Out of Site, Out of Mind

Listen closely. Birds are twittering in the bushes. Teenagers are tweeting in the classrooms. The sounds of spring are everywhere. But that gnashing and grinding that you may hear off in the distance is the result of the inevitable winding up of the overworked engines of protest here in Seattle.

The causes vary. There’s the ever popular tunnel vs viaduct debate, which rages on in spite of numerous studies and referendums. There’s the hotly contested issue of naked baristas in the tiny drive-thru espresso huts. There’s endless serious concern over the health of the salmon, the clams, and the waters of the Puget Sound.

Sidewalk solo
Sidewalk solo

One recent debate seems to have been put to rest, at least temporarily. The life-size statue of Jimi Hendrix which has graced the sidewalk of Broadway Avenue in Capitol Hill for the last thirteen years is going to stay put, rather than be moved to the newly planned Jimi Hendrix Park across town. Personally, while I understand the reluctance of residents of Capitol Hill to lose the statue, I have to say that it seems somehow wrong for Jimi to be stuck out by the curb next to the recycling. I’d like to see the statue on a more elevated site, perhaps near an outdoor stage at the new park. But apparently the majority of residents don’t share that view. And that’s fine. Democracy in action, or inaction. Whatever.

The latest hot issue may generate more high profile debate, however. The proposal to create a new privately operated museum at the Seattle Center dedicated to the work of glass art genius Dale Chihuly has stirred up a pot of contention. And it’s going to be a tough call any way it goes down.

On the one hand are the people who worry that there are already too many high dollar tourist attractions at the Center at the expense of precious open space for Seattle residents. The proposed Chihuly building would take over a portion of what was once the very popular kiddie ride park, the Fun Forest. But on the other hand, the Chihuly project would generate much needed revenue for the Center as a whole, and, occupying an estimated one and a half acres, it would take only a fraction of the Center’s 74 acres.

Still, it would make one more place downtown off-limits to those without disposable income. And that’s hard to support. Not when there are so many other neighborhoods in Seattle with space to spare which could benefit from the presence of a stellar attraction. Is it really such a good idea to concentrate all of the city’s major tourist sites in one small quadrant? Or is that the idea? To contain the cruise ship influx?

I’m a fan of Chihuly’s work, of course. There are already more than a few places to see it around town, but it requires a scavenger hunt approach and a good pair of hiking shoes. To have a formal collection of it in one place makes sense. Should that place be the Seattle Center?

Debaters, start your engines.

Mythic Mountain

We’ve all seen it. On the news, in movies and cartoons. It’s a man-made icon of one of America’s most compelling products. Its image evokes a land of golden opportunities, bright stars and happy endings. And it’s threatened by development.

The Hollywood Sign has loomed in tilted splendor above sprawling Los Angeles since 1923. In the beginning, no one expected it to become a national landmark, much less a treasured symbol of an industry that markets dreams to the world. In a way, the Hollywood sign represents the imaginary romance of LA, in the same way that the Eiffel Tower represents the imaginary romance of Paris. At the time of its construction in 1889, many Parisians considered the Eiffel Tower an eyesore and a waste of money. Yet in time the city embraced the tower, and it became symbolic of all things French. In Hollywood, surely no one expected the 45-foot-high crude letters on a mountainside to become legendary, yet so they have.

In the eighty-seven years since it was first built as a temporary advertisement for “Hollywoodland” the sign has been restored a few times, most recently in 1978 when the original letters were replaced with steel thanks to the philanthropy of major Hollywood supporters including Roy Rogers and Alice Cooper. The sign itself is now owned and maintained by the Los Angeles Department of Parks and Recreation. But the 138 acres of open space behind the sign which provide its dramatic backdrop are now threatened by development. Supporters are trying to raise 12.5 million before April 14 to protect the mountain on which the Hollywood Sign stands for all time.

It could be argued in a world like ours, where tragedy and chaos devastate lives with depressing regularity, that to put money and effort into saving a mere symbol of the creative imagination is frivolous, if not reprehensible. But I would argue that the human ability to imagine a better life, to hope for an end to suffering, to dream of a better future, is what enables us to continue fighting to mend our world. And Hollywood, for all its flaws, feeds the flames of hope all over the world.

You can say I’m a dreamer. But I’m not the only one.

Glory Daze

It’s been a week since the Olympics in Vancouver ended, but I still can’t get that anthem out of my head. It seemed like every time you turned around somebody on a podium was getting misty-eyed as they lustily sang along to “Oh Canada.”

Why don’t we have a song like that in our country?

I know, we have a national anthem. But wouldn’t it be cool if it were the sort of song normal people – not necessarily trained in light opera or gospel powerhouse – could sing?

Controversy over national anthems is nothing new, of course. Even in Canada apparently they’ve had long-running debates over the translation of their anthem (the original was in French – mon dieu!; and they also have an Inuktitut version). Here in the fractious United States there have always been champions of other anthem contenders such as “God Bless America” – the easiest to sing by far, “My Country T’is of Thee” – the first patriotic song many public school children learn, and my personal favorite, “America the Beautiful.” Over the years there have been nominations for a handful of other spirited songs – Woody Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land,” and Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the USA” among them. But in the land of the free-for-all and the home of the reckless, it’s pretty hard to get a consensus on anything, even something as seemingly innocuous as a song.

Yet the power of music to motivate and lift the spirit is undeniable, and for that reason the importance of a national anthem which the people of the nation can actually sing is not insignificant. During the Olympics we get a chance to hear the anthems of a variety of nations (or at least any of them who happened to be sharing the podium with an American, since our television coverage gives the impression that the only medals which count are those won by Americans – but that’s another rant).

I have to say that for the most part, the anthems of other nations don’t register with me. “La Marseillaise” is an exception, thanks in part to the unforgettable scene in “Casablanca” where Victor Laszlo leads the oppressed patrons of Rick’s Café Américain in a rousing rendition which drowns out the competing Nazi oppressors at another table. A minor victory, perhaps, but a telling one.

Which illustrates the problem with “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Suppose teams of singers were chosen at random from the spectators at a soccer game between the United States and France, and they had to compete in a simultaneous sing-off of national anthems. I think we all know what would happen. The US team would start off boldly, but the song wasn’t designed to be sung by average people. The melody swoops up, it swoops down, it almost never settles into a steady rhythm, and it ends with a killer high note. Thanks a lot, Francis Scott Key.

To its credit, TSSB is a stirring song. Like “La Marseillaise,” it’s a battle song, fit for football kick-offs and baseball diamonds. But, it ain’t hummable. Unlike that Canadian number. Man, there’s a catchy tune. Like a slow-moving train.

Here’s when it hit me. I was watching the men’s final of the curling event. Yeah, I know. I never thought it could happen to me, but you know how it is. You start by watching a few rounds, just for laughs, and then you realize that it’s a kind of prehistoric version of billiards crossed with shuffleboard, and it casts its own hypnotic spell. Plus there’s the pleasure to be had from any mystery, i.e., what the hell’s going on? The Canadian men were fighting for their first gold against a skilled Norwegian team who had generated a lot of media buzz due to their pants. That’s right. I said pants. When all about you are wearing sober black and you show up in harlequin red and gold, it gets noticed.

Anyway, things were rolling along in the sedate, some might say catatonic, way of the sport. A general air of civility and quiet was evident in spite of the growing excitement among the Canadian fans that they might actually make history. And then it happened. Sometime around the ninth end (a technical curling term), from the Canadian fans a soft sound grew as the familiar strains of “Oh Canada” rose on a fervent swell of national pride. This was unprecedented! Singing in the seats at a curling event? The players waited, bemused expressions on their faces, even the Norwegians, who by then could read the cursive on the wall, until the song ended, and a polite cheer went up.

This could never happen at, say, an American hockey match. And it’s not because we don’t all know the words to TSSB. It’s because the song wasn’t written for ordinary mortals to sing, not even ordinary mortals who’ve had a few beers and are feeling fairly invincible.

But “Oh, Canada” has the kind of easy-going, middle-of-the-road range that any child can sing. And it’s not about bombs bursting and rockets glaring. It’s about brotherhood and love of country. That’s all I want in a national anthem. At least until we can all agree on Bruce Springsteen.

The Beauty in The Beast

The spirit of the wolf lives on in every dog.
The spirit of the wolf lives on in every dog.

Beasts: how we love them. Love to fear them. Love to hate them. Love to hunt them. Love to tell tales about them.

Since before the dawn of printed words, stories of wild animals whose actions blur the line between species have fascinated humans. To talk to the animals, to know what they think and feel, remains a subject of vivid interest. And of all animals, dogs have shown the greatest ability, and desire, to bond with humans, to serve, follow, and work for them. But . . . inside every dog, from the tiniest Chihuahua to the burliest mastiff, lurks genetic memory code of its ancestry — the wolf. Not exactly man’s best friend.

Wild inside.
Wild inside.

The romance of this idea has been exploited for centuries. And while modern teenagers may think, judging by some of the gushing postings on the web, that werewolves were reinvented solely by the author of the “Twilight” series, the truth is more complicated. The concept of the man/wolf, or the beast within us all, has been the subject and/or inspiration of many imaginative works, both literary and cinematic. When the “Twilight” generation were still wearing Pampers, Jack Nicholson astounded audiences in 1994 with his riveting portrayal in “Wolf.” One of the things that made Nicholson’s performance so impressive was that his convincing transformation from man to wolf was produced without the aid of digital enhancements or fake fur. It was all in the eyes, the attitude, the snarl.

Last week Benicio Del Toro joined the ranks of fine actors who have taken a walk on the wolf side in the new film, “The Wolfman.” It’s a grittier rendition than, say, Hugh Jackman’s pimped-out Wolverine character in the X-Men movies. But that’s part of what makes the genre entertaining. In literature and film, you really can teach a dog new tricks.

In Toby Barlow’s brilliant 2007 debut novel “Sharp Teeth” the myth of the lycanthrope is given a terrific noir spin. Set in modern LA, with a cast of characters that include a down on his luck dogcatcher, some female werewolves with sharp teeth of their own, and some competitive bridge players with more than cards up their sleeves, the story deals with issues of loyalty, justice, compassion and community without ever slipping into sentimentality. And, did I mention the entire thing is written in blank verse? I know. I wasn’t sure I was going to be able to hack it. But the clarity and occasional poetic power of the language, the nimble pace, and the fine-edged tone of the whole is such that you forget about the form and get swept away by the wonder of a good story well told.

Allen Ginsberg would have loved it.

The Good Reign

Tree worshipping Druids would feel right at home in the Hoh Rainforest of Olympics National Park.
Tree worshiping Druids would feel right at home in the Hoh Rainforest of Olympics National Park.

I talked to some relatives back East yesterday. They were chipping ice off the driveway, having icicle measuring contests (the unofficial winner: eight feet long), and trying to keep the kids from snowboarding off the roof.

I did my best not to gloat. I didn’t tell them about the camellias blooming at my doorstep. Or the primroses lighting up gardens all over town. Or the fact that Seattle just went in the record books for the warmest January in more than a hundred years.

I feel that Seattle has earned the respite. The first year we moved here the city was slogging through a stretch of record rain that made national news (forty days-plus without the ark). The next winter a series of windstorms, ice events and floods started me wondering if we’d been sold a bill of goods by the folks who had assured us Seattle’s winters were uniformly mild. The third winter a foot of snow paralyzed the city for more than a week. People were stranded at Sea-Tac for days at Christmas. And of course the city doesn’t keep a fleet of snowplows handy because, I guess, they bought into the same myth of the mild winter.

So this year, I was braced for whatever – earthquake, mudslide, volcano eruption. But it seems this was the payoff year. Gentle temperatures. Daily sunbreaks. Sometimes whole sunny days! It’s been pretty great.

I feel for my friends back east. It’s never fun to be snowed in after the novelty wears off and the electricity and heat go off as well. I know from personal experience that shoveling driveways builds character. But once that character is built, it can be a bit of a trial to have to keep rebuilding it every time the clouds roll in and dump another foot or two of snow.

Here in Seattle the average annual rainfall is 37 inches. That’s less than Virginia’s average of 45 inches, or Florida’s average of 54 inches. What makes Seattle different is that instead of summer thundershowers which dump an inch or two at a time, Seattle gets a steady, drizzling mist over an eight month period from October to May. It takes some getting used to. But considering some of the alternatives, there’s a lot to be said for gentle rain.

In “The Good Rain,” Timothy Egan’s remarkable history of the Pacific Northwest, he credits the unusual climate of this region for shaping its history. In modern times we like to think we are immune to climate. Insulated by air conditioning, heating, and increasingly elaborate water management techniques, we act as if we no longer need to consider the realities of geography. And this recent spate of blizzards has all the climate change skeptics fired up anew, claiming a few days of record snowfall is sufficient to overturn decades of slow and careful scientific data gathered worldwide.

Our human perspective is so limited. Many centuries ago, ancient cultures thought weather gods could be appeased by sacrifices. In our own time, the force of hurricanes, snowstorms and typhoons appears to be escalating. Whether or not global warming is responsible for the planet’s wild mood swings, it looks like we could be in for a rough ride in the coming centuries.

But if I have to choose between a snow shovel and an umbrella, I’ll take the umbrella.

What the Frack?

I have succumbed to “Caprica.”

I didn’t even put up a fight. As a former fan of “Battlestar Galatica,” the smashing Sci-Fi Channel series which set pulses racing with its taiko drums and noir attitude, I didn’t stumble unwittingly upon “Caprica.” I saw the slick ads in The New Yorker. I allowed myself to hope that the show might measure up.

And, so far, it’s not bad. The writers have a lot of compelling themes to work with – the uneasy alliance between artificial intelligence and humanity, the contested zone between religion and science, the limits of love and friendship in a world gone mad. The show is stylish, layered, and occasionally has the foreshadowing of those addictive drums.

But last night for the first time I heard one of the characters use the word “frack” as a verb to suggest—well, what we all assumed it meant in BG—a word that can’t be uttered on major networks. And it sounded natural in the fictional context. However, my own understanding of the word has irrevocably changed since I came across a story on the news wires earlier this week. The story by Associated Press Writers Marc Levy and Vicki Smith dealt with a drilling technique that has been used since the 1990s to tap natural gas fields.

The technique is called hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking.” And all this time I had thought how clever the writers of Battlestar had been to get around the confinement of obscenity rules by inventing a brand new euphemism which had the virtues of being both explosive on the tongue and somehow suggestively smutty. Yet, it turns out, the drilling technique, which involves pumping millions of gallons of water, sand and chemicals into wells to fracture the shale where the gas is trapped, produces a salty, foul wastewater too loaded with chemicals to be restored by conventional sewage and drinking water treatment plants. Hmm. Maybe the term is more obscene than I thought.

Of course, we all want energy to run our TVs and video games, not to mention the robots who will be doing our dirty work in the glorious future. But if our energy experts don’t figure out a better way to manage the millions of gallons of polluted water that fracking leaves behind, at some point in the not too distant future we may find ourselves well and truly fracked.

Attuned to Hornby

Ever since he demonstrated an uncanny ability to portray the almost pathological obsessiveness of a certain type of male music fan in his novel “High Fidelity,” British author Nick Hornby has gone on to broaden the scope of his acute observation to include the frailties of marriage, the perilous borderland between childhood and young adulthood, and the bewildering moral minefield of the modern world.

In his latest novel, “Juliet, Naked,” Hornby weaves all of these themes into a compelling and immensely entertaining examination of a man’s obsessive interest in a reclusive rock musician, and how it unravels his life and marriage. Hornby’s portrait of Duncan calls to mind the almost painful excesses of devotion which the author revealed in “Fever Pitch,” his confessional memoir which detailed his lifelong love of football – the British version, what we in America call soccer. Hornby’s ability to empathize with characters who, for whatever reason, find their deepest connection to life through a kind of hero worship, allows him to make believable characters with whom the reader can sympathize.

“Juliet, Naked” exposes the kind of music fans who over-analyze every word and every recording of their idols, and the Internet-based communities who thrive on their own closed-circuit opinions. Hornby’s satisfying plot device takes off when Duncan’s long-time girlfriend Annie dares to post an opinion of her own on the website where he is considered to be the expert. The chain of events which follows sheds light on Duncan’s failure as an adult, and awakens Annie to the reality of the half-life she’s been willing to accept.

I have enjoyed all of Hornby’s novels. “About A Boy” – far superior to the film, and I liked the film a lot – “How to Be Good,” as thought-provoking as anything he’s done, and even “High Fidelity,” which is perhaps not as much fun as the movie with John Cusack (thanks in part to one of Jack Black’s finest moments), but nevertheless offers an astute assessment of the sort of man who ranks everything from songs to women in terms of “the top five.”

Anyway. If you are of a certain age you can’t help but relate to the story in “Juliet, Naked.” Many of us who grew up worshiping rock stars, imagining them as true artists with the ability to give voice to feelings we shared, have felt the letdown when those artists either lost their creative spark or revealed themselves to be only human.

But Hornby’s novel suggests that the value of great art lies not only in the passion with which it is created, but the passion with which it is experienced. And in that sense, “Juliet, Naked” offers a tonic antidote to idolatry.

When Reality Fails

I keep thinking about the Tsunami of 2004.

More than two hundred thousand people, most of them women and children, were killed in a matter of moments on December 26 that year, when a 9.3 magnitude earthquake off the coast of Indonesia triggered a massive killer wave.

It was all over the news for perhaps a month. And then it slipped into the past, for most of the world. In Indonesia the effects of the tragedy and the recovery efforts are still going on.

Now in Haiti, where at least one hundred thousand people have been killed by a powerful 7.0 earthquake, the vivid images of death and destruction are overwhelming. The urge to offer help is universal. Unlike the tsunami victims, most of whom were swept away, the dead lie in the streets of Haiti, where lack of infrastructure and resources is slowing even the most heroic efforts to bring relief and aid. The images of the dead and suffering survivors in Haiti are perhaps more dramatic than the photos of empty beaches of Indonesia. But once the rubble is cleared and the bodies are buried, I suspect even this horrific event will slip down in the news cycle.

It’s too much to take. Everyone does what they can. But if that’s not enough, what then?

Events on such a huge scale can lead to a feeling of powerlessness. And unfortunately the urge to blame rides shotgun in the rescue effort. But there’s no sense in blaming the victims, or religion, or the lack of it, for natural disasters.

All we can do is what the people in Indonesia, and New Orleans, and everywhere tragedy redefines the human landscape, must do. Pick up the pieces, help each other as best we can, and go on.

It doesn’t sound very heroic. But in real life, as in fiction, sometimes the only way to survive is to turn the page.