Tag Archives: Seattle

Thank you, Nadya Suleman

Although Susanne and I have put ourselves to the task of making a baby for about 15 months now, we actually have only had two occasions during which the human procreative process could take place. We are thus not especially worried about anybody’s fertility, though we do have increasing concerns about our healthcare system.

Our first doctor had us on a protocol that wasn’t going to get anybody pregnant in this decade. In her defense she told us she wasn’t a fertility expert. But that’s like saying, “sure, I’ll build you the Empire State Building, just know that I’m a portrait painter,” and saying it’s not their fault that 1,800 feet of oil paints stacked up doesn’t work as a building. If you don’t “do” that specialty, then get the hell out of the situation. We wasted months and a lot of money trying to do things this doctor’s way. And the whole time, she meant well. I’m sure of it. It just doesn’t matter how she felt about it, as far as fetus creation is concerned. Read More…

In a galaxy far, far away

There is nothing that fazes the Seattle barista. She is self-assured, extremely well trained, and fearless. Every possible additive, custom request, and black market good has probably been mixed into brewed coffee in this city. I bet I could even find a barista to take my order in Klingon. (Not that I know Klingon.)

There are as many kinds of coffee shops in Seattle as there are permutations of coffee drinks. The sit and work shop, with loads of sturdy tables and electrical outlets. The drive-through shacks that look ready to fall over. Fancy, plush shops with comfortable seating but few places to hook up a laptop. Evil shops that make patrons pay for the wifi. Well, we all know I don’t spend any time at those.

If coffee shops are the standard bearer for commercial space in Seattle, then there are a few set uniforms one wears within their confines. The options, it appears to me, at least in my first month here, include:

The Very Serious Not Happy Rather Intense Intellectual—Ninety percent of these folks are men, because women have difficulty becoming quite this pretentious. Black hooded sweatshirt, rumpled jeans that, if one were to venture close enough, would smell of the carpet from the wearer’s bedroom, and black sneakers. At the height of summer the footwear could be flip flops, but only because the sneakers couldn’t be found under yesterday’s jeans. Optionally this person may be wearing thick black glasses, retro styled. It is questionable whether his eyesight warrants correction, however. But be quiet around him, because he’s writing something very important, and he doesn’t want his craft interrupted.

The Hat-Wearer—Also mostly of the male persuasion. We’re not talking baseball caps, either, since those are so omnipresent as to be unremarkable in every way. We’re talking either the old man’s wool cap like the one here, or the plaid Fedora hat, like the kind popularized by Jason Mraz. They’re definite statement-makers. Nobody puts on either of these head toppers without giving a good stare at themselves in the mirror before leaving home. Should it be cocked a little to one side? Tilted back? Pulled down low? Hmm, so many options to consider for one item. They’re clearly just accessories, as neither does anything to say, keep one’s ears warm in the winter.

The tech geeks—They have walked so far from their office, maybe even three-quarters of a block. They shield themselves from the bright lamp in the sky the rest of us know as the sun. They keep their work badges clipped tightly to their clothing, lest some non-techie refuse them reentry into their natural environment. These are the folks from Yahoo! or Amazon or Microsoft who felt some need to get caffeine from some place other than the 14 Starbucks in their office building. Nevertheless, all they talk about out in the real world is work. Fortunately for the rest of us in the coffee house, they never stay long. Their badges may self-destruct if they’re too far away from their computers for long.

The Shoppers—Lest everyone think I’m sexist, I do admit that this species comes in male and female versions. Few coffee shops in Seattle are all that far from some other retail establishment, zoning being what it is. They’ll sit down with their bags from REI, or Anne Taylor Loft, Sur La Table, or Banana Republic, drink up some brew, and head back out for round 2. We should all thank them for keeping up their end of the economy-consuming bargain.

The Holders of the Blackberries—At first, they look like good friends. Old friends. People who are out in the world, enjoying each other’s company. But then, almost with no warning, the small electronic devices are drawn, like guns at high noon, and then there they are, cramping their thumb muscles, scanning for some tiny typed email that they’ll care about for the next 18 seconds, however long it takes to scroll through, whichever comes sooner. Unless whatever missive is of interest to both of them, they’ll fall silent, typing and scrolling, clicking and chewing on their lips, lost to all of us in their hyperspace environment. And just when one forgets about them, up they’ll pop, back in our shared universe, giggling and tittering, or guffawing about the stupid spam their friend just passed along to them. Oh, those LOLCats are funny!

Despite all of this, I cherish the coffee house as a place to write, because as the youngest of many, I need external stimulation to tune out just to get in my groove. There is nothing worse to me than being able to hear a pin drop. So it’s a wonder why I went with Sprint for my phone service, but that’s another story.

Several writer’s groups in town meet in coffee shops, presumably for their ample flat surfaces and their stimulant-laced beverages. I finally made it to one yesterday, having been flummoxed in my first attempt by evening commute traffic. It was great to meet other science fiction writers, even if there were only two of them, and even if they gave me, individually, conflicting advice. I’ve signed up for a few more meet ups, and overall, I’m sure I’ll have some strong comprehension about how to rewrite my novel in progress. And if I don’t get that, at least I’ll have met some fellow lit geeks along the way. As long as the blackberry people stay away.

Just to note, Everett Maroon owns a black hooded sweatshirt, black plastic glasses, an a Kangol hat. But not a Blackberry.
Note #2: Scott Perkins has decided to take some kind of offense to my blog post and make it all about him, but at least he had the courtesy to offer a defense of his hat-wearing, which, cleverly, is apparently for the protection of the people around him, and not his own laziness at styling the hair on his head. Well done, Scott!

Pen vs. sword

outside the Verizon Center in DCOver the years, the neighborhoods in DC in its northwest quadrant, though they were mostly stable, suffered from a little geography creep. Georgetown, annexed as a town when the District of Columbia was formed, is in the same place, to be sure, but its eastern boundary gets a little fuzzy as it mixes with Foggy Bottom, nearer to the GW University campus. Similarly Chinatown has shrunk a bit along its southern edge of H Street, flexing out more into 6th and 5th Streets, like one of those viscous-liquid-in-plastic-tubing toys that are sold in bins in cheap and touristy stores.

These tiny movements made some otherwise incongruous pairings possible, like the arrival of Fado, an Irish pub, right at the Chinatown arch. Fado was a fun place to go out of a slew of taverns I would never set foot into, because it had very comfortable seating, no smoking, Guinness on tap at the most perfect temperature possible on Earth, and Monday Night Pub Quiz. I will also note here that when Ireland and England met in the championship game of the rugby something-or-other, I was there at 5:30 in the morning to watch it with some coworkers, and  I have loved blood sausage ever since.

But Pub Quiz was the place we returned, despite any kind of weather, horrible conditions for parking, and throngs of suit-clad people just leaving the nearby court buildings. There was no limit to the size of one’s team: sometimes I saw 20 people crammed around a chipped, dark wood table, all staring at the picture round’s piece of paper, shouting to each other about what the answers should read. I am amazed at what 15 years and $25,000 in cosmetic surgery can do to change a person’s appearance after having their senior picture snapped.

There also were no restrictions on team names. And since it was DC, a lot of these names tried to incorporate/mock politics. I can recall the following, roughly seven years later: 14,000 Pages and No Character Development (a reference to the report President Bush delivered to the UN to justify invading Iraq), Faceless Bureaucrats (poor sots), It’s Cold as Balls Outside (from one February game), and The Flip-Floppers (I think we all know that reference). We played a full seven rounds of 10 questions each, and the whole enchilada took about 3 hours out of our lives, time during which we collectively drank something like 4 kegs worth of beer, for there were a lot of teams there. I refused to drink more than two pints on any given Monday because hey, I needed my wits about me. But they did come complete with little shamrocks carved into the froth, when the bartenders had enough time to add flourish, that is.

I’m sure Pub Quiz still continues at Fado but as I’m not there, well, I can’t be certain the game is as grand and well attended as it was in the early-to-mid-aughts. I hope it is. The best I ever did with any team I participated was second place, and we were ecstatic just for that, each receiving an official Pub Quiz™ bottle opener. Mine is still on my keychain.

Out here in Seattle they have a trivia game—to be sure, there must be more than one going—at a certain women’s bar in Capitol Hill, the DuPont Circle of Seattle. I’ve been to it in years past, never wanting to miss a chance at plucking useless facts out of the air if I can. But since we’ve moved at the beginning of this month, we’ve gone every week. The first week we came in fourth, the next week it was third, and we’ve moved up one place every time. Third place winners receive a stick figure drawing of their team, which is sweet and a nice touch by the trivia master, who clearly enjoys running this game.

It’s a more straightforward game than the one at Fado, consisting of four rounds with one picture round. And while Fado gave a points update after every round, this game just does a tally at the end. It also doesn’t take the watching-paint-dry-in-the-rainforest time that the Fado game takes, so there’s a plus.

We won the stick figure drawing two weeks into our playing, and were excited to see what we’d get back when we returned the next week. But there was something off about it, and the trivia master seemed apologetic, despite not telling us the story of what had happened.

Well, there we all are, Susanne lecturing, which I’m sure is an accurate representation of how she teaches, our friend Jody looking for civil rights, our Jewish friend being very…Jewish, and me, typing away with, wait a minute! I have no face! I have a hole for a head! What’s up with that?

I inquired, quietly, about the void in the parchment. The trivia master offered apologies, she didn’t have enough time to redraw the picture. That didn’t answer my question, but I ascertained that I wasn’t going to get any closure here. I took the picture, feeling somewhat awkward but not sure why, and showed the rest of the gang. They loved their depictions, and we chuckled, but I think we all, to a greater or lesser degree, wondered what was up with The Hole. It wasn’t just a hole at some random point on the page; it was centered precisely over my face. It was subtle, but not. We forgot about the drawing and settled into that week’s game.

I’d planned, since before we’d gotten our rendering, to get it laminated so we could bring it with us on successive weeks for good luck, and now I figured I couldn’t back away from that just because I wasn’t really in the picture. Don’t make it about yourself, I told myself. But I’d determined that I would get rid of The Hole by setting in a new picture and taping it to the back, so it would show through. I couldn’t just laminate over the The Hole and leave it there for time immemorial.

It just so happened I had to send a fax out, so I took the drawing and The Hole with me, and explained my little project to the clerk at the office supply store.

“Why don’t you have a head,” she asked, mulling over the paper.

“I don’t actually know,” I said. “I don’t like it, though.”

“Yeah, that’s not good,” she said. She brought over white paper and some tape and clipped out a small piece to go on the back.

What I drew made me look a little monkeyish, or at least a bit like George W. Bush, but no matter, it was better than The Hole. My new friend taped it to the back and said the laminating and faxing would take just a few minutes. I walked around the store and looked for the new Sharpie Liquid Pencil, but to my disappointment, I didn’t find it. I will of course communicate to everyone I know when I find it, because it is, apparently, like magic in plastic.

I picked up the laminated art and lo and behold, there I was, smiling at my little typewriter, type type typing away.

“I bet this is your weirdest request of the day,” I said.

“Oh, no, it really isn’t,” she told me. That her eyes opened wide when she said this made we wonder just how far out the normal distribution curve of weird her requests were. Perhaps I don’t want to know.

Last night I made my way back to trivia and brought the laminate with me, The Hole neatly patched. I showed the trivia master, who was thrilled to see someone had preserved her handiwork. I also showed her I’d drawn in a new face for myself, and she told me she’d have done the same, clapping a hand on my shoulder for good measure. Nothing says genuine sincerity like a hand-to-shoulder clap. My teammates were impressed as well, and we giggled about our characterizations.

Then the waitress stopped by our table to take our drink orders. She asked for our IDs.

“Do we really have to show our IDs every week,” I asked, knowing she knew who we were.

“I have to check that they’re not expired,” she said, and then told me that she was going to name me Grumpasaurus Rex, because I was always grumpy.

I certainly didn’t feel grumpy. I just thought that pulling out my ID every week was a little silly, and I happen to have the worst picture on my license known to anyone west of the Mississippi River, so I am not fond of the regular reminders that it exists. But grumpy wasn’t on my list of emotions for that moment. Just a very light irritation, like 1 or 2 on a scale of 10. Hell, 1 or 2 is what DC residents feel just upon waking. It’s not a big deal.

“That’s why I stabbed out your face in the picture,” she went on to tell me, “because you were so snippy the week before.”

Oh my God. The waitress had stabbed out my face? This is why The Hole came into existence? The waitress I take care to be nice to? Thought I was snippy? Snippy doesn’t tip well, I thought. Not the way I tip. And I currently make $14.25 an hour. What on earth?

“I was snippy,” I asked her, trying to understand. Grasping, really, at figuring out what had transpired.

“I wasn’t the only one who noticed,” she said, carrying on this conversation as if it made any sense.

“What did I say? I don’t remember being snippy.” Irritation levels had progressed, rather quickly, to 4.4.

Apparently I’d made some offhand joke about who was serving us our drinks the first week we’d come in, because it was some other server who’d brought them to us. I think it was something along the lines of, “Oh, she’s too good to serve us?”

I see now, living in the anti-confrontational Seattle, how residents might not understand that brand of humor. I would expect just a punch on the shoulder and a command to shut up, and that would be that.

Instead she stabbed out my face on a piece of paper. That just strikes me as worse, somehow, especially as this is supposed to be a professional relationship we’re having. And then it struck me [sic] that there was a two-week time lapse between my supposed offense and the act of bringing The Hole into all of this. And somewhere in between, a conversation had taken place about me and said snippiness, and it was decided by at least one person that stabbing at a piece of paper was an appropriate way to handle whatever discomfort I’d generated in this place of repute. Irritation levels at 6.7. Approaching DC Beltway status.

Then the waitress wanted to “hug it out,” and she brought me a drink on the house, pushing me over my two-drink limit, but I didn’t say anything, lest I look ungrateful. I had, at least, learned the Seattle Solution to conflict. Hugs and pear cider. Through the course of the night, she hugged me no fewer than three times. Perhaps this was some hazing ritual I’d never heard of before.

This was a lot to take in and still get mentally set for the trivia game. I sat back for most of it, contributing but feeling entirely too self-conscious, suddenly not confident that I had any adeptness at interacting with other humans. We tied for first place and then lost the tie-breaker. We came as close as possible to winning without taking the title. It felt like we’d missed an overtime kick.

I brought the Laminated Sheet that Could home with me and put it back on the fridge, where it had lived the last week. My smiling, renovated face looked at me, frozen and translucent.

I don’t care if I look like a monkey.

Seesawing through Seattle eateries

I volunteered to give up eating burgers this summer because I consumed far too many on our last road trip through the US two years ago, and because often, they’re just not that good. They’re overcooked until they resemble hockey pucks, or they’re served with limp lettuce or overly membrane-y onion slices, they’re on Goldilocks-like, ill-fitting buns, and they’re almost never the right temperature. There are a lot of things, it seems, that can go wrong with preparing a burger. And here I thought I was ordering something everyone knew how to make.

So we said we’d forgo the burgers on this go-round, and I found myself eating a lot of chef’s salads, even though one table of manly men in South Dakota looked at me like I was nuts, or on a dare—something. Why is that big guy eating a pile of lettuce, they looked like they wanted to ask. I wasn’t about to elaborate, because really, where does the story end? It would be like unraveling a sweater on a slippy slope way over the line.

August rolled around and our vacation was over, noted with distinction by the piles of boxes we unpacked in our new but temporary digs. Nobody knows what to call this neighborhood. Owners of several real estate developers are trying to establish the “South Lake Union” moniker, but old-looking signs dotting the streets around here call it the “Cascade neighborhood,” and some of the folks who have lived here a while and I’m not talking about the ones who live in the lofts that supposedly promote creativity, they simply call it “Eastlake.” Thus I have no earthy idea where we live, except to say that we’re in Seattle proper. And there is a big highway right next to us, so as a fan of white noise, it’s close to perfect over here.

One of the things I wanted to do when we showed up in la citie grande was find some good places to eat. After all, in Walla Walla, if one craves Indian cuisine, one needs to master cooking it oneself or make friends with a fine lady named Shampa. There may be some Chinese restaurants in town, but locals will tell newcomers right away that they should never, never eat there. Two restaurants of Thai persuasion are available, but neither of them provide good service or, for that matter, great Thai. So now that we have access to places that make belly-filling Ethiopian, luscious and spicy Nepalese, or experimental gastronomy items, we figured we should try them out.

Because Susanne had been there once before, several years ago, we went to Baguette Box on Capitol Hill with a friend from out of town, and it was lovely. A small space, very casual but still in the universe of “bistro,” they proclaimed their love of grass-fed, organic meats but also offered vegetarian sandwiches. Most things except the frites and the beet salad came on fresh, still-warm baguette, so thank god they believe in truth in advertising. Although they were busy we received our sandwiches quickly: lamb with cucumber yogurt sauce, pork belly with cilantro and hoisin, and pork loin with carmelized onions and apricot aioli. All were thoroughly delicious, cooked perfectly, and decadent. We also ordered the beet salad and the frites. As far as French-style, shoestring fries go, these were crispy and tender. The beet salad, on the other hand, was pedestrian and lacking the same interesting flavor combinations of the sandwiches. We will definitely return for more. I’m eying the drunken chicken sandwich and the eggplant and feta. (Baguette Box, 1203 Pine Street, 206.332.0220)

Last week I went with Susanne to Blue Moon Burgers, over near our place, just off of Fairmont Avenue. If we were going to have burgers again, we wanted it to be in a place that made them their core business. Friendly atmosphere, boasting of meat from Walla Walla’s own Thundering Hooves ranch—more sustainable and organic goods. I don’t quite bristle at the thought that I had to drive 230 miles for these burgers but hey, I shop direct at their store on East Isaacs when I’m living in Wallyworld, so it’s okay. And I’m glad to see other folks in the Northwest seek them out. It’s one thing to read about it in the Thundering Hooves newsletter, but another thing entirely to watch it in action. Exciting stuff! Burgers is a broader category here than just ground beef; Blue Moon Burgers also features vegetarian and vegan patties, turkey, and the very Seattle salmon burger. Also, they have gluten-free buns, and since I know no fewer than five people with gluten allergies, I’m glad to see this little accommodation for them.

Problem was, it took us 50 minutes to get our food. Blue Moon has a order-at-the-counter-we’ll-bring-it-to-you business model, in which patrons pick up a number to set on their table while they wait. Drinks are self-serve. This means that we were on our 2.5th serving of root beer by the time the staff came by with our meal. I am not fond of this serving method to begin with, as the wait staff don’t know in advance where on has ventured, and so must spend some amount of time, bordering on copious, assessing one’s location. It seems wildly inefficient to me, and yet I encounter the practice more and more often.

So, for the burgers. I ordered a bacon cheeseburger and Susanne got a burger with blue cheese. We got a combo order of onion rings and fries to share. By the time our food reached us (other patrons were complaining at their tables, too) the fries were entering tepid stage, but these were made warm by the two onion rings placed lovingly on top. Seriously? Two onion rings? That’s a combo? Our gluten-riddled buns had been over heated on the bottom so that they were semi-stale, and they were way bigger than the burgers inside. Picture a lone toddler in a kid’s public pool. Neither burger had been cooked to order, but otherwise they were tasty, but to risk sounding like an ass, I chalk that up more to Thundering Hooves than anything that occurred in the kitchen. Truth be told the burger needed to be amazing to justify the near-hour wait, and it wasn’t anywhere near amazing. Susanne says she plans to go back because it was clear they were understaffed, but money is tight for us, so when I go out I want to feel like it was worth parting with the bills in my wallet. One solution: they have online ordering, so burgers are ready for a later pick up. (Blue Moon Burgers, 2 locations, 206.652.0400)

Walla Walla, fortunately for them, has a mom and pop doughnut shop, called Popular Donuts, which is one street over from Poplar Street. Hence, everyone calls it Poplar Donuts and as people who know me can imagine, this drives me nuts. Nobody gets “public” and “pubic” wrong, do they? As it happens, they’re really good doughnuts, and they’re old school. No gimmicks, no fancy flavors, no branding, just good confections and seriously tasty, cheap coffee. There are always a couple of older people on the six seats inside talking about Very Important Matters, and I’ve realized over the years that their presence indicates good, affordable food.

Out here in the Emerald City are several different doughnut-creating operations, one of them being Top Pot Hand-Forged Doughnuts. They seem to be venturing into ubiquitous territory, with locations at Qwest Field, and other stadiums, designated official doughnut of the Seahawks and Sooners (take that, Redskins!), and having signed some new agreement with Starbucks. Starbucks, people. That’s pretty big time, I suppose, in the hole-in cake world.

We walked over to the location by the monorail (still ferrying 30 people a day since the 1964 World’s Fare, folks, get your ticket today) and sampled four doughnuts: glazed chocolate cake, double chocolate, chocolate glazed cruller, and my all-time, number-one favorite doughnut, the Boston cream. I held off on the cream until last, like hoping for a big climax to a fireworks show. I should say here that all of the service staff at these places are ridiculously friendly, even as they’re serving hour-late burgers. The doughnuts were delightful. Hot damn, they were very good. The old fashioned, cakey doughnuts had a bit of nutmeg in them and even a hint of lemon extract, a detail that we appreciated. But the Boston cream stole the whole show. Yeasted unbelievably well, it defied descriptions of its texture. It was buttery, light, but dense next to the Bavarian cream, moist, vanilla-infused, it was amazing. The chocolate sauce wasn’t a careless artifact from a Hershey’s bottle, but also nuanced and almost a little nutty. And the cream was thick, mouth-coating, and really fresh, a great friend to the other parts of the doughnut. I was also happy, at least initially, to see how much was inside the cake; no skimping going on at Top Pot.

We suffered a tremendous sugar-crash after our walk home. So I recommend not eating two in one sitting. But we’ll be back for more nibbles, I’m sure. (Top Pot Doughnuts, several locations, downtown phone 206.728.1966)

Need I say how grateful we are to be in Seattle? There are a lot more places to check out and people to meet. And even so, we’re definitely missing our friends in DC and Walla Walla.

Even the cops have tattoos

It’s August, as we all know, so there are still a lot of sunny days here in Seattle; I’ve heard but not experienced the loss of direct sunlight that arrives in fall and sticks around until the next summer. That’s how it worked in Syracuse, New York, so I can steady myself for the little bits of insanity that pop up as human beings go through vitamin D withdrawal. It gets weird, that’s for sure.

But if I don’t have the lack of sun to remind me I’m in Seattle, there are other hints:

  • Nobody carries an umbrella in the rain, but everyone wears raincoats, even when the sun’s out
  • Black and brown are the top choices for clothing, unless one has opted to select a bit of hot pink
  • There is apparently some contest to see who can plaster the most bumper stickers on their car
  • People wear jeans to business meetings
  • No glasses frames are “too retro” to wear out in public
  • Instead of just garbage and recycling bins, there are bins marked Garbage, Recycling, Compost, and Hopeless

It is its own little city. I enjoy seeing skyscrapers once again, not for the earth-destroying resources they consume, of course, but for the fact that it signifies there are a lot of people here. In New York City, they seem to touch the clouds but never make it; in Seattle the clouds like to dive in from time to time, I suppose to take in a show or slam poetry event. Even the volcanoes hide behind gray blobs of cloud. It’s almost as if Mt. St. Helens is embarrassed that it threw up all over eastern Washington in 1980. Girl, 30 years later, you can be okay with it. We all see you blew your stack, and it’s okay.

Some folks warned me that Seattlites are passive-aggressive, and so far, this has held up to be fairly accurate. Back when Susanne and I first moved to Walla Walla, I was shocked at how indirect people were. For example, if I am staring at cans of beans in the grocery store, assessing which I should procure, and someone from the Northeast comes up behind me, they’ll either say, “excuse me” and reach in around me, reach in around me without saying anything, or push me aside to get their damn beans. But in the Northwest they’ll just stand behind me, waiting, quiet as a door mouse, until I finish thinking about whatever it was that brought me to this corner of the store in the first place. I find this unnerving, because I need and expect directness. But what I didn’t understand until this last week of living here, is that they’re really just fuming behind me, wishing they could say something, wholly unable to break their social contract.

Another story: I used to commute into DC on the Metro, taking a bus to the Pentagon station and traveling by the subway up to Foggy Bottom near the George Washington University campus. When I was on my morning schedule I saw the same people, also heading to work, which included one nice lady who was aided by a seeing eye dog. We got to know each other a little, in that way that repeat commuters do. Because she got off at the same station as me, she’d often take hold of my elbow as we walked to the escalator. It wasn’t anything I said she could do, but it didn’t bother me, either. One day, heading up the escalator, a businessman in a hurry mashed her dog’s foot into the step, severely injuring the animal. I was shocked that he didn’t lose one step on his mighty important commute to Satan Company, Ltd., and I rushed over to him and yanked him aside before he hit the turnstiles, yelling at him to see what he’d done. It was clear he didn’t want to deal with the aftermath—the woman trying to figure out how badly her dog had been maimed, the dog doing its best to be calm but crying and whimpering all the same—but me and the other commuters got his card out of him. I later found out that he’d ponied up the money for the veterinarian, as well as the re-training the dog needed to get back on moving stairs. Cornered, he had no option but to admit his liability, even as he’d tried to just sneak away.

Fast forward to Monday night, here in Seattle, and while we were at the trivia game in a local bar, a woman stepped on a service dog’s foot while meeting up with her friends. Her initial response was, “oh, there’s a dog there?” A few words were exchanged with the dog’s owner, but then she walked over to her group of pals, muttering, “I don’t know why someone brings a dog in here, anyway.” Lady, it’s a service dog. It’s wearing a bright orange back harness that reads: Service Dog.

That was a primo passive aggressive response as far as I am concerned. Damn that dog for being under my feet!

Lest I sound like I don’t like Seattle, let me list a few wonderful aspects:

  • Great, self-contained neighborhoods that nestle lovely little eateries, like Moka Coffee, the Baguette Box, and Sushi Whore
  • Water, water, everywhere one looks
  • People aren’t afraid to play wonderful music—everything from old Sonic Youth to Average White Band, to contemporary indie rock
  • Few places can support many people wearing socks and Birkenstock sandals
  • Even the cops have tribal tattoos

I went ahead and subscribed to the Sunday newspaper because I still believe, even in this anti-paper world, that a subscription to the local rag provides great insight into a place’s culture, people, and environment. And yes, I’ll note that I’ve been quite unwilling to purchase the Walla Walla Union-Bulletin. I don’t find that it actually contains news or much else of interest.

So Seattle, I want to get to know you. We’ve had a few dates here and there, but it’s time to take our relationship to the next level. Where will we go together, oh city of wet weather and shades of green?

If land or by Seattle

Everett contemplates a volcano

I contemplate a volcano

It was in the parking log at Costco where a woman, looking wholly bereft of home and afflicted of something came right up to me as if I were an old friend and asked if I could help her out by giving her money. I had been completely focused on how to get twenty pounds of flour into a space the size of one small Pomeranian, which assuredly is no easy task. So I nearly jumped from hearing her inquiry, and it took me longer than it should have to explain that I didn’t actually have any cash on me, sorry. She shuffled off, not unlike a zombie, and I realized she could have been a posterchild for the anti-meth campaigns of the Pacific Northwest. My heart went out to her, and even so, I was a bit unnerved.

It occurred to me after this incident that different places have different expectations for interacting with strangers. In DC it’s either tourists who are chronically clueless about their surroundings, laden with a map of the city or not, or it’s someone panhandling. The lobbyists, lawyers, government workers, hotel staff, cab drivers, administrative assistants, Metro drivers, and other commuters all keep to themselves, wanting no part of any conversation with anyone else. I rode the Metro for years, and very infrequently did I ever hear two people conversing who hadn’t boarded together. MP3 players were the best thing to happen to the silent travelers of DC—suddenly everyone had an easy means for ignoring the world around them.

So people looking for money from the hands of strangers kept, for the most part, personal distance, and requests were limited to the actual sidewalk or on public transportation. I think that’s why I was startled here in Seattle. I actually had to spend the better part of a second realizing that this wasn’t an old friend or acquaintance of mine, because she walked right up to me, and I in turn was right up against my open vehicle. It was her lack of recognition for whatever vulnerability I had at that moment that started my first sense of anxiety.

But for my part, I was just as destabilizing to her, because as soon as I recognized that all she wanted was money, which I was actually out of, having just left Costco, I went immediately into my DC-generated response when I don’t have cash to donate, which is, “I don’t have any money on me, sorry.” In DC this ends the exchange, 7 times out of 10 the requester will then ask God to bless me or tell me to have a nice day, and then I’ll wonder how much of their request was tinged with a need for human interaction and a measure of dignity that someone will talk to them. This woman, on the other hand, seemed shocked that I’d make eye contact with her, much less have a quick answer.

It occurs to me that people are less straightforward in Seattle than in DC, so people looking for handouts need to be more in their face. But the other big adjustment seems to be about sobriety: I can’t remember even a single instance of a non-sober person asking me for money in DC. Not a one. But everyone in Seattle who has asked for money has seemed to have an affect for one reason or another. And there seem to be many more homeless folks here than back out east, and I have no idea why that is. I’m sure there are experts out there who analyze such things, who advocate for this solution or that, but I don’t know who they are or what their positions amount to. But I’ve never thought about how different cultural expectations for civility play into how people on the margins express themselves. And clearly, there’s some kind of effect or panhandling would look the same no matter the geography.

For our part, I’m very glad to once again have a home. We might have been without a fixed location for two months by choice, but I don’t for a minute want to lose sight of the millions of people who have lost their houses or who are without their own home but who desperately need their own place. We are very lucky people.

Welcome to Emerald City

Three days driving for half the day or more seems to be my personal limit on time I can spend driving and still call it a positive experience. This I now know because we did just that in our little Honda CR-V (that’s Can’t Resist Vehicle for the non-Honda laypeople), going from Detroit to Minneapolis in one day, to Miles City, Montana, the next, and finally to Walla Walla. Except not finally, really, since our end destination was Seattle. But we needed to make a stop at Wallyworld to get some of our things out of storage, put them into a moving van, and haul the detritus, I mean, erm, our belongings, to the city with the Space Needle.

Just as an aside, the Space Needle only looks good from a distance, and especially good as a line drawing, as in the opening credits of Frazier. I suppose it helps that we’ve got Grammer’s singing to distract us from even this abstraction of the building. But up close, it just looks meh, like a toy I played with in 1978 that had a lot of white plastic and faded to some ever-dingy urine-y yellow. Okay, it’s not as bad as that, but it’s not much further up, either. And I am a little incredulous that we still had a World’s Fair in 1964 or whenever this thing was built.

We rolled into Walla Walla on Friday night with the wheat almost as grown as it gets before the farmers chop it down and burn the fields. Everything in town had a bit of a golden hue from the light of the crop, or maybe it was just the lighting from the maximum security prison, I’m not sure which. We had plans to get the moving truck in the morning at 11:30—this was our pick up time. And as friends of mine know, I am fastidiously punctual. So we checked the address to Budget truck rentals online, went to bed, and ventured out in the morning.

This is where we had a quintessential Walla Walla experience. Let me explain. While the Web site gave a street address on East Isaacs Avenue for the truck rental agency, all we found was an empty lot with one rather damaged rental truck—the rear view mirror was broken, and the left side had a long, arching dent. We could see the key drop-off  box, so we had some reassurance that this was the right place, but in every other regard we intimated that this was the very most definitely wrong place to do our paperwork. For other than a few McDonald’s wrappers slowly blowing in the desert wind, there was no paper.

I found two phone numbers attached to the drop-off box, so I called the first and waited. Two rings, five, seven, and then I clicked in to some other part of the Budget Rental Universe. Headquarters was less than helpful, only giving me the address to which I’d already wandered. Maybe there was a parallel dimension to the office that I was just missing, or a secret word, or perhaps I needed to pull on my ears or tape up an X on a window. They suggested I try the airport. But it was an offhand gesture, not a solid directive. Small town living at its finest.

With some degree of trepidation—for maybe someone pulls up in a truck the second after we’re gone—we left for the airport, which, because it’s Walla Walla, and as regular readers of this blog know, is only a 5-minute drive away. That’s because everything in Walla Walla is only 5 minutes from any other thing. I hopped on the highway and by 11:37 we were at the counter, a just-beyond-teenager there who knew all about our rental. The kicker: this was in fact where we were supposed to do our paperwork for the truck, but then we had to drive back to where we’d just been to get the actual truck. Fortunately our truck wasn’t the beat-up one in the parking lot. Unfortunately, when we met up with the manager back on East Isaacs, we found our truck had no gas cap. We tried taking the gas cap off the damaged truck, but lo and behold, it was stuck onto the tank. What the hell did those people drive through? I agreed to drive the truck across the street to the auto parts store and voila, the manager presented me with a new cap.

Then it was just the matter of nearly falling over from heat exhaustion as we cleared out what we needed from our storage unit, which in the summer heat, wavered somewhere around 108-112 degrees. It was like slow-cooking our brains, and eventually, we got a little discombobulated, pointing at boxes we wanted but not knowing anymore how to get them from where they sat to where we wanted them—for example, in the truck. I was reminded of Weeble Wobbles, another toy from my youth in the 70s, because we did start teetering around as we carried things, and after an hour or so, we were done. We did what any intelligent person would do at that point; we headed to the Colville Street Patisserie, and if any place could serve as muse, this place does. I don’t know what Tiffany and Dave put in the confections, but it makes my fingers get to typing.

The next morning we got ourselves some mochas and yogurt and headed out in our mini-caravan, over the Snoqualmie Pass through the Cascade Mountains, which is the range responsible for keeping the westernmost third of Washington and Oregon wet and the eastern two-thirds nearly bone dry. I kept the truck at a steady 65, and this was an improvement over the U-Haul I’d rented in 1997, which threatened to come apart at the seams at one tick higher than 52mph. I found some amazing country station on the way to Yakima and bojangled myself all the way to Seattle.

We promised ourselves on Sunday that we’d unpack right away, and as of this post, we’ve mostly held true to that goal. I’ve got one still-sealed Space Bag with my clothes in it, and we have a bathroom shelf to assemble, but otherwise, that’s it. Note to people thinking about buying Space Bags: two of ours opened up spontaneously in the back of the car, which wasn’t good, and when you vacuum seal them up, they become heavier than the particle of matter responsible for the Big Bang. But other than that, they’re great.

Susanne’s younger brother met us at our new place to help us move in, and more to the point, to collect the box of pottery he’d asked us to bring with us from Michigan. Nobody is more cleverly frugal than this fellow. But we made short order of the moving in process, and now I have the next 5.5 months to take in everything Seattle has to give. Already I see that our neighborhood is unusually populated with seafood restaurants, unhelpful to us as a couple since one of us can’t eat fish or seafood of any kind. But it is Seattle, and we can partake of the many, many coffeehouses here. Six are scattered in the streets around us—there’s also a German tavern, three pizza-making establishments, one used book store, and a business to help one improve one’s golf swing.

I’ll get right on that.

Riding off into the sunset burns my retinas

To say I’m sick of driving would be to trivialize everything I’ve seen on my journey across the continent and back, would be to make too much light of the 8,600 miles of the trip, in which I’ve encountered everything from:

  • tiny baby bunnies
  • crystal blue boiling pools of adulterated water that are fueled by the unseen middle of the earth
  • exasperated parents who look like they’re questioning the entirety of their lives
  • all manner of coffeehouses and espresso shacks that dot the West like freckles
  • at least 50 species of birds—sparrows, swallows, hawks, eagles, kingfishers, vultures, quail, turkeys, hummingbirds, and more
  • barns and rural structures in all stages of their life cycles
  • blue-collar men who all looked dazed and stressed, no matter where I encountered them
  • lightning bugs outside a greasy spoon diner in Pennsylvania
  • long moments of coasting down from mountains just after fighting to get to the peaks
  • many, many anti-abortion and anti-Obama billboards
  • tired front desk hotel staff

All of these people, animals, and situations were notable enough that they left their impressions on me. I don’t know their stories, except in some rare instances in which we had time to converse. Like an unfinished painting, I’m left wondering about all of the open canvas and what could be drawn on to fill it in. Perhaps some of these things will get worked into a story or other over time, or my memory will do that thing I hate and blur different events together in its quest to find patterns and meaning. But that tendency is why I write things down—then I retain the edges of each experience.

That said, I am loathe to sit behind the wheel of the car right now, even to go set up Internet in our apartment or buy bread. I’m sure that this hatred will fade, but hopefully I’ll remember that I don’t particularly enjoy driving 3 days in a row for 12 hours a day.

We rolled into Walla Walla on Friday evening, having come through the evergreen forests along the waistline of Idaho. Sister cities Lewiston and Clarkston, watching each other from across a river and state boundary line, seemed small and a bit bedraggled, the road infrastructure not seeming to lead to any important point in either place. We opted to get some drive thru food, knowing how close we were and not wanting to take any more time at a pit stop. Finally, at long last, the wheat fields, close to harvest, signaling that we were almost back. I’d gotten so used to driving into the sun that I didn’t need to put on my sunglasses anymore. Around this turn and that, we swirled around the low mountains, revealing the last inkling of daylight and then burrowing into dark indigo again, weaving through what must have been a tapestry of bold colors, if only we’d had a bird’s eye view.

A bird’s eye view, I realize, is precisely what I’ve been interested in finding this summer. Something to help me understand my time in Walla Walla and how to get through the next portion of it when it inevitably sneaks up on me this winter. I’ve asked a lot of questions about who, what, how I am and I’ve enjoyed the funny moments, for sure (the leaky tub dripping into the kitchen below, not so much), but I do still feel the need for some larger perspective.

Maybe it’s all a big joke, a set on Laugh In that I haven’t realized is still being performed on a sound stage in southern California. Maybe I just need more time to elapse before I’ll come to the punchline, or the Big Reveal. In the meantime, we’ve reached Seattle, and wow, is this town a hoot. All this bluster about saving the planet but everyone chain smokes. Aren’t our lungs part of the planet, people?

I think this is going to be interesting, this fall.

Down from on high

August rolled around and we were thrilled to take our honeymoon, finally, a little more than a year after getting hitched. This is fine, as it turns out, since my knee is all better and I’ve had time to rehabilitate the joint such that it doesn’t blow up like a balloon animal after short walks.

And the cruise, as already noted, was fantastic, full of animal sightings, a tour of endangered glaciers (as well as one advancing ice pack), and some funny-because-it-sucked shipboard musical performances.

Then we docked back at the Port of Seattle. This wasn’t like disembarking off of an airplane, which has its own annoyances, including the rush to ignite one’s cell phone, waiting for the dumbasses in rows 5-20 to get their bags out of the overhead compartment so you can move forward, and the lovely time wasting exercise of standing in baggage claim. No, to depart a ship, you have to give your stateroom steward your bags ahead of time, thus leaving each person in your cabin precisely one bag of toiletries, dirty clothing from the day before, and all of your valuables-slash-electronics. Then you proceed with your dirty clothing carryon to some previously assigned room, such as the drinking lounge three decks below your stateroom, so that you can wait around until your specific departure time. This departure time, other than seemingly based on how many prior cruises you’ve taken with the line, is an algorithm of the finest mathematics, calculating  your likelihood of throwing a total caniption if you’re forced to sit around next to a bag of smelly underwear for more than two hours.

Fortunately, one dining room out of five is open this morning, so feel free to stand on your head while waiting for a table.

Finally, we were off the ship, roughly at 10 o’clock. We found a cab after standing in a long taxi line, and made our way over to our car across town. One quick cup of coffee back on land and we were off—to the airport. This would have been a great time to gas up the car, but as is my neurotic need to be early or on time, I could only rush down to SeaTac, as if the seconds were ticking away before my sister and her two daughters were landing. Of course, the seconds were ticking away. A full 7,200 of them. So really, we had time to take it easy. But I think our time in the Vista Lounge had addled my brain somewhat, so we did some more sitting as we waited for their flight to arrive.

Finally, it did, and then we were in the car, heading back to Walla Walla, and oh, what was this on the freeway? Traffic?

Bad traffic, as it turned out. It took us 2 hours to travel about 25 miles. Eventually we were able to go faster, and then we were out of the confines of the city, and the metropolitan area, to boot.

At this point I realized we were seriously low on fuel. Now our Honda CR-V is a handy little vehicle, and by handy, I mean it has a computer for everything. It will tell me if a tire is low, as it did on this day. Not which tire is low, mind you, but that one of the four presently supporting the vehicle, take your guess or buy a gauge. It communicates this status with what looks like two parentheses and a very upset-looking exclamation mark, the whole thing in italics, like this:

(!)

That this means “pull over, your tire is low,” is simply an amazing moment for technology to me. Because it SUCKS.

Another attempt at useful computering is the gas gauge. Not only do I have a pixelated series of columns showing me how many twentieths of a tank of gas I have—with 14 gallons in the tank, it’s showing me every .7 gallons per column on my dashboard—but I also have a “miles remaining” calculator. My brain likes this little number, like a friend gently telling me how great the road is ahead. This is so much better than that 1980 Ford Escort I used to drive that actually always pretended I had three quarters of a tank, presumably because 3/4 was just its favorite setting EVAR. I have therefore walked, usually accompanied by rainfall, a couple of miles to a gas station, needing to get a gallon so I can drive to the pump. But now I don’t worry, because my car tells me I have 79 miles left in my tank.

79 glowed at me, all happy and reassuringly. And then it read 78. We had passed an exit with gas a few miles back, well within 78-mile range, but who needed it?

I’d forgotten that the gas calculator takes into account, among other things, and for perfectly understandable reasons, the labor on the engine cylinders. So it was as we began to make our way into the Cascade Mountains, yes MOUNTAINS, that the “remaining gas estimate” changed.

Twenty-seven miles. 27. Fifty miles of level terrain navigating gone, just like that.

We kept motoring, and I saw the road sign ahead. The next town was 42 miles away.

I quickly did the math in my head, because I’m a sentient being, and frankly, it wasn’t hard, and realized we were screwed. Sure, I could turn around, but now we were in the middle of the mountain range, so we weren’t going to get many of those miles, the Lost Miles of 2009, back. I wasn’t sure we’d make it in either direction.

I stopped listening to the conversation in the car, and started sweating instead. It was like I could only do one or the other.

Susanne noticed my silence first, and as she was sitting behind me, she only had to look over my shoulder to read the dash and see the root of my concern. It was at this point that she started gearing herself up, getting ready to start walking for gas when our fumes gave out on us.

Now everyone was aware of our little issue. We had 22 miles, or so the car said. I was grateful for a couple of downhill sections of road, and coasted my way in the right lane. We pulled off as soon as we could, but we were really in the middle of nowhere. Next exit, nothing.

Next exit, down to 17 miles of fuel, and we found a ghost town. It really was like something out of a western movie, with boarded up storefronts on one dusty main street, but darn it, they had a gas station with one pump. You never saw people so excited for crappy noname gas. The girls bounded into the convenience store, and came back out, thrilled to find some kind of purple Monster cocktail that drives parents crazy in 6.4 minutes. And we were off again, 503 miles of gassed up goodness sloshing around in the tank. We may have spiked the sales tax income of that little town for that day.

Snacking through the northwest

Susanne and I took an enjoyable, leisurely stroll through Seattle’s Pike Place Market on Monday, indifferent to the intermittent light rain. We stopped at a cheese producer—DeLaurenti—and watched the large bins of curds get hand-sifted by the staff. Tasting the freshly made cheddar resulted in happy gasps from each of us. Having wanted to try my hand at cheese making, I asked if they had any rennet, an amino acid used to make curds. They pointed us in the direction of the Creamery, a small store, obviously focused on dairy products. Four oversized ceramic cows and one sleeping store dog later, I had the rennet in hand.

We stopped by a pirouska storefront and shared an onion and mushroom breaded pastry, warm and delighful and useful for keeping our hands from freezing in the 40-degree weather. We looked at pottery, always a favorite of Susanne’s, homemade children’s hats, stopped to smell the flowers, looked at some pasta from Pappardelle’s to get ideas for new pasta to make at home, and listened to a  banjo player who was sharing a bit of soul just out of reach from the drizzle.

My knee finally started complaining after a couple of hours. We stopped for tea and crumpets—no, really, we did—and enjoyed some creamy Earl Grey. I have determined, sadly, that I just am not a fan on Yerba tea, finding that it’s too musty for my taste. I do, however, continue to enjoy the sound of the word Yerba. So I will have to like it from an intellectually removed distance. The crumpets were tasty—they’re a bit like the love child of an English muffin and a thick, buttermilk pancake. I had mine with butter, and Susanne chose honey. We thought we were pretty nifty folks until a woman walked by us with one covered in Nutella. Egads! Who knew such a thing existed? I attempted to make a move on her crumpet, but Susanne kept me in check. There’s probably a Crumpet Police force in existence somewhere. No laughing now, there are still places in the US where stealing a horse brings up the death penalty.

We ventured out, later that evening, to Quinn’s Pub in the Capitol Hill section of Seattle. For appetizers we shared some rather pedestrian pistachios and a nicely lime-and-olive-oil infused plate of green and black olives. Susanne and her friend Jesse each ordered a flank steak with frites, and I had fish and chips (same as the frites). The steaks were marvelous, a little over the top with the charring, but nicely tender inside, and paired well with a rich gravy and chewy, nobby little mushrooms. My fish was tender and delicious, but a bit too thickly battered, which quickly went from crispytown to mushville. I was content to eat the fish out of the batter. I was also surprised that the establishment doesn’t have tartar sauce.

After dinner we went to the Wild Rose, a women’s bar, for their weekly pub quiz game. I was a repeat customer back in DC, at Fado, where their trivia game brought something like 50 people in every Monday night. There’s something about sitting around a dark Irish pub with other frazzled government employees that equates to serious competition without the energy of turning foul. Here in Seattle the gang was much, much smaller, and the teams were limited to 4 people, max. Back in DC you’d get the whole of a division of say, the Census, and those folks were tough to beat. Crazy survey nerds!

After bombing out the first round of C-list celebrity photos, our team caught fire and won the contest, by a large margin. I really didn’t know what became of Danzig, though, and we missed that question in the round of “this place used to be this other name, what is it called now?” We walked away with $30. Not bad for a couple hours of answering questions!

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