Friday, June 22, 2012

Ai Weiwei, farm subsidies and a healthy man crush.

Hot doggie - dang glad to reflect upon the fortuitous timing of my recent Eastern Standard swing. In contrast, Seattle's facing full on June-uary as of now. Whatever the upcoming forecast, I feel the need to sweat out a few stories so I might re-hydrate and move on.
  •  The Chinese government just cannot stop messing with Ai Weiwei. I still haven't seen the documentary about his struggles that has been making the art-house rounds ("Never Sorry"). His story unfolds in totally depressing ways almost daily. The tax evasion case the government is using to flummox and shut him down artistically keeps moving forward. I mention this as a not so friendly reminder of how artists of all stripes in China are struggling to freely express themselves. Total drag.
  • In other news that far too few people notice, the Senate just passed the Farm Bill's mandated renewal to the tune of $1-Trillion-with-a-T over the next decade. To start digging into what's there is to borrow the shovel from Hercules and step onto the threshold of the Augean Stables. Everyone gloms questionable junk onto this sort of omnibus bill (Harry Reid had to massively compromise the amendments down to just 73). I imagine that even the wonkiest beltway tools glaze over when this debate gets ranging everywhere from sugar beet subsidies to aid to Pakistan and all sorts of questionable places in between. This collective absurdity now heads to the House for them to do their business all over. Believe it or not, I find plenty in all the Farm Bill stimulating. Some people get their kicks from 50 Shades of Grey and the sequels. Are my kinks any dirtier? Don't answer that.
  • I can't believe I'm saying the following without electrodes being threateningly attached to some unmentionable part of my body. Here goes...congrats to the Miami Heat for winning the NBA Championship. If they'd faced any team other than the one stolen from Seattle, I'd be on the other side of that victory parade. But until my secret man-crush Chris Hansen (no, not the creepy "To Catch a Predator" host, I'm talking about the previously anonymous hedge-fund brainiac) gets Seattle's elected curmudgeons to sign off on a dual-use stadium for our dreamed of new NBA and NHL franchises (stolen from cities to be named later...apologies in advance, America), the only team I consistently cheer for is the one playing against Clay Bennett's OKC Thunder. Way to go, Heat-meisters. Now knock it off.
With that said, let the summer begin. Keep cool out there, Campers.

Friday, June 15, 2012

Serving up a small slice of New York on the way back to Seattle

Ticking off the things I was surprised by over the past few weeks on the road would take quite a while. And even though my flight to get home to Seattle is long enough to justly explain almost any subject, I'm going to keep it relatively simple. There were some things I really did enjoy. In some cases repeatedly. So in no particular order, here's a few things I'd do again if I were heading back to New York City tomorrow.
  • Everyone knows of Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty. But if your ancestors arrived between 1855 and 1890, chances are they came through the Castle Clinton National Monument (or Castle Garden, back in the day) complex in Battery Park. There's a big renovation under way. But combined with an under construction view of the Freedom Tower, it's well worth a trip to the far tip of Downtown. Seeing the crowds of construction workers milling about early in the morning outside the WTC site - smoking, joking, being total doods - was a slice of real street life that I will speak of fondly for some time to come.
  • I've got a sentimental connection to Ulysses S. Grant's Tomb in Riverside Park, all the way up to 120th Street on the West Side. If you run through Central Park and want to tack on a few extra miles, head west at the north end (which is basically 110th). I'm a sucker for places in the City where you're not overwhelmed constantly. This is one of those rare places. Early mornings, especially.
  • I enjoyed the benefit of catching up with a friend from way back who lives in the Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn. He showed me all around and back to his place on Broadway - where the Hasidic men act they can't even hear M line train clamoring along on an elevated track all the way to and across the Williamsburg Bridge back into Manhattan. I'd started my day in Brooklyn over in Park Slope. Don't get me wrong - it's awesome over there. Totally different vibe, though. What sounds like a constantly evolving landscape in Williamsburg is fascinating to hear about from someone who lives there, who knows it from seriously deep in the mix. If you go, find Marlow & Sons. Sample at least a dozen oysters. We also had a duck pate` plate that came out looking like a big ol' scoop of ice cream. Mmmm...liver ice cream (drool).
  • Back in Manhattan, stop to light a candle in St Patrick's Cathedral on 5th Avenue. Donate a buck or two. Then go use the bathrooms in Trump Tower. Do not spend a dollar on anything Trump-y. But say a prayer in both places. Preferably not the same one.
  • The still new-ish High Line Park is simply gorgeous. Basic logistics for those unaware - the elevated rail line used for the manufacturing areas of lower Manhattan was turned into a park starting back in 2002 instead of being torn down. It's totally unique and draws your attention to the art and funky architecture and all sorts of stuff to see in the neighborhood. Which is basically Chelsea - a place so hip you want to pull the whole neighborhood down a dark alley and punch it in the face. But that alley would probably smell like a herb garden and be lit with really intriguing dangling light fixtures, so don't bother. Just walk the High Line, preferably near sundown.
  • Even though I didn't need to stay there, I will admit to getting totally sucked into the newly developed little block o' Great Northwestern biznesses (or ones with the vibe we create in our cities out yonder). I'm speaking of the stretch along 30th, between Broadway and Fifth Avenue. The Ace Hotel, Stumptown Coffee and The Breslin Cafe - all stylish, friendly and good at what they do. I was one of the innumerable folks waiting in that ridiculous line for Stumptown's coffee bar, I had the most delicious light breakfast one day at Breslin's when I just couldn't take a twenty coffee order deep line, and I repeatedly used the tables in the lobby. What can I say - I was spending a lot of time in the bordering garment district. If you're over there, just go and see what I mean.
I've skipped over huge chunks of a few weeks worth of traveling. Maybe I'll hit some of those highlights. Or just fold all that knowledge gained into what I put forth in the months ahead. The main point being that I'm finally headed home. This "on the road" stuff will soon be in the past tense. At least until my next trip(s) later this summer.

Friday, June 8, 2012

"ARRR books be good..."

Yesterday I attended the final day of Book Expo America. It was my first time there - I was a total BEA virgin. To get in I'd registered as a "blogger". So my sense of truth in self-advertising leads me to put up a post about it. For those who don't know, BEA's the hugest American tradeshow for the publishing industry. Imagine packs of librarians milling about, sheepishly approaching often stylish booths filled with generally friendly publishing folks to ask for free books ("galleys" or "advance review copies" of new releases, in paperback form even those many of those books will be coming out soon in hardcover). But once these attendees get the hang of it, man, they load up those NPR and Whole Foods totebags like vegans at a farmer's market. It's actually much broader and more interesting than that. Lots of authors mix in through the schedule - signing free copies of their books with the understanding that an ounce of promotion here probably leads to many more sales eventually. The authors run the gamut. Embarrassments like Kirstie Alley get too much attention. Except when you try to take photos like I did - getting shuffled away by security seems especially out of place and downright lame there. I loved seeing Dan Rather. For 80-years-old, Dan the actual man's a tribute to tough west Texas breedin'. Jim Kelly (the former Buffalo Bills quarterback) turned out to provide an entirely fun interaction. I told him about the awesome biker bar I stayed at two nights ago outside Buffalo "with loads of Bills stuff in the apartment upstairs". To his absolute credit, Jim wanted to know who and where (Whiskey Hill Saloon in Cassadaga, NY). When he confessed that he didn't know that particular biker bar, I told him that he simply must pull off the NY Thruway at Dunkirk (exit 59) to check it out. I'd bet y'all a Romney he'll head that way at some point. And there were others. Steve Rinella was a relaxed and engaging guy in what can surely often be a monotonous situation. We had the benefit of having some rather serious things in common and he even offered up some source suggestions. Is that the norm at BEA? I have no idea, but I doubt it. Still if you walk through the doors ready to chat it up, some rather interesting results can shake out. Weirdness, too. Like the L. Ron Hubbard drone who approached me from their overpriced booth - featuring costumed pirates for posed pictures with willing skallywags. I suspect I will never forget the vaguely sweet but tortured "please save me" emptiness in her eyes. I can only imagine the weight of unseen, unknowable "education" bearing down on her from her overlords. And I'm not talking about the BEA staff. They seemed quite nice, actually.

Regardless, I was glad to take my galleys and head on down the road after that one day intro. I suspect the time will come when I head back. Willingly, once more. Anyone who works or wants to work as a writer should do so at least once, in my opinion. Jim Kelly signing or not.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Snaps for Canada. And Cassadaga.

I've spent the past 8 days traveling through Ontario, Quebec and New York State. I'm happy to say that the harvest of stories from sources proved way beyond worth the trip. So I'm heading toward the airport to continue on for another week away from my family back home in Seattle. First, I'll offer this. It's easy when playing my hand so close to the vest to lapse into generalities. But to protect the value of what capturing for the book I'm writing, generalities will have to do for right now. Here's a fattie - I dig Canada. I know I've been rarely but indeed guilty of that tired American cliche` where we make fun of what we know of them - acting like an oafish bully joking about the obvious when confronted with that soft-spoken, unassuming bloke. Now I plan to embark upon an unofficial pro-Canada campaign. Speaking as a nonetheless proud American, I think much of the problem is we just don't know what's gone on or is going on up here. When I got back into Toronto last night after a few days in New York State, I felt sincere pleasure in the returning to a place I barely know. Yet. I merrily got up this morning after only a few hours sleep at the prospect of one last run along the downtown Waterfront. Beyond Toronto, the history I saw thanks to intended stops in Kingston, Ottawa and Montreal offered just a taste of how much is and always was bubbling up here.  Now that's not to say that I didn't get entirely jazzed by the many hundreds of miles of a side trip I took between the border crossing at Plattsburgh, NY through all the way to the Peace Bridge outside Buffalo. Along that route I drank deeply from the sights offered by the Adirondacks (not the best day for vistas, but Highways 28 and 30 rawk). I spent a night in Lake Placid - its just-shy-of-tacky pridefulness and the fact almost every worker appears to be in world-beating shape are just two footnotes to a larger awesomeness. However, if there was a quiz about what was my far-and-beyond favorite stop, I'd tag as this trip's tip top stop the area in and around the teeny town of Cassadaga in Chautauqua County (in far western New York bordering that little notchy part of Pennsylvania along Lake Erie). I spent just one night there, above the Whiskey Hill Saloon. Long story. Totally worth it, though. It's situated at the one stop light in town. There's rich history all over the area. And I went there with a reason. I'll hold back that card, because it's an especially good one which I can't wait to play someday. If you're a Spiritualist  on the way to catch up with a dead pet or Houdini seeking out the mediums in the area (or maybe you're a documentary filmmaker working on a sequel for HBO), stop in at Whiskey Hill Saloon - get the "garbage wings", ask about the "lodging" and tell the owner, Kim, that I sent you. 

And so onto New York City, with a briefcase full of notes and quotes and readiness to roll on, totes magotes. But not before telling Canada and Cassadaga the equivalent of "I love you, man."

Friday, June 1, 2012

Taking a measure of Toronto, before new road work.

I've spent the last few days in Toronto, cruising through a heavy schedule of interviews with sources both old and new. And the writing fills in most of what's left around that. So my time trolling this largest of all Canadian cities hasn't been as leisurely as I'd hoped. I still get out for runs in the morning - opting for along the waterfront of Lake Ontario and through the large-ish and beautiful-ish urban oasis that is High Park. My downtown exploration thus has been limited to the so-called "Mink Mile" along Bloor Street (high end designer stores anchored by the massive Holt Renfrew where employees seemingly wouldn't even look up from their folding if you were engulfed in flames). I went searching for the ghost of Harold Innis at the University of Toronto. I ventured out to what had been a small town (Richmond Hill) in search of a hidden homestead from the mid-19th Century. Not much to find there, now that the "town" has grown into a city of 188,000 hockey fans. Truth be told, my location specific jaunt up to Richmond Hill ended at a mixed-use sports complex from which I can only report that club soccer and league softball also suck to watch on this side of the border unless you're out on the field. I'll do one more day here - with neighborhood exploration plans and some creative thoughts about where the links to what I'm researching might lie. Tomorrow I head toward Ottawa and Montreal, with stops planned in both. More time on the road after that. Which I welcome. I'm a lover of cities and Toronto could supply a varied diet of urban delights for quite a while. But I'm trying to think about how to connect what I've seen here in terms of book-related content with stories from some pretty distant, yet still related, places. For that sort of thing, hours on the highway - or preferably the winding roads cut from the same cloth as those romanticized recently in the NYTimes - means time to process bigger thoughts. Plus no matter what I encounter along the road it can't suck nearly as much as Toronto's summertime highway construction. If there is a hell, the passage in and out is managed by the same people organizing the closure schedules for the highways around this otherwise mannerly city.