Thanks to Valarie for pointing out this link: a website where you can easily map out the US states, countries or (somewhat oddly) Indian states traveled to. Although I have a big fat zero when it comes to Indian states, I gleefully watched my other two maps fill out.
Which is not to say I'm exactly a world traveler with stamps from every country on an old leather suitcase. According to the map, I've visited something like 11 countries out of 227. But that's about seven more countries than I had been to five years ago. And in a way, I count it as 12 countries visited, because I think of Scotland and England as separate nations even though they're not. They have different national soccer teams and parliaments, after all. Still, I've never been anywhere in Africa, South America or Australia. Hell, I live in the western United States, and I've never been to Mexico!
In terms of states, my map mostly is a collection of east coast and west coast ones, excepting those visited on a cross-country drive from Oregon to Washington, DC in 1993 with my friend Joel. (I had an internship that fall during a year-and-a-half break from college.) It makes me think of a headline from The Onion several years ago: "'Midwest' discovered between East and West Coasts."
These maps may carry more significance for me than for some people. I don't own a home and I don't have kids. I place a high priority in life on travel. Not only is it the chance to see places, but going there provides endless material for my twin hobbies: taking pictures and making videos.
Looking at the US map, my next priority in terms of unseen cities has to be New Orleans. That would have been the case even before Hurricane Katrina, with its music and food and architecture. But now, I feel an added desire to spend my tourist dollars there, in a place that needs it. Plus, even though I feel slightly guilty for saying this, I'd like to see some of the remaining devastation. A couple years ago I interviewed a couple Portland architects who had gone to the Mississippi Gulf to help volunteer by advising homeowners about the status of their damaged homes. Some of the pictures she showed, particularly of large boats aground nowhere near any water source, were extraordinary enough to remain branded on my mind all this time later.
I'd also really love to see New Mexico, not only to visit my old friend Brooke (a very talented painter, by the way), but also the extraordinary desert and mountain landscape. And I'd love to see some of the American south, no matter how wrong they are about politics and a mountain of socio-cultural issues. I'd like to make a pilgrimage to Memphis, even though I don't think Elvis held a candle to The Beatles. And I'd like to visit the Clinton Library in Little Rock, or either of the Carolinas. And Maine, even though I don't eat seafood. It'd be fun to see that 'other' Portland.
And I really regret not adding Michigan to my states list last fall, by traveling to Ann Arbor to see Oregon beat the stuffing out of college football's winningest program before 106,000 of their fans.
Honestly, though, getting out of the United States is still what gets me the most excited. The flights there can be murder, but I still put Switzerland pretty far ahead of South Carolina in terms of traveling priorities.
It is still nearly two hours until my flight, but I feel as though my spirits have been lifted.
I'm writing this from the VIP lounge for Air China at Capitol Airport in Beijing. I've been here since either Tuesday or Wednesday, depending on whether you mark from the day I left Portland or the day I arrived here. I entered the lounge profoundly exhausted. It's been a good trip, and I'm thankful for this incredible opportunity to see China for the first time. I am here on a press junket for the opening of the Ullens Center, a new contemporary art museum here in a renovated circa-1930s former munitions factory building. I've been to the Forbidden City, Tianmen Square, and even the Great Wall. I've been treated to countless dinners and exhibitions, whisked throughout the city as a VIP, put up in a 4-star hotel, and had the opportunity to take some five hundred pictures.
But trips like this can also be quite a long slog, even in the best of circumstances. Jet lag kept me from getting restful sleep until last night. The people running the junket have had us on the go from about 8AM to midnight most days. I'm also really fed up fending off people trying to sell me stuff. China may be a so-called 'Communist' country, but these seem to be the most naturally and most aggressively entrepreneurial people I've ever met. I even was accosted by people trying to sell me trinkets, t-shirts and copies of Mao's Little Red Book on the wall itself. And I miss my cat and girlfriend!
I'd never been in an airport VIP lounge before. And when I first entered this one, it did not impress. All the furniture seems left over from the 1970s, and the VIP meal consists of hot noodles in a paper cup. But then I sat down and was surprised to find something else on the television here than the usual ubiquitous airport CNN. On the plasma-screen TV a few feet away as I write this, Air China has a continuous loop of Tom & Jerry cartoons. And as it happens, this is precisely the tonic I needed.
As a child, I watched hours of cartoons each day. I'd begin with the local favorite Ramblin' Rod in the morning with his procession of Bugs Bunny and other Looney Tunes favorites (punctuated by smile contests and birthday songs), graduate to Star Blazers before scurrying off to school, and return in the afternoon for episodes of The Flintstones and Superfriends. In those days, I was never a huge Tom & Jerry fan. They always seemed like second-rate Looney Tunes, and for some reason I always rooted for Tom to catch Jerry even though I wasn't suppposed to. They even spelled their medium incorrectly: a cartune?
But as I sank into the worn, brown-orange seat of the lounge, clutching a Pepsi Light can with an old pull-tab I hadn't seen since the Carter administration, I found myself enraptured by Tom and Jerry's pursuits. I've heard various parents complain over the years that such cartoons as these are improperly violent and aggressive, but the absurd physicality of their exploits made me chuckle. In one, Jerry helped a seal that had escaped from the circus. Another pitted a black alley cat against Tom for the rights to a ham in the fridge. During a romp through a haunted house, Tom had nine numbered ghosts nearly sucked from his body as he clung frightfully to a stairway banister. Just now I turned from the computer to glance at the screen, and Jerry was dressed in a film noir trenchcoat and fedora while Tom negotiated barbed wire and mines in the living room (I have no idea what this means). I can't tell you exactly what was so brilliant about any specific moments, except that they all involve a series of sight gags that are as universal as McDonald's or converting oxygen into carbon dioxide. Most importantly, they made me smile on the eve of some 18 grueling hours of transit. Even now, hearing Chinese spoken all around me, with its odd musicality of odd consonants and inflection, I feel at home thanks to Hanna and Barbera's half-century-old cat and mouse. For that, they can call it a cartoon, a cartune, or a kartoone. And I will embark on my marathon of boardings, security checks, turbulence, baggage claim and a new round of jet lag as a decidedly happier customer.
Reading a week later what I wrote in flight from Dulles to Portland, I cringe a little inside.
To read about my trip, or at least the attitude I had coming home, you’d think I had a terrible time. But the trip was for the most part a total success. I had a wonderful time going to my friend Mike’s wedding near Charlottesville, Virginia, which I neglected to even mention the first time around, even though it was the whole reason I went on the trip.
After checking into a Holiday Inn in Charlottesville on an unseasonably hot sunny Sunday afternoon, I headed west on Interstate 64 for the evening wedding in my Saturn Ion rental car. The sudden beauty of the territory unfolding was a surprise. I’d driven for two hours the day before from Dulles airport near Washington down to Charlottesville. For the most part, it was not a great view, with the usual peppering of strip malls and gas stations. Even when I’d see a farm it never felt like I was truly away from the city. But heading west on the way from Charlottesville to the winery where Mike’s wedding was being held, it seemed in the golden late-afternoon light as if the Blue Ridge mountains of Virginia and the Shenandoah Valley were suddenly bursting onto a stage.
The wedding itself was a delight, too. It was very informal, with a cocktail hour before the ceremony on the deck of the winery, overlooking the vineyards and the mountains at sunset (groom mingled, bride stayed in hiding). There was so much good feeling at the wedding that it was hard to muster an iota of cynicism, which is a nice antidote to how I feel most of the time. It more than worth the discomfort of my tight-fitting suit trousers.
Before the ceremony I chatted with two old friends, Rich and John, with whom Mike (the groom) and I lived in Jersey City after college in about 1996. Along with a group of several others, we occupied two adjoining apartments that were part of a decaying three-story brownstone off Grove Street, about two PATH train stops from the World Trade Center in Manhattan. There was also a seemingly dopey guy who never remembered to flush and still (at 23) called his father “Daddy“ but seemed to be doing well in the advertising industry. I also remember a Jersey-girl (whose accent I ceaselessly immitated behind her back) working in the fashion industry whom Mike briefly dated, and an aspiring chef named Kate who ended up marrying a landscaper in Nantucket after a sojourn in dot-com-era San Francisco at a now defunct tech industry magazine. Kate also made some very yummy Sunday night dinners; one of which I remember contributing a risotto to after having just worked for a few months at Nick's Italian Cafe in McMinnville following graduation.
A couple years before Jersey City, Mike was a Godsend of a roommate after having a hellacious time the year before. Returning to NYU in January 1994 after a year and a half off from college, I'd been randomly paired with this absolute asshole from Tokyo who'd come into our room in the middle of the night when I was sound asleep, turn on all the lights, and begin snapping and folding his laundry, with the TV on in the other room loud enough that he could here it a few feet from my bedside. Then he'd call home to Japan and shout into Japanese. So finding Mike for my senior-year roommate at the Third Avenue North dorm at NYU - a guy for the most part likely to be OK with lights off and silence in the middle of the night, was great. I also gained a friend and even a fellow Oregon Ducks supporter. When Oregon made it to the Rose Bowl that year, their first since 1957, he got almost as excited as I did. I remember going out for a celebratory dinner at BBQ on 2nd Avenue.
Rich and John, who I talked with at the wedding, were both recent Syracuse grads and aspiring illustrators back when we lived together in Jersey City. I remember when Rich had his first career coup getting to illustrate the cover of the Fairfield County Weekly in Connecticut. This being the election year of ‘96, the illustration depicted Bob Dole giving a number-one sign with his finger, but with Jack Kemp holding up his arm. He soon went to work at a big NYC ad agency and, 11 years later, is married with a kid on the way. Jon freelanced his first drawings for the Wall Street Journal when we lived together, and now is on staff there. Rich and Jon also were the first people I ever met who designed web pages.
The reason I’d originally planned to stay until Tuesday after a Sunday-night wedding was to explore the area around Charlottesville, particularly the Thomas Jefferson-designed architectural landmarks at the University of Virginia and Monticello. But with the heat in the 90s and high humidity, and my having not even a hat or sunscreen to protect my Nordic, extremely heat-sensitive skin, I knew any visits I made would have to be brief.
The casualty of leaving a day early was that I had to pass up Monticello. But I did have time to see the university. At 10:00 in the morning, it was already so hot that sweat was pouring down my face like Robert Hays in Airplane! as he takes the jet’s controls. Luckily the quad I’d come to see had some built-in shading. The school’s library, with its massive circular rotunda and Roman columns, sits like the head of the household at a rectangular dinner table. All around the perimeter, clad in contrasting red brick with more white columns, are student residences complete with traditional old rocking chairs. When I wasn’t mopping my brow, it looked spectacular.
After that, though, I pretty much got in the car and drove to Dulles.
It’s when I got home from that aforementioned trip, though, that my thoughts of it began to change. It’s a pattern I see so often in myself and virtually anyone else that travels. At the beginning and end of it, you’ve got to get there. And particularly if it involves flying, you’re in for an enormous hassle, even if everything technically goes according to plan. Somewhere in the middle, you have the experience itself. But going into and coming out of the trip, one’s perspective is inevitably skewed by the combination of stress and boredom accompanying long trips.
Make no mistake: I feel profoundly fortunate and enriched by the chance to have gone to many different places over the last handful of years. Just don’t ask me about it while I’m enmeshed in it at 38,000 feet, in between places to sleep.
Before long, we will make our descent down from the plane’s cruising altitude of 38,000 feet. Four and a half hours have gone by in this 5.5-hour flight, and it’s gone by more quickly than most. Besides, the Romanian husband and wife next to me have been traveling for 24 hours straight. They’re loving the inflatable neck pillows right now as they snooze away. I just want the turbulence to stop. Every bump sends my mind a so-far mercifully incorrect message: we’re going down.
The flight I’m on wasn’t the one I originally booked. I was supposed to return from Charlottesville, Virginia, where I’d gone for my college roommate Mike’s wedding, on a flight tomorrow. But yesterday afternoon, huddled in my room at the Holiday Inn from the unseasonably 90-degree October heat gripping the East Coast, I decided parting with a C-note was worth it for the chance to be in my own bed a night sooner. But it wasn’t just the heat.
Travel is a constant push-pull effect in my life. When at home, I constantly look at my thousands of travel photos and spend hours in the basement editing video shot on various trips. For Valarie and me, imagining and planning our next destination is a constant topic. In the last three or four years, mostly with her but sometimes without, I’ve been to a host of countries, some of them multiple times: England, France, Japan, Belgium, Holland, Denmark, The Bahamas, Scotland, Sweden. (I suppose England and Scotland probably only count as one, Great Britain, but I still think of them as seperate. They do, after all, have separate soccer teams.)
But there are also times like last year, in the first stages of my Japan trip. We’d completed about two-thirds of the 11-hour flight from Portland to Tokyo, but a passenger’s medical emergency (which turned out to be nothing) meant that we had to turn around the plane and fly to Anchorage, Alaska for the night. In the couple hours it took us to return eastward, I actually got it in my mind that I wanted to catch a plane in Anchorage back to Portland. I’d been so depressed about leaving home that I was ready to turn down what to many (including myself) would be a dazzling journey. Japan is quite possibly even my favorite country in the world to visit. But the gloom that overcame me in the days leading up to the trip, and as we flew out of PDX, was incredibly difficult to overcome. Thankfully there was the surreal pleasure of watching a plane load of largely Asians taking photos in the empty Anchorage airport in front of a gigantic taxidermied polar bear.
On one hand, I’ve since an early age had a romantic sense of wanderlust. I’ve always had the mindset of a collector, and I think of the places I visit as my ultimate collection. Notice how eager I was to rattle off the list of countries I’d been to a couple paragraphs ago? I even add up the number of countries my parents, friends and Valarie have been to, as if it’s some kind of competition.
But I’m also an unequivocal creature of habit. I find solace in having a sense of how the day will unfold. I’m not fond of surprises. I can see in my mind most days a succession of espressos, walks in the neighborhood, cooking dinner, watching a little soccer on TV, and perhaps best of all, regular visits from our cat to a spot on my chest as I lay on the sofa. When I’m removed from my little lair on Mulberry Street, I often start getting depressed a few days before it’s time to leave.
Of course some of this has to do with the exhausting marathon of travel. When I was a kid, my dad would regularly leave his day job at the restaurant for Air Force reserve trips. (Talk about a schizophrenic existence: making turkey sandwiches and taking out the garbage to analyzing satellite and spy-plane reconnaissance photos.) I remember telling him as a kid how envious I was about getting on an airplane a few times a year, and clearly in some way that rubbed off on me a lot. At one point I remember him saying, “Once you fly a few times, it becomes just like a bus ride.” I strongly doubted I’d ever become that cynical. But air travel does really, really suck sometimes. The waiting is endless, the environments saccharine and confining. Even on a great international trip, at the beginning and end of it you always wonder a bit if it was worth it.
If there’s a silver lining here, perhaps it’s that I need both the push and pull of travel. There’s a born hermit in me, I think, looking to spend my days in the basement editing video with my parents’ old stereo playing the classical station. But what am I editing down there? Travel footage. And after every trip, I neglect several days of work to edit my still-camera pictures. You could say I’m obsessed with documenting these excursions. And if I stop traveling, I’ll run out of material.
Once on vacation I said half-jokingly to Valarie, “I can’t wait until this trip is over so I can remember it fondly.” Like, the trip to Charlottesville I cut short this weekend? I can’t wait to upload my photos of the Thomas Jefferson-designed University of Virginia rotunda. When I took the pictures, it was so hot even at 10AM that the sweat coming down my forehead and scalp began seeping into my eyes and making it difficult to see. But in the picture, I’ll only see the architecture, and the blue sky made even bluer by my camera’s polarizing filter.
In perhaps even better news, though, the captain has turned on the fasten seat-belt sign, and we’ve begun our descent. They hope we’ve had a pleasant journey. As always, I haven’t and I have.
Last month we returned from a 12-day vacation to London and Copenhagen, and I’ve been meaning to write about it ever since. But where do you begin? A general recounting of the narrative feels dull, and yet it’s impossible to recount all the details.
If I’ve been tongue-tied about how to talk about the trip, at least I have photos. A lot of photos. Over the course of the trip, I took about 1,3000 pictures. Each day I’d come back to the hotel and upload a couple hundred more onto my laptop. Since arriving back home, I’ve spent much of the last 40 days going through them all.
So instead of trying to recount highlights from my memory banks, maybe I’ll just talk about some of my favorite pictures.
This one was taken in London at the top of The Monument, a skinny cylindrical tower not unlike the Washington Monument, only round. The Monument in London was built to commemorate the lives lost in the Great Fire of 1666. I took a lot of pictures of the skyline, capturing nearby buildings of note like Richard Rogers’ legendary Lloyd’s of London building, Norman Foster’s new office tower unofficially dubbed ‘The Gherkin’, the Tower of London, or Foster’s City Hall. But my favorite shot, seen here, was looking through the bars of The Monument with a blurry St. Paul’s Cathedral in the background. St. Paul’s is such an icon that it’s easily identifiable even just in silhouette, and the bars have a great texture in addition to how they bisect the frame in a cool symmetrical way.
As it happens, out of those 1,300 photos another favorite shot was taken just a few seconds later – on my way down the very claustrophobic winding staircase. Anytime somebody else would pass by, one would have to practically do a spread-eagle against the wall to let them pass by. But I managed to steal a view looking straight down, which has a surreal visual effect but also, as with the bars, has a cool old material texture.
One of my other favorite shots was taken in Copenhagen. The area you see in this photo, Nyhavn, is one of the more popular and probably tourist-oriented areas in the city. But it’s such a striking scene, set upon one of Copenhagen’s Amsterdam-like canals with a host of multi-colored buildings. I also like the street lamp that shows up in the foreground. If I end up framing any of these vacation photos, so far this would be the leading candidate.
Another favorite Copenhagen picture was taken the day we flew home. It was that in-between time where we had to check out of our hotel, but had a couple hours to kill before it was time to go to the airport. So we went for a walk in a residential area nearby, and along the way came across a store that was selling all kinds of used knickknacks, including lots of silverware. I’ve always enjoyed taking pictures of storefront windows that incorporate both aspects of what you see through the glass and what’s reflected onto it.
While in London, we made a day trip to the nearby town of Richmond along the Thames and the adjacent Kew Gardens, also known as the royal botanical gardens. I’d wanted to see Kew Gardens for a few years, although ironically it was not to see the plant life so much as the massive old greenhouses there, at least one of which is an architectural world heritage site. The biggest structure, called Palm House, was my favorite, but I couldn’t get any pictures inside because the simulated tropical environment fogged up my camera lens within just a couple of seconds. And outside, somehow none of my photos did enough justice to how impressive Palm House and some of the other buildings at Kew really were.
As it happens, though, by the time we returned to Richmond to take the train back into London, the light was spectacular, and I got a couple shots of the buildings along the Thames bathed in that golden illumination.
Ironically, one of the photos from the trip that I still enjoy seeing is a totally unsuccessful one. While staying with our friends Neil and Bridget in south London’s Wandsworth Common area, one night I was lying awake in bed and noticed their motion-sensor porch light coming on constantly. I got out of bed to look, and saw it was a fox. It seemed like a major fluke at the time, but he was back the next night and the night after that. Turns out urban foxes in London are very common. Some neighbors of Neil and Bridget even had a family of them living in their garage. But to us, it was an extraordinary episode.
As I write this, I can see the ocean waves covering almost the entire beach, coming right up to the wall where the sand meets the cliff here at Cannon Beach. We had a gift certificate to a hotel here, the Stephanie Inn, that was going to run out by year's end, so we decided to spend a couple wintry days along the ocean.
It's been a bit of a bummer not to be able to walk along the ocean; even when it's not high tide the showers pour down pretty hard. But the theater of the waves is fun. If a tsunami were to happen right now, we'd be so screwed. In the meantime, though, the ceaseless but always subtly changing pattern of the waves is mesmerizing. I love that you can find great drama in the waves, the power of their crashing through, and their almost infinite scale, yet at the same time the monotony of the water hiting the land, both visually and in its white noise, is very soothing to me.
The wind is also quite dramatic. Yesterday we went to a nearby state park, winding on a thin road for miles through the giant fir trees to a vista hundreds of feet above and jutting into the ocean. The wind was so strong that I could jump up and be carried a couple feet. I saw a seagull that was just floating through the air, and the wind actually moved it sideways. Funny, but I don't think I've ever seen a bird moving sideways through the air before.
Now as I look through the screen door, a pitter-patter of rain is obstructing the view. But that's okay too. Maybe it's the art reviewing I've been doing lately, but it just feels like another layer added to the work.
It's astonishing just how frequently the weather changes here. Just since my last paragraph, for example, the rain as actually turned to hail. I've never before seen hail at the ocean. I've only been awake for about an hour and a half, but I've also already seen the sun come out a couple of times, and a previous cycle of rain hit. In fact, as the hail continues to hit our window, I can see patches of blue sky in the distance. Yesterday there was a time in the late afternoon when the sky was spectacularly orange with a winter sunset, and yet to the south the clouds were almost black. The sunset was quickly engulfed, although its fleeting nature seemed to make it all the more special. Now, by the way, the hail has stopped and the sky is brightening. By the time we check out in a few minutes, it'll probably be snowing.
Although I’m glad to be back, there’s one small detail I already miss about Japan: the providing of washcloths at every meal. While in Kyoto and Tokyo, I could be anywhere from a nice restaurant to a fast food outlet, but I would always be given some kind of wet cloth or paper to wash my hands with before eating. Now, I realize getting excited about hand-washing apparatus may sound unusual or even funny. And I’ll grant you that as a longtime restaurant worker and also one sometimes given to obsessive-compulsiveness, I’m probably a little more zealous than average. But I’m not scrubbing my hands with bleach and steel wool, either. I really appreciate how much attention the Japanese pay to cleanliness. Michael Rubenstein, the photographer with whom I was traveling, said something I’d long thought: that the difference between Japanese and Americans could be summed up in wearing masks over their mouths. In Japan, people do it to prevent spreading germs to others. In America, where the wearing of these masks happens much less frequently, it’s done to avoid catching something from someone or something else.
This next point is a related one, I suppose. For some reason, the one conglomeration of homeless people I saw in Japan was encamped on the sidewalk in front of City Hall. I don’t know if it was some kind of political point or the fact that there was also a freeway overhead providing shelter. I’d guess it was the latter. Michael and I walked past these three or four encamped homeless men often, because the location was on a major road between our hotel along Shinjuku-cho (a city park) and the neon-ensconced rabbit warren of narrow pedestrian lanes adjacent to the city’s largest train station, Shinjuku Station. One time, as we walked by the men, Michael pointed out that the homeless men kept very orderly quarters. And he was so right. The men had the same modest array of possessions you’d see in their kind in the United States: cardboard for shelter, a few empty cans, maybe a transistor radio. But it was arranged symmetrically, with each item in a clearly defined space. Most of all, though, I was impressed by the tent-like structure one man made with some pieces of cardboard. It had four walls and a sloping roof, made to sleep in like a doghouse. But I don’t mean any of this in a condescending way. In fact, it occurred to me as I walked past this man’s makeshift sidewalk sleeping quarters that it constituted real architecture.
As in Japan, just like anywhere else, each person is unique and yet there are intra-cultural tendencies that to varying degrees most people living in one society share. Japan is certainly no utopia—they have their problems too. But being there was, however temporary, a refreshing antidote to the mores and rhythms of home. It always takes me a few days to adjust when I travel abroad, both psychologically and physically. But once I get the lay of the land, I feel an almost spiritual connection to Japan. My grandpa and dad both visited there before me while in the military—one at the end of WWII, the other on friendly terms during the 60s and 70s, although still in uniform. But I go as an asthete, a tourist, a neophyte, and happy to have made many new connections.
I usually don’t like to listen to the same album in one day. It’s a funny little rule I follow. Even if I’m particularly into a record and listen to it every day, I still like to let the listening experience sink in for a night. Otherwise it’s like over-eating at a great meal. (Which, ironically, I do at almost every dinnertime.)
But this Labor Day Weekend I wound up listening to the same album twice in one day on two different occasions. I realize this isn’t earth-shattering, stop-the-presses kind of news for anyone else, but for me it’s a noteworthy aberration.
The two albums are The Smiths’ Strangeways, Here we Come and Nirvana’s Nevermind.
First we played the Nirvana record on my i-Pod during about a 30-mile stretch of Highway 12 in Washington, heading west from Centralia where we’d exited off Interstate 5. This was on Friday, late in the 90-plus-degree afternoon.
If you haven’t guessed already, the occasion for playing Nevermind was that we were headed toward Aberdeen, Kurt Cobain’s hometown, on the way to Lake Quinault near Olympic National Park for our friends Becca and Eric's wedding. Neither Valarie nor I had been to Aberdeen before, and even though it sounds corny and obvious to play Nirvana at such a time, we had a sincere desire to think about the place where Cobain grew up with his music as the soundtrack.
The only problem was, we got a little too hasty about putting the record on. We were on the last song, “Something In The Way” (not including the unlisted song that plays after 13-ish minutes of silence), as we entered town. I could tell, though, that Valarie wanted to start the album again, as she knew I hate listening to the same record or song twice in a row. But luckily I was willing to temporarily suspend the rule, because it made for a moving, contemplated experience. She made a squeal when I gave the go-ahead for a replay
Aberdeen is a fishing and logging town, and traditionally has been pretty blue-collar and somewhat depressed. The first thing we found, however, was a thriving mini-mall of chain stores and a Taco Bell across the street. Like so many cities and towns, Aberdeen seems to have recovered with an influx of new development and retail options, but to an extent seems to have sold a bit of its soul in the process. Gritty old Aberdeen must have depressed Kurt Cobain, or at least added to the challenge of inheriting the DNA of a suicide and depression-prone family. But I think he’d have found just as much to be depressed about in the ubiquity and unsightliness inherent to sea-of-asphalt strip malls and Everywhere, USA chain stores that have invaded Aberdeen.
Nevermind sounded as fucking insanely brilliant as ever on both listens. Valarie cites “Territorial Pissing” as her favorite song, while I’m most partial to “On a Plain” and “Drain You”. But I think there’s not anything close to a bad song on that album. At the time Nirvana was popular, a few of my friends argued for the superiority of Nirvana’s debut album on the indie label Sub-Pop, Bleach. But I never took to it. Bleach seemed to draw more from metal, whereas Nevermind seemed, while wholly original, also more punk influenced, like a polished version of Sonic Youth. No, Nevermind is definitely the masterpiece here, I think, even if that’s a more obvious choice. I could say so much more about Cobain’s suicide and my feelings about it, but I hesitate to open that Pandora’s Box. (Short answer: compassion, not condemnation).
Incidentally, upon entering Aberdeen we knew to look for the town's entry sign that reads "Come As You Are". I'd thought this was a tribute to Cobain, but it turns out the sign predates the Nirvana song of the same name. Apparently the song's title was a nod to the town's sign. "Come As You Are" was also the first Nirvana song I really became a big fan of. I hadn't fallen for "Smells Like Teen Spirit" when it was released as a single, although I've since come to appreciate its cataclysmic power. But I wound up liking all the other songs that were released at the time anyway.
On to the other record: As a high school student in a small town during the mid-to-late 1980s, I didn’t even know who The Smiths were. Unless you count the time when a couple girls in my French class wrote the band’s name on the chalkboard. But that doesn't really constitute knowing a band.
By happenstance, I heard the band’s last album, Strangeways, Here We Come, a few years later in 1990 while in college at NYU. It was playing on the PA system in a darkened screening room at the Angelica Film Center on Houston Street in New York. I was waiting for a midnight screening of David Lynch’s Wild At Heart. This was freshman year, and I remember my narcoleptic roommate James was with me. James had been a Smiths fan and encouraged me to get the album when I expressed interest. My more prevalant memory of James, however, is of him sitting in the closet in the middle of the night, night after night, crying into the telephone to his girlfriend while I tried to sleep. He was homesick and only lasted one semester. But I have him to thank for my buying Strangeways.
Obviously I was struck by Morrissey’s unique crooner-esque voice, dressed in the guitar-pop instrumentation of Johnny Mar and company. Although I didn’t realize it at the time, this was the last Smiths album, recorded three years earlier in 1987. It has a less traditional array of instruments (xylophone, synthesizer) than the band’s more jangly, guitar-oriented previous albums, such as The Queen Is Dead, Louder Than Bombs and Meat Is Murder. Strangeways is a bit glossier and majestic, which I think suits Morrissey’s morose lyrics.
It’s funny how sometimes one owns an album for years, liking it alright but listening to it rather seldomly, and then one day one suddenly wants to hear it all the time. According to my i-Tunes stats, I’ve listened to Strangeways something like eight times in the last two weeks. I've probably only listened to it about ten times in the sixteen years I've owned the record. (It's actually a CD, of course, but I've never taken to using that term.)
We first listened to the album in the car, driving home from our weekend in Lake Quinault. Aberdeen was the setting for this one too, at least at the beginning. I remember re-starting the first song, “A Rush and a Push and the Land Is Ours” after pulling out of a Chevron station near the Wishkah River, which was in progress when I decided to pull over. Valarie and I briefly imagined similarities and the degrees of separation between Morrissey and Cobain. (They both were pretty depressed and they both became pals with Michael Stipe.)
I listened to the album again later that afternoon, while surfing the Internet at home. At first I was just going to listen to “Death of a Disco Dancer”, which is my favorite song on the album along with the aforementioned “Rush and a Push”. But then I kept listening to the end and backed around at the beginning to hear the ones at the beginning before “Disco Dancer”.
The cover photo of Strangeways is of James Dean in the movie East of Eden. (Dean was a hero of Morrissey’s.) The album isn’t generally considered The Smiths’ best—that honor generally seems to go to The Queen Is Dead or their eponymous first album. But I read on one online music site that both Morrissey and Marr consider Strangeways their favorite. At least they can agree on something.
Meanwhile, for the last few weeks Marr has reportedly been here in Portland producing a Modest Mouse album. It’s almost 20 years since the band broke up, and aside from a few appearances with The The and Electronic, Marr hasn’t recorded much since. Still, I can’t help but imagine him strumming his guitar and looking out at the same horizon.
Y esterday Valarie and I decided to make the 45-minute drive from Bethlehem to Reading, Pennsylvania to see an exhibition of works by Keith Haring, her favorite artist, at the Reading Public Museum. (Haring was born in Reading.) But it wasn’t a 45-minute drive. It was two hours - each way. There was road construction on Route 222 that backed up cars in each direction for miles. From now on that three-digit number will no longer conjure the 1970s television show, but the kind of hopelessness that only bumper-to-bumper traffic can bring. I imagined making a U-turn, getting in the shoulder, and driving the rest of the way to the museum in reverse. For the first time in my life, I yearned for an SUV, so I could give up the asphalt and just drive through the adjacent farmland.
When we finally got to Reading, the name of which I knew since childhood from the Reading Railroad on Monopoly, it still took almost another hour to find the museum. We were going by Mapquest directions that told us to go from Penn Street to 5th Avenue, but what we didn’t realize that there were two of each in this God-forsaken town. And I say ‘God-forsaken’ not just because of our infinitely long journey, but also because Reading, Pennsylvania is -- and I’m not resorting to hyperbole when I say this -- an absolute shit hole. We felt like we had been transported back in time to the worst days of urban blight in the 1970s. With memories of my biggest cinematic guilty pleasure, National Lampoon’s Vacation, I half expected if we stopped to ask for directions that someone would send us past the ‘Rib Tips’ sign to a Torino with no wheels to ask their cousin Jackie, while his friends painted ‘Honky Lips’ on the side of our car.
But once we got there, the exhibit was terrific. Despite being phenomenally popular more than fifteen years after his death, Keith Haring isn’t always taken as seriously as he should be by the more academic portion of the art world. Haring’s work was largely inspired by cartoons and graffiti, and he often worked very quickly. It was about process for Keith Haring as much as product. But this retrospective showed without any shred of a doubt what a brilliant artist he was. Seen collectively, his work not only revealed the aforementioned artistic/cultural antecedents, but also felt almost tribal, as if it were a contemporary version of cave paintings. Some works even showed a quasi-abstract quality, with Haring’s trademark radiating baby figures and barking dogs incorporated into vast patchworks that took on the power of nonrepresentational expresssionism.
The drive back was even worse. We got stuck in stop-and-go traffic again. No, wait, that’s inaccurate. It was just stop, and no go. After taking an hour to make it the last ten miles through Trexlertown, we finally emerged from the endless line of cars, the sight of the I-78 freeway appearing like a lighthouse to two fishermen tossed about in the waves of a hundred-year storm. For a couple of miles, our car sailed along in the fast lane with the speedometer finally raising from the equivalent of about 7 o’clock to more like midnight.
Then the rains came. And I don’t mean sprinkles. I don’t mean a torrential downpour. I mean like a mother-fuckin’ monsoon. Our windshield wipers were on that ridiculously high setting were it feels like you’re in a movie that’s been put into fast forward, but even then one could barely see past the hood of the car. The traffic slowed down to twenty miles an hour. When we exited off I-78 into Bethlehem after about six miles and another half hour, the flash flooding was well underway. Cars were kicking up splashes almost as high as buildings, and sometimes even seemed like they were going to float away. Looking in the rearview mirror amidst this latest slowdown, I saw that my eyes had taken on the look of cue-balls, my skin the pallor of a corpse. I felt like a jack-in-the-box that had been wound and wound but never allowed to spring.
But you know what? It was still worth it. To see Valarie’s look of wonder and glee at this awe-inspiring collection of Keith Haring works was absolutely priceless. Over the last several weeks, she’s been recovering from a bout with severe anemia, and even now she can feel faint at the drop of a hat and barely able to walk. But she clutched my arm as we took baby steps around the Reading Public Museum, and those pearly whites were showing ear to ear. Even if I may have been fantasizing about dropping napalm over Reading, Pennsylvania, I’m glad we made it to that exhibit first.
The sweltering heat continues here in the Mid-Atlantic, but I wanted to mention two fellas who captured my imagination even as my clothes soaked with sweat.
I'd forgotten to mention in my previous post a highlight of my New York trip with Ned. We were at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which pound for pound is my favorite art museum in the world. We'd checked out some 19th Century European masters from Cézanne and Manet to Picasso and Gauguin, and next headed for the 20th Century collection. I'd just been charmed by a massive Chuck Close portrait called simply "Mark" and was about to breeze past Georgia O'Keeffe symbolic flower bulbs when a security guard approached me. Clutching my camera, I was about to tell him, "I didn't use my flash!" But he wasn't interested in that.
"Ah you really from OH-ree-GONN?" he asked, eying my Ducks t-shirt. When I answered in the affirmative, he asked, "Do you know a town called Coos Bay?" He had a fairly strong African accent, and I was surprised to hear him speak the name of this little coastal burg where my dad was born. It turned out that the guard had been moved by a past exhibition of photographs of John F. Kennedy at the museum. He told me his favorite had been a shot of JFK visiting with a small group of fishermen there while campaigning for president in 1960.
Ned and I wound up talking to the guard for at least a quarter-hour. I've been in numerous museums over the years, and I've never had a security guard enthusiastically pull me into a conversation. But I loved his enthusiasm, and not just for the little Oregon town he'd never seen but in a photo. His name was Désiré Dahie, and he was from the Ivory Coast - or, more accurately, La Cote D'Ivoire as he called it. (Why does everything always sound better in French?) His eyes lit up when I said, "Isn't that the home of Didier Drogba?" (That's his country's most famous soccer player, whom I knew well because he plays striker for Chelsea Football Club in the English Premiere League that Valarie and I now watch religiously.) Poor Ned waited patiently as Désiré and I delved into World Cup talk for the next little while. Even though I'd only met him a few moments earlier, I suddenly wanted to invite Désiré to Oregon for a drive to Coos Bay.
Beyond his being an endearingly loquacious security guard with a shared soccer love and a curiosity about my home, Désiré also gave me a much-needed reminder about what I still love about New York. Even though I lived in New York for years, I never really took to the city. It's so unerringly harsh and grimy, and you can't see the horizon. But New York is also the prism through which those "huddled masses" of immigrants pass, and often stay. They're a special breed, those who travel from so far away to strive endlessly. Sure, it's a romantic view I have of people like Désiré, but it balances out the harsh unforgiving realities of this city in a way that makes me smile. I know this random little exchange with a security guard will remain burned into my memory banks. And unlike the sun's burn, this one feels refreshing.
Today in the little town of New Tripoli, Pennsylvania emerged the second star of this post, Valarie's nephew Mike. The occasion was his Bethlehem Catholic high school baseball team's playoff game with Schuylkill Haven. I can't stress enough how hot it was. When we arrived 45 minutes early for the game, Valarie and I wondered if we'd still be conscious for the first pitch. I mean, I was contemplating a quick jaunt to Bolivia or maybe Death Valley just to cool off. At least Death Valley's a dry heat! The game was on a neutral site at Northwestern Lehigh High School, and we actually got in trouble with school officials for sneaking into their building during classes just to siphon some of the air conditioning. When the game started, I must have looked like a major girlie-man huddled under an umbrella, but it was either that or turn my Nordic complexion into a sun magnet.
Luckily baseball theatrics eventually took our minds off God's convection oven. In the first few innings Mike's team fought a close battle with Schuylkill (which, no joke, is actually pronounced "school kill"). In the middle innings, however, Bethlehem Catholic (or Beca for short) jumped to a commanding 9-2 lead. But in the last couple innings, the other team cut the lead to 9-6, and in the final inning they actually put the tying run at the plate.
It seemed like a moment from an over-written Hollywood movie. As Schuylkill seemed poised to overcome what had appeared to be an insurmountable deficit, an ominously black cloud moved over the horizon. Thunder began to clap in the distance. But Beca held on, and the tying run struck out at the plate. I kid you not: No sooner had the last out been called than lighting bolts flashed and a summer storm began raining down over New Tripoli.
Mike was 3 for 4 in the game, and as usual seemed to have ice in his veins even as the pressure mounted. (If it really had been ice I'd have turned into a vampire on the spot.) He's got a scholarship to play Division 1 baseball next fall at West Virginia, and it was such a treat to see his team win the district championship -- they're on to the state championship playoffs come Monday. Mike's mom, Chris (Valarie's sister) was in tears as family and players met on the field afterward. But she wasn't the only one. I saw her heretofore collected son break down too as his coach put the district championship medal around his neck.
And speaking of the coach, Mike Grasso, I've got to say something about this guy. It's a coach's job to be a motivator, to keep encouraging his players when the pressure and adversity mount. But this guy was about the most relentlessly passionate, positive guy I've ever seen. What really sealed his heroism in my book, though, was how he showed that same passion in the post-game handshakes with the opposing team. While everybody else on both teams emptily went through the motions of this mandatory act of sportsmanship, the Beca coach looked every player in the opposing team right in the eye and said, "Hey, you guys had a great, great year." The coach also broke into tears himself. Valarie's mom told me last year, when his team also won district, he stayed long after the game was over, explaining later that he "just wanted to savor the moment." No matter what the endeavor, I really love anyone who brings such boundless passion to what he does.
I bring that same passion every time the air conditioner switches on.
As I write this, Valarie and I are in the midst of a ten-day trip to her parents' house in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania (or, more accurately, the adjacent Lower Saucon Township) and New York City, with Nasty Ned accompanying us for the first half. Here are a few highlights:
Bethlehem Steel is the gargantuan mill that towers over the city here, but eerily so. It's been empty for more than fifteen years after closing in the late 1980s. Because it's surrounded by cyclone fencing, it's always been difficult to get a close view of this massive complex, although its smokestacks are visible from several miles away. But this time we found a new road had been built here, to make way for a casino. (A mixed blessing to say the least.) Ned, Valarie and I spent much of Sunday afternoon on Memorial Day weekend (appropriately enough) standing before the rust and weeds of this ghost-like old vestige of America's industrial past. As I said on my architecture blog, it felt like visiting ancient Pompeii.
A day later, Ned and I took the bus into New York, where Valarie and I went to college. Ned's been all around the world, but actually had never visited NYC before. So it was fun to play tour guide.
As we came into the Port Authority bus terminal on 42nd Street, our first site was of a homeless man splayed face-down on the sidewalk. He looked dead, although no one seemed to be paying any attention. Later, making our way past Times Square, I couldn't help but notice the irony of seeing another homeless man dressed head to toe in an improvised outfit of garbage bags, huddled in a corner -- while a few feet away sat a yellow Ferrari convertible. But don't get me wrong: It's still amazing how much New York has cleaned itself up since the early 1990s when I first arrived.
Ned and I also made the proverbial pilgrimage to the Empire State Building. While I've always appreciated the architecture of the Empire State and its status as perhaps the most well-known and iconic skyscraper in America, the experience of going to the 86th floor observation deck was as disheartening as Bethlehem Steel was moving.
I've been to the Empire State several times before, so I was prepared to stand in line. But this was ridiculous. First we stood in line for a security checkpoint. Next we stood in line for tickets, then for the elevator to the 80th floor. All the while, employees were constantly yelling pitches to the audience to spend $40 going on an IMAX ride before visiting the observation deck. Next we were herded into a mandatory line to have our pictures taken - which they of course wanted to sell to us for $20. (As Ned said on his blog, it's an American architectural icon peddling itself like a cheap whore.) The photo wasn't even with NYC's skyline in the background; it was a fake version of the Empire State Building. Imagine - we're actually there, and they use a fake background! Then there was a line for the elevator from the 80th floor to the observation deck on the 86th. When we finally got to the top, it often took minutes to get a turn at the edge after the other tourists waddled out of the way.
Back here in Bethlehem, it's one great feast after another, mostly courtesy of Valarie's mom, Pat. The first night we had her signature meal of roast chicken, egg noodles, mashed potatoes (they like their starch here) and corn -- washed down with Yeungling lager from her dad's garage fridge, right next to their chicken coop. The next night we had my favorite Pat Smith culinary concoction: meat pie, with chunks of pork, vegetables and potatoes and gravy surrounded by flaky pie crust. As soon as we awaken, Valarie's dad, Hank, fills our tummies with his waffles, made from scratch of course. There's also a cupboard of snacks, particularly the East Cost convenience store delicacy known as Tastycakes. Valarie's also partial to the big bag of cheese puffs always on hand, while I prefer a local brand of kettle-cooked potato chips called Martin's.
This afternoon we're off to see Valarie's nephew/godson Mike, who's high school graduation was the main purpose of our trip, compete in his baseball team's playoff game. Even the sweltering 90-degree sun and high humidity won't keep us away -- although I'll be caked in sunscreen, guzzling ice water, and sweating like Robert Hays in Airplane.
Our other mission this trip has been to help Valarie's parents set up their first computer. It's great fun introducing Pat and Hank to the mouse, keyboard and -- most of all -- the Internet.
But this report will have to do for now: My waffle is almost ready.
This morning, as rain poured down in Portland for the first time in months, Valarie mentioned that it reminded her of an unexpectedly wonderful moment during our visit to Amsterdam last year. Turns out it was a year ago today.
We had visited two well-known museums (Reijksmuseum and Van Gogh) in the southwestern part of Amsterdam and began to browse through a series of shops, galleries and cafes when suddenly the rain began to fall hard. We ducked into one sleepy little cafe thinking we'd grab a quick coffee/tea until the rain lifted a few minutes later. We ended up staying for an hour as the shower turned out to be more than a shower.
After seeing the proprietor fry up a massive Dutch pancake for another customer, I ordered one for myself. But first, I had fun filming the entire process, as she worked a massive fry pan and continuously flipped my pancake, which was more than a foot wide. After a healthy dollop of melted chocolate, I happily gobbled it down and sank into a food coma.
Valarie, meanwhile, had made friends with the resident cat, Mickey, who crawled onto her lap and proceeded to stay for virtually our entire stay. In fact, we stayed longer than expected largely because Valarie didn't want to make Mickey get up (which I concurred with). So after my pancake began to digest a bit more, I ducked outside to snap a few quick photos. I wound up discovering a huge bird in a tree just outside that I think was a stork or heron or something like that.
Everybody complains about the rain, and when it came that day in Amsterdam we were initially frustrated to be thrown off-track from sightseeing. But it made for an unexpected moment of bliss, the kind you can only enjoy when the gray skies and dropping water force you to explore not just a different plan, but a different way of being.
Earlier this month I exchanged a couple of emails with a Brooklyn woman named Jane. Her public relations company had pitched to me a story about a Midwest zoo’s new tiger exhibit. (It had been designed with ample natural light, according to green building principles, and the PR firm had evidently seen my name in some architecture magazine).
As often happens when I get talking with a New Yorker, I wind up referring back to my time there while in college and beyond from about 1990-97. Before long, I always reminisce (probably whether the person I’m talking to cares or not) about my favorite pizza destination.
The place is called Ray’s, but as many of you know, that name gets confusing. In New York there are scores of pizza-by-the-slice outlets called Ray’s, but virtually none of them are connected in any way. There is Original Ray’s, Famous Ray’s, Famous Original Ray’s, and so on.
The Ray’s that I love is a very specific one. It is located at the corner of 6th Avenue and 11th Street in Greenwich Village. I’ve probably eaten there a hundred times, and it’s my favorite eatery on the planet.
So it was with shock that I read an email from Jane saying that Rays—my Ray’s—had moved to Brooklyn. Apparently, she said, the landlord had jacked up the rent so much that selling pizza by the slice there just wasn’t profitable anymore. (No matter that a New York Times feature rating all the city’s Ray’s franchises ranked my home shop #2 overall.)
I first came across this Ray’s late one Saturday night during my freshman year at NYU with my roommate, also named Brian. I believe we were on our way back to the dorm from seeing Jazz at a West Village Club—I want to say Sweet Basil, but perhaps it was the Village Vanguard. I’d saved up some of my work-study money.
We stopped in for a slice in the manner Manhattanites often do. One tends to assume there is always a pizza shop within a block or two (and a convenience store/deli). Maybe some are better than others, but they’re all going to be fairly similar and dependable, with a floppy texture and lots of cheese. So stopping for a slice at an unfamiliar shop is kind of like taking a freeway exit you haven’t driven before: It’s technically an unknown, but you trust the fact that it will be satisfactory enough to deliver you.
Our reaction to this pizza, however, was in my memory pretty instantaneous. We thought it was great from pretty much the first bite.
Soon we were walking from our dorm at Broadway and 10th Street, about ten minutes away, westward over to Ray’s a few times a week. I particularly remember Saturday nights about midnight or 1:00AM, after Saturday Night Live was over (this was before I began to find it unwatchable later in the decade). Brian and I would just look eat each other and monosyllabically say to each other, “Rays?..Rays!” When I graduated from NYU, my parents and sister came with me to Ray’s for my post-graduation meal after the ceremony. The Washington Square Hotel, where they were staying and I had moved in the night before from my dorm, was only three blocks away.
Today I got a new email from Jane saying it wasn’t my Ray’s that had moved after all. It was another Ray’s, this one a few blocks south on Bleeker Street. (Incidentally, it had ranked #1 in that Times feature.) It was that palpable sense of relief that got me thinking so much about Ray’s. And while I’m enormously thankful, I also was reminded I can’t expect things I love to be around indefinitely.
Since moving back to Portland for good in 1997, I’ve visited New York about once a year, or maybe every other year. Each time, Ray’s has been about the most important stop on my trip. Every time as I’m about to eat there, I wonder if I’ve overblown the taste of Ray’s pizza in my mind. But every time, it tastes like the best slice of pizza I’ve ever tasted.
Despite how many times I’ve eaten it, I can’t really describe what distinguishes this pizza shop’s slices from another. I just know it has a lot of cheese, and that the crust is neither paper-thin nor densely thick. You know it’s there, but it’s not overwhelming the cheese. Quite the contrary, actually.
There is a lot of sophisticated, artful food with more complex flavors that makes me swoon: seared foie gras and figs with a veal reduction; duck confit; coconut soup; aroncini; fettucini with puttanesca sauce; Ciabatta straight from the oven. But no taste pleases me more than that big greasy triangle of bread, tomato sauce and mozzarella from Ray’s.
I'm writing this from Edinburgh, Scotland, where Valarie and I arrived yesterday in a trip bookended by London. For the past several days we've been touring one historic building after another, from St. Paul's Cathedral to Edinburgh Castle. We have been absolutely awed by the scale, the craftsmanship, and the sheer ambition of such places, virtually to the point of tears in some cases. But something Valarie said today has the wheels in my brain churning.
Is it possible that these old cities are burdened by historic architecture as much as they are blessed? Walking down the Royal Mile here in Edinburgh or along Charing Cross Road in London, the urban fabric is dominated by structures hundreds of years old. Of course old buildings must be preserved, so as to maintain the connection amongst the generations, and also simply because the architecture itself is often so impressive and solid and enduring. Valarie wondered how in places like this a contemporary identity can possibly be shaped. We walked past the new Scottish Parliament, for example, and it was an exceptionally bold, postmodern take on history, with windows shaped like what seemed to be axes and fencing that aped old trees. So even this striking modern structure was only riffing on the past.
I think one thing to keep in mind is that we've been visiting the very center of these cities, and if we were to venture further out we would find not only fewer tourists, but more urban spaces and places that are of today. But I also think that modern architecture can't seem to forge a solitary identity like the old buildings seem to. Today's contemporary buildings are widely varied in style, and I think most regular people (who aren't architecture geeks like me) have never come to fully embrace the sleek forms and clean lines of contemporary buildings. My least favorite kind of architecture is faux-historic, modern buildings that imitate old ones. But I think that, especially with houses, this is what most people prefer.
One unique aspect of Edinburgh reminds me that it needn't be an either-or proposition. We have happened upon more than one structure that was originally built as a church some hundreds of years ago, but has since been transformed into a different kind of space. Just before coming to the internet cafe from which I am writing this post, I was at a restaurant having an espresso in what used to be an old church. And yesterday one of the biggest churches we saw, its spire topping out over the skyline, is now not full of pews and bibles but rather is a theater and performance space. It seemed a little weird at first, but the more I think about it the more I like it. When buildings are adapted over time for new uses, it seems to me they become newly relevant. Edinburgh probably doesn't need a church on every block any longer. Today, for better or worse, commerce and the arts are a kind of religion in their own right. Yet we needn't tear down a great building if it can take on new life -- I think even God doesn't mind seeing the occasional house of worship form a new identity as long as it is done as nobly as possible. After all, it's a far better tribute to the past than a building that pretends to be something it isn't.
In less than twelve hours we leave for London and Edinburgh. I’ve packed everything I need, and there is little left to do other than go to bed, get up and head for the airport. Naturally I’m feeling good about the trip – one city we love and one we’ve heard nothing but good things about. But the night before a trip is a time I’ve always found difficult.
My horoscope says that as a Taurus, I’m a creature of routine. Although each day brings new experiences, I find the habit of waking up in the same bed calming. Once I get going on a trip, I love that too. Travel is its own kind of routine, simply one of sightseeing or kicking back or whatever the case may be. But it’s always the between time that is nerve-racking.
I think it revolves around the issue of waiting. Any time you’re anticipating something, by definition you are focused on a moment that is yet to arrive. You’re not in the present. Tonight here at home Valarie and I are having a good time, packing and listening to music, or watching basketball and playing with the cat. But it’s hard to consider this night in its own right, because it is defined by what happens tomorrow.
Buddhism 101 tells us to live in the moment. (Come to think of it, so do sports clichés. It’s NCAA tournament time; I’ve heard a lot of them lately.) So what does that mean? In basketball terms, you could talk about a successful team dictating the tempo. Or you could look to the best individual players, who know when to take the shot and when it’s better to pass. (Salim Stoudamire did a superb job of that last night for Arizona against Oklahoma State in the Sweet 16.)
Maybe at a time like this I’ve got to dictate the mood by working extra hard to keep in mind that the trip we start tomorrow is going to be great, and that I shouldn’t feel anxious. Or I could just try to relax and let things unfold as we make the long journey from our house to the airport, in the air from Portland to Dallas, through the Kafka-esque customs back on the ground, then in the air from Dallas to London, on a train from Gatwick airport to Victoria station, and finally a cab to our hotel.
For the last six and a half months since we returned from our Europe trip last fall, that time has remained on our minds almost constantly. We look at video and still photos I shot. We read books and movies that are set there. We eat crepes or curry that taste like something we had. And we reminisce about the time we spent with friends Neil & Bridget and their kids. We’re so excited to go back! But the first challenge of a trip is one of the biggest ones, to just do nothing until it’s time to walk out the door.
During much of our current Europe trip, which has consisted of visits to London, Paris, Bruge (Belgium) and Amsterdam, Valarie and I have found ourselves staying outside of the city center. In London, for example, we stayed with friends Neil and Bridget in their more suburban home of Walthamstow. Here in Amsterdam, we are in the city but about six or seven tram stops south of the center. (Bruge we were right in the middle of things, and in Paris we were in the less interesting Right Bank but still able to walk everywhere.) At first staying further out in England and Holland seemed like a small burden (in London however it was more than compensated for by friendship), because instead of being able to roll out of bed and into the heart of the urban area we'd come to see, with all its museums and restaurants and such, we would always be traveling on some kind of mass transit for awhile. But ultimately we've come to enjoy being a little further out.
In Walthamstow and outer Amsterdam along the Victorieplein, we have come to embrace and enjoy the scene. It's enriching to see where people live and go about their daily lives, far afield from tourist attractions. And unlike in the US, more suburban areas here are still oriented toward pedestrians and trains for movement and corner shops to patronize on foot. There aren't strip malls or chain-dominated businesses, and while cars are indeed present, they never dominate the environment.
On the train from Belgium to Holland a few days ago, some we were chatting with said the US government once commissioned some European firm to analyze their transit system and what it needed. The recommendation was to raise taxes on petroleum and use the proceeds to pay for improvements to the mass transit system. We all know this isn't going to happen, but even as my car is costing an unprecedently high amount of money to fill its tank these days, I would happily pay considerably more if I knew there would be more MAX lines in Portland, more prevalent and speedy Amtrak trains to take me between cities, and suburbs that could be accessed without a car. But there are other advantages to being American, and from the vantage point in Holland, imagining this culture transported back home is admittedly a case of chasing windmills.
I'm writing this from Amsterdam, where Valarie and I just ate at a fabulous Indonesian restaurant. I'd never had Indonesian food before, as it's not at all prevalent in the US. But it's so good! It must be because American culture was influenced more by Britain and France than Holland, who was the country that colonized Indonesia. Plus there haven't been too many Indonesian immigrants in the US. So maybe the reason we have certain restaurants in a city is not just a matter of local tastes, but whether or not there is impetus to start them. What really interested me though, beyond the India-meets-China blend of spicy and sweet, was how Holland's prevalence of Indonesian restaurants follows a similar pattern in three of the four countries we've been to: Britain has India as its former colonial holding whose cuisine has to a degree usurped the indigenous cuisine. [Recently chicken Tikka Masala was named England's national dish.] In France, at least in the central core, the county's ethnically diverse population is not followed by a prevalence of Vietnamese, Algerian or Senagalese food per se -- the overwhelming majority of the cuisine is still French. But again here in Amsterdam, Dutch cuisine certainly does not take center stage. But it's always interesting to me the relationship that develops between one country with another's food, both the reasons it came to be and the allure of the flavors to those tasting them.
Valarie and I are in the throes of planning a trip to Europe: London, Paris, Bruge, and Amsterdam. Actually most of the airline and hotel arrangements are already made, since we’re going in just under three weeks. But now is the time when we’re really starting to study the city maps and get seriously thinking about where we want to go while we’re there.
There’s a little nervousness that comes with anticipating all the subway systems, foreign languages and other issues, but excitement too. I’ve already been to London and Paris, but that was nine years ago. Despite those cities being great, though, I’m most looking forward to the new places. In a foreign city for the first time you have an enhanced sensitivity and a heightened awareness. That’s an essential so you don’t get lost, robbed or look silly. But it also means you’re all the more aware of the small details that cumulatively comprise a sense of place, from the taste of beer to the amount of trash on the street to the friendliness of the people.
Surely we’ll make mistakes and suffer misfortunes along the way, but we’ll also come back richer for the experience. At least, that’s what happened for me in Tokyo and (to a lesser extent) Nassau this year. Otherwise, I want my two thousand bucks back.
This past weekend, with temperatures in Portland surpassing 100 degrees, Valarie and I headed for our favorite oasis. In the otherwise junky beach town of Newport, there is a little neighborhood called Nye Beach that we absolutely adore. It's a cluster of restaurants, used book stores, a couple bakeries, and hotels, all very walkable and adjacent to the ocean. Although the Sylvia Beach Hotel is the lodging most people know (it's famous for rooms themed after different noteworthy novelists), we far prefer the adjacent Nye Beach Hotel, which has an unlikely but charming sort of tropical, Key West ambiance. Contrary to the overwhelming majority of hotels I've stayed in, this one has a lot of personal touches in terms of its decor. And while it can be rough around the edges in terms of broken bathroom tiles, terrible TV reception and burned out light bulbs, we can also stay there for not much more than $100 in a room with two ocean-front balconies and an in-room jacuzzi. While Portland sizzled the last few days with record temperatures (I really hate July and August climate), we strolled along the beach amidst a picturesque fog and breeze, all checking in under 65 degrees. Like it says in the Bible's 23rd Psalm, it "restoreth my soul".
This week I went to Houston for an article I'm writing about a NASA program that allows teams of college students conduct experiments under zero-gravity conditions, aboard the KC-135 "vomit comet" plane. While there, two moments stood out.
First, during a tour of the Johnson Space Center, we were given a talk about astronaut uniforms by a woman from NASA who designs them. She was explaining all this ultra high-tech material that goes into the suit, so as to protect humans from extremes in temperature, air pressure, radiation and so on. Someone asked her how astronauts go to the bathroom while in the suit, and she pulled out what appeared to be simply an adult sized pair of disposable diapers. Apparently NASA has another name for the apparatus, and they're sensitive about people calling them diapers. But it cracked me up to think of these heroes that millions of people idolize (not without reason, of course) floating in outer space, acting as the Magellans of our time, and having to poop their pants in a big 'ol pair of Huggies.
Second, while at a pre-flight meeting just before the students went aboard the KC-135 for their in-air, zero-gravity experience, they were warned by a NASA videographer that swearing on the trip was strictly forbidden. If any naughty words were uttered, the perpetrator would be erased from the video of their experience. Afterward I asked the videographer if these kids were really able to keep from swearing, considering the incredible and thrilling moment they were experiencing. (The trip supposedly makes the biggest roller coasters seem tame, because the plane achieves weightlessness without entering outer space by flying almost straight up and straight down in a bunch of parabolas.) The videographer told me that while most students were able to keep from swearing, the ones he had the most problems with were usually "females from prestigious universities". I love the reverse stereotype at work here, and would happily shake the hand of any such perpetrator.
Last week Valarie and I flew to Las Vegas for her cousin's wedding. We'd been there a couple years ago and had enjoyed the city just for its uniquely surreal and kitschy splendor, even though we had our fill after a day or so. Well, this time it only took us a matter of minutes to run back to our room to hide.
Here's an episode I think crystalizes the city in my mind: three beautiful and fancily-dressed women in high heels were walking near us along The Strip, at about 11:00pm and 95 degrees on a Friday night. Suddenly, one of the women let fly a gigantic belch. I looked toward her to see what she'd do: say "Excuse me," perhaps beg her friends' pardon, maybe even laugh with embarassment at her faux pas. But this woman didn't even bat a single fake eyelash. Nor did her friends feel that rhinocerous-like bellow was remarking upon with even the slightest change in facial expression. (Maybe it was just the Botox.)
Seems fitting, I think, for a city that--at least along The Strip--could have all the money in the world being willingly tossed into its glittering coffers, a host of upscale retailers added to the plethora of chintzy knicknacks, and yet Las Vegas still wouldn't have any class.
In fact, I almost want to reject that this is a real city at all. Sure, it's now home to millions of people and continues to grow rapidly. But where is the city hall? The public library? The park? I know they're all there somewhere amidst all that desert sprawl, but I don't respect a city where you enter its heart and find none of these cultural and societal cornerstones so much as nearby. And no, KFC doesn't count.
To be honest, Valarie and I agreed that night as we walked through casinos from the upscale Venetian to the bargain-basement Imperial Palace, holding out for as long as we could in an outdoor climate not meant for mankind, that we'd rather visit even America's so-called urban armpits than come to Vegas again. Gary, Indiana? Punch my ticket. Newark, New Jersey? I'm there. East St. Louis, Illinois? See you at the airport. At least for all their problems those places actually feel like genuine places. But Vegas feels like one of those fake Hollywood backdrops of a city, where you go past the front facade and see that's all was there. Better yet, Vegas reminds me of the end of The Wizard of Oz, when the pomp and circumstance were exposed for all their hollowness.
Now, I know many people like Las Vegas. Some of them are friends or (to a lesser extent) family whose opinions I often share. If you enjoy Sin City, more power to you. But I feel dirty when I visit Las Vegas, and not because of the porn or drinking or gambling. I have no interest in moralizing -- leave that to the conservatives. As much as The Strip is not my scene, I'd respect that city if there were a place just as recognizable within its borders that was about something else, something that balanced your soul a little bit after too many flashing lights.
The wedding we went to there was the only tonic. First, it was an hour outside of Vegas in the beautiful desert mountain area of Mt. Charleston. Second, Valarie's cousin (the groom) and his new wife are both cops. There are some cities in America, many in fact, where I'm inclined to often sympathize as much with those being arrested as those putting on the cuffs. But to be a cop in Las Vegas is something I admire. Aside from putting people away or preventing crime, they are one of the only symbols I found there that the city was organized with the least bit of collective good in mind.
Last week I visited Tokyo for the first time and found it to be one of the greatest experiences of my life. Somehow, even with the language and cultural barriers, the city made a lot of sense to me. And like Vincent Vega says of Europe in Pulp Fiction, it's really all about the little differences.
There are the suits, ties and white gloves worn by the taxi drivers; the electronic pushbutton answers for so many tasks; how many women use umbrellas walking in the sun; a channel on my hotel TV devoted entirely to Peanuts cartoons dubbed into Japanese; the moist cloth given as you enter virtually any restaurant; how business casual is eschewed in favor of suits. And so on.
Overall, it may be a cliche to say this, but I was really struck by how civilized Tokyo is despite being among the densest and largest cities in the world. There are a lot of things I love about New York, a city I lived in on and off for seven years, but Tokyo makes NYC feel so much more dirty and rude.
One of the other most moving aspects of my trip was to walk around the city and realize that there did not seem to be a single building in central Tokyo that was built before World War II. I knew the war had destroyed a lot of the city, but it's almost as if Tokyo temporarily ceased to exist by 1945. In saying this I'm not taking issue with America's waging of the war -- they attacked us, after all. But it's still sad, made even more so after I traveled to Kyoto, Japan's ancient capital (which was spared from bombing), and saw the magnificence not only of old Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines, but the maze of old streets and residences surrounding them.
A lot of the food I ate was relatively familiar--sushi, tonkatsu, miso, ramen, tempura (hard to go off the beaten path when you don't speak the language)--but as you might expect, in many cases it was the best I've ever tasted. The first night I arrived, the texture of my tempura at a small restaurant in neon-festooned Ginza was just a little flakier and more flavorful.
I'll surely be posting more thoughts about the trip in the days/weeks ahead. Rest assured that Tokyo remains branded on the brain.
Continuing the question from a previous post (“I.C.L.A.”) of what it is about Los Angeles that appeals to me—and something genuinely does, despite LA's general urban ugliness and sprawling heavy traffic—I was thinking today about the role climate plays in the culture and personality of place.
The fact that LA is more or less sunny and warm year-round has always attracted people there (including my sister). And while I do enjoy sunny weather, at least of the mild variety, there’s something inherently peculiar to me, almost sinister even, about an environment without distinct seasons. Is that fair? Absolutely not. It simply reflects my having lived exclusively in northern regions, that and my very white, sun-fearing complexion. Plus I just enjoy the cycle of seasons, the routine of changing weather patterns.
Yet the very fact that Los Angeles lacks those seasons is part of what attracts me. I experience me almost a deviant pleasure in going down there when it's wintry here. It's like an unspoken rebellion against Mother Nature, something I'm getting away with. Do people who live in Los Angeles feel that way? I suppose it depends on where you came from, whether you're a native Angelino or not--although one person I talked to recently who was born and bred in LA says she misses her grad school time in Minnesota. And then there are people like my sister, who has so quickly adapted to Los Angeles that it really seems it's her true home, whereas Oregon, the place she spent the first 18 years of life, seems more like the place she's constantly adapted to.
Of course climate is just one of countless factors comprising the culture of a city or region, but clearly it's part of how I perceive the city: a very intriguing and fun place to visit, but one I'm always happy to come home from.
Last week I made a business trip to Los Angeles, and was once again trying to grasp an essential question about the city. In many ways, LA has all the elements of a place for me to hate. There’s constant heavy traffic, endless sprawl, desert heat, and all but the most exclusive enclaves are pretty ugly. But there’s something about Los Angeles I really like. The place has a certain energy, but my enjoyment was not simply about stargazing. I lived in New York for years, so it’s not as if simply being in a cultural Mecca is necessarily enough to get me jazzed. Whatever it is about Los Angeles is more elusive to me, but an architect I was interviewing down there, Debbie Richmond, may be on to something. “Los Angeles is a kind of blank screen onto which you project your own dreams and desires,” she told me. “As someone who grew up here, I find that to be true of people who come here from elsewhere. Everyone has their own private vision of LA.” My private vision used to consist mostly of hating the Lakers and Disneyland, not to mention the various Southern California stereotypes we Oregonians carry as part of our cultural DNA. But flying down there a couple of times a year has made Los Angeles a more captivating destination. Don't look for me to move there anytime soon. Unlike my sister, that'd push me into overdose. But it's certainly fun having such a limitless place to explore.
Is it just not as common a knowledge as I think it is that those who prefer to drive slower have a responsibility to stay out of the left lane on the freeway? I'll be the first to admit that I drive too aggressively. That said, though, pretty much every time I ever get behind the wheel of a car, I get furious at somebody who is just lumbering along at 55 or between 55 and 60 in the left lane and are seemingly oblivious to the line of cars stuck behind them, begging and pleading for them to move into another lane and swearing profusely (as is my custom) when they don't. How can you grow up in this society and just never come to understand this basic tenet of the road? If it weren't so infintile of me to get this upset about a handful of seconds lost on a drive, I'd seriously want to strangle these people. I've never actually experienced road rage--if you measure it by acting in a visibly threatening way to another driver. But I've definitely 'pitied the fool', as that mohawked philosopher known by the simple moniker of T would say.
I've never been interested in tropical vacations. My fair skin fears sunburns, and my temperment abhors touristy spots where fruity drinks are the cultural focus. But I must say that, after an impromptu trip to the Bahamas as part of a travel magazine assignment last week, it was quite enjoyable. What was really weird about the trip, though, was being aboard the Disney Wonder. That's right: Not only was I passenger on a cruise ship, but one operated by Disney -- practically the Evil Empire, as far as I'm concerned (some great cartoons notwithstanding). I remember back when I lived in New York people remarked that Times Square had transformed during the early 90s from porno theaters to Disney theaters -- and nobody knew which was worse! On top of all this, being adamantly and proudly childless as well as sensitive to the screams and bellows of young children, I worried that this experience would be excruciating. But it wasn't. It was great. Go figure! The ship did a good job of securing enclaves aboard its massive tonnage (the Wonder is twice as heavy as the Titanic and 100 feet longer) for adults. Maybe it was a little bit like Las Vegas at sea without the gambling, but damn it, I enjoyed myself. It felt good after the cruise to be back in real environments again (even the Orlando airport), but I can't say that sunny weather, warm beaches, and all-you-can-eat restaurants weren't enjoyed by yours truly. Oh, and I was also an attendee at the "Ebert & Roeper Film Festival At Sea", featuring some nice films from Sundance. I can vouch for the fact that Roger Ebert has lost a lot of weight. I just hope the smorgasboard didn't set him back.