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Chino and me. Spring 2012, Count Basie Theatre, Red Bank, NJ.

Last year around this time I worked with an actor who was better motivated than anyone I have ever worked with. And it wasn’t by the director’s powerful encouragement, or by his own ego, or by audience accolades. He was motivated by his very favorite thing to eat.

His name was Pacino, but I called him Chino (or ‘meshuganah’, as apt a nickname for this actor as any), and there he is above. The show was The Wizard of Oz, and I had precisely one job: Him. Specifically, getting him on stage for all of his cues, receiving him when he came off stage, and keeping him safe and happy in the meantime. To do this I armed myself with fattening little dog treats which I sometimes called Scooby snacks*, and which he loved to absolute distraction. Sometimes before a show I’d entertain the humans by holding a treat a foot above his head, moving it in a circle and saying, “Pirouette!’ He would twirl on his furry little back legs and then I’d give him the treat. He could smell them in my jeans pocket and shamelessly scratched at my jeans with both paws to try to unearth more.

Right before a cue I’d have him sniff and lick at the treat I had tightly in my fingers. He’d become 100% focused on it. When I heard the cue, I’d throw the treat across the deck and let him go. He would chase the treat and catch it, Dorothy would pick him up, and we were golden. When he came off to me, I’d give him another one. My goal was to get him used to a routine so he would trust me and so he’d keep doing what I needed him to do. He was always good for it. Always.

When it comes to maintaining a healthy weight, treats obviously have the potential to be our undoing. Given Chino’s undying devotion to his Scooby snacks, it was no different for him. His owner told me I needed to be judicious in giving him snacks because he needed to lose a pound. (When you only weigh nine pounds, every ounce counts.)**

But the other side of Kryptonite is power.*** Wisely harnessed, really incredible treats—including food—can get us from point A to point B. And since by saying that I’ve already dragged political correctness to the curb with the recycling bins, I’m going to emphasize again: It’s okay to use treats, food or otherwise, for motivation as long as they’re administered with care. Here’s how:

1) Treat yourself on a regular basis. You’ll be happier and have fewer cravings this way, I promise. Yes, eat right most of the time; yes, get your body moving; yes, avoid Testarossa shopping if you can’t afford toothpaste. But don’t deprive yourself of good things, in good doses. Life is supposed to be fun. If you’re not having fun, you’re doing it wrong.

2) Reread those last two sentences and put them on sticky notes all over your house, your car and your Burmese cat if necessary.

3) Create a list of extra-special treats that can help you get past a goal. Chino’s job was very physical; he worked hard for those Scooby snacks. He was twirled around while sitting in a basket, handled by eight actors along with me, and worked more than a dozen shows. Think about what you have to hurdle over next Tuesday, and make the treat fit the crime.

4) Give yourself another treat after you’ve slain the witch. And make it good, and don’t apologize. Earn your own trust. Wash, rinse, repeat.

Gratuitous personal story: I’m looking for a full-time salary and wanted to answer an ad yesterday. I knew baking the below would be the stick of firecracker in my back pocket I needed to do it. So I baked it, and it was: hot homemade cornbread topped with my current darling, Irish butter. We have lovely little dalliances a few times a week. Then we give each other a chance to miss each other. I don’t believe in rushing romance.

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*Someone at Wizard of Oz told me this was actually a sly drug reference from the mid-1960s TV show. It’s safe to say Chino really was addicted to his Scooby snacks, though, so it turned out to be a pretty accurate choice of words.

**Once I accidentally dropped his Tupperware container of treats right in front of him, and he went after them like a S-400 anti-ballistic missile. Not a shining moment in my backstage career.

***’High levels of green Kryptonite radiation can cause normal humans to mutate and acquire superhuman abilities.’ –Wikipedia FTW, baby.

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Helpful tip to nighttime travellers to Bora Bora: Be smarter than we were and bring a pocket Mag flashlight, because the porters schlep all of the 80 some-odd suitcases from the ferry on bunch of metal dollies, then unceremoniously dump them onto the dock and walk away. Without light you’ll be climbing blind with everyone else through the heap as if looking for your kid among a group of refugees; and even though yours is wearing an orange ribbon, so are 17 others, so good luck with that.

Kind of a dubious start to the last leg of the vacation, but unlike Taha’a, where we’d just left, the weather the next day was warmer and the sky sunny. Good omen—and, turned out, an accurate one.

Bougainvillea, Bora Bora

Bougainvillea in the morning light.

I had begun this voyage feeling pretty ragged, physically and mentally, the result of years of sickness (and sick of being sick). Bora Bora was the point underneath the pushpin of this whole nutty idea I had to span half the planet. I wanted to absorb that elusive je ne sais quoi, that whatever it was I needed, body and soul, from the blue water I had heard about. I started stitching my wounds back on Mo’orea, in the ray water, and I finished here. I wasn’t 100% healed, but I felt as though what needed attending, what needed dressing, had been. It’s been said that sometimes healing comes from unexpected people, places and things. This felt like a beneficent conspiracy between my psyche (overwhelmed, exhausted, but apparently still intuitive) and these islands. Why this blue, why these islands? Who knows? More to the point, who cares? It worked.

These pictures come pretty close to doing the color of the water justice, and I’m grateful, because I really wanted you to see what I saw. It’s a profound, otherworldly blue. I live on the NJ coast, just 3.5 blocks to the ocean. But the Atlantic is like McEnroe—he’s fantastic, but in the front of your mind is always, always the knowledge that he could flatten you at any second.

In contrast, the coral reefs that surround French Polynesia prevent anything more than low tide-sized waves. They lap against the white sand all day long, like a friendly Shih-Tzu, drawing you in. When you do, when you stand out in the middle of the water, you don’t have to fight it. It accommodates you, this astonishingly clear aquamarine color rippling around your waist. You can look straight down to the ocean floor at your feet, at shells, and at any errant, vibrantly colored fish.

Click on this shot…lean toward your space heater (what I’m doing right now as I type this) and get your feet wet with me.

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Below is a good shot of the stripey water. It announces the water’s depth: the darker, the deeper.

Hammock, Novotel Bora Bora

At the Novotel Bora Bora Hotel, looking out to sea over one of those groovy infinity pools.

We visited these islands in the austral winter, in late May-early June. ‘Windswept’ is the best way to describe Bora Bora’s Neverland-like dreaminess, and this image illustrates it well.

Windy day, Bora Bora

Some self-important travellers call this island ‘Bora Boring’. I’ll grant that you do more or less have to be a water/watersport person, or a content-to-lie-on-the-beach person, or a deep-pocketed person who can afford the 4×4 tours that take you into the heart of the island to see maraes and World War II cannons. Nightlife is zipola. There’s not much of a town to speak of. We spent most of the travel kitty on the motu picnic back on Mo’orea, so doing anything pricey here was out of the question.

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Excuse me, but why isn’t US currency so awesome looking?

But I say more or less because we really were happy just to wander. Each morning we walked along the only traversable road, the one that encircles the island, about a mile away from the hotel. For breakfast we ate wonderful croissants, slices of fresh baguette and local fruit and drank mango juice. Once, on our way back to the hotel, we took the beach instead of the road and looked for shells. Another day we took a walk into town and bought a little sack of vanilla beans and a couple of necklaces from a lady under an awning. Turns out the island attitude as well as the water had soaked into us, and that attitude’s name is RELAX.

Local color, Bora Bora

Local color.

When I remember Bora Bora, I think of vignettes, little freeze frames that reveal the unique flavor of the place.

I think of a little boy, about five years old, getting into his mom’s car. All he was wearing was a grin—not even shoes—and he was what my own mom would call brown as a berry. Going around starkers in public is something I will obviously never experience, but with my fair complexion, neither will I know the freedom of never having to wear sunblock. Every day of my life I wear it, and always will. I envied him.

I think of a stray dog we saw on the street one day, standing in a deep puddle, looking into it and wagging furiously. There must have been a fish or a crab in the water, and he was totally entertained, just walking back and forth with his muddy paws, trying to anticipate where whatever it was would go next. It was adorable. And I think of another stray dog on the beach, barking and wagging at a woman. Turns out she was throwing a small coconut into the water and he was retrieving it, over and over.

I think of the local guys zipping around on mopeds, doing stunts that would have driven Evel Knievel to take up stamp collecting. First they’d peel out down the road, then they’d do wheelies, and then they’d stand on their seats at the same time. One guy after another. No helmets. Laughing. I kept wondering if I was destined to remember Bora Bora as the island where I saw a man die right in front of me. Thankfully it never happened. Never, either, did I see cops or law enforcement of any kind. The attitude on Bora Bora is not just RELAX but also laissez faire.*

And I think of the food. Some of it is meh (like pizza crust, predictably frozen), but pizza toppings were always good. The Mai Tai Polynesia Hotel had a pie covered with ham and hot, fresh chunks of sweet local pineapple. For dessert we had their delicious banana tatin with a dip of vanilla ice cream.**

Baguettes in grocery store, Bora Bora

Baguettes for the taking in the local supermarche.

One place we frequented for dinner had lousy service (Michael likened it to our 1998 Orlando, FL visit to a Waffle House, which shared its philosophy: ‘Committed to getting you the hell out of here as quickly as possible’) but we kept going to La Bounty because their chocolate cake was outrageous. Dense, creamy, flourless, topped with hot fudge and chopped almonds and pistachios. And it was warm. And it came with a little pitcher full of creme anglaise, because if you’re eating this cake anyway, why just dip your toes in when you could be swimming in happiness?

I sound like I’m exaggerating. I’m not. The island was settled by the FRENCH.

One place we went to was a certified home run—food, service, atmosphere—and that place was Bloody Mary’s.

A board outside showcased all of the famous people who have eaten there. And this guy was right outside the door. At night he gets spotlighted in green.

Tiki, Bloody Mary's, Bora Bora

Bloody Mary’s has sand for a floor and lacquered wooden tables and stools. They also have an incredible cheeseburger, appropriately named ‘The Jimmy Buffett’, and equally incredible local coconut ice cream.

Bloody Mary's, Bora Bora

Wooden stool, Bloody Mary's, Bora Bora

Cool close-up.

We had the place to ourselves for the most part until an inevitable feral cat wandered in, as laissez faire as management. He was quiet, but effectively communicated his opinion on the best place for cheeseburgers.

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Pigs. Share.

As enjoyable as the food at Bloody Mary’s was, the bathrooms were even better. The one for les femmes was outfitted with a sink made of pebbles that went right up the wall. No taps. When you pulled a chain from the ceiling, after a beat, water trickled down in a wide stream from the top pebbles into a basin in the center. This thing KILLED me.

Pour les hommes: Well…I’m told the urinal featured a phallic flush pull-chain.

Hanging at home on my wall I have a vintage printer’s rack in which I display rocks from famous and unforgettable places all over the world. From this trip I have a rock from the water beneath our bungalow on Mo’orea, a lava stone from a marae on Raiatea, and a cement-like rock from the garden in the bathroom at Bloody Mary’s. Sentimental sap, me.

Leaving Bora Bora

*Something I forgot to tell you that further proves this point: In our room at the Club Bali Ha’i on Mo’orea, on the wall was a framed letter which in very polite language stated something along the lines of, ‘We realize there may be uneven stepping stones on some of the paths here, or there may be some overhanging branches over others, or that your room walls and floors may have exposed pipes, etc. Please take into consideration that what is construed as dangerous where you are from (most visitors to Tahiti are Americans, Australians or Japanese), it is not necessarily construed as dangerous to islanders. Please try to relax and have a good time.’

**French Polynesia does way better with restaurant desserts than the US. They not only taste better, but they’re a better value. A basic US restaurant will want $7 or more for their desserts, and in my experience, more often than not, it’s a sugary, chemical-laden, very recently boxed and frozen little sliver of something onto which is piled cheap ice cream and pretend whipped cream. Your gracious restaurant hosts are betting you will be too impressed/distracted by this quaking, amorphous blob to notice that they’re stiffing you and giggling about it in the kitchen. On these islands, for all we knew they might have served us some frozen desserts. But even if they were, they were bloody good quality, and for the equivalent of $7 or so you got a lot for your money.

By the way, if you are very reasonably wondering why I haven’t posted any pictures of the food we ate on this trip, it’s because we took the trip when I was not yet a food writer. Being a lifelong writer and a lifelong, rabid foodie, though, I took copious notes about WHAT we ate. Thank goodness.

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When the world got to be too much for Holly Golightly, she went to Tiffany’s. Ishmael went to sea. Me, I go to Trader Joe’s just because I know the guy behind the register will take the shopping basket right out of my hand and pack everything up himself. And he’ll grin the whole time, and say the corn chips I am buying are his current addiction.

Sure it’s summer, but that doesn’t automatically mean comfort sits in our laps every day, all day. Sometimes, like today, which must be the 17th sticky, grey day in a row, we need to seek out (or barring that, to remember) the stuff that makes us grin like a Trader Joe’s cashier. Here are some of my favorites.

1) Listening to a farmer describe how she relaxes after a long, hot day at the market: she goes inside her barn, turns on the fan, and cracks open a cold beer.

2) Choosing the tightest, smoothest, rosiest heirloom tomatoes for my favorite summer sandwich: sliced on bread smeared with mayonnaise, sprinkled with salt, and summarily devoured.

3) Watching shaggy-haired groms—that’s pre-teen surfers—skateboarding to the beach with a slice of pizza poised in one hand and a bottle of Coke in the other.

4) Seeing local theatre productions that are big enough to attract extraordinary talent but small enough that afterward you can meet and shake the hands of the actors.

5) Having a teatime treat of cherries (or peaches, or blueberries) with a drizzle of real cream.

6) Visiting a local farm and having your zucchini weighed on an ancient scale.

7) Watching dogs on the beach, wet from seawater, tear up and down the beach as they follow their surfing owners.

8) Going to the boardwalk and being handed a sopping, sloppy hot sausage sandwich with absolutely no pretense.

9) Being at the beach to witness the sunset bathing everything for miles in palest pink.

10) Strolling the midway at the Italian-American festival in Oakhurst, NJ every August for the food, rides and more of my cousins on one acre than anyplace else on earth.

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Crayfish and shrimp stew.

Last weekend I drove down to Ellicott City, MD to my college roommate’s house, jumped in the van with her, her three girls and the dog, and continued down to Colonial Williamsburg.

I’m not a serious history buff—I don’t know the Hawley-Smoot tariff from a hole in the ground (it might have been, for all I know)—but I’m one of those people who loves historical places, thinking places, and beautiful places. Factor in good food and we’re golden.

I love that you can wander around most of Colonial Williamsburg and don’t have to pay to do it. I love that the original plank floors in the King’s Arms Tavern are still there, worn and smooth and grey, and that George Washington’s boots crossed them more than once. I love that the place has been so authentically restored that if Thomas Jefferson were beamed back from the dead and dropped onto Duke of Gloucester Street, barring us with our fanny packs and our iphones, he wouldn’t see a thing different than he ever knew.

When I travel I make a point to eat something that the region is known for. Lunch at the Shields Tavern offered some tasty southern/colonial choices. Lordy, how I do love Carolina pulled pork, and I was tempted to get it, but pushed the envelope and ordered crayfish and shrimp stew. Described as an 18th century recipe, it includes tomatoes, vegetables, sherry and seafood. But the addition of that sherry plus a splash of cream really made it a bisque, and it truly lived up to that name: velvety, rich and savory. It was full of calories and full of flavor, and I didn’t care about the first part.

Tender Sally Lunn bread, watermelon-rind relish, those addicting ginger cookies that are sold on the street under awnings—these are the flavors of long ago, carefully recreated to give visitors a genuine taste of the cooking of the area’s English-Scottish settlers. Tasting it is a trip anyway, but if you’re used to Hot Pockets and Yoplait for lunch, it’s even trippier. My favorite dish is Game Pie—rabbit, duck and venison under a crust. Just the description makes my mom squinch her mouth up like Wile E. Coyote when he’s standing immobile just over a cliff and holding a sign that reads ‘Help’, but I adore it. And Colonial Williamsburg’s root beer—sharp on the tongue and intensely flavored—is a standout drink. Not for wusses, and I wish I’d bought a case of it to bring home.

After lunch we did what Colonial Williamsburg is best for: wandering. Photo opportunities are endless for normal people who like to take shots of trees or architecture or an errant fife and drum procession as well as for less-than-normal people who like to take pictures of rusty things and bricks. Three guesses which category I belong in.

Rusty padlock.

Path and boxwoods.

Sleepy ewe.

Bricks in stages of curing.

18th century fence.

Portrait.

Moss and lichen.

Magnolia blossom.

Peeling shutter.

Lightfoot.

Portrait.

Swiss chard.

Hitching post and elm.

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