Friday, December 29, 2006

Happy New Year!

Everyone says this, but this year, I really can’t believe how quickly the time passed. I guess time really does fly when you’re having fun.

There’s been a lot of fun in the past few days—so much that I’ve been neglecting the blog a bit, for which I apologize. We had a really nice holiday in San Francisco. My sister and her boyfriend were around on Christmas Day, so all the kids had a lot of fun together.

For New Year’s Eve we don’t have any big travel plans. We’re going to a party on Grand Avenue in Oakland, which is close enough that we can abandon the car and stumble home if we have too much root beer. I expect a mellow evening, which I think is just about the perfect way to see in a new year.

I hope you have a happy New Year, too, wherever you celebrate it!

Friday, December 22, 2006

Merry Christmas!

And happy last night of Hanukkah as well! Once again, I have failed to get Christmas cards out. I expect to send New Year’s cards again, since that’s a holiday almost everyone can get behind. But I certainly don’t want Christmas to pass without a mention. I hope everyone celebrating Christmas has a very merry one. Let’s hope the New Year brings all of us peace on Earth, an goodwill toward...everybody.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Ceci N’est Pas un Oeuf

See, this is what I love about Asian snacks. (And one of my favorite things about traveling is sampling the local snacks. I think you can learn a lot about a place by tasting what its inhabitants find appetizing.)

I’ve seen gummi-bears before, gummi-worms, gummi-spiders, and gummi-rats, but gummi-something actually edible? You never see this except in Asia, or in places catering to those with Asian tastes. Pipi found these gummi-eggs at a candy shop in Chinatown while shopping for white rabbit candy. They were disconcertingly served to me in this frying pan, which made them look pretty realistic, if a little rubbery and cold.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Not as Much Fun as it Smells

I didn’t promise I wouldn’t whine about other things. Right now I’m having an experience that never used to happen to me when I was working in an office. Yesterday morning they started replacing the roof on the building that is about three feet from my window. You can imagine how nice it smells in my apartment right now. Yesterday I left for a little while—I have a laptop, so theoretically I can work anywhere. But I missed the UPS delivery guy while I was out. I feel pretty badly about that because I promised a neighbor I’d sign for her package while she was at work. (I also apparently missed a package of my own, although I wasn’t expecting one.)

So today I feel like I really have to stick around until he comes. Although I’m getting a little light headed and I feel strange, like maybe I’m going on and on and not making a lot of potatoes. It smells like someone’s burning tires next door. I know I have a history of being a little obsessive about the UPS truck, but today I REALLY want him to come quickly.

Monday, December 18, 2006

Playing Santa

I got to see a new part of San Francisco over the weekend volunteering for a charity group. This group mentors at-risk kids, and during the holidays raises money to provide Christmas gifts for needy families.

We have a friend who works for this organization, and she matched us up with a family that has two kids, a 2-year-old girl and a 4-year-old boy. We did some shopping for them. They asked for cute things, like a set of magnetic building blocks, and a Dora the Explorer figurine. We enjoyed the shopping, and were very relieved we didn’t have to buy Barbie dolls or anything like that.

Friday evening there was a huge wrapping party where volunteers wrapped up and tagged the thousands of gifts that people had donated. The party was at their warehouse in the Dogpatch neighborhood of San Francisco, an up-and-coming area near Bayview/Hunters Point, where most of their clients live. We managed to get ourselves placed at the same wrapping station as the presents we’d purchased, so we got to wrap our own gifts. That made the giving effort feel even more personal, which was nice.

The next morning there was a massive delivery operation. Pipi and I made sure we were on a route that included our family. They turned out to be really sweet, the kind of family it’s easy to feel good about helping. They live in public housing, but it was a relatively nice place. Their building was brand new and still in really good shape. They kept a nice neat home, and I didn’t get a sense of chronic dysfunction. I can imagine them on their feet before too long.

The last family we delivered to was more troubling. They lived in Hayes Valley, which I would characterize as a decent neighborhood, but this was a horrible building. The apartment was dark and filthy, with mildew all over the walls and carpet. There was almost no furniture. Someone was sleeping on the floor in the living room—at noon. It was bleak. We were glad to be helping them, too, of course, but we couldn’t help but worry that maybe a lack of stocking stuffers wasn’t the worst problem this family was dealing with. It was a slightly unsettling glimpse into a set of life experiences very different from my own. It certainly made me grateful for what I’ve got, and I promise not to whine any more about how little my job is paying right now.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Not Strictly Related, But….

…My friend Sarah is in town this week. She and I went to college together, and now she and her husband and new baby live in New Zealand.

This is a picture of their baby, Sage, born August 31, 2006. Isn’t she cute? I’m a very proud “auntie.”

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Comcast Confab

Something is going on across the street.

All week, there has been at least one Comcast cable company van parked in front of the building across the street from me. Sometimes more than one. I almost never see actual employees doing anything but sitting in their trucks eating lunch, but they’ve been there for days. (On Tuesday I did see one guy climb a pole on my side of the street.)

Yesterday there was one van there bright and early. Later, it was joined by another. The crews seemed to know each other, and had a good time having a very high-volume conversation in Spanish that I didn’t catch much of. (Good practice, though. And don’t tell me I shouldn’t have been listening. If the conversation is above 70 decibels, it’s not eavesdropping.)

Later, the second van seemed to have some sort of problem. So a third was called to jump-start number two. That didn’t work, so van number one and three both took off, leaving the battery for dead. Finally a tow truck was called and it took number two away.

This morning, a van was back. (I can’t tell if it’s the same vans every day.) It didn’t get there until about 10am, so the driver had some furious coffee drinking to do to make up for his late start. He’s gone now, though. I bet he’ll be back at lunchtime.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Paradigm Shift

Lately I’ve been rethinking my strategy a lot. Getting a story accepted to an anthology was a nice affirmation, and a suggestion that maybe I have a marketing problem, not a talent deficiency.

My marketing has so far been directed mostly toward newspapers, but looking back on it, I realize that I’m getting a much greater yield from the submissions I send to anthologies and magazines. It’s almost too small of a sample to be statistically significant, but I think it’s worth considering a switch to target magazines in the future. They pay more, and are generally read by a wider (though not necessarily larger) group of people. I think it’s time I stop, or at least cut back on knocking myself out to write finished articles that either disappear into the black hole of editorial indifference or get rejected immediately because the editor can’t afford freelance work anymore.

I still have a Mongolia overview piece that’s on the desk of an editor or two, but once another week or so has gone by with no word, I’m going to start by re-working that and seeing what magazines I can tempt. I’ll let you know how that goes.

Monday, December 11, 2006

Downtown Deco

Here’s another interesting thing I saw recently. Any guesses what this little deco fortress is used for? I wouldn’t have guessed, but a plaque explains it: The building is located at the entrance to a tunnel that leads from Oakland to the island of Alameda. This little building was constructed in the 1930s to hide giant fans that keep fresh air moving through the tunnel. I love it. I don’t know how the other tunnels in town handle the fresh air problem, but this seems like an exceptionally elegant solution.

Friday, December 08, 2006

He’s Back!

My guy is back, the one I wanted to show you a picture of. He was right there on the corner where I last saw him. Maybe they take him in at night. Anyway, I’m very happy to see that he wasn’t recycled.

I’m still not sure if this is supposed to be anyone in particular. The statue is located on the corner of Seventh and Madison Streets--I don’t suppose it’s James Madison, is it? I don’t really think so. I’ll try to see what I can find out about it.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Christmas Time in the City

I remembered something else that made me wish I’d had a camera handy while I was out walking the other day: I passed a little park known to Pipi and me as “The Bunny Park” because it’s full of rabbits. (I think they’re abandoned pets, because they’re all fat and black, not lithe and feral looking. This is sad, but I’ve been seeing them there for years, so the community seems to be thriving. Pipi and I feed them baby carrots a lot.)

There was a police car parked nearby, with lettering all over it saying “K-9 Unit—Danger.” The officer and his fearsome German shepherd were in the park. But they weren’t chasing down a perp (or bunnies). They were playing fetch. It was very cute, and I wish I could have shared the scene with you. I have to start taking a camera with me on my urban hikes.

In the meantime, here’s something else nice in my own neighborhood: It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas on Park Boulevard. (This is not my house--I don’t actually know the people who live there, but they do Christmas in a big way every year.)

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Awkward Question

Well, honestly, I’m a little taken aback--I was raised not to talk too much about things like this, so I’m going to be a little evasive. The answer is: not very much. They aren’t paying me very much at all for the piece. But it’s something. I also get free and reduced-price copies of the book. And exposure. That’s the real reward. It puts my name out there.
I’m thinking of this as a brand-building exercise. And really, who wouldn’t be happy seeing their name appear anywhere near the word “Best?” (Not exactly in the same sentence, but at least in the same 80,000-word tome.)

And it important to remember that Traveler’s Tales is paying me a lot more than all the newspapers that aren’t publishing me, so I’m not complaining.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Take the Champagne out of the Freezer

You may notice I said Traveler’s Tales is “interested” in using my story. I say that because the contract they sent me appears to have a little wiggle room. They asked for my permission to use it, but they haven’t promised that they will do so. So just to warn you, I don’t think publication is set in stone. I’m not popping any corks yet. But I’m still very excited for February.

Monday, December 04, 2006


I got excellent news today from Traveler’s Tales. They are interested in using one of my stories in The Best Women’s Travel Writing 2007, scheduled to be published next spring.

The piece is my “Tale of Two Turkeys” essay. That one has done well for me, having won an essay contest at the travel writing conference that initially inspired me to write the story down. I used the prize--credit with an airline ticket consolidator--to subsidize my trip around the world last summer. Since then I’ve been absolutely shameless about promoting it, sending it to practically every newspaper in the country. (I sent it to the SF Chronicle two Thanksgivings in a row.) I’ve submitted it to a handful of additional essay contests, and at least two anthologies. It’s on my website. I link to it every chance I get. I mention it every chance I get. I’m still writing about it now.

I was starting to feel like a little bit of a one-hit wonder on the state fair circuit, leaning embarrassingly heavily on my one familiar work while wondering why no one wants to hear the new stuff. But it is paying off. I’m learning that in freelance writing, marketing may be as important as talent, and it may not be possible to overplay your hand. I may be making myself cringe, but that seems to be what it takes to get the world to notice.

Thursday, November 30, 2006

Don’t Leave Home Without It

I really wanted to show you something I found today. It was a strange bust made out of some kind of hammered metal that I saw sitting on the sidewalk in front of a scrap metal yard. It was about 4 feet high, sitting on a cart that was about waist high on me, so the whole thing towered over my head. I don’t know whom the statue depicted. He had sunglasses and a pompadour, so I’d say either Elvis or Kim Jong-Il. It wasn’t a technically flawless piece of art, but it made me laugh and definitely brightened up the corner of 5th Street where I found it.

Unfortunately, I made my discovery early this afternoon, and I didn’t have my camera with me on this walk. By the time I got back there with my camera, the street art was gone. Recycled, I assume, although I didn’t actually see it in the scrap yard.

So I’m sorry. You’ll just have to take my word for it that there are weird and wonderful things to be found in this city if you have your eyes open. (And if your timing is lucky.)

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Bracing Myself

I sent out a new story yesterday, which means that in this electronic age, it is already boomeranging back to me, rejected today by two editors. Still, they couldn’t have been nicer. One told me that she’s only accepting freelance articles about the Southeastern United States (I just can’t make Shanghai’s Jewish quarter fit that description), and the other said he now has essentially no freelance budget. So I’m not taking it personally. At least they’re letting me know.

It’s starting to look like newspapers are a freelance dead-end, at least the ones I’ve been submitting to. As an experiment, I’ve tried sending a few articles that have already been through one round of rejections to a few places I hadn’t thought to try before. I’ll let you know how that goes. (With the speed at which rejection travels at sea level, it should only be a few more minutes.)

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

More Odd Snack News

Today I made another Asian café find. There is a hole-in-the-wall place at the corner of 7th and Webster Streets that offers another very Asian treat: hot Coke with lemon.

If that sounds disgusting, well, it probably is. I’m not very interested in it myself; this drink has been a particular favorite of Pipi’s since she had it at a strange restaurant in San Francisco a few months ago. I think it sounds horrible, but then Pipi can barely stand to watch me drink pearl tea, so there you go. It’s just one of those things you have to agree to disagree about when you’re in a relationship.

I still want to go to this new restaurant because they also have condensed milk toast on the menu. That’s the treat the place I went to yesterday said they were out of. I didn’t have my wallet with me today, so I didn’t go in, but I’m sure we’ll be indulging in a high-glucose snack there soon.

Monday, November 27, 2006

Ask and Ye Shall Receive

A few entries ago, I expressed the wish that my downtown Oakland explorations might bring me a new ice cream shop. That hasn’t happened yet, but I did discover something almost as good, and far less common: a new pearl tea joint. A Quickly franchise has opened on 10th street. I had never actually been to a Quickly before, so it was quite an adventure. They offer dozens of varieties of pearl tea, which is one of my guilty pleasures. I know two places on International Boulevard that offer the drink, but I’ve never been really happy with either of them. One has really dry, waxy pearls that are somehow disagreeable, and the other uses so many tea bags to make one cup of tea that I get jumpy just thinking about it.

So I was thrilled to find Quickly. In addition to good tea, they also have a wonderfully strange snack menu. I think the business is originally Taiwanese, and although I don’t specifically remember Quickly from my summer in Taichung, their puzzling snacks seemed familiar. Menu items that I admire but probably won’t be trying any time soon include hot green tea pudding, avocado gelato, fried pop dog, and garlic toast. (What’s so strange about garlic toast? It was on the dessert menu.)

The other thing that reminded me of Taiwan is that the service was awful. Not in any kind of mean-spirited way. Just benignly neglectful in a way you don’t typically encounter in this country. I stood at the counter for several minutes before the woman in back quit her half-hearted flogging of a bag of ice to come to the register. In the middle of my order, she shoed me away to allow two girls who had been there longer than I had to pay. (They had been sitting there so patiently I assumed they were just waiting for their order to come up.) When I ordered condensed milk toast, the lady informed me that they were out of toast. It reminded me of baffling service experiences I’ve had in Asia. I wasn’t in a big hurry, so I found it charming rather than frustrating. It’s good to know I don’t have to go far to get a taste of the East.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Happy Thanksgiving!

Have a very happy Thanksgiving, everyone!

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Getty While the Getty’s Good

Over the weekend, Pipi and I undertook a whirlwind trip to L.A. We got there at lunchtime Saturday, and were home for lunch Sunday. The purpose of the trip was to have an early Thanksgiving dinner with Pipi’s parents, brothers, and cousins, not all of whom could get together Thursday.

In the afternoon, we all went to the Getty Villa in Malibu, which is full of Greek and Roman antiquities. The orientation film they show implies that Getty picked up all this stuff on his travels when he was a college student at Oxford, but it seems the truth is not so simple. I’m glad I got to see this art before it has to go back to Europe.

Actually, now that I think about it, that wouldn’t be the end of the world. The grounds are very impressive. The building isn’t old, but it was constructed to replicate an ancient villa that was destroyed by an eruption of Vesuvius. It’s quite impressive, with an enormous outdoor pool, and herb gardens, and orchards, all at the bottom of a canyon. The placement at the bottom of a ravine is meant to suggest an archeological dig. It’s quite a sight, and I think that years from now I will probably remember the museum itself better than the art in it. (Interestingly, I have this same problem with the new Getty Center. I was there a couple of years ago, and I must have seen an exhibit, but all I remember now is the amazing view of all of Los Angeles.)

Monday, November 20, 2006

Minor Success

My marketing efforts have paid a small dividend: John Flinn at the San Francisco Chronicle finally did notice me and print one of my “Just Back From…” submissions. This is purely a vanity operation, but I don’t mind. The little blurb is so short people might actually read it, and now I can say, technically, that I’ve been published in the Chronicle travel section.

(The travel section is new to me, but I’ve been telling people for years I’ve been published in the Chronicle, having had a “Public eavesdropping” quote printed a while back.)

Friday, November 17, 2006

Travel Anxiety Dream

Pipi and I are flying to L.A. tomorrow morning to see her family, a pretty routine trip we seem to make a couple of times a year. It’s the shortest flight I regularly take, from the Oakland airport, which isn’t very big, to the Burbank airport, which is truly tiny. We won’t even be leaving the state. No one’s taking any time off work. This is really one of the least dramatic trips imaginable.

Yet last night I still managed to have a travel nightmare about it. I dreamed I arrived (alone for some reason) at the check-in counter and discovered that I had forgotten all my luggage. I don’t think I even had a carry-on, or a purse, or even my wallet. I was just standing there empty-handed, wondering how I could have been so absent minded as to leave home without a suitcase.

The funny thing is that once Pipi and I really did leave some baggage behind, but it turned out fine. Before a trip to New Orleans, we got to the Oakland airport parking lot and as we were unloading our bags, we realized we’d left Pipi’s carry-on sitting in our driveway. We live so close to the airport (about 15 minutes) that we were able to return for it--it was still sitting right where we’d left it--and make it back to the airport in time. (Our boarding group was pretty terrible, but we did catch the flight.) So I’m not sure where this luggage anxiety dream comes from.

Does anyone else out there have weird dreams like this before they travel?

Thursday, November 16, 2006

A Valuable Lesson Nevertheless

Sometimes the rewards of exploration are a little more subtle. For instance, today the main discovery on my downtown walk was an adult bookstore I’d never noticed before. Not that I’d been looking for one, but it was on a street (not a bad street, either) I’ve probably traveled by bus a hundred times, so I was a little surprised to notice something new.

I’m not suggesting that I’m happy to know the store is there. But it is nice to be reminded that you can think you know a place pretty well and still be surprised from time to time. (Here’s hoping next week’s walks bring me something more like a new ice cream parlor.)

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

There There

I know what Gertrude Stein said about Oakland, and I’m here to tell you it’s not true. (She was talking about her family home, anyway, not the whole city.) Oakland is certainly there in every way.

I finished the Eastlake area of Oakland, and am now walking the downtown area. This is going to take a while. Not because it’s so big--downtown is actually pretty compact--but because there is a lot to distract me and I didn’t cover too much ground on my first day. When I wasn’t walking slowly to spot art deco details on the buildings (a lot of downtown was built in the 1930s and ’40s), I was poking my head in Asian grocery stores--my first day’s walk took me through a tiny Korea Town.

I also finally went inside a building I’d been meaning to explore for a long time. The former Hotel Oakland is an enormous building--a testament to the time, back in the day, when Oakland was the place to be--that has been converted into senior housing. It’s an imposing building from the outside, and beautiful inside, looking like the early 20th-century hotel it used to be. You’re not really supposed to go in because it’s private now but it seems to be okay to stand in the lobby and gawk at all the cherubs and columns.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006


Another discovery this trip was Duarte's Tavern, in Pescadero. (It’s pronounced DEWarts, which I never would have guessed.) Pescadero is also on the coast, about 7 miles south of San Gregorio, so we (my friend Wendy, her business-school friend Karen, and Karen’s daughter, Rebecca) went there for lunch. It’s a local institution, famous for its ollalieberry pie, which was delicious. I also had a grilled cheese sandwich with cream of green chili soup, which turned out to be exactly what I wanted after a windblown day on the beach. Their artichoke soup is also legendary. A local secret that Karen knew is that you can order a “swirl” of two soups. She did that and what arrived was a bowl of pale artichoke soup with chili soup stirred in like a foam design on a cappuccino. It looked beautiful and although I didn’t taste it, Karen seemed even happier than the rest of us with her meal.

(Speaking of local secrets, I’m pretty sure Duarte's was a Travelocity Local Secret pick one year when I worked there. It seems to have fallen off the current list, but don’t let that dissuade you.)

Monday, November 13, 2006

San Gregorio

San Gregorio turns out to be a very tiny, very cute town reached by a winding, top-down road through the woods from Palo Alto. There isn’t much to the town except for the offbeat San Gregorio General Store. The place doesn’t look like a typical general store; it’s kind of monolithic stucco and looks more like a post office. Or maybe a trading post. But certainly not a general store. Inside, it’s full of weird postcards, funny t-shirts, novelty items (matzo-ball soap, for instance), and lots of candy. There was a bluegrass band playing, and a wood stove, and they did indeed sell sarsaparilla, but it was a cold day and I found that I didn’t really feel like soda. Maybe next time.

There’s also a beach at San Gregorio, fairly deserted and very wild. The surf was rough--I can’t imagine it’s ever swimable. There are cliffs about 40 feet high, all eroded sandstone. The cliffs look like Santa Fe, and the ocean looks like Ireland. It’s a strange juxtaposition, but beautiful. Someone had built a very elaborate driftwood fort that was a good place for imaginary tea and ice cream (my friends and I had a 4-year-old with us). We couldn’t stay all that long because it was too blustery and we got cold. (Maybe I shouldn’t have had that second scoop of virtual mint chip.) It’s a beautiful beach, and I’m glad I know about it.

Friday, November 10, 2006

Last-Minute Travel Plans

My friend Wendy, who lives in Virginia, is in town for business this weekend. She’s based in Palo Alto, and talked me into going down there tonight so that we (“we” includes several other Bay Area friends, I think) can get an early start and explore the town of San Gregorio. I’m embarrassed to say I didn’t know where this town was yesterday. It turns out to be west of Palo Alto. I’m also embarrassed to say I didn’t realize there was much of a west of Palo Alto, but as it turns out, almost the whole Peninsula is west of Palo Alto. San Gregorio appears to be on the beach on the Pacific side of the Peninsula. I have not yet gotten to do much research but I hear from a reliable source that the San Gregorio General Store serves sarsaparilla, so I like it already. More on Monday!

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Survivor Night

For the past six years Thursday night has been “Survivor” night--I’m talking, of course, about the television show, not any actual ordeal I have to endure.

Many people who know how much I love this televised guilty pleasure (not to mention travel), ask me if I’d like to be on the show. And the answer has always been: Oh good Lord, no. For one thing, you don’t really get to see much of the country while you’re competing--just the miserable stretch of sand-flea infested beach they strand you on for six weeks. For another thing, it’s a social game, more about networking and forming alliances than anything else, and if I were any kind of team player, I wouldn’t be sitting here by myself in front of my computer right now. Plus low blood sugar puts me in a really bad mood, so I’m sure one way or another I’d be an early boot.

Lately, though, it occurs to me that this fate might not be so bad. Spending six weeks camping on a beach with strangers sounds horrible, but in reality, only the last few players standing spend that long out there. The eliminated players have to leave the game, but the producers can’t send them home early, or word will get out that they didn’t make the whole 39 days.

The solution is that they keep these people stranded in the countries where the show is filming. The exiles can’t call home, but they mostly get to do what they please until it’s time for everyone to return to the United States. To make up for the fact that they are--technically--prisoners, they arrange all kinds of great tours and distractions for them. And it’s all free--in fact, they get paid a little bit for having been on the show, even if they’re the first one kicked off.

I still don’t really want to be on “Survivor.” But more and more, I want to be off “Survivor.” It would be perfect, really: A few days going hungry and then an all-expenses paid vacation in a foreign country lasting a month or more, if you play your cards right. It’s such a good deal that I almost wonder if I’m not the first person to have thought of it. Looking back on it, some of the early boots in past seasons have been certifiably crazy, but a few of the weirdos who got themselves eliminated early seem to have become almost normal by the time the reunion show airs. Crazy, or crazy like a fox? Only they know.

So stay tuned to CBS Thursdays at 8pm. You never know whom you might see--ever so briefly.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

The Times Are a Changin’

Come gather 'round people
Wherever you roam
And admit that the waters
Around you have grown

And accept it that soon
You'll be drenched to the bone.
If your time to you
Is worth savin'
Then you better start swimmin'
Or you'll sink like a stone
For the times they are a-changin'.

Come writers and critics
Who prophesize with your pen
And keep your eyes wide
The chance won't come again
And don't speak too soon
For the wheel's still in spin
And there's no tellin' who
That it's namin'.

For the loser now
Will be later to win
For the times they are a-changin'.

Come senators, congressmen
Please heed the call
Don't stand in the doorway
Don't block up the hall

For he that gets hurt
Will be he who has stalled
There's a battle outside
And it is ragin'.
It'll soon shake your windows
And rattle your walls
For the times they are a-changin'.

Come mothers and fathers
Throughout the land
And don't criticize
What you can't understand

Your sons and your daughters
Are beyond your command
Your old road is
Rapidly agin'.
Please get out of the new one
If you can't lend your hand
For the times they are a-changin'.

The line it is drawn
The curse it is cast
The slow one now
Will later be fast
As the present now
Will later be past
The order is
Rapidly fadin'.

And the first one now
Will later be last
For the times they are a-changin'.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Election Day Memories

It’s Election Day, and I find myself thinking back to other election days in years past. I remember my very first one, a presidential election that happened just weeks after my 18th birthday. I remember being floored that there were other questions on the ballot—I thought we were voting literally for just the president. The process turned out to be a lot more work than I expected. (My guy didn’t win that time. They say the tallest candidate usually wins. I can’t remember if that’s what happened, but I will concede that the winner did have better eyebrows.)

I particularly remember the presidential election in 1992. I was traveling in China, and attempted to vote by having an absentee ballot sent to me at a Poste Restante in Shanghai. It never got there. When the election happened, I was on a ferryboat sputtering its way extremely slowly up the Yangtze River and didn’t hear the results for days. So that wasn’t a banner year for me, either.

Mostly I remember one election when I was home from college and announced to my parents, as college students will, that I wasn’t voting because none of the candidates was good enough for me. My father—knowing full well that I would cancel out his vote on every elective office, and choose ignorantly on the initiatives—still took the time to explain to me that, “If you don’t choose, you’re letting someone else make the decision for you.” I was very moved by this insight, and have made it a point to educate myself and vote (or at least try) in every election since.

This morning I set out to vote right after the morning rush. It’s a pretty long walk to my polling place. (It’s not far at all as the crow flies, but in reality, you almost can’t get there from here.) I was listening to my ipod on shuffle, and one of the randomly selected songs was a cover of Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are a Changin’.” It was very moving to listen to this song on my way to vote. Lyrics like “As the present now will later be past/The order is rapidly fadin'” gave me hope that maybe things are changing, that maybe we won’t always be living in wartime, that maybe one day all men really will be created (and married) equal, and that someday people won’t feel they have to fight “repulsive and dark” parts of themselves.

At the very least, the pendulum might be swinging in such a way that we get a Trader Joe’s where the Albertson’s on Lakeshore Ave. used to be. Baby steps. And even if I don’t get my way in this election, it’s important to remember, as the song says, “The loser now will be later to win.”

But not if no one votes to make it happen. So please, get out and vote today!

Monday, November 06, 2006

Another Thing I’m Keeping My Eye On

Traveler’s Tales is sponsoring a contest, called the Solas Award contest. Even greater than my obsession with getting published in the Chronicle is my obsession with getting anthologized, and Traveler’s Tales publishes almost nothing but anthologies.

I submitted several essays, including my most successful one, the lost turkey story. The deadline’s right before Thanksgiving, so I’ve got a good feeling about it. As always, I’ll let you know what happens!

Friday, November 03, 2006

Has Anyone Seen the Movie Starstruck?

If you haven’t, I highly recommend it. It is, without exaggeration, the best Australian new-wave musical of 1982.

If you have seen it, you know what I mean when I say I’m about one rejection away from performing a tightrope act above the financial district at lunchtime, if that’s what it takes to get critical attention.

But it hasn’t come to that yet. I have a new ploy. Sort of an obsession, actually. The San Francisco Chronicle has a new feature in the Sunday travel section called “Just Back From.” In it, readers are urged to send in photos of themselves taken on a recent vacation, along with a few very short blurbs about various aspects of the trip, like why you went, what the best things are to do there, and what’s worth splurging on.

I’ve spent a lot of this past week spamming them with photos of myself taken all over Asia. (I hope they don’t notice I’m wearing the same sweatshirt in all of them. They might think I faked all the shots on the same day, although it would have been hard to simulate the visible wear and tear as the trip progressed.)

Anyway, I’ve submitted several, with photos of varying quality. One of the Japanese photos I like a lot. The Russian one, though….it was taken on a boat while I was on deck looking for seals in Lake Baikal. Which is ironic because I’m wearing everything I brought with me and I look a little pinniped-ish myself. I almost hope they don’t pick it but one of them has to be the weakest.

I’ll keep you posted if any of them make the cut. If this doesn’t get the Chronicle editor’s attention, well then I’ll have to start working on my balancing skills.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

Further Estuary Adventures

There was almost no possibility of a walk this morning, but I got one in anyway, barely getting drizzled on between cloudbursts. I started this project in the summer, when it doesn’t rain here, so I’m going to have to get used to rain slowing down my progress.

It didn’t stop me today, though. I took a very surreal walk down by the railroad tracks and discovered some sort of BART rail yard/equipment graveyard. There was a grimy contraption, so covered in what looks like soot that I thought it was a steam engine for a minute. It had lettering on it that I could barely see through the grime that cautioned that the vehicle was some kind of grinding machine—it was on a siding, and I wonder if it’s the thing they roll over the tracks at night to even out the rails and cut down on noise.

There was also a funny little abandoned mini-bus parked there, very faded and dirty. It had a manically happy smiley face painted on it, and it was tricked out to look like a BART car. I think I’ve seen a more modern version at BART promotional events (Pipi used to work for them), but this looked like what might happen if you dropped acid on public transportation. It looked so happy, yet so bleak sitting there in the rain where it looks like someone left it during the Carter administration. That alone made the walk worthwhile.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Not Strictly Related, But….

….People keep asking what Pipi and I did for Halloween. Here we are at a prom-themed party we went to in Oakland the Saturday before Halloween. Big thanks to my hairdresser, Douglas, who just happened to have these two Sgt. Pepper-goes-to-Vegas tuxedo jackets hanging in his closet.

Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Boo Indeed

More rejection, this time from the San Francisco Chronicle. The letter, a quaint throwback to the days when newspaper people communicated by snail mail, was concerning an essay I wrote months ago. I had practically forgotten about it, so the ego smack was almost an out-of-the-blue situation.

Oh, well. It still beats the Black Hole of Editorial Indifference. Happy Halloween, everybody!

Monday, October 30, 2006


A banner day: Not one, but two rejections came in over the weekend. I have to say, though, that Larry Bleiberg at the Dallas Morning News sends out some of the nicest rejection notes around. They’re personalized, encouraging, and he ends by thanking the sender for the manuscript. It’s very classy. I can only imagine how nice he is when he wants what you’ve sent. Here’s hoping I find out someday.

Friday, October 27, 2006

Getting Places with Going Places

I spoke to someone in the Malaysian Airlines Los Angeles office, and she was very nice. She promised to send me a current copy of Going Places magazine, and a back issue with my article, if she could find one lying around.

I’m not holding my breath waiting for the back issue, but I’m not actually too worried about that. I do have a scan of the article that my friend John the photographer sent, so I already have a pretty good clip. I’m more interested in the current issue so I can get an up-to-date masthead with editorial contact information. I’m relieved that they’re generous with their magazines--I was afraid I was going to have to book a flight to Kuala Lumpur to get this information. (Not that that would have been the end of the world.)

Thursday, October 26, 2006

That Darn Internet

Did I say Malaysian Airlines had five American offices? That’s outdated information. They actually only have three now, and the nearest one is now in Los Angeles. This is getting to be a bit more challenging.

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Going Places to find Going Places

Usually when an article gets published, the editor will eventually send you a copy or two. But I have just given up on waiting for a clip of an article that should have been published this past summer in Going Places, Malaysian Airlines’ in-flight magazine. (They’ve had a change of management, so a delay is understandable.) Tomorrow, I’m setting out on a search for my own copy of the magazine. Malaysian Airlines only has five offices in the United States, but luckily for me, one of them is in San Francisco. I’ll let you know how my quest goes.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

2 Brm, Hdwd Flrs, Easy Walk to Freeway

Today I took a walk near the Oakland Estuary and discovered two interesting things. The first is the intersection of 8th Avenue and 8th Street, which some eccentric part of me found appealing. Eight is a very auspicious number in Chinese culture, and not surprisingly, the blocks right around there did seem to be heavily Asian.

I also discovered why late at night or early in the morning, when there is little local noise in my neighborhood, I sometimes think I can hear BART trains. And regular trains. And vehicles that sound like trucks even though 18-wheelers are prohibited on 580, the freeway nearest my apartment. It’s because I really can hear all these things.

In most of San Francisco, and along a lot of its Berkeley and Oakland length, BART runs underground. I knew it popped up between Lake Merritt and the Coliseum, but I didn’t realize it did so so close to where I live. Or maybe it’s more accurate to say that I didn’t realize I lived so close to the place where it comes above ground. But now that I’ve walked there, I understand that it isn’t so far. It just seemed that way because it’s a couple of neighborhoods away. Ditto the freight train tracks, and an elevated section of truck-heavy Highway 880. I knew they were there, of course, I just always thought of these things as being too far away to be audible.

It’s the middle of the day right now, and I can’t hear the freeway at all. All that traffic hiss must be blending into white noise. But I just realized that right now, I can hear a train whistle. That’s pretty cool, and makes me like my neighborhood even more.

Monday, October 23, 2006

Feeling Better, Thanks

I still miss my co-workers, but after a long weekend I am happy to report that as for working, that I don’t miss so much.

Friday, October 20, 2006

Ghost of Careers Past

Last night I went out with some people I used to work with at Travelocity. Drinking beer with my former editorial mates, I realized something: I miss having coworkers.

Of course, if all we ever did at the office was drink beer, I would still be there. Socializing with people is a lot different from playing office politics with them. But I realized it’s been long enough that I’m starting to get misty-eyed about 9-to-5 life, and workplace drama, and endless meetings, and all those things I spent a lot of time and energy trying to get away from. It’s an interesting turn of events, and I hope I snap out of it over the weekend.

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Like the Orkneys, but Not That Manic

Someone asked me what the least fun airline magazine is. I’m afraid I’m going to have to say Lufthansa’s. They’ve tried admirably for a bilingual publication, with the copy split into two sections on each page, one in German, and the other in English. Unfortunately, the English sounds a little clunky, sort of like ABBA lyrics. (Ironically, SAS magazine is written in very colloquial, fluent English.) And their features are all on places like an island north of Germany called (and I must stress that I’m not making this up) Sylt. I like albatrosses as much as the next travel writer, but I don’t think I’ll be heading to the frozen German north any time soon.

(After that critique, I probably also won’t be writing for Lufthansa Magazin any time soon, either. Sorry! I did like the article about Frieda Kahlo’s Mexico City.)

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Really, It’s Embarrassing

My camera batteries were out of juice yesterday so I couldn’t show you my magazine pile, but here it is. I don’t know how I let it get so far out of hand. I think they are multiplying. Perhaps I should separate them.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Did You Know….

….That Alexander Hamilton grew up on St. Croix? Who knew the guy was so much fun?

This is the best tidbit I’ve gleaned yet from the United Airlines in-flight magazine I picked up this past summer and am only now getting to. I have an embarrassing stack of magazines (and books, but that’s a different story) towering over, and, increasingly, under my bedside table. I really thought that when I no longer had a full-time job, I would have no trouble getting to these things, but somehow it doesn’t work that way. So I’m trying to get through at least one magazine a day to get rid of this fire-hazard pile.

By go through, I don’t mean just reading. Part of what’s taking so long is I’m trying to figure out what the freelance opportunities are for each, and what the guidelines are for each section. This takes longer than I expected. Reading the magazines is fun, but thinking about the tone, length, voice, tense, and reason for inclusion in the magazine is taking a while. So far my favorite in-flight is Delta’s. It’s largely staff-written, which is unusual in the magazine world, but I get the impression they’re assigning themselves articles on whatever strikes their fancy. Few of the pieces have obvious tie-ins to the airline. Usually there is some connection—that little boutique they’re featuring is in a city served by the airline, or the starlet they’ve interviewed is in one of the movies they’re showing onboard that month. But not with Delta. Most of the articles are just general interest pieces. Yesterday I read articles about a strange man who founded the first newspaper in America, and something about attempts through the years to reform American spelling. Fun stuff. The next time I have a random idea I’d like to write about but can’t think what magazine it fits with, I’ll try pitching it to them.

Monday, October 16, 2006

Imagine What the Phone Book is Like

Recently Pipi and I watched the U.S. Women’s national soccer team play Iceland. It was an interesting game for a couple of reasons. For one thing, I half expected to see 11 women running around wearing swan costumes like Bjork. That didn’t happen. What was interesting about what the Icelandic women were wearing, though, is that every player had a name on her jersey ending in “dottir.” That’s just the way it’s done in Iceland, where everyone has a last name based on his or her father’s first name. I’d be Nicole Dondottir, and if I had a brother, his last name would be Donson.

Another thing that was interesting is that one of the commentators mentioned during a lull that Iceland has about 300,000 inhabitants--meaning, according to her, that the number of women playing soccer in the entire country is about equal to the number of American women playing soccer in Southern California.

You’re probably thinking the game was a blowout. I know I expected it to be, especially after hearing that statistic about the talent pool. Surprisingly the score wasn’t very lopsided. USA did win, but only by one goal, 2-1. Partly that can be explained by the phenomenal Icelandic goalie. But barely beating such a small country doesn’t bode well for the Women’s World Cup in 2007, which Pipi and I plan to visit China in order to watch in person.

(What, you didn’t think I’d gone off topic, did you?)

Friday, October 13, 2006

More Days in the Life of a Crazy Cat Lady

Many years ago, long before his Daily Show fame, I saw Jon Stewart perform a stand-up comedy routine on TV. I remember that it started out as a funny account of his taking a cranky indoor cat to the vet for the first time. Slightly predictable hilarity ensued. What really raised the routine into the realm of the brilliant, the realm of things you remember 10 years later, was his musing at the end of the routine. He said, “Now here’s the thing. That trip to the vet was the only time my cat has ever left the apartment. But he sees me leave every day. Does he think that’s where I go?”

I thought of Jon Stewart’s homebody cat when I took my guys in earlier this week. My cats are slightly more worldly than Stewart’s, having both been born in San Francisco (we got them both at the SFSPCA), and later relocated across the Bay. Teacake lived with me in Berkeley for about a year, and Tommy went to a kitty B&B in Albany, CA once when we were on vacation. But that’s it. They’ve both only been to a few cities in their lives.

So it was in that spirit that in returning from the vet, I decided to take them on a little road trip. Leaving the vet’s office, you can turn either left or right, and either way, it’s about the same distance home. Usually, I turn left, back the way I came, because that feels like the most direct route. But this time, I went around the loop the other way, because I realized that the right-hand way cuts through a corner of the town of Piedmont, and I wanted to add another place to their life lists.

Because travel is, after all, about broadening your horizons. (The cats may disagree, but they don’t have a blog, so we’ll never know.)

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

No One Goes There Anymore, It’s Too Crowded

No sooner had I declared the kitty beds passé, so 2005, when the little guys proved me wrong. It seems the beds are back on the hot list. The cats were each in one when I woke up this morning, and they’ve been there on and off all day. So much for my kitty fashion sense.

Monday, October 09, 2006

The Glamorous Life

Sometimes I take epic journeys across continents. Sometimes I pretend to be famous. Sometimes I get published in well-respected periodicals. And sometimes I deal with vermin infestations. This is my life now.

Because Pipi is gainfully employed, it now usually falls to me to take care of the more humdrum chores around the house, the kinds of things that used to take up valuable weekend time; the kinds of things each of us used to spend more energy getting the other to do than it would have taken to just do it.

One of those things is taking the pets to the vet. So this morning, I took Teacake, our nervous but generally low-maintenance fluffy cat, to see Dr. Wright for a checkup. She said he seemed to be in good health, but that he did have fleas.

I was surprised both because the poor little guy never let on, and also because our cats never go outside. But apparently it’s not unheard of for indoor cats to get fleas in neighborhoods with lots of stray cats or raccoons. I wouldn’t say we have a lot of stray cats, but we do have one, as well as a friendly outdoor cat that I like to pet a lot. And I have seen raccoons around. (I don’t really pet them, though.)

The fleas also could have come from a groomer, and as much as I like him, the nice man we take Tommy to, with the enormous dog named Oso (“bear,” in Spanish) and a pointy-faced beast he swears is a wolf, is a prime suspect. (Alfonso also insists he has a pet bobcat--named Bob--but we’ve never seen it and suspect that something either got lost in translation or, possibly, made up entirely.)

In the end, it doesn’t really matter where the fleas came from. The important thing is that they have to go. And that’s what I did today, instead of starting my Shanghai article, re-pitching my Mongolia article to magazines, or plowing through the pile of travel journals I’ve been meaning to read and take notes on. I de-flead our apartment.

Getting rid of the fleas is very easy--you just have to apply a few drops of flea killer to the back of the cats’ necks. (Both cats, since it’s virtually impossible that Teacake has fleas and Tommy doesn’t.) The medicine gets into the cat’s bloodstream through the skin and somehow makes the cat toxic to fleas without hurting the cat. Petty quickly, all the fleas in the house die.

The harder part is vacuuming your carpets to make sure you’ve got all the unhatched eggs. The really hard part is doing the same to all the places the cats sleep. If you’re a cat owner, you know how hard it is to inventory all their sleeping places. It’s like making a list of all the places Earnest Hemmingway liked to drink. It’s easier to keep track of the spots that don’t qualify.

The couch had to be vacuumed, along with the ottoman and the comfy chair. The cats snooze on our bed a lot, so all the sheets and comforters had to be washed, and even the bed skirt had to go in the laundry because they leave so much fur on it on the way to their under-the-bed bunker. I think I probably even ought to dry clean the curtains next to the kitty condo, because they hang so closely they have fur all over them. Where there’s fur, I have to assume there are probably fleas.

Ironically, their own kitty beds were probably fine, because their little fleecy pads seem to have fallen out of favor lately, but I threw them in the washer just to be safe. Once in a blue moon Tommy does sleep where he’s supposed to.

So that was my life today--a long boring stint in a veterinary waiting room followed by a frenzy of Hoovering and laundering.

It makes me wonder how I ever found time to hold down a job.

Friday, October 06, 2006

More Sidewalk Sightings

Speaking of records, I beat my previous record for sidewalk date stamps: Today in the Haddon Hill neighborhood, I saw one dated 1911.

Oh, and I found a penny. It was a good walk.

(1981. Thanks for asking!)

Thursday, October 05, 2006

Faster Than the Speed of Light

We have a new rejection record, folks. Yesterday I emailed a service piece on the Great Wall of China to a number of editors, including one in a large, windy midwestern city. I got a response from this kind, speed-reading editor that same day at 2:32pm.

What kills me is that according to his email reply, he got my original email at 4:27pm—meaning he rejected it before he received it.

I know, I know, it’s just a time zone quirk. But adjusting for the time difference, I can see that my article actually got rejected five minutes after I sent it. That’s efficiency.

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Codeshare Overshare

My flight home from JFK to SFO was one of the oddest codeshares I’ve ever been a part of: Delta, Royal Air Maroc, Korean Air, and Czech Airlines.

I didn’t sense a strong Moroccan presence. There were quite a few passengers that I’m assuming were Korean. I had fun guessing which passengers were San Franciscans and which were New Yorkers. (The compulsively chatty couple who shared with me every detail of their trip to Greece and the ensuing lost-luggage saga: probably Californians. And the pushy Woody Allen look-alike who somehow shoved his way in front of me at the ticket counter? I’m blaming him on New York.)

Most interesting were the crowd of women with over-processed hair and their menfolk, all wearing black leather jackets and standing around drinking beer out of plastic cups. I would have guessed they were Russian, but they must have been the Czech contingent. I guess the Russian influence in Eastern Europe shouldn’t be underestimated.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Freudian Slip of the Fingers

In my last post, when I was typing the term “East Coast,” it came out of my fingers as “Eat Coast.” That turns out to be not so far from the truth, actually. Eating always seems to be the main thing I do there.

Monday, October 02, 2006

Foliage Files

A lot of people have been asking me if there was any fall color on the East Coast. As it turns out, there was a little—and it seemed like there was more every day. (There probably was.)

I was way too early for the peak of foliage, which usually takes place around Columbus Day weekend, but there were a few good trees, and a lot of trees with a few good branches. Here’s an aerial photo—it’s actually of southern Connecticut, taken from the air between Hartford and JFK on my way home. But it gives you an idea of the suggestion of color that was going on in Northampton.

Thursday, September 28, 2006

I Can’t Believe I Ate the Whole Thing

Last night for my father’s birthday, we went to a fantastic restaurant in the Berkshires, Wheatleigh. It’s the same place we went for my mother’s 60th, as well. We’ll forgive the lack of creativity because it’s so good. This time we had a tasting menu, where, over the course of several hours, the kitchen attempted to kill us with, I think, six different courses. It started modestly, with a small mushroom grilled in butter, and ended with a half a peach served with sweetened ricotta cheese. In between there was grilled black bass, gnocchi, monster shrimp, and aged beef served with the most decadent mashed potatoes I’ve ever had—I hate to think how much cream, butter, and cheese went into them but the dish was barely recognizable as potato. It tasted and felt more like melted brie.

Don’t even start me on the wine. All I can say about that is that we hired a driver, because my father, at least, had the foresight to understand what happens when you have even just a little snort of a different wine with six or seven courses.

The last time I went, I remember thinking that the serving sizes were pleasantly modest—I left full, but not bursting. This time, even though all the plates seemed quite small, they mounted up to the point that everyone at the table passed up the optional cheese course. And this morning, another unprecedented thing happened: To the best of my knowledge, all the Clausings skipped breakfast. And we love breakfast. I personally eat as many breakfasts as I can every day, because it’s never too late or too early for waffles. But not today. I had some coffee, a lot of water, and a tiny bit of bread just to cushion the coffee blow. There was no possibility of a real meal until lunchtime, and even then, I didn’t want much.

In a few more hours, we’ll have to prepare ourselves to have dinner again. Don’t worry; we’re Clausings. We’ll be ready.

(For the curious, the people in the front row of the photo are my sister, my father, and a family friend named David. Back row: my Mom, and family friend Duane.)

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Must Be in the Front Row

On my flight to the east coast, I was lucky enough to be in first class for only the second time in my life that I can remember. (Actually, luck had little to do with it—my father used a lot of Delta miles to fly me home for his own birthday—thanks, Dad!)

It was great—just like when I was little. For one thing, the service is ridiculously good. My sister and I were once on a trip where the flight attendant happened to mention that the flight had “non-stop service” to wherever we were going. We knew what that meant, but we cracked ourselves up imagining that the phrase meant that the flight attendants would be waiting on us hand and foot to the point of exhaustion, stuffing us full of peanuts and Seven-Up every second of the flight.

This was kind of like that. My flight attendant knew my name, and was constantly coming by with the snack basket and offering refills on my coffee (which came in big coffeehouse cups, not those depressing six-ounce Styrofoam things that make you feel like you’re waiting to pick your car up at the shop). Breakfast was huge, and pretty good (frittata and a bagel). And the room! That’s another way I felt like a child again. My feet touched the floor, but my knees didn’t hit the seat in front of me, and more significantly, my thighs didn’t touch the armrests. It was like being tiny again, right down to the sugar buzz.

I only have one small disappointment. Normally, of course, I travel cattle class, and that almost always means that as I board the plane, I trudge past the swells in first class, already seated and sipping their sunrise screwdrivers. And I always sneak a peak, a little bit out of longing, but mostly because I’m checking to see if anyone famous is on the plane. Am I the only one who does this? I wouldn’t have thought so, but I didn’t get so much as a single look from anyone who filed past.

I guess I have to admit that it’s possible I don’t look remotely like a rock star. And it may be that famous people don’t usually entertain themselves on board aircraft by making themselves sick on soda pop and trying to catch the eye of every passenger on the plane. I’ll have to remember that next time. (And in the meantime, I’m going to buy a really big pair of sunglasses and a floppy hat to cultivate that conspicuously inconspicuous look.)

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Gel Is So 80s Anyway

I had a flight from SFO to Hartford today at 7am on the first day of a new liquid/gel policy, and I was worried that this would cause security chaos. But in fact, the line moved right along. I think probably everybody checked toiletry bags just to be safe—I know I did.

I did learn something interesting at security today: I knew that I would be allowed to bring up to three ounces of liquid or gel in my carry-on. But I checked the bag that had my shampoo in it, because I carry shampoo in a small plastic container I bought at the drugstore. I had assumed that anything carried on board had to be in its original packaging. But that’s not the case at all. You can carry any sketchy, hand-labeled, opaque bottle of anything on board. It just can’t be more than three ounces of suspicious-looking liquid. And it has to be carried in a clear zip-lock bag. Throw it in an old plastic grocery bag, and you’re looking at hours of interrogation by the TSA. But if you remember the baggie, you’re good to go, because no terrorist would ever think of that.

In other news, I’ve been thinking for a while that the restrictions on carry-on luggage would make it easier to find space for roller bags. But I couldn’t tell you if that’s true or not, because I’ve checked my roller bag the last two times I flew. I’m guessing the compartments are pretty empty—but I couldn’t say for sure, because I haven’t been looking in them.

And I can’t tell you how odd it feels to be walking around an airport with only a small knapsack. I’m used to towing a wheelie bag everywhere with me. It’s not that I’m paranoid about losing my luggage—in my experience, it always comes back eventually. And I don’t begrudge the extra 10 minutes spent at the baggage carrousel. I’m self-employed—my time is just frankly not that valuable. I think I’m just kind of a turtle, and I really like carrying everything with me. I’ll be happy when/if they lift the gel restrictions and I can go back to my bag-lady ways.

(Although come to think of it, the rules may be saving me from myself, since I do have a well-documented habit of leaving my belongings all over the world.)

Monday, September 25, 2006

Not Strictly Related, But….

….Someone at the gym this morning told me there are only 90 days until Christmas. Can this be true? I’m afraid to do the math.

Friday, September 22, 2006

Ladies Who Lunch

One of the perks of being self-employed is getting to go out to lunch in the middle of the day. (I can only afford the places in the bargain bites section of the paper, but at least I’ve got the time.)

Today my friend Marcia (an underemployed substitute teacher) and I went to the Tamale Queen in the Fruitvale district of Oakland. Maria Martinez may well be the queen of tamales—hers are definitely the best I’ve ever had. Today it was pork—tender, smoky, slightly oily, with a nice moist corn wrapper. For dessert we had tres leches cake, and spent several minutes deciding what the three milks might be—condensed milk is definitely one, but the other two are a sweet mystery.

Thursday, September 21, 2006

Where the Sidewalk Begins

On my walks through Oakland, I’ve been noticing something a lot: It seems that whenever a local contractor pours a new sidewalk, he or she will stamp the company name and the year in the wet cement.

This tradition has survived into the new millennium--I saw a 2001 date on my walk through Haddon Hill today. I also coincidentally saw the oldest date I’ve noticed yet: 1917.

It’s pretty cool (if you’re as uncool as I am, anyway) to think of all the people who have walked across that piece of sidewalk since 1917. I like to think of all the rainstorms it has been through, and all the earthquakes, roller-skate abuse, and chewing-gum incidents it has survived, dating back to the First World War.

I set out on this Oakland walking project thinking it would be the architecture and general neighborhood vibe I would find most interesting. But more and more I find myself looking out for these date stamps in the street. I’ll let you know if I find any older than this one.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Did You Know….

….That there are only three Japantowns in the United States? And that they’re all in California? There’s one in Los Angles, one in San Jose, and one in San Francisco. (Vancouver has the only other Japantown in North America.)

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Play it Again, Cui Jian

When I travel in a new city, I often like to set some sort of shopping task for myself. It’s usually not important that I find the thing; looking for it just gives me some kind of framework for wandering the town.

In Beijing and Shanghai, though, there really was something I wanted: Years ago, a friend gave me two cassettes by a Chinese singer named Cui Jian. He was China’s first bona-fide rock star. Just as the Beatles proved that rock ’n’ roll wasn’t exclusively American, Cui Jian proved that it’s not even necessarily Western. His music is a really interesting mix of traditional rock (he apparently loves Bruce Springsteen and the Rolling Stones) and traditional Chinese instrumentation.

I enjoy the tapes, but I’m trying to upgrade all my cassettes to CDs. This turned out to be harder than I expected, and I’m not sure why. Maybe his original albums, from the late 80s, are out of print. This seems unlikely, though, given how popular he was back in the day. Possibly, his older music is too politically incorrect. He did get in trouble with the authorities around the time of the Tiananmen student protests. His music isn’t overtly political, but his lyrics (I’m told—I can’t understand much) are metaphorically about rebellion and make leaders nervous, without their being able to put their finger on a specifically offending verse.

Whatever the reason, I stopped in practically every CD shop I could find in Beijing and Shanghai, slightly annoying my traveling companions. I couldn’t find either album anywhere, though. I finally settled on a newer album that had Cui Jian’s two most famous 80s songs tacked on. It was terrible. I hated the new stuff—it sounded like an ill-advised foray into rap backed with Chinese opera instruments. And one of the older tracks was corrupted, and wouldn’t play at all.

Just today, though, I found a message-board posting that mentioned a Chinese Web site called I went to it, and as luck would have it, they have one of the two albums I was looking for.

I don’t regret the time I spent looking for the CD in China, but it’s good to know that sometimes these things can be purchased without even leaving my desk.

Thanks for being patient, John and Pipi!

Friday, September 15, 2006

The Analog Tourist

Actually, I take that back. There is one time I was happy to have a film camera. It was in Cuba a few years ago. (Yes, it was a legal trip. Please stop tapping my phone.)

The hotel we stayed in was ridiculously nice—far more luxurious than what Pipi and I usually stay in. I had brought a flashlight, and my own soap and shampoo, thinking this poor benighted country couldn’t possibly provide toiletries and 24-hour-a-day electricity. I also packed a tiny portable radio, because baseball playoffs were on, and I wondered if I might be able to catch a signal out of Miami to see how the Red Sox were doing. The hotel turned out to have ESPN and high-speed Internet. That was humbling.

One other thing surprised us about the hotel. We’d all read that electrical sockets in Cuba were just like ours. As it turned out, though, this particular hotel was a Dutch/Cuban joint venture that tended to attract a mostly European clientele, and they had European style sockets. As a result, everyone with digital cameras spent a lot of time at the front desk trying to borrow the few available adaptors the staff kept on hand. On day three, one guy on the trip cannibalized my flashlight batteries to run his camera on. It was a good time to be analog.

Thursday, September 14, 2006

For the Sake of Sake

I bought a digital camera for two reasons: I was sick of paying to develop bad pictures, and I wanted that little preview screen so that I could tell right away if a photo was bad.

I got my wish with the first part—it is indeed easy to avoid sending bad photos to the printer. The second part, though, didn’t work out quite as well as I planned. Lots of photos that looked fine on the tiny screen turned out to be blurry when enlarged to 4x6, or someone had their eyes closed, or was making a face. But I often wouldn’t notice until it was too late to take another, so I’d be stuck with it.

There is one great thing, though, about a digital camera that I didn’t anticipate. Now that I have one, I have to take many fewer notes when I travel.

If I don’t feel like writing down a whole history of a temple I’m visiting, I don’t have to. I just take a picture of the plaque out front. If I can’t read the characters on a street sign on a boulevard in Beijing, I don’t have to transcribe it. I can just take a picture and look up how to pronounce it later.

When I was in Japan, visiting John’s partner’s family, we were served a sake I really liked. That’s a rare thing—most sakes either taste like gasoline to me, or else they’re cloyingly sweet. I knew there had to be a happy medium somewhere, and in Odawara, I found it. I liked it so much I wanted it for myself.

I could have written down the name, and gone to a wine shop and bought a bottle, but then I would have had to lug it across all of Asia and part of Europe. So instead I took a picture of the bottle, so that I’d have a record of the name with no chance of transcription error on my part.

I had a scary moment when I uploaded the photos to my computer the next day, in another town: The shot turned out so blurry that only two big characters on the label were legible.

Just this week, though, I emailed a copy of the photo to a sake store in San Francisco, True Sake. A very helpful person emailed back that he recognized the label, blur and all, and told me that they can get it for me. It turns out to be a brand called Masumi Cho-Karakuchi Ki-ippon Junmai Ginjo. Please don’t laugh at me if you recognize this as a lowbrow brand (though I doubt Daisuke’s family would have served it if it were.) I don’t know much about sake. I just know what I like.

And I know that I’m never going anywhere without my digital camera again.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Dates Firmed Up

I have my reservations now. I’m leaving out of SFO on the morning of Sep. 26, and returning the evening of Sep. 29. Sep 26, incidentally, turns out to be the day of my father’s last flight—he’s a pilot and will hit the FAA mandatory retirement age the next day.

The one thing I know we have planned is a retirement party at a restaurant called Wheatleigh. It’s a swanky place near Tanglewood in Lennox, MA that my Mom recently had a big birthday at. It had just about the best beef I’d ever eaten. I’ve only had beef once since then, in fact, and that was at a wedding, so you can imagine it wasn’t the same. I need to dispel the ghost of that wedding steak with more of that good Berkshire beef pronto.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Anything Funny Happen Today?

Pipi used to have an acquaintance with a preschool-aged daughter. The mother told us once that she figured out pretty quickly that the question, “How was school today?” seldom got much of a response. Somehow she realized that a much better question to ask is, “Did anything funny happen today?”

Sometimes Pipi and I greet each other with this question when she gets home from work. And if she asks today, I’ll be able to say “yes.”

This morning I was on one of my Oakland urban hikes. I went down East Twelfth Street as far as First Avenue. It was a good walk—I discovered that an Asian supermarket that burned down about a year ago has reopened in a temporary location, so that was good to know.

That’s not the funny part, though. The funny part is that on the way there, some cops pulled up next to me and asked me for directions.

That’s a funny enough scenario—police officers lost in their own jurisdiction. But as anyone who knows me realizes, the really funny part is that they picked the absolute worst person on Earth to ask directions of. Seriously, for an explorer, I have no sense of direction. My father has written a book on navigation, but I can’t find my way out of a paper bag with a compass.

The story does end happily, though. They were looking for the Scottish Rite Temple, and I actually did have a pretty good idea where it was. It helped that they were already quite close, and it’s a big building.

Almost the funniest part is imagining why they needed to find the Scottish Rite Temple in the first place. Did a ritual go bad? Was someone playing caber in the house? Was there a haggis incident? I’m definitely picking up an Oakland Tribune tomorrow to find out.

And the next time I call the police, I’m definitely keeping Mapquest open while I’m talking to the dispatcher.

Monday, September 11, 2006

One Cingular Sensation

My cell phone was useless when I was in Japan, and I assumed it would be useless across much of Asia. I almost didn’t bring it on my trip at all, but I had this idea that it might work in Russia, so I took it along for emergencies.

Imagine my delight when I flipped it on in Shanghai and found it worked perfectly. It even knew the local time. When I was waiting at the airport to meet Pipi’s flight, I was able to leave her a message assuring her I’d be there.

I experimented with phone cards for calling home, but they’re expensive and the concept is hard to pantomime in a store. Eventually Pipi got Skype on her computer, and this seemed to solve the problem completely. She loaded up $10 worth of credit on her account, and in several weeks of calling my cell phone regularly, she didn’t even burn through that. Problem solved, or so it seemed.

Imagine my surprise when I opened my first Cingular bill when I got home and discovered an astronomical charge. I’m not going to say how much it was, but let me put it this way: I’ve seen used cars sell for less. And they sort of ran, even.

The moral is: Skype is a great thing. But for the love of Pete, don’t use it to call a cell phone internationally unless you understand your plan’s international roaming charges perfectly--that includes inbound calls as well as calls you make.

Friday, September 08, 2006

Urban Hiking

I forgot to mention a close-to-home travel project I’m working on. Recently I read an article about people who walk every street in their city. It was mostly about people walking San Francisco, which at 49 square miles, is achievable within an average lifetime. (Actually, it only takes a few months, if you’re really dedicated.)

So I’m doing Oakland now. Realistically, I probably won’t ever walk all the streets—I think I read that there are about 800 miles of paved road within the city. Some of them are war zones. Worse, some of them are really hilly. Also, I don’t’ walk very fast and I only have a few hours a week to devote to the project—I usually only walk two days a week.

Nevertheless, I am making some real progress. I don’t know how many miles I’ve covered so far. Thirty would be a rough estimate. Maybe more. For those of you who know Oakland, I’ve covered a lot of Eastlake: most of the streets between MacArthur and International Boulevards on the (roughly) north and south, and First through Fourteenth Avenues on the east and west.

It’s been interesting for me to explore a place I thought I knew pretty well. I’ve discovered that within walking distance of my apartment, there are several antiques stores I didn’t know about, a bubble-tea place I can get to in about 15 minutes, and lots of architecture I’d never noticed. I’ve realized that “walking distance” from my place includes a much wider area than I ever knew. It’s fun, it’s educational—it’s travel, in a way.

I don’t have a scanner, but I’ll try to find a way to track my progress online for you. Stay tuned.

Thursday, September 07, 2006

Ten Must-See Hilltowns for Fall

People often ask me where I’m going next, hoping I’ll say someplace exotic. But in fact, for the last few weeks, I haven’t had anything up my sleeve at all. But now I do have a trip planned, or at least penciled in: I’m going back to Northampton at the end of the month for my father’s birthday/retirement party.

I don’t know the exact dates yet; my homework for tonight is to look at flights into Harford that week. I’ll keep you posted. (So to speak.)

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Writer’s Rite of Passage

I’ve heard of this happening to travel writers, but this is the first time it’s happened to me: After sending off a 2000-word article on Mongolia, suitable for the cover of the San Francisco Chronicle (I’m determined to make that guy publish me), I pick up my Sunday paper. And what’s the main teaser on the front page? An article on Mongolia. Written by someone else.

This article wasn’t the cover article, it was much shorter, and covered a different angle. Mine was an Ulan Batar overview, whereas his was about the trans-Mongolian train line, with a little bit about U.B. attractions. Still, I doubt the Chronicle travel editor is going to run more than one article a year about Mongolia in any case. So I’m disappointed.

I’m trying to look on the bright side, though: At least I know now that Mongolia isn’t a completely off-the-wall topic. Maybe someone else will publish it. And I now have a good woe-is-me story for my next writers’ networking event.

It’s a milestone of sorts.

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Rejection at the Speed of Light

The Cowboy Junkies have a wonderful song (“Sun Comes up, It’s Tuesday Morning”) about waking up in the morning and hearing the telephone ring. The singer doesn’t answer it, though, because, as she says, “Everybody knows that good news always sleeps till noon.”

And that may be true. All I know is that rejection sure seems to be up and at ‘em early these days.

It used to be that newspaper editors liked submissions via snail mail. It would take days for my article to get to their office, days or weeks for the editor to actually open the envelope, and the rejection, if one ever came, could easily come months later. (I once got a manuscript sent back to me nine months after I’d sent it to a certain San Francisco-based publication. Hint: not the Examiner.)

Now more and more editors are accepting e-mail submissions, which turns out to be a double-edged sword. The good thing about that is that I save tons of money on stamps, envelopes, and ink cartridges.

The bad thing is that the rejection is almost instantaneous. Overnight, in some cases. For example, I spammed a Mongolia overview article to 17 papers two weeks ago. The Kansas City Star gently but firmly rejected it the next morning. The Chicago tribune dinged it within a week. One submission bounced back (did the Atlanta paper get rid of their travel section?), and one of my emails drew an immediate auto response saying the editor was out on leave and that all her email was being deleted in her absence. It’s….what’s the opposite of instant gratification? When there’s no delay between an action and getting slapped upside the head for it? Do we have a word for this in our language?

We will soon.

Friday, July 28, 2006

Taking the “Dull” out of Dulles

Yesterday morning I was waiting at SFO for a flight to Hartford, CT, when I had a strange feeling I was going to run into my friend Jeremy. It was fleeting, and probably more wishful thinking than anything else, since I hadn’t seen him in a few months. I was probably only thinking of him since I was heading to Massachusetts, which happens to be where both of us grew up. “That’s silly,” I told myself, “Why would he be headed to Hartford when his family lives near Boston? And besides, he always takes US Airways red-eyes. He wouldn’t be in the United gate area, especially at this time of day.”

I quickly got distracted by something shiny and forgot about it. But later, I was roaming the hallways of Dulles, wondering how to kill a three-and-a-half-hour layover and fuming that the women’s restroom near my gate was out of order. (How does a whole room break? This doesn’t make sense.) I was also wondering what the chances are of running into my friend Wendy, who lives in Richmond (and who I happened to know was traveling that day), or maybe my grandparents, who live just outside of Washington, D.C.

I never did see any of them, but as I was stomping around angrily looking for a working bathroom, I was snapped out of my funk by someone calling my name. Oddly enough, it turned out to be Jeremy. He was also just passing through, and having anger issues of his own, having to do with a grossly delayed flight.

So we had a good old time amusing ourselves at the airport, gossiping about old co-workers and cursing United, for, I guess, not being able to control the weather better and not personally checking the plumbing at every airport they serve. It’s a small world.

Well, at least mine is.

Friday, July 07, 2006

Home Again

I’ve traveled 18,890 miles, covering all 360 degrees of longitude (and about 30 degrees of latitude). I’ve been through four countries, three of them new to me. I’ve traveled by plane, train, car, boat, bus, subway, rickshaw, bike, funicular, and cable car. I’ve worn out one shirt, a pair of pants, a watchband, a pair of sunglasses, and two socks (sadly not a matched pair). I lost four pounds. I gained 13,571 frequent-flyer miles. I slept in five different people’s homes. I slept in a nomad tent. I spent seven nights on a train. I learned how to say, “I’m sorry” in four different languages. I went 10 days without seeing a fully dark night sky. I went 36 hours without my luggage.

And now I’m home.

I felt ready to come home at the end of the trip, but that didn’t prevent me from some pretty intense culture shock. I woke up every day for a week not knowing where I was—that’s the longest that effect has ever lasted for me. It’s so good to be home, though. I’ve been drinking water right out of the tap whether I’m thirsty or not—just because I can. After weeks of train compartments and budget hotel rooms, my apartment seems huge, even though it isn’t really. I can’t believe that I can take a cold drink out of the refrigerator any time I want. I can put ice in my drink. I can eat anything I want without peeling it or boiling it. I can get a good cup of coffee anywhere. I know where everything is. I can tell what the weather is going to do.

The best part is that it’s just so good to see everyone. My cats have been like living earmuffs at night, sleeping one on either side of my head as if they’re afraid to let me out of their sight. Come to think of it, Pipi’s been acting similarly, which is sweet. We’ve been having a little bit of a honeymoon, which is nice and just might make up for six weeks of loneliness. (What’s worse than being lonely but not alone? Not much.) I’m finally starting to get caught up on emails and phone calls, although I know a lot of you out there are still wondering if I’m lost in Mongolia or something. I’ll be back in touch, I promise.

Because I’m not going anywhere any time soon.

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Still More Photo Galleries

I’ve finally gotten to upload the last of the photos. Here are some images from Moscow and St. Petersburg, as well as links to the older photo galleries: Irkutsk, Lake Baikal, Train photos, Mongolia, Beijing, Shanghai, and three Japan galleries: Enoshima, Kamakura day 2, and Kamakura day 1.

Friday, June 30, 2006

A Setback

Almost six weeks into the trip, on the eve of John’s heading by himself to France for some R&R, we’ve had our first attitude-changing bummer of a travel experience: John got his camera stolen on the St. Petersburg metro. It was plucked right out of his knapsack while he was busy concentrating on protecting his wallet in a suddenly crowded car. He had been backing up photos on my computer, so he didn’t lose a lot of work, but he did lose a lot of camera. This was no point-and-shoot.

So if you’re in a St. Petersburg street market any time soon, and you see a nice Cannon camera for sale with a big lens (and photos already on the memory card), and the price seems too good to be true….it is.

This is More Like It

Everyone likes St. Petersburg a lot more than Moscow. The people seem friendlier, the subway is less confusing, the hotel is nicer, and, most of all, it’s the first truly beautiful city I’ve seen on my trip. Irkutsk had quirky charm, and Moscow had quite a few beautiful buildings, but in St. Petersburg, virtually every downtown building is a handsome, several-hundred-year-old stone structure. My Mom and I have been walking the soles off our shoes trying to see it all. (John regards himself as on vacation for this leg, although he has been working on a market photo project. Mostly, though, I think he knows he can’t keep up with my Mom when she has a few cups of Nescafe and goes into full sightseeing mode. And frankly, neither can I. I lost four pounds on the trip, and I’m pretty sure I last saw them in St. Petersburg.)

Writing any articles about the city is going to be difficult because it’s going to be hard for me to find the new angle—I’ve never been here before, so I’m still hung up on seeing the obvious sights. I don’t have any secret St. Petersburg-type article ideas, because I’ve been enjoying all the well-known tourist spots so much. The Hermitage was great. (I’ve never seen a museum that leaves the windows open on a hot day, though.) Saints Peter and Paul Cathedral was beautiful, and full of crowds welcoming the Romanovs home. Peterhof was great, once we got past the idea that we needed to tour the main hall, which is shielded from visitors by a baffling and frustrating array of Russian-only entry times and hidden ticket fees. The Nevsky Prospect shopping area was interesting (Shopping? In Russia? Believe it.), full of coffee houses, ice cream shops, and art deco architecture. The churches are beautiful. It’s all beautiful. It’s just not much of a secret. St. Petersburg is one of those dream cities for a visitor, where a guidebook really can lead you to the good stuff. It’s just a little bit of a nightmare for a travel writer when a city wears its beauty on its sleeve like that.

See St. Petersburg!

Saturday, June 17, 2006

In Moscow

Nobody got off on the right foot in Moscow. Not John and I, who spent our first hour in the city stuck in rush hour traffic with a driver who had no idea where our hotel was. And definitely not my mother, who got bumped off her Aeroflot flight in New York and got here a day late.

And don't even get me started with the metro, which is truly the most beautiful system I've ever seen, with art in almost every downtown station, but which is also the most confusing system imaginable.

Yesterday, though, was a great day and I've forgiven the city for the rough start. My Mom and I went to a flea market and spent the morning shopping for trinkets. It was bright and sunny and even the Russians seemed to be in a better mood.

After lunch, the three of us went on an organized tour of the metro system. It was explained to me that Stalin knew he coudn't afford to give every Russian family a car, so he decided to give the people the next best thing: A really beautiful subway system. And it is. There's art everywhere. Some stations are full of absurd propoganda poster-style sculptures showing hale and hearty Russian youth defending the Soviet motherland with all their fuzzy-cheeked might. Some have chandeliers and ornate paintings, and look a little like Versailles. One has stained glass everywhere. My favorite one is kind of art deco, with stainless-steel arches and mosaics telling the (dubious) history of Russian aviation.

After dinner, my mom and I went to Red Square with the idea of watching the lights that illuminate St. Basil's cathedral come on. But because it never really gets completely dark this far north in June, we had to settle for watching the sun set until 10:30, when we got tired and had to go home.

Tonight we all take a night train to St. Petersburg, where we'll be for the longest day of the year. I'm actually looking forward to this city more than I was Moscow because it's supposed to be so beautiful. (Smaller, and less overwhelming, too.) It's also the last stop on my trip, which is both sad and exciting.

Moscow photos here!

Friday, June 16, 2006

Photo galleries are back!

I had trouble uploading photos to Flickr in China, and fell hopelessly behind. I'm starting to catch up. For now, here are some photos of Shanghai that you probably haven't seen yet. And here are some Mongolia photos. I'll try to add some more destinations as soon as I can.

Train Play List

Somebody wanted to know what was on my train play list. Here it is. I know it’s not every train song, not even every great train song. But it does include every great train song that I have- on my ipod.

  • Casey Jones, by the Grateful Dead.
  • Mystery Train, by Elvis Presley.
  • One After 909, by the Beatles.
  • Driver 8, by R.E.M. I’m not actually positive that this is a train song--it’s so hard to tell with R.E.M. But since most train songs are really about something else, I think it works in any case.
  • Crazy Train, by the Waifs.
  • Draw Your Brakes, by an artist named Scotty, off the Harder They Come soundtrack.
  • Folsom Prison Blues, by Johnny Cash.
  • Midnight Train to Georgia, by the Indigo Girls. (I know, I know, but I don’t actually own the Gladys Knight version.)
  • Peace Train, by 10,000 Maniacs. Here’s an example where I do own the original, but I think the record will show that Natalie Merchant was on the right side of history, so I went with her version.
  • Gospel Train, by the Jones Brothers (off a Sun Records collection).
  • She Caught the Train, by UB40.
  • Tied to the Tracks, by Treat Her Right.

Here are my train photos!

Thursday, June 15, 2006

Day in the Life….

This morning, John said, “Well, just one more night on the train.” “Yeah,” I found myself saying, “I hope I have enough time for everything.”

I wasn’t entirely joking. Before I left, a lot of people asked me how in the world I planned to survive a weeklong train trip. The idea that I might actually enjoy it rarely entered into the conversation. And it’s true that if you’re the kind of person who likes to do things, this trip may not be for you. If, however, you are the kind of person who believes that doing nothing is something, then you might enjoy yourself as much as I am.

Even I was a little intimidated by a three-day stretch of completely unstructured time, so I set a few tasks for myself. I’ve always found that on long plane or train rides, having an assignment keeps me focused not on how much time I have to fill up, but on how little time is left. Plus, minor things take a long time on a train, and that helps pass the time, too.

Yesterday morning, for example, I woke up around 8am. If that sounds late, well, it is for me, but I’m a little jet-lagged from the constant one-hour time changes, and it’s hard for me to fall asleep when it’s still broad daylight--which it is until about 11pm here. Also, the train operates on Moscow time, so by that reckoning, I was up at 6am. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

Washing up, making coffee, and cleaning the caffeine paraphernalia take a long time in a place where you can’t brush your teeth with the tap water and anything washed in the bathroom sink has to be sterilized with boiling water from the samovar to be safe.

After breakfast, it’s reading time. I start by reading a guidebook that obsessively details every cemetery, airfield, factory, czar assassination site, and church you will pass each day, as well as the exact kilometer marker you’ll find these things near. When I think of the work this author put into his train trip, I feel like I’m on a Mexican booze cruise. Next I work on my magazines. I’ve brought a stack with me, one stratum of the tower of back issues I have at home. I don’t get very far before I decide that my time would be better spent reading what my two guidebooks have to say about Moscow. I have somehow neglected to read a word about the city, and I’ll be there in 48 hours, so time is running out.

I guess I should point out here that if you’re not a reader, this maybe isn’t such a great trip either. But I have seen all-day card games in the dining car, so there definitely are non-literary options.

It’s not until late morning that I get a start on my first project for the day: snapping a picture of the train going around a curve in the track. This too is harder than it sounds. Few train windows open, and the ones that do are locked and unlocked at arbitrary times according to the whims of the attendants. Then you have to wait for the perfect stretch of arcing rail, ideally not one with a belching factory in the background and definitely not one with a freight train in the way.

I’m making pretty good time, and I think I may get a jump on my afternoon projects, but the train pulls into Krasnoyarsk and that means a flurry of activity. I need to take a picture of the station water tower (for some reason, these are made with beautiful brickwork) buy piroshkies for lunch from babushkas on the platform, and start my train car census project. It’s too much for one short stop, so I decide to concentrate on finding lunch. There are no babushkas about, so I curse my luck and mourn the 20 minutes of my life that I can never have back.

John and I go to the dining car and chat with a new friend, a woman from Philadelphia named Yael. We all left from Beijing on the same day and have been running into each other all over central Asia ever since. We probably only talk an hour, but when you think about it, it can take a lifetime to really get to know someone, and seen in that light, an hour-long conversation isn’t just passing the time; it’s really more of a frantic race against the clock.

Towards the end of the meal, we are joined by two other travelers we first met in Irkutsk, Spanish students named Paulo and Josep. They inform us that they’ve just woken up. I don’t have the heart to tell them what I’m thinking: With this late of a start, they must be hopelessly behind schedule.

After lunch, I work on my second project for the day: a thorough census of the cars on the train. This involves not just counting the cars, but also recording how many cars are devoted to each class of service. Like everything, this too has hidden pitfalls. I plan to walk through each car noting the configuration, but eastbound, I encounter an inexplicably locked door, and westbound, I come to a third-class car, full of impoverished Russians lounging on three tiers of bunks with no doors between the carriages. I feel disrespectful parading through with my notebook, and so finishing this project will have to wait until I come up with a better survey method. I decide to peek into each car’s windows from the outside at the next stop. Much better.

I make a train play list on my ipod.

I listen to my play list.

I get a mug full of boiling water from the samovar at the end of the car.

I watch it cool to drinking temperature.

I watch Siberia go by, changing slowly from impassibly thick birch forest to swampy flat land with lots of sky and isolated clusters of trees.

Later in the afternoon, against my better judgment, I start a new task: Determining what the story is with the TV above our compartment door. When we first got on the train, a History Channel documentary about the building of the trans-Siberian railroad was playing. Then the station went blue and I’ve been too busy for TV since then. This afternoon, though, I drive John to distraction constantly jumping up and cycling through the channels. (He has no appreciation for the fact that this is something I’m doing purely for the sake of journalistic thoroughness, and that it is in fact, a fairly humiliating exercise for me because there’s no remote and I’m barely tall enough to reach the channel buttons.) My verdict: Beyond the occasional snowy soccer game broadcast in Russian, and wavery Ukrainian soap operas, there’s nothing on.

In the evening the train stops again and I complete my census by discretely poking my head into each car. I feel a great pang of accomplishment knowing my day’s work is nearly done.

John and I have platform snacks for dinner, because who’s got time for the dining car twice a day? I finish reading a two-month-old Via magazine, and then, although it’s not dark yet, it’s time for bed.

I still haven’t finished my Moscow reading. I never got a good water tower picture. I haven’t even begun my next project, which is finding and figuring out how to use the mythical shower said to exist on this train. Luckily, I’ve got one more full day on the train.

And lucky for me, it stays light very late here.

Here are my train photos!