Monday, March 31, 2014

Nola!


James and I got back to Austin this morning after three awesome days in New Orleans. Our primary endeavor was eating and on that front we covered:

Beignets
Turtle Soup at Commander's Palace
Gumbo
Jambalaya
Red beans & Rice
char-grilled oysters
fresh oysters
fried oyster po boy
baked ham/roast beef/debris po boy at Mother's
fried okra
Crawfish etouffĂ©e 
Bread pudding at Commander's Palace
lacquered quail at Commander's Palace
Praline
Giant bag of boiled crawfish
Sazerac
Gin fizz
plenty of local beer

Of course we already want to go back and eat more. And do more. I've done a lot of traveling and New Orleans is truly like nowhere else I've ever been. I don't think I've ever been anywhere else in the United States that has a stronger sense of place, which makes sense since the city is older than the country.

My curiosity is piqued and I've added several Louisiana books to my reading list (because I don't know all that much about the state). I picked up All the King's Men in high school, but I think I was too young for it (16-year-old Leslie: "Why would I ever care about southern politics???"). I'd like to revisit that. And while I'm sure it will be grim, I added Five Days at Memorial by Sheri Fink, about the triage that went on at the hospital after Hurricane Katrina, to my library hold list. Even though it was almost 9 years ago, it was clear even in our short visit how much the storm still defines the city. On that note, I also plan to read Salvage the Bones (2011 National Book Award Winners) by Jesmyn Ward.



Sunday, March 16, 2014

Bye Bye, South By

Maybe the trick to reversing one's fortunes is to write a complain-y blog.

I was pretty bummed the last time I posted. Like, there might have been some crying and white wine that weekend. 

The following Monday this is what happened:

My one client was all, "Okay just kidding, we don't need to renegotiate the price."

An online lit mag that consistently publishes thoughtful, well written pieces accepted my pitch. I'm excited to have my byline go up somewhere that values quality as opposed to quantity, that's rare as far as online outlets go.

Somebody offered me a full-time job. What?

All of these things made me feel better, but not exhilarated. Maybe because I'm getting used to the fact that with freelancing things are either going really well or going horribly, and that's the new normal. But it did make me feel better about me

When things aren't going well, I feel unmoored. I start thinking maybe I'm not a writer, maybe I'm a barista or a checker at HEB or an admin assistant. (I must not be any of those things because whenever I get panicky and apply to those kinds of jobs, nobody ever calls me back.) When things are going well, I feel comfortable with "I'm a writer." 

I went and interviewed at the place that wanted to give me a job, it was a research position at a tech startup. We got around to the salary discussion part and I said something totally lacking finesse like, "Uh well, such-and-such is what I made in my last full-time position it would be nice to, you know, move forward from that." The interviewer smiled in a way I knew I'd shown way too many of my cards and said something like, "that wont be a problem...at all."

I decided not to take the job. But it made me grateful that I have a college education and a particular set of skills. 


Imagine me saying "particular set of skills" in the same timbre as Liam Neeson in Taken, because the occasional reminder that what I do isn't totally monetarily worthless makes me feel like kind of a badass.

And then there was South by Southwest!

Austin during SXSW is incredible. I ate so much free food and drank so many free dranks, saw three comedy shows and a talk with a bunch of magazine writers I really admire, and it was all FO FREE!

SXSW isn't all free, most of it isn't, and the badges to get into events are terribly, terribly expensive, but James and I had good luck with standby lines, so we had a good time on the cheap. 

Plus, one of my friends manages an indie band and she stayed at my apartment this week, which I think makes me a patron of the arts. She got us into an industry party and we made off with leftover wine when the place cleared out.

The other good thing that's happening 

My original plan was to spend some of my lit mag paycheck on new clothes, but instead I think it's going to be my summer sailing fund: I got an offer through a family friend to spend a couple weeks sailing in southeast Alaska in June. That's an adventure that's been on my bucket list for about a decade, so I am very excited. 

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Another Wild Week of Working From Home

Plusses:
Impromptu don't-put-underwear-on Tuesday

Kitchen table office is prime for eavesdropping when upstairs neighbors have screamy fight and somebody declares he's moving out. "Good luck paying rent you stupid bitch." (Imagine this said in a deliciously-elongated Texas drawl - and yes I did get up and lurk behind the blinds to make sure I didn't miss anything).

When the kitchen chairs are no longer comfortable, it's possible to transfer to the auxiliary office - i.e. to pick up the MacBook and work in bed.

Minuses: 

"This story" [which we've sat on in radio silence for two months] "feels like less than a full feature."

"We love what your writing! .. Budget issues .. We need to renegotiate the price."

Working in bed is kind of terrifying. I already spend so much time at home, spending too much time in one room feels like the whole world is getting smaller. I'm afraid if I do it too often I'll morph into an anti-social shut-in a la Emily Dickinson (lolz, except way, way less talented).

This week, the days had a weird bad news/good news/bad news pattern and by Thursday afternoon my lower back was one massive stress knot - somewhat alleviated by going to yoga Friday night.

Sometimes after I eat really greasy, salty fast food, I feel uncomfortable for a couple hours. But the tightness in my back is more annoying and has lasted for about two days now, even though I don't feel particularly stressed at this moment. The discrepancy in the bodily repercussions of a late-night Whataburger run versus a couple shitty work-related emails is interesting to me. Takeaway lesson: It's better to have gainful employment and eat as many cheeseburgers as you like.


Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Quick Post

It's been almost two weeks since my last blog! Sorry!

The main problem is my novel requires a lot of computer time and my freelance work requires a lot of computer time and it's hard to commit to even more computer time to keep up this space. But I'm still going to try not to let two weeks go by between posts.

Plus, this is a bit of a slack week for freelancing, which means more time for writing, which also means looking for excuses to delay writing ... liking blogging! Also, tomorrow I'm taking part in a jury focus group at a law office. I hope I get to be the faux juror who is like the guy in 12 Angry Men who convinces everyone else to vote not guilty.

Other news:

My freelance workload hasn't evaporated. Things are still popping up, I'm querying a new story, still have one under consideration. And I have a decent load of un-bylined writing/editing work.

I'm within an inch of a first draft of my novel. I think it's going slower here at the end because it's hard to wind things up, and after that the monumental task of rewriting begins.

This was my first Chinese New Year not in Asia since 2010. Some Beijing friends posted to Instagram photos where the pollution was too thick to see the fireworks. Happy year of the horse, y'all!

James and I are taking an improv class. I haven't done anything theatrical since high school, it's very fun.

At the end of next month we're going to New Orleans for a weekend - yay!


Monday, January 27, 2014

Marfa

Over the holiday weekend, James and I made our way to West Texas.




Our first stop was in Fredericksburg, where James got talked into a free tasting of the world's hottest hot sauce ("The Source"). They gave it to him on such a tiny little toothpick though, I didn't get to see any panting or tears. 

I think the sauce is made through some kind of intense distillation process that makes it hotter than peppers found in nature, which kind of sounds like cheating. I love spicy food, but I'd rather taste things than just look for pure spicy.

After Fredericksburg, it was onward to Marfa:


A display outside The Wrong Store (art store) in Marfa

In the early seventies, Donald Judd left New York to get away from the constrains of the urban art world. There's something very cool about driving way across Texas and getting to see a bunch of concrete cubes sitting in the middle of the Chihuahuan Desert. We also saw a Warhol display and half a dozen other small exhibits in town.

On our first night, we went to a bar in neighboring Alpine (cheaper hotels) and when James gave the bartender his ID, the guy pulled his own out from under the bar - a fellow Alaskan!

Not only that, he'd gone to Dimond High School too! He was about four years younger than us, and had moved to Texas to play soccer. He was finishing up his degree at the university in Alpine and then hoped to move back to Anchorage to coach club soccer.

It's always so exciting meeting fellow Alaskans. We didn't get to talk to the guy much since the bar was busy (forgot to even ask his name!) but we bonded over the ho-hum Texan tap water, and we learned that the house he grew up in Anchorage was essentially walking distance from James'. Too funny how you can live in a country with 300 million people, drive out to the middle of nowhere and meet a neighbor you never met before. I think that says something about the age we live in, but I'll withhold the philosophizing.

Donal Judd installation at the Chinati Foundation
On our first touring day, we stopped at the visitor center and chatted for about half an hour with the lady there, she'd lived in Marfa her whole life. When we got to asking her about the whole art scene and the tourism that's come with it, she rattled off half a dozen celebrities she'd met. She once picked Jake Gyllenhaal up at the airport. She met the Twilight kids. She didn't recognize Elijah Wood when he came into the visitor center.

There are so many sad, declining small towns in the U.S. The lady at the tourist center admitted there were old people in town who didn't like all the artists crashing the place, but it's a huge economic boon and a such a unique transformation of a really remote place: the movie theater in Alpine was only showing two films, which we weren't interested in, and the next nearest theater that we could pull up on our phones was 2.5 hours away in New Mexico.






This is Prada Marfa. It was not commissioned by Prada, but they did provide their shoes for display to the artist free of charge. It's controversial because of the commercial aspect. But I like it. I'm not much of an art critic though, I like just about anything that has a touch of humor and doesn't alienate me.

It's located about half an hour outside Marfa, so you actually have to drive through Valentine - which is a teeny place on the razor edge of becoming a ghost town - to go see it. When we got there, there was one other car stopped, another tourist. That man left, and another car pulled up carrying another pair of tourists, a young couple like us.

I can't speak to the artist's intention, but I think there's something incredibly funny about driving way the hell out in the desert to photograph a Prada store and then when you get there you see people who look just like you doing the same thing - young, probably educated, fancy camera - taking a picture of  a store you've probably seen in a dozen cities anywhere in the world.



On the way to Prada we spotted this blimp thing. We stopped on the way back to take some pictures, then saw at the gate where it was a military science-y weather-monitoring something or other, which makes my brain immediately go: "Oh Science? BO-RING. Whatever." and forget about it. Shameful, I know. As Popeye would say, I yam what I yam.

But then James stumbled on this article via a Facebook link. The blimpy thing we saw looks an awful lot like this blimp thing:


Now, the thing we saw may very well be what it purports to be on its signage out in the desert. This thing though is a military surveillance blimp that's going to go over Baltimore and it will be able to surveil the crap out of all kinds of stuff as far as dozens of miles away. Techno-surveillance dystopia is upon us. Time to start working on my tin-foil hat. 



After Marfa we drove south and then drove along the Rio Grande - so everything south of the river here is Mexico. 

Texas - Rio  Grande - Mexico
I guess they don't need a fence because the territory is so inhospitable. But we did pass two border check points where border agents check people heading north into Texas.






This was taken at the Contrabando Movie Site, where several nineties westerns were filmed.

In other news, I am working and writing. I am no longer worried about not having enough work, I have repurposed that worrying for stressing over whether the work will evaporate (ah, freelancing). I'm writing about tech startups for a local website and I've scratched out a little more work related to my beloved (subject - not actually beloved) North Korea. Plus I'm doing a bit of commercial blogging and I have a riveting business dictionary-updating gig.

I'm a couple weeks off from a full draft of my novel. I always feel better about it when I'm not actually looking at the screen. Maybe not a good sign? 




Monday, January 13, 2014

Special Gift from RadioShack!



Last semester, James had a class project where he was tasked with rebranding a product or company in need of an update.

He picked RadioShack. You can see his idea here. Today, he received a package in the mail with a gift card, a t-shirt, a neat bluetooth speaker and a thank you card.

It was written by a RadioShack senior manager of social media. He thanked James for putting his work out there and said that while it wasn't "quite" the direction they were moving in, it was a "spot-on" idea.


Woohoo, getting noticed!

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

2013 Reviewed

Okay, here goes:

Florence, Oregon: 5 months
Thailand: 3 weeks
Burma: 1 month
Malaysia: 1 week
Vietnam: 1 month
Laos: 3 weeks
China/Yunnan: 2 weeks
Sacramento: 2 days
Eureka/Santa Rosa/Redwoods campground: 1 night each (to and from aforementioned Sacramento wedding)
Klamath Falls, Oregon: 2 days
Napa: 1 week
China/Beijing: 3 days
Mongolia: 3 days
Russia: 2.5 weeks
Germany: 2 weeks
Austin: 2 months
McMinville, Oregon: 2 days

New Countries:
Thailand
Burma
Vietnam
Laos
Russia

Things that happened:
Swam with elephants in Thailand
Threw up out of a bus window, had nice Burmese lady hand me a tissue
Scootered to a deserted beach every day, drank beer, ate fresh rolls, read books on Phu Quoc
Saw Ho Chi Minh and Lenin
Saw a dead guy in Laos
Saw millions of bats fly out of Mulu Caves on Borneo
Saw my friends get married
Rolled my eyes when a bald French lady said a Buddhist chant for a chicken meeting its death at the hands of a Tibetan villager
Talked to Tibetans about why they don't like the Chinese government
Had a boozy lunch with random Chinese businessmen in Yunnan
Watched my 5'3" brother jump 22'9" to become Oregon's state long jump champion
Started writing a novel like it was my job
Stopped writing a novel to work slavishly on article about North Korea
Went to a writing conference, people seemed to like what I wrote
Took my mom from Beijing to St Petersburg
Played 50+ games of Scrabble (Mom keeps track)
Ate pickled herring in Tomsk, got nauseous
Got bitten in the shoulder by icky Russian guy in overcrowded van outside Irkutsk
Visited two old friends in Germany, one from Alaska, one from USC
Loved Berlin
Kayaked Siltcoos outlet, twice
Moved to Austin
Had my first Thanksgiving at home in five years
Started shopping at Costco again
Assembled an adult-looking pantry of canned goods for maybe the first time in my life (thanks, Costco)
Happily started living with James again, after 17 months apart

A lot of other things happened too, but I think the above is a fairly accurate snapshot of my 2013.

While there are still places I'd like to go, I feel satisfied with where I've gone since 2008. A few years ago, I felt disappointed if I didn't add a new country to the list during a calendar year (which I did not do in 2012), and I had a sense of urgency about seeing a lot as soon as possible. That feeling has dissipated. I'm happy with what I've done. Now I am in the not-entirely-pleasant position of readjusting to life in the US. Trying to figure out a work situation is stressful, especially since I don't have the network here that I would had I not spent so much time overseas, but then I have to remind myself that a lot of people wait their whole lives to travel. I wouldn't change the way I've done things.

Of my giant travels, the best parts were the outdoorsy ones: hiking in northern Burmese hill country, two nights in a national park in Borneo, my Vietnamese island beach week (my snorkeling butt-burn tan line only really went away about a month ago), kayaking in Laos, hiking in the Himalayan foothills in China and then Tiger Leaping Gorge after that. On my way to two dear college friends' wedding in Sacramento, I saw an amazing sunset coming south down Highway 101 in the Redwoods. My favorite part of doing the Transsiberian with my mom was our stay on Olkhon island. Plus, spending summer here on the Oregon Coast allowed me to do a lot of beach walking. This was a great year for spending time in nature, something I didn't do nearly enough of in China. I have to remember to prioritize outdoor time since I enjoy it so much, but that isn't always easy as a city dweller.

In 2012 I earned the most money of my life thus far. This year I made less than I have since college, which wasn't a surprise -- I did what I planned to do this year, travel and write. The payoff was publication of my most widely-read story to date. Now I just need to figure out how to marry the two, make enough money and get published. If you've figured out how to do this, let me know!

I'm excited about 2014. I'm less sure about what will happen in the next 365 days than I was at this time last year. Figuring out work will be the hardest part, but I have to remind myself to be patient. Typing this blog, I feel kind of wistful, like I haven't spent enough time appreciating what an incredible year I've had, mostly because I've been concentrating on trying to get work since November. At present, I have just about enough freelance things going on to make things work, which is good considering I've only been back a couple months, but the formula needs tweaking, a couple things I need to finish are decidedly not worth the time I've put in.

So resolutions:

2013 Revisited - I just typed 2012 here on accident. Hard to believe a whole year goes by when you spend it doing whatever you want.

1. Lose 10 pounds. (What? I probably weighed more then, coming off a crazy six months of work + holiday eating. But 10 pounds? Lolz - maybe I was filling insecure, looking at too many glossy magazines.)

2. Read a lot of good modern things and a lot of classics. (I had the best reading year of my life, I read 30+ books. Highlights were Anna Karenina, which is the best book I've ever read, Atonement and Handmaid's Tale. I read a lot of other good books, but those are all new lifetime favorites.)

3. Write a novel (I'm over halfway through a first draft. I would've made more progress had I not been interrupted by the Buzzfeed assignment, which was a worthwhile detour. Writing a novel is hard and thankless, yo.)

4. Write 3-4 non-fiction essays (I wrote three. One was my North Korea piece, one is currently under consideration and one didn't find a home - not bad.)

5. Pay my respects to Lenin and Ho Chi Minh, cuz I love me some embalmed Communists (Yes! Finished!)

2014 Resolutions
1. Eat right and exercise (always worth renewing that one)
2. Curate what I read better: More great books, less magazine articles, less blog posts, less Twitter/Facebook/Internet. I'm not going to quit reading any of those things, but I could stand to be more selective and waste less time.
3. Finish the novel
4. Write diligently