Saturday, March 30, 2013

Always going somewhere...

(originally appeared on March 3, on Murder is Everywhere)

A couple of years ago, my life changed pretty dramatically. I left the job I'd had for over a decade. I sold a novel. I sold a couple more. Finally, I sold my house. That last one was pretty traumatic. I'd lived in Venice Beach for 25 years, in a grand total of two places.

And I had a lot of books.

(a portion of the Great Wall of Books)

As much as I love to travel, I hate to move. I'm not sure why. We moved a lot when I was a kid, that might be part of it. The rest of it, I'm not sure. I like wandering around my neighborhood. Walking to shops. Saying "hi" to people who work in them, people I've gotten to know. Having "my" places. My regular dates with friends. 

Maybe a part of why I love to travel is the looking forward to returning home. 

But "home" was a luxury that I knew I'd have to give up for a while. Selling the house was a long, sort of awful process. It took three offers before one stuck. And then it was time to pack. 

And pack.

And pack.

(did I mention that I have a lot of books?)

In spite of all the preparation I'd done, I had very little time to actually pack up and move. I never would have made it without the help of some very good friends. The whole experience instilled in me a horror of having Too Much Stuff, ever again. 

The day before escrow closed, the movers came, loaded up all my belongings in preparation for a drive to Northern California, where a reasonable storage space just south of San Francisco awaited. I'd decided to delay getting a new place, to take a break from the responsibility of all that. Instead I'd take some time to get another book or two in the pipeline, save some money, look around, figure out where I really wanted to be, and what was practical with this writing life.

So, two days later, I loaded up the Mini Cooper

(you can fit a lot in a Mini Cooper)

And drove north to San Francisco.

From San Francisco I went to China.

From China, back to San Francisco for a couple of days, passed through Los Angeles and then on to San Diego for a month.

(Martin Luther King Day parade in San Diego)

And from San Diego, back up to San Francisco, via Los Angeles.

I'm in San Francisco now. In a couple of weeks, I'll head to Colorado for Left Coast Crime. After that, to Puerto Vallarta for a week, where the perfect writing studio awaits (and perhaps a few margaritas). 

Then to Los Angeles and San Francisco for some period of days, including the book launch for Dana Fredsti's PLAGUE NATION (!).

And then to San Diego for the greater part of two months.

After that? Not sure. I'll have some book events for the launch of my newest, HOUR OF THE RAT (details on those to come). Some research trips for the books I'm working on after those. I'll try to float till the end of the year, if I can stand it. If the people I'm staying with in some of these various places can stand me

Or, if the part of me that loves this floating life wins out over the part that misses my cats (happy in their foster homes, but still) and my furniture. The art that hung on my walls. And of course, my books. I may never want to have too much stuff again, but I'm not going to pretend I don't have attachments.

This kind of lifestyle feels pretty weird to me at my age. The closest I can come to it would be back when I was in college, and immediately after. When I had very few responsibilities. When I could choose to go anywhere, and I ended up in Switzerland, China, and then Los Angeles. Where I stayed, for 25 years.

But I'm not a college kid. That was *cough* a lot of years ago. I swing back and forth between feeling a little panicked, a lot unsettled. 

And sometimes, free.

Like, I could go anywhere. Anywhere at all. The possibilities stretch out in front of me. I just have to pick the next one. 

Istanbul. Patagonia. Asmara. Belize.

I only know that there's an expiration date, too. But right now, I don't know when that is. 

I guess none of us do, when it comes right down to it.

Lisa -- Sunday...

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Beating a Dead Pig...

(originally posted on Murder is Everywhere...)

Shanghai is a pretty amazing city. A lot of it looks like this:

And this:

(these are a couple years old, taken right before the '08 Olympics, so trust me, it's even shinier now)

The city boasts one of the largest subway systems in the world, built mostly over the last decade. Shanghai is China's business and economic center, a global city. It really is not the kind of place where you'd expect to find 9000 dead pigs floating in a river that supplies the city's drinking water.

The pigs apparently came from a town upriver called Jiaxing, a center of pork production. Farmers there don't have the land to bury diseased pigs, so dumping is a common solution. The pigs supposedly died from porcine circovirus, which does not threaten humans. The water supply is perfectly safe, say city officials. In fact, the pigs being dumped actually is a step forward for Chinese food safety, according to the New York Times -- in the past, pigs that had died from diseases frequently ended up sold for meat on the black market and on peoples' tables. 

There have been so many food scandals in China in recent years (sewer oil, fake eggs, fake walnuts, adulterated baby powder, etc. etc. etc.), but this one seems to have struck a particular (gross) chord.

I'll spare you the disgusting photos and go right to the jokes.

A popular choice was parodying the recent Ang Lee film:

Tea Leaf Nation, a site that provides translations of Chinese social media, had this one: 
@淮安老蒋 tweeted on Sina Weibo, China’s Twitter, “Shanghainese people are happy indeed. They pay for water but can drink pork soup!”
 A variation on that joke reported on Shanghaiist:
Beijinger: "We Beijingers are the most fortunate, we can open the window and have free cigarettes." Shanghainese: "That's nothing, we turn on our faucets and have pork chop soup!"
Managing to hit both this scandal and the horrendous air pollution that blanketed Beijing earlier this year.

In the past, the choice has been economic development at the expense of the environment, but now China's ecological crises are so severe that they not only threaten China's economic development, but the social stability of the nation itself. These are issues that unite Chinese across class, location and profession, poor farmers and wealthy urbanites alike. The new administration knows it has to take steps to improve food safety and the environment, yet somehow not throttle back development that keeps the masses employed. One good sign is the front-runner for the position of environment minister, Pan Yue, the former Deputy Director of China's State Environmental Protection Administration. Pan Yue used that office as a bully pulpit, taking on powerful state-owned companies and local governments that polluted with impunity before being shunted aside in 2008. Now he's back, and the question is, will SEPA be given the budget and enforcement power to actually do its job.

And it's a big job. You not only have to fight special interests with ties to the CCP leadership, you have to take on a society where far too many are willing to risk the health of others to make a profit. The lack of trust is frequently cited by Chinese as one of the biggest problems in Chinese society. I have to wonder, at what point are these social bonds frayed past breaking? As one China netizen put it: "The environment around us, and the society we live in, are rotting away just like these pig carcases.” The Central Government has maintained a broad popularity in China (unlike local governments, which are often despised for their more visible corruption), but faced with CCP members dressing up in Pucci, Burberry, Hermes and Armani for the annual "Two Meetings," I wonder also how well that popularity will hold up.

It will be interesting to see how incoming President Xi deals with all of this. 

By the way, his wife, Peng Liyuan, is a famous PLA folk singer and regular performer at the annual CCTV New Year's Gala. She apparently will take a more active role in Xi's administration than most Chinese First Lady's. One of her areas of advocacy in the past has been HIV awareness and education, and the hope is that she'll carry on that work. 

I bet you want to see her sing, right?

Okay, this video has nothing to do with the rest of the post. But I just needed to share it. Because I found it deeply weird...


Saturday, March 16, 2013

Fun with books!

(originally published at Murder Is Everywhere, March 10, 2013)

Apologies for my tardiness, Murderous's been a bit chaotic here at my temporary abode in San Francisco...good chaotic. But sufficiently so that, well, I forgot it was Sunday.

I'll explain: I've been at author events most nights of the last week. Definitely something I like about living here. So far I've attended one by Cara Black, at the wonderful Books Inc., celebrating the release of MURDER BELOW MONTPARNASSE:

(and by the way, you can win a trip to Paris with Cara!)

Next up was a visit to the fabulous Book Passage!  I was there to see Melanie Benjamin, whose latest novel is The Aviator's Wife, a fictional telling of the life of Anne Morrow Lindbergh (and NYT best-seller!):

And it's a good thing for my bank account that I had the event to attend, because otherwise I could have gotten into some serious trouble at Book Passage. It's not only an incredible bookstore, they have an entire building devoted to travel stuff. Books, hats, suitcases, accessories. Given that I have a, well, slight bag and hat addiction, this kind of thing is dangerous for me...

My third author event of the week -- one of Janet Rudolph's salons. Janet is the founder of Mystery Readers Inc. and editor in chief of that organization's Mystery Readers Journal. This month's guest was Sarah J. Henry, author of Anthony-winning Learning to Swim -- her new book is A Cold and Lonely Place.  This is a great atmosphere to talk to authors and readers, and I came away from the evening feeling as though I'd made some new friends.

My final event of the week (and the one that kept me out late last night): "The Traveling Circus and Snake-Handling Show," an evening of authors and musicians, with cupcakes! Popcorn! Prizes! This was a benefit for the Variety Children's Charity of Northern California sponsored by SF in SF and organized by SF/UF author Seanan McGuire (who is an awesome singer too!). Other authors included Amber Benson (yes, the actor who can also sing and has now published 5 books!) and Sarah Kuhl (author of "the geek romantic comedy novella One Con Glory"-- as a fellow girl geek, albeit one from an older generation, I'm really looking forward to her take on Con Culture). Their joint reading of the first chapter from Sarah's upcoming novel was hilarious. Truly. The whole night was a blast. I laughed so hard my muscles are sore today:

So, readers, that is my excuse for being late. I was having too much fun with books.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Thursday, March 07, 2013

Happy Year of the Snake!

I was born and raised in California, and I've always been happy about that. It's different here. I didn't realize this growing up, but culturally we're a lot more influenced by Mexico and Latin America and Asia than most other parts of the US (though this may be changing -- I take it you actually can get decent Mexican food in the Deep South these days!).

Chinese culture has been a part of California culture since the Gold Rush, and that influence has only gotten stronger in the last few decades with the huge influx of Mainlanders up and down the coast. Forget Chinatown--in Los Angeles we have an entire China Valley, a suburban sprawl of Chinese restaurants and businesses that includes Monterey Park, the US city with the highest percentage of Chinese Americans and just about any kind of Chinese cuisine you'd like, as good and authentic as anything on the mainland.

But I doubt if there's anywhere in the US where the Chinese influence is more bound up in a city's culture than San Francisco.

I love it. I've been staying in Outer Sunset, an area where many more recent Chinese immigrants have settled. There's a restaurant not far from here called "Mandarin Islamic," or in Chinese, “老 北京,” which actually translates to "Old Beijing," specializing in Northern Chinese cuisine, including my favorites, 羊肉串儿 and 孜然羊肉。Delicious! It's like Beijing, without the air pollution.

Tonight was a big night in San Francisco, the official Chinatown parade and festival to celebrate the Year of the Snake. And watching the parade, I really got a sense for how deeply rooted Chinese culture is in the civic culture here.

The Chinatown festival was a little disappointing. Lots of booths selling phone accessories and stamps and advertising cars, banks and other businesses, and not nearly enough snacks! Where were the dumplings? I was so craving dumplings. I retreated to the Comstock Saloon and had an Anchor Steam and a Po' Boy.

But I decided to stick around for the parade, and I'm glad that I did.

There were marching bands, and cable cars and vintage autos carrying local politicos. There were dragon dancers, and lion dancers. Lots of them.

Sponsored by elementary schools, high schools, martial arts organizations, businesses, government agencies. 

What I found particularly charming were the numbers of non-ethnically Chinese people who participated. Little blonde kids with Peking Opera makeup, Latino and black teens underneath the lions and dragons, big tall Anglo dads and moms walking behind the groups as chaperones, everyone setting off firecrackers and waving fuzzy toy snakes on a stick. 

It's a Chinese tradition, to be sure. But it felt like everyone in San Francisco's celebration.

I think it's what I love best about California. That we have this amazing wealth of tradition and culture here, and it's a bounty that we all can share. 

Maybe it's what I love about America, too. 

I think my favorite marchers may have been the Southwest Airlines ground crew following their float: 

After the parade, I caught the Muni back to Outer Sunset. My iPhone ran out of juice, or I would have gotten more and better photos. But waiting on the platform were a bunch of marchers from the parade.

Parents who'd been stilt-walkers, dressed in embroidered Chinese jackets and character costumes, civic workers carrying banners and 3-D cardboard signs of Muni trains, kids with their opera makeup and animal costumes. It was pretty damn cool.