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."

"...do 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 Amazon.com. 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.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

The Mind/Body Problem

I had sound reasons for missing several of my swimming classes, I told myself, a trip to Alaska, a painful sinus problem, an appointment made in error for that same time slot on Tuesday. It wasn't until yesterday, when I had a new surge of energy and the sun was shining (Coincidence? I think not), that I packed up my suit, towel, and swim cap and set off for class.

As I walked toward the pool, I had an urge to go right past it, which puzzled me. I was certain I was no longer aquaphobic; I could get my head underwater, bring it up for breath and return, open my eyes, get water in my ears and nose, all of which I thought was impossible at the beginning of the year. I'd told the instructor I was ready to learn to float and felt eager to do that. So why was I tempted to play hooky now?

I reviewed my cluster of classes and remembered how much I'd enjoyed being in the water; then I imagined floating and my mind clamped shut.

"My body knows I can do it but my mind is frightened," I told my instructor.

"I'll walk you through this," he promised.

I walked away from my wall, closer to the center of the pool than I had ever been, and a flicker of panic hit like a small shudder. I put my head in the water and my legs obediently floated to the surface--and I floated for a couple of seconds. Then my hands instinctively grabbed for the wall. The second time, they felt my instructor's hands and clutched desperately, as though they were independent organisms, but I knew they weren't. They were following directions that were coming straight from my very resistant mind.

"When you want to come out of the water, put your chin up and then bring your knees into a sitting position," I was told. The third time I began to float, I forgot to do that. My legs began to flail idiotically in three feet of water. I went back to the wall to practice putting my chin up again and again, hoping it would become a natural act.

In the next few minutes, I put myself in floating position repeatedly, then chin up, knees under, and out. But always, at least my fingertips were in contact with my wall.

My instructor came back and said encouraging things, followed by "Keep your hands on the wall but put your head back and make sure your ears are under water." I did; it felt wonderful.

For the rest of my thirty minutes, I was on my back, happy, but one hand still touched my wall. I was the last person out of the pool when my time was up, for the first time ever. Next week I have to make my mind know that my body is ready to do this. A good hypnotist wouldn't hurt.

But it's okay. I have all year to learn how to persuade my mind to follow where my body is willing to take me. It's been sixty years or more that I've refused to trust the water; old mental habits are hard to break, but not impossible--especially when my body really wants to know how to enjoy the pleasure of being weightless and surrounded by a whole new element.

Friday, March 15, 2013

Schemes of my Father



My father was a man with imaginative ideas. Sometimes they were way beyond the scope of reality; every year he suggested that we get one big present for Christmas, a set of electric trains, and every year that plan was repudiated by his three daughters. Others were more successful; as an oilfield worker, he organized his colleagues in a union effort that that brought them into the International Brotherhood of Petroleum Workers.

That was a somewhat perilous enterprise. The head of Alaska’s Laborer’s Union, dressed in a camel’s hair overcoat and shiny black leather loafers, drove two hundred miles from Anchorage to our one-room cabin in Soldotna. My father was close to success and one of the state’s most powerful unions was ready to step in and harvest a group of workers that they had previously ignored. The discussion lasted hours, with all of us banished from the cabin until it was over. I’m sure there were generous offers and probably a couple of veiled threats but my father refused to hand over his co-workers. At this stage of my life, I didn’t like my father very much but I was smart enough to realize that what he was doing was admirable and honorable. He didn’t sell out.

The winter that my mother went to New York, my father’s creativity had no barriers. “We’ll have a cocoa spring that will never go dry. We’ll have cocoa whenever we want,” he promised and mixed cocoa, powdered milk, sugar, and water in a brand new two and a half gallon metal bucket. This went on the top of the barrel stove and stayed there for five months, replenished with ingredients, never empty.

“It’s silly to spend too much time in the kitchen. We’re going to be efficient,” he said. The results of this pronouncement were weird. Sometimes he’d make a huge batch of cinnamon rolls and we ate them for days. A basinful of rice pudding was another staple; “It’s nourishing,” he told us, “look, I’m making it with eggs, milk, and rice—it’s good for you.”  Hasty pudding, made with cornmeal, was a dismal failure, which he found difficult to understand. “It’s what the pioneers ate; the Indians taught them to make it. You’re eating history,” he insisted. We gagged and when his back was turned, we fed it to the dogs.

With our confidence shaken, we rebelled. “We want real food,” we demanded, “We want supper, not dessert for supper.” My father pouted for a while and then announced that we were absolutely right. “Tonight,” he assured us, “We’ll have chicken noodle soup, but you’ll all have to help me make it.”

This was a masterstroke that turned small mutineers back into co-conspirators. For us, true children of our time and place, chicken noodle soup came in only one form. It was yellow, salty broth, with miniscule, flavorless squares of chicken and short squishy noodles. It came in a red and white can. It was supreme comfort food, always eaten with saltines and it never occurred to our limited points of view that it could take on any other incarnation than that.

Tossing a couple of spruce hens into a large pot with half a dozen yellow onions, salt and pepper, and a gallon of water, my father announced jubilantly that this would be our soup. Still credulous, we inquired about the noodles. “We’re going to make them,” my father replied, “go and get all of the coat hangers you can find.”

We watched him make dough, roll it out, and cut it into thick strips. “These,” he told us with a note of triumph in his voice, “are the noodles.”

“They don’t look like noodles,” my smallest sister quavered and the rest of us agreed, even my little brother, who could barely talk.

“Just wait,” my father promised, “They have to dry before they’re done.”

All of us draped ribbons of dough over wire coat hangers and my father hung them from the ceiling. For the rest of the day, we dodged dangling strips of something we were positive we didn’t want to eat.

We watched the dough hit the boiling water that the spruce hen had simmered in for most of the day. Bits of skin and bone roiled about with chunks of onions and wet, unbaked bread. When at last it was ladled into bowls, we tasted it, hoping for a miracle. Then the uprising hit full force.

“It’s not chicken noodle soup. This is disgusting,” I protested, knowing that it was my responsibility as the oldest to speak up. “I can’t eat this. It’s going to make me sick.” The others murmured their assent, tears welling up in their eyes.

“I want Mommy,” my little brother sobbed and we all began to cry. My father knew when he was defeated. “Let’s have popcorn and cocoa for supper tonight,” he suggested. The soup went to the dogs.

Then came the day that we were invited to have supper with friends in town, an event we all looked forward to. A few days before this occasion, my father looked dubiously at our winter coats. “They’re very dirty,” he decided.

“Yes,” I agreed, “but they’re wool. Mommy says they can’t go in the washing machine; they’ll shrink. They have to go to a dry cleaner.” I had no idea what a dry cleaner was, but my father seemed to understand.

“Let me think about this,” he said and went off to the corner of the couch with his cigarette and cup of coffee. My father smoked a lot; he said it helped him figure things out.

My sisters and I looked at each other with a fair degree of apprehension, and then went off to play. Whatever he thought up, at least it wouldn’t involve food.

Within a couple of hours, he called for us to bring our coats outside. When we came to where he stood, we all began to cough. My father was standing beside a large washtub that was filled with Blazo. Even in the sharp winter air, the fumes were intense.

“Give me your coats,” he said and plunged them into the Blazo. “This is dry cleaning. The gas will clean the wool in a couple of hours, without our having to lift a finger. Some people pay to have this done,” he scoffed.

We had to admit the coats were much cleaner when eventually they emerged from their immersion in white gas. Once again the coat hangers came into play; our coats were so permeated with fumes that we couldn’t bring them in the house. They hung outside on the clothesline for the next two days.

Even so, we still smelled strongly of Blazo when we put them on for our social engagement. “You look very nice,” my father said approvingly, “but of course you’re going to have to ride in the back of the pickup truck.”

It was a beautiful day, crisp, clear, and blindingly white and blue. We sang all the way into town, in our clean winter coats, peering into the cab where my father drove with one hand. The other held the reason we were in the back, his perpetual cigarette, its tip glowing with a subdued flame.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Via Mukluk Telegraph


I grew up in a land without telephones. If my mother needed help from one of her neighbors, she’d dash off a quick note and I'd deliver it. Otherwise news came face-to-face or over the radio.

Radios were our links to the world, the way laptops are now. Everybody had one and they were impressive pieces of furniture, often standing as tall as a night stand, encased in wood. The dials and tuner looked as though they could navigate a small plane, and often produced noises that sounded as though they came from outer space, high-pitched gurgling noises that came in a broken staccato. The internal workings were large glass tubes that appeared to contain liquid and I was certain that a tiny alchemist lived somewhere inside, working the magic that brought voices and music into our cabin.

It was unreliable magic. Sometimes it was impossible to get a broadcast from Anchorage but the BBC would come in loud and clear, with peals from Big Ben announcing the time. Or a voice would announce “This is Radio Moscow.” Occasionally voices from fishing boats crackled into our living room, once in a while speaking Japanese. But when all worked as it should, the reassuring and neighborly sounds of KFQD or KENI radio stations from Anchorage connected us to a more familiar world.

The announcers were cheery and personable. They gave their names and sometimes bantered with the crew on the air. When the more popular ones moved on, it was like losing a close friend—and that’s what the announcer had become. He was there over morning coffee; he was sometimes the last voice heard at night. Especially for people like my mother, who spent months in a cabin without her husband, or for the bachelors who lived alone, the radio and its announcers were lifelines.

There was a “woman’s” program which my mother mocked, there was a children’s program in the afternoon with recorded stories and songs that even my sisters and I realized were truly mediocre, there were serials like Back Street Wife and Lorenzo Jones, which my mother usually turned off. Briefly there was a live radio program called Uncle Jerry’s that interviewed children who visited the radio station. When I visited and said I had a dog named Nushnik, children who still spoke smatterings of Russian in villages once populated by Russian fur trappers were delighted and horrified that anybody would say a vulgar word for outhouse over the radio for all to hear.

At night, right around suppertime, a dead silence fell over our house while my parents listened to the world news. No child was allowed to make a sound while events were announced in our house for a length of time that always seemed interminable. But when that was over, even we would cluster next to the radio. It was time for Mukluk Telegraph.

This was a public service offered by radio station KENI and it was the most popular time slot in Alaska. Deaths, births, homecomings, requests were all broadcast in personal messages in our world without telephones.

We never knew what familiar names would drift out of the radio at that time of night. If it was someone in Anchor Point, we made sure that they had heard the message. Who knew? Perhaps their radio wasn’t working that evening.

Sometimes it was our own name that we heard, “Bill Rabich wants Jan and the girls to know that he’s coming home tomorrow at 7 pm on PNA.” “The family and friends of Bill and Jan Rabich will be happy to know that Jan had a little boy. Mother and baby are doing fine.”

Nome, Allakaket, Tatalina, Nenana—we were all neighbors, linked by Mukluk Telegraph. Not a baby was born, not a death occurred anywhere in Alaska without being announced on this program. In a territory that would soon become a state that dwarfed Texas, with a population that wouldn’t fill a small city anywhere else in the U.S., Mukluk Telegraph brought us all together, sitting near our radios at the same time every night to get the news that mattered most.

I still miss it. Facebook doesn’t even come close.

Saturday, March 2, 2013

Next Big Thing


Life gets in the way, oh yes it does. Two writers asked me in the past month if I wanted to be part of a writer’s chain letter called The Next Big Thing, in which I would answer questions about my next book and ask five other writers the same questions. Saying yes immediately threw my routine off course—first I went to Alaska unexpectedly, then I was hit with a headache-based influenza. And the dog ate my homework.

But procrastination is the hallmark of every writer I know, and an occasional blown deadline or two falls in everyone’s corner. Recovery is the most essential skill I practice, with varying success—and I’m going to try it here.

Karen Coates was the first to ask me to play this game. We’ve known each other for years and have only met face-to-face once. I encountered Karen through her book Cambodia Now, which was submitted for a prize that I was judging. Her writing struck me with its honesty, clarity, and its ability to illuminate issues through the lives of the people whose days are changed by them. Nobody else at that time had brought present day Cambodia so vividly to life on the page, and her husband Jerry Redfern provided a strong counterpoint to Karen’s writing with his stark photographs.

Later when I had a chance to work with these two talented people on two book projects, I was excited and a little apprehensive. These people are true professional journalists, while I was a fledgling editor. Would I be equal to this task? Fortunately, the two books are so very good that they essentially edited themselves. Both This Way More Better and Eternal Harvest will be out this year. More information about these titles can be found at http://thiswaymorebetter.com/ and http://karencoates.com/projects/

The second person to ask me to play is a woman so intertwined in my life that it would take a book of its own to explain how. Kim Fay is a gifted and dedicated writer who has worked on her craft since she was a little girl. When I first met her at the Elliott Bay Book Company where we both worked long ago, she was just out of college, looked like a twenty-first century Alice in Wonderland, drank like several fish, and had completed at least two novels. Separated by over twenty years, we found that we were related by our restlessness and our greed for the printed word. We still are.

Kim is the author of The Map of Lost Memories, which is one of my favorite novels of the last year. A carefully researched story of Cambodian temple-looting in the 1920s, it contains one of the most enigmatic and intelligent heroines to appear in literature since Sherlock Holmes was outwitted by Irene Adler. When I feel homesick for China or Southeast Asia, I pick up Kim’s novel and it takes me to the places I yearn for so thoroughly that I begin to sweat in the heavy, humid air, smell jasmine and sewage, begin to worry about dengue fever. Information about her next novel can be found here http://literateinla.blogspot.com/2013/02/the-next-big-thing.html

There are five men who have worked hard and well for years; living overseas they don’t always receive the attention in the U.S that they deserve. I hope they’ll play this game with me—don’t be shy, gentlemen.

Jerry Hopkins is a writer who won immense acclaim and a bit of cash for his classic biography of Jim Morrison, No One Here Gets Out Alive. The number of books he’s written since would fill a very long bookshelf, each one of them carefully researched and completely engaging. He lives in Bangkok and nobody has chronicled that city as well as Jerry has in Bangkok Babylon, a collection of stories about the eccentric foreigners who have made that city their home. His next book profiles foreigners who have loved and written about Asia and I hope my favorite curmudgeon will talk about it in this format soon. Meanwhile get a glimpse of him and his mammoth oeuvre (no, that's not a euphemism) at his website. www.jerryhopkins.com/news.html or in this terrific interview http://www.scmp.com/magazines/post-magazine/article/1134302/when-youre-strange

Jim Algie is another Bangkok-based journalist, author of Bizarre Thailand:Tales of Crime, Sex, and Black Magic. A man with a gift for finding a good story, along with a taste for the black comedy that lurks in ordinary life, Jim has spent decades exploring ordinary life in Thailand—which is lightyears away from ordinary life anywhere else—and discovering exactly what makes that tick. His book is one that Damon Runyon would have killed to write—the glamorous national forensic expert whose punk hairstyle wins her as much attention as her crime solutions, the Thai magnate who built a Wild West cowboy town in the hills of the northeast, the romantic wedding of the woman who lives with scorpions all over her body and her groom who gets equally up close and personal with centipedes. Whatever Jim’s next book will be, it is guaranteed to be memorable—that is how he rolls. See for yourself at http://www.roadjunky.com/article/2578/interview-with-jim-algie-author-of-bizarre-thailand

Nick Wilgus spent decades working at Thailand’s leading English newspaper, The Bangkok Post. In his spare time, he began to write a mystery series, with a detective who is an ordained, practicing Buddhist monk. I have no idea of how Nick got the extraordinary details that pervade his Father Ananda series but they give a dimension to the mysteries that make the books unique. The first book, Mindfulness and Murder, was made into a movie in Thailand that is now on the international film festival circuit, and there are rumors that the same fate awaits his second in the series, Sister Suicide. A thoughtful and prolific writer, Nick now lives and writes in Mississippi, where he crosses genres in a way that makes other writers yearn to kill him; he has written young adult fantasy and a graphic novel series as well as mystery novels. Who knows what he has coming soon? I hope he’ll tell…hints may be found at wilgusworld.blogspot.com/

Tom Vater is another writer whose versatility makes other writers feel homicidal—plus he can be talented in several different languages. German by birth, he writes in English in Bangkok—and so very well. His guidebooks are ones that can be read for pleasure (most recently the Moon Handbook to Angkor Wat) and his book Sacred Skin: Thailand Spirit Tattoos, with photos by his wife Aroon Thaewchatturat, is a superb work of reference. Just recently released in the West are his mystery novels, The Devil’s Road to Kathmandu and The Cambodian Book of the Dead. Both are more exciting than flesh and blood can stand and have such a dangerous sense of place that anyone who reads them is going to want to buy air tickets to Nepal and Cambodia. Oh—and just in case there needs to be another reason to look for a blunt instrument, Tom is also a co-publisher at Crime Wave Press. Look for more information at www.tomvater.com/ and be prepared for a surprise when (if?) he talks about his next book.

Back in the early part of this century, bookstores across the country were taken by surprise when they were presented with a modestly sized photography book called Bikes of Burden, a quirky, delightful collection of images showing the amazing things carried on Vietnamese motorcycles. Hans Kemp lived in Saigon, traveled through Vietnam, loved what he saw, and captured it with his camera; the result was this book which sold—and continues to sell—in bookstores all over the world, as has its companion volume, Carrying Cambodia. A dazzlingly gifted vagabond, Hans is one of the world’s most brilliant travel photographers. His book The Ardent Eye is a beautiful testimonial to the man’s talent and sense of adventure—and his love for the people he encounters on the road. (See some of his work at www.nohansland.com/) He also is a publisher of two imprints, Visionary World and (with Tom Vater) Crime Wave Press. Recently he has spent huge amounts of time in Burma and what he saw will soon be revealed in Burmese Light. Please give us a hint or two about what you saw in this beautiful and little known country, Hans?

Yes, it’s time to step up to the questions, while trying to think it’s not the same as facing a firing squad. Here goes:


What is the title of your book? It’s Almost Home: The Asian Search of a Geographic Trollop.

What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book? Thinking she would live the rest of her life in Bangkok, an aging American woman looks for a home in four different cities, in three different countries.

What genre does your book fall under? Travel memoir

Where did the idea come from for the book? Emily Hahn’s China to Me was a big influence.

How long did it take you to write the first draft of the manuscript? Three years to hunt and gather and record, one month to get the first draft down.

Who or what inspired you to write this book? Inspired is a word I really hate. I tell stories that sometimes insist upon becoming a book.

Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency? Neither. I have no agent and it will be published by ThingsAsian Press.

What other works would you compare this book to within your genre? Moby-Dick, War and Peace, How to Win Friends and Influence People, the Bible.

What actors would you choose to play the part of your characters in a
movie rendition? Judi Dench as the crone, James Caan as the Alpha Dude, Joan Chen as Mrs. Nupa

What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest? It’s a fantastic how-NOT-to book.