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Bad Trip – Good Story

Part one of a two-part blog

“The worst trips make the best reading,” Paul Theroux, the vaunted travel writer, says, because they’re stories of survival.

When people ask about my recent trip to China, I say, “It was the best of trips and the worst of trips.” Spending time with my son, Andrew, who lives there, was enriching and delightful. But we experienced the biggest travel disaster I’ve known.

Mom and Son

Andrew had gone to China right after graduating from U.C. San Diego. He’d planned to spend a year learning Mandarin, then come home and get a joint business-law degree. Sight unseen, he picked out a language school on the Internet in a city he couldn’t pronounce—Shijiazhuang—that had 9 million people but only a hundred foreigners. He chose that school because it offered four hours of one-on-one instruction every day, which is critical when you’re trying to learn to make sounds like qi and xie.

That was six years ago. He fell in love with China, and with a beautiful and vivacious young Chinese woman, made numerous friends and was welcomed into the city’s business community. He started a Chinese internet company devoted to photography lighting, and found he could lead a very good life—four bedroom apartment, car and driver and a maid who cooks and cleans 7 days a week—for a fraction of what that would cost in America.

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Bad Trip – Part 2

 Part two of the best and worst trip to China. To read part one, click here.

After two hours of climbing the “Path to the Heaven” with no end in sight, my knees gave out and I refused to go further. Terry, my sister, went on climbing hoping to find help, and after a few minutes, called to me that she’d reached the top and found my son, Andy, and his girlfriend, Yang Fei. They scampered down to help me to the top, where we saw a wide road with buses ferrying Chinese tourists up and down the mountain. We hadn’t seen a soul on the Path to the Heaven and now we knew why: everyone else took the bus! I learned, later, we had climbed 3,000 feet.

Exhausted, feeling nearly crippled, I swallowed some Advil and sat happily on a bench while the others took a tour of the Avatar sites, which they said were magnificent and surreal.

The next morning my knees were okay, but we had to get up at 5 a.m. to catch the first of two flights to Shijiazhuang, my son’s home. (Henceforth I’ll call it Shiz) We had a six-hour layover between flights. Andy discovered a spa at the airport, where we could have massages and rest. Every day we’d been in China we had foot massages that are like no other foot treatment in the world. We were given a private room with four beds, a flat screen TV, and served tea and snacks when we wished. As we stretched out on the beds in the airport spa, four therapists walked in carrying tubs of warm milk with rose petals floating in them. As we soaked our feet, they massaged our heads, necks and shoulders.

They spent 90 minutes on the feet, kneading, rubbing, pounding and pressing tiny points on the toe and between toes and under and over the bones with such specificity that it was breathtaking. All for about $12. When they finished, my feet had never felt so alive, as if fireworks were going off under the skin. I could feel every fiber of my sock when I slipped it on. We watched a movie and took naps until it was time to check in for our final flight.

That’s when disaster struck. The flight was canceled at the last minute because of fog around Shiz. The airline said they’d put us on a flight the next night or refund our money. The next night was not an option. Andy had allotted us only one full day in Shiz before we had to fly home from Beijing. The main point of my coming to China was to see his home, his company, meet his staff and his dog and have dinner with Yang Fei’s parents. If we couldn’t get to Shiz for that last day, we’d have to leave China without seeing any of it.

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Joan Didion Buries the Baby

I’ve just published JOAN, a memoir about my 40 years of friendship with Joan Didion, and what I’ve learned from her about writing and about life.

I did not set out to do this, however, when I interviewed Joan on the fourth of July for Oprah magazine. I’d been assigned to talk with her about Blue Nights, her breathtaking new book about losing her only child and growing older.

She’s 76 now, but when I met her she was 36, a rising star whose work was already being called the “finest prose being written in this country today.”*

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Naked, With Bats

Kurt Vonnegut wrote in Cat’s Cradle: “Peculiar travel suggestions are dancing lessons from God.” I had a peak experience over Labor Day that involved hundreds of thousands of bats, a double rainbow and naturists of all ages. I would not have had this experience if I hadn’t accepted a peculiar travel suggestion from my sister, Terry, to go to Valley View Hot Springs in southern Colorado with several friends. I’d long heard of Valley View as a former hippie watering place. Although I love hot springs, I imagined it would have funky bathroom options, messy kitchens and spacey people concocting meals that contain no meat, no gluten, no dairy and possibly no taste.

But… Terry told me there was an extraordinary natural phenomenon to be witnessed there. A large colony of Mexican Free-tailed bats spend the summer months in a collapsed mine near the hot springs. At dusk every night, the bats fly out of what’s called the “Glory Hole,” creating a flying black river across the San Luis Valley. I decided to go for the bats.

Photos by friend, Cheryl Vonn

Because it was a holiday weekend, Valley View–which has campsites and cabins–was sold out except for a room in a community house, where people use a shared kitchen and shared bathroom across the dirt road. I took it, thinking it would be like camping, with an indoor bed.

Checking in at the Welcome Center, I was told the entire resort is clothing optional. I’d been to places like Esalen in Big Sur, hot springs by the Rio Grande in New Mexico and Strawberry Park near Steamboat, Colorado, where the drill is: you walk to the hot pool area, take off your clothes and slide in, and after emerging, put the clothes back on.

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Who Has the Magic Coin?

I’ve been meeting with Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi to collaborate on a book he’s calling “The December Project.” I see it as lessons from a rabbi in his later years that you can use for all your years.

On July 1, I’m about to leave Reb Zalman’s house and fly to New York for a magazine assignment. “Wait!” he says, “I want to give you something.” He leads me into his prayer room, which I call “the cave.” It’s small and dark, lit by 3 blinking orange lights that are always burning.

He keeps four charity boxes by the chair where he prays. Opening one, he hands me a coin minted in 2000 that’s worth one dollar and bears the image of a Native American woman with a papoose on her back.

“The Talmud says that emissaries of a mitzvah (good deed) are not harmed,” Reb Zalman says.

He tells me to keep the coin with me and exchange it for one of my own dollar bills. “When you get to a place where you’ll see someone who suffers, you’ll be my emissary and give them something.” He adds that he has a “double purpose. The coin I’m giving you has a female picture instead of a president. I want it to help you do excellent work.”

It felt good, carrying the coin with the Indian woman in my purse. It seemed to be giving off a secret magnetic charge. BUT…as I walked through the streets of New York, I didn’t see any homeless people as I always had before.

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Marijuana 2: The Wild West?

This is PART TWO about living in a state with legal medical marijuana, and why Attorney General Eric Holder is getting involved, concerned that this is de-facto legalization. To read part one, CLICK HERE.

After applying for a license to use medical marijuana, Sam* drives to the closest dispensary to his home in Boulder, Co. It’s called Holy Herbs and looks like a crash pad, with shabby display cases containing jars of grass and an old refrigerator filled with pot-laced edibles. A live iguana, the owner’s pet, sits in a corner.

Stepping over the iguana’s tail, Sam finds that at Holy Herbs, there’s no pretense about “medicine;” it’s about getting stoned. The clerk, Rebecca, who has a Ph.D. in physics but was recently laid off from her teaching job, asks Sam what type of pot he likes.

“I don’t know,” Sam says. “I’ve just bought whatever the dealer had.”

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Angels Made of Iron

Here’s a tonic for the misery many of us feel these days when we hear the news from Washington. Rent “Iron Jawed Angels,” an HBO film made in 2004. I came late to the party — I’d never heard of it — and when I recently saw the Netflix copy on my friend Nance’s table, I thought it was a porno movie, or maybe something weird about a cult like the Hell’s Angels?

To my shock, it was one of the best films I’ve seen in years. Halfway through it, Nance turned to me and said, “Every woman in America should see this.” Every man too, I said.

Hilary Swank and Anjelica Huston star as suffragettes who literally almost died to get the 19th amendment passed in 1920 giving women the right to vote. Think of it — that was less than a hundred years ago. When my mother was born, women could not vote.

I’d read about the suffragettes but hadn’t known what they had to go through. When they gathered in front of the White House holding banners, they were beaten by gangs of men and thrown in jail on charges of “disrupting traffic.” One woman arrested was the wife of a U.S. senator who opposed giving women the vote. When he came to see his wife in jail and asked how she could abandon her two daughters, she replied, “Those two girls are the reason I am here.”

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Great Sex – NOT!

If you haven’t seen it already, check out “The Kids are All Right,” directed by Lisa Chodolenko. The acting and writing are spectacular: each character is real, flawed and charming. But one element seems all wrong – the sex.

Annette Benning and Julianne Moore play a lesbian couple who’re raising two children, now teens. They contact the man who was their sperm donor, who turns out to be a macho chef and gardener played by Mark Ruffalo.

He charms the kids and hires Julianne to design a garden in back of his house. Sparks fly and they end up in bed. What we see is what we usually see in movies that try to portray hot sex: the man rams the woman, fast and hard. Faster, harder, banging, slamming, over, under, sideways, down.

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A Bear In My House!

I grabbed the phone, locked myself in a closet and dialed 911. When Officer Donovan answered and asked for my address, I screamed, “There’s a bear inside my house! And I’m alone!”

It began with forgetfulness. I put some eggs on the stove to boil, went downstairs to my office to answer emails, which led me to look up a website which gave me an idea and I started making notes. I smelled something peculiar, like burning plastic, and wondered if it was the computer overheating. A half hour later, I got up to get some water and remembered, the eggs! I raced up the stairs and found the rooms filled with smoke so thick it was hard to see. The eggs had exploded and the pot was a lump of hard black tar.

Cleaning up the mess, I opened all the doors and windows, hoping that cross drafts would carry away the smoke. I opened the garage and the door that led from the garage to the kitchen.

I walked back downstairs, brushed my teeth, sat in the hot tub (outside in the dark!), then started turning out lights and closing windows and doors.

I was heading upstairs when I heard a shuffling noise. One of the neighbors’ dogs must have wandered into the house. Then I froze. That was no dog! It was a bear, dark brown, with his rump to me as he padded down the hall between the living room and kitchen. He was at least four feet high on all fours.

“Get out of here!” I screamed, raced down the stairs and into my bedroom. What should I do? Call a neighbor? It’s 1 in the morning. Then I thought of 911, grabbed the phone and called it for the first time in my life.

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Go to Bed Makeup?

Here’s another fun part about aging: looking good takes more time and money, and I think we’ve got to draw the line somewhere.

For example: are eyebrows over or under the line?

I don’t know exactly when this happened, but sometime between age 16 and now, my dark, thick, Elizabeth Taylor eyebrows turned to wispy broken lines.


I have friends who’ve had their eyebrows tattooed, but before resorting to a permanent measure I thought I’d consult an eyebrow specialist.

All roads lead to Valerie of Beverly Hills. In her lavender and cream salon, she does eyebrows for $75 while her associates do them for $40. Valerie is against tattooing because she says styles change and with time, the skin on your face will drop and your eyebrows may end up in the wrong place.

She sits you down in a chair, visible to all, and begins by coloring the brows to hide any gray. Then she waxes all around the eyebrows to create a clear palette.

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