Category Archives: Travel

O is for Outhouse

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I was thirteen years old and spending the night on a farm. We arrived after dark, and in the darkness that smelled like manure and grass, I could hear my Reebok high tops sucking mud as we approached the door of a humble house.

“These are distant relatives,” I was told. The distant relatives greeted my brother and me–to him, they said, “So very very handsome!” and to me, they said, “She looks so sturdy!” This, before they sat us down to eat rice steamed with beans. My brother and I looked at my mom, helpless.

“This is special rice,” said Mom, “they cooked it especially for you.” Which was her way of saying, “You better f*cking eat this rice.”

So I ate a bowl. Finished it. And then they gave me ANOTHER bowl of that damn rice. I finished it. And they gave me another. It turned out that if you don’t want another bowl, you’re supposed to leave a spoonful of rice in the bowl.

If they thought I was sturdy before, I was getting sturdier with every bowl of rice and beans.

At dawn, my mom woke up with stomach pains from an ulcer. She was doubled over whimpering. I heard dogs howling in the distance. They hadn’t stopped howling throughout the night.

So many dogs.

What were they? Who has so many pets, I asked, wishing to distract my mother from her pain.

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Filed under Alphabet: A History, Memes, The Personal, Travel

AWP and a Writer’s Packing List

new york taxi tangerine

I’m off to AWP in Chicago! This is my second AWP in five years; the first time I went was not too long after my stroke. I dragged my recovering brain to one panel a day and then slept the rest of the day in my hotel room. I don’t even remember the panels I attended, because I was so brain damaged the information either never got into my brain or they’re lost in that weird black hole.

In that sea of activity and sensory overload, I remember two valuable things from that very first AWP:

I remember John Irving’s keynote speech–how he said he writes the last chapters of his novels, first. And how that got me unstuck in my own novel, because months and months and a year later, I tried writing the last chapter of my novel, and that helped unfurl the entire narrative of that first draft.

And I remember meeting Nova for the first time irl, after months and months and years of interacting online via our blogs. We had falafel. And giggled over my yellow umbrella in a sea of NYC black umbrellas. I don’t remember what we talked about, only that we made a real connection and became, officially, “irl friends.”

This is my first AWP with my entire brain. I’m no longer an MFA student, but I am looking forward to mindshare on the writing process and writing life. I’m looking forward to a few more irl connections, and a number of panels per day. I’m also petrified of being exhausted and overwhelmed, so my backup plan is to stay in my hotel room in the fetal position.

The twitterverse is bustling with AWP anxiety and travel updates. Writers are converging upon Chicago! I travel so much that this will be my second trip to the airport in three days. And by the time I return home, I’ll have been at an airport three times in seven days.

But here’s the upside about traveling so much: I can pack my bags in 5-10 minutes. Really. (Ok, confession: I meditate upon what clothes to bring for days, but the packing process is very speedy once I figure out my wardrobe). And I’m going to share a little bit what I’ve learned, and because there are no “packing lists for writers,” I’ve put together a packing list for writers…

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pre-birthday thoughts on 2011 + novel lessons

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It’s the day before my birthday, and the house is quiet right now. It is quiet, because the nighttime was busy–a sick wiener dog had us waking up every hour to tend to him/take him outside, which here means walking down a flight of stairs, bundling up in a jacket (it is in the 40s Fahrenheit at night) and watching the wiener dog circle and circle and circle, while you alternate between two thoughts: Poor little thing…and Little bastard!

You’d think the setting was perfect for some introspection: sick dog, tired humans, quiet Sierra morning, birds tweeting, the beautiful environs, and you’re the only one awake in the house. But no.

Maybe it’s because the year’s been so busy, but I don’t have a lot of introspection going into my birthday this year. Maybe that’s for the best, because introspection for me usually involves lying in my bed with the covers over my head bemoaning my incompetence/so many things left to do/the road ahead/a rush of feelings I’ve suppressed for months until that moment.

Or maybe I should do a little bit of looking back, so I can look a little bit forward.

So I’ve pondered my 2011 To Do List; I conjured up the list as a framework of experiences I desired in 2011. I didn’t expect to achieve so many things on the list, but I have–and the funny thing about “to do lists” is that in the process of doing those things, you end up having enriching experiences that have nothing to do with the list, but at the same time would not have happened if not for the list. I hope that makes sense. But it’s really these unexpected, spontaneous happenings between the anticipated happenings that give me delight.

I go to Margot Restaurant for Dominican food. It’s the best. It’s the thing I crave when I’m away from NYC. So when I’m in NYC, I go. But the surprises were the company I kept during dinner. And the realization that of all the restaurants in Manhattan, Margot is the only restaurant that recognizes me as a regular; I always get a glimmer of recognition out of the staff, a heartier-than-usual hello, and a warm smile. Yah, so I’m probably easily recognizable as the only Korean chick there, but I’ll take it. I’ll take it!

the Spread

Then there’s another item on the list: a desire to see Central Park in wintertime. So beautiful. So treacherous. I love it so much. But there’s also no substitue for a crisp wintry day that has you holding your hunny’s hand as you step across black ice. Or listening to a musician braving the cold in the park. And then walking to Zabar’s for a knish.

Central Park

And yet, just a few months later, the Park looks like this in Spring! And that’s when you realize–you don’t have allergies in NYC!  And you take off your jacket for the first time in months and wonder when the last time was that you, the sun-avoider, welcomed the sun so much. And then you go shopping for Passover so you can sit down for your first Pesach Seder in NYC. You miss home, you miss all your old cooking implements, you miss your old Seder plate, but you cobble together a simple Seder anyway.

Spring in Central Park!

I love the MoMA. My hunny and I went and saw the kitchen exhibit. And then my parents came to town, insisting on the Metropolitan Museum of Art. So you take them there. They walk through it at warp speed, just like you do. Only they’re examining the picture frames. Seriously. They have decided to get some picture frames for some artwork in their house, and they have decided to gain some inspiration from the Met for this purpose.

My dad appreciates the Greek Art, loves it, even. But when we go to the MoMA, he scowls. “This isn’t very good,” he says. I try very hard not to roll my eyes as he says the thing that so many people say about modern art, “I could do this.”

So I reply as I always do to that comment, “Then why didn’t you?”

Usually, that comment makes people think. My dad ignores me and says, with all the authority he can muster (and it’s a lot), “I don’t like it.”

I can’t argue with that.

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We drove to Montauk in early Spring, before the crowds, and after the snow melted. My parents needed to get out of the City, and my husband and I wanted to see Montauk (after all, it was on my LIST)!

Beautiful, isn’t it? We saw the carcasses of many sea creatures–crabs, and several gulf of Maine sting rays. There’s something about a wild beach that makes me fall in love.

Montauk lighthouse

My hunny and I visited our beloved London. We decided to rent a car one day and just drive and see what was out there. At the last minute, we decided to check out the Cotswolds, without agenda or schedule (and barely a map).

This day of spontaneity turned out to be one of the best days of our lives. We drove through several towns that involved the world “Chipping” (Chipping Norton, Chipping Campden…) and stopped at Chastleton House (as you see below) and Blenheim Palace, and savored the English countryside with its rolling green hills accessorized with fluffy white sheep.

Chastleton House

And if that wasn’t enough, and since we had some time left at the end of the day, we decided to head over to Bray…where we ate at Heston Blumenthal’s pub, Hind’s Head. Where I ate my first scotch egg! And an awesome oxtail and kidney pudding! And quaking pudding! The end!

Scotch egg

My hunny and I (yes, he and I spend a lot of time together) also headed over to Paris via the Eurostar this year. Again, with no plans but to get to Paris, which seemed a lot less clean than I remembered it to be. And perhaps it’s because smoking is banned in nearly every public place in the U.S. and London, but there sure seems to be a lot of cigarette smoking (and littering thereof) going on.

Parisians love to smoke

Okay, that’s not fair. Paris is more than cigarettes. It’s L’as Dus Fallafel in the Marais, and the best buckwheat galette/Breton crepes I’ve ever eaten. L’as Dus Fallafel was on our list of to-dos…and Breizh Cafe was not. Oh, these Breton crepes are tremendous! And it later turns out that there is usually quite the line at this restaurant. Only we were seated immediately. Kizmet. (Of course, now I want a Breton crepe, and alas, Ti Couz in San Francisco has closed. Where can one get a very good buckwheat crepe in the SF Bay Area now)?

We also had salted caramel ice cream from Berthillon, and that was just amazing–Berthillon was on our list of things to do, and the search for it was our only argument of the day! The funny thing, which dissolved our tension immediately was that it was under our noses the entire time. Like, straight in front of us. But anyway–the salted caramel ice cream is second to none, not even Bi-Rite in San Francisco.

buckwheat crepes!

And along the way, we also gathered quite a few questions.

Like, what is this? It’s this flippy metal thing on the Eurostar train trays. WHAT.IS.IT?

what is this thing?

The thing is–that life is the magic that happens between planned events. The detours and the questions and the emotions and the kizmet and the surprises and delights that occur on your way to or from pre-planned destinations.

It’s like that with novel-writing, too. I have an outline, and milestones–but then there is this magic that happens on the page on the way to/from these milestones. Those happy, magical detours (the ones that make for the best days of our lives) are what I pray for as I write.

Now I’ve got to get back to my novel. Because the best birthday present I can give myself is a few pages of which I can be proud.

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Land’s End Great Gatsby Mansion: Last Moments

1.
A Sands Point Gold Coast mansion known as Land’s End is being demolished this week. The house is also known as the inspiration for Daisy Buchanan’s mansion in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby.

Fitzgerald lived for a time in Great Neck, across the water from Sands Point. I imagine he sat, with pen in hand, seeking inspiration and staring across the Long Island Sound, at the houses along the water with their carefree parties…just as Jay Gatsby stared across the Sound from the same vantage point and reached out his arms to the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock.

Long Island Sound

2.
I once spent an afternoon with a photographer who told me he went up to the Sierras to photograph Autumn foliage, but he got there too late after a storm–the leaves had fallen. So he photographed the forest floor, which was lit up with the confetti of golden Aspen leaves.

Today, I woke up in pain with a locked neck, but knowing the mansion was going down any minute, the demolition having started a few days ago on Saturday, we raced out to Sands Point, meandering the roads, passing numerous residents walking dogs in the mid-day fog, until we found the estate. My husband is a genius at locating obscure destinations.

We told ourselves that even if razed to the ground, it would mean something to stand on the site. What remained were two very large chimneys, and a small vertical section of the house, also containing two chimneys, still standing.

To see this, the last remaining day of a grand house of privilege that inspired an even grander idea, was privilege.

It was awe inspiring. Ghastly. A ghost.

It was not gone yet.

Land's End: gate unlocked

3.
The Great Gatsby is my favorite novel of all time, and has been for 20+ years, for myriad reasons. For language. For structure. For its innovation. For its portrayal of the American Dream. For Gatsby. Because I am a child of immigrants who believe in the Dream. For my love of the 20s. For my childhood in the 80s, paralleling the 20s. For desire.

The object of Jay Gatsby’s desire was Daisy Buchanan, who resided in the house with the green light at its dock. This place with the pool at the edge of the land, and a lawn that runs all the way to the pewter water. It was Fitzgerald’s desire, too.

Land's End: gate

4.
I like to follow rules. I am such a rule follower that when someone tells me to “chill out,” I tell myself, “The rules are there are no rules.”

My husband has been convincing me to break a few rules here and there. For the last two weeks, he has been regaling me with tales of trespassing.

We didn’t know I’d trespass today.

I broke a rule for these pictures–the gate was unlocked, and I walked past the no trespassing signs. I walked no farther than halfway to the house, way short of the detritus and the one or two lonely and steadfast workers dismantling the structure.

5.
I once held a cat, a victim of a car accident, and watched it die in my arms. Its amber eyes lost a depth to them when the cat died, the color turning into straw.

The ghost of the house remains–I can still see the outline of its great shadow, and its footprint underneath the rubble, void of valuables and brick, long auctioned off before destruction. It was huge and looming.

6.
Inspiration cannot be dismantled.

More links on the Great Gatsby mansion:

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