Filters

2013-05-07T17:07:37-07:00Categories: brain, midlife, Seattle, urban life, writing|Tags: , , , , |

My email spam blocker is having filtration problems. So am I. Just as the diet, mortgage, dating, credit report, e-cig and language learning messages flow nonstop to my laptop, so does every conceivable distraction flow into my brain. I want to get some work done, I really do. But then I look out the open window and there’s that purple car with the green trim and jacked up wheels, circling the block again. And in the park across the street, there are the tween-age boys playing pickup basketball, while the younger boys watch longingly. Moms with strollers and cellphones and dogs walk by like little mobile juggling acts. Tiny girls in hijab run toward the swings. Maybe I should not try to work near an open window on a spring day. There are distractions inside, too: we all know what a dangerous Pandora’s box a laptop or a smartphone is. But what I don’t know is this: why am I sometimes better at filtering and focusing and other times, I’m just not? Often, I think it’s a problem of accumulated experience. I know that sounds like a too-sly way of saying “age,” but stay with me. Because what I mean is this: I think my filtering problem is due to a ridiculous over-abundance, a lifetime buildup, of past references for all the stimuli outside the window or on the screen or wherever my busy brain might be. I hear kids playing ball and my mind reels back to growing up near another neighborhood park, in another [...]

Boston

2013-04-22T11:55:01-07:00Categories: arts, education, politics, urban life, writing|Tags: , , , , , |

One September day, when I was still a child but thought I was not, off I flew to Boston. My checked bags included a shiny trunk in a retro black and white pattern and a sky blue Skyway suitcase. I wore a new plaid blouse, brown corduroys and a brown hooded sweater. I was 17 and I didn’t look a day older. Boston received me the way Boston does: with a bit of a yawn. Oh, here she comes; yet another wide-eyed rube from the Wild West come east to get some schooling. Sorry, sweetheart, but you’re a dime a dozen in this town. Never mind: have some chowder. Have a corn muffin. You want your coffee regular? Which in Boston, of course, means with cream and sugar. I didn’t care, because I knew my real life was beginning. In the mayhem of this past week, in our global obsession with Boston, with the bombs at the marathon finish line and who put them there and why; in our grief for the dead and injured, one of President Obama’s finest moments slipped under the news radar. On Thursday, hours before the terror and drama of the manhunt began, before we knew anything about two brothers with roots in Chechnya, the people of Boston gathered at the Cathedral of the Holy Cross to mourn. It was an interfaith service featuring many eloquent speakers. I happened to catch most of it on the radio. But it was our president who made me cry, because he reminded me what [...]

Homework

2013-04-16T14:03:23-07:00Categories: education, immigration, Seattle, urban life|Tags: , , , , , |

It’s almost 5:30. Time to walk the one block from my front door to the neighborhood center where I volunteer once a week as a homework tutor for Horn of Africa Services, a nonprofit serving Seattle’s East African community. I wonder what challenges await me today. Will I find myself trying to explain what a “bale of hay” is? Corral the attention of a first-grader who is convinced the police car in the alley might be here for someone he knows? Search for scissors and a glue stick for a “word-sorting” homework assignment that involves pasting postage-sized pictures of words with similar endings in the correct columns? The word-sort worksheet makes me wonder if the teacher who assigned it really enjoys the mental picture of parents and other homework helpers, like me, down on our knees gathering up flyaway scraps of homework confetti. (I don’t remember my own children having to use glue to do homework very often, though there was that one multi-day, sweat-and-tear-stained project that called for recreating Fort Vancouver out of popsicle sticks.) At a training for volunteers, Program Director Dereje Zewdie began by defining culture as, quote, “what makes you a stranger when you’re away from home.” Walking to the tutoring center, I’m only a few hundred yards from where I now live. A mere ten miles from the house where I grew up. I don’t think about My Culture because I live in it. It is omnipresent; as invisible as air. But all that changes when I open the door and [...]

Meaning: Searching and/or Finding

2013-03-19T13:43:57-07:00Categories: arts, education, faith and doubt, midlife, quiet, Seattle, urban life, writing|Tags: , , , , , , , , |

Trying to fill a room in Seattle is a fickle business. On the first day of 2013 that felt like spring was not just a dream some of us had, who ever would’ve guessed that 25 hundred Seattle souls would willingly converge for a collection of lectures called the Search for Meaning Book Festival? And this was a free event: advance registration encouraged, but no fifty dollar commitment. No reason why you couldn’t just say, “Are you kidding? I’m going to Golden Gardens!” after you pulled back the curtains on a morning flood of daffodil-yellow sunlight. Now in its fifth year, the Search for Meaning Book Festival just keeps growing. It is hosted by Seattle University’s School of Theology and Ministry, but the authors and speakers come from every religious tradition, including none-of-the-above. This year’s keynotes were a conversation between authors Sherman Alexie and Michael Chabon in the morning and a riveting talk by Iranian-American writer Reza Aslan in the afternoon. Before and after the keynotes were seminars, of which we attendees had to choose three or four out of nearly four dozen. Topics ranged from searching for meaning in suffering to the ethics of sustainable seafood. Highlights for me were Port Townsend poet Holly Hughes’ session on contemplation and creativity and Stranger Genius Award-winner Lesley Hazleton’s talk on the life of Muhammad. But I digress. Back to the weather. Next time you’re on Capitol Hill, stroll a few blocks south and you’ll find yourself in a little green oasis: the Seattle University campus. Not such [...]

Foiled Again

2013-03-05T17:17:08-08:00Categories: economics, midlife, urban life, women's rights|Tags: , , , , |

Wow, there was a lot of gray hair at the Oscars this year. Kidding! Sure, George Clooney’s silver head was in every other cutaway shot. And French best actress nominee Emmanuelle Riva looked fabulously un-dyed on this, her 86th birthday. But even Jane Fonda and Shirley Bassey (75 and 76 respectively), do not dare bare their true hair. Barbra Streisand (70), Meryl Streep (63)—no way. I thought of them all as I sat in a salon chair, 50 or so squares of foil shooting out from my head, flipping through More magazine. Looking like an extra in a low-budget sci-fi film. Feeling morally deficient. I really want to be the kind of woman who can own the gray: Emmy Lou Harris. Jamie Lee Curtis. But I’m not. I’m just not. Not yet. I tried. I stopped coloring my hair for about two years. I thought I was doing OK with the gradually emerging, real, salt-n-pepper me, until I saw a photo in which I resembled my grandmother. Not my stylish Seattle grandma: no, I resembled my dear, frumpy Finnish-American grandma, whose hair was the same steely gray I now saw on my own head. And what is so wrong with that, you might ask? What’s wrong is that I often work with people 10, 20, even 30 years younger than I am, and I can’t yet afford to frighten them away by resembling their grandmothers. I literally can’t afford it: in the often arbitrary world of self-employed creative professionals, the wrong first impression could cost you [...]

Seattle Grown Up

2013-01-08T11:42:03-08:00Categories: arts, urban life|Tags: , , , , , , , |

Call me provincial, but I still get excited when I see anything about my hometown in the New York Times. Last Saturday, there we were, on the cover page of the Arts section, under the headline: “A Place Comfortable With Boeing, Anarchists and ‘Frasier.’” What an oddball trio of references, I thought. Then I saw it was a story about Seattle’s Museum of History and Industry, better known as MOHAI, which has just reopened in the grandly re-imagined Naval Armory at the south end of Lake Union. The hometown booster in me was excited. Proud: the nation’s newspaper of record was covering the museum that, more than any other, I think of as our museum. I love the Seattle Art Museum too, but MOHAI? It’s about us. When I walked in for the first time, there was the Lincoln Toe Truck and the giant, neon Rainier Beer “R.” Even so, I felt disoriented, though in a mostly good way: the way I feel when I see one of my children’s preschool friends, now all grown up. This was not the museum I visited when I chaperoned those preschool field trips. No. This new MOHAI is a grown-up museum about a grown-up city. Fresh evidence that while I may still be provincial, Seattle is not. And like any newly minted grown-up, MOHAI had all kinds of things to teach me.  For example, New York Times writer Edward Rothstein’s reference to Seattle’s pioneering Denny Party, arriving via the Oregon Trail, which I smugly thought he got wrong? I [...]

Beyond Binders

2012-11-01T05:54:24-07:00Categories: politics, urban life|Tags: , , |

This fall, I have had the good fortune to meet many memorable women. I met a physicist and computer science expert from the National Institutes of Health. I met an artist who transforms scientific data into stunning, wall-sized murals. I met a teacher librarian who has turned a cramped high school library in Yakima into the busy, beating heart of the building.  I met a professor of Fine Arts and Engineering who has started an Art and Ecology program at her university. And a young woman who moved from Texas to Seattle with two suitcases to her name and is now a successful copywriter by day and writer of fiction and memoir by night. And a Somali immigrant, who brings her oldest daughter, a kindergartener, into our neighborhood tutoring center because she wants her to succeed. I am lucky to have the kind of life in which these kinds of encounters are possible.  I wish more men did. I wish it wasn’t so hard for guys like Mitt Romney to get out of their mostly-male bubble and meet the dynamic women that are everywhere. I want to tread carefully here, because I realize I’m entering a minefield of stereotypes just waiting for me to take a wrong step.  So maybe I’ll try the most positive route through this hazardous terrain: the route of utopian vision. Of “What if?” What if we lived in a world where everyone, regardless of gender, had time in their work week to volunteer for two hours? Tutoring the mostly African immigrant [...]

Becoming Obama

2012-10-03T08:22:16-07:00Categories: politics, urban life, writing|Tags: , , , , , , |

Barack Obama was 33 years old when he published his memoir, a fact often noted with the kind of wink that says, “Clearly, the man knew he was destined for greatness.”  But that’s not at all how the book reads. Dreams from my Father is written with humor and humility.  Graceful, fluent writing abounds, but so do the frankly self-conscious moments of a young writer who knows he’s still got a long way to go towards wisdom. Dreams from my Father is subtitled “A Story of Race and Inheritance,” and it is, but intimately so.  When Obama describes arriving in Indonesia as a little boy, he resists the scholarly urge to set the scene and instead reveals the country as it was revealed to him, from the back seat of a taxi, recalling the “brown and green uninterrupted, villages falling back into forest, the smell of diesel oil and wood smoke.” It is in Indonesia, a country where almost no one is black or white, that Obama has his first realization of the deep racism of America when he comes across an article in Life magazine about black people who have tried to dye their skin white. Back in Hawaii, an adolescent at the fancy Punahou prep school, Obama quickly understands that in America, he is and will always be black.  Through his high school and college years, he self-consciously plays the part he knows everyone in his life expects him to play, excelling as the young black man making it in the world of white privilege.  [...]

Seattle Chill

2012-08-09T16:55:21-07:00Categories: urban life|Tags: , , |

Months ago, I sat down to write about the Seattle Chill, that social coolness that people new to our town find so perplexing. I found myself squirming as I wrote, because I realized I was describing myself. Recently, I was asked to take a personality test, something I’ve long resisted. I learned, among other things, that I’m the type of introvert often mistaken for an extrovert.  This insight came as a great relief to me. It made me feel like I’m not a bad person for needing time alone, especially if I’ve been super-social—it’s just the way I’m wired. And I would venture this: Seattle is full of people like me. We can rally and behave like extroverts when we need or want to, but because we are true introverts, we just can’t keep it up all the time. We’re good at cordial. Not so good at gregarious. Good at meeting for coffee, not so quick to extend that first invitation to dinner. As a Seattle native whose roots are mostly Scandinavian, I can play the old ethnic card. Taciturn Finns, somber Swedes—they are my people. And it is true the early Scandinavian settlers set the local social thermostat at a level that matched the climate: cool, with occasional slightly warm periods. But there’s a twist to this story: I think a lot of the people who move here and complain about the Chill also take advantage of it to excuse behavior they wouldn’t get away with back home. They secretly like this license we give [...]

Speed-Living

2012-06-20T09:31:27-07:00Categories: midlife, urban life|Tags: , , , , |

When did “speed” become an adjective? Speed-dating, speed-networking, speed-parenting.  Maybe the question should be: when are we not speeding? For months, I planned to upgrade to a smart phone the minute my wireless phone company declared I would be eligible for the big discount. But as the date approached and then passed, I dragged my feet. I found excuses. I felt a sudden fondness for my not-smart phone, for its tiny slide-out keyboard and charming doorbell text-tone. Finally, I placed my order and the Fed-Ex man brought me my little device, the one that will make me a truly 21st century speed-person. By the time you read this, I will have activated it. I haven’t yet. Just give me a day or two. Because I know what’s going to happen. I’m going to be like Mickey Mouse in that "Sorcerer’s Apprentice" scene in Fantasia, right? Moving faster and faster until I wake up sweating and gasping for air and longing to time-travel backwards to the moment before I turned loose this malevolent instrument, this miniature servant whom I now serve! One of my more creative excuses for delaying the big smart-phone purchase was the Seattle International Film Festival. I did not go to an absurd number of films; just enough to make those three weeks extra speedy, what with balancing work and film-going. But what a food-for-thought feast some of these films have been. For example: the essay-like documentary Five Star Existence, in which Finnish filmmaker Sonja Lindén trains her creative eye and curious mind on [...]

Safety, Take Two

2012-06-06T12:30:12-07:00Categories: education, Uncategorized, urban life|Tags: , , , , , |

He didn’t think there was any way to get help for his son. And now six people are dead. How did we get to this place in modern history where we routinely take better care of our bodies, our teeth, our cars, our homes than we do our minds, our hearts, our souls? If we’re lucky enough to have health insurance, it probably doesn’t cover mental health. Maybe medications: pills to make us less anxious or depressed. Maybe. But treatment? Therapy? No, our national mental health plan is to turn our most tortured souls out on the streets. Let them fend for themselves. Let them buy guns, no problem there! Let their aging parents and other relatives do what they can. But as long as it’s not our mentally ill relative, it’s not our problem. If you are that aging parent, like Walter Stawicki, the father of Ian Stawicki, who killed five people, gravely wounded another and killed himself in Seattle on May 30, you know what resources are out there for your troubled adult child: none.  A 2006 survey ranked Washington state 47th in the number of psychiatric beds per capita. And involuntary commitment is well nigh impossible, unless your unstable relative is making imminent, life-endangering threats to another person. The Seattle Times reports that every month, between 15 hundred and two thousand people are evaluated by mental health professionals under the state’s involuntary treatment act. Two thirds of them are turned away. So Walter Stawicki assumed, correctly, that there was little he could do [...]

Safety

2012-05-30T14:59:58-07:00Categories: Uncategorized, urban life, women's rights|Tags: , , , , , , |

I’m a big fan of optimism. Often, I’m brave enough to actually call myself an optimist. Other words I like are: Hope. Compassion. Love. But sometimes—and this is one of those times—we have to acknowledge that there is evil in the world. And because evil is often so random, arbitrary, senseless—all words I don’t like at all, and I’m sure you don’t either—because this is true, there is no such thing as total immunity from evil. Safety is an illusion. Let it go. Be sensible, don’t go courting evil, but just let go of the fantasy that it won’t ever touch you. Ask the families and friends of the four people killed and two wounded in gun violence in Seattle today. Today: Wednesday, May 30, 2012. One shooting happened at a café in the University District, the other in a parking lot outside Town Hall. We don’t know much more than that yet, but we will soon. We’ll learn names and heartbreaking details. Ask the family of Justin Ferrari, caught in the crossfire of an argument on a Seattle street last week, dead at 43 from a gunshot wound to the head.  May 24. Ask the family of Nicole Westbrook, just 21 and brand-new to our city when she too was killed by a stray bullet. April 22. Ask the parents of Etan Patz, missing for 33 years and in the news again because Pedro Hernandez has suddenly confessed to killing Etan, a New York 6-year-old who was excited about walking to the school bus stop [...]

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