Sunday, December 23, 2012

Wishing

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 http://www.bradycampaign.org/ 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

Power

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.


Leaving

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

Medi-what?

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 onceabookseller.blogspot.com 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.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Jeans

I haven't worn them in three and a half years. I took a well-worn, well-loved pair of Lee's with me to Thailand and ended up purposefully leaving them behind in a Vientiane hotel room. Thai girls can wear them in 90 degree heat but I could not. Of course Thai girls are built perfectly to wear jeans, with their slender hips and long legs, while I look like Winnie the Pooh. That may have something to do with my abandonment of something I had loved to wear from the minute I'd graduated from baby overalls.

Cotton slacks were cool and comfortable and they became my Thai uniform but they never gave the same feeling that denim does when it's next to the skin. My slacks were well-behaved while jeans were adventure, rebellion, and talking back. I missed them.

Once long ago in Bangkok when I was thin, I bought a pair of second-hand Levis at the weekend market. My eyes were smaller than my stomach and I ended up giving them to our maid. She was a decade younger than I, much thinner, and raised in a conservative household. She burst into wild laughter when I handed her the jeans but disappeared to put them on and came out looking rather enchanted. They looked good on her but she found they weren't comfortable to work in and they vanished.

When I returned to the States and looked at jeans in the department stores, the prices made me hyperventilate. Even the humblest of denim commanded more than I was willing to pay so I stuck to my Thai slacks, purchased a skirt now and again, and moved on.

Until this week in a thrift shop. Sometimes you look at something and know it's yours, even before you check the size. I came home with a pair of very good jeans that had been worn and faded to perfection, so convinced they were mine that I didn't bother to try them on. When I did, I didn't want to take them off--the fabric is like velvet against my skin and they are loose enough to be pure comfort. I hastily and ineptly shortened them and went out into the world.

They give me the same feeling of freedom and anarchy that I first felt when I was five and could fit into my first jeans. I walk a little faster when I wear them and I feel as though the world is mine. In Seattle's cool climate, there will never be a day too hot to wear them and for once I am grateful for that.

In my second skin of denim, I feel a step closer to being 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 (http://tonedeafinthailand.blogspot.com/2008/10/how-to-buy-sofa-in-bangkok.html) 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.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Winter of Our Discontent




“I can’t get a date,” my single male friends often complain over dinner, staring at me mournfully, “Nobody will go out with me.”  It doesn’t take high-level interrogation skills to find out that they subscribe to the Tom Cruise Dating Eligibility Profile and that “nobody” is anybody who is twenty years younger.

Let’s leave out the fact that they’re having dinner with me, which, while not a date, is definitely spending time in female company.  We’re leaving that out because I wouldn’t date them; I know precisely how they feel.  I subscribe to the Joan Collins Dating Eligibility Profile myself, which, if my shaky math skills haven’t failed me, only places on one’s radar screen men who are thirty years younger.

It’s a difficult position to maintain if you also cling to any form of romantic illusion or a sense of the ludicrous.  It’s a cruel joke that the human species of any gender is hardwired to find attractive at sixty the same physical types who attracted us at twenty. It’s one thing to lust after your children’s friends but your grandchildren’s friends?  At a certain point, even the redoubtable Ms. Collins would have to rethink her dating strategy.

I’ve always dated younger men and have chalked it up to a deep-seated immaturity on my part.  Recently I’ve reencountered some of the men I used to know in the Biblical sense, who are all between five and ten years younger than I, and have discovered that they’re too old for me.  The fact that they seem to have made the same discovery about me fails to bring much comfort.  The difference between us is that they are quite hopeful about eventually finding someone who is young enough for them and I know all too well what happened when I did.

I’ve dated men who fit the Joan Collins Eligibility Profile and in one case it was a relationship of some duration. It was fun, the sex was great, we’re still close friends, and during our affair I never felt older in my life.

There’s an endorphin rush at the beginning of any relationship that’s as hot and as exhilarating as anything felt at eighteen.  It’s fabulous and all encompassing and it lasts for about a week, maybe two if you’re lucky.  When I stopped floating, it was still good.  Then one evening we were listening to music together and I realized with a horrible clarity that when I first heard the song that we were both hearing now, the person who was hearing it with me wasn’t even born yet.

Other things continued to sharpen my epiphany, a birthday, a casual conversation in which the age of one of my children was mentioned, and finally I couldn’t look at the man I was dating without seeing him as he must have been when he was two and I was twenty-six.  At that point there’s only one thing to do and I’m proud to say that I did it, and we still enjoy an enduring friendship.

It might have been different with a rent boy, and there are those who would be cruel enough to point out that at the heart of the matter this is exactly the solution that Joan Collins has found.  I, who was almost driven to suicide after watching The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone, doubt that gigolos are an option for me.

 Perhaps hypnosis is the answer.  Perhaps I could be made to believe that sagging jowls and flabby bellies and acres of white chest hair are sexy.  Perhaps I could get over my aversion to middle-aged male pontificating and my fear of becoming a nurse to some man in his twilight years.  Maybe…

In the meantime, I’m too busy with my job, my friends, my traveling, and my surly little cat to give the matter a huge amount of thought. Then once again an aging male friend tenderly confides his dating dilemmas and I look at him with a mixture of compassion and boredom.  “Get over it,” I’m learning to say, “and either find a girl who will make you feel very, very, old or dredge up another topic of dinner table conversation.”










































































































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 17, 2012

Sightseeing Is Not an Adventure


                 The sun was bright and scalding when I left the plane from Bangkok to walk into the sheltering bureaucracy of the Siem Reap airport and I was still limp from my earlier flight from the U.S.  Soon I was rapidly whisked into an air-conditioned car by a driver who had impressive English skills and an unswervable determination to take care of me. 
I’m not fond of being taken care of but I was in a weakened state and thoroughly disoriented.  Siem Reap appeared to be a gigantic ghetto of hotels, ranging from magnificence that rivaled their Bangkok counterparts to the humbler pastel concrete confections for the much less affluent traveler. The guesthouse I insisted to be taken to offered me a room with curtains that were as drooping and grubby as I felt when I looked at them, and a little refrigerator that contained a stunning collection of dead insects, so I submitted to the driver’s alternative.
            He had shrewdly assessed my resources on the trip from the airport.  I carried one inexpensive and very small bag, had winced visibly when he pointed out the luxury hotels that resembled palazzos, and had shown little interest in the $30 dollar (“very cheap”) substitutes.  The $15 price given at the rejected guesthouse and my $10 counter-offer had revealed me as a budgeter, or worse yet, a stingy foreigner, who would be satisfied with The Golden Temple and a room for $10 a night.
            Richard presided over The Golden Temple and his English was as rapid and efficient as it was flawed.  Within minutes, he put me in a room that was far more comfortable than any of the upcountry ones I had frequented in Thailand, with its hot water shower, gleaming Western toilet, cable TV with CNN, and air-conditioning augmented by a sizable fan.  I returned to the lobby to find him happily assuming the driver’s role as caretaker, scheduling my trip to view Angkor Wat at sunset.  We tussled over that for a while, until I pulled out my “very, very, old” excuse, which worked as well with Cambodian solicitude as it always did with Thai.  Richard soon agreed that rest was the way I should spend my afternoon, showing only a vague hint of confusion when I insisted on booking a motorcycle the next day, rather than the car and driver that he thought my decrepitude deserved.
            Siem Reap was not what I had expected.  We had passed acres and acres of tourist accommodation on our way from the airport, and a multitude of restaurants and bars and souvenir shops.  The neighborhood I was in bristled with signs proclaiming “Laundry” and three-storey concrete villas, festooned with verandahs and painted in the same candy-colored shades as Jordan almonds, that claimed to be guesthouses.  The narrow lane that I viewed from the balcony of my pale lemon yellow concrete villa was an extravaganza of traffic: white vans, double-decker tour buses, cars, and tiny canopied carts that were attached to motorcycles and carried large, well-fed pale people.
            According to all I had read, this wasn’t a large town, and could be explored easily on foot.  Somewhere near my guesthouse was a covered market that the driver had pointed out to me on our trip from the airport, and in Thailand a market meant food, fresh, good food, and a community of small businesses who were usually too busy to be caretakers. Clutching a pile of laundry as cover, I sauntered past Richard as casually as I could, but he caught up with me as I reached the end of the courtyard. “Lady, where are you going?” he asked and looked genuinely troubled when I waved an expansive hand beyond his domain and sauntered off.
            Other than leaving my dirty clothes at a Laundry sign, I had no idea of where I was going, and the sun struck me as being much hotter than in Bangkok.  A cluster of motorcycle drivers looked at me with little interest but one agreed to take me to the market, which proved to be humiliatingly close by.
            It was cavernous and dark and smelled as though it sold a huge amount of fish.  Everyone was cheerful and relentlessly attentive, in English, with ebullient greetings and voluble pleasantries, and sold me some clothing that I was fairly sure I would never wear.  Feeling weak, I tottered out in search of food stalls, where a young boy, on crutches and missing a leg, silently led me to the nearest motorcycle and glared at me as he held out his hand.
            At this point I could understand why Siem Reap meant Siam Defeated, because I was feeling pretty damned vanquished myself.  The passenger who had sat behind me and coughed his way through the entire flight from Bangkok seemed to have left his mark.  I wanted nothing more than soup, Kleenex and sleep, all of which waited for me at The Golden Temple, where Richard explained that there was no need to leave; his food was cheap and delicious and he could get me anything that I would want.  Feeling like a pampered prisoner at a maximum security prison, I retreated to my cell, swallowed aspirin, and went to sleep.
            The next morning I was hacking, snuffling and facing a small currency crisis.  My room rate and laundry charge was paid for in dollars, the restaurant charged in dollars but was incapable of giving change, the beer and bottled water that Richard sold at the front desk was priced in riel and so was the Tiger Balm and Kleenex that I’d bought from a little shop to get me through the day.  The motorcycle drivers of the day before had asked for dollars but were mollified by Thai baht.  The fee for the Angkor Pass I knew would be in dollars, and although I was sure that the temple vendors would accept dollars, it was equally clear that they would probably have no change.  I was beginning to feel like a United Nations of currencies, and I hadn’t even yet begun to carry riel.
            My bossy driver of the day before showed up with a young boy in his wake.  “My brother,” he explained, “ He will take you on his motorcycle, first to the Bayon and Preah Khan, then to Angkor Wat in the afternoon.  Here is a book for you so you can learn about Khmer history.”  He handed me a booklet with a fine display of condescension, and I politely refrained from enumerating the long bibliography of Cambodian historical volumes that I’d purchased and read over the years in preparation for my trip.
            “Why can’t we go to Angkor first?” I asked and both Richard and the older brother muttered something about the way the road went and smiled their farewells.  I looked at my new driver who beamed at me timidly.  He looked twelve, which meant he was probably twenty-two, and had a face of cherubic sweetness. I callously decided that I would pay him far better than well and make him do exactly what I wanted and that our first order of business would be finding a place to buy riel.
            Nok was a quiet lad, with a shaky command of English and a disconcerting habit of looking blank and energetically nodding, “Yes, yes.”  I had used that ploy all too often myself, with Thai speakers whom I imperfectly understood, to be taken in by it, but was heartened by the fact that that he understood the word no and, even better, responded to it.  Then we swept into another world and time and I stopped speaking because I needed every scrap of energy to look and absorb what I saw.
            The immaculate landscaping of the entrance to what is now termed the Angkor Archeological Park swiftly dissolved into a moist cool forest that bordered the road and blotted out the sky.  The damp odor was soothing as were the sounds of loud and energetic cicadas.  Emerging from that little refuge, we came to a long approach that was flanked by a long line of stone figures on both sides of the road. At the end was a tall stone gate that rose into a tower and held the giant faces that were carved into the entrance to the splendor that was Angkor Thom.  Nok stopped the motorcycle, and I stepped into a world that I had dreamed of for so long that I felt as though I must still be sleeping.
            The gate was so high and so huge that it looked as though it must have been carved from a mountain.  Stone walls stretched from each side as far as I could see, and the faces were as regal and commanding as I’d fantasized yet much, much bigger.  I imagined seeing them alone, at night, and shuddered.
            I could have stayed with those faces for the whole day, but the greed that propels explorers to push on had seized me and I climbed back on the motorcycle.  Soon we stopped again and there was a high causeway built over a wide moat and at the end was a spired, multi-leveled extravagance of stone that glinted silver as though it had been bathed in mercury.
            As I walked closer, the craggy surface of the spires slowly revealed the features of the giant faces of the Bayon, each one imposing and each marked with the smile of men who understood Shiva’s cycle of creation and destruction.  As I wandered through broken halls and climbed staircases that required all of my attention, I could see one of those faces through every doorway, watching, guarding a place that had become as removed from human engineering as a sea cliff.
            Behind the Bayon were trees and what looked as though it once was cleared land and a small temple with steep steps and the foundations of structures that had been massive.  It was a silent and lonely place that felt as though it could engulf me, turning me into the moss that clung to the rocks and tinged them with silver.
            I walked away feeling glutted with beauty.  I had once traveled for days throughout Northeastern Thailand, standing in the remnants of Khmer roadside hospitals and shrines and haphazardly restored temples and the Spartan simplicity of mysterious little Prasat Ban Pluang, and had been thrilled to see a single apsara carved into the wall of Prasat Sikkoraphum, which was quite possibly the only one in the Kingdom of Thailand that was still in place.  Here I had, in a matter of hours, seen dozens of graceful, exquisite apsaras, frozen on the walls of the Bayon.  I wasn’t used to seeing so much beauty with so little effort, and this was as dizzying as the heat that I could feel burning my skin.  And then they found me.
I was surrounded by a horde of children, all very small, all very cute and all speaking the same rapid, flat and relentless English.  “MadammadamyoubuyfrommeverycheaptwoforadollarnothreeforadollarlookmadamveryniceverycheapfourforadollarmadamwhyyounotbuyfrommewhyyoucometoCambodiaandyounotbuyfrommemadamwhylookveryniceforyouverycheapmadamwhynot?” 
And I did at last from one little boy, two for a dollar, little flutes that he had played so sweetly at the outset that I had broken stride and become prey.
            It upset me more than it probably should have, and I was shaking by the time that Nok and I found each other.  I needed time to sit and be quiet and it seemed that was only going to happen when in motion on the motorcycle so we went to Ta Prohm, the site that was allowed to remain unrestored, a crumbled city covered with the snake-like roots of the trees that grew over and above the ruins.
            It was a nice walk through what looked a lot like a jungle.  A group of musicians played traditional music on the same instruments that accompany modern-day Thai boxing.  None of them had all of their limbs and a sign in English identified them as land-mine victims.  Women sold bags of pineapple that turned out to be delectable, and one man was chasing a group of tourists with a cold Coke, lowering the price deeper and deeper with each step he took, while his pregnant wife stood guard over an ice chest filled with soda cans watching him with a look of complete exasperation.
            There was a gleeful feeling to Ta Prohm, as though the tourists were given a chance to be Indiana Jones and the vendors were going along with the gag by being present but not aggressive.  Its size was the most impressive feature, having once containing a city of thousands, now rocks and rubble and portions of rooms and tree roots writhing through what was left.
            Little boys offered to give tours of where Tomb Raider had been filmed, but nobody seemed eager to pay homage to Angelina Jolie, since we had all just briefly been stars in our own private movie.
            Everything became more manicured as we neared Angkor Wat.  A cluster of elephants and vendors waited politely at a discreet distance.  The famous five towers looked painted like a gigantic diorama in the savagely hot afternoon sun.  The enclosing walls swept farther than I could see and, apart from the long approach that was built upon well-maintained grassland, a forest obscured any view of what lay behind them.   A modern temple on one side and a cluster of ramshackle buildings that were far flung on the other gave hints of an active community that still existed behind the walls.
            Angkor Wat is perfect, and like all perfection, reveals as much and as little as you would find in a good photograph.  It commands reverence as well as admiration; walking its dark, cool hallways is an expedition into a sacred place.  The long rows of headless Buddhas embody impermanence and human suffering and the futility of trying to contain holiness in an object.  The bas relief on the gallery walls pulse with action that has been trapped in midstride, waiting for everyone to leave so the battles can resume.  The beauty of the place was more enigmatic than the faces of the Bayon and frustrating, like a gorgeous woman who is mute. 
            (Donald Gilliland, in his essay in To Asia With Love, describes the pleasure that can be found in walking the walls of Angkor Wat.  Drained by my cold and the heat and the sensory overload and my aversion to the threat of more tiny vendors, I didn’t follow his advice and wish so much that I had.)
            Back at The Golden Temple, I sat on the balcony as the light drained away, and felt the ghost of a breeze on my skin.  Workmen were pounding away on what looked as though they would be new villas, children were playing in a vacant lot, and a man led several cows down the narrow street below me, looking as though he had sprung out of a temple bas-relief.  Beneath the thick veneer of tourist conveniences and pleasures was an almost invisible core of daily life, which was as inaccessible to my curious stare as that which lay behind the walls and forests of Angkor Wat. 
            No place I had wandered through had been as impenetrable as Siem Reap.  “Sightseeing,” a Japanese friend had once told me rather severely, “is not an adventure.”  Now I was in a place I had yearned to see, in a country that I had fallen in love with almost ten years before, and I felt trapped in a cocoon of sightseeing, and miserable.
I went to bed and lay in a stupor, listening to disco thuds from nearby bars that I had no desire to visit, and accepting the fact that I was aging.  It was time to accept my limitations, I decided, and enjoy what I was given.  And that was when the cockroach ran up the length of my back.
            It was almost a relief when I turned on the light and saw it briefly before it disappeared under my bed.  It might have been a spider, or even a very small mouse, or something venomous, rather than a disgusting challenge to my newfound equanimity. Winding myself up tightly in my sheet and leaving the light on, I tried desperately to sleep.        
            “May I call you Mother?” Nok asked the next morning before we set off for Preah Khan, and I in my weakened state managed a feeble and rather lackluster nod.  Even at the best of times, maternal feelings were not a hallmark of my personality and were never bestowed on those without a physical claim to my motherhood.  “Offer it up, “ I thought grimly and tried to be amused when Nok would call “Mother” and fellow-travelers did double takes when they saw that he was addressing me.
The trip to Preah Khan took us deep into a forest and I walked under a canopy of trees that stretched behind the gated walls.  It was early morning, quiet and cool, and two little children who were playing in the dust of the narrow road ignored me as I passed by.  I entered into an endless, perfectly straight, narrow hallway, with corridors leading away from it, like arms, at the small rooms that punctuated the passage.   Window openings that stretched from the floor to the roof showed huge enclosures that were open to the sky and filled with jumbled, tilted, massive slabs of stone, as though demented giants had battled there.   I looked down one of the adjoining hallways and saw a handful of people, dressed in the corresponding colors of a tour group, scrambling over and through the broken stone obstacles, while a Cambodian man addressed them in a flowing stream of German.
            This felt like an enchanted place, like a Khmer version of a Grimm’s fairy tale.  I walked down the long corridor, feeling sure that I would find something magical when I finally reached the end.  Behind me a little voice chattered and I turned to find two little girls, grubby and eager and beaming urchin grins.  “Madame,” one of them announced, “Jannikawhat’syournamecome,” and she beckoned me down one of the adjoining hallways and into a courtyard filled with mountainous building blocks of stone.  They led me through a maze of enclosures as rapidly as little mountain goats.  “Jannikatourguide,” the larger girl told me as she stopped near a tower that rose from the rubble, with a bas relief figure carved upon it, “Mefivedollarsherfivedollars, “ and she gestured toward her silent little companion.  I gave them each a handful of riel and they scampered away, leaving me far from my beaten path and thoroughly confused.  Courtyards and hallways beckoned from every angle, like a maze whose curves had been pulled out into straight lines.  I could hear voices somewhere beyond my field of vision, and walked in that direction.  The gate that I passed through wasn’t the one that had been my entry point, and I had to retrace my steps past the gauntlet of vendors at the roadside to go back into Preah Khan and find the spot where Nok was undoubtedly sleeping.
            My cold was at what I hoped was its zenith and my energy was correspondingly low.  Clinging to the motorcycle was all I seemed capable of doing and so we headed out into the country to see the Roluous group, the sites that began the profusion of Angkor, that marked the original kingdom that began the Khmer empire.  We left the confines of the park for the open road, a highway that took us into farmland that was so hot that I could feel the heat bounce off the paved surface of the road and onto my skin.
            Lolei had once been a palace on an island in the middle of a manmade lake.  Now it was a dusty hill that held carved walls of buildings that had been there for centuries, surrounded by a modern temple and the monks who inhabited it.  What it lacked in dramatic spectacle it more than made up for by its sheer hominess, and I looked at the dogs and chickens and temple attendants with as much pleasure as I did the remnants of palatial glory.  Preah Ko was equally tranquil, small and undemanding, a sacred clearing in the middle of nowhere that was eclipsed by the immense pyramid of the Bakong.
            It rose behind its walls like the mountain that it was designed to represent, and the steps leading up to its summit were as steep as any slope of the holy Mount Meru.  I watched people scaling the narrow, almost perpendicular stairs, and knew that if I could ever make it to the top, I’d be paralyzed there forever, trembling and starving to death.
            The temple was set in a meadow that was studded with smaller structures and with a living community outside of its walls.  Beyond its back gate, people were playing music and singing, invisible in the trees.  Sitting some distance away, alone in the shelter of the walls, a man chanted in prayer-like rhythms, in words that sounded like the Pali used by monks in Thailand.  Wild flowers and grass and trees that grew unattended and unrestrained were wonderful to see after the carefully tended grounds of Angkor’s surroundings and I knew this would be a place I would return to, if only in my imagination.
            Nok was delighted that our day would end earlier than he had anticipated because one of his relatives was getting married and he urged me to go with him.  Engulfed in sneezing and nose-blowing and weird waves of chill that swept over my sunburned body, all I wanted was to fall into a bed that I didn’t have to share with a cockroach. 
A battalion of little girls had berated me earlier at Preah Koh for not buying scarves from each of their number, and one who felt particularly slighted had followed me with repeated demands of “Why you only buy sixteen scarves, Madame?  Why you not buy more?  Buy from me Madame, I saw you first, why you not buy more from me?” until I turned on her and said, “Because I am a very bad person.”  I felt assaulted, and exhausted, and as though I never wanted to buy anything, anywhere, ever again.  Caliban was who came to mind when I saw groups of children approach me, knowing they would use my language to make me feel frustrated, sad, and very annoyed.
Back at The Golden Temple, I found Richard, and asked him, “Can you speak Thai?  Do you know maleng saeb?”  I hoped he knew the Thai word for cockroach because I didn’t want to embarrass him by saying it in a language that the other guests in the lobby would be able to understand.  Apparently he did know, because he turned pale and said, “What? Here?” and rapidly helped me move my belongings into one of the more expensive rooms on another floor, which, he assured me, would be free of any wildlife.  
I woke up the next morning feeling saturated by all that I had seen.  This was not the kind of traveling that I enjoyed.  I was as much of a tourist as those people who roared past me in the comfort of airconditioned, double-decker buses, whose exhaust I breathed in spite of Nok’s anxious cries, ”Close your nose, Mother, close your nose!” 
I figured I had just enough energy and curiosity to go to Banteay Srei, the fabulously beautiful small temple that was, everyone assured me, not to be missed and to climb the tiny mountain of Kbal Spean, where the rocks of a riverbed were carved into faces.  “The river is dry now,” Richard told me, “It will not be beautiful,” but I was eager to see what I could.
I wanted to spend the following day revisiting the Bayon and then I would leave the morning after that, I decided.  This was not the trip I’d longed for, and I was eager for it to be over.  My exalted plans of taking a boat to Battambang and then exploring temples near Sisophon had melted in Siem Reap’s overwhelming heat.  I would take the backpacker bus across bone-jolting roads to the Thai border, and at least catch a glimpse of the country I’d longed to see along the way.
Richard agreed to arrange my departure and then wrote diligently on a scrap of paper.  He pushed it to me and I read, “When do you want to leave?” and “Do you have a little present for me?”
I wrote Monday morning and Probably beside his questions and then went up to the balcony to think as I waited for Nok’s arrival.  Nobody in Thailand had ever asked me for a little present, although I’d had minor extortion practiced upon me by traffic policeman a time or two.  It was also true that I tipped like a crazy person in a part of the world where it wasn’t expected and that I was overpaying Nok by what was easily triple the customary amount for a motorcycle.  Richard had helped me every time I asked him and was always pleasant when advice that he freely offered was rejected.  My time in Siem Reap would have been far more difficult without him, and he certainly deserved a little present, I realized as I left to go to Banteay Srei.
It was a long ride on wretched roads and could not have been good for Nok’s motorcycle, especially with my heft clinging to the back.  Wooden houses in traditional elevated style, shaded by trees, were fronted by an unbroken line of stalls at the roadside, selling baskets, fish traps, and other lovely wicker objects that were too large for me to take back to friends who would have been delighted to receive them.  The houses became sparser and more dilapidated, and most of them had a mound of earth in their front yard, with an opening on one side like the mouth of a cave, and a large steaming pot on the top.  On the roadside near these houses were tables holding small pale white cylinders.  “They’re making sugar,” Nok told me as we passed.
Angkor Wat is perfect; Banteay Srei is beyond any ideals that I might have held of perfection.  I knew it would be small, both in height and in area, I knew the carvings would be lovelier than any I had ever seen, I knew a large part of it would be cordoned off, and I knew it would be crowded.  What I saw was the most beautiful entity that could ever exist, lying naked and exposed under brutal sunlight, being raped by crowds far too large for its size.
I stayed as long as I could stand it, peering around photographers and the people they were photographing, trying to imagine being in this place with reverent people who had come to worship in moonlight.  But seeing it as I did, as a world-class photo opportunity, only other people’s photographs bring Banteay Srei back when I think of it, and the sadness that comes with the memory keeps me from thinking of it very often.
The road to Kbal Spean was first a washboard and then a track of ruts and sand.  We stopped at the foot of a steep and thickly wooded hill, and Nok said, “I go too, Mother.  I never go to Kbal Spean.”  I gritted my teeth and smiled as gratefully as I could, having looked forward to a private, silent walk that would help me sort out what I had seen at Banteay Srei. 
The woods on either side of the path smelled like moss and when we crossed a little bridge, the water that trickled below us was clear.  Hovering above the stream was a cloud of butterflies in assorted colors, green, orange, yellow, pink, blue, like fluttering blossoms. Some flew toward us, filling the air like an unruly rainbow, and I went back to childhood in an instant, staring and crying, “Look, oh, look” while Nok laughed at my excitement. 
The path became swallowed up in boulders and difficult for me to climb.  I slipped and grabbed at a branch for balance and felt thorns go into my palm.  As quickly as I released my grasp, Nok was holding my hand, squeezing out the thorns and forcing blood to the surface to prove that they had all come out.  It hurt, and I was humiliated, and speeded up my ascent to prove that I was indeed a tough broad.  Then my breath grew short and I slowed down, climbed a bit farther and sat on a rock.  I felt dizzy and used up and old.  “I can’t do it,” I admitted, Nok smiled and said, “Yes,” with such relief that I realized that he had anticipated having to carry my injured body, or corpse, back down the hill and I was ashamed of my selfishness.
At that point, I knew what I was meant to discover on this trip. It was the truth that made the faces on the Bayon smile as they looked upon abandoned, ruined cities that once had sheltered thousands of people, that had been stripped of everything that made them powerful and beautiful and were left to crumble, that held ghosts and memories and the knowledge that everything dies.  If I could hold those smiles in my mind, with their expressions of ironic compassion, then my failure to mold this trip into my will would no longer matter to me.  They will remain with me, my present from Cambodia, as I go beyond middle age into being truly very, very old.