Category Archives: Essay

Into the Mix


One of the delights in eating in Romagna (and I hazard to guess all over Italy) is the “misto.” 

The mix. 

Where I come from, eating fish you usually get one thing. Your appetizer is one thing–a tartar, half a dozen oysters, a bowl of mussels. And your main course is usually one thing–fillet of whitefish, fillets of perch, a chunk of salmon or tuna or swordfish, some crab legs or a lobster tail. Want to taste something besides what’s on your plate? Poach a bite from your wife’s when she’s not looking.   Continue reading

But Why Florida?

venice me and tizi

I read on a Kindle in bed at night. Lately I have not lasted very long.

I wake up early, at 4:00 a.m., rested and eager to await and face the day. Through the morning and afternoon we walk a lot, in weather that has been partly cold and occasionally rainy. At lunch the wine pours have been generous.  By evening, approaching 10:00 p.m., it stands to reason that I’m running on empty. A page or two into whatever I’m reading (a Kate Atkinson novel right now) I tend to nod off.  

These last new nights, overtaken by nods, I’ve had black and white hallucinations, seeing things on my Kindle screen as my eyes close.  These are fleeting, pixilated visions on the device’s paperwhite background. Twice now, in black silhouette I’ve seen Florida, the distinct shape of that state, just the way it looks on the map. In a couple seconds the peninsula comes into view, then disappears.  

It’s a mini-dream, a flash dream. Is it about an obsession? an unfulfilled desire? About stress and deep-seated conflict? Or is it just a random, flickering reflection of a present or past experience (map study in the 5th grade, let’s say), signifying nothing? 


In Medical News Today these hallucinations are described as “hypnogogic” events, pertaining to that eerie threshold period between wakefuness and sleep. A shallow dream state. Everyone has experienced the hypnogogic jerk–barely asleep you dream that you slip, stumble on stair step, fall off a bicycle, and suddenly you jerk back into a wakeful state. Maybe this hallucination is akin to that.

But why Florida? 

I’ve been to Florida exactly three times. The first time, some forty years ago, Tizi and I had been married barely a year. Her parents were acquiring an investment property in Homosassa Springs. It was new construction. She and I flew down to make some decorating decisions. Not that we had any expertise in the matter. We spoke English. That was enough. 

The weekend is a blur. My most vivid memory is standing on a bridge in a wildlife park, looking down at a hippo, up to its knees in a creek, gazing up at us, its mouth yawning open like the trunk of a Buick with teeth. I’m pretty sure I swam somewhere that weekend. Tizi did not.

In the decades that followed, if I suggested we go to Florida, she would say no. In the cold months I would think, Why not?

“It’s hot down there,” she’d say.

“Isn’t that the point?”

“And humid.”

“Swimming pool.  Ocean. Sun.”

“It’s hot down there.”

One year, after our daughter and her husband spent a long weekend in Florida, eating in good restaurants, I got the bug again.  Somehow I sold my wife on Miami, South Beach. It was January.

“A short flight,” I said.

“It’s hot down there.”

“Art nouveau.” 

She thought about this one.

“Same time zone,” I said.

“It’s humid.”

“Good restaurants,” I said, “We could give it a try.” 

She gave her consent. The next three days she watched me swim in the ocean from the beach.

“Come on in,” I said.

“It’s cold.”

“You get used to it.”

“My feet will get all sandy.”

Toweling off later, I said, “At least the restaurants are good.”


“Beh,” she said. I had learned enough Italian to understand “beh” means many things, among them: Don’t get me wrong, I love you, and I know this frolic in the ocean is your idea of a good time, but it’s definitely not mine. And as far as the restaurants go, beh.

Another fleeting memory of that weekend was water in the city. I think it was global warming aggravated by rain and high tide. In a low-lying zone one morning, as we walked past one art nouveau treasure after another, lakes began to form in intersections. 

“You see,” Tizi said.

“Let’s just cross the street.”

“Another reason not to come to Florida.”

“At least,” I said, “we can have a nice swim this afternoon.”

An observation that did not even warrant a beh.

This week we see in the news that Venice is suffering historic flooding, three days of acqua alta (high water). St. Mark’s Square closes. Eighty percent of the city is underwater. Images show tourists up to their thighs in water, Venetians in their sturdy hip boots. 

Twenty years ago we were in Venice when the water levels rose. The elevated sidewalks were brought out. Vendors sold colorful boots, little more than yellow and blue plastic bags with soles on the bottoms and string ties above the knee. That day the acqua alta came and went. The locals were philosophical about the situation. “When you’re in Venice, it’s just a fact of life,” they said. The water receded. Life returned to normal. Last year in November we were standing in St. Marks and the water came bubbling out of the drains in the square. An hour later it was three inches deep. A few hours after that there was six inches of water. We walked around it, got back to our hotel. Next day the city was dry.


This year feels different. Something tells me that within a few weeks, the infrastructure will be patched together again. Lights will work. Phones will ring. Hotels and restaurants will be dried up and open. The lagoon boats delivering bulk foods and table linens, transporting building material and picking up garbage, they will all run again. Gondoliers will haunt the bridges and direct visitors to their expensive canal tours. But it’s hard not to be shaken. How long before the damage is irreversible, if it isn’t already? 

Years ago I read Suzanne Langer’s Philosophy in a New Key. Very little of it stuck with me. But what did was her discussion of the symbolic transformation of experience. All day long stuff happens to us, we are flooded with sensations, experience, and meaning. The mind processes the experience, stores it in memory, in code–images, words, figures, sounds–in symbols that we access and organize, and shape and re-shape into meaning. We live in a swell, a tide of significance that rises, envelopes us. 

But dreams? Langer writes, “The activity of the mind seems to go on all the time, like that of the heart and lungs and viscera; but during sleep it serves no practical purpose. . . . At best it presents us with the things we do not want to think about, the things which stand in the way of practical living.”

Typically I don’t think much about my dreams. For a while I had a recurring dream, vivid and disconcerting, of sitting on the toilet in my driveway in broad daylight.  (I suppose it would have just as disconcerting at night.) This dream served no practical purpose. 

Two or three nights in a row I see Florida. Is my mind, or my Kindle, trying to tell me something? “Things we don’t want to think about.” Such as Venice going under.  

Last night, same experience, different image. In a flash dream I saw a horse’s head. Will I see it tonight? I hope so. But it’s very possible I will go to sleep thinking about Florida.

A polar bear stands tall on an ice floe in Northern Storfjorden.


Romagna Food Notes, Part IV


This post is not exactly Romagna food notes. 

Tizi’s family on her mother’s side is from le Marches, a contiguous region known for white truffles. There are truffles in Romagna, too, any Romagnolo will tell you. We’ve been to eat, for example, in Sant’Agata in Feltria, which, as far as I can tell, is a truffle capital in Romagna. Truffles are on the menu in all restaurants we like around here. But we save ourselves for days like yesterday. Because in le Marches, we have a huge advantage.   Continue reading

Don’t Want No Ugly Jesus


So Tizi has it in for Burt Bacharach. We’re driving down to Rimini this morning, where we’ll visit the Grand Hotel, have some lunch, then go to the newly restored Fulgor movie theater to buy tickets to see the newly restored version of  Fellini’s “Amarcord.” And we’re going to stock up on Jesuses at the Catholic shop today.

At the moment we’re sitting at one of the many stop lights between San Marino and Rimini. I tell her I have a song stuck in my head, “We’ve Only Just Begun.”

“Good God,” she says. “Why?”

“I thought of the song on our wedding anniversary,” I say.  That was yesterday.

“What bull,” she says.

It is, in fact, a total load of bull. The song came to mind when I was in the bathroom a few days ago, thinking hopefully about one of the challenges of international travel–the time change, the change in diet and schedule, eating lunch when you usually eat breakfast, eating dinner when you usually eat lunch, eating a lot, I mean a lot more than usual. It’s a thorough-going alteration of your input-output regimen. And that morning, well, signs were finally pointing in the right direction, in the output department. Sitting there, feeling optimistic, I sang, “We’ve only just begun.” Continue reading

Take the Money and Run


In Italy, ATM. Always.

They call it Bancomat over here. It’s fast. There’s no talking involved. You take the money and run.  Yesterday I had to go to the bank in San Marino. In the bank. It’s difficult to get in there. And even harder to get out. 

Just push the button, you think. No, it’s not that easy.

You’re standing outside the Cassa di Risparmio, in front of a security system that’s been in place, not just in San Marino but all over Italy, since local terrorism in the 1970’s. Next to the entrance is a panel of secure lockers where you’re supposed to stow any bags you’re carrying.  The green push button activates a reinforced steel door, which opens and admits you into a secure cylinder. You step in. The door slides shut behind you.  Continue reading

Clean Up Your Act

american indians

“I love this thing,” I tell my daughter.

I’m washing dishes at her house. My wife and I are staying here while the bathrooms at our place are remodeled. She’s home from China for ten days, for our son’s wedding. 

And it’s 3:00 a.m.  Her husband and one of the boys are upstairs sleeping. The little one, still on Shanghai time, a twelve hour time difference, is wide awake. He’s two years old.  He’s just eaten a plate of eggs. By nature I’m an early bird. I’m keeping them company.  Continue reading

You’re Not Going to Eat That, Are You?


I’m smarter than squirrels. But not by much. 

When they raided my bird feeder I took action. The feeder hung from one of our apple trees. It looked like a little cabin with top-to-bottom windows on two sides, through which you could see the seed. It had a spacious wrap-around porch-perch-platform. The slightest agitation, a blue jay coming in for a landing, a pair of nuthatches shoveling through the mix with their pointer beaks, caused a gentle cascade of seed onto the platform. It was an interdisciplinary seed mix (all birds welcome, something for everyone).  A full feeder should have lasted a week or so. 

But, squirrels. 

Continue reading

Don’t Wait

van 3

My wife and I are having breakfast one morning in northwest Detroit. It’s a bar/restaurant. On a couple big screen tv’s, highlights from last night’s baseball games play. Sawing on a piece of avocado toast, for which they have given me a steak knife, I look up and admire assorted junk and portraiture on the walls–a few famous locals (Madonna, Robin Williams) and a few famous not locals (Winston Churchill, Albert Einstein). Above the photos and hanging bric-a-brac and do-dads loom the heads of great beasts–elk and caribou, a moose, a few deer and antelope that play no more.. 

“Do you think they vacuum those heads?” I say. Continue reading

Pienza, Pinconning, Santa Monica

evolution of man

“I don’t like the word cheese,” my wife says.

We’re driving home from the grocery store, where we have just bought a couple mozzarella balls to slice and lay over tomato slices at lunch today.

I am surprised and delighted. Forty-two years of marriage and I never knew this about her. I tell her cheese seems like a perfectly good word.  

She shudders just a little.

One syllable, it must have Anglo-Saxon roots, I think, also considering the ch in the word.  “Cheese,” I say out loud, testing it. In Italy, I’ve heard groups of people lined up to have a picture taken together, everyone saying “cheese,” in English.  I remind her of this. “Cheese has caught on in Italy,” I say.   Continue reading

Market, Mercato


So I had to get something.  Buy something. My wife and I were on the ninth day of a ten-day stay in Italy. She had visited her cousin’s boutique in Pesaro.  And her favorite shoe store and bookstore and her favorite herbalist in Rimini. And a great toy store in Bologna. And her scarf and headband lady in Santarcangelo. She was pretty loaded.

She asked me, “Don’t you need anything?”


That Thursday morning we were walking through the mercato in Borgo Maggiore, a village ten minutes up the mountain from our apartment in San Marino. It was the end of November. In two days I would be back in the classroom. Continue reading

A Suite, a Swim, a Fish


Nobody told me there would be a Gulf of Mexico.

It was October 2005. What little I knew about Galveston, Texas, I owed entirely to Glen Campbell. His song of that title, written by Jimmy Webb, was released in February 1969. I was sixteen. I had a girlfriend. The song played on the AM radio in my red VW bug when we bombed around town or drove down to the drive-in theater in Saginaw.  Good song, crappy radio. I never bothered to listen carefully to the lyrics. I hummed along indiscriminately and waited for the sad and yearning turn in GC’s voice when he sang, “Galveston, oh Galveston, I am so afraid of dying…,” missing the references to the sea that came earlier in the song: “I still hear your seawinds blowing,” for example, and “I still hear your seawaves crashing,” for example, and “I still see her standing by the water.”

So when the cab pulled up to the hotel that day, and I found myself at the edge of a wide beach, looking out to sea, I thought, No one told me there would be a Gulf of Mexico. I was not prepared.

My colleague and I were in town for an English teacher conference. We checked into the hotel where registration and the meetings and luncheons would be held, right across the street from the Gulf.  Good location. Crappy rooms. We were on the ground floor. There were bars on the windows and the doors. My room smelled of old mold and a chemical floral deodorizer-disinfectant. Under foot, I was sure the scuzzy carpet would feel damp if I took off my shoes. I didn’t.


Five hotels up the road was a Hilton. My colleague and I had just published a textbook together and were working on a second book, hoping for years of royalty checks. The week before, we had gone to a conference in Santa Monica, next to another fabled body of water, where we had experienced Hilton comfort.

I called her and told her don’t unpack. Meet me up front.

When we met back in the lobby I said, “Let’s go.”

“It’s not that bad,” she said.

“Yes, it is that bad,” I said. And it seemed clear, the longer we were there, the badder it would get.

We walked up the road. Yes, there were rooms available at the Hilton, also on the ground floor. Yes, they were more money. I thought about those bars, about the bad smell. We made the move.

That was the first of three good decisions I made that weekend.

I was raised with an it’s-not-that-bad ethos. I learned not to make a fuss, not to draw attention, not to be demanding. Maybe it was Midwest. Or maybe Methodist. Or just my parents’ dubious gift to me.  On your birthday, presented with actual gift that you didn’t really like that much, you smiled, nodded your head, and said you liked it. It wasn’t that bad.

In time I learned there was another point of view.


A year or so after we were married, I remember my wife’s reaction to a gift my mother gave her. It was our first Christmas. She opened the package and frowned. She looked at my mother and said, “Do you still have the sales slip?”

On my mother’s face, a quizzical look. I felt an uncomfortable blip in my blood pressure.

“Can I take this back?” my wife said.

Aghast, I asked her later, “How could you do that?”

She shrugged and gave me a quizzical look. “Why would I keep something I don’t like?” she said. “Isn’t that a waste? Wouldn’t that make your mother unhappy?”

“Yes, but…”

But she had made a fuss. But she had made the gift-giver feel bad.

Down in Galveston, at the Bars-on-the-Windows Regency, I said we had decided to make a change and could we cancel? And they said yes. I didn’t want to make them feel bad. Neither did I want to take my shoes off in that terrible room.

The next day in Galveston, in full sun on a glorious afternoon, I was body-surfing waves in the Gulf of Mexico, looking up at my hotel room. That’s right, up. The ground floor rooms we checked into the day before had noisy AC wall units that ran continuously, barely keeping the rooms cool. The sound was deafening. And somehow, I had the idea that Legionnaires Disease and air conditioning units were correlated. I didn’t open my carry-on. Could I do it, twice in one day?

At the front desk I asked if there might not be another room. I didn’t want to appear difficult and demanding, but why should I be unhappy?

“Last week,” I explained, “I stayed in the Santa Monica Hilton, one of the nicest hotels I’ve ever been in.” This one, I added in the most apologetic way I could, was kind of a disappointment.

Evan smiled at me over his glasses. He said he understood.  “Let’s take a look, Mr. Bailey,” he said.

He moved me to the twelfth floor, a suite with a Gulf view.  The AC was silent and sufficient.  I don’t know what the bed sheets’ thread count was. Approaching four digits, I think. Heavenly pillows. What comfort. There was no additional charge.

“You did what?” my colleague said later.

“You just have to ask,” I said.

That was the second good decision I made that weekend.

My default position in most situations is still “it’s not that bad.” A few weeks ago my wife and I were out to dinner with a couple friends. A crowded place. Reservations made a few weeks in advance. We went through the menu, noticing, as we did so, a man sitting at a table outside on the veranda. He was with three women. His shirt was unbuttoned to his waist. Ample belly. Lots of chest hair. Lots of gold.

When our server returned with drinks I asked about the mackerel. On the menu the fish was described as brined, not cooked, with a cucumber relish.


“It’s in season right now,” the server said. “Light, like ceviche.”

I asked: “Served cold?”

“Warm,” he said. He took orders around the table, heritage tomato salad, carpaccio, eggplant Parmigiana, scallops. When he came back to me, I was still dithering. He said he really liked the mackerel. He was recommending it to everyone.

When our food came, we gestured in the direction of veranda guy with the exposed hairy belly. The server nodded and smiled, said he had noticed him too.

“Would you?” one of our friends said, holding out his phone to the server.  “Take a group photo?”

The server took a few shots of us. In one of them he positioned himself so that the exhibitionist outdoors was in full view. It was a good joke.

The mackerel was nothing like ceviche.  It was an inch and a half thick slab, with a layer of skin on the bottom side of the chunk. Tough as a piece of overdone steak. I poked it, I sawed at it. With a little effort, I found I could tear at it and shred it. But the problem remained.

“So?” my wife said.

“Can you make leather from fish?”

“If you don’t like it, you should send it back. The chef would want to know.”

“It’s not that bad.” I swear I said it. I didn’t send it back.

After a night in the Hilton and a morning of conference meetings down at that other place, my colleague and I had a forgettable conference lunch. Outside it was sunny and warm.  Up in Michigan, I told everyone I saw, the colors were changing. People were going to the cider mill, which seemed charming. It was charming. But I was in Galveston. Outside was the sun, the Gulf.

And I had come unprepared. No swimsuit.

The third decision.

Mid afternoon, after the conference coffee break, I decided to skip the next session. I walked back to the Hilton, went upstairs, and changed into a pair of jeans and t-shirt. Outside I walked across the street to the beach. Lake Michigan size waves were rolling in. I pulled off my shirt and stripped to my skivvies, feeling slightly exhibitionist. I just couldn’t worry about other people.  I waded in for a swim.

That night, when I called my wife and she asked how things were going, I told her, in that weird lingo we use without thinking, that it wasn’t too bad. “Not too bad” is a small step up from “not that bad” and significantly better than just plain bad.

Not too bad? In point of fact, it was actually damn good.


Ecumenical Meatloaf


What got my attention was a BuzzFeed post I saw a few days ago.  I would put it in the snarky-remarks-Europeans-make-about-Americans category.

Lots of snark. So much you need subcategories.  What irritates Europeans about Americans who travel abroad, for example: Americans talk too loud, Americans tell what state they come from (people from Michigan, raise your hand!). Americans are polite, they smile all the time, they engage total strangers, like cashiers, in conversation. They are fastidious about finding trash cans.  They require lots of ice. Continue reading

The Phantom Buzz


“Table for five,” I say to the greeter. “I think there’s a reservation.”

She looks for the name I give her, then glances up at me. “Is the rest of your party here?”

“Almost,” I hear myself say, when, really, it’s anyone’s guess. It’s an end-of-semester lunch with colleagues. They’re giving and grading exams, having last-minute conferences with students.  Not me. I’m retired.

She looks around. The restaurant, a popular joint in Detroit, is mostly empty at the moment. Within the next half hour it will be packed. Continue reading