Thursday, January 24, 2013

Then I said to myself, "Self," I said...

It's tough being a grownup. There's nobody around to tell you what to do. So when I woke up on Tuesday in a bad mood, and when day finally broke to reveal more thick fog, and I was cold, and the memory of last week's gulps of pool water still made my stomach churn, I didn't want to get dressed, climb on a bus, and walk into a locker room where a bunch of naked women compete for shower space.

Alternating thoughts of You paid for this and I don't care thundered over and over as I drank my coffee, wrote for an hour, and ate a bagel. Just get on the damned bus was the predominant refrain so I did, feeling more nauseated and dismal by the second.

My transfer point is perilously near the acres of remainder tables at the University Bookstore and I was too early for my next bus. When I left with my purchases, I saw my bus on the opposite side of the street, pulling away. By the time the next one arrived, I was close to hypothermia and only the thought of a hot shower pulled me toward the pool.

I entered the locker room, stripped off my clothes, and turned to find every shower spot occupied by the small children whose class came just before mine. Clad only in goosebumps and shivering, I tried not to glare at them as they savored every second of hot water, then hit their spigots for one more turn. Their mothers smiled benignly when I whimpered as pathetically as only a 64-year-old women in the nude is capable of, "But I'm late for my class."

In the pool with 15 minutes of my time already gone, I decided I'd spill it all when the instructor breezily asked me "How's it going?" He listened, watched, and then made a suggestion--and by god it worked.

Head in water, exhale through nose, head out of water tilted to the side, inhale quickly, don't worry if feet go down--over and over again up until the last minute, which is when I finally choked on a bit of pool water--perhaps a tablespoon as opposed to the quarter-cup I ingested the week before.

When I left, I know I swaggered just a little. It was still a bad day and by the time I got home, all I wanted to do was take a nap. But at the bottom of the misery that engulfed me was a tiny sparkle of happiness. Painfully and awkwardly and at my own glacial pace, I'm learning how to swim.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Joe Sent Me

On my last night in Hong Kong William held a dinner party at a peculiarly Hong Kong institution, a “private kitchen.” I had been charmed by the phrase when he first mentioned it; it conjured up a meal that was cooked in someone’s home with strangers paying to eat it.

“Can you choose what you want to eat and they will cook it for you?” I asked.

“No, you pay in advance and they cook what they choose.”

Now it sounded more like gustatory Russian roulette, or an abbreviated homestay.

“Do you go to somebody’s house?” I asked with a bit of trepidation, envisioning the hideously enforced coziness and false community of a B&B.

“Not usually. It can be in a very nice space or in a dive. They aren’t really restaurants and they aren’t clubs. In Hong Kong space for entrepreneurs is limited and expensive, so chefs find unconventional venues, set up a kitchen, and depend on word of mouth for their clientele. Some of them have become quite famous. The New York Times did an article about them not too long ago.”

Private kitchens are neither down-home amateur cooks trying out different dishes on paying guests nor are they in the Chungking Mansions mode, where unlicensed restaurants are tucked away in dark corners of the building, posing as clubs. Here touts line the ground floor around dinnertime every night, handing out “member cards” to passersby. The words “club” or “mess” are always part of the restaurant’s name and they are always in the darkest and dingiest hallways, surrounded by entrances to guesthouses. Inside they’re usually quite conventional, sometimes with a full bar. There is table service and menus and food that is without fail from the subcontinent. Hong Kong people come as a daring foray into what they regard as the underworld, where they eat food that they regard as good. It isn’t. It’s the experience that sharpens their appetite and blunts their tastebuds.

Private kitchens were a lot like speakeasies when they first sprang up in the 90’s. They often were unlicensed venues that appeared in apartments or were tucked away in an artist’s loft. Now the more famous have become elegant restaurants that are tucked away in residential or commercial buildings. Reservations are hard to come by and meals are usually the chef’s choice. Meals can be over one hundred US dollars per person, plus wine.

William chose a night and invited his guests, with a strict RSVP. He would be charged in advance per head, so acceptance meant mandatory attendance. He emailed an address, phone number and door code to a place called TBLS, that was on an upper floor of a building in Central, not too far from the Travelator.

It was extremely close to my friend Madeline’s bookshop and  I met her ahead of time so we could go to dinner together. The building we were looking for was in the middle of an over-crowded block. The doorway was narrow, gated, and locked. A keypad had been installed; TBLS was nowhere on the directory. We called the number we’d been given and a voice rather tersely gave us the code.

We entered the same sort of hallway that led to offices and warehouse space all over the city. There was a freight elevator; it let us out before another door which opened into a Gershwin fantasy of a Manhattan boite of the 1930’s.

There was a bar, a few candle-lit tables, soft jazz in the background and then a large terrace with more tables and a view of Hong Kong’s thick forest of buildings, glamorous and twinkling in the black night sky.

The space was intimate and spellbinding, in a way that a more conventional venue would have failed to achieve. Suddenly we were all the direct of descendants of Cole Porter, sipping good wine in an Eastside nightclub. I began to look for Mabel Mercer.

We were led to a long table, its white linen gleaming in the darkness. Our party was large yet none of us felt cramped. Already we were given one of Hong Kong’s rarest commodities, space.

A small glass canning jar was placed in front of each of us and a white-garbed man appeared at the head of the table and announced that the theme of our meal was pork. And so it was, from the dashing little amuse bouche in a humble kitchen jar, the tiny soup and sandwich, the delicate serving of meat and veg, the miniscule version of risotto—or was it a very creamy congee?—the velvet touch of a fish chowder heavily laced with chunks of cured pig. The performance ended with a salted caramel version of crème brulee and the world’s smallest ice cream sandwich made of a sliced macaroon.

It was all theatre, the courses presented with such fanfare that I can’t remember exactly what they were. But the content wasn’t the point; it was the medium, not the message. This was a meal designed to make the diners feel privileged, and surprised. It was food for jaded people who live in one of the best food cities in the world. To me, it was reliving the decline and fall of the Roman Empire—interesting but I wouldn’t do it again.

“She’s very divey,” William described me to one of his friends, and perhaps that’s true. Of the meals he’s taken me to, my favorites have been in steamy little diners and in the upper floors of food markets, where the surprises are equally dazzling but the food is designed to nourish. To my peasant way of thinking, that’s what food is for.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Learning to Float

Today I begin to learn to swim. I’m looking forward to being in the water and achieving a feeling of weightlessness. I imagine this as the closest I’ll ever get to learning how to fly. I think it will be a form of exercise that I’ll look forward to doing and that someday I’ll snorkel in Thailand, watching brightly colored fish dart past me like moving flowers.

Thirty minutes for three months—six hours of lessons—once I learn to float, I’ll have crossed a huge barrier. If it takes me the entire three months, I will learn to trust that the water will hold me. It’s a cradle, not a trap.

But this morning, I can’t think about that. All I want to keep in mind is that I’m going to a pool where I’ll put on my swim suit and let my body be bathed in water for half an hour. I want that on this dark and damp morning.

I love the water. Watching it, being on it in a boat, walking beside it—now I’ll learn to stretch that affinity so I can love being in it, moving through it. I don’t care if I ever learn to dive. All I want is to get in the water, poise myself to float, and then push my way into it. And I want to enjoy doing that. I don’t want it to be a survival skill only. I want to be a swimmer; I just don’t care if I’m a good one.

I’m fatter than I was when I tried this at sixteen, so I should be more buoyant. And I’ve learned to trust situations that I never dreamed of when I was a teenager. If I measure getting on a plane alone to work in a country I’d never been before, for a man I’d never met, floating is no more difficult than that. I did that. I can do this.

When I was six, I was given a bicycle for my birthday. A boy I knew had just learned to ride by using training wheels and I was positive that I would have them too. My father was adamant that I would learn without them; I wobbled and fell a few times and then I became adamant that I would never learn to ride a bicycle. Neighborhood children came to ride my bike while I was more than content to let it rust in the backyard. I suppose eventually it did.

Then I was hit with the dream of going to England, bicycling down country lanes, but of course there was an obvious flaw in that plan. My little brother was ten and he took matters firmly in hand.

Our house was at the top of a high hill and the first slope was all meadow, soft and forgiving. He perched me on his bicycle and sent me down the hill, hollering, “Pedal! Pedal!”  The law of inertia took hold; in motion, I stayed that way and my body took over. Without my thinking about it, I found that I could balance on two wheels. I was elated; my little brother shrugged. “Anybody can ride a bike,” he said, “Even you—see?”

I wish he were here to help me learn to swim.

The lesson he taught me is still clear, perhaps even more than it was when I first learned it. My body isn’t special. It abides by the same rules and has the same abilities as any other, just so long as my mind doesn’t get in the way. This is something to hold in every cell of my skin when I get in the water. Today I want to be out of my mind for half an hour.

So as I sit and drink my coffee, I think of water touching me and soothing sore muscles. I think of water in my ears as being a superior form of the earplugs I turn to every night before I go to sleep. I think of the youtube clip of one of my dearest friends teaching his small daughter to swim.

I think of him swimming in the Andaman Sea and finding dolphins, who stayed by his side. I think of coral trees that he saw growing beneath the water. I want that too.

So many things that we all do unthinkingly are acts of faith—falling in love, marrying, having a baby, riding in a car, getting on a plane—perilous acts, every last one of them. There is nothing perilous about learning to float. It was after all the natural state of every human being for nine months. We were all small anemones, suspended in water, depending on a tube that allowed us to grow. Probably the most difficult thing that any of us has ever done is learning to breathe oxygen after being forced out of the water.

Today I'm going to go back.

Saturday, January 5, 2013


I went to see The Impossible yesterday at its first showing on its first day in Seattle. I had a reason to be there, rather than waiting for it to be available on Netflix as I usually do. I had a very dear friend who was caught in that wave and survived it. When I saw him three months later, the wounds on his body were turning to scars, he was moving through life in his usual fashion, but he was still in shock.

I've been obsessed with the tsunami of 2004. I've wanted to know in some small way what my friend had gone through. The Impossible showed me--not everything but more than enough.

My friend was Thai. His experience was illustrated by the experience of a blonde, white woman. Does that make a difference? Hell, no. The replication of the terrible sound of the wave, the horror of being wrapped in water, knowing that death is certain, the objects being hurled against flesh by the force of the wave, coming out of that envelope of ocean to find survival, pain, devastation, death, dying, injured--in a place that had been idyllic minutes before--this movie added a hideous reality to the story that was told to me and that I've retold many times. Whether the story is told by a western woman or a Thai man, it is still the same sound, the same terror, the same pain. It is not, as the movie reviewer said in the Seattle Times, "a very, very bad vacation." The "verisimilitude to actual disaster" in The Impossible is not, as another Seattle reviewer said, "a feat of dubious distinction."

Nearly 300,000 people died in that tsunami; the number of survivors is uncountable. In Thailand, much of the coast that was struck is prime resort territory which is heavily populated by Europeans during the holiday season. The death toll in the Kingdom consisted of many, many bodies. The skin color of corpses, if it matters at all, was often white. The body bags shown in the movie were filled with dead skin waiting to go home--does it matter where that was?

For the survivors the aftermath that a Seattle reviewer writes off as "a surfeit of sentiment" was very real. Ewan McGregor's search for his wife and son was mirrored by the same search conducted by my friend's mother, when she went to Phuket to find her son and bring him home. She had never flown in her life but Thai Airways gave free flights for people looking for their surviving family and brought her from Bangkok to Phuket. She searched hospital beds until she found her son. The only difference is she had language to help her in her search. Many people who looked for their families didn't speak Thai, were in a country where they knew nobody, and were in shock themselves. Is this, as the reviewer said, "the wrong story well told?"

If I hadn't known and loved someone who had the story that's told in The Impossible, I would never have gone to it. I don't suggest that anyone else does, unless they have some sort of link to the 2004 tsunami. But if you do go, look beyond skin color or "privilege." Salute the people of Thailand who went to the coast and volunteered to help survivors, take care of the wounded, and identify bodies. This isn't just one family's story; open your eyes and ears.

Friday, January 4, 2013

Memories and Grief on the Information Highway

A year ago I found out that one of my dearest friends in the world was dying; less than two weeks later he was dead. As soon as I was able to, I wrote about that and posted it here. I told nobody that I had done that; some of my friends found it. It was an entry in a notebook, written to help me make my way through very profound sadness.

Right around a year to the day that I found out that he was dying, people whom I do not know came to that post and read it. The coincidence was eerie and I put my friend's name into a google search to see if that is what brought strangers to my post. And up it came.

Someone in Tucuman, Argentina, someone in Thessaloniki, has Worasak Jongthirawong in their minds, as he  has been on mine. Strangers mourn together on a day that will always presage loss for us.

And yet, I think of Sak--his eyebrows quirked, his sardonic smile--as he said to me once, "You don't have to think of it that way." I think he's saying it now, and I know I don't have to. We don't, all of us who love him and always will.

Gratitude, not grief, is what I hope to learn to feel in the first fifteen days of January--gratitude for a friend who is loved all over the world. In places that he never went, Sak lives on in the hearts and memories of his friends.

Thursday, January 3, 2013

Why Not?

I just finished eating breakfast, a whole new concept for me. Usually I have coffee until my stomach rebels around 11 am and then I eat whatever might be in my refrigerator. Since that is rarely well stocked, my first food of the day could never be called a meal--plain yogurt or a chunk of lean roasted pork--just something to calm my overly caffeinated digestive system.

On New Year's Eve, I was wandering down an aisle of my neighborhood supermarket, which is highly Japanese with dashes of other Asian countries, staring listlessly at the shelves. Suddenly some brightly colored boxes caught my eye, bearing names like Bisibele Bhath and Sambar. Ready to Eat, the boxes promised, no artificial ingredients, no preparation required; whole dried red chilis were prominently displayed in photos of many of the dishes. I bought one, feeling skeptical. After eating the Bisibele Bhath for my first meal of the year, I went back and bought fifteen of those boxes. Yes, these meals really are that good.

It's January 3rd and so far I've eaten five of the fifteen meals. Each comes in a foil pouch which I heat in boiling water for five minutes. They contain no preservatives. They have flavor; the use of chili is judicious but clearly present as is coriander and tamarind and ginger. They are vegetarian and the most highly caloric of the bunch weighs in at around 350 calories. Dal Fry, Sambar, Khadi Pakora are household staples for me now.

I've always hated prepared food, be it canned, frozen, or in a box. Why was I captured by these boxes? Because they contain satisfying, appetizing, real meals--no freeze-dried chunks of unidentifiable origins or ingredients that I can't pronounce, let alone recognize. Whoever manufactures these dishes in a box clearly cares about eating.

MTR Foods PVT. LTD. is imported from Bangalore, India by a New York firm called AMTRADE. By the time the boxes reach me in Seattle, their carbon footprint is large. But these flat little boxes are less environmentally intrusive than cans from Taiwan and garlic from China--and their contents tastes much better than their equivalent made in my own country. Why?

I've bought organic soups in boxes that are made in my part of the world. They taste a lot like baby food--sugar, salt, organic vegetables--no flavor that lingers happily on my tongue. The Indian packaged food does--while it doesn't measure up to subcontinental dishes that I've enjoyed in Bangkok or Hong Kong, they taste every bit as good as similar dishes that I've eaten in stalls and restaurants at Chungking Mansions. And they are reasonably priced--each is well under three dollars.

Economical, delicious,healthy, and effortless--these choices have me outsourcing my cooking. And who knows? Maybe I'll move on to cooking from scratch--naan baked on a pizza stone? Freshly prepared black dal? Could be...