Friday, December 21, 2007

Funny How Things Work Out

Yesterday I thought I had two problems. And I did. But it turned out I also had some solutions, and didn’t even know it.

My first problem was that I was out of milk, so I had to find something other than my usual cereal and coffee for breakfast. The other was that I had a toy I’d meant to donate to a charity for Christmas, but it was getting late in the season, and many charity drives were already closed.

As a solution to my first problem, the breakfast issue, I decided to go to a little place I’d noticed near the West Oakland BART station called The Lord Provides Village Café. That looked like a good place to get coffee and maybe something to eat.

Everything about the place turned out to be surprising.

The coffee, astoundingly, was free. (Donuts: 75 cents.) But what really surprised me was that the business turned out to be more of an urban general store than a cafe. There are coolers of soda and juice, but no booze. There is frozen food, and a microwave to heat it up with. You can buy clothes, toys, and household goods, too. It’s not quite a coffee house, but it certainly isn’t a liquor store, either.

I saw the low, sometimes non-existent prices, and saw how local kids seemed to be encouraged to hang out. I heard the Christmas carols being played, and noted the store’s religious name, and it occurred to me that the face was more or less a community center with a charitable bent. Suddenly I realized I might have a solution to not just my dairy dilemma, but my toy troubles, too.

I asked the man working at the counter if they were having a toy drive. He said it was over, but that he would ask Hendrick if they needed any more.

Hendrick DeBoer, the owner, turned out to be a warm, wiry little guy with a beard and glasses who, oddly enough, looks just like Santa Claus on Atkins. He said he could always use toys. So I bought some milk and went home and got mine. Hendrick was happy to have it, and wished me a very merry Christmas.

Then I took my walk, finishing off the last few blocks of West Oakland on the near side of Interstate 880 that I hadn’t yet explored. I’m a little sad to be done with the neighborhood. It felt like saying goodbye, and it seemed right to be leaving a gift, however small.

The gift I picked will probably strike Hendrick as strange. It’s a mechanical toy I had as a child and remember liking a lot. It’s possible that not every kid would appreciate it, though the fact that they’re still making this gizmo 25 years later is a sign that maybe there are always more geeky children coming along. I certainly hope an appropriately eccentric kid is found and that his or her Christmas is a little bit merrier. If I could pass just a tiny bit of my childhood Christmas on to some other kid, that would feel good.

I hope that all of you who are celebrating Christmas have a very merry one. I hope there’s good food and good company, and I hope you get to give yourself a little bit of a break from work. I plan to take a little bit of a break myself, so I may not post much next week. Enjoy the holiday—and have a very happy new year!

Thursday, December 20, 2007

More Geography Fun

If you think “more geography fun” sounds oxymoronic, then you might want to skip today’s entry. But if you can imagine geography being fun, then click here for the Google map online quiz. It will show a world map and ask you to drag a marker to show where various international cities are. It will then tell you how far off you were. It’s hard! My first task was to find not just Turkmenistan, but a city within Turkmenistan. I didn’t even realize there was such a country—it’s not part of China now? (Maybe I'm thinking of Turkistan.) So I didn’t do so well on that one. But I keep compulsively trying. Procrastination fun for all.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Hints

Abu Dhabi is not a country, and yes, you have heard of the nation named after a precious metal. It will come to you. (Especially if you’ve ever studied a romance language.)

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Geography Quiz

Every year around Christmas time, the San Francisco Chronicle travel section runs a geography quiz, and every year I am embarrassed to find how little I know. Although, to be fair, the questions are pretty hard, and they don’t test the kinds of things you learned in school. Knowing your state capitals will not help you here. But it’s pretty fun and I bet you’ll learn something.

You can take the quiz here.

Answers are here.

Monday, December 17, 2007

The Dynamic Duo

Another pleasant surprise: The article right next to mine in Mabuhay is by my friend, the photographer John Lander. Small world!

Friday, December 14, 2007

Airline Office Update

In completely unrelated news, I am now able to report that the airline office I visited several months ago, the one that was in such disarray that I wasn’t sure I wanted to fly the airline, was in fact in the process of moving. That’s why things were so chaotic. The new office is lovely and very tidy, and gives me full confidence in the safety of the skies over…the place they fly to.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

I Heart the Philippines

Today I stopped by the Philippine Airlines office in San Francisco to pick up a copy of the December Mabuhay magazine. I’m so glad I did. For one thing, the article I was expecting to find was indeed there—my first for Mabuhay.

And the people were so nice. The whole office was decorated for Christmas—not the holidays; Christmas. (The Philippines are about 85% Catholic.) The lady I talked to was so excited to meet a writer; she introduced me all around, showed my article to a bunch of people, and gave me not just a magazine but also a calendar. And while we were talking, another woman came by with a big tray of cookies and offered me some. The first lady told me to come back any time, and after that reception, I think I’ll stop by tomorrow, too.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

More Fun Than Losing 10 Pounds

An editor at Philippine Airlines emailed me today to ask if I happened to have any stories ready to go on Sydney or Melbourne. Unfortunately, I’ve never been to Australia. I’ve always wanted to go—I never really got over that whole Men at Work/Crocodile Dundee craze from the early eighties. But I’ve never made it happen. Maybe this is the year. It is a far more appealing idea than anyother New Year’s resolutions I’ve contemplated.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Bono is African

Walking through a part of West Oakland near the BART station that I just learned is called The Bottoms, I found a great place on Pine Street. It’s called the Black Dot café, which is part of a larger group called the Black Dot Artist’s Collective.

The Black Dot is a brand new café, so new there’s no food yet, although they do serve tea and coffee. There’s art on the walls, and a larger studio/gallery space upstairs. One of the artists who shows in the space happened to be there, and he gave me a gallery tour.

I confess that I don’t remember his name. He told me, but it was hard for me to pronounce and I lost it on the way home. I liked his art, though. He often includes the outline of the continent of Africa in his work. Sometimes he makes the shape of Africa out of repeated smaller images, like soccer balls in a piece dedicated to Pele, or drums in a work inspired by a Congolese drummer.

One other piece that I liked contained the phrase “Bono is African.” Bono in this case refers to the lead singer of U2, who is, of course, Irish, but because he has done so much work for African debt relief and AIDS funding, the artist feels that in his (Bono’s) heart, he must be African.

I love the idea that someone could become an honorary citizen of a whole continent. I’m not expecting it to happen to me, but it’s something to aspire to.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Stargazing

Quite a while ago now, I blogged about Oakland celebrity sightings. Among my favorites were Bonnie Raitt and a member of the band Green Day. A surprising number of interesting people pass through my city and it always makes me proud that I’ve seen more famous people in Oakland than in San Francisco.

Recently I added another celebrity to my list. I’ve been told that the actor Delroy Lindo, who is British by birth, lives in Oakland. A few weeks ago I finally saw him, strolling through Glenview (that’s near me!) with a cup of coffee. People were leaving him alone, so I did too. He seemed to be a pretty regular guy, albeit with a nicer car than most of us.

(You’d know him if you saw him. He’s a character actor, and he has a holiday movie out this year, called This Christmas.

Friday, December 07, 2007

Putting the “on” Back in “Mormon”


Here’s something I meant to show you a few days ago. This is Oakland’s highest-wattage holiday display by far. It’s at a Mormon temple. This temple, which is high up on a hillside, can normally be seen for miles. During the holidays, I would not be surprised if it were visible from space.

As strange and frightening as the place is—the trees are lit but the grounds are dark; there are no visible doorways into the temple; and disembodied choral voices follow you everywhere—I still like to take people from out of town here if they visit in December. A Mormon temple at Christmas is just not something you see every day.

Thursday, December 06, 2007

Wish I Hadn’t Thought of This

Earlier this week I was walking in a part of west Oakland that has several new condominium complexes in development. One in particular that I noticed is being built on what seems to have been most recently a huge empty lot. Suddenly a new cluster of buildings has popped up, and with it, several brand new streets.

This raises a whole new concern for me. How do I deal with new streets? These don’t actually exist yet; the signs are up, but they aren’t paved and are in any case behind fences so I can’t get to them. Do I have to come back later? Do I have to continually monitor the whole city for new construction projects? I haven’t decided yet and it gives me a headache to think about it.

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

When?

The article will appear in the My Word section of the Chronicle Sunday Magazine on March 16, 2008. The piece is being held that long because the editor thought it would go well in the annual travel issue, appearing on that date. I love that idea, so I don’t mind waiting!

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Which Article?

It’s an essay about encountering beggars in Asia. I’ve always been troubled by the needy I meet traveling, and this essay is about one meeting that went particularly awkwardly in Ulan Bataar. It’s a little lighter than my last Chronicle piece—which isn’t saying much, I realize. I can’t say too much about it, but I can at least promise that no one dies.

Monday, December 03, 2007

Change of Plans

Today I was going to eat lunch at a West Oakland restaurant I just discovered, and then blog more about public holiday displays. Fortunately for you, I checked my email just before lunch and got the news that I have sold an article to the San Francisco Chronicle Sunday Magazine.

The article is mostly about Mongolia, so I decided a trip to my favorite Oakland Mongolian eatery was in order. It’s actually Oakland’s only Mongolian eatery, and it’s primarily a pizza place, but I’m sure that if Oakland had more restaurants like this, it would still be among my favorites.

The pizza menu is professionally printed in English, but the Mongolian specialties are listed on a whiteboard, handwritten in Mongolian script. I like to pretend that that makes the meat dumplings a secret. (I delude myself this way with In-n-Out Burger’s secret menu, too.)

The dumplings are called “buuz,” they’re greasy, and they’re pretty yummy. Imagine a steamed pot-sticker with less ginger and garlic, and more onion, and that’s more or less it. They hit the spot.

Friday, November 30, 2007

Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas


The buildings in downtown Oakland have their decorative roof lighting up, which adds a little something to long winter nights, even in a place like the Bay Area, which doesn’t get very cold.

My favorite urban Christmas decoration of all is the little tree on the roof of the apartment building on the far right. That building isn’t really downtown at all--it’s an illusion that the structure is a part of the main skyline--but I love that it’s trying so hard to fit in. Something about that tree way off to the side of things perfectly captures the Charlie Brown-like (Charlie Brownian?) mix of hope and melancholy that can permeate the holidays.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Basking in Reflected Glory

Yesterday I mentioned that I had been hoping to score toward the more adventurous end of the scale on the travel personality web site I’d discovered.

I didn’t get my wish, but at least someone in my family is representing: My grandmother scored a full point (on a scale of one to six) ahead of me.

This might sound like a joke, but I assure you, it isn’t. My grandparents have lived and traveled all over the world, and they aren’t afraid to take a cargo ship or a military transport plane if that’s what they have to do to get there. So my hat’s off to the real adventure travelers in the family.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Travel Personality Test

Pipi found an interesting web site recently. The site tests your travel style. The author’s somewhat confusing scale rates travelers along an “Authentic-Venturer” continuum. People on the “Authentic” end of the scale like things to be predictable and comfortable. They go to well-known tourist locations and stay in name-brand hotels because they know what they’re going to get there. They like group tours, tend to go to the same places over and over, and typically don’t wander too far from home.

People at the extreme “Venturer” end of the scale are adventure travelers, people who seek out undiscovered locations and would rather camp or stay in an independent inn or hotel because they find known quantities boring. They would rather die than be constrained by a group tour. They aren’t necessarily into high-adrenaline activities, but that does seem to go with the territory.

I was sort of hoping to score in the extreme adventure range, but I wasn’t too surprised to find that I’m a garden variety Centric Venturer—that is, somewhat adventurous, but not very. This makes sense. I will travel independently to places that most people tour, like China. But I also did once travel with an organized group (to Cuba) and I don’t regret it. I look for hotel names I recognize when I travel abroad, and I definitely don’t bungee jump.

Luckily for me, Pipi is also a Centric Venturer. That doesn’t surprise me, either, but it’s good to get reassurance that we have the same travel style.

Here’s where you can take the quiz yourself. (Click on the Plog Travel Personality Quiz link.)

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Food for Thought

You are no safer than your most careless act

--Spotted on a sign in the parking lot of a sheet metal factory in West Oakland.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Happy Thanksgiving!


Pipi and I will be spending the day with my parents in San Francisco. I hope everyone out there has a very happy Thanksgiving!

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Doing Good by Doing Well

Bill Gates won’t give you five dollars for every email you forward. You can’t get good luck by passing on a chain email. But you really can do a good deed by clicking on this web site.

Freerice is the most excellent time-waster ever, and it appears to be completely on the up-and-up. I checked it with Snopes, the urban-myth debunking site.

Here’s how it works: You go to the site, and answer multiple-choice questions that test your vocabulary. For every question you get right, 10 grains of rice are donated to the UN World Food Program. (The rice is paid for by advertisers.)

The questions start out pretty easy, but get harder. After a few questions, you will be assigned a vocabulary level, and you jump one level every time you answer three in a row correctly. You drop back a level every time you get one wrong. The site says there are 50 levels, but that it’s rare for anyone to get past the 47th. So far I haven’t done it either, but it isn’t for lack of trying.

I urge everyone to check it out. You get to put that SAT prep to work. The hungry get fed. Procrastination is accomplished. Everyone wins.

Monday, November 19, 2007

The City of Living Dangerously

What do Michigan and the San Francisco Bay Area have in common? They each contain two of the nation’s ten most dangerous cities, according to CQ Press.

Michigan gets the most dangerous city, Detroit; and #3, Flint. The Bay area gets Richmond at #9, and Oakland, coming in as the fourth most dangerous city in America.

This is discouraging, of course. For one thing, it means there’s no end in sight to the stupid comments and questions people in other parts of the country offer when I tell them where I live. (Dumbest to date, asked of Pipi and me in Memphis: “So, y’all must be the only white people there?” There’s no answer to that.)

I get a little tired of defending Oakland, a city that has a very real crime problem but which isn’t the war zone with a football team that most of America seems to think it is. So thanks a lot, CQ Press. I’m curious to see where your hometown (Lawrence, Kansas) comes in on the list.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Way into WAYN

I just spent most of my afternoon uploading travel photos to WAYN. Boy is that site addictive!

I also spent part of the afternoon deleting obscene emails that came through the site, so it’s definitely not perfect. Pretty good, though.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

WAYN

I’ve discovered an interesting site recently. It’s called WAYN, which stands for “Where Are You Now.” It’s mostly a social networking site like MySpace or Linkedin, but its focus is travel. You can keep track of past trips and show where you plan to go next. You can also keep people abreast of where you happen to be at that very moment.

One feature of the site is that it keeps a running total of what percentage of the world you’ve seen. Unfortunately, it’s not based on landmass but simply on the number of countries you’ve visited.

I say “unfortunately,” because the way they calculate it, spending three months traveling all over an enormous country like China boosts my percentage by exactly the same amount as having once touched down on the island of Anguilla when I was 12. And naturally, being compulsive, I am interested in boosting my percentage. I’m currently at 10%. That’s not bad, but you’re probably not going to be surprised to hear that it’s my dream to hit 100%.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Hangzhou Hogs

I think I may have mentioned that I didn’t like Hangzhou, China all that much. I found it oppressively hot and as a tourist attraction, a little underwhelming. Our team got beaten badly in a soccer game we saw played there, and to top it all off, I dropped my camera in a lake. Not that that’s Hangzhou’s fault, it just didn’t help matters any.

Over the weekend, however, I noticed a blurb in the travel section that made me understand that our experience there could have been far worse. How, you ask? Three words: ravenous feral pigs. (Please note that this would also make an excellent band name.)

Apparently enormous and famished wild boars have been ransacking buildings all over town, and one even tried to ram a taxicab, making me feel much better about the times we had trouble hailing one. The problem has gotten so bad that officials are considering allowing hunting. “We will try to drive them away, but shooting will be allowed if necessary," one spokesman said.

So on top of the already documented hazards of sightseeing in Hangzhou—heatstroke, aggressive drivers, and dining dysphoria, you can now add boar goring and stray bullets. We will not be returning any time soon.

Friday, November 09, 2007

Pilgrimage

My walk today took me past Lonely Planet’s North American headquarters. It’s right next to the railroad tracks, which seems somehow appropriate for a travel publishing company. I’m glad to finally know exactly where the office is.

It turns out to be very close to a brewery I didn’t know about (the Linden Street Brewery). You learn something new every day!

Thursday, November 08, 2007

EFI

There’s a charming phrase I learned reading an article about people who bicycle across the country. Some riders, or at least the group I read about, were constantly vigilant to make sure that on their journey they covered “EFI”—let’s say it stands for “Every Fabulous Inch.” In other words, they wanted to be able to say they’d covered literally the entire length of the country. If they stopped in a particular place one day, and then got a ride to a hotel or campground, they had to start the next days’ ride at exactly the point where they had left the road the night before. If a portion was washed out or closed for whatever reason and they had to portage around it, this was cause for great consternation. I think, though, that they decided that riding every inch of available road counted—they didn’t have to penalize themselves for impassible stretches.

So I’ve been asking myself lately how strict I need to be with myself. Somewhat to my surprise, the answer has been, “Not too strict.”

I’m surprising myself because I know I do tend slightly toward the compulsive—it’s not enough to collect pennies, for example; I have to have one from every year. And every mint. I can get rid of duplicates—I’m not a hoarder—but I do want that sense of completion and order.

So far, I lead a mostly normal life thanks to low-volume collections. But I know I have it in me to take things too far, so I’m happy to report that I’ve been coming up with some pretty reasonable rules for myself. I don’t have to walk every literal inch, for example. I know I mentioned that I felt like I had to go down even short dead-end streets, but I don’t have to compulsively walk to the very end and squish my toes against the fence or whatever it is at the very end of the pavement.

I don’t have to walk on both sides of the street except in special cases like the Mandela Parkway, which is a road divided by a median strip so wide it has landscaping and benches. I don’t have to do anything heroic, like walk on freeway ramps, or through hard-hat construction areas. No trespassing. No poison oak. No superfund sites.

My guiding philosophy is that I’m exploring to learn about Oakland, not to bump into every wall in town.

I’m curious to see how other walkers handle the “EFI” issue. Anyone have any personal philosophies they’d like to share?

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Not What I Meant by “Ladies’ Room”

There was something I wanted to show you all today, but at the last minute, I had another attack of self-consciousness and didn’t take a picture. I don’t think I’m being neurotic this time, though.

I was on Seventh Street and I passed a small mosque with beautiful calligraphy on the outside. What really caught my attention, though, was that there were two entrances, one for men and the other for women. It occurred to me that I’ve never seen this arrangement in a non-restroom situation. And yes, I have seen mosques before; I’d just never noticed dual entrances. (I did once go into a mosque in western China; I hope I didn’t do anything inappropriate.)

This evening I went back to take a picture. There was a man arriving at the same time, clearly there to worship, and suddenly I felt kind of like a hayseed and kind of like a very bad spy taking a picture. So no photo today.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Dead End Streets

Dead-end streets are awkward to deal with, and for a long time I had trouble finishing up my very own street for just that reason. The short end of the road I live on is really just a wide driveway for two buildings, but it has a street sign, so I felt I had to walk it. But I worried what the neighbors would think. The stub is so short and exposed that there’s no way to claim you’re looking for an address, or that you thought the street went through. It just wouldn’t be plausible. So for months, self-consciousness prevented me from crossing that block off my map.

Finally a neighborhood block party saved the day. The refreshment table was set up on the short end of the street, and a lot of people were clustered around it. I was able to mingle my way far enough across the intersection that I felt it counted.

Monday, November 05, 2007

I’m an Excellent Walker. Definitely an Excellent Walker.

Sometimes when I’m walking I worry that people are wondering what I’m up to. Generally I write this sensation off as some sort of adolescent flashback, but recently I went on a walk and realized people really were staring at me.

I was near the Emeryville border, in an area where a freeway has cut across the neighborhood. There, many streets that I’m sure used to be longer now terminate in an abrupt dead-end at the freeway right-of-way.

This must have caused enormous upheaval when it happened. I’m sure houses were demolished, and people living on either side of the freeway must have felt like the Berlin Wall went through their neighborhood.

One other very minor but interesting consequence of the freeway is that it’s really hard to inconspicuously walk the streets there. I kept coming to nub-ended roads and feeling compelled to walk to the terminus, then awkwardly turn around and waddle forty or fifty feet back the way I’d come. In most cases it was very obvious from the nearest intersection that the streets dead-ended, and I must have looked strange striding purposefully toward the chain link fence at the end of each one and then turning right around.

Finally a group of guys doing alfresco auto repair work wanted to know what I was doing. They said I looked lost, but I think that by “lost” they really meant “suspicious.” I found myself blurting out that I was compulsively walking the whole length of all the streets in the neighborhood, and that’s why I had to walk through their outdoor repair shop even though any fool could tell the street was not a through street.

They seemed to accept that. They must have seen Rainman.

Friday, November 02, 2007

Best Fifty Cents I Spent That Day

I forgot to say: The coffee was really good, too, and an unbelievable bargain.

Thursday, November 01, 2007

Blogging ’Bout a Revolution

I had breakfast this morning at a coffeehouse on Seventh Street in West Oakland called the Revolution Café. It was a great place with a lot of atmosphere. I recommend it if you’re in the neighborhood, which is very close to the West Oakland BART station.

There’s a sign out front touting fifty-cent coffee, and that’s about the extent of the advertising. (Well, there was also a neon sign that said, “Open” and a paper one in the window that said, “Closed” but they cancelled each other out.) Inside, the décor was thrift-store coffeehouse funky, with lots of kitchy knick-knacks. The posters were revolutionary, but fairly subtly so. No Che Guevara or anything like that. I remember a few framed newspaper pages with headlines about the IWW. The Greatest, a movie about Muhammad Ali’s discovery of Islam was on the TV. There were lots of flyers around for anti-racism rallies and self-help group meetings. It was a positive vibe. I got the sense the place was more about internal overhaul than literal bloody revolution.

I had an interesting conversation with the owner, who looked visibly relieved when I mentioned that my Halloween had been quiet. He said he didn’t believe it was a good thing to celebrate death, which is how he saw Halloween. “Why are they calling it a celebration when people are dying?” he said, I think alluding to the fact that last year’s San Francisco Halloween celebration ended with 10 people being shot. “And why are people dying at a celebration? That’s not a celebration; they need to think of a new word for it.”

Ideas, anyone?

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Empty Lot Wish List

It’s been brought to my attention that I could have been a little more sensitive in my posting about the vacant lot on 14th Street and what might go there. The poster is right, of course. No one who lives, as I do, in an apartment with safety bars over the windows has a right to be snarky about someone else’s neighborhood.

And the thing is, I didn’t mean to be. I’m really enjoying my exploring Oakland project. I think I did get a little freaked out after a couple of days walking around Lowell Playground watching too many drive-by transactions. But that was a short-lived slump. I’m back on the horse, enjoying and appreciating the many good things West Oakland has to offer.

And no, I don’t really wish a big-box store on the place. Here are a few better ideas. They aren’t any better thought out than my Target idea—just better generally.

  1. Affordable housing. (Note to developers: "From the low 500's!" is not affordable.)
  2. Community garden.
  3. Library--this is an enormous lot. It would be like having a Powells Books where the merchandise is free.
  4. Farmer’s market.
  5. Zoo west.
  6. Another park designed by the same people who designed Middle Harbor Shoreline Park.
  7. Mother of all swimming pools.
  8. Minigolf. Or bowling. You can’t do either within the city of Oakland right now.
  9. Farmer Joe’s—with this much room, parking wars and shopping-cart collisions should be a thing of the past.
  10. 100,000 square-foot Fenton’s. Oakland may not exactly be crying out for this much ice cream—but the world is.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Germany 2011

It was announced today that the next Women’s World Cup soccer tournament will be in Germany, in 2011. It surprises me a little that FIFA would give the German team the home-field advantage—they’ve won two World Cups in a row and don’t seem to need any favors right now. But it will be great to have the tournament in yet another country with a strong women’s soccer program.

So far that’s been the case with all five previous tournaments, held in China, Norway, and the United States. (Some countries hosted more than once.) Germany also has an excellent men’s team—they’re number five in the world right now. Germany is just an all-around soccer powerhouse and I’m sure the stands will be full.

I’m not sure if I’ll be in them, too, but I’m hoping.

Monday, October 29, 2007

Friday, October 26, 2007

One More West Oakland Photo


Here’s another interesting thing I found in the same neighborhood. It’s a memorial to the people (62 in all) who died in the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake. It’s on the Mandela Parkway, which, as I understand it, takes the place of an elevated freeway that once existed here but collapsed that day.

Amazingly, that earthquake really did only last 15 seconds, as the wall behind the statue says.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Where’s the Coffee and Bacon Factory?


Right across the street from the cereal factory is another mysterious building. It was mostly demolished, and covered in graffiti. Still visible were a lot of piping and some enormous metal tanks. My new neighborhood friend was able to clear up this mystery, as well. He says the building used to be a Carnation factory. That’s right; across the street from the cereal factory was where for many years Oakland’s milk came from.

The thing that surprised me the most about the site was the sheer size of the vacant lot left behind. Even in Oakland, a vacant lot covering more than a square block is an unusual sight. I suppose it won’t remain vacant for long, though. I am curious to see what ends up being built there. Condos would be my guess, although you could probably put a Target or a Wal-Mart there. That might not be the worst thing in the world. Honestly, in that area, the only mom-and-pop operations are check-cashing places and the kind of liquor stores where they ask you if you’d like your booze “for here or to go?” If ever there were an urban neighborhood where you could put a big-box store without anyone losing a job, this would be it.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Sweet-Smelling Mystery Solved


I had never thought of West Oakland as a nice-smelling place until recently. My main experience with the neighborhood until now was driving past the sewage treatment plant next to highway 580 on my way home from San Francisco. You can imagine what that smells like.

In the past few weeks, though, I’ve been discovering some pockets of the neighborhood that smell great. There are a couple of bakeries near the Emeryville border that constantly smell like cake, greatly improving a blighted and even hostile part of town. (Somebody threw something at my car as I was driving home from my borderlands walk. I think it was just a crumpled-up drink cup, but still, it’s the least welcome I’ve felt yet.)

Around 14th Street and Market Street, the air also smells nice. It’s not quite as sweet as the cake neighborhood; it smells more like baking bread, and I’ve never known why.

A few weeks ago, when I stopped to take a picture of this building, a man struck up a conversation with me that cleared up a lot. He told me that this forbidding edifice is a breakfast cereal factory. They make supermarket-brand versions of several different kinds of cereals. I eat Albertson’s shredded wheat knock-off all the time. I really like it, and I’d probably eat it even if it came from Libya, but it’s nice to know I’m buying locally. And contributing to neighborhood improvement at the same time.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

There Goes the Neighborhood

Lately I’ve been walking west Oakland, which is not a good neighborhood. It does have some nice houses, a few new condo developments, and a few prominent businesses, like Esther’s Orbit room and The Crucible metal workshop.

But much of it is bland at best, blighted at worst. In the northern area, near the Emeryville border, you see a lot of derelict men pushing shopping carts and drinking out of paper bags. Closer to the West Oakland BART station, you get strips of public housing, and run-down little houses with chain-link fences around their yards.

To summarize: It’s not a great place, and last week, I managed to make it worse.

I was walking around listening to music and wearing a t-shirt that in retrospect I wish I’d left in the drawer. I bought it at the Hooters restaurant in Hangzhou, China where Pipi and I went to watch a soccer game on TV. (Honest.) At the time it struck me as ironic and fun. It has Chinese characters on it, so it seemed like it had more cultural value than it really does.

So I was walking around West Oakland wearing this hip, edgy, ironic shirt that’s going to wow all my friends at the next party when I found myself walking past a school—a junior high school, I think. It was recess time, and several girls were sitting by the fence braiding each other’s hair. I could see that one of them had stopped braiding and was saying something excitedly to me. I took off my earphones and asked her to repeat it. “I like your shirt!” she beamed.

This was exactly what I had been afraid she’d said. I certainly hadn’t meant to bring the word of Hooters to the youth of our nation. That was dumb. From now on, it’s plain white Ts, women’s sports jerseys, or shirts I’ve gotten from charity events, I promise.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Monterey Photos

They’re up—you can click here to see photos of my whirlwind trip to Monterey.

Friday, October 19, 2007

Mad Dash to Monterey


I just got back and am madly trying to finish the Monterey article. I took lots of photos, many of which were experimental, but some of which came out better than I expected. I’ll have them up as soon as I can. Probably not today, though!

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Monterey

Philippine Airlines also wants me to write an article about Monterey and Carmel Valley, so I’ll be making a lightning trip down there this week, probably tomorrow. I have been there before, but I want to refresh my memory and take some photos. Philippine Airlines is a rare magazine that will accept photos and writing from the same person. Most magazines don’t have an actual rule against this; they just don’t believe one person can do a good job with both at the same time. It is a little difficult to concentrate on two things, but I’m looking forward to the challenge--and also looking forward to trying out my new camera, a Canon 8MP that I got to replace the one that went for a swim in China.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Shanghai Now and Zen

Good news from Philippine Airlines: They want me to do a short article on Shanghai, to be published in the December issue of their in-flight magazine. I think it’s going to appear alongside an article on Beijing by my friend John. They want something on the transformation of Shanghai from its romantic 1930s incarnation to modern Shanghai 2.0. That evolution is one of the things I find fascinating about Shanghai, so this is right up my alley.

Friday, October 12, 2007

Thanks, Readers!

I finally took the step of installing a counter on my blog. To my surprise, I’ve logged 508 visitors in the past month. That’s about 500 more visitors than I expected. Clearly my family can’t account for all of this. I don’t get that many junk postings, so I don’t think it’s spam crawlers, either. I don’t know who you all are, but thanks for stopping by!

Loyal readers will be relieved to know that as happy as I am with the total, it’s not nearly enough to start justifying advertising. So this content continues to come to you harassment-free.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Top-Five Worst Songs of the 1980s

True, by Spandau Ballet
Over-emoted, over-produced, and just plain overwrought, this slick piece of pop also features one of the yuckiest videos of the 1980s. I don’t know why over-gelled hair, a business suit, and lipstick look so good on Annie Lenox and so creepy on this band. They just do.

The Greatest Love of All, by Whitney Houston
Really? The greatest? How come it didn’t inspire a better song?

Endless Love, by Diana Ross and Lionel Richie
My father used to call this “Mindless Love,” and I couldn’t have said it better myself.

Arthur's Theme (Best That You Can Do), By Christopher Cross
Any song that romanticizes New York City in the 1980s is automatically suspect. Play this alongside literally any cut from Lou Reed’s “New York,” and it’s obvious that someone is not being emotionally honest.

Hello, by Lionel Richie
(It’s fair to conclude I’m not a Lionel Richie fan.) I think Split Enz said it best: “I don’t want to say I love you/That would give away too much.” (Message to My Girl.) All the above 80s ballads, but especially this last one, could have used a lesson in subtlety from our oddly-dressed down-under friends.

I mention this because I heard all of these songs (well, not the Spit Enz one) in Hangzhou. The Chinese definitely like their light, treacly vocal music, but there is no escaping it here. Light pop is not just for elevators anymore. It’s also in train stations, in taxicabs, in restaurants, and coming out of every car and shop window in the city. It would seem that on top of all its other claims to fame, Hangzhou is also the city where the 80s came to die.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Moller Mansion Mystery


From our 9th floor hotel window, Pipi and I could look right into the grounds of a building that our guidebook told us was called the Moller Mansion. It is not exactly a beautiful building, but it is impressive. (A lot of Shanghai architecture is like that.)

The book said the building had been constructed by a Swedish man in the colonial days, and that it had later been a communist youth league headquarters. After that, it became a hotel.

The book implied that it’s still a hotel, but if it is, it’s got the worst doormen in the world. I crossed the street to peek in the lobby one afternoon, and was chased away by a woman who kept repeating, “Closed, closed” in English. When I asked her in Mandarin what time I should come back, she ignored me with an intensity that only a Chinese security guard can muster.

The mansion’s web site says it’s accepting reservations for December. But it didn’t look like anyone was staying there during our time across the street. Almost all the lights were off at night, and I only rarely saw anyone on the grounds. It didn’t seem to be undergoing renovations, either. So the Moller Mansion’s purpose is a mystery for now.

One other mystery: Who does their landscaping? This monster topiary disturbs me a little bit.

Monday, October 08, 2007

Lost in Translation

Part of the reason the cab driver had such a hard time finding a large, neon-lit restaurant is that we couldn’t remember the Chinese name for the place.

“Hooters” doesn’t transliterate phonetically in any easy way to Mandarin, so marketers gave the place an entirely new name. Sidestepping double-entendre issues, they concentrated on the less troublesome kind of hooter. So in China, the restaurant is known as “The American Owl Restaurant.”

Friday, October 05, 2007

Putting My College Education to Good Use

Speaking a foreign language is difficult under the best of circumstances. I’d like to think it’s especially difficult in Chinese, a language where changing the inflection a tiny bit—raising your voice at the end of a sentence to indicate a question, for example?—can make a thought unintelligible. And speaking on the phone is harder still, because you don’t have body language or facial expressions to help you.

I say all this in an attempt to convey the level of motivation it took to track down the Hooters in Hangzhou.

During our time in Hangzhou, Pipi and really wanted to see a quarterfinal game being played in another city. In Shanghai, we’d seen a few televised games on ESPN in our hotel room. But our hotel in Hangzhou didn’t get ESPN. The television set had a poor picture anyway. We needed a sports bar.

Hangzhou is a city with an estimated expatriate population of about 6,000, but only 1,000 of those are from North America or Europe, which suggests that it’s not the best place to find a bar with burgers and big-screen TVs. We were going to have to do some sleuthing.

I first called the Shangri-La Hotel, the nicest joint in town. It had two things going for it: We’d been there, and had noticed that it definitely catered to Western travelers. More importantly, we realized it was also the place the U.S. soccer team was staying. (And I promise you, we only went there once to stalk them.)

But there was no luck there. Hard as it was to believe, they said they weren’t planning on showing the game in any public areas.

So Pipi hit the Internet, but had trouble finding listings for sports bars in Hangzhou. The only thing that kept coming up was a blurb for Hooters, which improbably has one of its three Chinese branches in Hangzhou.

I had never realized that Hooters thought of itself as a sports bar, having never been to one. (Pipi remembers that we once almost went to one in Memphis, because it was one of only two restaurants near our hotel, but oddly enough we ended up getting bad Chinese food instead.)

So I called the Hangzhou Hooters, and using the full extent of my three years of college Mandarin, was able to determine that they would, in fact, be showing the game. I got the address, too, and found it was well across town. I forgot to ask the cross street, though, which made the cab ride interesting.

The street that Hooters Hangzhou is located on is long, and the numbers seem to be particularly poorly marked. Our driver stopped once to ask another driver if he knew what block we were on, and twice pulled the taxi over, with the engine still running, and sprinted up and down the sidewalk looking for street numbers. Pipi asked me to remind her what that word was that the Shanghai doorman had used to describe us when we came home soaked from the Nigeria game. She thought this guy was pretty lihai, too.

Finally, we found it. It looked like I imagine an American Hooters looks, with pool tables, several bars, and lots of tacky signs on the wall. The waitresses looked surprisingly like I imagine American Hooters waitresses look like. Ours was named Kiki, which I know because she wrote it on a napkin for us. In my memory of it, she dotted the “i”s with a heart, but this can’t really be true. (I am sure, though that she did write, “thank you” on the bill accompanied by a smiley face inside a daisy.)

Hardly anyone was there, so we got a lot of attention from Kiki as well as the manager, who must not have drawn actual work duty that evening. I thought they might pull up chairs and eat with us until a gong sounded the signal that it was the time at Hooters when they dance. All the waitresses jumped up on one of the bars and began lip-synching to “YMCA,” complete with the ritual arm waving. It was weird. Not as weird as fish falling out of the sky, but almost as unexpected. Hangzhou had delivered us a surreal experience after all.

Thursday, October 04, 2007

Everybody Gets a Job

We knew the boy was trouble the moment we entered the breakfast room. Our hotel had a breakfast buffet. The apparently teen-aged boy who worked there was either the son of the hotel owner, or at his first day of work ever. Maybe both.

He led us to our table and asked if we wanted coffee. I said I did, and Pipi said—in Chinese—that she didn’t. He looked at us blankly. Finally he poured me a cup—and then turned Pipi’s cup over to fill it. She repeated that she didn’t want any. Blank stare. Then he made a move to start pouring. Pipi turned her cup upside down. He froze, then walked away, shaking his head at those wacky Americans who can’t agree on anything.

During breakfast, I realized that the boy’s primary duty was not even seating people. It seemed to be to walk around with a tray of sterno containers for the buffet trays. His job description probably read: 1) Look pretty in uniform. 2) Try not to break anything.

Towards the end of breakfast, after passing through the room several times but not doing anything with the burners, he managed to drop the whole tray, spilling the gelatinous fuel all over the carpet. The boy disappeared immediately, leaving the woman he worked with to clean up the toxic mess. Just as she was finishing up, he reappeared with a new tray of sterno, which he promptly perched on the very edge of a table. This finally elicited a scolding from the woman, which he didn’t seem to notice.

The next day I went to breakfast myself—Pipi said the chicken feet, kimchee, and other unorthodox breakfast items make her loose her appetite.

As I was helping myself to the food—I love a buffet, no matter what’s served—a swathe of bunting that had been attached with Velcro to the front of the 20-foot long table suddenly detached itself and fell at my feet. I looked around for a possible cause and discovered our hapless boy standing a few feet to my right, with one end of the cloth in his hands and that same blank look on his face.

I shrugged, assuming that everyone would know it was the waiter’s fault, not mine. But just then, a little Australian boy, about four years old, shrieked, “Mum, the lady broke it!” (Mum looked pained, like she was hoping fervently I wasn’t an English-speaker. I don’t blame the kid, though; he probably thought he was going to take the blame.)

It reminded me of something that was sort of a mantra in my China backpacking days: Whenever we’d see four people on the scene of a one-man task, we’d say, “Well, I guess everyone gets a job.” It was never clear how the division of labor was worked out—who decided which one had to work and which ones got to sit around observing? But somehow every job site had its own arrangement, and 15 years later, even though I’m not sure full employment is a promise the Chinese government makes anymore, the Everyone Gets a Job policy still seems to be in practice at the Mason Hotel.

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Where in the World is the Cup?

Speaking of the next world cup, it’s not yet clear where that will be held. There are four countries in the running, and a vote will be held in November to determine which one gets the tournament. The candidates are Peru, Canada, Germany, and Australia.

Peru would be an interesting choice because its team did not even qualify for the 2007 tournament. Canada might also find itself in the troubling position of being a host country that doesn’t make it out of the first round. Germany almost has the opposite problem—its women’s team won in 2003 and 2007, and the men hosted the 2006 men’s world cup. Enough already!

I’m personally pulling for Australia, a country I’ve never visited but have wanted to go to since the first time I heard the song “Land Down Under.” Aussie Aussie Aussie, oi oi oi!

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Losing Hope, Gaining Perspective

You’re probably wondering what Pipi and I were doing in a place that we don’t seem to like very much. We asked ourselves the very same thing in Hangzhou, a city that thwarted our every attempt to find anything charming about it.

Hangzhou had one last disappointment in store for us. And no, I don't mean the hostile Buddha above. He doesn't mean it; he's just sporting a Sanskrit character that predates the Third Reich by centuries.

I'm talking about the United States’ defeat in the game they played there. It was an unpleasant match, played in stifling heat, with a hostile crowd that really had it in for the United States. The opponent was Brazil, and we got to know the Chinese word for that country, Ba-Shi, very well because the crowd chanted it non-stop. They cheered when Brazil got the ball, exploded when they scored, and roared with approval when the Brazilian players literally danced circles around the Americans with needlessly ostentatious and taunting footwork. I’m not sure where this antipathy comes from. My guess is that it stems from the 1999 World Cup, which came down to a final game between China and the United States. It was tied 0-0 through overtime, and was settled with a shoot-out, which the United States won by one shot. The goalie in that game was Brianna Scurry, the same goalie who played in this Brazil-U.S. game, and I think the Chinese fans were happy to see her shellacked.

So the game wasn’t that much fun to watch, but it did at least remind us of why we’d come to China in the first place, and to Hangzhou in particular. And we had a giddy moment at a lunch buffet at the fanciest hotel in town when former U.S. star Julie Foudy walked right past our table. (We were too shy to say anything, but we did revel in our proximity to soccer greatness.)

The next day we took the train back to Hangzhou, and things improved immediately. We both really like Shanghai, and instantly felt like we were on vacation again. The soccer became more interesting as well, with a dishy controversy erupting over comments made by the starting U.S. goalkeeper. Hope Solo, who had been the starter for about two years, was suddenly benched by the coach right before the Brazil game. When the U.S. lost that game, Hope responded with a juvenile tirade mocking the coach’s moves and implying that the keeper who did play is past her prime.

The team responded by basically saying they couldn’t be her friend anymore. She was banished from the team to the point where she not only wasn’t allowed to sit on the team bench for the next game, she apparently wasn’t allowed to eat with them or even go to the stadium to watch the match. I’m pretty sure they aren’t going to sign her yearbook, either. Newspaper reports said she still would probably fly home with the team but I don’t think she did and I actually would know because THEENTIRETEAMWASONMYFLIGHTHOME.

Sorry, being starstruck has made me lapse into capitals again. What I meant was, the entire U.S. women’s soccer team, except for Hope Solo, was on the same flight that Pipi and I took home.

After spotting players all over Eastern China, and the Shanghai airport, I finally decided to overcome my shyness. The team boarded before us and were scattered all over the coach cabin as Pipi and I got on the plane. When I found myself momentarily stalled in the aisle next to the row where Abby Wambach and Kristine Lilly were sitting, I made my move. I leaned over and told them I’d really enjoyed watching them play. Abby Wambach thanked me very sincerely for coming all that way to watch. She also apologized for not bringing home the trophy, which kind of flustered me. I stammered that they’d done well, the line started moving again, and the awkward moment was over.

What I wish I had said of course, is that there was no need to apologize; that we were disappointed after the Brazil game, but that the consolation match against Norway was so good that it redeemed all the drama that came before. So Abby, if you’re reading this (it’s okay; we all Google ourselves sometimes), please don’t feel like the team’s performance was anything to be sorry about. We loved watching the matches and were honored to be in the team’s company flying home. And I’m sorry about talking in run-on capital letters when we met. It’s a problem I promise to work on before the next world cup.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

More Technical Difficulties

The foreign tourist screaming obscenities at the tranquil lake would almost have been comical if she were not me. But she was. I was giving the locals an impromptu vocabulary lesson because I’d just made one of the dumbest mistakes of my traveling career.

The day started out well. Pipi and I found the lake, and were starting to see what it was the guidebooks saw in Hangzhou. It’s a lovely lake. It’s very big, and on the day we visited, the atmosphere was very heavy and hazy, so much that you could barely see modern buildings on the far side. The view mostly consisted of the willow trees lining the shore, and the little wooden boats cruising the water. Even though the boats are all for tourists, it still looked like a Chinese landscape painting. It was very picturesque, but unfortunately, there will be no pictures because I dropped my camera right into the depths of this lovely body of water.

Pipi says it seemed to happen in an instant, but from my perspective, it seemed like slow-motion. I sat down in one of the tourist boats with my camera in a soft case slung over my shoulder. The case closes with Velcro, but I hadn’t really fastened it. As I sat down, the case bumped up against my leg, the top popped open like a Pez dispenser, and my camera slid out, right over a low railing. It seemed to teeter on an exterior ledge a few inches above the water for about half an hour, but I still couldn’t move fast enough to grab it. It tottered in and disappeared immediately without a single bubble. I always wondered if it floated; now I know.

So there will be no further photos until I calm down and figure out what to do about this situation.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

The “Real” China


Hangzhou is famous in China for having hosted Marco Polo, who pronounced the city the most beautiful place in the world. So Pipi and I arranged to spend several days here, somehow overlooking the fact that we were going on 800-year-old information.

Hangzhou is only about two hours from Shanghai by train, but it’s a very different place. We left from Shanghai’s brand-new South Station, a sparkling modernistic glass-and-chrome dome of a building that looks like something out of the Jetsons. You expect to leave it by hovercraft, not by train. We arrived in a grimy, crumbling Hangzhou station full of dark corridors clogged with touts trying to hustle people into taking their over-priced minivans into the city center. Hangzhou is a city of about five million people, but it still doesn’t have the cosmopolitan feeling that Shanghai does. English is not widely spoken, and hotels and restaurants don’t have the polish that you’ll find in bigger cities. Wai guo ren--foreigners—are still a little bit of a novelty. It’s not like we’re the first white people anyone has seen, but teenagers still bark, “Hello” when they see us, something that hasn’t happened to me since 1992. It’s kind of cute, but it reminds me of the way I’m often moved to moo when I drive past a dairy farm, and I don’t really like the attention.

It’s a hard place to get around, too. I’m reminded of how much infrastructure and order we take for granted in the United States. I went for a 45-minute walk in town two days ago while Pipi was at a meeting (her company has an office here), and never did find what I was looking for: the large urban lake that is Hangzhou’s claim to fame. This is sort of like being dropped off in mid-town Manhattan and failing to find Central Park, but in my defense, it was very hot, the blocks were very long and torn up by construction, and the street I started on wasn’t on the map I consulted before heading out. I know I was quite close when I gave up, but I was too tired and dehydrated to be enthusiastic about walking more, so I took a cab back to the hotel. As it turns out, I fared better than Pipi, who was not able to flag down a cab at all, and had to hike several miles home in business attire.

(Actually, she says several cabs stopped for her, nicely explained something she didn’t understand a word of, and then drove off empty without her. This also seemed to be happening to a lot of businessmen around her, so we really don’t know what the story was there.)

A lot of people dislike Shanghai. They find it too maniacally entrepreneurial and Western-influenced, and don’t consider it the “real” China. I think these things make it an incredibly exciting place, and even detractors concede that it’s what my friend John calls gaijin-friendly—easy to navigate. I miss it!

Awful Waffles

The English-language menu at C-Straits, a restaurant just down the street from our Hangzhou hotel, started out promisingly enough:

Honey Waffles.

That’s a little unconventional, but honey’s not so different from maple syrup. I’m okay with that.

It goes downhill from there:

Pork-Floss Waffles.

I’m still trying to stay with them. Pork floss—dried, shredded meat--is kind of gross. But is it really so different in spirit from sausage or bacon? I guess not. Okay. I’ll read on.

Tuna Waffles.

Okay, they’ve officially lost me. I like tuna and all, but with a waffle? No way. That has to be the strangest waffle accompaniment ever.

Or is it? No, it gets worse. Much worse. It goes to a place no waffle-lover should ever find herself:

Roasted Eel Waffles.

The truly disturbing thing is that all this was on the restaurant’s beverage menu. We will not be returning to the C-Straits cafe.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

A Plague of Fishes


Have you ever literally not been able to believe your eyes? This happened to Pipi yesterday in Shanghai. We were waiting for a cab at our hotel when Pipi saw what she wanted to believe was a falling leaf. But something about the color, the speed at which it fell, and most of all the way it seemed to be flopping around in the driveway all suggested something else. So Pipi went over and took a look and discovered that, sure enough, a fish had just fallen from the sky.

It was a small fish, about five inches long. It was flailing helplessly as people walked dangerously close, most of them not even noticing. We stood there watching it for a moment, a little warily, in case the one drop was followed by a full fish squall. Finally we realized that it had come from an outdoor tank on the second-story patio of an apartment building next to the hotel. (The photo above, advertizing the upcoming Shanghai Special Olympics, happens to show the row of tanks.) That solved the mystery, but how to solve the problem?

We pointed out the flopping fish to the head doorman. I didn’t expect him to be too sympathetic to two foreign ladies babbling about suicidal carp, but to my surprise, he was quite concerned. He picked up the slimy fish with his bare hand, gave a few practice pumps, and heaved it up over the balcony. Frankly, his form was not great—a little elbowy. I pictured the fish either slapping back down to the ground, or else flopping around unseen for hours on the patio, but miraculously, we all heard a splash as the little fish landed back in the tank. Pipi and I and all the other doormen cheered. “Hao qiu,” I told him, using a phrase I’ve heard Chinese sportscasters use to describe an especially skillful play. “Well,” he said bashfully in English, “I am really good at basketball.”

We’ve just arrived in Hangzhou, and so far it’s okay, but nothing that Felliniesque has happened to us yet. Something tells me we’re not going to top that random moment on this trip.

Monday, September 24, 2007

Technical Difficulties


I am having a few technical issues. I can access the tool to post this blog, for instance, but I can’t view it, or post photos to it. I also can’t delete comments. Some guy has been posting spam , but I can’t get rid of it until I’m home. So I’m sorry about the time-share junk messages that have been appearing in the comments section. Finally, I can’t view my photos on Flickr, either, so I’m labeling them blind. I know I’ve made a few mistakes. Not too many, I hope.

Technical issues aside, today was a good sightseeing day, and an even greater eating day. First, we went to my favorite street corner for breakfast. Chinese street food is some of the best food you’re going to find here, especially at breakfast time. There is a corner two blocks from our hotel that has about a dozen vendors out in the morning. Most of them sell variations on two things: Egg pancakes, and what the Chinese call youtiao, or “oil twists.” They’re essentially doughnuts, or crullers, really, but not that sweet. (I confess to swiping a sugar packet from Starbucks and sprinkling a little on mine this morning.)

The egg pancakes are either a crepe or a piece of bread like nan that is cooked on a large griddle. The batter usually has a lot of green onion in it. As the bread cooks, an egg is cracked on top and the whole thing is brushed with lots of oil, flipped over, and fried. Then it’s rolled up with a little salty sauce and some optional hot pepper. It’s a salty, oily, eggy, starchy treat and hot off the grill it’s one of the best things ever.

After breakfast, we went to the Oriental Pearl TV Tower. This is one of the only big tourist sights we hadn’t seen yet. It’s an enormous space needle-like tower, but more garish than those you see in places like Toronto or Seattle. It looks a little like a neon hypodermic needle sticking up into the sky. Subtle is isn’t, but it’s on the east side of the Huangpu River in an area known as Pudong, where it somehow fits. Pudong is a region that has been declared Shanghai’s new financial and business district. This was farmland when I visited in 1992, but since then skyscrapers have popped up like mushrooms with almost no restraint or aesthetic consideration. It’s sort of like an urban planning theme park. A lot of the buildings are actually very creative and attractive. It’s not an ugly area. It’s just that like a lot of new-money situations, no one ever stopped to ask, “Is this too much?”

We took the elevator 263 meters up to get a look at Shanghai from above. It was a good day for this. It finally stopped raining, and got about as clear as a polluted city ever gets. The view was stupendous. I knew Shanghai was big and built-up, but the sight of a skyscraper forest poking up to the horizon was shocking.

For lunch we went to a restaurant specializing dumplings in a posh new mall called Xin Tian Di (New Heaven and Earth). We had soup dumplings, which are a Shanghai specialty and are almost my favorite thing in the world to eat. We decided to quit while we were ahead and came back to the hotel to nap. (I actually tried to see one other sight, a mansion-turned-hotel we can see from our room, but I got rudely shoed away from it. Whatever it is, it clearly isn’t a hotel anymore.)

Tonight, we’re seeing a dance performance. I don’t know what we’re doing for dinner; it can’t top the first two meals of the day. Tomorrow morning we catch a train to Hangzhou. I will try to blog from there.

Food photos and more here.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Adventurous Eating


I hope I didn’t make anyone nervous talking about dogs and China in the same breath yesterday. I know everyone makes uneasy associations about the two. And there’s some truth to it—I think dogs really are eaten here. But in three trips to the mainland, I’ve never been offered dog or seen it on a menu. And as an obvious foreigner, I doubt I ever will. Eating someone’s pet is just not something an American has to worry about.

On this trip, however, I’ve realized that many other alarming things are eaten here. The fanciest restaurant in our hotel, for example, has several dishes containing bullfrog. And last night, we ate at a dumpling restaurant that served conventional pork-and-cabbage jiaozi, but which also offered donkey as a dumpling filling. One other weird menu item was a picture of what looked like stewed grubs—Pipi asked for an English version of the menu and was able to determine that they were silkworms. So I’m not saying that you don’t have to watch what you eat here. The pitfalls are just different from what you might expect.

Today, I went to a place called the Duolun Lu Culture Street. It's a pedestrian street in what used to be the International Concession in North Shanghai. It was famous for being the home of a lot of revolutionary intellectuals in the 1930s, including Lu Xun, a pretty famous social commentator whom I remember reading in college. These and other photos here.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Hey Big Spender


Not everyone will admit this about traveling in China, but everyone secretly likes being a little bit more of a big shot than they are at home. Take me. In the United States, I’m a 5’-3” person who is basically unemployed. Here, though, I’m a solidly average (emphasis on solid) size, and have almost unimaginable buying power.

That’s because once you get here, everything is remarkably inexpensive by American standards. There’s a massage parlor in our neighborhood, for example, where you can get an hour-long massage for about $15. So far I’ve had two, which is about what I have in a good decade at home.

Just like anywhere, you have to be careful about choosing massage places, but this one is beyond legitimate. It’s decorated in a Japanese tatami-mat and shoji-screen style, just like an upscale American spa. It’s patronized mostly by ex-pats, but I have seen some Chinese yuppies there, too.

The first time I went, I had a neck and shoulder massage which was great. The second time, I picked a full-body treatment called simply “Chinese massage.” The English menu said that I would appreciate the “gentle Eastern touch.” I envisioned a tiny waif of a woman administering this massage with little butterfly fingers.

Clearly something got lost in translation. The masseur assigned to me was the sturdiest, most muscular guy in China. He looked exactly like the buzz-cut, ruddy-cheeked youths you see in Chinese propaganda posters. (I always wondered where they found these people; now I know.) He squeezed, pushed, pulled, kneaded, bent, folded, spindled, and stretched me to within an inch of yelping. I’d never had a massage that firm before, but it was great. I was so relaxed. How relaxed? Relaxed enough that I had a minor wardrobe malfunction with the pajamas I was given to wear and I didn’t even care. I was that Zen.

In other news, Pipi and I, feeling a little homesick, I guess, went to a pet show today. The conclusion we drew is that the Chinese have raised small pet dogs to an art form. Tonight we’re going to another sports bar so we can watch two soccer games happening in different cities. I hope we can stay awake. We’re having some jet-lag issues. We bounce out of bed at 7am but we can’t stay awake after dinner to save our lives.

Here are some photos. I've added a few.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Typhoon soccer


I was joking when I said we would be the only people in the stands, but it was practically true. The stadium seats something like 30,000, and the announced attendance was 6000—and that seemed inflated. I could see almost as many security personnel as spectators. There were at least as many Nigeria fans as US boosters, which was a little strange. I snapped a picture of the U.S. team trudging towards the locker room at the end of the game, and they don’t look like a team that has just won a big game and advanced to the next round of the World Cup. They look angry and wet. I think we’re all ready for the rain to stop. I know I’m tired of being wet and I don’t need to see my bright red poncho ever again. When Pipi and I got back to our hotel after the game, the doorman observed that the two of us were “hen lihai”—very hard-core. We definitely felt like two of the most dedicated fans right then.

We didn’t do a whole lot today, partly because it is so wet. We did walk around quite a bit this morning during a break in the weather. I’m really starting to like the neighborhood we’re in. It’s called Lu Wan, and in English is usually referred to as the French Concession. It’s the neighborhood that in the heyday of Western colonialism in Shanghai was home to a huge French expatriate population. I remember visiting this neighborhood in 1992 and being disappointed. I think I expected people in berets eating croissants on every corner. I wanted to eat buttery pastry and speak a language that I’m comfortable with. The French influence is a lot more subtle than that, but it’s there. If you look closely, you’ll notice that the buildings are made of brick, not the ubiquitous Chinese white tile, and the streets are laid out in an orderly manner, and lined with more trees than you usually see in a Chinese city. I will try to post a few photos, but it’s been so wet I haven’t taken many yet.

The biggest excitement of the day was at dinner. We went to a pseudo Irish pub because we thought they might be showing the China/New Zealand game on TV. As it turns out, that game got rained out, so no televised soccer for us. But that was okay because THEUSWOMENSTEAMWASRIGHTTHEREINTHEBARWITHUS!!!

Sorry; I get excited just thinking about it. What I meant was, the U.S. women’s team was there at the bar, too! Not all of the women, but about half of them, including the big stars, Abby Wambach and Kristine Lilly. It was so exciting we literally didn’t know what to do with ourselves. We wanted to be gushing fans, of course, but they also seemed to be trying to have a normal dinner with friends and family—it looked like both Lilly and Wambach had their parents in tow—and we didn’t want to be rude. So we didn’t get autographs, but we did gain the story of how we watched a soccer game in a typhoon and then the next day got to eat hamburgers in Shanghai with the stars of the game.
Here are some photos.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Shanghai Surprise(s)


We got here fine. Well, we’re fine now. We weren’t doing too great after a 12-hour flight, but we slept very well and managed to wake up at a normal time, and now we feel fine. Our hotel is much nicer than I expected. Shanghai is an exciting and constantly surprising city.

A pleasant surprise: I only made one real packing mistake, but it was a doozy: I forgot the power cord for my computer. Remarkably, there is an authorized Apple reseller one subway stop away from our hotel at a huge electronics emporium called Cybermart. It was very easy to buy a new cord. So now I’m up and running, and obviously even able to access my blogging site. It’s amazing how much things have changed in China in 15 years. In 1992, it was an afternoon project to call home. This morning I spoke to my parents using Skype and my computer. It was easy and cost about 20 cents.

After breakfast, Pipi and I went to a Carrefour store, which was an interesting experience. Carrefour is a French chain, sort of like Wal-Mart, but more upscale. A grocery store is a major component, and it’s full of Western treats. There are lots of Asian things there, too—in fact, almost all of the patrons there were Asian. But it occurs to me that it might be like the Shanghai equivalent of Ranch99. I imagine the locals wander the aisles and think to themselves, “Ugh, fried potato slices? Pureed tomato gunk for pasta? People really eat these things?”

One quintessentially Chinese treat they have at Carrefour is White Rabbit candy. I think I’ve already documented my love of these candies. Pipi likes them too, and the last time we were here, we made a pilgrimage to the factory. To my surprise, we discovered a new flavor this morning: corn. No, really. How well you like corn White Rabbit candy depends not just on your feelings about creamed corn, but also on how far outside of the candy box you’re willing to think. I kind of like creamed corn, but I haven’t yet decided if I can accept it as a candy flavor. I understand that a lot of conventional western candy flavorings like cocoa, mint, and vanilla are really vegetable and plant products, but this may be too big of a leap for me.

Shanghai did welcome us with one other surprise: a typhoon. It’s been alternating between pouring and torrential rain all day. They’re forcasting 200 milimeters, which is, uh, a lot of rain. (China is a nice place, but it’s no Liberia; they use the metric system here.) We’re supposed to go to a soccer game tonight. We’ve come so far that we can’t possibly skip it, so we’ll go and get soaked supporting the US women. The game is on ESPN. Look for us—we’ll be the slightly dazed, very wet, poncho clad Americans. Also, we’ll be the only people in the stands. We shouldn’t be hard to spot.
Here are some photos.

Friday, September 14, 2007

Leaving on a Jet Plane

Pipi and I leave for China this weekend. I’m bringing my computer and I will try to blog, but I won’t promise. I’ve been told that it’s not possible to read my blog in China, which would almost be a point of pride but it’s just that the Blogger site is blocked to Chinese readers. Nothing to do with my hard-hitting exposes. I think I remember being able to post, though, when I was there before. I will try my best.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Things Better Left Unsaid

Granted, Germany was beating Argentina badly. The final score was 11-0, which is a soccer World Cup record. And the German women did seem to be bigger and faster and more fit than the waif-like South Americans.

But still, there are certain sentences that just should never be said aloud, even if everyone is thinking them. One of these came out of the mouth of an announcer on ESPN, who found himself observing that, “The Germans are superior physically.”

Well, at least they weren’t playing Poland.

In just four days of soccer, we’ve also heard the Chinese team described as “sneaky,” and endured one talking head earnestly explaining that the Norwegians play an attacking style because they’re all Vikings. People, can we please think before we talk? Thank you.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Formerly Burma; Still Using the English System

I know, of course, that the metric system is better than the English system. I understand that it’s decimal-based, making math easy. And I know it’s a pain to learn how many tablespoons in a cup, how many ounces in a pound, and how many feet in a mile.

But I did. I learned all those things. I know how long it takes me to walk a mile, and what to wear when it’s 70 degrees Fahrenheit. And so it’s fairly grudgingly that I’ve been educating myself about the metric system.

I used to tell myself that I needed to do this because the rest of the world does. But I just discovered that’s not quite true. Liberia and Myanmar (what you call Burma) also persist in using pounds and inches. And the E.U. recently granted England special permission to use their own system in certain circumstances. (Which seems a little condescending; no wonder they don’t like to think of themselves as part of Europe.) So for now, if you’re going to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes, do it in Burma, Liberia, or an English pub.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

In Praise of Armchair Travel

Next week at this time Pipi and I will be in Shanghai. In contrast to last year’s trip to Asia, where the week before departure saw me in a frenzy of emailing, gift buying, and dog-earing four separate guidebooks, this week I’m going to mostly be sitting on the couch watching soccer. Lots of soccer.

Our trip revolves around the women’s World Cup soccer tournament, so our homework is to watch as many games as possible. Remarkably, the entire tournament is going to be on ESPN.

Last night Pipi did something I’ve never known her to do before: She set an alarm to watch television. I got up, too, and I'm glad I did. The games are on in the evening in China, which is early morning here. We do have a DVR, but it has a somewhat limited capacity and more importantly, we have a deadline. There are several games on each day, so we have to get creative about watching them or we won’t see all the important first-round matches before we leave. Also, I’m hopeless about avoiding spoilers. Last night we watched a recording of Germany steamrollering Argentina. In the middle I tried to look up some information online about the German team, and managed to spoil the final score for myself. (I know it sounds dumb to take risks like that, but if you’d been watching you’d want to know how tall Kerstin Garefrekes is, too. [Answer: 6”1’.]) So I need to watch games in as close to real time as possible.

This morning there was a real nail-biter between the United States and North Korea, which we watched almost live. I’m endlessly fascinated by the DPRK. It’s such a weird country and I wonder what the women’s lives are like. I wonder what they think when they travel. In the case of this year’s world cup in China, they’re probably thinking something along the lines of, “Great, the one place they might let us go on our own. Why couldn’t Canada have hosted?” But still, Shanghai must be pretty mind-blowing after Pyongyang.

Oh, the game was good, too. It ended in a 2-2 tie. North Korea played ferociously. There’s no other word for it. They played like it was their last game ever; like they didn’t need to worry about having energy for more matches. They played like there was nothing else in their lives, which may be the case. Or maybe I’m being ignorant. For all I know, the North Korean women spend their weekends shopping for Gucci knockoffs and planning vacations in Thailand with their boyfriends. But I don’t think so. I got the impression I was getting a rare, if very controlled glimpse at a culture with a really different outlook on life.

It’s the next best thing to travel.

Monday, September 10, 2007

Isn’t it Ironic?

I just realized that Pipi and I are going to miss the premier of Survivor: China because we’re leaving on Sunday…for China.

Yes, we are huge Survivor fans, but I swear we didn’t plan this. Anyway, filming is long since over. So I promise you, we’re not really stalking the cast. (Or angling for a spot on the show. I’ve said it before; I wouldn’t last three days out there.)

Thursday, September 06, 2007

More Fun Facts

Most lakes, even big ones, turn over their water fairly quickly. A drop of water landing in Lake Erie, for example, usually spends about two years there before finding its way out. (Don’t ask me how they know this.)

Lake Tahoe is different, though. For one thing, it’s extremely deep. Also, about 60 rivers feed into it, but only one leads out. For these reasons, water takes about 700 years to escape the lake.

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Fun Fact

The water at the bottom of Lake Tahoe is a constant 39 degrees Fahrenheit. The lake never freezes, though, because convection keeps this cold but still not-quite-freezing water moving toward the surface all winter.

This fun fact comes courtesy of my procrastination instinct. I have an article due to Philippine Airlines in a few days, and I’m still at the fact-finding stage. Wish me luck.

Friday, August 31, 2007

Short Break

There’s no real news today, and Pipi’s getting off work early, so in that spirit, I’m taking the rest of the long weekend off. Have a great weekend, everybody!

Thursday, August 30, 2007

And it Was Uphill Both Ways

Maybe you’re wondering what I did the first time I went to China, before the World Wide Web. The answer is I winged it, making reservations in person the day I arrived in a new city. This actually worked pretty well, and I never had to spend the night in a park or anything. (There were a few nights where I might have been warmer and more comfortable if I had). As well as it worked for me, however, I don’t wish this lifestyle on anyone I love, so I recommend it only for solo travelers.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

I Knew I Was Forgetting Something

When I said yesterday that the China trip was just about set, I was leaving out one detail: We didn’t yet have hotel reservations.

We do now. I don’t know exactly why I procrastinated so badly on this. I think it was because I knew that making the reservations would be an adventure. I don’t feel confident enough with my Chinese to try making a reservation over the phone. (And at the price I’m willing to pay, you can forget about English.)

Not every Chinese hotel has online booking yet. Many have web sites, but few let you book directly. At best you can email a reservation request and wait for a reply in creative English.

That leaves Western chains and online travel sites as the best option. I ended up using both. In Shanghai, we’re staying at a Chinese hotel that is bookable through Hotels.com. In Hangzhou, we’re staying at a Best Western that was bookable through the Best Western site. It was fairly exhausting narrowing down all the options to get to this solution, but I’m happy with our rooms. And happier still to have this over with.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Special Delivery

Alert readers will remember that about two months ago, I attempted to buy World Cup soccer tickets over the Internet. It took five or six tries spread out over two days and two computers, a couple of trans-Pacific phone calls, a fax to Beijing, and a call from my bank’s fraud prevention department (right; they contacted me), but I’m happy to report that on Friday a DHL envelope arrived from China containing all the soccer tickets I was expecting.

In other news, I picked up our visas today at the Chinese consulate. The trip is just about all in place now. We have tickets to China, permission to enter the country, and tickets to all our matches.

I suppose I could have let a travel agent or a tour group operator take care of all this, but that wouldn’t have been sporting. Me with my limited Mandarin skills against a communist bureaucracy…now that’s an exciting matchup. Let’s hear it for independent travel!

Monday, August 27, 2007

Road Work

I’m a member of a writers’ group called Left Coast Writers. One of the perks of membership is that you can submit your writing to the group’s web site and if you’re lucky, they’ll post it online.

This week, I got lucky. A piece that has previously appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle just went up in the Road Work section of the Left Coast Writers site.

Actually, LCW accepted the essay first, but there were delays (circumstances beyond my control) getting it up online. But the piece is there now, and I’m grateful to LCW for believing in it before the Chronicle even did.

Friday, August 24, 2007

Do You Copy?

Sometimes my parents are big copycats. I moved to California, they moved to California. (It took them seven years, but I think that was just to make it look less obvious.) Then I started a blog, and look who’s blogging now: My father.

He’s using it to post articles about aviation. Some of the articles that will appear have been published already and some will be original. He’s hoping to compile them into a book one day.

When I was in college, my father suggested to me that I should pick elective courses based on the professor’s reputation, not the subject matter. He believed, and I think he’s right (he’s got some pretty good advice for a copycat), that a good teacher can make any subject interesting.

For an example of what I mean, I don’t need to go any further than my father’s latest blog entry. It’s on a navigation system that’s on the brink of extinction. Maybe that doesn’t sound like something that would grab you, but he called it “Breathing Life Back into Dead Reckoning.” Good, no? That made me want to read further, and I’m glad I did. You will be too. Please check it out!

Oh, I guess I ought to mention, since you’ve probably noticed, that yes, my father and I are both writers. He kind of thought of that one first, though. Like I said, he does have some really good ideas.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous


Tahoe can be expensive, but I’ve found a way around that: Sleep somewhere cheap and spend your days in places that look like a million bucks.

I spent both nights of my trip in motels. They were definitely bare-bones, especially the one in South Lake Tahoe, a family-owned, cash-only operation where not even shampoo was provided. But both were clean and quiet and provided a place to sleep for less than $100, which was all I wanted out of a solo trip. (The place in Tahoe City had free wi-fi and included continental breakfast--not bad.)

Both days I was in Tahoe I visited grand old houses that are open to the public. True, nobody let me take the boat out for a spin, but it was fun to pretend that I knew the kind of swells who had vacation homes like this. Pictured is the Thunderbird Lodge, near Incline Village, Nevada. This place was owned by a guy named George Whittell, Jr., who was basically useless while he was alive, having inherited so much money that he never had to work a day in his life. He spent his days collecting knickknacks, building a menagerie, and investigating mysteries such as the age-old question, “Can an elephant survive at an elevation of 6,200 feet?” (Sadly, the answer is no, but there was a lion named Bill who fared a lot better.)

After Whittell’s death, his land, which included virtually the whole Nevada shore, ended up in the hands of the state. Most of it is protected, and the eastern side of the lake is still undeveloped and beautiful. So by ostentatiously buying up more land than any one person needs, Whittell was actually doing more good than anyone could have envisioned.

And today you can hang out at his house and pretend you’ve been invited to a weekend at Jay Gatsby’s.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Toeing the Line


One other thing that’s interesting about the Cal-Neva Resort is that the California/Nevada state line runs right through the lodge. (Hence the name.) How often do you get to stand with one foot in the Silver State and one in the Golden State? Okay, it’s not exactly straddling the equator, but it’s still worth a photograph.

And I’m guessing the equator isn’t highlighted in gold and silver paint. (I’ll have to ask Pipi; she really did straddle the equator once, in Kenya.)

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

But Don’t Take Any Wooden Nickels


I didn’t do much after arriving at the lake the first evening. Just a disappointing dinner at a family restaurant where the surly teen-aged hostess (sometimes I hate summer) acted like one single grown-up can be safely ignored.

After breakfast the next morning I started driving around the lake. One of my first stops was at the Cal-Neva resort, in Crystal Bay, Nevada. This casino/hotel used to be owned by Frank Sinatra, and it still has a retro coolness to it without actually being stuck in the past. It looks sort of like the Ahwahnee Lodge would if the Jetsons did the decorating. There are all the usual casino favorites, like blackjack and craps, and of course, lots of slot machines.

Now, I know there’s no such thing as a professional slot player, and I know why: Because the house always wins. But I like slots. I can’t help it. I like pulling the lever. I like handling the coins. I like it when the one-armed bandit flashes and chirps at me like a pinball machine. I just like the whole sensory experience.

The Cal-Neva didn’t disappoint. I bought two rolls of nickels (that’s four dollars, folks) and made them last almost an hour at a particularly shiny machine.

At the end of the hour, I had exactly five cents out of my original $4 left. But the one nickel left was a buffalo nickel. I can only remember one other time that I’ve gotten a buffalo nickel in change, so this was quite an event for me.

If you can get yourself into this frame of mind, where you can lose 79 out of 80 coins and still feel like a winner, then you too can be a slot machine champion.

Later, when I visited some of the casinos at the more developed south end of the lake, I realized that I’d had a very unusual experience at the Cal-Neva. The slots in the south all seem to be virtual. You give the machine a bill or a credit card, and when you’re ready to cash out, it prints a ticket for you that you take to the cashier. You’ll never see a real coin. I understand that cashless machines are cleaner, safer, and more convenient, but they make me sad. Sad enough that the next time I’m in Stateline, I probably won’t even bother stopping.

In fact, you can bet on it.

Monday, August 20, 2007

Lake Tahoe


I’ve been neglecting my Lake Tahoe trip. Lake Tahoe is a place I have been to before, but it had been a while, and I wanted to refresh my memory. Plus it was fun to take a little trip in the middle of the week, even though I had to go by myself.

I spent two nights in the area, one in Tahoe City, and one in South Lake Tahoe. While I was there, I drove around the lake. The route around the lake is about 75 miles and can be driven in as little as two hours. But I managed to make it last two days, stopping several places and keeping the top down as much as possible. The drive around Lake Tahoe has been described as the most beautiful drive in America, and it just might be. While I was there, the weather was perfect and the crowds were thin. I’m not sure I’d recommend winging a trip to the lake to the extent I did (I didn’t know for sure each morning where I’d be staying that night) but it certainly worked for me. I don’t think I’ve ever enjoyed myself so much in Tahoe.

Photos here.

Friday, August 17, 2007

Flirting or Mourning?

I mean, I know where the flowers came from, or at least I think I do: There is a tangle of rose bushes hanging over a wall just a few doors down from where I took the picture.

What I’m wondering is, what inspired someone to clip a few roses and leave them here? Right here, on a block that, thanks to an industrial bakery, smells like 20 cakes cooling at once. Here, a block away from a convenience store where a man is speaking to six cruisers’ worth of police officers. Here, a quarter of a mile east of a hovering helicopter. Here, where rolling carts filled with scrap metal of dubious provenance trundle by. Here, where I’ve found myself standing on a corner that smells like a birthday party but looks like a highway fatality shrine.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

What Happened Here?


I found this still life at the corner of 32nd and Adeline, which is not the most uplifting corner of Oakland. (Although it’s not far from the robot I found the other day.)

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

C3PO


I like to listen to music while I walk. Lately, I’ve been going through all of our CDs systematically listening to each one.

Yesterday I found myself listening to an album of children’s music (I have no idea where we got it) while walking through a part of town that was more blighted than I expected. At first this seemed incongruous, listening to silly songs while muttering men with shopping carts full of cans rattled by.

Then I came upon this guy, a relic of my own childhood. He was standing outside a scrap metal yard on Peralta Street. (Which was where all the carts were headed.) Suddenly it all made a little more sense.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

A Statistical Improbability

At the bookstore reading, someone told me that Best Women’s Travel Writing 2007 is doing quite well. This could just be a rumor, but I hear it has sold in the neighborhood of 50,000 copies, which is a lot for Travelers’ Tales.

I went to the Amazon site to try to confirm this. I was not successful, but I did discover one other interesting tidbit: Amazon, for some reason, always has a section on a book’s information page that lists “Statistically Improbable Phrases” contained within the book. For BWTW 2007, it lists exactly one:

Fire Chicken.

I’m not kidding. The only phrase used in the whole anthology so unusual as to have the word “Improbable” attached to it comes from my story. (It’s the literal translation of the Mandarin Chinese word for turkey.) This somehow strikes me as something to be proud of. Maybe it isn’t; I don’t really understand what it means, even after having read the explanation, but that’s my story and I’m sticking to it.