Review: ArtsWest’s Death of a Salesman

West Seattle HeraldArthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman was first performed in 1949 and has since been celebrated as one of America’s greatest plays of the 20th Century. Presumably this is because of its subject matter—the debunking of the American Dream—and because of the urgency felt by the audience to witness the dissolution of this false idol depicted in a relatable way. In the play, Miller fluidly juxtaposes scenes of the promising past of an average American family, the Lomans, against their disappointing present through the eyes of the emotionally and mentally unraveling father, Willy. Their tragedy is meant to feel all too familiar, serving as an everyman example refuting American idealism: that each one of us is special, that the top of the food chain is within reach, that success is the source of happiness. The Lomans’ tragic loss of innocence finally allows for a new kind of truth to emerge—that Americans may be “a dime a dozen,” but at least we know what we truly are.

ArtsWest’s stage design and direction shines throughout this production, thanks to the talent of director Mat Wright and scenic designer Christopher Mumaw. The stage is layered with tiered floor space and fractured by walls that are more like statues of walls. The dark spaces left between them allows for some characters to pass behind them like ghosts and emphasizes how insubstantial the world the Loman family have created for themselves really is.

David Pichette was powerful as Willy Loman, a character who is an uncomfortable confrontation of despicable and pitiable. When his delusion is working in his favor, he shines, when not, he seethes. Pichette pours out energy that crackles throughout the theatre.

Eleanor Moseley as Linda Loman, Willy’s wife, was stiff at first but warmed up to her part, especially in the scene where she comes out of her shell and calls out her sons for looking down on their father even though he loves them more than he loves anything else.

The excellence of the ArtsWest production aside, Death of a Salesman is hard to relate to as a millennial. The American Dream isn’t what it used to be, even if making money and being well-liked (getting a million hits on Youtube) has carried forward. For instance, Willy’s son Biff and his central drama. Biff considers himself a bum because he can’t bring himself to follow in his father’s footsteps. Nowadays, people don’t follow in the footsteps of their fathers. If anything, that kind of behavior is looked down upon, because it flirts with nepotism. Rather, the average millennial’s dream is to somehow find a way to figure out and do what you want to do. Biff has already succeeded at realizing he’s a rancher at heart, a man of the earth, and has successfully integrated himself into that world. To the average millennial, his self-awareness is a dream come true. Who cares if his dad whines about it? If his dad really loved him, he’d be proud that Biff paved his own path. As an audience member with millennial sentiments, instead of feeling for Biff, I can only pinch my brow in bored befuddlement.

Perhaps, then, the value of Death of a Salesman is perspective. Here’s the story of how whole generations of Americans failed to make themselves happy. If we find ourselves still unhappy, what are our comparable mistakes?

Death of a Salesman plays April 28 – May 29, 2016 at ArtsWest Theatre (4711 California Ave. SW Seattle, WA 98116), Wednesdays – Saturdays at 7:30pm, Sundays at 3:00pm. Tickets are on sale now and may be purchased online at www.artswest.org or by phone at 206.938.0339, or at the box office.

First published by the West Seattle Herald on May 20th, 2016.

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Taking notes on motherhood from the Crystal Gems of Steven Universe

West Seattle HeraldIt’s easy to become absorbed in Steven Universe, an animated series that I’ve been binge-watching ever since another favorite animated series, Gravity Falls, came to its epic “weirdmageddon” conclusion on February 15th. Like the Gravity Falls’ magic- and mystery-riddled Pacific Northwest, Steven’s universe is only a little different from our own. The earth is populated by normal people with normal jobs, and Steven is a tubby pre-teen who’s noteworthy only because he’s uncommonly kind, and he’s half-human. His other half is Gem, an ageless, technologically advanced, and magical alien species of sentient gemstones who take on humanoid form. Steven’s guardians are the three Crystal Gems—Amethyst, Pearl, and Garnet—whose missions are to protect the earth, even against their own kind, and to raise Steven, the unnatural offspring of their beloved leader, Rose Quartz.

It’s an addictive show. Each episode is only about 10 minutes long, so it’s easy to pull one up even as you’re tying your shoes to head out the door. Steven’s allure is that he is an unlikely, but inevitable hero. Not much of a fighter, he harbors his mother’s powers and seems too good to be true—too much of a sweet, kind, open-hearted person to be real—except that he is. Because he cares so much about others, you can’t help but care for him, and you want to keep pulling up episodes to see how he grows. But more alluring than Steven, at least to me, are the Crystal Gems, because of how they nurture Steven’s growth. In every episode I find myself taking mental notes on their gestures, strategies, and sentiments in regards to their alien, but deeply felt motherhood. I’ve not been so moved and provoked to thought about this other aspect of the coming-of-age experience by an animated series.

Each Crystal Gem is her own unique personality, and therefore, her own kind of mom. Amethyst takes risks and encourages Steven to do the same, to make mistakes, to get his hands dirty. Amethyst is younger than her comrades, only a few hundred years old, so she has less wisdom to offer, but she relates more to Steven’s immaturity. Only Amethyst would covertly team up with Steven to perform some antic, like pose as a semiprofessional wrestling duo. By indulging in her powers also for pleasure, as opposed to restricting them to dutiful purpose, Amethyst provides Steven occasion to stumble upon his own powers through play.

Pearl sits in counterpoint to Amethyst. Overlooked on her home planet as nothing more than an elegant but dirt-common servant, Pearl is poised and self-disciplined, though she’s not a disciplinarian. She’s had to prove her worth and is sensitive to Steven’s struggles to prove his own. She’s also alert, even anxious, for Steven’s wellbeing, and offers Steven a gentle, reliable safety net in physically dangerous situations as well as in emotionally difficult times.

Bigger, stronger and wiser than either Amethyst or Pearl, Garnet is the de facto leader in lieu of Rose Quartz. She exudes confidence and warmth, though she can be intimidating. She is principled, and ardent about her principles, a harmonious balance of passion and reason. This is because she is actually a fusion of two gems—ruddy, rowdy Ruby and calm, collected Sapphire. Garnet is the embodiment of Rudy and Sapphire’s individual identities as well as their love for each other. For this reason, Garnet is particularly alert to Steven’s self-awareness. She understands when Steven needs challenge when he needs support in his journey of coming into himself.

Rose Quartz is Steven’s actual mother, though she is absent from his life. This is because Gems don’t reproduce like humans. Gems come into existence like gems—through the crystallization of specific elements in the earth. To bring Steven into existence, Rose Quartz had to give up her physical form and her gem to pass on to him. Steven is the product of the unconditional love and self-sacrifice of mothers like Rose, who are willing to give their whole selves for their children.

This last quality of motherhood, self-sacrifice, most reminds me of my own mother. I’m reminded of how, from a very young age, I intuitively knew Mom would give her life for Deanna and me. I dreamed countless dreams of adventure and danger—one in particular comes to mind, where I had to jump across a field of stumps rising from a bottomless darkness—and in every dream, Mom saved me from falling, failing, suffering, fear. This is because, in my real, waking life, Mom lived first and foremost for Deanna’s and my happiness, safety, and fulfillment. There was never a question of us deserving or earning this love—it just was. Her example has ever since then given me insight into how I should relate to my loved ones—my siblings, family members, friends, fellow human beings—but most especially, my own babies, when they come.

Steven Universe’s Crystal Gems have given me further insight.

First published by the West Seattle Herald 05/16/2016.

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Consensus reality

West Seattle HeraldI remember it like this: Deanna and I were relegated to the seats while the adults wakeboarded. The speedboat was fun—wind whipped our stringy hair, the bow-broken spray stung our cheeks, and the boat bounced viciously over the waves Uncle Kevin drove zigzag across the lake—but I was six-years-old, and I wanted to try.

Back on shore Mom had reluctantly agreed, so when it was my turn, Uncle Kevin idled the engine while Uncle Mickey and Aunt Christina double-checked the straps of my life vest and pulled out the kneeboard. It was as tall as I was, oval-shaped, the bottom smooth and white, the top a firm, hot pink foam molded to cradle my knees. They laid the board on the stern and showed me how to sit on it, my shins against the foam, my butt on my heels. They pulled a heavy velcro strap across my thighs and gently tipped me into the water, the buoyancy of the board tipping me almost onto my back. I wobbled into starting position—reclined backwards, the front tip of the board pointed towards the sky—and Uncle Kevin revved the engine. “Keep your head up!” they said.

I was jolted forward and lost my hold on the tow-line. A few attempts later, I pulled up and over the churning wake. It was thrilling and abrasive. My whole body tensed to maintain balance and grip; tears streamed from my wind-bitten eyes. I ventured a one-handed wave at Deanna gazing wide-eyed back at me from her seat. That’s when I lost control.

In the tumble, the board flipped over and trapped me beneath the water, my thighs still strapped tightly to the board. I remember darkness, and the feeling of bubbles churning around me. I remember flashes of water-distorted sunlight around the edges of the board, and hitting my forehead against it as I struggled to tip back over. I remember flailing, and trying to kick, and my hands frantically ripping at the heavy strap.

Deanna remembers being first to notice that something was wrong. There was a splash when I lost my grip, Aunt Christina raised the orange flag, and Uncle Kevin steered a wide arc to retrieve me. Deanna saw the white bottom of the board, and as they drove closer, she saw my little hands, just my hands, pecking the surface of the water.

“And I was bewildered,” Deanna recounted between sips of margarita, “because I was only four and I looked around me and suddenly everyone was just gone! Uncle Kevin, Uncle Mickey, and Aunt Christina had all dove into the water to rescue Amanda. I’ll never forget that. Your little hands…”

Deanna and I were reliving the episode for my partner and his friend at an impromptu Cinco de Mayo party at Mom’s house. As we told the story, I was struck by how this single event, my close encounter with drowning, was somehow more real when viewed from both our perspectives. I could visualize myself through Deanna’s memory—my smallness overcome by the board and the lake. I wasn’t small in my memory; rather, the board was big and the strap was heavy and the water was everywhere. Both memories were true, but together they were truer. We bore witness to each other, adding legitimacy and dimension to a consensus reality that was greater than the sum of our individual realities.

I’m familiar with the negative side of consensus reality. Sometimes we aren’t direct witnesses to an event that we want to objectively understand, and we must sift through information anywhere on the reliability scale. This is how courts of law establish truth beyond a reasonable doubt. But sometimes we rely on the wrong proofs—eyewitness misidentification, improper forensics, false admissions/testimony—and objective reality is drowned out by consensus. The consequences are devastating. This moment in the kitchen with Deanna struck me because it was an example of the positive side of consensus reality, and showed how people can help each other better understand what we know.

First published by the West Seattle Herald 05/09/2016.

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Nick Drummond’s debut album Follow the Rivulets has strengths but plays it safe

West Seattle HeraldNick Drummond is artful in his new, debut solo album, Follow the Rivulets. It’s not a huge departure from the folky blues of his previous band, The Senate (Rivulets includes new versions of two songs previously released on The Senate’s last album, The End is Over), but it is distinctly Drummond running the show.

He has a lot going for him. Drummond treats his voice like an instrument—a crystal clear instrument he wields with confidence and melds into a mellifluous haze when he harmonizes with himself. His lyrics, while occasionally cheesy, paint a picture of the pacific northwest, with our water, trees, leaves, wind, and tattooed women. When his rhymes risk being too tight (embrace/face, another/brother), he softens their blow with tasteful fluctuations in the melody. His back-up band is ever-interesting and on point, imitating rain with brush strokes to the snare drum, setting a beach party scene with cheerful plucking, and waking the dead with that haunting reverb on the guitar. Drummond is particularly skilled at pacing—he’s fluid between rhythmic minimalism and orchestral crescendo, arranging these highs and lows around emotionally heightened moments in the song’s narrative. This skill struck me particularly in the instrumental, Waiting for the Dawn, where Drummond’s layered voices, sans lyrics, carry you through what feels like dreamscape.

Still, for all its good points, Follow the Rivulets is missing something.

Drummond spoke to me about wanting to confront subjects like heartbreak and anger with optimism, and his goal was for the sound of his songs to reflect that. He’s successful with Whistling Wind, where gritty, aching blues are juxtaposed with crescendos of hopeful melody. The listener is reminded that these conflicting emotions can coexist in a single person’s experience, and compelled by suspense to follow along until the end, to find out how these two conflicting tones resolve themselves. But then, in How Strange, the upbeat guitar plucking swallows the lyrics laden with negative emotions. The optimistic tone and the negativity of the lyrics don’t inform each other, so their juxtaposition comes across like Drummond is trying to hide his worst thoughts behind happy grooves.

Rivulets also feels, at times, a little too Jack Johnson—playing it safe. For instance, Drummond designs the album to end on a high note, which is great, except that the final song, Firefly, is too tidy, neat, arranged, and pretty for a song about letting loose. It’s nice, but it doesn’t pump me up and make me want to “shake my number.” It’s probably better live, when Drummond himself lets loose.

Follow the Rivulets was released April 10th and is available through iTunes. For more information on the album and the artist, visit www.NickDrummond.com.

First published by the West Seattle Herald on 04/30/2016.

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Public and personal

West Seattle HeraldIn my columns I walk a fine line between the public and the personal. I seek to strike the right balance between exploring universal thoughts and grounding those thoughts in the real circumstances of my life that inspire them. That’s how my brain works. Context is the diving board from which I launch into analytical thought.

At least, that’s the goal. Sometimes I struggle to fully develop the thought. Writing is hard! Sometimes I struggle to convey the necessary circumstances of the context. For instance, it can be intimidating to address wrongful convictions issues because so much of the fundamental material of that experience, legal and personal, needs explicit explaining. Other times, like with an inside joke, the backstory leading up to a thought is convoluted with layers of history that my audience would have to be “in on” to appreciate. Usually, though, the problem of context is measuring the appropriate weight of personal exposure for public consumption.

As long as I can remember, I’ve kept a diary. My diary is not my column, or my Facebook feed, or my blog. My current diary is a series of nondescript notebooks that I carry everywhere with me and into which I dump my mental load whenever I get the chance. That mental load includes observations about unprocessed experiences, rehashings of recent interactions, venting of frustrations, copied down phrases, half-hearted musings and flaky philosophy, sometimes all rolled into one. To give you an example: “To say? To do? This has as much to do with taste as it does with talent. In the absence of God, Jack wants to play…”

What does that even mean!? I don’t know, and that’s the point. These accumulated fragments are not meant to represent the depth and range of my inner world, nor be interpreted as communications, even with myself. My diary is simply a tool, like a basin into which I can pour and store my scattered thoughts and observe them for myself under different lights. My column, then, is the exact opposite of my diary.

Tiptoeing so often along this fine line, I’m careful to provide the appropriate amount of context needed to communicate my thoughts. I cringe to witness others taking less care. Take Facebook. I’ve seen a woman post to announce her divorce because of her soon-to-be-ex’s porn addiction. I’ve seen a kid friend rant about being dumped via text while at the orthodontist. There are seemingly endless examples of emotionally-charged thought fragments, binge product and afterthought, meant for no one but posted to everyone, just flung out there.

I’m not the first to condemn the treating of Facebook and other social media as a diary. There are all sorts of memes on the subject, including, “Tell a therapist, not Facebook,” and, “Hi, just wanted to remind you that Facebook is not your diary. We don’t give a shit about your feelings. So STFU.” Longer informal discussions, like “Your Wall Is Not Your Diary,” complain that such behavior is an annoying and embarrassing cry for attention. The authors of these memes and discussions focus on the perspective of the unimpressed audience accosted by irrelevant, crass, and immature personal material from questionable sources that they, the audience, don’t choose to stop following for some reason.

I have a different perspective. Many people greedily consume irrelevant, crass, and immature personal material from questionable sources. That’s trolling and tabloid journalism, and there’s no telling when one’s fragmented, unprocessed and previously overlooked outbursts may be recycled into the fodder of scandal and public shame. Foxy Knoxy used to be just a soccer nickname.

But even more than that, I’m concerned about how ubiquitous transparency is becoming the new definition of honesty. I think a lot of people who treat Facebook like a diary don’t do so because they can’t control their impulse to outburst, but because they have been conditioned to believe that impulse is authenticity, that restraint is dishonest, like advertising is dishonest.

I don’t think that’s true. I think my inner world belongs to me and me alone, and I have the power to choose what, when, where, and how I want to share myself. Lately my world has been lit up by new work and new love, and for now, these parts of myself belong close to my heart.

First published by the West Seattle Herald 05/02/2016.

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Inappropriate pain

West Seattle HeraldThe pain started Sunday when I was on a plane for five hours. It was a dull ache across my lower back, like I had been punched in the kidneys the day before. A few days later, the dull ache was accompanied by stabbing pain in my abdomen, especially on my right side. It hurt to hinge at the waist, sit up or down, get into a car, carry a bag over my shoulder. It hurt to laugh.

The least uncomfortable position was to lay prone on my back, which I did. I lay in bed in the middle of the day, alert but weary, willing the pain to go away. Despite the fact that my partner was there to care for me, my anxiety spiked. The pain made me feel estranged from the functional world of people uninterrupted by pain.

I cried. It took a lot of talking to get me through what felt like a baby panic attack. The problem was, though the situation of being nursed by my partner for a kidney infection was as far away as you could get from the isolation of imprisonment, the feeling of physical pain triggered the memory of existential pain.

I don’t mean for things to remind me of prison. I’d rather not be taken back to those memories willy-nilly, or worse yet, when I’m feeling particularly vulnerable. I’d rather treat my memories like a tool. All memories—especially those of experiences which were acute, prolonged, or both—are like a wrench to open my empathy valves. To be triggered into remembering unexpectedly and against your will is like springing a leak, the pressure of which depends upon the acuteness of the memory triggered.

Prison is a whole other world from the one the majority of us live in. There’s standing in line at the grocery store, and there’s standing in line for a pat down. There’s a closed door that you can open, and there’s a closed door that you can’t.

Lying on my back as my partner petted my hair, I thought of the complex dilemma faced by people who are haunted by past trauma. Exonerees, rape victims, the families of murder victims, or anyone who has suffered a tragic, unexpected loss of a loved one…These kinds of pain are complex, and yet, we expect ourselves and others to eventually get over whatever happened and move on. And if someone’s painful memories continue to be triggered by mundane circumstances, we judge them for indulging in victimhood.

But like physical healing, psychological healing leaves a scar. Memories don’t just go away. And even if they could, I wouldn’t want them to. Healthy trauma processing transforms the inescapable past into a powerful tool that you can pull from your belt as occasions for empathy arise. When a friend looks to me for comfort in a moment of tragic upheaval, I tap into the memory of returning to prison after hearing the guilty verdict and 26-year sentence. It’s painful to remember this, but it helps me connect with my friend. Other times I can’t control the triggering of the memory, and I may be forever learning how to bear it in unexpected ways and at unexpected times.

Fortunately, the people holding my hand have powerful empathy wrenches of their own.

First published by the West Seattle Herald 04/25/2016.

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Seattle musician Nick Drummond talks about his debut solo album, Follow the Rivulets

West Seattle HeraldNick Drummond is a young but seasoned musician from Seattle. His bands are the acclaimed acoustic trio, The Senate, and the folksy duo, Impossible Bird. Nick was kind enough to meet with me to discuss his new album, Follow the Rivulets, the product of his solo musical endeavors.

Can you tell me about your album, Follow the Rivulets?

It’s got heartbreak in there. A seven-year-long relationship fell out from under me, but I don’t think of it as a break-up album. It’s optimistic and stubbornly hopeful. It’s fun and vibrant. The way I look at it, if I’m combining lyrical imagery and melody in a way that connects to a listener and you can feel what the song is about and I can make you dance at the same time, then I’m doing my job right. That’s my overall approach.

Did you feel like you had to make an active effort to create that silver lining, or does that come naturally to you?

It’s not a conscious endeavor, except that I like to play with juxtaposition. There’s a song on Follow the Rivulets called “How Strange” that sounds really upbeat, but is actually one of the sadder songs about losing a person who your were really close to and have shared so much with.

What is the ultimate take-away from a song like that?

Hope, and gratitude for having had that experience. You might as well celebrate something that you’ve lost, because it’s made you who you are.

That sounds like the opposite of Justin Timberlake’s “What Goes Around…Comes Around.”

It’s the opposite of most pop music. And I’m OK with that.

I think every musician has their own way of describing what genre their music belongs to. What’s yours?

I don’t know what to call it. I’m definitely a singer-songwriter, but I think that implies a greater degree of control than I feel like I have. Sometimes I feel like, “I just work here,” and I don’t really know what’s going to come out. That said, I think the sound of Follow the Rivulets is consistent. It’s where I’m drawing from that is not all that consistent.

Where are you drawing from? Who are your influences?

I like Paul Simon a lot. I grew up listening to afro pop. I played hand drums when I was a kid.

Are you an Amadou and Mariam fan?

Do I have a pulse? Yes! I also like the lyricists. Leonard Cohen, Guy Garvey of Elbow. Paul Simon is a brilliant bridge between two worlds: he creates a life-affirming groove, but then his lyrics and story take you somewhere. I don’t know if Follow the Rivulets is like Paul Simon at all, but to me it juxtaposes these same factors.

Is this your first solo project to come to fruition?

Yes. My writing was taking me somewhere that I wanted to explore in such a way that all the pieces I was writing would be kept intact, and I’d never done that before. It’s always a struggle in band dynamics to figure that out. For instance, with my band, The Senate, we never did anything with the drums. I’m a drummer at heart, even if I’m terrible at them. That’s always been my focus, and I wanted to paint with that brush.

Are there any weird anecdotes from the making of Follow the Rivulets that you’d care to share?

Sure. So, the studio I recorded in, Ballard Bait Shop, is right next to the railroad tracks that go through Ballard. Much to the annoyance of people who park down there and go to the bars for their $15 cocktails, the railroad tracks are actually used, so the parking that people assume is there and free is actually a working railroad. The guy who drives that train doesn’t like that so much. So one day I’m down at the studio tracking this quiet acoustic song and I’m singing my heart out and gradually in the headphones I hear this rumble rise as the train is going through. I thought, “That’s cool. I’ll just keep playing.” Then it goes by, except the guy is out on the front of the train screaming bloody murder at somebody, and it is loud and clear in the microphones. I really wish I had been able to keep it together and keep playing and have that be a thing, but I just lost it. I started laughing and fell out of the moment. It was really fun to go back and listen to that take, because it’s this really sweet, gentle song, and then this rumble creeps in, and then this crystal clear, horrific language.

Those moments were few and far between. The majority of putting the album together went smoothly. It was truly a joy.

Follow the Rivulets was released April 10th and is available through iTunes. For more information on the album and the artist, visit www.NickDrummond.com.

First published by the West Seattle Herald 04/24/2016.

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Run-away

West Seattle HeraldI grew up with two mutt dogs—a chummy, runt named Ralph and his fretful, dominant sister, Britta. They always escaped from the backyard when we were away at school. It didn’t matter that we walked them everyday or that our backyard was bigger than our house or that they had plenty of food and water and each other to entertain. It wasn’t enough. It was like Ralphy and Britta just had this itch to be elsewhere.

I was an easy kid back then, my mom tells me. I put myself to bed early. I played nice and fair with other kids. I ate what was put in front of me. I did well in school, even if I didn’t do all my homework. I never felt the need to act out or object or rebel because everything seemed good and abundant and I never felt measured up against anyone else. There was nothing I could think to change, within me or without. I was just happy, and happy to just be.

Nowadays, my brain feels more like my two run-away dogs. In the midst of one project, I’m distracted thinking about another. I start a to-do list only to realize that there’s always and ever something else to do. Even now, I’m wondering to myself, Is this really the column I want to write? Sure, I’m friends with a few scatterbrain geniuses who somehow manage to pull their tangled threads through the eye of the needle, but not me. I’m chasing mice across the carpet as they scurry past my feet and slip through my fingers.

When did this shift happen, and how? Why all this compulsive nail-biting and cuticle-tearing when I both intuitively understand and rationally am at peace with the fact that there’s only so much anyone can get done in a single day, in a single life? Sure, the world of the adult is more complex and demanding than the world of the child, but my ability to process and problem-solve has adapted to—indeed, developed in tandem with—the complexity of my environment. What’s good is still good and what’s abundant is still abundant. It must be some deep-seated insecurity, some itch about my current position, some measuring of myself up against something else that didn’t exist until I had lived long enough, gained enough perspective: my ideal self.

The other night, my partner described to me his theory of fulfillment, a tetrachotomy of human experience comprised of thinking, feeling, doing, and being. To be fulfilled, he thought, a person needs to find balance. It’s easy to recognize a person who feels, and is, and does without thinking. They’re impulsive, irrational, socially immature. They turn over tables, confess their love to strangers. Another recognizable type is a person who thinks and does but fails to engage with their emotions. They lack the information that only emotions provide, with which they could more accurately, effectively, and better do their thinking and doing. They are isolated, out of touch.

I thought of my mice scurrying across the floor. With my eye ever turned toward my past, present and future, my sense of self is both secure and surrounded by scattered thoughts and feelings that want to find form in action—action I fail to grasp. “I think and feel and am, but I don’t do,” I said.

“I can help you with that.” He smiled. “I’m great at getting things done.” He is.

And the person who thinks, feels, and does, but fails to be? A person who is capable, productive, socially active and mature, every which way an adult—but lacking peace, pause, presence, wisdom? “That’s me,” he said. “And that’s why I need you.”

Besides making my heart do a little flip-flop, our conversation reminded me that whatever actions I chose to take, I’m not alone. When I’m unbalanced, I can be encouraged and uplifted by the strengths and balances of my people who, instead of measuring me against my ideal self, recognize my ideal self within me. I can take strides in confidence, whistling while I work. Do, to do, to do.

First published by the West Seattle Herald on 4/18/2016.

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A book by its cover

West Seattle HeraldWhile cataloging new inventory at the bookstore, I’m consistently surprised by the market value of individual books. Sure, textbooks tend to be expensive, mass market paperbacks tend to be cheap. Most of the time, I’m dealing with titles somewhere in the middle—paperbacks going for $7-15, hardcovers going from $15-25, depending on the condition, the author, the publishing house, the date of publication, the earlier or later the printing, the popularity. But there are a surprising number of surprises. A dusty hardcover in frayed dust jacket going for at least $200. A pristine art tome coming in at a penny.

People are so much more complicated than books, very much thanks to our ability to discern meaning from pattern. But there’s a fine line between discerning meaning and injecting it, and I’m so sensitive about it. Even making inaccurate assumptions about the market value of a book reminds me that I’m ever confronted by situations where I discover people, including me, making this same mistake.

Just this past week two of my friends were looking out the window, people-watching. The first pointed out a young woman walking with a friend, and said to the second, “That one looks like your type. She looks smart.”

What immediately struck me was how seemingly innocuous a statement it was. If you’re going to make gratuitous assumptions about a person, surely it doesn’t hurt the object of your voyeurism if the assumption is gratuitously positive. And yet, it’s stunningly pervasive that we project, especially onto women, traits that we desire in them, whether they really exist or not. It puts undeserved pressure on a person, and becomes an obstacle to seeing and understanding them for who they really are. Recognizing an opportunity to engage in conversation about that, I said, “What makes you think you can tell what a person is like by looking at them through the window?”

“You can just tell. By the way she walks, by the way she’s dressed, by the way she’s talking to her friend…” said one.

“Experience around people you like that gives you an ability to tell if a person is your type or not,” said the other.

“Don’t you think you’re projecting more than you’re gleaning?”

They shrugged.

I quickly realized that the obstacle to our understanding each other had to do with stakes. It was easy for my friends to make the mistake of injecting meaning because in their experience, the consequences of that mistake are subtle, indirect, harmless. But in my experience, they are not.

Exonerees—people convicted and later exonerated of crimes they didn’t commit—are my tribesmen. We come in all shapes, sizes—black, brown, white, young, old, thick, thin—from all backgrounds and all levels of education, from all places where there are people in the world. Here in the United States, my tribesmen tend to be male, black or brown, and older than me, not because they tended to be older than me when they were wrongfully incarcerated, but because the average exoneree spends at least fourteen years wrongfully imprisoned. Despite standing out as young, white, and female, one of the many things that we all share in common is that other people—strangers through a window—projected their ideas about what we were like onto us—with devastating results.

As a young woman—like the “smart” girl my friends saw through the window—and as an exoneree, I’m especially not new to people assuming of me what they want to believe. At times those assumptions have been gratuitously positive. Other times those assumptions have been sensationally, dehumanizingly, gratuitously monstrous. Either way, and whatever the level of the stakes, it strikes me as a dangerous habit to cultivate that undermines real empathy and intelligence when encountering another person. My tribesmen know that. We can recognize one of our own in an instant, and we also can’t wait to get to know each other as we really are.

First published by the West Seattle Herald 04/11/2016.

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Inner cityscape

West Seattle HeraldIn middle school I was instructed on how to construct a physical timeline of my life so far using beads, shells, trinkets, and yarn. On one end of a single line of yarn I knotted a great, glassy, purple bead that represented my birth. A couple inches down the line I knotted a similar, pink bead that represented the birth of my sister, Deanna. A few more inches down, a small, plastic, blue bead designated my first day of kindergarten. And so on.

It was up to me to decide what happenings in my life deserved recognition. For instance, I didn’t mark my parents’ divorce—with a dramatic black feather, say—because I had no memory of their marriage, and it in no way seemed relevant to my life. I did mark—with a gold-colored charm-bracelet star—the miraculous goal I kicked all the way from the half-line when I was twelve. Only some inches past that, the line dangled bare—my future.

It was a good lesson, encouraging me to begin to think about myself as an accumulation of experiences, but time went along and I did not continue the project. A string of yarn adorned with trinkets was inadequate, too much a simplification.

I read recently, “We are all more like vast subterranean caverns, uncharted even by ourselves, than we are like holes dug straight into the ground.” (Timothy Snyder in the foreword of Tony Judt’s Thinking the Twentieth Century) The single line of yarn was like a hole dug straight into the ground, one bead along the line of yarn like one shovel-full after the other. This is how we experience the present moment along the timeline, yes, but this is not how a person processes experience. Like a vast subterranean cavern with tunnels and chasms and chambers that wind around, fall up fall down, and reroute into each other, so does a person rediscover and redefine their memories the farther along the timeline they travel. You never fall in love the way you first fell in love.

But the act of falling in love, in particular, makes me think that the undiscovered/rediscovered vastness of the cavern is also an inadequate comparison to a person’s inner world as it is built upon by the accumulation of experience. Who was it who spoke of the cityscape of Rome existing timelessly, or rather, timefully—as a metaphysical conglomeration of all of its time, the Byzantine and Roman constructions at their height in the same place as their ruins, in the same place as the modern constructions that took their place?

I have been in love only a few times, and I’ve never fallen in love the way I first fell in love. That much everyone tends to agree on. But I would posit another: that the love a person feels for a particular romantic partner and romantic relationship is like a cathedral or a Colosseum on the streets of a person’s inner cityscape. Winding landscape gives way to streets that flow in and out of each other in the direction of this monument in the way that a person’s intentions, emotions, and energy are steered towards their beloved. And when, because of faulty foundation or cultural evolution, that monumental relationship should crumble or fall out of favor, then a person’s inner cityscape will change, will build up new monuments, reroute and reuse old pathways, deepen and expand in new directions.

The cathedral, the Colosseum, will remain, as much a ghost as an homage of itself at its height. The beloved, and the love a person feels for their beloved, remains, changed, no longer trafficked like it was, but a monument around which a person may continue to pave, plant, build, better, tread.

First published by the West Seattle Herald 04/04/2016.

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