43 || creative commons photo by Andy Maguire

No Birthday Surprise Required


A few years ago, I wrote some birthday resolutions just before I turned 40. I was, I realize now, extremely unhappy in a lot of ways, though at the time I just figured that was my lot in life. As I stared down the gauntlet of 41, I was reflecting on a mostly terrible year, completely unaware that 41 would bring both the most difficult thing I had ever done and, subsequently, the beginning of a new lease on life.

In short, looking back over my birthday blog posts over the last few years, I simultaneously feel that I should have seen shit coming before it hit the proverbial fan (I did write about it awhile ago, after all), and also that I am so relieved to have something other than sadness on which to reflect on my birthday.

And so, at the risk of jinxing it, a review of the past year on this, my 43rd birthday.

43 || creative commons photo by Andy Maguire

43 || creative commons photo by Andy Maguire


I need to start here because it feels as if everything good in my world now stems from the fact that I am, for the first time in longer than I can remember, happy – genuinely, truly happy. I had many, many happy moments over the years, don’t get me wrong – but this, this is different. This is unadulterated, optimistic-about-life, excited-to-make-plans-for-the-future happiness on a completely new level for me.

When I was at my lowest point a few years ago, I wrote about my therapist giving me a depression test on my first visit (I never ended up publishing the post, as it seemed too depressing – oh, the irony – but I still have the draft). I was off-the-charts depressed – I scored 29 on a scale of 36, indicating “severe” depression – and she immediately prescribed anti-depressants. That medication, plus therapy, allowed me to see through the fog long enough to realize there was something less foggy beyond it. I had no idea what it might be, but the fact that there was anything beyond the clouds was a revelation at the time.

In 2013, I finally had the courage to make the hardest decision I’ve ever made and ended my marriage. I leapt without knowing where the ground was, or whether I’d land on my feet. Today I can report that I did land on my feet, and the ground wasn’t as far out of sight as it seemed.

2014 wasn’t perfect – I’m still dealing with some lingering back issues, which migrated down one leg and became knee issues that required physical therapy; my thyroid regulation got out of whack, reminding me just how terrible I felt in 1998 before I started on thyroid replacement; I gained and lost two separate clients in the space of a few months – but it was pretty close. Even the work I knew I had to do was welcome.

There are two leftover resolutions from my 2012 birthday blog post that I’d honestly forgotten about, but I think my reaction to them now is telling about where my head is in 2015. One was about the need to lose weight, and the other was about learning to love the way I look no matter how I look. I started a regular walking routine in 2012 or 2013, I can’t remember, and I did lose a little bit of weight. But, more importantly, I am much, much happier about what I see when I look in the mirror now – and that has nothing to do with weight loss. I firmly believe that being happy makes me look better – at least to myself (which, let’s face it, is the important part) – and feel better.

And this year? I’m already scheming on a few things that could make my world even rosier. I’m not only excited to make plans, I’m a little impatient for the future – which is weird when I’m no longer ten years old wishing I could hurry up and be sixteen, already. I do not actually wish time would speed up. I have enough gray hairs as it is. So, I will work to enjoy my happiness in these moments, and keep laying the path to even more happiness around the corner.


Let’s get one thing out in the open at the outset, especially if you’re not a freelance writer and think it is some sort of dream job: I am never, ever going to be a wealthy person in my line of work. There are still some months I struggle to pay all my bills. So when I say I’m having professional success, it’s all relative, I suppose. I am still able, most of the time, to pay my bills just from the money I make as a freelance writer – and to still have the flexibility to work on my own projects and to, well, live life the way I’d like to. And that last part is, the vast majority of the time, worth much more to me than wealth.

Sidebar over, back to the review.

Last year, I finally got my act together and launched my own Italy travel guide, Italy Explained, which had been sitting almost-done for way too long. I am often paralyzed by the fear that something I’m working on isn’t 100% perfect or done or whatever, which keeps me from actually finishing things. It’s dumb. And when it comes to anything on the web, that fear is exponentially more dumb, since I can fix anything or add stuff with a few clicks. (Typo? What typo?) So, yeah. I’m very glad to have that out in the world now, especially as it has caused something of a ripple effect:

  • I finally got over my aforementioned dumb fear and hit “publish” on my first ebook, Italy Explained: Italian Trains. I am not funding a lavish lifestyle with the sales yet, but people are buying it and liking it. I find that extremely gratifying, and I’m plotting the next book now.
  • I resurrected the monthly blogging group I’m in with a few other Italy bloggers, which gets me thinking outside my usual box once a month. Plus, I get to chat in our planning group with some truly kick-ass women. I adore them.
  • I felt motivated enough to say yes when my friend Sara wanted to get the Italy podcast I co-host, Eye on Italy, back up and running again after a more-than-three-year hiatus. We’ve only done two episodes so far, but it’s great fun to be collaborating again with one of the smartest people I know and to talk with fascinating folks about Italy.

I love having all this Italy-focus in my life again. I find that I spend hours working on Italy Explained and don’t realize hours have gone by. It is fun work. I’m not sure there’s anything better one could say about work, is there?

As for my client work – y’know, the stuff that actually pays my bills – I am feeling incredibly fortunate at the moment. I have one long-time client I adore – my editor is a dear friend, and I can’t tell you how much it means to have long-term satisfied clients who like what you do. I have, however, worried every now and then over the past couple years that all my work eggs were in one basket. I have worried, but I am lazy, and I did basically nothing to seek out new clients. I know. I scolded myself about this on a regular basis, and then continued to do nothing.

Well, new clients have come to me instead.

(I joked with friends last year that the universe is not teaching me very good lessons if it isn’t making me work for this stuff, but I’ll take it anyway.)

In truth, one new client came to me because the editor is yet another dear friend (lesson to aspiring freelance writers – have dear friends who become commissioning editors). That work is a new challenge for me; it’s unlike other writing I’ve done, which I think is a good thing. It’s keeping my writing skills sharper, that’s for sure.

Another new client – I just signed the contract, so I haven’t done any work for them yet – came on the referral of one of the aforementioned editor friends (see aforementioned lesson for aspiring freelance writers).

I cannot overstate how fortunate this makes me feel. Yes, I’ve laid the groundwork by being a reliable contractor for coming up on three years now. Yes, I’m benefitting from a solid reputation I built in the travel writing world starting in 2006. I get that this isn’t dumb luck, and I still feel very lucky.

And so, 43?

I have always loved my birthday. I honestly don’t care about getting older – I mean, I care about my knee giving me problems and the fact that it’s harder to get up out of a chair than it used to be, but I don’t care about my age as a number. I will happily tell you how old I am. Even on those birthdays when I was looking back on an unhappy year, I was still looking forward to a birthday that might – who knows? – turn everything around.

Of course, the birthdays didn’t turn anything around. They don’t have that power. I do have the power, though, and I am everso glad I exercised it. Because now I can say that not only am I looking back on a 42 that filled my heart and gave me so much joy, I am looking forward to a 43 even more because of what I can already see on the road ahead.

I will not rely on some birthday surprise to drop into my path and fix a trajectory I don’t like. I will embrace 42 because I made it what it was, and I will welcome 43 because I am in the process of creating what I want it to be.

Happy Birthday to me, indeed.

Yes, I’ve been up to something.


I have been neglectful of this blog lately – even more neglectful than normal, which is saying something. There’s a reason for it, though.

I’ve been pouring any spare time I have into Italy Explained, which I launched officially last year and am trying to build into the robust travel planning resource I know it can be. And more recently, I’ve been spending more time than I care to admit fiddling with the coding in the Kindle publishing system, getting my first ebook ready for primetime.

Which is now.

Italy Explained: Italian Trains

Italy Explained: Italian Trains” hit Amazon’s virtual shelves this week – FINALLY – and I couldn’t be happier.

The bad news is that I looked at the vast expanse of white space on my new Amazon author page and thought, “Oh, crap. Now I have to write more books.”

Jessica Spiegel Amazon author page

So if you don’t see me here, you’re likely to find me over at Italy Explained, or hunched over my laptop yelling at the Kindle Previewer when it hasn’t picked up the text-indent HTML I added mere seconds ago.


At any rate, I hope you’ll pass the book and Italy Explained site on to anyone you know who’s planning an Italy trip!

The book cover photo is a creative commons image by John Picken Photography.

Menorahs || creative commons photo by Photo Gallery Israeli Ministry of Tourism

The Weird Al of A Cappella Jewish Singing Groups


“They’re kind of like the Weird Al of a cappella Jewish singing groups. There can’t be more than one of them, right?”


Menorahs || creative commons photo by Photo Gallery Israeli Ministry of Tourism

Menorahs || creative commons photo by Photo Gallery Israeli Ministry of Tourism

Hanukkah starts tonight at sundown, so – naturally – that was part of my conversation over coffee this morning with the boyfriend. Pam had posted the new Six13 Hanukkah video, which reminded me of another Hanukkah video I’d seen many years ago, which I naively assumed was by the same group. (Oh, silly Jessica. Of course it’s not the same group.) I am now willing to believe that not only are there two, there are probably more.

Here’s this year’s Hanukkah song, “Chanukah (Shake It Off).”

And, for reference, here’s the 2010 video “Candlelight” by The Maccabeats.

It’s taking all the willpower I have to not go down the rabbit hole of both of their video collections right now, since I have a metric ton of work to do, but I invite you to venture into that internet abyss in my stead.

Happy Hanukkah, y’all. Whatever your Festival of Lights anthem happens to be.

Amuse-Bouches [Links I Love]: October 7 – November 10


Here’s the latest list of stuff I found interesting on the interwebz, October 7 through November 10:

  • Jessica is in the new “Dream of Venice” book
    I am extremely proud to be included in a new book of photographs, essays, & poems about a city I adore – Venice. Other contributors to the book include Woody Allen, Frances Mayes, Julie Christie, Erica Jong, & Marcella Hazan – it’s heady company.The book is to be released in early December, & you can read my excerpt on my Italy travel guide site, Italy Explained.

    Incidentally, I’m going to be giving away a copy of the book over on Italy Explained later this year, so if you’re not already receiving the Italy Explained newsletter you should sign up so you hear about that giveaway as soon as it’s ready. Just enter your name & email address in the boxes in the right-hand column of the site.

  • Missed In History: The Expulsion of Jews from Spain
    In 2012, after the TBEX conference in Girona, my friend Pam & I stayed for a couple blissful days in the pretty walled town. Most of that time was spent in restaurants, seated at four-hour lunches (that is not hyperbole), but we paid a visit to Girona's little Jewish museum. Pam wrote about the experience here (you should really go read that, too).

    Overall, we were both struck by (that is to say we were angry about) the willful disregard for the truth of what had happened to Spain's Jewish population. I had heard about a tour guide in Girona saying that no one knew why, but one day all the Jews just left. The displays in the museum echoed that preposterous theme – that the Jews "decided to leave." It's not only factually inaccurate, that kind of information whitewashes a terrible truth. We all know what happens when we don’t learn from history, right?

    In any case, fast-forward to 2014, & I’m glad to see this topic covered on a new episode of a favorite podcast. They don’t get into how people in modern Spain (at least in Girona) turn a blind eye to the truth of their history – this podcast is really about what led to the expulsion of the Jews, what they were allowed to take with them (not much), etc. It does mention that the edict barring Jews from living in Spain wasn’t officially overturned until the 1960s. That would be completely unbelievable, had I not been to Girona in 2012 & seen them still pretending the Jews “decided to leave” for reasons no one understands.

    If you still think 1492 in Spain is all about Columbus, please set aside a half-hour & listen.

  • Pok Pok Wing and Koi Fusion Take Flight at PDX
    I love Portland's airport – a good thing, since I spend more time there than in any other airport – but here's a reason to love it even more. They've now opened a food cart pod at the airport.
  • Cheryl Strayed Says Tattoos Are Intimate Portraits and Stories
    There is a new book out that tells the stories behind tattoos. I would want that book anyway, but then when you add that Cheryl Strayed wrote the introduction… Well, it's a no-brainer.

Amuse-Bouches [Links I Love]: September 25 – September 30


Here’s the latest list of stuff I found interesting on the interwebz, September 25 through September 30:

  • Portland, OR: A Tale of Two Cities
    I recently went on a "Portlandia" tour of Portland, which turned out to be much more about the not-so-rosy history of the city than I had expected. It was extremely educational.

    And then, not long after I went on that tour, I listened to this episode of "State of the RE:Union" about Portland, which focuses on some of the same issues my tour guide talked about.

    Present-day Portland is still very much informed by the historic mistreatment of one race by another, & this podcast does a great job of explaining that. I highly recommend a listen if you're in Portland, love Portland, or just interested in race relations.

  • Emma Watson Delivers Game-Changing Speech on Feminism for the U.N.
    I'm not sure the "He for She" campaign is the only one needed to push for gender equality, but as long as we assume that one method won't work for everyone – that many messages leading to the same conclusion are required – then I am quite happy to have "He for She" out there reminding people that feminism does not mean "man-hating."

    Emma Watson's speech is excellent (set aside 13 minutes & watch the whole thing), & her use of this Edmund Burke quote is a great reminder to all of us, on this topic & many others:

    "All that is needed for the forces of evil to triumph is for enough good men and women to do nothing."

  • Lessons from my School of Rock
    Pam’s band is on something of a hiatus at the moment, which gave her a chance to look back at the past few years’ worth of lessons learned from being part of a band. They’re all good lessons, not strictly limited to music, but this is the one that I loved best:

    "It was heartbreaking how many people — mostly women, some with a better background in music than I have — told me they’d put away their drum kit, electric guitar, bass, whatever, because they were too old to play rock and roll. I couldn’t decide if there was some indictment in there about how grown humans are supposed to act or if these folks were just defeated. I joined the band shortly before my 47th birthday. Made other choices? Okay. Hands don’t work like they used to? No kidding. Woefully out of practice? Yeah, I know. But too old? Fuck that."

  • Super Slow Motion Close-Up of a Tattoo Being Applied
    Great explanation of how tattoo machines work, plus some super-slo-mo video of a tattoo being applied. I don't even watch my OWN tattoos being done, so it doesn't surprise me that I kind of winced during this video, too.
  • Vulvatron Is GWAR’s New Vocalist
    I am no fan of GWAR, but I can't help but get excited that they've added their first female front-person to the lineup.

    "Why is it so important that one of the biggest bands in metal has just added a female member to its ranks to replace one of metal’s biggest personalities? How could it not be?"

    Women in metal usually fit into a short list of stereotypes, & almost none of them have anything to do with musical ability. I had very few female role models when I started listening to metal. That didn't stop me from wanting to be a singer (as opposed to just a groupie), but I imagine it would have been fantastic to have more women to look up to where they weren’t required to fit into certain roles (not to mention skimpy clothing). So, no, I probably won't start listening to GWAR even now, but – all hail Vulvatron? You bet.

Concrete - by Sherrie Thai (creative commons)

Bathed in Concrete

Concrete - by Sherrie Thai (creative commons)

Concrete – by Sherrie Thai (creative commons)

Many moons ago – back in the dark ages, AKA “Before the Internet Was Everywhere,” otherwise known as 1998 – I was sick. I didn’t know I was sick. I thought I was just very, very tired. And since I had always been on the weak side, never extraordinarily energetic, I figured that was just my lot.

Because I didn’t blog then, when I wrote about what was going on I did so in (probably really bad) poetry. I say “probably” because I have no idea where those sheets of paper are now. I think they were even printed on a dot-matrix printer, of all things. We’re talking way-back-machine stuff, here, kids. At any rate, I don’t remember any of the poems, but the gist of one of the short ones was essentially that I awoke each day feeling as if I had been bathed in concrete. I wore that concrete suit all day long, chipping away at it slowly, and just as I was starting to see daylight it would be time to go to bed and I’d start all over again in the morning. It was, needless to say, a frustrating time. Only I didn’t really have the energy to even be frustrated by it.

I went to my doctor at the time, who – after a series of tests – told me it was all in my head. I am not making that up. That is what the doctor told me. And, because he was wearing a lab coat, I believed him. And that made me feel worse.

To be honest, I don’t remember much about what I did during the time that I felt so tired. Perhaps that’s because my life then was more about what I was not doing. One thing I know is that it was during this period that I quit my band. I had been able to pull it together every time we had a show, and yet in the end I was just so tired. Looking back, it was one of the worst decisions I could have made – that was one of the few high points in my days, band practice and shows – but I didn’t know that then. Instead, I quit the band and spiralled.

At some point in 1999, I eventually decided my doctor might not have all the answers and I started seeing a naturopath. I paid (dearly) for those appointments – not covered by insurance, naturally – but they did tests differently and told me I had a thyroid disorder. I was hypothyroid, he said. Severely so. He put me on the first dose of synthetic thyroid of my life, a medication I’ve been on in one form or another ever since.

He saved my life.

I had had moments in my teen years when I had suicidal thoughts, but it wasn’t until 1998 that I think I truly understood why someone would want to end their life. The lows were so low, there seemed to be absolutely no way out – or an “out” I could even see or work toward. When I started taking those pills, I only had to wait a few weeks before I felt like I could climb mountains. Later in 1999, I actually did climb mountains – literally – when I walked up Alps and Pyrenees to watch stages of the Tour de France. I could never have contemplated doing that the year before, and I cried when I looked out over the valley of the first mountain of the trip. I had come so far.

I have changed doctors over the years, but an endocrinologist has been on my medical roster since 1999. I see my endocrinologist more often than I see any other doctor in my life, getting my blood tested up to six times a year to make sure the medication is at the right amount. The dosage of my medication has changed periodically, but only incrementally. Overall, while I’m still not what you’d describe as an energetic person, I’ve led what feels to me like a normal life since 1999. A normal life that felt something like a miracle at the time.

About two months ago, however, I changed the medication I’d been taking, and the dosage was so wildly different from the other drug that (as it turns out) I was taking a much lower dose than I should have been for the first month. As a result, I have spent the last few weeks in a haze. It’s not as bad as it was in 1998 – not by a long shot – but it has the same color, the same flavor. I’ve been exhausted, spacey, unable to focus, and depressed. I know it’s temporary. I started taking a higher dosage of the medication last week, so it’s only a matter of time before that kicks in and I start to feel more normal, but in the meantime I’m dragging around concrete boots everywhere I go.

I apologize if I’ve sounded “off” in any conversation I’ve had with you recently, or if I’ve been slow to respond to email. I’m not myself. It’s an unsettling feeling. The good news is that, unlike in 1998, this time I know that I will feel like myself again – eventually.