Seattlelandia: Episode One, “Ladies on the Loose”

Sometimes life is too much like Portlandia.

The scene begins with a morning trip to the neighborhood artisan bakery for a scone for her and a ham and cheese (excuse me, ham and gruyere) croissant for him. On the way, he throws the chickens a yogurt tub of chicken food and lets them out to run freely in the yard.

Only much later, as she takes a break from working on her tortured masterpiece of fiction and eats her artisan bread/organic butter/homecanned tomato/sustainably-caught-sardine lunch concoction does she notice that the back gate is open. Dunh dunh dunh…. She rushes down into the yard, the dog at her heels. Ruba, Diamond, and Licorice Chick are gone! Only Puff remains, brocking a lonely brock in the empty dirt.

Soon they are both searching the block for the lost ladies. “Excuse me, have you seen any chickens?” they ask again and again.

“I know how to hold a chicken rully rully good,” says a proud child on a pedalless bike (which, like all modern and trend-setting children she rides instead of a trike so that she will never have to use training wheels).

“We had two hundred chickens when I was a kid,” says another neighbor, who now has three small free-ranging dogs. “If I find yours I’ll chuck ’em over the fence.”

Next thing, she’s putting up LOST CHICKEN signs and he’s wandering the alleyways. Then she has to abandon the search to go to a bodywork appointment, which she has strategically timed so that her drives sandwich rush hour (this is Seattlelandia, after all). When she gets out, walking regally and in pristine balance through the golden Wallingford air, a text: They’ve been found! Someone read a sign! Someone called! Diamond resisted capture, but he prevailed, and the ladies are home!

She drives home listening to an obscure band sing about saber-toothed tigers and drinking water (as instructed) from a reusable glass juice jar. There is traffic on the University Bridge. Two cops have pulled some people of color over on her street. She feels incensed and drives on by, then uses her turn signal on her driveway, just in case the cops care. The chickens pace in their run. He cooks dinner. She walks the dog. Happy violins play and the sun sets behind the construction site.

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I Heart Rednecks, Sometimes

In college I took a poetry class from a guy who brought a littered beer can to class every week. It was a class about the modern nature poem, but he spent a lot of time picking up the can and saying “I understand this [mimes drinking] but not this [mimes throwing on the ground].” I guess that relates to every American nature poem of the 20th century or something.

Anyways, I took Squinch and his brother to the river today and there was a campfire littered with beer cans and plastic bags. Classic Snoqualmie redneck party. One of my students just wrote about the giant garbage patch, so I decided to pick up the trash. Keep it out of the ocean. I understand this but not this, said my professor in my head as I poured the beer dregs out on the sand.

But I disagree. I think I do understand. It’s something we all do. But rednecks are just more upfront about it. How many times have I listened to a story about climate change on NPR while driving around in my car? I can’t point any fingers here. I was getting maudlin about the smell of stale Rainier and cottonwood trees, when the dogs started barking at a lady in a bougie jogging outfit. I apologized and she told me to be careful because “there was a leash law and there might be other dogs.” Which is something I just can’t see the throwers of the beer cans saying, especially since what she really meant was “don’t let your dogs bark at me.”

Sometimes, I just prefer the redneck thing.

Hike!

How about them Seahawks, huh? Let me tell you. Actually, I’m the least qualified person ever to do that, because I a) don’t understand football, and b) didn’t actually watch the Super Bowl. But I’m just not going to let that stop me.

Recently, Seattle has been pretty Seahawks crazy. Everywhere you go, there are people in Seahawks gear. It’s kind of like being in Boston on an average day. Only the Seahawks. The obsession even hit the homeschool crowd.

“How do you spell Russell?” asked one of my students.

“Wrestle,” I told him. Poor old Wrestle Wilson.

And then there are all the 12’s. I have no idea what they mean, except that they are suspiciously footbally. The construction crane hangs a 12 flag during its off hours. Our neighbors made a 12 from Christmas lights in their window. I don’t understand it, but it’s friendly-feeling, like a big snowstorm. Like we’re all sharing something.

I did watch some football earlier this year with my friend Scout, who’s a fan. At least, we got burgers and beer and the game was on, and she kept trying to point out the hot quarterback — Marshawn Lynch, Google helps me remember — and I kept missing the hot moments when he had his helmet off, and with helmets on they all look like wind-up warrior ants to me. Finally, I saw a good shot, where he was wiping the sweat off his face and breathing hard. Totally hot. Totally heroic. Is that what football is about — drinking beer and objectifying guys in tight pants? If so, we got it down.

Anyhow, that was all the football watching I did. During the Super Bowl I went up in the Cascades with Nate and Squinch. We hiked in the snow, and it was still and quiet. When we got back, it was over, and the internet showed us pictures of so many people dancing in the streets it looked like Obama had been elected on New Years. We walked around our neighborhood. A drunk man lifted his coat and flashed his jersey at some cars.

“WHOOO!” he yelled. “BEEEP BEEP BEEP BEEEP,” they honked. WHOOO. BEEEEP. WHOOOO. BEEEP.

Then we went home.

But you know, even when I was off in those quiet woods being a bad Seattleite, guess what color my hat was. Seahawks green.

The Morning Blend

I want to tell you about one of my favorite hours of the week: 7:30 — 8:30 AM on Wednesdays. I wake up early on Wednesdays and have a long commute. That is when I have the little ritual of listening to the Morning Blend show on KBCS, one of Seattle’s community radio stations.

The host, a lady named Fionamoran, which is probably two words but sounds like one, sounds as sleepy as I feel. Actually, she sounds stoned. At 7:30 in the morning. The show alternates between little news programs and folky music, in a completely spacey kind of way. The news doesn’t overwhelm you. The music is broken up often enough that you know that you’re awake.

The news segments drift along in a predictable, dreamlike progression. This is helpful for a sleepy mind. First comes news from Bellevue. In Bellevue, citizens save each other with defibrillators in the gym and run for various local offices. That’s nice. Then there’s music, usually a lady singing, who may be wearing a cowboy hat or something flowy, but it’s radio, so I don’t know.

Then comes Earth Sky, a science show. Earth! Sky! A Clear Voice for Science! This is where they find life in distant galaxies and discover that the dinosaurs who left the tracks were swimming, not stampeding.  Cool.

More music.

Then Jim Hightower and his populist commentary. Usually this comes when I’m in a mass of cars driving over Mercer Island, also known as Poverty Rock. Mr. Hightower is cheerfully incensed about corporate power in his blowsy Texas accent. He exposes the world of politics to be one big Comedy of Tragedies, and he always lets me be on his side. It’s awesome and it never makes me cry.

Right on his heels — we’re running up against the end of the hour — comes Labor Neighbor Radio, the Voice for Working Families, with John Sanderfeld, who sounds like a cheerful robot. He also explores everyday atrocities, but sticks to local ones. Then more music.

Sometimes Fionamoran comes on to tell us what song just played. She reads every title like a foreign concept. Sometimes she says it will be Earth Sky, but it is Jim Hightower. She never apologizes. She just keeps going. I keep driving and drinking my oatmeal.

Then, often many minutes before the hour, she comes on to wrap things up. After that comes an indeterminate amount of a probably endless song that might be African or Caribbean or South American and I should be able to tell but I can’t but I like it anyway. It’s probably African, because the words I catch go “Africaaaaa, Africaaaaa,” and I think I hear marimbas. But other people might sing about Africa, too. You never know.

Eventually, it fades away, and on comes Amy Goodman, rocking out to the Democracy Now theme song, which sounds like superhero music. Then more atrocities, all through Sammamish. But I’m awake now, and can take them without a happy Texan voice.

And then I park the car and go for a walk somewhere beautiful with Squinchy. We see flowers and eagles and snakes. And then we teach little children about Walt Whitman and apostrophes, and driving back home again there is rarely anything interesting on the radio.

I Got Bees!

I got bees! Bees may be the only insect that could make that exclamation point happiness. Compare it to I got fleas! to see what I mean.

Also, it is true: I got a hive of bees.

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My parents gave me an old hive box, and I salvaged bricks from the vacant lot to elevate it.  Then Squinchy and I drove home from Auburn with 5000 bees on the passenger seat of the car.

I took the plug out of their box and out they spilled in a mass, humming and swirling, crawling all over the little box with the queen.

They flew around me in a cloud, humming, humming. I kept myself so calm, or did the calm come from them? From the flowers and the beeswax smell and the zzzmmmm zzzmmmmm zzzmmmm. I didn’t know I could feel so much for insects, but already I am in love with those bees.  It is as sweet and terrifying as any other love.DSCN3119

Then came the part that should be turned into an Olympic sport because it is harder than lawn bowling. Without letting the queen out, you have to replace the cork that holds her in with a mini-marshmallow. While wearing gloves. And veil. In a cloud of 5000 bees.

I did it, with no sports commentary, and put her little box into the hive, where the workers immediately began to eat the marshmallow between her and freedom.

Then I closed up the hive and went to get them some honey.

To work with my bees, I wear a veil and gloves and full raingear. Bees are like a rainstorm, I guess. Also, I am starting a fashion trend. As a bee suit, raingear works well. Mostly.DSCN3117

Before I went inside, I brushed all the bees off my coat and pants and the top of my hat. But in the quiet of the house, without the sound of the neighbor’s lawnmower, I could hear a muffled buzzing. I went back out and brushed myself off again. I went inside. The sound was still there. I went back out unzipped my raincoat.

Inside, on my chest, were fifteen or twenty bees.

My heart skipped a beat, for sure. They were crawling on my sweatshirt, which was pretty thick, but was also a V neck. My neck was bare skin. Yet none of the bees had stung me.

I brushed them off really quickly, none-the-less. Now I tuck my raincoat into my pants. Watch out, Paris.

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Anna Louise Strong: Kick-Ass Woman of History

I want to introduce you to a fascinating woman : Anna Louise Strong.  She was a journalist and witness to much of the revolutionary history of the 20th century. I just read her autobiographical account of the Seattle general strike (novel research!) and Soviet Russia in the 1920’s, called I Change Worlds. I’ve had this book out from the library since January, late fees be damned. It is an eyewitness view into history that I knew way too little about, written by someone who is inside it all enough to be enthusiastic about revolution and communism and uncynically critical of capitalism — no 21st century apathy here — and yet analytical and articulate enough to voice the complexities of what she sees unfolding. More than that, it is a view into an independent, articulate woman’s mind, as she explores class issues, the logistics of post-revolution Russia, the mechanisms of social change, and her own progressive American childhood.

This lady can sum things up.

But today I would like to give you a long quote of hers, which is her description of the origins of American psychology and our attempts to evade class dynamics. She nails it like she was in the heads of my ancestors.

Neither their fortune nor their brains had made them masters and they disdained to be slaves. They chose the wilderness to conquer, finding it easier than man. They left the complex problem of human society to the men who served oppressors and the men who were oppressed. They chose the simpler task: to conquer the earth and hold it. Thus they held each new bit of earth for a generation, till human society arose with its struggles around them and drove them into the wilderness again….

From this life came their virtues and their weaknesses. They were proud of physical strength, of daring optimism, of resourceful invention, of quick adaptability to new conditions. They rejoiced in the power to survive in isolation which they called “independence,” and in agility to flee and change, which they called “freedom.” They were “practical men” with little use for “theory”; for they shrank from analyzing those social and economic forces by which other men from a distance controlled them, cast them into the wilderness and entangled them again. Having neither the shrewdness which serves oppressors, nor the guile that lawlessly outwits them, nor the solidarity that in the end destroys them, they lived by faith – and evasion. As they gave up old lands to tyrants, they dreamed always of new lands without slaves or masters. From the German tribes that overran imperial rotting Rome for the stronger, more imperial papacy, to the settlers who won the west for Jill Hill’s railroads, they were daring and free and equal – and easily deceived. For they substituted energy for thinking, and optimism for analysis. Cast forth by great struggles of classes, they refused to believe in classes, but had faith that somewhere “beyond the ranges” men might be free and equal still. But they never clearly analyzed how this might happen.

Thus came into being Americans – of all men strongest in subduing nature, most inventive in the use of machinery, most determined to optimism, most naïve and credulous in social relations…. 

I know this way of being. I was raised in it. That was what was behind my childhood full of Laura Ingalls Wilder, my teenage wilderness survival daydreams, my endless college conversations about utopias and collective farms. That’s why I like to live near Canada, which in my head is basically a big wilderness. That’s why I am an entrepreneur.

She comes back to that idea towards the end of the book, when she is visiting with Diego Rivera. (That’s the other thing — she got to hobnob with about a zillion notables, from Trotsky and Stalin to names we think of as corporations, like Morgan.)  He saw the wrongs of capitalism and the beauty of the future world of workers as I had seen it Seattle but he did not see a path. He admired peasants who withdrew into smaller and smaller lands yet maintained through art their independence of soul. Was that anything more than the old retreat if the independents before the triumphant march of the octopus? Was not his art a solace like that of religion, expressing dreams for which he saw no road of realization? 

Reading that leaves me with the uncomfortable feeling of looking at hard truths. It feels so much easier to see the far away mountains than to know how to get to them, both as a society and in my own life.

No answers here, not tonight, but let’s keep mulling. And walking. Being both passionately engaged and articulately analytical. And learning from kick-ass people of history.

Weather Report

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Don’t tell the Californians, but it has been sunny in Seattle. We have had a week — more! — of pure sun, broken only by atmospheric fog. Vitamin D is in the very air. This is the week in January that keeps the whole Northwest from going postal.

Not only has it been sunny, it’s been cold. We’ve had frost. We’ve had ice. And, in the words of an infinitely quotable five year old, “if it rains it will snow.” Give that one to the Zen masters.

Squinchy knows how to enjoy the world. He rolls on the frozen puddle in the vacant lot like it is a ripe dead salmon. He sleeps by every fire.

If you are needing any help making the most of winter, curl up somewhere cozy and listen to me read you a story. It will only take a minute and fourteen seconds. If that’s not enough, click on some of the other ones. I can promise you British accents. But don’t do this during the daylight. Get out into the sunlight, if you have it. We want you to stay sane.