Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Name Calling

Yesterday I finally viewed the photos of Caitlyn Jenner—a 65-year-old bionic what? We have no word for her in our country except transgender. She claims she is a woman and her outer features are female and beyond the dreams of almost any other 65-year-old woman in the world. She sports the best body that money could buy and a life of pure athleticism could have developed. Everything has been transformed into the most beautiful appurtenances available, bought with a physical and psychological pain that perhaps rivals the growing pains of the typical adolescence. Anatomy isn’t destiny, nor is it physical identity. Caitlyn is, she says, a woman with a penis.

In Thailand she wouldn’t call herself a woman. She’d be one of the third gender, and culturally acknowledged to be that. In the West she has to choose one of two or use “trans” to define herself. In Thailand she would be katoey. How narrow and how revealing our English vocabulary is.

The same criticisms that Nora Ephron laid against James/Jan Morris are cropping up against Bruce/Caitlyn, who seems to look at the state of being female as a perpetual slumber party with the girls and the life-long right to wear nail polish. Morris became a gushing, twee version of Miss Marple in her early interviews but snapped out of it to become a respected writer once again. Maybe it’s the barrage of hormones that turns newly-minted femmes into teenage girls, blithering about hair, make-up, guys? God knows we all go through that stage, even if some of us are smart enough to keep it to ourselves.

And exactly what does Caitlyn mean when she claims her brain is much more female than male? As one of the world’s leading athletic competitors, does she believe that urge to compete and excel is part of her female brain or is that a compensating physical trait developed because she was denied the joys of shopping? I hope she explains because a lot of her fellow-females would like to know about that brain concept, as Elinor Burkett trenchantly inquired in last week’s Sunday NYT.

Burkett seems most annoyed that men are now co-opting the reality of being a woman. “Their truth is not my truth. Their female identities are not my female identity.” Well, no, it isn’t and they aren’t. But they are another sort of female, who in our narrow culture have endured the indignities of being scorned as “effeminate,” “faggot,” and “sick” if they let their female identities slip into the open. That’s a rough road to travel by yourself, as katoey in the West do.

Why can’t we acknowledge that there are more than two forms of gender? And that if brains are shaped by environmental experience, that the experiences of a katoey sculpt a brain that is different, separate but equal, to that of a female and male who grew up in the same culture?

“I was born in the wrong body” isn’t a cop-out, as Birkett suggests. Amy Bloom’s small and insightful book on gender, Normal, proves that. For some, being “born female or male” is the result of a rapid decision made by a doctor who, faced with an infant’s ambiguous genitals, wasn’t really sure. Where are hormones produced and when do they first begin to manifest themselves in a growing body? Children in Thai villages often announce their gender when they are far too young to know about Nong Toom, the katoey boxer, or other social influences. How do they come to that knowledge?

The rage Birkett displays against the vocabulary—of transgenders rejecting the term vagina or even woman—is absurd. “Binary views of male and female” haven’t been smashed at all by Birkett and others as long as society continues to define people solely as male and female. “Gender neutrality” isn’t what’s needed here—gender expansion is. Two is obviously not enough.

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Standing in Place

Meadow, sky, bluffs, water, and forest—534 acres of it—are only an hour away from me, I learned yesterday. In all of the years that I’ve lived in Seattle, I think I’ve only been to Discovery Park three times, and yesterday was the first time I ever have been there alone.

I didn’t even know which bus to take, although it turns out that I can catch one just down the street that takes me there on a meandering route through Magnolia and then brings me back home—or onto Georgetown, if I still want to wander. It dropped me off at the gates of the park and was there when I left a few hours later.

I entered into grassland, open and wind-rippled, and soon was at the bluffs, a dazzling configuration of sky and water in front of them. A long and winding path took me through the woods and down to the water, a lighthouse, and a house that I wish were mine. A curtain moved at one of its broken windows, making me wonder if it were really vacant, in spite of its boarded-up door.

A small, rocky point showed that the lighthouse wasn’t there for decorative purposes and I immediately thought of coming back during a storm, although the wooden steps and dirt path could be treacherous terrain in a heavy rain. But there are other trails and acres more of the park to wander through, which is a gift and a promise.

I have short-changed this part of the world, I think, wishing it were more urban, more New York, more Los Angeles, without exploring its very true strengths. There are buses that lead to ferries and ferries that go to towns I’ve never bothered to visit. 

This could be the spot I’ve always wanted, where I can have small adventures in place—at least for a few years, until I’ve seen it all. And without a car, fat chance of that ever happening.

But without a car, the adventures expand a little. The direct route is seldom a journey I want to take, and our cumbersome transit system guarantees that direct will never be an option.  And since water is a large component of any excursion I want to make, any weather is good for me. I may not make it to the “real ocean” for a while but there are other forms of beauty and yesterday I found what I really needed—the sight of tall grass bending in the wind and silver driftwood logs tossed up onto rocks.

Seattle has more of what I search for in other countries than I’ve ever found in Hong Kong or Thailand when it comes to seascapes. The waves I saw yesterday were small but pronounced, even on a day as sun-filled and placid as yesterday was, and the rocky beach was studded with the balloon-seaweed of my childhood. People had built little shelters from driftwood, looking like the Garth Williams pictures in The Sailor Dog, and nobody there was wearing a bikini, unlike Golden Gardens’ or Alki’s Gidget girls. This small beach felt wild, which was exactly the gift I needed—and will return to.

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

The Fire This Time

Someday I will learn never to join a Facebook discussion in which anything important is being tossed around. But yesterday was not that day.

When I saw this conversation (abbreviated for sanity’s sake), I felt as though another point of view might not go amiss. 

A friend of my friend had remarked, “We live in an entitlement society where even the poorest amongst us feel it is a necessity to have a smart phone, HDTV, premium footware or designer coffee.” To this my friend had responded, “This country has lost any notion of moral authority a long time ago. I'm talking about a country where a person who has a high school diploma, could actually work in dignity and have a wage that could support a family, a home and some semblance of mobility. If we can just work for that small goal, things will change for the better. It will be gradual, but all good things take time.”

There were two red flags here, the first being a true canard, as well as a cliché, and the second being “all good things take time.”

Since I’ve known the man who initiated the discussion for years, it didn’t feel intrusive for me to express my opinion. 

I responded when no doubt I should have just moved on. 

I think many of us feel we don't have time. It's not the smartphones, HDTV, and dinners out that we feel the lack of. It's affordable rent, grocery prices that don't soar into the stratosphere, and serviceable public transit that is escaping the grasp of many of us and getting more unobtainable every year. We are the working poor, doing our damndest to keep a toehold on a life that isn't on the streets, in one of the richest countries in the world. Behold--the American Dream curdling and think of Langston Hughes' question, "What happens to a dream deferred?" America is beginning to find out—“

The friend of the friend then had this to say, “The collective eyes are on the wrong targets with so much easy credit and flashy, shiny stuff to be had and the "requirement" of 24/7 electronic information/communications. EVERYTHING now has an access fee, a use tax, a convenience fee and a late penalty attached to it... and unless you have a web browser and a credit card to process the transaction with, then your life is made to be a frustrating hell in the extreme. No wonder things like getting lights to stay on and water to drink has become something that only the "haves" can afford.”

“Oh I see--it's not the rise in the cost of living that's the problem for many of us. It's "the flashy, shiny stuff to be had" that keeps poor people from paying our rent and getting lights to stay on. Thanks for making it all so clear to me.”

And here is the response to that. “I don't know you nor what your life circumstances are but clearly you are of means enough to comment on Facebook and sensitive enough to have an opinion on this issue, which is good.”

The friend of a friend went on to say that although he had been out of work for years and had been forced at times to live with friends, he was not “poor.” I hope someday someone explains to him that “poor” is an economic condition, not an epithet. And that Facebook is not a means-based activity, and that an opinion that is not of his mindset is not expressed to gain his approval--or condescension. 

If this man’s mindset is indicative of the majority in this country, then I say burn it to the ground and start over. Hurry up please, it’s time.

Friday, April 24, 2015

Leaping to Extremes--Postcards

Every year when I go to Hong Kong, I always stay here. It is ugly but it is interesting.

But for a claustrophobe, it's a challenging place to stay. I can almost stretch my arms from one side of my room to another.

And because I always stay for a month, I usually redecorate.

The view often leaves something to be desired.

By the end of the thirtieth day, I'm usually awash in nausea.

This year, things will be different. I will be here.

My room will be Spartan but I will have coffee in the morning, looking on this view.

It is Hong Kong--but in the New Territories.

And I truly cannot wait to stay in the middle of green silence.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Comfort Levels

For the last two mornings, I've had my feet on the floor seconds after waking up, gulped down my coffee, showered and dressed as though the building was on fire, and made my way to a windowless room filled with chairs. There I was surrounded by silent people, almost all of them staring at pieces of plastic, and all of us waiting for our names to be called.

This morning I woke up slowly, made coffee, and am still drinking it almost an hour later. There's sunlight pouring into my apartment and the day stretches out like an adventure. This is my usual way of beginning a morning, and as a routine, it can't be beat.

I admit, I live in a bubble. There are days when I never leave Chinatown--or even my apartment. When I do, it's usually to meet a friend for a meal and a visit, or to go to my favorite bookstore. Once a year, I leave the country. My schedule, such as it is, is one of my own making and I like it that way.

As a prospective juror, my hackles rose from the second I lined up at the courthouse door to go through a security check. When I reached the assembly room and found that I'd rushed through waking up just so I could sit for hours waiting for a list of names to be called, I could feel my blood pressure begin to rise just a trifle. And although I don't begrudge the pittance I gave, I think it's unconscionable that a childcare center for offspring of people who have to go to court is financed entirely through the contributions of the jury pool.

Each time I was released, mercifully early, I stopped on my way home for lunch as a tiny reward for my discomfort. Each time I was served something that sounded good but was borderline disgusting. (Reminder to self: American cheese is actually closely related to Velveeta and "hazelnut and sea salt" means a mealy version of peanut butter.)

If the sunlight holds, I want to be near the water today, which will take me out of my bubble. If it fades into clouds, I'll stay in my neighborhood, running errands, seeing friends, and eating something that won't make me feel victimized. It's a good life and I needed that jolt of realization--which is why I will always answer that call to jury duty.

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

White Out

When I'm sick, I become obsessive-compulsive, which is so far from my usual behavior that it always comes as a shock to me when I fall into it. A week ago, still feeling miserable but ambulatory, I went to a supermarket for provisions and came home with a copy of Vogue.

This is also far from my usual behavior and I blame it on Serena Williams, fierce, strong, beautiful, and black, gazing at me from the cover. How often do you see a woman with real shoulders on the cover of Vogue? Or more importantly, how often do you see a woman who is truly dark taking that pride of place? (If she's the First Lady, I don't think that counts.)

So because I was suffering from a virus that carried OCD, I began to count how many non-white faces I saw in this particular issue of Vogue. At first glance, there seemed to be quite a few but I wanted to nail down the exact number.

The editorial pages featured women of color but when I began to count, fifty faces were not white, or were of more than one race. And yes I included the Australian singer whose bloodline includes Maori. The remaining eighty-eight faces were pale and Euro-based.

The faces in the advertising pages? Twenty-two were of women of color. Ninety-two were white, very, very white.

So who is buying clothes anyway? Only white women? And of those white women, only those under the age of thirty with milk skin? The reason for the imbalance has to be economic, because Vogue's editorial pages clearly show that beauty comes in all colors. (Only Dolce and Gabbana dared to suggest that it might come in all ages, with their trio of short, stout, old women dressed in black and holding bejeweled handbags.)

A week later, feeling better but not up to full speed, I bought a copy of Vanity Fair. But my point of view was still altered by Vogue. As I flipped through the pages, I realized almost every ad had a white face, very, very white. (None of those faces were the triumvirate pictured by Dolce and Gabbana.)

As an olive-skinned woman, I began to look for anyone who might look like me. I found ten faces that were not pale white, not ten pages--ten faces that were my color or darker. Of those faces, three were African American, and one of those faces was Kerry Washington. Even the damned high-tech sex dolls that were spotlit in one of the articles were all pale white, making me wonder if white is the new fetish.

A buxom Columbian beauty showed quite a bit of her fair skin on Vanity Fair's cover, which is so dominated by cut-lines that the image is no more than wallpaper. But in very small type near the woman's left arm are the words, "If you haven't got it, you can't show it. If you have got it, you can't hide it." In even smaller type is the name of the woman who made that observation--Zora Neale Hurston.

Friday, April 3, 2015

Lady Lazurus Leaves L.A.

My Seattle neighborhood is loaded with grocery stores of all sizes that sell ingredients from all over Asia. China and Japan are well represented, with Vietnam, Thailand, and the Philippines crowding close behind them, and cameo appearances by India and Korea. I felt as though I'd seen it all until my friend the L.A. Resident introduced me to her friend the L.A. Native Daughter, who is the author of a comprehensive guide to restaurants in Koreatown. (Korean Restaurant Guide Los Angeles published by the Good Overseas Korean Restaurant Recommendation project).

The L.A. Native Daughter is tiny and elegant and one of the most knowledgeable eaters I've ever met. A food journalist, she embraces every aspect of the art of eating, from gardens to supermarkets to wineries--and of course restaurants. I had wanted to get a glimpse of Koreatown and I was lucky to have her as my guide, since this is her culinary backyard.

She began with a shopping mall that could well have been in Bangkok, except for the different alphabet. Sparkling and spacious with small shops and a profusion of daylight, its ground floor was dominated by a supermarket, which had me holding my breath with surprise and delight from the minute I walked in.

The produce section alone, with its huge section of different varieties of chile peppers, was enough to make me love this place, but as we went on through the aisles, I realized it was a culinary education. At the back of it was a very small food court with several tables and I knew my next trip would involve days within this supermarket, taking notes and eating whatever was being cooked that day.

Our next foray was into a bakery where the orange juice was fresher than any I'd had since Thailand and the pastries looked like jewelry from Tiffany's. We ended our tour at a busy restaurant that served its dishes in earthenware bowls the size of small washbasins, along with a tableful of savory snacks--I'm still haunted by the flavor of their kimchee, which pierced through my cold-drenched tastebuds and made me feel alive again.

The best way to end a trip is to find, on my last day, a spot I long to see more of; that's what the L.A. Resident and the L.A. Native Daughter gave me. I know there's so much more to their city than I saw this time around, but the places they showed me are ones that I could spend the rest of my life exploring.

Five days in another country that's less than three hours away by air is a lot like having every wish I've ever had come true. The city I visited is like no other I've ever seen--and I cannot wait to see more of it. Thank you, L.A.

Thursday, April 2, 2015

Mapping on Foot

I never feel that I've visited a place until I've walked it, which of course makes Los Angeles a challenge. However I was staying in what might one of the city's most walkable neighborhoods and I spent a large portion of my first day there on foot with a camera.

I'm easily delighted by small things like old tile on worn steps or an unexpected sign on a building. Graffiti framed in a doorway on a busy street always brings me to a halt and I am a sucker for deep, sharp shadows. My walks in undiscovered territory take me a very long time, which is why I always take them alone.

I saw so much in such a small area on my first day: art deco buildings studded with enigmatic names (Rock Etiquette?), a wonderfully anachronistic newsstand, a high school that looked palatial with a hangout called the Detention Room across the street, a Russian bakery that hit me with the smells from my childhood moments in NYC the minute I walked inside and the neighboring Arbat Deli, both seconds away from a gigantic Whole Foods, jolts of street art.

With so much to feed my eyes, I forgot to eat and by the time I reached the place where I was staying, I knew that had been a big mistake. Although Los Angeles was much less heat-filled than I'd expected, the clarity and brilliance of its light was making me dizzy and I needed to be somewhere with no stimulation at all. A few blocks away was the place where I'd had my morning banana and coffee and I'd spent enough time there earlier that it no longer felt anything but familiar. By the time I got there, I felt pale and shaky. Sinking into a chair in a cool room was all I really wanted, but I ordered a small smoothie and sipped it as slowly as I could.

Suddenly there was nothing to see, nothing to record. Gradually my shaking went away and when I looked outside, the light seemed less stabbing than it had been an hour ago. When I left the cafe, my steps were slow and purposeful and as I walked toward food and a friend, I forced myself not to lapse into amazement. Not an easy achievement in Los Angeles, but sometimes you simply have to down tools.

Later that evening, a strong, hot wind came out of the hills and slapped carefully planted trees and bushes with its rush of blown sand. Blinking my scratched eyes as I walked, I felt grateful for this momentary lapse of vision.

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Art as Life on the Eastside

I was fogged-in on my second morning in Los Angeles, with a truly disgusting collection of germs that had me choked up, effluvient, and a little feverish. My friend the L.A. Resident drove me through Koreatown into downtown and beyond, where suddenly working-class bungalows were slammed up against gigantic, vivid wall murals. Even in my clouded state, I was dazzled, This was art that existed as expression of a neighborhood and I wanted to see it all, a visual greed that I hadn't felt since my time at Angkor.

El Mercado de Los Angeles is the closest way to see it all, especially when a cold has lent a hallucinatory cast to life. Built in 1968, it's a center for the cultural and culinary life of people whose roots in this area extend back for centuries as well as for those new arrivals who are eager to find a touch of home. Although I'm sure it receives more than its share of tourists, my friend and I were the only ones whom I saw there last Wednesday morning.

Art was everywhere--devotional, entrepreneurial, aspirational, and optimistic. Eat and be shapely! Drink and have a healthy spleen! (Or is that a gall bladder?)

And perhaps territorial--

I'm a woman whose life is dominated by words, but my greatest joy often comes from being in a place where images supplant language. After the market, walking down a street with a boulder in my chest, I stopped thinking and simply stared at wall after wall of art, integrated with commerce and food and daily living. More than anyplace else I went in this puzzling and exciting city, I wanted to stay and learn all of the languages of this community--art, music, kitchen, and words.

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Smashing All of My Circuits

Because it is such a short flight from Seattle, and one that remains in the same time zone from beginning to end, it's hard to accept that coming to Los Angeles means entering a whole other universe. Even in the placid neighborhood of West Hollywood, where I would sleep for the next five days, sharp sunlight cast tropical shadows and the sky was a piercing blue, accented by the fronds of palm trees. Flowers that I usually see in Bangkok were part of the landscape and when I went for coffee on my first morning I was hit by the fragrance of dok gau--a whole hedge of those fragile white blossoms.

There were surprises--the silence of the residential area where I stayed, with so little traffic that this small dude ruled the street.

And flowers that had to have been invented by Dr. Seuss--bottlebrush flowers that are usually found in Australia and India.

I was in this part of town just long enough for contrast; soon after my arrival, my friend the L.A. Resident took me to one of the city's oldest neighborhoods, Eagle Rock. Next door to the bowling alley that was an integral part of the beginning of Reservoir Dogs is a corral of food trucks and an assortment of chairs and tables. More of a community picnic than an outdoor food court, accessorized by craft booths selling distinctive and pricey jewelry, the space was heavily populated with families of small children and gentrification seemed at a minimum.

In fact, according to an Eagle Rock blogger, who moved to the area with the hopes of turning it into Pasadena, the food trucks are discouraging the economics of gentrification, along with the neighborhood pot shops and the carloads of Armenian gangmembers. (Yup. that's what she said.) Her fancy coffee shop is often eclipsed by a food truck selling shaved ice and the local Trader Joe's is suffering too. I don't know about you but that would be enough to keep me patronizing the food trucks every night of the week. Plus the food is damned good.

On the way there, we passed miles of small businesses whose signs were in Spanish. On the way back signs written completely in Thai gleamed through the dark blue night. The air was cool and when I reached my room, I pulled a down comforter around me, closed my eyes, and was dazzled by memories of neon without translation and the fragrance of small ghostly flowers.