Category for Travel

Tips for Surviving Thanksgiving (aka “Compassion”)

Last Thanksgiving, the NYTimes published an unusually good op-ed on an unusually fraught subject: how to survive Thanksgiving with difficult relatives. Written by Henry Alford, it began something like this:

Like you, I have often wondered, “How might a hostage negotiator help the average American family get through Thanksgiving?”

I’ve had this thought not because of my own brood — we Alfords are a wholly agreeable lot, whose emotional vicissitudes take the form of a lot of muffled, Protestant sobbing — but rather because so many reports I receive of others’ holiday gatherings sound like football scrimmages subtitled by David Mamet. Surely these are matters for professionals who’ve received months of intensive training in crisis intervention?

“Just shut up and listen,” said Frederick J. Lanceley, the F.B.I.’s former senior negotiator and former principal director of its negotiation course, when asked how to get two parties who are at odds with each other to cooperate at the holiday dinner table. “People want to be heard. They want the attention.”

Mr. Lanceley said that during his 26 years with the F.B.I., his active listening skills caused perpetrators in various cases to confess, to ask if they could write him from jail or to even offer him a job. Mr. Lanceley advocated the following course of action: “Repeating what the other person says, we call that paraphrasing. ‘So what you’re telling me is that the F.B.I. screwed you over by doing this and that,’ and then you repeat back to him what he said. Also, emotional labeling: ‘You sound like you were hurt by that.’ ‘You sound like it must have been really annoying.’ Little verbal encouragements: ‘Unh-huh,’ ‘Mm-hmm.’ A nod of the head to let them know you’re there.”

Great column, highly recommended (despite a dull title): Crisis Negotiators Give Thanksgiving Tips


I was so impressed I wrote in, mentioning a poem (and song) on my mind at the time, and to my startlement, the paper went on to publish the letter at the head of a column of responses.

Kit Stolz

Upper Ojai CA 23 November 2014

Fascinating — some of the ideas (such as addressing first “presenting” and then “underlying” emotions) reminds me very much of a theory of communication to surmount conflicts known as “Non-Violent Communication.”

Also reminds me of a poem by Miller Williams, recently recast into song by his daughter Lucinda, which begins: “Have compassion for everyone you meet/even if they don’t want it/what seems like conceit, bad manners, or cynicism is always a sign/no ears have heard, no eyes have seen…”

So, on this day of sharing, let me share my admiration for that great poem again. Here’s Lucinda’s version:


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Record CA drought hits illegal pot grows

From a story in last week's Ojai Valley News:

Three years ago, local narcotics officers eradicated about 168,000 marijuana plants from Ventura County's backcountry.

This year, they've found much less — closer to 100,000.

So is that good news or bad?

Neither, say law enforcement officials. California's historic drought is drying up more than just lakes and reservoirs, it's draining the creeks and aquifers far upstream — the ones that marijuana growers utilize to water their gardens, which often contain thousands of plants.

"We had one up in Coyote Creek … and half of the grow was abandoned," said Sgt. Mike Horne of the Ventura County Sheriff's Office (VCSO) Narcotics Bureau. "They're just running out of water." In another grow near the Ortega Trail, he added, "When we went to cut it, it was gone — the reservoir had dried up."

Arguably this is burying the lede. It's not a question of good news or bad news. It's simpler — the drought is devastating everyone, even the illegal farmers ready and willing to cut corners.We may recall the Biblical words from Matthew: the rain falls on the just and the unjust alike. Here's a new version: the drought hits the law-abiding farmers and the unlawful farmer alike.

More detail from Misty Volaski, editor of the paper, below the fold, with a pic from a back country grow in Rose Valley busted last month.  


Backcountry grows, Horne said, often utilize hundreds and even thousands of feet of irrigation lines. Growers will find a canyon with water in it, build a reservoir, and let gravity pump water through the irrigation tubes to the gardens. The fact that hundreds of thousands of gallons of water are diverted from their natural course is troublesome enough, Horne said, but "then they take those reservoirs and throw in Miracle Grow" and other fertilizers. The result? "That stuff soaks into the ground, into our water table," he pointed out. "Everything from Rose Valley south, all that drains to the Ventura River." 

Most of the fertilizers found at these illegal gardens contain nitrogen, which helps the plants grow but also pollutes the watershed and other sensitive wildlife habitats. According to the Los Angeles Regional Water Quality Control Board (LARWQCB), nitrogen is one of the chief pollutants in the Ventura River Watershed, for which the board is developing new water quality rules. It promotes the growth of algae, which creates fluctuations in dissolved oxygen levels and can kill or seriously affect wildlife. 

LARWQCB is compelling livestock and horse owners to keep manure — which has high levels of nitrogen — out of the Ventura River Watershed. It's also issuing new mandates to the Ojai Valley Sanitation District's treatment facility on Highway 33.

A 64-page report on the Ventura River Watershed from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) mentions livestock, horses and the treatment plant more than a dozen times, but never mentions illegal marijuana cultivation as a potential source of nitrogen pollution.

According to Horne, at a garden with about 3,000 plants, it's not unusual to find six to eight 40-pound bags of nitrogen-laden fertilizers. "And they're all over the ranchers for using too much nitrogen in orchards, but they need to look at people growing dope up in the canyon, too," he pointed out. "These guys aren't using a tablespoon (of fertilizer) a week, they're using a cup."

Beyond water issues, there is no shortage of other environmental concerns. Poisons are often spread around the garden sites to discourage rats, rabbits, deer and other wildlife from eating up the profits. During VCSO garden eradication and reclamation efforts, dead animals are common. Some are shot to be eaten; others are shot to protect crops; still others are consuming the poisons. Officials don't take the carcasses as evidence, however, so exact numbers and causes of death are unknown.

Pesticides are also being used and are having similar effects. "There are some things (pesticides) they're bringing in from Mexico that are illegal here," said Horne of the growers. "It's bad stuff …They say don't touch this stuff, it's like nerve gas, it's so concentrated."

The combination of the pesticides, poisons and growers' bullets are also taking a toll on wildlife. VCSO officers have found two dead bears in Matilija Canyon this year alone. Though it's difficult to be sure, Horne and his team believe they were killed by growers, due to their proximity to gardens found in the area.  

"Bears are a real problem (for growers). They can demolish the camps," Horne explained.

Trash and food smells attract bears and other wildlife to the site, as well. "At a typical grow site, they might have three guys in it," Horne said. "Imagine how much trash is accumulated if they're living there from March to September."  Tents, sleeping bags, cook stoves, large propane tanks, food, human waste, all that trash — cleanup is a "monumental task," Horne explained, one that wouldn't be possible without state and federal grants.

And the threat to wildlife stretches farther than the boundaries of a garden and camp. Horne said he's been on eradications of other grows in the Sespe Wilderness — not far away from the California Condor Sanctuary where humans are prohibited. 

Then, of course, there are concerns about who's reaping the benefits of these grows. "Almost 0 percent of plants in big outdoor grows in the national forest have anything to do with medical marijuana," Horne said. "It's not Johnny Headshop who has his 10 plants to fix his headaches or to party with his buddies. These are big trafficking organizations financed or belonging to Mexican drug cartels. The people doing this are not just involved in marijuana, they're involved in cocaine, smuggling, methamphetamine, human smuggling. This is just another way to make money." 

A man recently arrested at a grow site confessed that he was a migrant worker and had been picking grapes for $60 a day. "But when they hire you as a (marijuana) trimmer, you can make $160 to $200 a day," Horne said. And the penalty for getting caught? "For their first offense, they'll get 180 days in jail … for a lot of people, it's worth the risk."

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The freedom in walking lies in being no one: Philosopher

A delightfully light (but thoughtful) interview focuses on a new book — A Philosophy of Walking — written by a French professor who takes the subject so seriously he's nervous about answering questions from a reporter. 

From The Guardian:

It is a sunny spring Sunday and – joy! – I am off to Paris to go for a walk. Not any old walk, but a walk with a man who really knows about walking: Frédéric Gros, a professor of walking. A philosopher of walking.

Strictly speaking, he's actually a professor of philosophy who writes about walking, but this is nitpicking. What do I care? I love walking. Nothing gives me greater pleasure than walking uphill, for hours, in order to sleep under some flimsy piece of nylon fabric and then do it all again the next day.


Gros's book, a surprise bestseller in France, talks of walking as a form of "life scoured bare"; as a way of "experiencing the real". Its pages are filled with calm reflections on the joys of moving slowly. He just doesn't sound as if he should be the stressy type.

Don't be stressed, I tell him. I loved the book. It's an examination of the philosophy of various thinkers for whom walking was central to their work – NietzscheRimbaudKantRousseauThoreau (they're all men; it's unclear if women don't walk or don't think) – and Gros's own thoughts on the subject. It's a passionate affirmation of the simple life, and joy in simple things. And it's beautifully written: clear, simple, precise; the opposite of most academic writing.

But, when I say this to Gros, he waves his hand. "I think it is probably the translation. I don't think it was so well written in French." And he takes a nervous swig of his rosé. are you nervous, I ask. You must have done interviews before. "They were in French," he says. "And also… Um… I'm not so sure I am interesting."

Another must read for yours truly: Here's the writer/walker:


And a thought from the author:

By walking, you escape from the very idea of identity, the temptation to be someone, to have a name and a history … The freedom in walking lies in not being anyone; for the walking body has no history, it is just an eddy in the stream of immemorial life.

Maybe this is why I like it so much — gives me a chance to escape from myself. To simply live. 

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A spiritual retreat ruled by a cat: St. Barbara Monastery

Hidden in an oak woodland, across a bridge and over a stream, on Highway 150 not far from Thomas Aquinas College in Ventura County, can be found one of the least ordinary of sanctuaries for the traveler in search of spiritual renewal.

[Here's a favorite human interest/travel story I wrote recently for the Ojai Valley Guide (pdf) and the story in a more browser-friendly version]

Hidden in an oak woodland, across a bridge and over a stream, on Highway 150 not far from Thomas Aquinas College in Ventura County, can be found one of the least ordinary of sanctuaries for the traveler in search of spiritual renewal.

         It’s the St. Barbara Monastery, housing four sisters of the Eastern Orthodox Church, who open their modest four-bedroom home and a nearby campground to travelers on a donation-only basis.

         Mother Victoria and her fellow three sisters of faith of wear only black, produce income mostly from the construction of redwood coffins, and pray four times a day. Given the seriousness with which they take their traditional faith, and the many hours they spend praying to expiate their sins, it’s easy to fear frowning faces, heavy accents, and stern looks of condemnation for a visitor from the 21st century. 

         Instead, in conversation around the dinner table, an impish humor quickly emerges from the sisters, Americans all, to surprise a visitor. Especially quick with a quip is Mother Nina, but all of the sisters – even Mother Victoria, who was born into the church, and retains at all times a matriarchal dignity – have their witty moments.

         Who rules the monastery? Punkin, an orange tabby, the sisters agree, and declare him the ruler of all he surveys in the monastery. The cat sits still and his eyes close sleepily as he is complimented, as if to say – of course, of course.



Mother Victoria explains how the monastery came to move from Goleta, where a larger group of sisters and one monk had been living, to an obscure home in the country, eight and a half years earlier. Partly the motivation was economic, because despite the fact that the monastery houses a relic from the 4th century Saint Barbara of Kiev, after whom Santa Barbara was named, affordability was an issue in the area. 

          “We had a realtor, and she told us now don’t bother the people at this property. Just go take a look as best you can. So we parked by the highway and walked out on the bridge, but the gate was closed. So we peered through the gate to see what we could see,” Mother Victoria said. “And the orange cat squeezed himself through the bars of the gate and walked out on to the bridge and welcomed us.”

         Mother Victoria smiles.

         “And we said oh we have to have this cat. So we bought the cat and they threw the house in for just a little bit more.”

         In the early years of the monastery, she explains, they were a much larger group of sisters and a monk. Mother Paraskeva – the youngest of the group – picks up the thread of the story.

         “We had seventeen people living on the property – imagine that! We only have two rooms in this house, but we must have had a dozen or fifteen trailers on the property. You should have seen it! We used to joke that we were living in St. Barbara Trailer Camp.”

         “Or gypsy camp,” says Mother Victoria, in a corrective way, but she smiles.

         On the property now under construction is chapel. When the monastery was applying for the permit for construction, a biologist and an the inspector from Ventura County came to look at the property. The inspector took Mother Victoria aside to tell her she simply couldn’t be housing that many trailers on the property.

         The order took the news philosophically.

         “Our bishop was of the opinion that it was of God because the sisters who left went on to inhabit a defunct property in Northern California that used to be a monastery,” said Mother Victoria. “So God used the county of Ventura to create two monasteries where there had been one.”

         Although the Eastern Orthodox church is not nearly as well known in California as many other Christian faiths, it has five million followers in the United States, and countless millions more overseas, especially in Eastern Europe. Many of the visitors to the monastery are followers, and some come on tours. A van of eleven pilgrims on tour of monasteries in California and the Southwest stopped in for a brief visit on their way north to visit a church and orphanage in San Francisco earlier this year.

         Kurt Luebke, a member of the tour from Tucson, explained how he was converted.

         “When I was seventeen, my mother passed away, and I started going to the old Greek Orthodox Church,” he said. “I can literally say that the first time I went I didn’t know a word that was being said but I could feel the presence of God. I love it. It’s not a religion, it’s a faith.”

         Also on the tour was Elizabeth Brollini, who plans to launch an orphanage for children in the Tucson area. She said she has been working in child services for twelve years, but feels the kids need more than the child welfare system can offer.

         “The kids are really suffering,” she said. “I’ve been inspired by St. John the Wonderworker [in a church in San Francisco] and he will be our saint, to feed our spiritual thirst. We are fully incorporated already, and looking for a home. I think these monasteries are little pieces of heaven on earth.”

         Mother Victoria said that visitors often misunderstand the icons of saints in the Orthodox Church, thinking that they – the paintings, which contain the relics — are being worshipped.

         The relics include a tiny fragment of the “True Cross” of Christ’s crucifixion, reputedly, and a sliver of the forefinger of Saint Barbara, a 4th-century martyr venerated by the Orthodox and respected by Anglicans, but not by Catholics, who doubt the history of her story.

         “The saints intercede for us,” Mother Victoria said. “They bring our petitions to the attention of God. The popular way of explaining icons is as windows to heaven, because they are portraying the saints as they are in heaven.”

         Sometimes the monastery attracts followers who stay longer than expected. Mitch Denny, a young carpenter on a spiritual quest, came to the monastery intended only to camp out for a day or two before exploring the backcountry, but has ended up staying for months.

         He tells the story with wry amusement in his voice. He visited a number of monasteries, he said, and even a famous monk in England, looking for guidance, but could not found the answer he was looking for. Yet he wasn’t ready to settle down into the trade.

         “I bought a backpack and prepared to wander to go from monastery to monastery. I thought I would come here and test my gear, because I’d heard there was good camping up in the hills. So I came and they said we’re starting this casket making business, can you build some shelves?” he said. “So I stayed a few days and built some shelves, staying a little longer than I thought, and they said if you want you can rest in that trailer over there, and then at the end of the week they said, well, you know we have this chapel project…”

         Denny smiles.

         “And here I am.”

         “Watch out!” Mother Nina said with to the visiting reporter. “It could happen to you!”

         Accommodations at the monastery are simple: a couch with a view, and a campground by the stream. Campers have use of a firepit and a portable toilet. A flock of ducks noisily hangs out at a few shallow pools in the early morning. The nuns freely share their meals, tea, and prayers, but do not offer entertainment, televised or otherwise, and the chapel, which is under construction, will not be finished for some time.

         Mostly the monastery is about spiritual renewal – an escape from the demands of the insatiable ego.

         “Our visitors usually come to pray with us and be with us in services,” said Mother Victoria. “They share conversations with us around the table. A meal of some sort. Many of them come with a desire to speak one on one.”

         A simplicity and peace awaits visitors to the St. Barbara Monastery, which is ruled by Punkin, and visited every morning by a peacock named His Majesty. The residents welcome visitors of all sorts.

         “You never know who is going to come across that bridge,” said Mother Victoria. 

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Rickshaw Run: the ultimate journey-not-destination

Nick Anderman, a near-relative — my daughter's boyfriend — is with three other friends adventuring through India in a fundraising race via underpowered ricksaw, which, as this writer for the Atlantic points out this month, is pretty much the ultimate journey-not-destination.

Nick and his pals are avoiding the big cities because they're impossible to cross in a reasonable amount of time. We hear it takes two days to cross Mumbai in a rickshaw, at least for a Westerner. 

Here's a photo of the route through India, with an appropriate notation, and a brief explanation of Nick's teams', um, method: 


As they say in Hollywood, you gotta love it. 

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