Friday, March 30, 2007

Devine Secrets of the Ink-Stained Sisterhood

Barbara Kingsolver and I are practically sisters now. Not blood sisters, of course. More like ink sisters. Sisters who have never met. Sisters who can’t pick each other out of a lineup. Sisters who aren’t necessarily mutually aware that the other exists.

So maybe we’re not so much sisters. But today I did happen to see my name on the same web page as hers. This tickled me deeply because she’s one of my favorite authors. I read and re-read The Bean Trees compulsively when I, like the heroine of that book, was in my early 20s and new to the West.

The web page that includes both of us is part of the Travelers’ Tales web site. It’s promoting the book The Best Women’s Travel Writing 2007, which, as it turns out, we both appear in. I feel like it’s a huge honor for me to see my name just a few signatures removed from the author of The Poisonwood Bible.

I’m not sure how Barbara feels about it though. I guess I’ll have to ask her at the next family reunion.

Thursday, March 29, 2007

Viva Andorra

Also, Andorra has the longest life expectancy of any country in the world: 83.51 years. It just moved up several notches on the list of countries I’d like to visit. (It was always on the list; they all are. It was just a matter of rank.)

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Fun Fact

The capital of Andorra is Andorra la Vella. Who knew it even had a capital? I thought it was one of those city/state deals, like Monaco. Oh, and the official language is Catalan. Didn’t know that, either.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

This Site Rocks

Here’s another outlet I’ve found for some of my articles: See The It’s an excellent Web site, and I’d have said so even before the webmaster agreed to let me post some content in the Travel Reviews section. You can book travel, although not directly—enter information in the search box, and the site asks you which big-name sites (Travelocity, Expedia, etc.) you want it to search for you. Then it goes to those sites.

What See The Globe does best is content. I can’t tell you how validating it is to see a travel site with so much content. (“Content” is, of course, dot-com talk for “stuff people wrote.”) There are articles, and restaurant reviews, and a blog. There are guidebook reviews, and places where site users can post their own reviews. (They can rate the articles, too. So far no one’s commented on mine—these would be my first reviews so the idea is scary!)

Oh, and this is very cool. I am surprised more sites haven’t copied this. It’s an interactive map called “Where in the world is…?” It’s a world map with an alphabetical list of countries next to it. Click on a country name, and the map zooms into that country. Ever wondered where exactly Andorra is? Now you can find out. Clicking on a country also brings up a lot of information like the population, and the capital city. There are links to whatever other information the site has about that place.

What I really love about the site is that it assumes that visitors come to it with a sense of curiosity. Most other travel sites, including one that employed me for many years, seemed to assume that users already knew where they wanted to go, and didn’t offer them much other information to browse and daydream about. Although to their credit, market research showed that their assumption was correct. People don’t go to Travelocity wondering where to go. They go there looking for the lowest fare for the trip to Las Vegas they’ve already planned. I understand that, but it always made me sad. Kudos to See The Globe for keeping the wanderlust dream alive.

Monday, March 26, 2007

You Break It, You Bought It

I’ve signed up with a web site called It’s a site where, for a small subscription fee, you can post travel stories that you want to re-sell to new editors at a bargain rate. I once heard the site described by another travel writer as the best $39 he ever spent.

I haven’t exactly been having that kind of luck with it. Actually, I haven’t sold anything on it yet. But I am getting some nibbles. There’s a statistics page that tells me people are clicking on the articles. They just aren’t buying.

You know who you are. If you’ve been browsing—thank you very much for stopping by. I appreciate your taking the time. I’m honestly flattered that you seem to be coming back once, maybe even twice to give my pieces another look.

But how about making a freelancer a very happy person? Just go ahead and make the purchase. It’s for a good cause (I assure you). And it’s a good price. Where else are you going to find a certified pre-owned article about Shakespeare’s Verona, Thanksgiving in China, or how to arrange a gay wedding abroad? Please; you won’t regret it. Operators are standing by.

Friday, March 23, 2007

Do I Feed Him?

Well, that’s a tough question but the answer is no. There are a couple of reasons why. The first is that once you start, you really can’t stop. Feeding him would effectively mean that I have a third pet, which would be a violation of our rental agreement.

In addition, adopting Smudge would bring the household cat count to three, while the human population remains steady at two. Exceeding a 1:1 human to cat ratio is a dangerous business. I know households that have accomplished this without devolving into crazy cat lady status, but it’s the exception rather than the rule.

Maybe it sounds mean, but it’s a real worry. I have a lot of time on my hands, and could easily keep an eye on a neighborhood stray. Maybe two. Maybe even three, if they all tended to stick together. But the last thing I need is a herd of strays gobbling up the bits of my time that haven’t already been consumed by compulsive newspaper reading (you can learn a lot about the human condition by reading the classifieds), Youtube surfing (two words: fish heads), and game playing (one more time and I’ll get the center peg for sure).

Thursday, March 22, 2007


This guy isn’t my kitty in any sense, but I am starting to feel a little possessive of him. I’ve been seeing him around the neighborhood for a couple of years, all skittish and thin, and I always thought he was a feral cat. But one day he decided he trusted me, and now he’ll often come to me and let me pet him. Now I think maybe he’s abandoned.

I see him behind my building a lot, but more and more he’s spending mornings like this, curled up on a padded chest we have on our fire escape. For some reason, it’s always mornings, and rarely afternoons, even though afternoon is the only time this spot gets direct sun. Another strange thing: He usually bolts when I open the fire escape door. He doesn’t seem to recognize me as the nice lady who pets him on the sidewalk. On the fire escape, I’m suddenly the angel of death hell-bent on possessing him.

His (sometimes) friendliness leads me to believe he once had a home, but whatever name he may have had is lost now. So I call him Smudge. He’s not the prettiest kitty on the block, but he may be the toughest, so he’s got that going for him.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Bringing New Meaning to the Term “Cat Box”

Tommy is also doing well. He’s about 10. (We’re not good about his birthday, but he never appreciates the cards anyway.) Even at his age, he has not yet lost his kitten-like ability to get himself into trouble that he can’t necessarily get out of.

This story has a happy ending, though: To everyone’s surprise, including his own, I think, Tommy was able to jump out of the box by himself.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Separated at Birth?

Some of you have been wondering about the health and well-being of my cats. This would definitely fall under the “not strictly related” category, but who am I to deny my public?

Teacake (nine years old; thought to be a Maine Coon/Pineapple mix), is doing just fine. Not going hungry or anything. He would like to remind you that the camera adds 10 ounces.

Friday, March 16, 2007

Not Strictly Related, But….

…My sister’s here! She’s going to cooking school in San Francisco for the next six months and living at our parents’ place there. Today we had lunch together and walked around the Mission District. We started at La Taqueria, at 25th and Mission, saw some murals, and then walked up to 18th St., where some gelato may have been tasted at Bi-Rite Creamery. The brown butter pecan ice cream might be amazing.

The only sad note: Valencia St. Books seems to have closed. They had a great cat who lived there named Grumblebunny, which is one of the all-time great cat names. I really wanted to introduce my sister to Grumble, but I guess we’ll have to figure out where she moved to.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Now With 10% Less Mutton

I couldn’t find a statistic on how many Americans visited Mongolia in 2006, the year I went. So I am not able to feel as proud of myself as I was hoping. I did discover that in 2005, a total of 338,000 people visited the country, and that tourism is increasing by about 15% every year. I don’t know if that’s enough to label the place “up-and-coming,” but it does suggest the marketing department is doing some good. (Apparently the old slogan, “Like China, with vodka” tested well with Russians but still didn’t work out as well as they’d hoped.)

I pitched the idea of an article on Mongolia to an editor at Korean Air’s in-flight magazine. He said maybe. According to him, if they do decide to run a Mongolia story, John and I are in the running. The editor has worked with John before and likes his photography work, so I’m lucky that way.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Fun Fact

According to a New York Times archive article that my friend John just dug up and sent to me, in 1991 only 282 Americans visited Mongolia.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Old Town Oakland Find

Pipi and I had almost forgotten how much we liked a restaurant we’d been to once before: Tamarindo, in the Old Town neighborhood of Oakland. This is a neighborhood, which, as you might guess, has lots of nice Victorian buildings. Developers seem to have found it, which is good, in this case, because there wasn’t much going on before—it was mostly boarded up like too much of the downtown still is. So I don’t regard Old Town as some kind of heavy-handed gentrification project. (I’m not saying that never happens in Oakland; I just don’t think that’s what’s going on here.)

The restaurant bills itself as an “Antojeria,” which is translated from Spanish to mean “place of little cravings.” They usually serve a few special entrees each night, but most of the menu is small plates. I guess you could call it Mexican tapas.

Pipi and I went again last Saturday night and it was as good if not better than the first time. We had crispy little shrimp tacos, a beef torta, and plantains. For dessert, there was a dulce de leche crepe. I had sparkling pomegranate juice to drink. (Mexican restaurants always seem to have interesting drinks, so I usually try something I’m not positive I’m going to like. I almost always do.)

Here’s a link to the menu so you can see what I’m talking about.

Monday, March 12, 2007

Not Strictly Related, But….

…Boy, it sure was dark this morning when I woke up.

The time change brings out the curmudgeon in some of my family members. I don’t personally mind so much the change in the spring. I really like it when it stays light late.

No, what makes me cranky is changing the clocks. My computer was smart enough to see this coming, and so was my cable TV box. Every other time-telling device in the house acted like it’s from Arizona and had no idea what was going on. Pipi and I spent a lot of Sunday morning changing a grand total of five watches, two wall clocks, two alarm clocks, the VCR, the microwave, and toaster-oven clocks; the kitchen radio clock; the thermostat; one desk-top clock; two car radios; and--this is a new one for us—the telephone time display. (Luckily, if you change one phone, it gets the word out to the other extensions.)

The worst part is that I fear some of these time pieces are going to jump themselves forward an hour in April when they’re used to changing, and we’ll have to repeat the whole room-to-room assault.

Friday, March 09, 2007

The Tao of Dumplings

I was going to call this post “Spreading the Gospel of Dumplings,” but that seemed culturally inappropriate on several levels.

A few days ago Pipi and I went to Crown Wok, the new Chinese place I found with Shanghai dumplings. They were good! Maybe not quite as good as at the Oakland restaurant called Shanghai, but still, a middling Shanghai dumpling is worth driving downtown for.

Maybe you’re wondering what a Shanghai dumpling is. I know I’ve described them before; they’re small steamed dumplings that somehow have broth sealed inside. (Here’s a link to a photo: I’ve also heard them called “soup dumplings.” In Mandarin, their name is “xiao long bao:” “little dragon dumplings.” That might be the only Chinese you really need to know in China. (Most other things you can mime, point to, or explain in rudimentary English.) They’re everywhere in Shanghai. They’re usually served as an appetizer, but I often said I could eat a whole pile of them for dinner. And several times I ended up wishing I had because what came next usually couldn’t compare. It’s like starting with dessert first. You just don’t want the salad after that.

(A small disappointment regarding Crown Wok: When I went there today, they didn’t have bubble tea as advertised. I feel a little misled, but there are so many places to find it in nearby Chinatown that I got over it quickly.)

Thursday, March 08, 2007

More Oakland Surprises

Today I walked through Old Town and came out on the other side of it. My gut feeling is that this is where West Oakland begins. There, around Interstate 980, it starts to feel a little run-down, and you start to see projects. It’s the kind of Oakland neighborhood with really nice Victorian houses that are completely falling apart.

I wasn’t really in the ’hood; it felt safe. It was just interesting to see the transition.

I found two things there that took me by surprise a little bit. Maybe surprise isn’t the word—it’s certainly not surprising to find either one in Oakland. I guess I’m just a little embarrassed to find that there are points of interest in parts of town I’d at least subconsciously dismissed as having nothing for me.

The first surprising thing was a museum of African American history. I have to admit, I didn’t realize Oakland had one. But we do. It was closed when I went by, but I will definitely check it out soon.

The other nice surprise was discovering that there was a Unitarian church with a rainbow sticker across its sign. I wondered for a moment if they knew what it meant, but then I noticed that right below it, it said “EVERYONE welcome.” There was also a quote from the Taoist Chuang Tsu, something about how everything you need to know can be found in a drop of water. I thought about that all the way up to Broadway. I was really thirsty when I got there. But I liked Oakland even more.

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Why I Love Oakland

On yesterday’s downtown walk, I discovered one short block—Tenth Street between Clay and Washington—that has three restaurants on it. One is Chinese, one is Thai, and the other is Vietnamese. I know I’ve been on this block before because I remember going to the Vietnamese restaurant, Le Cheval. It’s very good. I never noticed the other two restaurants, though. They may be new. I will certainly try the Chinese one very soon, because in addition to being yet another place where you can get bubble tea, it also has my favorite Chinese treat of all: Shanghai dumplings. I must have written about these before, but I feel I can’t work hard enough to get the word out. They’re little steamed dumplings filled with shrimp and pork. What makes them special is partly the sauce, a tangy, gingery soy sauce and vinegar mix. It’s also the fact that the dumplings somehow are steamed with a thick, rich broth inside. I don’t know how they do that. Ancient Chinese secret, I guess.

But to get back to what made me remember how much I love Oakland, it goes beyond the fact that in this city you can find three different types of Asian food on the same side of one short street.

What really did it for me is the fact that while I was standing in front of the Chinese restaurant reading the menu, I could hear, coming from somewhere (I never did discover where) the sound of bagpipes. That kind of thing, cultural diversity raised to a surreal art form, just made me fall in love with Oakland all over again.

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

All We Are Saying

I’ve been in touch with the editor of the Chronicle Sunday Magazine, and my article is a go. On May 20, it’s going to appear in the “My Word” section, which is the next-to-last page of the magazine where there’s always a freelance-written essay.

It was a good editorial experience. The editor had two concerns, which she allowed me the chance to fix up. I appreciate that she didn’t just toss it on the reject pile for the sin of not being perfect. I wish we hadn’t lost the last line of the piece, but I can live without it, and following through with the other suggestion definitely made the essay stronger. I wish all editors were this willing to give a piece a chance.

Monday, March 05, 2007

Revised Score

Upon further review, I realize the Solas awards weren’t a complete shutout. I won an honorable mention for my coin collecting piece, the one the Christian Science Monitor published.

Friday, March 02, 2007

We Now Return to Our Regularly Scheduled Life

Well, the Solas awards were a shutout. Readers of yesterday’s blog will probably guess that I’m disappointed, but it’s all good. For one thing, I honestly am glad to get to delete a bookmark. It’s bad enough how many times in a normal day I click over to E! Online and SF Gate. I wasn’t looking for any more sites to obsessively monitor.

The other good thing is that I got a very nice and encouraging e-mail from the Executive Editor of Travelers’ Tales, who happened to read my blog (didn’t see that coming) and was, I think, a little concerned for my mental health. I’ll tell you what I told him, which is that I may have been exaggerating my compulsive nature a tiny bit. Okay, I admit, I really did check the Travelers’ Tales site first thing. Maybe more than once. But I also went for a walk, cleaned up the kitchen, updated my profile on some networking sites, and even did a little writing. I didn’t strictly speaking, actually put my whole life on hold waiting for a web site to refresh.

To put it in perspective, I’m actually a lot more upset by the fact that my second-favorite Bay-Area radio station switched overnight to a Toby Keith-style, Southern Comfort-swilling, Chevy-driving, boot-scootin’, slap-your-Mama country format. That, my friends, is disappointing.

Thursday, March 01, 2007

The Suspense is Killing Me

Several months ago I submitted a few articles to a writing contest called the Solas Awards. It’s sponsored by Travelers’ Tales, a publishing company that specializes in compilations of travel writing. There are 21 categories open to submission, each with gold, silver, and bronze awards, so that seemed auspicious. More categories means more opportunities to win, right?

For months there has been a little note on the Travelers’ Tales web site saying that Solas Awards winners will be announced “by March 1, 2007.” All this week I’ve been compulsively checking back to the site. Today’s’ the big day, so I checked in first thing this morning. Now there’s a note saying that winners will be posted “sometime Thursday, March 1, 2007.” (That doesn’t seem to be grammatically the same as “by March 1, 2007,” but I quibble.)

You can imagine how my morning has gone so far. Boot up computer, check Travelers' Tales site. Make coffee, check Travelers' Tales site. Eat cereal, check Travelers' Tales site. Bookmark Travelers' Tales site, check Travelers' Tales site. Repeat.

It’s silly, I know. Even though it’s the inaugural year of the competition, I’m sure they’re inundated with submissions and there’s no real reason to think I could have won something. My behavior makes about as much sense as someone compulsively pulling a slot-machine handle, saying each time, “This is the big one, I can feel it.” In fact, these behaviors are probably not unrelated. So there’s a sense in which I am secretly enjoying this torture. But I really do want it to be over so I can get my life back.

(And by “get my life back,” I of course mean that I want to return to punctuating my day by obsessively checking my regular fleet of time-wasting web sites. Enough with Travelers’ Tales.)