Sunday, May 31, 2009

Excavating Little India

Last night, I caught the private "Spanish" minibus up to Journal Square. It's not really Spanish, of course. But it seems mostly driven by and used by people who speak Spanish, which is not the same thing, but it's a shorthand, I guess. I know people who have learned to say Proxima to tell the drivers when to stop, but I've always just said "Stop" and never had a problem.

I was going to the historic Loew's cinema to meet Denise and Nilka, so we could eat dinner in JC's Little India, a block along Newark Avenue near my auto mechanic's shop. We ran into friends Tracy and Dave, and then the whole gaggle of us walked over to Little India.

"This is perfect," declared Denise. "All of you here, Indian food, JC... and you know what would make this night even better?"


"If Singh's was open."


"Singh owns a junk shop. Look, it's there." She pointed across the street. "He opens when he wants and he only lets in customers when he likes you. His store has a narrow aisle down the middle through huge piles of junk. And sometimes, when I try to buy something, he decides he likes it and doesn't want to part with it. Then he says it's not for sale."

Tonight was Denise's lucky night. Not only was Singh open for business, but he let us all in. There wasn't room, so all but me and Denise retreated to the sidewalk out front. Denise felt honored. Tonight he allowed her to rummage through the piles at the back of the store.

I negotiated with Singh for which Ganesh figure Denise should buy for luck, while she dug through piles in the back. I picked up some DC Comics trading cards. 1991.

"What on earth is she doing?" Dave was getting antsy out front.

After about ten minutes, Denise emerged with a pile of stuff. Her white sweater was covered in dirt. She paid Mr. Singh $17 including the ten dollars for the Ganesh. Down the block, once we were sitting in a restaurant with Kingfishers and mango lassis, she showed us her bounty.

Which included a stationery set. A priceless stationery set. I wish it were mine.

Friday, May 29, 2009

Work to Live, Not Live to Work

Anne-Marie is a friend of mine who manages Red Chilli, the top backpackers hostel in Uganda. She (along with her partner) manages the Kampala branch—the main one. I never stayed there—though I visited a few times back in the days when H.M. still had his real name and lived with me instead of hiding out in in an unnamed country (I'll never figure it out :)) under a pseudonym*—and in fact I've never even met Anne-Marie. We're e-pals and near as I can tell, she's awesome. She roamed Africa in a clunker car once, dressed as a Pink Lady from Grease.

Anyway, Anne-Marie needs help. She needs a management couple to run Red Chilli Murchison. That's where I lived at the start of this blog. It would be marvelous. I'm not tempted of course because this is a couple job and I am not a couple. I *am* tempted by her assistant manager job in Kampala. I'm bored out of my skull here, doing the same job I did in my twenties and running through my daily routine as if I were a hamster.

Check out Anne-Marie's job listing on her own blog. I'm still on the "Find a way to exist within normal society" kick or I'd be there myself. (No, I'm not succeeding but I am very stubborn and hate to admit defeat.)

*This makes no sense to me either. What does he think I'm going to do? Show up and yell at him? If I want to yell at an ex, I could do it for the price of a subway fare to Brooklyn instead of airfare to East Africa.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

I Kayak the Castle Part 2

All 20 of us kayakers carefully stepped off of the slippery rocks on the bottom of the Hudson River and dragged ourselves up the bank to a path.

The waiting guide was a local man, slightly older than me and accompanied by two Bannerman Castle Trust volunteer tourist-wranglers. The guide pointed at a pile of red, white, and yellow hard hats that were lying on the ground beside the path.

"Each of you are required to wear one of these. The State of New York owns Pollelel Island and requires that each visitor wear a hard hat."

"There's a tick," muttered another kayaker, pointing at a bug on the guide's bag.

Oh hell. I didn't bring any bug spray, having assumed the danger here was from mosquitos (which don't like me). I didn't even think about ticks.

"We'll walk to the other side of the island and eat lunch, then we'll take a closer look at the castle," said the guide.

He led us to a small clearing where we unpacked our sandwiches (supplied by the outfitter) and listened to the story of Bannerman Castle.

Frank Bannerman was a Scot with a knack for collecting. He would buy up surplus military goods and naval scrap, and when he bought the surplus equipment and ammunition in the aftermath of the Spanish-American War, he ended up with too much stuff and had to store it outside the New York city limits. His son found Pollepel Island, so Bannerman bought it in 1900, finishing the simulated Scottish castle storage facility a few years later. The actual residence (summer only) was a smaller building up the hill.

When our guide was little, he said, he used to find his way to Bannerman Castle and play inside it. There were rotting old leather bags, shells, and munitions. The castle caught fire in 1969 and little remains inside the shell now.

As he told this story, I thought of playing in the ruins at Fort Hunt in Virginia, which was built in the 1880s with the plan to fortify and protect Washington DC. The old batteries at Fort Hunt still stand and today are restored and displayed. But when I was a kid, they were back in the woods, unknown to most and considered unsafe. We'd go back and play inside them, which was probably forbidden, but maybe the plan was to let them return to nature until the time when the park service could deal with restoration.

We weren't allowed to get that close to Bannerman Castle, and I could see why. Ticks would be the least of your worries if you were wandering around this ruin.

We took photos—I've put some here—and after a few hours, loaded ourselves back into our kayaks to row back to Cold Spring.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

I Kayak the Castle

"How come I'm veering right?" I was paddling up the Hudson River, heading to Bannerman Castle from the put-in point at Cold Spring. No matter what, I couldn't seem to stop drifting to my right.

"Maybe you're cutting in closer on one side. Let me watch you for a minute."

One of the four guides (there were 20 kayakers) dropped back and watched me for a minute.

"In at the foot, out at the shoulder, trace the horizon," he said.

Yeah, yeah, I heard you the first time. So why am I still drifting right?

I tried leaning onto my feet, twisting at the hips, cutting in closer, farther, tracing the horizon and not paying attention at all. The results were always the same. I shrugged as best I could under shoulder-power, compensated again and again for my right-drift, and paddled on to Bannerman Castle.

Hope that sunscreen holds out, I thought. The weather had cooperated to give us kayakers a perfect day. Bright, a slight breeze, and the only serious waves that needed fighting came from the wakes of waterskiing joyriders.

Bannerman's Castle is a glorious ruin on tiny Pollepel Island, 50 miles north of New York City. I first saw it on October 10, 2006, when Amtrak sent me leaf-peeping on their train to Montreal. What the hell is that, I thought. A month later, I headed up in my car to photograph the castle from shore.

Bannerman is gorgeous but it's no Hearst Castle. From the beginning, this glamorous wreck's intended use was as a storage facility for military surplus. Private military surplus, owned by a munitions and collectibles dealer. When I was a kid, my mother temped for a place called "Replica Models" in my hometown of Alexandria, Virginia. She'd been amazed at this subculture of both reproduction and original pith helmets, pistols, and bayonets. (This was years before her Civil War fascination... or maybe the the two are linked.) Anyway, I'm a comic book editor. I get collectibles and quirky subcultures. And I love that an eccentric Scottish guy bought an island and built a castle for his collections business.

The castle was nearly destroyed by fire in 1969. It's not stable. New York State owns it now and only allows "hard hat tours" under specific conditions. I tried to go last year but tours were canceled after they found an unexploded shell (there are presumably many but they are not found so often anymore).

You don't have to kayak to get to Bannerman Castle. There are regular boat trips for $30. I just thought I'd make a day of it and anyway, I had been to Cold Spring before and knew I could get to Hudson Valley Outfitters on the Metro-North train. (The other tour possibilities are listed here.)

An hour and 15 minutes of steady paddling brought my small group to the island. I didn't really have to struggle, and I'm a fairly lazy person. My assumption is that anyone of reasonable fitness could do this trip, though the last bit got a little tough as only two kayaks could pull up to the finishing point at once, so the rest of us had to sit still in the river and await our turns.

I kayaked in, stepped into the Hudson in my brand-new ($39.95 on sale at Union Square DSW! Remember my last pair was destroyed in the Grand Canyon, RIP Tevas, 2001-2008.) Tevas, grabbed my lunch out of the kayak, and walked ashore.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Kayaks Along the Hudson

I missed the 8 a.m. PATH to World Trade Center by about 8 seconds, which meant I had to catch the 33rd Street train to the 14th Street bus to the 4/5, and wasn't sure that I'd make the Metro North train from Grand Central to Cold Spring.

But I made it with six minutes to spare, and 72 minutes later, I headed to the kayak outfitter for my excursion to Bannerman Castle.

It was wonderful but exhausting, so I'll write about it tomorrow.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Kimba the DVD

Who says Facebook is a waste of time?

My network there just alerted me that I could buy a licensed, legitimate DVD set of all the cartoons of Kimba the White Lion.

That was the first color animated Japanese cartoon to come to the US. Kimba was born in 1966, just like me. He disappeared from sight right about the time of Lion King (the movie) which was an utter swipe of Kimba. (I don't have a problem with that. I just have a problem with them not coming right out and saying "We were influenced by...")

I had been planning on digitizing all my old VHS tapes of Kimba, which were terrible quality and probably originally taped off a TV somewhere. I'd bought them in the early nineties at a comic book convention. I've been on a digitizing kick as I'm both sick of old VHS tapes floating around my place and also trying to meet a June 6th deadline for re-editing "A Day in the Life of an Assistant Editor," an absurd slice of Marvel life in 1988 (starring David Wohl as the assistant).

So I better get back to work, dissecting old footage and seeking the exact duplicate of a shot from 1988... but first, I need to drop $70 on a certain cartoon...

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Cooking with Zora

Last time I saw Zora, we couldn't figure out how we'd met. I think we met through Amanda, but it might have been some other travel writing thing. Perhaps we were both e-mailing back and forth over contributing to the same book or something. Anyway, we had lunch and now I see her sometimes at a cool dinner party in Astoria.

A while back, Zora send out a link to her online cooking lessons. I'm slack... I just got around to looking now.

This is so cool. Zora is teaching me (and anyone who wants to watch) how to cook online! Check it out.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

The Devil Drives

I've just finished a marvelous book, A Voyage for Madmen. Steve sent it to me—I'd never heard of it. It came out in 2002 when I was far from home.

Other fans of nutty explorer literature—a genre I am more than a little familiar with—probably know this book well. I guess I was too busy imitating nutty explorers at the time to pay much attention to the latest books. That was when I was going around the world by surface transport and then moved to Australia.

The book is an account of a 1968 solo non-stop race around the world, starring seven lunatics and two actual sailors. The writer asks of each man the question "Why the hell would he do that?" He deals well with each one's circumstance, dissecting what would push these men to seek out acclaim and challenge.

Why, then? Well, who knows. These things are unquantifiable. Some like a nice challenge. Some want to be famous. The top contestants are genuine sailors who are at home on the sea. But two of the odder men in the race were ones I could understand too-well. One is in so deep that he cannot find a way out—he starts telling little fibs that turn into big ones. He backs himself into a corner. Another becomes an almost-ran—this is the one whose situation gave me butterflies at the end. He struggles to go back to normal life after living the life of a grand adventurer. I've been there and believe I know exactly how he felt, know exactly what solutions he considered before choosing the direction he chose (no spoilers here). In the words of a certain wacky songwriter: I'm learning to cope with the emotionless mediocrity of day-to-day living.

The author's point that the voyage was undertaken in a time before cell phones and GPS made a point to me too. In 2001, I took my last great trip without electronics. Nothing I've done since and presumably nothing I'll ever do again will be without gadgets. I never go anywhere now without a phone, a digital camera, or my laptop. In 2001, wi-fi was in its infancy. Drivers were needed to move images off a camera and onto a computer, and files all had to be teensy to get them up onto the Internet. Gadgets were deadweight.

I'll never need a GPS—I don't exactly drive alone into the jungle or desert and my inner compass is hard to fool. But I'm in so deep on the digital front that I can't even imagine leaving town without my laptop. I certainly wouldn't go off into the jungle without my phone. Nor have I. Since sometime in 2002, I've had a phone and laptop practically glued to me.

Sigh. I can hear some of you sneering. Cut that out. I've more than earned my ability to choose my tools.

Anyway, A Voyage for Madmen quotes explorer Sir Richard Burton early on.

"The Devil drives," he said by way of explanation for his endeavors.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

'Bout Time

Remember when Madonna's Desperately Seeking Susan character kept her stuff in a locker in Port Authority?

That was a long time ago. There haven't been lockers in Port Authority—or any public place in Manhattan—for years. Even before 2001.

A few weeks ago, Shannon asked me where he could store his bags. His flight out of JFK was in late afternoon and he didn't want to go into the city, come home to get his luggage, then go back to the city and on to JFK.

"Can't be done," I said. Then, wait... maybe there's somewhere. But I know there's nowhere. But maybe...

A bit of googling turned up a private facility to store bags. And both its locations are near airport buses and the Airtrain. What a great service, one that's long been missing from NYC tourism.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Writing for Class

I took an online writing class to try to get myself out of a creative dead-end. I have been uninspired for over a year now, allowing external events to affect my productivity. It's my own fault, I realize. When something bad happens, the way out of it is to write my way out (think of all the fun we could have had storytelling about those external events, had I simply acknowledged that it's my story too and it's my privilege to tell it, not just my responsibility to respect the anonymity wishes of others), not to wallow in misery until I am paralyzed.

But the problem is that classes don't really help. The only way out is to produce, not to listen to someone's advice on how to produce. Teacher doesn't know me or how to inspire me. I know me.

I should take the advice of this book passage and stop thinking about or planning to write, and listen more to certain advertising slogans related to expensive shoes.
"One of the biggest challenges I've encountered since beginning teaching in 1989 is getting my students to understand that they need to spend less time discussing writing, worrying about not being good enough or not having the time, and more time actually putting words down on paper."

In the words of some evil ad exec, just do it. Or rather shut up and work.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Border Birthday

April 22, 1998. One of 56 days spent driving through Nepal, India, Pakistan, Iran, Turkey, Syria, and Jordan.

That's the day I started my birthday out in Turkey and finished it in Syria. Or was it started in Syria and finished in Jordan? No, we were going into Syria. We arrived late in Aleppo due to border delays, and there was no time to visit the famous souks. We went to dinner at an Italian restaurant where the band played Happy Birthday.

I received anonymous flowers at hotel reception. I accused everyone else on the truck—at total of 8 passengers and 2 drivers— before accepting their protestations of innocence and wondering who sent the flowers from home, and how they'd found me.

It was a long time and many years of handing passports over at hotel desks in different countries before I realized that a Syrian hotel clerk had switched on to the date after seeing the passport list. The flowers were from a total stranger, one I never thanked, not knowing who had sent them. I remember being baffled and saying "Who sent these? Was there a note?" and the clerk laughing and shrugging. "I have no idea."

The Syrian falafel sellers at the border had been equally celebratory. They'd seen my friend Nikki making a card for me and insisted on adding their own touches. They also made me a small bouquet of wildflowers (there isn't much to do all day at the border). I accepted it graciously, but a part of me wondered what the Arabic writing on the card said. I have to admit the more suspicious part of me wondered if they'd written something inappropriate.

I found that card in a drawer the other day. One thing that has changed since 1998 is that now I have several colleagues who speak and read Arabic as a native language. I scanned the card and sent it straight to Captain M, who wrote back immediately.

The green one says: "Happy Eid or happy birthday."
The blue one says: "You are my life."
The brown one says: "All the love."
The last one says: "You are the love."

Mystery solved.

Friday, May 15, 2009

A Happier Ending

I went back to the crazy Russian woman for more abuse.

But I approached with caution this time. Only the underarms, please.

For $8.34, Nina ripped the hair out by the roots. While I lay there on the waxing table, I stared hard at the ceiling and tried to think about anything but the crazy Russian woman and the warm sensation in my armpit.

Success! This time, there are no traumas to report. And she didn't call me Tanya.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Relic from 1991

Steve posted this on Facebook. Wow... I remember when 30 seemed old.

This was the invite he drew for a party that the Other Marie, Otis, and I had in 1991, when we lived on Mercer Street in Jersey City. Steve drew a lot of cool party invitations back then. He probably still would if we still had parties.

The last one I had was (I think) when I turned 40. I don't think I had any more parties after that. I'd say I'm not sure why, but I know why. I got all whiny for a while after a series of setbacks and didn't feel very party-like.

Maybe it's time to throw more parties.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Author Interview

Here's an excerpt from the author interview an ad agency did with me a few years ago. I was their sample as they tried to sell publishers on interactive author interviews.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Words of Wisdom

I attended a panel tonight on "Promoting Your Book."

Yeah, I do all that. I'm all over this Internet thing. But hey... I don't have links to all the promotion my book got. Maybe I should start that. Yeah, I'll work on it.

But the actual advice aside, the quote of the evening was this.

"Networking isn't about strangers doing you favors. It's about making friends. And then you and your friends rely on each other."

Starting that list now. I'm sure I'm forgetting loads but I have to start somewhere.

Bob Garlitz blog review, July 1, 2008
Kitsap Sun, June 8, 2008
Spoke to Returned Peace Corps volunteers. Must find out when that was.
Travelgirl review, May 2007
Video Interview-must digitize a bit of this
Scanorama mention, 2007
Where Have You Been at Bluestockings Books, April 2007
Interview on The Well, April 2007
World Hum review, February 2007
Perceptive Travel review, January 2007
Transitions Abroad review, February 2007
Elephantmen #5, December 2006
Mentioned on Bob Harris' blog, November 2006 excerpt, October 2006
Review on Written Road, September 30, 2006
The Beat, August 2006

This is going to take a while. And I can't find the first mention, where Stalking the Wild Dik-Dik rocketed up the Amazon sales charts before it was even published.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Only the Best in Bodega ATMs

In JC, we know how to appreciate a fine ATM.

Saturday, May 09, 2009

A Coupla Skirts

Denise and I went to M. Avery Designs in Hoboken today to learn to make wraparound skirts.

Friday, May 08, 2009

Fancy Paperwork

This came in the mail yesterday. I'm not sure what to do with it. Maybe what I need is a little studio with a bunch of framed certificates on the wall, like a dentist or doctor has.

But then, I only have this one so it might look kind of lonely up there on the wall by itself.

Wednesday, May 06, 2009

Exploding Dik-Diks

I didn't really hold an exploding dik-dik. I really was just making a motion with my hands, explaining that a dik-dik was a chihuahua-sized African antelope. The interviewers put the exploding dik-dik in during post-production.

And that's fine with me. It almost made up for them putting way too much makeup on me.

Tuesday, May 05, 2009

Caught Unprepared

A guy from a prominent Australian television station is coming to interview me at work today. (Not as impressive as it sounds. Australia only has a couple of stations.)

I'm looking for something to wear. I don't want to embarrass ol' Turbo if any of his friends see it. And I'm regretting having put off dying the gray out of my hair roots.

I bet they use HD too.

Sunday, May 03, 2009

Mr. Softee Has Words

It's that time of year, when the electronic ice cream truck theme squeals through the neighborhood.

In a month, I'll be cursing Mr. Softee as once he starts, he won't shut the hell up. But for now, the endless musical loop is less irritating and more a welcome harbinger of spring, when my heating bill goes down.

Mr. Softee made Turbo laugh. I never gave it much thought before, but foreign men come to visit and can't believe something is named Mr. Softee. Then I laugh too.

Did you know the Mr. Softee theme has words? I've never heard anyone sing them, but Ken Katkin tracked them down for me.

The creamiest, dreamiest soft ice cream
You get from Mister Softee
For a refreshing delight supreme
Look for Mister Softee.

My milkshakes and my sundaes and my cones are such a treat
Listen for my store on wheels, ding-a-ling down the street
The creamiest, dreamiest soft ice cream
You get from Mister Softee.

For a refreshing delight supreme
Look for Mister Softee
S-O-F-T Double 'E', Mister Softee.

Saturday, May 02, 2009

Permanent Images

I'm not fond of my new office. The one we were in before was nothing special and had to go, but the new one is a shoebox, full of people and paper and printers. The other desk is practically at my elbow, which is fine the two days a week when it's Kraiger. Not so fine the three days a week when it's the kid I don't know that well, whose job is running the business end of the US office as well as reading the the world's greatest fantasy novels online.

It's tolerable. That's the best I can come up with. Sure, it could be worse. But it's far from ideal.

The building we moved into is heavily securitized. Is that a word? No one goes in or out without clearance. We cannot even take a Priority Mail box to the post office without getting a hall pass and swiping our ID cards. This irritates me. I hate being treated like I'm in an airport eight hours a day. A very small, crowded airport where the customs officers keep me in line. Grrr.

Every morning, I walk in and swipe my pass card in the lobby. A red light turns green. I hear a beep. I'm allowed to proceed to the elevator.

On the 23rd floor, I swiped again. Beep! I'm allowed past the glass doors and can proceed to my office, which is unlocked by a mere key.

Over the weeks, I've gotten lazy. First, I'd just hold my wallet up to the swipe pad. Beep! Then I realized I could hold my entire handbag up to it. Beep!

Yesterday, I used my handbag to beep my way into the elevator, then onto my floor. Kraiger was already in.

"I saw something disturbing today," he said.


"You know how you can hold up your wallet to the swipe pad to come in the building?"


"I saw this guy stick his butt onto the swipe pad. He had his wallet in his back pocket."

We both sat quietly for a minute, me imagining the scene and him unfortunately recalling it.

"Ewwww," was all I could come up with.