Friday, October 14, 2005

I Left My Heart in San Francisco

The Internet boom ended. Laura and Kevin, here for 15 years, finally moved to Denver. Brian and Marci, Brookline. Mike and Diana, Boston. Melissa and Ian, Durango. Elise and Don, Portland. Cyndi and Greg and Mark and Julie, Boulder.

Laura and I moved here together after Tufts, after teaching English in Taipei. We first met when we were nineteen. In the Mission we lived on Fair Oaks Street with both of our ex-husbands. On Sunday mornings, Pasek used to walk to Martha's Coffee on 24th Street to bring home a latte and a scone for me, and then we'd rollerblade to Golden Gate Park, and from the park to the beach, my hands around his waist. I was no good at braking but I would never fall with him in front of me. I couldn't brake, but I was good at just going and going and going.

Laura and her husband Pete used to snuggle on their couch and call each other "Doh." Our marriages crumbled at the same time. We were still in our twenties. We went crazy together after divorce. She finally learned to come with an alcoholic but adoring new boyfriend; I drove to West Oakland to hear my crush practice singing dancehall in a warehouse. He was tall and fierce and had problems with crystal meth and anger management. I wanted to be with someone who was more troubled than I was, or who understood loss.

On New Year's Eve 2005, I was at Laura and Kevin's house in Oakland, near the Coliseum. We drank champagne and watched the ball drop as Turner and Gabriel played. Kevin let in a neighbor, a middle-aged woman with her bewildered-looking foster son. She asked us for a drink. She was full of stories. Laura just listened as she usually does. We had a happy New Year's. They made over $100,000 on their house, which used to be a crack house, and just bought a five-bedroom ranch house near Denver. Laura just emailed me and asked when we will come to visit.

I don't know, I think to myself. I don't know.

For now I am staying here.

Internet Boom

In November, 1999, I wrote a letter in response to "How the Internet Ruined San Francisco", an article published in Salon. I read it with nostalgia, since the time it discusses has since passed, like everything does. But here it is:

"I was forced into the Internet industry because I needed to do something creative that would actually support me and my loved ones. I was sick of crack addicts sneaking into my building in the Lower Haight and stealing my jeans out of the laundry machine. I was sick of temping for 10 months at a time at law firms where people didn't even greet each other in the hallways, just so I could live in Bali for two months and spend my time in a place where dreams and reality were similar states of mind, where the community collaborated to create beauty.

I wrote part of a play about women travelers that led to my first Web job -- writing a 'tax fairy tale' for a computer geek whose day job was tax attorney. He handed me a few Xeroxed sheets of HTML tags and said, 'You should learn this; you'll make more money.' That was in 1994.

Fast forward to 1999, San Francisco. I spend my time in a place where dreams and reality are similar states of mind, and the community collaborates to create beauty. I have a washer-dryer in my garage in Bernal. I spend hours doing things like creating interactive slide shows with photos the AsiaQuest expedition team transmits from the Silk Road; animating kangaroo characters; brainstorming in boardrooms where dogs run around and babies coo; collaborating with people with whom I talk and drink and rollerblade and cry and river-raft and attend concerts and play Scrabble and laugh; working in an office with puppets, music and masks, ginger plants and Ashante wooden combs, seashells and plastic frogs and Legos and origami and balloon animals and a JFK Jr. shrine. We sit on the floor. The CEO went to Germany after college with $24 and invites us to Wildlife Conservation Society events. My boss, who almost became an astronaut, takes us out for margaritas when we ship.

My starving artist friends, some of whom would have had no choice but to take a permanent job in a bank or a law firm or insurance company, or who would have moved back home to Iowa City or to somewhere else where they could live cheaply, like Prague, are now making money in San Francisco expressing themselves: designing, coding, writing, directing, coming up with ideas, starting businesses, influencing others.

I am not rich; I haven't had time to fix the dent in my Ford Ranger pick-up; and the one thing I miss is moving through the jungle with the smell of coffee and jasmine in the air and the birds singing from the trees. But with leftover creative energy from work, I have been going home and writing a novel, finally.

It's 75 pages, so far."


When I was eighteen, I found out I was infertile. I had a period that went on for weeks, so I went to the gynecologist to get my blood drawn. He told me my hormone levels were slightly abnormal. My diagnosis was polycystic ovaries, an endocrine disorder that affects 6-10% percent of women. In a polycystic ovary, follicles that mature form cysts on the ovary wall instead of releasing ova into the fallopian tubes.

He told me don't worry, when you want to get pregnant there is medicine for that.

I didn't worry.

I couldn't imagine my ovaries releasing eggs to travel down my fallopian tubes. I couldn't imagine having a child. I was about to create other selves anyway. The night before I left for college in Medford, Massachusetts, I cried to a circle of friends I had known for years. I hugged my apricot poodle Nicky good-bye. By second semester I had torn down my photos of my New Jersey friends and toned down my makeup. I was studying Kant and Stieglitz and Geertz and Caravaggio.

I didn't think about my ovaries, full of unrealized potential, for years and years and years.

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

Adventure Divas

My first cousin Michael married an amazing woman named Holly Morris. Last night they were in San Francisco for her book tour to promote Adventure Divas, which describes Holly's travels around the world to discover other amazing women.

"After years as a desk-jockey, Holly Morris quit her job and set out to prove that adventure is not just a vacation style but a philosophy of living — and to find like-minded, risk-taking women around the globe. With modest backing, a small television crew, her spirited producer-mother, Jeannie, and a whole lot of chutzpah, Morris tracked down artists, activists, and politicos — women of action who change the rules, and sometimes the world around them.

Morris brings to life the remarkable people and places she’s encountered on the road while filming her PBS series Adventure Divas and other programs: Assata Shakur, a former Black Panther, now a fugitive living in exile in Cuba; Kiran Bedi, New Delhi’s chief of police, who revolutionized India’s infamously brutal Tijar Jail with her humanitarian ethic; New Zealand pop star Hinewehi Mohi, a Maori who reinvigorates her native culture for a new generation; and Mokarrameh Ghanbari, a septuagenarian painter and rice farmer who lives in a tiny village in Iran, where her creative talents run counter to the government’s strict stance on art. Along the way, Morris hunts for wild boar with Penan tribesmen in the jungles of Borneo; scales the Matterhorn short-roped to a salty fourth-generation Swiss guide, and memorably becomes the first woman to enter the traditional camel race of the Saharan oasis town of Timia."

Monday, October 10, 2005

The Last Tribe of Desert Elephants in Gao

In a previous post, I introduce my experience in Africa by situating myself at an Internet cafe in Bamako. But then I use the words "edge", "far off", "bush", and "elephants", more typical terms associated with Africa in Western media. In Ghana, where I worked as a Geekcorps volunteer in 2001, my co-worker Kwasi at Africa Online (an ISP) asked me if I had thought before coming that they all lived in trees, were starving, and infected with HIV. I remember looking around that sixth-floor office at all the potbellies, grown round from generous helpings of fufu and goat stew. Everybody was heatedly IM’ing and a pastor’s sermon blared from a radio. Eddie, a member of the Ewe royalty with sparkling eyes, gave me rides home sometimes in his VW Jetta. Mike was teaching himself how to create database-driven sites and was reading the latest O’Reilly book on Active Server Pages.

Upon arrival in Accra, I had gone to the UNAIDS website and looked up the reported rate of HIV in Ghana, low for Africa, around 3%. But I realized I had personally encountered more HIV-positive people at home in San Francisco. What was the percentage infected at home, and why hadn’t I looked up that number?

When Americans ask about my time in Ghana, they often ask me what wild animals I saw there. I did eat grasscutter, a large rat-like creature. I didn't have time to go to the Accra Zoo. I did take a three-week vacation at the end of my volunteer stint and travel by plane, bus, jeep, and foot to get to a place where a few wild elephants remained. After all, I knew people would assume I had seen elephants if I told them I had been to Africa, and I needed to tell that story.