ASPCA donation = surefire mail SPAM

So a year or two ago, I made a donation to the ASPCA. I love animals, so it was a logical thing to do. But oh boy, now I really wish I hadn't.

See, the thing is, I like trees, too. And those guys not only send me at least one mailing a week — they've also obviously sold/given my name to other animal organizations, who also now send me mail spam.

I wrote them and said I wasn't going to donate to them anymore if they kept spamming me. They kept spamming me. So lately, I've resorted to becoming my own manual spam filter by writing "return to sender" on the envelopes, and blacking out the address. I used to not black out the address, but about half the mail just ended up back in my mailbox. The Postal Service...not the most observant crew out there.

So, donater beware — if you donate to the ASPCA, only do it if you love animals but hate trees. And if anyone out there knows of an organization that helps animals but doesn't mail you a crap ton of stuff, let me know.


The 10 Best Lobster Rolls of My Life (So Far)

Yankee Lobster roll looks like a prototypical lobster roll, but it didn't make the list.

Lobster rolls are a funny thing with me. The first time I had one, it was transcendendant. Fresh, tender, hot, buttery lobster — one of the best things I've ever eaten in my life.

And for some reason, probably because that best-ever lobster roll was consumed in Bar Harbor, Maine, a locale that's not easy to get back to, I continue to seek out that same level of perfection in other locations selling lobster rolls. I am often disappointed, and yet, unlike in the area of fish and chips (where I know the best best best ever fish and chips are served at the Ship Anson in Portsmouth, UK, and they have ruined me for life for all other fish and chips), I feel compelled to continue in my lobster roll superiority quest.

Let's talk about what constitutes a lobster roll. Traditionally, it was served cold, as a lobster "salad" roll, comprised of the less-desireable claw-and-other-bits meat and mixed with mayonnaise and perhaps some other spices or greenery. It was, essentially, a sandwich lobstermen could take with them for lunch while they were out doing their lobster thing.

Personally, and probably because that first roll I had was hot, I think it's time we moved beyond tradition. Because believe me, a good hot lobster roll beats a good cold lobster roll. Every. Single. Time. Sweet, tender lobster with a smattering of butter, all without any more manual labor than opening your mouth and chewing. Drool.

The trouble is, a lot of things can go wrong with a lobster roll. The bread is a common failing, and one that should be easier to get right. The top-split hot dog bun is best, buttered and grilled. Generally in my experience, restaurants fail when they try to depart from this. The lobster meat is another common failing. Although it's put on a bun and served as a sandwich, the lobster roll should still feature fresh, tender lobster. Many don't, unfortunately.

On a recent trip to Boston, I realized I'd passed more than 10 lobster rolls consumed, and perhaps it was time to start ranking them. I have hopes that some day another place will move in high in the rankings, but as I've tried many of the well-reviewed lobster rolls from D.C. to Boston, it's possible this is it unless I get back to Maine.

1. The Lobster Claw, Bar Harbor, Maine — A lobster roll should be relatively easy, but there are a lot of ways to screw it up. This place set the standard by doing everything right. Lobster fresh off the boat, cooked up in the back, and immediately plunked down on your roll with a side of butter. Pure lobstery perfection that started a quest. And sadly, perhaps no more, as it appears from Yelp that they're closed. Let us hope it's just for the season. I like to think someday I can go back to Bar Harbor and have another lobster roll this good.

Lobster roll and oysters at Abbott's Lobster in the Rough.

2. Abbott's Losbter in the Rough, Noank, Connecticut — Although the first hot lobster roll I had was in Maine, apparently the hot style is actually called a Connecticut-style roll. And Abbot's does a damn good job of it, although it serves it on a hamburger bun instead of the hot dog bun. It's clear the lobster is fresh, and cooked up fresh, and you get to enjoy it by the water. Wins all around, and enough to excuse the non-traditional bun, mainly because it's still the right texture and consistency, if not the normal shape.

3. Legal Test Kitchen, Boston, Massachusetts — I'm surprised a cold roll could rank this high on my list, but LTK does a lot of things right. The bread is the split, buttered and grilled hot dog bun, and the lobster meat, although cold, is clearly fresh and very tender, with just the right amount of mayo. There's a lot of meat, and eating it is a challenge that involves a lot of balancing; they should do without the piece of lettuce between the lobster meat and the bun and jam that meat in there a little more. Aside from that, though, I have no complaints.

The Daniel Packer Inn roll: so much potential, so many bread issues.

4. Captain Daniel Packer Inn, Mystic, Connecticut — The DPI got way too ambitious with its bread, putting some very good and more upscale (sherry butter and shallots, anyone?) hot lobster on a crusty bun that was nigh unchewable. With some nice, tender bread, it would have easily beaten the LTK roll, and might have even been ahead of Abbott's.

5. Luke's Lobster, New York, New York — A bit of a cross between a hot and a cold roll, this was served fairly close to room temperature with a bit of mayo and a bit of butter. It tasted better than it sounds, with fairly tender lobster meat on a classic split top hot dog bun.

6. Red Hook Lobster (tent), Washington D.C.-ish — I had one of Red Hook's hot lobster rolls from a tent they had at a festival, not from their line-around-the-block truck that moves around downtown D.C. I hope to rectify this one day and try the roll out of the truck, but for now, my impression of the roll was that, while it was nice that it was warm, the lobster meat had clearly been cooked beforehand and then warmed up. That is NOT the way to cook a hot lobster roll, and the meat ends up overly done and too chewy as a result.

Neptune Oyster's roll had tons of plate appeal, but didn't live up to it.

7. Neptune Oyster, Boston, Massachusetts — This one was rated well in the Boston foodie-verse, but did not live up to its rating, in my opinion. Problem number one was that, like Red Hook's, the meat was overdone and too tough and chewy. Problem number two was that they went with a brioche roll for the bread, and it couldn't stand up to the lobster and butter; it was mushy before I took the first bite. Oh, and problem number three is the $25 price tag. Now, I am as annoyed as anyone to read reviews about lobster rolls that complain about how expensive they are. It's a LOBSTER roll, people, not a turkey sandwich. However, for $25 that lobster should be melting in your mouth, and it wasn't even close. I do love the swanky-classic tiled interior of the place, but stick to the oysters here and go somewhere else for a lobster roll fix.

8. Tackle Box, Washington, D.C. — A fairly tender lobster salad roll, served on the classic bun if I remember correctly. Nothing to write home about, but not bad, either. I do enjoy the pseudo-beach-shack atmosphere, too.

9. J's Oyster, Portland, Maine — I had this one and the similarly unadorned Yankee Lobster roll within days of each other, but this one makes the list more on the strength of the J's Oyster ambiance than the roll itself. Yankee Lobster's definitely had more lobster, but I enjoyed my meal at J's more. And they did give you mayo on the side, so you could mayo to your own preferences.

10. Hank's Oyster Bar, Washington, D.C. — Another salad-style roll, a little too heavy on the mayonnaise, although that's preferable to completely unadorned (a pile of cold lobster is surprisingly untasty). Another place to stick to the oysters.


One-bagging it: Better with wheels

So after my last trip to Europe, one thing I didn't write much about was my attempt at one-bag travel. Well, it was at least what I would call one-bag travel; some purists would say that since I had a carry-on and a personal item, that wasn't technically one-bagging it. Whatever. I was traveling light, and I didn't check any luggage going out on my long-haul flight.

I got really excited about the idea of carry-on only travel as I was planning for my trip. I visited web sites like this one, and this one, and, knowing that I had a trip with lots of legs and travel on all manner of planes, trains, subways, and buses, I was sold.

The premise of one-bag travel is pretty simple — pack really light, and cut out "just in case" items. This is somewhat difficult for me, as I like to be prepared for anything. But when I began planning what I wanted to take on my trip, I found that I could still take the sorts of essentials I like to have (sewing kit, eyeglass repair kit, mini roll of duct tape, enough band-aids for minor surgery) and still have plenty of space in my suitcase. And I did cut out some of the more ridiculous always-prepared items I might have otherwise taken.

The primary way to fit everything into a carry-on is to cut down on your clothing and shoes. I planned to take only two pairs of shoes, plus an odd little pair of lightweight shower flip flop things, and I bought a travel clothesline, sink stopper, and laundry soap sheets to do some wash in the sink (I also planned to, and did, make use of the washer and dryer at our house in Ireland).

eBags Weekender (photo from Amazon)

I also asked for (and received) a new bag for Christmas, and based on the advice of the one-bag experts, I went with one without wheels, the eBags Weekender, a relatively inexpensive foray into the wheel-less bag world. This was a major mind shift for me, as I've always used wheeled suitcases, but I believed the arguments. They were, to sum up: without wheels, your hands are free; without wheels, you don't have to worry about cobblestones in Europe; without wheels, you won't have to worry about stairs; and wheel-less bags are lighter and have more interior space than wheeled bags.

I was all ready for one-bag travel. And then two things happened. One was that I developed a foot problem, and my podiatrist recommended taking my air cast in case I needed it (I did). The other is I came down with some sort of cold/sinus infection/plague just before I left. As a result, I was suddenly lugging around an unexpected air cast and small pharmacopia of cold remedies in my bag, which made it weigh a lot more than I was expecting it would.

(As a disgusting aside: sadly, none of the cold remedies cleared up my illness, even a z-pack...what finally ditched it was throwing up pure stomach acid when I had food poisoning. Nothing burns out your throat-schnoz-ear system faster.)

So, cue me with my heavier-than-expected bag, walking through the various transit systems of Ireland and the United Kingdom. The first annoying thing was that the chest straps that helped make it more stable also made it a pain to take off. So when I was waiting for the subway or on an actual subway car, I'd have to weigh the effort of undoing all the straps against the weight hanging on my back. But the second, far more concerning thing, was all that weight on my back. Turns out, my back is not that strong. As I walked through the endless tunnels of the London Tube system, my shoulders ACHED, and I began to long for wheels — even when I encountered stairs. Said stairs and cobblestones were few and far between when compared to the amount of regular, flat pavement.

The longer I went on my trip, the more unhappy I was about my bag. Everything else worked pretty well. I did laundry in my hotel rooms, and learned the important lesson that things dry much faster if you roll them in a towel after washing them. I discarded a book after I finished it, with a Bookcrossing.com marker in it. I used solid toothpaste and shaving cream sheets and Lush solid shampoo (okay, maybe that last one doesn't count...I use those every day).

I enjoyed not having a ton of stuff to keep track of, and not having to worry about carting around a steamer trunk-sized suitcase. I just really, really, wanted wheels, to the point where I thought about trying to find a store selling one of those collapsible luggage carts to start using on my bag.

Skyway No Weight Ultra (photo from Amazon)

So this year I decided to buy a lightweight wheeled bag. I lusted after the Zuca Pro, but went with the MUCH less expensive Skyway No Weight Ultra. It's only about 2-3 pounds heavier than my eBags backpack, but it has sweet, smooth, ultra-stable wide-stance wheels.

Then I put it to the test. Without an enormous amount of thought put into packing (I took three books, a weight no-no, and too many toiletries and clothes), I took it on the closest thing to a European trip you can do in the U.S. — a six day train trip to Boston. Cobblestones? Not so much, but there were definitely brick streets and stubbly D.C. Metro platform edges. And the Boston T's long subway corridors, punctuated with odd half-flights of stairs, were pretty much the exact equivalent of the London Tube (okay, maybe there wasn't quite as much gap to mind). Thanks to Metro's rampant escalator failures, I also got some experience at carrying it up and down full flights of stairs.

My verdict? Wheels win. Wheels win so much, it's not even funny. It was totally stable on the bricks and platform stubble, and pulled just fine. It has a nice rubber carry handle that I could grab whenever I needed to reach down and carry it on stairs, and because of the light weight, it was no big deal any time I needed to do so. And I popped that sucker up in the overhead train bin with no problems at all.

I'm going to keep my wheel-less bag, as I think there will still be some travel situations where it will be the better bag, and if I do ever need to travel with two bags, having one wheel-less, lighter-packed bag will be really handy. My old asshole-sized carry-on (you know, the one that's just a leetle bit over the appropriate size, which meant I never actually used it as a carry-on) will be the casualty of the new suitcase purchase.

I'm looking forward to one-bagging it again in Europe next year, with wheels. Now I just need a Kindle to deal with that too-many-books problem.


So what was this rally about, anyway?

Crowd at the Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear

So as the glut of photos that landed in my Flickr stream might indicate, I went to the Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear on Saturday. Reading the post-rally coverage since has been sometimes amusing, and sometimes infuriating.

The trouble is, no one really (still) can put their finger on exactly what the rally was about, except maybe the people who were there. We weren't looking for any political stance (in fact, a political stance, or, even worse, encouragement to vote for any one party, would have ruined it). We weren't looking for any stance on anything, actually. The Daily Show isn't about stances, it's about pointing out ridiculousness, and making you laugh. No one should have expected the rally to be any different.

I remember the vibe from inauguration, and the rally did not have that vibe. When Barack Obama came in to office, he did so with a promise of change, and the promise of "Yes We Can!" Well, like it or not, we've seen change, and we've had to accept the reality that huge problems cannot be solved in two years. But I think the thing that most deflated us was that we never really saw the "We."

Sure, there were opportunities to knock on doors, and make phone calls. But there was also the growing realization that doing so was just going to elect the same old people to the same old political system. Regardless of whatever happens tomorrow, we have a Congress run by polar opposites, who run around opposing each other, and would rather be jerks and not get anything done than compromise.

Stewart had it right when he pointed out that everybody else compromises all the time. We compromise in our jobs, in our relationships, in our lives. That's how we get things done — we are sane, and we are reasonable. But that's not how Congress operates, and I think it's the source of everything from the Tea Party to deflated Democrats.

So what this rally was about, at least for me, was admitting that things are screwed up, and we don't know how to solve them, and when you feel the sense of desparation that comes from that, it's nice to have a laugh or 56. And if there's one thing Jon Stewart does — in the rally, and on his show — it's pointing out when media personalities and elected officials are being ridiculous. Although he does it for the purpose of a punchline, he holds their feet to the fire more than the mainstream media. And that's why more and more people get their news from The Daily Show.

If Stewart attacked anyone, it wasn't the right, or the left — it was the media, and they deserve it. And generally, the media response seems to have been "Wait. What? Us? Uhhhhh.....THIS RALLY WAS A FAILURE!" Try to be a little less transparent, guys, really.

David Carr of the New York Times wrote:

"Media bias and hyperbole seem like pretty small targets when unemployment is near 10 percent, vast amounts of unregulated cash are being spent in the election’s closing days, and no American governing institution — not the Senate, not the House of Representatives, not even the Supreme Court — seems to be above petty partisan bickering. Mr. Stewart couldn’t really go there and instead suggested it was those guys over there in the press tent who had the blood of democracy on their hands."

Well, David Carr, like it or not, Jon Stewart is still a host for a show on the Comedy Channel, whereas you are a columnist for the newspaper of record. It's not actually his job to "go there." It's YOURS.

Because it's not just the "24-hour political pundit perpetual panic conflictinator" that's the problem. It's journalists who don't even deserve the term, and not just the cable ones.

You — the real news journalists, not the comedy news ones — were supposed to be the "fourth estate," the one that pointed out when the other three were failing. You used to be watchdogs, and now you're more like poodles, yipping at Jon Stewart.

So, for me, going to the rally was acknowledging that things are broken, in politics, and in the media, and the "We" of "Yes We Can!" don't know how to help fix them. It was a chance to go be out with 200,000 or so other people who — I think — feel the same way, and commiserate and laugh with them.

Now I just wish we could figure out where to take that energy, that silent majority understanding that we need to compromise to get this country moving in the right direction. Sanity Party, anyone?


Underworld concert number 3: "We're old, but we're here"

Giant Karl Hyde shadow.

Back in my mid-20s, my hands-down number one musical goal was to see Underworld live. I'd seen video of their concerts, and the idea of a non-stop dance party to all of my favorite electronic songs was enormously appealing. I'll admit, I even thought about going to see them in Europe if they never made it back to the U.S. on tour, because there for awhile, they were pretty quiet on album output, and played only a few select European dates.

Then they released "Oblivion With Bells," and played a few dates in the United States, including one in New York at Central Park. Underworld a mere train ride away? My friend Melvin and I jumped at the chance to see them, and it was an amazing concert — one of the most memorable nights of my life. And then surprisingly, they came around again the year after, to play Virgin Fest in Baltimore. So Melvin and I went again, to watch them play an incredible set in a terrible venue (Virgin Fest called it the "Dance Tent", but it should have been the "Dust Tent").

I went a year with no Underworld concerts, but then this year, wonder of wonders, they played at the 9:30 Club here in D.C. Well, after all that trekking to see them, there's no way I was going to pass on it when they were a Metro ride away. So, you guessed it, Melvin and I (and let me just note, I am exceedingly lucky to have a friend who loves Underworld concerts as much as me) went to see them again last night. Now a full four years after our first Underworld concert, we were remarking on passing 30 and getting old before the concert. In my case, I've been battling a problem with my foot since February, and, well, let's just say there aren't a lot of bands that could get me out to a concert on a Monday night these days. In fact, there might only be one.

But hey, we did come out on a Monday night, and so our mantra became "we're old, but we're here." We were out with the rest of the trending-older crowd — the median age was looking pretty thirty-something — to dance nonstop for a couple of hours to the group that literally redefined electronic music in the 1990s. And yes, foot or not, I danced (although I will admit to wearing my New Balances); the latest theory on my foot is that there's nothing structurally wrong with it, so I decided to put that theory to the test.

This was the sort of crowd that pulled their glow sticks out of retirement.

But enough about me. What about Underworld? Well, going back to the whole age thing, these guys — who are at least 20 years older than me — put out two almost entirely nonstop hours of high-energy music. It may actually have been the most intense Underworld concert I've been to, and that's saying a lot.

They started things out with Downpipe, then into Always Loved a Film, one of the better songs off of their new album, "Barking." I'll admit that I'm not loving "Barking" as much as their previous albums; it's pretty poppy and accessible, almost too much so. I think now that I've heard some of the songs, though, I might come back to it and give it another try. It's never going to be a "Second Toughest in the Infants" (the greatest electronic album, ever), but then, maybe I shouldn't expect a group to be able to replicate that level of genius again. The video screen — an Underworld requisite — came up during Film and was used periodically throughout the night, showing videos that were arty, occasionally strange, and, as always, key to the experience. The lighted tubes from the last two shows were gone, however (or they just didn't fit on the 9:30 Club stage).

Then they were on to more familiar territory with the lovely one-two punch of Dark Train, complete with the requisite flashing lights accompanying the synth chords at the song's climax, and then Two Months Off. Two Months Off is the song that gives me hope for the new Underworld album, because I didn't really get it when it was on the album. It was okay, sure, but it always felt kind of odd and stilted. Live, though, it loses all those harsh edges and comes out huge, hopeful, and immensely dance-able. I have a feeling that somewhere on "Barking" there's another song like it, one that will continue to morph live until they've turned it into one of the big Underworld dance anthems everyone's always waiting for at their concerts.

However, I don't think You Do Scribble, the next song, is going to be that song. It's one that's already been developing over the years (they actually played it in Baltimore and I think I liked it better then) and somehow turned into a poppy breakbeat thing that just doesn't entirely do it for me. That's the weird thing about Underworld. They've got these songs that, live, just hit you in the gut and compel you to dance. There's nothing identifiably wrong with Scribble, but it just doesn't have that gut punch. Bird 1 was next, one of the slower songs they did, and probably the one I could have most swapped out for something else (Rowla, you were missed).

Then again, it was a handy breather for my old self, and I needed that breather when it was time for Rez/Cowgirl. There weren't any slippery-awesome transitions to it this time, just standard Rez/Cowgirl, which is still always, always, always outstanding — that moment when the bleeps and blips really kick in and the crowd just goes nuts is always one of my favorites.

Rick Smith does (heavily processed, but still!) backing vocals!

They went back to new material in their next two songs, but it was stronger stuff (two candidates, perhaps, for the new Two Months Off). Between Stars was nice and crisp, and Diamond Jigsaw was a real surprise, with Karl Hyde strapping on a guitar that was core to the song, instead of a little extra texture. And indeed, it does have that same sort of big, happy feeling that Two Months Off does.

At about this point, I was feeling like Underworld might have played a few too many new songs, and that was going to cheat me out of some of the big, barnstorming electronica anthems they're known for. Um, no. Instead, they just played a longer set. And that is why I love them.

King of Snake kind of snuck in, without any of Shudder, so it was a slowly dawning realization that they were going to do it, and it was an excellent one. I was kind of disappointed in the transitions this time around — there weren't as many of those brilliant little moments as they slid from one song into another. But it seemed like they were working on something else this time, equally brilliant and interesting, and that was reinventing songs like King of Snake. Yes, the gigantic I Feel Love, four-on-the-floor beat was still holding up the bottom, but the piano was gone, replaced with new bleeps and blips, and it made the song every bit as dance-able as it's always been, but newly intruiging.

Karl Hyde has impossible amounts of energy.

And then, of course, Underworld might try a set in Europe without Born Slippy .NUXX, but there's to be none of that in the U.S. People might tend toward mutiny if they never got to shout "Lager! Lager! Lager!." So it was next, without the sneaky little bit of the original Born Slippy kicking it off this time, just a booming beat and some dissonant wailing synth that built and built and built until it was identifiable, and increasing amounts of the crowd lost it. What do you say about Born Slippy? It's the ultimate gut-punch song, something you can play and never fail to get a crowd going, and saving it for the end left us all primed and ready for it.

They closed with Born Slippy, and left the stage for two or three minutes, max, (granted, the crowd was screaming and clapping for the entirety of that time) before coming back out for an encore. I was primed for disappointment at this point, because the last two times I've seen them live, they closed with Jumbo, which is one of my least favorite Underworld songs. Oh, but this time, they came in with that distinctive opening to Dirty Epic and I screamed at the top of my lungs. Truly. Something snapped loose in my throat when I did it, and today I sound like I gargled with razor blades.

Dirty Epic is one of my all-time favorite Underworld songs; not a dance song, but one that shows their range, their ability to create these amazing, atmospheric electronic songs. Every time I listen to it, my brain creates its own little Underworld video screen, filled with dark rain-soaked brick alleys and old houses with faded wallpaper and London Tube platforms late at night. It's beautifully evocative. And maybe it doesn't translate all of that live, sped up smidge so that some of the crowd was swaying, and some people were out and out trying to dance. But so nice to stand there and close my eyes and sway and sing those strange and brilliant lyrics.

Moaner: Crazy intense.

Both of the previous times I'd seen them, Underworld did a one-song encore. But this time they weren't done, and they pulled out a wicked transition to redeem themselves in the transition department and close out the night — hinting, hinting, hinting, and then, finally, Moaner. Rez/Cowgirl might be a thing of beauty, and Born Slippy might be the electronica anthem of all time, but NOTHING is more intense live than Moaner. They come in with that big booming undertone and the high, frantic synth, and then top that all off with the increasingly desperate vocals, plenty of smoke and impossibly fast strobe lights, and everybody can't help but leave it all on the floor.

And we did, capping off a two-hour set, watching our hands stutter above our heads in the lights. Dancing because this was it and it was crazy and our guts compelled us to, no matter how old we were.


My 10 favorite Lush products

So this is a blog post that I've been meaning to write for awhile, because, well, over the past year I have converted into pretty much a total Lush fangirl. My bathroom counter looks like a mini Lush store these days, because I love their products — they're effective, use mostly natural ingredients and only the bare minimum of preservatives, and they're environmentally friendly. A win all-around.

And after doing something very very bad to my skin last night (slathering it with zombie makeup, if you must know), I went for #1 on the list to save it, and remembered I'd been meaning to write this post. So here it is — my 10 favorite Lush products:

10. Vanilla in the Mist Soap — before I got a sample of this soap to try, my favorite soap might have been a tie between Honey I Washed the Kids and Sexy Peel. But this soap smells ridiculously good, and it's super moisturizing. Lush always aces their vanilla scents and this is a perfect example. It smells so good it's tempting to make a little snack of it in the shower.

9. American Cream Conditioner — Aside from Aveda's eye cream, which I do still use, the last major holdout of other cosmetics brands in my bathroom had been Aveda's Color Revival Conditioner. I started noticing, though, that it just wasn't doing as well as it used to — my hair was starting to get that weird smell it does when the ends are drying out. I'd tried some Lush conditioners before but not American Cream; as soon as I smelled this stuff and saw how heavily a little bit conditioned my hair, I was sold. Unfortunately I have a lot of Aveda left to use up!

8. Saving Face — I found out about Lush's face serums when I was at one of their spas in the UK. These were developed for their spa facials, but they also started selling them in the stores. For someone like me, who has fairly oily skin, this is a kind of scary product to use at first. It's a solid, and you rub it between your palms until it heats up enough to transfer some onto your hands. Then you rub it on your face. And it feels a little greasy. But it turns out, it's good grease, and instead of making me break out, it just made my skin feel much softer in the morning. I use this almost every night now, and I think it's preventing the spread of those post-30 wrinkles that were starting to develop. Also, props to Lush for taking something I would never have thought could be made into a solid, and actually achieving making it a solid, keeping more plastic bottles out of landfills.

7. Dark Angels Cleanser — This is actually not the face cleanser I use most frequently from Lush (Fresh Farmacy is my every morning cleanser, used with my Clarisonic), but it is ridiculously good stuff. It's a favorite because its charcoal soaks up oil like crazy, and it's super-exfoliating. I like to leave it on for a few minutes like a quick mask, then scrub it in before I rinse. I don't use it every day because this. stuff. is. messy. It's all-black, and I have a white sink. Yuck. Like the other two Lush cleansers I use most frequently (the afforementioned Fresh Farmacy and Coalface), it's a solid. Even more plastic bottles eliminated AND they don't have to go in my quart bag when I fly.

6. Big Blue Bath Bomb — I wanted a bath bomb on the list, but this one is sort of a representative of all the bath bombs (and innovative bubble bars, too, for that matter) Lush carries. It is one that I keep going back to, though, for its smells-of-the-sea scent, even though it leaves the tub filled with seaweed, which is not fun to clean up. Like all of the bath bombs, this one is really moisturizing, and makes you want to keep smelling your skin after a bath. Although when I go to Lush, I'm usually there for more practical products like the ones earlier on this list, it's tough to resist going over to the display of bath bombs, looking like an array of little ice cream scoops, and picking one or two out.

5. Volcano Foot Mask — I've been having a problem with swelling, pain, and stiffness in one of my feet since the beginning of this year, and Volcano has been a frequent treatment. It's a foot mask that warms (like, really, really warms — it's kind of freaky) after you put it on, which feels really good for problem feet. It also deodorizes and softens. I accidentally proved how much it was softening, because I was applying it frequently to the bad foot, and sort of forgot about the other one. One day I looked down and realized how soft and exfoliated the skin on Bad Foot was, and how dry and scaly Good Foot was looking. Sorry about that, Good Foot.

4. King of Skin — Yet another excellent solid product. This one is a butter bar that basically works like conditioner for your skin. You swipe it on while your skin is wet, then rinse. King of Skin isn't as exfoliating as some of the other butter bars, but it smells lovely, and it's my favorite. I used to get a lot of irritation when I'd shave my legs, but once I started using King of Skin after, irritation GONE. The only thing I don't like about it is that they changed the shape from a square that fit nicely into their body butter tins (these suckers need to be kept in a tin, or they'll melt all over your shower), to one that's perhaps more ergonomically comfortable, but does not fit in the tin. New King-of-Skin shaped tin, please, Lush? And while you're at it, one sized for the face serums?

3. Squeaky Green Shampoo — This was one of my earliest Lush conversions. Confession: I prescribed for many years to the Procter & Gamble-induced notion that I had dandruff. I mean, I had all the, uh, signs of it, so of course I had dandruff, right? Wrong. I tried out Lush's shampoo bars, and after I finally completely converted over to them, the "dandruff" went away. Now, while Squeaky Green does contain some ingredients that are good for dandruff, I'm pretty sure that what I actually had was an irritated scalp from all the chemical crap P&G puts in its shampoos and conditioners. The shampoo bars (I use a rotation of Squeaky Green and either Ultimate Shine or Seanik) work better than bottled shampoo, and as a side bonus I'm no longer using any plastic shampoo bottles. Or having to include shampoo in my quart bag when I fly. And I get a ton of washes out of each shampoo bar, so they're even more cost effective than the P&G stuff. Win, win, win, win.

2. Lemony Flutter — I use this as a gateway drug to get other people hooked on Lush, so it's one I give as a gift a lot. You know when your cuticles are starting to look a little ragged, and you're sure it's only going to get worse now that they've started to go? Lemony Flutter turns that around, like, immediately. A little douse and they're back to looking healthy. In the winter, sometimes I use it on my entire hands, because mine tend to dry out a ton and even used to crack and bleed (not anymore, in the post-Lemony Flutter era). It's super-moisturizing and smells delicious, and one pot lasts forever. I like to keep two, though — one for work and one for home.

1. Catastrophe Cosmetic — As soon as the zombie makeup came off my face, I knew what it needed. A quick dose of Catastrophe Cosmetic, which, I'm fairly sure, is made of rainbows and magic. I have acne-prone skin; I believe the politer British term is that I "get spots". Whatever you want to call it, I struggled for years and used nasty chemical product after nasty chemical product on my face. It's only been since I switched to Lush products that I've gotten things under control, and even after that, it took me awhile to realize that this was the cornerstone. I don't know what's in there working the magic, but what I do know is that I see INSTANT improvement as soon as I wash it off. It's amazing stuff. Usually now, if I "get spots," it's because it's my own fault I've gone too long between Catastrophe Cosmetic applications (every other night is ideal). Usually, I smear some of the facial serum on underneath before I apply (it's supposed to help the mask penetrate the skin more), and then don't quite wash the mask off all the way, so my skin's still a little chalky when I go to bed, that way it keeps using its magic powers all night. Added bonus: Lush has a program where if you bring back five black pots to the store so they can recycle them, you get a free face mask. So I often get this for free! Note that in the US you have to buy this one in the store, and it needs to stay refrigerated.


My two favorite brands

Today I had a very good customer service experience, and a very bad one. The company responsible for the bad one shall remain nameless, but the very good one reminded me of a blog post I've been meaning to write for a long time.

I've been thinking a lot about brands lately. What makes a strong brand? What makes you keep coming back to a company? What companies make you feel good when you do business with them?

It probably won't come as a surprise to anyone that knows me that the more I thought about it, the more I realized that my two favorite brands out there are Lush and Trader Joe's. A handmade cosmetics company and a specialty grocery store wouldn't seem to have a lot in common when you first look at them. But they do!

Both of them are constantly innovating their product line. They're trying new things, and adding new products. Sometimes, unfortunately, that means old favorites have to go. But there's always a sense of excitement in going to the store or to the web site and seeing something new to try. I have plenty of old favorites at both places, but I almost always try something new when I shop at Lush or Trader Joe's. They're also both liberal with samples, so I don't always have to buy to try.

You feel good about using their products, old or new. Trader Joe's avoids excess preservatives, trans fats, high fructose corn syrup, and all that other similarly cruddy stuff. Lush also avoids excess preservatives, and is pretty innovative in this area — selling many products that are solid and "naked" because as soon as you have water, you need preservatives. Both companies try to use wholesome, organic ingredients whenever possible.

They're both quirky. They're not afraid to name their products with hilarious puns or plays on words, like "Strawberry Feels Forever," or "So this Strawberry Walks into a Bar" (guess which product goes with which company). At Trader Joe's, employees wear Hawaiian shirts and use nautical terms. And if a cashier needs assistance, they ring a bell rather than droning an announcement over the PA. At Lush, they'll fill a splash pool up with a mountain of bubbles, or henna dye someone's hair in the middle of the shop. And they both — and this is important — NEVER play muzak. It might be classic rock, or 80s music, or reggae, but the music selection always seems to have been put on by somebody with a soul. And often with soul, too.

It's FUN to shop at Trader Joe's and Lush. And the employees seem like they're having fun, too — like they're genuinely well-treated and believe in the company they work for. I don't think I've ever encountered someone at either brand who wasn't genuinely enthusiastic about their products, from discussing Cabernet Pot Roast with a Trader Joe's cashier to the new facial serum bars with a Lush employee.

Perhaps most importantly, though, and probably because their employees are so happy with what they do, both companies have outstanding customer service. I wore an air cast for awhile due to a foot injury, and Trader Joe's was the only place where someone offered to help me out. Not only did she offer to help, she literally ran up to me and asked if there was anything she could get me. Trader Joe's also has a ridiculously liberal return policy, and employees never give you a hard time when you bring something back — even if you just didn't like it.

Lush, meanwhile, was the company I referenced at the beginning of this post, the one that I just had an ace customer service experience with. I'd ordered some perfume samples from their UK site (okay, so I really like to check out their new products, and they're available in the UK before the US), and two had arrived with issues with the bottles, one having fully leaked out. I emailed their customer service team, and they apologized profusely and promised to send me new ones, along with some other goodies. Said perfume and goodies arrived today, and let me tell you, they were pretty liberal with the goodies. Even more impressive, with two of the items, it was clear they'd matched the scents of the products — violet and vanilla — to the two perfumes. They didn't just throw any old thing in the box; somebody took the time to put some thought into what I would like based on the perfumes I wanted.

So here's to you, Lush and Trader Joe's, for getting it right in oddly similar ways. Lush, I should also commend you for your brilliant expansion into spas, and your vast and impressive commitment to the environment. Perhaps that's a topic for another post, but at the very least I'll close with this cool video Lush posted recently on its environmental policy.

PS, if you think violet is iffy as a product scent, I would like to introduce you to Tuca Tuca.


Monticello gets it right


After my experience at Colonial Williamsburg, I have to admit I didn't have high hopes for Monticello, my next and nearly last stop. If a place devoted to multiple founding fathers sidestepped important issues like slavery, how could one focused on Thomas Jefferson (who owned slaves and whose stance on slavery shifted throughout his life) do any better?

And here is where I was pleasantly surprised. The guide of my first Monticello tour, the main tour through the ground level of the house, brought up Sally Hemmings before anyone on the tour could ask, and the official Monticello position was that Jefferson probably did have children with Hemmings. The plantation tour, which I took next, went even deeper into the slavery issue, telling fascinating and often sad stories of the slaves that lived on the plantation and their relationship with Jefferson.

The grounds were filled with flowers, and also had an extensive vegetable garden.

Overall, I felt the experience was very balanced. There was plenty of coverage of Jefferson's accomplishments as well, and on the grounds of Monticello, it's easy to see what an accomplishment the house itself is. I toured a lot of typical colonial houses in Williamsburg, and, well, Monticello really stands out after you've seen a lot of those. Filled with innovations and architecturally distinctive, the genius of Jefferson is evident inside and out.

First and second-story windows

I took an additional house tour that went up on the second floor, and although it cost more, I was glad I did. The tour featured a smaller group, and we were allowed to take photos (I realized that the no-photo rules on the ground floor were probably more about moving tour group after tour group after tour group through than any historic preservation reasons). The bedrooms on the second and third floors were mostly unfurnished, but in them I could see how what looked like a one-story house on the outside was actually three. On the second floor, windows were near the floor, so they were immediately on top of the first-floor windows. On the third floor, skylights provided the natural light.

Skylight and roof access

The highlight of the whole tour was the rotunda room, the room inside the rotunda that makes Monticello look so distinctive. When our group walked in, I think every single person either gasped or said, "ooh!" It's painted a vivid yellow, and an enormous, bold space. Unfortunately, prior to the days of air conditioning, it could get up to 140 degrees inside during the summer, so it was mostly used for storage — its primary purpose was in fact to provide the distinctive rotunda.


I also enjoyed the self-guided portions of Monticello, wandering around the support areas. Rather than being in different buildings scattered across the grounds, all of the support areas were housed in a U shape, hidden underground behind the house. Everything from the kitchen to the wine and beer cellars to the horse stables were hidden from view. Again, it was a sharp contrast to the buildings of Williamsburg.

Support area, hidden under the terrace behind the house.

After I finished up at Monticello, I made one more stop, to Jefferson Vineyards, just down the street. I'd had their cabernet franc before at a wine bar, and really liked it, so I did a $5 tasting (unfortunately the cabernet franc is not included), and left with a few bottles of wine and a souvenir glass, the latter included in the tasting. It was a lovely way to wrap up my Virginia trip.


Williamsburg: History, without the warts

Talking with the Marquis de Lafayette

So after spending some time with my family in Cape Charles, VA, I'd planned to swing back home via Colonial Williamsburg and Monticello. As interested as I am in history and as close as I live to both, it was starting to seem ridiculous that I hadn't been to Williamsburg since I was a kid, and had never been to Monticello.

Talking in the apothecary's shop.

I had pretty mixed feelings about Williamsburg. On the one hand, all of the buildings are either fully restored, or painstakingly recreated to look like the city did during revolutionary times. Unlike other historic sites I've been to (save Mystic Seaport), where old buildings are intermingled with the new, in Williamsburg, you can walk around and get an idea of what it was really like during those times. And it's a real site, where real history happened.

Wetherburn's Tavern, one of the historic buildings you can tour.

But something just didn't feel right. I felt it first when I dropped in on "An audience with George Washington," held in an outdoor ampitheater, and the actor they had playing Washington was loudly proclaiming all sorts of things about the revolution. But George Washington wasn't the loud, speechifying type. I felt it more strongly when the crowd of tourists gathered for a reading of the Declaration of Independence. It was read by a trio, each reading parts — a white man standing on the capitol balcony, and a black man and white woman in front of the capitol gate.

I can understand the desire to present a more inclusive front, but let's be realistic, here. Two out of those three people were NOT who the founding fathers were talking about when they said that all men were created equal. When they said men, they really meant land-owning white men. Perhaps if I hadn't read "Lies My Teacher Told Me" shortly before going on my trip, I might have had a different take on Williamsburg. But I did, and the longer I was there, the more I began to feel like they were neglecting real history — particularly slavery — in favor of presenting a Disneyfied front.

Only on one house tour — Randolph House — was slavery a key topic. But plenty of house tours talked about historic preservation. China that was pulled out of a shipwreck, and purchased, to make what we tourists saw on the table as authentic as possible. Painstaking research into the wallpaper and paint on the walls.

I attended one last event, this time an audience with Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson, a man who hated public speaking so much he submitted his state of the union addresses in written form, was presented in Williamsburg as a clear, confident speaker. There were other, smaller historical nitpicks — Jefferson talked about having just written the Declaration of Independence, when in reality, people didn't know who wrote it for many years. I sat and listened for awhile, and realized — Colonial Williamsburg cares more about getting its wallpaper right than the history that matters.

Capitol building.

In an environment that has so much going for it — a real, authentic looking place where history did actually happen — it's disappointing that Williamsburg doesn't make an effort to actually present realistic, balanced history. It's still a place worth going, but it's also a place where I hope the parents of all those kids running about the place know enough history to explain to their kids what really happened 230-some years ago.


Quaint little Cape Charles

Cape Charles, Virginia.

So I'm recently back from another week of vacation, although this time I only went one state over — to Virginia. It's been awhile since my family's last vacation together, so this year we were planning to get a beach house for a week in Virginia Beach.

Actually, we HAD a beach house in Virginia Beach, until the realty company called and said that the owner had rented out the house for the whole summer, and we were basically SOL. We needed a pet-friendly rental, and with just a few months before the trip, they were few and far between. Everything pet-friendly left in Virginia Beach was either super expensive, or a little shady looking. Fortunately, I'd emailed a woman about a Virginia Beach house, and she had replied back saying that it was booked, but she had a place in Cape Charles that was available.

Why it was important to have a pet-friendly place. Otherwise no cute Rex!

I'd never even heard of Cape Charles, but the more we started to read about it, the better it looked. It's across the Chesapeake Bay bridge tunnel from Virginia Beach, on the Eastern Shore in Virginia. A quiet little bay-side town, with a population of about 1,100 people, and from the pictures it looked to have a quaint little downtown. The house was much bigger and nicer than others at the price in Virginia Beach, and only two blocks away from the beach, so we went for it.

We stayed on the left side of this century duplex.

What we got was a far different beach experience than Virginia Beach, but one that was a lot more relaxing and enjoyable. The house was only a block away from "downtown," but the street was a quiet, residential one. And the house itself was clearly a century home, and fairly well updated on the ground floor. Beyond that, a treacherously steep staircase went up to three bedrooms that felt a bit more "century," although they were clean and well-painted. I actually enjoyed them, because it reminded me of the upstairs at my grandparents' old house.

Cape Charles beach.

The beach was never crowded — there were rarely more than about 40 people there, so there was always plenty of space. I found the water to be odd, since the last few beaches I've been to have been Atlantic beaches. On the bay, the water took a very long time to get deep. You could go a hundred yards out and it still might not be up to your waist. It was nice for floating in the inflatable lounger I bought ($6 at Target!), but not so good for swimming, especially since there weren't a lot in the line of waves.

Downtown Cape Charles.

The downtown consisted of about four blocks on one street, a mix of businesses, shops, restaurants, and one coffee house, which I wanted to check out, but didn't manage to with its limited hours. I joked that, aside from restaurants, the town had one of everything — one doctor, one dentist, one eye doctor, one hardware store, one pharmacy, etc.

Kelly's Gingernut Pub.

Dining-wise, there were really only three full-meal, sit-down restaurants, plus the coffee house, a more casual-looking cafe, and a pizza place. None of them were chain restaurants, and the two full restaurants downtown, The Old Fire House and Kelly's Gingernut Pub, were both quite good. The Old Fire House had the edge on food, but Kelly's had an impressive beer list for a small-town place, and looked like it would be a fun bar to have a few pints in. Both of them were in converted buildings — a bank, for Kelly's, and a building that had been a fire station (shocking, I know) and a car dealership at different times for The Old Fire House.

The Old Fire House.

The third restaurant, Aqua, was at a far newer complex outside of the main town, with a marina, shopping mall, and a bunch of condominiums. It was kind of a soulless spot, and there weren't a lot of people out and about there, but all was forgiven when my mom ordered the peach, heirloom tomato, and goat cheese salad there the first time. It was an amazing combination of local produce, and so large she fortunately had to share. We ended up going back a few days later and ordering up more salads, plus main dishes, and the more menu items we tried there, the more clear it was that they were doing great things with local produce — vegetables were the highlight of many dishes. So although Aqua is a blatant attempt to have a swanky, newish restaurant in the swanky, newish marina/condo area, and its space doesn't have nearly the same character as the other restaurants, I have to give them props for some of the best food I've had in awhile.

THE salad.

Although there might not have been as much to do off the beach on the Eastern Shore as there was in Virginia Beach, there were some options. We nixed a trip to Chincoteague for its pony penning day because the ponies swim anywhere from 6 a.m. to 11 a.m., and nobody felt like getting up at 4 a.m. to drive up there. We also passed on taking a ferry out to Tangier Island, a place so old and separated, the residents still have Elizabethan English accents. But we did visit Ker Place, a Federal-style mansion about an hour north of Cape Charles. It's a nice little dose of history to break up the beach-going, or, if you're me, it's a nice appetizer for a much bigger main course. Because on Thursday, I said goodbye to the family and headed out on the next leg of my loop around Virginia — Colonial Williamsburg.

Ker Place.

As for Cape Charles, I wouldn't want to live there — the lack of variety would eventually make me insane. But I really enjoyed my time there, and I wouldn't mind going back. It's a great place to get away, in a less than 5 1/2 hour drive from the D.C. area.

Here's a link to all of my Cape Charles pictures. And my Ker Place pictures.


Pet peeve

Sent using the contact us form for my local Mazda dealer:

My 06 Mazda 3 has passed 30,000 miles and I was wondering what preventative maintenance you offer for this milestone, and what the cost is. Thanks. Also, putting the labels in the form fields for email address and phone number in this form make it really difficult to use.

Nothing gets me riled up like text in form fields. Nothing.

Hmmm....I wonder if they would give me the 30,000 mile service for free in exchange for a heuristic evaluation of their web site. They could really use it.


One last pub, one last museum

Historic Prospect of Whitby pub.

By the time I left the Lush spa in my blissed-out, sweet-smelling state, it was early Friday evening and time for some dinner. After two weeks of pub food that ranged from mind-blowing to food poisoning, it was tough to choose one last place, but I went with the Prospect of Whitby.

This historic pub is along the Thames, a bit away from the city, and kind of in the middle of a residential area that doesn't have a whole lot else to offer. This 16th-century pub was frequented by people like Samuel Pepys and Charles Dickens, and at least the old stone floor — if not the wood-barrel bar and the rest of the dark old wood decor — seems to be from their era. The space was as lovely and historic as any of the pubs I'd visited, but alas the fish and chips were pretty mediocre.

I got up Saturday morning, the last morning of my trip, and was glad I'd opted for a late afternoon flight. It gave me a chance to get in just a last little bit of sightseeing, and sort of eased me into the end of my trip. Usually, the last day of a trip has nothing but a flight or a train ride — at least the latter is scenic, but there's absolutely nothing redeeming about the former.

So for my last few hours, I opted to spend more time at the V&A museum. I'd been to the British Museum on my last two trips and was always impressed at the range of world history just waiting there for you to view — for free. What I didn't realize was that across the city, there was an equally large, equally grand, slightly quirkier museum. The V&A is famous for its textiles collection, and I guess I'd sort of assumed it was all about textiles and fashion.

Main entrance to the V&A.

Wrong. The V&A has exhibits on a variety of materials, but it also covers the gamut of world history. I spent a lot of time Saturday wandering through the European galleries, viewing furniture, art, and clothing from a span of about 500 years.

One of the mammoth galleries at the V&A.

Too soon, it was time for one last ride on the Heathrow Express train, out to the airport for what turned out to be a delayed flight (if only I'd known...more time at the V&A!). And, I suppose, it's time to wrap up the blogging on my trip. There are a lot of things I probably should have blogged about, but didn't, like my attempt to travel with only one carry-on bag, plus a messenger bag (a good idea that worked out well, generally, although I wish I would have used a wheeled bag, and the last-minute need to take an air cast threw a wrench in bag space). But it's time to move on to planning new trips!


In which I become a total Lush fangirl

Tracking convoys in the Cabinet War Rooms.

A few weeks before my trip, I was browsing the site for Lush, my favorite cosmetics company, when I noticed a link for spas in its navigation. I clicked on it, saw the page, and then emitted a shrill squeak: "LUSH HAS A SPA?!?!"

Turns out Lush has started up a handful of spas attached to some of their UK stores, including one in London. I watched the videos on their signature treatment, the Synaesthesia massage, and their other treatment, the Validation facial (yes, there are two, count 'em two, treatments). The Synaesthesia massage was pretty pricey at 125 pounds, so I thought about it for awhile. A few hours later, I was on the phone to Lush's King Street store in London, booking a massage.

The massage was for late in the afternoon on Friday, the last full day of my trip, so when I woke up Friday, I had some pretty serious mixed feelings. I only had one more full day of my wonderful trip, but I was capping it off with my long-anticipated Lush massage. I think I may need to end more trips in this manner.

In the morning, I headed out to the Cabinet War Rooms, the bunkers used by Winston Churchill and his staff during World War II. They'd been on my radar during my previous two trips to London, but I'd never quite managed to make it there, and I was glad I did this time. The war rooms are preserved in their 1940s state, and you can almost hear the telephones ringing and typewriters clacking away as the Blitz rages on above you.

The Map Room in the Cabinet War Rooms.

For staffers working in the war rooms, though, the living spaces were so uncomfortable that many of them took their chances sleeping at street level. The staff was convinced that one room, used exclusively by Churchill, contained the only flushing toilet in the place. In reality, it had a hot line to Presidents Roosevelt and, later, Truman, at the White House — the first of its kind. All in all, the war rooms are both a slightly unnerving subterranean space and a unique glimpse into a WWII nerve center. I'm glad I visited this time around.

Horse Guards.

I took a bit of a walk after emerging from the dim war rooms, towards the Horse Guards Parade, and, noticing a large crowd, I was lucky enough to slip up and witness the changing of the Horse Guards. I snapped some pictures, but I can't say it's enormously exciting, and it made me glad I've never attempted to brave the crowds and watch the changing of the guards at Buckingham Palace, no doubt more crowded. I'd planned to walk via Trafalgar Square to St. James's Street to do some shopping, but when I got to St. James's Street, I learned that Good Friday in England is a lot more significant than it is in the US — all of the shops were closed.

Apsley House (unfortunately, no photography inside).

Fortunately, I was near Apsley House, the former home of the Duke of Wellington. The enormous house is on the borders of both Green Park and Hyde Park, too large for a family — even a Duke's family — to maintain in modern times. The family gave the house to the UK in the 20th century, but maintains some apartments there. The portion you can tour is extremely lavish, with its high ceilings and brilliant fabric-covered walls. Much of the Duke's extensive art collection — some won during battle — is on display. The portion you can tour doesn't take a huge amount of time unless you really work over the art on your audioguide (I didn't), but it's a fascinating little sojourn into a different era.

I killed some more time with a yummy, inexpensive lunch at the Belgian basement eatery Belgo, a favorite from my first trip to London, and then, with more time-killing necessary, took the Tube over to the Victoria & Albert Museum, which was fairly close to the Lush shop. By the time I got to the V&A, I only had about half an hour, but I figured I could just poke my head in and see a few things. Wrong. It didn't take me long in that enormous museum to realize that half an hour was just long enough to be completely overwhelmed. I vowed to come back the next morning, and left to walk over to Lush.

Like all Lush shops, you could smell this one long before entering a fairly large, airy store. I headed up to the counter and told them I was there for a spa appointment, still wondering just where the spa even was, standing there waiting as they called the spa and told them I was there. A few minutes later, my therapist, Jennifer, appeared, and led me around to a set of stairs at the back of the store. We descended and came through the door, and it was a bit like we'd emerged in some country cottage, a worn table in the middle of a quaint little kitchen, with teacups and glass jars full of cream-colored massage bars lining the wall beside the sink.

The Lush Spa kitchen.

Jennifer and I sat down at the table and I filled out one of those standard spa if-you-have-a-medical-condition-let-us-know forms. From there on out, things took a huge departure from standard. Jennifer gave me a laminated paper with a series of words and phrases on it — things like "Humour," "Perspective," and "Enlightenment." After two weeks of traveling, Perspective sounded like just the thing, and Jennifer explained that my choice meant that I'd start my treatment lying on my stomach, and it would end with extra massage on my face. Up until this point, I'd been assuming that the Lush Spa's two-treatment menu basically meant that you could have any massage you'd like, as long as it was black (err, Synaesthesia), but this indicated that there's actually some variation built in — just not the normal menu-o-massages type.

Jennifer had me smell the Perspective massage bar to make sure that I liked it, and it smelled like no other Lush product I'd encountered — a mysterious combination of vanilla, citrus, and other things I couldn't place — but I liked it. Then she had me write Perspective down on a small chalkboard, and invited me to write or draw anything else about my treatment I wanted to include. I drew a sun, thinking about the perspective the sun has, looking out over the earth and other planets. Also, I am terrible at drawing, but a sun is within my capabilities.

My chalkboard.

Then Jennifer went in to prepare the treatment room, and invited me to select from an array of colored bottles sitting on a cabinet. They were a variety of sizes, and different jewel tones, but each had hand-lettered labels. There were quite a few bottles, and it took awhile to scan through them before I decided on Curious but Quiet. When we went into the treatment room, it was this bottle that she used to dropper a bit of essential oil into two sconces on the wall. The sconces were filled with dry ice, and began smoking out a scent even more indescribable than the massage bar once the essential oil hit. The rest of the room was dim, and carried on the country cottage theme as much as possible, although the big silver containers on one side, for hot and cold stones, made it look a bit as if a mad scientist had taken up residence in said country cottage.

The cabinet of essential oils.

At the back of the room was a giant shower stocked with Lush products, and Jennifer invited me to take my time getting undressed, and have a shower if I wanted, then to lie down on the table and ring a bell when I was ready. I took a quick shower and rang the bell. Then I had the best massage, ever.

The treatment room.

Synaesthesia is the art/science of crossing the senses, so that, for example, a particular smell makes you think of a color. To really do a massage that lives up to the name Synaesthesia, Lush had to go beyond the obvious sense — touch — and ace some of the other senses. Scent came in the form of the Curious but Quiet essential oil, and Jennifer began the massage by wafting more dry-iced oil beneath my towel. Sound was a combination of birdsong and slightly folky orchestral score, specially recorded by Lush for this massage, the massage motions choreographed to the music. It all came together, perfectly — this was far beyond just a utilitarian working out of knots. And I actually did experience synaesthesia, seeing green, purple, yellow, and light blue at different times during my massage. I also felt myself being mentally transported to different places — the foot of a large tree in a forest, on the banks of a deep-cut, winding stream, and beside the rough-planked side of a country house.

I was still in my own personal wonderland when the massage ended, but thankfully Jennifer invited me to take my time getting up, and to use the Lush products or shower as needed. I was not about to wash off the amazing scent of the massage bar, but I did partake liberally of the dusting powder on the shelf, which meant that I spent the rest of my day slightly greasy but smelling brilliant. I headed out of the treatment room to find Jennifer sitting at the kitchen table with a cup of special Perspective tea for me, and a massage bar and bubble bar in the Perspective scent for me to take home, included in the price of my massage. A lot of spas try to hard-sell you on their products following a treatment, but there was none of that here. Ironically, I was so blissed out and enamored of the experience, I would have bought pretty much anything — the massage bar, the tea, the music, you name it.

My Perspective massage bar. The bubble bar is underneath.

We sat at the table and chatted while I finished my tea, and by chatted, I mean I waxed effusive about how great the Lush Spa was and asked when it was coming to the United States, and she told me they are indeed planning one in New York. We also talked about various Lush products, and she showed me the serum bars they use in the facials, which had come out so well they were starting to sell them in the stores. And once I'd finished up my tea, she led me back upstairs to the serum bars (I bought one, "Saving Face," and it is actually made of magic and rainbows. Seriously.) and other products that were out in the UK but hadn't yet made it to North America. It was an amazing amount of personal attention from a therapist.

I can't wait for the Lush Spa to come to New York. I'll totally take a train three and a half hours for another massage, or to try the intriguing facial — in fact, occasionally I'm seized by the temptation to book another flight to London for some Ship Anson fish and chips and more Lush Spa goodness. The Lush Spa experience is completely different from any other spa I've gone to or read about. It's almost like a concept album for spas. Yes, this just might be the "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" of spas. But it's also not for everyone. If you want a therapist who's going to work on a specific problem spot or deep-crackle your sore bits, this is not the spa for you. But for me, this is now the spa against which I'm going to compare all others.

But the spa was only one of the factors contributing to my dive into total Lush fangirl status. That Saving Face serum was the other — it is hands-down the best facial product I've ever bought, and I've been switching over to a more-Lush, less-chemical skincare regimen that has worked wonders. I'm kind of disgusted at myself for using products with things like Cocamidopropyl Betaine and Polyquaternium-11 in them ON MY FACE for so long. What is that stuff, even?

And yes, I did order the Synaesthesia CD from the UK site, which gave me the lovely relaxing music to listen to whenever I want, and the side benefit of learning that UK orders actually arrive faster than ones from the US site, which are shipped from Vancouver. More Lush goodness, faster! Now where is that New York spa?