Thursday, December 29, 2005

The Bathroom is finished!

A story in (a lot of) pictures.



















Tuesday, December 27, 2005

All right, who told?

The secret is out.  Someone spilled the beans.

I am talking, of course, of what used to be the great secret of going to Disneyland on Christmas Day.  When everyone else is home opening presents or sleeping off an eggnog hangover.  It was a great day to go to Disneyland.  There was a time when my family would go every year.  'Course that was, like, 20 years ago.

I went again this Christmas.  More precisely, I tried to go this year.  As I approached the parking structure, I saw a little sign reading, "Disneyland is full -- California Adventure is open."

OK.  There goes my plan to ride the new (and allegedly improved) Space Mountain.  But, y'know, my annual pass is good for both parks.  I can go over to California Adventure for a couple hours -- ride Tower of Tower, maybe the roller coaster again...

I notice my vehicle is not moving in a forwardly manner.

This is because, although there must be about 15 lanes driving into the parking structure, none of them is actually moving.  The entrance to the parking garage was, well, a parking lot.  My lane was the worst of it (if you could possibly be going slower than stopped) -- the little booth at the end of the lane to my left was closed, so everyone from that line was trying to merge into my lane.  A process that was going fairly slowly because, y'know, whoever was at the front of my line didn't appear to be coughing up his $10 (or whatever) and moving along.

At this point, I am struck by a thought.  And that thought is:  Once I actually get into this lot and get parked (which was looking to be -- and I say this without hint of exaggeration -- upwards of an hour), I am going to have to get in line for the shuttle to the parks.  With all of these people.

I wait until the dude to my left merges into my lane, and then I take his spot in the "Closed" lane.  A Disney employ-- sorry, "Cast member" walks by and I ask him where the "Turn around and get the heck out of here" lane is.  Bonus:  I'm sitting in it.  Once all the people in front of me merge their way into the (theoretically) open lane to the right, my lane will be turned into an exit lane.  A few minutes later, the cast member returns with a stack of bright pink papers, on which has been printed the word "EXIT."  He puts one on my windshield.  Now I officially belong in this lane.  Fifteen or so minutes later, I finally get to turn around and leave the parking lot.

I believe this is the official end of my Christmas trips to Disneyland.

Monday, December 26, 2005

King Kong

Saw King Kong today. 

I was alternating between totally enjoying it and totally marvelling at how much I was enjoying it.  You know, when you mentally step out of the movie for an instant and realize you've been sitting there with your mouth agape for the last twenty minutes?  I was doing a lot of that.

I wonder whether it's going to hit everyone the same way it hit me.  I doubt it.  I especially wonder if it's going to work as well for those teenage boys adventure movies are supposed to be geared toward.  I think you have to be a certain age to really get what's so marvellous about this.  Timing is truly everything.

I'm 37.  I was too young to really take note of any sort of feminist revolution -- but I was young enough to take advantage of its benefits.  Which is to say that although I was never burning bras, I was also never told that I wasn't supposed to be good in math.  I grew up taking for granted gender equality.  But I also grew up understanding that it required a certain level of vigilance -- and that certain female stereotypes had to be avoided, so they would not be reinforced.

I grew up watching Murphy Brown and Designing Women.  My formative movie years were spent watching Karen Allen keep up with Harrison Ford in Raiders of the Lost Ark.  People of my generation came to expect women in adventure movies to be like Ripley in Alien.  We hated the thought of "heroines" who simply screamed their way through movies needing to be rescued by men.  Hey, Julia Roberts spelled it all out in Pretty Woman -- "She rescues him right back."

And even if we never actually saw the original King Kong, we knew that Fay Wray epitomized everything about that old stereotype that we hated.  I mean really.  She's tied up in classic "virgin sacrifice" pose, and the story is all about her being just so beautiful she captivates the monster.  Hell, my generation even had that 1976 version with Jessica Lange, in which they went out of their way to make her something more than a pretty blonde doll who screamed a lot.  (She called Kong a "chauvinist pig ape," which -- besides telling you something about the quality of the writing -- also shows exactly how far moviemakers were willing to go to cater to the feminist ideal.)

And what is so absolutely marvellous about Peter Jackson's current remake is that it's a film that unabashedly honors its source material -- and if that means Naomi Watts has to spend every single one of its 187 minutes not wearing sensible shoes, so be it.  "It's 2005," the movie says, "if everyone is comfortable enough with gender equality that we can have a gay cowboy movie showing on the next screen over, do you think we can stop being so concerned about the image of on-screen women for a few hours that we can all just enjoy a good old-fashioned damsel-in-distress picture?"

Apparently, we can.  And Jackson has realized that it's about damn time that we do -- because there's a whole generation of us who never actually have.  Sure, this movie is a remake, with a new script and some really spiffy effects.  But it doesn't apologize for the 1933-ness of its gender roles; it downright revels in how much fun it is to sit on the edge of your seat, knowing that if the hero doesn't get out there and save his lady, she just isn't going to be saved.

And I freely admit that it is fun -- and I'm a little surprised that I never actually noticed that before.

Friday, December 23, 2005

My Pre-Christmas Adventure

Being a person of Jewishness, I don't have a Christmas tree my own self.  But that doesn't mean I don't enjoy other people's trees.  I like going into a house that's got a tree all decked out for Christmas -- especially real trees, 'cause they have that great scent that just smells like holidays.

My neighbors (who asked to remain anonymous on this one) have a tree.  Had a tree.  The problem being ... the tree died.  Two days before Christmas and ornaments are falling off this thing.  They're afraid to switch on the lights for fear it will go up in flames.  And the scent wafting through their living room is no longer-- what I'm trying to say here is that "death" isn't really a smell you associate with Christmas.  So they decided to buy a new tree, and asked if I wanted to accompany them.

Well, sure!  I've been Christmas Tree trimming before, but I've never been Christmas Tree shopping.  Sounds like a perfectly good experience to try out.

As we approached the first lot, we couldn't see a whole lot of trees there.  I was thinking that two days before Christmas, you could probably get a pretty good deal on a tree -- an "Everything Must Go" type of situation.  My neighbor said that it's kind of like shopping for a pumpkin on Halloween afternoon.  (This I can relate to.  The pumpkins are about a penny a pound, but they're the ones that are all smashed up on one side, or have already sprung a leak.  I lowered my tree expectations accordingly.)

There were maybe a dozen trees there, but they were all over seven feet tall.  We were looking for a five foot tree -- our ceilings just aren't that big in this building.  They had itty bitty foot-and-a-half jobs (aka "Charlie Brown Christmas Trees") but nothing in between.  We left and went to the second lot.

Second lot was worse.  They had three trees left.  Well, three green trees -- they had a small forest of those pre-sprayed white trees.  And the trees they had were way pricey.  $179 for a tree!  We started to walk away, and the guy (who clearly wanted to unload these trees) said "half price, no tax" -- but $90 still seemed like an awful lot to pay for a tree.  Especially a tree you only needed to last about 48 hours.

We gave up and went to dinner.  On the way back from dinner, we stopped at one last lot -- it was in a smog check station that had been converted from an old gas station.  A banner read:  "Santa's Forest.  Nobody Leaves Without A Tree."

We walked around.  This was clearly the largest selection of trees we'd seen all night, but they still didn't have anything in the five-foot range.  A salesguy came over to us and tried to sell us on one of the taller trees.  We explained the height thing.  He said, "I can make one shorter for you."  Next thing we knew, he opened up the back of a U-Haul that was parked nearby, revealing a truck full of trees.  They each had their branches tied up (like great big umbrellas) and were stacked on their sides.  He hauled one out and went to work on its trunk with a chainsaw.  He then ripped off the cord that was tying it and the branches immediately dropped down -- instant five foot tree.  He offered it to my neighbors for $30.  That sign was right -- nobody does leave without a tree.

So, yeah, my neighbors got a tree they bought off the back of a U-Haul.  :)  I hope this one makes it through Christmas.

The Most Decadent Thing $4 Can Buy

I love pomegranates.  Love 'em, love 'em, love 'em.  My absolute favorite fruit (although raspberries are a close second).  The little dudes are only available in autumn, and I try to pack in a whole year's worth of enjoyment during their three-month season.

In some ways, it's surprising that I like a fruit that requires so much effort.  (Because, really, I'm the sort of person that selects my dinner based on which frozen dinner has the shortest cooking time.)  But ever since I was a kid, I sorta had my way of addressing a pomegranate....

When you get it from the store, keep it in the plastic fruit bag it came in.  You'll need that.  Then get out a big knife and a cutting board.  Put the pomegranate -- still in the bag -- on the cutting board.  Slip the knife in there and cut that bugger in half.  Then cut each half in half.  If you hadn't kept the pomegranate in its bag, you'd have red sticky juice all over the kitchen.  Conveniently, the bag has trapped it all.  Now clean the knife, wash down the cutting board, and move on to step two.

Put a quarter of the pomegranate in a bowl.  Take two napkins.  (Trust me, you'll need them.)  Then, address the pomegranate.  Peel the white bits off and leave them in the bowl.  Eat the red juicy seeds.  (I just learned that they're called arils.  Go figure.)  Usually, you'll have to pick the arils out and eat them one at a time.  Sometimes, you can bend the quarter in such a way as to present ten or fifteen seeds in your general direction.  You can try to bite them all off at once -- you'll usually miss, and the red juice will spray around the room, onto your clothes, and down your arm.  This is where those napkins come in handy.

It generally takes me two napkins for each quarter of a pomegranate.  When I was little, I used an apron as well.  A friend once taught me that you can fill a bowl with water and then pick out the pomegranate seeds under water.  This works because the white pulpy bits will float, while the arils will sink.  When you're done, skim off the pulpy bits, strain out the water and voila -- a small bowl of pomegranate arils.  The payoff is pretty good, butI find that the separating under water thing takes too much effort -- so generally I stick with the two napkins to a quarter plan.

And then I saw them in the store -- in the refrigerated food section:  Pomegranate arils.  Eight ounces worth.  Already separated from their pomegranates.  Big and dark red and juicy and ready to eat.  They sold for $8 each -- which was highway robbery -- but it was only $3.99 with a store club card.

I spent the evening, sitting in front of the TV, eating the entire eight ounces (allegedly three servings) right out of the bowl.  With a spoon.  None of this one-seed-at-a-time crap for me.  Just big hearty mouthfuls of tasty pomegranate goodness.  Man.  This is the life.

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Real Live Actual Taiwan Pictures

OK, remember the trip down to Taroko Gorge?  Here's my photos from the day trip:

First, the Hualien airport.  Which is a small local airport handling commuter flights.  And looks an awful lot nicer than most commuter-type airports I've seen.  Largely because the main industry in the area is marble.

I mean, this was the bathroom for cryin' out loud.

(I probably shouldn't think about bathrooms right now, as my remodel is, of course, ongoing.  It would've come awful close to finishing today, if I'd settled for the wrong shower door.  But, I mean, if I've gone this far, I might as well wait for the right door.  Enough about my shower.  Back to Hualien.)

So.  Before we went to Taroko Gorge, we went to a marble factory where they process the marble from the gorge.  Some people on the tour were underwhelmed by the factory, but I was kinda impressed by it.  Just piles and piles of these huge slabs of marble.

So, finally, we actually go to the gorge. 

I mentioned that it's narrow, right?

Get a load of this one.  We're looking down into a (rather grayish) river.  And that's just marble right around it.  Never really thought about where marble comes from.

After we left the gorge (and the shop where we had to buy stuff), we had a little time to kill, so Mr. Su took us to a nearby beach for a few minutes.  They had some cute (and bizarre) sculptures there.  I liked this one, of a tail:

Then there was this one, which we also thought might've been of a tail:

When we were walking on the path to the water, I noticed some sort of military installation on the other side of the street.  And I felt like I was on the border of two completely different worlds -- the beach side had a pretty blue sky, and nature, and sculptures; and the other side had a foreboding wall and grey skies.  I swear to you -- I was standing in exactly the same spot (and just turning my head) when I took these two pictures:

Weird, huh?

Thursday, December 15, 2005

We're Hibernating

Despite yesterday's post to the contrary, they did not paint yesterday.  They sprayed texture coat yesterday.  In the master bathroom, which is not the one in which all the major renovations are being done.  (They just needed to retexture half a wall prior to painting.)

They painted today.  Both bathrooms.

When I came home from work, my front door was open.  (Ack.)  About a minute after I went inside (and closed the door), a certain purry little princess of my acquaintance cautiously came out from her hiding place behind the washing machine.  (She must have been back there all day.)  Upon coming out, she made a beeline for the guest bathroom.  The one with fresh paint all over it.  Including the door.  I picked her up before any damage was done.

So, I mean, there's no way to keep her from all the wet paint unless I keep her away from the whole hallway.  Only choice is to lock her in my bedroom.  I plopped her in the bedroom, and she stayed there pretty obediently.

Here's the thing about my cat -- she doesn't snuggle much, but she likes being near me.  Same room.  When I sit on the couch to watch TV, she sits on a nearby table, or curls up on the couch.  On the other side of the couch.  But if I put us in separate rooms with a closed door between us, she is Not Happy.

So... she's locked in the bedroom; so I'm locked in the bedroom.  I'm sneaking out every so often to put some laundry in the dryer (and I've gotta eat at some point), but, basically, I'm in the bedroom.  Lying on the bed, watching TV, typing on the laptop.  Jasmine is sitting on the bed, grooming.  (About a foot and a half away from me.) 

She's content; so I'm content.

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

It's cold!

OK, maybe it's not cold to the rest of the country, but it's 53 degrees out here, and I have the window open.

On the whole, I'd rather breathe the paint fumes.

(And I do hope that when the paint dries, the color will actually match the rest of the room.  Pretty please?)

Finally, more Taiwan pics!

I figured we could all use a break from the saga of my remodelling.  Here is the second "photo essay" I put together.  Remember when I talked about this bizarre Asian thing for cute?  Here's a little bit of what I'm talking about.  It's just a small collection of photos -- sadly, I was unable to get a shot of the cartoon bird poop in the Avian Flu warning video.  I did, however, include the rubber duckies from my hotel room.


Monday, December 12, 2005

Post Script to the entry below

I find out today that my father doesn't even want that particular present.


Well, that buzz didn't last long

You ever do something really stupid?  And then you're sitting there looking at the undeniable evidence that you've just done something really stupid and you can't quite get out of it.  (And you're looking frantically for that button that says "No!  I didn't mean that!")

OK, here's the thing.  I wanted to order something online for my dad.  (Yeah, mom, it's that thing we talked about.)  And I saw it on the merchant's official site for a certain price.  And I saw it on amazon for about $4 more.  And I thought, well, there's free shipping on amazon -- so I really have to see how much the merchant charges for shipping to find out which is the better price.

So I made like I was going to order it on the merchant's website, in order to get to the "summary of charges" page.  But to do that, I'd have to give it all my info.  And I didn't want to type in my name and address and phone number and email address.  So I typed "test" in every line, except I put a 9-digit California phone number in and, where it wanted an email address, I made something up like "test @" (not the actual address).  Then I clicked ahead and they said shipping was only $3.  So it was the better deal and I was going to buy it from them.

So I went back to the previous page and changed all the info, giving it my real name, real address, real phone number, and real email address.  (They make you confirm the email address so I gave it my real address twice.)  Then it went ahead to the billing page and I gave it my real credit card number and it said, "Hey, are you sure you want to buy this?" and I said, "Yes, absolutely," so I hit the button.

And then it said:  "OK, we've processed your order."  And it listed my billing address and my shipping address (all correct) and the email address of "test @"  ACK.  And it said, "We've sent an email confirmation of your order to "test @"  DOUBLE ACK.

Of course, they have no live human being at customer service this late at night, so I sent them an email.  But, right now, the nice dude who has the screen name of "test" (again, not the actual screen name) has an email waiting in his box confirming his order of a thing he didn't buy.  And the email might also have my address on it.  Perhaps my telephone number.  And (excitement) my credit card number.

It probably won't.  Most email confirmations I've received from other companies just list the last 4 digits (for security).  And it's possible ... maybe even likely ... that "test" will see the email, know he didn't place this order, assume that it's spam and just ignore it.  Also possible that "test" is a perfectly nice guy who won't steal my credit card info and identifying information and go on a spending spree.

On the other hand, I'm sort of holding my breath till tomorrow when the merchant (hopefully) sends me a copy of my order confirmation and I can find out exactly how much information got sent to "test."  For all I know, I'll have to spend Monday on the phone with my credit card company, cancelling the damn card.  During the holiday season.  When I've been buying all these presents.

Oh damn oh damn oh damn

Edited to Add:  Account duly cancelled.  I tried to look at my account online to see if there were any unauthorized transactions, and I got caught in Password Hell.  (You know, when you forget which password you used, so they ask you your security question, and it's "what street did you grow up on?" and you moved when you were seven, so you're not sure which street you gave them when you signed up, and then they block your online account access.)  So, I called them up and asked them to just give me a new card number.  You know, better safe than totally freaking out. 

Of course, when all of this went wrong yesterday, I was in the middle of my online holiday shopping -- so I'd put about four transactions on the card.  The nice lady on the phone said they'd only received two transactions from last night so far -- one of which I'm sure was me and a second which very well might have been me.  (She doesn't have the name of the actual merchant; she just said, "a clothing store."  I didn't buy anything from "a clothing store" last night, but the amount of the charge sounded an awful lot like one of the charges I did make.)

This shouldn't be too much of a hassle.  She said that the cancellation goes into effect now, so everything I charged last night will actually go through (even if they haven't processed it yet) -- and, in about a week or so, they'll send me a copy of the final statement and an affidavit I could use if I need to dispute any of the charges.  So if our buddy "test" tried to go on a spending spree, I'll be able to get those charges cancelled.

I still feel like an idiot, but at least I'm an idiot with a new credit card number.

Sunday, December 11, 2005

Now, the Happy Post

About a year ago, I talked about all the coins I had, and my plans to donate them to charity.  I'd had plans to send used Harry Potter books to kids in Fiji, but the school that was supposed to work with me on that kinda backed out.  (Or, more precisely, the woman who said she'd help collect the books never got back to me.  After repeated reminders.  I think she just didn't care as much as she'd said she did.)

And I didn't find another school to help with the books, and the coins didn't get rolled, and I let it drop.  :(

Well.  The nice people at Coinstar are running a promotion where (at certain machines) if you get your payment in an amazon gift certificate, they waive the fee.  In other words, full value for your cash if you turn it into an amazon gift certificate.  This seemed like the time to take in my coins.  I shop at amazon all the time.  I figured I'd get the amazon gift certicate to use for my regular online shopping (over the next year), and then donate an equal amount to charity. 

So.  I found my nearest coinstar machine that was doing the amazon promotion, and I hauled my coins down there.  (Not all of them -- I didn't bring home my office coins, so this was just the stuff at home.)

After what seemed like an hour feeding coins into the coinstar machine, it displayed the cheerful total of $318.38!  And printed me out a gift certificate in the same amount.

I took it home and tried to figure out what to do with that money.  The first thing I wanted to do was go back to donorschoose and see how much was needed to finish up that proposal I'd talked about before and buy them freezing kids in Chicago blankets and heaters.  And when I clicked on it, I found that that one was fully funded!  I guess other people were as moved by that one as I was -- and I was so glad to see they'd be getting the help they needed.

Which, of course, left me with $318.38 to donate and nowhere to give it.  I poked around donorschoose some more until I found a proposal that fit me perfectly -- helping a low income middle school start a Harry Potter book club.  For less than $318.38.  :)  Clicking the "Fund this proposal" button just filled me all the warm fuzzies in the world. 

And today, I emptied the coins from my pocket and put 'em in my empty coin jars, so I can do it all again next year.

First, the Frustrated Post

Yeah, so, the bathroom guys were an hour late on Thursday.  This was because (they explained) they went to pick up the bull-nose tile (for the corners) and found it wasn't available, so they had to order it. 

(I did not think this fact would come into play later.)

Now, Friday -- in case you'd forgotten (or I failed to mention it) -- was they day that the contractor had originally said everything except the shower door would be done by.  I probably never mentioned it because I didn't believe it.  Not for a second.

A lot of tiling got done on Thursday, but not nearly enough.  The contractor himself (the boss guy) came by and yelled at everyone for how behind schedule they were.  "Why isn't the cabinet installed?  That should be in there tonight so we can put in the countertop tomorrow."  "Why isn't the green board replaced?"  "You should be finished with the tile so we can grout tomorrow."  He told me they'd come on Saturday to get back on schedule.  After he left, I told the guys I hadn't meant for them to get yelled at.  They laughed and said it didn't matter.  I guess he yells at them all the time.

And it kinda worked.  They stayed an extra hour Thursday to get the cabinet installed.  I mean, that's something, right?  And they replaced most of the green board in the ceiling.

I came home Friday expecting to see all the tile done and grouted (including the tile on the floor) and the counter fitted on the cabinet.

Ha ha ha ha ha.

No grout at all.  Some tile had been placed on the floor, but it hadn't been completed.  And the cabinet was still top-free.  And that one piece of green board was in the ceiling.  Pretty much all that had got done was a bunch of tile had been placed. 

But, y'know, the cat was still here, which was a big plus.  They'd run butcher paper and painters' plastic down the hallway to protect the carpet, and Jasmine had figured out how to rip it.  And go underneath it where she'd ripped it.  And she thinks running up and down the hall while under the plastic is tons of fun.  Scares me that she'll suffocate herself down there, so I've tried to pull up some of the weighted-down edges.  The result -- after a few days -- is shreds of paper and plastic, covered with cat fur and construction dust.

Saturday, I wake at 7:30 and am out of the house by 9:00.  I come back around 2:00 and park in my spot and think, "Hey, shouldn't the workers be parked in my spot?"  And I go upstairs and open the door and find that nobody has been here to work on my bathroom

I put a call in to the contractor.  He called me back a couple hours later.  Apparently that whole running out of excuses thing is totally forgotten.  Remember that the tile they'd ordered on Thursday? -- still not ready.  The store had told them it was in the warehouse so would be there on Saturday but when they went there that morning the store said the tile wasn't in the warehouse after all so they'd have to order it for real this time and (blah blah blah) it won't be ready till Tuesday.

I believe I actually screamed into the phone, "Tuesday?!  You mean nobody's going to do any more work on my bathroom until TUESDAY?!"

No, no, he explained.  He'd send someone on Monday.  The painter.

"Isn't it a little early for the painter?"  (And if he could work now, why didn't you send him today?)

No, no.  The painter can strip the wallpaper and otherwise prepare to paint.  It'll work out.  The whole job (except the shower door) will be done by Wednesday.  I promise.

This time, I know I said, "Come on."  I mean, I'd known that the whole last Friday thing was an impossible estimate, but the idea that they'd have everything done by Wednesday?  Puh-lease.  They won't even finish laying the tile until Tuesday.  If they grout it on Wednesday, maybe they can get the plumber out on Thursday.  And they still need the electrician to swap out the fan; and the painter to paint after everything else has been installed.  And, y'know, we still have that piece of green board in the ceiling ...

He agreed that maybe Wednesday was a bit optimisitc.  But "Friday, definitely."

And then I said, "Look, I just want you to be done by New Year's."

And he actually said, "New Year's ... maybe."


Friday, December 9, 2005


-Why is it that when I set my alarm, wake up on time, shower, dress, and am totally ready for the contractor they come an hour late?  But when I oversleep to about five minutes before they're supposed to come, and I take the world's fastest shower, they show up on time -- when I'm still wrapped in a towel?

-OK, it isn't that I really mind when the mentally not-all-there homeless person goes up to the ATM and punches all the buttons, making an imaginary transaction (although she lacks an ATM card), but does she really have to cut in line to do it?

-Why is it that when I want to post three things in my journal, I can only remember the first two?

Thursday, December 8, 2005

Still not the Taiwan pictures

I think we finally turned the corner on the bathroom remodel. 

I worked at home today so I could babysit the cat.  And/or the contractor. 

They said they'd show at 9:00.  I, of course, woke and dressed by 9:00, and they didn't show till 10:00.  Seems they'd forgotten to buy the bullnose tile for the corners, so they had to go order it.  Eh, whatever.

So, I spent today watching them tile what will (someday) be my new shower.  Good thing I was home, as I had some decisions to make (how far to space the tiles, where to put the border).  Looks good.  (There will be photos.)  They also placed the cabinet in there, and will come in with the countertop tomorrow. 

Today was also time to address everything the inspector found -- which meant ripping out the green board on the ceiling and replacing it with drywall.  They also had to deal with the fact that the four lights they'd installed were not fluorescent, while the rule is that my primary light must be fluorescent.  They will solve this problem by tearing out the fan they'd installed two days ago, and replacing it with a fan/fluorescent light combination.  Which will be on a separate light switch.

Now, he'd already given me a bid for tearing out and replacing the wall in my other bathroom (where I'd had that big ol' leak the other day).  That wall happens to house that bathroom's really lousy fan.  Hmmm.  I can't help but notice that we'll have a perfectly good brand new fan on our hands tomorrow.  What can we possibly do with that?   Heh heh.

We should -- hypothetically speaking, if everything goes according to plan -- have nearly everything done by this weekend.

Which would be really good.  Not that I mind having the workmen here everyday; but I do think it may be driving my cat up the wall.  She spent today hiding behind the washing machine.  All day.  Poor little thing.  The sound of that nail gun must have scared her poo-less.

Wednesday, December 7, 2005

What a world

I'm generally not one to plug specific charities ... I mean, hey, give to whomever you want to give to ... but I want to share something I saw today.

There's this charity called Donors Choose.  The way it works is this:  teachers who want something specific for their students (or their classrooms) submit proposals.  The organization reviews them, figures out how much they'll cost (hopefully getting a discount from the provider) and then lists the proposals on their website.  Then donors (that's you) scope out the website, find a project that appeals to them, and fund it -- either in whole or in part.  The organization also sends a cardboard camera to the school, and has the teacher take pictures of the project in action, and the kids write thank-you notes, and then all that stuff is forwarded to the donor who made the project possible, and everybody feels all warm and fuzzy.

Here's the thing.  I'm randomly poking around the Donors Choose website.  And I see lots of teacher proposals for computer equipment, or digital cameras, or field trips.  And then I think, that's almost a "luxury item," and I'd rather fund something where the need is more fundamental.  And I see proposals where schools need books, or math supplies, or maps.

And then I see a proposal from a teacher who needs paper.

And then I saw this one, from a teacher in a school in Chicago, who is teaching 16 low-income third-graders in a room with no heat, who wants enough money to buy a few portable heaters and a blanket for each student (as many of them lack warm clothes).  I mean, damn.  How can we think we're giving this generation of kids a chance to learn if they've got to sit in a freezing cold Chicago classroom in a t-shirt and some hand-me-down jeans?  Just... damn.

Little Ball of Stress, I am a

Where'd I leave this story?  Sunday?

So, the contractor said he couldn't do anything else until the inspector came.  So he (the contractor) planned to go to City Hall on Monday to get the permit, and would schedule the inspector for Tuesday.  At which time work could recommence.

He calls me Monday night and says the City said they were really backed up, and that I didn't need a plumbing inspection, but I would need an electricity inspection, and that dude couldn't come until Wednesday.  But, says the contractor, since we don't need a plumbing inspection, he could get back to work on Tuesday and start cementing up the walls to prepare for the tile.

Sounds good.  I lock the cat in the bathroom Tuesday morning.  I return from work Tuesday evening.  The cat wants out of the bedroom.

You'll have to use your imagination on what those seven words actually entail.  It's a lot of meowing that sounds rather like a baby crying.  And bodily throwing herself against the bedroom door.  (It's one of them french doors, so she can see me through a window pane.)  She knows I'm there and she's mighty annoyed that I'm not listening to her.

But I can't let her out.  Not just yet.  See, the workmen have put cement all over the floor (and walls) of the bathroom.  And they've taken the door off the hinges to let it dry.

Picture a room full of wet cement, a curious and impatient cat, and the only thing standing between the two is a door lying on its side in the hallway in front of the open doorway.  (The door actually made it worse.  Had it been completely open, there was the potential that she'd sniff the cement, decide she wasn't interested, and just walk away.  But the door in the hallway meant she'd take a running start, leap over the door, and land all four paws in wet cement on the other side.  Good plan.)

I try to think up a solution to this problem, but it's hard to think with the meowing (punctuated by the occasional attack on the french door).

The answer presents itself in the form of a folding door which used to be cover my washing machine closet,but which kept falling off its track and was presently being stored out on my balcony for no known purpose.  (Actually, I'd been thinking I should probably get these contractors to cart it away.  I mean, it has been out there for about a year.  Through rain and termites and ...  yeah, I should toss that.)  ANYWAY, with the assistance of one of my neighbors ("Can you do me and my cat a really big favor?") the folding door was hauled in and propped up in front of the open bathroom door (conveniently leaving a ventilation opening at the top) preventing cat entry.

I let the cat out of the bedroom and she tore out of there like ... a cat being released from captivity.  (Tip:  If you see one coming, get out of its way.)

Oh... one more thing.  You notice I said nothing about the whole hole-in-the-wall-where-my-neighbor's-stove-is thing?  In the morning:  hole in the wall.  In the evening:  cement over entire wall.  I knock on my neighbor's door and tell them that something has been done to their stove, but I'll be damned if I know what it is.  (Interesting note.  This is the first time I've seen inside my neighbor's place, and their stove is the original equipment that was installed when this place was built.  Which suggests that the hole in the wall with the possibly-dangerous pipe venting into it was done by the original builder.  Just fills me with confidence.)

Which leads us to this morning.  Morning comes, and I prepare to shut the cat in the bedroom again.

My cat is no idiot.  She doesn't come anywhere near my bedroom after, oh, 4:00 in the morning.  No way I'm going to just sneak the door closed on her when she's in there for our usual morning pet-fest.  (She takes a pass on pet-fest altogether.)  I eventually find her behind the television set.

The television set is fairly sizeable.  It's sitting in the center of a corner wall unit and ... hell, there's no point in describing it.  The bottom line is:  If I stand on a chair I can see her curled up behind the TV, but there's no reaching her to get her out, and the TV is way too heavy for me to move it.

Meantime, theworkers arrive -- here to install a second coat of cement.  I ask them what they did to deal with the stove issue yesterday, and they look at me like I'm speaking Spanish.  (Well, actually, they speak Spanish.  They're looking at me like I'm speaking English.  Which I am.)  They say they didn't do anything to the stove -- they're just the cement guys.

I put a call in to the contractor.  He had told me the other day that he'd take care of the stove issue, and now it seems like his guys did nothing and just cemented over it.  (Apparently, we're operating under different definitions of "take care of it.")  I won't let the guys put a second coat of cement on if they're going to have to break through the first coat.  So we're all sitting there watching cement dry for a half hour while the contractor fails to return our call.  We finally get hold of the contractor's brother (who had diagnosed the stove problem at the start).  He explains that the wall needs to be patched from my neighbor's side, so he just went ahead with the cementing here.  (He, of course, volunteered to do the work in my neighbor's unit.  For an additional fee.)

So.  (Anyone still reading?)  I tell cement dudes to commence with the cementing.  I also (after a final futile effort at coaxing the cat out from behind the TV) tell them to be on the lookout for a small cat of the black and white persuasion.  Because they'll be working with the front door open all day.  "If she aims for the door;" I say, "stop her."

I go to work and freak out all day that I'll come home and find my cat missing.  Or, alternatively, that I'll come home to find the contractors have left and she's cemented herself to the bathroom floor.  I finish my work early (hurrah!) and get home around 4:30.

Cat still behind TV.  Huge sigh of relief.  I doubt she's moved all day.  She still won't come out, in fact -- and eventually only leaves when the contractors are gone.  (Good to know, but I'd still prefer keeping her safe when they're here.)

The contractors are still here. 

I notice I can't turn on my TV and the clocks are blinking.  Right around the time I aim for the electrical box to flick the fuse they've obviously blown, cement dude asks me where the electrical box is.  They said they'd plugged something in and all the power went.  They'd been looking in the garage for the box.  (Funny enough, the box is in my bedroom.  Where they never would have found it had I successfully locked the cat in there.)  Anyway, I flick the fuse and all is well.  Cement dude also says the inspector came.  When there was no electricity.  That would be the electrical inspector. 

Anyone think I passed?

Actually, there were three things the inspector didn't like:  the no power thing (of course); the fact that my "primary light" had to be fluorescent (and wasn't); and the fact that "green board" had been used on the ceiling (and was not allowed).  [I googled it.  Green board is "water-resistant drywall."]  Wonder what the inspector would've said if he'd seen my neighbor's stove peeking out between the studs where my shower will be.

Put another call in to the contractor.  Left a message on his voice mail regarding these issues.  [Note to self:  Good thing I was adamant about the permit.]

Thought it might be nice to go out to dinner.  Thought I'd maybe go with my downstairs neighbor, Ally.  I called Ally.

Funny thing.  Ally didn't think I was calling to invite her to dinner.  Ally thought I was calling about the leak.


Seems there was something else the cement guys hadn't been eager to tell me.  Ally heard (and then saw) some water leaking into her bathroom.  From my bathroom.  She'd spoken with cement guys, who told her that the only thing they'd done was reinstall the toilet...

... I pause here to point out that when I got home, the toilet was not, in fact, installed.  And it couldn't be, because there was wet cement all over the floor.  Why would they have installed it if they knew they had to take it out?  Oh heavens, were they installing it just to use it?

Ally said cement guys stopped the leak.  And that they'd said they'd refilled the thing (thing??? toilet? shower? floor of my bathroom?) with water but couldn't recreate the leak.

I am working at home tomorrow -- will keep an eye on the cat and the contractor.  (Tomorrow is supposed to be Tile Day!)  Contractor returned my call tonight and I missed it -- I eventually called him back at 9:30 (very likely waking him up, but he did say to return his call and put no deadline on it).  He'll be coming by tomorrow to deal with the lighting requirements, replace the greenboard on the ceiling, and, um... I'll have to mention the whole toilet leak thing.  Excitement.

I think I want to curl up behind the TV.

Sunday, December 4, 2005

The Bathroom Remodel -- Part two of ... ?

The contractor was supposed to come on Saturday.

Guess the key word in that sentence.

I asked, on Friday, if they work on Saturdays and, if so, when I could expect them.  Somewhere between 8:30 and 9:00, he said.

I was disappointed.  I'd actually hoped they'd take Saturday off because I really needed to sleep.  It wasn't so much jet lag as stupidity -- but I'd been getting 4 or 5 hours of sleep each night, and I had really wanted to sleep in on Saturday.  Drat.  But still, I'm all about getting the remodel done quickly, so I went with it.

Got home Friday night to find some progress had been made.  New lights and a new fan had been installed.  Also, something had been done to the base of the shower, 'cause it was filled with a couple inches of water.  I guess they were water-testing whatever surface they'd put in.  Good.  I questioned, though, whether they were really going to come at 8:30 the next morning, since I'd thought a water test traditionally went 24 hours.  And the thought also skipped through my mind that this might be the time they needed the inspector from the city to come out -- because I always get a permit for these things (yeah, I'm all law-abiding and stuff) and since the rough plumbing and electric was done, I thought this might be the time for that.

Still, he'd said 8:30, so I set the alarm for 7:30.  I was not happy when it went off the next morning (although I think I'd managed six whole hours of sleep that night).  I got up, showered, locked the cat in the bedroom, and waited.

And waited.  And waited.  Called his office around 9:30 to see what was up.  (I had left his cell phone number at work.  Where it was doing me a lot of good.)  She said she'd page him. 

No return call for an hour.  I paged him again.  Finally, around 11, I got a return call.  It began with, "I owe you an apology."  A good start.  "Do you know what I need to apologize for?" he asked.  I took a stab at it, "Because no one is here working on my bathroom?"

Got it in one.  Seems Iwas right about the inspector thing -- and he had totally forgotten about it when giving me time estimates on Friday.  So he'd need to go down to City Hall on Monday and make an appointment, and then I'd get an inspector out on Tuesday, at which time he could continue construction.  

(Wow, we're gonna have one serious four-day water-test.)

"No problem," I said (as I let the cat out of the bedroom).  "I don't mind that it'll take you longer; I just need to know in advance whether you're coming or not."  And my contractor, who clearly has a sense of humor about this sort of thing, says (not entirely incorrectly), "I believe I've run out of excuses on this job." 

On the bright side, I realized this meant he wasn't coming on Sunday either.  I got to sleep in with no alarm at all.  Got about 15 hours of sleep.  Man, I needed that.

Friday, December 2, 2005

What? Where?

I don't know what's more depressing -- the fact that I am only capable of sounding like Vinny Barbarino right now, or the fact that a good chunk of you probably don't even know who that is.

See, here's the thing.  You know that whole bathroom thing?  The guest bathroom that I need to remove the wall from because of the mold?  (If you've forgotten, I'll have more pictures in a future update.)  Well, before I went to Taiwan, I called the contractor who had given me the best bid and told him I wanted him to remodel the place.  Said he should call back after Thanksgiving and we could meet and finalize a contract. 

So, he calls me on Monday and says he can meet me Tuesday night.

Seems a little rushed ... but why not, right?

So, he shows up at my place Tuesday night and we write up a contract.  We shake hands.  I give him a check.  He then says, "I'll start Thursday."

I blink several times as I'm trying to process this.  I haven't selected tiles or faucets or fixtures or fans, or cabinets or any of this.  When I remodelled my other bathroom (probably 8 years ago) this was a lengthy process.  Involving weekend trips to the tile store.  (Hell, I'd special ordered some tiles that it took the nice artist lady six weeks to prepare.)  Not to mention the half-dozen times I had to go to Home Depot or Home Expo or Great Indoors or whatever it was -- and I usually had to keep going back because how the heck am I supposed to know which of the ten thousand light fixtures they have is the one I want?  (I will always remember Ron, a fellow I was dating at the time, because he helped me pick out the shade of grout for my floor tiles.  Grout color.  Honest.)

And all this is going through my head while I'm blinking at Manny, who says he wants to start in about 36 hours.

So, Wednesday night, instead of putting together more Taiwan/Hong Kong entries -- (I haven't even looked at the photos Peg and Sabing emailed me.  And I probably should, as theirs are better than mine.  I mean, heck, Peg's digital camera actually has a zoom.) -- Where was I?  Oh yeah, Wednesday night.  Instead of doing photos or paying bills (the pile on my desk just keeps growing) or finishing unpacking or doing laundry... instead of all that, I'm on my hands and knees cleaning out the under-the-sink cabinet in the guest bathroom, so they can demolish it the next morning.

(By the way, I highly recommend cleaning out your under-the-sink cabinet every few years.  Seriously.  I found bath oil so old it had separated.  And cough medicine that expired in 1998.  Come to think of it, the cleaning process didn't take all that long, as it was mostly all about digging stuff out, being amazed that I still owned it, and carting it out to the trash chute.  Well, it would have been easy if the garbage bag I'd thrown everything in hadn't started coming apart at the seam.  The last garbage bag in my house.)

So, yesterday, Manny comes in bearing a faucet that meets the vague description of what I'm looking for, and 7 tile samples for me to choose from.  I pick one wall tile and one floor tile and go to work.

And then, I arrive home to inspect the hole where my bathroom used to be, and the demolition guy is still there and he wants to show me something he found behind my bathroom wall:

My neighbor's stove.

I am so not making this up.  Near as I can tell, once you get down to the insulation and the studs, there's really only a quarter-inch wide piece of ... wall that actually separates my unit from the neighbor's.  And someone had backed their stove up against it on the other side, cut a piece out of the wall separating us, and sent some gas-carrying line to the inside of my wall.  The demolition guy was suggesting that this was, perhaps, dangerous.  Pointed out that the black dirt I'd seen on the insulation (and had assumed was a huge mold problem) was in fact smoke.

So, I spend last night trying introducing myself to my next-door neighbor and asking her if she has any idea what is venting into my bathroom.  (Nice girl.  She's a renter, though, and just moved in a few months ago, so she has no clue what I'm talking about.  But said she'd contact the owner.)

Meantime, the contractor said he'd return today to finish the demolition.  "At what time?" I ask.  This is important to me, because I'd like to be awake and clothed when he arrives.  He says, "Between 8 and 9."  I ask if he can narrow that down a bit more ('cause I'd hate waking up a whole hour earlier for no reason) so he says, "Between 8:30 and 9:00."

Guess when he came.

Go on.

You said "8:00," right?

Try 7:15.  Turns out that while the demolition guy was coming at 8:30, they were sending out the electrician just after 7:00.  And they'd got their wires crossed.  (Get it?  Electrician?  Wires crossed?  Never mind.)  Of course, I was so not ready for him at 7:15, I was in the shower and didn't even hear him knocking out there.  Cat was going crazy -- I'd thought she was just angry that I was locking her in the bedroom again (to keep her safe from all the construction... and the open doors that go along with it) -- but, in retrospect, I think all that meowing was Cat for "Idiot, there's a stranger at the door."

Which, pretty much brings us up to now.  I'm about to head home and see what sort of progress has been made ... and/or what new and exciting surprise is waiting for me.

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Sometimes it's the simplest explanation

Woo-hoo!  Not freon!

Called upstairs neighbor.  "Do you have any reason why it might be leaking in my bathroom?" 

They do!  Something about "working on the toilet" and "carpet is all soggy."  (Also "real sorry about that" and "if there's any damage, we'll take care of it."  I have nice upstairs neighbors.)

Cancelled plumber.  Ironic that there have been leaks into both my bathrooms from the unit upstairs within the past few months, but pleased to know that this one, at least, is not a chronic problem.

Things I So Do Not Want To Deal With At 4:00 A.M.

I was still up around 3:00 last night.  I knew this was wrong, but it's generally my way.

I pet the cat and go into my bedroom.

I go into my bathroom to brush my teeth.  (The good one; not the one with the hole in the ceiling and the mold from the neighbor's leak.)

I hear dripping. 

I trace it to a fan near the ceiling.

By 3:30, I'm standing on a step-stool, screwdriver in hand, removing the fan cover.

It's wet in there.  I put on some gloves and unplug the little cord, thinking that water and electricity are a bad combination.  I've also gotten dust all over my freshly-vacuumed floor, so I dust-buster it up.

I can't see where the leak is coming from.  But the wall is cold.

The fan appears to back onto the same wall that's behind my air conditioning unit.  I go into the living room and peek at the a/c.  I see nothing wrong with it, but I definitely hear a dripping.  I can't see where the dripping is coming from.

I think freon.

(I decide to post this cheerful news and my internet connection goes down.  Since I'm really not thinking straight at quarter to four, I decide that posting about it is a high priority, so I try to IM my journal from my cell phone.  I type in a couple hundred characters, then my phone loses the connection.)

I turn off my a/c.  Eventually, the dripping sound stops.  I go to sleep for four whole hours. 

I wake up at quarter after 8.  I go into the bathroom.  The floor is wet.  So is the carpet next to it.  There's something dripping out of the a/c register in the ceiling.  Quite regularly.  The wall beneath the fan has bubbled out, like there's water (or something else) in there too. 

Realizing that I need professional help (shut up), I call the plumber.  "Do you want me there in the morning or afternoon?"  "Um, seeing as it's flooding my floor, as soon as possible might be nice."  He'll be here "within the hour."  I can't even shower now, as I'm afraid I'll miss his arrival.  (And the bathroom is pretty wet anyway.)


Monday, November 28, 2005

First Photo Essay -- Motor Bikes

Do I unpack?  No.  Do I go to sleep early?  No.  Do I upload photos?  Now you're talking.

After a quick culling of the 257 pictures I took on the trip, I present the very first photo essay.  (I've chosen to do this one first not because of any issues of chronology, but because it is an easy one.  And I should really go eat some dinner.)

Taipei is pretty crowded.  Lots and lots of people.  One of the ways they deal with all the traffic congestion is:  motorcycles.

Jackie (the tour guide) explained that lots of people have them.  He has two.  Because there isn't a whole lot of parking available, people are allowed to park (and drive!) them on the sidewalk.

And they do.

They really really do.

Jackie also told me a bit about numbers.  The number 6 is believed to mean good luck.  The number 8 is believed to mean good fortune.  License plate numbers with lots of 6's and 8's in them are auctioned off.  Depending on the plate, people might pay thousands of dollars for it.

You will never, says Jackie, find a license plate ending with a 4.  4 is unlucky -- it is believed to signify death.  Jackie says they don't even make plates ending in 4.  After he told me this, I checked all the motorcycles I could, and saw no plate ending in 4.  I did, however, find a plate which I thought might not be permitted in America...

Quick Updates

- Got home last night.  Man, the flight back is, like, two hours shorter than the flight out.  Jet stream or tailwind or whatever -- I'm grateful.  Those extra two hours on the flight out are a real killer.

- Read all your comments on my cell phone while on the shuttle to my car.  So nice to get a signal back on my phone.  (For the last ten days, it has just been a way to carry around a picture of my cat.)

- Good thing "Daily Show" was in reruns last week -- gave me much less TV to get caught up on.

- Speaking of which, I didn't have to watch "Amazing Race" when I got back -- I caught Tuesday's episode on Saturday night in Hong Kong.  Nice to know reality TV doesn't have a huge time delay around the planet.

- Oh, and I saw Tuesday's episode of "House" last night.  Loved his street address (obvious enough in the opening sequence for my own jet-lagged self to notice it).  I feel as thought I now have official approval to keep calling Robert Sean Leonard's character "Watson," as I've pretty much been doing all along.

- It's just a cold, honest; I did not handle bird poop.

- Pictures?  Oh hell yes.  I emptied my digital camera before I went, and yesterday had a total of 250 pics on it.  It will take a little time to find the dozen or so that actually came out.

- Tailor convinced me to order a couple more pairs of slacks and a skirt -- which I'm really glad I did, as the slacks and skirt came out terrific.  The dress -- not so much.  They didn't make it nearly as form-fitting and low-cut as I'd requested.  I guess Hong Kong tailors err on the side of propriety.  Still, it's pretty and will serve its purpose (something nice to wear to theatre openings).  Black silk, with a flower pattern (black on black) in the fabric.

- Oh look, I'm late for work.  Looks like everything is back to normal.

Saturday, November 26, 2005

The sights of Hong Kong

Amazing place, Hong Kong.  It's billed as all "East Meets West"-y, and while that's true, it is wholly inaccurate to convey the scope of what we're dealing with here.

If there was a video game about cities, and you just finished playing "New York," "Hong Kong" would be the next level.  Like New York, it has a skyline of tall, closely-packed buildings, but the skyline is longer -- it goes on forever.  And, at night, while other cities' buildings merely light up, Hong Kong's buildings decorate themselves.  (They have exterior lights that make shapes and patterns -- each one looks like someone built a perfectly good skyscraper, and then hired someone else to build some colorful evening wear for it.)  And, as mentioned in the last entry, while other cities have pedestrian tunnels to deal with foot traffic congestion, Hong Kong has actually put high-end shopping down there.

In places, it is immaculate.  I went for a walk along "Avenue of the Stars," a pathway all along the harbor across which you can see the Hong Kong skyline.  Avenue of the Stars is a Hong Kong version of Hollywood's walk of fame, with stars (and handprints) on little plaques in the ground celebrating Hong Kong's cinema stars.  But it's also a lovely place just to hang out.  There's silly-shaped carts (they look like they came out of Toontown at Disneyland) selling popcorn and cotton candy.  There are stages set up at fixed intervals along the way for musical performances.  The place is beautiful -- signs informing you of a fine (over $200 US) for littering (or spitting, or not cleaning up your dog poo) have the desired effect.  I passed three different wedding parties along the way, who were stopping to take pictures with the harbor behind.  (Also what appeared to be some graduating students -- in academic gowns.)  But there were also some old men fishing, some tourists taking pictures of the stars in the ground, and ... my personal favorite ... a few schoolkids who asked to briefly interview me for a school project on English speaking.  ("Have you seen any sights here?" "Do you enjoy Hong Kong?" "Have you been to Hong Kong Disneyland?")  It was just this lovely, open, free, beautiful, clean, safe place -- and there must have been thousands of people enjoying it.  I adored it.

At night, if you go there, you can see what just this week was certified by the people at Guinness as the Largest Permanent Light and Sound Show -- as the lights on the buildings on the other side of the harbor dance in synchronization.  They've even got big laser-ish beacons on the tops of the buildings, that wave about simultaneously.  (We were viewing from what we'd thought was a fairly decent vantage point, until some cruise party boat decided to dock right in front of us and completely block the view of the hundred or so people watching there -- just as the grand finale was getting going.  In the spirit of international cooperation, the entire crowd booed the boat, but itdidn't move.)

We also took the tram up to Victoria Peak.  (I have some vague recollection that the Guinness people said something about that one, too, but I can't seem to find it online).  It is one steep funicular, hauling two cars up to the top of a mountain where gorgeous view of the city are to be had.  Although not necessarily by me.  The building at the top of the peak was closed for massive renovations (much like the National Palace museum in Taipei -- I apparently have renovation karma this trip).  And it was pretty foggy, so we didn't get the bestest possible view (much like at Taipei 101 -- I also apparently have foggy view karma).  Still, I took loads and loads of photos.

The students questioning me at Avenue of the Stars asked if I will come back to Hong Kong.  Absolutely.

Holy crap--you can spend a lot of money in Hong Kong

Do you know how much money I spent today?  I went to the ATM three times, that's how much.

As you know, the guiding principle of Las Vegas design is: to get to anything, you have to go through the casino.  The guiding principle of Hong Kong design is: to get to anything, you have to go through the mall. 

I am so not kidding.

Like ... ok, Hong Kong was -- up until quite recently -- owned by the British, and a lot of it feels British.  Like the street signs, for instance.  Same colors and font and arrows and stuff that you see in London.  (Well, ok, they're in Chinese as well as English, but still.)  And, like in London, there are many places where you can't cross the street above ground, and are instead required to take the "subway" -- a system of pedestrian tunnels under the streets.  (Remember, they use "underground" to refer to that thing we call a "subway.")  In London, the subways are tiled, dirty, sometimes inhabited by homeless people, and frequently smelling of urine.  In Hong Kong, the subway floors are marble and there's Coach and Gucci shops.  So when I say you can't cross the street in Hong Kong without going through a mall, this is not an exaggeration.

Yesterday, we did some sightseeing.  (I'll post about that later; I'm sorta on a shopping roll right now.)  Today, Peggy and Sabing (and Sabing's mom and aunt, who came with) went to Macau.  I felt like I wanted to spend a bit more time in Hong Kong since this was my only full day here (and, quite annoyingly, I was feeling some cold symptoms coming on, so wanted to sleep in).  I also knew you could get clothes custom tailored here for a reasonable price, and I found the idea somewhat appealing.  (See earlier entries regarding my big fat butt and custom ordering pants from Land's End.)  I've got nothing against Land's End (in fact, I rather like the pants I've ordered from them), but if I'm paying $59 plus tax and shipping for a pair of cotton chinos that have been made based on my multiple-choice selections on the internet -- the idea of paying a similar amount for high-grade lined-wool trousers made by some dude who takes my measurements with a measuring tape is somewhat appealing.

Last night, I did some preliminary research -- I found the addresses of some nearby tailor shops.  Peggy also checked out a guide book which said to know what you want, shop around, and look for the seal of approval from the Hong Kong Tourism Board (so's you don't get all ripped off). 

I started off this morning at one of them shops that advertised on the map provided by my hotel.  Thought I'd be interested in a dress and two pairs of pants.  Dude gives me a price ... well, an opening bid really ... of about $450 for the set.  I try to talk him down to $300, but he won't go there.  He stops at $350.  I take his card and walk -- saying I may return.

I walk further down the street and am accosted by another tailor.  "Psst -- hey lady, wanna buy a suit?"  OK, not like that, but very nearly.  Dude takes me in his shop and we run through the whole routine again.  Silk dress and two pair of pants.  He starts in the same $450 neighborhood, and drops to $350 pretty quick.  I try to get him to $300, but he won't go there either.  He will, however, meet me at $310.  There are three problems I have with him -- he is not Hong Kong Tourism Board approved; he seemed way too eager for my business; and he was trying to pass off a fabric labelled "silky nylon" as silk.  I walked out.

I am again accosted by a tailor -- this time, it's a Tourism Board certified dude.  He too starts at $450 ....  I am reminded of this time that I was in a street market in the Bahamas -- I looked at some placemats that ran about $6.  We had been told to negotiate and the saleslady dropped to $4.  I then went to every other placemat seller in the market to see if I could get a better price -- but it was $4 everywhere.  One lady, exasperated, said to me, "$4 is the bargain price."  Like they'd all gotten together and agreed that nobody would negotiate below that.  Had the same feeling here.  $450 is the opening bid for a silk dress and two pair of high-quality wool pants, but $350 is the "bargain price."

By this time, I didn't think I was going to get any legitimate businessman down below $350, so I went with the last dude.  He seemed competent and professional and will have the stuff ready tomorrow.

When I left, I walked past Mr. Trying To Pass OffNylon As Silk.  I told him -- lying -- that I'd found someone to match the $300 price that I was looking for, so I was no longer interested in his deal.  Then, he says, "come back into the shop; let me make some pants for you."

Um... no.

Thursday, November 24, 2005

My evening stroll

I had about an hour to kill before meeting Peggy & Sabing (and relatives) for dinner so thought I'd go for a walk.

This is significant.  Since I've arrived here, I have never gone anywhere unaccompanied.  As I'm leaving tomorrow for Hong Kong (reports may be sporadic as I don't think I have the right adapter for my computer, so will be on battery), this was my last chance to wander Taipei aimlessly.

OK, not aimlessly.  With aim, or at least, direction.  I did not take with me a business card (or anything else) with the hotel's address on it.  Which meant that I could not hail a cab or ask someone directions if I got lost.  So I kept my route extremely simple -- down the street, cross the street, back to the hotel.  Repeat in another direction.

I was snapping random pictures for one of my planned photo essays when some dude in an official-looking hat looked at me funny.  Didn't say anything, just looked at me funny.  When I crossed the street and came back, I realized what was going on.  Don't snap unusual pictures when you're standing across the street from the country's main Air Force building.  (Complete with intimidating barbed wire fence.  No, you will get no picture of that one.  I didn't want to get hauled off and interrogated for espionage.)

Wandering down another street, I saw lots of folks selling goods on the sidewalk -- sort of a night market (although not as official as the one I'd been to on Monday -- with the snakes).  One woman was selling hair thingies.  I saw a cute scrunchy, picked it up, and looked at her questioningly.  She correctly interpreted my glance and responded, very clearly, with the price.

It was then I thought, "Man, I gotta learn numbers in Chinese if I expect to shop." 

About a block later, I remembered that many Taiwanese speak English, and I could've asked.  Alternatively, I could've asked her to write it down -- as they use the same Arabic numerals as we do.  Of course, I didn't think of any of these things in her presence -- and I was too proud to open my wallet in her general direction and have her point to the currency she wanted.  The scrunchy remained unpurchased.

(I'm certain I can get the same thing at Duty Free.  For three times as much.)

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

The Bestest Tour Ever

(Aside to my family:  Happy Thanksgiving!  Sorry I couldn't be there with you.  And could somebody tell mom to check her email?)

Wow.  What a difference a day makes!

(And again, we start with a detail from yesterday which I hadn't thought was important at the time.)  The dude who had picked us up and taken us to the airport was a nice, reliable guy who spoke English really well.  He got us aimed in the direction of the right plane, and told us Mr. Su would meet us.  When Mr. Su eventually did meet us, his English was crappy and he arrived with a nearly-full tour bus.  In other words, Mr. Su hauled 40 or so of us through Taroko Gorge, in three different languages.  So, not only did you have to try real hard to understand Mr. Su's English, you also had to elbow your way to the front of the crowd when he was speaking your language, or he'd be completely drowned out by the noise around him (passing cars, waterfalls, the sounds of a marble factory...)

OK, today.  Before I went off on the Taroko Gorge tour, I had a chance to book a tour for this morning.  There was a Northern Coast Tour, where I'd be taken to a city and harbour up north, or the Chiufen Village Tour where I'd be taken to a city in the mountains about an hour away.  And I thought... well, to tell you the truth, I'm not real sure I was bright enough to anticipate that I would be sick to death of tour buses by today... but I decided that what I really wanted was the "Health & Culture" tour of Taipei.

I was to meet my tour guide at 8:50 a.m. in the hotel lobby.  At 8:50 on the dot, who shows up but the nice dude from yesterday.  And he's driving a small seven-person van.  Score.

Turns out I'm the only one in it.  Score again, big time.  I ended up with a 4-hour private tour of Taipei.

First, Jackie--  not his real name, I venture.  He told me his name was Jackie Chan and that I was to call him Jackie.  (I expect this goes over a lot better on the big tour buses, but what the hell.  I figured he probably had a difficult name to pronounce and was sick of foreigners getting it wrong.)

Anyway, Jackie takes me to DiHua street, which is where the vendors sell all sorts of medicinal herbs and other folk-remedy like items.  Jackie led me through there with several games of "Guess what this is."  I have to say, I did quite poorly -- being unable to identify the caviar, the jellyfish, the dried lemon, and the dried deer penis.  (The latter, he explained, was sold for ... well, you can just guess.  He said it used to be expensive but has become a lot cheaper now that Viagra is on the market.)  I didn't buy anything (can't imagine what it would be like getting a dried deer penis through customs) but it was extremely educational.

Jackie then dropped me off at Confucius Temple and circled the block for 20 minutes while I checked it out.  This was a total bonus of the solo tour -- we were actually supposed to just drive by the Confucius Temple, but since there was just one of me, Jackie let me check it out on my own.  It was lovely -- very serene, peaceful.  But more ornate that I would've imagined.  (I guess I figured Confucians to go in for simplicity, but apparently not.)  I snapped many pictures.

I met up with Jackie across the street, and we went to Pao An Temple, a Taoist temple.  (Jackie tells me how to spot the difference between a Buddhist temple and a Taoist one.  The Buddhist ones lack the ornate decorations on the roofs.  Also, Jackie said Taoist monks need not be vegetarians, and needn't shave their heads like Buddhist monks.  They may also marry.)  The Temple I'd been to before (that first night here), Longshan Temple, was also Taoist.  I had seen many people there praying, and throwing little wooden half-moon shaped objects, but had no clue what they were actually doing.  Jackie explained all this to me -- it is the way you get guidance from the gods.  First, you light your incense -- the gods can hear what you say when you're holding the incense.  You identify yourself and make your prayer.  Then you select a long stick from a nearby barrel of such sticks.  Each one has a number on it.  Then you toss these two little half-moon shaped wooden things.  Depending on how they land, you either repeat the prayer (perhaps clarifying it), choose a different wooden stick, or receive confirmation that you have the right stick.  THEN, go over to the wall where there is a box with about sixty slots on it, each slot containing a little stack of papers.  Take a paper from the slot corresponding to the number on your stick, and you have the god's answer (which is, as gods' answers often are, subject to interpretation).  The main god at the Pao An temple is a god of medicine.  We saw an old man in front of the altar.  He had an injured foot (a crutch was propped up against the wall beside him), and we watched him cast the wooden pieces and swap sticks from the barrel.  It was really quite moving, to see someone actually participating in this means of prayer, for something that was obviously very important to him.  I hope he received a favorable answer.

Then we drove over to the Lin An Tai Historical house -- it's a 200 year old house formerly owned by a wealthy family in Taipei, and it now serves as a museum.  Very interesting to see how people used to live here, back then.  (Jackie and I again played, "Guess what this is," and I again failed -- missing both the fish-shaped chopstick holder and the extremely ornate ceremonial drum stand.)  We saw a bunch of school kids there on a field trip -- and when we left the house, we saw them all mount up on matching bicycles (and put on matching helmets) to head off.  Very nifty.  (Could you imagine a field trip by bike in the States?  The waiver forms alone would be pages long.)

THEN -- by the way, I should note that this entire four-hour private tour set me back about $36 -- Jackie took me a tea shop where the proprietor taught me about the three different grades of Taiwanese oolong tea.  (Go for the mid- or high-mountain stuff; the low mountain is bitter.)  Complete with taste testing and a lesson on how to properly accept and drink Taiwanese tea.  I got a sales pitch here -- after Mr. Su, yesterday, I'd come to expect them -- but I am a tea drinker and it was tasty tea (supposed to be good for lowering your cholesterol, too) -- so I gave in and bought a small bag.

Afterwards (but wait! there's more!) Jackie hauled me over to an Asian medical-type place for a reflexology foot massage.  I'd been a little nervous going in the unimpressive storefront, but the establish itself was pristine, huge, and completely professional.  After washing my feet at a cute little ... footwashing stand (you had to be there), I was escorted to a big comfy chair with a big comfy ottoman, wherea woman (wearing plastic gloves) just worked away at my feet.  She handed me a card with all the reflexology bits pointed out on a map of the foot, and every so often when she'd find a knot or some tenderness, she'd say something like "23 no good," and I'd look at 23 on the map and see that she thought there was some problem with my spleen.  About 60% of her calls were accurate -- some others way off.  (Either that, or they need to renumber their foot map -- I'm pretty sure I don't have prostate problems.)

(Since all tours involve an opportunity to sell you something, it was explained that my 20 minute foot massage was free, but if I gave her another 200 Taiwanese dollars, she'd give me a 10 minute neck and shoulder massage.  That's about $6.  I went for it.  Neither the foot massage nor the neck and shoulder massage felt particularly good while she was doing them -- but I felt surprisingly good afterward.

With the new spring in my step, Jackie took me upstairs (yes, upstairs) for the, er, last bit of my tour, a short Kong Fu demonstration.  To tell you the truth, I wasn't that enthusiastic about this when I signed up for it, so I was actually grateful when Jackie said that, since I was alone, it would be rather shorter than the 20 minute show promised in the tour book.  In the limited show, I saw a dude hammer a nail through a board with his hand, and also jam a piece of soft candy (like chewy caramel) clear through a hard piece of sugar cane.  This was impressive.  (I wondered whether to applaud, as one person clapping sounds pretty ridiculous, so I just said "thank you" a lot.) 

(You may wonder -- I did -- what they try to sell you at a Kong Fu demonstration.  The answer is ... a "magic hand cream."  (Softens skin!  Eliminates acne!  Reduces wrinkles!  Juliennes fries!)  Unfortunately, it's also a miraculous burn cream, so they had Kong Fu Demonstration Guy run his hands along a burning hot chain (which they had been heating on a frying pan in the corner) in order to burn his hands and then demonstrate the healing powers of the cream.  I'm not a skin cream user and there was no chance I was going to buy the stuff.  I felt pretty bad that they'd burned the guy on my account, and did hope that the "magic hand cream" really did make the burn go away -- or, in the alternative -- that there was some trick involved here and he wasn't really hurting himself.)

After that uncomfortable moment, Jackie packed me up and we headed back to my hotel.  I asked if he had a tour this afternoon, and he said he was doing a tour of a pottery factory and museum.  He laughed and said he had only one person signed up for it, and asked if I wanted to go for free, to keep him company.  Having dinner plans (and no interest in purchasing pottery), I declined -- but I gotta admit, I was tempted.  These individually guided things are the way to go.

Mr. Su's Wild Ride

We continued through the gorge, mostly on the bus and sometimes by walking.  (At one point, we walked about 2 km with a soft uphill grade.  I think I got me some good exercise here.)  At another point, we were standing in a cave and he pointed out all the swallow nests in the holes above us.  And, at first, I thought, "Aw, cute little swallows," and then I thought, "Oh no!  Bird poop!  Run for the hills!"

We got out of the gorge around noon -- I thought the trip was scheduled to be 11 hours long, and -- given the 25 minute flight -- I really couldn't imagine how we were going to kill five or so hours. 

Lunch was included in the trip.  I had thought perhaps we would stop at, oh, a restaurant.  No.  We stop at a marble and jade shop.  We are taken to a room in the back where four round tables have been set up.  We're eating in the store.  The woman who runs the place brings out big plates of vegetables (and a fish) and we eat family-style.  (There was also a plate of what looked -- and tasted -- like Chicken nuggets.  Wow.  I ate a McNugget with chopsticks.) 

Afterward, we are brought back into the shop.  Mr. Su has us gather around.  He wants to show us how to tell real marble from fake marble.  He does this.  (Real is cold to the touch, and has no air bubbles in it.)  This takes some time.  (Remember, he's still doing everything in three languages.)  I get bored and start wandering around the shop.

I am not allowed to wander around the shop.  We are then taken into the back room and seated around a table where we are given a demonstration of how to tell fake jade from real.  (It involves fire.  Like we're going to carry around lighters whenever we go shopping.)  Also cat's-eye, which is a very attractive type of jade (kinda like Tiger's Eye, but green) and coral.  When the demonstration is done, we're told that, as we're good friends of Mr. Su, we will all receive a 50% discount on anything in the store.  Mr. Su then says we will reboard the bus in 15 minutes.

Try 50.  At one point, I joked that they wouldn't take us back to the airport until we'd all purchased something -- but it started to feel like there was some truth to it.  Mrs. Su had reappeared and was telling us all how lovely we'd look wearing this or that piece of jade.  "Sale" prices bore no relation to the numbers on the tags.  (They certainly weren't half the price.)   Much of the jewelry in the store was tagged at about $300, but if you expressed interest, they'd give you a "sale price" of anywhere from $75 to $175.

I actually bought a small cat's-eye necklace for about $60.  I was irked no end when another lady -- not realizing I'd already bought it -- tried to sell me the same necklace for about $9 less.  All things considered, I probably could've gotten it for $45, but I guess I just wasn't in the haggling mood.  (All I kept thinking of was how nice it would be to get back to those pretty marble bathrooms at the airport -- and then laughing to myself that I was at a place in my life where I'd actually look forward to an airport lavatory.)  Eh, whatever.  In the long run, it's pretty; it wasn't a whole ton of money; and now I have a souvenir with which to remember not only Taiwan, but also Mr. Su himself and the rest of the Taroko Gorge experience.

I Peed in a Urinal

See, the problem with journalling a trip one day at a time is that you never know what's going to become relevant later.  Like yesterday, I left out the bit about how when we stopped to use the bathroom in the Department store, we had our choice between "sit" toilets and "squat" toilets.  I found this amusing.  As I was entering the stall (of a "sit," thanks very much) I commented aloud to Peggy that I needed to get a picture of the labelled stall doors.  As soon as I shut the stall door to do my business, I saw a sign with a camera and a big red line through it -- apparently, photography in the bathroom was strictly outlawed.

I just want you people to know the lengths I'll go to for you.  After Peg and I washed our hands and were about to leave, I asked her if she thought I could take a picture anyway.  (Another woman had just entered a "squat" toiler, so we were whispering.)  Peg said I could, as long as I was quick about it.  I aimed my camera at the sign on the door saying "squat" and took a picture.

The flash went off!  Holy crap -- it seemed like the entire bathroom was bathed in a lightning strike.  Peg and I ran out of there, giggling all the way.

Now, of course, I didn't tell you about this because I thought I'd just surprise you with the photo (if it came out) when I got back home.  Little did I know that squat toilets would play a part in today's adventure.

I had signed up for a tour of Taroko Gorge.  It's a, er, gorge.  A marble gorge.  Some distance to the south.  The tour of the gorge included a plane flight down there.  I had to meet my little shuttle to the airport at 6:20 in the morning.  (And the hotel buffet breakfast opened at 6:00.  I was standing out there at 5:55, pretty much with my fork poised.)

So.  Dude picks us up in a van and takes us to the airport.  He gives us boarding passes for our flight, and tickets for the trip back -- and tells us that we'll be met by Mr. Su at the other end, who will be our tour guide.  (While we wait for the flight, we sit around talking and discover that an extraordinarily high percentage of us were all from Los Angeles.) 

Anyway (.... you're still waiting for the urinal part, aren't you?) we take our 25 minute flight down to Hualien airport.  We deplane.  We look around the airport.  (Which is freakin' gorgoeus.  It's all marble.  I took pictures.  I even took a picture of the marble bathroom, figuring I was working on a photo essay of johns in Taiwan.)  Eventually, some woman, with a baby strapped on her back, approaches our group.  She speaks no English.  She conveys (via the Chinese speakers among us) that she wants all our return tickets.  I'm skeptical -- why should I hand over my ticket to this stranger?  I have visions of some newspaper report about seven idiots from California who gave some dude in Taipei $150 each and ended up stranded in Hualien with no return tickets. 

Eventually, Mr. Su appears!  We'd been dealing with the Mrs., who would obtain our boarding passes for us while we were on the tour.  OK!  We pile onto the bus and go to...

... a marble factory.  We see these 2-ton (or was it 10-ton?) blocks of marble that they take out of the gorge; then the sheets they cut it in; then the machines they polish it with; and so forth.  (All I can think of is how cool one of those slabs would look as my new shower wall.)  Mr. Su is telling us everything in English, Mandarin, and Japanese.  English is clearly his worst language.  We pick up less than half of what he is saying.  (Later, one woman from California would confide in us that she was doing better understanding his Mandarin -- and she ain't fluent in Mandarin.)

Mr. Su then loads us back on the bus.  We go to ....

... a little roadside stop at the start of the gorge.  They are selling cheap jade bracelets and other trinkets.  Mr. Su tells us not to buy anything here; he'll take us to a place where we can get "good price" later.  Mr. Su will tell us this repeatedly during the trip -- even telling us not to buy anything from the Buddhist monks at the monastary.  (Like monks are gonna rip you off.)

FINALLY, we get back on the bus and on into the gorge.  I can't really tell you much about the gorge, as my comprehension of Mr. Su was pretty sketchy.  But it was beautiful and you'll see the pictures.  The one interesting thing I got from Mr. Su was that the gorge was very narrow -- don't think a V-shape, think two parallel vertical walls.  Because it was so narrow and we were so close to the walls, our perspective was totally out of whack.  At one point, he asked us how tall we thought a nearby cliff wall was.  We guessed something like 200 meters.  The answer was over 1400 meters.  That's like 4/5 of a mile.  Straight up.  Impressive.

There were also some pretty waterfalls cutting through the cliff walls -- and I noted at some point that the whooshing of the water was doing absolutely nothing for those of us who might need a bathroom soon.  Finally, after we'd gotten off the bus and walked for quite a bit, we saw a "Toilets this way" sign, and followed it.

To 5 porta-potties.  We stood around in what wasn't so much a line as a half-circle of people who needed to pee -- but didn't want to get all that close to the smell.  There were two different kinds of porta-potty there -- three were blue and two were yellow.  The door of one of the blue ones opened and I saw, to my horror, a "squat" toilet -- pretty much a ceramic trough sitting in the floor of the unit.  A small girl -- aged about 3 or 4 -- was next in line.  Two adults with her just took down her pants and panties right there in front of us, held the girl from either end, and carried her in there.  I could only imagine what happened next.

In the meantime, one of the yellow ones opened, and a guy walked out.  I saw a urinal in there.  I was next in line.  I looked at it, and looked questioningly at a Chinese girl behind me, who motioned encouragingly in the direction of said facilitiy.

I really, really, really had to pee.  The physics of the situation were a bit of a challenge though.  (What with me wearing pants and all.)  It seemed the only way to properly address the situation involved a particularly uncomfortable balancing act, with my fingers wedged in around both sides of the door (ewww) to keep me from toppling over.  Even then, I have to say that the gods of public toilets were smiling upon me, in that I managed to do the deed and get out of there without peeing on my clothes (or letting them touch the ooky porta-potty floor).

Afterward, people were washing their hands from a rusty water spout emptying into a big plastic basin.  I used anti-bacterial hand wash.  And a lot of it.