Archive for May, 2009

Pea face

The peas continue to do well. The half row I planted at the end of February got the worst of the “unseasonable” heat and freezes and downpours. They took three weeks to come up and grew slowly at first, but they’re now a foot and a half tall and have flowered.

This face says "what a long strange trip it's been".

This face says "what a long strange trip it's been".


More Folklife fun

We went back to Folklife today. I can’t believe we did, given the discomfort of the jam-packed bus rides to and from Seattle Center yesterday. But Mara had such fun there that she wanted to take her little friend Lily from nextdoor and do it all again.

Mara and Lily enjoy the duo Skolkis, "slinky Swedish strings".

Mara and Lily enjoy the duo Skolkis, "slinky Swedish strings".

It was a much shorter venture today, but we still managed to pack a lot in. Mara and Lily spent the better part of an hour splashing around in the wading fountain. After that we went in search of the painted stilt man from yesterday, stopping periodically to watch some musicians. We never saw Mr. Stilty, but instead encountered the White Fairy Lady from two years ago (both of these I mentioned in yesterday’s post). We shoved Mara and Lily forward with a dollar in Lily’s hand to put in the lady’s basket, so she would dance, but Mara chickened out and pushed Lily forward alone. Lily balked then, so I went forward with them, Lily deposited the note, and then we beat it to get away.

Mara and Lily come as close as they dare.

Mara and Lily come as close as they dare.

We watched some aboriginal Mexican dancers in colorful costumes with beautiful feather headdresses. After doing several dances, they asked if any children wanted to learn a dance. A hundred people around, dozens of kids, but no takers. Mara and Lily declined my enthusiastic prodding. The dancers asked if ANYone would like to learn a dance. No one budged. I saw the woman roll her eyes.

Then I jumped up and said I would learn. I’m sure they were hoping that one of the many attractive and lithesome people in the audience would have volunteered, but they got me. I look like John Barth’s description of Ebenezer Cooke. “Heron of a man, his every gesture was half flail,” or something like that. Nevertheless, the drummer man smiled and told me to “do what they do.” I followed the dancers as well as I could, about a half-second behind and with the wrong foot each time. When they stopped after only a minute, I asked if that was it, and the man dancer said “now we do it faster.”

The headress of Western culture takes its place among more flamboyant traditional Mayan versions.

The headdress of Western culture takes its place among more flamboyant traditional Mexican versions.

I realized that what had just happened was to be considered my instruction, and now we would perform it at regular speed. I briefly considered that if I could not possibly better my first attempt, it was also not likely that I could do worse.  The woman dancer told me to watch her and go when she went. So I watched her, relaxed, listened to the drummer count off the potatoes (or whatever Aztecs call the introductory notes before a piece of music actually starts), and did the dance. It felt better this second time through, and in fact all the photos that Angela took of this venture show me in perfect step with the dancers.

Mara and Lily test-drive an early American prototype: Jefferson's "demobile", a democratic transport where everyone gets to drive!

Everybody gets to drive!

We put the girls in a kiddie ride at what used to be called the Fun Forest, which is the amusement park part of the Seattle Center — ferris wheel, go carts, spinny throw-up rides, shooting booths, etc. Not sure what it’s called now. Mara and Lily did the car ride. Funny, they spend their young suburban lives being stuffed into Subarus and Odysseys, but they want to go on the car ride at the Fun Forest. Maybe it’s because every seat had a steering wheel.

Folky and live at Folklife

It’s a sunny Memorial Day weekend in Seattle, which means that thousands are thronging to Folklife, the largest free folk festival of its kind in the nation. We want Mara to have as much experience with the richness of human cultures as possible, so after lunch today we caught the 16 and went down there. Mara wondered if there would be a play structure.

I used to spend all four days and evenings of the festival contra dancing, twirling myself into dehydrated delirium, and I went home limping. I was in my twenties and had nothing but time and energy. In my mid-to-late forties now and responsible for the amusement and welfare of a four-year-old, my idea of a good day at Folklife is much different. I don’t intend this blog to be about how wonderful my kid is, but really, having a child enter your life makes you see your life more clearly and it’s worth taking note of.

Clapping to Ross' Rovers at the Northwest Court Stage. Heat stroke imminent.
Mara, Angela and an anonymous third potential heat stroke victim enjoy Ross’ Rovers at the Northwest Court Stage.

We started with just a walk-through, experiencing the clash of tones and rhythms as we moved from one busker’s audio-zone to another. Fiddlers, balladeers and guitarists, drummers with djembes, drummers with paint buckets, a tap dancer. Wandering through the crowd at one point we encountered a man on stilts, dressed all in white, with white face-paint, and wielding a long net. Every once in a while he would drop the net on someone and “catch” them. There’s someone spooky like this at every event like this we attend (a giant yellow chicken lady at the Easter Egg Hunt at the zoo, a white-painted fairy lady at a previous Folklife who stood motionless until someone dropped money in her bowl, then began a gyrating dance), and Mara is always riveted by these uncanny figures. Unfortunately I didn’t get a photo of the stilt man, more’s the pity.

We sat and listened to some Celtic music, but the sun had become hot and Mara was baking. She’s clapping in the photo above, but the sun was killing us. What she really wanted to do was splash around in a wading fountain that she’d seen. So we did that. Since we didn’t have a swimsuit or a change of clothes for her, we told her she could wade but not get her bottom wet. After she fell, though, she just started paddling around. She is usually very cautious, but around water she grows fins.

Next we availed ourselves of the food booths to get a corndog for Mara and some crab caesar wraps for us. After this dinner al fresco, we checked out the dance hall, hoping there might be a contra dance. Neither Angela or I is into the whole mad contra scene anymore, but we thought we might twirl a line once with Mara just to introduce her to the idea.

Happy kid. Just add water.
Happy kid. Just add water.

No such luck; it was zydeco hour. Some cajun band was clattering away up on stage and the hall was full of people in cowboy boots. As we stood behind the line of onlookers at the side, Mara grabbed our hands and urgently said “follow me!” We humored her and she pulled us right out into the midst of the crowded dance floor. So we bounced and dipped in our best zydeco style and followed the slow turning around the hall. Mara seemed to intuitively understand that Folklife was all about jumping in and letting go, gettin’ wet and gettin’ down.

We finished up by eating strawberry shortcake while listening to a marimba band, and before heading out we bought Mara a little fairy princess dress at one of the booths and let her wear it home.

We think she’ll have pleasant memories of Folklife.


All the broccoli has bolted. I don’t know why. It was looking so dark green and lush, but even before this week I noticed how their stems seemed awfully narrow, not like the shelaighleighs you see in the grocery store, so I was already worried. Then today we noticed that every single of my dozen or so plants had shot straight up and put out a little floret. They looked like little green sparklers.

We snipped those off this morning and ate them. Angela thought they were tasty. I thought they tasted a little weird, like natural gas. Mara said “it tastes bolty.”

When broccoli gets anxious.

When broccoli gets anxious.

The lettuce seems to have the opposite problem. It has slowed way down. It won’t bolt, (it’s Slo-Bolt, bred to hold back from bolting) but it doesn’t seem eager to leaf either. Mara and I tried some, and she gave it the nod. It tasted like lettuce, I guess.

The peas still look good and are starting to flower, but still, I’m very discouraged. I was really looking forward this year to growing all these different vegetables, and I started early with seed, and I did everything by the book. I even thinned scrupulously (lettuce and broccoli, not the peas), despite the psychological agony thinning induces. But we had this crazy spring with early heat and late snow and torrents of rain, which all seems to have combined to bewilder my little seedlings. A neighbor Angela talked to says she thinks that the broccoli couldn’t figure out the weather and finally just said “the hell with it, I’m going to seed.” And she thinks the lettuce is getting too much afternoon sun, of all things.

Meanwhile, folks who blithely picked up vegetable starts as an impulse buy from Home Depot and Fred Meyer are probably set to enjoy bumper crops (the weather is now beautiful). It brings out my cynic, as you can see.

But that’s why I’m doing this, and that’s why I’m writing about it. It’s an important thing that I need to incorporate into my life — doing all that I can do, the best way I can, and then accepting the way things go.

Sometimes things go bolty.

House proud? You bet!

Angela felt that it was a little uncharitable of me to include in this recent post a photo of our garage door in particular, especially in the context of the accompanying diatribe against garage doors in general. I did take pains to say also how much I love the house for what it represents, but to be fair I herewith append two other photos of the house that show some of its more charming aspects.

Of course, a lot of this house’s “official” charm lies in the fact that it is getting old enough to have earned a euphemism: “mid-century.” (The house is exactly as old as I am.  When I get old enough to need a euphemism, that’s what I’ll call myself — “mid-century.”) It was real estate agents, I’m sure, who first applied the word to houses, but younger couples these days are apparently gaga over mid-century homes, and they’re not just being manipulated by marketing. I don’t know if it’s the clean lines, the open floorplans, or the big plate glass view windows, but kids love ’em.

Once gagworthy, now a dream come true

Once gagworthy, now a dream come true

We love this house because it offered us everything we needed at the moment we needed it. Before Mara came along, Angela and I used to turn our noses up at anything post-World War II. Passing by split-levels built in the ’60s and ’70s we would stick our fingers in our mouths and pretend to retch, smug in our certitude that small-roomed, cold-hardwood-floored, drafty-ass, tippy-walled, wavy-windowed Craftsman authenticity was the only kind of house for us.

But (we felt) we were outgrowing our (see string of adjectives above) cottage after Mara started walking. We lived pretty much in the upstairs, since the basement was dark, dank and unfinished, which means three of us were getting along in 550 square feet of space. (If Tim C. reads this I’ll get another earful — see “Worm bin Jedi” — because he and his wife raised their daughter in about the same amount of space, presumably without griping.) Our refrigerator was not in the galley kitchen but rather on an enclosed back stoop above the basement stairway. With a small table in the dining room and a sofa and some benches in the living room, you could hardly move through the place. Mara had a narrow angled path about 18 feet long that she could run back and forth on, like an aisle in a grocery store. Oddly, our bathroom was so spacious you could dance in it.

We looked all over north King County at bigger houses, and were even starting to see the good sense behind the split-level plan, since we now had a toddler who was going places. But every time we found something that was in good shape and our price range, we became depressed. They were always nestled in some warren of streets whose sidewalks, if they had existed (which they didn’t), would have led only to strip malls and Taco Times. Especially for Angela, who stays home during the day as a full-time mom (she teaches dance in the evenings), this was a serious bummer.

The best part - room in the kitchen for dining with friends!

The best part - room in the kitchen for dining with friends!

Living in Wallingford/Greenlake had really spoiled us for walkability. We couldn’t seriously see ourselves living in a place where we couldn’t walk to the grocery store, our church, the parks, and coffee shops and cafes. We would wither, we knew. Perish outright. But for years, the market was such that even if we raked profit selling our little cottage we still wouldn’t be able to afford a cardboard box in our own neighborhood.

When this house came on the market it was the answer to our prayers. It was located only three blocks away in our very own neighborhood, we could (just barely) afford it, and its floorplan included two features that have relieved pressure out of our lives like a steam valve: 1) the kitchen and dining room are one big bright space where Angela can fix a meal or a snack while still enjoying the company and conversation of visiting moms and keeping an eye on kids playing there, and 2) the hallway and living room form a large loop, which Mara loves to run around more than anything in the world. We run around the loop every night before bedtime, changing direction to startle and scare each other.

These are just a few of the things we love about this house, but it’s getting late and I have to work in the morning, so I’m out.

Oh yes, and it's full of wonderful natural light

Oh yes, and it's full of wonderful natural light

Sing we now of rationalists and existentialists

Saturday we drove over to Third Place Books in Lake Forest Park, where Angela and several other singers from the Puget Sound Revels were staging a sing-along of traditional springtime songs and some sea shanties. As with all things the revelers do, this was an audience participation event. Our daughter Mara and I sat in the circle of tables and chairs and joined in.

I was moved not only by the songs themselves, but also by the fact that these songs were being sung out loud by real people in a community-oriented celebration, right there in front of and around us, and that my daughter was experiencing something that the world’s cultures have to a large extent thrown away.

Angela and fellow reveler take their turn leading the assembly in a traditional song about sheep shearing. Image courtesy of Gary Peterman.

Angela and fellow reveler take their turn leading the assembly in a traditional song about sheep shearing. Image courtesy of Gary Peterman.

It got me thinking. One of the ways to characterize the differences between my wife and me that make our marriage such an interesting subject of study for me is to imagine idea-driven people versus experience-driven people, or rationalists versus existentialists. I’m a recovering rationalist. I have lived most of my life responding to voices in my head that are always arguing and weighing the merits of one version of absolute truth against another. That is, I have experienced the world through a verbal filter, because that’s how I have best been able to make sense of it.

The problem is, as you know, that the world usually doesn’t make linear, verbal, rational sense, so you can pretty much spend your life’s energy engaging the voices in your head, or arguing with the people on the bus, and have nothing to show for it at the end. I think a lot of people fall into rationalist ruts of one sort or another. And I think it’s a real gift of grace to be handed a way out of that sinkhole. For me, it seems the gift of my wife was God’s way of providing me a pathway to a saner way of living and a more authentic spirituality. I’m fixin’ to tell you why.

One of my favorite things about Angela is that she does not labor to integrate every action into a rational manifesto of what the world should look like, as I am prone to do. I am likely to talk and talk about big plans, and the big problems that stand in the way of their fulfillment, and then be discontented. Angela just does stuff. She takes the world in the shape that she finds it and responds with her gut. She is often content. Little things well done make her smile.

Angela stays out of harm's way while the Devil kicks butt and takes names. Image copyright Revels, Inc.

Angela stays out of harm's way while the Devil kicks butt and takes names. Image copyright Revels, Inc.

Her involvement in the Revels is an example. About five or six years ago she auditioned for and joined the Revels, which through song, dance and storytelling celebrates both the Christian and nonchristian aspects of “the shortest day”, the winter solstice, in traditional cultures. There are about ten different Revels organizations in as many cities around North America, and each year the show focuses on a different theme or era or part of the world. She was in the show for the next three or four years (until Mara became two, essentially) and it has enriched our lives immeasurably. She is still frequently if peripherally involved with Revels doings.  

From Angela’s excited reports, the “idea” of the Revels found a home in my head right away. Before I even saw the first show she was in, I approved. It smacked of community and tradition, of taking the time to put something beautiful together on stage. But when I attended the show at the marvelous Rialto Theater in Tacoma, I was captured at a whole different (nonverbal and nonrational) level. I so connected with the whole spirit of the Revels — inclusive rather than exclusive, invitational rather than evangelical, shared with and enhanced by the audience rather than bleated out unilaterally from the stage — that I immediately wished I had joined them myself.  I felt a throbbing in my soul. It just felt right. It seemed like the most wonderful thing anyone could be part of. I was proud of Angela for just following her quiet little thread into such a worthy endeavor, and grateful because it rewarded me too.

Now, years later, this spin-off sing-along event was taking place in what amounts to a strip mall, and a nagging part of me wanted somehow to devalue the experience because of that. Granted, the idea behind Third Place Books was to combine a large book store with a spacious commons and activities and food — a communal gathering place where people would enrich each other’s lives. But it was still in a strip mall. I often fantasize about this kind of hootenanny arising suddenly around me as I play a fiddle on my big wooden porch in some rural community. Thing is, I live in the urbs not the rus, I don’t have a big wooden porch, I don’t play fiddle and I’m not a gregarious Irishman that people look to for spontaneous hoedowns.

I said in this blog’s About page that the journey we’re on is partly about compromise, about valuing good things where you can find them and where you can make them. What I experienced was that the revelers made something really good last Saturday, in suburbia, in a strip mall. I’m so glad I was there.

What comes down comes around

Precisely 28 seconds after I put Mara down to bed this evening, our automatic garage door jumped its rails with a loud pop and sproing. Angela had just pulled out of the garage on her way to work, and since she couldn’t stop to help, I was left with a suddenly not very sleepy four-year-old and a gaping hole in my house.


We’ve lived here a year and a half and although we’re pretty tight with the family immediately nextdoor, we know most of our neighbors only to say hello to. This is one of those things about suburban life that I grieve. Time was, neighbors depended on each other. Some cultures still operate that way, but in middle-class America money has replaced community. The ethos is, each household is a self-contained kingdom with everything it needs. But to the extent that this is true, it is largely enabled by technological advancements many of which are beyond the ken of the layperson who uses them, and the fault in the logic becomes blindingly evident when things break down. If the garage door had no motor, just a canvas strap from an old parachute like my dad’s garage door when I was a kid, it would have been a non-issue. Here I was, though, trying to figure out how to disengage the motor arm to unjam this “convenient and automatic” garage door, which is an excessive two-cars wide and heavier than I can lift by myself, because if I didn’t find a way to lower it I might wake up in the morning to find that I’d held an involuntary garage sale.

I’m not a fan of two-car garages, or even one-car garages. Our old craftsman cottage had a rickety 1920’s carport in the back with no doors on it. We used to hang bunches of oregano from its rafters to dry. The house presented its front door to the sidewalk and looked welcoming. Here’s a picture of it. When that house was built, the thinking was that cars were to be tucked away. That idea sat well with me.

Our first house - a little worn, but note that the front door is dignified with a pediment.

Our first house - a little worn, but note that the front door is dignified with a pediment.

But this thing about driving the automobile, with its exhaust and combustive violence, into the structure where we sleep and eat, into our home, into our “tent”, has always seemed untenable to me. I love our new “mid-century” house for what it is in my life, which is… the place where my family nestles, where my daughter feels her security and her roots, where my wife waits for me and where I wait for her, the place where we play, and talk, and share our journey together. But when we moved here, one of the things I didn’t like about the house, as a structure, was the fact that the double garage door is its prominent feature. I didn’t want to be the kind of person who enters and leaves his house through the garage, like Batman. I don’t believe doing that honors the house or the neighborhood, or even the body. It honors the car. Angela agreed, but she was the one who had to unhitch our two-year-old daughter from her five-point Britax car-seat harness and keep her from toddling into the street while simultaneously toting the groceries up the steep front steps in pouring rain. It wasn’t long before we were accustomed to the convenience. 

I got Mara out of bed and put her in her boots and coat, so she could watch me pushing and tugging and trying to get the door wheels back into the tracks, which didn’t work. More muscle was definitely in order, and more smarts wouldn’t hurt either, but the folks nextdoor were not available. So Mara and I walked across the street — her little hand in mine (I LOVE being a dad) — and knocked on the door of Paul and his wife, Anne.

Does this say "welcome"? Or does this say "Keep clear. Vehicles entering roadway!"

Does this say "welcome"? Or does this say "Keep clear. Vehicles entering roadway!"

It so happens I had walked over there just yesterday while Paul was working on his front porch and inquired about his project. We had introduced ourselves a few months ago and waved a few times since, but I had not done much voluntarily to dispel that self-sufficiency that keeps neighbors from being involved with each other. I told him yesterday that if he ever needed that third or fourth arm, to let me know. He appreciated the offer and said likewise.

Now, that pledge seemed providential.

Anne said Paul had just left work and would be home soon, and that she’d send him over, he’d be glad to help. Mara was eager to be in on the event — I bet she’ll remember the breach of her evening protocol for a long time. She didn’t want to sleep, but I convinced her to go back to bed and “rest” until Paul came over. I told her she could get up again when he got here, but she was asleep when he arrived.

Paul is pretty good with stuff like garage doors hanging in midair, I can tell.  He figured out what was keeping it from moving, and we got it untangled, lifted back onto its tracks and closed in short order. I gather he is some kind of engineer, but in truth we haven’t even got to the point of asking each other what we do for a living. Now that the door was closed and the emergency over, Paul took a sort of broader look at the situation and expressed a kind of admiration for the way the garage door was put together, the way the builders had thought about how to keep the wood from bowing, and how their idea had worked for the last four and a half decades. “It’s pretty cool, really,” he said.

I looked again at the door that I had — oops — just been cursing under my breath, and saw it with a new eye. I decided I like Paul. Like we could hang if we didn’t have a four-year-old and a five-month-old, respectively, and a million projects taking up all of our time.

I’m not glad the garage door fell down, but I’m glad for neighbors like Paul.


The Great Seattle Gargoyle Hunt