It’s Not You; It’s Me

We'll always have Seattle.

Dear Seattle,

We have to talk.

No, no, don’t look at me like that. It’s nothing you did, or didn’t do. You’re perfect, just the way you are.
But…still, even you must agree that things have been a little strained of late. A bit chilly. Somewhat damp and dreary. Hell, who are we kidding? That’s just you being you!

It was draining (drizzle+rain) the day we moved into our rental house here. The workmen were still trying to finish cosmetic touch-ups to the small old bungalow with its cracked foundation and wall-to-wall cobwebs. But it had charm, of a sort, and we were new here. What did we know?

Well, six years later the house we’re leaving is sunny, bright and beautiful. The garden I’ve been working on in the backyard is blooming its heads off, and the weather…okay, it is raining today, but recently we’ve had several sunny days with the temps almost in the 60s. We’ve learned to take what we can get.

But…home, they say, is where the heart is. Yet the longer I live the more I find the heart is like a fractal coastline, fringed with inlets and coves of past pleasures and pains. Sometimes it’s smooth sailing; other times it takes all my concentration to avoid crashing into the rocks. My heart is overfull. The weight of the past clings like barnacles to the hull of my none too swift boat. And the only way I can figure to get myself going again is to start jettisoning some of the drek in the hold. Time to let go, let the sail out and head for the horizon.

The fact that this horizon is the very one I fled so willingly six years ago doesn’t signify. Time changes perspective. We don’t get to remake our choices. There is no rewind in this life. There is only forward, faster than it seems possible.

And so I’ve chosen to return to the scene of my youthful folly, to renew old friendships and reunite with family.

But…I will miss you, Seattle. I’ll miss your snow-capped craggy peaks, your glittering waterways, your quirky people. I’ll miss Fremont, and Ravenna, and being able to take great coffee for granted. I’ll miss the salmon and the blueberries and Grateful Bread. I’ll miss Robinswood and Amy Yee and all the wonderful tennis players I’ve met at those friendly public clubs. I’ll miss Pike Place Market, Third Place Books, totem poles, the gardens and the amazing trees. I’ll miss Green Lake, that oasis of serenity and goodwill, where dogs rule and everything’s cool.

And I’ll miss the Mariners, even though with the exception of Ichiro  and Felix the lineup has completely altered since I first started cheering for them. This year the new faces on the team are young and eager, hitting hard, fielding crisply, renewing hopes.

Back on the East Coast I’ll be rooting for the Nationals, another team which has languished at the bottom of the pack for some time. But now they’ve got Bryce Harper, a 19-year-old phenom whose starpower might just be the real thing.

But of course it’s not about baseball. It’s about time. Time I was going.

So this is it for me, Seattle. I’ll never forget you.

So long and thanks for all the fish.

Hawthorn Morn

Mauve Madness

’Tis the season to be mauve at Seattle’s Green Lake.

Tree nuts flock  to Green Lake all year round to marvel at the towering Sequoias, noble Elms and whispering Cottonwoods. In spring the cherry trees gnarled with age billow with blooms of palest pink and white. In autumn golden Plane trees shower the paths with luminous leaves.

Books and poems laud the arboreal splendor of the plantings, which are fastidiously maintained by the city’s parks department.  Cherished by locals and visitors alike, many of the trees were planted to honor significant events or citizens, although not all were planted out of love. For instance,  the city’s publication “Outstanding Trees of Green Lake” notes: “The six Cedars of Lebanon by the tennis courts are the largest in Seattle and have a fascinating history. They were planted in 1934 to placate an irate lawyer.”

Yet while the mighty Redwoods and and soothing Cedars get top billing on the star tree program, even the lesser trees have their moments.

Pinked to perfection.

Right now, it’s showtime for the Red Hawthorns. Normally, they don’t excite much interest, being either too small to catch the eye, or too shapeless to ignite passion. And they’re not even red, really. More a kind of pinky mauve.

Pretty in Pink

But in their own quiet way the masses of tiny mauve blooms sweeten the mix.

Yes, she said, yes, only pinker.

The artist James Whistler once said “Mauve is just pink trying to be purple.”

Maybe so, but I give it points for trying.

A walk on the pink side.

Where Am I?

It’s not as easy as it once was to get lost in this world.

In these technology infested times, the proliferation of gadgets that can tell you where you’re going, how to get there, and what it will cost you has taken some of the zest out of travel. Still, most of us would gladly trade the thrill of the unexpected for the assurance that we’ll get where we want to go without undue bother. And after hearing about the recent mid-air mental snaps of some airline staff, I find myself warming to the idea of a quiet book by the fire.

But, like it or not, sooner or later all of us have to get out of the chair and go places, even if it’s only to the dentist. This is why maps will never go out of style.

I love a good map. I can spend hours perusing Rand McNally, marveling at the curious names of tiny hamlets, the abundance of rivers and streams and mountains between the Atlantic and the Pacific, the sheer expanse of our nation.

Yet part of the magic of maps lies in all that you can’t see in them. The personal, political and social history played out in states and cities, to say nothing of the immense physical changes which take place at a pace too slow for our human eyes to fully appreciate. You can get a sense of it at the Grand Canyon, but if we were able to view the rest of the world through that same staggering perspective we might have a better understanding of how long history is, and how short our share of it.

Of course, we’d rather not think about that. We are the center of the universe, after all. The crown of creation, etc. Uneasy lies the head.

But maps – those flat, two-dimensional renderings of the world as we see it – allow us to feel some measure of control. We know where we’re going. We’ve got a map.

Would that it were so easy. The comforting illusion of control that maps provide allows us to function in a world of restless dark matter.

Much as I love maps, I never fully trust them. Everything changes. Roads close, new roads get built, shorelines change, lakes and rivers dry up. The physical landscape has a life of its own, and while our attempts to keep track of it have  improved dramatically since the age of satellites and computers, there’s still a gap.

Perhaps that’s one reason why the maps I enjoy most are of imaginary places. As I child I delighted in the map of The Hundred Acre Wood drawn by E.H. Shepard for the Winnie-the-Pooh books. Since then I’ve always had a fondness for a good imaginary map. I love it when a writer takes the time to fully imagine a world, complete with place names that ring true. Most recently the maps in George R.R. Martin’s brilliant A Song of Fire and Ice have been especially satisfying, and very helpful to a reader embarking on the journey through the epic five-volume (and counting) fantasy.

Of course, in order to create a map of an imaginary place, it helps to have a vivid imagination. To believe in such a map can serve as a coping strategy: “when reality fails and negativity don’t pull you through” (thanks be to Bob) you can always retreat to someplace imaginary until the next election.

Camped out on the far northwest edge of the nation, Seattle sits on a faultline between the real and the imaginary worlds. It’s easy to cross that line here. That’s one reason I included a map of Seattle in my recent fantasy novel, The Goddess of Green Lake. A map of Seattle is a map of an imaginary place. Here people carve out curious niche lives that couldn’t find a toe hold in Kansas, or in New York City, for that matter.

But here, where the moss grows faster than the national debt, crazy  ideas can relax and put down roots. There’s a fair amount of live and let loon attitude. As Mal Reynolds, the noble renegade captain in Joss Whedon’s space-western Serenity once put it: “We’re all out here on the edge. Don’t push me and I won’t pull you.”

While the political stew bubbles and spills with daily infusions of invective and innuendo, it’s helpful to step back, squint your eyes, and try to see the bigger picture. All of this has happened before. Apocalypses come and go. Sooner or later we all dance with the stars.

Between The Woods and the Frozen Lake

"The woods are lovely, dark and deep." Robert Frost

Sometimes I can see the appeal of hibernation.

Forget slush. Forget black-iced roads. Forget the crack and thud of falling trees festooned in tendrils of live power lines.

Just curl up somewhere warm and dry and wait it out. Dream of spring.

Or, if you live in Seattle, dream of July, when the warmth of spring may arrive for a few days.

Do I sound bitter? I have no cause. Many in our wet and chilly region lost power for five days or more during our recent snowstorm. And the rains which followed the snow launched mudslides all over the area. All those dramatic hillside lake views come with risks.

So, all in all, I am grateful to be on the return slope of winter’s worst peak. The days are getting a few minutes longer with every sunrise. The robins have already returned. The perfume of the sweetbox blooming outside the kitchen door floats in the damp air.

We’re still a long way from turtle weather, but I see them in my dreams.

Hope, denial, call it what you will, we are a nation of dreamers.

Peak Pocket Park

A ribbon of poetry lures strollers into the park.

It sneaks up on you and steals your heart.

One minute you’re walking around the corner of a typical neighborhood block, small houses crouched in the shadows of burly new condo developments, and then, a sliver of silver on the sidewalk catches your eye. You turn and see a crescent moon gleaming in the concrete. And beyond, tall evergreens frame of view that goes on for miles.

Moon Walk

This is Fremont Peak, one of Seattle’s treasured pocket parks. Though it’s only been open since 2007, it already has the grace of ages thanks to the vision of the designers who gently inserted new art into the half-acre site perched high above Ballard. It’s a good spot to watch sunsets over the Olympics. In one direction you can see the ships passing through the locks, while to south the skyline of downtown Seattle rises beyond the ridge of Queen Anne.

Ballard and Beyond

The limitations of a pocket park – its diminutive size, its lack of recreational facilities – are outweighed by its intimate scale, the thoughtful details which give the space the character and charm of a beloved retreat.

Some parks speak to us in bold fonts, with grandeur and the broad strokes befitting public settings. In contrast, a pocket park whispers, its message, one of stolen moments, secret pleasures, as if to say: This time, it’s personal.

Make Way for Planets

A Girl With Waves in Her Hair

Berkeley artist Deborah Harris created the cover image for my new book.

You can’t stay dry for long in Seattle.

Even if you somehow manage to avoid the persistent drizzle of fall, winter and spring, and step out into the flawless sunshine of late July, thinking you’ve got a clear shot, you will fall under the spell of the sparkling lakes and rivers, the magnificent Puget Sound, and the vast Pacific beyond the Olympic Mountains. There’s no escape. Even if you never get in a boat or paddle a board, you’ll find yourself entranced by the magical water that nurtures Seattle.

It’s a wet world full of wonders, and it’s home to the heroine of my new book, The Goddess of Green Lake.

The goddess of the title isn’t an actual deity of mythic lore. She has no special powers that she knows of, beyond the ability to mesmerize every male who catches sight of her. But Callie Linden, a 20-year-old marine biology student at the University of Washington, has little interest in boys. Her passion is the sea, protecting it from the worst excesses of modern culture – pollution, over-fishing, and rising sea temperatures caused by global warming. Callie is determined to be a part of the solution.

But, as so often happens in real life, things happen that take you off course, and before you know it you’re careening past boulders in the churning rapids, holding on for dear life. For Callie, the first small step off her carefully charted course begins with the discovery of an orphaned baby sea otter.

When I moved to Seattle six years ago one of the first places I visited was the Seattle Aquarium, a treasure chest of delights. But the most unexpected delight of them all for me was the discovery of the sea otters. I fell in love. And right then the idea for a book began in my head, though it was a few years before I had all the pieces put together. The aquarium in my book is fictional, but I’m indebted to the Seattle Aquarium for introducing me to the magical charms of sea otters.

The baby sea otter in my story captivates another character as well. Eel MacGregor, a struggling musician who first appeared in Alice and The Green Man, has moved to Seattle, for all the usual reasons young musicians do. But he’s not finding it so easy to stand out in the glutted local music scene.

Well, you can probably guess where this is going. But it might surprise you.

When you mix otters, music and magic with a little bit of Seattle mist, anything can happen. You can read all about it in The Goddess of Green Lake.

Sword Play

The face that launched a thousand pirate quips.

Seattle loves pirates. Don’t we all?

Not, of course, the real, bloodthirsty, unwashed, yellow-toothed criminals who robbed and raped their way around the high seas back in the day. No, the pirates we love are the cute and cuddly comedians whose sense of fashion is matched only by their quick way with a quip.

It wasn’t always thus. Those of us who grew up watching the great Robert Newton as Long John Silver, with his squinty eye and peg leg, snarling at young Jim Hawkins in the 1950 Disney version of Treasure Island, had an entirely different impression of pirates. Charm didn’t enter into it.

But all that changed in 2003 when Johnny Depp minced across the deck of the Black Pearl in the first Pirates of the Caribbean film. Pirates have been in vogue ever since.

Seattle was way ahead of this trend. The city’s love affair with pirates dates from 1949, when the first Seafair Pirates, an all-volunteer group of hearty swabs, splashed ashore during the city’s annual summer celebration of all things seaworthy. The Seafair Pirates have been around here long enough to have become a beloved institution. You have to apply to become one, and they don’t take just anyone, though one assumes that if Johnny Depp wanted to prance in, no questions would be asked. After all, Captain Jack Sparrow  won the heart of many a discerning film critic. It’s hard not to love a guy who can make fun of himself while wearing eyeliner and wielding a cutlass. And don’t forget those boots. As if.

In Seattle pirate chic never goes out of style, but there’s no doubt that one of the highlights of the piratical calendar is today, September 19th, better known as Talk Like A Pirate Day. This fabulous idea began spreading like a YouTube hit before YouTube existed, thanks in part to a hilarious Dave Barry column which ran in the Miami Herald in 2002 and kicked off the concept, a brainchild of two very funny guys, Mark Summers, aka Cap’n Slappy, and John Baur, aka Ol’ Chumbucket.

Cap’n Slappy and Ol’ Chumbucket have since penned several books designed to help pirate wannabes set sail with style. Their first how-to book, Pirattitude, with an introduction by Dave Barry, is a must-have for those wishing to make a pirate statement. A more recent release, The Pirate Life: Unleashing Your Inner Buccaneer, could change your life. Or at least keep the neighbors guessing where you’ve buried the treasure.

A Sunday Afternoon at Lac Vert

Summer lingers at Green Lake.
Summer arrives late at Green Lake.

If Georges Seurat had lived in Seattle, he would have been drawn to Green Lake, compelled to paint its shifting scenes of people, water, shadowed lawns and fluttering tree canopy.

Of course, in 1884, at the time Seurat was painting his masterpiece, “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte” in Paris, Green Lake hadn’t really come into its own as a playground for Seattle urbanites. For those wishing to visit the park at that time, a trolley extending from the city provided an easy option. These days the trolley is gone, but nothing stops the crowds from flowing into the inviting lakeside spaces, especially when the sun shines.

This past September week summer finally visited Seattle. Nine days in a row of temperatures in the 80s. We dug out our fan and plugged it in.

Good times.

But if Seurat were to visit Green Lake now I suspect he might be a bit taken aback by the changes in fashion and social conventions since his time. Hardly anyone uses parasols anymore. Skateboarders and inline skaters whiz past the strollers on the path around the lake. And Georges might be dumbfounded by the constant stream of joggers sprinting by. The mood is tranquil, but hardly sedate.

Yet sometimes, when the light is right, if you squint your eyes and stare at the lakeside scene, you can still get a glimpse of what Seurat saw.

Wired Wit

Shadows enrich the subtext of Little's wire art.

What a week.

The apocalypse dreamers must be riding higher than the floodwaters left by Hurricane Irene. It’s not often that a week begins with an unprecedented 5.9 earthquake in our nation’s capitol and finishes up with a hurricane bigger than Texas slamming into the Big Apple.
From the chatter of the talk shows, a conspiracy of sci-fi proportions might be presumed to be at work.

And yet. Somehow, as the floodwaters recede, the aftershocks diminish and the Dow-Jones resumes its customary pogo bouncing of alternate anticipation and dread, life, as we know it, goes on. The famine in Africa worsens. The violence fueled by differences of political and religious views lurches on with the tireless zest of a zombie horde. Racial prejudice continues. The drug wars rage on.

In light of all this, the passing blows of a hurricane and a small earthquake hardly register.

We experience life as individuals. When something cataclysmic happens to you, it’s hard to step outside the frame and look at the big picture.
One of the functions of art is to help us do just that – to broaden our limited perspectives and get a glimpse of other points of view.

Some artists write novels to address these ideas. But reading, for many, is too time consuming, too much like work. Music has long been a wedge to crack open the doors of perception. But listening requires an open mind. Visual art has an advantage of immediacy. And sometimes, the longer you look, the more you can see in a work of art.

Seattle artist Spenser Little creates provocative works from twisted wire that explore fundamental issues of human existence. In spare imagery that brings to mind the great line drawings of Saul Steinberg or Toulouse-Lautrec, Little creates extraordinary images of men, women and words. Many of his works include pithy quotations from the likes of Oscar Wilde or Ambrose Bierce. An original inventive spirit animates all of his works, from the smallest dog sculpture to the stunning near-life-size portraits.

You can see his works most Sundays at the Fremont outdoor fair. Weather permitting.

A Lock on Summer

Boats, trains, strolling gardens, salmon and seals, the Locks has it all.

For two days in a row last weekend the temperatures here in Seattle rose above 80. There was much rejoicing in the land.

While we were keenly aware of the suffering of our fellow Americans in the midst of their blistering heat wave, still, for those of us who have yet to put away our sweaters even though it’s almost August, the chance to bask was blissful.

Knowing it can’t last is part of what makes any pleasure sweeter, of course. So when Saturday dawned fair and mild we headed over to the Hiram Chittendon Locks in Ballard to spend a few sunny hours watching the boats come and go.

A commercial fishing boat passes through the Locks.

The Locks provide the sort of real-world diversion that never stales. Tourists rub elbows with locals who come to watch the continual floating parade: fishing boats,  jumbo yachts, sleek wooden sailboats, kayaks and humble dinghies all line up to pass through the locks which control the intersection of the salty Shilshole Bay and the freshwater of the ship canal.

The operation is a marvel of heavy gates, swinging walkways, pumps and bells which runs remarkably smoothly considering the hundreds of boats which go through it each day. But it does take a little bit of time. And as we watch the water level rise and fall inside the locks we always find ourselves musing on the Hollywood miracle in Sleepless in Seattle.

Wave sculptures enliven the scene.

There’s a point in the film when Meg Ryan’s character, Annie, is in Seattle, trying to work up the nerve to introduce herself to Tom Hanks’s character, Sam, and she supposedly follows him, in her car, when he and his son leave their houseboat on Lake Union in a small motorboat and go to Alki. Presumably Meg was able to intuit where Tom was headed. There’s no way she could have followed him out of Ballard and around Magnolia to get to Alki by car. Luckily, Hollywood doesn’t have to concern itself with the logistics of mere mortals.

Anyway. Quibbling about the inconsistencies in Sleepless in Seattle is just another way to pass the time on the sunny green hills which overlook the Locks. Reality is not the issue here. We come to get away from it all at The Locks. At least while summer lasts.

The castle at the Locks has a magic of its own.