Tuesday, December 30, 2014

The Deadliest Form of Travel

The latest tragedy involving a Malaysian air carrier dominates the news at year's end and the mystery of why Air Asia's short hop from Indonesia to Singapore ended so terribly is still unsolved. Weather is the most prevalent theory and the most plausible, since it's thunderstorm season in Southeast Asia right now.

This still is a troublesome hypothesis, since flights in that region safely negotiate thunderstorms with regularity; these are not unusual events for airline pilots. What sticks with me are memories of past Air Asia flights and why I no longer use that carrier, even though its fares are often so low that it seems ridiculous not to.

My last journey with Air Asia was from Hong Kong to Penang, a quick flight that takes only several hours. It was so turbulent that the man sitting beside me crossed himself and began to pray, and I have never been so happy to touch Malaysian soil. Other Air Asia flights before that were always significantly more dramatic than I would have liked, although not as consistently bad as my last. "I don't use them anymore," a friend who frequently commuted by air between Bangkok and Ho Chi Min City told me, "I'd rather pay more and have a good flight. Air Asia always ends up frightening me."

"Why didn't the pilot turn back after being denied a change in route?" is a resonant one. Does Air Asia, as a budget carrier, receive routes that are less desirable than other airlines? Are pilots discouraged from aborting a flight? Will anyone ever know?

Still, even Air Asia is a more secure and less dangerous option than the bus journeys that cross Southeast Asia every hour of every day. Fatalities of bus travelers were regularly reported in Penang's daily papers when I lived there, and the Bangkok Post rarely lacks similar stories,

Thailand alone boasts the second-highest rate of traffic deaths in the world, with long-distance buses taking the lead in those fatalities. Recently a tourist van en route to Bangkok's airport crashed into a highway maintenance truck and claimed several lives. Today's news told of severe injuries incurred by tourists in Phuket, when a bus taking them from one beach to another hit a car and "tumbled down a small hill." And truthfully, any of us who have lived in--or visited--Bangkok have faced more danger when taking a motorcycle taxi than on any airplane flight, no matter how turbulent.

But even so, the 7,784 highway deaths in Thailand in 2012 (the most recent statistic that I could find online) dwarfs the 475 deaths in the air worldwide for the same year. What strange mental quirk makes us fear the skill of highly trained pilots and trust in someone who drives blissfully free of any regulation at all?

Sunday, December 28, 2014

Hong Kong to Me


I'm not stealing from Emily Hahn in this title; I'm paying homage. She was the one to first introduce me to Hong Kong in her splendid book, China to Me. When I first went to that city, I walked with Emily through Wanchai, looking for buildings that were of her vintage, loving the ridiculously crowded streets that she would have walked through too.



Then I went to Kowloon, which was a whole other world to Emily. It was to me too. While Hong Kong Island seemed familiar to me, a mixture of Manhattan and San Francisco with Chinese characteristics, Kowloon was like Bangkok on steroids. Everything I loved about Thailand's capital was multiplied here, along with the rampant mall culture which I didn't love at all.


However there were parts of Kowloon that were as chaotic and as fascinatingly ugly as anyplace in Bangkok, and its diversity of population delighted me.


And it was connected to the Mainland. Soon I began to ride the MTR into the New Territories, where different facets of Hong Kong awaited. For me, this is the most interesting part of the former Crown Colony, although some of it made me sad.

This is a residential area developed by the MTR, Lohas Park. It was still being built when I went there. Across the highway were hills with farmhouses and groves of trees. Where I stood, the buildings gave me honest-to-god vertigo when I tried to see their tops.



They formed their own forest that threatened to blot out the sky.

When I traveled on to a completed residential area, Po Lam, the sky was hard to find and pedestrians moved under this landscape. It was a cloudy day but the sky was even darker in this place. Within a few minutes I had to escape in search of light.


And I found it, in an older city that is built around a river. Shatin is my favorite part of Hong Kong because it has been planned for people to enjoy.






And then there are the islands--small communities that retain as much tradition and history as this sentimental traveler could ever wish for.





But as much as I love them, insularity isn't an abstract term. These islands let outsiders come, but they love to see them go.


Unlike Shatin, where people dancing in the riverside often invite me to join the party. Someday I hope I can, for more than an afternoon.

Friday, December 19, 2014

Mix those Blessings


Rites of passage are highway markers. "When I'm six I'll go to school...when I'm thirteen I won't be a child anymore...when I'm twenty-one I can order a cocktail and be served...when I'm thirty I'll have my own house..." Then they begin to lose their luster, slowly but inexorably, and we look for our singularity as they strike--"Forty and thinner than I was at twenty! Fifty and I only have two wrinkles! Sixty and I travel more than I ever dreamed of when I was young."

Then comes the one I can't gloss over--"Sixty-six and my doctor says I have a senile cataract." Oh those medical professionals and their charming terminology!

My eye is now able to see more than I have in a very long time--so much so that I'm already looking forward to the cataract removal in my left eye. But this last month has been difficult for a healthy person--visits to a doctor, eyedrops, being careful of my eye as it heals, to the point that I'm just now resuming my omnipresent eye makeup.

"Can I do this?" has never been something I've asked myself before but I've done it a lot recently. If I ask that often enough, something within me begins to erode. I've always had limitations, based on phobias--water, heights, tight spaces all are barriers to what I have done and will do. But I've had those ever since I can remember. Accepting new limitations is not something I'm willing to do--at least not yet.

However there was a limitation I accepted for years without realizing it, fading eyesight. Now colors are brighter and the outside world holds so many entrancing details when I walk in it. I think again of the May Sarton line, "Lose what I lose to keep what I can keep," and privately alter it to suit my own greedy nature. "Keep what I can keep to mitigate what I lose." And echoing my mother, I tell myself, "It will be all right just as long as I can read."


Sunday, December 7, 2014

No Longer in a Large-Print World

This morning I reduced the type size on my computer screen from 150 to 75 and can see this without strain. One small step. Walks have become more interesting, even on my home turf, because of all the details I can now see. Yesterday I could see leaves on a tree that was two blocks away, and architectural details on the old buildings that make up my neighborhood jump out at me as I walk past. 

I'd begun to dislike walking in downtown Seattle because there was nothing new for me to see. There is now...

So yes I am grateful for the removal of my cataract. But being who I am, I am not wallowing in complete Pollyanna bliss. What I wish I had, in addition to what seems to be a successful surgery, is more information.

Cataract removal is a routine procedure, but not for the person who is going through it for the first time. Up until last week, I hadn't even ever put drops in my eyes. A short tutorial on how to do this--a youtube clip perhaps--would not have gone amiss in my case. The doctor who provides my follow-up care assured me that he is erring on the side of generosity when it comes to the eyedrops--if I miss a few days, it doesn't mean disaster. I suppose if some of the drops spill out of my eye, that is also not the end of the world. So I religiously observe every session of eyedropping every day and hope that regularity will trump ineptitude.

I wish I had been told that my eye would become redder after the first two days post-surgery, that it would water far more than ever before, and that it would puff up at night. Yesterday I woke up in a state of sheer panic because my eye was puffy and I knew it was infected, A call to the doctor's office (closed on the weekend) got me through to an ophthamologist on call. After three key questions she decided this was a normal occurrence--since the seepage from my eye wasn't yellow, my vision was the same as it had been the day before, and my entire eye wasn't red. I wish I had been given those guidelines for assessment with my eyedrops and plastic eyeguard and the ugly sunglasses that I refused to wear. 

I wish I had been told that it is normal for one of my eyedrops to crystallize and that it is all right to remove that dried residue around my eye gently with a towel and warm water. I'd been told not to get water in my eye so avoided it as though I were the devil approached by holy water. 

I know I'm not the only person who wishes that I had more information. Certainly a brochure with FAQs for cataract surgery wouldn't go amiss in doctors' offices--but in the one I go to, the only printed information on hand is a leaflet on different technological breakthroughs in the field of surgery. The most help I've been able to find is online from Britain's NHS.

When I have my other eye done, I won't be wallowing in the ignorance I am now. But for first-time patients faced with cataract surgery, we don't even know what questions to ask. It would be wonderful if doctors realized that and provided information before we go into post-surgery panic.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

And the Scales Fell From My Eyes...

Although my life is often described as minimalist, I relish my creature comforts in a way that only another former Alaskan homestead child could understand. Hot showers may be a standard, unsung feature to some, but to me they are luxuries of the highest order and I never take them for granted, while taking them at least once a day. Without one, I feel like a leper, crying "Unclean! Unclean!" when I venture outside my apartment.

Sponge baths simply aren't an acceptable substitute.

My last shower was on Monday morning; today is Thursday. My hair is unwashed and I feel hideous. To complete this charming picture, I haven't worn my usual eye makeup for four days. Even in the days of my misspent youth, when I dabbled in the counterculture, I still wore eye makeup.

Tomorrow I will be permitted to shower. Today I'm going to have a quick hot bath. I think a turban look is what I'll be going for afterward, swathing my unwashed hair in a colorful scarf. And sunglasses--rose-colored lenses from Bangkok street markets--have proven to be my best friends.

This is the aftermath of cataract removal, along with the inability to read small print at a comfortable distance. For the past decade, I've seen friends resort to reading glasses and felt grateful that I didn't need them. Now--hello, Eyebobs. No, I will not wear them on a little chain around my neck.

This would be much more annoying if I hadn't been given an overriding preoccupation--eyedrops four times a day. For real fun, I can't imagine anything lower on any sort of scale.

And yet colors are brighter, lines are sharper, and street signs are intelligible at a distance. I suppose it's time to stop being a curmudgeonly old harridan and give proper thanks to modern medicine.

Okay. The American Way of Physician's Care has finally justified its existence--but I still think overall it sucks. Maybe I'll feel differently with clean hair but somehow I doubt it.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Visiting A Cluttered Room

When I commit a poem to memory, I inhabit it. I’m a rapid-fire reader and that doesn’t sit well with a poem. To learn it by heart means that I give full measure to every word. I make it part of my breath. I find different tones and moods in which to present it. I become as close to the poet as it is possible to be. I want to call her and ask why did you use this word and not that one? I want to tell him what his words have become in my life.

And once I learn it, if I try to read the next line through my mind’s eye before I’ve finished reciting the one that is emerging at the moment, I lose the whole damn thing. Speed is not my friend when I come to a poem, I’ve discovered, and that is a revelation to someone who believes rapidity means skill.

Some poems that I loved when I was much younger refuse to stay with me. I loved ee cummings’ Uncle Sol who was a born failure until I tried to learn it. It infuriated me; even as a monologue, it didn’t work for me—much less a poem. “That is or to wit,” made me scream “Satirizing bad language doesn’t make a poem.” What delighted me at sixteen no longer works at sixty-six, and why should I be surprised? I couldn’t keep his jumbled syntax and bad story-telling in place where I wanted it and then I realized I simply didn’t want to.

Is that a clue to what we forget? Do undiseased memories deliberately jettison what is no longer resonant, as well as what’s no longer useful? Do they become over-stuffed and make deliberate choices—“lose what I lose to keep what I can keep”?

I tell myself that I’m losing minutia—who cares what my previous telephone number used to be? When I rummage around my memory, I’m really appalled at the unusable information that lives there. The name of my sixth-grade teacher’s adopted son, really? With all of the little details floating around my brain, no wonder a movie title or two eludes total recall. I only wish I could choose where to hit that delete button, what leaves the recycling bin forever.

But even more interesting to me is what chooses to stick around now, and how that happens. Every day I put two to four lines in my head by writing them down and repeating them over and over. Some are as if I’ve always known them; others twist away repeatedly before they become part of a whole, learned poem. I’ve found that if the poet is writing about something I avoid keeping in mind, like death or stability, I’m resistant to having it part of my memory. Eventually it comes, but those lines take work. So does idiosyncratic syntax, which I edit to my satisfaction. “Consumed with that which it was nourished by” took a couple of days to be accepted without change.

On the other hand, W.H. Auden’s poem, The Walking Tour is going down a treat—imagine that.

To Keep What I Can Keep

I wrote this at the end of October. It’s now almost the end of November. In this month’s worth of days, I learned that May Sarton poem and it was painful, tortuous work. Like any muscle, memory resists reuse. Still I wrote it and rewrote it as I learned more lines. I bought a notebook and copied what I had tried to paste into my mind every day. Slowly the words began to stick.

Some of them were easy to assimilate into my life, They spoke to me : “Lose what I lose to keep what I can keep.” Others were resistant: “And treelike, stand unmoved before the change,” and “the strong root still alive under the snow.” I began to understand that although I admire trees, I have never wanted to be like one, stolid, wooden, and passive.

I’ve always approached poetry impressionistically, reading it quickly for the feelings that I found there. Learning this sonnet by heart made me realize how carefully chosen were the words that I fought to remember. Punctuation was intentional, not governed by laws of grammar. As I internalized May Sarton’s poem, I began to understand why many poets abandoned strict form. Would she have chosen her last line if she hadn’t needed it? “Love will endure—if I can let you go” seems hackneyed after “Then fear of time and the uncertain fruit would not distemper the great lucid skies.” And yet would she have chosen skies if not for the need to rhyme with “If I can take the dark with open eyes”, and why “the” uncertain fruit rather than “its”—these questions wouldn’t nag at me if I didn’t find myself wanting to remember words other than those the poet wrote. It was as though I was eager to rewrite the poem in my own way and I had to slap myself away from doing that.

This poem had been given to me by someone else. Learning it was a response to the aptness of Sarton’s words to my facing the losses of old age. When it was finally in my heart and memory, I decided to turn to poems that have echoed within me in fragments over a period of years. Would it be easier to commit these to memory, and how much pleasure would there be in having these poems in their entirety, to pull out whenever I wanted? Would my memory overflow with words and refuse to take in more at a certain point? As it grew stronger, would it begin to once more retain those niggly little details that humiliated me when they refused to come when they were called for in conversations?

Movie titles were the worst offenders; my favorite movies lost their names when I talked about them. At dinner one night recently, I mentioned Pulp Fiction in connection with the song, Stuck in the Middle with You. The man I was speaking was puzzled and on my other side I heard my youngest son mutter “Reservoir Dogs.” A week before he had supplied Infernal Affairs when I blanked out that name in mid-sentence. Alzheimer’s always looms before me as a threat when this happens, but would I be able to learn poems if I were pre-Alzheimer’s? And would learning them stop this small but chagrin-filled dissolution of memory?

So I began this undertaking, prompted by greed and fear and hunger, storing up poetry to have with me anytime I wished, hoping to stave off forgetfulness—or even worse, removal of all memory.


Slackened Memory

I’ve always thought we become more ourselves as we grow old, both good and bad intensifying as the years go on. What we lose always seemed an abstraction, “sans teeth, sans hair, sans everything.” It never occurred to me that loss would occur without my knowledge, until I learned that much of the sight in my right eye had gone.

When an acquaintance sent me a May Sarton poem in response to what I wrote about that knowledge, it hit me hard, in the best of ways, and I decided to learn it by heart.

My memory has always been a tool that is easy for me to use. I knew every word in many of my Little Golden Books before I could read and song lyrics stayed with me without effort. The things I couldn’t keep with me were the extraordinary ones, and they were telling: the Confiteor, which I never completely learned, and the times tables, which I eventually and painfully did. When I took a linguistics course in my twenties, I memorized every page of notes that I’d taken for it, handing the notebook to my husband and telling him, “Stop me if I miss a word.” It was all there, I could see each sentence in my head.

So I suppose my memory was photographic. It was certainly word-centered. I could never remember during the course of a day what clothing my children had put on each morning. “If they disappear and the police ask what me to describe what were they wearing, I’ll be hopeless,” I told a friend once. My husband’s mother chalked this up to a lack of common sense; I knew it was probably more akin to brain damage. Words stayed with me, visual details not so much.

This all turned upside down in Thailand. I couldn’t read the words that surrounded me so I began to concentrate on the shapes of the letters. Bangkok’s buildings were often featureless so I fixed my attention on the small things, what was in their windows, the faces of the vendors who sold things on the nearby sidewalks, the food sold from their carts. It was a different way of mapping the world in a city where although the street signs were bilingual, their names in English were in combinations of letters that I’d never seen before. And those letters could change from block to block on the same street; spelling in English didn’t require consistency in the Thai capitol city.

When I returned to the states, I looked at the world differently. This was of course as much to do with my ripening cataract as it was to my change in attention from words to details, but I didn’t realize that. Only recently did I begin to feel annoyed at blurred signs across the street and my  eyes that oddly grew tired after hours of reading.

And I forgot that the brain is a muscle. If parts are unused, they begin to lose their strength. When I began to memorize the Sarton sonnet, the words were reluctant to stay with me. What was worse was that I couldn’t conjure them up in that part of the brain that had always taken the required photograph.

At last after three days of trying, I had almost half of that sonnet with me, but recalling the words wasn’t easy. I rationalized this silently: poems are difficult because of their precision of language. There’s no room for improvising. This poem was difficult because of its subject, which is loss. The one line that resonated most, “This strange autumn, mellow and acute,” became the hardest for me to remember, even though it aptly describes my life. And I had never before tried to learn something from a computer screen.

That is the rationale that makes most sense to me. Every minute I’m looking at something on a screen; the deluge of information is instant, inexhaustible, and ephemeral. I’ve trained myself to read and forget when I turn to that source. Why worry about storing it in my memory when Google will do it for me? I read somewhere that we’ve outsourced our memories, which I believe is true—for me at least.

Just now I tried to remember Robert Frost’s verse about the end of the world. When I mentally pulled up the first lines, I saw them in my own handwriting because I’d once copied them into a notebook for a class I was teaching in Bangkok. When I remember “Under the spreading chestnut tree, the village smithy stands,” I could see the rough, grainy  paper that these words were printed on, the line drawing of the blacksmith, and the shape of the font that conveyed the poem. When I try to remember the Sarton poem, the visual image is the same as the words I’m typing right now, the manuscripts I’ve edited, the e-mails I’ve received for at least a decade. It’s an image so common that it’s become anonymous.

So I’m turning back to adolescence, when I memorized one hundred lines of Julius Caesar by handwriting them over and over. If I write the words of this sonnet repeatedly on paper, will I remember it? And if I repeat them to myself, or read them, before I fall asleep, will they be there in the morning” Is my memory a slackened muscle or an organ that has dissolved?


The peculiar thing is that this morning when the words didn’t fall into my brain, I typed them onto a screen. For the most part, my fingers remembered them, the way they have remembered phone numbers and ATM codes. Are we developing a new, more tactile form of memory? Before I could read, I learned my alphabet by playing with hard plastic capital letters. Learning Braille has taught people a different form of memory. Maybe in old age, we don’t need to lose. We have to rediscover.

Friday, November 14, 2014

November Jasmine


It's very cold by Seattle standards, in the low 40s and dipping below freezing at night. It's my birthday present, what I wished for, cold, sharp sunlight and clear night skies.

In the tradition of granted wishes, this one came with a mean twist. I've been so drained by a cold that I haven't taken the walks I wanted in this perfect form of winter. I watch the light in an apartment that refuses to be truly warm, even though the heat has been turned to high for well over 24 hours.

But that's the price I pay for the big front window that takes up most of one wall and brings me the light that I'm always greedy for. I wear socks and sweaters indoors and in bed at night, happy to pay that price for this pale winter-blue sky and its gift of long shadows.

This morning I walked past a table to get another cup of coffee and there, incredibly, was a small white jasmine flower on the plant I fitfully care for. It holds a faint fragrance and memories of heat and light in another place. This year I inhale, remember, and feel satisfied to be where I am, right now, in this unfamiliar winter.

Saturday, November 8, 2014

I Read the News Today, Oh Boy...


I have a friend who goes to Bangkok a few times every year and stays for several weeks in the same hotel each time he visits. The hotel has copies of the Bangkok Post, which he reads and then brings back to Seattle for me. Last time the paper was filled with news about the new government; this time it was dominated by news of the entrenched junta's accomplishments, especially those of the Prime Minister, whose talents and wisdom seem to have no bounds.

One of the new plans that will be launched in 2016 is guaranteed to change cities in the north, northeast, and south of Thailand, which are (no doubt coincidentally) all areas of concern to the junta.

Twelve border areas are slated to become "special economic zones," with free trade and customs duty exemptions between neighboring countries, which are expected to "attract foreign investors."

One of the targeted districts, the northern city of Chiang Khong, is protesting this plan, saying that in anticipation Chinese investors are snapping up local real estate and driving up prices. Known as a center for culture and natural beauty, Chiang Khong says this plan puts the area at risk of "losing its identity." Fears that industrial factories will be built with accompanying environmental degradation is a large concern, as well as the effect of rapid population growth. At the same time, job opportunities for local residents and a bolstered economy is a large attraction of this plan.

I've yet to go to Chiang Khong, but I have seen other cities that will also become part of this plan. Nong Khai, Mukdahan, and Nakhon Phanom are also on the agenda to become special economic zones, each one a Mekong river town with charm and its own unique character. I've seen how Mukdahan's riverfront has changed over the past five years in response to increased tourism as buses filled with Asian travelers belch their way into the market areas and disgorge travelers daily. It isn't pretty. Local food spots have been replaced with coffee houses that serve mediocre versions of Starbucks offerings along with microwaved meals. Near the tourist office, women arrive in the morning and set up an arena for selling silk. They stand there without enthusiasm all day long, as buses pull up and then roll away. The walkway that runs along the riverbank is clogged with a double row of stalls for at least a mile, selling fabric, clothing, and souvenirs, with still more of the same in the Indochine Market that runs under the walkway. A pretty little restaurant that served Vietnamese food on the banks of the Mekong is now as crowded and lackluster as a foodcourt at any Bangkok shopping mall.

In February I spent half of my Thai time in Nakhon Phanom, which is one of the most delightful places I've ever been in Thailand. A friend who has lived there much of her life told me that real estate prices were soaring. Right now its riverfront is quiet and open to anyone who chooses to enjoy it. Residents come to the old center of the town on weekends to shop on a "walking street" and an old building near the river is the local Indochine Market which is decidedly smaller than Mukdahan's. It is still a Thai city, not a tourist mecca, but soon it may be an economic monster.

But bread and circuses are still the best way to calm a recalcitrant population, and nobody knows better how to accomplish this than the government in Bangkok. That city has spread almost all the way to Khorat and down into Rayong, with business parks and housing developments and superstores. Where to go next? It looks as though they have that all figured out.

The tourist zones are already well established. Now on to the areas that pose a political threat--fill them up with entrepreneurs, bring in the Chinese money, and let the games begin.

And I watch a country I've loved for two decades face the threat of becoming something I will never want to see again. But at least its population will have the disposable income that will allow everyone to come to Bangkok and buy something from the new Embassy shopping paradise, or at Asiatique along the river, or at whatever new behemoth has destroyed yet another neighborhood in Thailand's primate city.




Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Color


I was born dark to two fair-skinned, pale-eyed people, who went on to have four more fair-skinned, pale-eyed children. My skin had a yellow cast in winter and became as brown as an Alaskan summer could make it when the weather grew warm. My eyes were dark brown and so was my hair.

One of my sisters was so white that she blistered even under Alaska’s pallid sunlight. Another had fair skin, blue eyes, and light brown hair that was tinged with gold. She was silently recognized as the pretty one.

I always told myself that I was proud of looking different from the rest of my family. At first I was certain I was adopted, until at last my mother showed me my birth certificate. She told me how delighted she had been to have a brown-eyed baby after one of her brothers had told her this was genetically impossible, citing the Mendelian theory. Then she told me what my brown-eyed grandmother had said when she first saw me, words that had become a family joke. “Why, she looks just like Santa.” Santa was my parents’ iceman; they still were a fixture in post-war Manhattan.

Already a small snob, I wanted a more exalted resemblance than that, and pored over photos in issues of Life magazine. The only children who looked like me were black and white images of emaciated children in the Subcontinent and I began to hate my hair because I thought it made me look like the Swami Yogananda, a popular mystic of the time.

Every Halloween, my mother costumed me as a gypsy. To people who didn’t know us, I probably appeared to be the adopted Alaska Native child in a white family. After all, the Native kids whom I met in school looked more like me than I did my sisters.

Skin color was a big issue in territorial Alaska and prevailed into statehood. When I became an adult, my mother told me her friends had criticized her for allowing me to become best friends with a Tlingit high school classmate. “Allowed me,” I exploded and she looked at me sadly and said, “I know.”

What she didn’t know was that when we moved to Anchorage, I hung out with a bunch of kids from Nenana and Attu at the pool hall on the corner of Third and C, and made occasional evening forays into the cafes on Fourth Avenue, the ones next to the bars. I was easily accepted there, I fit in with my homestead upbringing and dark coloring. One night a gallant young G.I. insisted on taking me home after we’d had a brief conversation, and my parents told me to stay off Fourth Avenue after dark. But by then I’d become comfortable enough in the pool hall that I’d drop in during the day to warm up on my way home from school. I didn’t stop until one afternoon the manager offered to set me up in my own apartment as soon as I graduated.

When I read about “people of color,” I feel as though that’s where I belong. But I don’t. And yet when I’m in a group of fair-skinned, pale-eyed people, I always feel as though I’m not one of them either.

Humans are pack animals. We herd together and we expect our herd to look like us—but I didn’t look like mine. The closest I ever came to this was when I was living in Thailand, where Bangkok’s relentless sunlight made my skin the same color as that of my Thai friends. Still they denied that—I was farang and farang were fair-skinned so I had fair skin, Not even placing my brown arm beside their own would shake off that false syllogism.

I sometimes wonder if I would have become a writer without the special outsider-observer status that my color gives me. Sometimes I think of learning Spanish fluently and moving to Mexico—but here’s the crux of the matter. Under my olive skin lies invisible privilege, centuries of fair-skinned people and the knowledge that their bloodline has never been thought a lesser one. This is encoded in my DNA. My skin doesn’t prove it but the official record tied to my US passport does.

Even though I love looking as dark as a Thai woman, rarely would I ever choose to change places with one. I’m too attached to my individuality, my sense of privacy, my bubble of personal space, all legacies of white privilege that have been my birthright.

And yet in the stories I grew up reading, Snow White married the prince, while her darker sister Rose Red was stuck with his brother. Rowena, blonde and pink, married Ivanhoe but dark Rebecca was not so lucky. Golden hair, blue eyes, creamy skin all prevailed. Like it or not, that tends to stick with a kid. And like it or not, I will always be an other—not a person of color, not the fair-haired one, but firmly on the dark side. I tell myself what I always have, that is what has made me a rebel, an explorer, an independent woman and I like it that way.




Tuesday, November 4, 2014

This Strange Autumn


I began my morning with a column posted by a much younger friend, about the pleasures of being forty. It was a sweet and peaceful view that made me remember the whirlwind craziness that characterized my own forties, when I began to relive my twenties in another mode.

In another week, I will wake up to a new number. Recently I've been looking at what 66 means. Today, prompted by that young slip of a girl in her forties, I want to look at what 66 is.

My first book came out just as I turned 60, and writing has been a hallmark of this decade--I'm working on my fourth this year (and will be well into the next.) My sixties is a time when I can wake up, make coffee, and start writing, without interruptions or human speech getting in the way.

My sixties are turning out to be a time when I can completely and unreservedly enjoy my children. Adult children are the payoff for the years of toilet training, listening to backtalk, arbitrating sibling squabbles, monitoring homework assignments, and  preparing three meals a day, more or less. At 66, I am unabashedly enjoying being a parent. Going for a beer with people who once kept me awake when they were teething is a profound joy.

I've had the great good luck to travel a lot in my sixties, filling up two passports from the time I was forty-five to sixty-five. My next passport will probably never be completely filled--although who knows? I recently met a redoubtable and charming lady in her late seventies who makes an annual trip to Japan to visit her son. Perhaps in my later years, I'll actually be able to sleep on a plane--that would be bliss, instead of catching up on every movie I've missed in the past year, and being worried that sleep may cause me to miss a serving of bibimbap.

I love the detachment from some longstanding desires that have come with being 66. I don't give a jolly damn if any man ever calls me again (other than the aforementioned offspring), and I've become the kind of woman who can pass a Clinique counter without any trouble at all. I keep my clothes instead of obsessively buying new things and giving the old away--and it's hard to remember my last pair of high-heeled shoes. And I don't diet anymore.

I treasure female friends at 66--and my male friends too. But for honest conversation, you can't do better than sitting with a glass of good wine and a woman whom you trust and like. On the other hand, my male friends provide perspectives I'd never find on my own, It's all good.

Yes, aches and pains are more frequent and more annoying as my body begins to wear out--and I see no more reason to talk about those than I used to discuss the acne that plagued my life well into my middle years. Acne and wrinkles make up one of life's crueler jokes--back aches really can't compare to that.

And there are still things to discover. I carry a camera with me so I can keep what delights and surprises me in the outside world. Cooking is a rediscovered pleasure, and poetry too (reading and learning by heart, not writing, thank goodness). Learning the beauty of the changes in light and heat as the seasons progress and remembering that after Christmas, daylight begins to return--not so long a wait.

At 66, my pace is slower and more attentive. I like it that way, after a life of rushing. I suppose that my drug of choice now would be marijuana, not methedrine--although I still love the speed and heroin rock of the Velvet Underground. Although I would never have believed in the years from 20-50, 66 may be the beginning of the best time of my life. I'm looking forward to finding that it is.

Friday, October 31, 2014

All Hallowed


Masks, costumes, parties, small children receiving candy--it's Halloween and Facebook is laden with pictures of friends and their offspring transformed. Everybody's happy.

I began to listen to music this morning, which I rarely do now. Silence is where words form for me, but for some reason I went to Pandora--and then to my music on the ipad.

And there was an album that I had to buy when I found it on Itunes. It's Thai from 1985, Rewat Buddhinan, Ter. Today is only the second time I've ever played it.

I was reading when a song slapped me into attention, and just as it had the first time, I was pulled back in time, then back to now. But when I returned, I wasn't alone in my living room; someone I will always love was there with me.

Over the past few days, my mother has been on my mind. Today it was someone much younger who is with her in my thoughts. And then I remembered that beneath Halloween, today is All Hallows Eve.

Thank you for coming back, invisible but completely palpable, conjured up through the power of music and memory.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Things that Don't Go Bump in the Night

For the past four days, it’s been hard for me to breathe. I moved through nausea and dizziness; my neck hurt so much that my sleep was broken. I ate ice cream, which is my own private heroin. This morning I stood in the middle of my apartment, looking at what I had found to make my life comfortable: bright, cheap Ikea furniture, Thai fabric, a small collection of books, and a shelf of DVDs and some music. Not much, but I like it that way.

Right now I’m panting a little and my muscles feel slack after days of being clenched and knotted. My life as I live it feels like a gift, one that I won’t lose immediately. A dog spent two minutes or less sniffing my belongings and decided I don’t have bedbugs.

If you have never had them, you don’t know how this feels, but from the moment I saw the notice on my door saying that there would be a building-wide inspection for bedbugs, I felt frightened. No matter that I didn’t have the bites or the tell-tale flecks on my white sheets and pillowcases, my fear was deep, irrational, and overwhelming. It was not, as a gruff friend once said, a matter of “mai pen fucking-rai” or a big tempest in a coffee mug. It is quite simply “the horror.”

My introduction to bedbugs wasn’t a gradual one. I turned on the light in a Malaysian hotel room and found them all over my bed and on the floor. They had been on my body; that’s what made me turn on the light. The bites came later, popping out the next night, after I’d moved out of that room. There were over a hundred of them, and the itching was almost more than I could stand. The marks of the bites stayed with me, leaving dark freckles that still haven’t all faded away, four years afterward.

When I moved back to Seattle, I found the city was in the throes of a bedbug invasion. My landlord gave me a handout on what to do if I discovered I had them, but because they came to me, not in a horde but in a slow increase of population, I was in denial for four months.

During that time, I turned to the internet, read dreadful stories that I assured myself were not what was happening to me, bought lavender oil, peppermint oil, and Boraxo. Still the bites kept coming. When I showed my landlord my left arm, covered in bites, he said, “We’ll get the dog to come in.”

A month later, the bedbugs were gone. So was my bed and all of my bedding; I never felt comfortable in that apartment again. Three months later I moved to the place where I live now. The first thing I did was sprinkle my bedroom floor and my bed with generous helpings of diatomaceous earth. I would have used garlic and crucifixes if I had thought that would keep my home bedbug-free.

I used to buy clothing from Value Village, delighted with the cashmere sweaters I brought home for ten dollars—not anymore. Even from high-end thrift shops, anything I buy goes straight into a dryer on high heat for half an hour. Library books and used books go into my tiny freezer for three days before I read them. When I go to a hotel, the first thing I do is peel away the bedding and look for dark spots on the mattress. And I would never ever buy anything from Craigslist or a rummage sale. When I ride a bus or when I board a plane, I come very close to praying.

Bedbugs come with connotations of filth and negligence, which is one reason we don’t talk about them. A deeper reason is a lack of understanding; people who haven’t had them in their midst have no idea of the pervasive misery they bring. Anyone who has had them never again feels an unexpected touch without alarm as they begin to fall asleep. A whisper of hair, a random brush against a sheet when you don’t expect to feel one, even a twitch of a muscle carries fear. 

Imagine a roomful of mosquitoes that you can’t see and that come to bite you as you sleep, every hour of the night. Eventually you won’t be able to fall asleep. Exhaustion mixed with paranoia is not a state anybody wants to be in, but that’s where bedbugs take you.

In extreme cases, they take your belongings. I’ve read about people who have had to throw away treasured books and expensive electronic equipment. Bedbugs like the dark warmth of computers and television sets. 

As far as beds go, perhaps it’s possible to steam-kill any lurking vermin and bedding can be dried at high heat but I guarantee that bed, that comforter will never allow you a trouble-free sleep again.

And then there’s the mad variety of fear. Bedbugs are the closest we modern folk will ever come to Dracula. They feed on our blood when we’re peacefully unconscious. They come to us in the dark. They have a dreadful power; they can live for months without eating, and few things can kill them. Think about that as part of your life, every night.

Bedbugs carry no disease and only 30% of those people bitten by them have symptoms. The bites are an allergic reaction to the anesthetic saliva that bedbugs release so their victims won’t feel them at work. One man told me that he had no idea he had them until one night he saw one on his bed. I don’t know about you but for me that is undistilled horror.

I’m lucky to live in a place where inspections come annually and in response to cases that crop up during the year. Even more am I lucky that the dog found nothing that will make my life hell. Those of you who have gone through this will know what I mean. The rest of you, count your blessings and be careful.






















Monday, October 27, 2014

Sunlight on Saltwater

As if in answer to my writing yesterday, a woman of 66 wrote in yesterday’s NYT that she saw her life as one that was fulfilled. Do I feel that way?

Fulfilled to me sounds completed and I don’t believe mine is. There’s always more that I want to do. But when I look back at what I have done, it’s not so trifling a life. Two children who are good adults, three books, time spent in four other countries, friends whom I value, and a prevailing love of my work—that’s a good span. If I died this minute, I’d be happy with that.

And still I always want more, the book that will gain a wide readership and recognition, the spot near the ocean that I’ve always longed for, seeing and tasting and hearing experiences I’ve never heard before. I want to learn what I can of other languages and to feel sunlight and snowfall and the mist that hits when I’m on a ferry. I’d love to go to Asia on a container vessel. I want to visit Serbia and Mexico and ride through Mongolia on horseback.

And then comes the impossible desire—I want to talk to my mother.

Ever since she died, I have known that my life is unbuffered. She stood between me and my mortality. Now that she’s gone, I’m the oldest in my family. I’m next.

Our relationship was flawed, critical and often withholding. We were more sisters than we were mother and daughter. Yet she was there, at the other end of a phone line, willing to hear a story or to give feedback, or to chat. When we were together in a room, we often found that we were engrossed in each other’s company. “From the way you were talking, I thought you were with a friend, not your mother,” a woman who saw us in a restaurant once told me.

We always wanted the other’s attention. And in my case at least, I almost always received it.

At first after her death, my mother’s favorite color stabbed me every time I saw clothing that was orange, and passing a shop that sold tea was always a jolt. Now, facing cataract surgery, I want her reassurance and her scoffs at my fear. I want her still to be alive for the most selfish of reasons—as long as she is on the earth, it’s not my turn yet.

And that, more than anything is probably the function of a mother as she and her children grow older. Her presence is a reassurance that they are still protected, in an intangible and completely unrealistic way, but that which is intangible and unreal is magic. When our mothers die, we lose that magic.

Fulfilled still sounds like an epitaph to me; I’m not yet ready for it. But when I apply that word to my mother, I think she would have said yes to it. Even in her dying, she shaped that state to her own code of behavior. Surrounded by books, she chose when to stop eating, drinking, and breathing. Certainly that’s a fulfilled end of life.

When I went to high school briefly in Puerto Rico, an assignment was to memorize one hundred lines of Julius Caesar. Of all those words, only tag ends stay with me, and most resonant is “Seeing that death, a necessary end, will come when it will come.” And when it does, I hope I can be like my mother, gracious, loving, and accepting.

Until then, I want my life, as much of it as I can hold, never completely fulfilled, always hoping for a little bit more.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

What Are You Looking At?

When I sit at my computer and cover my left eye, I can only dimly see the large print on my screen. The title of this post looks like the footprints of baby mice. When I cover my right eye, I can read everything that's written in front of me, including the very small print of the formatting options. I know I lean far to the left but this is ridiculous.

I look back at different rites of passage that marked stages of my life: my first cup of coffee, my first legal drink, my first baby. I've always been eager for that next stage--but not this one. My first cataract.

I know the surgery is blithely routine. I know many people who have had it done, and I know it's become much less irksome over the years. I make jokes about getting a bionic eye, but the truth is I am frightened.

It's not the surgery so much, although I don't have much faith in hospitals or the people who work in them. It's the beginning of physical deterioration that has me feeling scared. I love my life as it is; watching it shrink its borders isn't fun at all.

Although I know rationally that this surgery will expand my world, not contract it, there's a visceral reaction to my cataract that I'm having difficulty with. I can ignore my approaching birthday with its 66th year, but I can't ignore my failing vision and its cause. It's a physical change that is as portentous as losing my first tooth or getting my first bra. But this change is a different kind of growth, through loss; it's making me think of death.

I tell myself I'm not afraid of death, but I sure as hell am afraid of dying. I just read Atul Gawande's book, Being Mortal, and I know I need a lot more courage than I seem to have right now.

An essay in the Atlantic proclaimed a doctor's determination to begin dying at the age of 75, to refuse all medicines and procedures that prolong life when he reached that age. My mother maintained that her life was the way she liked it until she reached 80. One of my uncles said on his 30th birthday that now he was old, and he meant it.

I've already reached an age that many people whom I love didn't achieve. When I was 20, 60 was ancient. It's all relative until physical changes make us realize that no, 70 is not the new 50.

As I find that my body fails, what I ask for is grace, if not courage, to face fear with dignity. And perhaps the ability to be happy standing in place, since I've learned that yes I can run but I sure as hell cannot hide.

And I can look for signposts. Work is where I have gone in the past to make sense of difficult places, and when I think of what I'm working on now, I come up with a woman who slaps me upside the head. She was run over by an 18-wheel truck (or its Thai equivalent) when she was in her mid-30s; her pelvis was crushed and she lost a leg. She lived to be 62 and in those years she wrote scholarly books, got her PhD, raised a child, founded a museum, and went on archaeological expeditions. Oh--and she still rode a motorcycle. When I look at her, I know I'm whining. Thank goodness I'll have many opportunities to look at her and I know I'm lucky.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Losing the Light


As the days shorten here in Seattle, my relocation gene flares into full-blown life again. Light is a minimum daily requirement for me and without it, I begin to wither inside.

I've been looking online at rentals in Tucson, which is appealing not only because of its unflagging daylight, but because it's close to the border. I do love my border escapes and fantasies of going to Mexico through a drug tunnel kept me amused for quite a while.

Then a friend went to San Diego and posted a photo of the ocean there. When I went to Craigslist, the most enticing options were in Playas de Tijuana.
http://sandiego.craigslist.org/csd/apa/4715263371.html

Apparently there is a trolley that runs between Tijuana and San Diego. People commute to work that way. I could use it for book shopping.

Why not bypass that border town option on the US side and head straight for the country that appeals to me?

It's memories of my move to Penang that is making me research this very, very diligently. I began to suffocate in a place that had been so visually appealing to me--even though there was light, heat, salt water, newsprint, and good food. Even though the Thai border was nearby, I felt as though I had to become comfortable in Penang before I left it. That never happened for me. I've never been quite so unhappy.

So I'm looking into this very slowly, deliberately, and carefully. If I do it, I need to get a functional grasp on Spanish. I need to think about personal safety. And I have to realize that although the Craigslist ads are appealing, I'm the kind of woman who's happier living in a local neighborhood near a wet market than in an expat enclave next to a beach.

However as the days grow darker and colder here, it's nice to have a daydream--and I know from experience that those fantasies can come true.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

The Two-faced Nature of Tourism and its Consequences


Anyone who grew up in Alaska is well aware of the antipathy felt by locals toward tourists--they come with their stupid questions and their condescending attitudes. They clog the highways and drive up prices for the summer. They bring their money and their complaints and their disregard for the year-round lives of the residents. Their sense of entitlement is damned near unbearable, as is the knowledge that their dollars give them an experience that few who live in the area will ever be able to afford. When they all leave as winter approaches, it feels as though a very tight girdle has been removed and everybody takes a deep breath.

But what happens in a country where tourists arrive 365 days a year, with the onslaught separated only by high season and low? Where the host culture and those of the visitors clash so severely that the country tries hard to give visitors a watered-down, pre-packaged contact point? Where etiquette is so much a part of tradition that tourists appear barbaric to local eyes?

In Thailand, sometimes the tourists are murdered. Or death comes under clouded circumstances.

This wouldn't be noteworthy if Thailand weren't so insistent that deaths in their country were nobody's business but theirs. And the first order of business is to cover the whole thing up so thoroughly that nobody will think twice about the death. The foreigner who leaps to his death from a top floor in Pattaya is such a timeworn cliche that it's become a bitter little joke. Less amusing and more obfuscated were the deaths of Chiang Mai tourists in one of that city's hotels. There were a number of them in 2010, all at different times and all of them with the same symptoms. Authorities claimed the deaths were from heart disease until two healthy young women died. Then the reasons for their inexplicable and fatal illness ranged from the misuse of recreational drugs to the consumption of bad Japanese seaweed. Foreign medical examiners determined that probable cause of death was from improper use of high-powered insect repellents, intended to kill bedbugs. Thai authorities ignored that implication of manslaughter--tourists don't like to think that death might lurk in their bedroom. And tourism, as ugly as it can be, keeps Thailand afloat.

Social media,as ugly as it can be, is breaking down the institution of cover-ups, as has been evidenced in the murder of two British tourists on the island of Koh Tao. Every facet of the police investigation has been revealed on twitter and facebook, and shown to be inept to the point of being a tragic farce. No arrests were made until most of the foreign journalists had left the island, but amateur whistleblowers were on the scene when two Burmese migrant workers confessed to the crime after five hours of interrogation by the local police.

The attention to this case has been humiliating to the Thai powers that be; even the Prime Minister has rallied to the defense of a dubious end to a bungled investigation. The burden of his remarks is that foreigners just can't understand the intricacies of Thailand. In other words, mind your own business and keep your noses where they belong.

Meanwhile the country's leading forensic expert has decried the methods used in the Koh Tao investigation and the 300-plus- page police report has been rejected by the local court system as being unclear. The two suspects have claimed their confessions were made under torture and human rights lawyers have come to their defense. This case is not a nine-days-wonder, thanks to the attention drawn to it by social media.

In 1998, pre-facebook and twitter, a Canadian girl was raped and murdered on the island of Koh Samet. A laborer working on the island was arrested immediately and was executed for the crime within a week or two of the death. Much was made of the fact that the dead girl had been drinking in the resort bar with friends and before bedtime had gone alone to the bathhouse to take a shower, clad only in a large towel. A charming little warning was handed to female incoming tourists at Don Muang Airport (yes this was the Dark Ages) saying that they had to dress appropriately while in Thailand or bad things would happen to them. The implication of course was those bad things would be their fault, much like the PM's pronouncement in this century that women in Thailand were only safe in bikinis if they were not beautiful.

Except for people who read the English-language Thai newspapers, and the people related to the dead Canadian, this crime went unnoticed. Even in the 20th century, that rush to execution was extraordinary. Now with what has come to light through social media, it seems suspicious--and very pragmatic. A life or two is easily sacrificed to sustain the economic necessity of Thai tourism.

Death to travelers happens in every corner of the world and so do cover-ups of the crimes. It's the blatant nature of cover-ups in Thailand and the lack of accountability that pervades the institutions of authority that is so incredibly horrible. The deaths of the two British travelers may change this state of affairs, just so long as social media keeps its gaze focused on the official proceedings.

Don't stop looking.



Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Pretty Plastic


When I first went to Bangkok, I was a leather snob—no petroleum byproducts for this American woman. I always brought at least two pairs of Easy Spirit heels with me along with sturdy Rockport sandals. My bag was from Coach. I looked at the array of plastic on the feet and over the shoulders of Thai women and felt pity for them. Frank Zappa's immortal lines, "Plastic shoes, plastic hat and you think you know where it's at," invariably came to mind. Then the rains came.

There’s something about wading down a flooded soi barefoot, shoes in hand, and watching dye leach from a handbag in a heavy downpour that would change anybody’s mind about plastic. When I found out that my feet fit into Thai shoes it was the end of leather for me in the Kingdom.

I once lived with a Thai man who was involved in the fashion business. When he was home, he could always be found in front of the TV, eyes on the Fashion Channel and hand rapidly sketching what was coming down the catwalk. As I watched with him, I began to learn that what was in Milan or Paris one week would appear in the cheap sidewalk markets of Bangkok in the next. My mode of shopping flipped—now I bought plastic in Bangkok to wear in the States.

Without exception, my Bangkok purchases were always ahead of the U.S. curve—thanks to those annoying intellectual property laws. One of my treasured memories was visiting a sweet little Seattle boutique where a man from Vietnam retooled vintage clothing for trendy tastes. I was there with a woman whose handbag was leather and expensive while I carried a small piece of plastic purchased for five dollars at a stall from Victory Monument.

Both my friend and I were surprised when the boutique owner demanded “Is your bag sharkskin? Where did you get it?” and he was looking at me. That’s what happens when you carry Bangkok plastic. It never fails.

I’m getting older and I’ve begun to think of having one or two things that I won’t have to replace every fifteen minutes. So on my latest trips to Thailand, I purchased two small, well-made, classic leather bags that will probably outlive me.

When I carry them, nobody notices them. They look like any department store purchase in this part of the world. But when I go out with my large mustard-colored plastic tote, or my little red envelope bag, or my big squishy turquoise hobo, people ask about them—and will right up to the day that they fall to bits.

Thai Plastic—long may it reign.




Friday, September 5, 2014

Other Homes, Other Laundry


When I think of my homes in the world, I define them by my laundry.

In my primary residence, a century-plus-vintage apartment building, laundry is a matter of impulse coupled with necessity. In the basement there are two washers and two dryers. In my bedroom near one of the windows is a long pole for clothes that shouldn't cook in the dryer. The only barrier I have to clean clothing is having enough quarters for the machines, and my bank is only five blocks away. In this home, doing laundry is as easy as brushing my teeth--and I never take it for granted. At one stage in my life, I did my laundry in two plastic tubs, by hand, in my Bangkok bathroom, and occasionally had to gather it from the ground below when storms swept in, blowing my clothes from my balcony. Having a security guard ask me "Is this your skirt?' in a language not my own is not one of the high points in my memory. For me, sharing a laundry with 49 other residents is no problem at all.

In my Hong Kong home, my first order of business is buying a dozen plastic coat hangers, because my miniscule Chungking Mansions domicile never has more than three hanging from pegs in the wall. Every four days, I carry a bag of laundry to a woman on the ground floor; if she receives it in the morning, I can pick it up in the afternoon. And I do my best to get it soon after 2 pm, because if I hurry and put the laundered clothes on hangers, layering them on the four wall pegs, the humidity will work for me and I won't have to pay for expensive ironing. The most difficult part of this enterprise is being sure that I don't lose my laundry ticket, and having my day bifurcated by the afternoon pick-up. I could of course take the local way out and wash my clothes by hand and hang them out the window, but the thought of marinating them in the stagnant Kowloon air that smells like wet mops makes my laundry bill worthwhile. It's around $32 US per month and that's a price I'm willing and able to pay.

In my Bangkok apartment, laundry is a matter of charm and bemusement. Often the building's laundress has as shaky a command of Thai as I do myself, although the Lao lady and I always understand each other and the Myanmar refugee became much more fluent than I as the years passed. What is sometimes an insurmountable gap is our differing concepts of time and urgency. I always spend more money on clothing than I have planned because most of my clothes are being held somewhere in laundry limbo. But when they do come back to me, each garment is on its own hanger, beautifully ironed and presentable, delivered to my door. I usually pay around $38 US at the end of the month, plus the cost of the beer I use for self-medication when I realize that once again I will have to buy more clothes, since god knows when my laundry will reappear.

All of this is still infinitely preferable to having laundry done while on the road. Punctual it always is, but what will return to me is always a matter of conjecture and sometimes consternation. Ironed? Unironed? Wadded into a clean ball? Will it come back before check-out? These are the questions that haunt me in a strange bed at 4 am. Suddenly the varying laundry methods of my three homes across the globe seem comforting and luxurious, making me realize that familiarity breeds content.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Our Seattle Socialist Saint

Seattle has traditionally boasted a small hotbed of radicalism flaming among its solid citizen bourgeoisie. This has  led to an interesting counterbalance of politically correct liberals providing a public face to the rest of the U.S. while Amazon, Microsoft, and Starbucks carry on the time-honored role of the robber barons. Our mayor is in a solid, same-sex, inter-racial marriage, Columbus Day is soon to be renamed Indigenous Peoples Day (which brings up images of white people thronging the malls to shop the Indigenous Peoples Day Sales), and on the city council is a real honest-to-god, card-carrying Socialist, a woman of color to boot.

Don't gasp just yet--there's more. Kshama Sawant is a PhD from Mumbai who emigrated to the U.S. as an academic in economics and a trailing spouse of a Microsoft engineer. She was propelled to her city council seat by her campaign to raise Seattle's minimum wage to a national high of $15 an hour, a dazzling idea that will be phased in over a period of years, by which time $15 will be a poverty-level wage in this Cascadia boomtown.

Nevertheless, despite revealing herself as a woman more than able to cut backroom deals and water down campaign promises, Sawant has achieved international fame in the pages of the Guardian, Forbes, and New York. And this month in the upscale city magazine, Seattle, the grey eminence of local liberals, Knute Berger, has all but canonized her.

"To insist on a $40,000 salary in Seattle is to take a vow of poverty," Berger gushes, going on to marvel that Kshama Sawant will give "some $70,000 per year" from her "tax-payer-funded income" of $117,000 "to her pet causes." Speculating that perhaps Sawant has a trust fund, Berger touchingly confides that the cost of living in the sixth most-expensive city in America (and #41 world-wide) makes living on "$40K per year--even with benefits--a challenge these days."

I buy Seattle perhaps four times a year as a dose of reality therapy, to prove that the working-class city that I fell in love with in the 80's is gone-baby-gone. In the past year alone, rents in the city of Seattle have easily tripled and my $800 a month one-bedroom apartment in Chinatown is on its way to becoming mythical.

I'm lucky. I live in one of the few downtown neighborhoods that still is affordable to people who live on much less than $40K per year. My own income is about half of that and many of my neighbors live on less. Seattle is not where any of us live. None of us can dream of buying the $3,300 liquor cabinet, the $1,400 pendant light, or the amusing maple, leather and glass table mirror that would set us back a mere $245. Hand-drawn wallpaper will never adorn our small apartments nor will we leave our domiciles wearing Italian stretch wool crop trousers in granite ($380, by a local designer from Bellevue).

When I look at the bungalows that were for sale thirty years ago for $20K, all of them built for blue-collar laborers back in the early 1900s, now inhabited by young urban professionals who paid at least several hundred thousand dollars for them, my stomach tightens. Seattle's current workforce lives in studios that are considered reasonable at $1000 a month. Unless they live in Chinatown--but even that bailiwick of economic sanity is under siege, with tracks laid down for "the latest in Seattle mass transit," the First Hill Streetcar. Seattle is famous for installing cute transit options through down-at-the-heel neighborhoods, with spit and celotex condos following close behind.

Our current mayor believes "public employees should be decently paid" and with the city council drawing $117,000 a year per head, I'd say he is meeting his goal. But he isn't fiscally irresponsible--the superintendent of City Light will receive a mere $60,000 raise to his salary of $245,000. It makes one wonder what the mayor's salary is, while knowing damn well that it's stratospherically above the $31,000 dollars that would be made at one of those yet-to-materialize (full-time) minimum wage jobs at $15 an hour.

Sawant's answer to this? Cap city wages at $150,000 a year. My answer to this? I'm counting the years on one hand before I move--where? Everett, Tacoma, and Bremerton are all undergoing massive rent increases. I'm thinking Tucson...


Thursday, August 21, 2014

Talking About My (De)Generation


There are a lot of us on Medicare right now, with more to come. I've been dubious about this blessing from the very onset but was persuaded to sign up for Plan B and then for the insurance company that would administrate this for me. Every month I pay $104 and every month I continue to bask in rude health--but, as friends pointed out, this could change at any time. Prudence demanded that I make that payment and for once in my life, I decided to be prudent.

By mid-September I will have paid $1000 for unused medical benefits, so recently I decided it would be a fine idea to have a checkup done, my first in thirteen years. It was basic to the nth degree, weight, eye chart, breast exam, Pap smear, a couple of immunizations, and cholesterol and colon lab work.

This basic examination would have cost $728--were it not for the Medicare discount, which brought the exam total to $329.49, which was paid by Medicare. What wasn't covered was a vaccine for tetanus, diptheria, and pertussis, which clocked in at $86, to be paid by me. Fortunately the $137 pneumonia vaccine was covered, which I appreciate but find illogical--why one and not the other?

Then there is the lab work. A $95 analysis (brought down to $19.06 by the Medicare discount) was covered. Another, sent to another lab and billed at an undiscounted rate of $140, was not. This brings the total cost of my basic checkup to $226, a mere $103.49 less than my entire (discounted) checkup.

Feeling curious, I went to the website of the hospital I very occasionally went to when I lived in Bangkok. This is what I would receive for $248 at Paolo Memorial
http://paolohealthcare.com/eng/index.php/package-promotion/138-health-check-up-program
It includes a vision exam by an opthamologist, which in this country I have to make a separate visit to obtain.

For $21 more than what I will pay for a lab test and a vaccine here, I would be given a comprehensive exam in Bangkok.

Since my health is exemplary, according to this recent checkup, I'm so tempted to tell Medicare to take me off their stupid Plan B and then put that money aside for an annual air ticket. That $1200 would get me to Bangkok and back--and pay for my physical, perhaps even a spot of dentistry. This is absurd and I resent supporting this idiocy any longer.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Between My Sister and Me: An Examination


Three years ago, I went across the country to visit my sister, in the house she had lived in for a month.It was a visit that had been carefully arranged, both in timing and duration. It was something we had talked about from the time she first bought her house, and it was a trip I looked forward to.

My sister and I have always had that peculiarly not competitive closeness that comes with being eight years apart. By the time she was ten, I had left home. I was married when she turned twelve. Our lives have always been on different schedules, until I turned sixty and she reached fifty-two. When our paths became similar, we lost the magic shield that had protected our relationship and we had a falling out that was bitter, vituperative, prolonged, and painful. When we finally made peace, we agreed that this debacle had made our bond even stronger, that we had learned we valued each other too much to ever again jeopardize what we shared.

There was a silence resonating from my sister in the weeks before I arrived on my visit that I tried to bridge with messages and phone calls. When she finally responded, she assured me that I should not postpone my trip, that she was having some minor difficulties with her husband but “that was part of being married.” She followed this up with an affectionate note, and I set off on the long plane ride from west to east with eagerness and no trepidation at all.

Within three days of my arrival, my sister followed me to the guest room and erupted. She told me that our vicious altercation was something that she had not gotten over and that things I had said during that time had “eviscerated” her. She told me how happy it made her that I now was overweight enough to wear the jeans that she disliked and had tossed aside. She told me how much she hated watching me and my sisters come to my mother’s deathbed when she had been the one with the sole care for a woman we had ignored during her life. She told me that being the one who cared for an aging parent had been a blight on her life, and that I didn’t choose or care to know what that had been for her. She told me that if she wanted, she could say things that would destroy me, a sentiment she had first passed my way five years earlier, when our sisterhood was first under attack.

Then she asked me not to leave. Within an hour she was blithe and perky, and I went to my room with a “headache,” and stayed there for almost 24 hours. I decided that if I left before my scheduled departure, it would probably be the end of our relationship. If I spent the remaining four days of my visit being as pleasant as possible, then left and gave this horrible episode time to cool down, my sister and I could have a chance to salvage what we both seemed to want—an adult friendship within the framework of being sisters.

It didn’t happen. Two days after I came home, my sister put up a sentence on Facebook saying Ben Franklin was right. Nobody but the two of us would know that at the beginning of my visit, her husband had made what I hoped was a joke about visitors and dead fish stinking after three days. I said I “liked” it and she took it down, knowing the point had been taken. A day later, when I told a friend on that same venue that I hoped I never heard another accent from South Carolina, my sister responded with the proclamation that I was a hypocrite and she never wanted to hear from me again. Two days after that I received a card she had written before she disowned me, telling me that she had enjoyed my visit.

Now it was my turn to feel demolished and I have been, as well as confused. It’s taken me this long to sort through what was given to me during my stay in South Carolina. During these months, I’ve written very little and have given myself a lot of kindness, enjoying the summer without stint. Even so, as I write about this dissolution, I gasp for breath and feel a knot tightening in my left shoulder. This hurts.

From things my sister had said, she may well be going through menopause, which means I should take it all with the saltshaker full of saline grains that diatribes coming from that state deserve. That she refers to herself as being fat and boring, without the gifts that she feels her sisters have been given, is ludicrous coming from a woman who writes beautiful, insightful essays and takes lyrical photographs. It also shows a self-loathing that is very, very sad.

The weight that she worked to lose over the year after our mother’s death, she told a friend, was put on in response to the burden of the care that she had shouldered alone. That she put on most of it when Mother was still vital and independent seems to have been forgotten. If it happened because her sisters left her to cope with an aging parent alone, why then it’s our fault. And so are the drooping flaps of flesh that have been left behind by the weight loss, and the fact that my sister moves heavily, as though the hundred pounds are still with her. And so is the inactivity that her fat condemned her to for years—all my fault, and her other sisters’ fault.

I could just as easily excoriate my sister for taking control of my mother’s life when the woman we all loved was still active, able to travel, in possession of a driver’s license. This was not a decision that any of my mother’s daughters took part in. My youngest sister deliberately made herself the sole arbiter of my mother’s fate, and it could be argued, hastened its end by taking away my mother’s independence, bit by bit.

Right up until the very last breath, my sister refused my offers to stay with our mother or my pleas to look into other forms of care. She ran the show. She insisted I visit at the end, even though both my mother and I had agreed we never wanted that, and I went as a gift to her, which she later threw back at me in anger. She doled out the meager bits of my mother’s life after she died with rigid control. She locks away the relationship she had put a stranglehold on for years. And now she blames it all on other people.

I tried very hard to be a support to my youngest sister when my mother began to die, and I’m the one who has been violently and decisively divorced. “It makes me laugh and laugh,” my father used to say about situations that left him feeling shafted. I wish I could say the same, but instead this makes me ache. Once again, I face a death, but this time the person who has left my life is still breathing. I will always miss her, even as I recognize how dangerous she can be.