Sunday, December 23, 2012


It's already the day before Christmas in Bangkok and in Hong Kong. In Seattle daylight is just beginning to brighten at a little past ten am on the 23rd. At this time of day, the sky outside my window belongs to the birds--sometimes seagulls the size of small puppies soar rather menacingly past my view. They're big enough to smash through the glass if they wanted to. Fortunately they seem to be bird brains.

This time of year for me is a festival of light and love. I wish I lived somewhere that would allow me to build a bonfire. Instead I light candles and jam clear lights, along with glittering, multi-colored balls, into a jar. I bake things that make my small apartment smell of ginger, cinnamon, and dark molasses. I wrap gifts for people I love with a lot of enthusiasm and very little artfulness. All of this is what Christmas means to me.

In Bangkok, New Year's is the time that all of this happens and that for me that makes complete sense. One year a friend invited me to her house on New Year's Eve. Her entire extended family was there, including a baby; we ate to the point of coma-risk and I was home well before midnight. It was the perfect way to end a year.

Somewhere not too far from my quiet little neighborhood, credit cards are flashing brightly and cash terminals are blazing hot. This holiday has become a retail frenzy, something I'm grateful not to be part of. I'm content to watch the light and be as quiet as possible as the year ends.

Calendars create artificial divisions to time. What does it mean that 2012 is over and 2013 begins? What counts is the fading of light and its slow rebuilding of strength. We fill our shortest days with attempts to grant each other's wishes, while our real wish at this time is that the sun will come back.

In Thailand, during an eclipse, people make offerings to Rahu, the god of darkness. Black food is put with candles and incense to appease his ravenous appetite so he won't devour the sun (or the moon, as the case may be.) In this part of the world, we send out light and love and as much joy as we can muster. Without those offerings, who knows if the sun would ever return?

My array of food on the 25th won't include a black chicken but I hope it will still pass muster. In my window, candles will gleam into the darkness, asking for a longer, larger light for the whole world.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Fixing What is Broken

In a weekend filled with grief and horror, questions arose. When did weapons made for warfare become a consumer item? As someone who grew up in a "gun culture," where a 30.06 meant food on the table and I learned to handle a 22 by the time I was ten, I have a respect for rifles and people who know how to use them properly. That respect doesn't extend to hand guns and automatic and semi-automatic weapons; the only reason why they have become part of our social fabric is money, big money. These firearms don't come cheap--somebody is profiting heavily from their sales, and the almost 95,000 people who have been shot by guns this year are paying the price.

It isn't yet 10 am PST as I write this and 144 people have already been shot by guns today. By the time I finish writing this post, that figure will have increased. It is found at and it's a figure that should be reported over the radio and television news just the same way as the Dow Industrial Average is. It is an indicator of who we are and what we are letting ourselves become.

In my mediocre local paper was another horrible statistic. 45 million Americans use Medicare, and the costs of that program are sinking the national budget, even before the full wave of Baby Boomers have hit the system. The reason? Escalating health care costs, especially the cost of prescription drugs, in what has become a medical industry..

I have no health insurance. I haven't for over twenty years. The last time I went for a physical examination, it took almost two hours, what with the Pap smear and the litany of questions about my personal life that the doctor was required by law to ask ("Are you in danger of physical abuse in your home?"). Fortunately I'm rarely ill.

The last time I was truly sick, I lived in Bangkok. A virus had settled in my chest and my temperature refused to go back to normal. I lurched down to a neighborhood clinic where I was given a shot of an antibiotic, more antibiotics in pills, and something to help me sleep. Total cost? Right around twelve dollars for everything--and the doctor provided the pills--I had no need to totter on to a pharmacy. Done.

This is the medical care of my childhood. It is no longer what we receive in the U.S. Our healthcare involves high priced drugs that pharmaceutical companies persuade physicians to prescribe and high-tech machines that may or may not be useful. (See my earlier post about the baby who contradicted the fetal monitoring equipment.) Once again, big money, high profits, and we're the ones to get a kick in the teeth.

Pharmaceutical companies battle against generic drugs, and cheaper pricing for third-world countries. Doctors charge over $100 for an office visit. This is madness.

Six-year-old children were cut down in a school by semi-automatic gunfire; the killer was someone who needed psychiatric care and didn't receive it. This is madness.

And the insanity is related by profits. No matter what the NRA and the AMA assert, it's time for regulation, price controls, and a full measure of sanity. Let's work on this.

(And by the way, that figure of how many people have been shot today? It's now at 151. It's 10:30 am in Seattle.)

Sunday, December 16, 2012


When I was much younger, I spent a fair amount of time observing people at Book Expo America, the annual gathering of people in the book business. Publishers took center stage at this event and women were prominent among them. What intrigued me was that the pretty women were almost all on their way up--or hoped they were; the women who had real clout had moved far beyond the issue of how they looked. The ultimate sign of power seemed to be how much physical weight a woman carried while still wielding clout. Their words and actions were significant enough that they needed no other attractions. They fascinated me.

At about the same time, I read a resonant sentence written by Nora Ephron that said something along the lines of now that she was in middle-age, she noticed her pretty friends complained about losing their looks while she on the contrary was finding hers. I interpreted that as an encouraging message: that bone structure and eyes and enthusiasm and engagement with life would outlive more conventional forms of good looks. The truth was sadder than that; both Nora and I still were preoccupied with how we looked, far beyond being neat, clean, and well-groomed. I was pulled in by any department store cosmetic counter that caught my eye,and Ms. Ephron?

In an essay about beauty and cosmetic treatments in the current issue of Marie Claire, a woman who was a "family friend," divulges that "Ephron had often shown up at a dinner or party looking younger than the last time I'd seen her." At this stage of her life, Nora Ephron's every word was assured its publication, she had written, directed, and produced a number of wildly popular movies, she was a force to be reckoned with on both coasts of her native land. If any woman (other than Hillary Clinton) had the power and privilege to age naturally, Nora was that woman. The author of the essay salutes "her refusal to let her appearance slip and fall short of her youthful curiosity." Me? I tend to agree more with Isabelle Rosellini, quoted in the same essay as saying, "Is this the new feet binding? Is this a new way to tell women, You are ugly deep down, you should be this and this, and give a lot of other standards that are impossible to reach because the main problem is misogyny?"

The irony is not lost on me that I came across this provocative bit of examination in a fashion and beauty magazine that I bought to cheer myself up on a grey winter afternoon.

Perhaps it's easier to age for women who have never been pretty to begin with; we have had to develop other ways of being attractive, features that don't require Botox or a surgeon's knife to maintain. In fact, attempting to hang on to youthful charms is not just a waste of time and money--it's a source of incredible dissatisfaction. As every woman knows, those youthful charms were based upon being new, shiny, and relatively untouched; it's the irresistible attraction of a field of freshly fallen snow that holds no footprints.

Experience. Humor. Intelligence. Love. Talent. Generosity. Enjoyment. If I had a daughter, this is what I would teach her to carry into age. Clothes? Makeup? Of course--but for fun, for amusement, not because, as the essay in Marie Claire concluded, because those things will make us "the generation that simply will not be put out to pasture." Power doesn't come from an unwrinkled face--just ask Georgia O'Keefe.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

What a Drag It Is Getting Old (but does it have to be?)

My mother-in-law was a woman I loved and admired and still do, years after she died. We didn't always agree on many things--"His imagination could use some stunting," she told me once, when I said that TV would stunt my little boy's imagination and my candy-free Easter baskets (filled with many other delights that weren't edible) were rendered useless when she showed up with baskets for each of my children overflowing with sugar and green slime in a toy garbage can. She followed this up by immediately showing them disgusting things they could do with the slime. They loved it and I continued to love her.

My mother-in-law slowly lost her memory. Her husband had to face the death of their oldest son alone. "You'd think all those flowers would tell her something," he grumbled in frustration and heartbreak. She rarely spoke but she laughed often. Even locked in Alzheimer's, Wanda Brown loved life.

I think of her often as I grow older. When she was middle-aged, her equanimity and humor and joy made me know at twenty-five that forty-five didn't have to mean becoming Whistler's Mother. And I hope I can savor life as jubilantly as she did up until the end.

Wanda Brown went from being a beautiful girl to a chubby little snowball but when I tried to keep up with her once in an aerobics class when she was in her fifties and I in my early thirties, I was crippled for a week. She was just fine. We both loved to sing but she had the guts to sing in public behind a microphone. She divorced her handsome husband with the wandering eyes and remarried him a decade or so later after he had learned his lesson. She made lemon cookies and bootleg Kahlua and one Christmas sewed gaucho pants for all of her daughters. I got a pair too. "I'd rather gain one than lose one," she said about her children's choice of spouses. With eight children, some of whom married more than once, she gained quite a few extras.

She loved to read. She loved to dance. She loved the Easter Egg Hunt in the snow that she put on every year for her grandchildren. Her legacy is one of generous, unconditional, motherly love, given by a woman whose own mother died young.

She stood beside me when I was in labor with my first baby right up until I went into the delivery room. My second came unexpectedly; the fetal monitoring machine refused to acknowledge his imminent arrival and Wanda left me to go back to work, I asked her to call her son to come to the hospital right away and she did. "I should have known the baby was coming when you told me to call Jimmy," she said later.

We are very different and I can never hope to be the woman Wanda was. But I can damn well try to follow her example as much as I can. Maybe I should start with baking lemon cookies...

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Unabashedly Sentimental

Yesterday I was rushing to the post office when I tripped on an uneven bit of sidewalk and fell on one knee, my weight twisting the booted ankle of my other leg. My slacks were torn, I was embarrassed, and passersby walked around me, not seeming to notice but actually sparing me further humiliation--after all, I was clearly unhurt.

As I walked on, I was relieved to find that my ankle hadn't become sprained or strained and the graze on my knee wasn't very deep. It wasn't until I completed my errand and began to return home that I reached in my pocket for my apartment keys. They were gone--apparently my balance wasn't the only thing I'd lost a few minutes earlier.

I hurried back to the scene of my spill which had taken place near the large glass window of a residential hotel. Elderly ladies frequently sat in the lobby and watched the world whirl by. Perhaps one of them had seen my keys rocket away and had picked them up--but she would have shouted the news to me as I hobbled away. I began to scan the sidewalk with little hope, telling myself silently precisely how idiotic I had been not to zip the keys into my handbag.

They were gone. There was nothing metallic gleaming on the cement where I'd fallen. I raised my head, feeling a little sick, when a man working nearby, small, smiling, Southeast Asian, asked "Did you lose your keys?"

"Yes," I admitted and he said "I found them. I've been waiting for you to come back so I would be sure that the right person got them." He pointed to a sign tacked to a tree at the side of the street; hanging from one of  the tacks was a set of keys that belonged to me. He handed them to me. "When you lose your keys, you're in big trouble," he said and I thanked him with every particle of gratitude that I possessed.

I took a few steps away, then turned back with five dollars in my hand. As I approached him, he backed away. "No," he told me. "You are so kind," I said again, and an old man walking past smiled and said "Vietnam people are good." We all three smiled at each other and once again I felt a deep sense of joy for being lucky enough to live in my neighborhood.

Merry Christmas to all. May we all care for each other as much as the man on the street did for me yesterday.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Switching Universes

Today is Thursday but it doesn't feel like it. I'm still stuck in Sunday and I'm on Bangkok time. Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday have been one long, unending, hallucinatory day and I'm ready for it to be over any time now.

On Sunday morning, unable to eat and fighting tears, I left Bangkok. I can't count how many times I've done that but it's still never easy. Even though I know I'll be back, it's always difficult to get in that taxi and drive away from my neighborhood.

And I always return to that neighborhood. It isn't really mine, but I belong to it. People there are used to seeing me pop up and then go away again. They know why I do and they all approve my decision to live near my family. Anything else to them is pure insanity.

The guy who makes the best chicken rice in the world is assisted in his shop by his adult daughter. The woman who sells more fruit than magazines than she used to frequently is given a day off by her son and daughter. The ladies who make morning noodles and fresh orange juice every day have their granddaughter with them as they work. (She used to be in a playpen, then she began to walk around and assess the sociability of the customers, these days she drops in when she's not in school--she's a young coed of three and a half.) My dearly beloved newspaper lady, now in her seventies, is occasionally replaced by her middle-aged son so that she can go upstairs to the shophouse behind her sidewalk table and take a nap. If he doesn't show up, she naps at the table, and laughs about it later.

Family is integral to Thai culture. People who leave home to make a living elsewhere return when they can. A woman I know who is in her late thirties  will soon move to the US to be with her American husband; she's worried about living so far from the mother with whom she has conducted shrieking battles for decades. One of the most modern families I know in Bangkok still come together frequently in the apartment building that they own. When I lived among Thai people without my children--or at least a husband--I was an inexplicable anomaly. Living in that country made me understand why a cloudy, chilly corner of the US has become my real home.

And yet when I go to Bangkok, it always provides a strange feeling. Within two weeks, I was ready to come home. At the end of four, "home" was becoming a kind of dream state. I slowly enter the looking glass when I am in Bangkok. I enter another life, a different kind of time that shimmers and bounces like jello, an alternate behavior system in which I move more slowly and speak with deliberation, whether in English or (bad) Thai. My life at home, although I frequently and passionately miss it, becomes shadowy; my daily routines there seem almost fictional.

This doesn't happen in Hong Kong. That city has a Western pace and overlay that makes it less of a jolting change to come there from the States--plus I speak no Cantonese at all. "When you learn another language, you become another person," Haruki Murakami said. And it's true that in my highly imperfect Thai, and in the English I speak in Bangkok, I am a different facet of the person I am--more polite, more thoughtful, more accepting. It's a change that is surprising and profound, no matter how often it happens.

Home now, I'm still living through the unending day that jetlag provides, awake and hungry by 3 am, still feeling that ghostly vertigo that comes with motion sickness, amazed and delighted by things that were taken for granted six weeks ago. I wish I knew why I have to leave so thoroughly to be able to appreciate what I have--but I did and I do. And I probably will do it again.

Saturday, September 8, 2012

Seventeen Years Later

Almost twenty years ago, I fell in love with a city. Bangkok in 2012 is wildly different from the way it was in 1985--but under its newly sophisticated gloss, some things remain the same. It's true that its small children no longer scream at the sight of a foreign face, and coffee is more in the mode of Starbucks than the caffeine-in-a-baggie that I used to carry around by its rubber-band handle, but there are still things that persist that I've always loved and still do.

1) Motorcycle taxi drivers-- Those intrepid entrepreneurs who have never let me down--they know where to go and how to get there. When in doubt, I look for the guys in the vests--and sometimes when I need a lift to my spirits rather than a lift to a destination, I turn to them. There's little that can't be cured by a motorcycle ride down a busy highway.

2) River boat whistles--A language of its own--stop, back up, go--imagine a jet plane where the co-pilot communicates with the pilot though a little tin whistle. On dry land, whistles are disappearing--no longer does every security guard use one at the sight of a vehicle. On the river, that piercing call is still a common language.

3) Little buses that resemble tin cans and think they are motorcycles--When I first came to Bangkok, the only thing my boss told me NOT to do was ride the little green buses. When I finally did, I was usually the only foreigner on board. Now they're orange.

4) Fruit sellers in pickup trucks with megaphones--The first time I heard this weird, disembodied call on a quiet soi, it woke me from a sound sleep and I was sure it meant a revolution was at hand. They still wake me but at least now I can understand the names they call.

5) The sting of chili and garlic fried in a wok--It isn't as pervasive as it used to be. It's hot, hard work--my favorite wok chef retired to run a business where she sits at a desk under airconditoning with her Alaskan husky by her side. I can't blame her but I wish that the art she practiced wasn't so hard to find in 21st century Bangkok.

6) Cute, cheap shoes--Everybody told me Thai shoes would be too small for me and that was sad because they were everywhere and they were fantastic. They still are--and somewhere along the line I courted instant humiliation, asked to try on a pair and to my great joy, they fit! They teach the nature of impermanence, since they last for fifteen minutes, but it's easy to practice non-attachment when replacements are so easy--and so much fun--to find.

7) Wet markets--Food and flowers and frivolity all in one place--I've furnished entire households from these sprawling collections of fresh fish and crockery and polyester sheets and alarm clocks and Buddha amulets. Hot and crowded and completely irresistible, despite Tesco Lotus and Carrefour, the markets prevail.

8) Fresh fruit carts--The best invention the world has ever known--pineapple, green mango, papaya, cantaloupe, watermelon, sliced and handed over in a plastic bag with a skewer and some chili powder and sugar as a garnish. I can't eat fruit anywhere else--nothing tastes like Thai fruit anywhere.

9) Isaan food--Instant picnic no matter where it's eaten. And no. You can't get it in the states--not even a ghost of the grilled chicken and catfish laab and green papaya salad or grilled fish with mango that is on every streetcorner in Bangkok.

10) 7/11--Where else can you buy minutes on your mobile phone, a bottle of Stoli or Johnny Walker, a jar of instant coffee, and a bucket of essentials to take to a monastery as an offering?

In October, there will be a whole new cluster of places to explore in Bangkok that have sprouted up over the past year, but this list is a large reason why I'm going back. My love affair with Bangkok is anchored by these things.


Packing is very different for me than it was at this time four years ago. Then it involved winnowing possessions to fit in two suitcases; now it's a matter of choice that is temporary. Somehow that's much more difficult for me to do. I've practiced the art of leaving so often but the art of a journey that brings me back to my starting place is one I've not yer perfected.

I don't even know the word for what I'm doing in a week, It's not really a vacation because my work is in the computer I'm carrying with me and I'll keep slogging away at the rewrite that is my job. It's not really a work trip because I'm going to spend the bulk of my time with friends and reacquainting myself with Kowloon and Bangkok. It's a sojourn, but who uses that word anymore? It's a reunion, more than anything else, and that's strange to me because I usually avoid that sort of thing. The closest I've ever come to that was at family weddings in the small town where I grew up, and that was sheer hell. Huge gulps of my past in a massive wave--this will be more like sips of cold water on a very hot day.

I've made lists of things to take, things to do, and people I'll see, only for the pleasure of thinking about all of this. Except for the itinerary given by air tickets, I have no set schedule and with a few exceptions, I don't know what I'm going to do--the joy of traveling alone is that I can be completely spontaneous. I love to be able to turn on a dime.

Yesterday I read Vaddey Ratner's stunning novel In the Shadow of the Banyan, which brought Cambodia so close that I could feel its red dust on my skin. And then I was lost in memories of Savannakhet and I knew the first thing I need to do in Hong Kong is have more pages put in my passport--just in case.

Water dominates the places I'm going to spend time in--Hong Kong's harbor, Bangkok's river, a beach that no tourists go to, unless they're invited--and then that area that is shaped by the memory of water--the dry ocean floor and the marine sky of northeastern Thailand that stretches into Cambodia and Laos, Isaan country, a waterless inland sea. I have snapshots of this place but to remember it, I have to let myself feel it in my skin--salted with sweat from climbing up Preah Vihear, scalded by sun so hot I could feel it hit the ground and bounce back into my skin, hit by the wind that comes to the pillion seat of a motorcycle.

Yes, this part of the world has gotten under my skin and I'm going to put more of it there. That's why I'm going and I don't know one word for that--but there are many of them and I hope to find a few to bring back with me.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Stuck in the Middle, Moving On

I'm twenty-something years older than my sons and twenty-something years younger than my mother. Like most women of my generation, I haven't ever found my mother a helpful trailblazer. I never wanted her life and I spent a lot of time inventing my own, a process that is becoming more difficult with time.

I still enjoy, in theory, what my sons like to do. I love hearing live music, the louder the better. I'm comfortable anywhere that will serve me a cold beer on tap. I like baseball, although I don't cheer the hometeam since they used up Ichiro Suzuki, and I'm fond of a good action movie. In practice? I go to bed earlier than I ever dreamed of doing ten years ago, I hate shivering on a bleacher in a stadium, and beer makes me fatter than I think is healthy. And movies? I hate paying a small fortune to see something I know I've seen before, often.

It's hard for me to admit that I'm getting old but every day of my life reminds me that I'm wearing out. Not my heart or my eyes or (thank goodness) my liver but things I never expected would dwindle--my nerve endings.

I first noticed it in New York, five years ago. That's a city that always caught me up in its energy and buoyed me through its streets. It exhilarated me so that I barely needed coffee--but not this last time. I didn't soar through Manhattan; I slogged along its streets and wondered why it had changed. Slowly I realized the alteration was in me.

Once I was tuned so tightly that I could pick up and run with any sensory impression that passed me by--sunlight on water, wind sweeping through high grass, a fluster of snowflakes. Beauty charged me with energy; the excitement of the world was more than I could hold.

It's much too easy to contain myself now. The messages that I receive are from my muscles; my nerves have become blunt. Without those sharpened messengers rushing excitement to every one of my cells, now the ache of my back, the heaviness of my legs, and worst of all, the feeling that I've seen it all before dominates the way I look at the world.

I do my best to fight this. I travel when I can. I write. I take every opportunity given to me to see friends. I read a lot.

But the fact is when I talk to my mother, I see where I'm going. I am going to lose more and more of my physical being over the next twenty years. I think of Marguerite Duras with her wrinkles and her short skirt and her smile, of Martha Gellhorn with her cigarette and her scotch and her salon full of "boys," of Dorothy Parker in a hotel room, always poor with uncashed checks stuffed in a drawer--and I realize what kept those women going, in their own ways, was work. And I cling to that, hoping it will stay with me, even as everything else succumbs to deterioration

Saturday, September 1, 2012

Bare Ruined Choirs--Not Yet

"This time of year thou mayst in me behold
Bare ruined choirs where once the sweet birds sang."

Not yet...this time of year the tree outside my window casts hard shadows on the brick wall of my building and the leaves are a deep, warm, translucent green in the late summer sun. I love watching this just before the light falls away, which happens earlier now.

When I come back from Thailand in late October, then there will be those bare, ruined choirs--at least until the branches are softened by snow. But I'm too happy with today's light to think about that now.

Earlier today I was drawn out of my apartment by firecrackers, drums, and gongs. There were lions and dragons parading down the street and people waved plastic Taiwan flags. When I came back toward my place after a quick grocery grab, I was stopped by some of the best lion dancers I've seen in this country--and a dragon dance that was mesmerizing in a very small space. I don't know where this troupe was from--their shirts weren't in English and when they were finished, they packed everything into two tour buses.

"Where are you going?" I asked one of the dancers who replied in strongly accented English, "San Francisco." "Don't go away," I pleaded and he smiled. Of course there is nothing online explaining anything about this, although it was performed for many prosperous-looking gentlemen in suits--and the amount of firecrackers that heralded and concluded this event wouldn't have disgraced a war zone.

But that's, as Jack Nicholson taught us all to say, Chinatown. In this city, there's no other spot where I want to live, with its sun-warmed brick and its private celebrations.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012


Long, long ago I had good medical insurance, so long ago that it was in the days of strong labor unions. That both of these things have disappeared from the American landscape I'm sure is a matter of sheer coincidence. Even when I had it, my visits to doctors were usually when I accompanied small children who were closely related to me--I'll spare you the details.

Because I grew up where there were no doctors, I never got into the habit of popping in to see one when I felt ill. Aspirin, bed rest, denial all served me well in childhood, along with soaking wounds that had the potential for infection in hot water and epsom salts for hours on end.  Even when I lived in Bangkok, where seeing a doctor costs about as much as having a morning latte in Seattle, I rarely did. And now that I'm back in the U.S. forget it.

In a year and a half, I will be eligible for Medicare--forgive me if I don't express exultant gratitude when I think of it. Bloated medical costs have turned this into another cash cow for the medical establishment and a cruel joke for elderly people who rely upon it. My mother at 88 has been paying for a supplemental insurance policy that covers what Medicare doesn't; other elderly people go into debt when using this boon to aging humanity. Whoopie.

This program has become a banner-issue in the presidential campaign. Everyone agrees it needs tweaking but nobody is addressing the real issue--the absurd cost of hospitalization, of a visit to a doctor's office,or  the obscene greed of pharmaceutical companies.

The other night, after a bout of vomiting to get rid of shellfish I should never have eaten, my lips began to tingle. Over the next few hours so did my cheeks and fingertips. I drank huge quantities of water to rehydrate and read advice from Facebook friends. Doctor and emergency room came up more than once. I stayed home.

Will my attitude change once I turn 65? No, I don't think so. At least as long as I don't need cataract surgery. And if I do need that, I'll be on the plane to Bangkok. Medicare won't be going with me, since it only is paid to U.S. providers.

Cue wild laughter here.

Diet, exercise, aspirin, epsom salts--they've worked so far. Add a dash of denial and don't call me in the morning.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

New Blog on the Block

For those who might care, I have another place to put thoughts and rantings--this one for book-related states of mind. You can see it at if you are very, very bored.

Same Time Last Year

One of my friends just pointed out that it is very hard for either of us to stay in one spot for very long--an insight that shouldn't have come as a surprise to me, but it did. Yes, I knew this was true of me but when I realized she felt this way too, I began to stop thinking of this as a character flaw.

Both my friend and I moved from place to place during our childhoods and teenage years. That is something that sticks with a girl, no matter how old she gets. Leaving one spot for another becomes a habit--oh hell it becomes an addiction.

During my last stint in Asia, I grew restless in Bangkok after three months. Luckily I usually had somewhere to go long before that magic number arrived. Now in Seattle, I've been looking forward to my next trip ever since last Christmas. It's not that I hate it here, nor that I hated Bangkok. It really isn't a grass is greener attitude--I just need to see a new patch of grass so I can appreciate the one I live in.

In a perfect world, air travel would be as easy to attain as a bus ticket. Or perhaps we just need better buses--I'm saving the Bolt Bus for three months after I come back from Thailand. February will be a perfect time to get the hell out of town.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Taking to the Streets

Last night I went to a park that only a few years ago wasn't a spot where anybody lingered unless you needed a spot to sleep in or you were selling drugs. Now it's a gathering place for a vibrant and diverse community--gorgeous men playing basketball (my personal favorite), children and their parents, couples relaxing together on the grass, groups having picnics, and in the evening an outdoor movie being played on the wall of what looked like a large utility shed.

One of the assets that makes this spot a focal point is food--there's a huge amount of reasonably food encircling the park and a weekend hotdog cart inside. And I began to wonder how we could reclaim the streets of downtown Seattle as a place everybody would want to be in the same way people gather in this park.

I thought of cities where the streets are magnets for everyone and I immediately remembered their food carts. If we allowed reasonably priced, fresh, good food to line our sidewalks, people would come to eat. With enough people filling a block, it would no longer be an attractive spot for a drug market.

With a few exceptions, Seattle's streets in the downtown core are empty, except for bus stops and entrepreneurs of the worst kind. I see this from my apartment window all the time and think longingly of how a dozen food carts could change that in a week.

Our country is absurd--we regulate the things that could make life more pleasant and fail to provide solutions for that which makes life untenable. Loosen the restrictions on food carts and watch incarceration rates drop? Naive? Irresponsible? I don't know about you, but I'd risk a case of food poisoning once in a while if I could enjoy walking in the area around Third and Pine--or down Third at all, for that matter.

Friday, August 10, 2012

Offal Eating in Seattle

"Chinese food" in my neighborhood all comes from the same Master Menu with variations on that theme. Dumplings that all taste the same, chow fun noodles, green beans cooked with enough chili to call them "Sichuan", "Mongolian" beef, salt and pepper chicken/squid/shrimp, fried rice variants, soup and hotpots--the only difference lies in the freshness of the ingredients. So when I went to a new neighborhood spot and had chicken congee in which the chicken was possibly the same age I am, I wrote that place off--as I did another where I smelled scorching rice as I waited for my food and then discovered that rice on my plate.

The other day I passed the Home of the Ancient Chicken and was caught by some photos taped to its window. Sichuan they said. Now call me a cock-eyed optimist if you will, but when I see the word Sichuan I begin to salivate with the memory of Sichuan pepper. Since this spice is no longer illegal in my home country, I keep thinking that someday I will order something called Sichuan, put it in my mouth, and feel that incredible tingle and slight numbness that comes only with fresh huajiao peppercorns.

I walked in and ordered noodles with pork belly, and then I hoped.

The bowl that came to me was full to the brim with slivers of meat and thinly sliced vegetables. Under that was tiny bok choy, perfectly tender but not limp. Then there were thin noodles, laced with chili oil and sprinkled with some chopped peanuts. I put a piece of the meat in my mouth and felt a stab of pure joy. It didn't hold the pepper I yearned for, but it had the deep, clear, almost Neanderthal taste of a pig's intestine, beautifully cooked.

I hadn't eaten anything like this for a year. The style of the dish wasn't at all Thai but the freshness of the carefully cooked ingredients was. The texture of the different ingredients was. The delight I felt while eating it was, along with a little thrill of putting something that was almost a clandestine pleasure into my mouth.

It's rare that I leave a place anywhere in this American city feeling as though I've been truly well-fed. When I do, the memory of this keeps me happy for days. Simple food, well-prepared--not as easy as it sounds. One false move in making that bowl of noodles would have sent me away, queasy, with the food unfinished. Instead I left with an unfamiliar feeling of satisfaction, and comfort.

And hope--someday in this Chinatown, I will have bao zhe and smashed cucumbers in vinegar and chili oil and green beans with pepper that makes my tongue feel dizzy. When the smell of Xinjiang lamb skewers and  grilled chicken hits my nostrils when I walk out into the street, I'll know this city has grown up..

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Pale Sun

The sunlight here at 9 am has an ashen quality to it and the morning air has a sharp edge --autumn is on its way, after approximately one week of summer. Four years ago I was winnowing through my possessions, paring them down to what would fit in two suitcases before moving to Bangkok. Now back in Seattle, I'm eyeing a single suitcase for a return trip to Chungking Mansions and Thailand--a mere six-week stay.

Packing for that amount of time is a very casual undertaking, clothes washed and put in a small suitcase, laptop put in a bag at the last minute with all necessary cables and adaptors. (Hong Kong and Thailand both have different plug prongs.) But my cavalier packing habits are more than compensated for by my obsessive need to make lists.

Most of them are never put on paper or a computer screen and those invisible ones are the most important. They consist of memories that I will chase--or avoid. They fall into loose categories--evening light, fragrance and stench, ice cream, markets, steam after heavy rainfall.

When I lived in Bangkok, I was accompanied by a living memory--geographically distant but still close. He was around every corner of my city--sometimes physically present, sometimes bringing the past close enough for me to touch. Remembering him was a visceral act that I could feel on my skin; now that makes my throat tighten. He'll be there still for me but I'm unsure of how much strength it will take for me to encounter him this time around. I wear him on a chain around my neck, "if it suits you," he said when he put it there. Oh god, he was so unsuitable and so essential.

There are many people in the world of whom I am fond; I can count those whom I truly love, in this life and beyond, on two hands with some fingers left over. It's a list I rarely make. I take in those names as I breathe, they are as much a part of me as my eyes.

Bangkok is a city where ghosts are comfortable. But even if I don't see a spirit this time, I will be haunted by one, as I am in this city. At least in Bangkok, he will be at home.

Friday, August 3, 2012

Postal Postscript

Yesterday I happened to enter my building when the mail carrier was putting mail in the boxes. I told him what had happened and he smiled. "What's your name?" he asked and then "What's your apartment number?" Then he pulled an envelope from my open mailbox and said "Is this what you're looking for?'

It was indeed a replacement check and I was so relieved that it wasn't until I reached my apartment that I realized I'd been handed my mail without having to show any form of identification. Now instead of feeling better, I feel quite a bit worse.

Can we go to privatization now? Please?

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Life-long Learning

I've led a sheltered life, I must admit. I believe people are basically good and that given a choice they will do the ethical thing. I walk in the world without fear and security of any kind often seems a form of neurosis. That is why it has hit me particularly hard to realize that someone living in my building is a thief.

None of us have very much in the International Apartments; all of us live from paycheck to paycheck, as the cliche goes. Many of us are on fixed incomes and live here because it's a no-frills option--clean and basic studios and efficiency apartments in a 100-year-old building that range from 400 to 600 dollars.

When items that tenants no longer need appear in the hallway, they are usually more pathetic than they are useful. Laundry that I occasionally have to remove from a washing machine in the building is faded and threadbare. Tenants are long-term for the most part, usually men; they grow old here and die. For them this is home.

Then there are the younger tenants who are attracted by the low rents and the convenient location on the edge of downtown. Some of the residents are clearly suffering from mental disturbances which they control with medication. It isn't a spot that appeals to everyone but I'm on my second bout of tenancy here, drawn by the light that has flooded into my two different apartments, the quiet of the place, and of course the rents in a city where the cost of occupancy has soared in the past decade.

It's a strange little community but it has always had its own ethical code, which is why I'm badly shaken by the knowledge that somewhere in this building is a person who stole my money.

Mail carriers make mistakes, no matter where you live, and in my building, misdelivered letters are routinely pushed under doors or are pinned to the bulletin board above the mailboxes. That's why I was horrified to find that a check which was laggard in reaching me had been cashed--and not by me.

It's not a fortune, but it makes the difference between bare-bones living and a sliver of real pleasure--buying a book or two, giving a present, meeting a friend for Happy Hour. And it represents a lot of work on my part--hours of turning someone else's unreadable prose into something that can be published. Having just suffered a bout with a writer whose ego far exceeded any trace of talent along with the usual rewrite of poorly translated Chinese to English, I earned that money--which went to someone else.

This can happen anywhere. It's not making me move and it's not making me bitter. But I do feel foolish. I knew mistakes happen with delivered mail and I was certain that people in my building would do the right thing. As I practice the art of austerity a bit more diligently than I had planned, I feel sad that my view of a small part of the world has been tarnished, while wondering how I kept from learning a need for caution for such a large part of my life.

Friday, July 20, 2012

The Summer Book

There are some books that I can't keep. I buy one of them, reread it and then think of someone else who needs to read it too. A year or so later, I buy it again. The English Patient is one of those books, so is Happy All the Time. And then there's Tove Jansson's The Summer Book.

It's such a deceptive little book, beginning with its light and sparkling title. Written by the author of the children's series, The Moomintrolls, these stories about a little girl and her grandmother on an island off the coast of Sweden promise a charming, nostalgic look at childhood and the wisdom of age, something to pick up, enjoy, and forget. So wrong, so very, very wrong.

I can't count how many times I've read this book and each time I find a part of it that I would swear I've never read before. Each time, a new chapter hits me with particular force and overshadows the rest. This time around, it's the one about Midsummer's Eve.

Only people who live in the north understand what midsummer means. It's a day that taps into our deepest fears and our strongest hopes; it goes beyond the rational into the most primitive form of magic. We're never closer to our troglodyte origins than on the longest day of the year, when darkness makes a courtesy appearance, if it comes at all, and then steadily increases each day after until that is all there is.It's a day of celebration and loss, with a healthy dose of fear tossed into the mix. It's the true New Year's Eve, but only for northerners. For everybody else it's Titania and Oberon frolicking in an English wood.

For Tove Jansson's small girl Sophia, it begins with Eriksson, a silent fisherman who comes only when unexpected, bringing a gift. He shows up with a box of fireworks and the promise, "I'll drop by on Midsummer's Eve, if that's all right, and we'll see how they work."

In preparation, the house is filled with green branches and wildflowers, a site for a bonfire is set up, a launching pad is built for the fireworks, and a supper table is set for four. Sophia's father finds a can of gasoline because a strong wind blows in from the north, carrying rain, and "it was a disgrace for a Midsummer bonfire not to burn."

But Eriksson comes in  the rain, after dark; "quite dark, since no lamps can be lit on Midsummer." He rushes Sophia, her father, and the grandmother onto his boat and out to sea. Only a few bonfires cut through the rain and fog but the water is full of boats all going in the same direction, coming "out of the darkness, like shadows. Wooden crates with a heavy load of lovely, rounded bottles were bobbing on the gray sea" and the boats scoop them up, "ignoring each other...The salvage went on, like a neatly balanced dance...the Coast Guard turning a blind eye...Grandmother watched it, and appreciated and remembered." 

"By dawn the sea was empty." Eriksson drops the family off at their house and leaves. Only one rocket in the box of rain-soaked fireworks goes off; it "sailed up toward the sunrise in a shower of blue stars."

Lawlessness and magic and "the rising and falling sea"--this was my childhood as much as it was Tove Jansson's. This time, this is the gift I found in The Summer Book; I "watched it, and appreciated and remembered" and was pierced by that missing comma. I'll keep reading but this time, here is where my heart stopped. In the next reading, it will be someplace else that I'll discover for the very first time, perhaps in this copy, perhaps in a completely new volume while this one rests on somebody else's bookshelf.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Battling Inertia

A body in motion tends to stay in motion--but how to get a body at rest to move again? My usual answer is to leave the country, but there has to be another way to jump-start my life. Last Sunday I was reading Seattle's mediocre paper, more as an eye-muscle exercise than anything else, when I came across a feature story about an aquaphobic man learning to swim.

At first I approached this as a horror story. I grew up in Alaska where the survival rate in any body of water was estimated at no more than three minutes. This isn't a fact that gives a child the desire to learn to swim. Much later, when I was grown and gone, the local high school got a swimming pool, prompted largely by the number of deaths by drowning in an area filled with rivers, lakes, and salt water. Unfortunately that was too late for me--or so I always thought until I read how a man in his 30s had learned to believe that his body was buoyant.

Now I was approaching the realm of fantasy--but what if this could be true? What if I could become as comfortable in the water as I was on it? That question stops me every time I think of it. And I've thought of it often in the past few days.

Water is my favorite element--I never see a boat of any kind without wanting to get on it and sun sparkling on water is one of the most beautiful sights I know. In Bangkok the Chao Phraya river was my quick fix for malaise--in Seattle I get on a ferry. The idea of moving through water is as seductive to me as it is deeply terrifying. I look at pictures taken underwater and long to see this for myself. One of my favorite books is The Fragile Edge by Julia Whitty. Snorkeling, friends have told me, is complete delight. So what's the problem?

Quite simple--water in my ears makes me feel as though I'm being buried alive. I can't remember a time when having my hair washed didn't send me into a screaming frenzy, long before I could talk. Past life horrors? Perhaps. Hypnosis needed? Probably.

Or a very good teacher--and they seem to be out there. Apparently I'm not the only adult who has this terror. The Seattle Times reporter says it is common among many people of color; I tend to think it's more a matter of social and economic class. Parents with leisure take their children to swimming lessons; both of my own children can swim. My parents were far too busy feeding, clothing, and sheltering five children to worry about instruction in swimming, piano, the ballet--and the parents in my small community who could have taught such things were similarly occupied.

But I have time now, I have some spare cash, and oh god do I have an impetus. My life in Seattle, as I've said to the point of nausea, is comfortable enough to verge on the comatose. Challenging a deep-rooted fear is certainly one way to wake up. Another way? Learning to speak Mandarin--I really don't have to move to Beijing to do that, although I love the Gong Li pouting accent of the women who live there. And come to think of it, the year's more than half over and my resolution to read Moby Dick still goes unfulfilled.

Travel will always be my favorite antidote to boredom, but there are ways to circumvent that while staying in one place. Surf's up!

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Almost a Year

In 26 more days, I will mark the first anniversary of my arrival back to the Old Country--it has no real significance except as a measuring stick of what changes have come as a result, how I live, what I've accomplished.

I look at the place where I live, which has less furniture than when I first moved in. Except for the little Pullman kitchen set in the middle of one wall, it could be one of my starter apartments in Thailand, except there I always had a bed. Here, after my bedbug invasion, I sleep Thai-style on a mat that I roll up during the day. I call it my burrito bed.

I have a work table, a few cushions on the floor and a TV/DVD player for watching movies. A scrounged bookcase holds the few books that I keep--most of them I give away after I've read them. As far as comfort goes. my Thai apartment on Chokchai Ruammit wins hands-down--but buying furniture in Thailand is much easier than it is here ( In Seattle I fall apart at the thought of a delivery truck that might harbor bedbugs--yes admittedly I'm quite neurotic about this possibility.

I think of the people who prompted my move back and feel grateful that I was able to return to them. My sons are men who are pure joy to spend time with and I don't take that privilege for granted. The people they love and live with are generous and smart women who have made a space for me in their lives and that is a huge gift.

Friends? I learned long ago that upon returning after a long absence, some friends become acquaintances and some acquaintances become good friends. Making new friends for me has always been a byproduct of my workplace and working at home has put a large crimp in that. But I'm lucky that there's a large pool of creative and interesting people in this city--that is a major Seattle asset that makes it a place I can live in without clawing at my throat.

On the downside, I became addicted to travel in my three years away and have done far too little of that since I returned. My fault, I think--and the newly established Bolt Bus is a good reason to get out of town often. And I have plane tickets for Hong Kong and Bangkok to be used in a couple of months, which is still hard for me to believe.

On a balance the pluses of the past almost-year outweigh the minuses of grey gloom and persistent chill. Overall I'm lucky to have a place that always offers me a space where I can live and work. Had I not returned, some of the events of the past eleven months might have demolished me and it's certain that I wouldn't have had the perspective that would allow me to write my second book. When I whine about the weather and the dull streets of this city, it's only for a hiccup or two. I'm ready to sign up for another year--thank you for letting me come back to this party.

Monday, June 25, 2012

Big American Baby

From the time we can listen to speech, we hear innumerable spiels about what is good for us. Parents, health classes in elementary school, doctors, magazines--the propaganda for a healthy diet is everywhere in America. Our current First Lady has made the eradication of childhood obesity her special cause. We know to be healthy we need to eat lots of fresh vegetables, fresh fruit, lean protein, complex carbohydrates; yet most of us are still battling weight problems.

When I came back to the states, a healthy diet wasn't at the forefront of my mind. Over the three years I'd been gone, I'd maintained my weight at a highish but acceptable level and probably would have lost pounds were it not for the joys of a cold beer in a hot climate. For the most part, what I ate was fresh and low in fat. Protein was usually chicken or fish or small amounts of pork, rarely beef. Fruit carts were everywhere and fresh papaya was one of my favorite snacks. Fruit juice came in very small bottles--maybe four ounces. Bread was an occasional treat; rice was a staple. I ate reasonable portions in foodstalls away from home and my at home food was yogurt, nuts, and bananas. My energy was high and I felt good. Then I came home.

Having an oven was a huge novelty and I roasted and broiled chicken and pork with abandon. The pork was lean, the chicken swam in fat even though I removed big yellow globs before I put the poultry in the oven. The fruit that I bought tasted like nothing at all, unless I was lucky enough to find Mexican bananas grown from Thai seed. The flavors that predominated in the food I ate were sweet and salty. When you threw winter into the mix, the result was inevitable. I gained weight--lots of it--mostly in the danger zone of my abdomen.

Then came spring and when the coat and sweaters came off, the sad truth emerged. I found a book that jumpstarted my foray into nutritious eating. I'm lucky. I live near a supermarket that prides itself on its produce section, and Seattle has a large number of farmers' markets. Locovore is the new buzzword among foodies and the hippest, most popular restaurants cater to that trend. If you read any of the city magazines, you'd be convinced this place is the ideal spot for a healthy diet. Until you find yourself out on the street, on the run, with plummeting blood sugar levels.

Walk into any supermarket and look at what's most prominently displayed. Chocolate, chips, sodas, sandwiches, ice cream--even at my neighborhood produce paradise. Yes, there's fruit--and one downtown supermarket has a sink for customers to wash off their selections for immediate gratification. But the most convenient snacks are the ones that are the ones that are "bad" for you. And much of the fruit has no flavor, because we no longer believe in waiting until something is in season.

As I walk through a city that is more politically correct on every level than most in the country, I yearn for streetside carts that sell bags of freshly cut mangos, bananas, watermelon, papaya and guava. I wonder why we can't buy--impulsively and on the go--small skewers of lean pork, or a piece of grilled chicken, or freshly squeezed orange juice, or even a green papaya salad. I don't begrudge other people their salty, sugary, fatty snacks, but I do want a choice when it comes to fast food.

We've become a country of adults who eat like disobedient children and who feed our own children on the run with "healthy" food that can be sucked from a pouch. We are the 99% and we are fat because fat is big business. Gaining and losing makes other people rich--a sugar-free, chemically-sweetened "ice tea" is marketed over the possibility of throwing a few teabags into a pitcher of water and leaving it in the refrigerator for a couple of hours. Mango ice cream is easier to find than a fresh mango. And even "free-range" chickens in this country are fatter than they used to be. When they're purchased by the pound, why not?

We're a country that's put our money where our mouth is--and it's killing us.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Signs of the Season

As winter clothes come off, it's a sad fact that of life that winter weight has come on. Once upon a time that was taken care of by walking every day. Not any more...

Middle-aged spread, my grandmother called it. It hit her as she approached her sixties, I'm told, and it has me too. At first I was blithely unconcerned--no waistline? No problem. I told I myself I was too old for vanity. True as that may be, I'm in the prime age for the very real health problems that are associated with weight around the middle. Time for action, but mere activity wasn't enough.

Then I met a friend at the grocery store. He looked great--animated, energetic, and less bulky than he had been a couple of months ago. "South Beach diet," he told me, "essentially no carbs that aren't complex and no processed sugar."

I went home and investigated--it wasn't Dr. Atkins Revisited--it seemed sane. Low fat, high in vegetables and protein, low in carbohydrates. No jasmine rice, no beer (except at Oktoberfest, the doctor who developed this was German)--I sniveled a little and then went out and bought fresh produce.

The U.S. grows some really good vegetables, if you can pay for them. The fruit--not so good--which is why I stopped looking at the produce section of my neighborhood supermarket. That was a big mistake.If this new regimen teaches me nothing else, I thought as I picked up bitter melon and ripe tomatoes, it will at least have sent me back to the joy of fresh vegetables.

It's only been three days so I haven't noticed any spectacular changes--except without the sugar from beer and ice cream and egg tarts, I have fewer blood sugar crashes. Meanwhile my lower back still hurts, which I attribute to the added weight that is pulling on it. When I no longer have to take Aleve in the morning, I'll know I'm on the right track.

I don't have a scale. I don't want to become fixated on numbers. I'll know when my clothes begin to loosen that I'm losing weight. In two weeks I'll begin to add rice, pasta,beans, and perhaps an apple or two to my meals; by then I will have developed a firm and abiding passion for vegetables, which at the moment provide variety and texture to my rather boring allotment of protein. It's certainly the right time of year to rediscover vegetables; the farmers' markets beckon.

Last year when I went to Koh Samet with my family, I was stunned by how openly old European women displayed their bodies. No cover-ups for their bulges and wrinkles--I was envious of their acceptance of age. There's a balance I want in my life--that same acceptance along with a careful respect for my aging body--keeping it as healthy as I can while not forcing it into something it can no longer be. This eating change (I refuse to call it a diet) is the beginning of that balance, I hope.

A friend says aging is one of his last adventures. Martha Gellhorn said the same thing, brandishing her glass of scotch and her cigarette up until the very end. I'm greedy for all that life holds right up until the last minute--and the only way I'll enjoy that is to stay healthy. Pass the zucchini, please.

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Watching a Little Girl

Yesterday, I went to lunch with my son, his girlfriend, and her  nine-year-old daughter. I watched this child gleefully devour a cinnamon roll as big as her face, a bagel with cream cheese, and then a big, puffy, glazed yeast doughnut. This little girl improbably resembles a rod of bamboo.

Then we went to the library, where she found a copy of Beezus and Ramona, a small, comfortable armchair, and settled into both, calmly inhaling pages as voraciously as she had her lunch. When we walked back down streets filled with new leaves and blossoms, this slender little person danced her way home, chattering all the way.

This is why I want gun control. Seattle's neighborhoods need to be safe, for little girls and their brothers. Our country needs to think of our children, not profits from gun sales.

Spring was tarnished dreadfully for those in our city who think and feel, but still little girls hold life in their hands, the joy of it, the discoveries. They deserve our protection, our ability to make their world a place they can walk through without fear.

Fell on Dark Days

May has been a cruel and barbaric month for Seattle and for my country. Insane atrocities that I refuse to read about have prompted the federal government to announce that there are no such things as zombies. Much closer to home, a place that my oldest son has performed in, a place that he took me to just several weeks ago, became a slaughterhouse when a madman entered it and opened fire. Talent and beauty that this city needed badly was taken away in a day that led to another killing by the same man, with him finally shooting himself on a Seattle neighborhood street in broad daylight.

Many questions arise in the sadness: Why don't we take care of our mentally ill? Why do we let them have access to firearms? Why do we cling to a constitutional amendment that was written for a country that needed guns to kill its own food and faced the possibility of being reabsorbed into the kingdom it fought to leave? Why do we allow the National Rifle Association to dominate all political discourse on this issue? Why has our small city had so many deaths from gunfire in a year that isn't even yet half over?

But then--we have no bombs or grenades going off on our streets, that hideous random violence that efficiently kills more than one or three people at a time. The country I left less than a year ago, the Land of Smiles, the world's favorite playground, has people dying from explosives every day. Because that part of the country has essentially been written off, nobody cares.

My British friends shrug; they went through this in the last century, when the IRA made the English well accustomed to explosives in their daily lives. They survived; so will others now plagued with The Troubles. But the violence of terrorism has a recognizable root and the weapons used aren't legal; guns in this country are. In the state I live in, legislators refused to ban them from public parks--it's legal to carry your firearm to your family picnic. The people killed by gunfire in Seattle died for reasons that are impossible to comprehend--a parent left a loaded gun in a place where children played alone, bullets were fired and struck the wrong person in the wrong place at the wrong time, a man entered a cafe and killed people who were enjoying their coffee.

I grew up in a "gun culture" where people lived a semi-subsistence lifestyle. A moose shot when needed meant the difference between full stomachs and hunger. By the time I was fully adult, I saw caribou being shot for their head and horns alone--Alaska was becoming a land of trophy hunters. It made me sick.

Life taking life, if there is such a thing as sin, this is it. And by making this an action that anyone can take at will, we are complicit. If there's one thing we can do in our lifetimes, can we please make this stop, as much as we possibly can? "Guns don't kill people; people kill people" is fallacious. In America, people with guns kill people. This is what the right to bear arms has led to. It's a right we no longer deserve to have.

Friday, May 11, 2012

Rediscovering Spring

I'd forgotten how infuriating and delightful spring is in the Northwest; the last time I went through this was in 2008. Like the pains of childbirth, its peculiar form of manic-depression, gloom and brightness, chill and warmth, blossoms and hay fever had dissolved from my memory..

March came, April, then we were into May, and I was colder than I'd been in December. Springtime here has its own peculiar weather, with gusts coming off the Sound and rapid squalls that drench straight through to the gall bladder. Days fade into each other wrapped in heavy cloud blankets. Lights go on in the morning and often stay illuminated until bedtime. A trip to the grocery store is an exercise in sturdy pioneer fortitude. Trees form tentative leaves that are a sullen shade of green and any flowers that bloom look extremely out of place.

And then comes the morning when shadows form on the floor and a strange light teases at my closed eyelids. My cat finds patches of sun-warmed carpet and claims them. When I walk outside, the air feels like an invitation; I can't stay indoors. The past six months have taught me not to take sunlight for granted, as I did when I lived in Bangkok.

I take long, exploratory walks, finding places I didn't know existed in my neighborhood--a Buddhist temple for the Vietnamese who have taken over this district, a church where mass is said in Spanish, a taco truck only blocks from my apartment, a grocery store that sells injera next to an Ethiopian restaurant. A hillside full of carefully kept houses is alive with lilac bushes, peonies, azaleas, and rhododendrons; gluttonously I go there almost every day, hungry for color that isn't grey-green..

Yesterday I walked along the waterfront, which has become a tawdry mess of fast food and ugly souvenirs. I spent most of the winter avoiding it but now the stupidity of the place has vanished, consumed by blue water,  a breeze that carries the sting of salt and the scent of creosote left over from the days when this part of the city was more than a tourist trap. And I understand that spring is the drug that will keep me here, at least one more year.

Monday, May 7, 2012

Living to Eat

I do--I live to eat, I travel to eat, I eat to remember where I've been. Like most travelers, I've found that the easiest way to make connections and to join communities is to eat the local food, whether you like it or not.

In Penang, I grew to heartily dislike the food that place is famous for--except for one dish. When I first arrived and needed to buy a pillow to replace the block of granite that I was trying to sleep on, I interrupted the lunch of the young women who were working in the mattress shop. One of them was extracting pieces of fruit from a plate that was covered in something that looked like molasses. "It's rojak," she told me and I went off to find it for myself.

It wasn't a difficult quest, since rojak is one of Penang's signature dishes. It's weird--one of my friends admitted after the fact that he didn't care for it very much. Essentially it's pineapple, mango, bananas, cucumber, and jicama covered with a dressing made of dark sweet soy sauce, ground chile, maybe some tamarind and of course shrimp paste. The soy sauce looks and tastes like molasses, with a kick to it. The fruit and vegetables offer a combination of crunchy and soft, fresh and sweet. It was one of the few things about Penang that I loved.

Yesterday the sun was bright and warm, I went for a walk, and suddenly I wanted rojak. With a fair amount of trepidation, I walked through the door of Malay Satay Hut. Was this going to make me unendurably sad on a beautiful day?

It didn't. The mango and pineapple were sweet, the cucumber and jicama were fresh, and the sauce tasted like Penang. "It's made in Penang and sent to us," the waitress told me. I scraped up every drop and had to force myself not to lick my plate. And the memories that came to mind were the parts of Penang that I enjoyed, fresh and sweet and strong, just like the food I was eating.

We have to search hard for ways to be connected to each other--not to our family and friends but to the world around us, to the bodies that move past us on the street.

I go to a restaurant in my neighborhood owned by two people who have made their small space a community for those who go there. On Saturday afternoon, Mark and Pichaya at Thai Curry Simple in Seattle's ID make special dishes that usually I only eat in Thailand. A couple of weeks ago, a Thai expat and I bonded heavily over our plates of kanom jeen nam ngiow, with the dried herb that Pichaya brought back in a huge bag from Chiang Mai. Last week I gave a stranger a sip of my navy-blue nam dork an jahn (butterfly pea juice) and got in such a passionate conversation with the couple on my other side that I had to take part of my chicken larb home with me. Meals at this place are extraordinary because they breed connections.

Books are another way I was connected to the world, as a bookseller, and I've missed that conduit ever since I returned. At the end of April, World Book Night gave me an opportunity to approach total strangers with a book in my hand, as I gave away twenty copies of Sherman Alexie's Absolutely True Diary of a Part-time Indian. I looked at people carefully as I walked past them, wondering if they would welcome the gift of a book and had brief conversations with people I would ordinarily pass by in silence. I came home feeling sad that this doesn't happen every day of my life.

Eating, reading, sharing, telling stories, forging connections--I've never loved a book without wanting to lend it to someone afterward; I've never tasted a meal without wanting to eat it again in the company of someone  to share it with me.

I eat. I live. I remember.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Tony Doesn't Live Here Anymore: The Shrinking World of the No Longer Lonely Planet

This incredible shrunken view of the US from a New Yorker's perspective came to mind as I recently wandered through the 14th edition of Lonely Planet's Thailand. Sometimes I think I buy this only to see what's disappeared from the Kingdom. With each new edition, another destination has been extinguished--poof! Now you see it, now you don't.

I bought this solely because Austin Bush is one of the researchers-- he is a man who knows Thai food and writes about it very well. (I'm certain he's the reason why my favorite book about Bangkok is recommended in the Eating in Thailand section: Bangkok's Top 50 Street Food Stalls by Chawadee Nualkhair, aka And he didn't disappoint me--if there is one reason to buy this tome, it's for the food pointers and recommendations, which for Bangkok and Chiang Mai are outstanding. In the other provinces? Not so much, which is the big weakness of the 14th edition.

"Oh Thailand it appears we're growing old together," author China Williams mourns in her back of the book bio. When a guidebook writer finds that her territory is growing old, then it's time to find a new writer. With this current batch, what used to be an adventurous exploration has become, in the book's own term, "flashpackerised." If you're the kind of traveler who is seeking "serious self-indulgence" as in Chiang Mai's Tamarind Village with its rooms ranging from 200-600 US$ a night, this is the guide for you. Away from the city, you're largely on your own. "You're unlikely to stay overnight as Lamphun is so close to Chiang Mai" it informs readers cozily, but offers one suggestion "in a pinch, the very capable Lamphun Will"--just in case you can't make it to Tamarind Village before nightfall.

Or if you're in Bangkok, looking for a quick getaway, Lonely Planet has your back, offering Silver Sand, "adding a needed slice of sophistication to simple Ko Samet." Well golly gee whiz, thank heaven for that. On the other hand, since the last edition, Ko Si Chang has lost all of its guesthouses--Lonely Planet has decided this is a stop for daytrippers, as is Ko Lan, off the coast of Pattaya. (So much for supporting small local entrepreneurs.)

Chaiya has disappeared as well, with its reknowned meditation retreat of Suan Mokkh given a scanty sidebar in the page for Surat Thani, and Korat's Prasat Phanom Wan has apparently gone forever. Khao Phra Wihan has almost dissolved, with the temple site itself  given one sentence--if this gorgeous spot reopens to tourists before the 15th edition comes out, Lonely Planet devotees will have to make do with forty-one words. Nice...

But that's okay, because this guide points them in the direction the Tourism Authority of Thailand has always wanted travelers to take--the circuit: Bangkok, Chiang Mai, Phuket. The bulk of the book is given over to these destinations, and spots within them that conform to Lonely Planet's new obligatory description, "achingly hip." If that's what you want, you'll be delighted. If it isn't, then do what we all did before Tony and Maureen Wheeler constructed the empire they've given over to the BBC--ask your friends, do some research, explore. And take comfort in knowing that when you get to some obscure corner, Lonely Planet will not be there--unless of course, it happens to be a border crossing. .

Friday, April 6, 2012

Quo Vadis?

Quo vadis? Bpai nai? A donde va? (I can't do this in French because I don't know how to do accent marks here.) It's a sure sign of who I am that "Where are you going?" is a key phrase for me in several languages. Somehow I grew up misinterpreting the phrase "When the going gets tough, the tough get going." I don't know how I learned to take that as "Grab your passport and take off."

But there are vague indications that bed bugs may be growing from eggs to maturity in my apartment and my reaction hasn't been "I have to move to another apartment" but "I have to move to another country--one where DDT hasn't been banned." This is probably not a sane response to invasion by vermin, but it is mine.

The irony for me is that this time around I was prepared to stay. I was ready to wrinkle up and write in my little Chinatown apartment for the rest of my days. Unlike other U.S. sojourns when I got comfortable and cozy with the knowledge that it was going to be a temporary state of affairs.

But in this new domicile I have almost no furniture, I am unable to ask people to come over for fear that they will go home packing unseen hitch-hikers, I still have scars on my left arm which was covered with bites two months ago, and in February I spent twelve hours on the street while my apartment underwent fumigation. My landlord and his assistant informed me with gentle raillery the other day that golly gee yes they were fairly sure I was over-reacting when I learned I shared my apartment with bed bugs. I thought of the nights I was awakened by violent itching and tried not to look for something big and potentially lethal to throw at them as they relapsed into innocent merriment. Not funny, suckers, not one tiny bit.

I look on Craigslist and the apartments I can afford are all of the same vintage and ilk as the one I live in now--100 years old. lots of wood--and my inner alarm begins to jangle. There is nowhere to hide, nowhere to run...except to parts of the world where toxins are essential facts of life. Ecuador? Argentina? Deepest Peru?

Perhaps what is occasionally biting me is a colony of carpet mites--would that make a difference? It would for me. A bite or two every week I could live with. An arm swollen with bites and little fluid-filled pustules on the bones of my fingers--not acceptable.

Very few people react to the saliva of bed bugs. I do. If they are here, breeding and growing, it will soon be no secret to me. Or to any of you, because my screams of outrage and horror will float all across the Pacific Rim. Let us pray...

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Book Report

"After living there a month, I could write a book. After a year I could write a post card."

Travel writing is easy--spend a month in a country, write about what you saw, what you did, what you ate. Flesh it out with answers you received to questions, what you thought about what you saw and heard, perhaps augment it with a romance on the road--voila! When done well, it's Dervla Murphy. When done badly, it's Eat, Pray, Love. When done grouchily, it's Paul Theroux. When done thoughtfully, it's Pico Iyer.

But if you stay in a country, your questions become more and more difficult to answer. Sometimes they become unanswerable. Sometimes they become unspeakable.

I've traveled in Southern Laos and was always taken aback by how sparsely populated the countryside is--more like rural Alaska than neighboring Thailand. After making half a dozen trips, I finally wrote about what I saw on a journey there, concluding with what I would never know as a tourist, unless I spent a long time of commitment to the place.

Then I read a manuscript written by a woman who has traveled deeply in Laos for over seven years. Her questions are piercing ones and she uses interpreters to get truthful answers. What I learned from Karen Coates about the countryside I journeyed through is that it's wild and unpopulated because the land holds death beneath its surface.

It's a legacy from the US, unexploded ordinance, UXO, that lurks beneath the ground that Lao people depend upon for their livelihoods. Much of the country's farmland holds bombs of all sizes, waiting to explode half a century after they were dropped. Farmers who traditionally grew food now dig up lethal metal that they will sell for scrap. It's "free"--the only cost is a limb or a face or a life.

The country is filled with death under the soil. Slowly, painstakingly, not fast enough, teams of detectors and detonators comb every inch of the areas they are sent to. One man, American Jim Harris, goes to places considered less risky than others, where people are injured or die from UXO frequently. The places are considered less risky because Laos is graded on a curve and the bar for danger is set quite high.

Eternal Harvest: The Legacy of American Bombs in Laos by Karen Coates and Jerry Redfern is not travel literature, but anyone who is going to travel in Laos should read it, for their own safety's sake as well as to understand where they are and what they are looking at. It will take its place beside Now Let Us Praise Famous Men, Silent Spring and Earth in the Balance as a book that is going to help change the world--if it isn't too late for that to happen.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Unsure but still in Motion

I've been back in the U.S. for eight months, which is long enough for me to decide what I miss most about my life in Bangkok. And what I miss most is leaving it.

Every ninety days in Thailand, I crossed a border. Even when my visa didn't demand it, I went to another country after three months in Bangkok. Sometimes I was gone only for a couple of days, sometimes several months, but always I loved my time away from Bangkok, as well as returning to it. And during the three years that I lived that way, I became addicted to tickets.

Bus tickets, train tickets, air tickets--I love them all, those slips of paper that hold possibilities. Purchasing them became part of my internal clock; sitting in a conveyance that would take me somewhere I had never been before was like nourishment. I needed it, yearned for it, was sustained by it. It didn't have to be comfortable travel; it just had to take me away, give me a new perspective, bring me back with a few good stories, make me realize that I liked where I lived.

By now, were I still in Bangkok, I would have made a trip in October, another in January, and would be preparing for yet one more in the coming month. In Seattle, I've explored different neighborhoods. It's not quite the same.

My plan had been to return to Bangkok at least once a year, and then travel on from there for as long as I could. I still long to do that. But an invitation from a friend has opened a new gateway for me, enlarging my tunnel vision that only saw Asia; Europe awaits. And as I think about a stay in Italy, the world unfolds for me in a way that I'd forgotten I hungered for.

I'm in my early 60s; with luck I might have another fifteen years of good travel time--and there is so much I want to see. Morocco, Istanbul, Uganda, Argentina, Serbia, Mexico City. How much can I gulp down while still being in these places as I want to be, for weeks or months, not days?

Once a year, twice a year, instead of four times a year--the tickets still are waiting with their promises of new worlds, for as long as I can keep on going. Revisiting the familiar while exploring undiscovered spots--not a bad goal for a motion junkie, for as long as I can, as far as I can.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012


Almost Home: the Asian Search of a Geographic Trollop is with a copyeditor. After grammar and punctuation have been made perfect, and tweaks have been made for clarity, the book will no longer be mine. It will pass into some mysterious limbo, to emerge in a year or so as a finished volume. By then it will seem like a completely new book.

When Tone Deaf in Bangkok came into my hands, I could do nothing but stare at it for a long time before I finally opened it. I wonder if that same dazed happiness will come to me again with this book, or if it only happens with the first?

But I can't think about that right now. There's a new book jostling around in my mind. It's going to stay there for a while, in the mulling process and then the possession will take place. (It possesses me, not the other way around.)

Meanwhile there are other people's words to edit. What a good life--how did I get so lucky? All I ever wanted was to spend my days reading and writing--and that's exactly what I do. Good fortune indeed.

Thursday, March 15, 2012