52 Places for the New York Times

Those of you who read the New York Times may be aware that they send a travel journalist to the top 52 places to visit for that year, and publish weekly travelogs from that person. Here’s the new guy for 2019, Sebastian Modak.


Before you swoon over how wonderful it would be to travel the world on someone else’s dollar, think about being in a new place every week, and having to endure the travel to get from one place to another. This is not an easy job.

Something Modak said rings true for me: you could only do this successfully if you have a fluid sense of “home” and the ability to make yourself comfortable very quickly in new places.

I do feel like I’ve been working toward doing something like this my whole life. I was born in the United States to a Colombian mother and an Indian father, but we left for Hong Kong when I was 2 years old and continued to move every few years. My brothers and I didn’t really grow up with the concept of “home,” because we understood every place was temporary. It made travel the only real constant in our lives. January marks five years in New York City, though, and that puts it in a joint first-place spot for the longest I’ve stayed anywhere — tied with Indonesia and India.

For me, travel is all about immersing yourself in the unfamiliar, and embracing the feeling of humility that comes with that: There’s always something to learn from someone else, from somewhere else. That’s what made me choose a career in multimedia storytelling. I was a Fulbright-mtvU fellow in Botswana, where I spent a year documenting the local hip-hop scene. I was a producer on an MTV series that looked at the role of the arts in protest movements around the world. Most recently, I was an editor and then a staff writer at Condé Nast Traveler, where I was often sent on assignment to find and report stories that resonate with a global and globally curious audience. I think the thread that connects all of these experiences is an insatiable sense of wonder at the world around me.”

When Matt rode his bike across country the year after Jerry died, completing his father’s goal to celebrate the 60th birthday he never reached, Matt called me from a little town in the heartland where his biking group was spending the night. He said, “Mom, do you know there are people who’ve never been more than a half hour from where they were born?” I said I did know that. A job like Modak’s would be torture for such a person, stressful and not fun at all.

I don’t think I’d manage a year of travel very well, although, like Modak, I enjoy travel for the delight of new places and for the experience of finding strangers unexpectedly kind. But I’ll follow his journey, and wish I could also follow his steps.

Trapper John

I’m always fascinated by what people find fascinating — like how to trap and remove wildlife from urban areas. My latest salvo in the battle with the raccoons is Trapper John of Pathfinder Wildlife Services.  Trapper John arrived with a bit of a Crocodile Dundee vibe. While John was examining the yard to see where the raccoons were entering, I was picking his brain — just out of curiosity. According to John, a remote forested area will contain roughly 3 raccoons per square mile. In the city of Seattle, the number is 70-90 per square mile. Food, shelter and water are easy for raccoons to find in the city, and so here they are.

This is the kind of trap John uses, although the trap isn’t placed yet. He put two traps along what he determined were the pathways for the raccoons, and threw marshmallows around.  Inside the trap is food congenial to raccoons. I have to check the traps every 24 hours, per Seattle law. If we catch something, John will come and deal with it. Apparently any number of things, including rats, skunks, and squirrels, might get caught up in my raccoon vendetta. John basically filled me in on everything he knows about raccoons, including how hard they are to catch. He has a three week long process, flat fee, to catch and remove as many as he can.

John promises that we’ll prevail, one way or another. I live in hope.

Remembering Gilda Radner

I was never a fan of SNL, and hadn’t seen much of Gilda Radner’s work. But CNN did a New Year’s day special on her, and promoted the heck out of it — enough to entice me to watch.

Like many other comedians, Radner didn’t become a funny person because her own life had been a hoot. Concerned about her childhood chubbiness, Radner’s mother put her on Dexadrine at the age of ten. Later, Radner would have to be hospitalized for an eating disorder that left her weight dangerously low. Her beloved father died when she was fourteen. As an adult, Radner was in and out of relationships, finally marrying Gene Wilder, with whom she remained until her untimely death from ovarian cancer at age 42. She miscarried the baby they conceived together, and then the discovery of her cancer precluded trying again.

Radner was funny in the iconic mode of Lucille Ball — both highly physical comedians whose bodies and facial expressions and gestures did as much to communicate humor as their words. Radner was not a stand up comic who relied on monologues, like Seinfeld or Rosie O’Donnell. Radner created hilarious characters — Baba Wawa, Roseanne Roseanneadanna, Emily Litella, Lisa Loopner — and she inhabited them even as she spoke of their inhabiting her. She could, she told us as her audience, do anything as long as people were laughing.

I expected that the program might be a collection of her funnier sketches, but instead was touched by the deep dive into the life and early death of someone who was brilliant at her art, and whose work took comedic roles for women a quantum leap forward. Beyond that, she started Gilda’s Clubs, where women with ovarian and other kinds of cancers can receive support.

Radner made a lasting impact, despite her foreshortened years. One of the things I’m aware of as I’ve passed 70 and am headed toward 74 in 2019, is that long life gives lots of chances — for learning, and growth, for experimentation, for healing, for mistakes to be corrected and relationships rewoven, for growing in the appreciation of life’s beauty and preciousness. When you die at 42 you don’t get nearly enough of that, whether you are famous or not. Rest in peace, Gilda Radner.

Nuns with a Gambling Problem

During my years as a consultant, and especially after my first book How Much is Enough? came out, I often got work in church settings — usually on the stewardship side, sometimes working with the lay governing body on leadership. Rarely did the clergy think they needed any help with their own leadership or financial skills. I often brought up the issue of religious bodies having adequate financial controls, because after all, people are people. I got a lot of pushback, under the premise of “but it’s the CHURCH! No one would steal from the church.”


Two nuns in California, the principal and vice principal of St. James Catholic School, are accused of stealing half a million bucks, give or take, from the school budget over a decade. Turns out Sisters Mary Margaret Kreuper and Lana Chang had a gambling problem.  The light fingered ladies, vowed members of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet, are 77 and 67, respectively. The Order will reimburse the school. The L.A. diocese initially didn’t want to press charges –that old Catholic thing about not causing scandal for the church — but changed their minds when the amount of missing funds came to light. No one knows exactly where the Sisters are now; the Order has them “under supervision” someplace.

Why do people steal from churches? For much the same reason that Willie Sutton said he robbed banks: that’s where the money is. Churches take in Sunday collections, tuition payments for the parish school, large donations to the Bishop’s Annual Fund and the like. And, church accounts are much easier to raid than banks were for Sutton to rob, because churches assume no one will steal from them. Eventually, though, even in the most trusting of settings, somebody notices something.

Honestly, Sisters, did you really think you’d never be caught and have to pay the piper?


Killed by Arrows on a Remote Island

A 26 year old white American missionary was killed on a remote Indian island after trying to  make contact with an ancient tribe living there. He wanted to convert its members to his version of Christianity.

An estimated number of tribe members living on the island is less than 100. The Indian government has attempted to protect them by making the island off limits to visitors, after displays of hostility in the past.

The tribe members who shot arrows to repel the American, John Chau, must be terrified every time someone tries to invade, for whatever purpose.

No one deserves to bleed to death on a remote beach in a hail of arrows. I also understand that for people who belong to religions based on evangelizing,  reaching out to non-believers is central to a lived faith. That said, we have decades of experience in the United States and Canada of the violence done to indigenous people in attempts to convert them to Christian beliefs and Western European culture. For me, it’s no longer tolerable or acceptable to do what Mr. Chau attempted. Not only did he trigger mortal fear in the islanders, leading to the loss of his life, his action has now put other lives in danger as attempts will be made to retrieve his body.

Secure in his faith, I imagine the thought that he was doing violence to the islanders merely by attempting to contact them never entered his mind. I’m shaking my head at the thought of a life lived with that degree of obliviousness.


“Tuning Up” Whitey Bulger

“Tuning up” is the euphemism the Mob uses for beating someone to death.

Whitey Bulger, in case you’re not up to speed on the Irish Mafia in Boston’s  South Side, or didn’t see the 2015 film Black Mass starring Johnny Depp, was the boss of the notorious Winter Hill gang. The Irish Mafia did all the things their counterpart Italian Mob figures did, although there was a twist here: while running the gang Bulger was simultaneously an FBI informant.

His FBI handler tipped him in 1994 that he was going to be arrested, and Bulger fled with his longtime girlfriend, living on the lam until his capture in 2011. He was 81 years old. He was tried, convicted, and sentenced to two life terms in prison. He had just been moved to a U.S. penitentiary in Hazleton, PA, when he was killed in rather brutal fashion by another inmate — “tuned up” as they say. Bulger was 89 years old and in a wheelchair, so not much resistance there. The beating was so harsh and merciless his eyeballs were dislodged.

Normally we’d feel sorry for a defenseless old man beaten badly enough that his eyeballs jumped their sockets, but I don’t know that Bulger had any claim to mercy. Bulger in his day was brutal; he was personally convicted of 19 murders, not to mention what the Winter Hill gang did on his orders. Maybe, when Bulger saw his killer coming at him and knew there was nothing he could do, he  had moments to feel regret.

Conscious Aging: “Anam Cara”

“Anam cara” is a new Irish phrase to me; it means, roughly, “soul friend”. The phrase is one I haven’t heard before, but I know the spirit of “soul friend” very well.

My late husband Jerry and I knew R. back in Rochester, at a much earlier and more turbulent time in her life. There’s quite an age difference; I’m 35 years older than she, Jerry would have been 38 years older. Jerry and I were kind to R., not in any earth-shaking sort of way but in the way that most of us are to a younger person going through a rocky time. I’d say we held out a steadying hand, offered a listening ear, gave quiet words of encouragement and support.

R. is a delightful young women, worth any amount of effort anyone might want to extend.

She was here in Seattle for work, and looked me up after all this time. Life goes forward, barely pauses, sometimes seems to gallop ahead. The choice to stop, turn, say “thank you” is deliberate, rare, all the more touching and precious because it often doesn’t happen.

R. and I spent a wonderful evening over wine and dinner. She has blossomed since that hard period in her life. Indeed, listening, I thought of the film I recently saw, “A Star is Born”. R. always was a star, albeit a bit obscured by the dust and debris of her early life. But now she has blossomed. She has a wonderful job, and three excellent offers at hand should she want to make a change. She owns a home. She has people who love her, and whom she loves in return. She is bold, and adventuresome, and competent, and daring. She wants to make a difference in the world.

She paused to stop, look back, and say “thank you” for whatever part Jerry and I played in her getting from then to now. The phrase she used was “anam cara”, soul friend.

I am touched, and blessed, and grateful.

Losing Anthony Bourdain

I think it’s humbling to realize that we never really know what is going on inside another human being. On the face of it, Anthony Bourdain would seem to have had everything: good looks, enormous creative talent, wealth, an entire world to explore for his popular CNN travel show Parts Unknown. The final episodes of that program will begin airing on Sunday evening, with Kamau Bell as guest host. Bourdain was in the process of filming the season when he took his life.

I don’t know a lot about suicide. I suspect that suicide in the young often may be a matter of despair that peaks but can subside again, and that when the young person can be dissuaded, further attempts might be forestalled. I think suicide, assisted dying,  in the terminally ill is perfectly logical. I suspect that suicide in a person of Bourdain’s age is the culmination of a lot, and that following through on the impulse to end one’s life is considered and intentional and hard to reverse. There’s such a thing as suicidal attempts masked as a cry for help — the person tries, but in a way that he or she is likely to be discovered. I sense that Bourdain’s death wasn’t that. He wanted to die. He was surrounded by people in whom he might have confided his dark thoughts and who might have helped him hold off. That didn’t happen. He died.

I liked Bourdain’s show, his easy manner with a variety of people and the number of places he was willing to go and the sometimes bizarre culinary things he eagerly tried. He seemed like a person with a zest for life, and more chances to add richness to his days than many of us. He looked like he was having a wonderful time.

I’m probably not the only viewer who had fallen into the trap of thinking we knew him. I suspect that even with foreknowledge of his death, I’m going to watch right up until the last episode and see him as a man living at the peak of his game.

News from South Carolina

Phyllis and Art checked in from South Carolina on Saturday evening — they were without power during the day, but it came back on late Saturday afternoon. They have no flooding in their immediate neighborhood, and no more than the usual downed limbs and random debris to be cleaned up and put out to the curb. They were very lucky. Wilmington North Carolina, about an hour north, did not fare nearly as well.

I think all of us who are their friends are relieved. In any of these natural disasters, I think it’s amazing how much difference a few miles or a few feet of elevation can make.