Sunday, May 19, 2019

Travels with Meus in Search of California

Day 1, Saturday: A literally literary ending to my stay in the City of Literature

I was robbed on my last night in Seattle, my car windows smashed. It was also broken into on my first. Poetry sucks. The last time around, all that was taken was a worn-out wallet with credit cards and a driver's license, all about to expire in a few weeks, my laptop and passport left behind. The thieves were even kind enough to relock the car and hide the keys, pilfered from my gym locker, underneath the vehicle where they couldn't be seen except by a desperate owner searching the ground in the hopes that they had been dropped somewhere.

I believe, I think, that they didn't want to hurt me personally in any way. I could easily cancel the credit cards. Reprogramming car keys would have cost upward of $400 and require me to tow the vehicle, had I not had spare keys, or uber around until I could find them.

The second time around, the perpetrators weren't quite as magnanimous. Fortunately, I found a glass shop that was able to fix it that day because this trip would not be stopped. They told me had I called any later, they would have been fully booked. I left the Seattle that afternoon barely an hour later than planned, with the sun still high in the sky.

Curiously, the thieves stole only a suitcase full of clothing, a blender, and a bag of glass tupperware, as far as I can tell (the rest I'll see when I unpack the Meus in Los Angeles). Perhaps they were scared off, or only in desperate need. In any case, it could have been far worse. I hope they needed those things more than I did. Whether these thieves also had the intent to do no personal harm to me, I don't mind cleaning out the closet and starting fresh with this move. In the words of my old friend Rod, "This is God saying we need a new look."

Day 2, Sunday: Coasting down Oregon

Sunday was for driving down the Oregon coast. Some travelers argue this is actually the best sliver of the Pacific Coast Highway. Compared to Washington and California, the land is less built up, and you won't find Bear Flag style piers and neon lights spoiling the geography. The road hugs the coast for pretty much the entirety of the state. I started my day at the Tillamook dairy factory, wondering to myself why eating ice cream for breakfast didn't feel unfamiliar. It was the best ice cream I had had since moving to the Pacific Northwest, since it wasn't lavender or basil flavored. Vive la chocolate chip.

I overshot the landing at Cannon Beach the night prior, with the sun long gone over the horizon. The fault was mine entirely, half a dozen too many sudden stops at the side of the road for a vista, the second common theme of the trip. The first, come to find, was the cows, who became my most enduring companions. The sound of the ocean was nice, however, and the beach was dotted with hearty visitors huddled around fires. This gave me a chance to test the night mode on my phone, having revived a 3-year-old Samsung S7 with the Google Camera APK to force it to hold out until 5G arrived.

Spoiled Sea Lions
I packed everything I had into my car. I was fortunate enough that I happened to have lived in a furnished apartment with two friends from graduate school, and on an 8 month lease that ended right as I received the offer to move. Meus has been with me through four states, five if you are willing to count my return to California. He came to me by chance. The Volvo, a wonderful wagon with built in booster seats and a rear-facing trunk seat, was nearing the end of its affordable life. I found a Prius that was almost exactly the specification I sought, and decided to test drive it on the way to a meeting north of Houston. On my way, a sheet of metal in the road caught a gust of wind off a large sixteen wheeler, and came careening into my car. I took it as a sign, and bought the Prius on the spot.

I couldn't have asked for a sunnier drive, and the six hours passed by more quickly than most 30 minute drives in less stunning locales. Perhaps because I could scarcely go thirty minutes without stopping to see what new rock formation I was passing. The most notable stop was America's largest sea cave, where visitors can actually take an elevator down to the cave to gaze upon sea lions for whom that studio aparment just wasn't cutting it. And yes,  they installed the elevator during the migratory season when the sea lions weren't present.

Happy Cows

Day 3, Monday: I haven't seen trees this gigantic since I was little

I actually arrived to the Jedediah Smith grove around sunset on Sunday. "Proceed about one mile to your destination," the voice inside my head unit said. Any cellular signal had long ago slipped through the grasp of my phone. I stared down what appeared to be a dead end dirt road, past three homes inhabited by what I assume are very independently minded folks. I gave the Samsung another try. Are you there, Google? It's me, Aaron. But, almost nonchalantly, eight hundred years of old growth suddenly appeared. It was beginning to get dark, but a schedule is a schedule, so onward I went. In case you're wondering, an old growth forest is a magical place to be alone at sunset (when you have plenty of gas).

Monday I reached Crescent City in northern California. Ask a true Californian and they'll tell you that San Francisco is not northern California, it's the Bay Area. Eventually I would arrive in Southern California, because have Meus, will travel. I had been to the Sequoias in the central valley many times, but never to the famous redwoods in the upper reaches of the state. I find that these trees share a similarity in that they are not seen as much as they are felt. Go too long between visits, and the trees will diminish in your memories. It's only immersed in a sea of them that you will be reminded of how incredible they truly are.

I started Monday morning at the Foothill Trail, a pathway so flat I fear trail may be a misnomer. After directing me to the trailhead, a park employee looked around, paused, and told me to leave my car in the thirty minute parking space where it was. "It's Monday, you won't see many people here today."

LA Paul Bunyon
The foothill trail winds through a lush, wet part of the redwoods, and culminates in the Big Tree. As much as the three-hundred-foot-tall trees pulled my gaze skyward, I kept coming back down to the thriving ecosystems that had taken over the prime real estate of the fallen. When I returned from the hike, I found a Stellar's Jay posing on a blue handicapped parking sign, begging me to take a photo. Somehow he must've known I got the shot, because immediately after, he departed.

The next stop was the Lady Bird trail, higher into the mountains and partly shrouded in clouds. I have little to say because nothing could capture the beauty of these giants. They simply are something felt more than seen. My fellow hikers were mostly retirees. I assume this was because it was a Monday; It'd be a shame to wait an entire lifetime to see something like this. We may not even be able to.  A few struck up conversation, but mostly we communicated via a morse code of smiles and gasps.

Dead and alive
Before heading southward, I considered Fern Canyon for my next stop. The same guide took a look at the Meus. "You're going to want to come back in a few months, unless that thing floats." So I headed onward. I had made it about three hundred feet when the vehicles ahead of me suddenly began pulling off the road. Elk Grove was true to its name, and a herd lay crouched in the grass while another stood guard.

From the Lady Bird Trail, I drove south another hour, stopping in Eureka for a quick plate of salmon and oysters at Humboldt Bay Provisions. Humboldt Bay is famous for its oyster harvest, and I will say that the oysters were that sort of meal against which all future oysters will be measured. I spent the night in Ferndale, a small Victorian town based, yes, on the dairy industry. I stayed at the Gingerbread Hotel, an ornate Victorian mansion that had been converted from a hospital and now served as a bed and breakfast. Only three rooms were occupied, so the innkeeper told me to feel free to explore the other rooms. The aesthetic could have been Steinbeck's inspiration for the Ames Brothel in East of Eden. Because I needed to sleep that night, I decided not to ask whether the inn had any lingering guests. "But Aaron," you say, "The innkeeper died years ago, and the inn has been abandoned ever since!" Which would explain how such a sumptuous breakfast had no affect on me whatsoever.

Me, yes, inside a tree
Day 4: Not all who wander are Lost Coast

Follow the Pacific Coast Highway from Olympic National Park to San Diego, and you'll go from rainforests, to beaches, to strip malls. What you won't see is an 25-mile stretch of land where the PCH cuts inward, avoiding a particularly rugged area now served only by a rough one-land surface road. Ferndale is often considered a jumping off point for this region, and after the aforementioned breakfast, I set off to see if the coast could be found.

There's something wonderful in having the ability to stand in the middle of a coastal road in California and have no fear of being mowed down by other tourists. In fact, along the Lost Coast you may go miles without seeing anyone. Pull off at Black Sands Beach, clamber over the rocks, and you'll find yourself out of sight of the road, hidden amongst a small crevice.  I did that, and wondered how long I could stay there before someone would come by. If you ever try it, let me know. And if you decide to hike, be warned that parts of the trail disappear at high tide, so time your path accordingly.

On my way out of the coast, I passed through Petrolia, a town so named for the industry that would eventually mean that Los Angeles is still the most oil-producing urban region in the country. I expected to speed my way through the Humboldt Redwoods State Park, but came to a clearing where all the cars ahead of me and behind me seemed to disappear, and pulled over because I found myself unable to do anything but stare upward. The burst of redwoods around me reminded me of the the annual Independence Day fireworks along the Charles River Esplanade in Boston, when the most stunning display comes right at the end, right after you thought the show was over.

More cows in beautiful places

Days 5, 6, and 7: I met my heart in San Francisco

Wednesday, I drove south through Mendocino, and into the Bay. Ernest was flying in from San Antonio to meet me, and as luck would have it (for me, anyway), his flight was delayed. This gave me time to pull off the road for one requisite photo, and to clear the front seat. Thanks to the lightening of my load at the start of the trip, I now had enough space that my boyfriend could actually fit into the passenger seat.

How many times am I going to take this picture

On Thursday, I brought Ernest to heaven the Jelly Belly factory. We had a momentary panic that we might not be allowed in without children, like at Chuck E Cheese. While the majority of the rest of the visitors were in fact groups of school children, we were allowed in, and after a handful of samples went on a self-guided tour. Apparently, Very Cherry is the world's favorite flavor. Apparently, the majority of the world has never had Juicy Pear. Fun Fact: the vomit flavor jelly bean was created by taking the (failed) attempt at a pepperoni pizza flavor and adding citric acid to give it that special kick.

Did you know if you eat the beans one at a time, the calories don't count?
To satisfy the one of us with the more adult palate, our next stop was Sonoma. The founder of the Buena Vista winery, which purports to be the first of its kind in California, and the de facto founder of the California viticulture, was apparently a lifelong bachelor who built a very deep friendship with a Chinese man. So it's not something in the water in the Castro-it's something in the wine. Edit: Apparently Agoston married a woman and had six children. Strange the vineyard wouldn't bother to highlight their existence.

Beans waiting to be counted. Just kidding

Me and Ernest!
If you want to feel as though you're in the wild, yet right next to one of the most beautiful structures in the world, try Battery Park East. It was there that Ernest and I realized it's almost unfair how a city can be as beautiful as San Franciscoreinventing itself in the wake of a devestating earthquake. I'm also convinced that "streets lined with Victorian homes" should be a Key Performance Indicator in any city's Walk Score. I'm also reminded, when I'm in this city, how much I used to love photography, and will probably get back into it.
. Climb up a few steps and you'll find yourself in a clearing where, due to the topography, you can't see the roads above or below you, but you can see the bridge. Of course, not every city has been blessed with the geography and climate of San Francisco (say what you will about the coldest winters and summers, but the fog rolling in over the bridge is among the most evocative sights I have ever seen). Still, San Francisco has played this card to its every aesthetic advantage, even

Day 8: To Morro, to Morro, Los Angeles tomorrow

Golden Prius, Golden Hour, Golden Coast
On Saturday, Ernest flew out to San Antonio, and after dim sum with two friends from college and coffee with another one, I continued south down the coast, through Big Sur (no matter that I had seen it many times before, it had to be done), to Morro Bay, and then to San Luis Obispo. At this point, I realized that I felt as though I had already concluded the roadtrip when I hit San Francisco, probably because of the frequency with which I have visited the city while living in Los Angeles. Still, it was this time driving down that I found myself pulling off the road to photograph the vineyards that line the freeway.
Big Sur. That waterfall has been going forever

San Luis Obispo is probably best known for its beautiful beaches and vineyards, as well as the agriculture a bit more inland. What it is less known for is that SLO is another oil producing region of California. In fact, you'll catch reference to it in There Will Be Blood. As I write this, I realize I am making my way through the industries of California-oil, aerospace, tech, and entertainment.

Day 9: Pacific Coast my way

On Sunday, I arrived. Monday, I start work. For Los Angeles, I refer you to this post.

Thursday, January 18, 2018

Review: Exit West

Exit West Exit West by Mohsin Hamid
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I had somewhat high expectations for this book and the "doors" device it utilizes. I had heard good things and considering it's among the most noted books of its year, I thought it might offer something new or inventive to the situation it depicts. Ultimately though, I was a bit disappointed. It's a short book, about half the length of most, and it comes of largely as a summary. I never felt immersed in the story, more I felt perhaps like someone was recounting an experience to me over a coffee or dinner.

I thought the device of the "doors" was underutilized, as it simply allowed more movement to more places, rather than perhaps spending more time in one destination. This allows Hamid to sidestep some of the conflict that could tie down the characters, and potentially bog down the story in a refugees-at-the-border situation, and at first I found this compelling, but ultimately unfulfilling. I don't think the device even came into play until halfway through the novel. Because Exit West is so short, and they move around so much, again I felt it was largely a summary. Still, what narrative is provided is eloquent and well written.

View all my reviews

Monday, December 4, 2017

Review: East of Eden

East of Eden East of Eden by John Steinbeck
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I've reread this book every couple of years, and each time it adds back a little bit of that color to life that I didn't realize was starting to drain. Steinbeck writes in a way that clearly cuts against our contemporary novels, so often grounded in realism to the point of banality in trying to be "truthful." Steinbeck writes with enough richness that his characters can be analysed on end, yes, because they are symbols. They are more than human, but not just superficially so. Steinbeck elevates symbolism and aesthetic to a higher level. I don't read his stories so much as wrap myself up in them, immersing myself in his world. I remember the first time I went to California after reading a Steinbeck novel, and the hillsides seemed to whisper to me in a way they never before had.

Like the bible from which it draws so much, the interpretation of this novel will change over time. I for one found Cathy to be one of the most compelling characters of the novel. She ostensibly lacked depth, because that is how her creator (Steinbeck) viewed her and made her. It was only natural that she was cynical, because Steinbeck seemed to create her in a sense of cynicism. But with a more modern interpretation, she was a strong-willed, independent character who didn't want to obey society's rules, and was willing to experiment with the suppressed desires of people, most obviously sex. She was the perfect foil to Adam-he saw things as he wanted to see them, and she saw things as they are.

As an Asian American, I won't go into my love of the character Lee in too much detail. Suffice to say, his comments to the effect of "sometimes to make people listen, you have to tell them what they want to hear" resonated with me the first time I read this, and each time after. Nothing is what it appears on the surface in a Steinbeck novel. Every detail in this lengthy story is important, and in a sense the novel is that realistic in that we come to make certain assumptions about the characters and the story that are ultimately turned on their head. In the end, though, all the pieces in the narrative just fit together. The novel may as well be called "Life."

View all my reviews

Saturday, November 25, 2017

Review: Little Fires Everywhere

Little Fires Everywhere Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book is an excellent weekend or vacation read. Beautifully written, and emotionally compelling while I was listening to it. I found myself rooting for some characters, hoping certain things would or wouldn't happen, and pulled in all the directions that I would want to be (even if I didn't *want* to be) to keep me going to the end. The challenge here is that, I had a sense that I had heard this story before. The most intriguing character of the story, Mia, the starving artist and single parent, is also the most opaque. Some readers here seem to argue that Ng writes to much in Mia's favor, but I actually read it more as somewhat of a hesitancy to commit to a full analysis of Mia, for better or for worse.

Ultimately, as beautifully as the writing is, I don't see this as a story that will linger in my thoughts long after it has ended. The characters trode very familiar territory. The exception to this might be the case involving a child's adoption. Here I felt quite strongly that there was more debate that could have been explored, but was not, in order to keep the Shaker families squarely in the roles that were created for them. I did not seem to feel the sympathy for (being opaque to avoid spoilers) some characters in the trial that the author did, particularly given the past choices of the character, and how easily that should have come up in the trial as a source of skepticism of the plaintiff.

Still, because the story was so artfully crafted, I leaned toward four stars. Definitely worth a read.

View all my reviews

Saturday, November 18, 2017

Review: Call Me by Your Name

Call Me by Your Name Call Me by Your Name by André Aciman
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I hated it. Every moment.

But the opposite of love is not hate. The opposite of love is indifference.

I hated the author's unwavering commitment to love as art. I hated his ability to make these two characters into impossible, yet fully believable and realized characters. Like magic, literature only works if you believe in it, I suppose. I hated those little things that made me pause the audiobook from time to time to whisper, "For goodness sake, get over it, Elio." I hated how the author found ways to avoid melodrama, yet kept me listening to the very end. I hated how Armie Hammer read the novel like he was telling me about his own life, and grabbing me by the shoulders and pulling me in to whisper into my ear.

At times I wondered if the 17-year-old Elio was really a credible character. But then I realized he reminded me of all those friends of mine of whom I was once so dismissive, back in high school. The ones who would talk to me about Proust while I was trying to do derivatives. I wondered, as I read this, do straight people feel as pandered to when they read Jane Eyre as I do right now reading Call Me By Your Name?

I couldn't put it down until I finished it, and like a past romance that on the surface I wish had never happened, I wouldn't change a thing.

View all my reviews

Sunday, May 29, 2016

From the land where the sun rises to the land where the sun sets

Los Angeles' Phase 2 of the Expo line to Santa Monica opened May 20.
Los Angeles. The City of Angels. The city where dreams are made, and where they’re broken that will chew you up and spit you out like the next fad diet. The city of gangs and sprawl and Rodney King, a melting pot and a patchwork quilt. The most racially integrated large city in the United States. A relatively young American city that smells like the ocean and urine and mountains and smog and bulgogi and pupusas and Spider Man will help you to some Mary Jane. A city of Beverly Hills and Skid Row. A city that is Googie-fantastic and noir and booming and just friendly enough for you to get comfortable. A city that drilled for oil and found movie reels. Where lalaland always be reel. A city where the first question on Saturday morning is “surf or ski or work on a movie?” A city where “old town” means “looks like New England.” A city where anything goes, except during rush hour on the 10, but that’s changing because it’s building rail faster than any other American city because rail is hip again. A city that knows how to party like it’s 1984 in 2024. A city of trends that’s still too cool to care. A city where sometimes you’re better off if you speak Korean or Spanish than if you speak English. A city with all the culinary trappings of New York but we rock up in sand-covered flip-flops because bourgeois intellectualism is like totally banal man. A city where the streets aren't paved with gold, but the crosswalks are painted with rainbows. A city where who the fuck cares because the sun is shining and there’s wind in your hair. It’s Little Tokyo and Koreatown and Little Osaka and Beverly Hills and Little Thai Town and Historic Filipinotown and Chinatown and Little El Salvador and Compton and Watts and cakes melting in the rain that so rarely comes. A city of East and West. A city that gives new meaning to blight and flight and light and might. A city that will inspire you enough to write naïve and possibly oblivious paeans to all of nothing.

From the land where the sun rises to the land where the sun sets,

You are fantastic.

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

The Hitchhiker's guide to the sharing economy

I remember the first time I found eBay.   My parents were incredulous.  But I didn't care where it was coming from.  I just had to have my Britannia Beanie Baby.  So, after a bit of wrangling, I convinced by parents to let me create an account in their name.  To this day my father is known to his sellers only as Bubbleflueff, someone whose transactional history somehow spans Furbie to boxing gloves.  Nearly two decades later, we've crossed into Web 2.0 (I think that's how we refer to it? Or 3.0?), that takes this person to person transaction to a whole new level.

AirBnB.  Lyft (Fine. And Uber).  Fiverr.  Thanks to these services my roommates and I have played host to Canadians, Aussies, Kiwis, Koreans, Frenchmen, Germans, Swiss, Belgians, Swedes, and Americans.  In fact, the only repeat country we've had is two or three American guests.  Traveling abroad, AirBnB has enabled me to get urban design-centric tours of Tokyo, and an exclusive visit into this building (my host owned one of these so I got the chance to stop by, otherwise closed to tourists).  I've been able to rescue myself when I stepped off at the wrong bus stop heading for Newark, and I've been able to locate someone to help me build a smartphone application in much shorter time than it would have taken me to do myself.

It goes without saying at this point, but if you haven't tried these tools, you should. Hint: if you preload your route on Google Maps while on wifi, you can still use GPS data free to locate yourself on the map, all while avoiding international roaming charges.  Oh-one other benefit.  There's also the built in filter that you are bound to meet people who are tech-savvy and forward-thinking.

Yes, it is clear the sharing economy does reflect on a generation of individuals who fell on hard economic times.  But necessity is the mother of invention, and these fruits of the recession are having a significantly positive impact on both local and foreign cultural exchange.

Large institutions arose for a reason.  They fulfilled a gap in the market in the desire for safe, stable operations.  Reliability and consistency trumped identity and gave rise to the leviathan of then hotel industry.  Taxis replaced hitchhiking.  But thanks to the mobile technology revolution, information is now realtime in location too, and an ecosystem of connected services is allowing for the revival of what I would argue is actually the more traditional way of doing business-but with greater accountability.

AirBnB, and other sharing economy services, are not without flaws and controversy.  Yes, I have found a strange-looking stain on the sheets.  Your neighbors may dislike the sudden uptick in strangers passing by their homes.  Rents may be on the rise because individuals are willing to pay more assuming they can rent spare space on AirBnB.  And independent operators are not going to have the experience or preparation to respond in the event of emergency situations (do you have a plan in place for tending to a guest who has come down with a bout of food poisoning, or who is having an allergic reaction to shrimp?).  In these situations, things tend to go perfectly until they go horribly wrong.

But taken in the grand scheme of things, those wrinkles are likely to iron themselves out.  Once again, regulators find themselves caught in a situation where they cannot keep pace with technology, and are playing catch-up.  Just as their forebears did with the boomtimes of yore, many of these companies are flouting regulations that arose in order to protect unsuspecting citizens who might otherwise buy that snake oil.  The question is where the balance lies.

It's incredibly exciting to see some of the changes that are taking place, and completely reinventing the way we buy, sell, engage, and travel.  I can only wonder what tradition will next use technology to make a comeback.