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.