Hermes and the Tyger

In the spring of 2001, my girlfriend took a trip to France. At the end of her visit, she called me from Paris and asked if there was anything I wanted. I told her I didn’t want anything, but she kept bugging me, so I told her to get me an Hermes scarf.

One thing you should probably know at this point. In French, Hermes is pronounced differently than in English. English speakers are more apt to say something like “her mees”; but in French, it is pronounced like “air mez” or “air may.” I explained to my girlfriend this difference, so if she asked someone, they would understand her. In my experience, not using the French accent on a word means that no one will understand you, even if the word is essentially the same, like “vegetarian” (true story). On the flip side, I couldn’t understand a French speaker saying Richard Chamberlin’s name to me, so I have complete sympathy for pronunciation.

Back to the scarf. I really didn’t want anything, and I told her to get an Hermes scarf because a) I knew they were super expensive and when she saw the price she would balk; and b) I find their scarves aren’t really to my taste.

It was J’s last day in Paris, and it was a hot day. She wore a tank top and shorts and carried a backpack. Nothing terribly glam. She and our friend went to Le Bon Marche, a department store. J searched the store, trying to find an Hermes scarf, but had no luck. She is fiercely independent and doesn’t like asking for help, but finally reached the point where she had to.

She found a saleswoman and asked her if she spoke English. The woman said she did a little. J stumbled through her request, her self-consciousness over the pronunciation adding more stress. J murmured to the saleswoman, “I’m looking for a scarf. We say ‘Her-meez’ but I think you say ‘Air-mez’.”

The saleswoman didn’t understand what she said, so she asked her to write it down. J did, and when the saleswoman turned the paper around to read it, her demeanor changed entirely. Where she had been brusque before, now she was solicitous and friendly. She said, “Oh no, we don’t carry those here. But let me go ask someone else and I’ll find out where you can get them.” It turned out that the Hermes store was closed by the time J got there. I was spared her spending any money on a scarf I probably wouldn’t like, and even better, we got this fantastic story!

Which brings me to March 2015. Last year my mom gave me money for my birthday to buy an Hermes scarf, in part motivated by this story. In the pit of my stomach I was sure I wasn’t going to find any scarves I actually liked. I looked at their website, but it was so awful and I couldn’t figure out what they might look like. I kept putting off going to a store. I really wanted to go with my mom, so we could share the experience, but our only chance to do that was last summer, and there ended up not being any time.

Last week I made plans to meet up with my friend Lauren, who lives on the Eastside, because I had something I wanted to give her. I decided to combine meeting her with a shopping trip, since there’s an Hermes store over there. Saturday was a cold and dreary day. I headed out in the rain and dodged the raindrops. Since I don’t have a car, I took the bus over.

Hermes store

Bellevue is very different from Seattle, even though it’s separated by a small body of water. The Hermes store is in a high-end/designer shopping center. Everything there is so foreign from my daily life. It’s hard for me not to be super judgmental about all of it. I arrived at the store around 3:30, expecting that it wouldn’t have many customers. How wrong I was. The small space at the entrance was filled with women who surrounded the scarf case. They were throwing scarves in the air, one after the other, gesturing and talking loudly. In retrospect there were probably about five women, but it felt like twenty! I stood in front of the case amidst the melee for a good five minutes, hoping that a salesperson would appear out of the fray, but none did. I finally went over to a young man standing to the side who wore a suit. He seemed to be a cross between a security person and concierge, and I asked him if he could help me find a salesperson. He welcome me to the store and then apologized profusely for me having to wait.

A salesperson was procured and began helping me. She started by asking me if I wanted a classic scarf, etc. etc. I asked her about the size, because I don’t understand centimeters. Then she took me back to the case and asked me about colors and what I was looking for, what colors I liked, etc. I told her pinks and reds, even though before I got to the store I was thinking I wanted something with blues and greens. I don’t know why I didn’t just say that. I was so overwhelmed by the frenzy! She pulled out one scarf and tied it around my neck. I looked in the mirror and didn’t feel anything. I pointed out another scarf that had a cheetah on it, with bright pink splashes. The saleswoman said, “Let me get that before it gets snatched out from under us,” but that also produced a meh reaction when I looked in the mirror. You can torture yourself by trying to figure it out on their site. I can’t even find the scarf I ended up buying.

While I was feeling meh and overwhelmed and starting to get a little fed up with the whole thing, the saleswoman came back with something totally different. No pink or red at all. It had a giant tiger with a green background and these bright, lush orange lilies.

Hermes scarf

Some people know I’m not a fan of green. I don’t really wear it that much. I don’t gravitate toward it. I will pass it over for pretty much any other color. But I have a thing for lilies, and so I decided why the hell not? She tied it on, and I looked at the mirror, and something in me sang out. I told her, “This is the one.” She showed me five different ways to wear it and was super willing to show me other scarves, but I just knew. This was it. No matter what else I saw, it wouldn’t please me.

Hermes scarf

She rang me up and I left the store, feeling completely triumphant. When I got home, I posted a few pictures of the details on the scarf, including the one above. And when I was taking the pictures, I saw that it has the line from William Blake’s poem: “Tyger tyger burning bright in the forest of the night” … which you can just make out here:

Hermes scarf: tyger tyger

That line also has a special resonance for me (and possibly for many people), and was such a delightful surprise. On top of that, a friend posted this lovely piece about the symbolism of the tiger:

The confidence of the tiger is contentment. Contentment comes from discernment, the virtue of touching our feet to the earth of every moment. As we slow down and consider our thoughts, words, and actions with the question, “Will this bring happiness or pain?”, we become like tigers who carefully observe the landscape before pouncing. In looking at what to cultivate and what to discard, we are remembering our precious human life and deciding to use it well.

And that perfectly sums up the theme of the work I did with my therapist, so now this scarf has become a talisman for me, too!

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A Personal History With The Malheur National Wildlife Refuge

I invited my friend Danielle to write a blog post about her experience surrounding the Malheur NWR, based on a longish comment she left on Facebook. What she sent to me gave me chills. I really hope you will take the time to read the full piece. It is worth your time. And thank you, Danielle, for trusting me to share your story.

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Wearing the stereotypical pith helmet as a joke for a photoshoot at Fort Vancouver. Photo Credit: Bean and Sprout Photography.


I have struggled with a lot of deep pain and anguish since I first saw the Bundy militia show up in Burns, Oregon to protest the prison sentence of Steven and Dwight Hammond for arson on BLM lands in 2001 and 2005.

Part of it is because I spent part of my childhood in Ontario, Oregon. My grandparents were farmers in Vale, and my father loved hunting, fishing, and being outdoors. I spent a great deal of time following him through the beautiful rivers, streams, lakes, canyons and mountains of the High Desert. We didn’t live in Burns, but we spent time around there, too.

My fifth grade class at Alameda Elementary in Ontario spent the year studying the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. Our art projects involved constructing a color guidebook of the different bird species there and habitat collages of the different species. Our spelling words were the names of birds, plants, and natural features. Our history lessons were about the rich prehistory of the area, learning about how millions of indigenous people who thrived in the lakes, and the ways early farmers used the lands. We did science experiments about caves. It culminated in a five day field trip to the Station, where we followed the amazing rangers and scientists recording and watching the birds, preserving their habitats, and the rich cultural history of the area. I discovered that the HQ building was built on a significant prehistoric village built by the Wadatika, ancestors of the Burns Paiute.

I will never forget the moment when our ranger guide pointed out the two snowy owlets in a nest above us, blinking at the gaggle of noisy kids.
Malhuer trip 1988
Malheur trip 1988: My friends Sally and Shawna. This is the only photo I have of that trip to the Refuge in 1988, taken the same day as that fateful moment with the owlets because all of my photos were destroyed in a flood in 2005. Photo Credit, Danielle D.M. Gembala

I stumbled over a projectile point on the ground that had been scuffed up by the feet that had walked before me.

That had been put there by feet that had walked this same ground so very long ago.

But that isn’t the only reason the Bundy militia in the Malheur Refuge bothers me.

I realized, growing up among ranchers and farmers, loggers and hunters, miners and lawyers, that we don’t know what is under our feet, that surrounds us. The beauty of. Not until it is gone. I realized that our ignorance, our blind focus on our own use and ideas of the land often leads to tragic consequences for everyone.

I decided I could change that. That I would use my own experience and knowledge as a voice.


Two Dragon Camp 1996
1996: Me at Two Dragon Camp, a Chinese mining site in the the Wallowa Whitman National Forest. Photo Credit, Gary Keenan.

I worked first for the Forest Service as a volunteer while doing my undergraduate honor’s thesis and my master’s research on the archaeology and vernacular architecture of 19th century Chinese mining site in the Wallowa Whitman National Forest and Italian railroad camps over Santiam Pass in the Willamette National Forest.

I went on to study archaeology in graduate school at the University of Washington in 1998.

After my first year in school, I went to Russia to excavate at Pavlinovo, an Iron Age fortress in Western Siberia. While driving through the countryside, our driver pulled a sharp U-turn and I heard gunfire. I knew only three phrases in Russian, but the French archaeologists sitting next to me told me that the driver had to evade crooked police stopping vehicles at a roadblock, because they’d gotten word “Western foreigners” were in the area. These same police later searched our camp, so the few “Westerners” hid in tents occupied by the students from Belarus while the police searched the rest of the camp. I suspect someone bought them off.

Archaeological excavations at Pavlinovo, and Iron Age archaeological site, Kaluga Oblast, Western Siberia. 1999. Photo Credit, Danielle D.M. Gembala

I was bitten by giant mosquitoes, had to eat, drink, and bathe in dangerously polluted water, and witnessed a lot of shady mafia-esque activities. It was uncomfortable, but an adventure. When I learned my colleagues face similar dangers here, I realized that I didn’t need to go far for danger if I wanted it.

Soon after, a colleague invited me to work with her in Bosnia to help identify human remains in mass graves. I declined. I was in grad school, and I had just returned from Russia. I wasn’t ready to be shot at again, and I wasn’t sure I had the strength to face that level of horror.

Instead, I interned at the Burke Museum, where I worked in a room down the hall from The Ancient One, a.k.a. Kennewick Man, while Army Corps of Engineers archaeologists cataloged and studied the bones during the drawn-out lawsuit. It turned out to be a horror in my own backyard.

I listened to native peoples’ stories, and wept at the tragedies I have been part of. That I’ve benefitted from. I have held hands with people who have had all they know taken from them systematically, then erased because they are not descended from white Europeans.

I learned that it isn’t enough to put artifacts in collections and preserve them. They need to be touched, to be accessible, to be known to remain important.

So, I joined several museologists and local tribal members in a project to take their hidden cultural heritage and make it accessible, touchable, available to children in tribal schools, and to the public in the Archaeology of West Point Burke Box education kits.

Station Camp photo
Station Camp Photo: Analyzing Fire Cracked Rock (FCR) in a frigid lab at Middle Village/Station Camp in 2005. Photo Credit, Melissa Darby.

After I received my masters in 2001, I moved back to Oregon, and worked for many years as an archaeologist for Fort Vancouver National Historic Site in Vancouver, Washington. Our team worked at sites and with collections from around the Pacific Northwest, including Fort Clatsop and Middle Village/Station Camp at the mouth of the Columbia River, and Cathlapotle at the Ridgefield Wildlife Refuge. I gave countless tours of the park’s amazing collection, and instructed new students and volunteers in active excavations and laboratory work to preserve the past, on public display for visitors every single day of my job.

Analyzing metal artifacts in the archaeological lab at Fort Vancouver NHS in 2006. Photo Credit, National Park Service, Fort Vancouver NHS.

I spent over a decade protecting our nation’s heritage and natural resources from people like the Hammonds and these so-called patriots. I attended conferences with antiquities law enforcement officers, and conducted numerous interventions with people attempting to destroy archaeological heritage on our lands. I spent countless unpaid hours developing outreach programs for children and adults to educate people about our natural and cultural heritage, to attempt to change how we approach conservation and historical preservation by making it more accessible and more important to everyone.

I learned how to engage in the difficult, daily dialectic with people who think that their want to use the land in a particular way constitutes a right, not the misplaced privilege that it has been.

I fought to educate people who support and have engaged in riding ATVs through protected habitats and cultural landscapes, intervened with friends who argued for setting back-burn fires, letting them know how they endanger historic structures and landscapes let alone lives and habitats, talked with poachers who chafe at being restricted from “their” forests by “environmentalist hippies” like me.

I’ve sat with developers who want to build roads through prehistoric villages. Given tours to congressional staff members who want to please someone higher up the food chain by making a highly visible project happen regardless of the laws right now, dammit. Congressional staff who work for politicians who get paid by lobbyists who will benefit from their plans to privatize the entire parks system.

I’ve intervened when hot-shot Forest Service crews wanted to trample over extant historic log structures in order to practice fire suppression. I’ve called the police and helped guide them to meth-heads who want to collect metal artifacts to sell for scrap at a historic site. I’ve stopped construction workers who just want to dig that damn hole right through a privy once used by Ulysses S. Grant, on the edge of a cemetery with Native American remains in it. I’ve argued with ranchers who want to graze cattle on public lands so that they profit on directly on the destruction of delicate riparian zones and wildflower habitats, had beer with loggers who want to destroy watersheds for steelhead and salmon. I’ve taught pothunters and “collectors” who loot artifacts and sell off antiquities to form that funnel to an international black market, aka “recreational metal detecting.”

These last ones are the most dangerous. I’ve had multiple law enforcement officers report that illicit antiquities are used to funnel money into most drug, weapons, and human trafficking organizations all the way up to international warlords and cartels. The site Conflict Antiquities has a trove of examples, if you have the heart to read the heartbreaking stories there.

That trail starts with the arrowhead and potsherd enthusiasts.

I lived this for a decade, committed to the mission of preservation, education, and conservation. I’ve been personally threatened. I know people who have been shot at while surveying for pipelines, people who have been threatened. I had to quit when the backbreaking pace of this work threatened to kill me after I was diagnosed with a progressive congenital neurological disorder.

We don’t get paid much. I was paid less than the entry-level construction workers I supervised. We don’t do it for the Indiana Jones-style hats, or the glory of being covered in the dirt, or living out of suitcases, waking up arthritic and bruised after another day in the hot sun, or even the non-existent sweet, sweet gold nuggets that everyone asks us if we’ve found yet.

We do this because we all believe in the importance of knowing where we come from so that we know where we are going. Because we believe this is important for all of us, not just us history nerds.

My colleagues have died — and are dying — to protect the past in multiple parts of the world, including the United States.

My heart is in my throat for the rangers and scientists who work for the Forest Service and BLM right now. This is not because I think they will be shot at. Well, partially that.

It is because I fear that all we have done has not been enough to make people aware why this is so wrong, and the desperate pain that arises when you’ve given your life to this greater cause only to have everyone turn their back and say, “Who cares. It’s just a wildlife refuge in the middle of nowhere Oregon. Let them burn the place down.”


The Bundy mob stated they want to open the Malheur Wildlife Refuge and the surrounding lands to ranchers, that the “best possible outcome” will be that the government will “relinquish control” over “their” land and that what they are doing is not “rebellious” but in accordance with the “Constitution.”

These are the same people who have organized ATV trail rides through cultural heritage sites in Utah that are off limits because the mere touch by human hands can destroy what has survived for millennia. They support the “American Lands Council” who argue that all public lands have been “taken from them” by the government. While I agree in some cases with eminent domain cases here and there, by-and-large, the same politicians behind these movements are paid by lobbyists for international corporations who would benefit from the wholesale opening of public lands for stockholder gain for mining, water, agriculture, etc.

You and I, the common citizen, would not benefit in any way. We would probably lose a great deal of our treasures if the American Lands Council got their way.

They use the imagery of Wounded Knee and the history of Native American genocide as symbols of their anti-government movement, while benefitting from the privilege of being on the “winning side” of that war of conquest.

My experience is that these people have no respect for heritage other than their radically skewed version of the past. They have have absolutely no respect for science, for culture, for heritage. They have no understanding of what lies beneath their feet, what is or isn’t a common good, other than how it reflects their shortsighted, narcissistic, vision of the world: a vision that reflects a white man carrying a gun and doing whatever he wants whenever he wants, no matter what anyone else wants or needs.

The Constitution says they can believe that. It is a free country.

Until they use their power, their force, their ignorance, and their hypocritical symbols of “justice” and “Constitutional Rights” to force the government to bend to their personal vision of a world in which “public lands” are theirs to use as they wish, whenever they wish.

The FBI considers domestic terrorism as:

  • Involve acts dangerous to human life that violate federal or state law;
  • Appear intended (i) to intimidate or coerce a civilian population; (ii) to influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion; or (iii) to affect the conduct of a government by mass destruction, assassination. or kidnapping; and
  • Occur primarily within the territorial jurisdiction of the U.S.

And that:

18 U.S.C. § 2332b defines the term “federal crime of terrorism” as an offense that:

  • Is calculated to influence or affect the conduct of government by intimidation or coercion, or to retaliate against government conduct; and
  • Is a violation of one of several listed statutes, including § 930(c) (relating to killing or attempted killing during an attack on a federal facility with a dangerous weapon); and § 1114 (relating to killing or attempted killing of officers and employees of the U.S.).

They are carrying guns. They have told media that they will resort to violence if law enforcement attempts to remove them from federal property. They want to take lands we stole from the people who came before us, a place Teddy Roosevelt set aside for all of us in 1908, and make it into a cattle ranch for their fun and profit. They want to subvert our justice system in order to support two arsonists who poached, burned, and consistently opposed efforts to conserve habitats in areas that are environmentally very sensitive to fire and grazing.

Nevermind that this is the same justice system that a few days ago failed to indict a police officer for shooting of Tamir Rice, a black twelve-year-old child for carrying a toy gun in a park because he was a reasonably suspicious threat.

They are no different than ISIS, who use the same weapons to dismantle the archaeological sites in Iraq and Syria than they do to kill their own people. Who are selling artifacts on the international black market to fund their terrible war to make the world into their radical vision. They are no different than the Taliban, who did the same in Afghanistan. Or the junta who took over Myanmar and destroyed much of the Buddhist heritage there, or the Nazis, who looted and pillaged their way across Europe and North Africa. Or the British in India, or the Americans in North America. The list is really endless.

This is a tactic of terror, conquest, and control.

If you feel any of this is wrong as I do, I’ve learned something else working in public service.

You have a voice as a citizen, while the government employees are tied by bureaucracy and the silence of ethics.

You can call your elected officials, local and national. The Oregon governor, Kate Brown.

Talk to your neighbors, your kids, people you meet online and around town. Educate yourself. Educate others. Be vocal. Be an advocate. For it is all of our future that is at stake, here.

But most of all, please, do not mistake the fact that they haven’t “shot at anyone yet” for peaceful intent. They are not peaceful. They are not patriots. They are not protesters.

They want what is all of ours for their own. And they will kill to get it.

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A couple of years ago I started selecting a word as my theme for the year, rather than doing resolutions (which are fraught for many reasons that most of you know). I like to choose verbs, because they remind me to take action. I like to treat the word like a mantra or meditation focus. It’s something I can return to, again and again, without labeling myself as a failure. Our attention wanders. It’s natural.

century plant with bloom

For 2014 the word was return. For 2015, it was try.

I was thinking last week what I wanted it to be for 2016. I was listening to The Moth podcast, and Dan Kennedy shared some resolutions that listeners felt were particularly potent. One was, “fail more.” Given how much time I’ve spend pondering failure on this blog, I thought I would focus on that.

So for 2016, the word is submit. I particularly like Merriam-Webster’s definition.

: to give (a document, proposal, piece of writing, etc.) to someone so that it can be considered or approved

: to stop trying to fight or resist something : to agree to do or accept something that you have been resisting or opposing

I like that there are multiple meanings. Amongst my writer friends, the first meaning will probably the one that comes to mind. And I like the second meaning: to stop resisting and give in. In this case, even though I know I want to write and be published, I resist it. In addition, I can bring the words from the last two years along. Return. Try. Submit.

2016 is going to be about giving in even further to what I want. What do you want for 2016?

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Why I broke up with RadioLab

I posted last week about the podcasts I love. Many people responded that they loved RL. I used to be in that camp. I haven’t talked that much about why I broke up with them, but I did mention it. One of my friends asked me why, so here is my response.

Part I:

In the fall of 2012 I was walking to meet a friend for lunch and listening to the episode “The Fact of the Matter.” Then the segment Yellow Rain came on. I remember hearing Robert Krulwich interrogate Eng Yang and his niece, Kao Kalia Yang, and I was on the verge of tears at his questioning.

Shortly after the episode aired, Ms. Yang wrote a response, specifically about how she and her uncle had agreed to participate because they believed they would finally get to tell their story and be believed. Instead, they were badgered and not taken seriously, diminished. I urge you to listen to the episode and then read Ms. Yang’s response. She had a further follow-up.

Part II:

In March 2012, This American Life produced an entire episode retracting the Mike Daisy Foxconn story. At the time I thought it was overkill. Why was Ira bending over backwards? I didn’t understand.

Part III:

sunset behind the mekong

I’d spent the winter of 2011 in SE Asia. I visited Laos. I learned not only about the Hmong people, but how Laos got the worst of it during the Vietnam War era. Everyone was carpet bombing the fuck out of them. They have more unexploded ordinances than any other country in SE Asia and it would take centuries to clear all the bombs if anyone was doing any actual clearing. This was not something I’d learned in high school or college history classes.

Part IV:

So after having traveled to Laos and hearing TAL’s retraction, I expected a similar level of respect from Radioplab. Instead, their response disheartened me. They weren’t interested in facts, or the truth, as they said. They had destroyed my trust. Why couldn’t they believe the Yangs? I wrote an email to the show, telling them they had broken my trust. They never responded to my email. They dug in, got defensive, and didn’t see how they’d harmed the Yangs.


I had learned some fantastic things from Radkoplab, but I’m still heartbroken about the treatment of the Yangs. On a piece about facts and truth, they couldn’t see their own errors or admit they had fucked up and done harm. I’ve tried to listen a few times since the fall of 2012, and each time I just get really sad and also don’t know what to believe from their story. I can learn about the things they cover in other places.

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Podcasts I Love

In no particular order:


Risk Show

Hosted by Kevin Allison, the tag line is “true stories you thought you’d never dare to share.” While there are plenty of stories about sexual adventures, there are other stories that venture into darker/forbidden territory as well. Trevor Noah’s story about his mother is a recent one I recommend. I was also incredibly moved by Marcy Langlois’ story surrender, about recovering from tragedy.

The Moth

This is the first storytelling podcast I heard. So many fantastic voices and stories. I often replay them later for my girlfriend. Top hits include:


Produced by Lea Thau, who was the first producer on The Moth. She interviews different people on the theme of what makes them feel a stranger. I always find these stories touching, even when the people’s experiences are so different from my own. For a start, try American Mormon-International Mr. Leather. Or start anywhere, really.

nigella pod


Nerdist. Chris Hardwick interviews people from the entertainment industry with a nerdy and/or comedy slant. Recent interviews I enjoyed: Cameron Esposito, Lily Tomlin, and Jon Ronson.

My mom just tipped me off to Crybabies, which is about the things that make people cry. Susan Orlean and Sarah Thyre are fabulous. I’ve only listened to a few, but Guy Branum’s ep was great. Notorious RBG. I say no more.

On Being is hosted by Krista Tippet. I don’t listen regularly, but she gets the most amazing people, like Mary Oliver. I did listen to her recent episode with Amy Ray and Emily Saliers, the Indigo Girls, who have been such a formative part of my own adulthood.


State of the Re:union is no longer producing new episodes, but it is excellent. Al Letson explores different places across the country through a specific lens – often race, but not always. Pick a place you know, or one you don’t, and learn more amazing things about this country.

And a few more as I run out of steam for you.


Design Matters with Debbie Millman
99 Percent Invisible with Roman Mars. Go listen to the episode about lawns. Also, Roman has the best voice to put in your ears.


Infinite Monkey Cage from the BBC
Sawbones: a marital tour of misguided medical history

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The &^*#@ Spring Rolls

As many of you know, I spent the winter of 2011 traveling around SE Asia. I started in Thailand, where I spent 6 weeks. My mom met up with me at the end of that time in Chiang Rai, which is in the far north of Thailand and is part of the Golden Triangle, where Thailand, Laos and Burma meet.

I had learned from a friend that I could take the slow boat down the Mekong, starting in Thailand and ending in Luang Prabang, a UNESCO World Heritage site and city in Laos. My mom was up for the adventure, so once she landed in Thailand there was no time to get settled. We just picked up the next day and headed out for the boat.

My mother is an intrepid traveler. She doesn’t need all the creature comforts, and neither do I. My basic requirements are a room in a building, and indoor plumbing. I definitely had some adventures with discomfort while I was traveling through Thailand, mostly involving mosquitoes and other insects in my rooms. But my mom didn’t care about insects. She was worried about rats. She’d read stories about the town where we would be staying – Pak Beng – being infested with rats. She didn’t want to take any chances, so I made sure to book a room in advance that had high ratings and most importantly, NO RATS.

The only rat we saw in Pak Beng ended up being a stuffed toy belonging to a child in the hotel where we stayed.

Toy rat

But on to the meat of this particular story. In non-English speaking countries where they depend heavily on tourist dollars, I’ve encountered quite a range of facility with English, particularly in the service sectors. Most people stick to the few scripts that lubricate their business. Their English is far better than my ability to speak their languages, and for that I’m always always always grateful.

I give you this background so you will understand what happened next. Our boat pulled into Pak Beng late in the afternoon. Pak Beng exists for the sole reason of providing lodging and respite to the people riding the boats down the river. We checked in to our hotel, keeping an eye out for rats, and then went to find a place for dinner. Each spot looked the same, so I have no idea how we picked the place we did. It was filled with people, as they all were. We got a table and a young and exuberant fellow took our order. We were famished. There hadn’t been much to eat on the boat, so we were looking forward to a full dinner. After we placed our order we waited. And waited. AND WAITED …

I didn’t blame the waiter, there were large tables that were rowdy and needed more attention. But I finally got desperate and got the waiter’s attention to ask about our order. He was bopping around the restaurant amongst the tables and he glanced at me, his memory jogged. “Oh yes! Your fucking spring rolls!” he exclaimed, full of delight. My mom and I, despite our hunger, broke into laughter at the incongruity of his language with the situation and emotion.

To this day his response makes me laugh.

Here’s my mother the next morning, clutching her bag of bananas, before we boarded for the second day:

Pak Beng

The wooden benches on day 2:

wooden benches

You can see a few more pictures here.

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Over a cuppa

#OverACupOfTeaToday …

I would tell you that my heart is heavy and light, full of emotion, swinging wildly from one end of the spectrum to the other.

cuppa Assam

It’s World AIDS Day, and I think about all the people we’ve lost, before their time, due to fear. I still remember Mark, a beautiful, warm-hearted man who welcomed me when I first moved to Seattle. He was sweet and kind, and we had a special connection. My heart aches for the people around the world whose families have been destroyed, and who are denied treatment due to lack of access or funds. I hold the Bush administration complicit in the deaths of many people in Africa, due to their withdrawal of funding for comprehensive sex ed, in favor of abstinence-only sex ed.

It’s also the 60th anniversary of Rosa Parks’ act of civil disobedience. I can’t remember when I learned that she was an activist, trained for action, not a tired woman acting alone, but it blew my mind and made me so angry when I did. I know it was long after I finished all formal schooling. How much more powerful a story, and one that mainstream educators didn’t want us to know: collective action can and does push the needle. See also: ACT UP.

I saw a young black girl sitting at the front of the bus this morning, while I sat toward the back. I was struck by the ordinariness of it. There was no friction or conflict about where either of us sat. We sat where we chose. I was pleased by it, aware at the same time that there is still so much work to be done to reach true racial equality, as the Black Lives Matter work has made abundantly clear.

The past returns, in Yeats’ ever widening gyre, but I don’t believe it trends toward anarchy, as he predicts. History repeats, and the echoes reverberate. Some lessons it seems we need to learn over and over, with a node to Santayana.

I despair over humanity ever finding a sustainable peace, as the fresh wave of refugees, driven from their homelands, seek safer ground and find themselves rebuffed for the same reasons the German Jews were in the 1930s and 1940s. It’s Bosnia, it’s Sarajevo, it’s Rwanda, it’s Syria. It’s Armenia, it’s Tibet, it’s fucking “ethnic cleansing” which let’s be honest is state-sanctioned murder. If these are the examples I can list off the top of my head, I’m sure there are an equal number of atrocities I’m missing. And most of them haven’t been made into movies, sanitized for Hollywood audiences.

I try to take the long view, to see that progress is happening, even if it’s not on the timeline I’d prefer. In HALF my lifetime, gay people in America went from being persona non grata to having access to marriage. There’s still a long way to go in terms of protections, particularly for trans women of color, but given that 20 years ago there were NONE, this gives me hope. Hope for American culture to shift on things like gun ownership, access to health care, housing, gainful employment, and a standing down of the military. Hope for acceptance of all people. No, not just acceptance or tolerance, but celebration of the variety and diversity of what it means to be human, across sexuality, gender, religion, race, ethnicity, ability, age, and any other variable you can name. It may be naive, but the alternative is too painful to bear.

In my slowbloom way, I choose to return my focus to what I want. It’s easy to get distracted by all the things. It’s hard to admit what I want.

This is what I would tell you over a cup of tea today.

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How to Con

Last weekend I went to a science fiction/fantasy con that left me with a sour taste in my mouth – and heart. Rather than pick on this particular con, I’m going to just do a write up of things that I think make cons great and welcoming. Mostly I’m going to focus on programming and panels, because this is what I focus on when I go to cons. If you have suggestions for cosplay, gaming, dealers rooms, music/dances, or other events, I would love to hear them. There’s quite a bit available about diversity and inclusivity, and recently there have been discussions about making cons more accessible. There’s also information about harassment policies, which I’m not going to talk about here either.

elevator panel


Panels are either created by a centralized group who then assigns various attendees to each topic, or they are proposed by participants and then selected by a committee. Either way, here are my recommendations:

Moderators: have ’em.

Since you are going to have a moderator, have them develop questions before the con.
At a bare minimum, have the moderator send their questions to the other panelists before the con, to give everyone time to think about them.
Since your panel is moderated, that means the discussion will be dominated by the panelists, but make sure to leave time at the end for questions front the audience.

Diversity on the panel:
It’s easy to default to asking people you know to do things for you, especially when they aren’t being compensated. Try not to go with the default, which will likely be people who look a lot like you. Stretch yourself. Try to see who you can find that *isn’t* like you: be it gender, sexuality, race, ability, religion, hair color, preference in sushi, etc. I wouldn’t recommend asking someone just for the sake of diversity, which ends up tokenizing, but stretch a little beyond the first people who come to mind (unless of course you are already so awesome and have cultivated these connections already).

I say these things because I have had some great experiences at cons, and I know what’s possible. I want that for everyone. When I look around and see a bunch of people who look like one another and they don’t look like me, I don’t necessarily feel excluded, but I don’t quite feel included either.

In conclusion, spend a little bit of time and effort thinking about the programming and provide guidelines (at a bare minimum – it would be delightful if they were requirements) for the panelists. Cons can be for everyone!

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Dragons and Poison Chalices

I tweeted this a couple of weeks ago as a reminder for something I’ve been meaning to write about. There are people who I have judged as standing between me and something I wanted. I saw them like dragons, sitting on an enormous hoard, mean and greedy, doling out precious medallions to those they deemed worthy. I thought I had to curry favor, swallow the poison they offered, and try to survive it until I had cleared the obstacle and attained whatever goal I was in pursuit of.


It turns out that isn’t true, though. It’s true there are certain individuals who hold enormous influence and hence power, but as the saying goes, “All roads lead to Rome.” In other words, there are many paths, and while there might be One Ring To Rule Them Are, there is no singular route.

When I can recognize a dragon now, I realize this is fear speaking. Fear warps our ideas of what is possible, narrowing down all the possibilities until there are none left. When I see the dragon, I can relax, because it tells me what I’m seeing is a mirage, a lie. I can relax, and see that there are other options. There are always options, even when it feels like there are none.

The size of the dragon is an indicator of my level of investment. The bigger I think they are, the bigger the clue is that this is something close to my heart. If it were the size of an anole, I wouldn’t see the person as standing in my way at all. Because I don’t care, there’s nothing at stake. When the dragon fills the landscape, however, blotting out the horizon, this should be the mother of all signs.

I’m not obliged to slay it, like St. George, but facing reality head-on is like taking a sword to a dragon. So often, the reality is nothing like what the fear projected up on the screen.

It’s easy to blame the dragons for not achieving. I couldn’t. THERE WAS A GIANT SCARY DRAGON SITTING IN THE MIDDLE OF THE PATH. Except after I relaxed out of the paralysis, I found another path with an anole instead of a dragon. And it climbed up on the wall and flared its throat flag and it pointed further down the path.

I’m gathering my community of support. We are small but mighty. And this community reminds me daily that there are people in the world who can support my dreams and don’t feel threatened by them. So when you find someone who cheers you on, wholeheartedly, without fear that you are going to diminish them, cling tight. Give them chocolates and beer and octopi emoji. And if they don’t run screaming from the room, you’ve found a true friend.

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World (series) Enough and Time

The first game of the World Series started tonight.

The only sport I grew up knowing anything about or having any regular interaction with was baseball. My grandmother used to tell us stories about her father taking her to see Babe Ruth play. Baseball is a powerful through-line for me in my family history.

For a couple of years we lived in South Dakota, within spitting distance of Minneapolis/St. Paul, and more importantly, the Minnesota Twins. My father was thrilled to take his twins to a Twins game. We were supposed to get rain ponchos as a giveaway, but for some reason, we didn’t get them. So my dad wrote them a letter and we received them. A triumph, even if they were crappy!

Go team! Team bonding :). ⚾️

We moved to Florida when I was nine. Our hometown was also the spring training location for the Kansas City Royals. Terry Field felt like it was on the other side of the state, but I still felt their presence in town. My brother played in Little League, and one of the men who was deeply involved with Little League had ties to the MLB. We went to all my brother’s games, and worked the concessions. This was the mid-80s, and these cute little kids would come up to the window and ask for a “suicide” – a soda that was a mix of all the flavors.

A quick aside: when my brother was probably about 10, he had two loves – baseball and mythology. When we would have guests over, he would ask them, “What would prefer to talk about? Baseball or mythology?” We would not-so-silently urge the guest to pick mythology!

In 1986, the Little League bigwig scored tickets to the World Series games. To this day I don’t quite understand how it works, but it involved buying tickets for all the possible combinations and then getting refunds on the games that didn’t happen. So my dad got two tickets to a couple of the games in New York City. It was the Mets against the Boston Red Sox (I will admit I had to look that up). While my dad and brother went to the games, my mom and my sister and I traipsed around the city and shopped. I got a denim jacket that I never felt cool in, but did manage to decorate over the years with lots of fantastic buttons. I remember my dad and brother coming back from the game, elated, and regaling us with tales of rats in the subway. It seemed so horrifying and exotic all at the same time.

But I digress. Eventually my brother stopped playing baseball and I went to college and moved far away. And yet .. whenever I hear about a game, there’s a flicker of connection. I think about my grandmother, going to see Babe Ruth. And all the games I watched with my family. And then the games I’ve gone to, even when separated by a continent. When I was in Japan two years ago, even there I was thrilled to see on the news that the Hiroshima team had made it into their playoffs.

I’m sure people more eloquent than I have waxed prophetic about their love of the game. I wouldn’t know about that. I can’t speak to strategy or athleticism. I can’t even really talk about the history of the sport, although I did love A League of Their Own.

In August I got to go to a game through work. It was a shutout no-hitter, and only the 5th in Mariner’s history. I texted my brother about it, and he told our father. The next thing I know, my dad is talking to me about it. It was another fabulous stitch.

When I enter a baseball stadium, it’s a form of time travel. The air holds all of the space-time continuum, and I sit there with the crowds and my family, connected throughout history to the present. And that is why I love baseball.

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