Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Tangled up in Blue

I hope it was clear that I was joking about being in a funk yesterday. Eating ice cream and listening to girls with guitars is actually perfectly normal behavior for me. It’s only when the music stops that you need to worry.

Monday, March 30, 2009

It’s Not You, It’s Me

Sometimes when I submit an article to an editor, I hear back right away, but usually rejection takes a long time. The record so far is two years. So the nine months it took a certain Los Angeles-based publication to get back to me about an article on Japan that I sent them last June isn’t too unusual.

What is unusual is that I think nine months is the longest I’ve ever waited for this kind of message. It wasn’t exactly a rejection, but it certainly wasn’t encouraging. The email thanked me for sending the piece, and noted that they receive far more submissions than they can possibly print, making competition for column inches very tight. Then it invited me to look at their online editorial guidelines and wished me well.

It was, frankly, a little bit like being dumped by a serious smooth talker; the kind of breakup where the conversation seems nice while you’re in it, but later you realize that what they were saying was that there won’t be any more conversations.

Okay, it wasn’t that bad. I’m not going to go get an extreme haircut over it or anything. It just kind of came out of the blue is all. Why now? Was I being needy? Did the editor meet another Japan article? Can we still be friends? I don’t know. I’m going to spend the next few days eating ice cream and listening to Joni Mitchell, and hoping it will all make sense eventually.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Meanwhile, Back in My World

This is what it feels like in Oakland today: Like it’s going to take divine intervention to turn things around.

I love Oakland, but it’s a rough time to be in the city. In January, BART police shot an unarmed man to death on the platform of the BART station closest to my house. Now a fugitive parolee has managed to kill four police officers single-handedly before dying in a standoff.

These killings took place around MacArthur Boulevard, a very long street that cuts through many neighborhoods, my own included. I haven’t gotten as far east as 75th Avenue on my walking tour yet, but yesterday I decided to jump ahead a little bit. I usually like to finish one neighborhood before moving on to another, but I wanted to see what was going on in this part of the town that has been in the news lately.

MacArthur Boulevard in Eastmont didn’t look all that different from the way it does near my house. There’s a big cemetery, which feels peaceful. But on the side streets, most yards have chain-link fences and big dogs.

The most remarkable aspect to the neighborhood right now is that there are several shrines set up to honor those who recently died. On two corners at the intersection of 75th and MacArthur there are floral tributes to the four officers. And on 75th Avenue, in front of an apartment building (I think the one where the suspect and the last two officers died) there is a memorial for the cop killer.

This disturbed me because I don’t see any way to paint this particular incident as an example of police brutality. Plus, the killer, with a long rap sheet and DNA evidence linking him to the rape of a 12-year-old girl, is a hard guy to feel sympathy for. Still, as the signs on the avenue attest, he was someone to somebody—quite a few people, actually. That gave me something to think about as I walked back toward my own, quieter strip of MacArthur.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Taking Care of Business

No matter; there is still plenty of time to square away little details, like hotel reservations. Right now I’m concentrating on important arrangements. I’ve already taken care of booking a tour of the Sydney Opera House and a walking tour of Sydney movie locations. And I’m making good progress on researching concerts we might like to see. I’m also making lists of movies we have to rent before we leave. (Top of the list are Australia, and Priscilla, Queen of the Desert--again.)

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

When is a Hotel Not a Hotel?

Answer: When it’s in Australia.

It’s said that Eskimos have dozens of words for snow. I don’t know if that’s true, but it seems plausible. In a possibly related linguistic quirk, Australians seem to have developed several different words for “drinking establishment.” If you want to go out for a drink down under (as opposed to picking up something at a “bottle shop” to drink at home), you can go to a bar, a pub, a club, or, confusingly, a hotel.

Hotels in Australia always have beer, but they don’t necessarily have rooms. I learned this the hard way when I emailed the Harbour View Hotel in Sydney. I knew of it because it played a boardinghouse in my favorite Australian movie (Starstruck), and I thought it would be fun to stay there.

I wrote asking how much rooms cost, and wondered why they didn’t seem to be in a hurry to take my money. I finally got a politely restrained note back explaining that they aren’t a hotel you can stay at. That was disappointing, but maybe it’s for the best. The hotel seems to be right under the Sydney Harbour Bridge, and it probably would have been too noisy for sleeping anyway.

If anyone has a recommendation for a moderately priced hotel in Sydney, please let me know!

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Australia is Sooooo Big…

How big is it? So big, motorcycle gangs travel by plane.

I wish this were a joke, but it isn’t. A few days ago, rival biker gangs clashed at the Sydney airport, smacking each other with those metal poles that the velvet ropes go between. The melee spread over two floors. This sounds absurd, and it is, but someone did die, so it’s not really funny.

There are many unanswered questions regarding this incident, some of which probably only bother me. For one thing, how did the one gang find the other? As I’ve mentioned before, you can’t just meet people at the gate anymore in most places, and I would have thought Australia was one of those places.

Secondly, what was the biker gang doing on a plane? Australia, which has sunny weather and wide-open roads, is probably the ideal place to ride motorcycles. Why in the world didn’t they make a road trip of it? I know, I know, the distances between Australian cities can be huge, but they’re bikies (to use the Australian slang I just learned). What else did they have to do this week?

It’s hard to even imagine a biker on a plane. Real rebels don’t put their seats in the full upright position just because the man tells them to, and they certainly aren’t going to extinguish their smoking materials. And how did they get through the metal detector? There are many things I don’t understand about this strange and troubling gang incident, and I can’t believe I’m about to go halfway around the world to find the kind of senseless violence that exists right in the Bay Area.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Rising to the Challenge

This morning I didn’t know what KLM stood for, but I do now: "Koninkliijke Luchtvaart Maatschappij," which means “Royal Airline Company.” This information comes courtesy of my father, who is both a former airline pilot and a speaker of Dutch, so I didn’t have to go far to get the answer.

(K,L, and M are also the San Francisco public transportation lines that run under Market Street between the Financial District and the Castro neighborhood. When I moved to San Francisco, I quickly learned that to get to the Castro, I just had to pretend I was going to Amsterdam, another sexually liberated place with lenient recreational drug policies. Or so I hear.)

Friday, March 20, 2009

Fun Fact

Have you ever wondered why there’s no “u” in “Qantas?” This has always driven me nuts. Australians, like the British, put “u”s everywhere they don’t belong (colour, favour, etc.) and then leave out this one, which, coming after a “q,” I would have considered mandatory. But there is an explanation: Qantas is an acronym standing for “Queensland and Northern Territory Aerial Services.”

If only this new information somehow allowed me to use “Qantas” as a Scrabble word, but alas, a proper noun is a proper noun.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

The Third Sex?

Here’s something I’ve never encountered before: A few hours after booking our tickets to Australia, I went back to the Qantas site to double-check that my reservation had gone through. It had, but the site did want me to fill in some pre-departure information to make it official.

One of the personal details they wanted amused me. They wanted to know my gender, which is not so funny, but the options were: male, female, or “unspecified.”

“Unspecified.” Not “transgender,” or “intersex.” Not “none of your darn business.” Just “unspecified.”

I have the impression that Australians pride themselves on being a little more brash and forthright than their tea-sipping Kiwi neighbors, but I am reminded that both countries came into the world as English colonies, and it seems the Aussies haven’t totally lost their instinct for defusing awkward questions in a dignified and understated way.

(I marked “female,” but I’m seriously considering changing my answer just to see what happens.)

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

It’s My Recurring Dream

Do you ever have recurring dreams? I never have exactly the same dream twice, but I have recurring scenarios. Most of them are pretty common, I think. One is where I show up to work or class inappropriately dressed, or not dressed at all. The other involves being completely unprepared for something at school. Sometimes it’s a paper I haven’t written, but usually it’s an exam I haven’t studied for, and almost always, the class is math.

There is one other category of anxiety dream that I’ve been having more and more often as an adult. (I have lots of good dreams, too; they’re just more creatively plotted.) Lately I’ve been having stressful dreams about traveling and messing up. Usually I’m about to miss my plane for some really dumb reason--I can’t get anyone to tell me when the flight leaves, or I’ve forgotten to pack, or I realize on my way to the airport that I don’t have my passport or tickets. (I also often dream that the plane is flying really low, or landing on a freeway. I don’t know what that’s about.)

The one thing these travel dreams have in common is that I’m almost always on my way to Australia in them. I’m not sure why the land down under is so anxiety-provoking for me. I think it has something to do with the fact that it’s such a big deal to go there—I think I’m really afraid of messing up something that important and hard to reschedule.

I mention this because in May, I really will be trying to catch a flight to Australia. Pipi and I have been talking about this for a while, and we finally committed. I just bought two tickets to Sydney on Qantas. They’re non-refundable (although for what I paid, I think I get to keep the plane when we’re done), so we’re going for sure now.

It’s two months away, but I’ve already started a list of things (like packing) to be sure to do before we leave the house.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Small Digital World

My Hawaii article appeared in the print edition of the San Francisco Chronicle, and also online. There were a few comments posted to the online version. These reader comments can be pretty nasty, but the group went pretty easy on me. (I think--I am still scratching my head over the Jimi Hendrix/rainbow bridge post.)

What I didn’t see were emails that readers sent directly to the Chronicle. The next week’s travel section quoted a few, though, and one message made me laugh. It was from Sandi, the park ranger who helped turn around my bad attitude about the weather.

She didn’t say how she’d found the article, but she did say she liked it, and I’m glad. I meant for her to come off well. I needed a talking down that day, and Sandi came through. Thanks for reading, Sandi!

Monday, March 16, 2009

Not Losing Hope Yet

I wrote the Shanghai article quite some time ago, and I was starting to give up on finding a travel-section audience for it.

I happened to mention this to the people I will call, for lack of a better word, my in-laws. (There’s nothing lawful about it at all, but don’t get me started.)

Anyway, Pipi’s mother suggested that instead of trying to get travel publications interested in an article with a Jewish theme, I instead try to get a Jewish journal interested in an article with a travel theme. Genius! There’s hope for this piece yet.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Well, It’s Better Than a Dishonorable Mention

Here’s another interesting development: One of my stories won an honorable mention in the 2009 Solas Awards. This is a writing contest sponsored annually by Travelers' Tales, a Bay-Area publishing company specializing in travel literature.

Sharp-eyed readers will notice that there seem to be a lot of categories, with several winners in each category. You’ll also notice that the honorable mention list is rather long. You’d be forgiven, then, for concluding that this is one of those competitions where everybody wins. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth. I did the math (and then had to go lie down for a while) and determined that it was a competition where hardly more than a third of the competitors won.

The story in question is one I’m happy to have praised, however faintly. It’s about Shanghai’s Jewish history. I’ve been having trouble attracting attention to it, and I was starting to think I’m the only one who finds the idea of Jewish culture in China intriguing.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

“Hey, Let’s Go out for Mongolian…”

The oddest thing about Mongolia popping up again in my life is that hours before I noticed my yurt write-up, I had been chatting with a real Mongolian.

Pipi and I had gone out for waffles at a neighborhood place we’d never been to, and I was feeling eccentric, so I was wearing a suede herdsman’s jacket that I had bought at a natural history museum in Ulan Batar. Our waitress noticed it right away. She told me she herself was from U.B.—she was quick to add that she’d been born in the urban area, and I got the impression she wanted me to know that she was a city girl, no more a nomadic sheepherder than I was.

Later Pipi chided me for leaving without asking the woman where we could get good Mongolian food in the Bay Area, but sadly, I don’t remember Mongolia as a place with really great cuisine. I liked a lot of the things I ate; I just don’t see salt tea and fried mutton dumplings really catching on here. But then, Northern Californians do like a good yurt, so you never know what’s going to find an audience.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Published Again

Here’s a pleasant surprise: I was out of town the weekend of March 1, so it took me several days to get my hands on a Chronicle travel section from that weekend. When I finally did, I noticed that a small blurb of mine got published. I had no idea this was going to happen so I hadn’t even submitted an invoice. It turns out it literally pays to read the paper carefully.

Monday, March 09, 2009


My Hawaii story appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle over the weekend. I’m very happy with it. The editing was minimal, so I stand by it all. Here’s a link.

Friday, March 06, 2009

On A Completely Different Note

Once upon a time, if you wanted to pick someone up at the airport, you used to be able to meet people at their gate as they got off the plane. I used to love that. I loved the anticipation of watching streams of people come out of a jetway and watching the face of one person in that crowd light up when they saw me. I loved being met, too, and I would always feel a twinge of sadness anytime I got off a plane unmet and had to walk past all those people hugging and kissing their loved ones. I would feel this way even if I was just changing planes and wasn’t even expecting anyone to greet me. It embarrassed me, but it would happen every time.

Now, of course, you have to have a boarding pass to be anywhere near a gate. I’ve gotten so used to the ritual of meeting people at baggage claim--or being swooped up in a touch-and-go curbside operation--that I don’t get wistful anymore walking through the airport by myself.

Just recently, though, Pipi happened to notice that they still have flight arrival information posted at airports. Why is this? No one meets people at gates anymore. You can only meet an arriving passenger if you have a boarding pass, meaning you’d have to be about to go somewhere. How often does that happen? Maybe more often than I think, but I’m pretty sure the posting of arrival information is just one of those quaint things, like no-smoking signs, left over from a bygone era of air travel.

Thursday, March 05, 2009

Snow Day

Pipi and I are back from Boston. I’m afraid it wasn’t a fun trip—we were there for Pipi’s grandmother’s funeral. We left Saturday morning for what was supposed to be a punishingly quick trip to the East Coast, but were saved from ourselves by the weather.

On Sunday morning, the day of the funeral, we woke up in the hotel to discover that the biggest storm of the year had already dumped about six inches of snow on Cambridge, with no sign of letting up. Later that morning, as I stood by the snowy gravesite, I thought to myself that this must be Mother Nature welcoming Dorchester-born Grandma Ethel back to New England.

Pipi and I and the rest of her immediate family were supposed to fly back to California Monday, but the storm caused a huge number of flight cancellations and for a while, it looked like the whole party might be stuck. Pipi’s sister-in-law, Michelle, said she thought Ethel was telling us she wasn’t ready for us to go home yet, and I think maybe we weren’t ready to go, either. At brunch, we all batted around ideas about how to fill our extra afternoon in Boston and everyone but Pipi and I, who already knew we were grounded, put off checking the status of flights back to the West Coast.

In the end, the L.A. family made their flights out and only Pipi and I stayed behind. I wish I could say we spent our day going to museums and exploring the city, but the weather was really awful, so we mostly watched movies and read books. When we went out, we limited ourselves to the Harvard Square area. It was a classic lazy snow day, and it felt like a delicious indulgence.

Could Michelle be right? Could Pipi’s Nana have sent the snowstorm? I know the answer is no, that there’s nothing otherworldly about a nor’easter in New England. But it’s fun to think about, and I like the idea that the day off was one last thoughtful gift from a classy and considerate woman who will be missed.