Deep Rooted Soul

Tucked away in the Japanese Garden, a Moon Bridge symbolizes the difficulty of living a good life.
Tucked away in the Japanese Garden, a Moon Bridge symbolizes the difficulty of living a good life.

If you fly into Seattle and head north on I-5 to the city, you will not see The Kubota Garden on the way. Even if you notice the modest sign for the turnoff, you may be in too much of a hurry to reach other destinations to visit this gem hidden in plain sight.

When I lived in Seattle I always assumed I would one day visit the garden, but somehow the time flew. I wasted my opportunities.

Last week I finally got there.

Serenity goes with the territory at The Kubota Gardens.
Serenity goes with the territory at The Kubota Gardens.

This extraordinary garden began as the work of one man, Fujitaro Kubota, who immigrated to America in 1907. He worked on the railroad before establishing his own gardening company in Seattle in 1923. In 1927 he began planting the garden on five acres of swampland in the Rainier Beach neighborhood. By 1930 the core of the Japanese Garden was complete.

Waterfalls enliven the mountainside trail.
Waterfalls enliven the mountainside trail.

However, as anyone who gardens knows, a garden is not a static creation. Its life and health and beauty depend upon the persistent care and vision of the gardener. The Kubota Garden suffered an unusual setback during World War II, when, like tens of thousands of American citizens of Japanese descent, the Kubota family was incarcerated at an internment camp in Idaho for four years.

When the Kubotas were allowed to return to Seattle, Mr. Kubota and his sons set to work to restore and expand the garden. The result of their labors is a stunning testimony to the power of gardening to foster peace and generate goodwill.

Hydrangeas light up the shady borders.
Hydrangeas light up the shady borders.

The calm voice of reason is too often lost in rabble-rousing and the vicious spin cycle of media rivals. It’s worth remembering that this great country of ours has been built in large part by the immigrants who arrived here from Europe, Africa, Asia, and Latin America. Most arrived with little but hope and ambition, and most endured resistance from the folks who got here “first.” Yet, with the exception of the original citizens of this nation, who were nearly wiped out by the early pioneers and now are compelled to fight for the most basic human rights, here in the United States of America we are all immigrants. We all wave the same little flags on the Fourth of July and during electoral seasons. But flags mean nothing if we forget what they stand for.

At The Kubota Garden, the meaning of good citizenship is embedded in rocks and roots. It flows freely in the waterfalls, stands tall in the evergreens. It tells us: work hard, grow strong, and remember where you came from.

Ask Me If I Care

Time is running out for the Nats.
Time is running out for the Nats.

It began so innocently.

I was working on a book in which softball figured prominently in the plot. As far as I knew, there weren’t many rules. I had no experience with the game, aside from a very brief attempt at playing on the girls team in high school, and the only games I’d watched as an adult had been casual field games in rural Virginia in the ’70s when rules were made to be bent.

Anyway, I thought it might lend some credibility to the book I was writing if I learned a thing or two about baseball. So I turned on the TV and found the Mariners game and started watching. I don’t remember anything about that particular game, but the next day there was another game on, so I watched that one too. And then the next day …

I hadn’t planned to become Mariners fan, of course. It takes a special kind of person to root for a team that loses a lot. A lot. But there wasn’t much else on TV, and I got into the habit. I became addicted to the soothing sound of Dave Niehaus’s voice. I didn’t know then that Niehaus, the announcer for the Mariners for 33 years, was already in the Hall of Fame. But I instantly appreciated the warmth and generosity of his on-air manner. From him I learned what a can of corn was, and also a grand salami. My oh my.

By the time I left Seattle it had happened to me. I had somehow become a baseball fan. The obsession might have ended when we returned to D.C. had it not been for my brother Bill, who took a job at the Nats’ ballpark in 2008. Talking about the game became just another thing we did.

In many ways the Nationals are a very different sort of team from the Mariners, but the most jarring distinction to me is the catchphrase “Natitude.” The Mariner’s current phrase is “True To The Blue.”

There’s nothing inherently wrong with “Natitude.” But the way it’s framed in the team’s marketing suggests a kind of pugnacious sense of entitlement. I appreciate the important of confidence in sports. You can’t play if you don’t think you have a chance. And belief is a powerful thing. But there’s a world of difference between quiet self-possession and noisy boasting.

This season has been particularly tough for the Nats, who started out at the top of many lists of likely playoff contenders. Now they’re eight games back from the surging Mets, and only the diehard crazies are still clinging to the hope of a mathematically possible miracle for a post season.

There was a time I wouldn’t have known or cared what any of this meant. I’m not even sure I care now. But I have learned a bit about baseball since that first Mariners’ game. I understand the infield fly rule and the ground rule double. And I know what will happen when the Nats get the bases loaded in the bottom of the eighth inning and they’re trailing the Marlins by four runs and there are two outs and Ian Desmond comes to the plate. I sit on my couch and mutter, “He’s going to strike out and I don’t care.” This is called defensive indifference.

I could care. But it’s only a game, right?

Swing Boat

I don’t usually look to the best seller list for reading material. But recently a Seattle friend sent us a copy of “The Boys In The Boat,” and it ran away with my heart.

This remarkable account of the true story of the University of Washington crew team who rowed their way into history as they pursued the gold medal in the 1936 Olympics in Berlin brims with drama and beauty. It’s got real life heroes and villains, thrilling adventure, heartbreak and romance, even a touch of humor. But what makes Daniel James Brown’s brilliant book so deeply compelling is his keen appreciation for the almost spiritual aspect of the sport itself, and the reverence it inspires in its followers.

Among the fine portraits in the book is that of George Pocock, the British boatman whose careful crafting of racing shells, combined with his astute observations on the fine points of rowing, gave the Washington team a priceless advantage.

Describing the mysterious alchemy of character and strength that produced the eight-man crew team that defied all the odds, Brown’s prose at times borders on poetry. He grounds his narrative in the particular experience of Joe Rantz, one of the eight boys, and Joe comes across as pure of heart and brave of spirit. But in order to become one with his crew mates, he has to learn to let go of his self and trust the team.

Perhaps the most evocative passages in the book deal with a thing called “swing.” When the eight boys are rowing as one, when their hearts and minds are “in the boat” and the pain slips out of sight, the crew is said to have found its swing. And when that happens, well, you just have to be there.

Set in the darkest years of the Depression, the story pits the under-financed Western team against the privileged teams of the East. But when the team had to compete against Hitler’s specially picked and specially favored team in the cold Berlin waters, they demonstrated all that is best about Americans on the world’s largest stage, at one of the pivotal moments in history.

In the current self-obsessed state of our nation, where self promotion and self fulfillment, not to mention the plague of “selfies,” are viewed as perfectly natural, Joe’s willingness to sacrifice and struggle for the good of his team is inspiring on every level.

For anyone feeling discouraged by the rude and random waves of our current world, I suggest dipping into “The Boys In The Boat”.

They didn’t walk on water. They rowed their way into the stars.

Now Hear This

Fine feathered feeders enjoy the low tide buffet.
Fine feathered feeders enjoy the low tide buffet.

When I lived in Seattle one of the things I missed most about the East Coast was the musical sound of songbirds.

Some diehard Seattle boosters may insist that Seattle has warblers of its own, and I’m willing to believe it. But in the six years I lived there I never heard one. The signature tune of that misty city is the quark and ratcheting caw of crows.

I’ve got nothing against crows. Although it’s a little spooky how smart they are. I read somewhere that crows can recognize human faces, and it doesn’t take much imagination to take that idea a step further and start to recognize the quirky personalities of the crows themselves.

But getting back to songbirds, the D.C. metropolitan area is serenaded by a variety of local songsters, such as mockingbirds and finches. Mourning doves wail in the shrubbery. Orioles pass through on tour. It’s a harmonious scene. If you grew up around here you could close your eyes and recognize the locale by the spring soundtrack.

On a recent trip to the Florida Gulf I noticed a few familiar bird calls. But Florida’s warmth and water attracts a whole different group of birds, not least of which are the ospreys and pelicans, hunters and clowns, neither of which could be mistaken for a songbird.

Fine feathers feast at low tide.
It’s a moveable feast at low tide.

Yet the birds that speak most eloquently to me when I’m in Florida do it silently. The herons, egrets and ibis, with their impossibly long necks, their graceful ballet moves, and their delicate manners, seem to embody a stillness that pairs well with silence.

I assume they must have vocal chords, though I’ve never heard a peep out of them. But that’s okay by me. Something in the way they move speaks volumes, without making a sound.

I could listen for hours.

Ripeness is All

Celebrities and Big Boys flourish in hot summer nights.

Okay, it’s mid-August. If you haven’t got any ripe tomatoes by now either you’re not trying or you live in Seattle.

I used to dream of ripe tomatoes when I lived there. Yet it was nigh on to impossible to coax the plants to fruition, not for lack of sunshine, which is abundant to the point of ridiculous in August. But the night temperatures drop so low that tomatoes sulk and seldom achieve the sort of shiny overflowing pulchritude that comes so easily in the Mid-Atlantic region.

This summer marks the first time in seven years that I’ve not only grown my own, but had enough to give away. However, I’ll say this for Seattle: they know how to make the most of the tomatoes they get.

In the past decade of so, with the spread of social networks and the ubiquity of the devices in which they fester, there’s been a rapid proliferation of events engineered to bring together carefree young people, and those grown-ups who refuse to abandon all silliness even after they land a real job. Flash mobs were one of the first successful examples of this sort of phenomenon. Large groups of people would gather, as if spontaneously, to sing and dance, “Glee”-style, in public places. As the popularity of this sort of thing grew, it was perhaps inevitable that professional organizers would come up with a profit angle.

But what does this have to do with tomatoes, you ask? Put on your goggles and swimsuit and I’ll tell you.

It appears that we live in the golden age of the Tomato Battle. Young folks these days, not content to make lemonade out of the lemons which life hands them, have found a way to make merry with leftover tomatoes. In cities all across America and abroad, savvy marketers have put together those two staples of outdoor summer fun, the beer garden and the tomato garden, to make an unholy mess. Coming soon to a city near you.

Actually, the most recent Tomato Battle in D.C. took place indoors, and, judging by the photos, was a kind of sedate affair compared to a full-fledged tomato battle royal. The Tomato Battle organizers understand that you can’t run a good battle without ammo. They anticipate going through 100,000 pounds of tomatoes in the upcoming Seattle Tomato Battle, scheduled for this coming Saturday, August 17th, at the Pyramid Alehouse. They also understand that the key to success in any tomato fight is timing. Thus the beer garden opens three hours before the first tomato flies.

The organizers have thought of everything. They assure participants, and all those who object on principle to the idea of playing with food, that all the tomatoes used in the battle were already damaged (aka “rotten”) and thus could not have been used to feed the hungry. This disclaimer fits with Seattle’s firmly held convictions about keeping priorities straight: save the environment, help the helpless, then party like there’s no tomorrow.

And, since Seattle is not known as a tomato town, there’s also a note in the fine print to acknowledge the contingency: “In the event of a tomato shortage we will hold a giant mud battle. The event will go on as planned but with mud instead of tomatoes.” Good to know.

A Stranger Here Myself

It was actually William Blake who said this, but it's the perspective that counts at the Top of the Town.

When we first moved to Seattle seven years ago, we were full of enthusiasm and ignorance.

We knew nothing about the neighborhoods, the hip restaurants, the must-see sights, but we had umbrellas and good hiking boots. We spent a lot of our free time simply walking around the city.

The experience changed us. Up until then my husband and I had never taken many walks except when we were on vacation, even though we had lived for many years in the countryside of Virginia, a place where scenic walks and pleasant vistas abound. But back then we were usually either too busy or too tired to walk around just for the sake of walking around. Our activities were agenda-driven.

In Seattle, when we began to walk for the pleasure of it (and the peripheral health benefits) we came to see the world differently.

There’s no better way to really get to know a place than on foot. In Seattle we discovered all kinds of hidden treasure beyond the obvious parks and art and fascinating architecture. We explored the hidden stairways of Fremont, the pocket gardens of Ballard, the old growth forest in Seward Park, the pea patch gardens all over the city.

When we returned to the East Coast we chose to continue living in an urban environment, in part because, even though I still love the rural scene, at this point in my life I want to be in walking distance of more than the nearest meadow.

So here we are, returned to a city that was so familiar to us once upon a time. In the thirty years we were elsewhere a lot has changed, but the essential nature of the D.C. area remains the same. It’s still a city dominated by the presence of the federal government and the international diplomats who live here. Real life is a little unreal here. But on the ground, walking around the neighborhoods, it doesn’t feel any different from other major cities.

The biggest difference between Seattle and D.C. from a pedestrian vantage point is the tree canopy. The Pacific Northwest is famous for its mighty evergreens. And they are amazing. But much of Seattle was cleared of trees in its early pioneer days, which weren’t that long ago. By comparison, the District of Columbia has been planting street trees for several centuries, and some of these babies are enormous. That’s one reason last year’s powerful derecho (a storm with sustained hurricane force winds) was so devastating. When a small tree topples, maybe it wrecks a car or two. When a giant falls, it takes down power poles, destroys buildings.

D.C. is a city of tree tunnels.

Anyway, once the wreckage was cleared up you wouldn’t have known anything had happened, because there are still soooo many trees in this city.

But there are a few places which rise above the canopy. The National Cathedral sits on one of the best known high spots in the city. Another, less well known, high point is near  Tenley Circle, an area once known as “The Top of the Town.” It’s changed a bit since we lived nearby many years ago. They’ve put in tennis courts where the outdoor stage used to be. The high school has taken over a lot of the open fields. And a covered reservoir sits high above the city, offering a panoramic view to the west.

It’s a popular spot for dog walkers, kids skipping out for a break after class, and people like me. I like the wide open sky. It reminds me of the country, but with a city feel—that sense of a lot of people sharing a particular space and time, working, playing, growing, and getting along as best they can together. It’s not always perfect, and it’s not always pretty, but it’s always alive, and ready for what’s next.

From here to infinity. And beyond. It starts with a walk around the block.

Let An Umbrella Be Your Smile

Speak softly and carry a cool umbrella.

Rain brings out the best in some people.

In others it dampens not only the mood, but the entire outlook on life. Their loss.

Perhaps it’s the plant person in me, or the plant that I am, but I’m a big fan of rain. Even the kind they have in Seattle, which doesn’t quite measure up to my definition of rain most of the time, except for the undeniable wetness of it.

People who only visit Seattle in the summer during the annual raincation, when the sun hardly bothers to set for about twelve weeks, sometimes come away with the mistaken notion that Seattle’s reputation for rain is a bum rap. Not true. It is, in fact, a very accurate rap, for nine months of the year.

However, the kind of rain they have is subtle. For one thing, it barely makes a sound. There’s never thunder, far less the kind of drilling, thrashing gouts of monsoonish excess that make strong umbrellas wilt and weak ones blow away into the overflowing gutters.

In Seattle, where the weather forecasters have a hundred ways to describe rain, the typical rain doesn’t so much fall as sort of mist from cloud to ground, wetting everything in its path. Newbies sometimes think this means they can walk about in it without an umbrella, perhaps mislead by the way many Seattle natives eschew umbrellas out of a sense of regional pride. The true mossback needs no umbrella.

In my current Washington the weather makes quick work of such ridiculous attitudes. It’s raining? Grab an umbrella. Grab two. You know you’re going to leave one on the metro sooner or later.

The thing is, for all Seattle’s vaunted reputation for rainyness, D.C. has it beat six ways to Sunday in terms of quantity, dramatic special effects, and steam-heat inducing abandon.

I love it. I love the thunder, the sudden darkening of the skies, the puddles, the hiss of tires on the streets, the mad dash for cover when the clouds open up on a whim. Mother Nature can be such a tease.

One of my most memorable D.C. rain experiences took place many years ago when I was a carefree hippie. I didn’t own an umbrella at the time, in much the same way that I didn’t own a vacuum cleaner or a television. I was a free spirit, riding my bike to work in the rain, sans helmet. I feel lucky to have survived my own lunacy.

But I digress. The day I became the proud owner of an umbrella I had gone downtown with my girlfriends for some reason which escapes me now. We had Chinese food at some point. And I know we went in the now-vanished button store, which actually sold buttons and nothing but buttons, back in the days before mega-chains took over whole blocks. Anyway, as we were leaving the button store, or it could have been the Chinese food place—memory is sketchy on this detail—the weather took a sudden turn to the King Learish and the rain, of which there had been no hint two minutes before, came down like a wet velvet curtain. We darted in the first store we saw, which, as fate would have it, was an umbrella store. No lie. This store sold umbrellas and nothing but.

Well, sensing that destiny was at work, we each selected an umbrella to match our personalities at the time. You can read as much into this process as you like. Just wait until you are faced with the task: describe yourself as an umbrella.

We laughed and joked and tried on umbrellas and eventually left the store slightly poorer but three umbrellas richer.

I still have my umbrella from that happy rainy day, though I really couldn’t tell you why I chose a polka-dot one. I think I was going through a phase. My friends both lost their umbrellas as years went by, but they are still my friends, which are better than any umbrella anyway.

Rain or shine, a smile may not be an umbrella, but if you find someone who laughs at the same things you do, you’ll never mind a few raindrops on your head.

Time Travels

We are all adrift, bound for unknown shores.

Of all the genres in all the fictional universe there’s only one that has never persuaded me to cast my doubts aside and surrender. Stories about time travel leave me cold.

So when I heard the buzz about the 2012 indie film “Safety Not Guaranteed” I remained skeptical, in spite of my admiration for its star, Aubrey Plaza, a girl with a million dollar scowl.

Plaza, whose deadpan sarcasm keeps the sitcom “Parks and Recreation” from succumbing to lethal sweetness, brings just the right blend of cynicism and vulnerability to “Safety Not Guaranteed.”  The plot begins with a lackluster Seattle reporter (Jake Johnson), who finagles a road trip with a couple of office interns, one of whom is Darius (Plaza), to investigate a curious classified ad seeking a willing participant in a time travel adventure “safety not guaranteed.”

I have to confess that one of the things that got under my skin about this film was the setting. It was shot in Ocean Shores, Washington, where the water is always too cold to swim, and the interface between reality and make-believe is a misty curtain easily shredded by the intrepid. The entire film has a kind of funky Seattle-esque vibe that reminded me of why I stayed there so long.

Through the actions of the three reporters, the film explores the uncertain terrain between belief and doubt. In other hands this kind of material could have devolved into slapstick or the kind of crude buddy routines that have become the substandard for directors aiming for blockbuster revenues, but director Colin Trevorrow keeps the film quick witted and light on its feet.

“Safety Not Guaranteed” is true to its title. This small budget film subverts expectations and draws you in. At least it drew me in. I still don’t give a damn about time travel—having drunk deeply from the Star Trek well, I know that no good can come from pulling at the loose threads of Time’s sweater. Yet no matter how we try to get on with our lives, we are all two-headed—always looking forward or looking back, and the tendency to wonder “what if?” is part of our DNA. It’s part of what makes us great, even while it has the potential destroy us.

As Kenneth, the seemingly crazy guy who placed the ad which sparks the story, Mark Duplass conveys that mesmerizing blend of genius and madness that is the hallmark of so many remarkable characters. Duplass has an off-beat style and edgy demeanor that come across as comic one minute and surprisingly affecting the next. The chemistry between him and Plaza is terrific.

Big Beach, the company which produced “Safety Not Guaranteed,” has been responsible for a number of exceptional independent films, including “Little Miss Sunshine” and “Sunshine Cleaning.” On the company’s website they describe their goal thusly: “Big Beach strives to create meaningful, life-affirming projects that inspire, engage and entertain.”

Mission accomplished.

I still have reservations about time travel, but I’m ready to book a ticket for the next film from Big Beach.

Shrink Wrap

Have houseboat, will travel.

So now that I’ve moved across country again, I’m sifting through stacks of boxes, most of them filled with paper – letters, photos, books, clippings and articles – and I’ve come to the realization that it’s out of control. I’d like to think I’m not a bona fide hoarder. But the argument could be made.

I trace the beginning of this to sometime after the birth of my first child, when, like so many first-time parents, I shot a lot of photos. A lot. And this was back in the days before digital cameras, so the piles of prints and negatives grew at an alarming rate.

Now that my kids have grown and moved out into the world, I’m left with these boxes of images of the little people they used to be. I also have their report cards, certificates, drawings, letters, etc. etc. I did winnow the piles before we moved. But not enough.

As another season of irrational consumption unfolds in our complacent nation, I find myself thinking perhaps this will be the year I try to be more creative and less acquisitive. I’m dreaming of a small Christmas.

In truth, we’ve been on a down-sizing arch for several years now, starting when we left the wide open spaces of rural Virginia and headed for urban Seattle, where tiny bungalows and cottages abound. The charm and practicality of making do with less is that it makes life simpler. With less to clean, less to maintain, less to heat and cool, there’s more time for the simple pleasures of life.

For me, that means gardening, and I’m downsizing there as well. There was a time when I thought I could manage ten acres of wild and wooly nature. Nature soon set me straight on that idea. Now my goals are more modest. A tiny backyard with a few flower beds, perhaps some beans and a contented cat, and I’ll be a happy camper.

The trend toward downsizing is catching on in these economically challenging times. A recent article in The Washington Post took note of the “tiny house” movement, which has been gaining popularity in the last ten or fifteen years. Most of these petite charmers come in under 200 square feet. I’ve seen bathrooms bigger than that in some of the more grotesque MacMansions blighting once-open spaces outside the Beltway.

Lovely old homes have their place in the architectural landscape. But the rash of blimped-out super-sized dwellings that have become standard in so many areas in the last twenty years has produced vast tracts of unwalkable “neighborhoods” where life without a car is unthinkable, and where there’s more empty space inside the houses than outside them.

In his landmark book 1973 book Small is Beautiful British economist E. F. Schumacher wrote:

“The modern economy is propelled by a frenzy of greed and indulges in an orgy of envy, and these are not accidental features but the very causes of its expansionist success. The question is whether such causes can be effective for long or whether they carry within themselves the seeds of destruction.”

Schumacher’s wisdom inspired many of the environmental projects that have helped to raise awareness of our dependence on Earth’s natural resources. Our willingness to make changes in our own lives remains a critical part of the mission.

No one ever said it would be easy. Just thinking about it makes me tired, I’ll admit. But at least now that I have a much smaller house to clean, I have a little more energy to put to better uses.

I don’t know if I’ll ever have the discipline to whittle my stuff down to the point where it can fit in 200 square feet. But at least I’m trying to lighten the load for the next move, wherever it may take me.

One of a Kind

Unforgettable Ichiro

Being a Mariners fan just got a little harder.

Ichiro Suzuki changed his uniform yesterday.

The longtime “face of the franchise” turned in his Seattle Mariners number 51, trading it for the Yankees’ number 31.

The deal went down so quickly that many teammates and most shocked fans never saw it coming. Since he first arrived as a rookie for the Mariners in 2001, the year they made a run at the American League championships and Ichiro earned both the MVP and the Rookie of the Year awards, the Japanese outfielder has established himself as someone unique in a sport where flashy, brash and outspoken characters tend to hog the spotlight.

Quiet, methodical, graceful and uncannily gifted, Ichiro won the hearts of fans in Seattle and Japan through his amazingly consistent play. For ten years running he had more than 200 hits a season, won the Golden Glove award, and was named to the All Star team.

Yet the Mariners haven’t been back to the playoffs since 2001. In fact, during the six years I lived in Seattle, we considered it a good year if the team came anywhere close to a winning season. For a couple of those years the Mariners and the Nationals both languished at the bottom of their respective leagues.

Now, suddenly, the Nats are contenders. The Mariners, not so much.

So it’s easy to imagine why Ichiro would welcome the chance to play for the most bodacious, ego-loaded, winning machine in baseball. The Yankees, win or lose, are more than just a team of ball players. They are a team of superstars.

And Ichiro deserves the chance to shine with them.

I’ll never forget the first time I saw him play, and witnessed his signature routine at the plate – the bat held out like a painter sighting along his brush, the tugging at his uniform, the adjusting of his elbow strap – and his remarkable ability to create quality hits on pitches outside the strike zone. You could close your eyes and feel the whole stadium like a giant heart beating as the crowd chanted his name: “I-chi-ro! I-chi-ro!”

Will they love him with the same passion in New York? Somehow, I doubt it. After all, the Yankees are stuffed with talent. They may be jaded to superstars. But I hope they appreciate what just happened.

Ichiro is a Yankee. I’ll be damned.