of the entire trip — and quite a bargain at $5 for a shared meal.
I wasn’t quite sure what to expect on our next stop, The Museum of Local History, but I soon discovered it was a sweet treasure trove, lovingly assembled and carefully labeled by countless volunteers over the past 60+ years. I marveled at the bones of a mastodon discovered by the Boy Paleontologists in the 1940s. An old movie camera paid tribute to the days when Charlie Chaplin made 14 films there, including The Tramp. It was a bit disconcerting to discover many objects — dial telephones, adding machines, floppy-disc computers — I’d once owned myself. I felt like a relic!
Our guide, Stuart, "really knew his onions," as they said back in the 1920s. I asked him about the Harvey Ranch, which my friend Bill wrote about in a comment on my last post. “In 1970 I met Margo Harvey, a lovely lady and big time farmer whose vegetable crops were planted on 100s of acres in Fremont. She told me about how Fremont also had the best vegetable stand run by a sweet old fellow right at the edge of her property. After buying from him, every day, for over 20 years, one morning, at 4am, she discovered him picking all his produce from her fields. When confronted by her, he acknowledged he had been doing this all his life and had no inventory cost. She wasn't sure whether to laugh or cry.”
Stuart knew all about the Harvey house, which is still standing in what's now Harvey Community Park. Rich and I arrived there to find young Asian men playing cricket in the field where the sweet old fellow used to steal Margo’s produce. The rest of Harvey Farm is suburban housing.
Wherever we went in the city, we asked everybody we encountered whether they agreed Fremont was a particularly happy city. Every single one of them said yes — until we stopped for frozen custard at Rita’s.
“I hate this place,” a woman in the parking lot snarled. “I can’t wait to get out of here.”
Stunned at her vehemence, Rich naturally wondered if she was staying at the All-Suites Islander Motel. “Are you from out of town?” he asked.
“I’m from Monterey. I’ve never been here before; I’m just passing through. I’ve been here ten minutes and I’m ready to leave.”
Rich did not stand in her way.
Our last stop was the 450-acre Fremont Central Park, built around the lovely Lake Elizabeth. “Online someone called it ‘Lake Liz.’ Is that a common nickname?” I asked my sister-in-law Deb, who once worked in Fremont. “I’ve only been there a few times,” she said. “I wouldn’t presume to call her that on such a brief acquaintance.”
Of course, it's not all sweetness and light, even here in the happiest city's prettiest park. A display about earthquakes reminds us just how unstable life can be, a point that's underscored by the homeless encampments nearby and the parched earth of California's long drought.
I sat at a picnic table looking out over the tranquil water of Lake Elizabeth, surrounded by local families who, at a guess, could trace their ancestry back to just about every corner of Asia, Central and South America, Europe, the Caribbean, and beyond. Everyone seemed to be enjoying themselves, handing around Tupperware containers of food, tossing balls for dogs, bouncing babies on their knees. And I began to see why this place was considered so happy.
Fremont, stitched together out of several older towns, seemed devoted to one modest goal: being a family-friendly community for people far from home. It doesn’t strive for glamour or hipster chic, attempt to lure tourists away from San Francisco, or harbor dreams of becoming the next Silicon Valley. I’ve read that modest expectations are one reason for the high happiness ratings of Nordic countries. Where Americans are constantly exhorted to strive for exceptional achievements and be dissatisfied with anything less, the Scandinavians’ goal is a comfortable work-life balance. They just want to come home at the end of the day feeling satisfied with what they have. Perhaps that’s what Fremont offers its citizens. No wonder they’re happy.
So what was the ghastly All-Suites Islander doing in the midst of so much contentment? Re-checking Yelp, I discovered the Islander isn’t technically in Fremont but in neighboring Hayward. Whew! Fremont can hold up its head again.
Clearly there’s no perfect way to quantify happiness; no doubt other cities deserve the crown as much or more. But all in all, I’d say Fremont is doing OK. And in these troubled times, meeting even that modest expectation makes the city truly exceptional.
Do you know the way to San Jose?
Or why it's America's 5th happiest city?
Just a half-hour drive south from Fremont but a world apart in character, San Jose, the unofficial capital of Silicon Valley, rates high in happiness and off-the-charts in terms of wealth. But we all know money doesn't buy happiness, right? What's San Jose doing with all its newfound riches? Surprising things. Learn San Jose's secrets in my next post.
Wondering how 182 US cities were chosen and rated for happiness? See the methodology here.
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AND HERE ARE THOSE MOUTHWATERING FILIPINO RECIPES I MENTIONED
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“You’re not going to believe this,” Rich said. “I just googled the Museum of Local History in Fremont and this is the first photo.” Peering over his shoulder at the screen, I saw an old wooden board studded with small holes.
“Hey,” I said, “isn’t that the same board the exterminator photographed under our house to show the beetle infestation?
We were researching next week’s road trip to Fremont and San Jose, which ranked first and fifth respectively on the list of America’s happiest cities while being two of the least popular tourist destinations in California, possibly on the planet. As a travel writer, I’m an old hand at digging up fascinating facts about obscure places — want to hear about my six favorite towns in Albania? — but even so, I was floundering.
People often ask me how I learn about the weird places we visit. I explain that once potential destinations come to my attention — in this case, by their high ranking on the happiness index and close proximity — I first consult Wikipedia for general background. I soon learned Fremont was formed in the 1950s by five old small towns fearful of being swallowed up by their fast-growing neighbor Hayward. Fremont’s planners preserved landmarks such as Mission San José and silent-era movie lots where Charlie Chaplin got his start, but nobody bothered to create a central downtown. “How do you go there,” Rich complained, “when there’s no there there?”
San Jose, as I knew from my childhood, was the hub of a large farming community for centuries. Then by sheer geographic accident — being the only city nearby when the tech explosion hit — it became the unofficial capital of Silicon Valley. Wikipedia informed me the San Jose Metropolitan Area has, per capita, the most millionaires and billionaires in the US and the world’s third highest GDP, not to mention the nation’s most expensive housing market.
After that little flurry of discovery, the trail went cold. Even Triposo, the travel app that had guided us through such lesser-known spots as Cagliari, Sardinia and Šiauliai , Lithuania, made no mention of Fremont or San Jose. Amazon listed no guide books. EatWith offered no in-home dining experiences. We were on our own.
Luckily, a few stalwart travel writers have visited and published articles such as 12 Top-Rated Attractions & Things to Do in Fremont, featuring lots of nature walks and a few historic buildings, most of which are closed due to Covid. I knew we were in trouble when one of Fremont’s 12 Top-Rated Attractions turned out to be viewing the Dumbarton Bridge. Despite what you see in this heavily photo-shopped image, the bridge is graceless, drab, and as people point out on Trip Advisor, often jammed with traffic and smelling like a sewer. “It’s just a bridge,” commented Bart C. “For goodness sake, I don't know why some of these mundane things are listed as ‘attractions.’” Me neither, Bart!
“The Dumbarton Bridge? Seriously?” said Rich. “What’ll we do after that? Tour a Walmart? We don’t have to stay more than one day in Fremont, do we?”
“See if there’s any kind of history museum,” I suggested. “People have been in the area since the Ohlone hunted there in 4000 BC; somebody must have collected some old stuff and old stories.” And that’s when we found the Local History Museum in Fremont. At first glance, it looked slightly less glamorous than the Dumbarton Bridge.
But then I got to thinking: could artifacts and photos covering the last three centuries of everyday life provide clues about how Fremont became the happiest city in America? The museum is only open a few days a month, and to my astonishment one of them coincides with our visit. What are the odds?
That was about it for museums and attractions, so next I googled “diners,” and here Fremont came up aces. Some are family-run slices of Americana that look like the kind of places where the waitress would call you “hon” and freely dispense her views on why Fremont was or wasn’t the happiest town in the US. Many eateries are owned by Asians, who make up 57% of city’s population, and the online photos of mu shu chicken and tikka masala are drool-inducing. Clearly we’ll have to eat at least five meals a day while we’re there.
Meanwhile, the San Jose research was proving considerably easier. As I mentioned, there’s no comprehensive guidebook, but if you want to locate the oddball stuff (and I do), there’s the delightful Secret San Jose: A Guide to the Weird, Wonderful and Obscure. It showed where to find Beethoven’s hair (strands were cut off at his death as a memento), a haunted Chuck E. Cheese (the franchise started in San Jose), and a plant converting sewage into perfectly safe drinking water (nope, I’m not going to sample it).
I consulted another trusty resource, Meetup, which connects individuals who share an interest, but of course, most were inactive due to Covid. For instance, no upcoming events were listed for the Bay Area Ghost Hunters meetup, “a networking group for the free flow of paranormal information … Skepticism is appreciated, but close-mindedness is not.” When I googled walking tours I found even slimmer pickings, and Rich is flatly refusing to consider the Zombie Scavenger Hunt.
In European cities, the cathedral is the center point of any community, so I looked up San Jose’s. Originally a smaller church built in 1803, St. Joseph’s was damaged by earthquakes in 1818 and 1822, was entirely rebuilt, then collapsed during the 1868 earthquake, was entirely rebuilt again, then burned down in 1875. Do you feel God is trying to send a message here? Yes, it’s been rebuilt once more and I may visit, but at the first hint of smoke or trembling underfoot, I’m out of there.
The fact is, I don’t have any clear plan for the trip. And that’s a good thing. My research is helpful in pointing me in the direction of interesting stuff, but I’ve learned I get the most fun out of travel by simply showing up, wandering around soaking up atmosphere, chatting with a few random people, and letting events unfold in their own good time. Not having a set schedule, I can linger over sights that interest me — Beethoven’s hair, perhaps, and almost certainly that board in the Local Museum of History (who’d miss a chance to see that?). And I know I’ll spend time perched on diner stools, savoring bottomless cups of coffee and possibly Burmese pan fried dumplings. But no matter how relaxed the pace, I can absolutely guarantee I will not be making time to stand around gazing admiringly at the Dumbarton Bridge. I have my standards!
On The Road Again!
I won't be writing a post next week as Rich and I will be traveling around trying to figure out why Fremont and San Jose rate so high on the happiness index. I expect to have plenty to say the following week!
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The great Spar Varnish Debacle started out simply (as these disasters so often do) with an offhand remark over breakfast.
“Between the birds and those ghastly berries on the trees,” I said, “our porch railings always look like they have leprosy. Isn't there something we can do?”
Paint store experts advised glossier paint; Rich applied two coats, which bloomed with fresh stains before the last brushstroke dried. The hardware store staff suggested spar varnish, a maritime shellac tough enough to repel barnacles. As Rich brushed on the spar varnish, I noticed with alarm that it was going on in great, blotchy, yellow streaks, giving the impression we’d drizzled the railing with maple syrup. After days trying to convince ourselves it didn’t look that bad, we agreed it had to be painted over.
Unfortunately, spar varnish doesn’t like to be painted over. Unable to repel the enamel paint outright, it craftily began infiltrating it. Soon our railings were sticky as fly paper; if you touched one, you instantly became adhered to it, and delicate negotiations were required to remove your fingers without leaving behind a layer of skin. Naturally the glue-like surface became a magnet for every bit of dirt, dust, berry, and bird muck around.
Normally we’d have ranted endlessly about this to family, friends, and the hardware store guys; we didn’t attend that Grumpiness Seminar for nothing! But the areas of our brains devoted to domestic disasters were, by this time, totally preoccupied with something more urgent.
The Beetles-Eating-Our-House Crisis began when a routine inspection revealed this shocking sight.
OK, maybe it’s not that shocking at first glance, but look closely at the middle board; can you make out teeny tiny holes in the wood? Kind of like nail holes? Apparently those may or may not be the warning signs of wood-boring beetles at work, either now or at some time in the recent, possibly distant past. “I’m not really sure,” said the inspector. “What do you think?”
“I think we need a second opinion,” Rich said.
Two sets of exterminators eventually agreed that we had a wood-boring beetle problem that could only be eliminated with considerable effort and staggering expense. Personally, I always feel that asking a guy who’s going to profit from a job to determine whether it’s really necessary is like hiring a lion to decide whether it’s time to cull the antelope herd.
Rich, thinking along the same lines, said grimly, “I’m going down there myself.”
This may not sound like a big deal, but you have to understand we never, ever go into the dark, cramped underworld that lies beneath the cottage. You can’t call it a crawl space because much of it can’t be navigated on hands and knees; thanks to the labyrinth of pipes, ducts, and tangles of wiring left by various owners over the last 121 years, you have to slither through the dirt on your belly like a reptile, or inch along on your back like Michelangelo painting the Sistine Chapel.
Rich prepped for the ordeal by reading about the telltale signs of wood-boring beetles. Apparently they like to burrow in new wood, something that hadn’t been seen beneath our house since it was built in 1900, and they usually produce a frothy white mix of sawdust and excrement known in the bug industry as “frass ” — a term which instantly became a cuss word around our house.
Rich spent half an hour inching around the underbelly of the cottage, then crawled out covered with dirt and shaking his head. “I can’t find anything that looks like the exterminator’s picture or that frass stuff we saw online.” Worried he might have missed the single board studded with holes, he descended again and then a third time into the nether regions. Each time, his grim determination was like that of Charles Bronson playing the claustrophobic Danny digging the tunnel out of the Nazi POW camp in The Great Escape.
Meanwhile, the exterminators were sending us quotes that made our heads spin and describing our part of the process as “really quite simple” when it was obviously anything but. First, we’d have to remove all edibles (including the contents of the refrigerator, the Apocalypse Chow food locker, and the medicine cabinet) to a safe location off the property. Then we’d need to drag all the potted plants to the far end of the garden; anything planted in the ground around the cottage would have to take its chances, which would clearly be slim to none. Then we'd have to leave for five days so the exterminators could tent our home and pump it full of poison.
“Well, frass,” said Rich.
In an effort to turn his thoughts to a more cheerful direction, I zeroed in on the upside. “Looks like we’re going on a road trip!”
I had the perfect itinerary in mind. As my regular readers will recall, Rich’s Science of Happiness course made us want to visit the world’s happiest countries, starting with the Nordic nations. Now I’m thinking the journey could begin closer to home. The Bay Area includes several top ranking spots in this year’s list of America’s happiest cities, including numero uno, the absolute dark horse in this contest, Fremont.
Never heard of it? That’s because, as everyone has been telling us, “Nobody ever goes to Fremont." Is it really Dullsville or are we overlooking something? I'm asking the same question about its near neighbor, the fifth happiest city, San Jose. For culture and glamor it can’t compete with San Francisco (what could?) and most Bay Area residents avoid it as if it were Fremont. I probably shouldn't have been so astonished to learn San Jose, the unofficial capital of Silicon Valley, is now one of the richest and most powerful cities on the planet. Seems like I ought to take a closer look at both cities.
Meanwhile, Rich has been in deep consultation with the exterminators, explaining we aren’t convinced we even have beetles, let alone enough of them to require tenting and filling the house with toxins. The exterminator’s attitude is, “Well, if you don’t value your home enough to maintain it properly, don’t blame us if beetles eat the sub-flooring and the whole place collapses into the ground.” I’ll let you know how that conversation turns out.
As for the Spar Varnish Debacle, by now the stickiness has subsided considerably, and while the railing will probably never regain its former sleekness, it no longer attaches itself to the unwary. As it happens, while this drama was playing out, we discovered that the berry-dropping, bird-attracting trees were dying and had to be removed, which neatly solved the staining problem.
Despite the gloomy predictions of the exterminators, I’m maintaining a positive attitude about the Beetles-Eating-My-House Crisis, too. Because as the saying goes, “A positive attitude may not solve your problems, but it will annoy enough people to make it worth the effort.” Or as the 8th century Buddhist philosopher, Shantideva, said, “If you can solve your problem, then what is the need of worrying? If you cannot solve it, then what is the use of worrying?”
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“Look at this one,” Rich said, handing me his phone. “A cabin offering an off-the-grid experience. It’s disconnected from all public utilities, so no phones, Internet, TV — none of the distractions of modern life.” I was hesitant at first but gradually warmed to the idea: an oasis of rustic tranquility in the chaos of our annual family reunion in the mountains of northern California. As the date drew nearer, our friends began asking, with increasing incredulity, what we were thinking. “Yes, it says there’s indoor plumbing,” I kept reassuring them. “Probably a bucket,” replied one. “An outhouse,” said another. “The woods!” suggested someone else.
Far more worrying than the bathroom arrangements was the fact our hosts had written urging us to bring insect repellant, which I'd never bothered with in previous years. This time we'd be deeper in the woods, so I ran out and bought three kinds of protection (skin-friendly herbal, high-powered Deet, some clip on thing) and two post-bite soothers. I also bought a new kind of M&M calling itself “Emotional Support Candy.” I thought it might come in handy — and not just for the outhouse and the bugs.
For decades, my large, boisterous family has gathered for a week every summer in a small mountain town in the Sierras. We spend lazy days “getting back to nature” on an artificial beach by a man-made lake and take turns cooking huge meals every evening. But mostly what we do is talk.
There’s always an abundance of news to exchange, and to save time, my family speaks subtext. For instance, some years ago when asked about a distant relative’s new romantic partner, the response was a shrug, an eye-roll, and “a nice enough guy, kind of quiet.” Which we all understood to mean he was dull as dishwater and unlikely to be around long, so we shouldn’t get attached. If there are three of us in a room there will be five opinions about everything from religion to politics to whether the moon landing ever really took place, not to mention the pandemic, climate change, and the future of bitcoin. So far nobody has tried to convince me reptilian aliens are taking over the government, but every year I wonder when it will come up.
“If things get too intense, we may need a way to deflect the conversation into safer channels,” I told Rich. A few minutes later, I remarked, “By the way, did you hear they’re moving Area 51?”
“They are?” he exclaimed.
“No, I just made that up. But it’s an attention grabber, isn’t it? Maybe I can use the question to deflect any discussion that seems headed toward a conversational landmine. I think we should keep Area 51 in our back pocket. Along with the Emotional Support Candy.”
Area 51 is a remote, highly classified US Air Force installation in the Nevada desert. Some say it's where the government is hiding a crashed alien spacecraft, alien artifacts from Roswell, New Mexico, secret meetings with extraterrestrials, time travel experiments, teleportation technology, and weather control experiments.
As it happened, our reunion fell on the hottest days of the year, and as the three-hour drive took us across the flat Central Valley, the car’s thermometer registered 108 degrees. Even in the Sierras, surrounded by towering redwoods, temperatures were in the low 90s. I wondered if this was the best time to be renting a cabin with no air conditioning. But then we pulled up at Love Creek Cabin.
Built in 1934 and recently renovated by our hosts, Desiree and Jim, the cabin had the original wood shingles and a long porch with a row of comfy rockers and gliders that were perfect for gazing out over the forest and creek. A local woodworker had fashioned thick, wide planks for the floor, and there was slate underfoot in the kitchen and bathroom, which (my naysaying friends will be amazed to hear) featured a flush toilet and a shower with plenty of hot water. There was a big comfy Murphy bed (the kind that folds into the wall), a wood-burning stove, faded rugs, and a red sofa that whispered alluringly, from the depths of its many pillows, “Join me for a siesta?”
“This is my kind of roughing it,” said Rich.
I realized going off-grid wasn’t so different from how we’d lived for twenty years in Ohio: using well water, a septic system, and natural gas (only here, it was propane tanks). Behind Love Creek Cabin was a shed with a generator that ran for a short time each day to power up big batteries providing a steady supply of electricity, which ran lights, a small fridge, and a fan to keep the air cool. It was all highly efficient and offered a surprising array of creature comforts.
Perhaps the most astonishing moment of the entire reunion was arriving at the beach late that afternoon and standing among 17 members of my family and dozens of other beachgoers with not a single mask in sight. The governor had lifted the mask mandate two days earlier, and seeing all those bare faces was surreal, like stepping back in time.
Twenty minutes later, after I’d hugged everyone and been handed a glass of wine, someone at the far end of the picnic table called out, “Hey Karen, we’re talking about spiritual beliefs. What are yours?” So much for small talk! During the days that followed, I was drawn into discussions on topics such as “If you could change one thing about how you were raised, what would it be?” and “What’s one thing you can say about yourself that nobody knows?” and “What does it take to have a meaningful life?”
Naturally, the conversations occasionally got heated, and once Rich leaned over and whispered to me, “Time to go to Area 51?” Instead, I rose saying brightly, “You’re so right! I promised to help with dessert,” and slipped out of the room, leaving the others to sort themselves out.
On the last night some of my relatives stopped by to see the cabin, and after all the kidding we’d taken about roughing it off the grid, it was gratifying to see everyone instantly smitten. “I love it,” said the sister whose rental “cabin” this year included cathedral ceilings, a library, and a billiard table. “I could write here for a year,” said my poet-filmmaker nephew.
On our last morning, Rich and I spent a long time in the comfy porch gliders, eating homemade granola and drinking French-press coffee, talking about how lucky we were to grow up in the pre-digital age. We had lived happily for decades without personal electronic devices and found it refreshing now to stop being at the constant beck and call of the entire world, if only for a short while. Packing up, I realized I’d scarcely used the bug spray and never opened the Emotional Support Candy. Like Area 51, they'll be kept on hand for the next time I may have to finesse a delicate situation. I didn’t need them on this occasion, but there's no telling how long can I go on being that lucky.
Are you attending any family reunions this summer? Have they changed due to the pandemic? Let me know in the comments section below.
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Every once in a while someone comes up with an idea so brilliant yet so obvious (once I hear it) that I am amazed and chagrined I didn’t think of it myself. Dreaming of retirement and struggling to decide where to go, New York lawyers Gilen Chan and Gene Preudhomme were just getting serious about their research when the pandemic hit. “Gene thought ‘If we can’t visit places, why not let the places visit us?’” recalled Gil. “And the idea of a podcast about retirement cities was born.”
“I have always thought Gil had a voice and presence for radio,” says Gene. “Beginning several years ago, we started considering where we might retire. Once Covid hit, I had the idea of Gil hosting a podcast about places to retire. Although I have the face but not the voice for radio, Gil insisted that she would not do it alone. So here we are.”
They spent the summer of 2020 developing plans for their weekly podcast, Retire There with Gil and Gene. When it launched in November 2020 it focused on domestic locations, but gradually they began adding international guests, and this week's interview is with (drumroll please!) Karen and Rich McCann.
When they approached me about the interview, I thought, “Spend time talking about how great it was to move to Seville? I can do that for hours. Just ask any of my friends, relatives, or bartenders!” Rich thought it sounded like fun, and soon we found ourselves in a long Zoom call with Gil and Gene, chatting like old friends.
Click here to listen to the podcast, Retiring in Seville, Spain with Karen and Rich McCann.
Afterwards, I asked if doing dozens of interviews has helped them narrow down their own list. Gil admitted they are no clearer about their dream destination than when they started. In fact, “This information overload has made our relocation decision more difficult.”
“We have conducted over thirty-five interviews and many of the locations sound great,” added Gene. “However, I am hoping that once we hear about the place for us, it will be obvious and beyond exciting. Like the first time I met Gil, I knew she was the one.”
I asked what helps people find the right spot. “First, do your research, carefully,” said Gil. “Second, test-drive the location for at least a month, if possible. Third, do not feel trapped! You can always move again if this place did not turn out to be what you envisioned.”
What are the biggest worries about retirement? “Finance is, by far, the number one concern,” Gene said. For those trying to figure out how far your money will go, “Some helpful sources include Market Watch, US News & World Report, International Living, blogs, social media blogs, such as Facebook’s group titled “Where to Retire,” etc.”
Future retirees, said Gil, have to ask themselves plenty of practical questions. “Do they have enough to live on? Have they saved enough? Can they afford to retire before becoming eligible for Social Security? If they retire before becoming Medicare-eligible, and their former employers do not provide healthcare insurance for the gap years, do they have enough funds to remain in their current location? Some of our guests lived in areas they could afford while they were employed but not after. This last issue is what prompts many people to move abroad. The options of living in foreign countries are endless! And attractive!”
(I should mention that Medicare doesn’t cover you when you’re abroad; you’ll need some other insurance. Luckily international policies tend to be far less expensive than American equivalents.)
“Beyond money,” said Gene, “the concerns run the gamut. Some people are greatly concerned about healthcare, while others say they are in great physical condition and healthcare played no part in deciding where to retire. Politics have been of great concern for many of our guests. Some will only live in a blue state, while others will only live in a red state. Some want a variety of outdoor activities and arts, others will only live in any area where it will be convenient for them to play golf every day.”
Selecting the venue is the toughest thing to get right, notes Gil. “There are an overwhelming number of places with which to choose and if you factor in other criteria, such as the importance of being near family, it changes your options. One may find their fantasy location to be Portugal, but if that hinders your ability to see family more than once or twice a year, you may need to re-order your wish list. Expect to make compromises.”
When asked how couples can navigate disagreements, Gene said, “Surprisingly, most did not seem to have major disagreements. For many of our guests, retirement calmed them. After retirement, they were less likely to start arguments and a number of guests lost significant amounts of weight.”
“Retirement is a significant event in and of itself,” Gil pointed out, “and retiring elsewhere is another enormous act. The best advice we’ve heard on the issue is this: couples need to recognize that their lives may markedly change at this point, i.e., a spouse who always worked outside the home may develop new habits post retirement that may surprise or annoy the other person. Recognize and acclimate yourselves to this new life. Make sure both parties find things they like in the new venue.”
Gil and Gene don’t seem too worried about disagreements arising over their own retirement. “In general, we are similarly minded, in that we share the same values,” said Gil. “We respect and enjoy each other’s company. The podcast has solidified our decision to relocate after retirement. It would be foolish to stay in NYC when the dollar will go sooooo much further elsewhere, allowing us to live the way we’ve dreamed.”
“We want a less congested place where we can enjoy nature,” added Gene. “We love New York City and its people, some of them, but the world is large and we seek to enjoy more of it.”
Just thinking about retirement opened up whole new worlds to Gil and Gene. “The podcast has been a godsend, an absolute brilliant surprise, thanks to Gene,” said Gil. “We have been in our professional legal careers for over 25 years and it has created new excitement and unexpected, intellectually satisfying achievements. We are producing a show! Who knew?”
By the end of our conversation, Rich and I were inviting Gil and Gene to come see us in Seville before they make any final decisions about their own retirement. They would be a welcome addition to the city’s expat community and fit right into the vibrant social life that’s such an integral part of Spanish culture. But whatever their final destination may be, we can all be grateful that for now they are providing future retirees with practical ideas about hitting the reset button on their lives and having a grand time doing it.
OFF WE GO
This week Rich and I are heading to a family reunion in the mountains and will be staying in a cabin that's off the grid — meaning no electricity, phone service, TV, or wifi, although there is a generator and indoor plumbing. The owners keep reminding us to bring insect repellant. You'll hear more about all this in my next post. Just wanted you to know why we'll be off email and social media for a bit.
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I'm an American travel writer based in Spain, to which I've just returned after a 16-month absence due to the pandemic.
As I resettle in Seville, my favorite city on the planet, I'll keep you posted on how the pandemic has reshaped the landscape and where to go to find fun, adventure, and great food in this quirky, engaging city.
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