Monday, December 23, 2013

Detroit, Drop Dead?

Anthony Bourdain isn't my favorite guide to the world at large but he caught my attention the other day with his latest destination in adventure travel. He went to Detroit.

His glimpse was almost heartwarming, what with neighborhood barbecues and volunteers turning meadows back into the playgrounds they once had been. But there was an edge to what he showed and it was one that cut deep into my imagination. How did a city with a thriving population that numbered in the millions become a spot where grass is reclaiming neighborhoods?

Then recently Facebook had posts about a group that plans to renovate houses and give them to writers who will live in them for two years--in Detroit. Homesteading must be in my blood; I wrote for more information. 

Then I went online and this is what I found.

And I read it until I came to this

These are stories from the Detroit equivalent of The Stranger. John Carlisle wrote them and put them into a book. It's called 313: Life in the Motor City. You can buy it here:

I went to Craigslist. Apartments in Detroit go as high as a couple of thousand a month. Is this what's meant by recovery? The mayor plans to tear down thousands of abandoned houses. What's going to replace them? There's a statistic floating around that 47% of Detroit's population is functionally illiterate. Where will they find a place to become functional? What's going on? (You might remember that song; it's from Motown. Yes, Detroit has a culture and history too--settled in 1701.)

New York survived the infamous headline Ford Says Drop Dead. New Orleans is working to come back from Katrina. Detroit? Well, the good news the city has a Whole Foods and urban homesteaders bike to an affluent area to go to Trader Joe's and Barnes & Noble. The bad news? 

In 2014 I want to see for myself. In the US, a 300-year-old city is becoming--what? And who cares?

Merry Christmas to all.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

"It's a Lesson too Late for the Learning"

I'm closing in on the last few minutes of my 24 hours with no Facebook and the things that I've learned from this have been interesting indeed.

Facebook has rendered voicemail obsolete. I know I never check mine anymore, which is an embarrassing thing when I finally do and find messages from people I care about. What I didn't know is that there are people out there who haven't put voicemail on their cellphones. I know because I tried to call them and that was what the voice on the other end told me. If I had texting capability...but that doesn't come with a landline. It seems if I want to communicate by phone, a landline is also obsolete--unless I have Facebook.

Blogs are still out there. I visited the ones on my blogroll and left comments with the ones that have been used within the past six months. In many cases, mine was the only writing in the comments field. Comments are now being left on Facebook instead.

And blogs not announced on Facebook go unread. Thank you, Mack, Will, and Steve for reading my last blogpost. I'm as guilty as anyone for reading posts only when they're announced on Facebook. And I'm missing things as a result, but not as much as I would have thought--or hoped.

Facebook has become our communication portal. It's quick, efficient, and provides the potential for an immediate response, which bothers me almost as much as it entertains me. On Facebook, we communicate in soundbites, with every fleeting thought that crosses our minds. Anybody who has been following the discussion about Thai politics on Facebook can see the inherent danger in immediate response without thought. This topic has turned into a war that is far from civil on Facebook pages; only a handful of posters give any real thought to what is no longer really a discussion.

The seductive speed of Facebook is doing us not as many favors as we think. Back in the last century, as the new technology began to take hold and offices installed computers, Jeremy Rifkin noticed that a different kind of time was also coming into existence. Computers gave answers in a heartbeat; clumsy old humans took more than a minute to respond. Rapid responders in the workplace became the most desirable and clever computer programmers brought that same rapidity to our personal lives, through Facebook.

Blogs are too slow for us now. Email is too slow. Letters are a laughable affectation. Voicemail is dead; the phone call is swiftly approaching the same fate. We communicate through Facebook and its even terser equivalent, Twitter. This changes the way we respond to each other, our expectations of a response, and what we respond to, What happens if our newsfeed becomes truncated so that we see only what Facebook chooses?

It's already happening. If I respond to a status update without clicking 'Like' enough times, the person who is writing those updates disappears from my newsfeed--no matter that I have been communicating with them. So now my form of communication has to include an obligatory click--one that isn't organic to my communication style.

Communicating through Facebook is like bonsai, small, concise, sometimes artful, and twisted into unnatural shapes. At last we have immediate gratification; unfortunately we're paying for it, even though it's free.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Living Without Facebook

This morning I realized I'd forgotten my Facebook password, and since I'm going to be traveling soon, that I would probably need it. So I followed the instructions for changing my password, only to find that I now cannot use my account for "23 hours and 58 minutes."


I have email addresses for most of my Facebook friends, many of whom live in other countries. I suppose my friend Will in Bangkok can live without our lexulous game for almost 24 hours (maybe not--I won last time and he is out for blood with this one). And it's not as though I'm living without the Internet. This is going to be an interesting little exercise--communicating without Facebook.

To start, I'n going to ask that everyone who reads this, please leave a comment. Just a simple I was here or your first name would be fine. I'm curious to see if a blogpost falls in a Facebookless forest, does it make a sound?

Monday, December 16, 2013

Less With More

Long ago Christmas cards were a holiday staple.Flurries of images arrived every day, some with notes on the back, some with letters, many with just a signature and a good wish attached. Some of them had glitter glued to their fronts, some had a flocked velvet object prominently displayed, some were reproductions of Nativity paintings. All were read and put in a prominent spot and were later taken out of the house with the Christmas tree.

In those days, long distance calls were an extravagance and postal rates were low. When we wanted to get in touch, we used the US mail.

Quaint, isn't it? Now we can call anywhere in the country for one flat monthly rate. We send email, not postal mail. We have blogs and Facebook and Twitter and smartphones on which we can monitor all of these things. Our phones are always with us. We are reachable anywhere in the world.

So--what does this truly mean? We text messages to each other rather than make a phone call. We put up a status update to be read by all of our friends rather than write a series of letters to people we care about. We tweet with 140 characters (I just used 28 in the beginning of this sentence, if you count spaces--since I avoid Twitter, I don't know if I should or not) about anything that might have flitted across our minds at any given second. 

And the business world has discovered this great new accessibility to the point that many of us don't answer our phones. We screen calls or ignore them until much later, because frequently the caller is a robot, posing as a telemarketer. We read messages in our free moments, plan to respond later, and then often forget about them. There's really no impetus to respond to many of them because they're written to a world at large. What's written to everyone in fact is written for nobody. 

I am fond of people whom I never call. They're busy and I'm reluctant to break into their world. It used to be if someone picked up the phone, it meant they were in their living room. Now they could be at a party, in a meeting, having dinner at a restaurant, in line to go to the movies...This is why we text, but I have a landline. I don't have that capability.

And even if I did, odds are there would be no response until much later. 

I used to think of this blog as being a letter to friends and family, especially when I lived overseas. Now I don't expect responses here. It's become a notebook to myself. I do post notifications of new entries on Facebook, where (if I'm lucky) people will press a Like button in response.

Our conversations in real life have become different. "Oh yes. I read about that on Facebook, " we say in reply to a friend's news. Or even worse, "I keep up with you on Facebook." No need to meet for coffee when Facebook provides such an efficient alternative.

Last year I sent Christmas cards, each with a little note. They sank into the same vacuum as a Facebook message or a Tweet, with considerably more thought and financial outlay than is required by social media. It made me sad, enough so that I won't do it again. And it makes me sad that with so many ways to communicate, we do less of it than we did when there was only one.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Fashion Victim for Life

When I became a teenager, this was still a nascent category. My mother held the term in contempt; her generation went from being children to becoming young ladies and gentlemen. There was no middle ground.

Teenage girls when I became one were either bobbysoxers in rolled-up jeans and saddle shoes, or in full skirts and ballet slippers. Beyond that was really dangerous territory--we all dressed like matrons.

Look at the suits that Jackie Kennedy used to wear--with jackets that ended at the waist and straight skirts. Her shoes were utilitarian and well-bred. Jimmy Choo was what hookers would have worn. Those suits looked fantastic on Jackie and Babe Paley and the other trim, elegant social icons. Of course they did; they were cut in a Paris haute couture salon for bodies that were broad in the shoulders, slim in the hips. When translated to mass-markets like J.C. Penney or Ohrbach's and worn by women whose build was more in the peasant mode, they looked horrible. And when they were covering the bodies of adolescent girls, they looked even worse. Slender girls looked as though they were dressing up in their mothers' clothing and chubby girls looked like boxes. It was an ugly time for fashion in America.

"Good" coats were made of heavy wool tweed and were cut to go over a "good" suit. The shoulders were droopy and the arms wide; they hit the mid-calf, if the wearer had height, and the ankle area if she was short. They weighed about ten pounds and would have made dandy survival tents if they hadn't been wool and easily saturated by a rainfall. I hated my coats when I was in my early teens.

Then along came the British invasion with miniskirts and Courreges with body-skimming A-lines and Calvin Klein with coats that fit close to the body with narrow shoulders. It was a wonderful time for young women and we all happily threw away our garter belts and little white gloves. For me, clothes were fun--until about ten years ago, when I turned 55.

No matter how thin a woman may be at that age, put her in certain kinds of clothing and she looks absurd. The offending garments are all patterned after Paris Hilton et al, and are the kind that I privately call Trailer Park Chic. Skinny jeans, midriff tops, halters, skirts that look as though they were stolen from a drum majorette, leggings--or even worse, jeggings.

These are things that a 20-something can carry off. A 60-something looks at them and sobs. And yet that old hag has few alternatives, if she's shopping on a budget. (Yes, I love Eileen Fisher too--but can I afford her?) She can dress like a cruel parody of Kim Kardashian or she can go to hell in a handbasket, a polyester smock, and elastic-waist pants.

Frankly I'd rather wear rolled-up jeans and bobbysox. I frequently wear a printed, almost circle, skirt and a variant on ballet slippers. And I inwardly rage, rage against the dying of the light and charming pleasure that I used to find in wearing clothes that made me feel happy to get dressed in the morning.

(Just a simple cotton tunic top with long and narrow sleeves that hits just below the knee and a pair of black, well-fitting tights that don't cost as much as my weekly food bill--is that too much to ask? And bear in mind, the one who's asking is part of the Baby Boom generation--I'm sure many in my age group feel much the same way.)

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

The Gift of Restlessness

Some people might think it's a curse. It's whatever was placed upon me at birth that turns me into a screaming witch if I am in one place for six months without leaving. When I return, I always am happy to be back--for six more months. Then the edges of my life begin to fray again and I have to go away.

It doesn't have to be a long absence, but it does have to include at least a couple of nights in another city, another region, another country. Somehow that works a strange magic on my discontent and when I come home, I feel grateful for familiar things that had grated on me before I left.

Yesterday after five days of being away from home, I walked to meet a friend for a glass of wine at a cozy little cafe that feels French to me. The tables are cheek-to-jowl close but every conversation is its own little realm with secure borders. A glass of wine becomes two, but never more than that, and the talk is always absorbing.

The street that takes me there is bordered with trees and yesterday they were in full autumn color, flaring with orange, scarlet, and gold. The air was crisp and almost cold and suddenly I was in an East Coast city, savoring fall.

There were new photographs that evoked Grimm's Fairy Tales at a gallery along the way, childhood scenes that were startlingly bright and hauntingly eerie. To clear my palate after that jolt to my imagination, I stopped for the first time at a Catholic chapel that was designed to evoke the cave sanctuaries where early Christians found refuge and spiritual solace. At least that's the way St. Ignatius felt to me, perhaps not to its architect.

I love finding a new dimension to the city I've spent many years in, but this only happens after I've abandoned it for a while. I'm lucky. Although I'm a perennial Prodigal Daughter, Seattle always welcomes me home.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

A Promise We Made, a Promise to Keep

I am a person who receives Social Security, and began to do so just before I turned 63. Because I was for years a woman who didn’t work outside the home and never remarried after my divorce, I became eligible for my former husband’s benefit, which was double that of what I had accrued in my own work history.

For twenty years, I had worked as a bookseller, first as a part-time employee, then full-time as my children grew older. Over time, my back and shoulders began to deteriorate and now I have almost monthly episodes of debilitating pain, where my activity level sinks to absolute zero and I am often sleepless, unless I take Advil PM.

My Social Security check is higher than most, thanks to my husband. My own Social Security earnings have gone back into the system, so that I am actually draining the fund only of what I earned myself. The excess is offset by what I accrued and didn’t take. This is true of anybody who earned a wage that was taxed for Social Security payments, and then chose to forgo their earnings in favor of a spousal benefit instead.

I am part of the Baby-Boom Generation that exceeded in numbers any that came before us. Most of us grew up in a time when the unemployment rate was miniscule and we were blessed with jobs, unlike many in our country today, The benefits we provided to our predecessors for Social Security went to a smaller number of people than those of us who were providing them—and in many cases our wages were higher than the money made by those who went through the Depression.  There should have been a surplus of money but it was used for other purposes by our government.

Now there is great concern for the generation that follows us who are responsible for our benefits, and I share that concern. If our government had repaid the money they have “borrowed” from the Social Security fund, this would not be a flaming issue today. I believe our government owes it to everyone, recipients of Social Security and those who are paying into the system, to find ways to replenish the funds that were used for other purposes.

There should be an income-cap on those who receive benefits—people with fat pensions should not receive a monthly Social Security check. Crack down on under-the-table wages by giving anyone in this country a right to work and the responsibility to pay into the system—then police employment venues notorious for paying off the books (restaurants, landscaping businesses, sweat shops). Within the realm of the Social Security Administration itself, there are people who are capable of finding far more creative solutions than I, ones that will not break the contract that has been made with the people of our country.

Much controversy rages over the cost of living increase of Social Security benefits and I’m going to add to it. Stop it. It’s a joke. Last year my increase amounted to $25 additional dollars a month. My rent also increased by $25 a month. Food costs have risen quite a bit. That extra $25 meant nothing in the scheme of how I live my life. If it will help the system, get rid of it. But also get rid of cost of living increases for our elected officials in Washington, they who pull down very decent salaries and receive health care subsidies too. Fair is fair, as we used to say in the schoolyard.

Speaking of health care, next month my check will be reduced by $100 to help provide me with Medicare. No. It’s not free, for those who labor under that delusion, and for those who receive less in their monthly check than I, this is a steep cut in income. (I know because it provides a substantial pinch for me.) It also is not a guarantee that we can get health care when we need it. There are co-pays and out-of-pocket deductibles, which not all of us will be able to afford. The medical establishment has come up with credit cards for anyone to use, with exorbitant interest rates, so that health care will be available to all—along with soaring debt. Is this the best solution that America can come up with?

I’m happy to have any sort of health care because I’ve gone without it for decades. I have never accepted any sort of government assistance as a single parent or as an aging woman with no health insurance. I have paid into the system that now sends me a monthly check, with my own payroll deductions and payments from my employers which otherwise might have come to me as income. I never begrudged that bite into my rather meager salary because I was helping to fulfill a promise that I believed in.

My generation believed in that promise. Now we are “a drain on the federal budget.” To those who flinch at our numbers, I ask them to look at statistics. More American women are dying at younger ages than ever before, and given the frailty of approaching years, most of those women are the ones who are aging. Men, of course, traditionally live fewer years than their female counterparts. Just so long as our health care system, eager for Medicare dollars, doesn’t prolong our lives with modern medical miracles, our shelf lives will be short. Our Social Security checks will go back into the system for the next generation, unless of course our government decides they need it more than the recipients do.

Friday, October 11, 2013

Gaining Invisibility

My body is resolutely aging and the changes aren’t pretty. Clothes at my favorite neighborhood boutique don’t fit me and the ones that would in other places are ones I don’t like. The last time I bought something to wear was at Old Navy last spring. Since I don’t have money, this is a good thing. The surprise is how easy it is for me not to care.

Nor does the weight prey much upon my mind, but that I can understand: Thailand taught me what weight loss really means. When the baht fell in the late 90s, I began to miss a meal or two far more often than I wanted to. First I became slender, then thin, then gaunt and haggard. My breasts disappeared and my face became drawn. A photo a student took of me during that time showed a death’s head flashing a rictus. I knew that losing another ten pounds could bring me to my knees but I didn’t know how to stop, aside from leaving cigarettes alone. That thought occurred to me no more than a couple of times. I told myself I needed them for stress relief, but of course I was too addicted to consider that for more than five minutes.

I came home to the states, put on some weight, and stopped thinking of poundage as being my enemy. It was my insurance policy. Even now, with my stomach becoming a small shelf, I look at this in a Thai way. I’m almost 65 and old women look better when they are plump.

I think of the Chinese sisters who made noodle soup on the corner of my soi. Each was plump and both were pretty. One was sweet and one was stern; both of them liked me and I adored them. Across the way two other Chinese ladies made the same kind of soup. They were lean and they were not at all happy. Their soup was better than the one I ate several times a week, but I had stopped eating it long ago. The plump ladies were more fun to be around.

When I stopped smoking seven years ago, I was still sporting a figure that was much younger than my face. It yielded me nothing more than the envy of women who were much younger than I and coveted my waistline, and the comments of men hanging out on the street. “She old but she in great shape,” one entrepreneur of dubious substances proclaimed as I walked past a McDonald’s corner and another provided the generous assessment, “I’d fuck her,” on what was mercifully an almost deserted street.

Much has been written about the “invisibility” of women as they age, and it’s usually in the form of a complaint. The women who rail against this are stark, raving mad, as far as I’m concerned. From the time I hit my teens, I withered under the calls of “Hey, baby” and piercing whistles. When I lived in New York, the “visibility” that was mine when I walked past a construction site made me want to shrivel up and die on the spot.

Even when I was pregnant with my first child at the ripe old age of 21, as I walked down a street in Anchorage on a Sunday morning, a man felt the need to remark, “Bet she wished that she had danced all night nine months ago.” Believe me, this sort of visibility is not the kind of thing that makes a woman feel special in any way, and when I received my cloak of invisibility at last, it was a milestone. At last I could walk in the world without being threatened or humiliated. It was an acquisition as useful as my passport.

In the parts of the world where I want to be, old women receive respect. Younger women receive ravenous attention, no less threatening for being silent. In the part of the world where I live, I can walk for miles without comment. I love it. Would this still happen if my body were slender? Thank you, but I really don’t want to find out. My thickening body is a form of protection and, for the most part, I appreciate every pound.

Except of course when I look at clothing that will never be mine—but then I think of how much time and money I spent on my outer covering over the years. I still love color and fabric and when I find something I like that fits my body, it’s better than Prozac. It’s no longer an obsession, however, and that feels good.

“You can’t just let yourself go when you get old,” a woman twelve years my senior told me once to justify her extravagant wardrobe. I’m as old now as she was then and my feeling is I’m not letting myself go, I’m letting go of cravings. The Buddha, I tell myself, would understand.

Friday, October 4, 2013

Hello, Cambodia

Yesterday I made a short trip that took me farther away than I expected. The review that I’d read in the local paper said I was headed for a place with good, cheap Khmer food; Yelp was filled with young Cambodian voices saying it had the food their grandmothers cooked. So I went to White Center and found the spot wasn't too far from other places I'd been to in the area, housed in a diner with a little grocery attached.

I was there to meet my son Nick and I was early so I went into the grocery. The door was open, the counter was bustling, and the customers were speaking Khmer, which I thought was a very good sign. A little produce section had the pea-sized green eggplant that’s a major ingredient in green curry, which I haven’t seen in this city for over a decade, so I was enchanted. Going to the counter with that and a pack of phrik ki nu, I noticed the woman in front of me had a little package of perfectly red rambutan. “You have that here?” I asked in delighted shock and she led me to a pile of plastic-wrapped thorny red orbs.

I returned to Queen’s Deli, glowing with discovery and was led to a table that was sticky from earlier inhabitants. I didn’t care, even when the laminated menu  also turned out to be a bit worse for wear. I was dazzled by the choices, mostly soups, two that claimed to be “ancient” and that I’d never seen before in any form. Others were reminiscent of Thai dishes, and one had clear echoes of ragu.

I asked for appetizers—fried chicken skewers and nom krok, prepared like kanom krok but “Not sweet,” I was told. Each of them could have been their own meal, the cakes solid with a filling that was I think rice and coconut milk, and the chicken was fried wings, absolutely delectable, a whole plate of them.

My “ancient” soup was on the menu as being a noodle dish with an assortment of vegetables. I thought it would be a simple, clear broth, with noodles that I hoped would be thick, and chopped vegetables both in the bowl and on the side. What I received were three hearty nests of kanom jeen noodles, a cloud of finely chopped and sliced vegetables on the side, and a bowl of green broth. I sniffed it and was amazed at its fragrance.

The beans that came with it were chopped as finely as if they were chiles, the cabbage was in slivers and I think it was daikon that was almost a dream of its former self, so fine that it nearly melted when I picked it up with my chopsticks. And the banana blossom was in thin, concentric circles, crisp and bitter. “This hasn’t been frozen, has it?” I exclaimed in a state of near ecstasy and the man who was clearly the owner said proudly, “From Florida.”

The broth was filled with flavors that were clear and yet mingled into something that I couldn’t pick apart into its separate components. Fish sauce was plainly in evidence but no coconuts had been brought into play in any form. Still the broth had substance and I couldn’t decide where its body came from until I neared the bottom of the bowl, where a layer of pureed aromatics rested. “Yes, we thicken it with lemongrass, tamarind, and galingal,” the owner told us. At that point I had to clamp my jaws together to keep from asking him to marry me.

Nick’s soup had a coconut milk underpinning but the flavor of fresh vegetables was prominent in the broth. The vegetables were in small chunks and their colors were still bright in the bowl. My soup, I decided, was a very sophisticated form of kanom jeen

We crumbled our way through the doughnut and sesame ball that were given to us at the end of our meal, and I felt a bit shamefaced when the internal egg yolk that we’d avoided turned out to be a filling of yellow bean paste and coconut.

Through our meal, the low murmur of old men speaking Khmer and the sweetness of Cambodian pop music videos formed the background noise. I left feeling warmed by Cambodia and deeply happy that a part of a country I love is only a bus ride away.

Sunday, September 29, 2013

The World Is Too Much With Us

Anne Truitt writes in Daybook about the sounds of her childhood and those that her children had always heard. She had no Muzak, no droning voices coming from a TV set.

In the time when she became aware of the world, magazines were text-laden, not image-driven. Pictures to her were paintings, not photographs. Her life wasn't tranquil, there were cataclysmic wars and the Depression, but it was quiet.

Now silence is a luxury; people travel to experience it. Although I live alone and work at home, noise is a constant presence. The sound of jets, buses, street construction, passersby, the apartment-dweller above me who comes back home after the bars close--I never play music anymore and only turn on my television at night for baseball or a movie. Still I live with the constant presence of sound. I wear earplugs to bed and frequently turn on my bathroom fan to create a barrier of white noise.

Mornings have the closest approximation of silence and if I'm careful, my mind is still unrippled then. That's when words come most easily and the work that is truly mine takes place--but only if I ignore the icons on my computer screen. If I let myself click once, the world is with me and the morning becomes sociable. Because I live alone, that one click is perilously seductive.

My computer isn''t just my workspace. It's supplanted letters, the telephone, the daily newspaper, a set of encyclopedia. It's how I stay in touch (on a superficial level) with friends on other continents. It's immediate gratification, an instant cocktail party. It's becoming my memory in a way that frightens me--can't remember? Google it.

I could stop going to the grocery store if I chose to, forgo DVDs for "streaming," have conversations through a social medium. Why not? Already so much of what I used to enjoy comes through this screen. Sometimes I think the only part of my life that can't come through a computer is travel. It's why I yearn for the discomfort of being wedged into an airline seat for hours on end; it's one of the few inevitably raw acts in my life.

I wish someone would bring back the word processor, a glorified typewriter with no accompanying distractions. Without that, I have to learn not to squander the best time of my day by clicking an icon. It will all be there, the photos, the links, the badinage, the Scrabble game, the abbreviated letters, waiting for my tapping finger to bring it into being. But the work won't wait. It fades away with sociability, dissolves into a weird sludge of the mind and spirit if it isn't given voice. 

Carrie Fisher once said "The trouble with instant gratification is it takes too long." She said that in the early '90s; today it's as quaint as any sentiment embroidered on a Victorian piece of needlework. Now the trouble with instant gratification is it can strain the muscles in your index fingers.

Monday, September 2, 2013

Not Everything Fits in a Capsule

Many thoughts occupy my mind but few of them fit comfortably in a blog post. It's not a matter of length, but of tone. Who wants to read about the feelings that come crashing in along with the arrival of a Medicare card? Or  the realization that one is the oldest in an extended family but isn't ready to be a matriarch? Or what to do about back pain which seems to have ambitions of settling in for the long haul? Or about that fine line between solitude and loneliness?

Does anyone really want to know the "if a tree falls in the forest" feeling that comes after a book comes out into the world? Didn't think so,,,

What about the restlessness that erupts after being in the same place for two years? Yes, I'm yawning too.

The happiness that comes when the shape of a book is in place and it's ready for revision, which could be my favorite part of being a writer? The pure and wholehearted joy that descends after finishing all three books written by Jesmyn Ward and discovering that they fit into an intriguing whole piece of literature that stands up to frequent reading and re-reading? Close but no cigarillo. (Which brings up the strong urge I've had to start smoking again, if I could only afford that stupidity...)

The realization that economic class is as defining a factor in our country as race and the unexamined truth that huge amounts of money are spent by the powerful to conceal that fact? And the sadness that we have a president who would be listened to if he brought this up for public discussion, and yet he chooses to be silent?

Is the queasiness and waves of chill that I've felt for the past few days caused by swallowing unvoiced thoughts or is it the flu? "Horseman, ride by."

Thursday, August 1, 2013

In My Little Town

I've always been a city person, loving the rush and color and excitement of urban streets. Now if I want that adrenaline surge, I go to another country. It doesn't have to be on another continent--Vancouver B.C. works just fine.

In my city, the streets are hazardous. I used to love walking downtown. Now I'm always on the lookout so I don't step in human excrement. How did this come to pass?

When I borrow books from the library, I bring them home and pop them into my little freezer compartment for three days. When they come back out, they go in a ziplock bag when I'm not reading them. Below-freezing temperatures kill bedbugs after three days, a librarian at the University of Washington was quoted as saying. The eggs live on until a second freezing period takes place--that's why I use a ziplock bag.

We have a world-famous library downtown. I rarely go there anymore. It's a hangout for people who have nowhere else to go; they fill computer stations and tables and reading areas on every floor. While I'm glad they have a place to go, they make me sad and when I'm browsing the stacks on upper levels, they make me uneasy. I go to my little neighborhood library instead, requesting that books from other branches be transferred there. If you think I'm exaggerating, do a google search for the illuminating article about the Rem Koolhas-designed public library that was published in the Atlantic shortly after I returned to Seattle almost two years ago. Things haven't changed a bit since 2011; in fact they are worse.

A bus ride on the King County Metro system is something few people experience unless they have to. I've never owned a car or even a driver's licence, but after being on the same bus as a naked man wrapped only in a blanket, or with a man who vomited in front of the driver instead of presenting his fare, or having a man profusely bleeding from the face argue vociferously for his right to embark, or sitting beside countless pitbulls, I'm beginning to wish I could afford a chauffeur.

My neighborhood has its share of indigent people with personality disorders, and the sidewalks are cracked and uneven. Even so the concrete is clean and all kinds of people walk on it--it's a pedestrian's area. Few people panhandle or sit on the sidewalks with their bags and their dogs and their cardboard signs. I rarely leave the boundaries of Chinatown--unless I go to another country.

Seattle is supposed to be one of America's most livable cities--if you live in a buffered version of it. Otherwise find a neighborhood you love and stay there.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Non-Developing Country

This is Bangkok, the capital city of a developing country. In this snapshot are at least six forms of public transportation, the (stairs of) the Skytrain that lead to the subway system, buses, passenger vans, taxis, and motorcycle taxis. Oh--and many, many private automobiles.

I now live in Seattle, a burgeoning city of a developed country. Outside my window blares the construction noise that will eventually become a streetcar that will extend for not much more than a mile through the city. It is in proximity to a lightrail system that runs from the airport to downtown, with stops along the way. For years there has been construction that will become a lightrail spur that will extend the line by another three miles at best. The city at present depends on a bus system which faces extreme cutbacks due to budgetary shortfalls. This is not a matter of concern to many of the city's residents--they have private automobiles.

Bangkok has a love affair with private automobiles that arguably exceeds that held by Seattle. A middle-class family in Bangkok frequently has a car for each member old enough to drive, and a car and driver for those who can't yet reach the steering wheel. In spite of the notorious traffic jams that bring the city to a standstill, people cling to the comfort and privacy of a car. Even so, Bangkok has spent years and a lot of money on public transit.

At first the passengers on the Skytrain were mostly tourists. Bangkok residents who used public transit stuck to the buses, which carried passengers at a fraction of the Skytrain's cost. The subway, except for commuter rush hours, was almost empty. But not any more--and the people who crowd into these conveyances are local, covering a wide gamut of income brackets. 

The cliche "If you build it, they will come," proved true in a city that at first was lukewarm toward high-speed mass transit. In the U.S. only Los Angeles seems truly committed to providing an alternative to the automobile--imagine, the city with the most highly developed car culture is working full-tilt on a regional subway system.

Meanwhile in Seattle, I spend hours every week waiting for a bus. Often I discover that the bus I'm waiting for now longer exists. The ones that are still in the system hold no allegiance to any sort of schedule. As I used to in Bangkok years ago, I now figure two hours to go anywhere by bus in Seattle. If I'm early, good--I'll relax over coffee and a paper. However, I always am accompanied by a strong sense of irony, realizing that as Thailand becomes more of a developing country, the United States is achieving the status of a non-developing one.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013


The opening scene of Paradise: Love is one that shows a number of developmentally disabled young adults driving bumper cars at an amusement park. The camera lingers on them for quite a while, as they gleefully scoot around the floor, unaware of the power that the cars give them, just having one hell of a good time. Before this degenerates into crashes and bullying and bad feelings, a caregiver calls a halt to the outing and everyone gets up and leaves.

This sort of happy ending eludes the caregiver herself, when she embarks upon her own private amusement park, a beach resort in Kenya complete with rent boys. At first she’s titillated and amused, with a dash of delighted horror, when a fellow Eurohag tells her of the special extracurricular activities that lie in wait for her. This hausfrau is initially enchanted by monkeys on her balcony, the sight of beach and sea, the pleasures of cigarettes and cocktails beneath palm trees and the open sky. There’s a sweetness to her pleasure upon arrival; her broad and simple smile, her wide, blue stare, the unashamed bulges of her exposed flesh. She’s a woman without artifice, not particularly bright, who’s thrilled to be on holiday.

But she’s being singled out as an unattached source of ready money. Whisked off by an enterprising charmer, she ends up fending off his unsophisticated advances in a stark little room. Later she asks her compatriots, all women of a certain age, all well aware of the fleshly delights that surround them, “Don’t you just wish someone would look into your eyes?”

The lady wants romance, she wants to be desired, she wants her middle-aged fantasies to come true. The man of her dreams rescues her from a crowd of importunate beach vendors, assures her that she is special, beautiful, alluring. And for a brief moment she is. Her pink, floppy flesh takes on true loveliness as she lies naked in a post-coital nap. Her smile is radiant. She wanders hand in hand through a beach village with a truly gorgeous man who has chosen her, who has absorbed her lessons in the art of tender seduction, who looks into her eyes. Then he begins the long litany of family disasters that require money—her money and lots of it. When his “sister” turns out to be his wife, paradise begins to curdle around the edges.

Deprived of romance, the hausfrau becomes a harpy. A series of harrowing scenes showing how thoroughly power corrupts become increasingly difficult to watch. Finally the woman who had happily shared a soapy shower with a bedmate, gleefully cleaning and being cleaned, ends up barking orders at the man of the minute, telling him to bathe thoroughly as she waits, sprawled on a bed, drunken and sweaty in her stained and crumpled dress.

Sex tourism has been insufficiently examined, and rarely from the female point of view. The parameters of the sex trade have been defined by men, and, like it or not, they have made a fairly straightforward business of it. Money changes hands, love is not required, romance is unnecessary. The male flesh is willing and the female flesh is able to pretend.

As shown in Paradise: Love, the same is not the case when women are the purchasers, and the perennial question of what do women really want comes around one more time. By the end of the movie, what I wanted was a nice, tough, mercenary madam to saunter onto that beach and start setting prices, collecting bar fines, kicking ass, and taking names. As it is now, according to this director and this screenplay, none of these strangers in paradise is having a good time.

Sunday, May 26, 2013

Another Face, Another Time

This is the face of the woman who went to Bangkok almost twenty years ago. She was 46, clutching her very first passport, leaving a house, family, friends, a good job, to go to a place she could barely imagine. It took her three months to find her footing and then another year to find her home. She learned to live alone, travel alone, and discovered that was the way she wanted her life to be forever. She fell in love with a man who was 24 years younger and has never found anyone who could supplant him in her heart and mind. She fascinates me in a way that has nothing to do with narcissism; I'm no longer that eager, that untried and I marvel that she still was at 46.

"To me, you're like a little girl," the man she loved told her, and when I look at her picture, I agree with him. The woman in that picture had yet to grow up. Perhaps she never did--she just grew old.

Friday, May 24, 2013

Taste the Apple, Divide Your Heart

My morning began with a question on Facebook from a woman who has become my friend. "Why are you in Seattle? I ask this because I believe, strongly, that life is short, and you need to be in the place that makes your heart sing. It doesn't seem to be here."

The old saw that you can't go home again immediately came to mind as I woke up to her very good question. When you leave a place for a generous extent of time, after you finally return, you come back to a whole new arena. And you face it with the point of view that comes from living in, and loving, another part of the world. This friend knows that; she lived in Europe for a long time. She knows what happens when you bite into the apple, when you leave home and make your new home in another place, and then return to your spot of origin.

The difference is she moved there--and came back--with her children. They share those memories of learning another language, a different form of motion, a new way of looking at the world. 

Relationships are built upon shared experiences and a common context. When I chose my other home, I began to create a context that my children didn't understand and their lives became ones I couldn't touch. The same thing happened with my friends, my sisters, my mother--but I could live with that. My children? Not so much.

When I returned to Seattle, my life within this city was profoundly different from the one I had lived before I last left. People whom I worked with and liked and counted as my friends I see much less often than I did when we shared a workplace. My own workplace is my apartment; there are days when my social contacts fall within a five-block area. I spend two months of the year outside of this country. My roots in Seattle aren't ones that I reclaimed; they're tendrils, new and fragile and struggling to take hold.

Except for one part of my life here, which is not only unchanged, but stronger than ever--that's the life I share with my children. The ability to say "Let's have dinner tonight" or "Can you come over?" is invaluable to me. It's worth this long haul of reestablishing a home in a place that has become strange to me. 

I look forward every year to leaving this city for a while, and at the end of my time away, I look forward to coming back. It's a weird way to live, perhaps, but this is my life. And I think of this Raymond Carver poem, which is me, without the cigarettes:


Cigarette smoke hanging on
in the living room. The ship's lights
out on the water, dimming. The stars
burning holes in the sky. Becoming ash, yes.
But it's all right, they're supposed to do that.
Those lights we call stars.
Burn for a time and then die.
Me hell-bent. Wishing
it were tomorrow already.
I remember my mother, God love her,
saying, Don't wish for tomorrow.
You're wishing your life away.
Nevertheless, I wish
for tomorrow. In all its finery.
I want sleep to come and go, smoothly. 
Like passing out of the door of one car
into another. And then to wake up!
Find tomorrow in my bedroom. 
I'm more tired now than I can say.
My bowl is empty. But it's my bowl, you see,
and I love it.--Raymond Carver

Saturday, May 18, 2013

Eating "Chinese" in Seattle

Gene Balk of the Seattle Times has observed that Seattle's “patronage of Chinese restaurants is surprisingly low.” Perhaps the sad truth that Seattle still thinks in terms of “Chinese restaurants” has something to do with the city’s lack of enthusiasm for “Chinese food” That “Seattle foodie circles” are excited about the opening of a Taiwanese food chain that specializes in Shanghai soup dumplings points out exactly how unsophisticated these foodies are about food from China.

In a city that prides itself on its Northwest cuisine, as opposed to Southern or East Coast or Tex-Mex or Cajun, it seems bizarre that “Chinese food” is still a category. Sichuan, Hunan, Beijing, Uighur, Yunnan, are only a few of the regional cuisines found in China. None of them are to be found in Seattle, a city where dim sum, barbecued pork and poultry, chow fun, potstickers, and hotpot--oh and rice too, lots and lots of rice-- are what people eat when they eat “Chinese.”

I live in Seattle’s Chinatown and I like to eat out, but I stopped going to Chinese restaurants in my neighborhood years ago, There’s a limit to the amount of chow fun I can choke down with any enthusiasm at all; as for dim sum, if I want to eat it, I’ll wait until I’m in Hong Kong—or perhaps San Francisco.

Restaurants who claim to serve Sichuan food ignore the key ingredient, Sichuan pepper, in favor of drowning the dishes in chili oil. Hunan food? Well, people tell me, there was a place out on Aurora, but it’s not there anymore. Restaurants that try to give Seattle something different from the usual “Chinese” menu usually suffer the same fate as that Hunan place on Aurora. The China Club Bistro across from Kinokuniya Books on Weller Street served a nice little Shanghai soup dumpling, aka xiao long bao, as a bar snack. The past three times I’ve gone there, the place has been closed; “on vacation” the sign said. My guess is it was just a little too “Chinese” for Seattle, certainly every time I went there, it was usually quite underpopulated.

There’s a spot up on 10th and Jackson called Uway Malatang that cooks with Sichuan pepper, but if you aren’t Chinese, you have to be sure to let them know that you want it. It’s a condiment that makes your tongue tingle, moving on to your lips—it’s not pepper in any sense that you might already think you know. It’s the happiest spice I’ve ever eaten, and if you want to try it, you’d better hurry before Uway Malatang also goes “on vacation.”

Today I passed half a dozen “Chinese” bakeries that all sell the same things—Cantonese buns, egg tarts, and slices of cake with elaborate fillings (durian anyone?)—and as I walked, I wanted nothing more than a Beijing bakery. Delicate little cookies like shortbread, but not too sweet; round, flaky pastries filled with something savory, others containing a sweetened date paste; flatbread and circular bagel-like rolls—these were exactly what I wanted and can’t get in this city. But then if one opened here, it would be hard to convince people that it was truly “Chinese.”

Seattle is thrilled that they are getting a Taiwanese soup dumpling chain; meanwhile, across the border in Vancouver, a dingy looking diner on Seymour Street has a handwritten sign pasted on its window saying Xiao Long Bao. Cities get what they want.

Me? If I want to eat soup dumplings, I’ll put my money on a dive in Vancouver rather than a chain in a shopping mall. And if I want to eat food from China, you won’t find me in a “Chinese” restaurant; in fact I’ll probably be eating somewhere in China. But then in Beijing, “American” food is found in a Kenny Rogers Roaster, or at a pastry counter in a Starbucks. Yes, imperialist running dogs, that’s what your cuisine is to the people in China. Funny, isn’t it? How unsophisticated--don't "they" know better than that?

Seattle Blue

A man I loved very much used to like to catch a bird in flight in his photographs. Now that he's dead, when I find a flying bird in one of mine, I always think of him.

He never saw the different shades of Seattle Blue that I love so much. Like so much of the beauty I see in the world now, I try to see it for him too. That flying bird brings him close to me for a minute, each time I see one in a photograph.

Where I live now is superbly beautiful when it chooses to be, but it's a moody city. Today the clouds have closed in again and the air has a nip to it, for someone who's happiest at 90+ degrees with high humidity. But it always has a surprise or two that leap out at odd moments. Today I woke up to Vietnamese pop music broadcast through a loudspeaker, then anthems.

Down the street from my apartment, a small parade has gathered with floats, dragon dancers, and small lions. Last year they came up my street and I saw it all. This year, construction has driven them over one block; they are all facing the opposite direction from me. But I caught a glimpse of it all from my window, and enjoyed the music.

Last year I had no idea of what the parade was for--only that it was Vietnamese. Later that day I walked to the Vietnamese temple up the hill from where I live, where a typed sign on the gate said it was the Buddha's birthday. Happy Birthday, Guatama!

Saturday, May 11, 2013

May Is Such a Lovely Word

This month began with lovely promises and I've been living at a high level of anticipation even before the first day arrived. Hints of what's to come--a peek at my new apartment, a copy of my new book, and sunlight that's taken out of my shell and into the world--are making every day feel like Christmas Eve.

In the coming week I'll be able to take a closer look at my new living space to figure out what will go where--the only jigsaw puzzle I ever enjoy doing. The idea of taking a bath and coming out relaxed to sit under a ceiling fan--or of closing my bedroom door and making my bed after I have coffee--bliss. My favorite part of staying in a hotel is taking multiple baths--soon I can live in my tub, if I want to.

Almost Home--once again that title defines the mood of my life. A friend told me it was too commonly used and I should change it. He's right, but it is so much part and parcel of how I live that I couldn't give it up. Soon it will be out in the world at large; it already is in Bangkok, on the shelf at Dasa Books, among friends.

And then there's that sunlight--almost a week of it, leaving me browner than I was in April and very happy. I know it's only a preview of coming attractions but it reminds me of why I stay in this city. When the sun is out, the water and sky blend together in a blaze of blue, and I'm on a ferry in the middle of it all, there are few places in the world that I would rather be.

Come and visit--you can have my bedroom!

Monday, May 6, 2013

Drastic Measures

Soon I will be moving to a larger apartment with a higher rent. The bathtub, ceiling fan and bedroom with a door all make the additional money worthwhile but I have had to think of how to adjust my spending to make this workable.

The first solution was easy. I use Netflix and hate myself for doing it--especially since I can get everything I want to see from the library and Scarecrow Video, the Elliott Bay Book Company of the rent-a-movie world. So there's an easy 13 dollars shaved off my rent right away--but there's another 88 to go...

And this is almost exactly what I pay every month for phone and wifi. This was a much more difficult decision to make, but I'm going to let it go. The landline I use was simply because of my mother; she couldn't hear me when I talked to her on a cellphone. I make few phone calls; a burner with a 15 dollar phone card works just fine for me.

Wifi is the killer. I'm addicted to it. But like many writers, I've found that addiction cuts into my writing time. All over this city libraries are equipped with wifi that I can use for free. I won't have Facebook with my morning coffee, but I can get my morning writing back; I lost it during my mourning period and then inertia set in. It's time to restore that habit and no wifi at home is the way to do it.

I can write, then go to the library and put what I want on the Internet, check my email, spend time on Facebook, and then move on. As a Seattle taxpayer, through sales tax and liquor taxes, I pay for this and never use it. It's time to start.

When I lived in Penang, I didn't have wifi in my highrise apartment, but if I went to the pool area on the 5th floor, there was Penang free wifi. I survived--and what's more, I got a lot of work done, as I will here. And I have a wide selection of workspaces, all over the city--I look forward to using them all.

Goodbye, CenturyLink. Goodbye, Netflix. Hello, a cleaner, more productive way of living. Or maybe not--my apartment has free cable TV and I have the capability of becoming a newsjunkie with no problem at all. If BBC is one of the options, all bets are off on that productivity thing...

Sunday, April 28, 2013

Friend as a Verb

A month or so ago, I was told by a man that he would never treat a friend in the way I had behaved toward him. My response was that he should reexamine his idea of friendship; I regarded him as a Facebook  acquaintance to whom I'd offered a job which he then did worse than badly. His sloppy work and the amount he wanted for doing it disgusted me and I wanted no more contact with him. His feeling was that I breached the responsibilities of friendship and thus was an unworthy human being.

I realized after this that my idea of friendship is a stringent one, based upon what surrounded me when I was a child. Friends were people with whom you would share your last meal and who would do the same for you. While you might be very different people, you respected each other's differences and found a common ground in humor, honesty, and a profound respect for labor. Work was what was done to stay alive; it wasn't a disposable occupation and it demanded to be done in the best way possible. A poorly placed log in the construction of a cabin or a carelessly aimed bullet when hunting a moose or a heedlessly brandished chainsaw all had the potential for tragedy. Working for wages brought the money that would keep a family alive through the winter. Jobs of any kind had a certain sacramental quality; one way or another they all meant survival. A friend was someone you trusted to help you get that job done, whom you would help in return. Friendship was a straightforward relationship in those days.

Last week I spent a couple of hours with a man I haven't seen in six or seven years. We only rarely exchanged comments on the internet; we both had a very vague idea of how the other had spent the gap of time that spread between his going-away party and the minute that I let him into my apartment. There wasn't the slightest apprehension that we weren't going to enjoy our visit and I certainly did. I'm 64; he's 33. We became friends quite improbably because we both have a bitter, ironic sense of humor, we each have a gluttonous passion for the printed word, and we respected the jobs that we did to the best of our abilities. That is enough to make this man one of my friends forever.

Another friend whom I truly love ended our initial visit together with a very direct sexual proposition. I declined, we parted amicably, and have been close ever since. Again it's print that is the primary bond between us, along with a delight in the incongruous and unexpected gifts that life offers, and a weakness for painful, unflinching honesty. We live in different corners of the planet now and see each other once or twice a year. We are quite indubitably friends.

The same bookstore that provided me with my 33 year old friend gave me one of my most enduring friendships with a woman so unlike me that we would never have encountered each other under normal circumstances. She is blonde, slender, and beautiful, with a charming, blue-eyed demeanor. I'm short, dark, and intense, with a look of reserve that can be interpreted as prickly indifference. We read the same books, we write because we have to, we both have an almost desperate curiosity about places with which we have no rational connection. We send each other sporadic emails that launch online conversations and then are silent for months on end. We talk on the phone once a year and see each other less frequently than that, but her presence in my life is a constant buttress for me, both in my writing life and in the realm of personal experience.

At a certain point, family members have to observe the same respect and consideration toward each other as friends do, or they drift far apart. I'm lucky. I have a sister who is as honest and as accepting as any of my other friends and I do my best to be the same way toward her. It's difficult sometimes because we bear many of the same scars and we know the dark and dirty corners of each other's history. Friendship between sisters takes more work than other relationships do but in many ways the results are the most rewarding. I have three sisters and I believe that one out of three is a good ratio. I'm grateful that my youngest sister and I have come through a rough patch to become friends.

Facebook has made "friend" into a verb but the word is actually a rare gift. Some of my Facebook friends are truly friends, some are very close acquaintances, including people I've yet to meet in real life, many are what I call my imaginary friends, pleasant shadows who glance across my internet life with "likes" and "shares." But my real friends? These are the people whom I rarely encounter at the ADD cocktail party that Facebook has created; we simply don't have to go there.

Sunday, April 14, 2013


I have a feed that tells me the origins of some of my blog readers. Most of the places are ones attached to faces. Others are strangely comic--I'm sorry, you were looking for real information about buying a sofa or Levis in Bangkok--or sad--no, this isn't really about hearing impaired people in Thailand--or sordid--anything about Bangkok has to be about sex why yes indeed.

One reader began to leave comments and we're now Facebook friends. We may never meet but we look at each other's photographs, leave small messages, share a common passion for travel.  Another is a man with whom I experienced an absurd and debauched period at Tower Books; we rarely see each other but when we do, there's never a gap between us.

And now there's someone showing up from my corner of Alaska--not the town I lived in, but close enough that I wonder who in Homer is coming to Tone Deaf, and why? Perhaps it's someone I used to know; perhaps they will leave a message. And then again maybe we'll just be particles in cyberspace. I like that.

A Suitable Book

When I was small, I envied my mother's ability to float away from us in a book, sitting within reach but oblivious to what went on around her. She never sprawled when she read, always sat upright, often in a wooden rocking chair. Seemingly poised for action, she truly was out of touch. She had tuned us out.

I resented that when I got older. Long before she was able to physically leave us alone, she had perfected the art of going away, while sitting in a chair with a book. Without alcohol or pills, my mother had found a means of escape that was as total as any other drug.

Then I began to feel contempt for that action as I got older. My mother's reading was banal stuff, mysteries and big fat novels. She sent some of them on to me when I married--James Clavell, R.M. Delafield, Trevanian. How could anybody fade away from experience in favor of this bilge, I'd ask myself, still too respectful and fearful to ask her.

"I can stand anything as long as I can read,' she told my sister at the end of her life, and read a book a day until her body agreed to begin its dying. "Is she reading?" is a question I asked over the phone with more urgency than "Is she eating?" I knew my mother could live without food, but never without books. When she stopped reading, I knew she was on her way out.

"I won't know what I'm going to feel when you die until you're dead," I told my mother once. I didn't expect the emptiness that I fell into when she was dead, a weird, hollow feeling that is worse than active grief and that didn't want to go away.

I felt it most often when I thought of books and she would come to mind. I remembered how many hours of how many years I saw her roaming through pages of print, no matter what crisis consumed the rest of her attention. I went to the library and borrowed two fat novels.

Neither of them are books I would naturally gravitate to. They were all plot, all story, written well enough to keep me from wanting to hurl them against a wall. I picked up James Lee Burke one afternoon and read steadily until the book had ended. The next night I read a frothy satire about a family wedding in Maine. I began to feel better; the words were filling up that empty space.

Last night it was Huckleberry Finn. Tonight I'll spend with an old friend, Vikram Seth's A Suitable Boy--and that will stay with me for several nights. I'll feel centered by the story and the words and the companionship--and I may turn occasionally from the book to say "Stop reading over my shoulder." My mother will understand. These are words she often said to me.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Where Are You, Johnny?

Before I turned fourteen, my best friend died. I had other friends with whom I had more in common, but only one who was always there when I needed him, whose grin always made me happy, whose common sense outweighed my imagination. Johnny Howard was the first boy I ever knew. In true Anchor Point style, he stayed with us when his mother had to leave town to see a doctor. We fought over the same toys, slept in the same bed. It never occurred to me whether I liked him or not or he me. We belonged to each other in a way that my other friends and I did not. No matter what, I knew we would always be friends.

Then he went swimming in a frigid lake, got a cramp, and drowned. Another friend, another Johnny, was there. He couldn't help. I couldn't believe it. When my mother said she was going to the funeral, I insisted on going with her.

It was an open-casket ceremony. My mother went up. I didn't. She came back shaking with sobs. "That wasn't Johnny," she told my shoulder as she cried. My mother never cried.

I stared at her. Of course it wasn't Johnny. He had no place in this little church where people sang hymns and plastic flowers filled the front of the room. Johnny was outside somewhere, waiting for me, grin exploding in his freckled face, drawling out my name. What was going on here had nothing to do with him at all.

But I couldn't find him, ever again. Now I know that when people say they've "lost" someone, that someone is "gone," they aren't employing euphemisms. Just when I needed him most, as I stopped being a little girl and became something I didn't understand, I lost the boy who would have helped me through all of this. I know somewhere in the woods where we used to play or near the river where he went fishing, Johnny Howard is there. He's waiting for me. I just have to find him.

Monday, April 1, 2013

Rebecca, My Mother, and Me

My parents went camping at Cape Hatteras on their honeymoon, carrying a tent, sleeping bag, and a copy of Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier. My father was a man who loved to read but when he discovered that his young bride had brought a rival to his affections, he was a bit miffed. "Of course I brought a book, we were there for a week" my mother explained to me years later, and I was in complete agreement.

Several years after that, when she gave me my own copy of Rebecca, I read and reread it until the glued paperback binding gave way and I had to hold it together with a rubber band.

Much, much later, my mother and I spent a few days together on the Oregon coast. I can't remember what books we took with us, but I was working at Elliott Bay then and I know a stack of arcs would have been part of our baggage. What I do remember is Mother and me sitting on a beach in a patch of winter sunlight, each with our own copy of the Sunday paper, doing the crossword puzzle in companionable silence.

Words were our bond and sometimes our battle line. We read and we talked and we told each other stories all of our lives. Today I feel heavy with the weight of stories, told and untold, those that are still to happen and those that went unspoken.

She was always there, usually at the end of a telephone line. I woke up this morning after a fitful sleep, knowing that April had begun, without my mother. I know it but I still want to write her a note. I guess this is it.

Sunday, March 31, 2013

Small World, Big Faces

As I walked toward my Vancouver hotel, huge bronze figures loomed at the end of the street, silhouetted against sky and water. When I began to explore the neighborhood, I went to look closer at the fourteen giant figures, all laughing, all barefoot and bare-chested, all Chinese men.

As I looked at their faces, I knew I’d seen them before. On my final day of my last trip to Hong Kong, there was an outdoor exhibition of bronze statues near the Kowloon waterfront, made by a Mainland sculptor. The faces were the same as the ones I stared at now.

The Vancouver bronze men stood close together, like a little forest. It was hard to tell if their laughter was joyful or jeering, although their bodies were frozen in playful poses. I'd had the same difficulty with the figures I'd seen on another waterfront six months earlier;  I had examined them with a degree of discomfort, unsure if their faces were contorted in laughter or screams.Were these statues done by the same artist as the man whose work was displayed in Kowloon or were they skillful copies of his art?

On my last day, a desk clerk at the Sylvia gave me the artist’s name, and the figures in this Northwestern city were indeed related to the ones I saw in Kowloon. The ones in Morton Park replaced a massive tree that had stood there forever and was blown down in a storm.

Yue Minjun casts his own face in his statues, so the Vancouver bronzes were relatives of the ones in Kowloon. I wandered through the bronze forest, looking at one man’s face, feeling happy to find part of a city I love in a city that I was in love with.

Saturday, March 30, 2013

Another Country

It was the mountains that got me. I'm always fascinated by slivers, the spaces between layers of tall buildings, and in Vancouver the slivers often frame part of a mountain range that slaps up against the city's horizon. They aren't ghostly, shimmering, and distant the way mountains are in Seattle. Those suckers are right there, as much a part of Vancouver as any bridge or spire. I'm not often impressed by natural wonders but the chutzpah of building a city as close as possible to a wall of mountains appeals to me.

Then there was the food. A small diner on Seymour Street had a sign that announced they had xiao long bao in the same way that another place might tell the world that they had doughnuts. A spot on Davie Street had desserts--from Transylvania. My walk down Denman Street began with the sight of a large restaurant called Ukrainian Village. Even more than San Francisco, Vancouver is one gigantic "external food cue" as Calvin Trilling says, and it does this with a casual dash. I had the feeling that it wasn't a city of "foodies," but a place where people really like to eat.

I had about thirty hours to spend in Vancouver, and unfortunately eight of those would be spent sleeping. My stomach is adventurous but its capacity is limited. For one of the very first times, I wished I weren't traveling alone. More people would mean more tastes; I've shamelessly used my children that way for decades. As it was, I did my best, beginning with a huge bowl of shio-tonkatsu ramen at Benkei Ramen (soon to leave Robson Street for W. Broadway), and following it up with a cup of Guiness sorbet from a shop on Denman Street, which I ate on a search for a bookstore called Sophia Books on West Hastings.

This is a shop with foreign-language books and magazines, with a concentration on art and design books, and I was eager to browse there--but I couldn't find it. "I think they moved," a barista told me, "There's a big book store right up the street on Pender. That might be the one."

It wasn't. McLeod's is a used bookstore the likes of which I have never seen before--stacks and piles on the floor, shelves crammed to their limits, books tossed into snowdrifts banking the walls. It was appalling and it was enticing and it was almost closing time. "We've been here for forty years," the man behind the counter told me, "The Sophia closed a year or so ago."

I ran my hand across a row of leather bound books that were jammed in with volumes that were decidedly less elegant. "I need a weekend for this place," I admitted with a fair degree of mournfulness and left, mentally examining my budget to discover when my foray into McLeod's could take place.

My hotel was the legendary Sylvia, which is about as close to English Bay as it can be without being on a raft. I sat in the bar, watched the water and people in the park, drank a Red Truck Pale Ale, and made a fatal error. Not to dwell upon such things, but both the oil that had cooked my truffle fries and the mayonnaise that accompanied it was far older than it should have been. On the next day I developed a true fondness for Starbucks and their restrooms, available for the price of an espresso. I drank a lot of espresso in my final hours in Vancouver.

But there are many Starbucks in that city and I walked for hours, discovering that the Punjabi Market has almost disappeared, driven to Surrey by high rents. "But we'll be here for donkey's years," said the young man at All India Sweets who served me a  masala dosa. The woman at Amrit Fashions told me the same thing and I'll go back to buy a box of the sweets that failed to tempt me this time, and to moan softly over the vibrant, glowing colors of Ms. Bunwait's stunning saris.

Vintage clothing shops on South Main, a restaurant called Bob Likes Thai Food, Slickity Jim's Chat and Chow, and Neptoon Records and CDs wait to be explored next time, along with so many neighborhoods that I haven't seen. Vancouver is a city with style and energy. Of course I want to move there, but I'll settle for many trips in the future. I have a goal in mind--to go into McLeod's with a miner's lamp and survival rations for a thorough exploration.

Monday, March 25, 2013

Exploring Wherever We Happen to Be

I come from parents who specialized in large, dramatic gestures. "We're moving to Alaska." "We're camping across country from Alaska to Maine with five children." "We're going to live in Puerto Rico."

With this sort of plan as my template, I've spent most of my life believing that the only cure for boredom was a sweeping change. Settling in always seemed a denial of life and all that it had to offer. But as all people who move quickly and in huge leaps do, I missed a lot in any place I stayed in for a substantial length of time--when I was in the U.S.

When I was in Bangkok, I found delight and wonder in every corner of that city. In Seattle. I ignore the sort of attraction that brings people here on vacation, and leave vast numbers of neighborhoods unexamined. Then one of my sons and his girlfriend gave me a trip to Vancouver B.C. for Christmas.

I've spent the past three months thinking about when to go, where to stay, what to see, what to eat. I leave in two more days and the thought of using my passport for something more than an identification card is almost more excitement than I can stand. But an odd thing happened as I was planning my escape from Seattle; I began to understand that there are pleasures and diversions here that I have ignored since my return from Thailand a year and a half ago.

Today is a picture-perfect spring day and there are hundreds of places in this city where I can spend it. There's a new form of transportation called the Bolt Bus that will get me out of town for a very small sum, and there are trains that will do the same thing for a bit more money. This year I intend to use them, to fill in the gaps between where I've been. Look after you leap may not be the recommended course of action, but it's better than not looking at all.

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Postcard from Sisaket

I always have a reason when I go to Sisaket. Although I love this quiet small city that’s only about fifty miles from the Cambodian border, it’s a long train or bus ride from Bangkok. If I simply wanted to restore myself, Korat was much closer and equally pleasant, Sisaket took a bit of planning, but it always continues to lure me back with something exceptional to do.

I’m not a sightseer but I’ll travel to see art. I’d fallen in love with Sisaket thirteen years ago, when I stayed there on a journey to see Khao Prah Viharn, the magnificent temple on a Cambodian mountain. Last October I wanted to go to Wat Lan Khuwit, a temple made entirely of beer bottles. It was in the province of Sisaket, not too far from the city of that same name.

So I packed a bag, got on an early morning train and headed off. The temple was enchanting.  Glass buildings sparkled through the leaves of a forest setting, green and brown bottles the building material for the monks’ cottages, the crematorium, the bathhouses, the ceremonial halls, and the most beautiful of all, the prayer hall that housed the Buddha, surrounded by a fish-filled moat.

The next morning I found breakfast and then went to a temple, wondering why I never allowed myself enough time in this town that always gives me what I want, plus peace and quiet. The night before I’d gone out to explore the night market that sprouted up in late afternoon and ended up at a place called The Cuckoo’s Nest, where expat men of my vintage sat on a porch and drank beer. They were a small United Nations, each of a different nationality, each a long-time resident of Sisaket, and each of them men of few words, but those words were friendly. I looked at them with envy. I wanted to live in Sisaket too.

Now I was leaving in a couple of hours and I wanted to wander a bit. The streets were quiet and the temple dominated the neighborhood, which was fine with me. Thai temples are the country’s social safety net and I make a donation at one in every place I travel to. In return I find an ignorant, blundering form of reverence spring up somewhere within me, not for a being, but for the practice that takes place within temple grounds.

It was early on  a weekend morning and I had almost the entire place to myself. As I walked toward the gates to leave a man in a wheelchair entered. He rolled up toward me, smiled, and greeted me. We began a brief chat, me with my city cynicism waiting for the plea and deciding how much I would give him, while wishing my visit hadn’t ended with a mendicant. The man rummaged about in a small bag that he carried and brought out a package holding two little  mooncakes.

“For your trip back to Bangkok,” he said.

And this, boys and girls, is why I love Sisaket.

Friday, March 22, 2013

Routine is the Silent Killer

Tove Jansson was an artist, both visual and verbal, who is best known for her Moomintroll series for children. I fell in love with The Summer Book years ago, only recently finding a couple of her other novels. Two days ago I bought Fair Play from Elliott Bay's remainder table and discovered this at a time when I needed to read it, advice from a man who is ninety-two to a woman who "is barely seventy."

" not tire, never lose interest, never grow indifferent--lose your invaluable curiosity and you let yourself die. It's as simple as that. No?"

My mother is eighty-nine years old, plus five months. Her body is worn out; her mind has not tired. Confined to a bed, she reads a book a day, she chats with my sister, she is delighted to receive mail.

For the entire sixty-four years that I have known her, my mother has been illuminated by her "invaluable curiosity." She has never grown indifferent; she has always been a woman who believes that every day holds a new present, waiting to be discovered.

Through her life, my mother lived at times in rough circumstances; they never defined who she was. No matter what she wore, what house she lived in, what food she put on her table, or how ill she might be, she carried herself with the dignity of a true aristocrat. Her public composure was absolute; her interest in everything that surrounded her was unflagging. She has never stopped looking at the world with the attention and careful observation of a novelist.

I used to lecture my mother on the colors that were most becoming to her, took her shopping to find clothes that made her skin gleam and flattered her figure. She let me do that, but it really didn't matter to her or to anyone else who knew her. She has always been a woman whose exterior is the covering of a bright and beautiful spirit; she still is.

In her final days, my mother has been generous in her gift to her daughters. All of us have been given a chance to see what the end of our lives can be, if we face them with courage and dignity, without whining or "sniveling"--two things my mother always abhorred. But perhaps even greater is the legacy I've only recently begun to appreciate, her gift of "invaluable curiosity," her unflagging interest in life, her deep and inextinguishable love.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Seattle Spring

Sunlight does odd things to Seattle. Brick buildings take on a golden underhue, glass highrises sparkle against the city’s backdrop of water and sky, and tight little buds on neighborhood trees fatten with promise. Trees that have already exploded into blossom, whose colors have faded in the persistent veil of grey, become spangles of pink or soft white. Best of all, the heavy air lightens and becomes buoyant, floating people out of their houses and into the street.

It becomes a city to rediscover, after months of ignoring anything but indoor warmth and light. Yesterday I went exploring, under the guise of grocery shopping, walking down streets I never had been on before, in an old neighborhood that still has the comfortable, working-class homes of a city where many workers can no longer afford to buy a house now.

The houses I saw were solid and modest, built for large families with building materials that were durable and could hold up under one of the area’s frequent earthquakes. There was very little pretension about them, in common with the city where they were built. The money that built them was made by longshoremen or loggers or fishermen. It’s easy to romanticize honest toil, but as the daughter of a man who worked with his hands and his back for most of his life, I’ve seen the pride that comes from making it possible for a family to have a place of their own, after days and months and sometimes years of hard labor. Sentimental I may be, but I believe there's nothing more satisfying than that.

Many of the houses from Seattle’s early years are going away as working-class neighborhoods are being populated by a young demographic, many of whom work with computers, their labor invisible. They live in thin houses that are slivers compared to the bulky counterparts that used to be there, or in one of the condominiums that have taken over Seattle’s landscape so quickly that they seem to have sprouted up in a heavy rainstorm, like toadstools.

Many of the old houses that are still in place have been painted in whimsical, frivolous colors, pumpkin and purple, sun-yellow with a dash of chartreuse, following the example of San Francisco’s Victorian  Painted Ladies. They look out of place  and bizarre, like a group of staid grandfathers who suddenly decided to become drag queens.

It’s difficult to find the working-class neighborhoods that were the backbone of Seattle. It’s becoming difficult to find anyplace where workers can afford to have a meal, a beer, a plain and simple cup of coffee. Buzzwords float through the air that would have a grizzled longshoreman bemused—“artisan bread” “locovore eating” “microbrews” “creative cocktails”—“What the hell?” he would snort, “Bring me a cup of joe and a stack of hotcakes, will you? I’m hungry, damn it.”

It is a matter of class—the jobs that built this city are gone. Well-educated university graduates wait tables and make espresso drinks. The irony of their daily lives pervades their choices of what they wear, where they live. They fill the saloons that used to cater only to men who had just come off shift, their department stores are Value Village and Goodwill. They flock to coffee houses , carrying laptop bags, buy a coffee with an Italian name, and use the free wifi for hours.

They’re perhaps the lucky ones. To me, the ones whose lives are blood-curdling are the people who work in Amazonville.

A Microsoft millionaire took one of Seattle’s diner, tavern, and warehouse neighborhoods and almost overnight turned it into a whole new city. Usually areas go through a transition period—first the artists move in, then the people with a tenuous hold on the middle class, then the affluent, giving layers of different businesses, different demographics, different aesthetics to the place where they live. Not in Amazonville—it is a planned urban village, where the villagers live in new buildings, buy groceries at Whole Foods, buy clothing at tiny boutiques, eat and drink at little “Euro-cafes” or glossy restaurants that strive to create the next food trend. Its one burst of obligatory irony is a Goodwill, which has the size and style to mirror any of the nearby boutiques.  A few brick buildings have survived among the highrise office sites and apartment towers. There is no bookstore.

People crowd the sidewalks at lunchtime, wearing the tell-tale blue badges of employees from The other residents are unseen until much later; the empty streets of Amazonville prove to be hospitable to people who have nowhere else to go, or for entrepreneurs of the illegal kind.

My neighborhood is one of the most layered in Seattle—brick buildings, some with terracotta facades, lie close to the street. Little groceries that are among the few in the city that don’t sell beer and wine, bakeries that serve plain old coffee and elaborately frosted slices of mango or durian layer cake, a corner bar that has probably never made a cocktail that wasn’t a Bloody Mary or a Screwdriver.

It was originally Chinese and Japanese, with a dash of Skid Row denizens in the mix. Then came a large infusion of Vietnamese, followed by people from Somalia, Ethiopia, Eritrea. It’s now a neighborhood where African-Americans live near Africans, where pensioners are next-door to an apartment housing rock musicians, where artists have studios near freshly built “luxury” apartments and condominiums. The public library has a token number of books in English; its reading area is colonized every day by old men from the neighborhood, reading. The bank of public-use computers is usually an offshoot of Skid Row, 21st Century-style.

It’s changing fast with the arrival of the light rail and the approach of a streetcar that will connect my neighborhood to downtown. There’s a sweet little boutique whose owner does her best to serve all income levels. There’s a pinball museum and a vegetarian pizza joint with a microbrew on tap. But so far, these only add texture to an existing neighborhood, not transformation. The Microsoft millionaire had tried to transform it; he gave up and moved on, leaving a few ugly glass office buildings in his wake.

I live here because it still holds a community that is living, vibrant, and evolving. With any luck at all, it will continue to be a place where lion dances co-exist with pop-up art installations in empty storefronts, where old men play chess in the park while old ladies sit nearby, gossiping and little children try to catch pigeons, with lots of optimism and absolutely no success. When that’s all gone, I will be too.