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 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.

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.