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Walking to Write

6 Jun
Little donkey I found on a recent walk

Little donkey I found on a recent walk

Just in time for those real long summer wanders I love, my seventh set of writing prompts for the Ploughshares  blog tackles the wonders of walking and the importance of place, with wisdom from Luis Urrea. The uber-talented Melanie Masson was very generous in lending a few of her gorgeous landscape photographs to the post.

As I’m nearing the half-way point in this year of blogging about writing prompts, I’ll just put it out here: any requests for particular topics? So far I’ve covered portraits, eavesdropping, architecture, objects, dance, and music. I have other topics lined up, but I’m open to suggestions. Leave a comment here, tweet at me, or send me an email. And thanks!

Parking Signs to Power Lines

6 Mar

Last month, I took an afternoon class at Richard Hugo House with Shin Yu Pai called “Maps for a Narrative Atlas” to, as it were, tickle my psychogeographic fancy. After some discussion of Denis Wood’s Everything Sings and Rebecca Solnit’s Infinite CityShin sent us out into Capitol Hill to map some specific, observable aspect of the neighborhood and then try to transcribe what we found into text. I decided to focus on everything visible between parking signs and power lines, plus any sounds. I ended up with a catalogue of mostly tags and graffiti animals, an “urban bestiary” as one of the workshop participants noted (incidentally, this is a topic for another post I’ve been meaning to write as well as the title of a fascinating forthcoming book).

Here’s that catalogue.

E. Olive Street, from 11th Avenue to 12th Avenue

shoes

crows

propeller affixed to pole, swaying

crows

parking sign: Hellawasted, Action for Animals, sad ghost

bright yellow bits of a torn flier

crows

fuzzy green tree buds

Z overlaying U

Nasty Nate Comfy

faded blue outline of a skeleton

Lost Cat: Adult Male Mostly Black with a White Belly. Will Give Generous Reward if Found and Returned to Owner. Contact Arlene.

bright yellow flier, intact: Our Neighborhoods Under Attack! scary black towers descending upon single family homes with crash-pow comic book bursts

Notice of Public Meeting

fuzzy green tree buds

police car siren

12th Avenue

shoes

crows

guttural other-bird song; rattle and click

11th Avenue from Howell Street to E Olive

crows

parking sign: Hello My Name Is Nick Nack Records

4 hour parking sing: No Big Deal, smiling prehistoric fish with wings, Nasty Nate Comfy, Blink

children squealing

stick man with a briefcase and devil horns apparently going to hell

4 hour parking Valid Here: love birds

night owl with steaming cup of something

shoes

The Zoo

2 Jan

I’m honored to have my story “The Zoo” included as one of four stories in Washington City Paper’s D.C.-themed fiction issue .  Here’s how the story begins:

The Zoo

That’s what my brother calls it. The quarantined room at the end of the hall. It has two sets of windows: one looking into an air lock, where two white bunny suits hang on the wall, then another looking into the room kept pristine for the most fragile.

Continue reading

Writing Nonfiction to Think Through Fiction

27 Jul

One of my former professors from UW, Shawn Wong, advised us to write essays on topics related to our fiction projects whenever we felt stuck. After working through many drafts of my first novel, I’ve come to really appreciate this advice. Not only does it give you a new angle on your material, enabling a return to the fiction with fresh eyes, but it can also build your confidence about the research you’d done so far and raise new questions that enrich your understanding of your project. Writing essays can also make it easier to talk about your project with authority and maybe answer that dreaded question, “So, what is your novel about?” with less trepidation.

Earlier this month, my friend SK invited me to speak to the creative writing classes held at UW’s Robinson Center Summer College about travelling to Argentina to research my novel. Though my novel is written for an adult audience, the students in these classes are 5th and 6th graders. It was an enjoyable problem thinking about this different audience and really fun to just address the hands on, primary research I did: walking down Buenos Aires’s wide boulevards and narrow alleyways,trying to get a whiff of the city’s unique scent (note to self: “city scents” as future post), talking to locals who’d lived through the period I was writing about (1978), and uh, gorging myself on dulce de leche. The students had a lot of awesome, thoughtful questions, like what point of view did you write in, did you ever want to give up in the years that you worked on it, did you ever get stuck and what did you do to get unstuck?

Around the same time that I was preparing this talk, I was also working on a short essay for a website called Airplane Reading, which collects “storytelling that can animate, reflect on, and rejuvenate the experience of flight.” This essay, “Mapping Imagination,” gets at some the anxieties I struggled with in writing and researching the novel and is featured there this week. Having worked on both a short talk and short essay, I’m feeling ready again to continue with all the work that goes into getting the novel out into the world.

SK delivered a stack of thank you cards from her students a week after my talk. Some of the details they remembered from the talk and included in their cards were kind of incredible. One student wrote, “P.S. I love food too,” which made me plotz, one student made the card in the form of a paper fortune teller (I learned from it that I will write 1000 more short stories in my lifetime), and two students made an elaborate card in which the Argentine flag opened to a diptych with their messages. It really made my week.

Vegas, Maybe

20 May

Hoover Dam. Photo by M.

M and I went to Las Vegas last week. We spent Mother’s Day there with our fathers. (Obviously, we’ll do something motherly on Father’s Day. ) My dad goes there quite often, on business; the last time I’d been was about twenty years ago, when we combined one of his business trips with a family vacation. Then, we rode the Canyon Blaster at Circus Circus and shuffled from 112 degree heat to the cool of Caesars Palace; I thought the ladies dressed as Cleopatra were pretty neat. We hiked Red Rock Canyon at sunset and drove through Death Valley, where I thought that if we opened the car door, we’d immediately crumple or explode.

On this visit, I felt unsettled by all that excess in the middle of the desert. M and I wondered why the city had to be built so far from Lake Mead.  I found myself wondering how much longer Lake Mead has and why the casinos and hotels aren’t totally clad in solar panels. (Happily, Las Vegas City Hall is.) I spent some time hiding from hotter-than-usual-even-for-Vegas heat on a comfy chair at the Bellagio, reading Diana Abu-Jaber’s Birds of Paradise, a novel which, among other things, explores urban development in Miami in the face of climate change and worsening hurricanes. Of course, it *is* an exciting city that is “going for it,” so to speak, which is what makes it so attractive for so many people. I just wish it was “going for it” in a way that is more obviously sustainable.

Speaking of birds, my short story “Raven in a Jar” received a Special Mention in the Salem College International Literary Awards’ Reynolds Price Fiction Prize, judged by Kate Bernheimer. Yay!

The Kobe Ropeway

21 Apr

My third and final post about our trip to Japan.

The Kobe Ropeway, I learned from Wikipedia just now, is nicknamed – quite appropriately-  the “Kobe Dreamy Balloon.” Surely, it is a place where happiness is made. I took a half dozen pictures of the adorable mural beside the entrance to this aerial tramway, possibly the most cheerful mural I’ve ever seen. And then, silently, we zoomed 400 meters up Mount Rokkō , inside the little sleek black and red car, precariously attached to the cable by a tiny metal hook and swaying ever so slightly in the wind. Below us: lush trees, then the white-brick, gray-brick, and blue-glass city, then the glittering harbor melting into the milky horizon. Above us: the Nunobiki Herb Garden, an Alpine-style rest house, a concert hall, and a museum of fragrance. In the aromatherapy room, we made soap scented with lavender and geranium and tinted with turmeric and rosemary. Outside, snow whirled over snapdragons, white roses, a whole riot of springtime flowers. We wandered down the hill through the herb garden to a greenhouse with an exhibit on spices, smelling jars of cloves, saffron, anise, cardamom – essential, enlivening olfactory research!

Out of the garden and hiking back down Mount Rokkō, we passed many tiny shrines nestled into the hillside, and a few waterfalls. J pointed out this habitat as a likely home for kappa, a mythical amphibious animal notorious for stealing cucumbers and, when provoked, ripping out livers via the anus. How incredibly specific!

Here are some more pictures from the mural (click to expand):

Tiny Fish, Kyoto

14 Apr

Last week, I swooned over Tokyo’s never-endingness. This week I want to tell you about tiny things.

On a rainy night in Kyoto, we got lost looking for a restaurant recommended by my guidebook. (Silly me and my seven-year-old book!) We came to a lovely street, less bustling and generic than the downtown boulevard we’d been following and bisected by a canal, the yellow light of intimate restaurants illuminating the water. We poked around a few restaurants there, though the ground-floor ones seemed to cater to executives on expense accounts, and one that required taking an elevator gave off an unsettling-is-this-a-restaurant-or-not vibe, so we turned off this very-pretty-but-inaccessible street, onto an alley.We were tired, hungry, and wet.

This is the first place we found:

Image

The restaurant was down a set of stairs and a sign above the stairway said “We have Yuba Food here!” J explained the yuba is tofu skin. A bearded man in a corduroy blazer rounded the corner, saw us deliberating outside, and smiled wide, encouraging us to go on in, so we took him up on it, descending the staircase and following a narrow cellar hallway to the front door. J peaked in the window. “It looks cozy,” he said.

It was, indeed, a tiny place, with one counter and one wooden table, which could seat about eight and at which sat two men just finishing their meal. The man in the picture (above), wearing a lab coat and a pink bowtie, greeted us and seated us at the table, telling the men already there to recommend dishes to us. We learned they were from Osaka, but regulars here. They asked if we like oysters (we do), but then went on to recommend a seasonal specialty, baby bamboo tempura.

Before the food came out, the woman of the picture above, in a red headscarf and looking eerily like a Japanese version of my paternal grandmother, brought out three little ceramic dishes – an amuse-bouche of tiny raw fish in a ponzu sauce, topped with grated radish and hot sauce. The fish were not so tiny that you could not see their tiny eyes. Their silvery skin was translucent, beneath which ran a dark line from head to tail. Reader, I’m sorry that we were squeamish. The only thing to do was eat the tiny fish. J had a lot of practice with this, having lived in Japan as long as he did. We all took a big gulp of cold beer and downed the tiny raw fish with their tiny eyes and tiny intestinal lines. It couldn’t be done in one bite, of course. There were lots of tiny fish in our tiny ceramic bowls. Actually, the dish was quite delicious (texture aside — an acquired taste, I’m sure!). I got through about half. J got through about half. But M? M was resolved to eat all his many tiny fish. And eat he did! Which led to a discussion on the origin of the phrase “mad props”. 

We ate crab wrapped in yuba and a tomato-cheese-in-a-skillet-thing, but by the far the most delectable dish was the spring vegetable tempura, which included asparagus, a “spring flower”, a “tree root” (which I think was actually an exceptionally refined piece of broccoli), and the tender baby bamboo, crown jewel of the spring vegetables. Which just goes to show, always ask a local for a recommendation.

Food aside, this was a neat little place. The stucco walls and the basement location made it feel like a cave whose walls had been whitewashed. A mask made of a coconut shell sat on a side table by the door and one wall was adorned with a motherboard. The music jumped from African to traditional Japanese (the koto, I think), to jazz. I felt like we were just hanging out at someone’s house.

I wish I could tell you exactly where this place was, but maybe the best way to experience it is to stumble upon it?Image

Tokyo, City of My Dreams

7 Apr

M. and I went to Japan last month to visit his brother J., who’d been living there for six years. We met J. in Tokyo, and traveled with him to Kyoto, Osaka, and Kobe before hopping over to NYC for a wedding. I’m back in Seattle and not-too-jet-lagged and will write about the trip over the next few posts.

The first thing that struck me about Tokyo, having grown up in Brooklyn but having lived in Seattle for the last few years, is how large – and dense – it is. For me, this is joy. I love to be on an elevated subway, careening past a cityscape (hence the glee I experience in Chicago), glimpsing life from an angle you can’t get from any other vantage. I love, also, wandering the sidewalks, turning off from the bustle of boulevards to find a narrow alleyway filled with mom & pop restaurants, tiny art galleries, adorable (if, in Tokyo, overpriced) cafes.  (M.’s urban planning is really rubbing off on me!) The thing about Tokyo is that wandering its enormity is like wandering the best of my anxiety dreams. Do you have those dreams where you’re lost in a city (for me, always a version of New York or Montreal or some fusion of the two) and the streets and trains never seem to end? I do. But in Tokyo, it felt right. Exhausting, as a tourist, but right. And despite that, one is never far away from a quiet garden or temple or shrine  – some place where the noise just falls away and you’re in contact with the natural world. 

There is so much to say about Tokyo, I can’t fit it all into a blog post. But, one of my favorite things we did was take a “Haunted Tokyo” walking tour, meandering the back alleys of Kabukicho, an older neighborhood that is now the red light district. Our tour guide, Lilly, has been living in Tokyo nearly 27 years and collecting its ghost stories all along. Our first stop was a Shinto shrine to the “mother of all angry ghosts,” O-iwa. The gruesome story of her death (her husband poisons her slowly, and half her face becomes disfigured, her eyeball drooping off of it) reminded me of how the worst of my migraines feels. To soothe O-iwa’s spirit, and to stay on her good side, local merchants leave her offerings of sake.

We stopped by a Buddha of the Phlegm (which is not haunted, but a good place to cure congestion problems) and learned that workers in the Edo period believed earthquakes (which happened every 50 years or so) were caused by the cat fish god, which, Lilly said, they liked because the cyclical upheaval caused a radical redistribution of wealth and rebuilding the city meant more opportunities for work.

Lilly told many more ghost stories, but perhaps my favorite morsel of her spiel was not ghostly at all. Walking down “Golden Alley,” a nightlife area purported to be favorite haunts of Wim Wenders, Johnny Depp, and Tim Burton, she told us that *her*favorite bar, Cremaster, is hosted by a psychiatrist, who for 1500 yen will give you a drink and a 30 minute chat. Maybe next time I’m in Tokyo I’ll go there and tell him about my endless-city-anxiety-dreams over a shikuwasa sour.

Arctic Night

16 Dec

Olympic Sculpture Park; photo by George Szilagyi

One of my favorite things, which I don’t do nearly enough, is to get lost in a city and stumble upon something wonderful. Yesterday, I took my father around Seattle, from Capitol Hill (where we chatted electric insulators at Arabica) to South Lake Union to Queen Anne to the Olympic Sculpture Park and finally to Pioneer Square, after which we plotzed on the 43 bus back up the hill. It was a lovely eye-feast of high end furniture, antiques (like this Japanese gourd, though there was a doubly-bulbous one as well as an enormous Turkish yogurt vat very much to my liking), and contemporary sculpture (plus some smoked salmon and cheese samples at the market!). My favorite stumbling place was the Sisko Gallery,where we were warmly greeted by Daisy, the gallery’s terrier, and John Sisko, the sculptor-founder. The current show, “Aether”,  features Phil McCracken’s dark fruit wood sculptures made luminous by epoxy resin; one of my favorite pieces is “Arctic Night”, pulsating midnight blue from a smoldering red center, around which orbit white and red splotches. Tony Curtis’s poem “The Mole and Cosmos” opens “Aether”, setting a warm tone for the whole show and also fitting in quite nicely with the welcoming atmosphere of gallery. More about McCracken’s “cosmic turn” is here. The gallery features new work every four to six weeks. I’m looking forward to a return!

Next up, the Arboretum’s Winter Garden…

Northwest Spring

17 Mar

It came early this year. Earlier than the East, but also a month earlier than normal for Seattle. Cherry blossoms budding in late January and bursting in February. Then dogwoods. Then magnolias. The storm clouds were consistently inconsistent, but in them now instead of grays and blues there was also the reflected pink. On my birthday a tsunami warning. Then the fluffy white blossoms turned streets bridal. In early March, it was sunny and warm. M and I rented a canoe and paddled about Portage Bay, lightly buzzed from margaritas shared with friends earlier in the afternoon. We diligently avoided the Montlake shipping canal, the only instructions given by the boat rental place. Of course, even with my life vest on I was nervous of toppling over, every time a motor boat or yacht made waves and we bounced and I heard a faint trickling of water (was there a hole in the canoe?). Eventually I relaxed and we paddled proficiently and enjoyed the near-crisp views of the Cascades and Mount Rainier and contemplated life in Laurelhurst and Sandpoint across the water.

Driving to Portland this past weekend we caught even more spring. So much pink with occasional bursts of yellow forsythia. I couldn’t remember a time I’d seen so many blossoms along the highway. Wandering the neighborhoods of Portland, we didn’t need to stoop to smell the flowers, their fragrances wafted up to us. The friend we were visiting rasped with seasonal allergies. All the pollen, he explained, was stuck in Portland. The geography did not allow it to blow away. He told us it used to be called the sick place. Too much spring. I was relieved my own eyes weren’t bursting with stinging moisture. We saw a play there at the Imago Theater, an “opera beyond words” about an authoratarian typing school, in which the task master (a bit like a business-y, malevolent bride of Frankenstein) skewered out one eye from each typist and hung the ball from its red cords above that typist as he or she sullenly tapped away. We brunched at Screen Door, where M spotted Catherine O’Hara, and then took the streetcar from Nob Hill to the waterfront. Of course we stopped at Powell’s; M picked up Michael Chabon’s Maps and Legends and I finally got Irene Nemirovksy’s Suite Francaise, which I’ve been meaning to read for a long time.

Now spring break is upon us. We’re heading back East to visit friends and family, where their own spring should be just emerging.

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