Grief and gratitude

West Seattle HeraldI was fourteen when I first learned the word, “Casualty.” It was September 11th, 2001, I was a freshman in highschool, and that word, louder than “Tragedy” and “Terror,” rang out to me. I didn’t quite understand it at first. I gleaned that it must mean a person killed in an act of war, but didn’t that mean a soldier? Weren’t the people who worked in the World Trade Center civilians?

My confusion was rooted in my naivety. Sheltered my entire life in safe Seattle suburbs, 9/11/01 was the first time I realized that war wasn’t just historical. It wasn’t far away. It didn’t just mean fighters, fighting. It meant everyone, dying. “Casualty” meant you, me.

This past week I’ve felt jolted back into that hollowed-out feeling of fragility. I would love to write about other things on my mind—chess, travel, Charlie Brown—but even though I’ve thought about these things too, I’m distracted. My heart hurts.

A lot has been said and written in the wake of ISIS’s latest attacks. I was moved by the Blind Trust Project, where young, Muslim men blindfold themselves and ask for a hug. I was moved by Governor Inslee’s compelling argument of reason vs. fear in his decision to welcome refugees to Washington State. I was moved by the father who explained to his young son, “They might have guns, but we have flowers.” In comparison, I have no special knowledge or experience to share.

Humbly out-of-the-way, what I do have are feelings. Over the course of the past week, inside that hollowed-out feeling in my chest have emerged both grief and gratitude.

I grieve for those whose lives and loved ones were taken from them.

I am grateful for those who have shared their resources with people whose security has been threatened and destroyed.

I grieve for those who are so afraid of their own lives that they commit themselves to murderous ideology and action.

I am grateful for those who, no matter our human fear of death and the unknown, open their hearts to their own life and to the lives of others.

I grieve for those who remain trapped, voiceless and helpless.

I am grateful for my own fragile security and freedom.

It is not everything, but it is something to recognize the truth. It is something to finally realize that “Casualties” means people like you and me. It is something to remember that the love of life and others, not the fear of life and others, is the means to achieve healing, restorative justice.

“Restorative justice” is not a term one hears often. It is the theory that victims are a great, if not the greatest, force in re-establishing justice after injustice is committed. The focus is, on the one hand, acknowledgment of wrongdoing by offenders, and on the other, reconciliation with their victims and the community at large. It is a theory that recognizes the power victims, with the support of their community, have to heal not only themselves, but also the very world around them.

Maybe it’s naive to hope that terrorists may eventually realize the error of their ways. But it is an inspiration and a courageous call to justice when you are a victim of violence and hate, and in response, remind the rest of the world to love. I grieve with you, and am grateful for you.

Originally published by the West Seattle Herald 11/20/2015.

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The truth and childhood closeness

West Seattle HeraldAccumulated experience has taught me to curate my thoughts, be mindful of when and how to share them, at least with strangers. It’s unfortunate and unfair when your words are purposefully taken out of context and used against you. When I was little, though—in elementary school, say—I was never shy with anyone. Hello, you’re pretty! No, I don’t want your half-eaten donut, gross. Yes, I wanna play! Race you! Um…your hair looks weird.

“Be nice!” Mom would shush, seeing as I had just addressed her hairstylist.
“But it’s the truth!”

In a world where so much was unknown to me, how could I not be affirmative of what I did know—what was true to me? “You’re allowed little white lies,” Mom advised, “so you don’t hurt people’s feelings.” But I couldn’t make sense of that. It unnerved me to say anything that didn’t accurately reflect reality as I knew it. At all times. Especially if you asked.

My outspokenness was good for one thing, though. Unlike me, my little sister Deanna didn’t often talk. At home, sure, we gave voices to her barbies and she jabbered away at me, argued with me, but away from home she must have felt shy. She was, after all, very little. And I spoke for her.

I used to know Deanna so well I could sense what was going on inside her, when she was carsick and was about to throw up, when she awoke from a nightmare and was about to walk into my room and slip in my bed for a cuddle, when she was craving specifically fish sticks and raspberry turnovers. I could especially sense when she felt uncomfortable, at a loss for words and explanations, and needed rescuing, from kids or adults.

I’m sure how I knew came about by way of unconscious pattern recognition and the fact that, as kids, Deanna and I were each other’s sister, playmate, constant annoyance and constant companion. But I have to try really hard to not let that reasonable explanation dissipate the magic that is childhood closeness. I knew what she was thinking! The only comparison I can imagine might be when couples who have been married for the majority of their lives have come into such familiarity that they can finish each other’s sentences and convey whole conversations with a passing glance.

And just to make sure I wasn’t remembering a fantasy, I checked in with Deanna:

“Yeah, I remember that. I remember doing that with you all the time. I just remember feeling comfortable letting you talk for me when I didn’t want to talk. I trusted you to say what I was thinking. I remember a specific time when we eating dinner. I didn’t like the food and wasn’t really eating, but wanted something to drink. I was just sitting there. All I had to do was look at you. You didn’t look at my plate or my empty glass. You just said, Deanna’s thirsty. You were so authoritative about it. It was just a fact.”

Such a relationship with my sister has been the only one of its kind that I’ve ever known. And I don’t have a relationship like that with anyone at this point in my life, even with Deanna. The loneliness and individuality of adulthood, time spent apart, different relationships and different experiences have rendered us less accessible to each other, however close we may be on the spectrum of adult-sibling closeness.

But it’s good to remember.

Originally published by the West Seattle Herald 11/16/2015.

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The Stakes of Survival: ArtsWest’s My Mañana Comes

West Seattle HeraldFor those who are or have worked in the service industries, it can sometimes feel like you can tell who also serves or has served in the industry or not. There’s something about the tips, the eye contact, and they way they receive your service—with either compassionate patience or ruthless accountability.

Elizabeth Irwin’s My Mañana Comes introduces the all-too-real-life scenario of such servers. Behind the scenes of a fancy New York City restaurant, four busboys, Whalid (Joshua Chessin-Yudin), Peter (Tyler Trerise), Jorge (Santino Garcia), and Pepe (Chris Rodriguez) are comrades-in-arms on a common quest to make a decent living. And while they do, they can sympathize with and even envy each other’s drudgery and dreams. Whalid wants to move out of his parents’ house, Peter wants to provide for his family, Jorge is saving up for a house, and Pepe would like a better life.

A rift forms when management decides to cut the busboys’ already barely reliable wages. Whalid and Peter, the New York natives, and their need to stand up for a living wage in the long term, come up against Jorge and Pepe, the illegal immigrants, and their need to keep their head down and get by as best they can for now. Who suffers? Who sacrifices? Can their needs be reconciled? Meanwhile, the true villain who created the desperate and unlivable situation remains faceless, out-of-reach, and unconcerned.

The ArtsWest world creation through stage design remains reliably on point. The lemon wedges are juicy, the knives are sharp, the sinks pour, the exit of the back of the restaurant lets in street sounds, and even the official health code documentation posted to the wall is perfect.

ArtsWest’s intimate stage is perfect for this play, where the audience is brought so close to the character’s nerves. Tyler Trerise’s performance was especially compelling. Through him the audience was able to glimpse Peter’s light-heartedness, pride, confidence, and desperation. His energy dominates the climactic scene of the play, and feels utterly authentic. Director Mat Wright did well to encourage and trust his actors to fill the space with all their energy.

For those concerned with immigration, the living wage, and the human condition, ArtsWest’s My Mañana Comes is the real thing.

My Mañana Comes is being performed at ArtsWest Theatre (4711 California Ave SW, Seattle, WA 98116) Wednesdays – Saturdays at 7:30pm, Sundays at 3pm from October 29 – November 22. Tickets are $30 – 37.50 standard, $30 – $33 seniors (65+), and $17 students, and may be purchased online, over the phone (206-938-0339), or at the box office.

Originally published by the West Seattle Herald 11/11/2015.

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Art class, intersections, and definitions

West Seattle HeraldColin and I were driving home on a dark, rainy evening. The streets were hissing slick with wet. The lights from cars and traffic lights were bitingly bright. It had been a long day for the both of us, and I still had writing to do after another full day at the bookstore. Then we had each other on top of it all, distinct, separate beings, in it together.

We found ourselves stopped at the five-way intersection of 16th and Roxbury in White Center. It was rush hour, and lines of cars were crowding towards the crossroads from all directions. Pedestrians huddled in puffy coats beneath the street lamps. They looked cold.

“I find it interesting,” Colin mused, “That everyone stuck at this intersection right now is looking at it differently.”

It was an idea we had vocalized to each other before: the problem of how subjective truth interacts with objective truth, how each inevitably affects the other, the stakes that are raised as a consequence, and how to both value and distinguish between truth and honesty. It was one of those ideas that feels tangible, because it is deeply felt, yet at the same time, is abstract enough that one must bend oneself backwards in order to explain it, and remains therefore, elusive. At the bookstore the next day, I continued to ponder, and then, was there a word for it?

“Dean,” I pleaded. “Help me out. You know how, say you’re in an art class and everyone is painting the same bowl of fruit. Everyone’s painting comes out different, partially because there’s a disparity in individual talent and technique, but what I’m looking for is a word that has to do with the fact that the differences in the paintings are differences in perspective. Like every painting is a true representation of the bowl of fruit, even if all the paintings are different. Is there a word for that?”

Dean paused and pursed his lips. “Sonder is the word you’re looking for, I think. Here.”

And he wrote down on a piece of scrap paper: Sonder – n. the realization that each random passerby is living a life as vivid and complex as your own.

I felt relief, and even joy, from a sense of legitimacy, as if I couldn’t prove the existence of something the way I envisioned it unless I could name it. Sonder. If anyone’s life is as vivid and complex as my own, then it follows that anyone’s perspective of reality would be different and yet as legitimate as my own. Sonder! Was there a verb form? I’m sondering?

The Oxford English Dictionary hadn’t a clue what I was talking about. But Google did, and brought me to The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows, a compendium of invented words, each aiming to fill a hole in the English language by giving a name to emotions we all might experience but don’t yet have a word for, by John Koenig. A word nerd, I was gleeful, and immediately started browsing. To share just two:

Lachesism – n. the desire to be struck by disaster—to survive a plane crash, to lose everything in a fire, to plunge over a waterfall—which would put a kink in the smooth arc of your life, and forge it into something hardened and flexible and sharp, not just a stiff prefabricated beam that barely covers the gap between one end of your life and the other.

Onism – n. awareness of how little of the world you’ll experience.

These were deeply-felt and gnawing inklings, abstract and (previously) nameless, the kinds of emotions and experiences that move a person, that draw people together or pull us apart. I could imagine countless people afflicted with the knot in their stomach or the tightness of breath that comes from experiencing these emotions, but unable to pinpoint it, even for themselves. They would be without the understanding of their emotion’s relatability, which alone can elevate an affliction to a beautiful wonder.

Anything that seeks to acknowledge the depths of our hearts is worth sharing. The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows is one of those.

Originally published by the West Seattle Herald 11/09/2015.

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Día de Muertos and remembering

West Seattle HeraldDressing up for Halloween answers the question: if you could be anyone or anything on a merry, frivolous, un-normal night, what would you be? A steampunk pirate? Your favorite cartoon character? One of Robin Hood’s men-in-tights? Even the sexy versions of costumes serve the same purpose, because they are a mask—I would never actually wear this!—and so often times ironic and/or ridiculous. Take that sexy cow costume, called, “In the Mooood!” for example.

Studying abroad in Italy, I witnessed how some non-Americans understand how we celebrate Halloween “American style.” That is, costumes and nightclubs as opposed to Catholic mass. I visited the local pub, where an English-speaking vampire sauntered up to me and asked, “Where’s your costume?” When I pointed to the cat whiskers I had drawn on with eyeliner at the last minute, he shook his head and insisted, “You have to be scary!”

Because that’s the other thing about Halloween. There’s an element of horror that is widespreadly celebrated and only vaguely justified. Something about keeping the ghosts away? Because the fabric between the natural and the supernatural world is now at its thinnest? Sure, as long as I get to carve pumpkins, work the ouija board, dress up, stay out late, watch ridiculously outlandish horror films, and eat candy!

Halloween “American-style” is a thrill, a spectacle, a great party—and a far cry from its origin. Worthy as it is to celebrate fantasy and fun, we lose when we lose sight of everything this holiday was originally intended to mean.

I’m not talking about hanging up your fairy wings or wizard cloak in favor of sober, conservative style and a mourning mood. I have my costume picked out and intend to enjoy using it!

But I am talking about death.

Life and death, really. More specifically the practise of remembering and honoring the lives of loved ones who are now lifeless.

Of the versions of this I’ve been exposed to so far, the traditions of Mexican Día de Muertos are by far my favorite. Altars and offerings, marigolds and sugar skulls—a striking and exuberant juxtaposition of life and death. The fabric between the natural and supernatural world is at its thinnest not because it’s that time of year again but because we are paying attention. We paint our faces to resemble skulls not to keep the ghosts away, but rather to commune with them. You—my grandfather, my cousin, my friend—who are no longer with me, live on within me. I acknowledge you, your death, your loss, your past life, and neither of us are alone, or afraid.

It is no small thing, to remember. Memories, as fragile and intangible as ghosts, are also alive. The memory of a wound still stings. The memory of a kiss still tingles. The memory of a loved one still conjures the warm ache of love.

Even as death concurs us, we concur death. But even that doesn’t really portray the spirit of the holiday. Usually we think of life and death as opposites, where to experience one is to not experience the other. Día de Muertos rather seems to suggest that life and death can stand next to each other, color and commune with each other. At least because we, people, color and commune with each other over the courses of our intertwined lives. The deaths of those we love becomes a part of us, and it needn’t necessarily mean internal conflict. It may mean empowerment, for us to breathe life into the memories of others, and by so doing, honor them.

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Music and Motorcycles

West Seattle HeraldOf course, there are other ways than blanking out and bracing oneself to get through a moment of melancholy.

Music has always been a go to. In the first place, I find solace in a song that sympathizes and characterizes my emotion. An allegro, Gipsy Kings-esque song that gets my feet tapping and my hips swaying when I’m happy. A heavy, rhythm-driven, power ballad when I’m angry. A melodic, mournful, Jeff-Buckley-sings-Hallelujah tune when I’m down. It’s satisfying to indulge in my emotions, and comforting to find them channeled through something created by someone else. My emotions are beautiful and in some ways bigger than me.

Especially satisfying is recreating a song. I’m no musician, but I’ve always enjoyed singing and fiddling on my guitar. It’s cathartic to stir up such heartwarming vibrations with my fingertips and feel the breath leave my mouth as my own human-bell-ringing reaches my ears. And then it’s also simply a matter of finding satisfaction in participating in an activity that requires concentration, diligence, intelligence. It’s the satisfaction of overcoming the challenge of interacting with an instrument. It’s the solace of being One with more than myself.

It’ll perk you right up, the purring of a guitar at your fingertips. You know what also purrs? A motorcycle.

It’s a thing if you’re a motorcycle person, have you noticed? Motorcyclists wave to each other, even if they don’t know each other. They ride and gather in flocks. They seem to adore their vehicles as much as a favorite pet…or person. Motorcyclists have their own culture, their own philosophy. Their sense of community is bolstered by a common drive to escape from the static and status quo towards the romance of nomadism and freedom.

The complicated and idealist concept of freedom—its value, cost, and the nuances of its responsible application—are a personal and constant concern of mine. If it weren’t for the fact that I’ve lost a family member to a motorcycle, I probably would have caught on to the thrill of the ride sooner.

What that loss first taught me was to fear. But what good is fear? I’ve discovered that, of all emotions, fear is unique in that it shouldn’t be indulged. It alone clouds experience, obstructs compassion and connectivity, and is certainly not conducive to freedom. So, after some reconsideration, I concluded that the trick to the freedom of motorcycles is getting your motorcycle under control. I spent an entire weekend, Saturday and Sunday 7:30am to 5pm, learning to do just that.

I can only commend my instructors at Evergreen Motorcycle Safety Training for their patience and diligence in teaching me. This included actively molding my left hand into a position so that I could actually manipulate the all-important (and all-previously-mysterious-to-me) clutch, and uprighting me when I caused my motorcycle to collapse. It was exhausting, painstakingly acquainting myself with 300 pounds of a whining, grumbling machine, already oft-abused by beginners-in-training such as myself.

But what a reward to learn to make that same motorcycle purr, to upshift to second gear, and weave through the cones of a parking lot at 20 mph. It may not sound like much, but it’s still a ride. It’s THE ride. It’s concentration and coordination alongside the whisper of the wind against your cheeks and the sensitive responsiveness of a large mechanical animal that, if your treat it nicely, becomes an extension of yourself.

What can I say? I’m no musician and no motorcyclist, except that I can play music and ride a motorcycle. And I can look forward to feeling a lot better whenever I do so, no matter what’s getting me down.

Originally published by the West Seattle Herald 10/26/2015.

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Melancholy and Mahjong

West Seattle HeraldSometimes there is melancholy. Explicable or inexplicable, there just is. There’s no shame in it, though to bear melancholy is to feel uncomfortable, awkward, pained, disquieted, humbled. At least this is how I feel, also because I cannot help but to bear my emotions legibly. Where uplifting emotions move across my face with exuberant animation, opposite emotions that cause me to feel weak and vulnerable freeze my features. A blank expression on my face is as sure a sign of distress as tears. When I experience a negative emotion such as melancholy, my solution is often simply to brace myself and hope to get through it.

My coworkers recognized it a mile away. A gentle, sympathetic discussion arose.

“It must be something in the air,” Phil said. “The change of the season.”

Dean said, half-jokingly.“You should go on an epic quest for happiness.”

An epic quest for happiness? I wondered. That’s just melodramatic enough that it might work.

Of course, by the end of the day, melancholy had got the better of me and I decided to just go home and sip tea with a cat in my lap. Sweet insta-happiness. But then I was late for my bus and I was faced with the choice of having to loiter at a rowdy bus stop for a half hour (on an empty stomach), or else embark on an epic quest for happiness—at least until Colin got off work at 8 p.m. and could pick me up on his way home.

Epic quest it was.

It was curious, I noted, that I hadn’t taken more advantage of the proximity of my workplace to my old stomping grounds in the International District, where I had lived for over two and a half years, to benefit from my knowledge of the best of its assets. Namely, food. More specifically, King Noodle, where I could order my old cold-weather comfort: boiling hot congee (rice porridge) with slices of fresh ginger, acorn squash, and BBQ pork.

Alone at my table, sipping the delicious concoction seasoned with hot sauce and raw peanuts, I remembered why not. My residency in the International District, when I was still frequenting the University for my undergraduate degree, already felt like another life ago. Since I had moved out, I had avoided the International District because important pieces of my life there were no longer a part of my life now. I was a tourist of my own past, and it didn’t feel right. Or, at least, it didn’t alleviate my melancholy.

Alas, the first step into my epic quest for happiness had steered me rather towards bittersweet nostalgia. Oh, well, sighed my melancholy. Might as well keep with the momentum and go get some work done at my other old haunt, the cafe of Panama Hotel. It was a favorite spot because of its resemblance to a quiet, quirky grandmother’s sitting room, complete with piano and board games, and I did have that weekly column…

My readers may be pleased that Panama Hotel did not turn out to be the quiet retreat where I expected I could meditate on my melancholy. One, because such is the nature of an epic quest. And two, because enough already!

I found mahjong. Rowdy games of mahjong championed by older women, no less. Quietly tucked away, I settled into the warmth of their energy.

“Something is not going according to plan here…” chuckled a grey head bent over the board.
“We’ll see…we’ll see…” mischievously smiled another from across the table.
“Maybe you’re wondering why I made that move?” teased one.
“Are we being too loud over here?” jokingly cried the first over to the next table.
“You’re making me want to come over there!” came the response.

Working in Pioneer Square, I often witness the energy that surrounds the major sports, but from a bad angle. Rallies swarm the plaza, loud speakers shake the windows, and intoxicated fans stumble through the alleyways. From that angle, I often find myself feeling dismissive. It’s just a game! I think, wondering at the emotional and financial investment. Call me a traitor, but in the end, it doesn’t actually matter who wins.

Observing the competition amongst the mahjong-ers, I was reminded that games are valuable because of how they allow for human contact. Arbitrary stakes welcome risk and strategy to one’s benefit and at another’s expense in such a way that it is an embrace. To challenge each other is to connect with each other.

Originally published by the West Seattle Herald 10/19/2015.

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A Behind-the-Scenes Glimpse at the 2015 Seattle Antiquarian Book Fair

West Seattle HeraldWeeks in advance Gregg broke out his mischievous, knowing grin. Based on past years, he anticipated first light-hearted procrastination, then a few frantic days of selecting, boxing, loading, unloading, unboxing, displaying…all accompanied by frustration and regret over last minute details fallen through in midst of the rush. Dean caught the hint and nudged me to suggest to Phil what Phil was already fretting over deep down below all the rest of the projects on his plate. I know because he occasionally muttered wisps of afterthought: Arundel Books had to get ready for the Seattle Antiquarian Book Fair.

Thus commenced the light-hearted procrastination. Never having been to one of these events myself, I suggested that we all dress in Renaissance Fair costumes and adopt Old English accents. Dean wrinkled his nose at the prospect of trying to locate for himself a pair of appropriate pantaloons. I tried to coax Phil to my side by promising to make use of my super thrift-shopping skills to find him an important looking cavalier hat…or something! Alas, Phil laid down his veto. “This is serious. Just wear something nice,” he pleaded.

Then commenced a few frantic days. We filled approximately sixty boxes with whole shelves from our rare room, gouged gaping holes in our fiction and poetry sections, lugged awkwardly large and delicate manuscripts, even dislodged whole bookcases from the walls to take with us and reconstruct in the Seattle Center Exhibition Hall for the weekend.

Perhaps a combination of jaded experience and newbie enthusiasm made for comparatively fewer frustrations and regrets than past years. Shelves went up and were screwed down without incident. Books found alphabetical homes over the course of the day. Special pieces were displayed and appropriately labeled with Annie’s delicate handwriting on strips of fine printing paper with deckled edges.

It turns out that the true first day of the Seattle Antiquarian Book Fair, scheduled for the October 10th-11th weekend, belongs to the dealers. Friday, October 9th, the Exhibition Hall opened its doors at 8am for a full day of set-up. Of course, it doesn’t take a whole day to set-up shop when shop consists of a 100 square foot booth. Phil, Dean, and I dallied until 9am and were done setting up by noon.

This, despite the fact that ours was a heavy set-up compared to most of the other dealers. Such is the benefit of picking up and carrying ourselves from only the other side of downtown, as opposed to coming from across the United States, or even across the Atlantic Ocean. Where other dealers had to work with temporary shelves and cases, Phil and Dean cocooned our booth with actual wooden, backed bookshelves. Once these were drilled into place and packed with our wares, our booth resembled a small, condensed version of our actual bookstore.

How else might bibliophiles such as ourselves spend the rest of our working hours than by perusing our neighbor’s shelves, greeting old friends and meeting new ones, and glutinously partaking of the free coffee and pastries?

Some observations from a newbie’s perusings. At first glance, the Book Fair, and, for that matter, the rare/collectable book business, is a bit of an old boy’s club. Most of the dealers are middle- and post-middle-aged gentlemen. They scrutinize the integrity of book spines and offhandedly boast of their rarest wares. At first glance, a few are not necessarily the most tactful. Take the following exchange that occurred at the coffee counter between me and a long and scruffy-bearded man in a purple Hawaiian T-shirt:

Him: “Hi, there. You must be a book babe.”
Me: “Oh?”

Wait for it. The punchline:

Him: “Me too.”

The truth is the book business is not an easy one, and to stay in it for 10, 20, 50+ years is a animated effort of passion and love. In just one day I glimpsed dealer’s eyes sparkle at the beauty of a delicate and fading fore-edge painting on a rare, illustrated edition of Don Quixote. A man with quivering, grey locks bobbed and bubbled over the “marvelousness” of a first edition poetry pamphlet. A younger dealer described his heartbreak in trying to find good homes for thousands of pieces of his collection before he relocated across the country.

And just as these older men had preserved their youthful enthusiasm for literature and art, so did I witness a rejuvenating of the business. Dealers my age set up smaller booths with their personal favorite fine press broadsides and first edition science fiction titles. Once the doors opened to the public, middle school- and high school-aged youth ogled Medieval manuscripts. Tucked behind my own counter, I was proud and grateful to be a part of it.

Originally published by the West Seattle Herald 10/12/2015.

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Sprinter: Marathon-Running Part 2

West Seattle HeraldIt turns out that I’m a sprinter. That is, as opposed to…what? A runner? Let me explain.

I survived the half-marathon! And I was surprised to discover something about myself that makes total sense now that I’ve discovered it, but wouldn’t have thought of in this way were it not that I just ran a half-marathon. It has to do with how I ran the half-marathon.

Last I left you, I had arrived in Park City, Utah and was about to run the North Face Endurance Challenge the next day. My understanding had been that the marathon route would be a long, 26.2 mile loop around the hillsides, of which I would run 13.1 miles all in one go. It turns out that, actually, the route my partner (a fun Frenchman friend named Fred) and I ran was a 6.55 mile loop which we would each run twice, in turns.

This break between half-half-marathons proved to be essential. Remember how I mentioned, last I left you, that the marathon route would start at 7,000ft of elevation and would rise another 3,000? That’s because we were running up and down a ski slope at a mountain resort. The trail we were running was actually a mountain bike trail that zigzagged up and down the slopes. It bowed in the center from the wear of so many bike wheels passing over, and there were plenty of jutting roots and sharp rocks to trip over and, as was the case of a young woman running just ahead of me, impale one’s hands upon.

My fear that I wasn’t ready proved true. The first 3+ miles of uphill winded me. The last 3+ miles of downhill tripped me up. I ran and, yes, walked at intervals according to my degree of exhaustion, feeling like I was going to throw up, and fearing I would trip and fall. Whether running or walking, it felt like slow-going, and the only times that I was able to accelerate to full speed was on the flat straightaway just before the finish line.

I worried I would disappoint Fred, my relay partner. I worried that my other friends, experienced runners also running the relay marathon, would pass me up. After the first exhausting loop, I was tempted to bow out of the second one.

Instead, I developed a method to get through it. Run until you can’t. Walk until you can. The running was more like jogging. The walking was more like lungeing. I didn’t want to lose speed, seeing how my strides were already so much smaller.

Only after I had finally crossed the finish line and had had the chance to nurse for a while on electrolyte-infused water and potato chips did my friends and I get the final results of run. And I was utterly surprised. I was the fastest runner.

“You’re a beast!” my friends cheered, equally surprised.
“You’re making me look bad,” Fred teased.

Of course, this was all in fun. My friends were much more experienced, efficient runners. None of them got close to passing out or throwing up. Where I needed to lie down, the rest of them were ready to drink beer at the after-party. They were runners. I discovered I was more of a sprinter.

What, my metaphysical friends, could be the implications?

There are different ways of getting through the same challenges. At the moment of the race, I didn’t know well what it would be like or what I was doing. I was very grounded in the present moment. Can I run? Do I need to walk? Can I walk faster? Now I can sprint! I was less able than my friends to coordinate my efforts according to the long haul, to pace myself in a way that I could maintain the entire 6.55 mile loop.

My challenge was an endurance of pieces, because my half-marathon was broken up into more than just two half-half-marathons. The entire journey I broke into differently-manageable increments. Across this straightaway I can jog. Up this ridge I must walk. Across the finish line I will sprint.

Whether climbing a hill or living life, it would serve me well to learn to pace myself for the long haul. But in the meantime, it turns out I’m not doing too bad by giving my all to every Amanda-sized interval. Good to know.

Originally published by the West Seattle Herald 10/05/2015.

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Distance and open spaces

West Seattle HeraldI’m not ready.

Sure, I’ve trained. I did a pretty good job too, the first four of eight weeks. I ran three days a week, two short days and one long day, each week adding another half mile to the short days and a mile to the long day. But halfway through my resolve was contaminated. Excuses became more and more obscure. Dance class counts as running. Biking to work counts as running. Moving my belongings to a new house counts as running.

It doesn’t.

I know this from years of training for soccer. Shooting practice, strength training, even scrimmaging was negotiable, but the running that came at the beginning and end of the practice session was not. That’s because oftentimes, with all due respect to the game, it all comes down to which team can outrun the other.

Nothing gets you ready to run 13.1 miles like running 13.1 miles. So far in my training, in one go I’ve only managed nine.

So, I’m not ready. And hey, that’s OK. They didn’t name the half-marathon “The NorthFace Endurance Challenge” for nothing. Once I’ll have begun the run, it’s not like I’ll have a choice about whether or not I’m going to make it. The trail makes a loop around the remote hills of Park City, Utah, and going all the way is the only way. It’s going to kick my butt, but in the mere act of making it, I’ll have kicked its butt back.

Ain’t that the only way? And isn’t that why we do this to ourselves in the first place? That is, isn’t any act of surviving a ritual reminder of the long haul that is our every challenge, that is our life? Isn’t that what Finding Nemo taught us? Just keep swimming…just keep swimming…

Over these few days, I get to observe, experience, and contemplate distance in ways I don’t usually get to in my day-to-day life in a walkable, urban environment. My marathon by foot is preceded by a marathon by wheel. To get to these special 13.1 miles and 3000ft of rise in elevation, I’ve traversed over two days 832 miles comprised of Eastern Washington, Oregon, Idaho, and Utah.

I always forget and am awed by the landscape as it exists where there is no coast. There are dry, flat stretches of nothing but weeds and tumbleweeds. The horizons are blurred by heat. Green fields are homogenous, vegetable entities. Open spaces between places are smooth straightaways or else hypnotizing hills and valleys interrupted only by jutting, crumbling rock face. My Subaru is a caterpillar on a highway of the outermost branches. The sky seems to reach farther, fall deeper.

I can only attempt to describe the feeling I get looking out at such rises and expanses by referring to the familiar. The land is an ocean as seen from the shore. It stretches out indefinitely, patched with dark and light. When there are hills on the horizon, they are like desert islands, or they are like the frozen fossils of giant waves. The sky is an ocean as seen from above. The clouds are the white crests of ever-undulating waves and the hawks are like anchovies glinting close to the surface.

Such lazy thoughts speed through me as the dry, patient miles speed below me at 70 mph.

I see the dusty hills rise around me and wonder about how it will feel look to run up, down, and around them. I wonder how long it will take, how much sweat I will expel, how soon cramps will riddle my muscles and aches my joints.

I think the world out here doesn’t feel Amanda-sized as much as the city does. In my everyday world, feet and legs are an appropriate instrument for maneuvering the available space. In no way is that practical, if possible, out here.

Remote, inland distance is an unfamiliar beast for me, and I wonder how it is to live adapted to it. On the way to Utah, I saw low-rise metropolises that yawned across flatlands, gaping parking lots, shopping centers bigger than state-run college campuses, and single properties that had their own highway exits. Expanses between expanses.

I don’t know yet what to make of it except to note that immensity is noteworthy, useful for recalling perspective, and awe-inspiring. But we’ll see how well I feel about it after the race tomorrow.

First published in the West Seattle Herald 09/29/2015.

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