Living history

West Seattle HeraldMy sister Deanna observes that Oma and I answer the phone with the same drawn-out and sing-song-y, “Hallooo!” We entertain ourselves in similar ways, dancing whether we have a partner or not, singing aloud whether we know the lyrics or not, sans embarrassment. We both read books voraciously, nurture children and animals compulsively, call people for no other reason than to say hello, or, in Oma’s words, “just checking to make sure that you’re still alive.” Both of us harbor deep, difficult-to-articulate hurt. Difficult to articulate because of how entrenched and visceral it feels, but also because the trauma is hard for many people to relate to. You know the uncomfortable pressure of witnessing or listening to another person’s suffering that leaves you feeling inadequate, hollow, defeated. It’s an isolating experience for everyone, teller and listener. All the more reason why it means so much to have someone you can call up who can comfortably listen. For me, that’s Oma.

“Hallooo!”

“Hallooo, Amanda! You won’t believe what Ole found for me.”

Ole is the son of Oma’s sister, part of the line of my family still living in Germany. The last thing he found for Oma was a book about the region in East Prussia where Oma lived in her infancy, before the Soviet Army forced her family to flee to Graz, Austria with only so much of their possessions as they could carry in their arms. Oma had bookmarked pages to show me—maps of the city nearest her farming village, black-and-white pictures of the lush countryside. She had been especially gleeful about the official headcount. 683! I was one of those 683!

“What did Ole find for you?”

“He sent me a list of all the people who were killed in the air raids on Graz during the war. And I’ll be darned, there was my mother’s name!”

Oma’s mother was Marie Zeiler. She was an official at the depot that distributed clothing and linens to persons displaced because of the war. On February 1st, 1945 alarms screamed throughout the depot’s neighborhood anticipating an air raid. Marie fled along with everyone else to the nearest shelter, but the doors weren’t closed in time. She was thirty-three years old. Oma was eight.

“That’s amazing, Oma! How does that make you feel?”

“Well, it blows you away…”

The excited tone of her voice drains away into something soft and distant. This is the hard part, explaining how it makes you feel, what it means. Describing it as a knot in your gut, as a hurt in your heart, is only the beginning of it.

“Is it amazing because they thought to document all those people?”

“Well, no. I knew they had to document all those people somewhere, because they almost had to bring me to the morgue to identify her. Thank goodness Mom’s sister arrived in time. It’s also crazy because I remember the dates. I remember standing at the window in my hallway and hearing a bomb drop a month after that, and it’s written right here.”

I’d heard the story about the morgue. Oma’s father was by this time a prisoner of war and it was unknown whether he was dead or alive. A few days after the bombing that killed Marie, Oma was picked up by the local authorities and was on her way to the mass morgue when her aunt arrived, just in time, to take over the official duty of identifying Marie’s corpse. The story about hearing the bomb that dropped a month later, that was a new one. It wasn’t even a story, really. It was an image. It was an image that gave greater depth and dimension to Oma’s internal and external world as a child, a world that was so different than mine.

“Are you OK?”

“Yes, I’m OK. You put all these things behind you after so long. It’s just, it also jolts you. It brings tears to your eyes, even after all this time.” Her voice falters.

I ask her why.

“Because it’s real,” she says.

There’s nothing more to say. Oma and I will see each other tomorrow at Mom’s house for Chris’s big tamale-making party. She’ll show me the official document, “Die Bombentoten von Graz 1941-1945.” Two hundred and twenty-nine pages in, Marie Zeiler occupies a single line. For me it’s just a last, lonely, dangling thread, but for Oma it conjures the great tapestry that once was her mother. It blows her away. And that blows me away.

First published by the West Seattle Herald 2/8/2016.

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Reality is better

West Seattle HeraldReality is better, certainly. At the end of the day, reality is what’s left when all enhanced realities are put away. It used to be easier to tell the difference—art, film, music, playstations—all of these enhanced realities were limited in their means and scope such that they could distract from, inform, communicate with, but not substitute for reality. Now technology has advanced and has become so integral to our personal and social lives that the line between enhanced reality and reality reality is blurred. Devices have become real extensions of our physical body in the virtual reality we’ve created for ourselves. Now there’s Pokemon Go.

Imagine. It’s rush hour and I’m on the bus, crammed into a side seat at the back between two broad-shouldered men wearing reflective construction vests. Most of the commuters stare vacantly out the window, over the heads of other commuters, down at their phones. I’m no better, flipping through the profiles of Seattle-based tattoo artists on Instagram. The bus stops, more people cram in and the mechanical bus voice instructs them to, “Please make room for others. Please proceed to the back.” Three droopy commuters shuffle into the narrow floor space in front of me and turn around, dangling from the hand rails above my head. There’s a hunched older woman in a purple knit cap, a teenager bouncing on the toes of his dirty sneakers, and a businessman in a trenchcoat. My phone buzzes and I look up. The businessman reaches into his coat, pulls out his sleek, black iPhone, checks the screen, looks around. Our eyes meet. It’s on.

This is a very different world than the one where I couldn’t be detached from my Gameboy and the one game I ever played on it: Pokemon Yellow. In that world my game play was limited to a two-dimensional, pixelated landscape observed two square inches at a time. In the wild places of this world you encountered Pokemon native to the area, which you battled and captured, or else Pokemon trainers like yourself, who you pitted your Pokemon against to gain fighting experience that made your Pokemon stronger. In each town you battled against the members of the local Pokemon training gym and, if you beat the gym leader, earned the town’s merit badge. You were a Pokemon Master once you’d earned every merit badge, but you won the game only by capturing at least one of every species of Pokemon, a quest that involved strategically exploring every diverse environment of the game world.

Pokemon Go promises nothing more than exactly this, but in the real world. Thus, more than any other subsequent manifestation of the game, Pokemon Go addresses the question that my imagination inevitably poses when role playing: what would my actual world look like if Pokemon were in it?

More awesome! Take the hypothetical busride battle between Mr. Business and myself. As Pacific Northwest locals, the types of Pokemon we would more likely encounter on the whole would be grass, water, and fairy types—as opposed to, say, sand and rock types that you might find in rural Idaho, or the Middle East, or the Sahara Desert. Mr. Business might have more opportunity than I to travel and trade, so he might have a few surprises up his sleeve. Since I work in Pioneer Square, home of the Spooked in Seattle ghost tour, I might have captured a Ghastly, a hard-to-find ghost type Pokemon, by pacing around the dark, deserted square after work. I might even have captured an Eevee, a very shy Pokemon, because I happen to live by a quiet Greenbelt on the edge of town. A simple, normal type Pokemon at a low level, Eevee would become a valuable asset once leveled up and evolved into Flareon—a fire type Pokemon, otherwise impossible to find in my region. The more urbanite Mr. Business on the other hand, who stepped onto the bus in the Industrial district and probably works at one of the corporate offices, would probably have captured Rattata and Pikachu, normal and electric type mice, and Pidgey, a normal/flying type, the Pokemon equivalent of a rat with wings. But Mr. Business might also be a frequenter of gyms, and have discovered there some powerful fighting type Pokemon, like Hitmonlee, lurking in some far corner of the locker room. Buttoned up in the daytime, Mr. Business might spend his free time in back alley dive bars and be a collector of dark type Pokemon, like Houndoom. Me on the other hand, my first captured Pokemon more than likely would be a Cottonee, a goat-like grass/fairy Pokemon, that I found in my neighbors’ back yard, frolicking around their actual goat tethered there.

The hypothetical matchup doesn’t come down in my favor. His dark and fighting type Pokemon are super-effective (that’s the technical term) against my normal and fairy types. Quick Attack after Crunch after Mega Kick, I’d watch with bated breath as my babies’ came under attack and their health points drained away. Only once it was over would I take a deep breath and pick up a whiff of my own nervous sweat. One of the broad-shouldered men, looking over my shoulder, would pat me on the back. Mr. Business and I would shake hands. Chuckling, he would tell me about this epic encounter he had with the leader of the LA gym, a cocky ex-producer who specializes in electric types and didn’t take well to losing. Had I earned Seattle’s merit badge yet? Because, of course, Seattle would have its own gym, and gym leader, specializing in water type Pokemon. His name would be Frank and he’d work at Amazon.

I’d happen to glance over and see a critic in the corner, shaking his head at our dweeby, adolescent socializing. But then the critic would go back to his own smart phone, back to scrolling through his Facebook feed and his Candy Crushing. He’s just as trapped in the Matrix. Better to bridge the gap between virtual reality and reality reality by marrying the two, by enhancing our environment and finding further means to access those populating it, even if through a game and a device. After all, the point of Pokemon Go is that reality is better.

First published by the West Seattle Herald 2/1/2016.

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Can’t look away from ArtsWest’s Really Really

West Seattle HeraldPaul Downs Colaizzo’s Really Really gnarls your viscera. It’s a psychological thriller you want to look away from, but can’t. You think you know what’s happening, but then your expectations are so utterly dashed that all you can do is gawk in horrified stupefaction and lean forward, gripping your knee caps, bracing for the last.

Modern twists turn about a timeless violence. At an average college house party, Leigh (Jessi Little) follows Davis (Riley Shanahan) into his bedroom. They have sex. Leigh says she was raped. Davis was so drunk he can’t remember, but he’s a good guy, he wouldn’t do that. Their friends are forced to take a stand, as witnesses, defenders, prosecutors. What really happened? Each new scene informs and challenges the last. The stakes are ever-raised. You feel like you’re watching a plane plummeting from the sky, you know it’s going to crash, but you can’t see the ground and you don’t know why.

All the more horrifying is the fact that Really Really is, depending to your perspective, either highly relatable or highly recognizable. The girls’ apartment is decorated with Crate and Barrel. The boys’ apartment is strewn with textbooks, empty beer cans, and video game controllers. We know these kids. We’re both exasperated by and believe in these kids. They just want to be happy. Just want to work hard and get a good job. Just want to rise up in the world. Just want to belong. Just want to be. Me. Me. Me.

The strength of ArtsWest’s production is the actors. Everyone succeeds in conveying distinct personalities with realistic motivations. All are quivering on the edge, in turn are both the perpetrators and victims of intense physical and psychological trauma. Everyone is convincing. In particular, Joshua Chessin-Yudin plays a perfectly puppy-like Cooper and Anna Kasabyan plays Haley with a satisfyingly savage swagger.

The unfortunate weakness of the production is that the most important character, Leigh, is ultimately impossible to decipher. It’s too hard to tell what part of her has a bigger influence on the world around her—her vulnerability or her opportunism. The fun of not knowing where the plane is going to crash is compromised when the crash is so gnarly that you can’t recover the black box.

Even so, ArtsWest is really pushing back against the perception that theatre isn’t powerful or relevant to today’s sensibility. Really Really hits hard, and hits home.

Really Really plays January 21 – February 14, 2016 at ArtsWest Theatre (4711 California Ave. SW Seattle, WA 98116), Wednesdays – Saturdays at 7:30pm, Sundays at 3:00pm. Tickets (ranging from $17 – $37.50) are on sale now and may be purchased online at www.artswest.org, by phone at 206.938.0339, or at the box office.

First published by the West Seattle Herald 1/26/2016.

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Director Makaela Pollock on ArtsWest’s Really Really

West Seattle HeraldMakaela Pollock is the director of ArtsWest’s latest production, Really Really by Paul Downs Colaizzo. It is a play that, when it was first produced in 2013, the New York Times described as “Lord of the Flies with smartphones.” Pollock, who describes herself as quietly ubiquitous within the Seattle theatre scene, sat down with me to discuss what audiences may expect of the play with her steering the helm.

Tell me about Really Really.

Really Really is a little bit dangerous. It’s a play that I think ArtsWest is brave to be doing, because it asks us to look at culpability, gender roles, class roles, and the issue of sexual assault in really complex and grey ways. It’s a play that doesn’t come out with a right or wrong kind of morality. Things are really compromised for everyone. You see everyone make objectionable choices.

Is greyness and culpability supposed to define the millennial generation?

To me it’s really a coming-of-age story. In this day and age it takes us a little longer to grow up. We’re asked to take on full responsibilities as a culpable individual a little bit later. Oftentimes it feels like parents don’t expect their kids to be fully on their own until they’re thirty. It used to be that when you turned eighteen you were supposed to be an adult. That has shifted. What Paul Downs Colaizzo has done is paint a picture of the coming-of-age at graduation from college. It’s the new right of passage. The play puts into stark contrast where the characters came from, what type of person they were—a jock, a nerd, the good girl, the girl from across the tracks—and what their role in society is supposed to be against what their hopes and dreams are. This is a dangerous play because the seven characters are fighting tooth and nail for the future they think they deserve.

What have you been trying to get across and how have you been doing that?

Above anything else, empathy. One of the great benefits of spending an evening in the theatre, as opposed to any other form of storytelling, is that it’s a real person up there doing something. That allows us to engage more with the idea of what if it were me? I’ve been trying to make every character on the stage accessible in this way to the audience. I’ve asked the audience to look at everyone as both predator and prey.

What is the take away?

Without giving anything away, my hope is that people will strengthen both their willingness to understand someone with a different point of view, and be more willing to claim what they think is right or wrong. And be willing to change.

Also, the play is structured as a thriller. With each new scene you are given new information about what we think the facts are, who the characters are, and how much we trust them. The audience gets to experience this play as a detective, which is great.

What else should prospective audiences know about the production?

One of the things that ArtsWest is doing in conjunction with this production is to host audience conversations after every performance. They’re really living up to their mission of both programming things that provoke conversation and providing a place to have that conversation. There’s a place for the audience to engage with their take-away, not with an expert, by as a community.

Really Really plays January 21 – February 14, 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 01/23/2016.

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The word and peanut butter sandwiches

West Seattle HeraldI don’t know how old I was exactly, but I was as old as you are when you stand eye-level with the kitchen counter. All the neighborhood kids were gathered in my backyard and we were playing pretend. In this game, I was a cat that bestowed wisdom and favor from my lazy yet daring perch atop the swingset. It must have been late afternoon, because I was hungry and assumed everyone else was hungry too. Without further ado, I found Mom in the kitchen and asked, “Mom, can I make everyone peanut butter sandwiches?”

She was standing at the kitchen sink, looking out at the backyard through the window, and there was a moment before she responded, as if she were entranced. From my kitchen-counter angle, all I could see of her view were the first orange hues in the sky. Finally she turned to me and said, “I’m glad you thought to do that. Of all the things I wish for you to become, I wish that you be kind.”

My memory of the encounter ends there, perhaps because Mom’s words had such a profound impact on me. It was the first time I remember her saying anything that I carried with me as a take-away, except perhaps all the times she said, “I love you.” Something had shifted. It was like she had told me something important about myself that I both knew all along and had never recognized before. That feeling of wanting to be nice to other people, she told me that could be purposeful. Furthermore, I could define myself. With kindness.

I’ve tried to keep the word close ever since then, as a fallback. When in doubt, kindness. It was my word, like a secret name, and it has served me well. I want to be treated kindly by others, so I try to pay kindness back and forward. Give an extra hug. Listen through the silence that comes after words. Forgive and let go. Be first to open the door, buy the coffee, make the peanut butter sandwiches. I learned that there is no starvation economy in the exchange of kindness, in the giving and receiving of the intangible. The outcome has been that I have around me a thick and ever-expanding nest of kind-hearted friends and family.

This year, I celebrated the New Year by staying up until three o’clock in the morning playing boardgames with a small group of new friends. We didn’t talk New Year’s resolutions, but one person did ask, “So what’s everyone’s word for the year?”

“You mean, like a mantra?” I asked. “Like, I think I can, I think I can…?”

“Yeah, or, just a word,” he replied.

Everyone murmured and mumbled, working it out. A few qualifiers came to be of assistance. The word should be a guide and a goal, a means and an end. It should be a natural extension of the progress you’ve made up to this point, an action/idea that is born of your current context that you carry and will carry you forward. Diligence, said one. Peace, affirmed another.

I felt like a spotlight had been inadvertently shined onto my inner world, onto my kindness. The word was on the tip of my tongue, but then the proposition of articulating it made me realize that the word driving me forward these days was something a little different. Kindness by now felt like an unconscious part of me. I had moved on to other doubts that I needed to address.

I realized that the greatest obstacle in my adult life has been fear. Fear because I care about how I influence the world around me. Fear because I am a young adult, but not so young, and the shape of my future depends on the foundations I lay in the present. Fear because freedom and self-actualization have not until the past year felt so real and so overwhelming.

I needed a new word.

Around the table, it was my turn. “Courage,” I said.

“Good one,” they smiled.

First published by the West Seattle Herald 1/18/2016.

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Not in and of oneself indecent

West Seattle HeraldSoaking for several hours with eight other naked women in a hot tub, in an open room in the spa with three other similarly packed tubs, I pondered two things: tattoos (because there were a smattering of those to appreciate), and the lack of opportunities we have in our society to be naked.

It’s too bad, is my first thought. I enjoy the rare occasion that I find myself comfortably and respectfully naked with other adult women of all ages, colors, shapes, and sizes. There’s a nice camaraderie to it, a shared fleshy humanness. Perhaps because our bodies are as unique and inextricably part of who we are as our sense of self. I appreciate when we get to experience that part of each other, without judgment or shame.

Not everyone thinks so, of course. It’s an ongoing discussion even within my own family. What’s the big deal? I ask. I don’t want to see that! some of them say. And no one wants to see me! The fundamental polarity between these perspectives makes it feel like we must be talking about completely different things.

But we aren’t. We’re talking modesty. We’re talking social convention. And I understand that social conventions are important. They are the most immediate, even unconscious, means by which we all agree to play nicely with each other. But it’s important to also remember that social conventions are not natural (they are not inherent laws of nature/reality, like, say…gravity), and they are also mutable. That’s why the boundaries of modesty even within our own country differ community to community (head coverings vs. long sleeves vs. tank tops), and  have changed over time—it wasn’t until the mid-1930s that in the United States bans against male bare-chestedness at beaches were lifted*.

Social conventions are boundaries we set for ourselves and for each other, and are often enforced by legislation. We should be mindful what we are agreeing to, and why. If a social convention no longer makes sense, then the community should change it. If a social convention makes sense, but is unfair, then for the sake of fairness, the community should revisit their reasoning. Which leads to my question: if modesty is the convention of behaving and appearing so as to avoid offending established boundaries of propriety and decency, have we all agreed to clothe our nudity because our naked bodies are in and of themselves indecent?

What makes something indecent? Or more specifically, what about the naked body is indecent? My best guess is the sexual implication our society attributes to it. Legally you can go about your way in public so long as your genital organs are clothed. Or in the case of women, also your nipples, even though the same social standard enforced by law doesn’t apply to men.

I’m going to have to pause and nitpick here. The only way this discrepancy in law and social convention makes sense is if we all agree that a woman’s nipples are indecent (sexually implicating) and a man’s nipples are not. Why do we think that? Why do we think that so strongly, even, that breastfeeding in public, while not illegal, is socially frowned upon? Breastfeeding is not a sexual act. And I would argue that the sexual implications of men’s nipples and women’s nipples are the same—it depends on what you’re doing with them. If we’re to go off the legalization of male bare-chestedness, we agree that the mere act of being bare-chested in certain public spaces is not in and of itself a sexual or indecent act.

Or do we agree that sexual implications of a woman’s body exist where they do not exist for a man’s body? Is a woman’s body, in and of itself, a sexual object? Is that why some people argue that female victims of rape are at least partially to blame because they had not adequately obscured their inherent sexuality from their predators?

There was a time in our history that the sight of a woman’s ankle was considered provocative.

But let’s stick to our times. I got my first short skirt in the spring of my senior year in high school. It was a skort, actually, but the point is I was showing leg. And I liked it. My stepdad had something to say about that, of course. He gave me an extendable club to carry in my purse and explained, “You have every right to wear what you want. Unfortunately, there are some people out there who will see you and may try to take advantage of you because they cannot control themselves. If something like that should happen, hit them.”

I appreciated his gesture at the time, but I more fully appreciate it now. My stepdad understood that my body is not fundamentally a sexual object, and whoever may decide that it is and try to lay claim to it deserves a (painful) re-education.

I’ve entered territory I think most people can agree with, but what of nudity? Well, before my body, or parts of my body, are considered indecent, sexually implicating objects to anyone else’s subjective point of view, it is me. It is everything that I feel and do in the physical world. Same goes for you. If we’re going to be so weird and judgey and shaming and taboo about ourselves, I think we would do ourselves a service to revisit our reasoning, stripped to its barest.

* Steven Nelson. Topless Rights Movement Sees Women’s Equality on Horizon. U.S.News.com. Aug, 26, 2015.

First published by the West Seattle Herald 01/11/2016.

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Something old, something new: the gifts we give ourselves

West Seattle HeraldI love the end of the year, if simply because there are enough holidays crammed together that many relatives and friends who are spread far and wide actually have the time off to travel and visit home. One such friend, a college buddy, now a world traveller, had lunch with me to catch up. The conversation steered towards Christmas. He got a high-tech clothes iron with 400 micro-holes. “It isn’t as fun as when we were kids,” he mused, chuckling.

“Oh, I don’t know,” I said. I got leather biking chaps. (Wee!!!)

But seriously, besides the gifts we give each other, one gift we strive to give ourselves at the end of the year is a moment to catch up. Facebook gives you the option of scrapbooking and sharing the highlights of your year. Media recaps the events that inspired the greatest followings. Individually and collectively we seek to characterize what was considered the present until so recently, the better to understand the context from which we move forward.

So much has happened to me this past year, but the one thing I’m most proud of is not something that affected me directly. And there’s even a little story to it.

When I first went to high school, I initially felt at a disadvantage. Much of my new freshman class seemed to arrive in flocks from the same neighborhoods and schools, whereas I was acquainted with only one previous schoolmate and one friend on the first day. Then, just after school started, my family traveled to Munich, Germany to celebrate Oktoberfest and visit relatives. Two weeks of crucial socializing were lost, albeit for an unforgettable trip I wouldn’t trade in. Finally, in those first few months, a rumor blazed through the school that I was a lesbian and I was made fun of and ostracized by some of my classmates.

I wasn’t a lesbian, but suddenly and for the first time in my life, I experienced prejudice, and it had a profound impact on me. After getting over the shock and outrage of it, I helped form the first Gay-Straight Alliance at my school. Still very shy and awkward, I attended Gay Pride.

Now, years later, it all came full circle when I had the chance to take part in the legalization of Same-Sex marriage. It was the greatest exercise of social justice I have ever directly experienced. So even while prejudice against the LGBT community remains, I feel profound pride in our society and relief that our Supreme Court justices came through for their citizens after all.

Journalist Mark Joseph Stern wrote it inspiringly and concisely for Slate:
The decision [in Obergefell v. Hodges] pushed the court to confront the most difficult and enduring questions about our constitutional system. Can the Constitution condone laws that target and disadvantage a certain class of people? Can it let stand laws that are based on religious prejudice? Can our courts sanction an attempt by the majority to disenfranchise an entire group of Americans based simply on their immutable identity? Do the 14th Amendment’s dual guarantees of “liberty” and “equal protection” really apply to every “person,” as the Constitution states—or can voters strip some people of liberty and equality?

Justice Anthony Kennedy’s brave and impassioned opinion for the court answered these questions by looking back in time—back to when some states wished to ban marriages of interracial couples, or to force married women to be legally subservient to their husbands, or to limit married couples’ reproductive autonomy. The court, Kennedy noted, refused to validate these laws, instead choosing each time to expand the freedom to marry beyond its historical (and often bigotry-based) strictures. This case, the justice explained, is really no different. By once again choosing the path of greater freedom, Kennedy affirmed the Constitution’s critical role in safeguarding individual liberty over societal intolerance. It was an epochal moment for the Supreme Court—and for America.

2015 is being characterized as a year of strife, division, and “living dangerously.” Civilized peoples are trying to constructively and ethically confront the problems associated with terrorism, the refugee crisis, climate change, race relations, and division amongst ourselves.

But 2015 has also seen the exercise of tolerance, understanding, social justice, and yes, love. And the best part about it is we’ve given this gift to ourselves. We’ve asked ourselves to rethink bias. LoveHasNoLabels gave a beautiful demonstration of this in February of this year: Love has no gender. Love has no race. Love has no disability. Love has no age. Love has no religion. Before we are divided by difference, we are united by our love and our humanity.

I say, cheers to the path of greater freedom! Cheers to 2015! Onward and upward in 2016!

First published by the West Seattle Herald 01/04/2016.

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Surprise magic

West Seattle HeraldI realize that in many of my most recent columns—engaging with subjects like grief, political frustration, introspection, stillness—I may be coming across as a bit of a Debbie Downer. No, I don’t suffer from SAD (seasonal affect disorder). I’m not overwhelmed or irritated by the holidays. Quite the contrary, I luxuriate in any excuse to gather together with my big, loud family and celebrate the idea of life and light emerging from death and darkness. It’s just, even by the weekend before Christmas, the festivity of the season hadn’t yet caught up with me. Or, despite my best efforts in having done (most of) my Christmas shopping and painting my nails Santa Claus red, I hadn’t caught up with it. I’ve been distracted.

Enter the Democratic debates of Saturday, December 19th. I hastily wolfed down some salad greens in front of my computer screen for the opening thirty minutes, almost regretting that I had a fun evening planned. I was missing it! Oh, well. There’s always Youtube.

But what could I expect of a musical about 38 planes redirected and forced to land in the middle of nowhere, Gander, Newfoundland? This was the premise of Seattle Repertory Theatre’s, Come From Away, a new show that a friend had gifted me tickets to. I didn’t ponder it much as I drove out because I was skipping through radio stations, trying to find the debate. Distracted, see.

Traffic around the Seattle Center turned out to be the worst I’ve ever seen it. Lots demanding $20 for the evening were packed full. I lurched a good thirty minutes through messy streams of vehicles spilling into side streets, worried I was wasn’t going to find a space in time, discouraged by claustrophobia almost to the point of giving up.

When least expected, found a spot I did. I hobbled quickly towards the theatre, relieved and bewildered, a wuss for the cold. I hardly looked around me. The lobby of the theatre was abruptly warm and bright, and I hadn’t long to take this in before the bells tolled and I shuffled through another claustrophobic pack of people to get to our seats. By this point I wasn’t Grinch-y, per se, but I certainly wasn’t embodying the calm, collected perspective of the Who either. Twas perfect dramatic timing for some surprise magic.

I will go ahead and run the risk of writing an inadequately short and frustratingly un-useful (the show closed on December 20th), but rave review of Come From Away. It’s a fast-paced show that immediately gets to the heart of the matter: people (whole-heartedly, selflessly) helping people (who are desperate, scared, uncertain). A welcoming and generosity of spirit born out of crisis and demonstrated despite fear and limited resources. True stories, real people, clearly delineated by brilliant writing and acting. My favorite anecdote was of the young black New Yorker who was being hosted by the mayor of the town. At first he cast a wary eye on his outlandish hosts, and kept his wallet close. But when the town needed to gather together BBQs in order to make enough food, the mayor asked the New Yorker to go into the neighbors’ yards and procure them. What? thought the New Yorker. You want me to get shot? And indeed, he was stopped by every homeowner whose grill he gathered. Stopped, offered a cup of tea, and helped in stealing the grills from their own yards. The New Yorker stopped worrying about his wallet so much after that. And the music! It was well-mixed, beautifully performed, with a live band onstage that got the audience on their feet, clapping and stomping.

Best of all, this show about the 9/11 attacks and resulting crisis not only offered an eye-opening, moving perspective of current overwhelming political issues, but it also unexpectedly and overwhelmingly embodied and inspired the season’s spirit. I felt filled up with it. Everyone was glowing.

Outside the theatre, I took a detour through the Seattle Center on a leisurely meander back to the car. I wrapped my scarf around my head and took in the lights freckling the trees against the night sky. And what to my wondering eyes should appear but hundreds of lightsabers waving through the air? It explained the traffic. Hundreds of people were congregated not only to see the new Star Wars film, but to dress up and take part in an epic lightsaber battle in the square by the Children’s theatre.

It was good to see and be a part of so many people. To hear the stories of those in need and those who welcomed them. To be a part of a crowd inspired and made merry. To witness the light of playing pretend together. Suddenly I remembered that I couldn’t wait for the few days until I could sit with my big, loud family and sing songs around the tree. And that we did.

Originally published in the West Seattle Herald 12/28/2015.

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Memes, motivations, and millennials

West Seattle HeraldI remember the first time I voted. It was 1996, I was nine-years-old, and it was over the phone, to participate in the Nickelodeon Kids Pick the President telethon. At the time, I was about as political as I was religious, which is to say, vaguely aware and uninvested. All the same, I was excited to vote, because it was the first time in my life that I had the chance to implement my (albeit immature and uninformed) opinion about the greater world around me. No matter that my vote didn’t yet count. For the first time I thought, one day it would.

Fast forward another nine years and I think I forgot to take part in my local elections when I turned eighteen. Attending freshman University classes, working a part time job, getting to know my new relationships and freedoms as a young adult, and in general feeling relatively comfortable and privileged took up all my emotional and mental processing, energy, time. I was also flummoxed and frustrated with the political environment—it was 2005, we were still at war, and the various stretched, flexed and mutated reasons for that war didn’t feel like they belonged to or had anything to do with me. I had voted against it, to no avail. My vote had never felt so insignificant.

Having missed out on the millennial turnout in 2008 that brought Obama to office, the only time in my voting-age life that I’ve felt excitement, solidarity, and self-expression through the act of voting was in support of the right to same-sex marriage in Washington state. Otherwise, I’ve not gone out of my way to fill out my ballet every time it arrived in the mail.

Because of this, some might consider me stereotypically millennial. Politically apathetic. If I’m not voting, I must not care. I must be enamored of Russell Brand’s rhetoric. Kids these days.

Surely the distillation of this stereotype rings shallow, but there it is, and here is my defense.

As a millennial, I have opted out of voting because all too often I have not felt represented by my political options. At the front line of a more expansive, interconnected society, I have felt more represented by direct participation and consumption of media, culture, and interpersonal dialogue. Which is to say, in a time where everyone is a journalist, an advocate, a politician, I have more faith in my own ability to directly represent my interests and concerns, instead of entrusting self-undermining, bipartisan politicians and institutions.

The unfortunate consequence of such opting-out is that millennials and millennial perspective are evermore under-represented by those politicians and institutions which implement policy and nevertheless represent us. Whether we like it or not, they shape of our shared world and the course of our shared history.

Enter 2015. I happened to turn down invitations of friends to gather in pubs to drink and be entertained by the same old “sh*t show” of the Presidential primary debates. As usual, I did not go out of my way to listen to the soundbites and only faintly heard the echoes of headlines.

Rather, it was the memes that stopped me in my tracks:

Wounded veterans waving to a crowd during a parade, and the caption, “This is why I don’t care if we torture terrorists.”

Veteran torture

A faceless, camo-draped soldier with a rifle slung over his shoulder, and the caption, “God gave his archangels weapons because even the Almighty knew you don’t fight evil with tolerance and understanding.”

Soldier Angel

A pit of snakes juxtaposed to an image of a crowd of refugees waiting to cross a border into asylum, and the caption, “Can you tell which snakes will bite and which will not?”

Snakes Refugees

An American flag wrapped around a white cross, and the caption, “One nation, under God, not Allah.”

God Allah

Calls to deny the fact of climate change. To criminalize immigration. To abolish public health care. To enforce Christian religious morality on the rights of a secular state. To refuse entry of Muslim refugees into the United States. To implement a mandatory death penalty policy. To carpet bomb the Middle East.

Whoa.

But what made the hair on the back of my neck stand up was that these sentiments were not just being expressed by the isolated, ignorant, hateful, extremist trolls who made the memes, but they were being echoed, in one form or another, by actual Presidential candidates.

Either this was an ingenious ploy to shock people into political participation, or this was the dangerous consequence of opting out for too long.

Either way, I’m informing myself, and I’m going to vote. Not because I’m excited. Because we are better than this. I invite my fellow millennials to do the same.

Originally published by the West Seattle Herald 12/14/2015.

Memes provided by Right Wing News.

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Bloodhounds and dried goji berries

West Seattle HeraldI’ve been so busy this week—seeing a play, giving a talk, traveling, book editing, putting in my hours at the bookstore—I can’t focus. Of all things, I have a bone to pick with a dried goji berry. Ever bitten into one?

I’m at a loss. A single dried goji berry is many things all at once. It is delicious and disgusting. It is chewy, stringy, gritty. It is sweetly tart, bland, bitter. Bits of it stick to the crooks of your teeth like popcorn husks. I bite into one and think, “Bleh…?” Then I bite into another and think, “Why am I still eating this?” Meanwhile, my hand is already snaking back into the bag for a third. Against my will?

There’s something weirdly satisfying about eating a goji berry that reminds me of people’s other strange compulsions. Like scraping fingernails across a chalkboard. Like debating politics with relatives. Like scratching bug bites and picking your nose.

I’m probably eating them wrong in the first place; I’ll have to ask my herbalist friend. Goji berries are also called wolfberries and red diamonds. They are rich in nutrients, though no more, really, than any other kind of berry.

I’m at a loss. That phrase, “at a loss,” was originally used to describe the puzzlement of bloodhounds who had lost the scent of their prey while the hunt. I can empathize with that. Imagine being so focused on your mission—nose to the ground, jowls and ears flopping, tail wagging, the howling of your fellows and hollering of your masters compelling you forward, but most of all the scent, so ripe you can taste it—and then you run up against a stream and, where did the scent go? Where am I?

I used to be frightened of the sound of a toilet flushing. The roar reverberated throughout the long, cold, tiled girl’s bathroom of my elementary school, and though I knew it was irrational, I feared the power of it might drag me into the watery vortex. I flushed and, hands shaking, staggered out of the stall. I felt weak and disoriented until I finally reached the carpeted hallway lined with third-grade art projects in bright, familiar, primary colors.

It takes a long time to process experiences. Too long for a full schedule. It seems like there’s barely any room, barely any time, for your intellect to catch up. I’ve thought that I can do well only one thing a day. When your focus is turned inward, towards processing a lot of things all at once, everything else outside of you can seem tilted, jagged, convex and scattered. As the world continues turning, the muscles and bones of your intellect and emotions are grinding and flexing.

It’s at times like these when you can smoothly go from watching Daniel Radcliffe’s eerie, symbolism-rich, Indie film, Horns, to Bill Murray’s sad clown special, A Very Murray Christmas.

I’ll never understand picking a fight for a fight’s sake. But those goji berries. I both love them and hate them.

Originally published by the West Seattle Herald 12/07/2015.

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