Mongolia’s Gobi Desert

Mongolia Gobi Desert Dusk

On my first night in the Gobi Desert, when the sky was dark with clouds, I held up my hand in front of my face inside my ger, which is the Mongolian word for a yurt. No matter how much I strained, I could not see my hand.

It reminded me of being on one of those cheesy cave tours, once, somewhere, and when were deep underground, after pointing out stalactites and stalagmites, the guide told us not to move and turned off the electric light. “Your eyes will never adjust,” he said with ominous delight. I tested his assertion by opening my eyes as wide as I could, I eventually closed them until he turned the light back on. Dark was not a condition I really experienced, growing up as I did in Manhattan, where nights in the polluted 1980s were at their darkest a deep glowing orange. I don’t think I knew that nights could be black velvet dark.

I also don’t think I ever realized that any place could be so empty. The Gob landscape, land all the way to the horizon, to the sky. Then a thin layer greenish grass covering rocks, in various shades of bake, and beyond the small group of gers that made up the Three Camel Lodge. That was it. I had never seen anything like it, on dry land anyway. It didn’t surprise me that one of the Chinese names for the Gobi means “endless ocean.”

And somehow empty land is different than empty ocean. Even a becalmed ocean is pregnant, you know there’s plenty in that deep that you can’t see, and that could emerge from the depths at any moment. So being able to see all the way to the horizon, to occasionally see a plume of dust that was a vehicle, or a drift of white that was an animal herd, to know nothing unexpected could appear from around a corner because there were no corners, no structures, not even a tree – these circumstances allowed some old animal part of me to relax. I could see anything coming, I could prepare and there could be no surprises.IMG_1740

However, the relaxation was a mammalian reflex, not a conscious sigh. Because the civilized part of me was tense. I could not survive here, without what had been put into place for me by the staff of the lodge. There was no cell phone service, no internet searches, no Google Maps. (I’d heard there was cell service on a certain rocky hill, and that if you stood on the top of the hill and threw your phone into the air, it would acquire the signal. Although I asked many times, I never did find the hill.)

Reality: I would not be able to walk or drive out of there, even if I remembered the name of the town that had the small airport, which I did not. My actual condition was completely stuck and dependent. And this reminded me of a backpacking expedition I made with the National Outdoor Leadership School in Wyoming for a story several years ago. On the first night of the trek, in my sleeping bag, I thought I heard traffic and comforted myself by thinking that if I could hear a road, I could bail out if I needed to. The next day I found out the sound I heard was a river, and there really wasn’t any way out.

At the Three Camel Lodge, I watched people sitting on the porch chairs, facing out at the space. They looked stupefied, slack-jawed, it was hard to take your eyes off all that emptiness. Some people faced their chairs the other way, so as to look at the human-built structures and not all the space.

Ger InteriorThe first afternoon I was in my ger, and on my bed reading, with the plan of taking a nap. The ger does not have any windows, and other than a small door (open for the photo above),  the only opening is at the center, which admits light, and air, and allows for the exhaust of stove smoke in cold weather. Apparently, and unusually, it started to rain —  so the diligent staff covered the opening, which they reached from the ground via attached ropes. I heard the squeaky scratching pulling against the ger, and I had no idea what was going on. I wondered if it was an animal, but I was too drowsy to investigate, and anyway what on earth would I do about an animal?

I figured out what was happening when the cover was jimmied into place, and the day light was extinguished, along with fresh air. The ger is covered with fabric but has an insulating layer of plastic, and so without the opening at the top, it’s like being inside a sealed plastic bag. I opened the small door to breathe, but I couldn’t leave it open because I could see a herd of goats, or were they sheep, not far from my ger, and also there were insects. I spent that night lying in bed for as long as I could stand it, listening to the blood rushing in my ears, and then getting up to stick my head out the door to breathe, reluctantly pulling the door shut again with a leather cord. The next day I asked the staff to uncover the central opening, regardless of rain.

I heard that a quarter of Mongolia’s population is still nomadic and they live in gers. My ger only had a bed, a desk, a chair and my suit case and me, but whole families lived in spaces like this. I thought about the contrast to the vast space of the Gobi and these close quarters, nothing but air and wind and a dark and airless interior. I thought about the balance between positive and negative space, and how maybe one makes the other more tolerable.

Mongolia DunesThe Gobi doesn’t have a lot of sand dunes – it’s a desert formed in the rain shadow of the Himalayas and it’s more rock than sand. But there are a few dunes, and where there are the dunes and tourists, there are of course camel rides. After the camel ride, I climbed up on the dune and remembered the last time I’d been on a sand dune was in New Mexico, at White Sands National Monument. It was then only a few months into my traumatic divorce, so soon in fact that I remember almost nothing about the trip although I’m told that I did a good job of impersonating myself.

But I do remember climbing on the dunes there, and looking at the strange landscape and thinking that the external landscape perfectly mirrored my internal landscape, barren and strange, challenging and blank.

White Sands

Standing on the orange sand dune in the Gobi, as I looked down at a local family setting out felted goods for tourists to purchase, I realized that I would not have been able to tolerate the empty Gobi landscape if I’d made the trip even a year earlier. But I was fine now, and that seemed like a victory.

Mongolia Moon

The next evening, we were driving on the road and there was small bright light right at the edge of the world. What is that? A very large and well lit ger? A village? “Maybe it’s a casino,” I said, out loud.

It was beyond my imagination in that moment that the bright light on the horizon was a rising full moon.

Clutter and Creativity

In last week’s Times, there was a mini-profile of designer James Draplin, with a special focus on his workspace. It’s filled with stuff he’s hoarded collected over the years, and it totally jazzed me up.

For one thing, I love peeking at other creative people’s studios. (Studio porn, it’s a thing.  See: Hyperallergic’s View from the Easel.)  For another, I bounce back and forth between the two poles of craving spare, tidy, Kondo’d spaces and feeling inspired by stuff, stuff and more stuff.

Currently the clutter is winning.

Here’s a part of my desk right now, with my notes for an article I’m writing, pieces of various  jewelery projects, objects I found on the street, glue stick, tools…

Desk

Whether I’m writing or making an object, it’s very hard for me to do it from thin air, by which I mean, it’s hard for me to design anything in a sketch book, or to write anything without some extant info — interview notes, a book, an event I’m observing, something, anything directly in front of me.

As I’ve gotten older, I’ve gotten more comfortable with this: my approach to creativity is far more collage than conjuring.

Click through the slide show to the drawer filled with vintage patches.  Draplin says: “When I have clients in here, they’ll go through those things and go: ‘I just love how this feels. Can we make a label like this?’ And I’ll say, ‘Yes.’”  (Read Disorderly Conduct here.)

 

Profiles of Portland

Portland Or Powell's Books
Photo by Alison Stein.

One summer night several years ago, somewhere on the Oregon coast, and after I found the bottom of a  bottle of wine, a long conversation occurred about the manifold wonders of the city of Portland.

After a while I threw my hands in the air and said, okay, okay, okay, I get it. Portland is heaven on fucking Earth.  Despite my momentary exasperation (which was more with a person in the room than with the topic),  I have only met one person from New York City who’s visited Portland and didn’t think about moving there. This is not a new phenomenon. In 1971, then-Governor Tom McCall famously said this: “Come visit us again and again. This is a state of excitement. But for heaven’s sake, don’t come here to live.”

For The Pearl magazine, I’ve been profiling people who are lucky enough to already live in heaven on fucking earth. In February, there was  Plot Twists(the surprising story behind the Pearl District’s metamorphosis into Portland’s hottest neighborhood), and in May, Helping Hands, in which a pair of Pearl District wellness entrepreneurs find success through mutual mentoring.

 

 

All-Terrain Travel, Worth, April-May 2015

live_trainplane_car

One of the ironies of travel writing is that as you’re slaving over your words — slaving, I tell you!– you’re usually not in as glamorous a setting as the ones you’re writing about.

I wrote this feature for Worth while I was in Lake Placid over President’s Day weekend. Not so shabby, except for that the temperature was literally struggling to reach -1 degree Fahrenheit, and that was during daylight hours.

I wrapped up the story on a (very ordinary) Amtrak train heading back to New York City. It was so cold that the tracks kept freezing, the train kept stopping, and by the way, the car I was in had no heat. It was hard to decide whether it was pleasant or cruel to revisit my trips to Petit St. Vincent, Tasmania (pictured above), Southern Africa and Venice under the circumstances.

On Journals and Being a Moron

This May marks my 99th month of keeping a daily journal electronically.

Before this, and ever since I graduated from college, I used notebooks for this purpose (college ruled, five subject, I’d tear out the dividers). There are boxes upon boxes of these in my uncle’s shed upstate. Someday, I’ll need to revisit them and see what needs to be kept and what needs to be destroyed.

I started to keep my journal on the laptop when I started traveling a lot, and didn’t want to lug a paper notebook around the world. Keep your expectations low, but here’s the beginning of my very first entry:

 March 22, 2007. In Nanjing, I wake up. This town –city, really — has never seen the likes of me, or at least not often, men almost fall of their bicycles staring at my chest. Women stare too. I look weird here. I feel weird here. I feel a long away from home.

I immediately took to journaling on the laptop. The benefits went beyond lighter luggage. At home, I had to concede that I was running out of storage space for all my whining incredibly valuable literary raw material. Also, I can type much faster than I can write by hand, and the ability to search my journals for keywords has proven very useful indeed.

Excited by all the upside, I stopped keeping notes on paper and exclusively went electronic. I started taking my field notes on my phone – a BlackBerry at that time. I felt smart, modern and efficient. I loved that my notes were already typed up when I got home, no more transcribing!

The new system worked well until a few days into my trip to India, when a waiter carrying a tray of panipuri tripped, spilling an entire bowl of tamarind-infused water on my phone.

This created an intermittent short circuit which could not be repaired. For the rest of the trip, the phone sometimes work fine, and sometimes typed random letters, numbers and symbols all by itself. I bought a small notebook to use while Shiva took possession of my phone to make his own notes. (Which is what I’d concluded was happening, obviously.)

When I got home, I was able to compare the quality of notes I’d taken by hand and with a keyboard, on the same day. I was struck by the difference. My handwritten notes were more lyrical and thoughtful, my typed notes more matter-of-fact and brief.

I think the difference has to do with the speed, unlike with an interview, where you really do want to just go as fast as possible, with certain kinds of observation going slow is a virtue.

Kyoto Travel Jewelry Journal
Here’s a recent sketchbook page. The keychains had nothing to do with the images, I just liked the way they looked.

Since I prefer the word “and” to the word “or,” I decided not to make a choice, and to keep notes both electronically and on paper.  And in the past couple of years, as my interests have shifted and I’ve started to study visual art, I still keep my daily journal on the computer, and I have almost 2,000 notes on Evernote, and I also now carry around a sketchbook, which also functions as a scrapbook.

So given all that, you’d think there would be nothing of significance in my life that’s gone unchronicled. But here’s my big duh moment.

As I’ve hinted at around these parts, I’m in the process of launching a new enterprise, a jewelry business — about which I’ll have much more to say another time.

In the past year I’ve put myself through an intensive educational experience – In 2014, I took 32 classes, at six different art and jewelry schools in New York City; this year so far, I’ve hit a cool dozen. As you might imagine, I’ve been making a lot of jewelry, and of course I’ve been taking some notes along the way.

One day not long ago, in my enamel class, a far more advanced student (and a professional jeweler) generously allowed me to take a look at her sketchbook. This woman had kept track of each piece she’d ever made: her inspiration for it, the exact steps she took to make the piece, what worked, what didn’t. And, being a thorough sort, she’d also pasted in a photo of the finished product.

I immediately felt like a total moron.

Because, in addition to all I’ve said of my own note-taking behavior above, any student who’s taken a writing class with me knows I make a giant, all-fired fuss about journal keeping. I mean, I’m tough about it. (“Write it down. I mean now. I’m not kidding.”) But when I stepped just a few steps away from my familiar writing ground, I utterly failed to make the connection between the creative process I’ve spent my entire adult life practicing, and my new endeavor.

Just think of it: I was blithely going around investing serious time making things, while taking only the skimpiest of notes recording my process — either digital or actual. What the serious fuck? What could I have been thinking?

I’ll have to take a look back in my journals and find out.

Fuck This Shit — Bronze Key Ring

KeyRing1501

There’s nothing more important than a positive mental attitude, but let’s get real: you can be both pissed off and positive. So due to popular demand — from people who don’t even know me! — I’m making this small bronze key ring available for purchase. All relevant details are below.

I have been thinking about the fact that among the few pieces I’ve posted on Instagram, it’s the one with profanity that’s gotten the most response. I can’t say I’m entirely surprised: I’ve previously written about my appreciation of the F-word — among my favorites in the English language. Forget diamonds, forget pearls, you see the word “fuck” on something and you just covet.

Marc Jacobs figured this out also, with this gym padlock that says Don’t Fuck with My Shit. And there are some very lovely Fuck Cancer pieces on Etsy.

I considered making this available in a G-rated version, but fuck that. When I put it on top of things that trouble me — like this giant snowbank outside my building — I feel so much better.

FuckKeyRing

So here are the details:

Your Fuck This Shit brass key ring measures 1-1/4 inches in diameter. It will not add much to your load. (It’s 24 gauge, if you know your gauges. If you don’t, it’s light.)

This piece is hand-made, hand- hammered, and hand- stamped, which means that it doesn’t look like a machine made it, because it didn’t. It’s $9.99, which includes sales tax and shipping inside these United States. Please allow seven to ten days for delivery, which will start the moment you click the button. (Or just click here, because the fucking button doesn’t always work.)
(Seriously, that button doesn’t always work — because PayPal is determined to drive me insane –so if you get an error message, you can just email me at alisonstein at gmail.com and I’ll send you a PayPal invoice.)
Fuck it, you know you want to.

 

"Buy

 

Pacific Time — Worth, February-March 2015

“The East Coast is just a rough draft for the West Coast.”

This is something I started saying about fifteen years ago, because, like the pioneers, I was totally enchanted by the idea of better living on the Pacific Ocean. In California, my troubles would be more manageable, since things could be sorted out in New York before I was even awake. Also the light would be nicer, the wine, local, the weather, better, and then there was also this: it was the only place on the planet where I wasn’t chained to my desk.

At the time, I was just starting out as a writer — and as an adult human — and since I started freelancing right out of college, I was not aware that I was allowed to take vacations.  I thought if I turned down any assignments, I would instantly lose all my clients and my writing career. Without an academic calendar for the first time in my memory, and without a boss, there was no one to tell me it was okay to take a break. And since this was the era of the dot com boom, and because I had an amount of hustle that I marvel at now, I had more work than I could handle. I was writing so much that everything literally hurt.

So when a dear friend had a wedding in Sausalito, it was the first break I’d taken in about three years. The wedding was at a beautiful boutique hotel, and I made excursions to wine country, and to Muir Woods. After that, I made several pilgrimages back, to the exact same hotel. It was like the Bay Area was the only place on the planet that had the magic to free me from my self-made work prison. (I hear your hysterical laughter, Silicon Valley people.)

Eventually, though I figured out that I could take vacations in other places, too. I just had to decide it was okay for me to do it.

Fast forward to now, here’s this story I’ve written on travel to California, for Worth Magazine. It marks my official return to commercial writing, from which I’d taken a sabbatical. (Who gave me permission to do that? Why, I did.)

In part, this sabbatical happened because I was recovering from my brutally fucked up divorce. But mostly, I wanted to figure out another line of work to complement my writing, which meant going back to school. I’ve done that, those plans are well underway, announcement forthcoming, dontchya worry.

But it seemed appropriate to officially return to writing with a story on luxury vacations in California — the state where I learned that vacations were actually possible.

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