Friday, June 27, 2008

I’ll Come Back Later

Another thing the guard told me is that the whole eastern side of the base is going to be bulldozed, and that a car dealership plaza will be constructed in the area that is already torn up and covered in gravel. So one day I probably will be able to walk around the old Army base again. It just won’t look anything like it does now.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Not-So-Warm Welcome

Here’s the funny thing, though: Actually, you’re not particularly welcome. In fact, I got kicked off recently.

The guard was nice enough. I think he was just surprised to see a walker meandering between the warehouses. He wanted to know if I’d “come off a truck.” I wondered for a second if he thought I was part of a human smuggling operation, but I think he just wondered if I were a truck driver, because those are about the only people around the base during the day.

The guard politely informed me that the base is private property, and I politely offered to leave, since I was done for the day anyway.

Unfortunately, I wasn’t entirely done with the base. There are still a few streets I haven’t been on yet. One doesn’t seem to exist anymore—it’s under a parking lot now. A couple more may not exist—if they do, they’re buried under a mountain of construction-site debris, and in any case are in the private area. Two more short streets are outside the area marked “private,” but they seem to lead to a truck loading zone and you have to go past a guard post to get to them. I don’t think I’ll be walking on them, either. I did say I wouldn’t trespass, so I appear to be done with the Oakland Army Base, and with it, West Oakland in general. I’ll miss the area, even the base, which was a little desolate, but full of history.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Phase III

So far no results yet from my marketing blitz, but I didn’t really expect anything to happen so quickly.

My next step is to try to pitch some story ideas to magazines I’ve worked with in the past. This might be where some previously unpublished pieces finally find a home, although it will take a little work to get them into magazine shape. That should keep me busy for a while.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Not Taking No for an Answer

Phase II will involve trying anew to get articles published. I keep lists of every publication I’ve offered every piece to, and periodically I go back over those lists and try to think of papers that might be a better fit. Today I tried sending some China articles to various newspapers. I can’t believe no one’s taken my Great Wall of China article. If they don’t want it this summer, they never will, so I was pretty aggressive about sending it around. Some editors may not be seeing the Great Wall piece for the first time, but my feeling is that if you don’t ask me to cut it out, I can keep offering it. (And I will keep this up as long as editors persist in ignoring submissions completely.) As always, we’ll see how my campaign goes.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Getting Resourceful

Part of writing is marketing, and on Friday I went on a big marketing push. I’m trying to find homes for pieces I’ve already written and that either never got published or still seem to have some life in them.

Phase I of this push involved me unloading a number of stories on the Travelers’ Tales web site. They offer a number of avenues for allowing travel pieces to see the light of day. They publish anthologies, which is the real goal, and they also post stories on the Travelers’ Tales web site, which would be nice, too. In addition, they run a contest every year called the Solas awards. Awards are given in a lot of different categories, including Women’s Travel, Bad Trip, Travel and Food, and the intriguing Animal Encounter category. I’m not holding my breath, mostly because the awards aren’t announced until spring, but I remain hopeful.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

The Rest of the Story

There was a whole scene that got cut out of my Taiwan story. Karen said she edited it this way specifically so that I could publish that part elsewhere, which was a nice consideration. I do intend to try to get an audience for it somehow. I’ll start with you.

This section starts at the end of our hike along the train tracks, and describes dinner at a sort of bed & breakfast (well, bed & dinner) establishment Sarah and I stumbled into. I remember that I was a little apprehensive going into the situation—what if I couldn’t talk to anyone? What if the food was weird? What if I committed a faux pas? Pretty quickly, though, we relaxed and stopped worrying so much, and that’s when the fun began. I didn’t get all the conversation, and in fact, the food was a little weird. But it was, as they say, all good. Well, not the maple gelatin, but everything else, once I’d let go of my need to understand and anticipate every little thing, was great. It’s one of my favorite memories from that summer.

We finally decided to turn around when we got to a dark and forbidding tunnel full of imaginary snakes and spiders. The hike back to town was uneventful, with no train wrecks and no further epiphanies.

We’d heard through the backpacking grapevine that the town’s railway workers were eager to supplement their income by renting out rooms to tourists, and this turned out to be true. For the equivalent of $12, we were invited to have dinner and spend the night at the home of a boyishly jovial conductor named Mr. Gao. He was no taller than either of us, and was still wearing his uniform, with a hat that fell over his eyes and sleeves that hung down to his knuckles. If he had been on the train that had almost run down (or at least bumped) a couple of Americans earlier that afternoon, he kept it to himself.

We just had time to wash up before dinner. As I was taking off my muddy shoes, I overheard Mr. Gao in the bathroom explaining a quirk of the plumbing to Sarah. “Thanks,” I heard her say in Chinese, “I’ll tell my peng you.” Peng you. Friend. She’d called me her friend. A jolt of happiness made me smile, and for the second time that day, I had the feeling something important had changed in my life.

There were about 10 people at the dinner table. We spoke a pidgin of Mandarin sprinkled liberally with English. I picked up that the others were railway employees who came and went with the waxing and waning of tourist crowds. I wasn’t sure I understood who lived in the house and who didn’t, but it didn’t matter. The sunny Mr. Gao made us all feel like we belonged, heaping our rice bowls with more and more food. He brought dish after dish out of the kitchen, bok choi with garlic following shrimp and mayonnaise chased by chicken, stir-fried squash, and bamboo made with local shoots so stupefyingly tender and nutty that Mr. Gao said that he forgot his name whenever he ate them. A few of the offerings did challenge my teenaged palate, like the brown jelly that looked like consommé but tasted like Aunt Jemima pancake syrup. (I slid my portion into Sarah’s bowl when Mr. Gao made one of his many trips into the kitchen.)

I wondered aloud what some of the more exotic items were, and each time I asked, Mr. Gao jumped up from the table, bounded downstairs, and returned a few minutes later with a dot-matrix printout describing the dish in English. When one slip came back with the single word “tripe,” I decided to stop asking. I never found out what the next item was, a fibrous, tasteless, branched thing that looked like a diagram of human bronchial tubes. (Years later, when someone happened to ask me what the weirdest food was I’d ever eaten, this was the first thing that popped into my head.)

I can’t say that everything in my life became clear that day. I couldn’t identify half the things in my stuffed belly, for one thing. I never learned the names of all my dining companions. I hardly understood the obsession with China that had made me want to study in Beijing, and nobody really had a clear picture of the massacre in Tiananmen Square that had re-routed me to the island formerly known as Formosa.

So it’s true that I was still, in many ways, the same baffled teenager who had gotten on a bus with a near stranger that morning. I still barely knew where I was or how I got there. But for the first time in my life, I had some idea of where I was going.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Read All About it at Readerville

My story is live now on the Readerville front page. You can click here to see it.

I can tell that this was an interesting editing exercise for Karen Templer, the wonderful woman who runs the site. It was an interesting exercise in editing for me when I wrote it. I could tell it was going long before I was very far into the story, and I had to stop and ask myself how I was going to deal with that. Usually the answer to a piece meandering into the 2500+ word territory is to cut mercilessly. Occasionally, though, the thing to do is to let it happen, making sure you take the time to treat each element of the story before moving on to another part of the narrative.

I chose the latter approach for this essay. I’m not saying it was the right decision; I’m just saying it was what I chose. As a consequence, the story did turn out longer than Karen wanted (i.e. longer than normal people will give an online story). So she cut some parts out. I don’t blame her. Something had to go, and you probably won’t even notice. (I once left all the sugar out of a dessert recipe by mistake and nobody noticed. It’s amazing what you can do without when you have to.) I’m just saying, if you are left wondering how I got full from a dinner I never mentioned eating, or what exactly I overheard Sarah say, the answers were once there.

Of course, you probably you never would have asked. It can be hard when you write something to tell what’s important and what isn’t. That’s what editors are for.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Readerville to the Rescue

Several months ago I went to an event where I saw a speaker who runs a web site called Readerville. It’s a site by and for literary people, dedicated to the idea that people still read for pleasure. I hadn’t heard of the site before, but I loved the idea and tried to think what I could send them.

I did think of something, and today I’ve been working with the editor to prepare a piece for publication. It’s a long story about a summer I spent in Taiwan when I was in college. It’s too long—and took place too long ago—to be published in most conventional venues. I still have hope that the full-length piece will appear in an anthology someday. But soon—maybe as soon as tomorrow—a mercifully abridged version will appear online. I’ll post a link when it’s live.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Taking the Scenic Route

Several years ago, Pipi and I flew Southwest Airlines from Oakland to New Orleans. It was cheap, but it also took all day, the itinerary involved three stops, and a drunk lady in party seating spoiled a big part of the book I was reading. After the second stop in the state of Texas alone, I vowed never to fly Southwest cross-country again.

That vow held for almost 10 years, but recently, temped by a low fare on the ultra convenient Oakland-Harford route, I broke down and decided to give it another try. The web site promised just one stop each way, which I find acceptable on that route, so I thought it might not be so bad.

And it wasn’t too bad heading east, where I really did have just one stop, in Nashville.

On the way home, I was expecting a stop in Baltimore. The leg between Baltimore and Oakland, however, turned into a frustrating lesson on the difference between a non-stop and a direct flight

Instead of proceeding non-stop from Baltimore to Oakland, the plane traveled directly—we touched down in Chicago, where I didn’t have to get off the plane, but I did have to sit in my seat for an entire deplaning/cleaning/boarding cycle before we were airborne again. I know that’s not so bad, but I found it annoying because I hadn’t been aware of the Chicago stop until I got to the airport in Hartford.

The moral is study your itinerary carefully. When Southwest tells you that you only have to change planes once, that doesn’t mean you’re only stopping once. They don’t actually use the words “non-stop” or “direct,” so you can get tripped up even if you do know the difference between the two terms.

Friday, June 13, 2008

No Place Like Home Part III

I alluded recently to a Mary Chapin Carpenter song where she says that she’d never really seen her hometown until she’d spent some time away. I’m sure some of you are way ahead of me and knew right away that I had the artist wrong. The song I’m thinking of is San Diego Serenade, which is a song written by Tom Waits and recorded by a number of artists. The version I’m thinking of is in fact by Nanci Griffith.

Nanci Griffith and Mary Chapin Carpenter aren’t really all that similar, and you’re probably wondering how I could mix them up. I’m pretty sure it’s because I keep both of their catalogs in the same box in my head labeled “Songs by Women I Like to Pretend Are Not Really Country Artists.” Lucinda Williams, Linda Ronstadt, and Emmylou Harris have their music in there, too. Iris Dement would like me to put her in this box, but so far I’ve resisted. Michelle Shocked and the Indigo Girls are afraid they’re going to start appearing there. Margo Timmins of the Cowboy Junkies doesn’t really want to be in the box of denial, but as long as she continues to sing songs with titles like Murder in the Trailer Park, she leaves me little choice. The women of the Waifs, on the other hand, probably wouldn’t mind if I put their songs in the box, as long as it meant someone from America was paying attention. My point is, it’s a big bin, and I can see how the contents have shifted over time.

The reason I bring it up at all, really, is just to say that I know what Nanci Griffith means when she sings about distance making things clearer. Almost every time I’m home I notice something that seemed perfectly normal when I lived there, but which after years on the West Coast, has started to look odd. Or at least noteworthy.

This time it was brick. Everything in Northampton that isn’t wood and isn’t made of huge blocks of stone is made of brick--unreinforced masonry brick with no X-shaped retrofitting braces in sight. I love that look—brick, clapboard, and brownstone are God’s construction materials as far as I’m concerned. I just realize now that the architecture is strikingly different from what I’m slowly getting used to in California. Aren’t people in Massachusetts worried about earthquakes? (Hint: no.)

Here is a link to some pictures I took when I was home. (I’m back in California now.)

Thursday, June 12, 2008

There’s No Place Like Home Part II

A few weeks ago, Pipi and I were driving through Oakland on Interstate 580, when I spotted a bumper sticker that I was pretty sure referred to my hometown. “Look,” I squealed, “Hamp!”

“What did you say?” Pipi asked me in a tone that said, “I’m trying to work with you, but this conversation has not gotten off to a promising start.”

“Hamp, HAMP,” I repeated, as if volume were the only problem; as if everyone in California knew that old-time Northampton guys refer to the town as “Hamp.”

“How are you spelling this?” Pipi finally asked, and I realized that along with my Northampton pride, I’d also experienced an upwelling of my Northampton accent. This twang, which has more in common with upstate New York and even the upper Midwest than it does with Boston, has a Cockney-like disdain for internal consonants. (Remember the nursery rhyme about the three little kittens? In my childhood, they were called “kih-ins,” and they’d lost their mih-ins.) The accent also strangles “A”s to within an inch of their lives. My “Hamp” apparently came out more like “Heeamp,” confusing Pipi, who’s never known me to be much of a rope-maker.

This kind of misunderstanding doesn’t usually happen when I’m visiting Massachusetts, and that’s one thing I love about it. I don’t have to watch my vowels. No one asks me to repeat myself if I mention a tag (yard) sale, or gets shrill if I utter the phrase “packie store.” (It’s short for “package,” and means a place to buy a six-pack of beer.)

In Massachusetts, I order a grinder and I get a hot sandwich, not a blank look. People here speak my language. And like me, they’re prone to pronouncing it “leeanguage” if they’re not policing themselves.

It may not always sound nice, but it feels like home.

Monday, June 09, 2008

There’s No Place Like Home

Regular readers may have noticed that my postings have gotten slightly sporadic. That’s because I’ve been traveling. I’m currently in Northampton, MA. This, as most of you know--because 99% of you are related to me--is my hometown.

Mary Chapin Carpenter has a line in one of her songs about how she never saw her hometown until she’d been away too long. I feel a little like that right now. I’ll try and see if I can explain what I mean by that another time. I will also try to post some more pictures so that the two of you who’ve never been here can see my hometown, too.

But now I have to reacquaint myself with one of the city’s drinking establishments. It’s a tough job, but someone has to do it. I will be back in Oakland Tuesday night, and real life will resume then.

Friday, June 06, 2008

A Note to My Kiwi Friends

I hope none of my New Zealand readers are offended by my enthusiasm for a possible trip to Australia. Oz would be a new place for me, and I’m always excited for new experiences.

Please note, though, that as much as I talk about wanting to go to Australia, I haven’t managed to get myself there yet. Whereas I did actually make the effort to get to New Zealand once—and would go back in a heartbeat. (Well, that and if a round-trip ticket fell out of the sky.)

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

Too Long

Yesterday I had the unusual but not unprecedented experience of hearing about a story I submitted a long time ago. The Dallas Morning News told me they liked an article I wrote in December on Japan, but said that it was too long for their current format. Taking them at their word, I shortened it and sent it back. And in another six months, I’ll let you know what they think of the new version.

Monday, June 02, 2008

Bridalveil Falls

The waterfall in this picture is called Bridalveil Falls. It does look somewhat lace-like when the wind blows the spray around, but a park ranger also told us that there is a legend stating that if you can stare at the falls for a full minute without blinking, you’ll be married within a year.

One of the members of our party—a wonderful Australian woman named Michelle who has been dating Pipi’s brother Eddie for a few years—confessed to me later that she’d tried this trick, but hadn’t been able to pull it off.

In the end it didn’t matter, though: On Sunday, Eddie and Michelle slipped away from the group for a private hike. When Eddie found just the right spot in the woods, he got down on one knee and popped the question.

Eddie and Michelle were absolutely giddy the whole rest of the weekend. I thought Michelle would hyperventilate when they made the announcement, and already several hours had passed. They’re happy, and I’m very happy for them.

But I confess that some of this happiness is for myself, too. This development means that Pipi is about to have an Australian sister in law. Which means that I practically have an Australian sister-in-law. Which is just about the coolest thing imaginable. Better yet, the wedding may take place in Australia. I’m so excited for that I can’t stand it. Hopefully more details will follow soon.