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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Anniversary

West Seattle HeraldA memory can be visceral. It can feel heavy, like the lead capes dentists drape over you when they’re taking X-rays. It can make your tongue feel thick and pasty, like you could choke on it. It can make your neck feel constricted, like you’re drowning. It can feel like a thunderstorm in your brain—sluggish and angry cumulonimbus dragging through each other, lightning striking.

That’s how I feel. On the first anniversary of my definitive acquittal, what first comes to mind isn’t the moment of watching the tiny live-streaming window on my laptop and hearing the incredulous correspondent report the good news from immediately outside the Italian Supreme Court. It isn’t the way my family and friends cried out in relief and surprise and joy for the end of persecution, the end of pain.

What comes to mind, instead, is the memory of one of my cellmates, we’ll call her Bernadette, sitting on her bunk across from me, tearing out page after page of my journal and shredding them, until there was nothing left.

Bernadette, who spent most of her time in a depressant-induced half-sleep, had convinced herself that I had been observing her movements and was writing them down for some nefarious purpose, like snitching maybe. I tried, and failed, to reason with her, but she had made up her mind and all I could do was sit there, struck dumb, numb.

I didn’t have much, but I had that journal. Because I have a terrible memory, my journal was where I documented the memories I wanted to keep. Because I best access my thoughts by writing them down, my journal was where my mental processing coalesced. My journal was an extension of myself, like so much that had already been taken away from me—my family, my friends, my future.

Curious, the way your brain can draw connections unconsciously. Bernadette’s action felt very much like what I experienced at the hands of the justice system. My journal was my freedom. Bernadette—well, Bernadette herself wasn’t necessarily bad. She was just wrong. Motivated by self-preservation and paranoia, she punished, she destroyed, all for nothing.

Curious, that I remain so immediately sensitive to that feeling of subjugation. I had thought that, with the anniversary happening to land on Easter—when my family gathers together to drink mimosas, snarf down fried potato hash and fruit salad with baked coconut shavings, and hunt for eggs in the backyard—, I would feel joy, I would feel grounded in a celebratory memory. Then again, is it really a surprise that, with only a year between me and an extended period of my life when self-determination was almost utterly denied me, I find that when I check in and think about it, I’m still processing the raw facts and the raw feelings of what happened?

At the same time, this sensitivity is not a feeling I would throw away. I do hope and work to feel peace, a wearing down of that jagged edge, a healing of the wound. But I can also celebrate, if not in the sense of joy then in the sense of acknowledgement, because sensitivity informs and hones my concern with the selfhood of myself and others. I feel peace—and joy!—at the being of human beings, at our intelligence and individuality, at our belonging absolutely and utterly to ourselves in all the ways that can never be ripped apart and taken away. The self remains, and even when the words are gone, this visceral weight means the body never forgets.

First published by the West Seattle Herald 03/26/2016.

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Seattle Amanda, meet Detroit Amanda

West Seattle HeraldBy the end of our four-day trip to Detroit, Chris, Gavin and I were silly giddy. It was that state of exhaustion when you really should go to bed but instead linger a little longer. It was not enough sleep, sensory overload. It was getting a sense of Motor City by incessantly weaving our way through, around, and back again. We were there to scout locations for their next novel, and it was the joy of having made a point to take in as much as we could, details both striking and subtle, until our notes blurred before our eyes and we finally melted into the deflated cushions of row 31 on the 737 bearing us home again.

At first glance, the difference between Detroit and Seattle was more stark than you’d expect between one U.S. metropolis and another. The largely grey, flat landscape was dominated by reiterations of Baptist Missionary Churches, Coney Island fast food joints, Lotto + Check Cashing storefronts, burned-out houses, ambulance chaser billboards, car washes, and vacant and crumbling monoliths. We drove through neighborhoods where house after house—big houses, four-story houses, the kind with parlors, porches, and cellars—was abandoned, siding warped and unfurling like cedar bark, littered with black rubble, scorched wood, windows reduced to fractured fangs of glass, awnings toppled or askew in defiance of gravity, rooftops cratered and caved in like Mt. St. Helens. We drove around vacant and crumbling warehouses and parking lots like from the zombie apocalypse, or else occupied business strips like from a noir film, strip clubs and liquor stores set against neon-lit Warriors for Jesus storefronts and makeshift recreation centers, the streets noticeably lacking in human traffic.

The first glance was both stunning and oddly repetitive. It was also humbling. After all, Detroit had once been the hub of American progress, where the ideas of the most highly educated engineers and businessmen from across the country were fathered-forth, found physical form, and were distributed to the masses. Would Seattle be any different were Amazon and Microsoft to implode?

That was the other difference I noticed, past the stainless steel mirrors, bankruptcy advertisements, and the homeless man meandering blindly across an empty, five-lane thoroughfare. The lone walls left standing of otherwise collapsed houses hinted at it. The graffitied Detroit Vs. Everyone and We Keeps It 300% slogans were another clue. The statue of a giant fist, poised like a battering ram in Detroit’s Hart Plaza, seemed to punctuate it. It was how in Detroit there can coexist the extremes of both mortality and vitality.

It was like delving into an alternative reality, Seattle Amanda meeting Detroit Amanda. At the LGBT-friendly bar where she, Gavin, Chris and I first met up for a drink, Detroit Amanda pounded the table with her fist as we discussed free trade politics and the Flint water disaster. Wide-eyed Seattle Amanda was quietly ignorant. Only a few years older than me, Detroit Amanda was the owner of her own coffee shop, Always Brewing Detroit, where she hosted local art and poetry events and breathed her own life force back into her city’s culture and economy. Detroit Amanda was like the Wild West version of Seattle Amanda, a survivor and entrepreneur, passionate and protective of the heart of her city in the face of adversity. It would have been easy to overlook her, and others like her, in the face of so many beautiful and sensational ruins, but that would have meant missing out on the truth of Detroit, its beating heart.


First published by the West Seattle Herald 03/21/2016.

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A flash of light

West Seattle HeraldMaybe it’s the Peter Pan production I saw recently, the image of the lost boys clapping Tinkerbell back to life. Or maybe it’s the almost-Spring weather, the sky like an infant’s face, sometimes fresh and cheerful and bright, sometimes clouded over by a stormy tantrum, and in-between, a gray-white calm.

Whatever it is, I think about a particular place, one of my childhood secret places. It was a narrow passage between the back of my house and the chain link fence surrounding my neighbor’s yard. The fence was penetrated and overgrown with thick lilac bushes. We didn’t go back there much unless to tend to the wild strawberries growing in a small patch behind the garage. Mom didn’t mow because it was out of the way and the ground was uneven, so the grass stalks were thick, flat, reached up to my waist, and accumulated dew. What with the back of the house and the lilac canopy and the spider webs, the potato bugs balling in my cupped palms, sometimes it was dark and spooky, and Deanna and I dared each other to run in and retrieve handfuls of the leaves that resembled banana chips which we pretended to eat. Other times the sun was just at the right angle of ascent or descent to illuminate the tunnel, the air sparkled with spiraling particles, and it felt like that secret place didn’t belong to the world of humans and real things, but to creatures I read about and wanted to believe in—fairies.

Once, in the morning when the light was just right, I wandered in there alone. It was tempting, the silence ringing. I really wanted something to happen, something like the beginning of stories I’d read, a wardrobe full of furs opening up to a snowy wood. I wanted the fairies to recognize my childhood innocence, and choose to reveal themselves. My steps were tentative, gently rustling the grass. And then, through the leaves of the canopy, a flash of light.

Of course I knew it could have been—was most likely—the sun. I knew I could have imagined it, even. I was just old enough to be aware that there were some things I knew to be true, some things I believed to be true, and some things I wanted to be true. I had realized by this time, for instance, that people believed in God, and that believing in God wasn’t like knowing that three times three is nine by clustering dried beans on your desk. I also knew that Santa Claus was not real, that my family had instilled this belief in me because it was fun. And since realizing it was not true, I wondered about believing, if I could believe because I wanted to believe, or because it made my sister happy to believe with me, or because it made my family happy to think I believed.

I never told anyone about the that flash of light, the fairy. Not even Deanna, who I told everything, especially this type of thing. I felt joy and wonder at what I had seen. I felt special. But I also worried I was pretending. And while it felt good to believe in something I wanted to believe in, I knew I couldn’t hang the weight of examination and explanation on myself and my pretend belief, that the real world would rip my fairy apart like tissue paper. So I let that flash of light exist as a private emotion in a warm place between make-believe and knowledge. A place for beliefs, fantasies, dreams, desires, and fairies, existing only so far as the edges of my heart, existing just enough and not at all.

First published by the West Seattle Herald 03/14/2016.

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