Tuesday, December 18, 2007

After Mongolia

I read this paragraph in the Style section of the Sunday New York Times:

“From where I sit,” said Nancy Novogrod, the editor of Travel + Leisure, "traveling to Mongolia now is almost cliché. Last summer, it seemed like everybody was going to Mongolia. The bar keeps getting higher.”

The story is by Allen Salkin, and he gives a thoughtful account of the climate in which we travel.

It does little good to wish that our vacations were not merely another set of indicators, social markers that enter our conversations for the purpose of conferring status, as if one could display an experience like a brand.

In this overheated atmosphere, where any voyage less exotic than Melville’s Typee risks relegation to the lesser ranks of adventurers, the truly irrelevant among us must find our way, unaided, to other sorts of journeys.

Nearer, slower. Less distant, more peculiar.

Places both familiar and strange, to be enjoyed rather than consumed: around the corner, the end of the block, the top of the hill, the other side of the river.

Friday, December 14, 2007

Christmas in Vermont

According to old custom, newcomers to Vermont are called “flatlanders.” Because our family recently moved here from Montana, where the elevation of many riverbanks is a good deal higher than the peak of Mount Mansfield, I consider that a peculiar term. But, since I’m undeniably an outsider, I’ll save that discussion for another day.

This is not our first attempt to set up house here. In 1988, a few months before we left New England for the second time, we scanned the real estate ads with eager eyes, looking for anything within 30 miles of Woodstock that might prove affordable on a teacher’s salary.

As you might expect, we didn’t have much luck, although one enterprising agent did show us a derelict farmhouse with running water in the cellar. It was more of a brook, actually, and made a pleasant sound as it burbled through the foundation stones.

I was tempted by the prospect of flyfishing from the basement steps, but we couldn’t manage the mortgage. Even then, average property values near Woodstock were unrelated to average income.

Not that the place wouldn’t have made a good investment property. Although you can’t eat the scenery, there are plenty of folks willing to pay for it. By 2005, Woodstock’s median home value was $335,800, nearly twice the figure for Vermont as a state.

What do these residents get for their money? In December, it's the annual Wassail Parade: a cable-ready spectacle of horses, costumes, and costumed horses, in sizes from barndoor to wee beastie.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Still Burning Bright

I am partial to stories of people who triumph over long odds, writers who succeed after decades of rejection, no matter how small the triumph, how secret the success. Then, of course, there are the grand tales of genius unrecognized.

According to one authoritative website, the poet and engraver William Blake worked so hard that, for one two-year interval, he left his home only to "fetch his beer."


Whirlwind of Lovers (Illustration to Dante's Inferno) 
Birmingham Art Gallery

Blake’s work will repay your consideration many times over. Few clear memories remain of my visit to London in 1982, but I do remember reading these words on a page in the British Museum:

“Some say that happiness is not good for mortals, & they ought to be answered that sorrow is not fit for immortals & is utterly useless to any one; a blight never does good to a tree, & if a blight kill not a tree but it still bear fruit, let none say that the fruit was in consequence of the blight.”

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Christmas in China

If you live in Shanghai, the scent of Christmas comes alloyed with that of diesel exhaust and fermented tofu. You won’t lack for Christmas lights or Christmas sales, and you can buy Christmas decorations exactly like those for sale in any North American discount chain at your local Carrefour.

But if, like our family, you can’t abide an artificial tree, and were disappointed by the peculiar selection of conifers at the flower market in Hongqiao or the landscaping center on Cao’an Lu, then His Royal Highness Prince Joachim of Denmark is your man.

Never mind the environmental impacts of shipping Danish trees to China. At this time of year, you really don’t want to ponder all the thorny issues of globalization.

What you need is the crisp odor of fresh-cut fir, the caress of branches as you hang your new ornaments, a scattering of needles on your living room floor.

Call Maggie at Shanghai Blue Fish Trading (021 5045 4088 or 135 6442 3727). I met her last December and was impressed with her efficiency. She’ll arrange for delivery to your home, and even pick up the weary twig when the season is over. Prices range from 490 to 2360 yuan, depending on size.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Shanghai Update

The Complete Residents Guide to Shanghai is now available at Amazon. My assignment included the chapter on exploring the city’s neighborhoods, parks, tourist attractions, and historical sites. Most of what appears on pp. 168–194 and 204–224 is my work.

If you're in China now or going soon, see my post for Friday, June 29, 2007, which describes our favorite route for circumnavigating the Bund.

Monday, November 5, 2007

Still Life with Water Buffalo

When I look away from my desk, I can see a red barn, a weathered split-rail fence, one green corner of the upper pasture, and the gray stones of a small cemetery. It’s a traditional postcard scene, and appeared at least once on the cover of the L.L. Bean catalog.

This morning a quick movement caught my eye: our Shanghai cat, proceeding up the hill with all due speed, a limp mouse clenched in his teeth. And behind him—four water buffalo, looking as if they had just escaped from a Balinese rice paddy instead of a nearby dairy.


I don’t know anything about the practicalities of raising water buffalo on granite hillsides, but can report that Woodstock Water Buffalo makes real mozzarella and a densely creamy yogurt.

It took three guys holding big sticks to chase the four animals into a trailer, a tricky task that I complicated further by trying to take pictures. From the few words exchanged, I learned that water buffalo are not only headstrong and powerful, but naturally curious and easily distracted. In the end I was instructed to hide behind a truck.

Friday, November 2, 2007

Halloween in Vermont

After living in Tokyo and Shanghai, our family knows how bizarre and attractive our American holidays can appear to other cultures. You dress up in costume and ask strangers for candy? And they smile when they give it to you? Happy Halloween indeed.

There is something characteristically American about the trust required to ask, and the generosity necessary to give. Not to mention the penchant for disguise and the taste for sweets.



This year we celebrated in Woodstock, Vermont. It’s a beautiful town, with a traditional village green, an elegant and expensive resort (the Woodstock Inn), and an unusually high density of gift shops, real estate agents, and art galleries.


The elementary school’s afternoon parade was well attended and exceptionally good-natured, with much admiration exchanged from both sides of the curb.

What the Man Said

"I have never been lost, but I will admit to being confused for several weeks." —Daniel Boone

Thursday, November 1, 2007

The Limits of Landscape

Last week, looking north from Vermont’s Mount Ascutney, I really didn’t know what I was seeing. There were trees with leaves, trees with names that are hardly mentioned in Montana: maple, beech, ash, oak, and hornbeam.



From above, the landscape looked cozy and inhabited, with quilted patches of woodlot and pasture. It was a pleasant perspective, without the constant reproach of “No Trespassing” that I experience on the ground here.

Open space is better than urban sprawl, but I’ve been spoiled by Montana’s 32 million acres of public land—more than five times the area of the entire state of Vermont. An unfair comparison, I know, but consider these more impartial statistics: public land accounts for almost 35% of Montana, but only 8% of Vermont. No wonder I feel hemmed in.

Many locals seem to cultivate a healthy sense of ownership that extends far beyond the boundaries of their personal property. As a newcomer, I'm not there yet.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Meditation and Metaphor


On my last day in Ulaanbataar, suffering from a spectacular abscess on my back, I walked to the Gandan Monastery. Like many monasteries throughout Mongolia, it was partially destroyed during the Soviet era, while its monks were forced out of service, jailed, or killed. This standing image of the Bodhisattva of Compassion—almost 90-feet tall, cast in copper, and covered with gold—was completed in 1996, a half-dozen years after the Soviet departure.

As a personal metaphor, an abscess takes the cake: a festering from within, a little haven of infection that your body nurtures and grows.

Slightly delirious with pain, I entered the Dechengalpa Datsan, where the monks awaited their noon meal. They sat on raised platforms, with their shoes attending faithfully behind them, a sundry assortment of sandals, athletic shoes, and cavalry boots.

In their chants I could hear a blend of the mature and the childish; some of the robed figures looked as young as seven or eight. In the air I could scent the faint tang of sandalwood.


Each monk received a flat oblong of bread on which was piled a package of cookies, another of candy, and then a layered procession of other small snacks. I watched, straight-backed on a low bench, famished and grateful.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

More about Mongolia

One of the things I dislike about the New York Times’ travel magazine, T: Style (I mean, other than their disregard for my work) is its focus on getting and spending. They even call one of their regular departments “The Get.”

According to the Fall 2007 issue, “Greenland is the new Mongolia,” which means, I suppose, that Mongolia has been officially relegated to “last year” among travel destinations. As it happens, I did go last year, to work as a flyfishing guide for Mongolia River Outfitters. I returned this year, to the same magnificent—and therefore threatened river—along with scientists from the Taimen Project, the World Wildlife Fund, and a crew from AEG Media, also known as the Trout Bums.



Last year, I was able to bottle what I learned into a single story, which will appear in a forthcoming issue of Gray’s Sporting Journal. This year, the confusion has so far resisted all of my attempts at distillation.

Thursday, October 4, 2007

Chatav Ectabit's own website

I posted a long story about Chatav Ectabit, a creative partnership between my brother Cliff Fong and Sandy Dalal, over a couple of weeks in April and May 2007 (see archive). In a world where fashion—according to author Dana Thomas has “sacrificed its integrity, undermined its products, tarnished its history and hoodwinked its consumers,” their clothing provides a thoughtful remnant of luxury.

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

Shanghai, revisited

As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, I wrote most of a chapter for Explorer Publishing’s Complete Residents' Guide to Shanghai. Most of what appears on pp. 168–194 and 204–224 is my work. As far as I can tell, the full Residents' Guide is not yet available at Amazon.com, but you can order the Shanghai Mini Explorer, due out this month.

Home from Mongolia

Now that the taimen season has ended in Mongolia, I’m back in Vermont sifting through notes and photographs. After each long day on the river, I didn’t read as much as usual, but two books deserve your attention.



David Malouf’s novel, An Imaginary Life, offers the sort of sentences that you’ll quote to yourself in times of trouble, such as: “What is beautiful is the way one thing is fitted perfectly to another, and our ingenuity is also beautiful in finding the necessary correspondence between things. It is a kind of poetry, all this business with nets and hooks, these old analogies.”

The other book, Harry Middleton’s The Earth is Enough, was taken on loan from an old friend. It’s nominally about flyfishing but rather more concerned with family, and memory, and the escape from memory. I found it frustrating to read, almost maddeningly in need of a close edit, and peculiarly moving.

Friday, August 17, 2007

Gone fishing

For the next five weeks, I’ll be working in the headwaters of the Amur River in northern Mongolia. If you’re curious about this odd interval of good luck, visit the website of Mongolia River Outfitters.

“Anyone would think I was Tolstoy, the value I put on writing, but it hasn’t amounted to much.” –Philip Larkin

Looking Back

10,000 copies of Explorer Publishing's guide to Shanghai will be given away to registered attendants at September's Expat Show. I wrote the chapter on exploring the city, which was a bit like writing a condensed version of War and Peace. If I neglected your favorite spot, please post a comment here.

For a good read, set in Shanghai, try Qiu Xiaolong’s When Red Is Black. If you’ve lived there in past decade, you’ll find plenty of illuminating detail about the city. If you haven’t, you’ll still enjoy the distracted manner in which Inspector Chen, the poet of the police bureau, solves this case.



Monday, August 6, 2007

Yellowstone yet again

As artist-in-residence, I curated an exhibit at the Madison Museum: letters from three eras of Yellowstone visitors (on foot, by horse-drawn carriage, and by automobile), a range of writing implements from the quill pen to the laptop computer, and a display of photographs by Mode Wineman, taken while he was a member of Calvin Coolidge’s party, in 1927.

I also wrote letters every day, to family and friends, and hung a different one on the wall each morning alongside the historical artifacts. It was fun to watch tourists come across the new letter amidst the old ones, then glance around guiltily as they realized that the personal details they were reading corresponded with a person who was living in the same moment as themselves. Twice my own letters were stolen from the museum, which I considered a gratifying critical response.

Here’s the most important sentence from the first recorded letter mentioning the Yellowstone region, from trapper Daniel Potts to his brother in Philadelphia, July 8, 1827 (courtesy Yellowstone National Park Archives):

“Write me immediately on the receipt of this . . . giving me the price of Beaver.”

Wednesday, August 1, 2007

More about Yellowstone


Like almost every former Yellowstone employee, I think of the park as a shrine and a haven. I worked there as a fishing guide and a woodcutter many years ago, then returned in 1994 as the Moran artist-in-residence. The following story was a runner-up for the Robert Traver Award, and appeared in the September/October 1997 issue of Fly Rod & Reel.


Letter from Yellowstone

I remember Yellowstone in 1978 the way the snake remembers Eden: like a good dream shortchanged, heaven in flames, a paradise ruined through my own corruption. So you of all people should understand why I have to go back every year. You knew Laurie then, loved her too, I suppose, though we never spoke of it, never negotiated the right or honest approach to love. You stood beside me on the sun-warmed dock at Grant Village, in our Y. P. Company uniforms, and watched her dive into Yellowstone Lake to swim with the otters, the water barely fifty degrees in July. And you watched her bite the head off a wriggling twelve-inch cutthroat and casually spit the head into a bucket, the way an ordinary person might spit out a watermelon seed. And you watched her climb the last few hundred feet of Avalanche Peak in a lightning storm, then dare us to follow her by flying her shirt from one outstretched arm, like a signal flag. You might even have married her had I not been desperate enough to quit the best job of my life three weeks early to drive with her to New Jersey for her sister’s wedding. But after sixty-four hours in a borrowed Volkswagen, listening to her rave about the splendor of rugby and the sanctity of marriage and tarpon on a fly, I forgot all about friendship. When it was my turn to drive, I spent most of the time stealing sidelong glances at the passenger seat, admiring the play of headlights in her hair, watching her face grow softer with sleep, and making plans to transfer three years of credits to the university in her hometown, Missoula.

And now she’s gone to Costa Rica with some Orvis-endorsed guide from Livingston, to stalk permit on the flats and—as she says—to wander her options. Isn’t it sad that after fifteen years of more-or-less congenial divorce, it still hurts that she didn’t ask me first? It’s been that kind of summer in Missoula: a late June frost, then an early August one. The tomatoes turned directly from green to black, and the snap beans produced only one meager crop. I couldn’t seem to find time for the river, or when I did was so frantic to catch trout that I pulled the fly from their mouths. Laurie’s phone call raised a welt like one of those interstate bees that crashes into your bare forearm at highway speed, bumbles weakly inside the cab for a few seconds, then recovers just enough to sting you under the chin before escaping into the slipstream. She was cheerful as always, as sure of her good intentions as on that April morning when she announced that she’d bought a house in Livingston, and would be moving there with Marina the following week, and that it would probably be easier on me if I didn’t help them pack. I put down the phone and walked to the Clark Fork to catch my breath. At the confluence with the Bitterroot, two sandhill cranes lumbered over the bare-limbed cottonwoods—necks up, legs down—struggling like swimmers past their depth.

I haven’t recovered. For fifteen years, I’ve been trying not to prepare for the death of hope. Every few months we have a family dinner at Chico Hot Springs or Sir Scott’s Oasis. Every August we fish together on a favorite stretch of the Madison just inside the park boundary, and on those river days I can almost forget that we share only a family history—no present, no future, no geography. But her recent cheerfulness had a new lilt, an unnerving musicality that reminded me of our honeymoon in Alaska, the note of triumph as she’d set the hook in a steelhead bright from Prince William Sound: I’ve got a fish. I was already facing the prospect of winter without my stock of beans canned with dill weed and jalapeños, without trout in the freezer, without tomatoes dried on the picnic table and bottled in olive oil. If Laurie was in love again, and not with me, then where was I to go?

So I called Marina, the daughter we named after the old boatyard at Grant Village, a sophomore now at Montana State and seasonal waitress at Roosevelt Lodge, where you and I used to sit in the big rockers with our feet on the porch rail, sipping gin drinks and looking out over the sagebrush until the smell of barbecued ribs and baked beans almost overcame us. I asked her to meet me at Chico on Friday night so that we could drive into the park together, and she agreed with all of the cheerfulness inherited from her mother, and then I closed my eyes and saw two twenty-year-old shadows close together under the lodgepole pines: the shadow that might have been you, and the shadow that almost certainly was Laurie, her face lifted for a kiss.

Arrived Chico at midnight Friday, bearing two hundred miles of hunger and a hectic month’s worth of exhaustion. The kitchen had closed promptly at ten, and the dining room staff had just finished eating the last of the night’s unordered desserts. They looked pleased with their work—and only mildly apologetic. Happily, Marina and her friends had saved a few morsels from their plates, wrapped in aluminum foil fashioned into the shapes of swans. A medallion of beef, a sliver of venison, four miniature spears of asparagus, the wing and breast of a quail.

That held me to morning. After breakfast, we turned south underneath Emigrant Peak and headed for the park, Marina beside me in the pickup and a present from her affixed to the inside of the windshield—an employee’s entrance pass, silhouette of a white pelican beneath the word Yellowstone. As we hit the curves for Yankee Jim Canyon, I felt that familiar dizzy feeling—a sort of vertigo almost—when the truck seems to be rolling downhill, while the road is most definitely moving uphill, against the falling river. I only feel that way in two places: on Highway 191 from the Gallatin Gateway to West Yellowstone, and on U.S. 89, from Livingston to Gardiner. Perhaps it’s because I know that I’ll soon be in the park, a sort of premeditated giddiness that goes along with any return to a beloved place or person.

On that day the Yellowstone was running dirt-brown from a thunderstorm in the Lamar Valley and the sky was filled with pelicans, wheeling like oversized gulls in a great flock above the road. We craned our necks to see them as they passed over the windshield, their enormous wings flashing silver against the blue. They seemed drunk with flight, with the power to float unhindered on thin air. When we reached the stone arch outside the north entrance, a pronghorn skipped across the pavement as if possessed with that same power, each long leap more like a prelude to flight than an earthbound gait, the whole meadow like a runway.

I was sorry that you weren’t there, really I was. Sorry that you couldn’t feel the insane satisfaction it gave me to pass through the gate with an employee’s sticker on my windshield. To shift into second gear for the twisting climb to Mammoth that we made so many times with Laurie between us. Each switchback in that road was like a pleasant surprise—a surprise because I had memories for each one, and a pleasure because I remembered.

We fished Slough Creek that afternoon, taking turns with the one rod that I brought from Missoula, an old five-weight with a willowy mid-section that’s just right for daydreaming your way through a reach of pools and riffles. I dropped Marina at Roosevelt in time for her evening shift, then headed south towards Lake Hotel, brimful with the good fortune that is my daughter.

On the way up Dunraven, I got caught behind a motor yacht trolling for scenery at a leisurely fifteen knots. Instead of trying to pass, I laid off the accelerator and rolled down the windows. The hillsides below the summit of Mount Washburn were already tinged with the red of autumn. At eight thousand feet, the air smelled of fall, crisp and cool and faintly dusty, without the scent of growing things. To the east: the hulks of Druid Peak and the Thunderer glowering in the smoke of a late-season fire. To the south: forests of pine and fir like a ragged pelt on the flanks of the mountain, meadow grass gone golden with August, the Yellowstone River meandering through the Hayden Valley, and, creeping alongside the river, the glint of aluminum travel trailers in the setting sun.

Their sheepish procession reminded me of another day of fishing with Marina, on a stretch of the Madison that runs alongside the highway to West Yellowstone, when she was still in diapers and her mother still kissed me awake in the mornings. It was a warm, breezy afternoon and I was wading wet, flipping a big caddis nymph into the deep runs, while Marina watched over my shoulder from the safety of the baby pack. As we worked our way downstream, a cow elk walked out into the water below us, her neck and ears twitching with flies. She dipped her muzzle in the water, tossed her head at the shimmery surface, scratched at her neck with one sharp hoof. In minutes, the road was lined shoulder to shoulder with license plates from Illinois and Washington and California. Camera shutters shirred like locusts. The cow took a couple of prancing steps toward the far bank and shook with annoyance. Marina and I turned our backs to the crowd and kept fishing. I heard a splash nearby and to the right, like the swirl of a trout, and pivoted on the mossy rocks. Did you hear that? I asked her. Was that a fish? No, she said, then fell silent. I cast, letting the fly drift under a bathtub-sized patch of river weed and into a dark hole of water.

I was picking up the fly to cast again when Marina whimpered: My sandal. I repeated the word dumbly—sandal, sandal—before remembering the nearby splash. I reached behind me and tickled her right foot. It was bare. When I finally looked downstream, her sandal was bobbing twenty yards away and gaining speed, on a collision course with a fully grown and fully aggravated cow elk. I tried a couple of quick shuffling steps in that direction, then sent the fly out after it. But the beloved sandal was a small, rapidly dwindling target that changed course with each little finger of current. I threw a couple of big mends into the line and still missed by a foot. Marina’s whimpering was more insistent now—Get sandal, get sandal. I took another look at the elk and decided she wouldn’t much appreciate two humans churning downstream into her bath. So I made for shore and the camera-wielding tourists, charged up the bank, then shouldered my way onto the path that parallels the river. The wind was blowing up and across the current, slowing the sandal’s progress enough for us to pull ahead, but also angling it into the deeper water midstream. Fifty yards behind the elk, I picked a gravelly spot and splashed in. The river was belt high. Frightened trout fled for cover as we thrashed through ribbons of weed. My feet had just reached the lip of a dark trough when the sandal floated into arm’s reach. I leaned over and gathered it in like a catcher pulling an outside pitch back towards the strike zone. Marina thrust her hands into the air and cheered loud enough to turn a few cameras from the elk. I cheered too. The nearest onlookers gave us those benign and disconnected smiles that most folks reserve for fools and crazy people. But what did we care? We were flush with success, proud conspirators in a small but significant victory.

I remember wishing that Laurie could have been there to share it, but she had decided to work upstream with a brace of dry flies, toward the junction of the Gibbon and the Firehole, and later only rubbed Marina’s head in a distracted sort of way when we tried to describe the scene. Then she asked about you, wondered aloud why you never wrote, and said that she could never come to the park without thinking of that summer we met.

Hard to believe that we came here in 1978 with nothing but our fly rods and a jar of tartar sauce, two college roommates from Philadelphia, babes in the woods. Is it guilt that makes me scan the faces at every fishing hole and geyser basin, looking for the wisps of blond hair feathered shyly over those raptor’s eyes, your shoulders hunched slightly, as if preparing for flight? I looked for you in the fall of 1982, when a September snow blanketed our favorite camp at Heart Lake; in the smoke of 1988, when that tangle of lodgepoles upstream from Tower Falls burned right to the bank; and in the drought of 1994, when the river showed its bones—smooth black rock and water-polished deadfalls left gleaming three feet above the ordinary water line.

If you had been here then you would’ve noticed the changes. The marina at Grant Village is long gone, only the two breakwaters to remind you of otters swimming sleekly from dock to dock. The tackle store where Laurie played cashier is now a waterfront steak house, and the meadow above the lake has been replaced with a hotel and restaurant complex, where you can order herbed chicken breasts and chilled Chardonnay. Our favorite stretch of the Yellowstone River, above Tower Falls, has become a certified hot spot, recommended at fly shops and touted in guidebooks. On a typical summer day the parking lot overflows with rental cars and motor homes for at least a hundred yards uphill of the Hamilton store, forcing traffic to a crawl. The trail to the base of the falls has been redone with post-and-pole fences to keep over-enthusiastic sightseers from cutting switchbacks. What you might remember as a claustrophobic stand of lodgepoles crisscrossed with down timber is now mostly open, with tremendous views of sulfur-tinged canyon walls and blue-green water. There are no longer enough shadows to hide the bears that we imagined lurked in wait for college students, and no longer enough privacy to entice those students to roast trout on a stick over a small, smoky fire. There are still a few trees left, of course, as well as some charred snags and tangles of wild roses, but a two-foot wide path now parallels the bank for miles upstream. At every obvious pool, other paths split off the main trail and head for the river’s edge. The last time I walked it, the water seemed as blank and lifeless as a mirror. I would cast, the fly would drift aimlessly with the current, no trout would move to break the surface, then I would cast again.

I let that pattern of failure repeat itself for several hours, thinking of Laurie gone and the trout too, thumbing through my book of failings like a sorry preacher with his Testament, snatching the fly from the water lest a fish hook itself and break the spell. As had become my habit in the months after Laurie took Marina with her to Livingston, I told myself that I deserved every blow that bad luck could deliver, that I had no right to expect something good to come from the way I’d acted, although of course something had. Did you know that I was in love with her—not afterwards, I’m sure that you guessed afterwards—but before? On that night of her farewell party, that night when I saw the two of you underneath the lodgepoles, just beyond the reach of the firelight, when I announced that I suddenly needed to go back to Philadelphia and would catch a ride with Laurie if she didn’t mind? What matters, I suppose, is that I knew—or thought I knew—that you loved her, and that I waded in anyway, and now that river has washed me here, a thin stick of dead wood drifting in the current.

I continued to flog myself with those thoughts all that long afternoon, and to flail pointlessly at the water, until at last a little gray caddis flew up underneath my sunglasses and I had to stop to wipe my eyes. After that, I could no longer ignore the hordes of caddis on the bankside willows and thickets of wild rose. I tied on a caddis emerger and turned back downstream, this time paying attention to all the little pockets and eddies that others might overlook. I lingered a while in each one, steering the fly through the deeper cuts and then slowly raising it to the surface, like a swimmer nonchalantly looking for air. More often than not, the shadow of a trout rose after it—looming into view like a ribbon of gold in the green water. No monsters came to the fly, but the action was steady and the fish beautiful—with sleek flanks and a certain firmness you could feel in your hands, a limber strength that trout raised in warmer, slower water can’t pretend to own.

Back at the confluence of Tower Creek and the Yellowstone, I looked longingly at the sharp, steep bend in the canyon wall, no trail visible in the soft earth. Since the river was low, I figured I could sneak along the ankle-deep ledge and get downstream to the more lightly fished water. But the afternoon sun was wearing on into evening, and the back of my throat was dust-dry, and the image of a double-dip ice cream cone suddenly appeared in my head and remained there, perfectly frozen. I snipped off the tattered emerger, stowed my reel in a vest pocket, and started up the hill.

On the canyon rim, two mighty tour buses had just pulled into the parking lot and disgorged their charges. The trail was flooded with tourists: mothers, fathers, children, grandmothers. Judging from the conversation, they were mostly Americans, though I also caught snatches of accented English that reminded me how little I know of the world. Inside the Hamilton store, the line for ice cream wound up and down the aisles like a New Year’s parade. I swallowed hard, and bought a six-pack instead.

Drank dinner last night in the high-ceilinged lobby at Lake Hotel, gazing out the picture window while a string quartet sawed away at the evening. Do you remember the time some park service employees dug a charcoal pit in the gravel beach near Fishing Bridge, buried a whole pig in the hot coals, then got too drunk to eat and just left the carcass roasting in the sand? By the time we stumbled onto the scene, only a half-dozen stout souls were still awake, lounging against two unopened cases of barbecue sauce while the stars spun in their orbits. I can still see you and Laurie pulling the succulent meat from the bones, as soft and sweet as cotton candy, while white-winged pelicans ghosted across the full moon like pterodactyls.

For some reason, that memory made it impossible for me to eat or sleep. I lay awake all night remembering how happy we felt, how impossibly lucky to roam the beach of Yellowstone Lake under a full moon in July and catch the scent of keg beer and slow-cooked meat. At that time I thought that it had everything to do with the three of us together, but now I recall that Laurie had rousted us from our beds after midnight, just to share the moon, and neither one of us could resist her.

In the morning, I checked out before breakfast and drove southwest along the lake shore, then turned west along the Grand Loop Road to cross and recross the continental divide. A cold front had blown the smoke out of the park and the western horizon looked sharp and blue. I fought the urge to turn in at Old Faithful for a bloody mary at the Bear Pit, stopping instead at the Lower Geyser Basin, taking the bridge over the Firehole and making my way through the crowds to the end of the boardwalk. As I peered into the crater of Fountain Geyser, an old man in a soft canvas hat, a disposable camera dangling from his leathery neck, croaked It’s gonna blow. Sure enough, several standing waves appeared in the turquoise pool, then a tidal surge, and then the sky filled with steam and water, great blasts that frothed thirty feet into the air, splashed onto a floodplain of white sinter, then ran downslope to pool about the hooves of grazing bison. Above the slosh and grumble of the geyser, I could hear the shouts of children, cheering with each burst of water as if they were riding in the front seat of a rollercoaster. For a moment, I wished that Marina was small again, riding in the backpack with her warm arms around my neck, until I remembered the deft motion with which she unhooked a sixteen-inch rainbow without lifting it from the water, then stood straight-backed again and smiling, a loop of line already rising into the air. Maybe next year, I thought, we would take our own trip south—to Belize maybe, or the southern Yucatan—we’d even invite Laurie, if she wanted to go, and I could watch the two of them stalk bonefish and marvel at both the one who used to love me and the one who always will.

By the time the geyser roared itself dry again, I was hungry. I drove straight into West Yellowstone and bought a bag of cocktail shrimp, a hunk of blue cheese, a loaf of sourdough bread, and a flask of bourbon. I spent the rest of the afternoon prospecting the Madison, fishing offhandedly upstream until I encroached on another angler or strayed too far from the bourbon and the shrimp chilling in the cooler. By sunset, I had worked my way to within a mile of the junction, where the river meanders weedily through a broad meadow of sedge and thistles. As soon as I parked the truck, two cow elk and their calves crossed the river above me and bent their necks to graze. I had an hour of twilight left and knotted a black marabou fly as long as my thumb to the leader. Big fish or no fish. I dropped the fly alongside the shadowed banks and inched it leechlike towards the main current; flipped it behind boulders and under deadfalls; cast it into the current and pulsed it back towards the bank. No sign of trout. As I splashed through a backwater to the next bend, a ten-inch rainbow fled before me, pushing a small wake that creased the fading light. Twenty yards farther downstream, a frightened minnow skittered into the air and fell back again. I watched for the telltale swirl of a big brown but saw nothing, gave the pool a couple dozen careful casts just in case. Still nothing. I stood in the middle of what seemed like a lifeless pool while the water broke behind my knees and rejoined below them, a soft sound that I suddenly wished would drown the endless thrum of cars on the road to West Yellowstone, travelers turned away from the park’s chockfull hotels, or employees out for a night on the town. I fished hard for a while, casting steadily, moving two steps downstream with each cast. The dark crept into the water first, so that slick moss and shallow gravel and shoulder-deep holes all began to look dimly alike. The rush of engines grew louder and the glare of headlights brighter. I snipped the fly from my tippet and wound the leader onto the reel. When I shuffled at last to shore, the elk had worked in behind me. If you will forgive me, I thought, I will abstain from fishing tomorrow, and from catching and killing fish, and forgo the satisfaction of watching that delicate orange meat of a Yellowstone cutthroat flake from the bones. The nearer cow picked up her head and turned her big ears toward my sigh. Not the worried, ready-to-bolt look of elk in hunting season, but a gesture of interest. Her calf took two bouncing steps then melted in behind her, aligning legs with her mother’s so that they seemed to become a single alert and yet unconcerned animal. I spoke to them, quiet reassurances and words of small praise. They were beautiful. A half-mile upstream, I could see the bleached shell of the pickup glowing in the pale light of the moon.

Sunday, July 29, 2007

Looking Forward

In mid-month we set out for Maine, leaving Montana as parched as it has ever been in July, the rivers too warm to fish.

We took with us our ice skates and our winter clothes, two bicycles, a turkey call, and a circular saw. Also our noisy, bent-tailed cat, fresh off the plane from China, who had become very much attached to Montana after just a few weeks of mouse hunting in our ungrazed pasture. He mourns his loss daily, hours of low- and high-pitched keening, which reverberates from the car windows like the sufferings of souls in hell.

The warm weather limits our visits to parks, diners, and other roadside attractions, because it is too hot to leave the cat in the car. But we drove through Yellowstone from west to east, and made a quick tour of the boardwalks that surround Fountain Paint Pots and Clepsydra Geyser, where I once taught a writing workshop as the Moran artist-in-residence.

For dinner along Interstate 90, we can recommend the Winchester in Buffalo, Wyoming (117 Highway 16 East, 307-684-8636), which offers good steak dinners and an iconic chicken pot pie, and warn against Emiliano’s in Appleton, Wisconsin (3025 West College Avenue, 920-739-6186), where the linguine was overcooked, the pizza bland, and the salt shaker must have fallen into the lasagna.

Tuesday, July 3, 2007

Before I Went

After two years in Shanghai, I'm back in Montana. But, only temporarily, as the mail reminds me. Another letter from an editor, expressing regret, for not publishing a story that I wrote just before leaving here in 2005. This piece was written on assignment, lost in a shuffle of editors at one magazine, landed (safely, I thought) at another, then fell from the calendar like a leaf from a beech, tenacious but not, in the end, enough.

[Note: This piece, much revised and now retitled "When You Must Go," is forthcoming in the May 2013 Gray's Sporting Journal.]

Before You Go

What will you do when your time runs short? Let's say three months—and you're out. Not dead exactly, but gone away from the landscape you love. Gone from Montana.

. . .

Which, in fewer days than I dare to count, will become our former home. Not permanently, but for at least two years, and perhaps longer. In the metropolis where we will soon take up residence, everything will be different: the faces, the food, even the language. I am decidedly not looking forward to the move but am admittedly fascinated by the dislocation.

. . .

Perhaps that's why my next excursion had nothing to do with hunting or fishing. I wanted something to shake me up, a destination where I could not hide behind the familiar cloaks of silence and solitude. Mark Twain found an enthusiastic audience in this city's Grand Opera House—"compact, intellectual, and dressed in perfect taste"—while Jack Kerouac wrote that his whole concept of On the Road "changed and matured" there.

On the weekend of my visit, the same town, though not perfectly desolate, appeared so unpopulated that my eyes were drawn to any agglomeration of people: a foursome of travel writers laughing beside a rental car, a throng of grim-faced men quitting the Independent Order of Odd Fellows' Hall, a girl's 400-meter relay team in the window of the Uptown Café, each with a plate of chicken cacciatore.

This was Butte, of course, and the object of my pilgrimage was the M&M. Sam Martin and William Mosby opened the landmark saloon in 1890. Until just a few years ago, its only recorded closure had occurred in 1989, when the flow of alcohol was interrupted for two hours during a gambling raid orchestrated by an attorney general named Marc Racicot. Kerouac paid his respects in February of 1949, after checking his bag in a bus-station locker. He called it "the end of my quest for the ideal bar."

There was a time, as a childless couple in Missoula, when my wife and I truly enjoyed going to bars. We would lean our bicycles against a downtown parking meter and, depending on the mood, proceed from the Rhino to the Iron Horse, from the Bodega to the Boardroom, from Charlie's to Al and Vic's. At the end of the evening, suitably primed, we would ride no-hands along the leafy streets, a trick that I was too stiff to perform sober. Since those years, we also have changed and matured. We have children now, for instance, as well as mortgages: two of each.

Our third-grader, a daughter, accompanied me to the M&M. We enjoyed breakfast there one morning, then went back the next for a beer (me) and a Shirley Temple (not me). After a Chapter 7 bankruptcy and a Hollywood makeover, the M&M is nothing like it was in bygone days. Kerouac described "hundreds of men play[ing] cards in an atmosphere of smoke and spittoons" and declared that, on a Sunday night, in sub-zero weather, "everyone in Butte was drunk."

In Wim Wenders' 2005 film, "Don't Come Knocking," the M&M is transformed into a coffee shop, with Jessica Lange as its sober owner. I haven't seen it (who can find time for Cannes these days?), but Wenders' website bills it as "a farce, a family story, a road movie." Which means, I suppose, that the plot should resemble our daily lives—if our daily lives include entanglements with Sam Shepard and Eva Marie Saint.

The actual owners, though new to the business, are not new to Butte. Bud Walker is a county commissioner and self-described "Butte rat." Both he and his wife Vina stood behind the bar on the days we stopped by. The atmosphere was subdued, with not much smoke and absolutely no spittoons. In an interview with the Montana Standard, Bud remembers the M&M as "a security blanket." And that's what it felt like to me.

Behind the stainless steel façade—an Art Deco embellishment of the original brick—the talk was of education and politics, history and real estate. For example, did you know that Butte once boasted more than a dozen newspapers, including at least three dailies, as well as the Croatian World and Montana Socialist? Or that, two decades before statehood, by official census, the population of Montana territory was no less than ten percent Chinese? Or that the lot now occupied by a franchise pizza parlor was once home to Blonde Edna's House of Ill Repute?

To my mind, such stories are as integral to the Montana landscape as sagebrush and riverbeds. I cannot set foot in a high meadow without scanning the grass for elk sign, nor can I approach the water without searching for riffles and seams. In Butte, no matter how I try to locate myself in the here and now, I can't stop myself from contemplating the past.

The ghosts are everywhere: in a jumble of dusty adding machines, or an array of tinsmith's tools; in a faded sign painted on dry brick, and in the warm dank air that wafts from the mouth of the Orphan Girl Mine, 2700 feet deep. For some reason, I find the ghost signs particularly affecting. I don't know why they should seem any more emblematic than all the other artifacts of lost commerce: the black iron headframes, or the cracked glass of the Mai Wah Noodle Parlor, or the rising, purplish waters of the Berkeley Pit. But they do.

Looking out the ballroom windows of the Finlen Hotel, modeled after New York's Hotel Astor, you can see the mark of the friendly Miners Union Bar. The bar is long gone, and what few miners remain toil in a non-union shop. But there is something jaunty about the sign, defiant even, as if the present burden were no more than a veil.

It cheered me just to see it, in the same way that a sincerely sad song can lift you from despair. Our absence, after all, will be no more permanent than labor solidarity, a vein of copper, or the red-gold flash of a western tanager. With any luck, we'll be back with eyes hungry for the familiar and the changed, with far-fetched stories of far-off places, and with a fresh appreciation of the word urban.

If it is possible to make a career of itinerancy, we must be at least halfway there. Montana has never been our exclusive residence, only our favorite and most steadfast home. In spite of my sniveling, there can be no homecomings without leave-takings, no departures without returns. I am looking forward to this flight.

But first, I think I'll go back to the M&M. Not for the last time, but one more time, on the way to the airport if need be, one more slow beer safe behind that old façade, a tonic against homesickness, a fortification against forgetting.

Friday, June 29, 2007

Before You Go

What should you do on your last evening in Shanghai? Circumnavigate the Bund. Which means see its inscrutable mix of architecture from as many different angles as you can, from various elevations, and from both sides of the Huangpu River.


You can begin wherever you like (it’s a circle after all) but don’t start until sunset, when Shanghai’s lights and shadows are at their best. Use the elevated crosswalks over Yan’an Lu and Zhongshan Lu. The view from both is panoramic. The former Bund meteorological tower, a museum for many years, is now a bar named Atanu (3313 0871). Climb the circular staircase to the third-level deck for a cocktail or two. They don’t stint on the gin.

Back on ground level, walk south until you see the turnstiles for the Huangpu ferry. The ticket office is behind you, in a little booth by the road. Exchange 2 yuan for a blue plastic token and you’re on your way. The ferry is airconditioned but the most urgent views are outside, leaning against the rail, where the neon reflects from the glistening surface of the river. The captain will dodge freighters and barge traffic on his trip across the current.

You will dock just south of the Citigroup building, then walk north, toward the Pearl Tower. You can turn into the gate for the Riverside Promenade, or make a brief detour into the elevators of the Shangri-la Hotel. The uppermost floor of Tower 2 houses Jade on 36, an atmospheric bar and innovative restaurant, with floor-to-ceiling windows (and really cool bathrooms).

Continue north along the river, past the Super Brand Mall, to the entrance to the Bund Sightseeing Tunnel (35 yuan), one of the world’s oddest forms of urban transport, with a seizure-inducing light show and cryptic narration.

Emerge somewhat dazzled, then take the underground passage near Nanjing Road, and stroll south again. You have any number of choices for a celebratory dinner in 18 on the Bund, 5 on the Bund, or 3 on the Bund. The food at Laris is wonderful, but the winelist is annoyingly overpriced. For reasonably affordable extravagance, my pick would be appetizers in the bar at Jean Georges (6321 7733), the Shanghai outpost of New York’s celebrity chef, Jean-Georges Vongerichten. Ask to see the dining-room menu, and don’t neglect either the crunchy tiger prawns or the foie gras brulée.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Dreamscape, with formaldehyde

For years I have had a recurring dream that takes place in an old museum of natural history. Not one of the new and shiny temples to technology, but a musty building with wooden staircases, peeling paint, and open windows. As it turns out, this place exists in Shanghai. The Natural History Gallery on 260 Yan’an East Road houses a well-seasoned collection of the taxidermist’s art in the former Cotton Exchange building, built in 1923. If you go, be prepared to share the dinosaur bones, neolithic dioramas, and jars of snakes in preservative with groups of shuddering schoolgirls. Don’t miss the stuffed whale shark suspended in front of aqua blue curtains, or, nearly hidden in a second-floor gallery: two deadpan mummies, chastely draped.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Another Break in the Wall

Sorry for the long silence, but the Chinese censors have been more effective than usual the past two weeks. I'm back in the States now, so will post this old message:


On Wednesday, while running down addresses for Explorer Publishing’s Complete Residents Guide to Shanghai (due out in September), I visited the only remnant of Shanghai’s old city wall. It’s part of the western gate, built in 1553, a tower where archers could take aim at the sort of Japanese invaders who didn’t come armed with credit cards.

The rest of the wall was demolished in 1912, according to a Shanghai government website, because it had become “an obstacle in the city’s economic development and communication.”

The address is 269 Dajing Road and the entry fee is 5 yuan. On the second floor of the Dajing Pavilion, a stone bears an inscription that translates as “His majesty’s good faith lasts eternally,” referring to the Ming emperor, I suppose. The ground floor houses a small historical exhibit, including a scale model of the old city.

Outside the wall, in the small park that adjoins the splendidly developed and exceedingly communicative Renmin Road, an old man hung his cap and cane on a fencepost, then commenced his silent practice of tai chi.

Friday, June 1, 2007

In Olde Shanghai


On Sunday, I followed freelance photographer Gangfeng Wang on a tour of the Shanghai neighborhood where he grew up. The aging blocks of shikumen housing are slated for demolition by the end of 2007. He introduced us to several residents, and also took us inside a grand building that I’ll describe below.

The central staircase, as wide as the lane outside, winds upward to the former ballroom. Above our heads, the day’s laundry dries on bamboo poles slotted between the balusters. On the second-floor landing, the judge’s widow is frying her lunch: a platter of small headless fish, each no longer than a teaspoon.

Eleven judges once shared this dwelling, a mansion that its Concession-era owner intended to house a single family. But the Party liberated it for the judges—and now the survivors and descendants of judges, three of whom stand side by side at their stoves at this very moment, each tending a single burner.

Their collective spirit came to a halt with the advent of utility bills. Each resident has designated gas, electric, and water meters, with separate switches and taps. Although for the first 50 years, they all took turns in the lone bathtub and toilet.

The judge’s widow has lived in this place since she was 25 and that’s what she wants us to know. Last year, she and her housemates were finally rewarded with private bathrooms.

Steam rises from the widow’s wok and I follow its path upward, to a decorated plaster ceiling, once pink and gold and perhaps green, but now the tactile brown of five decades of cooking grease. One resident tried to paint it white, the widow says, but we think it looks better this way.


P.S. This entry emerged from a brief exercise with the writing group that I am now (sadly) leaving. Thanks to all of you for your stories and your friendship.

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Annals of American Hegemony

How can you tell when your brand has achieved market saturation? Consider this pocket-sized candy tin in Mumbai, India.


Friday, May 25, 2007

Why Stories Matter

A few weeks back I mentioned environmental psychology but a recent article in the The New York Times introduced me to another, even more interesting subgenre of the field: narrative psychology.

According to the author, Benedict Carey, "Every American may be working on a screenplay, but we are also continually updating a treatment of our own life — and the way in which we visualize each scene not only shapes how we think about ourselves, but how we behave, new studies find. By better understanding how life stories are built, this work suggests, people may be able to alter their own narrative, in small ways and perhaps large ones."

I find this a lot easier to believe than the so-called Secret, although I think it also explains part of the Secret's appeal, along with its individual stories of success.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Photograph (and Memories)

In the name of research, I’ve recently permitted myself to order from several atypical menus. Yesterday I ate something unexplainable. Not sickening or repulsive, just baffling.

The restaurant was La Villa Rouge, housed in the former EMI Recording Studios. The place has made more than one “best of Shanghai” list over the years, and is reported to boast a team of Japanese chefs. The setting is stylishly retro, overlooking Xujiahui Park, complete with music memorabilia. The prices are utterly modern, if not exorbitant.


I ordered ceviche, expecting something that would go down well with a cold beer and got this instead: four blandly boiled shrimp, and a few specks of caviar, served in a martini glass, on a bed of what looked like pudding and tasted like instant mashed potatoes. No hint of the advertised lime vinaigrette.

Just thinking about this disappointment makes me want to remember some of my favorites, and there have been many, in places as far apart as Los Barriles, Mexico, and Tokyo, Japan.

Halibut ceviche at Alaska’s Double Musky Inn in 1989. A Filipino version, called kinilaw, at Balicasag Island Dive Resort, near Bohol. And conch salad, made dockside in the Florida Keys, before the U.S. ban on conch harvesting.

Here’s that recipe, if you ever find yourself in an appropriate spot. Catch six conchs and pack them overnight in crushed ice. After the grip on the shell loosens with the chill, pull the animal free. Trim away the guts and peel off the skin. Dice the conch meat into a punchbowl along with two sweet onions, two green peppers, and a quart of cherry tomatoes. Season the mix with cilantro and jalapenos and cover with fresh lime juice. Refrigerate for at least several more hours, or as long as you can stand it.

An Updated Guide to Shanghai

In Shanghai, the more things change, the more they continue to change. It’s hard to overstate the pace of transformation in this place. For anyone who plans to visit the city in the near term, here are some guidebook regulars that no longer exist or are currently under renovation:

Hengshan Moller Villa. One of Shanghai’s so-called boutique hotels. To picture the larger setting imagine Hans Christian Andersen meets the Pasadena Freeway. Knock on the gate if you desire a conversation straight out of the Wizard of Oz. No, you can’t look inside, but the hotel is scheduled to re-open in the fall of 2007.

Peace Hotel. The adjective legendary means Noel Coward wrote “Private Lives” here in 1930 and the same jazz band was still playing last year. (At least they sounded like the same band.) The Jinjiang Group has joined forces with Saudi and Swiss companies for two years’ worth of remodeling.

Ohel Moishe Synagogue (and its museum of the Jewish experience in Shanghai). Completely shrouded at the moment. Should re-open to the public by late August or September. Mr. Wang, the 88-year-old volunteer docent, who grew up in the ghetto himself, holds court now at Huoshan Park, a block away.

Ohel Rachel Synagogue. Hillary Clinton and Madeleine Albright visited in 1998. When I tried last week, the security guards wouldn’t let me in the driveway. No lengthy explanations, just a sheet of paper whose words I can’t quite recall. Something like, “Private business. Closed to viewing.”

Xiang Yang Market. Although cash is still king, the emperor’s favorite source for fake brand-name goods has been gone for almost a year. Several pretenders to the throne have emerged, most notably the Fenshine Fashion Accessories Plaza, at 580 Nanjing West Road.

Sunday, May 20, 2007

Mao in Love

Last week I visited the restored lane house where Mao lived for nine months in 1924 with the second of his four wives, Yang Kaihui, their two young sons, and Yang’s mother. He was thirty-one years old. The Chinese Communist Party was an infant of three.

Many historians now estimate that Mao could be held responsible for 70 million deaths.

Yang might be included in this number. She was arrested in Changsha by a local warlord, and executed on November 14, 1930. Mao, who was by then a leader of the Red Army—and involved with another “revolutionary wife”—made no move to save her.

Some of this information, of course, is not mentioned in the exhibit. The official text, in Chinese and English, is properly fawning. For example: “Although from 1927 to 1949 Mao Zedong was unable to come to Shanghai personally . . . , Mao Zedong timely gave instructions to point out the way forward for the struggle of the People of Shanghai.”

The setting is benign, approaching somnolence. On the morning that I went, there were no other visitors. Without any sense of historical perspective, you might imagine yourself at a shrine to the love-nest of some long-forgotten martyrs.



Note: Although at least one guidebook lists a Weihai Lu address, the entrance is around the corner at 120 Maoming Lu.

To restore your sense of Shanghai’s reality, enter the gate at 590 Weihai Lu and walk north toward the Nanjing Road West Metro Station. I revived considerably by watching the lane’s residents hanging laundry and washing vegetables.

Friday, May 18, 2007

Brief Message from the Universe

"You want your mind to be boggled. That is a pleasure in and of itself. And it's more a pleasure if it's boggled by something that you can then demonstrate is really, really true." —physicist Saul Perlmutter

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Family History

My middle name is my father's first name: Warren. I'd always assumed that the typical explanation was the correct one, until my mother mentioned that they'd made the selection in honor of Earl Warren, the former Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court.

In yesterday's Writer's Almanac, Garrison Keillor had this to say about the Warren Court:

The legal basis for segregation came from the 1896 Supreme Court case Plessy v. Ferguson, which had established the precedent that separate facilities for black and white students could be constitutional as long as those separate facilities were equal. When Brown v. Board of Education first came before the Supreme Court in 1952, most of the justices were personally opposed to segregation, but only four of them openly supported overturning such a long-established precedent.

But in September of 1953, just before the rehearing of the case, Chief Justice Fred M. Vinson died of a sudden heart attack. For the new chief justice, President Eisenhower chose Earl Warren, then the governor of California. As governor of California, Earl Warren had helped to intern many Japanese Americans during World War II, and most historians believe he felt deep regret at having done so. Ever since the war, he had devoted himself to the issue of civil rights. So when he became chief justice, he was the ideal person to argue for declaring segregation unconstitutional.

Warren's vote alone could have given the court a 5-4 vote margin overturning segregation, but Warren decided that he had to get a unanimous decision for such a controversial case. Warren had never served as a judge in his life. But he was a master politician, and he used his art of persuasion to bring the last few justices around to his point of view. The final holdout was Justice Stanley Reed, from Kentucky. Warren finally persuaded Reed that a lone dissent from a Southerner could have an inflammatory effect on the nation.

Once he had all the votes, Warren drafted the decision himself. To announce the decision, he read it aloud to a crowd at the court on this day in 1954. He said, in part, "Does segregation of children in public schools solely on the basis of race ... deprive the children of the minority group of equal educational opportunities? We believe that it does." Justice Stanley Reed, who had been the final holdout, wept as the decision was read.

Onward and Upward with the Arts

Don't know who coined the phrase but I like it at least as much as The New Yorker.

I admit here that it's time to leave Mumbai as a setting and return to Shanghai. Anything approaching coherence in that narrative would require the time for a thoughtful revision. Considering my workload and our imminent departure from China, that luxury is unavailable at the moment.

Although I have been enjoying Shanghai in a way unknown to longer-term residents, and was detained briefly by the traffic police last week. At the corner of Nanjing Road and the Bund, by a cop with dark glasses who had perhaps watched one too many Clint Eastwood movies. He closed his fingers around my wrist and kept asking me what I'd expect if I'd broken the law in America.

The peak of his cap came up short of my chin but by the time I thought to break away we had attracted an encircling crowd of onlookers. I made the cowardly bid of pretending that I knew no Mandarin, but a saintly woman stepped in and interpreted for us, preventing an international incident and convincing him, somehow, not only to let me go without a fine, but to pretend as if he had never seen me before.

And that's the end of the Mumbai story, for now.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

One Sentence after Another

Note: This story began on April 25.

To misquote Marlon Brando, I am neither my brother’s keeper nor his executioner.

I don’t know how the Mumbai story swerved from fashion to immigration but I think it does, in the end, have something to do with the coincidences of birth.

When traveling in Asia, I am sometimes struck by the union of blue and brown: blue American passport, tanned brown skin. Their convergence on my person allows me to cross borders with relative ease, to mingle in crowds like a distant cousin.

Living in close proximity with millions of striving people, you can’t help but entertain the old questions of resemblance, advantage, and inequity. What if you were born to a family of peasant farmers? Or migrant laborers? To a mother who sells bootleg DVDS on a dusty bridge and a father who scavenges cardboard and Styrofoam in his bicycle cart?

Favored with the benefits of the American systems of economy, justice, and education, what have I made of myself? A bewildered onlooker.

The Economics of Champagne, Revisited

For more on the social and economic significance of expensive Champagne, read Floyd Norris, who argues that overpriced bottles represent another form of wealth redistribution, filling the void left by the demise of the progressive income tax.

Sunday, May 13, 2007

Excuses Come to an End, Almost

Note: This story began on April 25.

I haven't been able to log on for several days, thanks to the Chinese censors. Wish I could use that as an excuse, but that would be dishonest. What with guidebook research and other duties and distractions, I’ve neglected to cobble even a counterfeit ending for the Mumbai story.

I wanted to focus somehow on that feeling of continuity and wonder that Cliff and I felt walking late one night in the Bhindi Bazaar, an ancient and predominantly Muslim quarter, drifting and surging with the tides of shoppers and shopkeepers.

There were men pushing wooden carts laden with crates and boxes, porters bearing woven baskets atop their heads, teenagers murmuring into cell phones, smaller children crowded around stone basins of fish, a merchant demonstrating a wind-up Victrola to a crowd of men in dusty robes.

I felt like I could hear the sounds of centuries overlapping.

I've traveled alone and with family but this moment was different somehow, maybe because Cliff asked if I could ever have imagined that we would be walking together in this strange place and I had to say no, this was beyond imagining on any sort of personal level.



No individual mind could have imagined that we would find ourselves at Decent Corner, two Chinese-American brothers who last shared a bedroom in a town best known, if known at all, as the childhood home of Chester A. Arthur.

The 21st president of the United States, nicknamed the Gentleman Boss, succeeded from his elected post of vice-president after James Garfield’s assassination. By most accounts, he was a better statesman than anyone had the right to expect. Even the deservedly cynical Mark Twain admitted that, “It would be hard indeed to better President Arthur’s administration.” It was during his term that Congress first passed the Chinese Exclusion Act (1882). Immigrants of Chinese descent would remain ineligible for U.S. citizenship until 1943.

Wednesday, May 9, 2007

Have Faith?

For anyone who has been following these posts, I promise to bring the Mumbai story to a close. I don't promise the last words on luxury, fashion, Bombay, or brotherhood, but I do want to end that narrative and move on to something else.

Just agreed to write a chapter for Explorer Publishing's guide to Shanghai, so I have incentive.

Sunday, May 6, 2007

In Praise of Wild Mushrooms, Old Friends, and Tenth Birthdays

Note: I wrote this story in 2002, when we lived in Montana's Paradise Valley. It originally appeared in the Park County Press.

Until I met Olen, I never thought about what to do in my spare time. If there had been any questions, the answer would always have been the same: fish. Deep in the mountains or back behind the gravel pit, along head-high willows or through foot-thick ice. Just fish.

Olen loves to hunt trout too, but his expansive definition of fair game opened my heart to other pursuits. Deer and elk, of course, grouse, fossils, huckleberries, sapphires, mushrooms. Especially morel mushrooms–those wrinkled, pitted beauties whose flavor has come to represent everything fresh and fine about the spring.

Our favorite variety grows along rivers, streams, and ditches. They are sometimes the drab color of a dried cottonwood leaf or an overwintered pine cone, sometimes an almost luminescent orange or gold. These latter ones gleam like lanterns in the new grass. Finding them inspires a greedy sort of joy, the grabby happiness of a child collecting Easter eggs.

Although we have found them in late April and early June, May has been consistently our best month. I associate the taste of these morels with the scent of lilacs in the backyard, the sight of arrowleaf balsamroot on sunny hillsides. The flavor is both elegant and unrefined. In a bountiful year, we like them with eggs at breakfast, with elk at dinner. When havests are meager, we parse them bite by bite, savoring each morsel like a kiss.

On the day that Olen and I struck the mother lode of morels, my son Dave was born sixteen weeks prematurely. We found the mushrooms in a section of floodplain owned by a local veterinarian. They sprouted so thickly that you could fill a bag without leaving your knees. Olen alternately picked and cheered, cheered and picked, or maybe that was me who did the shouting. In any event, we were back at the house by noon, leaving the most abundant patch intact on the forest floor, for Sarah.

But Sarah wasn’t at home. In her place, the answering machine blinked. I met her at the hospital in Missoula that afternoon. Before midnight, Dave would be airlifted to the neonatal intensive care unit in Seattle, a boy not much bigger than a trout.

None of us ever tasted those particular morels. I went with Dave on the Learjet, strapped in like a smokejumper alongside the portable incubator, with its mystifying array of lights and monitors. Sarah remained at the Missoula hospital for a few more days, her fever spiking at 105 degrees. I don’t know why Olen didn’t take the mushrooms, but I can guess. Some other friends eventually claimed the treasure. By all accounts, they were very good.

Dave is ten years old now, and his birthday still reminds us of morels and other things. We spent six weeks in Seattle, learning the ABCs of prematurity: apnea, bradycardia, and cynanosis. Apnea means that the lungs stop breathing, bradycardia that the heart stops beating, cyanosis that the skin turns blue. During that time we occasionally saw wild mushrooms for sale in the Pike Place Market, but they were stale, shriveled remnants of their former selves, and at fifteen dollars per pound we were scarcely moved to buy them.

This spring it snowed on Dave’s birthday. And again the following week—which explains why we waited nearly until Memorial Day for our first morels of the season. Even then we found only three, after hours of searching. But if the streambank was unproductive, the stream itself was not. We fried the mushrooms in the same pan with five rainbow trout, collected by Dave and his younger sister. The fish were compact little battlers, densely spotted, still in spawning colors. The kids rejoiced with each capture, and Sarah and I did too.

Together, the trout and mushrooms and a brace of dry martinis made the kind of dinner which should not be repeated too often, lest you grow numb to its beauty.

Friday, May 4, 2007

Digression, with Champagne

I don’t begin to understand how we decide to allow or deny ourselves the various gradations of pleasure or of luxury. Marketers remind us that only a select few deserve the very best but is it really a question of worth? Is there a tiny accountant in your head who suspects that your inimitable self is worth a bottle of Bollinger, but not the Blanc de Noir?



I doubt it. Consumers don’t engage in this sort of math; corporations do. According to Nick Passmore at Forbes.com, Champagne prices are “controlled not so much by the production cost as by what marketing executives believe the market can bear.” For some brands, higher prices are not a barrier to sales; they can actually boost sales.

In explaining the resurgence of Saks, the American department store, its chief executive notes, “Consumers want brands, and we are all about brands.”

So there you have it. The calculations described here do not involve worth, they invoke status. By buying the most expensive item in a particular category, you broadcast a range of signals to yourself and others. Your choice might indicate your membership in a particular group; it might imply a certain discrimination in taste. Depending on the context, it could display frivolity, individuality, availability—or all three.

Most of us are awake to these clues, even if we prefer not to name them explicitly. In polite conversation, a little bit of sociology goes a long way.

Sandy and Cliff are trying to do right by themselves. Like most of us, they would prefer to maintain their artistic integrity while reaping the rewards of financial success. I think that explains their aversion to the ordinary logic of branding, and their coyness about the brand’s derivation.

It’s hard to find fault with Sandy’s fundamental economic philosophy: “Buy our clothes—and then we’ll buy stuff too.”

Relativity

Note: This story began on April 25 and has no foreseeable end.

In Mumbai, Cliff and I shared a room at the Grand Hyatt which—if you ignored the central air-conditioning, television, minibar, shower and bath—was somehow reminiscent of our family home at the corner of Lake and Center streets. Maybe it was the two single beds, but more likely it was the two of us.

While my attention was elsewhere, Cliff has become the most successful of our siblings. And I’m not thinking in terms of wealth or celebrity. Instead, I am measuring by the admittedly subjective standard of dreams. Cliff, among the four of us, is closest to making satisfactory use of his talents.

Watching him and Sandy work together—the nods and murmurs, the pins and tape, the continuous small adjustments and readjustments—I experience a jealous thrill. Here is something he can do better than almost anyone: the mysterious and judicious application of creativity and connoisseurship.

Cliff knows more than I will ever learn about any number of subjects—modernist furniture and architectural pottery, for example—but, by that strange calculus of time and family, I am still his older brother, still in possession of a few mysteries myself.

“So,” he asks, as we drift side by side on the Hyatt’s twin boxsprings, 7000 miles from our former bedroom, “what happened that night the police brought you home?”

Thursday, May 3, 2007

Understanding the Difference

It is a historical fact that I have never tried on a $2000 jacket. It also might be true that I had never wanted to, before, but I don’t know. I do own a tux, and I was married in a linen suit from Yves Saint Laurent by way of Keezer’s, the venerable used clothing store in Cambridge. As I recall, I purchased both on the same afternoon in 1989, for a grand total of $100 (not including tax).

In the nomenclature of niche marketing, I am a cheapskate. Not for plane tickets, you understand. But it would’ve been hard to convince me to spend more money on clothes when I was saving for travel: a dream trip (as yet unrealized) to the Seychelles.

Because Chatav Ectabit aims for a different niche, Sandy and Cliff are not convincing people to spend; these folks already want to spend. In the luxury market, shoppers don’t have to weigh a $500 sweater against $500 in food or even $500 in gold. The trade-offs, if any, occur on a level unfamiliar to Fitzgerald’s “you and me.”

I don’t suggest that everyone who buys from this collection is rich. But I suspect that Tom Cruise, Ellen DeGeneres, Keith Richards, and Meg Ryan (to name a few) might take offense if I hinted that they were short on lunch money.

Here are the facts: these clothes require many hours of skilled labor and are available only in exclusive retail shops, and even then in small quantities. They are therefore expensive, and thus to wear them is undeniably a luxury, requiring at least a minimum amount of wealth, or great thrift and a flair for budgeting.

As demonstrated by my experience at Keezer’s, designer clothing (with some exceptions) has little residual value. Some few might be able to consider such purchases as an investment in image, but the majority are buying a feeling, and at that price, they want something out of the ordinary, something a little bit different even from the adjacent item on the rack, something which, like a striving, human self, feels unique.

Of course, I did not understand any of this until I talked with Cliff. Really talked with him, in a way that might not have occurred in our lives before. When we were kids, we shared a bedroom. Two single beds in a room that bubbled with fish tanks and looked out over a Mobil gas station, marked by the red image of a winged horse, made iconic by Jayne Ann Phillips’ Machine Dreams, published in 1984.


Chatav Ectabit, Revisited

Design has to begin somewhere, and Cliff and Sandy have begun with the favorite clothes in their closets. It’s a personal stance: they don’t make anything they wouldn’t want to wear themselves.

The silhouettes are easygoing and persuasive, the fabrics friendly to your skin. The clothes do not strive or aspire, except to be the one you wear all the time, the one you turn to in moments of need or crisis, the one that sees the most sun and rain and soap.

The cut is the same for men or women, idiosyncratically sized from 0 to 6. The emphasis is on craftsmanship: hand-made buttons of bone or silver, satin piping, individual dyeing and over-dyeing. Both Cliff and Sandy are partial to hidden embellishments, an inch or two of vintage trim stitched discretely beneath a flap, something only the owner can know, a small but cherished secret.

Here is a jacket, tossed onto a desktop after a fitting. It is made of velvet, poplin, and silk. Each panel has been cut by hand; each stitch performed by a thumb and forefinger. Its architectural drapes and folds remind me of a Renaissance cathedral. This one I want to try on, but sadly it is not my size.

Wednesday, May 2, 2007

But What Does It Mean?

Note: This story began on April 25.

Here’s one regret: during my week in Mumbai, I did not try the street food. I did stop once before a chaat walla as he prepared pani puri for an impatient crowd. The sweet sharp scents of lime and tamarind held me for a few minutes, and then I drifted timidly away. If you have access to the New York Times’ archive, both Somini Sengupta and Julia Moskin have written temptingly about these little snacks.

For a working lunch, Sandy and Cliff often order north Indian food for delivery (Caravanserai
 Golden Orchid, Waterfield Road, Bandra, phone: 26411802). I can say with conviction that I would gladly taste any of these again: tandoori chicken, pomfret koliwada, mutton biryani, or palak paneer.

At one such meal, I paged through a lustrous stack of fashion magazines, searching for something like enlightenment. Julie, Sandy, and Cliff are all manifestly beautiful people, so maybe I was feeling a bit insecure. After all, I’d been watching them try on clothes for days, samples that they’d be taking to Paris to show.

In looking at these samples, I recognized the impoverishment of my critical vocabulary. Nothing in my closet has flared sleeves or three-button cuffs. I might be able to comprehend a cashmere T-shirt, but these other details were communicating in a foreign language. As Cliff remarked, their stuff is a little more “directional.” In its intimations of the future, directional implies that the clothes will look even more fashionable months from now.

From my readings, I contracted the impression that designers speak cryptically as a rule. In the luxury issue of GQ Style, for instance, Rick Owens explains that what he does is “try not to make people look like fools.”

An admirable goal, for certain, but there’s obviously more to it than that. Otherwise, how does he explain the fall 2007 season’s fuzzy slippers?

Chatav Ectabit

Sandy, his wife Julie, and their son Satya sleep across the stairwell from their second-floor atelier, housed in an otherwise nondescript concrete structure in Mumbai’s Santa Cruz district. The lane teems with the life of the suburbs: curbside hairdressers, betel vendors, short-haired dogs, children in their school uniforms.

The ironwork displays multiple representations of the Sanskrit om. The balconies are shaded by a tamarind tree, indifferently festooned with wayward kites. The building across the way bears the shingles of an advocate of the high court and a “maternity surgical home.”

Through the open windows, I can hear music, horns, shouts, the accelerating rasp of two-cycle engines, the raucous calls of crows. It is the end of January, and the air vibrates with falling leaves.

Sandy paces in and out of the room, on and off the balcony. Even when his feet pause in a doorway, his hands are in motion. He and Cliff are talking about details—buttons and zippers, invitations and order sheets—but they don’t shy away from philosophy.

Instead of communicating status by brand or emblem, they want their clothes to generate an inner sense of confidence and composure. Although Cliff says “I just like the idea of wearable,” I can tell that his notion of wearable incorporates hints of subversion as well as comfort.

At first, Cliff and Sandy resisted the idea of a brand name at all. Just a piece of red thread would be enough, they thought.

Enough for art, perhaps, but not enough for sales. If you don’t give people a name, how can they ask for your clothes?

So now the collection has a name, although it still isn’t sewn onto a traditional label. Instead, the words have been hand-carved onto a polished oblong of bone, a hefty bauble designed to be cut loose after purchase.

Tuesday, May 1, 2007

It's Not About Guilt

Most clothing companies manufacture in third-world countries to achieve economies of scale. They entrust the production of identical items to low-overhead factories and their low-wage assembly lines. That's not the case here.

As noted in the International Herald Tribune, Sandy and Cliff set up shop in Mumbai in order to produce limited quantities with a higher level of craftsmanship.

Over the past few years, they’ve developed working relationships with a handful of relatively well-paid artisans. This allows their personal involvement in each step of the transformation of linear and monochromatic thread into something with hue and dimension.

Sandy can rework the contours of an awkward seam before dinner. Cliff can hover beside a pot of color at the dye shop, request an earthier gray, or a more essential blue.

I don’t argue that inequity is inevident, just that it doesn’t seem like my subject here. One afternoon in Mumbai, while I was walking alone and without destination, a white-robed itinerant raged towards me, and then past me, waving a stick at an adversary I could not see.