Thursday, October 20, 2011

My Ancestors' Suffering is Bigger Than Your Ancestors'

This America…this big luxury cruise ship with many layers… Obscene and conspicuous, floating in a place where the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is out of sight. We are all on the cruise ship, on some kind of ocean safari. The barmaids and cooks sleep under deck. Me, I’m an ugly white girl sipping lattes in the Indie Music Lounge. You, you’re a Tulalip casino tycoon scoffing at wealthy white retirees in the Frank Sinatra Lounge, where you are ordering the cheapest beer on tap at the bar. That guy over there’s a black intellectual, trying to convince a Maasai artist that there’s a difference between the hearts of black and white Americans. And that woman, yeah, that one you didn’t see come in… She’s the janitor the ship picked up in Ethiopia. She has all her papers and everything. Real nice lady, she is.

This ship is luxury, to be sure. Nothing like that sad little raft Afghanistan, or that punctured inner-tube Somalia. It towers over those quaint little sailboats Sweden and Japan. Whenever it stops to visit some new port, new people get on. Some are stowaways, but no one checks their tickets if they make sure to always look busy cleaning the toilets. Other new passengers are dignitaries in boas and silk, welcomed with camera flashes, capers, and 100-year-old wine that tastes the same as some nine dollar bottle from Safeway. While these dignitaries are wined and dined, lawbreakers and seditionists from the old batch are made to walk the plank that sticks out the kitchen porthole.

Where are most of the people on the ship at any given moment? Usually in the China Buffet Lounge. The fortune cookie messages there are a riot.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Seattle Artist Duff Hendrickson

I began hearing intriguing tales about artist Duff Hendrickson months before I actually met him. The first fact his friends gave me: “Duff knows everyone. He swam naked with Crosby, Stills, and Nash.” (When I finally met Duff, he corrected his friends' account. “I didn't swim with them. I sailed with them in ’73 on Crosby's antique schooner off the south shore of Maui, out of Lahaina.”)

When I heard these wild Duff tales, I tried to guess what he would look like. I imagined a grizzled Tom Waits doppelganger with a wooly chest and a gigantic mustache. His Hawaiian shirt would be unbuttoned, his curly hair would be a mess. He'd have a cigarette in one hand and a 40 of beer in the other. He would be riding hands free across Lake Washington on a jet ski, howling maniacally like Hunter S. Thompson. His eyes would glitter as he thought up endless pranks and schemes.

The real Duff turned out to be nothing like this. The real Duff doesn't have a mustache. He's not wooly, and his hair isn't wild. If you're looking for the most boisterous man in the room, you're going to pass right over him. He's not the type who would draw attention to himself in a crowd of strangers. His voice is quiet, and he's somewhat guarded at first. But if you buy him a beer and take the time to sit on his porch and talk with him about his tomato plants, he'll start to open up a bit. Little by little, he'll allow you glimpses into his past life. You'll have to coax his most dazzling tales out of him, though. Despite the fact that he's met a bazillion famous musicians and artists throughout his life, he is quite modest. He’ll be casually talking about living in Hawaii in the 70’s, and suddenly it will come to light that he filmed Jimi Hendrix playing in Maui. Hendrix’s record company wouldn’t let him record sound, but allowed him to film. Here’s the video:

Duff also wrote letters back and forth with a lot of famous musicians, such as Cat Stevens and John Lennon. Both Stevens and Lennon drew inspiration for song lyrics from letters Duff wrote them. Here’s a Lennon song example:

My absolute favorite story from Duff’s life is the tale of Kenny Loggins and the Pegasus! Duff first met Kenny Loggins in 1972. The following year, Duff stayed in Loggins's Hollywood home while Loggins was on tour. In 1976, Duff returned to Hollywood and rented a small studio on Sunset, in the old Columbia Pictures lot. At the time, this part of Hollywood had been mothballed, and by 1973, musicians were using the lot for rehearsals. The Ramones had a practice space next door to Duff’s studio. Once he had settled in, Duff decided to get in touch with Loggins. Loggins told Duff that he had just embarked on his solo career and was anxious about an upcoming tour. He was insecure about having to entertain an audience all by himself. Duff suggested that he and Loggins make some sort of film that could be played behind Loggins during performances, so the audience would have something else to focus on during part of the show. They came up with a plan for three film segments to be played throughout the shows. The segments would also be edited into a promotional video to send to Europe. It would all have to get done fast. Loggins wanted the film ready in time for the upcoming Columbia Records Convention. So they started coming up with ideas. Loggins told Duff that he had a fantasy of riding a white Pegasus. He wanted the film to feature him wearing his antique WWII bomber jacket as he sat nobly astride the creature. Duff thought the idea was ridiculous, but he agreed to make it happen if it was what Kenny wanted.

There was just one problem. Kenny also wanted his picture with the Pegasus on the album cover, but the Steve Miller Band was already releasing an album whose cover featured a white Pegasus. There was no way that Kenny Loggins could also have a white Pegasus on his. “We could use a brown horse,” Loggins suggested. Duff told him, “Kenny, I’m not going to put a brown winged horse in the sky. It’s going to look like shit.” Loggins mulled this over. “Well, how about an appaloosa?” Duff explained as patiently as he could that, one, only a white horse would meld well with the multiple exposures of clouds in the background, and two, a Pegasus HAS to be white. It’s just not the same if it’s some other color.

Eventually, it was decided that they would go ahead with a white Pegasus, despite the Steve Miller album cover. So Duff started getting things together. He hired a movie ranch outside of L.A. and found a professional wrangler with two white trick horses. (There have to be two horses, Duff explained to me. One horse alone will get bored and irritable. You have to be able to alternate between them.) These horses were what Duff calls “soft-broken”, meaning not overly tame. Trick horses need to have some spirit left. They won’t look wild and free if they go plodding around submissively.

The day before the film shoot, Loggins came over to Duff’s studio. He was nervous about the shoot. Duff suggested they drive out to the ranch and get a feel for what they would be doing the next day. “Say, Kenny, can you ride?” Duff asked. “Well, it’s been a long time, but uh, yeah, sure, I can ride,” Kenny stammered. “Well, you’re going to be riding bareback on the horse, so maybe you’d better get some practice today,” Duff advised. The rancher put Loggins bareback on a docile mare. Loggins had only made it one and a half times around the corral when he fell off. Yikes.

But Loggins, brave soul that he was, went ahead as planned with the following day’s shoot. There was a lot to be done that day, and they had limited time and budgeting to do it. The fancy Hollywood album art photographer got to go first. He had Loggins ride toward him over and over again on one of the white horses, trying to get the perfect shot. Duff began to get impatient. Time was ticking away, and Duff still needed to film Loggins riding around the ranch on the horse. Moreover, the horse was starting to get a wild, barn sour look in its eyes. It was about then that the wrangler came up to Duff and told him the horse had about had it, and that Loggins was going to get tossed through the air at any second. So Duff told the photographer it was time to stop. The photographer got pissed, but since Duff didn’t want to scare Loggins by explaining the reason for needing to stop, Duff couldn’t defuse the situation. After a few minutes of bickering, he persuaded the disgruntled photographer to take a short break. During this interlude, Duff sent his grumbling lighting assistant out to pick up any large rocks that might be lying around the area he would be filming Loggins in. God forbid Kenny should get thrown and bust his head open on a big rock.

During the break, Loggins confided to Duff that he was feeling intimidated. When the break was over, Duff just had him ride around for a few minutes to do a few live action shots. Then Duff went over and filmed the second horse rearing up into the sky for the Pegasus liftoff scene. He’d find a way to make it work without showing Loggins on the horse’s back. Besides, for most of the flight scenes, a model horse would be used. They had hired the guy who made the Pillsbury Doughboy to make the model. Given the limited budget and time crunch, Duff suggested slaughtering a pigeon and attaching its wings to the model horse, but the idea didn’t go over well, so more money had to be shelled out for the sculptor to carve wings out of foam.

In the days after the shoot, Duff worked like mad to get the footage edited and ready. He was doing fine on his own, but Loggins—who was increasingly influenced by advice from the Hollywood people around him—hired a woman to “help” Duff. She was the woman who would go on to write for the Knight Rider TV show in the 80’s, and she and Duff butted heads from the start. She ended up reporting to Loggins that Duff wasn’t doing things right. Loggins brought some Hollywood people to the studio and demanded that Duff show them what he had so far. This was impossible for Duff to do, since he was still working with unfinished layers that would later be combined into a composite film. Duff tried to explain the concept of a composite map to the Hollywood bigwigs, but they just got huffy and walked out. Loggins soon informed Duff that he was going to hire more people to “help”. Duff was wary. People from Columbia started showing up at Duff’s studio to pressure him into letting them take over the entire project. Duff wasn’t about to let that happen.

In the end, Loggins decided to kill the project. He demanded that Duff hand over the film so he’d have “something to show the accountants”. Duff refused. Not long after, most of the film disappeared from Duff’s studio. All that remained were a few seconds of discarded, unusable out-takes from the film, among which were the below images.

Loggins and Duff had a falling out after that. It’s been ages since they’ve spoken. It’s just as well, because Duff got tired of the Hollywood scene long ago. He regrets the lost business opportunities, but is glad that he didn’t sell out artistically. He doesn’t like to see the spirit of art commercialized. The change in Loggins seems to epitomize what Duff means. “When I knew Kenny in ’73, he was more like a hippie,” he told me. “But by ’76 he developed a Hollywood attitude. I was still wearing yellow bell bottoms to meetings, but Kenny was showing up in thousand dollar business suits.”

These days, Duff lives a quiet life south of Seattle, in a cozy house on the water. His housemate is a big fluffy white cat. (Yes, the cat pays rent.) Nearly every wall in the house is decorated with Duff's paintings, or with posters he designed. Within seconds of walking in, I was enchanted by the swirling motion and hues of green in his work. Here is a prime example:

Duff's paintings often combine humans and objects in unexpected, surreal ways. Here is another of my favorites:

One of my favorite aspects of Duff's style is how he plays with the proportions of the human body:

Here are two of Duff's other paintings:

Duff's other favorite medium is digital video. Many of h pieces feature eerily beautiful animated human faces lip syncing old folk songs or opera pieces. Here is one of my favorites:

To see more of Duff's videos, visit here.

I thought it would be nice to learn more about how Duff got his start in surreal art, so I emailed him some interview questions. Here are my questions and his responses:

How did you first get interested in art?

In Junior-High school I was kicked out of audio-visual because I made a zap-pop-sizzle booby trap on a 16mm projector that happened when a person plugged it in. I guess I was toying with "special effects" for cinema at an early age.

Good thing there was no homeland security in 1964.

The only elective class I could take in it's place was Art. In art class one day the teacher found that somebody had stuck pins in a kid's drawing on display. Not me. He gave us a very convincing lecture on why one should never destroy someone else' art. Then he gave us an assignment to make clay sculptures to be displayed in glass cases in the hall. He said we were to make something that would surprise the school.

So I made a small bust of a nude woman.

As I was making it the boys around me were teasing me suggesting about how to accent the detail.

Mr Salmon came behind me, grabbed my clay bust, and crushed it and walked away. I stood up and addressed the teacher.

"Mr. Salmon, I have a question."

"Yes, what is it?"

"Do you remember the lecture you gave us a few days ago about destroying other people's art?"


"Does that go for you too?"

He turned red and rushed out the room.

He returned 15 minutes later. Calmly told me to pull up a chair to his desk. He had something to tell me. "Duff, from now on you can do anything you want in this class regarding art projects, you can even do nothing and you will get an 'A'. As a matter of fact you'll get a final grade as 'A".

After that I enjoyed art, art meant freedom to me.

What made you move toward surrealist art and digital video?

In the early 70s I wanted to do animation but had no idea how to get into it. I was a projectionist in college which got me thinking about filmmaking. I made a psychedelic experimental film in 1970, influence by the DMT my chemistry major roommate was making.

In the 80s I was painting abstract and modern art. I experimented with time lapse painting after seeing a movie called The Mystery of Picasso where he painted for the camera from behind glass.

So my video-painting art was at the beginning not surreal. It was abstract, like Picasso, or Chagall.

It wasn't until I went to Vancouver Film School in 1996 to study high-end 3D animation that I got into surreal. The 3D tools seemed to favor the surreal. Now I seem to be drifting back to the abstract, which has no professional value.

Who were some of the artists that most inspired you?

Hundertwasser, Klee, Kandinski, Joan Miro, Pablo Picasso, Marc Chagall, Jackson Pollack, Alexander Cadler.

If you would like to contact Duff about his work, or find out when his next show is, send him an email at

Monday, June 20, 2011

Cafe Solstice

I can’t remember who it was that first introduced me to Cafe Solstice half a decade ago. Was it a lover? A Seattle native or a transplant like me? A man or a woman? It really bothers me that I can’t remember, because this coffee shop has become the center of my creative universe. A place this important needs a founding myth in the book of my life stories, but I can’t dig one up from the chaos of my memories. So I’ve decided to at least find out more about Solstice’s actual origins by interviewing one of the owners. I want to give Solstice solid roots in my mind, lest I start to convince myself that the place is some magical portal to Narnia. You see, Solstice is not just another hipster Seattle coffee shop. It is a place where human souls cross and intertwine in magical ways. I have met people at Solstice who have shown me entire new paths in life that I never would have found alone. I have fallen in love there at least three times. I have observed a thousand fascinating individuals who have become characters in my writing. The place is part of my spirit now.

I probably spend at least twelve hours per week at Solstice. This is where my fellow writers and I hold our Thursday night Write Club sessions. It is also the place where I hand out the majority of my “A Happily Married Woman Thinks I’m Gorgeous” button pins to beautiful men of all shapes, sizes, and temperaments. Solstice is where I go to escape my own neighborhood in bland Snohomish County, and to reconnect with American culture when I am feeling overwhelmed by my Korean household. It is where I go to feel enchanted by unusual colors, music, and atmosphere. When I’m feeling terrified of something daunting, I go to Solstice to find comfort.

For those of you who have never been to Cafe Solstice, let me take you on a tour. To get there, walk south on Seattle’s University Way, on the east side of the street. Once you have passed a bazillion Thai restaurants, you’ll know you’re there. Look for the silver sphere with the word “Solstice” in swirly letters hanging over the sidewalk. Admire the iron leaf designs on the railing around the outdoor seating. Walk in, take in the colors…the rich brown of hardwood floor, walls in olive green and magenta, bright red chili pepper lights hanging over the baristas. See the art of this month’s featured local artist exhibited on the walls.

Our Write Club cats on a typical Thursday night at Solstice:

It didn’t always look like this, though. Solstice began as a coffee cart on Broadway and Thomas on Capitol Hill, back in the early nineties. Back then, Pike and Pine weren’t the streets that had all the cool bars and restaurants. Broadway was. And the Solstice coffee cart was one of the centers of this social scene. It was a great place for people to buy coffee and standing talking on the sidewalk. In early 2000, Solstice opened their current U-District location, and for about a year after, the owners ran both the cart and the U-District location. They actually began leasing the U-District location in 1999, but it took about a year of renovation to get it in working order. At the time, the place was boarded-up and gutted. Half of the floor wasn’t intact. This gave the owners the opportunity to work with an architect on the exact design they wanted for the cafe. Cuban born metal worker Rey Alfonso made the bar stools, the spherical sign outside, the outer railings, and the wonderful giant praying mantis and dragonfly that watch over the two locations in the cafe where you can find napkins.

The praying mantis, with my favorite pal, Brett Doll:

Solstice has been exhibiting local artists since they opened their U-District location. Each month, they choose a different artist’s work to display on the cafe walls. Last month, my pal Pavel had his photos displayed:

Solstice has also hosted live music ever since they opened. On about a weekly basis, you can attend a live music show, where anything from Flamenco to Balkan dance music is performed.

One of my favorite things about Solstice is their food and beverage selection. The recipes for their baked goods and teas were invented by the owners and staff. Each baker at Solstice has added unique touches to the recipes for scones, cookies, and cakes. My favorite is probably the cardamom swirl cake, followed closely by the blackberry peach scones and ginger-molasses cookies. When it comes to beverages, Solstice has wonderful lattes, mochas, and other coffee concoctions. For chai, they use the REAL stuff: Morning Glory Chai. None of that sweet Oregon Chai for pansies! Solstice also serves beer. The owners are friends with the folks at Elysian Brewing Company, so Solstice has several Elysian beers on tap.

I asked one of the Solstice owners what he and his staff seek to contribute to the Seattle community through their coffee shop. I really liked his answer. He told me that they just want to be a neutral palette for the local community. A laid back coffee shop where people of all ages can come to read books, talk, write, enjoy music, etc. Which brings me to the people of Cafe Solstice. The magic of Solstice is not complete without the people. First, meet the baristas. It is appropriate to start with my favorite one, both because he is my favorite and because he works the earliest morning shift: I like him for a lot of reasons. On the surface, it’s because he looks a little rugged. He’s got the kind of facial hair and masculine-mystery-filled eyes that go with a Tom Waits song. But the REAL reason I like him is that he doesn’t treat words lightly. He uses them sparingly and thoughtfully. When he does choose to speak, you cherish every word. You truly LISTEN to every subtle connotation that falls almost inaudibly from his lips. It makes you more aware of your own carelessness with words. You become hypersensitive to how you are likely to ramble on mindlessly about the most asinine things. You start to realize what he already knows: words are shallow and overrated. Eyes can communicate all that matters. So can music. He puts on ethereal music in the mornings and taps out beats on the counter as he runs the espresso machine. I listen carefully to his tapping. I think that’s his language, and I really want to know what he’s saying.
The perfect counterpart to this fellow is the man who joins him behind the counter a little later in the morning. This man is one of Solstice’s owners, and he is a drummer for the band Guardian Alien. He greets every customer with genuine warmth, despite his self-described shy nature, and he calls out orders in a clear, cheery voice. He is one of the most sincere men I have ever met. His demeanor is straightforward, humble, and thoughtful. I often overhear him talking about his little daughters, who sometimes come to visit him while he works. These girls are some of the most precious children I have ever seen. They look like they stepped right out of a fairytale, with long white-blond hair, striped tights, and cups of hot cocoa in their little hands.

Later in the day, more staff shows up. You see the flour-dusted bakers running around, bringing fresh pastries up from the back room. The afternoon baristas take over behind the counter. One, musician Zeke Keeble, has beautiful tattoos of crow silhouettes and trees winding around his arm. Another is the happiest lad I have ever seen in my life. His tousled curls and smiling eyes would lighten the heart of even the most embittered curmudgeon, as would his t-shirt featuring jolly caricatures of Karl Marx, Stalin, and Mao in party hats. (Get it? It’s the Communist Party!) And don’t even get me started on the female baristas. They are all so gorgeous, intelligent, and stylish that I am pretty sure Solstice plucks them right from some mythical Daoist peach orchard in the sky. My favorite of these ladies has actually just gone on to a new job at a pie bakery. I miss her so much! We used to trade music when she worked here. She introduced me to groups like Juanita y los Feos, Miss Li, and Shugo Tokumaru.

Then there are the customers. I’ll just introduce you briefly to some of the regular Solstice patrons:
A chess-playing lad with a physics degree who tutors UW students for hours on end at the little round tables.
A hunched, white-haired lady who reads a book or magazine while sitting in the center of a cacophonous sea of young people and music.
An intriguing middle-aged man with VERY thick, long, curly hair, who always comes in with his pet collie and newspaper. (He pulls his hair back in a thick ponytail, and he often has a pen stuck in alongside the hairband.)
A beautiful dark-eyed fellow in a big puffy coat who only sits at the outdoor tables, no matter what the weather is like.
A Vietnam War vet with demons in his head who licks muffin crumbs from his plate while looking suspiciously at everyone sitting around him.
A physics professor who unravels the puzzle of how electrons behave in a hot universe while a starry-eyed lass sitting across from him sneaks erotic peeks at his math equations.
An insecure girl with two coffees in front of her, waiting for her boyfriend to show up.
A blond frat boy who greets me with a fist-bump every time he sees me.
A tall, skinny, middle-aged man with glasses and a Band-Aid on his nose, who laps up his latte with his tongue like a dog.
A bearded hippie kid in a gigantic t-shirt, reading a book on Jewish magic and mysticism.
A solemn student from Japan who sits scribbling numbers intensely on scrap paper, trying to improve his ability to multiply five digit numbers in his head.
A sad-eyed literature professor I try to aim all my sunshine at.
A lonely poet from another land, sitting dark and beautiful with his beer.

This is my Cafe Solstice.

(Snowflakes Solstice had up during December.)

Thursday, May 5, 2011

The Old Man From Sverdlovsk: Part II

The Old Man From Sverdlovsk is not from Sverdlovsk at all. He is from a city on the other side of the Ural Mountains. (He told me Sverdlovsk because it was the city whose geographical location I was familiar with.) And he is not delusional, as I first assumed. It’s not that he believes the Soviet Union still exists. It’s that he doesn’t see the modern Russian government as legitimate at all, so he refuses to speak of it as if it is. But he knows what happened to the USSR. He knows who Yelstin was. He knows who Putin is. He just despises the materialism and inequality that entered his homeland under their leadership. He often tells me, with a sad look in his eyes, “There were no homeless people under socialism.” He is not the only Russian immigrant who has told me this.

I talk to him every week now. I write him short letters in barely-coherent Russian, and if I don’t see him for a while, I call and check in on him. He saves his newspapers for me and gives them to me once per week, reminding me each time how important it is for me to keep up with current events. The more I talk to him, the more I realize he is brilliant. Eccentric, yes, but brilliant. I’ve learned so much just by taking the time to talk to him for an hour or two every week. He knows so much about geography, philology, history, and literature. He has great insight on human behavior as well. He cuts right through the shallow surface answers people give to questions like “How is your family?” or “How are you feeling today?” and unearths the sometimes painful but much more meaningful truths beneath. When he asked about my parents, and I told him about how they divorced eighteen years ago, I tried to put it in generic, oversimplified terms. He responded by looking me straight in the eye and saying, “Your mother…was she happy? Many women are not happy in marriage.” I haven’t given him a shallow answer to any of his questions since.

I don’t believe in any particular religion, so I look for angels among humans. I don’t find many. But he is definitely one.

Stentorian Sandman!

Enter my alley-cat’s brain!

These are the fish it’s been digging out of garbage cans this week:

The eager announcement of Osama bin Laden’s death unsettles me, as do the shape-shifting facts of the situation.

Humans are not so much social animals as they are fear-filled animals, and I suddenly see how the two concepts get confused ALL THE TIME.

I don’t believe the past or future exist, because the present is all I can touch.

I don’t want to be anyone’s firefly-in-a-jar, and I don’t want a firefly-in-a-jar.

I have no awareness of the volume of my own voice.

If people cease to exist the second they leave my field of vision/hearing, then I don’t have to worry about what they think anymore.

I am not ready for summer.

Shark’s comment of “Aw… first world problems!” now haunts me on a regular basis. (All of my problems are first world problems. Suddenly they look less like problems and more like whining.)

I am a horrible driver.

"Одинокий мужчина"

He sits there glowing inversely, casting furtive glances around the crowded room. I can’t remember how long I’ve been seeing him sit that way. Has it been months? Years? Entire lifetimes? It was that inverse glow that first startled me so profoundly. He is jagged when all around him is polished to sterile smoothness. He is true and bitter when those around him are saccharine and false. He is sitting among crowds of generic people, yet is wrapped in solitude, disconnected from those around him. He watches everyone, and not a single person sees him. The table in front of him is empty of everything except his beer, yet a multitude of words emanate from him, humming, distorting the air around him like heat waves.

Carrying an apple core to the garbage as a false pretext, I draw near him, squinting to make out those words. I see “fog” and “disappointment”, “melancholy” and “self-loathing”, “sorrow” and “bitter pragmatism”, “weariness” and “unapologetic indulgence”. And at their whirling center hangs an entire sentence, heavy and final: “Universe, I DARE you to show me something I’ll give a shit about.” These words linger so dense and viscous that as I pass through the space around him, I feel them sticking to my skin, and I carry them with me for days and days to follow. They haunt me, and I wonder, where do they come from? Their fatal darkness bewitches me, and in that moment, I become a buzzard-winged guardian angel.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Chess Phobia

I’ll repeat something I’ve said here before. My friends who think I’m brave, outgoing, and extroverted inevitably will be surprised—maybe even disappointed—at some point when they discover that I have a serious streak of cowardice. And it’s always cowardice over some seemingly minor thing. There’s the way I am terrified of speaking on the phone, even to people I know very well. Never mind that I can walk up to a complete stranger in public and start a conversation over some fascinating hat he or she is wearing. The phone is a different beast entirely. My guts actually twist into knots when I have to call someone on the phone.

Then there was the time when my pal Walter and I were in Thailand. I had the guts to give a gorgeous Thai waiter a slip of paper with a message stating in poetic but crystal clear terms that I’d be willing to do all kinds of things alone with him on the beach that night. But then when his sweet, adorable little girlfriend came running after me when I left the dining hall, telling me in broken English, “Do you think he is nice? But he is…he is…my…” I was humiliated, and therefore TERRIFIED to go back to the dining hall that night, where I knew I’d see that waiter AND his girlfriend. Walter found this quite entertaining. He’d seen me do all kinds of things he thought were brave, but here I was, too much a coward to own up to a situation I myself had created. (Eventually, I did let Walter drag me back to the dining hall, and I turned as bright red as my hair was dyed at the time when the waiter teased me about what I’d done. Oh, was Walter amused!)

So yes, I can be the most yellow-bellied coward of all in the stupidest little situations.

Ahem. So chess… Chess is one of these. Years ago, I had a beautiful and brilliant love who taught me to play chess. I was just starting to bloom then, and was still very insecure and doubtful that my own mind could have wings. Meanwhile, he, my chess playing love, was brilliant and often more beautiful than I felt capable or worthy of embracing. So somehow, our chess games got wrapped up with all my doubts, fears, and insecurities, and when we broke up, I stopped playing chess because I just couldn’t handle it.

Now fast forward a few years, to the moment in which chess has re-entered my life. It has come from an unexpected source. I have written here before about my student who is so talented at creative writing. This kid is a supernova. These days, he spins galaxies of philosophy, history, and imagination on the tips of his fingers, like they’re nothing at all. He is as much my teacher as I am his. Our Friday night tutoring sessions are no longer spent on English. Instead, we have “Philosophy Night”. Well, a few weeks ago, I showed up at his house for Philosphy Night. He and his mother were in the living room when I arrived, and while I was untying my shoes, he muttered something to her in Korean and pointed at the chessboard they have in their living room. (A glass board with glass pieces. Magical looking.) His mother nodded, and he picked up the board and carried it upstairs toward the room where I tutor him, the pieces wobbling haphazardly on the board. That was when my heart filled with panic. In the way that agoraphobics can't bring themselves to leave their homes, I just have not been able to sit down at a chess game since the days when I was with that beautiful love of mine. I have had chess-phobia all these years. I have been terrified of other people seeing me play chess, especially those whose intelligence I am intimidated by. (And young as he is, I am definitely intimidated by my student’s intelligence.) I know it's irrational... it's a matter of needing more practice... But phobias are never rational!

So I made the excuse of needing to use the restroom before we began. I leaned against the bathroom sink and tried to calm down and breathe. I had a fierce inner battle between pride, fear, and the desire to not be a slave to either. I took a deep breath, and then went upstairs and sat down with my student. I told him I didn't remember how to play at all, which was a lie. I just wanted to stall... I wanted to eat up time by having him explain the rules of every piece’s movements to me. He didn’t allow that to go on for long. He made me set up the pieces to play. And he made me be white! He made me move first! I know, I know, being the first to move is an advantage in chess, and beginners are always supposed to play white, but it was so terrifying to me to have to make the first move. Not only was I about to show that I was a total idiot, but it was going to happen in the first five seconds of the game! I tentatively moved my middle left pawn forward two spaces. "Good choice," my student said, and from that simple compliment, half of my fear disappeared. (Who knew the approval of a 16-year-old kid could mean so much to me? But he’s really not a kid anymore, and it truly meant everything.) I was nervous and hesitant through the whole game, taking way too long to make every single move, and feeling too panicked to realize when my pieces were in danger. After the inevitable ass-kicking, he then gave me some end-game lessons. He showed me how to pair a rook and a king to attack the opponent’s king, and how to do the same using a queen and king pair. I was SO impressed by what a great chess teacher this kid is. No one else has ever been able to explain chess strategy in a way that my brain can hold onto, but somehow, this scrawny, 16-year-old boy seems to be the best chess teacher I could find. I went home feeling SO happy. I dug out my Bobby Fischer chess puzzle book, given to me years ago by that old love of mine, and I stayed up late going through chess puzzles.

Now Friday night tutoring sessions are “Chess Night”, not “Philosophy Night”. And I am asking every intelligent person I know to please, please kick my ass at chess so I can get over my phobia and learn this game, at last!

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Living With a Korean Family: Part 2

As I've told you all before, I live with my Korean in-laws. Here are some photos I've been collecting to show what life (especially culinary life!) is like in a Korean household:

Mmmmm, mmmmm, mmmmm! Now what might THOSE intriguing things be?! Those, my friends, are the DWIN JANG bricks my mother-in-law recently brought back from Korea! Or rather, they are dried bricks of mashed, fermented soybeans that will soon be soaked in brine to make dwin jang, which is a fermented soybean paste used in soup broths and sauces. For those of you who are familiar with Japanese miso paste, this is very similar, but the Korean version is much, much stronger.

Here's how dwin jang is made. You boil a crapload of soybeans until they're soft. I think you then mash them through some sort of wire mesh to remove the skins from the beans, but I'm not 100% of that. Anyway, the beans end up mashed. Then they are compacted into the bricks you see here. In Korea, they are dried outside (I believe it's done during cool, dry seasons) for a while, until the outer surface is dry, and then they are brought in the house to dry through to the core. (The reason they are left outside at first is because they initially have a strong smell, though by the time the surfaces are dry, they have no strong smell.)

Notice the mold you see on the bricks in the two photos below. This is good mold. And any harmful molds or bacteria will be killed by the salty brine the bricks will soon be soaked in.

See the big pottery jar in the photo below? Soon, when the weather gets sunny, my mother-in-law will put the bricks into this jar and fill the jar with very salty brine. She will put a thin white cloth over the top of the jar, and on top of that cloth, a pottery lid. During the daytime, she will take the lid off and let the sun shine down on the white cloth to kill any mold that might try to form on the surface of the jar's contents. Over time, the soy bean bricks will soften and expand into a thick paste at the bottom of the jar. As the bean paste sediment settles, a dark liquid will be left at the top of the jar. This, my friends, is the soy sauce we all know and love! My mother-in-law skims it off with a ladle and uses it in cooking. All in all, it takes several months for the dwin jang paste and soy sauce to become ready to eat. But it's worth the hard work and long wait, because this stuff is delicious!

Moving on... Below is a bottle of red ginseng tonic. Koreans love red ginseng (and so do I). It is bitter, but is supposed to have great health benefits. Especially for you men! Need some romantic jumper cables, fellas? Don't choose Viagra! Take red ginseng tonic instead! Make love like a Tae Kwon Do master!

This is a jar of fermented blackberries my mother-in-law picked last fall. Here, they are being drained to give us the sweet blackberry wine we often drink at large family gatherings.

Onto kimchee! There are hundreds of types of kimchee, some spicy, some not. (Remember, the hot pepper didn't come to Korea until the 1700's, so for those of you who can't handle spicy food, there are still many types of kimchee you can eat!) The most common types of kimchee are made from Chinese cabbage or Korean radishes, but just about any vegetable can be made into kimchee. I've tried cucumber and green onion kimchee before, which are both excellent. In Korea, you can go to a kimchee museum and try samples of kimchee made from all kinds of roots and leafy green vegetables.

This is a bag of fresh chili powder my mother-in-law brought back from Korea. Her relatives own a pepper farm, so this is the freshest, highest quality stuff you can get:

On the counter, you can see halved Chinese cabbages in bowls. The night before, they were rinsed and then dipped in brine. The brine was not rinsed off of them until morning. Do you see the metal pot on the floor? Can you guess what's inside?

That would be the hot pepper paste. It is made from chili powder, garlic, cooked sticky rice, salt, ginger, and a little Vietnamese fish sauce, all pureed together.

The hot pepper paste (along with chopped green onions, Korean chives, and Korean radishes cut into julienne strips) is smeared all over the surface of each cabbage, and in between all the leaves. The outer leaves are then tucked around the cabbage halves like this, and then placed tightly in jars to ferment. After a few days of fermentation, they will be kept in a special kimchee refrigerator:

My mother-in-law and two relatives preparing all the cabbage halves. Kimchee is labor intensive, so it's easier and more fun if you have people helping you.

On a different day, my mother-in-law made some kimchee that wasn't spicy. Here are the radishes and cabbages she bought:

The type of kimchee she is making here is called "mool kimchee" (water kimchee). It is pickled in a brine flavored with ginger, garlic, and Asian pear. It is DELICIOUS! The brine is just salty enough to kill bad bacteria, but not so salty that you can't drink it. The brine has a slightly carbonated feel when you drink it. Once mool kimchee has been fermented in jars for a few days, it is refrigerated and eaten. It ferments much faster than regular kimchee, so it is made in smaller batches and eaten more quickly.

Finished mool kimchee:

Do you remember my last post about living with a Korean family? I showed a picture of steamed wild sesame (perilla) leaves that had just been put in a jar with soy sauce to ferment. Well, they're still fermenting! These things can be left in a jar for ages. Seriously, you can eat from the same batch for two or three years, and it is perfectly fine:

A few miscellaneous photos...

One of the most fascinating things about living with people from a different culture is the differing concepts of how kitchens ought to be arranged. I grew up in a house where food and dishes were always kept in very separate cupboards, but in my in-laws' kitchen, it is common practice to keep food and dishes together in some of the cupboards. (Though for the most part, they are kept separate.) The thing that has been hardest for me to get used to is that the food is often kept in open, uncovered bowls. Now, it is usually dry things. I'm not talking about open bowls of soup or other liquid things in the cupboards. Instead, it will be something like an open bowl of dried seaweed sitting in the same cupboard as our clean rice bowls. The one that is hardest for me to get used to: open bowls of tiny dried anchovies (used to flavor soup broth) that are left in the cupboards with dinner plates and soup bowls. EVERYTHING in the cupboard ends up smelling like dried fish! In the picture below, you can see an open bowl of flour on the bottom shelf among the dishes. This will probably be used later in the day to make breaded fried sweet potato slices.

Here we have bags of dried herbs sandwiched in between the dishes!

One last picture. You never wear shoes inside Korean homes. I have grown so accustomed to this that when I go to American homes and my hosts tell me I can leave my shoes on, I feel like you would probably feel if you wore your tennis shoes in your bed! Of course, not having your shoes on makes it inconvenient if you want to dash outside for a second, to get the mail or something. So many Korean households have a few pairs of random, communal slip-on shoes placed outside the door that anyone can use to run outside for a second. I think my father-in-law probably bought most of our communal shoes at the thrift store! (His favorite place to go.) This was very strange for me when I first lived with them. Americans don't usually share shoes. By contrast, in this household, any guest that comes over is likely to slip on a pair of these shoes to go look at my father-in-law's garden. Now I've gotten used to this, and I think it's really convenient.

That's all for now... more to come!

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Sandman's Night in a Sorority House

My friend Max joined a sorority last school year. At first, this baffled me. This girl majors in environmental science, converts Fahrenheit to Celsius in her head, comes to Write Club every week intoxicated on the joy of complex statistics computer programs, and... she wants to be in a sorority?! A couple of months ago, I read a piece of her writing. It was full of depth, psychological complexity, and darkness . In my world, sorority girls don't write things like that. They don't even know things like that exist.

Yup. All my stereotypes... kicked right in the balls! I've been trying to reconcile it all ever since.

For months, Max had been telling me she wanted to hang out with me outside of Write Club. “Come stay the night with me! Let’s study Russian together. And have a Castle marathon!” (She’s ADDICTED to the TV show Castle, and wanted me to see why she loves it so much.) I kept telling her I would, but the truth is, I was SCARED. Because staying the night with her would entail entering the inner territory of a sorority.

See, I have a very strange perception of sorority girls. It’s pretty much in keeping with the way sorority girls are portrayed in the movie Pumpkin. Not only have I been severely guilty of stereotyping sorority girls (salon hair, ditzy, Coach purses, glittery manicures, short shorts, dumb jock boyfriends), but I am also intimidated by them (prettier than me, more feminine than me, way cooler than me). I think this bizarre pairing of scorn/intimidation goes back to my high school years, when I had an angry emo hunch that I was smarter than the pretty, air-headed blond girls who had once shoved grass down my throat in elementary school, and who were now having their boyfriends kick my boyfriends’ asses. My public school experiences caused me to permanently associate mainstream beauty with cruelty and ignorance. Ever since then, I’ve made it a somewhat ridiculous political stance to be beautiful in my own, anti-mainstream way. Like somehow mainstream beauty will notice and, I don’t know, feel severely flipped off or something.

So sorority girls... In my world, they are just an older version of those girls who wounded my pride again and again in public school. Hence, my reluctance to do this Castle marathon night. But I’ve been trying to make 2011 the year of trying things I’ve been afraid to try, or things I’ve snobbishly turned my nose up at. So several weeks ago, I at last agreed.

On a Saturday night, Max and I entered her sorority house through the side door she always uses, my bags, pillow, and blankets filling our arms. We walked down hallways with bedroom doors decorated in glitter, stars, hearts, crowns, and all kinds of things, each labeled with the names of the two girls who live in each room. A pretty girl in a t-shirt, sweats, and long side-ponytail passed us. She didn’t bite or growl or anything. She just smiled and said hi. We went into Max’s room and dumped my stuff onto her bunk bed. I looked around the tiny room, in which she and her roommate have packed more stuff than could properly fit into the most impressive of clown cars. On the walls there was... some pretty interesting artwork. Intelligent looking artwork. Creative and experimental artwork. Not the kind of artwork I expected to find in a sorority bedroom.

I had already asked Max if she could give me a tour of the house. Scared as I was, I was also intensely curious. What HAPPENS inside a sorority house? What is it LIKE inside their world? So we embarked on a tour. I felt pretty self-conscious. One, I am nearly a decade older than most of these girls, so I felt, well, old. Two, I was in need of a haircut. I had Lego Man hair. Short and entirely ugly compared to all the long, flowing hair on all the girls we passed in the house. Three, I was wearing my usual clothes. Thrift store jeans and an indie t-shirt showing a cartoon teddy bear crushed under a giant waffle. The girls in this house were wearing brand names, the latest styles. I imagined them thinking, “Oh, GOD, what has Max brought home?! Ewww.” But really, the girls were doing their own thing, not noticing me at all until Max introduced me to them.

The sorority house was HUGE. We walked through all kinds of hallways, the walls of which were decorated with bulletin boards with photos of the sorority members, labeled with titles reading “A Night in Las Vegas” or “Yoplait Breast Cancer Awareness Week”. One hallway had big frames with individual photos of past years’ sorority members. When we got to the frame for this year’s members, I pointed out to Max that only one girl in the sorority has short hair. “Hmmmm, I never noticed that,” she said, shrugging. I think I could have said, “Only one girl has blue eyes,” or, “Only one girl is wearing a necklace,” and she would have responded in the same way. (The things I obsess over are not necessarily the things others obsess over!)

Next she showed me the communal bathrooms on each floor, which were pretty nice. Very clean, perhaps recently remodeled, with cubicles for each girl’s toiletries. Each bathroom had a boombox playing the same kind of music I hear every time I go to my gym. The boomboxes are kept on all day long. (“Comes in handy if you’re the sort who doesn’t like other people hearing you poop!” Max told me with a grin.) The walls of all the bathroom stalls were pink. On the mirrors, study schedules and house events were posted. One bathroom had the words “Beau & Arrow” written across the mirror in pink shoe polish, along with pink and white hearts. (Leftover from Valentine’s Day, I think.) Next to it, a handwritten drawing of a sunshine with a big heart in the middle read “Sending ZTA love rays your way!”

Then we visited the kitchen. Oh, the kitchen! I don’t know how those girls stay so thin with all that free food available to them. I think I’d be obese in about three weeks if I lived there. As we raided the refrigerator for string cheese and juice, a pretty girl with long red hair walked in and told us about how traumatized she was feeling by a super sad movie she had just watched. I was somehow amazed to find that this girl talked to me as if I were a normal human being, just like her. I was even more surprised when the girl talked about youth group and orgasms in the same sentence just a few minutes later. (She’s in youth group AND she believes in orgasms!?! How cool is that?!?)

And that was the end of the tour. Max and I spent the rest of the night up in her room, watching Castle episodes until the wee hours of the morning. (I’m not a TV watcher, but I can see why Max likes the show. That Beckett is pretty damned cool.) It turned out to be a really fun night.

My overall impression of the sorority: The girls there were really nice. And the ones we talked to were really smart. These girls do a lot of good work in their community, and they support each other in a way that most college kids don’t. (For example, every girl is assigned “a big” and “a little”... an older girl who mentors, and a younger girl to mentor. And they check in with each other regularly.) On a more shallow note... (and really, my fears are more shallow than the mainstream beauty that I claim to despise so much)... not all of the girls were gorgeous. And the girls who were beautiful were not necessarily beautiful in a mainstream kind of way. (Max’s roommate, for example, reminded me a lot of Tori Amos.)

So now, when I tell my own students about what to expect in a few years when they go to college, will I have nicer things to say about sororities? I probably will. I think I definitely will.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

The Mr. White Notebook

In elementary school, my music teacher was Mr. White. His name was fitting, since that was the color his hair had turned. He was a short, penguin-like man. He wore button-up shirts in dark mauves and periwinkles, and he always had gigantic sweat stains under his armpits. We couldn't help but notice, since he was always doing "conductor arms" along with the children's songs he played us on records or cassettes. His facial expression was always very intense behind his gigantic glasses. He kind of scared us a little. That man took music SERIOUSLY!

Only recently have I realized that Mr. White must have been the most influential teacher I had in elementary school. I have found myself relying on a creative exercise that he taught me when I was only six years old. Here's how I remember it: He would hand out huge pieces of white drawing paper and a pack of crayons to each of us. Then he would play various classical musical pieces, instructing us to draw whatever the music made us think of. We could draw absolutely anything the music evoked in our imaginations. What was important was to truly listen... to connect with the music and let it carry our minds off into its world. I remember where my imagination went during those exercises. It was a place entirely free of walls or limitations. Time and physical laws of the universe stopped existing. I stopped thinking in traditional shapes and symbols. My crayons drew magical wonderlands. When music class was over, I didn't want to leave.

Now I've been trying to find that place of creative freedom again, but this time with writing. I've been having difficulties allowing my current writing project complete freedom. So I've started a separate writing notebook that I'm calling The Mr. White Notebook. Around midnight, when the impish enchantment of late night darkness starts beckoning to me, I put my headphones on. I play haunting music by a Bulgarian women's choir or avant-garde punk music by the Russian group Auktyon, and I put my pen to the paper. I pretend I'm in Mr. White's music class, but instead of ME passing Dorothy-in-Oz like into the world of the music, it's my characters. The creatures and landscapes my characters see in the sounds of the music have nothing to do with the story I'm writing about them. What happens in The Mr. White Notebook is an act of delving into my characters' dream worlds, not into the facts of their daily lives. The writing that results is not necessarily something that will be included directly in my actual writing project, but it does give me a sea of magical words and imagery to dip my net into when I get stuck in writing the scenes from my characters' lives. I think The Mr. White Notebook has become my secret passage out of the "eternal dawn" that Arkadii Dragomoschenko speaks of in the quote below...

"The writer dreams of night while being sentenced to an omnipotent and eternal dawn, when even the banality of a shadow can't relieve the impersonal nothingness of the surroundings." -Arkadii Dragomoschenko

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Zen Garden Pavel

I'm always in awe of my friends who are photographers. How do they make trashy, urban landscapes look spiritual? How do they turn lime green into electricity? How do they create images that hold more texture, magic, and energy than the real world?

When I first met my friend Pavel Sorokin, I had no idea he was one of these visual magicians. He's not one of those types who walks around everywhere with a giant camera bag and salon spiked hair, handing out business cards with flashy Photo Shop effects reading "Photographer. $500 per hour." Nope. Pavel is very quiet about the things he creates. He doesn't advertise them overtly, so you have to ask the right questions to catch a glimpse of his talents. His photos are that way, too. They don't scream in your face for attention. Instead, they exist gently, quietly, like Zen gardens, and it is up to the observer to step outside his or her human self-absorption to fully take in the subtle magic at work in their imagery.

Below are representative samples of Pavel's work, followed by a link to his online gallery. You won't get the full effect from these thumbnails, so promise me, PROMISE ME, you'll click on each one to see them in full size!

To see a more extensive gallery of Pavel's photos, please visit here, where you will also find his contact information. (Please get in touch with him at the email address listed on his gallery site if you are interested in owning copies of his photos, since the company that hosts his website does not share profits with the photographers.)