Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Lunar Eclipse: Totally Awesome


Being in Asia, we were perfectly situated for the total lunar eclipse of August 28, 2007.

We raced back from Denpasar to be at home in time for moonrise, and were aghast at the gathering of clouds to the east. After, what -? - 30 days of clear evenings, we suddenly see the heavens poofing over in the direction of the moonrise. We were scheduled to get about a 10 degrees south of due east moonrise, but it was all cloudy-looking over that way. We could see the "thumb" of Lombok Island, but nothing else.

While my hubby ran around gathering up the Celestron telescope, I sat on a campstool out by the surf, braving the ocean breezes with a sarong around my shoulders. I just sat there looking at clouds barely tinged by the west's sunset. It was getting depressing. Suddenly, I spotted the moon behind all the clouds. It was a little higher than I was expecting (it was, by now, close to 7 pm), but it was already in the penumbra, red as Mars, veiled by heavy rain clouds.

With binocs, you could see the utter roundness of the thing... just amazing, and pretty soon it actually started rising above the clouds. As we fumbled with the Celestron, the moon headed for a thick cloud, but by the time it was about 20 degrees in the sky, the clouds disappeared. Our only possible obstacle was a nearby palm frond hanging down.

Well, we got that big old fella in the sites of the telescope and spent the next hour just watching. Our night watchman turned on a security light and we said, "no, don't! Come over here and look at this!" He watched and laughed (us sadly inexperienced foreigners who have never seen an eclipse of the moon), but he liked looking through the Celestron, too. We told him to go get the cook and his helper, and so those guys came down to look, too. The cook called his kids, who came to watch, too. It was all a big science class field trip! The coolest part of this whole eclipse, in my opinion, was watching it slowly end. The sight of the sun "dawning" on the lower (to our eyes, here on the equator) part of the moon was just beautiful! The red pinking up at first, and then craters becoming clearer... we could actually watch the sun hit the ridges and craters differently.

After the eclipse was passing, and the moon resembled a grinning jack o lantern without eyes, we turned the telescope up to Scorpio, above our heads, where Jupiter floated, his bright Galilean moons in line. That means four of the seven or eight satelites of the big gas giant. We could make out a blue line and the big red spot. The planet and his little moons looked like they were just out there in their own little realm, minding their business, rotating in line and doing what planets and moons do. It was sooo beautiful. Cosmic is a great word. It was truly cosmic in both senses.

By the time we sat down to vegetable curry, we still took a few peeks up at the moon, with eyes only. It was funny to see it with a big bite out of it, like a cookie, not at all like a moon phase. At the end, the moon looked like a ball of dough which someone had pushed in at the top... just a dark little dent up there. It was cool!

Friday, August 10, 2007

Macau


Back in Macau.

Want to add some film noir to your life? Just get over here to the former Portugese enclave and you'll get all the grit, characters, glam, crime, and typhoons you can bear.

Someone on eBay is selling this movie ad, but I own a copy of it, too, so I don't feel too bad about cutting and pasting his photo here in my blog.

For one hot nightclub scene, producer Howard Hughes had a solid gold dress made for Jane Russell, whose boobs were strong enough to hold up under its significant tonnage and drag!

This is a great little movie, directed by two different filmmakers. Josef von Sternberg directed the mesmerizing dock scenes, which rate amongst the best chase sequences shot in b&w. Mitchum and Sternberg clashed like a strict schoolteacher and a charismatic class clown. But what really ended the German director's stint on this project was his going over schedule and over budget. Scenes of banter and other hot interactions between the two stars were shot incredibly poorly by a studio hack who seemed to just leave the camera running ten feet away. Perhaps he was just entranced by the chemistry of Mitchum and Russell and forgot to yell, "cut." Because even the lacklustre cinematography and awful lighting, such a contrast with von Sternberg's sequences, cannot douse the flames of the two ne'er-do-wells who find themselves washed ashore in the rat-infested docks of postwar Macau.

Here I sit, typing away on the 22nd floor of Macau's most posh hotel, while my husband thrashes out "Cinnamon Girl" on his new Martin, while a typhoon rages away outside. Sunset was a noir-ish affair with a strange glow emanating from behind dark clouds, Penha Church backlit like something out of a horror flick.

We'll be going out on the town in just a little while.

Thursday, August 02, 2007

Bridge Disaster

This horrific tragedy is going to attract the opinions of every engineer, would-be engineer, failed engineer, and random pundit. Okay, so I am one, too.

For I don't honestly know if this is an important observation, but check out this detail of satellite-recorded imagery from 1991, over Minneapolis:



This could be an artifact of splicing together a zillion photos taken from afar, but look at that loopy edge to the fated 35W Interstate bridge? I mean, the Cedar Street Bridge is right next to it, and it's straight as an uncooked noodle. Is anyone out there able to shed some light on this oddity?

I can't help but feel that this is some clue to the demise of the bridge. I saw the spot on CNN where, in 2001 or 2, one engineer's report on the bridge's structural system pointed out some sort of flaws. Here it is:
For the state transportation department, the University of Minnesota Civil Engineering Department reported that there were preliminary signs of fatigue on the steel truss section under the roadway, but no cracking. It said there was no need for the transportation department to replace the bridge because of fatigue cracking. But CNN did elaborate with the findings: the structure itself did not have a secondary support system should one level of support fail. In other words, the design of the bridge could have been augmented with supplementary, or secondary, support, just as insurance.

But I am no engineer, just an internet addict who should be working on that novel rewrite.

I can't access google maps from here for some reason. I would like to be able to compare their images with the TerraServer, above. I mean, maybe the site is jammed up from too many people trying to view the scene of the disaster, but for now I cannot get to that image from Bali.

Thanks, http://terraserver.microsoft.com , for the posting of this and other images.

Friday, July 27, 2007

Rain in July

All very weird, a rain shower this morning. Normally, here in east Bali, we don't get so much as a drop of moisture from April through October. But this year, we've had rather frequent showers during JULY!

Sulawesi, east of here, is getting floods every bit as bad as those in Wales and England. Logging in the jungle has compounded the problem of mudslides.

It is always a little depressing to drive into Denpasar and see, on the roadside, shop after shop selling massive slabs from tree trunks, roots, etc. I saw a news report on Al Jazeera last week in which a camera crew visited some of the illegal devastation of Kalimantan (Indonesian Borneo), and there is just far too much logging going on, too much for the government here to regulate.

Anyway, I urge my friends to be very careful about buying tropical lumber. At this point, I would urge a boycott of Indonesian lumber until the government can get a handle on managing the problem. Why create a massive market force for the lumber, even through legal channels? The framework in place for managing forestry is not working.

So, as I look over my garden, an acacia tree flourishing in the moisture, alamanda vines reaching higher, I see my own little paradise maturing and becoming lush. But this rainfall is causing some big problems in larger, far more important areas.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

The King of Kowloon is Dead at 85


Hong Kong artists loved this guy's ranting calligraphy which decorated traffic signal boxes, support posts at ferry concourses, temporary walls, and walkways. Now he's gone, leaving behind a few remainders of his unique work.

Hong Kong was not usually subjected to graffiti, and Tsang Tsou Choi's work stood out. He often chose gray surfaces, as I recall. He really did beautify the duller parts of Hong Kong, and to this uncomprehending English speaker, his calligraphy was every bit as decorative as a stone stele in a Chinese temple.

I remember noticing the writings in about 1990, as I was struggling to learn a few Chinese characters. I knew gwok, one of the words usually written out in a size larger than the rest of his wallpaper-ish spreads of writing. I have never really learned exactly what he wrote until today, as I took in the obituary report on Star News Asia, as I was eating a pile of pasta.

Every now and again a Hong Kong artist would honor Tsang's work. Lau Gin-Wai, an art critic turned restaurateur had Tsang decorate a few walls at his restaurant The Yellow Door. Someone else had Tsang write all over glass bottles. And, time and again, his work would make its way into art photography and even the odd fashion spread.

In place where ancestors are worshiped, but where calling attention to yourself is a faux pas, Tsang was tolerated as a kind of oddball. Even on government property (like the General Post Office and the Star Ferry concourse), his work stayed for years, unmolested. I think it's because his graffiti actually looked pretty good. It was Hong Kong's greatest public art.


Here's a snapshot of the man's work, with an admirer taking pause to enjoy it.

His handwriting was consistent and unmistakable, a kind of crude version of Han era calligraphy. And the content perhaps spoke to the everyman who would like to assert his place in an overcrowded city, under a waffling government, within a tiny appendage to the massive state of China.

This is site specific work at its purest.

Tsang shone as heroic, a man who shunned intrusions into his life and spoke out in text only. In this way, he was a writer's writer. Farewell, old man.

Portrait of the artist from Frank Chan's site: http://www.pbase.com/frankomania/tsang

Saturday, July 21, 2007

All Things Tiki



Last time I was in Tucson, I visited Kon Tiki, the local Tiki bar to the Sonora Desert.

Scoff if you like, but this place is great cheesy fun. It is a real relic of the Tiki craze of the last century, and yet it is full of patrons and should be around for a long time to come.

Visit tikiroom.com and see the photos, like this one, by tikijackalope (definitely a contributor who lives in the desert southwest). His critique of the place is quite thorough, and he sums it up with this nice remark: Its a museum to me, a 41 year-old nicotine stained poly-pop decor museum where they coincidentally serve food and drink.
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Yes, I would agree. I asked for a watered down version of one of their amazingly alcoholic tubs of glog, and was glad I did, because the pupus they served me were mostly ghastly deep-fried things that would be refused by even a Samoan teenage girl laden with PMS. I had to chase the taro-with-fat with a lot of swigs of tiki brew just to erase every trace. But the ribs were good.

Sorry I didn't buy a souvenir tiki mug, but my shelves don't really need one, do they?

Thursday, July 05, 2007

Surf's Up!


Woah-ho! It's high tide and the waves are nearly hitting the cliff!

The black sand stayed extra long this year, and I did enjoy a few long walks at sunset. Nothing better than padding along in bare feet on firm sand. Except maybe the women's health benefits of walking in slightly less firm sand.

But now the July waves are back, and the Japanese surfers at Jasi 1 and Jasi 2 are undoubtedly stoked!

We had a couple of nights of thundering surf, shaking the glass, even! Today, I sit and look out of my husband's office and see the sets coming in gracefully. I went down to the point and looked over to Ujung and saw the beautiful triangles of seafoam that travel swiftly to shore: what waves look like from the side. Photo above was taken during a dry season a few years ago. We had so much rain last month, the grass is more green than shown above.

Sunday, July 01, 2007

Olivia deHavilland

Happy Birthday (yesterday, as I write this in Bali), Olivia deHavilland.

I suppose I can just barely forgive her for her anti-Communist campaigning in post-war Hollywood. I think that she was probably not a big witch hunt type, turning people in like Elia Kazan did. From what I know about her, she is very level-headed about self determination, which takes a back seat in Communist politics. The fact that she can spot human exploitation when she sees it (second quote below) means she's not just blindly supporting all that comes with Capitalism. So I'll give her a little honor on her 91st birthday.

She was such a great actress, truly the first leading lady who could be homely (really homely) in one movie, glamorous in the next. Even Kate Hepburn can't make that claim.

Check out her IMDB bio. What a family!

Here's her interesting take on Hollywood:

"The one thing that you simply have to remember all the time that you are there, is that Hollywood is an oriental city. As long as you do that you might survive. If you try to equate it with anything else you'll perish."

I do believe she's referring to the Tai-Pan mentality of the film business in those days. Here's what she said, later, about the TV industry:

"The TV business is soul crushing, talent destroying and human being destroying. These men in their black towers don't know what they are doing. It's slave labour. There is no elegance left in anybody. They have no taste. Movies are being financed by conglomerates which take a write off if they don't work. The only people who fight for what the public deserves are artists."

Tell it, Livvie!

Thursday, June 28, 2007

Saab Story


Back in about 2003, after throwing away too much money on rental cars every time I visited the States, I decided to buy a car. Just a cheap used car with enough miles left on it that I wouldn't have to pour more money into it.

Using my dad's computer, I looked on Craig's List for convertibles. Mid 90's Sebrings, mostly, but I did notice a 1989 Saab, too.

I called and left messages on a lot of phones. Some people I even spoke to. There was the totally spaced out guy in Santa Cruz with a 1991 LeBaron, there was the Latino family in Hayward with a 93 Sebring. I was fairly excited about a low-miles (and low priced) 93 Sebring being offered by a girl with an Indian accent. She was amusing, the way she'd answer a question like, "has the car had any body work done on it?" She answered by saying,"the bodywork is excellent," presumably meaning the body was in good shape. She said that a guy was going to call her back , and if he didn't, she'd call me.

On my way out to a matinee or something, I told my dad that I was hoping to hear back from a woman about a car. When I got back, I saw that my dad had left me a note that basically said that the woman called back and was very glad to hear that I was excited about her car, and left her number. I phoned it immediately, but when I got connected to her, I realized that she was not the Indian gal with the Sebring. She was the owner of the Saab, which I'd completely forgotten about.

What the hell, we made the appointment to see the car. It was down in one of those Peninsula suburbs that's supposed to be upper class, and in some ways it resembles parts of Berkeley. But without any culture to recommend it, it's just another expensive yawn. No matter. I saw the car in the driveway and parked out on the steep street. It was as cherry looking as you could dream a 14 year old car. Nice recent paint job that was red, leaning on almost orange. Not my color, but it had a pizzazz... as zesty as a good pizza sauce.

I went to the door. A heavy set gal who was pushing 60, and her yapping little grey dog came to meet me. She came out to show me the car and to talk about it. She said she loved this car, that it has been so dependable and she'd take it on I-5 to visit her daughter in LA and it never gave her any trouble. I asked if it had ever been in an accident, and she said, no. I looked under the hood at the engine, which is a funny experience on a Saab, if you've never tried it. The hood opens up a funny way... sort of sliding forward and then upward. It was not easy to get back down and I barely registered the ramifications of that difficult manoeuver.

I asked her why she had to sell it, and she said that it just wasn't a practical car for her decorating business. She had already bought the big black SUV replacement. She added that she had just reduced the price, that it was really priced to sell now, at $5000. Of course, I had already done my homework and an 89 Saab, deluxe model, would only go for $5500 if it was in excellent condition and had a few less miles on it. This one was up to 90,000, and although it looked lovely on the outside, I suspected I'd have to put a little work into it. The tires looked old, right off the bat. Being a newbie, I didn't know that I would have to see a smog certificate. I did stuff like look for rust and watch the exhaust.

She said right away that the seat belt on the driver's side was all chewed up and she'd been meaning to replace it but hadn't gotten around to finding a wrecker with a good used model from that year. She sighed that her dog had chewed through it while waiting for her in a parking lot. I was amazed at the obvious strength of that dog's jaw, for this seat belt was probably gnawed half way. I wondered if it was really all that safe.

I opened the trunk, testing the lock, even though she hastily snapped, "oh, I never lock the trunk!" It was like she had a body in there, her not wanting me to mess with it. Being a prior owner of a convertible, I knew that the trunk is often the most secure part of the car, and I thought she was a bit odd for not recommending locking it. It was nice that she still had the classy little cover for the collapsed roof (when you've got it down, giving the back a smooth look). She'd had the car waxed, I could tell, and I appreciated this. I sat in the back seat and marveled at the leg room. Best convertible back seat since my 72 LeMans. But that car is another sob story.

We got in, her in the driver's seat, to go for a test drive. Both of us agreed that backing it our of her stone-sided driveway would be risky for me. She kept sighing and calling the car, "my Saab." I kept thinking, jeez, she loves this thing so much, does she really want to get rid of it?

I insisted on putting down the top, to get the feel of driving it in my favorite mode, but also to learn the roof mechanism. I got into the driver's seat. It leaned to one side just a bit, as if the seat were broken, and I made a comment, which she seemed to ignore.

As I started to drive, I kept the windows up. On a breezy bay area day, it pays to keep the windows up, to cut down on weather and wind exposure. She snapped, "put the windows down. Driving with the windows up is rude." Okay, fine. It gave me the opportunity to test all of the electric windows, and they worked fine. I tested the a/c (not working) and the heat (she immediately turned it off, saying something about at her age she doesn't need any more high temperatures). Fine. At least I did get to feel it go on. I loved driving it on the freeway, because the turbocharger really gives the thing a nice boost for overtaking or just for those long empty stretches. The cruise control was all there, but didn't work. The radio actually worked pretty well. There was a nice layout to the dashboard and the steering wheel felt solid. But the whole time I'm driving the thing, she's asking me why I'm doing this or that, as if I am going to break the thing. It was nerve wracking and, in more ways than one, the best part of the test drive was slamming that solid door once I pulled back in front of her house. Nothing like Swedish steel! But it was creepy how possessive she still was, of that car. Like she just really didn't want to give it up.

We got back and she invited me in to exchange cell phone numbers, and I met the dog with the jaws of death. It was one of those spoiled little curly mop dogs that has not been trained out of the ghastly habit of jumping on people, presumably because the owner thinks its diminutive stature renders harmless any effect of those little grubby paws, but I was glad I wasn't wearing a pair of Fogal's pantyhose.

Exchanging phone numbers, I told her that I was not prepared to pay $5000 for it, but I offered $2700, about the price of a "fair" 89. She was aghast, countered with $4000, saying in a weirdly threatening tone of voice, "I'm taking this to auction if I can't sell it on Craig's List!" (As in, you just watch, I'll get a fortune for this classic)! I did not bother to say, "auctioning your car is as bad as giving it away. You'll be lucky to walk away with a grand." Anyway, she said she would ask her husband, see what he says. I said I'd talk to my husband, too. One of us was lying.

I went home thinking, what a frickin' waste of time. I liked the car, but we didn't want to spend more than about $2500. I could only think of the agony of continuing to look at more cars, waiting for them to come on the market, going through phone tag with more people, etc.

I called my hubby, who was in Hong Kong or some place like that, and we talked about the car a bit. We decided to offer $3000, within the price range of an 89 in good blue book condition at those miles. On some counts, the car was in good condition, I thought. I called the lady back and said I'd talked to my husband and we would pay $3000 for it. She said her husband wouldn't let her go below $3500. I said I'd call back.

So I called my man again and we hemmed and hawed and decided to take her offer. When I called her, the husband answered and said she wasn't home. The man was very, very surprised when I said I would accept her offer of $3500. "She offered you that?" he exclaimed with true surprise. "She loves that car so much, I can't believe she would accept less than five thousand. Well, okay, I'll tell her." Obviously hubby of Belmont was completely out of the loop.

We arranged for me to come by train the next day, and she would pick me up at the suburban station near her house. We agreed that I would call her just before I caught the final train in the series. Taking trains from Oakland to the Peninsula is a bit of a pain. You have to ride BART for about an hour and then transfer in Burlingame, and it requires two sets of tickets. When I finally got to Burlingame, I saw that the next few trains would bypass her lowly station, but I could hop on any of the next three, and get off at a larger station in the neighboring town. I called her and told her this, and she gasped, grumbled, whined and ultimately relented, but with the rancor that would have been justified if I had just asked her to pick me up in San Diego. I told her which train I'd be catching, and that I was wearing the same pink sweater I'd worn when we first met, and she said, "I'll look for you!"

The final leg of the train ride was nice, although I was tired by then and just glad to be getting my car. The train sped right past her little suburban local stop and chuffed right to a stop at the agreed-upon larger station. Big as it was, it was sided by a freeway on the east and a long, skinny parking lot on the west. The platforms were elevated and open, and people getting off the train were way up on display. I was in the front of the train, so I was in for a long walk to either of two platform exits. I took a long look over the parking lot, spotting no red Saab, and wondering where she would look for me. The tiny, quaint ticket office near the furthest exit of the parking lot seemed logical. Taxis were getting people there, and it was the closest thing to "station."

I walked over there and did not see her. I walked around a bit, looking hard for her tomato red car, and another train came in to spew more commuters. I decided to phone her cell number and she answered with not a hello, but an "I've been WAITing!"

I explained where I was, and she said, "well, I'm on the other end of the parking lot," as if to say "come and find me." I thought, Since I have to put up with this bitch for only about one half hour longer, I can take it. and I said I'd start walking across to where she was. She certainly didn't counter offer to just step on the gas and get over to where I was. Clearly, she was punishing me for taking her car.

When we spotted each other, I waved and kept on walking towards her. She was double parked at the absolute furthest aisle she could possibly be situated and still be on SamTrans property. She held up a hand and gave me one of those finger -y waves, like saying, "toodles!" Yet she did not drive towards me. Not one inch. She sat there, engine on, just waiting for me to finish the walk of shame she'd planned for me.

I afforded a laugh when I got in, saying I had figured that the station's highest profile was the ticket office. She said in an I'm-not-the-stupid-one voice, "well, the entrance for cars is down here. Everyone comes in this way." Like I'd know that. I watched, trying not to show my irritation, as she drove toward the exit, a route going right past the station house, which was not lost on her, in a silent, simmering, ridiculous "yeah but I knew that you knew that I knew that you knew" festival of bad vibes. She peppered our drive back to her house with all kinds of other covert little insults.

When we got to her perfect little house with its own name, not one napkin or chair doily out of place, I had to cloud my mind from its evil thoughts of stomping on her hyperactive, clawing, jumping little seatbelt chewer. Sorry, dog lovers. I actually love most dogs, too. But this one was so ill-mannered, I thought perhaps it was her own offspring after mating with Lucifer himself, and I could end a diabolical genetic line right then and there.

I paid her in cash, and she handed over the forms for DMV and I noticed that she had once had vanity plates for the car. Something like IDECR84U. To her credit, she gave me a fat file folder containing every piece of paper ever connected to that car, from her first sales receipt, to (ahem) the insurance work for a wreck she was in which nearly totaled the vehicle, but she got everything done, right up to that smashing paint job. With great relief, I walked out of there dreaming I'd never hear her bitchy voice again.

I got in and drove away with the file pinned to the floor, under my purse. The wind in my hair, the open road, the... damn drivers seat really was loose, undoubtedly squeezed into crippling submission by her significant bodily tonnage. I wondered how much it would cost to fix.

I knew that I'd have to get it smogged to get my registration, so I called the Union 76 station near my parents' house and made an appointment for the next day. I cleaned the interior of the car, noticing that she'd left a pair of her gigantic lensed sunglasses under one of the seats. They looked like old drugstore glasses, and were impossibly scratched, so I just left them in the little shelf near the heater, in case I'd ever need to put some on. Who knows, I thought, even if someone someday reaches in and steals them, I won't have to look at them and think of her again.

I later found a brand new shrink-wrapped bar of strawberry glycerin soap in, of all places, the boot for the top. Nice as it was, I was not about to call her back and offer to drop it off at her perky little suburban spread.

But anyway, I drove the car in to the smog station as planned, only to have the guy give me extremely bad news when I came to get it. He said the car not only failed to pass, but it was technically a "gross polluter," and I had the legal right to get my money back from the dealer, as it is unlawful to sell a car in the state of California that makes that heinous black list. I imagined my car joining some kind of rogue's gallery of all the usual suspects: Chevy Novas and Ford Pintos and rusted out bulgemobiles from the early 50's... but a flash 1989 Saab Turbo? I was shocked. There were exactly three grease pits in the east bay area that were certified to deal with gross polluter repairs. I would have to use the car ONLY to drive to one of those or risk some kind of horrendous fine. I made an appointment to go to one in Alameda, because I liked the way the guy sounded on the phone, and he thought he could have it ready for me for a mere $1700 as opposed to a higher quote from a place in Berkeley. I kept thinking, why didn't I take the car to one of those "guaranteed to pass" places.

All of this meant phoning up the BITCH! Gaahhhhh! I wasn't done with her YET! I took a deep breath and told her the bad news and said that even though legally she should not have sold it, I would be willing to split the cost of fixing it. She sputtered and spewed disbelief, and I faxed her all the proof I had: the failed test results, the estimate from the guy with the New York accent who bragged about his great team of mechanics. She said she'd get back to me after talking to her family about it. One more phone call? Please, lady, just be merciful to both of us!

In the end, she sent me a check, and it didn't bounce, and the car was fixed there in Alameda. Unfortunately, some alley cat slept on top of the convertible top and his grimy paw prints were all over it. You know, I don't think I ever got all of his shed hair off the thing! But the car was fully mine, and I drove off with renewed bliss.

The car did have an odd thing about the trunk. It had been re-lined with a nice carpeting, but access to the back seats had once been possible, because of some funny patching and stitching back there. Not a big deal. I mean, I liked the new padding in the trunk. I was thinking of other things. I gotta say that I was a wee bit uncomfortable being seen driving such a cherry European car. I am more of a beat-up Pontiac kind of person. I have driven one of those and a beat-up 63 Rambler, too. I felt like a wannabe, truth be told. I may like the whole convertible thang, but the show-off aspect of driving a sexy, red Saab was a lot like waking up and finding I'd received breast implants. While briefly parked on Treasure Island to admire a view one night, a kind of trashy teenaged girl came up to me and said, "I just love Saabs" which just kind of creeped me out. I couldn't look people in the eye at the Safeway parking lot. The car wasn't MINE yet.

It was always a little weird having those sunglasses in the car, too. I threw them away at some point, simply because they were just an awful reminder of that unpleasant woman. If I was going to make this car my own, I had to get rid of reminders of her.

One reminder that kept bugging me was the chewed up safety belt. I got the local Saab dealer to give me a whole diagnostic, and, $3,000 later, after they replaced a faulty wheel joint and did some other stuff, they gave me the name of a repair shop that would find me a seat belt for my relatively old model. The guys at the funky little Saab place in Berkeley were very nice, and when they phoned me to tell me that they had located a seat belt, it would cost me $600. Well, I figured it would be worth my peace of mind... the seat belt wouldn't tear apart if I was in an accident, and I could stop being reminded of the Liz Taylor lookalike and her psychotic lapdog. Cha-ching, cha-ching, the mechanics of the world just kept on making out. Nontheless, I liked the funny Saab garage in Berkeley. They had about ten models in there at any given moment, including some reeeeally old ones. I brought the guys a bottle of wine to show my appreciation of their service.

I took the car into the city to see Burning Spear, but because the big reggae act was performing at Slim's, the street was kind of a questionable place to park. As I drove the car back to my parents' house, I could feel it really pulling to the right. I thought, 'don't tell me the alignment is out', and kept on driving right across the Bay Bridge. In the morning I discovered that the tire had been pierced on the side by a nail. As in, nail still sitting there inserted in the sidewall. The side, as in, vandalism. Not as in "drove over a nail." I was actually glad that the car still functioned and I was able to get all the way home, because the vandal may have been waiting and watching for me to attempt to fix the flat right there south of Market Street, and further victimized me. The fact that they vandalized a Saab kind of reminded me of the odd stigma I had with that car: I was driving the car of a rich person.

I took out the manual and put on the pony spare (or whatever you call those dinky spare tires), taking more than a whole grimy, hot hour to do it because I am no mechanic, and accosting my parents' neighbor the Mercedes repair shop owner for help. I drove the thing over to a Shell station, where they advised me to get new tires, because, even though they could technically fix the flat, they could not guarantee it, the tires were in such bad shape. I had thought I had buried Lincoln's hair in the tire groove when I checked out the car, but I must have chosen a flukey, deep section. I was crushed, let them fix the flat and released them of responsibility for adverse consequences.

But it didn't take long for me to decide to get new tires for the car. I took it to one of those franchise tire places that advertises in the comics of a prominent Bay Area newspaper, because it looked like they had some pretty fantastic deals. I kind of got into a bait and switch situation with the car, and ended up buying some niiiice Japanese tires there. The tire store also had a little maintenence department and they had a special scam, I mean, deal on oil changes for tire customers, so I took the car back there in about a week for an oil change.

The guy doing the oil change asked me where the oil dipstick was (should have taken this for a very baaaad sign) and then took FOREVER to do the work (well, okay 2 hours, but it shouldn't take more than half an hour, ordinarily). So I complained about the length of time it took on the followup survey they handed me. I was really glad just to drive it out of that place.

When I drove it out of there, I noticed that I really had trouble going up hills. By then I was close to my Saab guys in Berkeley, so I took it there. They said, this car has no transmission fluid inside! The mechanic at the tire place had drained the transmission, possibly not the oil, even! The guys in Berkeley refilled the transmission and gave me a detailed receipt, because that stuff is expensive. I took this and the car back to the Oakland nuthouse franchise for reimbursement.

I drove it right back there, angry that there was so much wasted time that day. It was as if I had gone to the doctor to remove a corn on my foot, but they amputated my leg. Indeed, they looked the thing over and admitted that the mechanic had drained the transmission fluid by accident, and they could offer me a free oil change certificate. I went ballistic at this, and demanded that they reimburse me for the original oil change and for the transmission fluid. Lots of phone calls later (who was he talking to, the Devil?), they offered me the price of the transmission fluid and a free oil change in the future, but that's like offering me a corn removal on the foot of my remaining good leg. I took it just to get out of there, and I suppose that somewhere I have the certificate. If anyone wants to exact revenge on their psychiatrist or ex-boyfriend or other evil doer by giving them this gift certificate, let me know... I will try to dig it up for you.

My husband visited from Hong Kong, and he fixed that uneven seat I mentioned earlier. All it took was his magic screwdriver! Good old Saab... Even someone stacking it on by the ton could not permanently damage that nice leather seat. The fat chick had just worked the seat loose over the years and my hubby the engineer fixed it beautifully.

I had finally received my own vanity plates, and, if anyone ever finds these in a flea market or on eBay, let me know... I'll take 'em back. Anyway, onto the car went my Wayne Thibaud palms-and-sunset "OR BALI" plates, which looked so cool under the California cursive... get the joke: California or Bali. The car was just kinda starting to feel like mine.

Anyway, I didn't really have an office space, so I was carting around these files and notebooks in the trunk of the car. One day, I found I could not open the trunk. It took me a couple of days of trying, but I was able to jiggle the key in such a way that I could unlock and open the thing after just a few minutes of jimmying. Suddenly I remembered Two-Ton-Bitch's panic at the sight of me locking the trunk. Because she, too, had had trouble with the trunk. No wonder at the stitching in the boot! She just wasn't going to divulge that bit of car trouble.


One afternoon, after coming back to my parents' from Safeway with about twelve bottles of wine stowed in the trunk, I could not, for the life of me, jimmy the frozen lock. Fearing for my perishable investment in the hot sun, I took the Turbo Tomato down to the Saab/Toyota dealership and the Saab mechanic got it open for me. He said from the looks of the lock it had been messed with before and that this one could not really be repaired fully. It was a job too expensive to do, he basically said.

After a while, I did discover a way to jiggle the key to make it open. To watch me go through the motions of this, you would think I was an obsessive-compulsive going through an insane ritual of repetition. But it would get the trunk open eventually.

I babied that car, afraid of some costly repair job, afraid of getting it in an accident... whatever. I was attaching a lot of mental baggage to this car.

The funniest thing, though, was just never getting over the thought that this car was not "me." I would never buy a new car in any shade of red, for one thing. And, let's face it, a Saab has a certain kind of elite snob appeal that didn't fit with my peculiar brand of snobbery and elitism. It was really a lot like buying a Chanel suit because I needed to stop lounging around the house nekkid.

My husband drove me and my dad to Berkeley one night, to hear the Kronos Quartet. If you can dig this, the gig was inside a private house in a snazz neighborhood. This was one posh
street to park a car on. We loved the concert, left the house, and the car was gone. Gone. Gone.

The people whose home was there at our former parking space, heard us in our woes and brought us inside to use their phone to call the cops. They were a nice young couple. Turned out my dad was friends with the woman's mother.

The cop came, and, like many of the Berkeley Police Force, he was a nice guy. He said, if we don't pick up the car tonight, it will be in a chop shop and virtually gone by tomorrow. I was sad, crushed, incredulous.

The saddest part of all were all the books and records in the trunk, the cool tiki-style scarf, the diRosa Preserve baseball cap... the things I was keeping in there.

The car never turned up. We went out to look for another car and got a bad-ass black Chrysler Sebring that has never let us down. It is a better fit with me and my husband, who enjoy a low profile, slightly proletariat style. I would sometimes look at other Saabs with a certain wistfulness, but really I just was mad about the theft.

Now we must fast forward thirteen months into the future. More than a year! For at that moment, I was lounging in a ski chalet near Val d'Isere in the French Alps (I'm not a total proletariat), and suddenly my husband gasped aloud at his email messages.

"Your brother says that the Berkeley Police called. They found your Saab."

I was stunned.

Through the wonders of email and the willingness of my brother to help in this strange saga, I made sure that the cops would hang onto it longer than usual, due to my travels. For ordinarily, if you don't retrieve an impounded car, they put it up for auction. SFPD revised my deadline for pickup.

When I got back to the Bay Area, the Berkeley cops put me in touch with the boys in blue in San Francisco. All I was told was that the car was involved in a drug bust.

The cop in the city, a real crank at first, finally explained to me that the woman who had been pulled over in the car said she'd bought the car at a police auction. That didn't change the fact that she was doing something illegal (no details), but the auto theft detective told me that the amazing thing was that the vehicle had been given a new identification number, or VIN, the traceable number for every car in America. My original VIN, he said, was right there in the most obvious place, on the inside of the car door. But all other VIN locations had been scratched off: the engine block and dashboard, for example. Those are the hard places to remove a VIN, too! The idiots who went to all that trouble removing the original VIN, etched in metal, forgot to go peel off the little paper sticker on the door jamb!

Re-vinning a car takes an intervention by law enforcement, notably the California Highway Patrol. They check the vehicle before they give a new number, and it is meant to be no light matter. As full of red tape as changing your name in the old days. The cops do an audit on the old records for the car before they hand out any new numbers.

What the detective would not say in plain English, but which I suddenly realized he was inferring, was that this meant that the theft had to have involved crooked cops or crooked law enforcement personnel. Creepy! He said he'd look for patterns in this and other similar thefts... his way of saying they might nail a corrupt clerk at CHP... probably my only realistic justice.

They very, very nicely waived all the awful impound fees. My husband drove me to the impound lot, which is exactly like a jail for cars. The other guys waiting to bail out their cars were people who had parked in tow zones, people with too many parking tickets, etc. I was this curiosity there at the virtual water cooler. A stolen car recovered after more than a year? How about that!

I was sort of puzzled that I could not see my car anywhere in the massive, stadium-sized impound lot. Then I finally saw that it was in a special inner pen, nestled in amongst beemers, a jag, mercedeses and other "cult" and luxury cars. It dawned on me... they look forward to auctioning off these expensive cars and keep them in good shape, away from any harm in the general lockup, in the auto equivalent of Al Capone's jail cell.

Anyway, out it came, and the body looked damn good. Probably no accidents, I thought. Grease chalked on the windshield was "call Berkeley Police" and a case number. All very weird and exciting.

Until I opened the car door and looked inside. The stereo speakers were ripped out, the back seat had a tear in it, and the floor was littered with fast food wrappers, receipts, and junk. It smelled really bad, despite the cutesy little gel dolphin-shaped deodorizer hanging from the rear view mirror. The gal had also stuck one of those "sexy chick" stickers in the rear window. You know:




Like truck drivers have on their mudflaps.



So this was a bit of a slutty chick. I also quickly realized that, in her crystal meth-induced mania, she broke every control wand in the driver's area; you know, the turn signal, the wipers, all the little knobs and sticks... they were just limp. As if someone abused them and mangled them with too much force. Very sadly, the hydraulics of the roof retraction system were shot. I can just imagine some f***ed up person hitting the roof down button without undoing the manual clamps. It was too horrifying to even think about.

I tried to scratch off the "slut" sticker, but it wouldn't budge. I think I got about a 1mm strip taken off. If that. I had to drive that thing which announced, "sex maniac here." I hated it.

Sitting in that car, driving it to the garage where I was already keeping the new car, I just thought to myself, this car is a rape victim: still intact on the outside but absolutely wrecked and ravaged on the inside.

It was no longer my car. Not in any way obvious to me, was this my car.

I paid for insuring it one more term, and I paid a half year registration on it. But it didn't take long for me to just phone up the Red Cross to donate it to their car auction scheme. That was it.

So, that picture of me posing with the car? One rare, lighthearted moment. When the tow truck came to take the car away to auction, I looked at that thing and said goodbye to the bitch from Belmont, to the crooked Highway Patrolman, to the crack whore from San Francisco, to the strange evil spirit that occupied that car.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

These Guys Make Me Feel Like a Bad Parent

...But they give me hope for America and its citizens.

Not every American is addicted to TV, antidepressants, and junk food. Here is a really wonderful family that is learning from the world. Read on and marvel at their adventures, thoughtfulness, and ability to write not just a coherent blog, but a darn entertaining one... while on a one year road trip.

http://sixintheworld.com

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Polluted Already, and it's Not Even 10 am!

Arrived in Honkers at dawn, flying in over Dai Mo Shan as if we were inside some incredible misty 3D representation of a Chinese landscape painting, utterly amazing under crystal clear visibility.

The dawn made all the burgeoning cumulous clouds appear lavender and gold. I knew it must have recently rained, Hong Kong's windshield wiping extraordinaire. For this is the time of year when the air can be so heavy and dirty.

But now that I am about to board my flight to Bali, I see that the sky is a kind of milky color, with only small patches of blue way up high. The smog's moved in and the territory will need another shower to be beautiful again.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

I Met One of the Cool Kids, and I Think She Likes Me!

Finally one of the cool kids in high school sat down at my table at lunch time. In terms of high school drama, this would be about a 10, but, seeing that I graduated about 30 years ago, maybe I don't get to garner quite that many points.

Then again, how many of my readers can say that they made contact with an old classmate by writing a fan letter? And that the recipient actually took it graciously, sincerely, and thoughtfully? O.S., noted artist who has shown bi-coastally, responded to my note, addressed to her San Francisco dealer, and we've finally met in the uber chic gallery district of west Chelsea!

My own art career has been a little different, well, maybe a lot different. And O.S. is at least still producing work. Me, my art is done in fits and starts right now. And I have no dealer on the horizon.

But both of us have done a little bit of writing, a little art criticism, and that is an interesting coincidence. She's sticking it out in the New York world, whereas I am holed up in Bali. She definitely has more energy than I do. She was going to hit at least 3 galleries that afternoon, and there was no way I would be tagging along.

But we had a great conversation, and my daughter joined in, too. All in all, a very pleasant reunion.

It is unfortunate that so many of us are going through personal agony in high school, and are plagued with self doubt. It is just so much easier to reach out as an adult. Glad I did.

Friday, May 11, 2007

Paris, Hilton, Hoosgow, Potatoes

Everyone's talking about today's sentencing of Paris Hilton to 45 days in the Century Regional Detention Facility.

Okay, I'll get this out of the way first: I feel sorry for her mom. I, too, am the mother of a 26 year old. We hate to see our kids suffer.

NOW:

It's great to see that in America, where Haliburton execs and investors can make a fortune by starting a war, corruption is NOT necessarily alive and well. I mean, even 20,000 fans who think they lead mundane lives, inferior to a spoiled heiress, cannot intervene with the letter of the law.

I would hate to see my kids do a stretch in the jar for driving with a suspended license, but, on the other hand, my kids would figure out a way to take public transport or rely on their many good friends to get from place to place, should they ever commit the kind of offense that suspends a driver's license.

I am sure that a few other readers of this humble blog have flashed, as I did, on the US government's successful prosecution of obnoxious psychopath Al Capone, on tax evasion charges. The executioner sometimes has to use a sack of potatoes if he doesn't have an axe at hand.

I admit that once or twice, when trying to see if the Simpson's were on tv, I fantasized that it might be a good idea to lock up Paris Hilton on charges of promoting empty consumerism, glamorizing lack of purpose, and extoling partying as a viable lifestyle. This is the girl who has to surround herself with skankier types so that she will look better. Look how she dragged Britney Spears around the club scene like a Raggedy Ann accessory (right before the latter ended up going bonkers... hmmm). So. Like Eliot Ness, I will have to console myself with the knowledge that the little so-and-so will have to receive her punishment under the heading of driving with a suspended license.

Sometimes I feel reeeeeally good about our all-American justice system.

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Wonders of the Internet


Whatever did we DO in the days before we could instantly upload gross photos?

Those of you who know me, send me an email and I'll give you the rest of the series of photos, which a friend of mine titled, Grandma in Total Denial.

Go ahead and eat that slice of pie.

Monday, May 07, 2007

Heat Wave

During this short stint in the bay area, I am experiencing a rare heat wave.

It started on Friday, with beautiful sunny weather and a workout at my old gym, which used to be called What a Racquet. Good old Daly City, fog capital of Northern California from June through August, was looking as beautiful as ever.

The weather just kept getting warmer, and yesterday (auspicious 5/6/7) my sister in law & I sat on wrought iron chairs on a shaded cement patio in The Embarcadero and ate salads and did not get cold. For the first time ever, I sat in a movie theatre in short sleeves and no sweater or shawl. We saw Lives of Others, which deservedly won the Oscar for Best Foreign Film. When we exited the cinema and touched the balmy air, we laughed and I exclaimed, what is this, Chicago in July?

I rode the BART train to Daly City, rode with the rag top down, stars above, all the way to the little beach house. Dreams that come true...

I drove past Devils Slide and for the first time could smell the wildflowers, crushed and drying in the heat.

I awoke this morning and opened the doors and windows to let in the warm morning air. Incredible. A workout at the gym and a zillion other convertibles coming out of mothballs and everyone looking happy. Super Nachos from El Gran Amigo, the tacqueria in Moss Beach. A really great adjustment from Dr. Robertshaw the best chiropractor in Ess Eff, and back to the beach. Got a call from my hubby who told me that he snorkeled with three black tip reef sharks, 5 feet to 7 feet, and that he had but 6 hours left in Bali.

I watched the sun set plainly and boldly behind the Farallone Islands. That happens about four times a year. Undoubtedly it happened last night and so tomorrow it'll be setting just north of them. But what a breathtaking thing to witness. I cracked a bottle of Italian wine given me by Michael and Kathy Rain, and thought of them with gratitude.

The western sky still glows with Maxfield Parrish gold, smudging amazingly to light pink, lavender, and corn flower blue. What a day...

Capper

Saturday, April 28, 2007

Some overdue ramblings about The Shooting

I'm pissed off at Time magazine for printing so many electrifying pictures of the young Korean guy who brutally murdered random students at Virginia Tech. That guy deserved no fame, but that ghastly excuse for a news magazine has once again (remember the cover photo of the Columbine murderers?) given waaaaayyy more than 15 minutes of glory, yes, it was GLORY, to that stupid kid.

Fight Club screenwriter speaks in Tucson

Sunday, April 15, 2007

Yeah, I Liked Kurt Vonnegut, Too

Sorry to hear of Kurt Vonnegut's passing. When I think of the disastrous guest commencement speech by Chevy Chase at my son's college graduation weekend, I wonder why no one tried to get the demigod of every literate teen.

I'm not totally sure that Kurt Vonnegut was essentially a humanist, but he adored the foibles of humankind in the way that we all hope and pray that God up in Heaven might. He showed us failures, misfits, outcasts, and victims, but usually ones who miraculously had no self-pity. He knew the nobility of humility, and he could honor even ignorance. For if there is a God, we're all hoping against hope that He/She has a soft spot for us and will save us. ...Even though we consume too much, get caught up in silly vanities, and stumble along paths we scarcely trust (guilty, guilty, and probably guilty).

Vonnegut seemed to be all-seeing. He was outside our comfortable universe of grinding along like drones, getting older, stupider, sillier. He proposed outlandish ideas that blew our 13 year old minds.

I read Welcome to the Monkey House at about age 11, the beginning of a year when I first devoured Saki, Ray Bradbury, and Madeleine L'Engle. I was ripe for wonder, loved twists of fate, and held a fascination for a kind of cosmic cruelty. Vonnegut could give me all of that, but with an amicable tone I didn't find anywhere else in my 350 pages a week suggested by Mrs Van Buskirk for our reading for pleasure. I felt richer for these new amazements, discovering that I might actually have some cosmic connections with other earthlings.

It seems that we have to recognize the negative before we're ever going to reach the positive. My heart was not broken first by a pimply faced boy in my math class, but by Malachi Constant in Sirens of Titan. I discovered the love that comes not with valentines and hand-holding, but with suffering together and making it through to another side, wiser in the awareness that I knew next to nothing. Thanks to Vonnegut, I knew the agony of the soul that comes from seeing injustice, ill fate, and insignificance. He defined for me delusion, and yet showed me that there is hope, even if the true reality I've been missing is actually pretty awful. Heavy things for a kid, and no less important to me as I have aged. And then I read Cat's Cradle. I have never been able to get it out of my head these 35 years since. Slaughterhouse 5 is a bit slick, but certainly elegantly done, a work of genius.

I read a few of his later works, but they never meant as much to me as those above. Hard to say anything else at this time of great loss. A friend is gone, but he left me so much.

Thank you, Kilgore Trout.

Sunday, April 08, 2007

Happy Easter

I suppose the Pagan in me should find something lovely in the knowledge that it is Easter Sunday, but for now I just think about fond days with the kids when they were littler. See, outside it's the sultry weather of Bali's hottest month. If this is the beginning of something, I didn't see it. I got up this morning at the late time of 7:30. I mean, for years now, I've been rising at dawn. But since I got back from HK, I just can't shake half-seven.

I put laundry in the machine and walked right back to J's recording studio to do some stretches because that's the coolest part of the compound. No one to talk to, because the pembantu and cook both quit last week. Actually, it's a godsend on balance. The cook had a sh88ty attitude and the pembantu refused to learn ironing of clothes. I will miss the latter to some extent (he really looked after the place while I was away) and will not miss the former. Anyway, not answering to any kitchen staff is like this lovely vacation.

We popped over to our neighbor's house, because he was hosting two interesting house guests. Scientist from the Fisheries Dept in Darwin (soon to retire in Flores), and an Australian language teacher of Dutch ancestry who urged us to visit a relatively undeveloped snorkeling site in east Lombok. Noted, and thank you soooo much! The Scientist got right into questioning the tradition of Easter egg hunting, and we started talking about the controversial Chocolate Jesus sculpture, which I think is a proper (and even rather spiritual) question of the commercialization of Christian holidays. Of course, some dufus from an organization of Catholics got on CNN and railed against the thing. Art!

We then decided to go out front for a snorkel, and the water today was crystalline. School of 200 Unicorn fish (not an exaggeration) was out there. I swam back in and had to contend with a surprising set of waves that met me at the wrong time. Oh, well, made it back in eventually. Breakfast took me forever to make (french toast, papaya, coffee) because I've become a kitchen retard after years of being waited on.

More laundry. Sweeping, cutting flowers, insecticide bombing in the Chinese altar coffer, all in a morning's work. By the time I got started on lunch, it was already 1. By the time my tomato and pepper sauce for fettucine was done, it was nearly 3. I put the tv out on a little plastic stool and we watched an episode of 30 Rock (when it was funny, I guess). Kitchen cleanup, more laundry, a bath... holy cow, the sun's setting!

I never even ate chocolate. Never mind a chocolate Jesus. But now we will drive to Candidasa to check out the goods by the Rama Hotel's hot new chef.

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Nancy Pelosi Goes To Syria

All I want to say is, Yeah!

President Bush, will you please read my blog? I say this to you, Dubya, and to anyone else who is reading.

Syria is a country, people! It's a place where ordinary people live and work. It's worth visiting.

It's a very interesting piece of our planet which looks after a few amazing old Roman ruins (Palmyra) and the oldest purpose-built Christian church that uses an arch. Syria is a pilgrimage destination for Christians, mainly because of Straight Street and St John, I believe. There are lots of Christians living in Damascus, and I don't mean a bunch of missionaries or something. I mean Arab Christians.

There are amazing souks (old covered marketplaces) and beautiful mosques and preserved forts, there are deserts and sea ports. The food is out of this world! Blood orange juice, roasted chicken, salads full of tasty fresh ingredients, lamb roasted to perfection on skewers, sweet sheets of dried apricot "leather", rich halvah, crunchy baklava, and the best yogurt I've ever eaten.

Okay, so the coffee is a bit bitter. But I love the damask fabric, the rugs, the olive oil soap, and the chocolate covered almonds.

I want to say THANK YOU, Nancy Pelosi, senator from my former state of California (wish I could say I voted for her, but I live in Asia and can only vote in Presidential elections... which gives me an idea). House Speaker Pelosi is merely doing what everyone ought to be doing, especially Condoleeza and W (ahem, you two): visiting a few folks to see if it's really such a good idea for them to be on the USofA SH*T list. I mean, isn't communication the universal solvent or something?

I hope Nancy picked up some plastic vats of that halvah to pass around her office at tea time. Her interns will love her forever, if she did. And I hope she stopped by the big souk at Aleppo to buy olive oil soap from the guy who looks exactly like Hank Azaria and speaks perfect English. But of course, I acknowledge that she was there for the serious business of talking world issues with President Assad. They appeared, on CNN, to be more than cordial with each other. Just America's most important working Grandma and the middle east's most intriguing former ophthalmologist, having a good chat. Probably not about eye charts and halvah, either. But someday, I hope that's all they have to discuss.

Saturday, March 31, 2007

I Humbly Submit....

I finished my first novel yesterday.

There I sat, in east Bali, at the mercy of a mobile phone connection to the internet, antenna atop a bamboo pole, voltage stabilizer on the computer... I held my breath. I was to upload a 550 K document to a location in uber-wired Hong Kong.

Not thirty feet away from this 21st century setup is the bamboo and palm frond hut of one farmer named Nengah Sukarsa, who keeps ten chickens and a quarter acre of beans and corn (in rotation), who each night plays a lovely Balinese chorus of drums and flute, depending on who shows up at his shack for a jam session. His lovely performance, on cue at sunset, definitely keeps things in perspective for me.

Yet I was able to upload my novel and rest assured that I am in the running for a great honor... the Man Asia Literary Prize.

Many thanks to my husband Jay, my writer pals Nury Vittachi and Jane Camens, and everyone who cooks my food and pulls my weeds and washes my dishes (Komang, Cedok, Gede and Gunung).

Monday, March 26, 2007

There's a REASON why I'm not posting

The Swimmer is in Writer Mode. You know, hunched over keyboard, coffee cup cooling off in left field, breaks for chocolate and sleep.

Here in Seraya Barat, I also have Al Jazeera TV blaring off in the next room. Al Jazeera refreshingly does not believe in sound bytes. The network goes into great depth on each story. When the news gets too depressing (usually it's amazingly informative, with plenty of air time to satirical bloggers and hardworking writers and bushbashers of all kinds), I change to something mindless like a tour of Madonna's Castillo del Lago house, apparently worthy of a half hour show on the Discovery Travel & Living Channel. And the other thing I get are tropical storms outside, interrupted by breezes and the sound of crashing surf.

But, yeah, I'm trying to finish that novel. You know, the one I've been using as an excuse for the last 3 years?

"I can't go to the movies, I'm doing that novel."

"I can't go snorkeling, I'm on a tear with the novel right now."

"Haven't picked up a paintbrush since the novel started."

etc etc

But having been at the book fest in Honkers, seeing all my old pals, I am inspired to finish it at last. I actually qualify, with my HK permanent residency, for a shot at the new Man Booker Asia Prize, so I will enter it electronically in a few days' time. My goal is to make the long list, but I don't mind winning.

So THAT's why I don't talk to anybody, don't post anything, don't go snorkeling.

Saturday, March 24, 2007

I salute Osman Chowdhury

http://www.newsday.com/news/local/longisland/ny-licab0208,0,307100.story?coll=ny-top-headlines

Sunday, March 18, 2007

Pisces Pig

Fascinating subject. Stay tuned.

Pisces Pig

I think yesterday was a pretty cool birthday. I was born in a pig year (so it will be possible for you to guess if I am 60, 48, or 36), so I am reasonably optimistic about 2007, the Fire Pig Year. This lunar year has also got some kind of rare Golden classification, according to some Chinese friend of mine, but who knows what that's supposed to mean?

In the Gregorian scheme of things, I just celebrated yesterday with a full day of festivities. Got to hear a wonderful reading from Jan Morris (her essay on the exclamation point, with which I've noticed she delightfully punctuates names of those whose books she signs). Also reading was David Tang, the mogul who is so intriguingly full of style and taste, occupies a couple of amazing pieces of Hong Kong real estate, and speaks with stimulating confidence, even when reading a tender character sketch of his grandmother.

I rushed out to hear Jason Wordie moderate a panel of interesting colonial history writers in a most interesting location. More on that when I get a chance to edit this. Fun to see that two other writers at the Festival were sharing the same birthday as me!

My husband and I waited a long time to catch a taxi up over Wong Nai Chung Gap, and I was intrigued (& admittedly disappointed) by the fact that the weather was a bit off. Breezily humid, cloudy, rainy... arguably the strangest weather ever on a birthday anniversary of mine.

When we returned to our amazingly gorgeous hotel, I found that the manager had sent up a large cheesecake with a little birthday candle and chocolate fru-fru's on top. It was rich and good, but we had committed to attend dinner at the Yellow Door with Roger and Susan and Susan and Phill. It was great fun... nouvelle Shanghai food and lots of laughs.

Ended up at the Fringe to catch the last of the poetry reading, soon followed by Dave McKirdy, Tony Lee, and Dave Calquohin with a bassist who I don't know. J jammed with them for a few numbers, including a rather nice version of Unchain my Heart. We danced together when the guys covered a song from Coldplay.

Exhausted and happy, we got back to the Mandarin and I thanked my husband's clients for being so wonderful and generous.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

The Religion of Kindness

Jan Morris surprised and impressed me. She sat, elevated, on an oriental rug, next to Charles Foran at Michelle Garnaut's gorgeous restaurant in the Fringe's old Dairy Farm Building. She wore a delightfully nautical striped shirt, sensible shoes, and the kind of pressed but frumpish skirt that my mom or yours would have worn on a trip to the grocery store. Morris was comfortable, at ease, and without artifice. She would laugh about memories of over-imbibing in a tavern, admit to foolish acts of innocence, and plainly tell us that our proud city, Hong Kong, "has lost its point." She has come to that blissful time in her life when she simply doesn't care what anyone else thinks of her.

She still treasures Manhatten, Trieste, and London, as silly as those three may sound spoken in the same sentence. But she sees herself in these cities, and that is what she has always done: write about herself, not simply places.

"I'm looking out, of course," she says to Foran when he pursues Morris' identity as the world's foremost travel writer. "But I'm consciously looking inward the whole time. I have a purely subjective attitude."

Oddly, Foran followed that by suggesting that Morris writes well of interactions with a city's people. What, pray tell, has he actually read by Morris? Wasn't Morris the author of the poignant and amusing tale of disconnection, Mrs. Gupta Didn't Call? Didn't Morris make us sigh in commiseration at the crazed reaction of a New York matron who she approaches for an innocent chat? Morris wanders on streets and paths, very rarely sitting down to talk to anyone.

And here we all were, the well-heeled and fashionable of Hong Kong, having shelled out the equivalent of $75 US, to drink Michelle's delectable Heidsieck champagne and swallow delicate little blintzes topped with bubbly caviar and creamy cream, hanging on every word from our favorite little old lady of letters.

"All life is allegory," she tells us. "Nothing is only as it seems. There's more to you than I see."

And, indeed, more to her than we see. But we must wait for her to leave before all is revealed.

"I am working on my posthumous book, to be published after I kick the bucket. It will be called Allegorizings." (Oh, gosh, yesterday I thought she'd called it Allegorizons)! She says simply that there are personal things which she doesn't want in the public domain just now.

She concedes that there are a few things which are exactly what they seem. "Nothing straightforward, nothing is simple, except for the great things in life." Kindness, she tells us, is a thing whose meaning we know innately. It need not be explained. And yet we are not practicing it.

"If we could think about kindness more, it would be a happier world. There is only one meaning to kindness, and we all know what it is."

She's talking to an audience that has made its home in a rather unkind city. We need to hear this.

I do feel we need to remember that we are standing on a hard rocky outpost without rivers or lakes, a fought after, sought after territory that survives on guts alone. No time for simple sympathies and smiles, Hong Kong is the scar tissue behind a damn professional face lift. That's my take, but in a few minutes she says it best when she tells us about the first time she wrote about Hong Kong. It was on assignment for The Guardian, and she was walking in a fish market and saw something that lingers as a reminder of what this place is all about.

"I saw live crabs for sale, tied in a clump with string, their claws working to break free. I felt sorry for them. I thought, how remarkable. How are we going to cope with this place, which is fighting nature? Before we answer that, we have to face those crabs."

Jan Morris and Simon Winchester

More later. Gotta eat breakfast at Pret-a-Manger.

Rushing,

the Swimmer

Monday, March 12, 2007

Gore Vidal Speaks in Hong Kong

'You've got the hottest ticket in town,' Rosemary Sayer told the audience at HKU tonight.

Indeed, a chance to sit in a small lecture hall and listen to Gore Vidal was not to be missed, knowledge reinforced by the waiting list queue outside. Those of us who had the coveted ticket sat with rapt attention as former NSW Premier Bob Carr introduced the venerable American historian/novelist/humorist/raconteur.

Carr asked mostly general questions about US politics and history, letting Vidal tell us all about which presidents were sissy (Theodore Roosevelt), which ones were creative thinkers (John Quincy Adams), and which can't read or write (Dubya).

Interviewer Carr, actually a US Civil War buff (but you wouldn't know it from his questioning), sailed a very narrow vein of questioning, which got a big agonizing, prompting the kind of answers from Gore that we could simply read in his books.

I shot my hand up at the Q&A, which must have been a familiar move in the eyes of all my old HKU English profs. I was allowed to ask him to tell us about his meeting with Gorbachev, circa 1985. Vidal proceeded to wax on for a good 10 mins about that rather amazing moment in global politics, when the last Soviet premier gathered 700 international greats in arts & letters, no politicians, no journalists, and began with, "Chernobyl scared us." He simply asked for opinions over the next few days... what should the world do now, how to approach disarmament with the US, etc, and he listened. Next thing, Gorby offered a deal to Reagan, which he accepted without hesitation as the two of them sat, nearly alone, in... what would it have been... Helsinki? It apparently took the persistence of Nancy Reagan to circumvent a gang of neocon advisers who tried to rope the Prez back to their version of reality. Kind of a revelation. I feel safe in saying that all of us present felt in on a big scoop.

Shivers were to hit me twice. In the first instance, Vidal mentioned to us all something that Gorbachev told him, in fact a statement which I had also just heard from my Jordanian taxi driver on my way to the San Francisco airport. "They're sleepwalkers in Washington."

Sit with that a moment.

Vidal concluded with a mesmerizing image of Gorbachev himself, stopping to notice, on a misty day, hundreds of Russians, just common people, pausing at points along the river's edge, staring at it flow by. "I thought," he told Vidal, "that they were like sleepwalkers. When suddenly something is so large and their reaction is, I must be dreaming."

Vidal imparted a great respect for the man who was ready to change the Soviet Union. Ever a sharp observer, he complimented Gorbachev, saying, "He just watched these Muscovites. He was a very poetic man. That image was very beautiful."

Sad that Gorby was not given a chance, in the aftermath of the dissolution of the union, to do the careful work his citizenry needed. I suppose it's blown, now, with Putin sitting pretty in the G8, implicated in the killing of journalists and whistleblowers.

* * *

On a cheerful note, I want to say how wonderful it has been to see old friends here. Hong Kong U, my alma mater, where I ran into four old professors, had a chat with each one.

Poet and teacher extraordinaire Martin Alexander was there, and he gave me the surprise of the month: a copy of the spanking new Asian Literary Review, special issue for the HK International Literary Festival, containing a story of mine, Argon.

This makes an even four of my short stories published in this journal, including its earlier incarnation, Dimsum. I was amazed and a little humbled to find my work nestled in with that of Seamus Heaney, Christine Loh, and P.K. Leung. My dear friend Nury Vittachi, who finds time to edit the journal while masterminding the vastly amusing Feng Shui Detective dynasty, seems to always surprise me with these. It's usually, "oh, didn't I tell you? I love your story and it's in this edition."

Once upon a time, I actually lived here...

Yeah, actually lived in this metropolis of highrises perched on mountainsides: the frenetic but always fascinating Fragrant Harbour: Hong Kong.

Guests of my old Hong Kong friends Roger and Sue, I slept last night in their Wah Kwai Housing Estate government flat. They are here with their two precocious kids, for what will be an annual Cantonese immersion program. They are renting the 360 square foot place from a little old lady friend of a friend. It is straight out of a chop socky flick, from the plastic armoires to the piles of amah bags suspended from the bathroom ceiling. Hong Kongers become adept at storage.

I vowed to attend the Hong Kong Literary Festival, and so will blog a bit about that, but it is always fun to be back in my old hometown, so a few words about that, first.

Oh, Bali, you have thinned my blood, marshmallowed my memory banks, but given me a smile. Hong Kongers do smile brightly if one smiles first. This is really not as dour and sober a place as I had remembered. Hong Kongers don't proffer their business cards quite as quickly as they used to, unless they are just waiting for me to do it first. And I am freeeezing here, on a simple, misty March day. I had to go and buy thermal undies from the Watson's, a windcheater from Baleno, and scarves from H & M.

I fairly gasp in wonder at the busy Aberdeen channel, the kind of thing I saw almost daily when I commuted about on ferries, 1989 - 2001. I am amazed at how much stuff I can get done in a short period of time, but I can't believe how much I have forgotten: bus routes, place names in Cantonese, etc. It is good to be back, but one reason is that I needed to be reminded of things.

Last night the festival opened at St John's Cathedral, a lovely Edwardian church in a lovely pocket of greenery in the heart of Central. I have always loved it, but I had forgotten that sparrows make their homes in the rafters, and they twittered away while the vicar welcomed us, while writers read to us, and while members of the Soho Collective sang charming songs.

Last night I

Kiran Desai

I just cannot deny thoughts of A New World Order when my thoughts go to Kiran Desai.

Anyone who thinks that she's just another lucky Indian writer who nailed another Booker because she can fool us with mango or midnight or moon or some evocation of the mysterious other, is in for a surprise. Perhaps the fashion world discovered it first, several years ago, when mixed blood models became the heighth of chic. But Desai is truly third culture, truly the burgeoning future of our little planet.

Desai did not answer questions, either from a moderator or from the audience. She read to us from a paper in which she clearly questioned 'blunt notions of east and west', the idea that colonizer and colonized are somehow diametrically opposed, singular loyalties, and even, horrors, the 'concept of home.'

I could not help but feel that she is tired of the label, the trap, the category, the border, the boundary. Here she was, at Hong Kong U, an academic institution no better or worse than a thousand others, all of which are entrenched in the increasingly unworkable act of labeling, filtering, and simply not seeing what IS.

Thursday, March 08, 2007

Hate to be labeled, but...

This is one of those classic internet time wasters. Read on, to learn who I supposedly am.


Sunday, March 04, 2007

Northstar at Tahoe

Just want to give a rave review to Northstar, which so far rates as my favorite Tahoe ski resort.
It is like a little tiny Vail, from the low-key but snazzy wooden buildings in the village, on up to the variety of runs. And it's the quality of service that really shines in a small operation like this. I've been to some small outfits, from New York's itty bitty Scotch Valley to California's Sugar Bowl, but neither of them have the attention to detail of Northstar.

Not to knock all the nice kids from Argentina, Johannesburg, and New Zealand, who do the seasonal drudge work in ski resorts from Mammoth to Killington, but Northstar's local personnel show a real sense of esprit de corps, of proprietorship, and service. I felt cared for, every turn of the way, from the basket check dude right on up to Bob, my ski instructor.

Thanks to the Bay Area Ski Bus, I got a good deal on transport, lift ticket, ski rental, and my Intermediate Skills Improvement lesson.

The hard part is waking up at 4 am to get up and drive to the bus pickup location, but once on the bus, it was not too bad. The driver plies his way up to the Sierras, loaded to the brim with skiiers trying to get a little more sleep. We are served bagels, cream cheese, yogurt and juices as we summit highway 80 somewhere on the way THERE.

The easy part is getting handed my voucher by the hostess as we file off the bus. I get my lift ticket and skis. I go up to the top of the mountain and fly down blue runs called Sodergrens, Upper Jiboom, Christmas Tree, Pinball (also a terrain park, though I take no big jumps). There are many of them, and they're covered with crisp powder. And, midweek, many of the runs seem to be mine alone.

I don't stop for lunch, even though I hear other skiiers raving about the taco salad and burritos. I munch on a stale Balance Bar found in my jacket pocket and ski right up to the moment when my group lesson will start. In the end, I am assigned my own instructor, as we "improvers" number only as many as on-duty ski instructors.

Bob Hill is a fit 72 year old, and an excellent teacher. He identifies me as a "functional skiier," able to zoom down a hill intact, but not really doing it right. He corrects my feet, my knees, my poles, even my gosh darned chin. In a few minutes, I am completely in control, totally relaxed, and flying downhill without threat of wiping out or straining my muscles. I am amazed at the change.

So, stoked on powder at nearly 4 pm, I turn in my equipment and make my way to the bus. It's been a great day. Thanks, Bay Area Ski Bus, and Northstar!

Sunday, February 25, 2007

Tonight's Most Exclusive Oscar Party

Doesn't tout le monde wish they had an invite to this evening's Oscar party at the home of my dad!

I will arrive in pre-Oscar splendor in a long black car (now, get this, my dad actually owns the car of the moment, a black Prius). Ever tuned in to Tinseltown trends of political correctness, I will save on gas consumption, too, by doing my own chauffeuring to reduce payload in my classic 1997 Sebring. Just you wait: next year, ALL the stars'll be doing it.

The host will be wearing Brooks Brothers, Sears, and Redwing. As guest of honor, I will compliment his fashion sense by parading across his red (and black and grey) carpet, head to toe in famed Italian designer Giordano (only Hong Kong insiders understand the caché of that particular couture house).

"Goody bags" waiting for me include a stack of mail, each piece personally crafted for moi, a news clipping about artist Bill King, and a mystery gift from my dad's basement.

On the menu will be a glass of wine, rucola salad, and turkey bolognese sauce over corn pasta. Two squares from a chocolate bar for the finish. Cuisine of Hippie chic in what Bel Air is to Hollywood: the tony enclave of Rockridge, just steps from the international capital of Hippiedom, Berkeley.

Sorry, all you paparazzi, I am not divulging the exact location of this shindig, but you can envy me these highlights. First of all: live Oscar video feed on an actual color television. Sofa seating, just like the Red Victorian Theatre on Haight Street. The toilet is, like, right around the corner from the living room, so unlike some of these ditzy Hollywood actresses who are off checking their makeup, I will not miss one moment of the awards ceremony. I mean, if they call my name, I will NOT be in the john.

Who SHOULD win? Followed by who I predict WILL win...
Best Pic: The Departed (actually I predict Babel will do a "Crash.")
Actor: Forest Whitaker (Peter O'Toole will upset this performance)
Actress: Helen Mirren (She'll get it)
Supporting Actor: Mark Wahlberg (Eddie Murphy will get it)
Supporting Actress: Rinko Kikuchi (Jennifer Hudson will get it)
Director: Scorsese (If Flight 92's Paul Greengrass gets it, I'm going to have to restrain myself from committing a few terrorist acts, myself)

I saw only Pan's Labrynth, which I loved, but I missed all the other Foreign Language Films, so I abstain from voting on that category.

Adapted Screenplay: ditto, saw only Borat and The Departed.

Original Screenplay: M. Arndt's Little Miss Sunshine (but I'll go out on a limb and guess it'll actually go to Peter Morgan for The Queen)
Documentary: An Inconvenient Truth (An Inconvenient truth)

Okay, you've seen my predictions.

Have fun at your own little parties, and we'll compare notes tomorrow at the gym/watercooler/nail salon/frat house/unemployment line.

Saturday, February 17, 2007

On Little Cat's Feet

Warning to my friends in the interior: Fog HO!

It's 3pm on Saturday and our week of gorgeous weather is coming to a close. I can see a huge fog bank churning its way from the direction of the Hawaiian Islands towards us here at the western edge of America. Just to remind me I'm not back in Bali yet, and that it is winter in the northern hemi.

Anyway, at least I had my ride with the top down today, enjoying one of those amazing winter days when the coast is hotter than the inland valleys.

Tisk-tisk of the day: Letters to the editor of the Oklahoma City newspaper, slamming Al Gore for his "global warming hoax" because "we've had more snow this year than most," and because "God controls the weather."

Friday, February 02, 2007

Thanks, Mordecai

Mordecai D, my fellow brilliant-mind-but-a-flunkout-of-algebra! Thanks for the comment, and EMAIL ADDRESS REMOVED FEBRUARY 24.

Look in the 76 yearbook, I am possibly next to Liz McDonough.

Mordecai, I did not know you and your bros, but how can anyone who went to our high school not have heard your name and your brothers. ...sometimes rattled off at honor roll assemblies and such. I named my daughter after your other brother, do you know that? At least, his was the first instance I'd heard of that name. Such cool, old testament names, but that one also in one of Shakespeare's plays.

Feb 24 comment: Trying to maintain a small degree of anonymity, I've taken out the embedded email address. Would be happy to hear from you again, so if you don't find me there next to Liz, make another comment here and I'll throw you a brand new bone. Are you going to try to get to the 77 reunion? I will try...

Another Sad Day in the Family

Last week I lost my father-in-law, a great but very humble, conservative, thoughtful man. He was 90 years old, and he left us with his four children at his side. Hard to ask for more graceful an exit than that. He was considerate to the end, a family man but also possessed a great mind and was at one time the world expert on the medical consequences of exposure to benzine.

I rushed back to the States to join my husband and children, who were all here on the east coast.

The funeral was well done, quiet, and on a day of bitter cold but beautiful clear sunny skies. The colonel and former liberator of Dachau (he was a medical doctor and lieutenant during WW2) received proper military burial with taps, flag, everything but the ten gun salute.

It is not easy for any of us, but we're doing what we can to move along. Huge flakes of snow fell from a pure white sky this morning, as if to show that there are seasons for everything. It is possible to find beauty even when things look bad.

Strangely appropriate to all this mourning was Laurie Anderson's performance last night as part of a quadruple bill at the BAM (Brooklyn Academy of Music), where she presented four new songs, all world premieres, backed by a small orchestra from the Brooklyn Philharmonic, as well as a violist and keyboardist.

Laurie, you looked so sad, and your songs were like lamentations. In one, she sang of "this transitory life" and mentioned her favorite Buddhist metaphor of life being a burning house. She's used the image with humorous joy in times past, but now she sang it in a kind of apathetic acceptance. She sang another song that mentioned Lou -and that would be Lou Reed, her companion- (now, I don't mean to be comic, but if I heard her right, she sang, "Lou is in me like a bear," which is lewd in a way. But the line was followed by something like "I saw the sky tear open" which could be, again, sexual / orgasmic, but came off so sadly, an expression of an ending. I think she's trying to express something... the great storyteller seemed so tired and worn last night, singing through clenched jaws. It made this admirer very sad indeed. Another song seemed to have other disturbing, forlorn lyrics. That tense mouth, Laurie, it interfered with our understanding of your poetry! Did you sing to us about how "we rush to it, we push to it", the imagery of a river that goes to an overwhelming, vast sea. Jeez, Laurie, this was a kind of death set. It was ever so sad. Can you cheer me up?

The always-graceful Suzanne Vega also did a set, including Tom's Cafe, which is about Monk's on Broadway and 112th, not Tom's in Brooklyn. Loved that little news. Anyway, she gave us a remarkable song, also world premiere, written by Philip Glass (played nicely by the phil). Sexy lyrics included "I kiss you, I hold you /hump you (I gotta look this up... I do have a hearing issue), "I come to you," and, if I'm not mistaken, something like "I miss you" or leave you... drat, should have taken notes but it was sad and sexy at the same time. Of course, Suzanne has this lovely voice with about a single octave range. A tight and pretty single octave, so she sure knows how to use it to its best advantage.

The revelation of the evening was Nellie McKay, who gave us a lively, witty set with the orchestra and her own excellent piano playing. She can tickle em like a cathouse boogie woogie man or with the polish of your favorite cabaret artist. Really fun, racy, sassy, rough lyrics, and a wild voice that wraps itself around a nonconformist scale with aplomb. I'm going out and getting her new CD, and I will NOT buy the pirated version!!

Sorry, Joan Osborne, but your rendition of a classic Earth Wind and Fire love song just didn't rock my world. Kiddo, you're a fine singer, but I already heard the same version of that stuff in '72 or '73 and you didn't illuminate it any, now that a few decades have passed.

Okay, so I am back in the States and will move my stuff that was parked here at the inlaws, all the way to Californy. Road trip time again. Stay tuned. Hope it gets better. Not the same as a rainbow's promise, but the snow is awful pretty out there. We'll go through the south.

Rest in peace, Doc. Thank you for giving the world your wonderful son, who takes such good care of me. I love him and adore him and tell him so, every day.

Thursday, January 25, 2007

Mini Break in Denpasar

Anyone want to know what a big day in Bali is like? They are never typical. There are days I play tour guide, charity days, supply roundup days, days I snorkel, days I write.
Once a month, a charitable group of which I am a member, has a luncheon meeting. The incentive for attendence is a meal at a quality hotel or restaurant, and a raffle of interesting prizes. The real reason for the meetings is to let members know what activities are going on, including fund raisers for our charities. It is also the time when we hear what our officers are doing, and what we have been able to give to which charities.

I am happy to say that the group gives its money to the right places, more often than not. Some of the benefitted: widows of the Bali bomb who set up new businesses to support themselves, handicapped kids' institutions (good places), and primary schools in east bali. We used to have about half an hour before the lunch would start which was used for an optional meeting in an ante room, where members could hear about a charity or learn about a new service or product available in Bali, or even meet an interesting person (usually an artist or volunteer or visiting figure of note). Those extra gatherings seem to have been left by the wayside, and I'd like to see them reinstituted. Really, the group is a great, dedicated club, held together by a number of hardworking women. I could probably make some suggestions and help get the info sessions going again.

So one day a month is a club day for me. Club, not clubbing, mind you. I may not be an old fogie juuuust yet, but this is how exciting it is for me here in the resort capitol of one of the world's largest countries.

I try to add in some extra activities and errands to justify the trip south. It's an awful drive, an hour and fifteen or more minutes of trying to overtake slow trucks, avoiding motorbikes who weave in and out of traffic like mosquitos, and watching for vehicles coming at me in my own lane. I don't like to make the drive often.

After breakfast, I try to get in half an hour of writing, and I deal with my staff guys (all very boring, you don't want to hear it). I got my stuff together and jumped in the car. I drove the hair-raising trail to Kuta's FAMOUS RESTAURANT CHAIN FULL OF MOVIE MEMORABILIA wink wink (we can call it Celluloid Earth), site of this month's lunch. You know, I pass the Celluloid Earth almost every time I go south because it's at Simpang Siur, possibly Bali's busiest roundabout. I always figured that inside the massive walls was something like the museum-esque Celluloid Earths of San Francisco and New York and Hong Kong. Actually, I'm not sure if the one in HK still exists. But my memories of these places are of wall-to-wall movie memorabilia and autographed photos and huge posters and fun art and expensive-looking collectables.

Doesn't the Hong Kong Celluloid Earth have a wookie suit from Star Wars? There are big movie posters, glamorous items of clothing, all that wow factor stuff. I mean, kind of memorable memorabilia.

Well, the Celluloid Earth Bali looks like someone's basement bar collection that is now distributed on twenty times the wall space of the average basement rumpus room. It's a little bit sad. Lots of dead wall space. I didn't see one theatre-sized movie poster in the whole joint. All the movie posters I saw were the size of magazine foldouts, like an advertisement in Variety ahead of release day. I admit I kind of liked the huge mural of NYC in one of the dining areas. It had a (purely unintentional, I'm sure) fuzzy resemblance to the Manhatten mockup Tom Cruise dreamt at the end of Vanilla Sky... twin towers, a sweet sight. That was the room where they seated all the various determined (if not embarrassed looking) tourists, so that they would not be encroaching on our private function. I guess now they can check off another "must see before I die" item. Actually, as a group they all seemed so unsmiling, their room became in my mind some kind of hall of shame.

For dubious pizazz, a permanent light show inside a strange sculptural interpretation of a tornado graces the bar. Maybe it looks good at night, because the whole joint looked an awful lot like a tv set: very very worn, lots of "squint" needed to tolerate the decor... you know what I mean. But really, it is my theory that the guy who bought the Celluloid Earth Bali franchise just didn't have deep enough pockets to decorate properly. He bought the franchise and then had to choose from the approved Celluloid Earth catalog of memorabilia. Perhaps his contract even said that he had to have at least twelve posters, three costumes, ten props, and fifteen autographed glossies. He stopped at the minimum, and probably selected each item based on lowest prices alone. It's my theory and I'm sticking with it. I don't know how else to explain the complete lack of wow factor.

Seeing a 12 by 18 color image of Sean Connery (luger in hand) posted next to an actual, framed, machine gun on the wall, I paused to read the item's label. Apparently this machine gun was once used in a Bond film (unnamed), which probably means it didn't grace Connery's golden fingers, or they would have proudly stated the fact. Sigh. Coolest thing I saw at the restaurant was a signed 8 x 10 glossy of John Astin, dressed as Gomez, the Addams Family patriarch. In fact, I dined under his venerable image, mortified as I was.

I was happy to sit with powerhouse Mary N-, whose Yayasan Senyum is bringing expert medical operations to Indonesian kids with cleft palates. She is also a women's art maven, owner of the Seniwati Gallery in Ubud. She brought with her Sue F- from Australia, who is a volunteer acting as Mary's admininstrator for two years. It was her first meeting. Also at our table was Anna G- who is considering joining the group, and who wants to relocate to my neck of Bali's woods. So I'll be seeing her soon, I am sure.

We sat through a number of speeches given through a PA so bad, we could barely understand the speakers. No one told those behind the microphones. Everyone was either too embarrassed or too hungry to make the effort. Bonus guest was the wife of the governor of Bali, who praised our group for being humble. She doesn't know the half of it. Okay, okay, as a group, we like to give our money to good causes, but our individual stake is that we get to pig out in relative luxury this one day each month, gabbing with pals and wearing something besides a sarong and a tee shirt.

At last, mealtime. The buffet tables offered us Bali Buffet 101, my name for what the Balinese feed tourists en masse. Actually, BB101 can be pretty good if there is a samovar of muddy Bali coffee and dessert includes black rice pudding and fried bananas. No such luck; dessert was papaya, honeydew, and water melon. There was nothing out-and-out wrong with the food, it was freshly prepared, hot over sterno, and tasted fine, but it was the usual fried rice, white rice, sweet sour chicken, fish with veggies, mixed veggies, and spring rolls. Salad and corn soup and the fruit dessert on the other side. Can someone tell me what you get in America at a Chinese buffet in a shopping mall? And how much you pay? Before someone castigates me for being a fussbudget, can I just say that the Rp180,000 price tag buys a diner a spectacular meal anywhere else on the island. I pray that a good chunk of my 19 US dollar expenditure went right into the coffers of our group, because I shudder to think what profits Celluloid Earth garnered from this. To think that only a few luncheons ago, I paid the same amount and had a three course, 5 star meal at the Bali Hyatt. Waiters came to us at table, with some kind of bisque soup and fresh whole grain rolls, all you could grab. This followed by delicately grilled fish and al dente vegetables, and a dessert platter loaded with chocolate. So this meal at the movie place doesn't compare well to some of our other caterers.

The raffle. One of the greatest prizes was organic red rice from west Bali. This stuff is so healthy and so good-tasting. I just love it. And I actually won a bag in the raffle. I also won a lovely little carved soapstone elephant. I shelled out Rp50,000 for my raffle tickets, so I feel like a gambler who came out ahead, that's for sure. Now, as a winner, I must bring some prize or prizes to next week's raffle. After the last prize (weekend for two at the sumptuous Maya Ubud) was raffled off (lucky winner last year's president), everyone shuffled out. I stopped at one of the little tables set up by a well-known Gianyar yayasan (NGO) for kids in wheelchairs and with other disabilities. They were selling handicrafts and I bought a few items before going to my car.

Okay, so I have been meaning to case out a couple of Jimbaran hotels, the Puri Taman and Puri Jimbaran, which advertise cheap rates and are close to the airport. It is always useful to have places like this to stay, in case of a late night or alcohol consumption, when we can't make it back to the ranch. I cruised the jalans Uluwatu and could only find the more expensive of the two: Puri Jimbaran, which has basic, clean rooms for 200,000 a night with breakfast. A little disconcerting that a recycling depot is a stone's throw away, and the neighborhood is light industry and large commercial. Pool in back is okay for some frustrating laps, more of a cool-off pool. Bathrooms fine, includes tub. No guarantee it's cockroach free, but at least the doors and windows all shut and there's air con. I still like the Harris better (in Tuban), a less bizarre neighborhood.

Time for a massage from "Iron Fingers" Ketut, over at my chiropractor's office. If a patient is on the prepaid visit plan, free massages can be booked at any time. I always leave a tip for Ketut because I don't know what his salary actually is. A damn good, hard 40 minute massage, back side only. Not as atmospheric or as good-smelling as a spa massage, but at a 20 to 40,000 Rupiah tip, a good value. I poured myself into the car and went to get my manicure at Soap Suds. I was early, but by the time they could actually accomodate me, they were late. It's okay. I have my copy of Point to Point Navigation by Gore Vidal to amuse myself.

The manicurist took off my USA acrylics and started me off on a scary set of acrylic nails from powder that is pre-colored and glittery right from the get-go. The only polish is a clear top coat. First time I've had this done. As I'm sitting there, I'm starting to worry what they're going to charge me for this new technology. No worries, it's well under fifty bucks, way ahead of the Hong Kong prices, probably what fancier nail places charge for this service in the States. I've had my nails done in salons from Oneonta to Quito to Hong Kong, and I have to say that the most careful service has probably been here in Bali.

The salon offered me a stack of Australian celebrity gossip mags, and a very interesting article was in this month's ish of Cleo: photos of naked "real" women, edited side by side, so that you can see a number of very different -let's say, size 8 bodies, then the size 10s, etc etc. It was hard to not gawk, impossible not to compare self. Every kind of tits you can imagine, but due to frontal poses, I didn't get to compare my cellulite with these gals, most of whom looked well under 40. It was meant to help us non pinup types feel a little better about our bods... I mean, honey, the chicks went up as far as size 22, I think. Yeah, a little scary there on the last page of the article. But not one of them, size 6 to 16, looked like me.

I rushed on up to Seminyak, glorious sunset happening off to one side, to Fabio's Restaurant because I thought I was going to be attending a WWF (um, that's the animal organization, not the steroid one) fundraiser: the screening of some films about Indonesian nature. No, no screening here tonight. Duh, I look at the ticket. It's for the next week. So I high tail it down Jalan Double Six and park the car near Gado Gado Restaurant. I grab some necessities and walk, barefoot, down onto the beach and walk south, the magnificent sunset to my right. This is Seminyak beach, which eases seamlessly into Legian and then Kuta. It's miles of beige sand, ultra flat and wide, firm and perfect for a walk of nearly any length. I love walking the beach there, even if I live 2 hours away. So I do it when I can. Everyone is retiring for the evening... beach attendants gather up long chairs and empty beer bottles, couples head for their hotel rooms, and dogs get a last walk in with their masters.

I head up to Zanzibar Cafe, where my son and his friends liked to eat when they were here in 05. It's loaded with tourists (including one drunken table of retirement age Europeans who, I swear to God, had a jerry can of tuac ...local palm wine... with them). I order what was to be the best grilled snapper I have ever eaten in my life. Bar none. I wanted to kiss the chef, but he would have taken it the wrong way. Five bucks for that, and it came with a darn good salad and delectable grilled veggies. I finished with a chocolate mousse because, after I grilled the waitress, I found out that it was the one dessert prepared just that afternoon. Drinks? My fave to start: watermelon and lime juice. Then, with the mousse, some iced mint and lemon thing that was the perfect tart compliment. What a meal! So, go to Zanzibar and get the snapper. And I do recommend bringing a little Gore Vidal to read while you wait for your dishes.

I got a taxi back to where I parked my car (no, I am not going to walk way back up that beach, and besides it pumps money into the economy), and took off for the Galeria 21. I bought my two dollar ticket for the 9:15 showing of Babel and waited in my plush seat for the film to begin. What a movie! The director tells his story without relying on narrative tricks like a time line. It was so beautiful, full of great acting and evocative faces. Hearing impaired as I am, I related to the deaf Japanese girl on a couple of levels. But because it's all about human nature and human foibles, I could relate to everyone in the film, just about. I do recommend it.

I was not too tired to drive home. About six other people were on the road in Bali at midnight, so I sailed home in about an hour and five minutes, nearly a record for me. The waxing half moon had slipped away earlier, but I wait for it to get full in a few days, when it will light the roads and gardens at night. Yawn and to bed.