Sunday, November 29, 2015

Exit Strategy

"Stepan’s hope used to be his children—both of his sons showed such great promise when they were little! The first was the son of a poor father, born while Stepan was a simple engineer in Moscow, earning 120 rubles a month, and the second was born after Stepan had started a software company and made his fortune. Stepan had always, always tried to do his best by his family, but no good deed goes unpunished, and now was payback time. Look, just look at what they had done to him—his whole body aching, his hair white by the age of sixty!"

Read the rest of this story in Best New Writing 2016 anthology.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

The Green Light of Dawn, in print!

"The end of August in Crimea was hailed as the height of the "velvet season." The warm weather held, but most vacationers from the former USSR returned home to work and school, and the accommodations were cheap. Boarding the plane in New York, I made two connections, in Paris and Kyiv, and landed at the international airport in Simferepol, early morning, two days later. From there, I caught a train to the coast of the Black Sea. I didn't have a firm agenda, except that I eventually had to make it to the top of Mount Ai-Petri. . ."

The opening to my story "The Green Light of Dawn," that appears in the current issue of Epiphany magazine. The current issue is sold out, but do subscribe. And, if you're in New York, come to the opening party at the New York Public Library, on Tuesday, November 17.

Monday, November 9, 2015

Wrapping up Tokyo

We flew home from Tokyo on Saturday and spent the weekend unpacking, working around Bowie's jet lag. Sleep is such a skill. Over the years, Dave and I have developed practices that allow us to barely feel the aftereffects of time travel, but the little guy is an innocent. He stayed up till two in the morning on Saturday night, and then on Sunday slept until three in the afternoon. Sunday night was rougher: having gone to bed at midnight, up again at two, wanting to play, which we did for two hours. Today, I'm planning to wake him at one in the afternoon, and expecting crankiness. The baby will sleep!

Yesterday Dave posted his round up of the remaining photos and stories about Tokyo; I have some, too. First of all, a series of photographs from the efficiency apartment.
The main room, with the view to the kitchenette and the front door. Observe the ladder that would lead to the alcove (and additional bed) in the attic had it been moved to the ledge over the door.
The main room (picture taken from the same spot at a 180 degree angle to the one above), with the view towards the crib, the bed, and the bathtub behind the glass wall. 
The all-important feet warming pool by the bathtub.
Every efficiency apartment needs a balcony -- for drying clothes on warm days or, say, growing plants.
This is how clothes drying happens on wet days -- in the closet.
The front door of the unit. The closet with the washing machine, next to which (not pictures) the clothes closet above, with the drying rack. Bowie's stroller fit nicely into the walk-through space.
The large sink in the kitchenette with all the wrapping from one afternoon's lunch (see story below).
Every day, after nap, Dave, Bowie, and I picnicked on the floor of our room for lunch. We made cucumber and tomato salads, fruit salads, finished leftover noodles, bought take out sashimi at the grocery stores, pastry from the local cafes. Each of these lunches generated a heap of packaging, as pictured on the photo of the sink above. San Francisco outlawed plastic bags a few years ago, and we've forgotten what it's like elsewhere. The packaging felt overwhelming. Often, individual fruit, say, pears and apples, came individually wrapped. (Postcards I bought at a corner store too came individually wrapped). Grapes came in plastic boxes. At the supermarkets, if I bought two bento boxes at different stalls, each vendor would give me a new bag, regardless of how many bags I already held in my hands. I habitually carry a cloth tote with me; showing it to the cashiers helped little. (Of course, there was also the language barrier.) Each pastry was wrapped thrice: first in paper, then in a tiny plastic baggy, then in a thicker to-go bag, especially when two or three pastries were purchased at once. At the end of the trip, I brought all the extra plastic bags home--Dave takes regular trips to Safeway, where they collect and claim to recycle plastic bags.

By the way, the perfect tool to clean an efficiency apartment? That's right, a lint brush. Our apartment came equipped with one. I watched the lint brushes in use at an indoor playground at the Tokyo Dome. At closing time, employees scrubbed all the play structures with different appropriate solutions, including the carpeting with lint brushes. That's the way to keep a place clean.

Saturday, November 7, 2015

Tokyo Bookstores

Dave and I love downtowns. The shared energy of millions of people, the bold physical, spacial way in which this energy manifests itself, the chance encounters to which it leads. A common complaint about cities is that they alienate people both by pushing them up against each other and separating into individual units. But few among city residents are true loners. Making friends in a city takes some skill and patience--or a very cute baby, who will talk to anyone and will get anyone to talk to him. I've seen the most dour-looking middle-aged men light up when Bowie babbles in their direction or pokes them in the knees, elbows, or shoulders. True, in Tokyo rush hour even a cute baby will get tossed around and moshed with the crowd.

Getting ready for the trip to Tokyo, we asked around for a baby-friendly neighborhood where to book our accommodations. Our friends Megan and Ted, parents of baby Ella, recommended Shibuya-Daikanyama area. They'd spotted baby strollers and carriers here, cute baby stores and playgrounds, baby- (and parent-) friendly cafes. Megan, a fellow writer and book person, sold me on this neighborhood by describing and forwarding an article about a must-see bookstore, a location of a Japanese chain, Tsutaya. We booked our apartment as close as we could get (Ebisu, in Shibuya, next to Daikanyama).

Bookstore culture appears to be going strong in Japan. In one of our sightseeing afternoons, we explored an entire bookstore neighborhood, Jimbocho (for more in-depth view, see this and this English-language blogs). Located between several major universities, this area houses dozens upon dozens of used bookstores, manga comic book stores, book publishers, and multi-storied locations of national bookstore chains (there are several). Each of these stores, we assume, must own its specialty area. I spent some time in a foreign language bookstore, Kitazawa, that shared a building with a children's bookstore, giving me an opportunity to browse while Bowie and Dave played downstairs. Looking at the shelves of dusty hardcovers, I imagined I'd found Haruki Murakami's reading list. Toni Morrison, Nabokov, Salinger, Ezra Pound, e.e. cummings--doesn't this sound just right? Yes, and Scarlett--Alexandra Ripley's fan fiction to Gone with the Wind (I was a big fan in my teens). Downstairs, Dave and Bowie located a whole shelf of Cheburashka and Crocodile Gena toys--popular Soviet cartoon characters, rights to whom had been purchased by a Japanese company a few years ago and successfully merchandised. I'd read of this; nevertheless, the encounter seemed surprising.
Kitazawa bookstore entrance
Murakami reading list??
Towards the end of our vacation, feeling more grounded and comfortable in Tokyo, Dave and I decided to split up during Bowie's nap time and venture out on our own. This allowed me an evening of browsing at that Daikanyama Tsutaya store (T-site) Megan had told me about. The bookstore consists of three cube-like two-storied buildings, connected to each other by a "magazine row"--an enormous collection of Japanese and international magazines. I spotted issues of MIT Technology Review and Lucky Peach, among others. Most of my allotted time I spent studying the shelf dedicated to English-language translations of Japanese authors. I wanted to take home a book by a female author. This criteria narrowed my choices to half a dozen books (sigh). I ended up with Kuniko Mukoda's short story collection The Name of the Flower and Hiromi Kawakami's novel Strange Weather in Tokyo. I suppose, a book report must follow one day. The stories from The Name of the Flower I've read so far are as good in Tomone Matsumoto's translation as anything one might read in The New Yorker. The first few are stories about wives and lovers and sad businessmen who, though they might excel in their jobs, are cut off from their emotions, which causes family strife and general unhappiness.
The selection of books by Japanese women in English translation

Besides bookstores, cafes, and boutiques, there are several interesting cultural sites in the Shibuya, of which we visited Meiji Shrine in the Yoyogi park and a 1919 traditional house of a local politician Kyu Asakura. After the firebombing of Tokyo (an extensive series of bombings at the end of WWII), much of the city was destroyed. What we see today was built after the war. These historical sites seem to be popular places of pilgrimage for the tourists and for the locals, who take the opportunity to dress in national costume and take pictures here for special occasions--like weddings. Dave has a photo on his blog.

The inner yard of the Kyu Asakura traditional house
For us, Shibuya turned out to be a great choice of a neighborhood to stay. Not as busy as more central Tokyo locations, it provided lots of things to do with Bowie. Twice more we visited T-Site, the Tsutaya bookstore in Daikanyama: a good place to write our postcards while entertaining Bowie with pop up books. Though, it seems that good Japanese babies don't climb bookshelves while they are at it--and good Japanese parents don't let their babies climb the bookshelves. Bowie and I got reprimanded. The employees of the children's sections also seemed disturbed by Bowie's desire to nurse in public, so they showed us the way to the "baby room"--many stores, especially department stores, in Tokyo provide private places for nursing. I know, I know, "When in Rome Daikanyama..." Tsutaya, by the way, is a part of a larger conglomerate that goes by the name of Culture Convenience Club. I can easily imagine finding this name in a Murakami novel.

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

At the Fish Market

In many ways, the three of us vacationing together is easier and more fun (even more fun :) than Bowie and me on our own. The responsibility is divided, and so risk tolerance increases, as does our mobility and physical prowess. Dave's been carrying Bowie in the baby carrier, but even when he's not, we're able to pick up the baby and the stroller separately and so manage shortcuts to subway and stores. Tokyo subway seems fully handicapped accessible, but the elevators are not always in the most obvious locations.

Each day, as we understand each other's needs better and grow more accustomed to the patterns of life in Tokyo, we're able to stray further from the apartment, to see and experience more neighborhoods and attractions. Olga eats a substantial breakfast in the morning. Dave wants his coffee in the afternoon. Bowie must nap and crawl. It sometimes rains in Tokyo--coming from San Francisco in the middle of a prolonged drought, we forget what that's like. Bicyclists here ride on sidewalks (we see lots of moms on bicycles with one child seated in front and one in back). Pedestrians seem to obey automobile traffic patterns and walk on the left side of the sidewalk, making window-shopping a bit tricky. Stations in the subway are marked differently--on some, arrows for walking point to the right side, on others, to the left. People who wish to stand on escalators and moving sidewalks stand on the left side; those who want to walk, do so on the right. Those who want to walk fast make a weird zigzag between the first and the second.

We've made it to two major tourist attractions so far, the Sensō-ji temple in Asakusa and, this morning, to the Fish Market. Ok, we may have only barely stepped inside the actual wholesale fish market and spent most of our time meandering the entertaining foodie stalls in the outside market area, but we did see a lot of dead fish being chopped to pieces. This is sort of the opposite of what our diving and snorkeling excursions have been about, and so we weren't hugely comfortable on the premises. That didn't prevent us from eating sashimi for brunch (the freshest, most fragrant and finely textured fish I've had anywhere). Of the three of us, Bowie held the moral line the firmest: he refused to have any fish and stuck to the noodle-like shredded radish.

Bowie's been eating noodles almost exclusively this week and breastfeeding lots. As we're approaching his one year birthday and he shows no signs of being ready to wean himself off breast milk, I'm considering my options., the website I've been using to answer my breastfeeding questions, suggests that children naturally self-wean somewhere between two and seven years of age, and that health benefits of breastfeeding do not have an expiry date. I'd love to give Bowie the option to wean himself, though I'm not sure I'm prepared to wait seven (or even two) years for him to do so.

Being on the road, if anything, has definitely strengthened our breastfeeding bond--he's been nursing for comfort in unusual places and situations, asking for the breast almost as often as he did as a newborn, every hour or two. Our Tokyo efficiency apartment comes with a full-sized crib and most nights I put him in it. But his sleep is very restless. He's teething continuously (his bottom canines are out now; we're waiting on the last set of molars), and cries out in pain in his sleep, then wakes himself up. So I take him into bed with Dave and me, which means he's nursing throughout the night. He's a strongly attached baby, and I'm starting to worry now about how these patterns will have to adjust when we get back home and I return to work. I nearly cried of joy today at the fish market when Bowie picked off a strawberry from a mochi custard dessert Dave and I shared and little by little munched all of it (he tried the mochi too, but didn't go past one bite). A child could probably survive on noodles and strawberries, right? Right.

On to the Tokyo Dome for the afternoon's adventure. It's a notable concert hall venue (the Beatles played at the Dome two years after it opened, and George Harrison recorded Live in Japan here) and an amusement park. We hear there's an awesome indoor playground there, and we can all ride the carousel too.
In the alleys outside the fish market

Chopsticks are the best part of what you call dining

Monday, November 2, 2015

Ebisu-Tokyo Living

From the palatial halls of the Beijing business class hotel we are delivered to an efficiency Tokyo apartment that we booked via AirBnB. There's a hallway/kitchenette and the main room with the bathroom partitioned behind a glass wall, so that the bed is actually jammed against the bathtub. The three of us, our three pieces of luggage, two backpacks, Bowie's utility tote, a stroller and a car seat, all fit inside, just so. Seen another way, we're severely under-utilizing the space. If we consolidated our luggage and hooked the ladder over the door, two more people could use the bed in the attic space.

The tiny apartment is a thing of beauty. Several things make it so: tall ceiling in the room and the window that admits plenty of light by day; large sink in the kitchenette; a washing machine and an ingenious drying rack in the closet; a small shallow pool outside the bathtub that, when I unplug the tub, automatically fills with warm water--to keep my feet from getting cold while I'm drying the rest of my body with a towel.

I also love the fact that the apartment is keyless. A combination code opens the door to the unit, and the front door opens like the entry booths in San Francisco's subway, with a tap of a plastic card. At least three security cameras monitor the entrance, and I have a feeling that these are not pro forma, somebody is truly watching and monitoring the security of this building. Upon our arrival on Friday night, the card that opened the front door was missing from the agreed-upon location, and so we were milling about outside while Dave texted with our AirBnb host. One of the neighbors let us in (taking pity thanks to Bowie, who was babbling plaintively from his car seat), but wouldn't do so until she confirmed we had the right combination code for the unit.

My first impression of Tokyo? I had no idea how many stereotypes about Japan I'd consumed. My imagination was largely fueled by the few novels I'd read (Murakami, Kobo Abe, Amelie Nothomb) and movies (Seven Samurai, Rashomon, Spirited Away, a recent art film The Great Passage)--in addition to WWII stories of bombings, geishas, and vets, occasional news stories about financial crises, electronics empires, fashion crazes, overcrowded subways, alcoholism, and overwork. As is the case with China (though China's case is more extreme), this media diet now seems extremely one-sided and largely negative (at best, Japanese customs might be represented as "odd"). In short, without thinking about it, I'd been expecting to meet sad and depressed loners (mostly men and young school girls), subservient and prone to suicide. Needless to say, this is like picturing all Russians as vodka-guzzling murderers of old women and prostitutes. Argh.

We're staying in the Ebisu area of Tokyo, a fun mix of fairly gritty bars and noodle bars and a maze of alleys with the yuppiest establishments I've seen anywhere. Think: a cafe that imports beans from Yemen, ice cream topped with honey comb, another ice cream shop that makes its own square cones and serves up vanilla-azuki bean flavor, a flavored canele craze, with competing pastry shops serving up their own versions of this French pastry. Bowie's nap schedule and the weather (o joy! it rained hard this morning) continue to set the pace for our journey, so we're fully enjoying exploring the alleys, the cafes and the playgrounds of our neighborhood. The party sometimes comes to us: apparently, this area is Halloween central; so on Halloween night, Dave and Bowie got into the midst of it--Dave's posting his pictures on his blog.

A novel way to travel!

Yemeni cafe in Ebisu
A preternaturally calm poodle getting a haircut

How about a fistful of noodles