Things homeschooled girls did in the 90s


1. Journaled and discoursed in the style of Anne of Green Gables. Held the opinion that Gilbert Blythe from the movie version had an annoying way of saying “Anne, I’m sorrrrry.” But he was still kind of cute. RIP, Jonathan Crombie.

2. Had a crush on Christian Bale thanks to his minor but tragic role in Henry V and more importantly, his almost-naughty-boy-next-door charm in Little Women.

3. Re-watched the Christian Bale-Wynona Rider kissing scene in Little Women multiple times, ostensibly to laugh at the drool the director missed.

4. Did not like Leonardo DiCaprio, because “everyone” else did. See also: boy bands of any kind.

5. Other than Christian alternative boy bands, such as Jars of Clay.

6. Counted down the days until church, when you got to see your crush. This was way before the days of Facebook, or you would have been FB-stalking the heck out of him.

7. Danced to the soundtrack of Last of the Mohicans and daydreamed about marrying Hawkeye. Marrying — like that hot scene where he makes out with Madeline Stowe, only within the holy bonds of matrimony.

8. Fast forwarded the bathing scene in Much Ado About Nothing. You can see nude buttocks when you fast forward, but you’re still doing the right thing.

Worst hostel mates: The all-stars


The quiet terrace at Mingtown Youth Hostel in Shanghai

The quiet terrace at Mingtown Youth Hostel in Shanghai

I’ve been sleeping in international hostels for over 13 years now. I’ve traveled solo since I was 20 years old, all over the globe, and every trip makes me a little more savvy. But if you’re staying in a hostel, there’s not necessarily much you can do to ensure that your hostel mates are quiet and respectful — although I have had decent luck picking places that are centrally located but still secluded from the party zones, such as Mingtown in Shanghai. It also seems that choosing all-female dorms helps, at least if you’re a woman. Nonetheless, if you’ve stayed in hostels, you may recognize this cast of characters:

  1. The snorer. You think he’s done, finally, finally! And then no, he rolls over and starts again. You push your earplugs deeper into your head and wonder if he’d figure out who woke him if you snuck over and doused him with cold water.
  2. The guy who thinks nobody can hear his cell phone dinging with each new message. To add insult to injury, the chime he’s set to alert him is also the ring of your alarm clock.
  3. The girl who decides that 1 am is a perfect time for a call back home. You have no idea what she’s saying, but you’re pretty sure it’s either about getting her highlights done or sacrificing small animals.
  4. The partiers. They’re so quiet when they come in at 3 after drinking all night. SO QUIET, OH MY GOSH, LIKE A HERD OF WHISPERING RHINOS.
  5. The two people who hit it off at the hostel bar and can no longer contain their lust for one another. Or perhaps you’re wrong about that, and it’s just that someone’s rhythmically smothering a wildabeast in the bunk above you.
  6. The early riser who needs to pack at 4 because she’s going to the airport and she was totally scattered about it until just now.
  7. That One Couple. So giddy, so in love, so sure nobody will mind if they cram into one bunk together and giggle sweet nothings to one another. Invariably you know enough of their language to catch the first 5,000 mi amors before you give up and roll out of bed at 6 am, their chosen time to start connecting for the day.

Selma’s Shanghai



IMG_2032A few years ago, I went to Edinburgh and decided it was one of my favorite cities in the world for its own sake. I didn’t do a whole lot there, other than drink really good Scotch for not very much money and admire the architecture. I tried to connect with this Chinese girl Selma from Couchsurfing so we could maybe go climbing, but it didn’t quite work out.

The day before I left for China, Selma left a message on my blog saying to let her know if I was ever in Shanghai, because she had finished up her studies and returned to her native country. So I contacted her, and we met up so she could show me around a bit.

She took me to a street that she said lovers frequented, a street quite literally filled with poetry, such as a stanza by Yeats:

How many loved your moments of glad grace/ And loved your beauty with love false or true/ But one man loved the pilgrim soul in you/ And loved the sorrows of your changing face.

This was rendered slightly less moving by the fact that the last line read “chang in gface,” which took me a second to decipher.

IMG_2035We went to 1933, a former slaughterhouse transformed into a trendy commercial area where people liked to go to take photographs. Very hipster, I told Selma. After a few hours of walking, we sat down for dinner. There was jellyfish on the menu, and also sea snails, neither of which I had tried. So I ordered both. I was particularly curious about the jellyfish, given that it appears to be the only creature in the seas benefitting from over-fishing and warming waters. Apparently it has almost no calories, although it is high in collagen and certain minerals. As it turns out, jellyfish is also not all that delicious, tasting vaguely crunchy and rubbery, like a cross between squid and uncooked rice noodles. However, it was ok with seasoning, much better than the sea snails, which I couldn’t quite figure out how to eat correctly and which tasted of sand. Fortunately, Selma had ordered spicy crab dim sum, a tasty and filling treat.

The day was well-spent, mostly because Selma was so interesting to talk to. She kept having to pull me out of the way so I wouldn’t get run over, as when I’m deep in conversation I tend not to pay as much attention to traffic. Somehow I always find people when I travel, or often; people I decide I love and thus try to convince to come visit me. Walking around with Selma I decided I liked Shanghai. It was really so much better than I had envisioned. IMG_1984

Crashing Shanghai Fashion Week


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I decide I’m going to Shanghai Fashion Week to try to get them to photograph me for my rad street style.

From what I observed yesterday after I stumbled into the heart of Shanghai Fashion Week totally by accident, people like to take photos of you if you’re dressed in something crazy. Like a mink coat with Tibetan shell decoration and a Peter Pan hat with insane feathers. Or a tulle skirt and baseball cap. Or shorts with really tall red socks. Normally this is a game I could play with serious creativity, but since all of my choices are conference garb — the most sedate clothing I own — I settle for wearing pulling my turquoise scarf up over my head and asking someone to take a photo of me. The thing is, once one person takes a photo of you, two or three other people swarm over and start clicking away because clearly you’re important. So here I am, striking a pose in front of the VIP fashion show entrance, a scarf my Dad bought me in Bonners Ferry, Idaho, flipped over myself at a weird angle. And this guy is saying “so cool, so cool,” turning his camera sideways like I’m some kind of trendsetter, when clearly what I look like is idiotic.

I walk away thinking my niece Chloe would be really good at Fashion Week due to her natural four-year-old street wear choices. And basically that’s fashion: playing dress-up and acting like a grownup because now you can color your makeup in the lines. IMG_1957 IMG_1945 IMG_1988 IMG_1993 IMG_1991 Shanghai Fashion Week

Ad hoc tea in Shanghai



I went out to find an ATM, leaving behind my camera because ATMs are hardly film-worthy. On my way a Chinese guy flagged me down and asked me to take a photo of him and a smiling Chinese girl in front of a Chinese sign that apparently was film-worthy. I snapped the photo, handed back the phone, and they started chatting with me: Where was I from? How long was I staying? They said they were from the provinces, from somewhere in the North which was known for its ice-sculpting festival, and were on their way to a tea ceremony. I said, oh, I love tea, and so they invited me along, saying they would practice their English.

They talked incessantly and excitedly, and I understood some of it. They were apparently impressed that I was not fat, being from the United States and all. They were shocked that I was 33, since Americans are usually so aged and saggy. “What kind of cosmetic you use?” the girl wanted to know. Oil, I told her. She looked confused: the all-natural scene apparently hadn’t made it to China yet, and “oil” probably sounded like something peasants used.

We got to the teahouse, a nondescript door painted with something in Chinese. We ducked in and sat down in front of a man dressed in a traditional Chinese get-up, complete with the long braid of hair. He stood behind a line of teas in glass jars and seven small teapots on a red laquer base emblazoned with a dragon. Teas from the mountains, they told me. The first was ginseng, pungent with a sweet aftertaste. Our host poured it into tiny bowls the size of sake glasses and told us to hold it with three fingers, drink it in three sips. Next was jasmine, clear and fragrant. Then some sort of mixed-dried-fruit tea, deep red and sweet. There was a special flower tea that came apart into a bouquet when prodded. We had green tea, lychee tea, and last of all an aged tea that was supposed to be prized in China.

IMG_1803My new friends translated everything the host said, pestering me with questions in between. I was doing the mental calculations, trying to figure out if I had enough cash on me to pay for this. I’d had only a few thimblefuls of tea — 14 to be exact, two of each kind of tea — but the “ceremony” part (and what art thou, thou idle ceremony?) would likely hike the price up some. Given that I’d been buying meals for less than $1, I hoped it wouldn’t be too bad.

The bill came, and my third was over $100. Fortunately, the tea house accepted credit cards. “One life, one life,” said my new friend in consolation. We walked back to the subway and parted ways; they promised to email me.

Wandering Shanghai



Shanghai is less terrible than I expected, since the air pollution seems to have lifted long enough to let in sunlight, but still, walking around by myself makes me want to be basically anywhere else. Especially when I wander into the minority art exhibit of the Shanghai Museum and stare at the traditional dresses of Mongolia and Tibet. I realize I did not research how difficult it might be to visit these places after Shanghai. And I realize that I now I really, really want to go there. I envision myself racing a Mongolian steppe horse across the plains with a band of herders and then traipsing south to drink yak’s milk in the Himalayas. Is this so much to ask from life?

IMG_1939I tell myself this would be more difficult to achieve than navigating Shanghai, which I’m finding peevish given the apparent lack of maps everywhere, including on Chinese internet. Also my lack of Chinese, which means an inability to ask for directions on the streets. The parks are not so bad, so I walk around and observe the free outdoor work-out facilities, which at first glance is hilarious and at second glance is a great use of public funds. I also observe the effort to make the parks natural: rocks for stepping across streams, winding paths. They’re just way too small to forget you’re in the middle of the world’s biggest city, which is kind of depressing. I inhale deeply, trying to get the scent of something natural into my lungs, but it still smells faintly of exhaust and cigarettes and decaying garbage.IMG_1932IMG_1715

However, I discover that I can get a bowl of steaming dumplings for fifty cents and eat it in a narrow, smoky little hole-in-the wall restaurant. They’re delicious, so this improves my mood somewhat.

Arriving in China


The quiet orderliness of my arrival into China is weirding me out. It’s so easy, routine. Nothing like I remember from 14 years ago at the boarder crossing from Hong Kong to mainland China, nothing whatsoever like being pressed forward in an untamed crowd of human flesh towards an official stamp in your passport. I smile. The agents smile back a little.

Once I emerge into the arrival hall, there’s a cluster of people shouting and waving signs. This is a bit more like what I remember. One fellow in a dark uniform attaches to me as I march past. “Which hotel, which hotel you stay at?” he asks me. I give him the stink eye. “I am official hotel staff,” he tells me, pointing to a nametag that says “Hotel staff.”

“You need taxi?” he asks.

“I’m going to the taxi stand,” I tell him.

“Taxi stand, you wait for one hour,” he informs me, trying to wave me towards an embankment of hotel logos, which, indeed, are all for official and expensive hotels. I give him the stink eye again and ask how much. He doesn’t understand. “For a taxi, how much, how much?” I repeat impatiently.

“400 Chinese,” he says.

I make an exaggerated show of horror and shoo him away, march the extra hundred yards to the taxi stand. First rule of travel: if anyone comes up to you and offers to help you, he (100% of the time it appears to be a man, at least if you’re a woman) actually wants you to help him. Unless you’re looking at a map, and the person is merely offering directions. But even that can turn into something else.

At the taxi stand, I do not wait for one hour or even for one minute. There are a line of waiting taxis; I show my driver the address of my hostel, verify the price of about 150 yuan I’ve been quoted by the hostel staff, and away we go. Halfway into the city I realize that the traffic is entirely sedate, unlike when I was in Hunan province over a decade ago. Shanghai, if you squint, looks like anywhere else, any other big city with high rises.

However, once I’m installed in my hostel and trying to connect to the internet, I discover that actually, I’m wrong. Shanghai is not like everywhere else because none of the websites I’m entering are coming up: No gmail, no Google, no Facebook; I can’t even access my own blog. No Google docs, no Google maps, no Google Translate; no messaging to tell people I’m alive. I take my computer down to reception, and the guy tells me: no, no, only Chinese websites. He takes my computer, fiddles with it, hands it back to me: a list of porn websites on the Baidu search engine. I stare at my computer, at the guy, back and forth.

“But what about the sites I actually need to use?” I ask him. He shrugs nervously, apologetically. Apparently Chinese internet is stuck in the 1990s, and there’s nothing he can do about it.

For sweetness


I’m going to China early tomorrow morning, and Elaina, only two months into being three, is getting ready for bed. We’ve had an extended Easter weekend with both sides of Elaina’s family, and Elaina has been very happy about it. But now it’s over. I hug her, tell her goodbye for the morning. She starts crying. “I wish you didn’t have to go to China!” she sobs. Her voice is high and growly by turn, adorable even when she’s sad.

I pick her up and ask if she wants me to snuggle her for a few minutes before bed. She says yes, so I carry her upstairs and tuck her in. I tell her I’m going to China for a conference, and then I explain what a conference is. I point out that her dad also goes to conferences, different kinds of conferences. “There’s lots of conferences in the world,” I say.

Somehow this turns into a discussion about all the kinds of things there are in the world, like water. I tell her we’re fortunate to have clean water to drink, because not everyone does. “But maybe we could give them some of ouws,” says Elaina seriously. “Yes,” I agree “Maybe we can. I’m glad you want to give them some.” I wonder, briefly, if she will always want this.

Chloe, age four, comes in and gets into her little bed. The girls sleep in the same room, wouldn’t dream of sleeping elsewhere, but there isn’t room for two full-size beds, so Chloe has her toddler bed still. But tonight Chloe is feeling jealous of Elaina’s bigger bed, and says so. I ask Elaina if Chloe can come cuddle with us for a few minutes, and Elaina says no, she doesn’t want to scoot over.

“But Elaina,” I say “We were just talking about sharing water with people who need it, and here’s Chloe right here.”

Elaina sits up soberly. Her fine, straight hair falls across her forehead. “I was thinking,” she says, pronouncing her th with great care, “maybe we could make a big bed fow Chloe.”

She climbs out of her bed and begins to run her tiny, soft hands over the bottom sheet. She is gentle and methodical. “I’m making a bed fow sweetness and kindness,” she says. She is involved in her own kind of magic, and I watch her awhile. Finally I ask if she wants to make this bed for Chloe with Chloe’s blankets and pillow. She says yes. So Chloe and Elaina trade beds, dragging their respective special blankets. I tuck Elaina in and kiss her on the forehead. “That was very kind,” I tell her “I’m very proud of you.”

I tell the girls that I’ll be sleeping across the hall, that I’ll leave my door open. “What if I have a tick?” Elaina asks. “Then I will help you,” I say “But you don’t have to worry, you don’t have a tick.”

The magic pill


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When I was a homeschooled kid, I used to go hang out at my dad’s office about one day a week and do my math in the break room. Or I’d help the nurses file charts, maybe even watch a procedure if the patient was willing. Things like ingrown toenail removal; I trimmed my toenails fastidiously afterwards.

Something my dad used to say was, I wish you could help with more patients. I could dress you up in a lab coat and just have you listen to certain people. You’d prescribe them placebos because all they want is to talk and then be given a pill to make them better. You’d just nod along, and then hand them a scrawl at the end of their visit: RX Stultania QID. Maybe you’d even say something like “This pill will significantly improve your quality of life, but you have to give up smoking and Doritos for it to work.”

IMG_1542I would picture myself, a scrawny ten-year-old with enormous glasses, sitting up straight, drowning in my dad’s white coat, fastidiously taking notes into a chart. I’d have a nametag: K. Botkin, Stultologist. Obviously, none of my patients would speak Latin. What a good listener you are, they’d say. This pill will fix everything, they’d say. But I really have to give up smoking? And eating junk food?

And drinking Cola, I’d say. The pill is counteracted by preservatives. You’ll have to make your own food using real ingredients like spinach and butter and ground beef. The pill will change your life, but it’s a delicate pill, a magic pill. It needs to be massaged internally with yoga stretches and sit-ups. It will extend your life by ten years if you take it according to instructions. It’s cutting edge, so it’s expensive. Don’t buy it unless you’re serious.

They’d nod eagerly. They’d hurry away with their prescription. They’d buy broccoli and uncured bacon, butter and potatoes. They’d resign themselves to nicotine patches and morning yoga. They’d have to: the pill would be too expensive to waste. Sometimes, trying to work their ankles closer to their ears, they’d wonder if it was worth it. But then they’d go home and pan-fry a steak and decide that yes, life was actually pretty good.

They’d return three months later, check in, say they’ve slipped a few times but overall have done pretty well. You’d examine their dosage, add a tablespoon of MCT oil to their regimen, fish oil, a daily dose of bone broth. You’d give them a reward coupon for the original placebo pill: 80% off. You’d pat them on the back and tell them to keep up the good work. Elated, they’d fill their prescription for the second time. A year into it, with a bit of tweaking, they’d be full-fledged paleo-eating yoga devotees. They would be leaner, have fewer gallbladder problems, fewer aches and pains, fewer dizzy spells. Their lungs would be clear, their coughs less intense. Their circulation would have improved.

All this without the potentially disastrous side effects of the weight-loss pills and cleanses peddled by people marketing to those who want a quick fix.

The quickest fix: get a good night’s sleep and an excellent meal. Apart from that, go in for the long haul. Or pay me money to prescribe you a placebo.

Caveat: I’m not a doctor, folks. I’m a Stultologist.

Nelson on a migraine


I make it within five blocks and 20 minutes of the opening event at Coldsmoke Powder Fest in Nelson, British Columbia, which I’m supposed to be covering for Out There Monthly, and I realize I’m getting a migraine. To the point that I can’t see.

Did I mention this particular event I’m supposed to be covering is a series of films?

I wrangle getting in early and dumping my stuff, and start asking the staff if there’s a pharmacy close by. They say yes, a block and a half away. In a blind fog, I stumble out of the building and across the street, concentrating hard on the aura of headlights to avoid getting hit. Good news: I manage to find the pharmacy. Bad news: it closed ten minutes ago.

I’ve left my coat behind on the theory that the cold will constrict the vessels in my brain and cure the migraine. Longer exposure may do me good, so I set out down the street to try to find drugs, preferably legal ones. I have to stare down buildings head-on to read their signs, or maybe sideways depending on the spots in my vision, keeping a good pace so I don’t freeze to death. I lurch along Nelson’s main drag like a drunken tourist who has never seen civilization before. An older fellow appraises me at a stoplight and asks if I’m not cold.

“I’m trying to find a pharmacy,” I blurt out, and then correct myself, “I’m trying to find something to cure migraines.”

The fellow is sympathetic and suggests the local co-op, so I lurch my way to the natural market to find out what natural oils hippies prescribe for my particular ailment. Peppermint, of course. I purchase a vial of peppermint oil and slather my eyebrows, neck, forehead and temples with it. I march back to my destination and drink copious amounts of water, massaging the peppermint oil into my neck.

The first film is a psychedelic night-skiing light show with existential dialogue I can’t process. The colors are pretty, though. The music is so good it’s making my spine feel funny. I decide migraines are kind of like being on ecstasy, only with pain instead of pleasure. Everything just washes over you in feelings, tiny things that you wouldn’t notice otherwise. Actually, if you think about it right, it’s kind of delicious. I lean back in my chair and decide that if I hold my skull just right, my sensitivity is actually veering off into the realm of fun. I can see straight again. And actually my head doesn’t really hurt. I’m just high on peppermint oil now.

Katie: 1, Migraine: 0.


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