Sunday, April 23, 2023

ON MY TOES – The Unexpected Soundtrack of a Pedicure

I always try to appreciate life’s experiences with all my senses, not just the obvious ones. You know, feeling music, seeing flavors, hearing color. So when I went to this typically touch-oriented spa session, I was primed to take it in with all my faculties.

                                              ~             ~             ~    

For the past couple of years Sally’s been inviting me to join her for her occasional pedicure.

At first, I was reluctant. You know, the whole macho thing; guys don’t get pedicures. But once I tried it—and survived the good-natured ribbing I got for giggling as they used their small version of a power sander on my callouses—I’ve come to love the experience.

A pedicure, I’ve discovered, is a trip for all one’s senses. And each time I go it seems I come away having especially appreciated a different sensation. One time it might be the toes massage; the next, maybe the gritty exfoliant; or the immersion of my feet in bags of hot wax.

So many delights—not just of touch, but the fragrance of the various soaking solutions and lotions, watching the fish swimming around in the salon’s big aquarium, taking in the Asian-kitsch art on the walls.

Among my favorites every time is the cushy, full-featured massaging chair. Like some hefty Nordic masseuse, the chair’s four rolling, kneading, pummeling fists work tirelessly up and down my back. And I can set it to any combination of massage styles and intensities. (I’d gladly pay the $55 for just an hour’s worth of that.)

            What I found so pleasant, so hypnotic
            about her voice was the music of it.

And this last time, just today, I found myself transported into a new dimension of sensory delight, one of sound. I know, of all places to get lost in sound: a spa.

The young lady who administered my pedicure is very good at what she does. And, shall we say, quite easy on the eyes. Maybe it was that my eyes were blissfully closed much of the time, but what my senses kept focusing on was her voice.

She talked incessantly for the entire hour. Not to me, but to her counterpart working on Sally’s feet right next to us. I don’t know how she kept it up; aside from her co-worker’s occasional word in edgewise, it was a monologue.

That may sound annoying, but I didn’t find it so. They were both speaking Vietnamese, so I couldn’t understand a word of it. And even if it had been English, most of the time my manicurist spoke so softly that I couldn’t have made out much of it anyway. But that wasn’t the point.

What I found so pleasant, so beguiling about her voice was the music of it.

        Vietnamese is a contour tone language,
        where two or more accents might occur
        in a single syllable.


Vietnamese is a tonal language. That is, it employs varying, often subtle, voice modulations which can lend two identically-spelled words completely different meanings. And those vocal ups and downs start from a significantly higher pitch than the baseline tone we’re accustomed to in English.

From that key, the tones jump or slide around, often more dramatically than the tonal variations in English. For example, the basic syllable ma can be pronounced with any of six intonations. *

Most of the accents give shape to sounds we’re not accustomed to in English. Like the many nasaly tones, and syllables that get suddenly cropped off at the end.

There’s also a different rhythm to Vietnamese. English is what is called a stressed-timed language whose syllables vary in spoken length and emphasis, with accentuated syllables occurring at quite regular intervals. Vietnamese is a syllable-timed or contour tone language, where syllables are all the same spoken length and where two or more accents might occur in a single syllable. **

My manicurist has a very pleasant, soft-spoken voice to start with. But then hearing it adorned with all these subtleties of her first language turned it into the lilting, hypnotic song I enjoyed while getting my feet done. Another of the many reasons why I’ll be back.

The lesson from all this: Life’s just too rich, too precious, for us not to be fully present. So with any experience, try calling on more than the obvious sense. At
the symphony, notice the smells. At dinner, relish the colors. At a hockey game, feel the beat of the pep band. And, yes, at your next salon, barber or massage parlor visit, bask in the sounds.

* Six Vietnamese Tones

** Stress-timed vs. Syllable-timed languages

Wednesday, April 12, 2023

SLIME, SPARKS & SLUDGE – And Other Wonders Grandpa Showed Me

When Sally asked me recently about my relationship with my grandfather, the first thought that came to mind was that I’d never had much of a relationship with him. He was a very busy man, often traveling for business, and of an age where children were “to be seen and not heard.” I didn’t recall right away having fun with him nor getting much from him in the way of affection.

But Sally primed the pump just a bit, reminding me of a memory of Grandpa Janssen I’d once shared with her. Then, as I thought about it, more and more images emerged from remote corners of my mind of ways he opened the doors to wonder for me.


When I was about ten, Grandpa took me fishing a few times. Before we left home, though, he’d put me in charge of catching our bait. He'd take the garden hose, turn the water on to a low flow, set the end down in the middle of the back yard and instruct me to wait and watch. Sure enough, after about ten minutes, big, fat night crawlers, their digs thoroughly flooded, would emerge, clambering for higher ground.

Nothing’s easy to spot when it’s slithering along the ground under half an inch of water and layers of grass and thatch, but I soon learned to watch for telltale bubbles or movement of the grass. (Little did I realize that it was a test of the same kind of patience I’d need once we started fishing.)

By the way, if you try to grab a night crawler before it’s at least 90 percent out of its hole, you’re in for a mighty, slimy tug-of-war. They’re fast, and, to my dismay, some of those muscular varmints would break in two before they’d let go.

PHOTO: Tim McCormack
There was a peony bush just outside Grandpa and Grandma’s back door. I barely knew what a peony was—I thought the name was kind of icky, though. I knew they were beautiful and that the flowers smelled amazing, but I needed Grandpa to show me about the plant’s intimate, symbiotic relationship with ants.

I could see that each big, dewy bud was crawling with the little critters—black ones, somewhat smaller than carpenter ants. Grandpa explained that the peony buds exude a sweet nectar for the ants in exchange for their defense against harmful insects like aphids.

Speaking of plants, my grandparents also had a couple of bleeding heart plants in their garden. One summer evening, Grandpa plucked one of the blossoms and sat me down on the porch steps. He pulled apart the flower and used the various parts—resembling two pink rabbits, two white slippers, a trumpet and, of course, the heart—to illustrate a little fairy tale.

               I’ve never forgotten those lessons,
               and have passed them down to my
               own kids and grandkids.


I used to sneak part-way down the basement stairs to where Grandpa was playing cribbage with a few of his pals. I peered around the corner between balusters. Through a haze of cigar smoke I could see the men sitting around a card table, their faces intent on this beautiful little wooden board riddled with little holes that marched up and back in neat ranks. And in some of those holes, chasing each other around the track, were little pegs, two each in gold, silver and copper.

But what intrigued me most was what the men were saying. It was like some solemn, mystical chant intoned by each in turn: "Fifteen-two, fifteen-four and eight is twelve…and nobs for thirteen." Apparently each man had fifteens, but the other numbers varied. One man looked kind of disgusted when at his turn he mumbled simply “Nineteen.”

At one point, Grandpa spotted me and called me down, where he and the others taught me the basics of the game. I’ve never forgotten those lessons, and have passed them down to my own kids and grandkids. 

    When Grandpa presented Grandma a bag of
    the new product, yours truly happily provided
    the elbow grease to test it.

Grandpa Janssen’s garage was wonder central. There I soaked up the sights, sounds and smells of all the knowledge a kid could possibly want—and probably would never learn in school. Stacked on shelves and hanging from pegboard was stuff for his blue ’54 Buick; implements for lawn and garden work; tools for every conceivable do-it-yourself task; and coffee cans full of nuts, bolts, screws and nails.

And there was the dart board. As with the cribbage, I learned most of what I’ve ever known about darts from Grandpa and his buddies. He was pretty good, and I’m sure he collected on his share of small-change bets. This made a big impression on me, especially given his unorthodox style: he threw his darts underhand.

Every so often a dart that missed the board or failed to stick would drop to the concrete floor, dulling the point. And Grandpa showed me how to hone it sharp again on his hand-powered grinding wheel.

I loved the job so much—especially the shower of sparks it produced—that I’d sometimes grind an eighth of an inch off the point. It wasn’t long before I got busted and, instead of extinguishing the spark of wonder, Grandpa switched me from darts to nails held in a Vice-Grip.


Grandpa represented the retail grocery industry, both in Minnesota and nationally. This led to his role as Secretary-Manager of the National Margarine Institute. When manufacturers started adding color to the white beef-fat or vegetable-oil based spread, the dairy industry objected, worried about colored “oleo’s” impact on butter sales.

The debate led to a compromise: the margarine would still be white, but it would be sold in a clear plastic bag with a little capsule of yellow-orange food coloring. The consumer would pop the capsule and then hand knead the sludge until it resembled the color of butter.

I’ll bet you knew where this was headed. Indeed, when Grandpa returned from the next convention proudly presenting Grandma a bag of the new product, yours truly happily provided the elbow grease to test it, delighting in how that way-too-dark burst of color first marbled through the margarine and eventually looked good enough to spread on toast.

So I’m sorry, Grandpa, for selling you short, for forgetting what a big part you played in my awakening to wonder. Now I remember. Thank you!

Can you remember how your grandparents—or other adults in your childhood—opened doors of wonder to you? We’d love to hear about it!

Wednesday, April 5, 2023

A BLIGHT ON THE CERROS – The Blue-mination Of Zihuatanejo

Sally and I love this charming town on the Pacific coast of Guerrero, Mexico called Zihuatanejo. Some 15 years ago, having visited nearly all of Mexico’s coastal resort towns, we found Zihua’s history as a small fishing village and its apparent commitment to growing in thoughtful, human-scale ways really appealing.

But since then controversy has grown over the pace and style of development in Zihua. We understand that those issues must be debated and decided by the citizens and their representatives, not tourists.

But there’s no denying that this town’s lifeblood is tourism. So when locals weigh the costs and benefits of development decisions made by government officials, we listen. And they should know we listen.

     Another transfiguration has been occurring
     in this town that only shows its face at night.

PHOTO: Magdaleno Flores

Of course, many business people, especially those in the hospitality business, are anxious to see the area grow. Those I’ve spoken with want to discourage the visitors who leave behind more trash than pesos—most of them Mexicans—and attract more affluent guests from abroad.

How to accomplish that is where locals differ. Some want to assure that Mexicans, including citizens of Zihua, don’t get steamrollered by politicians’—and their pals’—big ambitions. And that the not so glamorous day-to-day needs of folks who actually live here year-round don’t get ignored.

There are concerns about the spread of shanty neighbor- hoods up the flanks of the cerros, or hills, with no commensurate upgrades to infrastructure. And the removal of mature, healthy trees and swaths of clean, sandy beach to broaden already ample walkways into forty-foot-wide boulevards.

Also debated is the pursuit of “Blue Flag” designation for Zihua’s five main beaches—an international standard town officials have adopted, and which many feel imposes unnecessary restrictions on how both visitors and locals can use the beaches.

      Apparently every single person installing
      a light in those hillside neighborhoods has
      decided on bulbs that have no heart.


As controversial changes like these have come to see the light of day, another transfiguration has been occurring in this town that only shows its face at night.

During our stay this March, as Sally and I dined at some of the cliffside restaurants in La Madera after dark, I observed how much the nightscape—more specifically, the lightscape—has changed in this charming town we’ve come to love.

Most restaurants and lodgings along the beaches are illuminated with an inviting glow, a quality of lighting their owners and managers are smart enough to know evokes warmth, safety and comfort—as light in the range of 1,000 to 3,000 on the Kelvin color temperature scale has since our Neanderthal forebears huddled around campfires.

But as the eye starts climbing the cerros that form the backdrop of the town center, the lightscape changes. And not for the better.

Maybe folks haven’t noticed; some may not care. But apparently every single person installing or replacing a light in those hillside neighborhoods in recent years has decided on bulbs that have no heart.

      Nice, warm LED lights are just as available
      and just as cheap as cold ones.

What I’m seeing is that nearly 100 percent of those bulbs are emitting light of around 5,000 Kelvin—what’s billed in the lighting business as akin to daylight. Sounds innocuous enough, but against a backdrop of darkness this rather blueish hue of light looks far from inviting.

It’s the kind of light people choose for one of three reasons. First, because they’re scared. Maybe they figure that, like having a vicious guard dog chained up outside the back door, the more uninviting you can make your lighting, the fewer burglaries you’ll have.

Or, they may want it for the same reason some folks choose blue headlights for their cars: as a statement of attitude, a form of intimidation.

The third and more likely reason is that the decision isn’t the homeowners’ or landlords’ to make. Maybe it’s city or barrio officials understandably out to save a buck with cheaper LED lighting, who either don’t know or don’t care that nice, warm LED lights are just as available and just as cheap as cold ones.

Either way, the pall of cool, lifeless lighting is spreading up the shoulders of the hills behind El Centro like an infection. And I’m now seeing outbreaks of it popping out lower down, including in a few spots along the south end of Playa
La Ropa.

       People don’t come here to see just a small
       slice of exactly what we’re seeing in parts
       of every big city back home.

While Zihua’s “blue-mination” may be good for the city’s—or some officials’—bottom line, or some Zankas’ sense of security, it sure as hell is not good for tourism, the economic lifeblood of this area. Nor, by the way, is it good for people’s health.*

Accepting it is a de facto rejection of what visitors consistently say they find so appealing about Zihua, its warmth, its color, its uniquely human scale. People—at least people like me and my wife—don’t come here to see just a small slice of exactly what we’re seeing in the sketchier parts of just about every big city back home.

I mean is this the enchanting former fishing village of Zihuatanejo, the magical Eden Andy Dufresne dreamed of in The Shawshank Redemption…or some sketchy alley in Detroit or St. Louis?


* Numerous studies have shown that regular exposure to bluish light can stir depression, increase stress and interfere with healthy sleep.

Saturday, April 1, 2023

THROWN BY A CURVE – The Fluid Architecture of Villas San Sebastian

As anyone who reads my blogs or Facebook posts knows, Sally and I have a thing for Zihuatanejo, Guerrero, Mexico. We’ve been coming here annually—but for a COVID break—for fifteen years now.

We love the reliably warm, sunny climate this time of year—a brief, but spectacular respite from the last month of winter back home. We love the colors, the flavors, the language and the kind, gracious, hardworking people who live here.

And we love Villas San Sebastian (VSS), our home away from home every March, and where we’ve lodged many of our loved ones when they’ve visited. Our hosts all these years, Luis Valle Rodriguez and his lovely wife Marissa, have become our dear friends.

As vital as the personal relationships are, they aren’t the only reason we find VSS so appealing. There’s also the architecture, the physical and esthetic character of the place.

It’s the way these buildings respect and celebrate their breathtaking natural surroundings. All open on at least one side, the villas seem to invite the embrace
of Nature—the sounds and smells, the mild Pacific breezes, the spectacular view
of Zihuatanejo Bay.

It could not look or feel more different from most of the accommodations in Zihua’s neighbor up the road, Ixtapa, with its rampart of high-rise hotels.

           It’s really hard to find a sharp, right-
           angle corner or edge in whole place.

While many of the higher-end boutique hotels that dot the perimeter of Zihua Bay are doused in gold, salmon, sage, even purple, VSS is not especially colorful; in fact, but for the plantings and some beautiful, decorative tiled floors, everything here is white and off-white.

If some buildings make their statement with massive shapes or vibrant color, this complex makes it with form and line and proportion.

The word “organic” gets used to death, but that’s exactly what this architecture is.  It’s the comfortable, human scale of the place, the way the villas, each with its own unique layout, stair-step up the steep side of the cerro. Connected by winding stairways and sculpted half-walls, each space flows gracefully into the next.   

And the details. Everything’s built in as if part of a single work of sculptured stone—counters, sofas, planters, even beds. And nearly everything is curved. I mean it’s really hard to find a sharp, right-angle corner or edge in this whole place. Even stair edges are beautifully rounded off.

          The so graceful, yet grounded,
          so comfortable to both the eye and spirit.

Owner Valle describes this style as a blend, but it's primarily what’s known as Santa Fe style. Starting with what was originally a very old house, Valle, working with acclaimed architect Carlos Desormeaux, created VSS’s first two villas, with the first guests arriving in 1993. 

Several other architects, including Hector Palacios, Javier Renteria and Jose Luis Rodriguez have contributed over the years to the gradual addition of ten more units. (And more, including more amenities, are in the works.)

But Valle is quick to point out that the design process has been truly a cooperative effort, one fueled by his own aesthetic as well as contributions from his wife, Marissa, and key staff members.

There are many qualities that make Villas San Sebastian so appealing: its location, its management and employees, the thoughtful, unobtrusive service. I would keep coming back for those assets alone.

But what really sets the place apart for me is the esthetics. So graceful, yet grounded, so comfortable to both the eye and spirit. (And such a good workout climbing down and up some 90 steps to our villa number nine—near the top of the stack—at least once each day.)  

There are certainly trendier, more luxurious places to stay in Zihuatanejo. But, from our first booking at Villas San Sebastian in 2008, this warm, luscious, highly traditional architecture has captivated us.