Monday, April 30, 2007

And Now for Something Completely Different

I certainly didn’t expect to include a photo of this in my West Oakland collection: This is a shot of a section of freeway that recently collapsed in this part of town.

Perhaps you’ve heard of this incident—I think it was national news. It’s certainly big here. A truck full of gasoline exploded on a freeway connector at exactly the point where it passes under another freeway, and the fireball melted the roadway above it. Now you can’t drive either road.

This was a fairly shocking event for me because I have driven many times on that exact piece of asphalt you can see drooping down. It used to connect the Bay Bridge to interstate 580, which is the freeway I normally take home from San Francisco. Of course I’m not alone in this situation; tens of thousands of cars pass that way every day.

Many people are saying it’s lucky that this accident didn’t happen mid-day when more people might have been hurt. Others are saying that if it had happened mid-day, all those cars would have made it impossible for the truck to go fast enough to lose control. I’m not sure who’s right; I’m just saying.

The remarkable thing is that no one was killed. No one besides the driver was even injured, and he’s getting out of the hospital soon.

Nobody knows yet how long it will take to repair the roads. Weeks, at least. We’re all going to get to know West Oakland a little bit better, because it’s now necessary to exit the freeway and drive surface streets almost as soon as you get off the Bay Bridge. Traffic will definitely be slow for quite some time. And not just because a couple of major roads are out of commission. Also because people seem to be rubbernecking. I took this photo from another freeway, Interstate 80 heading east, toward Berkeley. It was early afternoon on the day of the accident. Traffic was light, but at the accident site, the flow slowed down enough that I could take a photo out the car window.

Why did I have my camera in the car? I admit it; I was gawking too. I hadn’t intended to slow down enough to take a photo, I had intended to drive to IKEA, where I had heard there was a good view from the parking lot. But traffic did come to a near stop here, so I snapped away.

Friday, April 27, 2007

So Dream Big

Then there’s this optimistic missive, painted on the wall of a real estate office right across the street from yesterday’s church. Food for thought.

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Oakland Series

In my continuing quest to explore parts of my city that I don’t know, I’ve been walking around West Oakland. This neighborhood has a reputation for being not so nice, but I’m really enjoying my travels. (I also haven’t been to the heart of it yet. I think it gets worse, but I’m not going there just now.)

Sure, there are some boarded up buildings. And old men in ratty coats drinking out of paper bags. But there are also gardens, and new condo developments, and friendly cats prowling their yards, same as in any neighborhood.

There is also some really great architecture. Being close to the Bay, West Oakland must once have been a very desirable location, and clearly people have been living here for a long time. (Long by California standards, anyway.) There are a lot of Victorians, and Edwardian mini-mansions. There are also a lot of very pleasant single-family homes built around the time of WWII, when a lot of residents had good work at the shipyards. I saw one of these houses selling for $449,000, suggesting that the area is on its way up.

Here’s a photo of an architectural gem I didn’t know about. It’s the St. John Missionary Baptist Church, on Market Street. It looks like Mission Dolores, but I’m sure it’s not actually that old. Still, it was an unexpected splash of color in a neighborhood that isn’t always that cheerful.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Tough Act to Follow

I mentioned before that I suffer a little bit from stage fright. I realize that’s a silly reason not to do something, and so I’m not going to let it stop me.

Here’s an even sillier reason to be nervous: This story I will be reading was written for an essay contest at the Book Passage Travel Writers and Photographers Conference. It had the good fortune of winning the grand prize there. There are two aspects to the prize. The most major one is that you get a substantial financial credit with an airline ticket consolidator; I used mine to get me to and from Asia last summer.

The other part of the prize is that the winning story gets read out loud at the closing ceremony. Traditionally the winner does not read it. Instead, Don George, the conference chairman, does it.

If you’ve ever seen Don read, you know that he’s a big man with a big, booming voice. It was pretty surreal hearing my story, which had been knocking around in my head for more than 10 years, make its public debut in baritone.

But it did and now I’ve somehow got to top that act. Plus, since his version is the original, it’s now as if I’m a cover artist on my own piece. Oh, and one reading is actually at Book Passage, the bookstore that hosted the conference. There's a nice full-circle quality to that situation, but it's a little daunting, too.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

I Did It

I volunteered to read at a couple of events in the Bay Area promoting The Best Women’s Travel Writing 2007. One is in August (Sunday,
August 12 at 7 pm) at Book Passage in Corte Madera. The reading is meant to promote the Book Passage Travel Writers and Photographers Conference that will be starting a few days later. The piece I’m reading was originally written for that conference in 2005, so I like the circularity of that.

The other reading event isn’t as firm yet. It will be at Alexander Books on Second Street in San Francisco. It’s supposed to be a lunchtime reading sometime in June. Of course you’ll get plenty of notice once it’s scheduled for certain.

Monday, April 23, 2007

Thick Envelope

I got a thick envelope in the mail today from the San Francisco Chronicle. Back in the day, that meant good news from the college of your choice, so I was hopeful. I thought for a moment my submission saturation campaign had paid off. But no such luck. It was just a renewal form for my newspaper subscription. Drat.

Friday, April 20, 2007


I’ve been practicing reading my work aloud, which feels pretty strange but is a good thing to get used to. It takes seven and one-half minutes to get through my turkey story. (That’s at a public reading cadence. Left to my own devices, it would take more like 90 seconds. But I’m trying to make this intelligible.)

It’s a strange thing to go over something I’ve written so obsessively. I hope I don’t get sick of the piece.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

To Read or Not to Read?

That’s not really a question. Of course I’m going to read. It’s just that the idea scares me.

You know how some writers are real hams? Dave Barry comes to mind. I saw him read once, and he clearly likes the spotlight. He even gives commencement addresses. Daniel Handler seems to be another who puts on a good show at readings. Someone recently told me that Barbara Kingsolver is very funny in person, as well. All these authors seem like the kind of person for whom the isolation is the hardest part of being a writer.

Then there are those who really don’t mind spending hours at a time in front of their computers not talking to anyone.

I’m not exactly Emily Dickenson or anything like that, but I am much closer to the latter model. I hate the part in meetings where you have to go around the room and introduce yourself. Toasts frighten me. Oral reports depress me. Once someone asked me to say grace and I refused. Not on any religious grounds. I just choked.

This comes up because apparently one of the other women whose story is in Best Women’s Travel Writing 2007 is organizing a reading in Napa. I don’t know if it’s going to happen or not, but the publisher has put all of us local authors in touch with each other, so it may.

And this is a good thing. I can do it. I gave a reading at a wedding once, so I know I’ll get through it. Part of me is actually excited.

Just nervous.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Did I Say Stop Typing?

Teacake, too, likes to keep an eye on me. If I turn around in my chair, this is what I often see.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Oh, How Long Have You Been There?

When I first started working at home, I wondered how this would effect the cats. This may sound silly, and it mostly is, but I wondered if they would start taking me for granted if I hardly ever left the house.

I needn’t have worried. If anything, they’re more clingy than before. They spend most of the day sleeping on the bed behind my chair, where I can’t see them but they can keep an eye on me.

Then yesterday, Tommy decided that wasn’t close enough, and decided to crawl under my desk and sit at my feet like a devoted puppy. It was a little weird, but sweet. I didn’t even seem him sneak in there. I only realized he was there when I dropped a shoe on him and he made a sort of a snuffling noise to make me feel guilty.

Today he’s regained a little of his cat-like aloofness, but not much. He got as far away as the living room for a little bit, but then it was back to the bed.

Monday, April 16, 2007

Percentage of Americans With Passports

I’ve often heard it said that only about twenty percent of Americans have passports. I can never remember the number exactly, so today I tried to look it up. As it turns out there’s actually very little consensus as to how many of us have passports. I saw estimates ranging from eight to 34 percent. Apparently the fact that they’re good for as many as 10 years (but in some cases only five) makes it hard to track how many valid passports are out there, attached to living people.

I’m not much closer to having the answer, but I think we can safely say the 20% figure is if not a myth, still not much more than a guess.

Friday, April 13, 2007

I Guess They Mean it This Time

I haven’t been following the news about new passport regulations very closely because I already have one and I’ve always been more than happy to use it. (I admit it: I love passport stamps.) I understand that until recently, it was possible to use a notarized birth certificate for travel to Canada and Mexico, but a passport always seemed so much easier.

It sounds like they’re serious now about requiring air travelers to carry passports for trips between the U.S. and Canada/Mexico. I’ve been hearing buzz about how this is going to cause a big backup at passport processing agencies, and I’ve been wondering if this could be true.

I still don’t know for sure, but I did notice something interesting a few days ago. I happened to be in a neighborhood in San Francisco where I used to work, and I saw a group of people standing in line outside an office building in a place where I’d never noticed people queuing before. The office turned out to be the San Francisco Passport Agency, a bureau normally so un-trafficked that until then I hadn’t realized it was there. This suggests to me that more people than usual have been applying for passports.

This should make Mexican, Caribbean, and Canadian tourism authorities happy—I’d been hearing they were worried that American visitors would stay away because we’re too lazy or too cheap to apply for passports. But apparently, if it’s a nice enough day, we will stand in line for quite some time to get one.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Not Strictly Related, But….

… Not everyone knows this: The Thursday after Easter, they practically give away Peeps. Twelve cents a box at Walgreens.

And they’re not even stale.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Anything’s Possible

Here’s yet another apocryphal story: A rookie football player scores his first touchdown, and in his zeal to impress his coach with his passion for the game, makes a complete fool of himself dancing like a dork on the field. When he gets back to the bench, he expects praise, but all the coach says is, “Son, next time you’re in the end zone, try to act like you’ve been there before.”

I’m feeling a little like that football player lately, except it’s not an act with me. I’m genuinely having trouble acting cool. I finally found a copy of The Best Womens’ Travel Writing 2007. It’s the first anthology I’ve ever appeared in, and I’m just pleased as punch.

Yesterday I went to my favorite bookstore, Book Passage, in Corte Madera to pick up a copy I’d reserved. “Best Women’s Travel Writing, eh?” the man at the counter said to me as he handed me the book off the hold shelf. I was dying for him to ask why I wanted this title badly enough to special order it, but he didn’t. So I took my self-satisfaction outside. (First, though, I bought a cookie at the in-store café and was so excited I walked away and left it there.)

I sat down on a short stone pillar outside. I happened to be wearing a t-shirt I’d gotten from a charity I volunteered with at Christmas. On the front it said: “Anything is Possible.” A man walked by as I was flipping through the book (I’m on page 288) and said to me, “Cool shirt.” I thanked him, not really knowing what else to say. “It’s true, too, you know,” he replied, “Anything is possible.”

It made me happy to hear those words coming from him. I don’t know the guy personally, but I’ve seen him around before. He works at the REI next door to the bookstore. Aside from that, the only other thing I know about him is that he has a prosthetic leg, which doesn’t seem to slow him down a bit. (Well, maybe it does, but I hate to think how exuberantly energetic his pace would be with two good legs.)

Again not knowing how to respond, I heard myself blurt, “Well, I like to think that’s true.” And watching this man stride around like a titanium leg wasn’t any impediment at all, and seeing this book in my hands that had the words “Nicole” and “Best” together on the same page, I realized that at that moment, I actually believed what I’d just said.

(I almost left out the most important part of that story: The cookie was still there on the counter when I went back for it.)

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Separated at Birth?

Have you ever been one place and suddenly thought you were someplace else for a second? Something about the way a road curves, or the light falls will occasionally make me think so much of someplace else that I get disoriented.

No, it’s just me? Oh dear. Well, anyway, one of those things happened to me in Southern California over the weekend. I was on the street pictured in yesterday’s post, looking at the hills in the photo. I think they are in Pacific Palisades. The hills could be further north than that—I’m not sure, but it doesn’t really matter. The important thing is that I’m certain they aren’t in northern China, but just for a second, I thought I was. Something about the hazy light, and the green, jagged peaks made me expect to see the Great Wall snaking along the ridgeline. I had one of those “whoa” moments. Then I felt my car keys in my pocket, and Pipi said something, and I saw the Italianate mansions along the street, and I was back in California.

Everyone I mentioned my moment to that day thought I was a little nuts. I won’t directly dispute that, but I do submit the above photo as evidence that like a stopped clock, I am sometimes right.

Today’s photo was taken last summer at the Simatai section of the Great Wall, a few hours outside of Beijing. I’m glad I dug it up. It’s not the greatest photo of the Wall ever taken, but I can see what threw me. The hazy light, the muted greenery, the intimidating stone architecture…it’s all there in both photos. (Which comes as a great relief to me—even I was starting to wonder how I got China on the brain.)

Monday, April 09, 2007

Gloomy Day in Los Angeles

Pipi assures me this kind of weather is not too unusual for Los Angeles, but this was the first overcast day I had ever seen there. (I saw it rain once, but sustained gloom was new to me.)

It didn’t matter, though. We weren’t there to sunbathe, so we had a nice visit. We spent most of Saturday with Pipi’s family. It’s not really important exactly where they live. Let’s just say that if you were playing Frisbee, an errant throw could end up on the Pacific Coast Highway. But it would be in transit for quite a while.

Saturday evening, we headed to Redondo Beach, where a friend of mine from high school now lives. Sunday morning she and her husband showed us the town, which they describe as a little more family oriented than say, Manhattan Beach or Hermosa Beach. I hadn’t realized the beaches all had such a sense of place, but my friend says that she knows people who grew up in L.A. and still don’t know their Beaches. That made me feel better. I actually feel as though I know a local secret now.

In case you were wondering (I was): Yes, there is a beach at Redondo Beach. A nice one. We walked along it for a while and watched surfers and volleyball players. It wasn’t sunset, but it still seemed as quintessentially a Southern Californian scene as it could be without roller skates or a yoga mat.

Friday, April 06, 2007

Fun Fact

I had always assumed that Australia and North America were antipodal. Growing up, I thought that if I dug a hole straight through the center of the earth, I would come out in Australia. But it turns out that I’m wrong. Weather I started my hole in Massachusetts or California, I still would come out in the Indian Ocean, west of Australia.

I know this because of a few of fun tools I found online. The first one will tell you the latitude and longitude of your exact address. I discovered that I live at latitude 37.801647 north and 122.240237 west longitude.

The second tool is an antipode calculator. Plug in your hometown coordinates, and it will tell you the coordinates of the farthest place on the globe from where you live—your antipode. In my case, that’s 37.801647 S and 57.759763 E. If you want to know where in the world that is, go to this third tool, type in the new coordinates (western and southern latitudes are negative), and it will show you your antipode's location on a map.

It took me a while to figure out where in the world my antipode is, because Mapquest showed nothing but water until I zoomed way out. It turned out to be at the tip of a trench in the Indian Ocean, closer to South Africa than Australia.

Sorry, short post today. I have to go start filling in that big disappointing hole in my back yard.

Thursday, April 05, 2007

Top Ten From Down Under

I stand corrected: There’s a chorus of “hey hey heys” at the end of “Sly.” I think that counts as nonsense. So “Sly” has three of the four possible great-song elements. No wonder I like it.

I didn’t mean to start another music post, though. I wanted to write about something else I’ve always admired about Australia: their movies. You almost can’t go wrong. I saw one once (Oscar and Lucinda) that was kind of boring, but I’ve liked every other Australian film that I can remember seeing. Here are some favorites, in rough chronological order.

  • Picnic at Hanging Rock
  • My Brilliant Career
  • Gallipoli
  • Starstruck
  • The Year of Living Dangerously
  • Rikky and Pete
  • The Sum of Us
  • The Adventures of Priscilla: Queen of the Desert
  • Moulin Rouge
  • Rabbit-Proof Fence

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Where Women Glow and Men Chunder

Is it wrong to plan a trip around music? Probably not—I’m sure there are worse reasons to travel. It may, however, be wrong to base your entire concept of a nation’s identity on its pop music.

But I have. I’ve been obsessed with Australia ever since Men at Work introduced me to “The Land Down Under” when I was in junior high school. Then there was Crowded house, INXS, ACDC (initials were big in the 80s, weren’t they?), Midnight Oil, and a long string of other Aussies culminating in Xavier Rudd and the Waifs. I even like Olivia Newton John, just because she has that great accent.

Lately I’ve been taken with a song I keep hearing on KFOG. They’re not good with group names on that station, but I finally listened long enough to discover that it’s a song called “Sly,” by the Cat Empire. They’re from Melbourne. I don’t know much about them, but I know that the song has two of the four elements that to me, ensure musical perfection: It’s catchy, and the band looks like it’s having a lot of fun doing what it does. (The other two essential elements are a lapse into “Sha la las” or other nonsense lyrics, and exotic place names. A song can still be really good with less than the full complement, though.)

All this is a long way of saying that Australia just bumped up several more places on my list of countries I really want to visit. As I’ve said before, I really do want to visit all of them, but realistically, there are some I want to see more than others, and Australia is definitely top five. I don’t know when it will happen, but someday I will get there.

And I’m bringing a tape recorder with me.

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Next on the Itinerary

Southeast Asia? Antarctica? The Riviera? Nope. Next weekend Pipi and I are going to Los Angeles. We’re going to have a Passover Seder at her parents’ house, and we’re going to stay with a high school friend of mine. It will be Easter Sunday, so I’m not sure what we’ll do. Maybe an arboretum. I’ll let you know what we come up with.

Monday, April 02, 2007

Business as Usual

Meanwhile, life goes on. Via magazine rejected my Trans-Siberian railroad pitch, saying it’s too far afield for them. I’m not too surprised—it was always a stretch. They’ve run articles about Cuba and New Zealand before, so I was hopeful, but really, it doesn’t make too much sense for the magazine of the Western States’ auto club to print an article about Siberia. So I’ll try somewhere else. There’s got to be someone who wants an article about what even the Via editor described as “One heck of a ride.”