Dichotomies - not just a really bad name for an '80s New Wave band

My personal trade mission to China in 2011 began in Beijing. As a part of a group largely driven by newcomer curiosities, tourist-y highlights factored in right from the start. The Forbidden City and Tiananmen Square were among the first sights seen, before our collective jetlag really even had a chance of kicking in. By the time our group of 40 hit the public bathrooms at the Forbidden City, culture shock seemed to be taking hold for most. Nothing makes a Westerner miss the comforts of home quite like a hole for crapping in the floor. Sorry to go blue right off the bat. I'm just calling it as I recall seeing it. I was actually more struck by the walk back to my fancy hotel, sans group. Just so you know what to expect, I always look to walk and generally always spin off from the dictated path. Here or there or most anywhere. That's how I roll.

Stroll many of the business neighborhoods of Beijing and you'll see very little separation between the sort of places that burn garbage in the alleys (or "hutongs") and the places where the open display of copious wealth dominates way some modern Chinese urbanites live. I came across numerous Lamourghini and Ferrari dealerships literally right down the block or around the corner from the sort of urban lower class realities that made me cautious and a bit ashamed for taking the time to look more closely. I would love to go back and see if anything's changed in the five years since visiting Beijing. I'd do so tomorrow. I loved my brief explorations of urban, rising China. However, my bet's that the dichotomy has only become more pronounced.

Not that I'll find a perfect analogy to bring us up to the current day...but I did purposely come across a pretty damn close one today right here in Seattle. The Alexander Wang Pop-In Shop@Nordstrom...a brilliant bit of marketing overseen by the enigmatic Olivia Kim...currently open through mid-October. I troll through the department stores regularly no matter where I am. Nordstrom is one of my favorites, and not just because they're based here. I'll admit shopping there, too. When it's justified. Recent Nordstrom pop-up shops...which amount to temporary sections at just a few big stores set up to feature a specific company or designer...have drawn my attention and business. I love my Warby Parker sunglasses and wear them way more than I should. I just wore my new Olivia Kim-designed chukka-style maroon Vans and they're on their way to becoming faves, too.

Alexander Wang designs for a very different consumer, though.

Plus, Wang uses fur.

Just a few years ago I heard outright denials from Seattle Nordstrom employees that they even had any fur garments in stock. Today I saw the following $1000 Arctic Fox neck pillow. I was told it's made in NYC. Unlike most of his designs, which are made in China. Cue the irony music. But rather than explain more fully what I mean, I'll post a few pics.

The "metal diamond plate" flooring material makes any surface a mirror. And maybe a total bitch to clean regularly.

The "metal diamond plate" flooring material makes any surface a mirror. And maybe a total bitch to clean regularly.

The little bag charms up top in this display are accented with rabbit fur. The travel pillow is made with black Arctic fox, and features "memory foam" in the pillow. Probably so that you'll never forget you dropped a grand for a pillow. 

The little bag charms up top in this display are accented with rabbit fur. The travel pillow is made with black Arctic fox, and features "memory foam" in the pillow. Probably so that you'll never forget you dropped a grand for a pillow. 

I can't remember what the sales person said was the origin of the leather in the carry cover. Not soy, I'm pretty certain.

I can't remember what the sales person said was the origin of the leather in the carry cover. Not soy, I'm pretty certain.

My point for the day may seem convoluted. If I was being forced to pull it together into a simple daily thesis, I'd crack under the pressure and fall back on an unanswerable favorite. Dichotomies are everywhere. False ones, classical ones, and even some real, economic ones. Don't ask me which is formally which. That's why we use the Google. But I'm left to ponder...how did a country that during the Cultural Revolution sent millions of people to their deaths in re-education camps for any embrace of capitalism in a just few short generations become the world's magnet for both the manufacture and consumption of luxury goods? Or, closer to home, how did a company that responded not long ago to the threat of being visited by animal rights activists for selling fur goods with a blanket denial that they don't sell such things become the sort of place that's celebrating a fur neck pillow that costs more than the median monthly residential rent in the U.S.? Obviously, I have many many more questions. Some might even have answers.

Thanks for checking in. That's all I've got today. Good night, good grief, and good luck, World. 

A good day to look back. And return to the relevant work at hand.

Five years ago today, I began a journey. I went to China, an enchanting nation I'd not visited before. Or since. I traveled with a group of 40 people - predominantly Americans and Canadians, with a light sprinkling of other nationalities. We were going to visit some of the facilities and relevant examples of an economic engine overtaking an industry previously dominated by North American interests. It was for me one helluva fascinating way to begin work on a much larger project than I'd envisioned at the outset. 

As I will begin to unpack herein through the upcoming months, I'd done plenty of work prior to heading to China five years ago. I was then trying to wrapping my head around an idea I had for a book. I still am, admittedly. In the nuttiest of nutshells, I wanted to explore the "global fur trade" from a new perspective. I needed to see it firsthand, as much as possible. I wanted to keep my eyes, ears and heart open. In the process, I hoped to fill in the massive gaps in my own understanding of the subject. Did I have a set of biases that would close off certain conclusions? Certainly. Take any complex narrative layered over with generations of shared and lived experience, and perceived and unseen biases will be uncovered. Yet I had a unique chance at hand as I boarded that flight from Seattle to Beijing. I would come to see things firsthand within the trade and, eventually, from a fascinating mix of outside perspectives. Along the way, I met, interviewed and connected with people who showed me kindness and, in some cases, anger and distrust. As I survey my current perspective and begin to share my narrative, I wish I occupied a position to say that I've got it all figured out. This, however, will not be that sort of story.

What began as an "investigative memoir" has out of necessity evolved into something much broader. I firmly believe, however, that I've found that a surprising and (hopefully) entertaining story of humans endeavoring in league with animals. No matter your take on the question of whether there should even be a trade involving fur-bearing animals...and I acknowledge right off the bat that the opinions on both sides of that debate are vociferously intractable...I think there's something I can tell you about what I found that will be of interest. Even if only the very real, entirely true stories of the people involved...or for that matter animals...appeals to you.

I'm somewhat astonished to see...even though I knew it all along...that it has been just over two years since I stepped away from this blog. Regardless, I'm pleased to announce...to almost no one aside from you...that I'm back. To share. To entertain. To ask and answer questions. To step into the line of fire. Today. And tomorrow. Please check back. Thanks for showing an interest, no matter where you stand.


Stretch Run, just before what looks to be the final turn

July and August were notable for me as travel months, in what I'm calling the "Stretch Run" of my adventures in this particular trade. Along the way, I felt exhausted and honored by the pursuit of eight States worth of stories. As I quickly write this, I'm in the airport embarking upon my first visit to Denmark and a return roadtrip to southern Sweden. So much to process, there is (or certainly will be) an extended time to do so later. Nonetheless, I feel the cherished gift of time to say a few quick words before hitting that road again.

As has often been my refrain, I'm looking for origin stories. Going back to Sweden will help with that. New places excite me, and that's surely the role that Denmark's been cast to play on this trip. I hope to bring back a multitude of images to offer up as evidence of those two countries...and whatever unfolds along the continuum of influences and interests.

Please check back in a few weeks for the fresh stuff.


"Do the Right Thing" vs. all the other lessons learned today

On a day when the Supreme Court's majority of conservative justices chose to go in another direction, I'm focused upon the 25th Anniversary "Do the Right Thing" - easily Spike Lee's best movie. My memory hasn't faded of seeing that movie for the first time during what was my first summer spent on my own in the City. With all the special screenings and interviews and new-ish details offered up the last few days (including that the Obamas saw it on their first date), I'd like to serve up a slice of my own semi-famous recollection.

I was working that summer on my college campus (University of Minnesota in Minneapolis). Freebie, pre-release screenings of new releases would occasionally show in the otherwise unused, massive lecture halls. They quickly became one of my favorite things, and I grabbed a ticket to "Do the Right Thing" from the info counter in the student union before they evaporated. I remember riding my bike across the I-35 bridge from Dinkytown to the U's West Bank on a flawless summer evening. When I entered the packed auditorium, the air was charged and countless voices echoed off the walls. I'd give myself too much credit to say I was one of a handful of white preppie guys in the room. I didn't another white person, but they might have been just like me - quiet, focused upon finding a seat, so white as to be clear in a jubilant crowd like that one.

No matter the demographic tally, we all had some vague sense of what we would soon see. The buzz about Spike Lee's new movie was everywhere. Regardless of what I brought into that room with me, I had no clue how that evening's slap upside my sensibilities would reverberate for years to come. 

I've always fessed up to my reputation as a movie slut. Highbrow, lowbrow, long and dullbrow, popcorn-y embarrassments - most anything goes when it comes to the things I'll sit down to watch. I've had more than my share of epiphanies watching movies, and I eagerly await what I hope to be many more to come. But "Do the Right Thing" showed me something in the shared experience I've never seen repeated with the same immediate power and lingering impact.

While the movie crescendoed, I saw audience members on all sides of me go mad (no spoiler here...if you've not seen it, you have homework...soon). Eventually, Lee's masterful climax pulled us all over the cliff. I distinctly remember dreading what might happen when the houselights came back on. Then I watched...or joined with everyone else...as we read the paired yin-and-yang quotes at the end (again...no spoiler here). Those quotes were projected to precisely defuse the bomb I was sure had been planted in all our heads and hearts. Never before (and, in all do credit, not yet since) did I join with a crowd in being so affected by a movie. When I take a look back from today and drink in the fact that 25 years have passed since then, I don't know if we're any better off now as a society than we were then. I'll be damned, however, if I want to ever forget what "Do the Right Thing" felt like for me that first time.

Today the Supreme Court chose to give corporations religious rights and took yet another brick out of the foundation holding up what remains of this country's labor unions. If it's a stretch to plug my love for this 25-year-old memory of a morality tale...well, you can surely blame me for plugging an apple into this massive orange-shaped argument hole. Call this a first draft of how to wrap my brain around the then and the now...and if there's a middle in there to connect them. I'll tip my hat to Lee and ask...what do you say about something that already happened and can't be changed even though you know it's a horrible shame?

I don't know. Maybe just say, "hey, you wanna watch a movie?" I know I do. And I'll bet you might guess what that movie is in our lecture hall tonight.

Here's hoping something in your queue offers an equally strong moral guide, too. Just don't go see the new "Transformers" movie.

Revisiting the "Field"

Small towns in the vast, too-often-flown-over middle of America rarely trend in a good way on the internet. But all things "Dyersville, Iowa" and "Field of Dreams"-y scored a major traffic bump over the weekend. Due to this past weekend's event staged there at the cornfield ballpark made famous by the movie. I've shown my sentimental proclivities with respect to that flick before. Hence my visit to that picturesque movie site. Twice (since 2012). If you've never gone the distance...well it's sure purdy there. Click through if you'd like to see a few examples.

In the winter, the charms are a bit harder to pinpoint. But they nonetheless exist.

Buried lead...I hope to visit Dyersville one evening this July. Maybe the lights will be on. That and an ample lineup of stars (not the movie or even sporty kind) would truly complete the series.

Connecting censorship (in China) and uncensored storytelling (in Norway).

The combination of this week's 25th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre and Evan Osnos's engaging new book Age of Ambition drew me back to an old photo library. I made my first (and thus far only...) visit to China three years ago this September. Since I'd embargoed most of my photos from that trip, I choose now to share a few (click through for a handful of images from around that central part of Beijing).

The most thoughtful things I've read to help understand this dark anniversary opened a bit more the tiny window I saw through while there. Massive overstatement alert ---> China moved on quickly and changed massively after events in 1989. Yet when I look at pictures of the aftermath, I'm shocked in many cases for the first time by the scale of it all. If the events of "liu si" (the term for June 4th) come up, most people feign ignorance or look for a polite segway elsewhere. Here, there, or anywhere. The best advice I was given before visiting China was simple - "don't talk politics." Whether or not that sounds cowardly, the coping mechanism worked well. 

Since I still don't know what to say...I'll dramatically spin the globe to recap a lit event I'm still digesting. The Norwegian writer Karl Ove Knausgaard came to Seattle's Elliott Bay Book Company earlier this week. The release of the 3rd English-translated book in Knausgaard's six volume autobiographical "novel" (more on that in a bit) drew him to the United States for a brief tour - just L.A., Seattle and NYC stops before returning home in a week as he told me in the book signing line after his reading. This rare event kicked me square in the brainpan. Leave it to a somewhat reluctantly self-aware Norwegian to offer a powerful glimpse of how much we all stand to still learn about our skills and motives.

To drill down a bit...Knausgaard offered a disarming, great reading. He proved that banality can be deeply meaningful. He uttered a beautiful mantra in passing that I will borrow and try to use with attribution for some time to come - "self-criticism kills everything." He gave insights great and small, personal and universal, hopeful and darkly prescient to a standing room only crowd in a sweltering basement. Knausgaard's opus is called "My Struggle" and in the original Norwegian would not have been called a memoir. Because there is no such literary category in Norway. In American, we call it "Fiction" because we get all weird and wonky about storytellers manipulating their memory. Some call his work boring - he joked about it in fully owning up to the characterization. It is also deep, rare, and written in a twisting stream-of-consciousness. Hypnotic might be a great description. But I should stop there, because I have much more to read of his "Struggle." Needless to say, I am an immediate admirer and fascinated empath with respect to what Knausgaard has done in this work.

Seattle gets more than its share of authors with real star power jaunting across the stage. Knausgaard's appearance was something quite otherwise, however. This was a Salinger moment. If he comes anywhere in North America when Book 4 gets translated, I suspect Seattle may once again float up near the top of a very short list. But I would not count on him coming back, America. If you have the rare chance to see Knausgaard, do not let that pass without taking great pains to get there. No matter what happens with his work (or his personal struggles with success and happiness), I am quite pleased to have spoken with him briefly while he sat at what looked like the loneliest signing table imaginable...all while a line of dozens and dozens of fans waited for their chance to also thank him for doing us a solid by swinging through town.

Pre-Spring Break mashup - D.C., Scandinavia, Walter Kirn, and sucker fishing

I'm heading to Washington D.C. tomorrow. Mostly for fun with family, but with enough compelling work mixed in to (hopefully) make it time well spent. Included will be a tour of the U.S. Capitol on Tax Day - the luck of our draw thanks to our U.S. Representative's office. Doubly serendipitous will be our touring while the cherry blossoms are (supposedly) at their peak. I embrace looking like a tourist, especially when traveling with an eager 9-year-old. Check back for some pics from the tourist-y side of that trip, if you're so inclined.

In the interest of filling in the margins on my prior trip, the following few details caught my eye in Finland and Sweden. That trip was such a success that I've already booked a return to that general global neighborhood this fall (Denmark along with parts of southeastern Sweden constitutes that itinerary). To my profound surprise, I located precious parts of ancestry's backstory in Sweden. And so much more. It will take me much more time to unpack all of what I saw there. Until then, here's an unannotated peek at Helsinki, rural Sweden and Amsterdam (click through to see the full dozen pics).


Much closer to home, I want to give a proper shout out to Walter Kirn and my neighborhood bookstore (Ravenna Third Place Books) for an excellent author event a few days ago. Kirn's latest book, Blood Will Out, unfolds as a hybrid of many genres. True Crime, Memoir, Narrative Nonfiction. I will admit to a prior blind spot for his work - Up In The Air stands as the most recognizable, thanks to the film adaptation. Not anymore, though. I'm hooked like a river carp by the tale he tells here.

River carp...hmmm...we called them "suckers" back in Sconnie. Come to think of it, this is the time of year when the rallying cry of "the suckers are running" meant the next few weeks could be spent breaking curfews while doing all sorts of carousing out in the muck. We'd gather some spears, an armload of gunney sacks, a case or a few of cheap-as-sin beer, some fearless friends, and head to the creek (or "crick" as it should be pronounced).

The partly submerged lead being...I recommend Kirn's book. It's already in my bag for D.C. Here's hoping that even if you don't get a Spring Break, you also find time for some high quality escape via a well-packaged story. Rock on.

A snowy Swedish morning

Snow in Helsinki, snow in Stockholm. Rather than feel diminished in my ability to travel freely, I see this greeting as a blessing. In Helsinki, the only downside was the humbling tumble I took out for my 3rd morning run in a row. Apparently, salt is for herring - not for roads & walkways - in Finland. Here in Stockholm, I let an early walk through the medieval charm of Old Town with the flurries and fresh few inches of the white stuff falling suffice. That and a massive hotel breakfast has me prepped to get out driving Sweden's highways and byways.

I'd welcome the chance to sit down with everyone and recount some of my Finnish interactions. Another time, perhaps. I'll offer a few random examples, though. Like how I've decided to become an at least temporary "fish-itarian" following the plate piled to heaping with "authentic Finnish meatballs" at the Sea Horse restaurant (ravitola, in Finnish). Overwhelming, to say the least. Haunting, more likely. I'm still approximately 30% meatball and I think I've hit my lifetime quota. And I'd love to paint a fuller picture of the hilarious, stone-cold awesome college student/taxi driver in suit and tie who drove me to airport yesterday. If I get a absentee vote for the future President of Finland, I've found my candidate. Plus his "pro tips" sent by email last night for my return trip to Helsinki were spot on, given where I'd already been trolling on both sides of the proverbial tracks. Anyone who says the Finns are reserved to a fault hasn't been making the effort needed to find the (at least anecdotal) truth.

I'll get that return to Finland later in the week - a few final days and interviews before heading back to the States. My more immediate plan is to drive today from Stockholm to Gothenburg (Goteborg in Swedish, with a few extra marks added to their trademarked vowels, and pronounced "You-tee-bor-ee-ah" with the last two syllables largely swallowed). In a perfect world, I'd get to drink from the cultural firehose here, there and everywhere. I have to call my shots, though. 

The buried lead must be mentioned. I'm both looking for parts of the larger story intertwined with my current book project, and digging at my ancestral roots where they might be partially unearthed. Fortunate doesn't begin to describe my current state of affairs. Inspired hits closer to the mark. 

Before I can get there, however, there's the small matter of testing the sort of snow tires come equipped on Swedish rental cars. Wish me luck, as I do the same for you.

Winning hearts and minds in Finland

I would love to speak Finnish. Just enough to get by and to listen in on the conversations around me while I'm here. There's something so freaking adorable about a language where they pronounce every vowel, even when they spill over the edges of the page in 20-30-letter bunches. Like you let your arm dangle over the edge of the keyboard and just didn't bother to go back and correct it. I joke as a defense mechanism because I've got nothing in the way of Finnish now that I'm here in Helsinki. I haven't even tried out my pathetic new-car-smell smattering of Swedish (learned from an earnest but utterly unprepared instructor at the Nordic Heritage Museum in Seattle's Scandinavian heartland, Ballard). Not that I need it. Everyone - and I mean everyone - here speaks English. Embarrassingly well. I'll embarrass myself with my "lite svenska" in a few days time when I head to Sweden.

My best example of the above set-up thus far - and bear in mind I've been here less than a day - came last night at the checkout in the market across from my hotel. Every newly arrived American should go into a market where none of the labels are in English when they're shopping for...well, I wasn't really sure what I was gathering. Which was my first mistake. But then I began grabbing funny seeming lumps of carbohydrates and pulled perfectly-shaped, random pieces of fruit apart to add to my basket. My biggest and certainly most impressive bad choice was what I thought was a liter of sparking water flavored with blueberries that may instead be weak Finnish soda pop. All I know for certain about that product comes from the approximately 58% left in the bottle when I excitedly opened it standing in the center of my teeny hotel room/closet too soon after my return. I get ahead of myself, though.

So I went to the checkout and threw my barrel-full of bad choices on the conveyor and said what I thought might be seen as a colloquially cool "Hello, I am a clueless American" greeting in internet-prompted Finnish to the checker. I might have worked because she began speaking to me in those undecipherable long strains of consonants. I, of course, offered my best animated, moronic nodding in reply. Thankfully, I managed to pull my one thus far useful Finnish phrase out of my Palin ("en puhu suomea" - loosely translated to "me no speak-y the Finnish"). To which she gave me the universal sign for, "Duh..." and sweetly explained that I needed to weigh my genetically-modified apples and - what is that, half a banana? - so that I can put a sticker on them. Somehow I had missed that sign amidst everything else that I couldn't possibly decipher in the store. She took mercy on me and did so. With a smile. But not before dropping the banana(s) on the floor on her way back to the checkout. Karma is a bitch, but with a delightful sense of humor.

We finished up, I handed her a bundle of tattered Euros before trying to cram my purchases into the whisper-thin, pack-of-gum-sized bags they had for earth-ruiners like me who did not bring their own. Lesson(s) learned, I scampered back to my hotel room and began dismantling these indecipherable treats. Before getting a few so-so hours of sleep.

The one benefit of maintaining a running schedule that a serial killer would look at and say, "man, that's a bit too much commitment for me" is that waking up on four hours of rack time is child's play. If I'm lucky when I get out there for my run in a few, I'll see that checkout girl coming home from one of impressive number of bars I'd noticed while out meandering yesterday on my way to a love-at-first-sight connection with Helsinki. If so, I'm sure she'll want to introduce me to all her friends.

More later. Stay caffeinated. 

On the road to Helsinki

I've really enjoyed all that's gone into prepping for my most next research trip beginning today. Finland. Sweden. A long-enough layover on the way home through Amsterdam to maybe see a few sights. All together, less than two weeks on the road. But I hope to pursue a bundle of angles - some new, and others as old as my ancestral roots in the 19th Century - across a stretch of places I've never visited...yet always dreamed of experiencing first-hand. Will I have time to post some fresh pics and thoughts on this often neglected (but not yet forgotten) blog? I certainly plan to. You may want to check me out on Twitter for the more regular and immediate offerings. Nonetheless, I aim to be a good world citizen, and duly give some back story along the way to new insights and experiences. My next post(s) will come from Helsinki, if not in transit along the way.

To begin by acknowledging what's coming along with me, I'm fully hooked by Phil Klay's collection of stories Redeployment. I've also devoured the first half of Peter Stark's nonfiction page-turner Astoria - focused upon John Jacob Astor and his crazy venture to reach the Pacific Northwest in the early 19th Century. Bundled with Lorrie Moore's new collection of stories (Bark), I certainly have more engaging material than I'll have time on the road for reading. Better to be prepared than scavenging for something other than packages of rye crisps with ad copy in English, in my humble opinion.

May your own travels be safe. Even if they only employ the mind and spirit. Either way, always bring along an extra sweater as the ides of March approach.