New WEEKEND ESCAPE Series to Inspire Travel & Global Experiences at Home: Dinner and a Movie

I’m starting this series to inspire real life travel, celebrate global culture found at home, and feed the soul. In the summer of 2014 just before I moved abroad from Nashville, I saw Chef at the theater and loved it. Although the soundtrack has been on my plane playlist since I rushed home and downloaded it, I hadn’t seen the movie again until last night. A great getaway, Netflix and Chef took me on a food tour that stopped in Miami, New Orleans, Austin and Los Angeles.  (I’ve been considering a streamline retro trailer life in the US for awhile now.)

I had no idea after two years in Morocco I’d end up living in the Caribbean, but given my love of Latin culture in Nashville—the music, dance, food—it makes sense. Last fall the Santo Domingo Food Truck Festival felt like home. In fact, downtown workers in Music City say the best part of the workweek is Street Food Thursdays.  But this movie, starring Jon Favreau as Everyman Chef Carl Caspar, serves up more than culinary masterpieces and comfort food– a grilled cheese sandwich turned art, a Cubana this carnivorous girl raised on Western Kentucky pork craved.  It’s for those who fancy food…eaters and cooks…and those who love a good story.  (Foodies can check out this space with recipes from the film (and other films) thanks to Judie Walker’s story here.)

Most will be able to relate… wanting to do what you felt you were put on this earth to do but feeling held back in (or from) the dream job…parents co-parenting across two households… dads and sons wanting to connect but not sure how …the bullying and blessing of social media… a career crisis that can rend or mend a family. Performances, funny, real, and warm, are given by an interesting cast— Emjay Anthony (Percy), compelling ten-year-old son of Carl and Inez (Sophia Vergara); Marvin (Robert Downey, Jr.) as the first husband, Riva (Dustin Hoffman) as the creativity-crushing boss, Molly (Scarlett Johansson) as faithful friend, and Ramsey Michel (Oliver Platt), the callous, caustic food critic who ignites a Twitter War and change. An added treat is live performances of “Oye Como Va” and “La Quimbumba” by legendary Cuban singer, Jose Caridad Hernandez, who plays Abuelito.

The film written and directed by Favreau  with the help of consultant/food truck Chef Roy Choi of Kogi Korean BBQ  won nods including Audience Award for Best Narrative at the 2014 Tribeca Film Festival and in 2015 Best Comedy given by the AARP Movies for Grownups Awards.

Be prepared to plan a southern road trip to NOLA for beignets from Café du Monde, Little Havana for Cubanas at Hoy Como Ayer, or some blues at Franklin Barbecue.  Even better, the film will help anyone who feels he/she may have lost his/her way or is simply afraid to turn in the direction to which we’ve been called for a long time.  E. E. Cummings said “It takes courage to grow up and become who you really are.” Growing pains are real no matter our age, and change for the better usually comes after we are pushed from our comfort zones and, thus, really scared. For years I’ve taught literature students the hero’s quest  which is all of our journeys. When called to adventure–our bigger story and unique purpose God put us here to do–we often, at first,  back away from the call.  When we do accept it, there will be obstacles, but I believe it’s the way out of living the lives of quiet desperation Henry David Thoreau said sadly most people accept.  Carl is faced with a choice though he feels he has none.  Sometimes it takes a lot for us to heed our hearts.

Carl: “I don’t know what I’m going to do. I’ve always known what I was going to do and now I’m lost.”

Molly: “I think that’s a good place to start.”

Food Truck Fest in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic…

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Farewell 2010…and a decade

While many may think I’m at a salsa party on NYE, I’m not. I wanted a last night by the tree, my son in the next room playing video games. He’ll graduate in 2012…too soon…and I haven’t had the chance over Christmas break to look back on the past year and thank God for all His blessings.

Many firsts in 2010…my students doing a book study with Sherry’s class in Ecuador via Skype. Classic Coup featured in Her Nashville, then my writing for the magazine. Examiner interviews with amazing people, like Alberto Fuguet and a salsera who inspired me with her story, soon to be published. Loving Middle Eastern food and eating it while watching the Super Bowl. First trip to Vegas and to Kansas City. Sharing Go-Jo with a friend before he hit the Road Less Traveled. Our bathroom restored over Thanksgiving when 8 Days of Hope came to town. The kindness of strangers.

And speaking of Tennessee Williams…my first trip to NOLA. Why had I not gone sooner considering it’s the most European-feeling city in America? There Kim did a reunion concert with her former husband/band member that loyal fans, Kim’s high school friends, and five of us from Nashville traveled to see. She sang like an angel, he played up a storm, and they bantered like June Carter and Johnny Cash. I’d met Kim post-Bill and her Rockabilly days. Seeing them slip back into something onstage so familiar and so different reminded me of the lives we all live and leave behind. Their reunion foreshadowed my own last fall when I saw girls–classmates most of whom I hadn’t seen since my high school graduation. Girls from ’77– different and yet the same.

2011 marks not only a new year. It begins a new decade. Since 2000 I’ve lost both grandmothers. Others have moved away or moved on. I look back each year to embrace the comfort of Wordsworth’s words: “We will grieve not, rather find/ Strength in what remains behind;/ In the primal sympathy / Which having been must ever be.”

In the last decade ten more senior classes graduated. My kids, pets, and I continued celebrating life with birthdays, vacations, Pokeman, American Girl, movie nights, soccer, drama, cheerleading and wrestling. I’ve seen my nieces grow up one street over, alongside my children. I became part of a salsa family that taught me to celebrate EVERY birthday–even the once-dreaded milestones. I’ve seen my sister, mother, and daughter see Italy for the first time. I’ve gone to the beach and Barcelona with friends, explored from Santa Monica to Malibu with Taylor and Cole.

New friends, new passions, new places…like Garden Brunch Cafe, Lassiz, Cantino Laredo, McNamara’s Irish Pub. And old favorites, comfort food, like clam chowder and beef stew, Radnor Lake and Mad Donna’s. A tradition, taking my sis out for her birthday, became new when Penny and I saw A Scattered, Smothered, and Covered Christmas at the new downtown dinner theater. Family and friends still here…passages as we change and move on. Welcome home from Africa, Sally, friends forever since we started Mrs. Monday’s K-5 class together. And hello friends-yet-to-be in 2011.

Once Upon a Time in Dublin in 2000…

And in Destin circa ’05 or so…

Throughout Italy…

Salsa…

And all the time in-between…

It has been a wonderful life…decade…year…

NOLA–January 2010
Court of 2 Sisters

Full Circle…I grew up near Fairview where family reunions were held at the “Jeff Davis” monument.

Home in film, The Curious Case of Benjamen Button

Sandra Bullock’s home

One school of Brad P and Angelina J’s children

Mike, our Southern gentleman and host, showed us sites after my first night of Zydeco.

High school friends of Kim at Stanley, my favorite restaurant named for the character I love/hate–especially when played by Marlon Brando.

Carnival at Lime with Em

Classic Coup featured in Her…photo by Jude Ferrara

Birthday dance …photo by Anthony Jure

Author/Director Alberto Fuguet

Teaching my seniors to salsa in the park

Taylor reading my favorite contemporary Southern novelist in Destin

Thanks to Emily and Cindy D, our resident photographers.

Fun with Nashville Writers Meetup at Southern Festival of Books

Founder of Hands on Nashville, Hal Cato, speaks at our Career Day

Senior Prank…my knight captured

…and out-on-the-town

My TA, Margarita, consoles me with random acts of kindness.

Examiner article covering Hispanic Chamber of Commerce Awards–Spanish translation

Sonja and Elle’s launch of the Superwoman benefit for battered women

Volunteers from 8 Days of Hope…two families rich in love who blessed mine

Weekend in New Orleans: Lesson One

Written January 11th, 2010…

Reentry into reality is rough after a NOLA weekend.  Maybe that’s why my first day back I tried to sustain the sugar high, having a praline before bed last night and another for breakfast this morning.  My Café du Monde bag is on the kitchen table, and if I weren’t so tired I’d bust out the beinget mix for tomorrow’s buzz.   Tonight after cooking Jambalaya—albeit an imposter exposed by red roux and a Zatarain’s box—I just downloaded Lil’ Nathan from iTunes.  Lawd, Kim and I found him beautiful at the Rock’n’Bowl.  “Ballin’ on Zydeco” makes me smile…and move.

My son calls from downstairs, “What are you doing up there?”

“Just dancin’ darlin,’” I say in an exaggerated Southern drawl, as if I don’t have one already.

Though I can’t see his eyes rolling, I hear his disapproval:  “I asked Josh if you said ‘Nawlins’ in his class today.  He said, ‘Yes, and it was annoying.’  Why do you have to be so weird, Mom?”

He’d have shaken his head if he’d seen my Facebook status my first night away: “I love me some zydeco.”  He’d have downright disowned me if he’d known I’d stalked Lil’ Nathan on Myspace, downloaded his album from iTunes, and considered buying his ringtone from Myxer.  He’d call this my “New Orleans Faze,” embarrassed by my sharing my enthusiasm for other cultures again with his peers.  It’s tough being a teacher’s kid.  Especially when the teacher is me.  Again, he’d ask, “What about Italy? Or salsa?” though I’d just shrug my shoulders and keep writing this post.  He doesn’t get that I can love more than one place, more than one group of people, even more than one dance at a time.  But to be honest, I HAD FORGOTTEN I can love more than Latin dance since I became addicted to salsa two years ago and began writing about it as the Nashville Latin Dancing Examiner.

Before leaving Nashville, Kim and I had naturally planned to check out the salsa scene in New Orleans.  In fact, for the past couple of years we’ve planned all vacations around Latin dancing.   In Barcelona we hit the two biggest clubs on the Spanish coast.  In California I showed up for street salsa in Santa Monica to the horror of my two teenagers.  On the plane last Thursday we talked of sooner-than-later salsa destinations, like Miami, and those for the long haul, like Puerto Rico and Argentina, favs on our bucket list. But this trip was different—much to do.

We went to NOLA for the reunion concert of the Swingin’ Haymakers, Kim’s ‘90s rockabilly group nominated “Best Country Band” four years in a row by Offbeat and the Big Easy Awards.  Having lived in New Orleans eleven years, she had friends to see—those still living in the city and others who were flying in from Nashville, Tampa, Atlanta, and Chicago. The show was scheduled for Saturday and there would be hours of rehearsal. Still, whether from denial or force of habit, we crammed our salsa shoes in suitcases overstuffed with sweaters, scarves, gloves, and hats, sat on them until they’d zip, and headed out on yet another adventure.  As usual, our salsa quest turned more Monty Python as we found it not-so-easy to find salsa in the Big Easy.

On Thursday we planned to meet our friend, April, a longtime dancer, at a salsa venue.  All three of us were disappointed when a championship game—and possibly record cold weather—cancelled the event.  Though she couldn’t join us on Friday, she suggested other places to try.  At The Balcony the band was good and the crowd friendly, but again, the cold kept most locals away.  Not quite the scene we’d hoped for…

No doubt I’d wanted to return to Nashville and write on Examiner about all the amazing places we had danced.   I’m not sorry we tried.   But I realized having an agenda can mess with my usual “When in Rome” approach to travel.   I was like the tourist who spends precious vacation time frantically searching for souvenirs to remember a trip at the cost of making memories while there.  And though I learned long ago not to be that girl who eats at a favorite chain restaurant instead of trying the local cuisine, I had to remind myself to step out from behind the camera long enough to be part of the action.  As a friend tells me to do often…it was time to let go of expectations, to embrace the moment, to stop worrying about what I’d write in the future and instead live in the present.  When I did that, I was free to fall in love with a city full of soul— an eclectic place alive, festive, and rich with friends, food, and fun. And when I tried dancing to the beat of another drum–literally– I fell into the rhythm of zydeco and the spirit of a magical place.  For photos of this NOLA getaway go here.

 

 

 

 

The Twilight Years of Benjamin Button


As an English teacher who has taught The Great Gatsby for 25 years and started an annual Twenties Day where students celebrate F. Scott Fitzgerald’s achievement, my cloche is off to Eric Roth. Accomplishing a rare classics coup, the screenwriter of The Curious Case of Benjamin Button improved upon the canonized author’s 1921 short story.  Granted, an epic almost-three-hour film should be more developed than the germ that inspired it. But changes in setting, plot points, characterization, and even dialogue have earned the film five Golden Globe nominations, including Best Picture, Best Director (David Fincher), and Best Actor (Brad Pitt).  Pushing the story past the Twilight Zone, the movie is transformed from a merely bizarre tale into a piercing masterpiece of Everyman’s mortality.

The Lost Generation’s icon began his tale in 1860, just prior to the Civil War, while Roth gave birth to his Benjamin on the day WWI ended. Perhaps the movie’s Benjamin is so amiable because he is born at the dawn of peace rather than on the cusp of war.  Moving him from Fitzgerald’s East Egg to The Big Easy works.  Though Forrest Gump’s gait was that of a racehorse, his slow storyteller’s pace was fitting for Southern Savannah. Likewise, Benjamin picked up his step once he shed his cane, but his N’awlins drawl lulls us throughout.  An as “old soul” he persuades us to patiently “sit and stay awhile.”  Both boys were loved by their mamas—strong, single women, though I preferred Benjamin’s Queenie.  Gump and Button were shoved through rites of passage–work, women, whiskey and war– by drunken, tough talking, good-hearted sea captains, Lieutenant Dan and Captain Mike.

Like Gump’s never knowing what he’ll get in a box of chocolates, Button’s mantra is, “You never know what’s coming for you.” And as with Gump, Benjamin is made richer with historical characters and allusions.  Benjamin is briefly a lover of Elizabeth Abbott (Tilda Swinton) who dictates he must never see her in the daylight.  Like Blanche DuBois, her aging beauty threatened her confidence.  Decades later Benjamin sees her on television interviewed as the first woman to swim the English Channel, validating the adage that age is just a number.  And characteristically, Benjamin smiles.  As long as it is in his power, he tenaciously and graciously survives–even thrives.  And as a bonus, like the floating feather that frames Gump, Button‘s  reccuring symbol is the small but fierce hummingbird which ties together the two main characters and the theme.

Brad Pitt delivers a more sympathetic Benjamin than Fitzgerald’s Brain Child. The audience feels sympathy for the old man in a baby’s body who is abandoned by a cowardly father.  While Fitzgerald’s protagonist is also born with the wrinkled visage of an elderly man, we first see him just after birth in the hospital nursery– in the body the size of a sixteen year old. (I have to wonder if Fitzgerald wrote this after a late night of jazz.)  Though Benjamin’s father is not much of a sympathetic character in either work, in the short story when Benjamin refuses to walk home in a blanket and sends Dad off to a department store to buy him proper clothing, I envision a Saturday Night Live‘s Best of Will Ferrell skit where a woman delivers a fully grown man who comes out swinging–sassy and grotesque.

In contrast, for most of the film, Benjamin’s mental development is in sync with his age, making him more likable than cocky.   Though precocious, young Benjamin is as endearing, optimistic, and sweet- spirited as Simon Birch.  We watch him play with his toy soldiers from his wheelchair with much the same delight we felt at seeing Tom Hanks dance on the piano in FAO Swartz.  And like the main character of Big, Benjamin falls for a woman who only briefly is “age-appropriate.”

The name of Benjamin’s love interest is changed for the movie to Daisy, an unfortunate choice since it’s the name of Gatsby’s fickle and shallow suitor. It’s a relief that Cate Blanchett’s Daisy may be a ballerina, but she’s no prima donna.  She’s as true-blue as her eyes.  Physically, she fits Fitzgerald’s description: “slender and frail” with “honey-colored hair.”  And in the movie and short story she tries to seduce Benjamin first.  In the latter Daisy boldly declares: “You’re just the romantic age…fifty… I’d rather marry a man of fifty and be taken care of than marry a man of thirty and take care of him.” (The antithesis of  Ivana Trump who said of  dating younger men:  “I’d rather be a babysitter than a nurse.”)  My favorite movie moment is the scene in the 1960s where Benjamin and Daisy take care of each other.  Obviously the time’s they are a’changin…

In the short story, Fitzgerald apologizes: “And here we come to an unpleasant subject… There was only one thing that worried Benjamin Button; his wife had ceased to attract him.”  He couldn’t have known that today 50 is the new 40 for women and men and that an AARP poll shows 34% of women over 40 are now dating younger guys.  Fitzgerald’s Benjamin finds his wife no longer pretty or interesting, “devoured already by that external inertia which comes to live with each of us one day and stays with us to the end.”  Benjamin  considers his wife simply too old–a crone at the age of thirty-five.

Thankfully in the movie, Benjamin adores Daisy—body and soul.  Defying aging himself, Pitt looks as handsome as he did in Legends of the Fall.  ( I was thrilled to see his former leading lady, Julia Ormond, also in this film.  She plays the aging Daisy’s daughter–a role similar to the granddaughter of Titanic‘s Rose.) Pitt is as beautiful in his t- shirt in Benjamin as he was in Thelma and Louise, and in one beach scene he channels Robert Redford’s Gatsby.   Through it all, Benjamin and Daisy are soulmates.  Their core–their love for each other– slips the bonds of time.  They face obstacles we can’t imagine…but I cried more because of the ones I can.

Like everyone else leaving the theater, my daughter and I didn’t speak until almost to the car.  We talked of my mom’s caring for her ninety-three year old mother.  I thought of a couple of guys for whom I have cared deeply.  Is love just a number or are some age-related differences too insurmountable to scale?  Is real love sometimes leaving someone in the flesh while still loving them in spirit from a distance?

I loved the lines: “It’s a funny thing coming home.  Nothing changes.  Everything looks the same, feels the same, even smells the same.  You realize what has changed is you.”  I’m reminded of Frost’s “Nothing Gold Can Stay” and left wondering which  are The Wonder Years?  I think of William Blake’s Organized Innocence and Wordsworth’s proverb, “The child is father to the man.” I appreciate that in the movie, Benjamin grew up in a retirement home (much like the one my mother worked in) where death is natural and residents realize for the sake of what really matters–relationships–we must “let things go.”  According to one of my favorite books, The Sacred Romance, God created all of us to embrace beauty, intimacy, and adventure.  Beyond that, as Daisy said, “We all end up in diapers.”  But the sweet part… we can’t wait for dessert.