We with our mountain

I live on (let the reader understand). So, on we go, merrily as we can, gratefully as we must.

My parents started taking my sister and me, and eventually my little brother, to visit “the mountain” when we were very small. Mount Rainier is a two or three hours drive to the south of Seattle. One of my earliest car memories — no doubt a pastiche cobbled from many journeys there — is of Jeni and I inventing a song that went “Mount Rainier is coming out to play! Mount Rainier is coming out today!” and singing it over and over as Dad piloted the old station wagon up the winding, sunbright road that hugged the shoulders of the mountain on the way to Paradise Lodge, or more rarely, Sunrise on the more remote north side. It was more of a tuneless cheer, really, and another one like it went “Waterfall! Waterfall! I see a waterfall!”, which we trumpeted each time the car passed one of those sudden splashing cascades that come down to meet the road’s inner edge.


Mount Rainier. My sister thought of it as home.

I remember picnicking somewhere on the way to Paradise, at sturdy wooden tables next to a parking lot. The tight curve and stone bridge at Christine Falls told us we were nearing our destination. We might stop at Narada Falls, too, where Paradise Creek tumbles over a stubborn installment of ancient granodiorite, having eroded away the younger andesite to form the ravine.

And finally, the old lodge with its amazing high-ceilinged interior of polished logs and its gift-shop full of trinkets, mugs, and Indian-reminiscent wares. My folks once bought me a little wood-shafted spear there with a rubber tip and some colorful feathers. The lodge was always so dark inside because it was so blasted bright outside. Across the broad parking lot — blisteringly hot and yet caressed by often icy breezes — was the swank visitor’s center, the old circular one with its second-floor observation deck and interpretive center for combining an understanding of Rainier’s fourteen living glaciers with stunning views of three or four of them (Kautz, Wilson, Nisqually,…), right outside the big windows.

The old visitor center. Apparently everyone hated it, but I never got that memo.

The old visitor center. Apparently everyone hated it, but I never got that memo. Photo swiped from online somewhere.

I remember being there at times when snow still lay 15 feet thick around the parking lot, when you had to enter the visitor center and the Lodge — and more importantly, the pointed chalet-style bathrooms — under the snow through a tunnel that looked like a large section of corrugated tubing. We were also there many times when only little patches of snow remained in shady north-side dells here and there and the meadows were full of brightly-colored flowers — flowers I didn’t pay much attention to then but now know to have been lupines and daisies and Indian paintbrush and avalanche lily, among others. When they were not covered in snow, we hiked up the trails that led steeply from the lodge up among the clumps of alpine fir along the ridges, to where the views of the glaciers were even more impressive. When family members came from the East Coast, we took them to Mount Rainier. It seemed to me that we went there a lot. There is, I’ve just now thought of it, a photograph somewhere, an old black and white one with the white border, that shows myself and my sister Jeni — this was before Ben was born — with a kneeling young woman in a bright blouse and dark shorts. I used to look at the picture and think the woman was our mother, because it looks just like her. But it is Aunt Cindy, Lucinda May, my mom’s younger sister, who died of cancer only a year or two later. I don’t really distinctly remember her visit, but there we are, posing in front of the buildings at Longmire, which is a smaller lodge within Mount Rainier National Park. There’s another picture, one of my favorites from the old family album, of my dad and brother Ben standing in a patch of snow on a steep hillside. Ben is a toddler. Dad in baggy pants and a dark short-sleeved shirt is standing over Ben protectively, while Ben is patting a ball of snow he has just picked up, a look of delight on his face. I think it was his first experience of the stuff.

A prememory trip in Lucinda May, Jeni, Matt, 1963. The metadata tag in my mind says this is at Longmire, but I don't know why I think that. Aunt Cindy died just a year or two later.

Lucinda May, Jeni, Matt, on Aunt Cindy’s visit in April 1963. The metadata tag in my mind says this is at Longmire, but I don’t know why I think that.

Dad and Ben. I remember this photo as my little brother's first experience of snow, but it may be just my brain making up stuff. This was on the mountain, on the trails above Sunrise or more likely Paradise. Click to embiggen and see the look of delight on Ben's face.

Dad and Ben, c.1968. I remember this photo as my little brother’s first experience of snow, but it may be just my brain making things up. This was on the mountain, on the trails above Sunrise or more likely Paradise. Click to embiggen and see the look of delight on Ben’s face. What’s spooky is that I’ve been looking at this photo for more than four decades and never before noticed that there are at least four humans in it.

When I grew up I forgot about the mountain. Like everyone else in the Puget Sound area I saw it almost every day as I moved through my life, and I visited there a couple of times with friends in college, but mostly it became a thing of my past life. I also lost touch with my sister a little bit, since she had kids in her twenties and I was busy doing single things. As their children grew she and my brother-in-law Randy introduced them to the old rock and continued the family tradition of visiting it frequently. I never knew this. My sister and I hardly ever had a chance to converse in our adult lives. But after she died last year and our family drew together more closely than we ever had before, I started to understand that Jeni had instilled in my nieces and nephews a love and reverence for the mountain that approaches the spiritual relationship that the indigenous tribes have with it. To her daughters and her son, it is the spot on the earth that signifies “home”. As married adults, they now have their own memories of family trips to Mt. Rainier and they go there whenever they can.

Millie being Millie at Christine Falls.

Millie being Millie at Christine Falls.

Mara and Angela enjoy a cooling mist at Narada Falls.

Mara and Angela enjoy a cooling mist at Narada Falls.

Last summer it occurred to me that Mara was eight years old and we had never taken her to the mountain, which seemed nothing short of a dereliction of duty on my part. Seeing the mountain as a hazy white hump between hills and buildings is not the same as standing on its flanks, as craning your neck to see its crisp white summit. I resolved that we would go in October, but the calendar got away from us and it didn’t happen.

This year, I started planning for a visit in June, but the snow hung on through June and so the weekend we had set aside to go it would have been basically a long trip to a wet parking lot surrounded by 15-foot dirty bulldozed heaps of snow. We rescheduled and finally got to go last weekend, the first weekend in August.

Indian paintbrush ().

Paintbrush (Castilleja). I always knew this as “Indian paintbrush”.

The girls loved it. We all did. The Jetson’s-style visitor center I knew as a kid is gone, torn down and replaced by a new, smaller, steep-roofed woodsy one that more matches the style of the lodge buildings. Fine by me. Everything else about the place was the same: the wildflowers and low-growing blueberry bushes, the steep trails (mostly paved now), the views across the valley to the Tatoosh Range of peaks, the honeyed stillness, the smell of subalpine fir (Abies lasiocarpa, if memory from my nurseryman days serves), the signs urging us to please not wander off the paved trails because the alpine meadows are delicate, and the big mountain itself, so vivid, so permanent, so unyielding, forbidding and inviting all at once. A volcano, as it happens. An active volcano that could go off at any time, like its sister Mount St. Helens did in 1980 a few valleys to the south and west, and lay waste all the cities and villages in the area.

New memories in an old tradition.

New memories in an old tradition.

I was glad that my daughters got to experience it. To them, for now, it is just a day trip to this big ice-cream cone of a mountain they’ve seen in the distance for as long as they can remember. But the sights and sounds and smells will have made an initial impression, that first layer of mental sediment that will someday be a thick stratum of mountain memories that they will not know the beginning of. It was today, girls, this very day. A single day. We were all there together. I taught you the songs (cheers), and you sang them with innocent glee. My sister was there, too, I’m sure, either because part of her has always been there or because I took her with me in my old broken heart.

It was good to be back.

19,133 days

east wind’s rain and north wind’s clearin’
cold old southwest wind’s a fair wind home
one bell two bells don’t go grievin’
all our bad times past and blown alee”

–Gordon Bok, “Saben the Woodfitter”

If I live to awaken on August 14th I will be a different person in a kind of way. Sometime during the hours that comprise the preceding day there will come a moment when I will have lived 19,133 days. That’s how many days my older sister lived. Nineteen thousand, one hundred and thirty-three days.

She was born 497 days before I was and she died on April 3rd of last year, so sometime on August 13th of this year, or perhaps the hours just around the edges of that day (I can’t figure it that precisely) it will become true of me that I have lived longer — first by a second, and then by several minutes, and then by hours — than the sibling who preceded me into the world. That morning, I will have crossed a psychological border into a territory that I was never meant* to inhabit or tread into or even see.

Seems no matter whom you talk to, the mountain is sacred ground.

Day 19,122; a selfie seems inevitable. Jeni felt a strong bond with Mount Rainier all her life, so I snapped this one thinking of her when we visited the old rock a few days ago. More about that soon…

In some ways — maybe in most ways — this is a meaningless thought exercise, just one more way for a naturally melancholic overthinker to punish himself for being such a bumbler as to lose a sister, to not fully appreciate and properly cherish a family member while she lived such that there would be no feeling of loss when parting time came, no missing. We can’t demand that every sibling drop dead after the elapse of a certain precise time span. And this happens all the time. In fact, Angela has the similar experience that she has now lived longer than her own mother did. It is nothing new under the sun.

Moreover (really? have I become the person who says “moreover”?), this day and this reality have no inherent significance for my little brother, who is just as bereft as I. The difference between Ben’s age and Jeni’s was a different difference, and if he survives me, as is my hope, the countdown that begins on the day I shed the coil to the moment he becomes the “sibling who has become oldest” will constitute a different number of days for him; 1,589 days in fact.

So, yes, it’s ridiculous for me to dwell on this. I could with just these few thoughts dismiss the whole idea. But in another way, perhaps only to me, I think it’s the saddest thing in the world. I lose my place as the middle child, and my sister stops preceding me into my ages.

I used to look at these photos and think what a long time ago that was.

Jeni, Matt, Ben.

I’ve been thinking about that day a lot (it almost goes without saying). About what I should do. It feels like I should do something, mark it somehow. Take the day off, maybe, although there’s no point in just having more time to be morose. Jeni’s grave is very close to where I now work. I could go there on my lunch break.

Anyway, if God ordains that I should open my eyes next Thursday, the landscape I see will represent what I think is the final leg of my journey as my sister’s brother. I’ll be the second-born oldest child, for the rest of my days on Earth. Maybe I’ll stop thinking about death so much; maybe it becomes easier to see every single day as a gift, something extra, a special bonus opportunity that not everyone gets.

stars thy compass, cloud thy canvas,
rock thy keelson, wind thy course to steer
one bells two bells don’t go grievin’
all our bad times past and blown alee”


*What is “meant” to be seems to me ultimately indemonstrable, but one could argue the point, and you know what I mean.

Two blackberries remind the journeyman that each day is sufficient unto itself and that everything is likely to be okay in the end

Better than any argument is to rise at dawn
and pick dew-wet red berries in a cup.”

– Wendell Berry, fr. “A Standing Ground”

Only to say
that while I was out in the hot sun today on my lunch break walking
along the two-lane road back to the office building I spied
a few blackberries that had grown plump
and dark
and juicy already and I stepped off of the sidewalk
toward the arching tangles of canes and picked
and set it on my tongue and closed my mouth
around it and squished it and felt the sun-warmed tart wetness of it filling
the grooves beside my gums and then I picked another and ate that
one too
but that was all because for that moment right then
two blackberries was enough.

The Green Dragon of the Nighttime Routine

The precise origins of the Green Dragon of the Nighttime Routine play are now obscure, but it came about when Mara was four or five, and I think it’s probably a safe bet that the reason it was not the Blue Dragon of the Nighttime Routine or the Butterscotch Dragon of the Nighttime Routine or the Puce Dragon of the Nighttime Routine is because green was the color of the blanket that hung over the back of the sofa, that still hangs over the back of the sofa, and not one of those other colors.

It went like this: Mara would be Mara and I would be me, her dad. She would ask me to go and call for the Green Dragon of the Nighttime Routine to swoop her up and carry her from the bathroom, where I had just brushed her teeth (part of the nighttime routine), to her bedside. I, her dad, would grump that there was probably no such thing as the Green Dragon of the Nighttime Routine, but off I’d go, down the hall and into the living room, calling “Green Dragon! Green Dragon!” [Stage note: I would make my voice quieter with each call, as if a great distance were expanding between myself and the bedroom.]

I would then grab the blanket from the back of the sofa and unfurl it around me and hold it expanded like great green wings. I would make a rushing wind noise with my mouth as I returned down the hallway to the bathroom, where I (now the GDNR) would land kneeling before Mara and furl my wings. Mara and the dragon would converse in noble language. Mara would say how her father was out looking for him at that moment (she began using the elevated term “father” instead of daddy about this time, understanding that this was how children in stories usually addressed their dads), and the GDNR would say how adults never could see him. He would ask her if she was ready to be carried over sea and land to the realm of slumbers.

Then he lifted her up in his arms and carried her out and around the living room, alternating between making the rushing wings noise and interpreting the seas, deserts and oceans and forests they passed over. This all took only a few seconds, and they ended up at her bedside where she alit. The dragon then assured her that he would be keeping watch over her, as he always did, from his mountaintop in the forest.

I drew this years ago as a study for a more finished illustration that I never undertook.

I drew this years ago as a study for a more finished illustration that I never undertook. Click to embiggen.

Away then in a rush of wings again he sped, out of the bedroom and down the hall. Once again transformed — like Cinderella’s footmen at midnight’s stroke — to my accustomed self, I dumped the green blanket on the sofa to be folded later and began grumbling in a voice that now grew louder as if approaching from afar off, saying things like “…don’t believe there even is a green dragon…” and “…well, I called and called, but I sure didn’t find him…” and “…I think the whole green dragon business is hokum…”

Back in the bedroom, I (Mara’s dad) would announce that the GDNR was nowhere to be found, and then do a Fred Flintstone head-shaking double-take and say, “wait, how did you get in here from the bathroom?” Mara laughed delightedly and told me that the Green Dragon of the Nighttime Routine had come and fetched her to her bedside while I was out looking for him. I would dismiss this as nonsense, and she would insist that it was true, but in a very gamey, giggly way — she knew that this was a play, that there was a veil of pretense that must be carefully maintained, that I as dad could never acknowledge my identity as the wingéd guardian.

The Green Dragon of the Nighttime Routine — Mara actually pronounced it more like “ratine” — eventually stopped coming around. A couple of years ago I asked Mara if she remembered the dragon, and she said she did. I don’t recall now how the play has come back into currency, even though it was just a few weeks ago. Maybe Mara mentioned it, or maybe I just grabbed the old blanket one evening at bedtime. In any case Millie, my younger, found herself standing before the great dinosaur for the very first time. He remarked how Mara had grown since last he saw her and asked who this little other person was, and Mara introduced her little sister to the GDNR in flowery court tones.

Millie was struck silly with glee and shyness about it all — the shyness I guess because the dragon’s gaze is penetrating and all-seeing, his manner kind but strange, his intense focus and upright bearing unlike that of the tired-ass dad who’s worked all day. And also, shyness, I think, because at this age and being Millie in particular, she is very attached to truthfulness, and the whole idea of my carrying out such a bald fiction makes her a tad nervous.

At first she giggled uncontrollably and insisted that the Green Dragon was really Daddy, not yet understanding how these things are to be spoken about (and because, gosh, the GDNR looks a lot like me). But now every evening after I finish brushing her teeth she says “I have to tell you suh-inks”* and stands on her tiptoes to whisper in my ear “I want the Green Dragon of the Nighttime Routine to carry me”.  At which suggestion, of course, I harumph that never in all the times of looking for him have I ever seen him, and don’t really believe there is such a thing, etc..

But I always go, and after several minutes I always come back and listen with exaggerated eye-rolling disbelief to the tale of a great, strong, kind, dragon that promises to watch over the girls while they sleep and keep them safe from all harms.


*”suh-inks” is Millie’s word for ‘something’ — it’s one of those odd personal usages that linger, the same way Mara even now continues to say “regwial” when she means ‘regular’. We do not correct these aberrations and we try not to draw attention to them, cherishing them instead as temporary gems along the road of language development, because one by one they eventually will all lose their glimmer and become the bland stones of common usage.

First cut

…Shining, gleaming,
Streaming, flaxen, waxen
Give me down to there hair
Shoulder length or longer hair
Here baby, there mama…”

 – ‘Hair’, the musical

There is something about a child’s first haircut that has enormous significance in the maternal psyche. It’s been months since we cut Millie’s hair but I’ve been meaning to post about it because in witnessing the event and photographing it I could tell that something was happening that I wasn’t fully grokking but wanted to preserve and pass on. I mean, I get it; I got it, I understood in a way, but there’s a current here that runs underneath the place where I comprehend these particular connections, somewhere in the mommish deep.

The uncut curls a year ago.

The uncut locks a year ago.

It has to do with the softness and fineness of those first baby locks, the innocence and vulnerability associated with them and the fact that those same locks are still attached to a fully-functioning humanoid who is now already back-sassing you and refusing to eat certain foods. That and something more. I don’t know. I should ask Angela to pontificate, but since we are always so busy now and the only time we spend together when we might have conversations without distractions is devoted to 1) information transfer regarding calendar coordination, and 2) our quest to catch up watching past episodes of Dr. Who, it might never happen.

After the shearing, on a recent outing to our favorite breakfast joint, Daddy has forgotten to put a hairband in and the plate of French toast and syrup is just about to arrive.

After the shearing, on a recent outing to our favorite breakfast joint, Daddy has forgotten to put a hairband in and the plate of French toast and syrup is just about to arrive.

With only the preceding ado, then, I present several photos from the day the scissors first closed on Emilia’s beautiful little tresses. Hillary, a young woman who is a very special person in Millie’s life and in our family, came over to participate in the event. Somewhere I have some great photos of Mara’s first cut, too, which I will post sometime.

Millie and Hilly.

Millie and Hilly.



If every child of every age could have someone they know loves them hold their hand when big things are happening, that would be great. That's my wish. Can that please be?

If every child of every age could have someone they know loves them hold their hand when big things are happening, that would be great. That’s my wish. Can that please be?

The first snip.

The first snip.

The rest is easy.

The rest is easy.

Update — Here’s one of Mara’s first haircut, and just for fun, another one from when she was five:

Mara was about 15 months old.

Mara was only about 15 months old the first time Angela cut her hair.

Mara carefully watches her bangs being trimmed.

June 2010: Mara carefully watches her bangs being trimmed.

A foxhole gospel

How shall the dead arise is no question of my faith. To believe only possibilities is not faith but mere philosophy.”

–Thomas Browne

Easter is not my favorite holiday. It should be, since I adhere to the Christian faith, and the event that this holiday commemorates is Christianity’s central fact and sine qua non. The resurrection of the Christ from death to life, the final impossibility and the signal that we, too, are more than, eternally more than the dust and ash we inhabit in this physical life. It’s the best news ever. He is risen. Hosannah in the highest!

With deft strokes in the comic tradition, cartoonist Shannon highlights the fact that Jesus folded his wrap before checking out.

With deft strokes in the comic tradition, cartoonist Shannon highlights the delightful fact that everyone raised as a Christian remembers…that Jesus folded his wrap before blowing the grave.

But it’s the very focus on that impossible fact that makes me fidgety. Faith is a strange thing for me these days. I don’t worry as much as I used to about what I call the “mechanics” of Christian doctrine, that part that explains how “the cross” is central to the entire “plan” that God has had in place since the dawn of time. I’m not exactly precisely concretely sure what I do believe anymore, but I know I don’t want or need my belief to be an edifice of logic or some scientifically arrived at construction, where failure in one part of the system means collapse of the whole. So the matter of whether Jesus rose from the dead is not as critical an item as it used to be for me. But the question doesn’t go away. We celebrate the resurrection and have done for two millennia, and we celebrate it not as metaphor but as an event that took place. So what do I believe really happened? Do I believe Jesus rose up from the dead?

Even the doubter has a place in God's kingdom. The Incredulity of St. Thomas, by Caravaggio, 1602.

Even the doubter has a place in God’s kingdom. The Incredulity of St. Thomas, by Caravaggio, 1602.

When this question presents itself, part of me answers No, of course not. I don’t believe that because it’s impossible. That answer has frightened me in the past, but I’m learning to accept it. It’s the only answer that a rational creature of earth, which is what I am, can return. The Reasoner in me says, people don’t rise from the dead, not by my experience or by any logic I know.

But I am not ONLY a rational creature, and in fact I consider it likely that my internal Reasoner is the least part of me. I am also spirit and body, and as I mature (if I mature), I become more and more alive to these other aspects of who I am. I think most Christians are able, unlike me, to convert or silence their Reasoner, or at least teach it to relinquish the wheel. A few let their Reasoners become monsters. Lately, my Reasoner is mostly asleep at the back of the bus, but this question is framed in such a way that it can only be fielded by the Reasoner. It’s a question about a fact, so I handle it in terms of likelihoods and probabilities and known data points. The answer that comes back is no, I don’t believe that Jesus rose from the dead. He could not have done.

And yet I pray to God every day with this same risen Jesus at my side, in the deepest place of belief inside me. I strive to live as though his resurrection secures my own, not only from a someday physical death but from my hundred daily deaths, my cowardices and failures and wrongdoings. I remember Thomas Browne’s dictum and tell myself that it is not necessary that what I believe in my heart be acceptable to my Reasoner. After all, everything physically possible is also merely inevitable; it’s the miraculous that makes the journey worthwhile. But if my Reasoner takes over, I lose my spiritual buoyancy.

The wrong time to ask the wrong question. Lego scene by

The wrong time to ask the wrong question. Jesus catches Peter as the disciple’s reason interferes with his deeper belief. Image of Brendan Powell Smith’s Lego scene found on Godbricks.com, used without permission.

There are many questions one could ask, and many ways to ask any given question. Since I desperately wish to be a capital B Believer, I don’t often ask myself whether or not I really think that this-and-such actually, factually happened. For all I know, nothing happens and everything I see and hear and think and do are just the eddies bouncing off of Cheerios in a bowl of milk in a dream inside the mind of a giant tortoise in a lagoon at the back of the North Wind. Those questions become increasingly unhelpful.

What is more interesting and more helpful to me is asking, where can I find evidence today of the God that I hope exists? I never have to look very far if I am open. And on Easter, I might ask what am I willing to let go of — what long-held grudge or too-cherished conception am I willing to let die with Jesus on this day, so that what rises up may be a better version of myself, and by better I mean more useful to others, and by useful to others I mean instrumental not toward some idea of their “salvation” in some prescribed way but toward the working out of their God-given journey however and wherever it may lead them.

I like William Bouguereau's vision of the women arriving at the tomb (Le Saintes Femmes au Tombeau, c.1865) because it's spooky as all get out with that angle only half visible, and because the women express not only joy but also...something like worry or doubt?

I like William Bouguereau’s vision of the women arriving at the empty tomb (Les Saintes Femmes au Tombeau, c.1865) because it suggests that even the first ones on the scene experienced confusion, worry, and maybe even doubt?

It may be a small faith and easily overwhelmed by the voice from the back of the bus, but it’s enough to celebrate with.

Chem House: Or, another post that manages to be about death

In the best of times, one of the streets we use to get out of our neighborhood by car is practically impassable. It’s a narrow street with cars parked on both sides all the time, creating an inconvenient wait for whomever doesn’t get into the street before another car enters from the other end.

But these are not even the best of times, especially for the two nonagenarian residents of a particular house about mid-block. They have been relocated by the federal government of these United States while an assortment of vans and large trucks emblazoned with the Enivonmental Protection Agency legend and logo sit parked outside their home all day on both sides of the street and men and women in masks and reflective vests move large metal drums back and forth with handtrucks and pallets of Optisorb oil absorbent with pallet jacks.

EPA canyon.

EPA canyon.

In the last few days I kept forgetting that these outsized vehicles were there and kept turning into this street on the way to and from my house, then had to try not to click mirrors with them, or rather click my mirrors on their tires. Out of my peripheral vision I saw lots of yellow tape and black oil drums.

Yesterday as I motored slowly through the canyon of emergency response and spill control vehicles I rolled my window down and — watch how I do this — apologized to the young Security officer who stands in the street for barging through his area of responsibility again and saying that I’ll have to remember to take a different street next time. A woman in jeans and a vest behind him on the sidewalk came forward to my car immediately with a smile and told me that they were really sorry for the inconvenience and that they would be finishing and clearing out as soon as ever they could.

I asked if everyone was alright, thinking I’d have to inquire carefully to prevent her from clamming up, but without further prompting she started telling me what she and her team were doing and why, and how long they expected it to take. She handed me a flyer through the window, indicating the URL for a website where I could get more information.

I saw the phrase “Green Lk Chem House” on the paper.

“You mean you have a website for just this incident in particular?” I asked.

“Yes,” she replied. “Well,” she squinted. “There hasn’t really been an incident, it’s just that there’s a lot of improperly stored hazardous material in the house.” She said that the residents — I immediately pictured an old guy of my dad’s generation, his hair in a comb-over and his overalls marbled with paint from odd jobs decades ago — had been collecting chemicals in the house for a long time and not storing them properly. The fire department had somehow been alerted and they had called in her team to have a look.

Look they did and found they did, and came back with their trucks and masks they did. I asked where the residents were, and she said “they’re in a hotel.”

“Studying up on proper storage of hazmats,” I offered.

“One would hope,” she said.

Her name was Kay. Mine was Matt. We shook. Kay said that as community involvement coordinator she was there to answer any questions, and it seemed so. She was not inside the house ordering people around or saying “careful with that, Steve, you’ll blow us all to hell if that barrel falls off your handtruck.” She was just standing across the street, smiling at anyone who came down the sidewalk or rolled down their car window.

Signs of danger.

Signs of danger.

I was surprised by this openness in a federal agency operation. I would have thought they would be pushing people away while they do their work, dissembling and saying very little and reiterating their inability to comment further. Probably I’ve seen too many movies. No, they have a website for the Green Lake Chem House with dozens of enlargeable photos showing basement shelves loaded with jugs of bromides and sulfates and ammonias and goodness knows what-all (“acid, oxidizers, solvents, and other chemicals typically found in laboratories or commercial use”, says the sheet), plus benches brimming with unlabeled mixtures that have long ago separated into scary sludgy solids and murky solutions, and funnels and tubes suspended over more jugs, and empty and not-empty drums stacked in piles out in the back yard.

I went back over there this evening to take some photos. This time not Kay but a similarly friendly, similarly safety-vested, similarly casually dressed man named Jeffrey was there to answer questions. He was talking with a young man who had been walking past carrying a backpack and who seemed very worried about what might have been going on inside the house.

“It was a man and his sister,” Jeffrey told the young passerby. “He’s 93 and she’s 91, and he told us he was doing some experiments, but a lot of the stuff has been sitting there for years.” He said that since he’s federal, he doesn’t know exactly how the discovery was made, but he said that neighbors are claiming that they’ve been complaining about the house for years. Apparently the man called the fire department because he needed help getting his sister downstairs, and the fire department alerted the EPA.

“He was unwilling to dispose of the chemicals voluntarily,” said Jeffrey, who turns out to be the EPA’s on-scene coordinator. “‘All of this stuff has value’, he said. So that’s what initiated our work here.”

It's when the drumming stops that you have to worry.

It’s when the drumming stops that you have to worry.

I’m unsure how obvious it is that I would be absolutely fascinated by a person like this homeowner, even slightly obsessed. I’m not a hoarder, b…wait…let me rephrase that. I’m not a very successful hoarder, but I have hoarding in me. I understand the impulse and if I hadn’t moved so many times and also had to make room in my physical, geospatial life for a woman and two children and two cats, and all their toys and kibble, I would probably never have been able to get rid of many of the things that I have set out on the grass verge next to the street with signs on them that say things like “FREE BAR STOOL — ELVIS SAT HERE”.

I get how it happens, at least with me. Time is escaping our lives at an alarming rate, jetting off like steam from a leaky valve, and yet we often imagine ourselves in a static sort of way, so that it’s possible for us to rethink old thoughts. “One of these days I’m going to fix that thing…finish painting that canvas…get some oars for that canoe…make a workbench where I can mount that drill press…replant those trees in bigger pots…use those old pieces of PVC pipe as hoops for…” The number of things I still think of myself as “intending to do” as soon as I get the time is astounding. But that number of things is not being reduced at the same rate that old age — yes, let’s just say it, my Death — approaches. I don’t know what that latter rate is, but it’s fast, probably a lot faster than I realize (even with all the realizing I’ve been doing about this in recent months), and at some dread hour in the future near or far the arrival of that fell visitor will overtake my to-do list with a sudden finality, and it won’t care about what’s in my basement.

And so I can see how this old guy suddenly finds himself nearly a century old and he hasn’t yet done all the mixing he needs to do. Doesn’t realize that the thought is old, impossibly old, beyond his ability now to carry out. What I want to ask him is, what does he believe he is trying to do? He’s obviously not some mad bomber. Is he, was he a professional chemist? Was there some elixir that eluded him, some El Dorado of cleaning agents the discovery of which would make him famous or rich and after which he still seeks? Has he been operating under the impulse of some old thought of himself as someone doing important work that our valiant military might deploy toward peace and democracy on far shores? What will happen when he finally understands, really understands, that his quest has been cut short, that it’s over? This is the moment I would want to be looking into his face, to encounter in its raw and yet thwarted state that strange Promethean force that makes people behave in ways that are inconsistent with — even orthogonal to — the reality in which they exist. But not to judge or to jeer. Just to gawk. Because I’m in awe. The madness of being alive and having plans, great plans…it’s pathetic and terrifying and lovable.

The game's up.

Whatever the idea was, its time is up.

Unfortunately, at a certain point it’s also a potential “airborne toxic event”*, and therefore a hazard to the neighbors. So, let’s quit the morbid speculation and have another bag of Optisorb over here.

*See Don Delillo’s White Noise.


The Great Seattle Gargoyle Hunt


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