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Sunday, August 28, 2011

Does This Ferrari Make Me Look Fat?

Fifteen years ago this weekend my boyfriend and I were ensconced in a shabby, bleach-scented Econolodge in Monterey, California. The shower was crusted with the mold of decades of foggy coastal summers, the only memory of a sink stopper was a dangling, rusted chain, and the carpet was a cratered landscape of holes and cigarette burns. Tossing fitfully on the sagging bed, I wondered if we had made the right decision to leave our peaceful home in the Seattle suburbs to come here for an annual event that had lofted the price of our dreary room from two to three figures per night.
The answer came the following morning. Dawn had not yet pushed through the soft blanket of clouds that covers the central California coast in late summer when we were awakened by an otherworldly rumbling vibration that sent thrilling shockwaves through our chests and up our spines.
It was neither an earthquake nor a coin-operated vibra-bed. Hurriedly pulling on our sneakers and fleece jackets, Steve and I ran to the balcony and surveyed the parking lot below. In a space usually filled with muddy pickup trucks and undistinguished rental cars like the Olds Under-Achieva we had picked up at the San Jose airport, we saw a museum’s worth of vintage sports cars. We counted three Ferraris, two Lamborghinis and a Bugatti. All were in various states of undress as owners pulled off the car covers, wiped dust off the windshieilds and fired up the engines in a symphony of cylinders.
They say there’s someone for everyone. But by my early thirties I began to suspect that my parents secretly regretted allowing me to pursue any interests and adventures that could reasonably be undertaken. While liberating for me, this approach had left them with more than their fair share of sleepless nights. I snuck around the Red Zone roadblocks at Mount Saint Helens two weeks before the eruption, nearly overturned their sailboat in a Puget Sound storm after borrowing it with a group of my teenaged friends, and spent part of a night wandering around the Oregon desert after being inadvertently (I think) abandoned on a river-rafting trip. Most of my books were about travel adventures, and I knew more about housekeeping techniques in New Guinea than how to get rid of the dust bunnies in my apartment. I loved fishing, football and car racing.
Boyfriends came and went. Some were put off by a girl who, when told that he was going out for a beer with the guys to watch the Indy 500, responded with a gleeful smile and “Let me grab my coat!”
But just when it began to look as though I was going to spend the rest of my life alone with my cat, my passport and my foul-weather gear, along came Steve. He had a 24-foot sailboat. He had owned a succession of sports cars from an MG Midget to a Triumph TR6 and posessed a seemingly encylopedic knoweldge of every Italian, British and German car ever built. And as the son of a Pan Am flight engineer had traveled the world, sometimes riding in the cockpit. It was love.
One day, Steve announced that we were going to Monterey Weekend, an annual automotive Woodstock comprising collector car auctions, the Pebble Beach Concours antique car show, and vintage sports car races at the famous Laguna Seca track. I was thrilled, but quickly overtaken with anxiety as I studied the brochures. I clean up fairly well, but I was never going to posess the glossly radiance of the women pictured, who were as polished as the gleaming multimillion-dollar rolling sculptures among which they strolled.
I also quickly discovered that the event, centered around the luxury resort town of Carmel, was a sort of Burning Man for the hedge fund set: We parked between two Jaguars on Carmel’s main street and poked around the jewelry shops and art galleries looking for a sandwhich while Maseratis and Porsches cruised up and down the main drag, their drivers honking and waving at each other and passerby like some weird upscale small-town Saturday night. Entire clubs took over most of the local hotels: One bed and breakfast had a parking lot filled with nothing but bright red Ferrari 308s (the “Magnum, PI” car for those of you who remember). Another was completely booked by Alfa Romeos. The Porsche Club filled a third.
But a sense of wonder quickly overcame my misgivings. Everyone was having a marvelous time, from the Hollywood stars whose antique Duesenbergs and Ferraris were arrayed on the Pebble Beach greens for the Concours de Elegance, to the orthopedic surgeons and dealership owners whose vintage race cars roared around the track at Laguna Seca, to the average Joe whose $700 Fiat was consigned for sale alongside $250,000 Mercedes Gullwing. Steve and I dressed up and bought horribly overpriced catalogues so we could watch the auctions (“Do I hear a $300,000? Anyone? Ah, $350,000 from the phone bidder in Geneva”). We put on shorts and t-shirts and ate hot dogs and curly fries under the broiling sun at Laguna Seca, shouting to be heard over the angry hornets' nest of twenty 1960s-era Formula One cars tearing through the Corkscrew Curve. We donned straw hats and polo shirts for the Concorso Italiano and rambled among the color-coordinated displays of Ferraris, Lamborghinis and Alfa Romeos at Quail Lodge, imagining ourselves driving home in this one or that one. And we spread a picnic blanket under the live oaks between families dressed in 1920s or 30s period costume, drinking Champagne while we watched the gleaming ocean-liner-like pre-WWII luxury sedans parade past in a hail of flashbulbs on the velvety grass in front of Pebble Beach Lodge.
One evening after an Italian dinner in Carmel, Steve said he wanted to walk down to the beach. It was dark and the evening’s chilly mist had already descended on the deserted shore. We took off our shoes off and trudged through the cold white sand. “Let’s climb up this hill and look at the ocean for a while,” said Steve. We scrambled up a short cliff, only to find ourselves on the edge of the very golf green on which we had watched the Concours earlier that day. By now the socialites, celebrities, automotive journalists, bankers, brokers and ordinanary spectators were safely ensconced for the evening in their B&Bs, luxury suites, or bleachy motor lodges. We gazed out over the foggy sea. The clouds parted briefly, revealing a crescent moon dipping toward the horizon. Steve took my hand. “Will you marry me?” Utterly flumoxed, I blurted out, “Can you repeat the question?” Instead, Steve handed me a ring, and I said “Yes!”
We walked, or rather, glided as though borne on the pillowy suspension of a custom Delahaye, back up to the Hog’s Breath Inn. In the central couryard, under an immense oak tree and surrounded by a half-dozen roaring gas fireplaces, a resilient Alfa Romeo club was making a boisterous last stand againt the damp chill. When they saw us and heard we had just gotten engaged, they erupted into cheers. One member yell to Steve, “You can still get out of this, I’m a lawyer.” Steve politely declined the offer of legal advice, pointing out that his lovely bride-to-be was also an attorney. We celebrated with these strangers late into the night.
The next day it was back to the San Jose airport rental-car return lot, a plane back home, and the rest of our lives together.


“Look, Daddy! I’m an angel!”
Smiling, my father turns back to steering our little cabin cruiser. The watery autumn sun is just burning through the fog enveloping the Columbia River, bringing other boats into sharper relief around us. There is the occasional glow of a cigarette, the clink of a coffee cup and the faint oily blue scent of outboard exhaust. The dissipating mist reveals a flotilla of boats like ours, each gliding slowly and sporting a rooster’s tail of fishing rods arched with the pull of lures spinning far below. I look again into the green water at the shadow of my head surrounded by a golden halo of sunlight needles.
Dad took me fishing with him whenever he could. He knows every rock, sandbar and dredge-spoil island between Bonneville Dam and Bouy 10. From the silent rusting remains of the old Kaiser Shipyards in Portland where armies of war workers once furiously built Liberty Ships, to foggy Astoria where the river’s irresistable force meets the immovable object of the Pacific, there’s not a spot where he hasn’t cast a line.
The river’s bounty filled my Batman lunchbox with my mother’s salmon sandwiches. We had salmon casserole, roast salmon, and salmon poached in my grandmother’s dishwasher. There was salmon dip, smoked salmon, and salmon jerky. I loved it all.
As a toddler I would jump for joy and race around the boat shouting “fish on!” whenever one of the rods suddenly bent double from a salmon’s hard strike. My father told me sternly that a good fisher sits still and remains quiet no matter what happens. I resolved to prove I was grown up enough for anything.
So one raw winter day when we were tied up at a gas dock, I sat quietly on top of the cooler, a picture of childish determination. Silently I watched my father walk backward with a fuel hose and step off the edge into the swirling frigid water. I clenched my teeth and strove to be good. Finally, when he was gasping and clutching at the slimy dock and being drawn powerfully down by the weight of icy water pouring into his rubber boots and soaking into his heavy Cowichan sweater, I murmured “There goes Dad.” Sensing something amiss, my mother popped out of the cabin. She saw my father and screamed for the dock attendants. It took two strong men to pull my dad out of the river’s clutches. But I was enormously proud of my four-year-old self for following his instructions and remaining still and quiet. I didn’t notice that my parents were equally silent on the ride home.
Thankfully that incident was our only brush with disaster. My father’s enthusiasm remained undiminished, though my mother’s waned. Dad and I continued our fishing trips.
Most outings followed a regular pattern. We launched at dawn, waiting our turn at the ramp in a line of idling station wagons and pickups. The adults drank coffee from thermoses and watched the action in the glow of headlights. When it was finally our turn to slide the “O Dad” off the EZ-loader into the river, I got to hold the mooring line while my father went to park the trailer.
No matter how early we started it always seemed as though hundreds of others had beaten us to the river. Bundling me up in the plaid car blanket, dad fired up the big Evinrude and we roared off through a constellation of running lights to his chosen section of the Columbia. Once there, he cut the big motor and we drifted in the sudden silence while he pulled out the fishing rods and attached long strings of flashers and spinning lures with sharp treble hooks. As soon as the the gear disappeared into the black water, dad stuck the butt ends of the rods into holders, consulted his whirring depth sounder and annouced how many “pulls” I should take. It was my task to deploy the lures to the proper depth by tugging the line out from the reel a given number of times. Dad lowered the little “kicker” motor that allowed us to troll at precisely the right speed to keep the flashers spinning through the silty current.
Then it was time to settle in and wait for the sun to come up. Up and down the river we trolled. “Any luck?” Dad would ask passing boats. “Two stikes, one in the box,” might be the reply. Or a number of fingers might be wordlessly held up or an empty-handed gesture made.
Suddenly one of our rod tips bobbed down. “Don’t move!” said Dad. “He just testing it.” The tip bobbed again. Dad waited. I bit my lip and sat on my hands. Then the tip swung down almost into the water. “Now!” said Dad as he hopped out of the captain’s chair and grabbed the rod out of the holder.
My job was to hold the steering wheel straight while dad played the fish. He stood at the stern with the bouncing, bent-double rod, alternately reeling and letting the fish tear off down the river. Sometimes the salmon would flash to the surface, then roll back to the depths. Eventually the fish tired and glided up to the side of the boat where dad could net him and hoist him in. We admired our prize for a few minutes, all gleaming silver and black, with a speckled fins and a black-rimmed jaw full of short wicked teeth. We marked our tags and lowered the fish into the box, while applause trickled back from nearby boats. Now for the rest of the day, whenever someone passed by and asked “Any luck?” it was my solemn responsibilty to hold up one finger.
The sun rose, the air warmed and I fidgeted in my itchy wool sweater. It was time for lunch. Dad opened a can of chili and set it directly on the little propane heater. As the contents warmed, filling the air with a mouthwatering salty, beefy aroma, he cut big chunks of sharp cheddar cheese with his filleting knife and dropped them into steaming beans. A stray salmon scale glittered on his hand. I ate my portion of cheesy chili out of a chipped tin cup and watched the stands of yellow poplars on the sand island slide by.
As the aternoon turned warmer and more golden, I sat on the vinyl seat, my head pillowed on my lifejacket. I watched the hypnotic nodding of the rod tips as they danced to the spinning lures' distant tugs, and listened to the muttering of trolling motor. I drifted off to sleep, dreaming of an endless sunlit river.

All Roads

When I was growing up my parents took an automotive lap around Northern Europe. They owned at various times two Volvos, a robin’s egg blue Volkswagen Beetle and “Christine,” an ill-intentioned Audi Fox that failed to start on the morning my mother was scheduled to take the bar exam.
Far more beguiling was the 1974 Porsche 914 they bought new. With its “distinctive” styling, rainbow of Peter Max colors and minimal creature comforts, the car was the ultimate malaise-era cheap thrill. Sitting on one suitcase with another on my lap because both trunks were full, I watched my mother shift confidently up through the gears as we roared off through the mossy hills to meet my father for a summer vacation on the Oregon coast. I coveted the chance to drive the Porsche and counted the days until I could start Driver’s Ed.
Sensibly, my parents sold the 914 in favor of a Toyota Corolla as soon as I turned fifteen.
My dad taught me to drive by taking me to a local school parking lot on weekends. Since the trusty Toyota had a manual transmission, the education process dragged on longer than it otherwise might have:
“OK, try first gear now.” Screech, cough, die.
“Try it again.” Shudder, puff of smoke, die.
“One more time.” Whirr, chug, rough idle.
This sequence was repeated at the rate of one gear per week until I was ready to “solo” by driving on the freeway. As I clutched the steering wheel, my knees jammed up nearly to the dashboard due to my insistance on pushing the seat all the way forward, we lurched out of the merge lane directly in front of a big rig. Roaring away in descending wail of horn, the truck left me an opening to start working my way to the fast lane. I shoved the accellerator down, then depressed the clutch and shifted. Into reverse. With the shriek of a cornered mountain lion the Toyota lost airspeed as another truck loomed. I frantically shifted again and eventually found fifth gear, causing the tiny car to shoot forward, narrowly missing the vehicle in front of me.
Throughout this ordeal my dad remained eerily quiet. He stared fixedly into the distance, betraying his dismay only by reflexively pushing down on a non-existent brake pedal.
Years later I compensated for being robbed of the chance to drive the 914 by buying a car that all that and less. Although mid-engined like the Porsche, my 1985 Toyota MR-2’s angular styling could have been conceived by Grace Jones' hairdresser. Only the thinnest tissue of sheet metal separated my posterior from the pavement whizzing by inches below. The engine, with roughly the horsepower of a Cuisinart, barely kept me from winding up squashed like a bug on the grille of a Panamanian-flagged Ford Exterminator. And the “suspension,” if I may call it that, transmitted every change in the chemical composition of the asphalt directly to the steering wheel.
But I adored the car and developed a zeal for driving that has persisted to this day. Whether I was going down the block for a quart of milk or a quart of STP I was never bored. Freeway driving had the excitement of running with the bulls in Pamplona without the expense of an airline ticket or the indignity of wearing white pajamas and a beret.
Plus there was the thrill of taking the MR-2 to Jiffy Lube. Inevitably, just as I was getting to “How to Burn Fat While Making a Triple-Chocolate Layer Cake He’ll Love” in a five-year-old issue of Cosmopolitan, the adolescent attendant would poke his head through the waiting room door to ask sheepishly where the engine might be found.
Meanwhile, being insufficiently entertained with life as an attorney in Portland, my mother got a job in Italy. My dad retired, and for eleven glorious years I got to travel regularly to the land of car makers whose names end in vowels.
My mother issued a strict edict that I was not to drive when I visited, but when she was at work my dad would surreptitiosly hand me the keys to the Alfa Romeo and whisper “Let’s go have lunch in the country today.” At midday when my mother was safely ensconced in the office and most of our neighborhood in suburban Rome was devoid of traffic, the clatter of dishes and the noise of a televised soccer game echoed from a hundred siesta-ing nearby apartments. Dad and I would get the Milano out of the garage and head for the Alban Hills a few miles outside the city. I had no trouble navigating the quiet streets, but the autostrada was something else. “Whatever you do,” said Dad, “stay out of the fast lane.” But inevitably there'd be a tiny microcar doing forty miles an hour in the right lane, and I'd succumb to temptation. Look in the rear-view mirror. Nothing behind me for miles. Stomp on the accellerator. The Alfa, being mercifully devoid of antipollution gear,would spring forward like a scalded cat. Alas, the instant I crossed the line an enormous BMW or Mercedes loomed on my bumper, flashing its lights angrily.
Once we left the freeway things quieted down considerably. We wound along dusty roads, dodging tomato trucks and climbing into pine-covered hills. The heat and noise of the city gradually disappeared. An hour or so later we were sitting in a cafe in an ancient stone town devoid of famous monuments or tourists, drinking white wine and eating spaghetti alla vongole, solving all the world’s problems while the cicadas buzzed in the cypresses and dogs slept in the silent square.
My parents are back in the Northwest now and driving is considerably tamer. But my dad still brakes for me.


The poster at border checkpoint proclaimed the ten extraordinarily grim mugshots to be “The Vanguards of Civilization.” These People’s Liberation Army Employees of the Month with identical dour expressions frowned down on the crowds below.
Steve and I slowly shuffled along with the rest of the line snaking from the Hong Kong train platform to the Shenzhen immigration checkpoint. We clutched passports damp and salt-crusted from sweat after hours of stifling heat and humidity. Inside the vast reinforced concrete hall was a kaleidoscope of tiny shops packed to the rafters with boxes of tropical fruit candy, silk jackets in shocking colors, polyester slacks and plastic flowers. Around the customs line swept a torrent of humanity, with eddies swirling past obstructions and standing waves piling up behind anyone who stopped to look at a cell phone. Everyone was towing flowered suitcases, pushing carts piled high with cardboard boxes and swinging plastic bags. The air was filled with an earsplitting cacaphony.
As the line crept closer to the immigration officials I could feel the makeup I’d carefully spackled on that morning slowly sliding off in a miniature mudflow of perspiration due as much to anxiety as the climate.
Ahead of us neon signs split the river of humanity into a delta, directing Chinese Citizens, Hong Kong Citizens, Hong Kong Permanent Residents, Macao Citizens, Macao Permanent Residents, British Passport Holders, EU Passport Holders, and finally “Foreigners” to different windows. We edged toward the latter on the basis that nothing else applied. At first I was relieved to see that we were in the shortest queue. For once in my life I had beaten the Costco Principle that “the other line always moves faster.” However as we drew inexorably closer to the very dourest of the Vanguards it occurred to me that we might in fact be at a disadvantage since there would be less hydraulic pressure of humanity behind us to discourage extra scrutiny of our soggy, crumpled travel documents. Although I was carrying nothing more potent than hand cream I began to have “Midnight Express”-related thoughts.
Thirty years earlier I was a pampered and highly-sheltered college student on my way home from a Mediterranean cruise that had included a stop in Istanbul. After fending off numerous offers of marriage (all no doubt sincere) from market vendors I had proudly purchased the most hideous floral carpet in all of Anatolia for a price I had skillfully bargained down to a mere 300 percent of its actual value. Having grown up making frequent visits to my cagey relatives in Vancouver, BC, I had absorbed many valuable life skills such as wearing multiple layers of freshly-purchased sweaters to avoid declaring them at customs after cross-border shopping sprees. During the flight back from Turkey I had carefully edited the carpet’s value on my landing card to fall within the duty-free limit. But the gruff Chicago customs agent took one look at me, my itinerary and the card and yanked the rug out of my suitcase. He scrutinized my purchase intensely while I shifted my weight nervously from one foot to the other while trying to look both innocent and blase. Thinking he was counting the number of knots per square inch, which my parents had informed me was a measure of a carpet’s value, I timidly asked the agent what he was looking for. “Heroin,” he replied. “They mat it into the fibers.” Who knew? Finding no contraband the agent let me go and didn’t charge any duty, confirming my belief that I had a more promising future as a materialist than a mule.
Thankfully our Vanguard seemed unconcerned by the state of our travel documents, and after a decent interval of stamping and scribbling he waved us through.
We emerged blinking like moles onto an immense plaza. Around us stood a surreal landscape of the ugliest skyscrapers I had ever seen. Shenzhen is a Chinese Special Economic Zone whose twenty million inhabitants had been given leeway to follow former Premier Deng Xiaoping’s dictum “to get rich is glorious” to its logical conclusion. Apparently economic freedom included liberation from the bounds of conventional taste: Rank upon rank of blue, red and gold glass towers topped with knobs, spindles and turrets straight out of a vision Walt Disney might have conjured up after a weeklong bender disappeared within a few blocks into a thick chiaroscuro of smog. “It’s good, thick, air” said Steve. “It has real heft, not like that watery stuff we have at home in Seattle!” I could feel my lungs tanning to a rich, golden-brown leather with each breath.
“I-phone?” I turned to a figure materializing out of the mist. A beautiful young woman with a cellphone and a clipboard smilingly approached us. “I’ll help you shop!” Another young woman appeared. “Viagra?” she asked my husband with an earnest smile. Another young lady – “Massage? I’ll help you shop for the best!” More people, mostly young women, streamed toward us. “You want to shop?” “Over here, Miss!” So much help available! Shenzhenites appeared to be the world’s most assistive people. They seemed particularly concerned with Steve’s fitness to perform his husbandly obligations. If you need Viagra and for some reason are unable to click on spam e-mails, by all means hop on a plane for the 15-hour flight to Shenzhen as you will not be disappointed.
Just beyond the ever-accreting mob of helpers loomed the blue-glass tower of Luohan Commercial City, described in my guidebook as a wonderland of half-price cashmere, silk and electronics, “where Hong Kong people go to shop for real bargains.” My motivations for visiting China, like those of centuries of Westerners before me, included bringing home as many of those items as I could stuff into my suitcase. (Though Marco Polo was primarily interested in the silks, I have no doubt that he would have scooped up a case of GPS units and a few cardigans if they had existed in his day.) Drawn to the gleaming blue beacon of commercialism like a moth to a bug-whacker, I grabbed Steve and yanked him away from the clutches of his lovely would-be assistants and set off for Luohan.
Inside, I discovered a multistory funhouse of mirrored walls and spiraling escalators filled with shops crammed to the rafters with an incomprehensible array of junk. Nonexistent models of home electronics. Sweaters made of only the finest free-range nylon. Bolts of shiny plastic “silk” in colors that would have frightened Andy Warhol. Hello Kitty knockoffs. Each establishment was identically staffed with a beautiful female “helper” out front who, at the slightest eye contact, cried “Yes, you shop here!” Inside would be a stout middle-aged woman, presumably Mrs. Helper the elder, brandishing a calculator (cash registers apparently being unknown) and an elderly gentleman (Mr. Helper) behind the back-room curtain, dimly lit by the blue glow of a television screeching in Cantonese.
I pride myself on my shopping determination. I’ve elbowed my elders at the underwear bins at the Nordstrom Rack, snatched the last Calvin Klein down jacket in my size at Costco during the Christmas rush, and argued with the Gypsy “Prada” handbag vendors in the Porta Portese flea market in Rome.
But like countless naive foreign invaders before me, I was overwhelmed by China. Despite the guidebook’s promise of excellent bargains to be had “with a little patience,” my synapses overloaded, my brain seized up and I could go no further. Grabbing Steve once again by the arm, I yanked him out of Luohan Commercial City and staggered back out into the smog, followed by a cometary trail of helpers. We fled down the steps from the plaza to receding cries of “Viagra?” “I-phone!” “Massage” and “I’ll help you shop!”
Once we escaped the mob’s clutches, I realized I was hungry, as it had been a whole two hours since my mornng chocolate doughnut and latte in a Starbucks in Hong Kong. For most travelers this development would be of minor significance, but when I announced my new condition to my husband he turned pale. Years of travel while married to me have taught him that my metabolism is disastrously inefficient. I can walk ten miles through museum corridors on bleeding and blistered feet, sleep on icy campground dirt in the thinnest of sleeping bags and sit through an entire opera performance without nodding off, but the first pang of a less-than-full stomach turns me into one of the world’s least-desirable travel companions. Steve has the constitution of a camel and can cheerfully go from dawn to dusk on one cup of coffee, but he has learned through painful experience that any attempts to impose a similar regimen on me are doomed to failure.
We set off through the soupy air down a vast dun-colored boulevard in search of a meal. We quickly discovered eateries in abundance, mostly chain-looking establishments with large illuminated photos for the benefit of illiterates like us showing platters of noodles, piles of ribs and other mouthwatering delicacies. I marched into the first restaurant and held up a Hong Kong dollar. The hostess shook her head. Only yuan were accepted. Steve and I had blithely assumed that that our money would be good everywhere and had not bothered to change it for our day in Shenzhen.
One definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over with the expectation of a different result. After our money was politely refused at the fourth restaurant, it began to sink in that I might really not get anything to eat. I started to panic. I envisioned collapsing on the street, being carted off to a local hospital and put on intravenous fluids. Steve rolled his eyes. “Maybe it would be some of that noodle soup you’ve been admiring in the windows.”
Finally, we saw a Vietnamese restaurant. This was my last stand, I would eat here or die. I tried my well-worn drill of holding my Hong Kong money up to the hostess. Instead of shaking her head, she pointed down the street. I ran off in the direction she had indicated, thinking she meant there was a restaurant that would take our money. Instead, I saw an ATM. Oh, blessed hope! Never mind that I didn’t recognize the name of the bank and couldn’t read most of the writing. Heedless of all danger, I shoved my bank card into the slot and typed in my password, to be rewarded comforting whirr of machinery as the device spat out the tickets to my digestive salvation. Clutching the equivalent of twenty dollars, I raced back to Steve and the hostess, who smiled and waved us in.
The warm, comforting aroma of noodle soup filled my senses as we made our way past the crowed tables. The smog parted briefly to admit shafts of golden light into the restaurant window. We pointed at the plastic menu cards to pictures of beer and soup, and settled back into the leatherette chairs. A waitress came around and poured clear warm water into our china cups. “See,” I said to Steve, calling upon the vast Old China Hand wisdom that can only be acquired through thirty-six hours in Hong Kong and careful perusal of the Lonely Planet guide, “this is jasmine tea, so it’s not dark.” I took a sip. Oddly tasteless. Oh, well, I thought, I’m just too unsophisticated to appreciate the nuance. We gulped it down and looked to see if the waitress would bring us more.
I suddenly realized that the formerly bustling restaurant had grown strangely quiet. The other patrons were trying not to be too obvious about staring at us. Mothers shushed their children and men ducked behind newspapers. I looked at our cups, then at the rest of the tables. We had been drinking out of the finger bowls.
The walk back to the Hong Kong border station was quiet. Back at Plaza Viagra the “Helpers” resumed their devoted attentions. If any had offered Maalox instead of marital aids I might have been inclined to accept. Instead, following the sign reading “Go Down to Leave the Country,” we descended a flight of steps past the Vanguards and pushed through the crowds back to the train platform. We settled into the spotless car as it glided away from the border exactly on time, to take our place among the generations of overconfident interlopers who were unprepared for China.

Flying Heritage

We Northwesterners love airplanes. From the moment millionaire timber baron Bill Boeing decided it would be fun to build them, to the moment a hundred years later when billionaire software baron Paul Allen decided it would be fun to collect them, we’ve been drawn to flying machines like a slug to a dahlia sprout.
Given our soupy weather and mountainous terrain this obsession with all things airborne seems incongruous. But the Northwest has two things in abundance that were critical to aviation in its infancy: Wood and water. The former was the carbon fiber of its day (actually it is carbon fiber) – light, strong and flexible enough to get a plane with only slightly more horsepower than a Yugo into the air. The latter provided miles of space for floatplane takeoffs and landings in the days before there were runways and neighbors complaining about the noise.
We also have prodigious numbers of scary-smart people willing to spend long, dark winters studying things like physics and aerodynamics instead of cow-tipping. Of course that ingenuity and intellectual curiosity also gets directed at outside-the-box ideas like shoving aircraft engines into boats. But the result in my grandparents' day was tasty Canadian booze whisked over the border through nests of islands and hidden coves by Prohibition-era rumrunners. And in my day, we got hydroplanes tearing around Lake Washington in a roar of roostertails before thousands of inebriated fans in runabouts tied to a logboom. So really, everyone benefits.
So it was with great enthusiasm that Steve and I took off for Paul Allen’s Flying Heritage museum on a drizzly day-before-Fathers Day. Under skies the color of the underside of a 747, we made the trek to Everett, where we joined hundreds of people for the prospect of seeing World War II-vintage planes take to the air.
Alas it was not to be. The relentless gray air and spits of rain precluded anything other than a display of an engine start on a Focke Wulfe 190. Even this, though was thrilling to the crowd of elderly vets, middle-aged geeks and young families. Facing a thicket of long camera lenses and a storm of flashes that would have unnerved a supermodel, the old warbird gamely coughed to life. After a few throttle adjustments to get all 16 cylinders firing in some semblance of synchronicity, the pilot unleashed a roar that resonated through my chest. Just as I was trying to imagine what an airfield full of such planes could have sounded like, a thunderous howl filled the air above us, momentarily drowning out the Focke Wulfe. I looked up and saw a 747 only a few hundred feet above us, flashing through a hole in the clouds before disappearing into the gloom. The crowd erupted into cheers.
In the parking lot traffic jam after the show we were stuck for ages behind an SUV waiting for the light to change. The wipers whumped, my husband grumbled under his breath, and the traffic hissed by on the main airport road. But my head remained in the clouds.

A Liturgical Calendar of Food

While the negligible risk that I might be hoovered up to Heaven is safely past, I remain focused on spiritual matters.

By which I mean food.

I worship at the altar of all things digestible. Instead of a lambent swirl of lute-playing angels and chubby cherubs spiraling up toward a white-bearded old guy in a toga, my paradise is an infinite sushi restaurant. Saint Peter and the angels greet the patrons loudly in Japanese. If I have been spectacularly good in this life I will be seated at the counter between Mark Twain and Dorothy Parker. If my behavior has been less-than-exemplary but still worthy of admission it will be Steve Martin and Dave Barry. The Archangel Gabriel draws pints of microbrewed beer produced by the Almighty Himself in small batches His spare time, and Archangel Michael slices up plates of tuna and salmon with his sword. And there is coconut-passionfruit ice cream for dessert.

Hell, on the other hand, is The Olive Garden.

Thankfully, I don’t have to wait for Judgement Day to dine extraordinarily well. We are fortunate here in the Great Northwest to blessed, if I may use that word, with a mouthwatering array of local food that would be the envy of any Italian or Frenchman, especially this time of year.
Our seasonal progression of delicacies begins when the fish guy with the stand on the highway writes “Copper River Salmon” on his whiteboard. The resulting gridlock in his tiny gravel parking lot nearly blocks the turnoff to the weekly Kiwanis pancake breakfast. Hungry patrons wait in their idling pickups and BMWs while he pulls the garnet-colored filets out of the coolers and slices off chunks to wrap in waxed paper for the ride home to the marinade.

Next up is the opening of the produce stand on the main crossroad in the Vashon “financial district.” This event is all the more eagerly anticipated because its exact date, like that of the Rapture, can’t be predicted by mortals. The owners will only set up when the Eastern Washington fruits and vegetables they bring over the pass each week are are at their peak, the timing of which varies from year to year. Every May weekend I drive past, hungrily eyeing the vacant corner until one glorious Saturday it’s there. I screech into the first parking place I can find and rush to join the mob of fleece- and Crocs-clad islanders vying for cherries and asparagus with the fervor of crude-oil futures traders at the Chicago Mercantile Exchange.

For the next four months it’s an unfolding cavalcade of Walla Walla sweet onions, heirloom tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, corn, and apricots, culminating in a crescendo of berries that leaves my asleep in a lounge chair surrounded by empty cardboard pint containers like a black bear in an abandoned picnic site. By early October the peaches are starting to get a little woody, but by this point its time to start griling the Toulouse sausage from from SeaBreeze Farm, and the fall Chinook and winter halibut start showing up again at the fish stand.

I have no idea whether there’s a heaven, or whether I’ll be eligible for admission if there is one, but I am eternally grateful to whatever forces or fates conspired to place me here in culinary bliss on earth.

Knowing Our Place

Nature, like our cats, abhors a vacuum.

We devote a large percentage of our time at the Drainfield of Dreams to putting nature in what we think is its place. Nature devotes one hundred percent of its time to ignoring us.

Our neighbors call me at work: "Did you know there are deer standing on your front porch?"

"That would explain the nose prints on the glass door," I reply. "I was worried the neighbor kid had an allergy attack while selling candy for the band trip to Kyrgyzstan."

"They're looking into your house," the neighbor continues. "Well," I say, "if they ring the doorbell with their little hooves they'll be disappointed. There's no one home to let them in to inspect the vegetable crisper."

By contrast, the raccoons have no interest in the interior of the house.  They lumber past the sliding glass door while we’re eating dinner, drawn to the pond like furry heat-seeking missiles. While we're watching "So You Think You Can Dance," the raccoons industriously yank every one of my husband's carefully-tended waterlillies onto the patio.

In an effort to keep the nocturnal masked bandits at bay my spousal unit just bought the Rac Zapper 3000. He’s eagerly awaiting midnight “zzzzzzzt” sounds followed by the pitter-patter of little feet scurrying back through the gap in the fence. I don't want to burst his bubble but I'm skeptical.  Any animals that smart who don't have to spend their days worrying about mortgages or status meetings are bound to figure out how to circumvent an electric fence.

Some creatures do make it inside the house. We used to let the cats out through a kitty door until we discovered that the territory they were willing to defend was approximately the living room. Taking the Neville Chamberlain approach to diplomatic relations, our cats achieved peace in their time by ceding the rest of the house and yard, cowering under the coffee table while feline interlopers devoured half our paychecks' worth of cat crunchies.

Years ago at a friend’s house I saw a poster entitled “Thermodynamics Made Easy.” It had three bullet points:
“The First Law of Thermodynamics: You Can’t Win.
The Second Law: You Can’t Break Even.
The Third Law: You Can’t Stop Playing the Game."

All of which apply to keeping nature in its place.

In Our Nature

We native Northwesterners are a hardy lot, no doubt about it. We’re legendary for our indifference to months of steel-wool skies, salmon migrating across flooded highways, epic power outages and garden-crisping droughts, not to mention zombie armies of ravening slugs on a scale exceeding anything envisioned in a Roger Corman movie.

After half (I hope) a lifetime here, I’ve decided to write a little about adventures, misadventures and daily life with nature here in the Great Pacific Northwest. From salmon sandwiches in my grade-school lunchboxes to waking up with tent caterpillars on my pillow during a particularly severe outbreak on the island where my husband and I now live, I’ve come to appreciate this unique place. I’ve been abandoned in the Oregon desert during a college whitewater rafting trip, snuck around the Mount St. Helens Red Zone roadblocks to visit Harry Truman less than a week before the big eruption, and huddled under my office desk while showers of plaster and marble cascaded around me as my old Downtown Seattle building twisted and groaned during the Nisqually Earthquake. But I’ve also camped on a tiny sailboat in a Puget Sound cove where the dome of stars was so perfectly mirrored in the still water that the effect resembled a perfect snow globe. I’ve marveled at the tiny tree frogs in our pond, the chrome-yellow goldfinches in our cedar trees, and the view of the distant Pacific from the tops of the Oregon Dunes. From flickers drilling perfectly circular holes in our siding and pulling out beakfuls of pink insulation, to chipmunks crawling under our cabin door to eat all the nuts out of a tray of cookies, I’ve never tired of life with my fellow Northwesterners of all biological persuasions.
Satellite photos of a firehose of winter rainclouds streaming straight toward us can still give me feelings best described as “mixed.” However, I hope to turn a tiny portion of that rain that falls into reservoirs and spins through turbines to generate the power flowing into my home and through the cord to my laptop into a few words to share about my beloved Northwest.

Call Me Columbia

I’ve been on vacation this week. In addition to catching up on recorded TV (Hey, there was a big wedding in England, and Osama bin Laden was killed! Who knew?) and attacking a garden that’s been overgrown for so long that new plant species appear to have evolved there, I’ve had some time to reflect.
The subject of this week’s navel-gazing was my career. I’ve always admired individuals who had a goal from early childhood and set out to achieve it. I am not one of those people.
So, with profound apolgies to Herman Melville, I bring you the story of my professional life:
Call me Columbia. Some years ago, never mind how long precisely – having little or no money in my purse and nothing in particular to interest me in terms of a career, I thought I would sail about a little and see the legal part of the world.
In the Northwest, most months of the year are in fact a damp drizzly November of the soul, but this one was particularly dreary. I had just been informed that my entire organization was about to be laid off from a large local aerospace company that shall remain nameless. My immediate response was to take to my bed with the covers pulled up over my head and read for sixteen hours at a stretch. However I eventually realized that this type of work was not highly compensated. If I wanted to keep up with the payments on my battered ten-year old Honda roadster (I take a back seat to no one), and prevent my cat from staring at me reproachfully over a bowl of the lower-priced food, I had better find myself another job.
In between “Typee, a Peep at Polynesian Life,” and “Dave Barry Goes to Japan” I made a searching inventory of my marketable job skills:
 Cooking: I showed considerable promise in the professions of dishwasher and short-order cook in my younger years. I excelled at running blocks of government-surplus processed cheese through an enormous shredder in the kitchen of a Girl Scout camp outside of Bremerton. I could make lasagna for 150 screaming girls ranging in age from bedwetting to boy-gossiping. However I was fifteen at the time, and that line of work is a young person’s game. I knew I’d never be competitive in that market in today’s teenager-eat-teenager world.
 Writing: The job of which I was about to be relieved had ostensibly involved technical writing. To this day I maintain that my opus on hinge installation for overhead storage compartments remains one of the most tragically neglected works of recent American nonfiction. There’s also my unproduced screenplay for the instructional video, “Lathe Settings,” and my crisp, incisive and thought-provoking essay on proper disposal of foam beverage containers, posted in every company cafeteria. In reality, we spent most of our time complaining about management (posting sentries so we could quickly spring back to “work” if the boss was coming) and sending out scouts to search the office complex for birthday parties from which leftover cake could be filched. Although I enjoyed these activities immensely, especially the cake, I struggled to convey the value of these experiences to potential future employers.
 Law: I had voyaged around the coastline of this profession a few years previously, but finding no appealing anchorage I had moved on to aviation. My academic career had coincided with a trough in the local economy, effectively thwarting my dream of setting up a small corner Political Science shop when I graduated from college. I decided to wait out the downturn in law school. It was cheap, requiring no expensive cadavers or supercolliders, and was regarded in my small liberal-arts college as a sort of yuppie home-economics or auto shop. I had no trouble getting in thanks to a thin pool of competition and a recently revised entrance exam devoid of anything resembling mathematics. Once there, however, I encountered an academic Bataan Death March for which I was ill-prepared. Day by day I struggled to comprehend just exactly what Justice Learned Hand meant in his third rebuttal to the dissent, or the Rule Against Perpetuities, or cy pres, or why trees had standing. I was harangued by professors in class, ignored by other students, and exhausted by endless hours of grueling study. The situation was not enhanced by my dismal basement apartment, which was so cold and damp that condensation dribbled down the walls day and night. I often sat wrapped in a blanket with my feet on a heating pad turned up full blast. All I needed was to catch tuberculosis and my Romantic cycle of self-pity would be complete.
Eventually I got in touch with my inner Scarlett O’Hara. I swore I would not quit, and I learned how to survive. I dressed in colors matching the classroom furniture and carpeting. To further avoid being called on, I cultivated an expression of such helpless ignorance (admittedly not difficult) that even the most sadistic professor would pass his Sauron-like gaze over me in order to avoid wasting precious classroom time.
I did manage to graduate and pass the bar, and even scored clerkships with the Alaska Supreme Court in Anchorage and the Oregon Court of Appeals in Salem.
So I returned to the legal profession, where I have remained ever since. But I still get nostalgic looking at airline overhead storage bins. And cheese.

Notes on Boat Camping

Statistically, the first weekend in August sees Seattle’s greatest onslaught of migratory potters, glass-bead jewlery makers, hydroplane drivers and out-of-state relatives. It’s also supposed to be the driest weekend of the year, and to many of us natives that means one thing: Camping!
But we all know that statistics lie like a cheap rug. Never was this fact brought home more forcefully than on a long-ago Seafair Weekend, when my Significant Other and I decided to take our twenty-four foot sailboat “Caution to the Winds” out for two days of glorious early-August fun.
We spent Friday night at Thriftway stocking up on all the essentials for the perilous expedition to Blake Island: Sunscreen, bug spray, Tim’s potato chips, a Tillamook Cheddar Baby Loaf and select adult beverages.
Saturday dawned dismayingly cloudy, but S.O. was undeterred. “It’ll burn off,” he said. “It’s SeaFair Weekend. It never rains.” We pulled on our fleece jackets and tromped down the Shilshole dock, lugging a cooler filled with enough Life cereal and Johnsonville Brats to sustain the Lewis and Clark expedition through a rough winter.
Since there was no wind, S.O. fired up the Iron Spinnaker. Twenty-five pulls on the starter cord later, the outboard erupted into a mighty roar reminiscent of the sound of a fork caught in a garbage disposal. We powered out of the marina in a cloud of blue smoke at a breathtaking four knots. For those of you unfamiliar with arcane nautical terminology that speed is, in miles per hour, “really slow.” “It’s OK,” I shouted to S.O, anxiously eyeing the lowering gloom. “It’s Seafair Weekend. It never rains.” Moments later the heavens opened up and unleashed a frigid deluge, reducing the visibility to approximately zero just as we reached the shipping lanes.
By now past the point of no return in the voyage if not our relationship, we pressed on toward where we hoped Blake Island might be. I endeavored not to remember how I used to tell my small-boat sailing students that it takes a freighter approximately a mile to stop. That factoid is only a concern, of course, if you are actually spotted. Our boat had been designed for racing, of with a low profile and a coating of what appeared to me to be radar-absorbing paint.
Eventually the island hove into view and we dropped anchor under the watchful Labrador Retriever eyes of a harbor seal. The rain intensified. S.O. tied a blue cover over the boom to shelter the cockpit, giving lie to the notion that “blue-tarp camping” is limited to landlubbers.
We were now effectively confined in the recreational equivalent of a prison hulk. We could not launch the dinghy to go ashore as long as the boom tent was up, and we could not stand up in the cabin or under the tent. “It’s fine,” said .SO. “It’ll clear up, it’s SeaFair Weekend.”
Since our planned barbecue on the island was now out of the question, I would have to rely on the skills and ingenuity of my pioneer ancestors to create a meal using only nature’s bounty of Top Ramen, salmon dip, Cheetos and beer. I dutifully cranked up both burners of the cabin’s tiny alchohol stove. While I waited for the water to boil I wrung out our soaked socks and fleeces, raising the ambient humidity in our cramped quarters to approximately 250 %. Just as I was wondering whether you could contract tuberculosis from the miasma of sweat, old campfire smoke and bug spray that results fishing last week’s camping clothes out of the laundry hamper,S.O. announced that the porta-potty had sprung a leak. Thankfully, only of chemicals and not of “the other stuff,” but the resulting stench would have driven Osama bin Laden out of deepest Tora Bora.
Eventually we settled down to eat my culinary creation, reclining in the berths on one arm like ancient Romans because there was no room to sit upright. S.O. managed not to make too much of a face, but I noticed he was careful to breathe only through his mouth and he followed every bite with a swig of beer.
The evening’s entertainment consisted of reading the backs of cereal boxes as we had not brought any books or magazines. “Why is there guar gum in both the peanut butter and the jelly?” I asked S.O., but he had already fallen asleep.
In fact the weather did clear up. At approximately 2:00 AM the sudden absence of the applause-like roar of rain on the cabin roof woke me. I crawled out through the hatch onto the bow of the boat. The vault of the heavens was filled with uncountable stars, shimmering a hard bluish white in the still, clear air. The bay around us was a mirror reflecting the stars back so perfectly that we seemed suspended in a child’s snow globe. The only disturbance to this perfect symmetry was a faint glowing trail in the water made by the bioluminescent-algae-filled current passing our anchor chain.
The next morning we piled on every piece of damp clothing we posessed and motored back to Shilshole. The following year we got married. But not on SeaFair Weekend.