Monday, January 25, 2010

Be a Lady

Here's Seattle for you: Author Jeremy Rifkin, dressed in a beautiful suit with a crisp white shirt and one of those gray silk ties with a pink-y shimmer, took a moment to look over his audience before he began speaking at Town Hall last Friday night. And then he said, "I overdressed."

"It's Seattle," somebody called out. We dress casual.

I was there. I had a sort of date for Town Hall. I had put on a slim black skirt with a row of pleats around the hem that makes me feel French, my ankle-high black boots with high heels, and a lipstick called "Captive"(!). I took the #5 from Fremont to Third and Spring. Just on the edge of downtown, an African American man who looked like he buys his clothes at REI got on the bus. He was in high spirits, and feeling social. He looked at me and said approvingly, "You look like you're going out."

"I've got a date," I said. We chatted a little bit, and then I had to get off. As I did, he said, "Be a lady."

And I said, "I will be a lady."

Sweet. I don't know why anybody goes places in cars.

Friday, January 22, 2010

After the Lecture

After Dr Fishman's lecture last Wednesday night in Kane Hall at UW, my friend introduced me to Cafe Allegro, which has been tucked in an alley behind University Avenue for 35 years. I had the best decaf Americano I can remember (and I actually slept that night too). Students were gathered around a big table, apparently planning a joint presentation. Others had just finished a game of GO or were working at computers. If the music was loud and awful, it wasn't intrusive, because I don't remember it at all. I like this place.

Dr Fishman, from the University of Michigan, had spoken about Rachel Carson's Silent Spring (which I haven't read, but know the impact of) and Jane Jacobs' The Death and Life of Great American Cities, which I had never heard of. Jacobs, I learned, was in the forefront of the movement that kept Robert Moses from running a freeway through Greenwich Village's Washington Square.

Fishman's thesis is, Silent Spring and The Death and Life of Great American Cities are the same book, a book about the necessity and efficacy of complexity. He said they rely for problem-solving on experience -- how natural and neighborhood systems actually work -- rather than on some sort of engineering expertise, with its tendency to streamline. "Complexity," I wrote on the back of my bus transfer, " saves energy, time, land."

In the early 60s, when Carson and Jacobs wrote, Fishman said, books could and did change the world. Why today, he asked, isn't Bill McKibben, who thinks and writes as importantly, changing this world? Is there perhaps an internet equivalent now of the power of books then?

I'm still thinking about these important points, but at Cafe Allegro, I said I thought Fishman said too little for the time he took; he didn't really defend or elaborate his thesis. But my friend the photographer, whose emails always end with "more pictures, less words," kept referring me back to Fishman's pictures, the Margaret Bourke-White seashore shots and Feininger cityscapes and portraits of city people by Helen somebody. He showed us the contrast between the sterility of 1939 World's Fair futuristic city drawings and the lively chaos of the garment district and neighbors on stoops.

A friend to visit lectures with and a cafe afterwards for discussion: It adds.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Unexpected Blues

I have always been taken with the idea of unexpected dancing. You know, where your husband, in his PJs, say, pulls you away from the stove and the dishes to dance some blues, like the scene in the Gere/Sarandon remake of Shall We Dance?

Or where you're on a car trip somewhere, and Jailhouse Rock comes on the radio, and you pull over and jump out and dance on the shoulder. I guess some people would find such behavior embarrassing, but I think usually others don't notice us as much as we think, and wouldn't you be kind of charmed to see some ordinary couple dancing on the roadside, as long as they weren't disrupting traffic?

Anyway, these fantasies probably help explain why it felt oddly right to encounter in the terminal at Chicago O'Hare, on my way to Mom's for Christmas, a four-piece blues band on a stage. I looked all around, as I pulled my carry-on along, for the someone who had arranged for this, the someone who must have secretly loved me all these years and would now appear and take me in his arms and dance me to Gate G8.

Or, failing that, any random traveler who looked like he could follow a beat for a dance or two.

Neither happened, but still: what a miracle. You fly at Christmas, you're asking for disaster. Instead, Chicago Blues.

I don't know what it means. But as e e cummings wrote,

i carry it in my heart.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Tonight and Tomorrow Only: You Never Can Tell

Quick note: Just got back from the Saturday matinee of George Bernard Shaw's You Never Can Tell, performed at the Bathhouse Theater on Green Lake, directed by Shana Bestock. I love this theater; I have season tickets for the regular plays. They also have a theater school for young people, and it was young actors who performed this afternoon.

The play is about the conflict between the 19th and 20th century views of the relationships between the sexes. "Would you rather be respected...or adored?" is the way the program puts it. It's a perennial question, even here in the 21st century, brought to the stage with zest and humor.

This is a script-heavy play: everybody had a lot of lines to learn and deliver. I thought they did a fine job. And I especially appreciate that with the youth program theater, as well as the regular season, Seattle Public Theater at the Bathhouse chooses plays worth talking about.

You can see the play tonight at 7 and tomorrow at 2. Tickets are by donations, which support the youth ensemble program.

What are aunts for?

I never produced any children of my own, but in addition to my stepkids and two grandchildren, I have two young nephews and a niece, all now in high school and college. I saw one niece and nephew at Christmastime, and frankly, I was bummed. It seemed like they didn't do anything! Discerning readers will notice right away what an extreme and unhelpfully reductive judgement that is, as did my friend Andrea when I was discussing my holiday trip with her. She understood that I was just plain disappointed. She suggested I write them a letter.

You ever write a letter to a teenager? I was already feeling that I simply wasn't cool enough for them. But I screwed up my courage and wrote.

I said I'd been remembering the Michigan summers, which will always be among my most treasured memories, watching them swim, and play in the tree house and on the swing, and Miranda riding her bike from house to house. Crazy games we all played in the yard and around the table, and water frisbee.

I wrote about our reading times, with just Miranda and me for a few summers, and times the whole family was involved, like with that dog book about the race -- I forgot the name -- and The Great Gilly Hopkins. I said I can still exactly hear Roman shouting, as I rode up on my bike from Mom’s, “Aunt Mary’s here! Want to go swimming, Aunt Mary?” back in the days when they couldn’t go in the water without an adult, and I tried always to say yes -- which was easy, since I wanted to swim too.

I thought, in my judgemental way, they'd been pretty lazy and inconsiderate at times at Christmas, but on reflection, what I wrote was: I’d like to feel that we all pitch in on getting meals on and off the table and keeping things reasonably tidied up. I would love to have heard you guys say, “Hey Grandma, we’d like to handle dinner tonight; okay with you?” or, “You guys have made all the meals; let us do the dishes.” I’d like to feel that, if dinner conversation seemed dull to you, you’d offer a question we could all enjoy discussing (since we all like that kind of thing).

I didn’t have a BAD time, I said, but I was hoping for a GOOD one, and I don’t quite feel we had that. I want ongoing relationships that are meaningful and fun. I would love to have your input on this.

I'm so glad I wrote. I've heard from them both, long and thoughtful responses. Partly they remind me that there's a lot more going on in their lives than intentionally ignoring or annoying their aunt. (What? You mean everything is not about me?) More importantly, each seems eager for a continued correspondence. I want this. Living single, you don't automatically experience the personal growth of working stuff out, of opening up to knowing and being known. I think this is going to be good.

Dear Readers: I'm having second thoughts about this. I wrote it because I wanted to describe what for me was the good experience of dealing forthrightly with something rather than just letting it go. I thought I wrote with self-deprecation, but now I think it wasn't nearly enough. I probably should have said more about how my dear niece and nephew are great kids, and I expect a lot of them, maybe unreasonably so. And I'm an aunt. I've never raised a teen; what do I know?
I don't think they'll ever see what I wrote here, but if they do, I hope they see that it's more about my failings than theirs. Nobody is perfect; everybody disappoints others' expectations. It couldn't have been pleasant for them reading the letter I wrote, and yet they reacted wonderfully well and with maturity. I've wondered if I should delete this post, but I'm leaving it, because I think my basic objective was a good one. But please know this whole affair, as I describe it, is about me, not them.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Cascade Bike Club: Two for One

Dear Cascade:

I joined Cascade Bicycling Club just before I moved to Seattle last February, so I'd be ready to ride the instant I unpacked my boxes. I've been on a couple of club rides, and volunteered for your non-motorized traffic count last fall. I especially look forward to the presentation series at REI, particularly when Willie Weir is telling us about his adventurous bike life.

But it was last month, when Joe "Metal Cowboy" Kurmaskie spoke, that I first noticed a two-for-one ticket deal. Is this new? Could I just say, only a coupled-up biker could have come up with this. I have a happy single life, but I can't say I come to these events all on my own out of preference. Do you honestly believe that, if I could find a bike buddy to accompany me, I wouldn't do it? Your two-fer policy simply adds insult to injury.

Unless I have it all wrong, and you are actually on my side, promoting the coupling up of cyclists? In which case, will you please start allowing singles ads in your publication and website? Here's mine:

Smart, single, sixty-ish male cyclist wanted, for rides, romance, or at least the two-for-one discount at Cascade Bike Club presentations.

Mary Davies

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Missed Connections...

To the man at Town Hall last night (Friday, January 8), who said to me, "That's a great sweater you're wearing. The colors are perfect for you," while I buzzed right on by with nothing but a thank you, behind my friend Sue, intent upon saying hello to her daughter and son-in-law: What was I thinking? That was nice of you, and admirably bold. Try me again. I'll be at Town Hall Sunday night for Atul Gawande. You?

Does this computer make my butt look big?

I was reading the Time Goes By blog this morning when I looked down and saw that my toast and applesauce were half gone. Better put another slice in the toaster.

But wait! Was I hungry? Not so much, really, but I do love my peanut butter toast and homemade applesauce, and I had barely noticed what I was eating. Fortunately, I know this is the road to weight gain. I turned off the computer -- and it wasn't easy.

I finished breakfast, then started checking on where to dance tonight, and linked and linked, over to Casey McGill's Blue 4 Trio site, since they're at Third Place Books, Lake Forest Park, tonight at 7:30, but their site immediately started playing this terrific music, which went on and on, and I was supposed to be writing. Once, again, I had to stop that computer. Oh, I can pause it. Great idea.

Some mornings my most strenuous exercise is pushing my computer away.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Happy New Year!

Hey, I know it seems late to be writing about New Year's, but I'm still finishing the leftover Cinnamon Bread French Toast I treated myself to on New Year's morning at Portage Bay Cafe. And that was just the start of a great day.

The day before, I got the idea to invite some women pals over on New Year's for Hopping John and games. (I like impromptu parties. Nobody expects much.) Then one of my friends, who is recovering from chemo, said she'd love to come, but her guy had driven two hours to be with her, and... We wanted to accommodate her. So we found another friend with a guy, and that made two, and then I remembered some guy I'd met at a Mountaineers Game Night, but I couldn't quite remember his name: Ed? so I worked my way through the alphabet, hoping to jog something out, and then through my discarded emails, until I found him.

I made the Hopping John in my pressure cooker, and guests brought related things, like Niki, who brought two baby bok choys from her CSA box and sauteed them up for us -- or should I say, sauteed them down, because those babies sure shrink. We had the last of Sue's homemade oatmeal chocolate chip cookies, the other Sue's cucumber salad, and stuff like that.

We played Boutros Boutros-Galli (see below). Few of us knew each other, so we played that thing where you each say three things about yourself, one false, and the others guess which is which. If I'd know about it at the time, we'd have done this: Each guest writes his New Year's resolution on a piece of paper, puts it in a hat, and then you each draw one.

My resolution would have been, "Learn to treasure the good-enough." Feel free to pull it out of my hat.

Hopping John

Saute a chopped onion and a chopped green pepper in a bit of olive oil. Wash and add two cups of dry black-eye peas, a sprinkle of red chili flakes, and 5 cups of water. Pressure cook for 10 minutes or regular cook as package directs. When done, add salt and a little vinegar to taste. Serve over rice and/or greens and pass the Louisiana hot sauce. I like to serve chopped bacon or ham on the side, to accommodate the vegetarians.

Now, about the game. I wrote this column one winter in Port Townsend, for The Leader. Complete instructions included.

What to Do about the Weather

Was it Mark Twain who said, “Everybody complains about the weather, but nobody does anything about it”? I did something. In the week before Christmas, when it was sunny and cold and so icy that everything was getting cancelled, including dances, I got tired of reading at home alone every night. So at 10:40 a.m. on Thursday, I emailed about ten people in walking range of my house. “I'm going stir crazy!” I said. “Want to come over to my place tonight, 7ish, and play ‘Boutros Boutros-Galli’? Let me know and we'll see if we can achieve a critical mass.”

Then I just kept checking my email. By noon, I had one guest; by two I had two, really good ones, and the party was on. By 6:30, we were eight. Time to make a party! I had baked Christmas cookies the day before, and had brownies in the freezer, as usual. I microwaved a batch of olive oil-oregano popcorn, opened a bottle of wine, and put out shiny wine glasses. I lit some red candles and made rooibos tea.

Then I got ready for the game. I set out my timer and pens and pencils. I started cutting up pieces of scrap paper. Each player gets eight, on which they secretly write the full name of a person, who can be living, dead, or fictional, such as a book, movie, or cartoon character. Put all the papers in a hat, or, as we did that evening, in a festive red-and-white empty quart-size Strauss Dairy yogurt container. To play, make two teams. Taking it in turns, one team member at a time has one minute to pull out slips of paper, one at a time, and, without saying the name or rhyming with it, get her teammates to guess it. At the end of a minute, you record the number the team got right. Then the play passes to the other side. Once you’ve gone through all the names, return all the slips of paper to your container for Round Two: Now you can say only one word to elicit the name. In Round Three, you say nothing; you pantomime it.

If you come to a name you don’t know, just put it back and take another one. But once you start, you have to keep on, even if your teammates aren’t getting it. Little kids may be given an extra minute when it’s their turn, and you may need to read the name on the slip to them. At the very least, be sure they contribute names. Even if they’re not playing officially, they seem to enjoy watching the action.

My friend Jen on Bainbridge calls this a memory game. It’s not as important to know who everybody is as to remember the first-round clues for the subsequent rounds. The other night, by Round Two, when we were stumped, we’d just indiscriminately call out obscure names from Round One: Li’l Lulu and Maher Baba, for example. One guy just kept saying “B.B. King,” no matter what the clue was.

It’s Jen who calls this “Boutros Boutros-Galli.” In Michigan, where we play it every summer, we just call it, “You know, that game.” We should call it “Lance Armstrong,” since it’s always Tour de France season then, and his name is always in the hat. But if your friends are all football fans, call it “Joe Montana.” Or if teenagers, call it “Britney Spears.”

You can add up the scores at the end, but we didn’t bother. I think we’d agree we all won big, in the currency of laughter and good company. As I write, nearly a week later, Port Townsend is still covered in snow. Our neighbors are skiing through town, or skating on the golf course lake, or sledding behind the high school. Who says nobody does anything about the weather?

Ordinary Torture

Where to begin? Childhood? Stories at school of kids whose dads made them inhale pepper as punishment. My dad telling me once -- was it a threat? -- about being made to hold blouses on hangers at arm's length. I scoffed. Not much of a punishment. Try it sometime, Dad said. I guess I must have. I know it hurts. How did Dad know about this?

Novels, from Nazi Germany, the Soviet Gulag, and Latin American dictatorships. I will not even tell you the awful things I have read. I dared to because, and maybe even in celebration that, it couldn't happen to me. It couldn't happen here. It was like the manageable terror of watching Jaws because I don't swim in warm ocean waters. Now I'm seeing movies -- Rendition and The Visitor -- and reading novels -- Jess Walter's The Zero -- where people are taken in America, and kept in secret, and tortured. Often they are people who came to America in part to escape the sort of possibilities that then overtake them here.

My friend picking me up for a dance, saying, "Turn that off! I can't stand that electric guitar!" And I did, but US torturers keep the music going 24/7 for years.

My sister Marty, finally getting some relief from a sleep clinic for insomnia, while US torturers keep people awake for months with bright lights and loud music and any other necessary means.

I started thinking about all this as I was reading Andrew Sullivan's Atlantic cover story, October 2009, an open letter to President Bush. Sullivan urges Bush to repudiate the torture practices of his administration, says only this can fully end such practices and reassure our own people and the world that the US is still a safe haven from them. The article reminds us what those practices were. There are photos. To tell you the truth, I hadn't been as upset about it as I should have been. The torture I knew about was ugly, but sort of ordinary. I'd read about much worse, I thought. Nobody was being burned or electrocuted.

Remember the picture from Abu Ghraib of the man standing on a platform no bigger than his feet, arms outstretched, head hooded? Unpleasant, for sure, but not exactly the same as having your fingernails pulled out one by one, right?

Just as I was reading Sullivan's article, I attended an Osher class at Seattle Art Museum, where the curator for Aboriginal and African art would introduce us to the collections. Two hours, two rooms.

I'm in good shape. I can bike, walk, and dance in the same day. And I was engaged by this curator who was knowledgeable and well-prepared, describing exciting artwork. But standing on that marble floor at SAM was agony. If I could have moved around. If I could have leaned. I kept thinking of the prisoner at Abu Ghraib, standing on that platform for 24 hours.

Sullivan says when Cheney was asked about the standing torture, he dismissed it; he himself stands at his desk for eight and nine hours a day, he said. This makes me furious.

There's another photo in the Sullivan piece of a man pressed between two boards. It's like a sandwich board, and somehow his whole body has been folded into it and pressed flat. I have looked and looked at this, and I can't figure out where his limbs possibly fit. Please do not think I mean to trivialize this when I think of my recent plane trip, a mere four hours, when I couldn't stop twitching in my seat.

I guess you could say the elements of these US tortures are ordinary: standing, staying awake, putting up with bright lights and loud music, enduring uncomfortable positions. Like Chinese water torture: Just a drip. Just water.

I expected that Atlantic piece to take off like a rocket: Where are the petitions to sign? Where is the outraged chorus I expected to join? Well, there was in the New York Times Monday morning an editorial about the Supreme Court declining to hear the case on torture, with the support of the Obama Justice Department. Who starts the choruses of outrage? Shall I copy this piece to Sometimes I wonder how it begins that the people take to the streets, as we see them doing in other countries. Wouldn't you think we'd be out there?

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Book of the Year

As an innkeeper for 20 years in Inverness, CA, I published a winter list of "best books to read at the inn." They had to be so good you never wanted them to end, and so compelling you couldn't put them down. I've been thinking about my Best list for 2009.

I discovered authors new to me, some of whom I've written about here: Tim Winton, Tim Parks, Chandler Burr. And the amazing Lionel Shriver, who I consider to be a female John Updike in her willingness to put on a page the thoughts most of us fear even to think.

But I ended the year under Annie Dillard's spell, and I don't expect to get out from under it soon.

Every summer I'd be struck by some wonderful Dillard paragraph Mom would read aloud on the porch swing in Michigan. But I couldn't make headway when I tried to read her myself.

Then I ran into a bad spell at the library, nothing turning out that well, and picked up Dillard's The Living as backup. I don't like historical fiction, generally, but a friend had told me this novel is based in Washington, just up the coast in Bellingham, late 1800s. It would be good to know more about my state history.

But let me say first, Don't get this book from a library. You'll want to underline everything. From the first page, I kept re-reading sentences to figure out how Dillard makes them do so much. Here's Ada Fishburn, arriving by boat with husband and son in 1855:

Neither man nor boy glanced up to see where he was getting off, which was a mercy, one of few, for she herself scarcely minded where she was since she lost her boy Charley on the overland road, but she hated to see Rooney downhearted, when he staked his blessed being on this place, and look at it....

It was the rough edge of the world, where the trees came smack down to the stones. God might have created such a plunging shore as this before He thought of making people, and then when He thought of making people, He mercifully softened up the land in the palms of his hands wherever He expected them to live, which did not include here.

Why, "The Living"? It's about making a living, somehow getting enough trees down to put up a house and make a garden and otherwise earn your bread. It's about life, and what comprises life. It's about dying too, and what death makes of being alive. We feel the drama as the characters do, and at the same time, watch it from a sort of godlike or Shakespearean distance, as in "all the world's a stage."

For all the disaster of it, you sense a kindly presence. Ada, as she nears death, reflects that she had felt God's hot breath on her face. She's glad she didn't take an easier way.

In the midst of the financial upheaval of 2009, I was reading about the Crash of 1893, when 15,000 banks failed. "In Whatcom, people were poor as snakes." As I was thinking at Christmas about the younger generation, endlessly texting, not much interested in singing the old songs and reading the stories aloud, I was reading Ada, reflecting on the "poorer timber" of the younger generation, how the best people have already died. "Even the good horses are gone," she says. We elders always feel this way, as our parents felt it about us. As C.S. Lewis said, "We read to find out we are not alone."

And with Dillard, we read to remember how large the human endeavor is, how hard and grand a thing is living.

All material copyright © 2009 by Mary Davies