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The NonBlog is NonActive—Friday, May 6, 2011

To the devoted fans of the nonBlog, I regret to report that it is currently on hiatus. Quite a number of you--all six, in fact--have written to ask me what's wrong. Nothing is wrong so much as my blog has lost its purpose, at least for now. When I began in 2006, the reason the blog was Non--that is, the reason it doesn't accept comments and isn't published on Blogspot or the like--is that it was my means to practice writing creative nonfiction. My way of getting my 10,000 hours of personal writing done so that I could achieve the fluency of which Malcolm Gladwell speaks in Outliers, his book about what makes for success. He says it's not a lightening strike, it's that sweet spot between a wee bit of talent and about ten years of daily rehearsal.

And to whatever degree I could manage, I'm there. My career is now split between strategic writing/teaching for corporations and creative writing for myself and whatever audience I can snag, and I am as happy playing jazz with my words as anyone could possibly be. During these years I wrote my way to an understanding of my father's long illness and his death, and I told a good number of itty stories from the point of view of a fortysomething woman in San Francisco. You told me I made you laugh and cry, and I thank you for your gentle readership and the time it took to send me your feedback.

I will continue to put up links to my articles and post news about my appearances, but for now I'm restricting writing time to my book projects. Onward and nonBlog-ward.


Asia, Part Qi (Aka Seven)—Monday, November 15, 2010 (posted December 28th)

I am going to finish telling my Asia stories if it kills me (or turns into 2011 before I can complete the task). In the alternate universe in which I told these tales in a timely fashion, it is the afternoon of Saturday, November 13th and my colleague Cory and I are in a car being driven away from the Great Wall of China by our not-exactly-English-speaking guide Polo. After many hand gestures that were not terribly edifying, he transmitted the information that he was going to take us to a local restaurant and I transmitted the information that I intended to order donkey. I was doing this because, well, when in China order donkey. And because my pal Gretchen had eaten chicken feet the previous week and I really couldn't let her hang out in Weird Food Land by herself.

"So," I had asked her, "Do chicken feet taste like chicken?"

"No!" Gretchen said. "They taste like, like chicken feet! They were gristly. It was horrible!"

Thus I had to take one for the team. Polo and Cory and I sat down in a strange Fifties-ish greenhousy place with a photo menu. We pointed to sizzling whole fish and pork something-or-other and braised donkey shank, which Tom later translated for me. "You realize," he said, "that you ordered ass' ass. I'm just saying."

Unfortunately, the ass' ass never arrived, and after sizzling whole fish and pork something we were full. So Gretchen and her chicken feet would have to be bested at a later meal. We paid the bill and drove back into town with the goal of fitting in one more destination, the Summer Palace. It turns out that the Forbidden City didn't provide quite enough splendor and square footage for the Chinese royal family; they needed a vacation resort across town. The retreat turned out to be an even prettier lakeside idyll with views of Beijing from its hilltop pagodas—views we could actually see since the pollution had taken the afternoon off. We hiked around and sneaked pictures of buddhas with signs in front saying "NO PHOTOGRAPHS" and enjoyed the fact that we could inhale without coughing.

When we returned to Polo it was nearing the end of the day and we asked if we had run out the clock. He somehow communicated that we had another hour or so and said we could go anywhere we liked. Cory had heard there was a flag ceremony every night at sunset at Tiananmen Square, and we decided to make a break for it. But unfortunately the legendary Beijing traffic that had not materialized in previous days suddenly appeared, and we were still ten minutes away as the sun went down. Polo asked what else we had hoped to see, and Cory and I started talking. We hadn't seen any hutongs, the old alleyways of huts still sprinkled among Beijing's skyscrapers and considered tourist attractions. We hadn't seen Communist headquarters. Cory had seen Tiananmen Square, but I had managed to spend nearly six hours across the way in the Forbidden City without realizing it was right outside the gates. Polo kept going. Had we seen the star-covered Opera House? The House of Parliament? The National Museum? No, we hadn't. Oh well.

As we were having this discussion, Cory and I were under the impression that Polo was driving us back to the Regent and that our talk was academic. But Polo had other ideas, and in the next hour he took us to every one of the sights we had discussed. Cory and I still can't explain how he pulled this off. If you had told us that we had to find a way to walk along the Great Wall of China, eat lunch in an authentic local restaurant, tour the entire Summer Palace, see Tiananmen Square, the Opera House, Communist headquarters, several hutongs, the House of Parliament and the National Museum all in one day, I imagine we would have had an anxiety attack. I still don't think you could have seen so many places in a single day in such a leisurely fashion—in any fashion, for that matter—on purpose. It could only have happened by accident. Even as we were cruising by sight after sight, Cory and I weren't exactly grasping what we were experiencing. As we passed the unmarked Communist compound, leafy trees and dead-serious armed soldiers at every gate, Cory pulled out his camera. "Don't take a picture!" Polo and I shouted. "Whoops," Cory said.

We were still in a mild state of shock when Polo pulled up to the Regent, and I understood why his other clients so wanted their pictures taken with him. I really didn't know how to express my thanks. He even refused a tip. "I know I'll see you again one day," I said. Polo beamed. "Tell your friends Polo!" he replied. Cory and I promised we would.

Cory was exhausted and had to wake before dawn for his flight to Singapore, but mine didn't leave until later, and anyway, I don't exactly get tired. So I left Cory at the hotel and walked myself back to Made in China, the gourmet restaurant down the avenue where we had eaten Peking Duck the night before. It's so famous you can't get a reservation without a week's notice, but Cory and I had learned that one or two people can sometimes get a spot at the bar. This time they put me at the noodle station, seated next to a thirtysomething American couple who seemed to be on vacation. I had brought a book but I never opened it. At first it was because I was standing in front of a tall Asian noodle maker with beautiful planes in his face and the most transfixing look of absorption, as if making noodles was the thing he had waited all his life to do. I couldn't take my eyes off his bliss as he breathed in and out and pressed fillings into dumplings with precision and care. Then the waitress came and I made another attempt to order donkey and asked for Beggar's Chicken, which is the other Chinese dish I had heard you really must eat before you die.

The waitress looked stricken. Beggar's Chicken? I needed to wait; she would have to ask the chef. I was thinking, What's the big deal? It's just chicken. Moments later the waitress returned, positively thrilled. Beggar's Chicken is available! Okaaay, I thought. "Great," I said. "Donkey shank and Beggar's Chicken."

The couple looked at me and said nothing. The waitress brought the donkey, which was served cold in slices like foie gras and tasted like beef. I knew just what I would tell Gretchen. "Chicken feet don't taste like chicken and neither does donkey. It tastes like beef." Little did I know that Beggar's Chicken would also taste like beef. In a short while the waitress wheeled over a cart carrying what looked like a big loaf of powdery brown bread. She offered me a sledgehammer. I looked at her. She made a swinging motion. "Hit chicken," she said.

Now the entire restaurant was staring at me. I stood up and took the sledgehammer, raising it above my head. "Not so hard!" the waitress exclaimed. I lowered the sledgehammer to shoulder height, and brought it down on the loaf thing. It made a big Crack noise. The waitress took the sledgehammer back and motioned for me to sit down. She proceeded to pull apart the loaf, which turned out to be clay. Underneath was parchment paper; she cut it with scissors. Under that was a layer of lotus leaves; she peeled those back. Under that was the chicken, which looked like a little brown duck. She cut it open, exposing the innards, and explained that it had been stuffed with pork, nuts, and spices, wrapped in lotus leaves and parchment paper, covered with clay, and cooked in a brick oven for five hours. She put the chicken extravaganza on a plate and left it there, whereupon I looked around the room at the other diners and the show was over.

The couple to my left couldn't stand it any longer. "Who are you and what did you order?" asked the husband, who turned out to be a programmer under contract to Microsoft. The three of us talked for the rest of the evening, and after he picked my brain about my writing workshops they treated me to chocolate fondue as a thank-you.

It was my last night in China, not to mention one of the best days of my life, and it was about to end. I was alone on the other side of the Earth. I walked down the street at 10pm, staring at the thousands of blue lights strung across the roadway. I walked around the luxurious hotel across from the Regent, spying on magnates. I ordered a glass of red wine in the Regent's lobby, just to make the evening last a little longer, and read some of my book. Then I went back to my room and fell asleep.


Asia, Part Liu (Aka Six)—Sunday, November 14, 2010

Okay, I know it's not November 14th, it's December 13th. So shoot me. I've done nothing but get on planes since I returned from Asia and I have more stories from that particular November week than I could possibly write that fast. Plus now I have stories from New York, the Berkshires, Las Vegas, Austin, and Plano, Texas, and I'd rather give up on the latter than on telling the ones from Beijing and Singapore, however delayed.

Chapter One, Big Fruit

So when we left off, I had acquired boy sneakers for my girl feet. My girl feet were scheduled to trek all on their lonesome atop the Great Wall and wherever else their soles desired for an entire Saturday, courtesy of an English-speaking driver the hotel had hired for the day. I was trying not to think about how it would feel to get into this car and go an hour and a half outside of Beijing to view Mongolia all by myself. Would my gamer constitution fail me and turn me into Princess Di sitting in front of the Taj Mahal with the long sad face? I didn't have to find out, because thankfully my colleague Cory heard I was going and said he would come along.

It turned out that our English-speaking driver only barely spoke English, but his bit of English was a lot more effective than our complete lack of Chinese. He told us with a wide grin that his English name was Polo and gave us a number of promotional materials to prove it. Through some stroke of utter illogic it turns out that all Chinese people have two names—their given name and their Western name, which means that every hotel in the city is run by people with nametags that say Patty, Ann, and Roger. At the Italian dinner where I had met the APJ team, one woman told me she had a six-month-old baby girl. "What's her name?" I said, beaming.

"Oh," the woman said, "she doesn't have a name yet."

I was flabbergasted. "She's six months old and she doesn't have a name?"

"No, no, I mean she doesn't have an English name."

She paused, as if that should end any further inquiry.

"Well, would you tell me her real name?"

She made a weird face at me for even asking and said something that sounded like Mee-shah.

"Ah," I said. "That sounds a lot like Michelle. And in English Michelle is a pretty name—it's a name for a pretty girl."

"Michelle!" the woman exclaimed. "Okay, Michelle!"

So, ludicrous as it sounds, I may have named a baby girl in China.

At any rate, Polo didn't tell us his Chinese name, but when we weren't looking he absconded with Cory's guidebook and stamped it on the first blank page, just in case we might forget it. We weren't likely to. Polo took great pride in driving Westerners around greater Beijing, and showed us several pictures of himself taken with beaming brown- and red-haired tourists. Some were in front of what looked like several pieces of car-sized fruit.

"What's this?" I asked, pointing to the photo's background.

"Fruit!" Polo said.

As unhelpful as his answer may have been, the fact that we soon pulled up to the giant fruit didn't explain things any better. All I can say is that near the Mutianyu section of the Great Wall, there is a 20-foot-high basket of fruit for no obvious reason, and we pulled over and took pictures of ourselves in front of it.

Chapter Two, Big Wall

Back in the car, we were suddenly in the mountains. Cory remarked that the foliage didn't look nearly strange enough for his taste. Indeed, for several miles the landscape could just as easily have been California, or Utah, where Cory lives. But the small towns of gray hut-like buildings were clearly as foreign as it gets, and as the Great Wall came into view my palms were tingling. The wall sat there calmly, winding through the mountains above as if that were a perfectly normal thing to do. I stared at it with my mouth open.

We pulled up to another series of gray huts that sold Great Wall souvenirs that were heavy on Mao hats and battle axes. I didn't even try to ask what I was meant to do with the latter. Polo walked us up to the ticket counter and instructed us to elect the whole-hog option complete with admission, gondola ride up to the wall, and toboggan ride down. Then he put a tiny cell phone in Cory's hand. He pushed a button. "Polo," it said, with a number. "See wall. Come down. Call Polo. Walk parking lot One."

Cory summarized what we had just been told in full sentences and took the phone. We hopped on the Sputnik-era chair lift and alternately worried that it would collapse and giggled about the fact that we were on the Great Wall. We were really articulate.

"We're taking a chair lift to the Great Wall!" I said.

"I know," Cory said.

We paused.

"We're about to walk on the Great Wall of China," Cory said.

"I know!" I exclaimed.

Here's the thing about the Great Wall when you're on it: it's both smaller than you thought and too vast to imagine. It's very polished and unfolds in a leisurely and unthreatening fashion, kind of like the Yellow Brick Road of China. And it's really demanding to walk on, composed more of stairs than walkways. Every few yards there's a watchtower, and each one is decorated with gargoyles and beasties and terribly attractive arrangements of bricks. How did they have the time and resources to get all designer on every inch of the 5,500-mile Great Wall?

The Great Wall offers entrepreneurial opportunities galore. If the one thing you really must do on the Great Wall is eat a Snickers bar, you're in luck. You can also buy Mao hats, get your picture taken with Mongolians selling Mao hats, and get your picture taken by Mongolians selling Mao hats. You must negotiate prices for all of these activities, which quickly becomes exhausting.

A good amount of energy is expended by China to keep nature from consuming the Great Wall one bite at a time. I couldn't figure out why the guidebook kept referring to the Mutianyu section of the wall as being 1.4 miles long and requiring three hours to hike, but it turns out that's all they can maintain and service. At odd moments you'll take a wrong turn on a staircase and bump smack into a tree that's grown across the path with a Ghostbusters sort of sign warning you not to take another step. On the other side is a section of the wall so pristine it looks like four score Chinese men licked it in preparation for your arrival.

After an hour or two Cory said, "I've seen enough. I hate to say it, but after a while it's kind of boring."

"Yeah, I think I've hit the wall," I said. "No pun intended."

So we got on the toboggan line. There was a lengthy sign somewhat in English that warned us of the possibility we could die and explained that if we did it wasn't China's fault. I didn't care if death awaited—all I knew was that I'd never taken a toboggan and it looked like a ride. I was practically hopping up and down. Zooming down the loops of the endless shiny silver track was one of the most fun things I've done since I was twelve, and at the bottom two costumed Mongolians were waiting to pretend to chop off my head. Cory and I took pictures of our mutual near beheading and walked away, thinking it might be the one photo op that was included in the admission price. The faux warriors started yelling after us for money, and we continued walking away, weary of haggling. But within five minutes I wished I had given them my last few $RMB, and a month later I'm still regretting it.


Asia, Part Wu (Shall I Start Translating? That's Five)—Saturday, November 13, 2010

It's a mistake to forget to pack something for a trip, but if you forget to pack something for a trip to China it is a much bigger mistake. And when you are a tall woman with feet to match and the thing you forgot to pack is sneakers, it is a mistake on a level I really can't describe to you.

Yesterday I taught my half-day workshop on better business writing (which happens to be titled "There's No Such Thing as Business Writing"). I had met my students the night before when we had a rollicking team dinner at an Italian restaurant, because it turns out that the Chinese are sick of Chinese food. For some reason that might have something to do with extreme jet lag, I found this revelation roaringly funny.

So I met the Chinese team over pasta Bolognese and found out that Italian wine is atrociously expensive in Asia and then attempted to sleep and gave up and taught the next morning. My students did great work, especially considering that English is their second or third language. Afterward I ate my first official Chinese lunch, of Chinese food that did not resemble any Chinese food I had ever eaten, and went in search of sneakers. Whereupon the odyssey began.

There are no sneakers. Or, there are sneakers for native-born Chinese, but not for me. I quickly exhausted the shops in the office complex where I had taught my seminar, and had to ask one of my students where I should go next. "Oh," she said casually, "there's a Hypermarket across the street." And indeed, in yellow letters it actually said HYPERMARKET on the second floor of the building across the way.

But this is me, the directionless wonder, so before heading out I took note of my surroundings as if I were back-checking the route on a climb so I could save my own life in a storm. Orange dress in the store below the office where I taught. Chicken feet in the window of the shop at the base of the pedestrian bridge. Entrance to the Hypermarket is—not to be found. How do you get up there? It turned out that I had to go through a watch store and a food court and up an escalator before bumping into row after row of women's shoes that turned out, after 45 minutes of searching, to top out at a size 8. I am a 9 ½.

The entire time I was sneaker hunting, women stared at me as if I were an alien from Mars. They stared at my yellow hair; they stared at my (apparently strange) buff-colored open-toed heels. I towered over everyone I passed, not a Westerner in sight. I was not in a tourist-friendly shopping area, and I would not find sneakers.

It was as if I were in the taxi line in front of the Forbidden City all over again. I somehow found my way out of the Hypermarket after two false starts that spat me out the back with no obvious route to where I had walked in. I paced in a circle outside. I couldn't give up; I was going to the Great Wall the next day and the ballet flats I had worn to the Forbidden City the morning before just wouldn't cut it. Down the road I saw a sign for another Hypermarket-like substance. Maybe it would have men's sneakers. Those would fit me. Theoretically.

I found my way into Hypermarket II. Again no Westerners. I found men's sneakers. I quickly discovered that not a soul in the building spoke English, and managed to decipher the fact that what you see is what you get—there's no asking for another size in a style you favor. I looked for men's sneakers that could play a women's 9 ½ in the movie. They were gray and orange—not too terrible. The toe box was huge. I never knew men had such big toes. Maybe I would put a balled-up sock in the front to keep my eensy girl toes from freezing on the windy Great Wall. I handed the box to a clerk, along with the biggest fleece men's gloves they had, which barely reached the tips of my fingers. She took them from me and gave me a slip of paper with a bunch of characters on it. I looked down at her questioningly. She looked up at me with irritation. She shooed me over to the left, where 50 yards away I found a cashier. I gave the cashier money. The cashier gave me more paper. I brought it to the clerk. She showed me my sneakers, demonstrated that they were the ones I had paid for, and that the left was the same size as the right. She showed me my gloves, that there was a left and a right. She took two of my slips of paper and left me with the third, and I had successfully bought sneakers and gloves for my gigantic female self.

Back at the Regent Hotel, I walked toward the open elevator to hear a man humming jazz, or maybe it was hip-hop. I thought, Sounds like home. I walked in and saw a big thirtysomething black guy wearing two sweatshirts. "Where are you from?" I asked. "California," he said. I laughed, telling him I was as well and that his humming had sounded like home. "Home, " he said, "I can't wait to go back. They all think that if I'm here and I'm black I must be a prize fighter. I'm not a prize fighter, I'm an investment banker."

"I can relate," I said. "They all think I'm a giantess."

He looked me up and down. He said, "You are a giantess." And he walked out of the elevator.


Asia, Part Si; Friday, November 12, 2010

When I checked into the Beijing Regent Hotel, I was told I'd be in room 1313. Visions of Stephen King danced in my head. I started chuckling, which is really not the correct reaction to a single thing anyone says to you in China, ever. I explained that there is no such thing as a 13th floor in my country, let alone the room 1313. The clerk at the counter became visibly upset. He could change my room for me, he's so sorry to have upset me, okay? Okay? "No no," I said, "I think it's great. I love the fact that I'm in room 1313." He looked genuinely confused. I accepted my keycard to 1313 and shut my mouth, and at dinner when I told my friend Gretchen what happened, she said, "Welcome to the world of no ambiguity."

I woke up every two hours even though I was so far beyond tired that I'm lacking an adequate word for it. The next morning Gretchen and I were set to explore the Forbidden City before she had to lead meetings and I'd be on my own, which felt unimaginable given the obstacles before me. It's China. You have no safety net. If you make a mistake, there's no one you can ask for help. The signs make no sense. Hand gestures don't even translate. Add to this the fact that you are a chick, not to mention extremely lacking in pigment and oddly tall. Add to this something you don't know about me: I have absolutely no sense of direction. There is no way to exaggerate how much this deficit affects my life. The worst thing someone can say to me—and they say it with alarming frequency—is, "You can't miss it." Say that and I can guarantee you I will end up somewhere unlikely that will make you shake your head in utter mystification.

So here I was in the land of mistakes that are unrecoverable. But today I had the lovely Gretchen. She got us a cab to the Forbidden City, and that's when I discovered that even in Beijing there is a failsafe Get Out of Jail Free card: a card you are given by your hotel every single time you exit the revolving doors. In Chinese it says, "This is my residence in Beijing" and tells the taxi driver who can make neither head nor tail of anything you say that you're staying at the Regent and here's where the Regent is located. Suddenly Beijing felt, like, 7% more dealable than it had the moment before.

Gretchen and I hit the entrance and somehow found the audio tour and somehow got the hint about how it works and somehow understood that the $140RMB payment was mostly a deposit to make sure we returned the machine when we were done, and set off. Whereupon I was transported into the Chinese film "Raise the Red Lantern," which I have seen an embarrassing number of times (okay, 20?) and which is set in the pre-revolution, concubine-obsessed China of God knows what year. I couldn't get enough of the endless courts, even though it was frigid on a level you really don't expect in November. Gretchen had warned me and suggested I wear pantyhose with my flats. I complied but she didn't take as good care of herself as she did of me, and an hour later she was bone cold and I was not. She left and I stayed, pushing aside the "I'm all by myself" thought that lingered at the fringes of the "I'm fine" portion of my Ur-brain.

I am perfectly happy in my own company; it's one of the benefits of being me, and I appreciate it all the time given the fact that we are stuck with ourselves whether we like us or not. I thought a little bit about the fact that I was on the opposite side of the globe from home and that the air smelled weird and that there was no one to catch me if I fell and that my phone didn't work at all, and pushed all those thoughts aside too. I was in a place that was a mystery until 1925 and I would remain there until I understood more or less everything there was to understand. It was like a six-hour seminar on Chinese history, self-imposed. Maybe I would get an A if I concentrated really hard. Soon I discovered that Gretchen and I had missed the fact that there were heated museums to the left and right of the paths we had walked and that I could enter them for a couple of extra Chinese bucks and learn something and warm my core and then head out in my ridiculous and not quite adequate layers until I got too cold again.

Outdoors the smell of cigarettes was not strong, but the smell of people was. I bumped into a pocket of odor every few minutes and wished I hadn't. In the so-called Jewelry Gallery, which housed objects from the dawn of time onward that were decorated in precious stones, wearable or not, a Chinese man spat a big wad right on the floor in front of a glass case showcasing an emerald headpiece. I was like, "Dude. Really? There's a door right over there; go outside." Culture shock is a bitch.

I had bizarre twisty thoughts all day. They went like this: Wow, my sisters are looking at the same sun I am, but earlier. And, My dad would have said, "It's an adventure!" I wonder what he would say if he were still alive. And, I wish my girls could see all of this.

I knew I was lingering at the Forbidden City far beyond what is considered appropriate by Westerners, but it was really grooving me. I learned about calligraphy and clocks and porcelain and then I braved the taxi line. Immediately it became clear that I had a large Chinese "L" on my forehead, because the first cabbie sneered and offered to drive me the ten minutes to my hotel for the moral equivalent of $80 and the second and third simply said no, and I had to walk away and return to the plaza and pace in a circle and and resolve to win this game the next time, however it's played.

I realized that with no spoken or gestured language at my disposal, I would have to read faces, which is my single greatest talent. I pretended I was back at Fortune, trying to figure out what no one wanted to tell me. I looked down the row of cabbies and said, "Not you, not you, not you, you." The fourth cabbie had a gentle face like a preschool teacher and I walked up to him and gave him my cell phone with the address of the Silk Market on it, and he said shi and drove me there, just like he was supposed to. It was my first Beijing victory and I hoped my dad was watching.


Asia, Part San—Thursday, November 11, 2010

I have to say that I feel a little silly writing these bitty essays about my Asia trip when the G20 Summit is going on in Seoul and the world is waiting to hear whether the junta will free Burmese dissident Aung San Suu Kyi. But if I want to indulge myself by telling my story it's pretty cool to be doing so in the same area of the world where these events are happening.

When my plane arrived yesterday it was as dislocating an experience as I've ever had. The first thing that tells you you're not in Kansas anymore is the intense stink of cigarettes in the terminal, a smell I haven't encountered indoors since I was a kid. I certainly haven't missed it. The airport was renovated for the 2008 Olympics and echos the soaring eggy shape of all the architecture they built for the event, with thousands of strips of wood soaring overhead as if to enhance the acoustics for an opera performance. There are signs in English here and there, but they manage somehow not to convey the information you're looking for at that moment, like whether your head will go flying off your body or if you'll ever smell normal again.

Sensing my hesitation, my geologist seatmate stayed by me through immigration and the train ride to baggage claim, standing still without a word if I fell behind. I wonder if he knows he will go to heaven. The Regent's car service was waiting for me after customs with a sign that said "Stephanie Kip Losee," as if they were nervous I wouldn't know myself without seeing every name my parents ever gave me. There were not one, not two, but three handlers saying a word here and there to make sure I didn't wander off as we walked up hill and down lift to the garage where a black town car whisked me away.

By this time it was 5pm and I realized that it was the middle of the night of the previous day my time, which might explain why I found myself incapable of doing the math. I put a World Clock function on my iPhone instead. At dinner I literally felt woozy as I ate Australian beef and caught up with Gretchen, my friend from work. I would lose my train of thought and wonder which station it was in, and whether it would ever return. And from that moment until the fifth night of the trip my body refused to sleep for more than 2½ hours a stretch, insisting on an explanation.


Asia, Part Er—Wednesday, November 10, 2010

The flight to Beijing takes a million hours, a billion hours, a jillion hours. The crew’s answer is to pretend that it’s nighttime at about 2pm. They asked us to pull down the shades from that moment on, whereupon everyone but me collapsed in a reclined heap.

I acknowledge that I am a high-energy person who places no great value on sleep, but really, isn’t a flight that takes a whole day “found” time? Why waste it snoozing? I wrote things, read things, disposed of many emails. Then by a stroke of serendipity, nine hours in, I opened my shade. There were leagues of angular little puffy clouds for miles and miles over ocean, and I wondered what they were. Cirrus? Cirrostratus? I struggled to remember what I learned about cloud types in Cold Spring Harbor’s eighth grade honors science class. Not much left.

And then just as quickly, I saw a jagged coastline covered with snow. I asked my seatmate the oilman, who is a geologist, where we were. He said we were flying over Sakhalin Island on the coast of Russia, just north of the Kurias Island chain, and from that point on I couldn’t bring myself to put the shade back down, even though I was interrupting the precious 9:30pm sleep of the men surrounding me. I stared and stared. We were flying over a gigantic gulf, not a manmade feature in sight, the wintry sky clear. I was flying over Russia. I was flying over Russia. I’m going to say it one more time. Russia. Me. Flying over.

I had hundreds upon hundreds of pages of Jonathan Franzen to read for book club. I had a chapter or two of my book to write. I had magazines—ones with food articles in them even. I didn’t care. My body was some number of miles above Russia and I wasn’t going to miss it. I listened to a groovin’ playlist I love and danced a little in my seat. I listened and looked and danced a little and listened and looked and danced. I hadn’t even landed yet and the flight had already changed my life.


Asia Part Yi—Tuesday, November 9, 2010

My tour through the Alterverse continues: I am on my way to Beijing to teach my business writing workshop. From there, I’m off to do a second session in Singapore. Please don’t wake me up—I want to keep dreaming.

As Tom drove me to the airport this morning, I felt this weird pain in my throat; a squeezing sensation. “Am I scared?” I asked him. “I feel like crying.” We talked about whether this might be true, and why. I am not a normal person when it comes to fear—things that frighten the bejesus out of other people don’t bother me at all. La la la, no big deal. Rather, I am floored by things that normal people are fine with, like attending my high school reunion or calling my Uncle Bill, who sounds exactly like my late father and gets me all choked up.

We couldn’t figure out what the sensation was, and anyway, we had to park. As we walked toward the United desk, tears sprang into my eyes. I stared at the Departures screen, frozen where I stood.

“What’s wrong?” Tom asked.

“I figured it out,” I said. “I’m happy. I’m so happy I’m crying.”

I told him that if my father were still alive he’d be fit to burst with pride that a company was flying me to China to teach writing seminars. My dad had no interest in going abroad—he never even made it to Europe—but he’d know what it meant to me. There’s Asia, and there’s the moon—same difference. Both are on another planet and I was finally an astronaut. An Asia-naut.

I was seated in business class, where the seat was as big as an armchair and the legroom was as long as a twin bed and the wine was chosen by the seventh most-lauded sommelier in the world and the short ribs fell off the bone. I said yes to every glass of Champagne, Sauvignon Blanc and Côtes du Rhone they offered, just to see what would happen to a 135-pound, 5-foot 10-inch woman when she drinks every hour on the hour for most of a 12-hour flight, but between the itty glasses and the food I just felt mellow. I sat next to an oilman who snored like a freight train and made me promise to visit the Great Wall, and I resolved to listen to him. I told him I was already booked for the next morning at the Forbidden City and he said it was worth only half a day.

“You can see the Great Wall from space,” he said.

And I thought, see? I’m an Asia-naut now.


There is Too Crying in Baseball—Tuesday, November 2, 2010

November baseball. What a pretty phrase. I never got to write it before. Oh wait, here’s an even bigger beauty: World Champion San Francisco Giants. Rolls right off your tongue.

The day on which I watched my team win the World Series provided this weird little snapshot of my everyday life in my adopted town. I rushed around all day cooking up articles for two clients and doing post-Halloween clean-up and chore catch-up. Then I picked up various and sundry children and deposited them at home. I gathered four open bottles of wine and two bags of appetizers from our recent cocktail party and clinked across the quad with them to our neighbor's house, which may as well be our second home for all the time we spend there. Then I watched until 6:15 when I had to drag myself with great reluctance back across the street to our land line so I could appear on the syndicated radio show “Your Time with Kim Iverson” and tell listeners how not to wig out when they are in the midst of an office romance breakup. (Here’s my advice: Be a grown-up.) I ran back to the neighbors’ the second my segment ended and watched the rest of the game on their unspeakably large TV, and when The Beard struck out Texas’ last hitter tears came spilling out of my eyes. Tom shook his head at me with a tsk-tsk look on his face.

“I keep telling you, there’s no crying in baseball,” he said.

“Come on,” I said. “Not even when your team wins the World Series?”

“Not even when your team wins the World Series.”

“Not even when your team wins the World Series for the first time since 1954?”

“Nope, not even when your team wins the World Series for the first time since 1954.”

So I guess I’m not stoic enough to be the baseball fan I thought I was. But neither was anybody else. Our neighbor David opened up the back door to his garden so we could hear the noise San Francisco made when its team won its first world championship since moving here in 1958. The noise was something between a roar and a wail, and it didn’t stop for hours. People honked their horns, jumped up and down, mobbed the streets, drank things in open containers. The Bad News Bears won the World Series, and for 24 hours a million people forgot all their troubles in a sea of orange.

New, or Practically New

  • Fame and Fortune: Currently working on, and shocked to find I’m making headway with, the latter. Partly because of a bit of movement on the former. Perhaps endurance is the key to everything after all.