HIGH ALERT: IT’S MASHED POTATO WEEK! Ok, you know it as the week of Thanksgiving, but tomato, tomato. This is when gratitude spends its day in the sun. People momentarily turn their attention to the cause, have a little chat about it during the mashed potato dinner. There are a boatload of articles about it in every publication your eyes set their sights on (Here’s a good one from Forbes, for instance). But what is it really and why should you stop yourself to think about it as not just a thanksgiving dinner tradition, but more of a daily practice that can improve your life? Well, you’re probably not surprised that we here at the gratitude-a-thon (meaning ME here at the gratitude-a-thon) have a little something to say about why.
It’s easy to focus on what’s wrong, to hang every word on that challenging fill-in-the-blank part of your life. The shit things that happen are as long as a receipt at CVS (and no wonder so many are going out of business, they’re paying too much for receipt paper, OBVI). BUT A GRATITUDE PRACTICE IS NOT FOCUSING ON THAT STUFF, IT’S ZEROING IN ON THE GOOD STUFF, ANYTHING THAT’S POSITIVE. And if you’re looking, you’ll find there is a whole bunch of it.
Doesn’t sound true, but it is true. The fact is that there is always something to be grateful for. No, really, in the most dire of circumstances, there is a crack of light that is coming through somewhere in there. And it’s that little light that it pays to focus on. I remember when my mom’s cancer had gone to the lining of her brain. It was right after thanksgiving and she was already in the hospital when I got to her. I didn’t know about gratitude back then, but when I look back, on one of the hardest, most excruciating moments of my life, I think about how she she was lucky enough to be in a hospital, how we could get her into an amazing hospice, and just every single thing that made the horrible better than it could have been during that hideous time. Good things make us feel good, yes, but focusing on them, really pointing your handy dandy i-phone flashlight on them is the big payout. Your happiness improves. Your health improves. Your relationships improve. Your whole freaking life gets better. I’m telling you, I devoted a whole blog to it!
Here’s how I do it (it’s not hard). I just make myself aware of what the good stuff in my day is. It could be the hazy calm of right before sunrise coloring the sky a soft pink right before the yellow of the sun makes its debut. It could be the miracle of a flower. It could be some small kindness someone threw my way–a smile, a hello. It could be a good hair day, the endless loyalty of my dog. It could be my husband, or kids. It could be a call from a friend that makes me laugh my face off. It’s that simple. Thats the whole thing.
The act of focusing on the good, the great, even the mediocre, but not tragic can help fuel you up for a more content life. When you turn your head for the positive and let it rest there for a while, the rest of your life looks and feels better. Maybe you think that sounds ridiculous, because it’s not a drug, or a class, or a magical potion some Glinda the good witch showed up with during your darkest moments, but this is real, studied, tried and true reality.
So, that’s my pitch for extending your interest in gratitude from one week of the year to 52. I’m not lying, or exaggerating when I say it can improve your life. This is as honest-to-goodness real as life gets. You can make yourself happier by noticing what makes your life happier. All you have to do is look. Happy Mashed Potato Day to all.
Mashed Potato Day is coming! Most people call it Thanksgiving, but you know how I am about potatoes–mashed and chipped, in particular, although really any potato you give me is all I’m about. I saw this article in, of all places, People magazine today and c’mon, how adorable is this thing between Jamal Hinton and Wanda Dench? It’s too adorable. I love it to pieces. Why can’t the world be more Wanda?
The story is that in 2016, Wanda texted her 24 year old grandson to come for Thanksgiving, but he had changed his phone and the person who received his old number, 17 year-old Jamal, got the text. After some back and forths, including selfie exchanges (rated G, get your head out of the trash, people), they realized what had happened. But then a funny thing occurred, and Jamal asked Wanda if he could still come. And Wanda said, “Of course you can. That’s what grandmas do … feed everyone,”
That was six years ago. They’re still good pals and have met outside of Thanksgiving too–he with his girlfriend and she with her husband Lonnie, who sadly lost his life in 2020 to Covid. But the dinner date is still on and the two have created a solid friendship.
This is the stuff(ing) of gratitude. Our country is so divided right now, bonafide ugliness and lying all over the place, and here these two complete strangers from different worlds and ages came together by mistake to form a friendship. This is the best of what we can do. Of how it can go. Loving it from top to bottom. This, this is what I’m focusing on today. Wanda and Jamal.
The world is orange! And yellow and burnt brown. And all of it’s giving me allergies, but look at how absurdly gorgeous the trees are. And the light, THE LIGHT OF FALL IS FUCKING EXTRA. It is. The sun is lower and the way it hits makes everything it touches glow like lighting for an extremely expensive photo shoot. Even when you’re doing the mundane, the light is like you’re doing something special that somebody might be filming on account of there’s such perfect light.
It’s no secret that I hate the winter. Yes, I use the world “hate” because it’s just the truth. No use for the 17 layers of warmth I must pile on to go outside, only to go to an inside, like a grocery store or museum and sweat like I’m in a public sauna fully clothed. No more skiing for me, so snow, while dreamy for a day turns ugly and dirty. And who likes to shovel, seriously–anybody out there enjoy shoveling? Oh, I forgot my neighbor Marty actually loves to shovel. She does. She is a winter person. God love her for that. We are the ying and the yang of our street!
BUT, the thing is that before winter, it’s fall, which is right now. And because I went away and had myself some superior weather, plus some amazing fun for 10 days, I came back and instead of hating on this time of year because it’s the appetizer of winter, i am kind of loving the vibrance of the colors. Some of those leaves look like they have individual lighting they ordered from Amazon for a Zoom call.
So, gratitude today for being receptive to this lovely time of year, instead of being already in mourning for the upcoming frigid temps and slippery, am-I-going-to-wipe-out white pile up. I fell for fall this year. That’s not just a gratitude, it’s also kind of a miracle!
We hadn’t been on a trip in two years. I mean, who really has? Yes, we went to the hospital to have a shoulder replacement and then again to have a simple ankle surgery that turned into seven levels of hell, and to CVS pharmacy 57,903 times and oooops, sorry, we did go to the Cape for a week during both of those Covid-heavy years, but no big, pack-your-bags-so-full-you-cant-carry-them, don’t forget your power cords or transformer plugs, remember your jeans-because-no-matter- what-they-say-you’re-going-to-wear-them-the-most kind of trip. And it was sort of killing us, well, I mean, our spirits, our sense of adventurous curiosity, our hope. Well, especially me. And yes, I know this is a first world problem and in this messy, messy world, it sounds like a pretty lame-o excuse to whine about, but oh well. But really, it’s probably not just travel that I missed these past two years, it’s everything–everything normal and fun and free-flowing and interesting (like you know, TRAVEL).
Traveling is one of my most favorite things in the world (besides potato chips, or to be exact truffle potato chips, which if you haven’t had, you should stop reading and go to Eataly or Curds & Co. and buy immediately, if not sooner). To go to a new place and play Christopher Columbus is wondrous, invigorating, thrilling. Being completely overwhelmed by brand spanking newness is a little like being born again. And these past two years, I had missed it as much as I had missed LBC (LIFE BEFORE COVID).
So, my husband’s start-up was sold to a Portuguese company a year ago, which is not true, it was really two years ago, but I always seem to forget that deadly hideous Covid-intense year of 2020. Anyway, there was a conference where he was asked to speak, and we’d had boosters (him for his arthritis and me because I lied at Walgreens. The thing is, I wasn’t depriving the shot from anyone and nobody at Walgreen’s cared in the least and let me tell you, it made me feel hella better) and I in particular had been barking about needing a break from all the medical madness he’d been through, and the isolation, and the constant hand-washing, mask-wearing, virus fear, and well, we booked tickets to go to the damn conference with some time to see a country I’d never been to before, but continually hear is a beaut. And suddenly, I felt like winter had been permanently obliterated from the calendar (if only).
Off to Portugal we went and it was one of those trips where absolutely nothing went wrong and in fact, everything went right and we had a super score of 1,098,652 on the 1 to 10 scale. This is a beautiful, very hilly place, with red tiled roofs on every building that puts you square in the center of a childhood classic story book.. (And why, may I ask, people who build stuff, do we not have red tiled roofs here in the USA, instead of dull. boring rainy day black and gray? SO UNBECOMING, please contractors, pick up your game because a red roof can do a lot for a country.) Anywho, Lisbon was our first stop and grab the reigns. What a bustling city with tiled sidewalks, boasting flowers and squiggles and other odd, but tantalizing shapes that make you feel like you are maybe walking on the Candy Land game board, where possibly Queen Frostine might bump into you on her way to an outdoor dinner. There are like a billion churches (not really) and castles (really) and the national food seems to be anything swimming in the sea. This, of course, as an epic seafood hater, in fact, someone who can actually vomit at the site, and especially the smell of any kind of fish or crustacean, was not ideal, but as a life-long enemy of the sea’s seasoned, flambeed, fried, salt-cooked and grilled sea-faring fare, I just had to cast my net elsewhere and watch my husband enjoy every last flake. This was especially comical when the CEO of Peter’s company (the largest employer in Portugal) and his wife took us for dinner, for a first meet and greet and it was one those places with just-off-the-boat-pick-your-fish-which-is-so-fresh-it-still-might-be-backstroking. Uh-huh, and of course, kind of horrifying for them, because who doesn’t like any kind of seafood, except me? The owner actually left the cozy and small famed place to get me a piece of meat to eat, because, well, you just don’t disappoint the guy who owns the pharma farm. They were lovely people, and I did somehow get through the meal without actually throwing up all over the table, which was a pretty big accomplishment on my part. We also were taken by some of Peter’s new and really great colleagues to some other amazing meals at truly wonderful restaurants, where I learned two things: 1) the white wine did not make me drunk (one in the US and I’m buzzing, two and I’m dancing on the table), but did give me a nice hangover. 2) The Portugues think salads are two lettuce leaves and a tomato and that will actually feed a table of ten. (SO UNAMERICAN.)
The people, always a vitally important part of a trip, were extremely nice. And very helpful. Most everyone speaks English, but even those who did not seemed to find ways of helping to guide us to see the best of their country. While Peter had to work a fair amount, I found myself alone on the hunt for what made Lisbon such a magical place. I did miles and miles of walking everyday to uncover one of the oldest cities in Western Europe’s overwhelming beauty. During the age of discovery, Portugal was a big player in expeditions. They not only discovered new lands in South America, and Africa, they even found a new route to India, which made them one of the ruling nations of Europe, But, while Lisbon was the most prosperous trading center in Europe, trouble brewed, when in 1775, it was hit by a life-altering, insane and devastating earthquake, which destroyed everything in its wake in half of the city, and changed its history as a seafaring king. But not to worry, this place is still a winner in the beauty queen contest. Intricately tiled buildings, a stunning river, a miniature Arc de Triomphe–Arco da Rua Augusta, and smaller Golden Gate bridge–the Ponte 25 de Abril, along with the bright yellow Praco do Comercio–a main square, a Monument to the Discoveries, the no-matter-how-many-times-I-passed, astounding Santa Justa Elevator, Belem Tower and Museu Gulbenkian, are only a few of the reasons this city can charm your pants right off of your body. And I’m not even bringing up the night life, but it’s there, and it’s like that awful song by Lionel Richie, All Night Long, because yup it’s like New York on steroids.And did I mention the weather? No, I do not. Well, just think about New England’s fall days of super blue skies with no humidity and a full-on sun. 75 degrees of perfect. FOR ALL 10 DAYS. Yup, this is a place you don’t want to miss. Bucket list must.
On to Porto, we were welcomed by the same stunning sort of beauty that put my mouth into a permanent O shape in Lisbon. Maybe it’s because there are no particularly tall buildings, and so each structure really stands out with those darn lovely red roofs, but again, we’re talking about feeling like you are walking in a postcard and that somebody might throw you in a mailbox any minute. We stayed in a very ritzy hotel overlooking the city which was devoted entirely to wine. The fact that this hotel wasn’t shaped like a bottle of vino, surprised me because everything else about it was all about the drinking, the making and the origin stories of wine. Of course, Porto happens to be world famous for it’s Port, but coming in second is wine. Again, Peter was still in work mode, so it was up to me to get the scoop on this stunning city. With only a few days here, i had to work hard, putting in loads of miles to get to the heart of this place, where the historical center was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO, back in 1996, a very big deal. While the city is Portugal’s second largest, it wasn’t always as important or tourist-attracting as it is today. Port wine production began in the Duro River region during the 13th century, which is when Porto began growing as an economic power in the homeland. During the 15th to the 17th century. Prince Henry the Navigator was one of the leading historical personalities credited for the initiation of Portugal’s becoming a great sea trade force in Europe. Porto became one of the largest shipyards of the country, not to mention the early 18th century saw the Duoro wine region boom, which played an important role in the development of the Port wine trade. Lots of architectural gems were also built during the18th century, the most famous, and certainly the tallest is the intricate and detail-laden Clerigos Tower, which of course, I didn’t realize you needed tickets to get into, and so missed! Anyway, we ate some gorgeous food, one meal in a large restaurant with dozens and dozens of large wine kegs behind glass. The Douro is dotted with boats of all sizes and the bridge, the Ponte De Luis I bridge has an upper (with a train in the center) and lower walking path to take you from the town of Guia to the main city of Porto. It’s pretty spectacular and there are also a couple of trams floating through the sky, too. Winding, hilly streets are everywhere. A Tuk Tuk ride took us through the center of town with Maria, since Peter hadn’t had a chance to see much due to his work schedule. These golf cart-like small transportation vehicles can be very basic, or decked out like a bride and are traversing all the roads to show off the city’s sites. They’re really a lot of fun and teach you a bushel in a short amount of time.
Lastly, we were lucky enough to go to the seaside Cascais–a classic small city on a beach, or rather multiple beaches, just 30 minutes from Lisbon. We don’t so much have beaches here in the US that are part of cities, but that’s exactly what Cascais is all about. It began as a fishing village (which it still very much is) grew to protect Portugal by sea until 1580 when the Spanish came in and took over until 1640, then the major earthquake came down and tore up the city, which was rebuilt all the way through the late 1900’s. King D. Luis decided to take a vacation there in the late 1800’s. And once that occurred, boom, it became a vacay vibe for the rich and famous. Sports like fishing and sailing, canoeing and tennis became popular in Portugal and Cascais was a perfect place for them.
We were near the main part of town in a swanky hotel on the water, as well as close to all the historical sites, but the further we drove away from the downtown area, the more the beaches change from calm and serene to an all out Northern California surfer’s wet dream. We did have an amazing guide drive us not only to the Western most point in Europe–very cool and a beach front that had not just oversized dunes, but also amazingly large and unusual rock. But the tour de force, was the hilly and all out charming town of Sintra, where we were treated to a complete tour of one of the most amazing sites I’ve ever seen–The National Palace of Pena. Carlos, our smarty pants guide who used to the a press agent for a big soccer team, but got tired of it and became a travel guide, knew everything about this magical, Disney-esque (apparently part of it was actually used to create the famous Disney castle) palace. Note: a castle is part of the military and a palace is part of royalty. Never knew that! Anyway, this building is made from seven years of artistry and imagination (I don’t know what kind of drugs this King was doing, but something) that King Ferdinand II designed and had implemented. We are talking wack-a-doodle colors, minute details everywhere you turn and stories galore. This was one of those places that left me wordless. I kept repeating the same thing, like a dull cartoon character with no language–“I can’t believe this place.” But really, I couldn’t. For me, this was one of the highlights of the whole trip. Yes, a castle, oooops, I mean palace, in the sky blew my Portugues-site seeing doors off. Also, there are like a billion acres around this cray cray palace to hike and picnic, too. And the town of Sintra looked to be one of those places I would like to stay in and explore next time I visit this extraordinary country.
And then it was time to go home. Usually the worst part, but flying first class was a vacation all its own. Gratitude as big as the entire country of Portugal for this sunny and interesting getaway. It gave me energy (although the five hour time difference did give me a good case of jet lag) and reminded me of all the cool and beautiful things there are in the world, which the pandemic did a very good job of helping us forget about. Good news–they’re still there!