Archive for July, 2011

(Not so) hot fun in the summertime

The dark days of summer are here. That’s a pun, yep, but it isn’t a complaint. It may very well be that earlier on I made a promise to give no further utterance to feelings of dismay about the lack of spring weather and now the lack of summer that we are experiencing in Seattle this year. I can’t remember whether I did or not. But especially with news of the heat wave roaring through the country to the east of us, I consider it prudent to be grateful for my climatic lot. And anyway, there seems to be no point in wishing for pleasant weather that doesn’t appear to be coming. The thing to do, I recently told myself, is to get outside and make the best of it.

Ducklings enliven a walk through the dim gray.

Which advice I took from myself.

1. Streats

It seems to me that the number of taco trucks and hot dog trailers around town is growing, although I have no data to present as a proper journalist would. My impression, and maybe I heard this from Ben Gant or one of my other contacts on the street, is that the City was making it hard for purveyors of “street food” until a year or so ago and that they recently lightened up and changed some rules so that more vendors could make a go of it.

Lucky for me, because I love that sort of thing, as you might guess.

On a gray day a week or so ago I checked on in hopes that Maximus Minimus might be in the neighborhood, and they were! Because their truck is a giant pig and their name is Latin, I love Maximus Minimus. They had me at “oink”. This is a mobile food vendor whose pulled-pork sandwiches are a favorite among the downtown sidewalk lunch crowd. You can order your food maximus — savory and spicy — or minimus — tangy and sweet. I believe I posted a picture of the pig truck once before in an entry about Third Avenue, even though it parks at Second and Pike.

Warm BBQ on a cold day'll fix you right up.

July in Seattle. Rain jackets and wool hats.

I walked up there and ordered my pulled pork (maximus for me, thanks), and then stood with a couple of businessmen at the two high tables they have. The wind blowing up Second from the south seemed to have ice in it and I had to stand with my back to it with my jacket collar up, and even then I was freezing. But “this is the life” I said inside myself. “sidewalk eats in summertime!” I tried to pretend that it was a warm summer day, but the girl taking orders outside the truck was wearing a wool cap and a thick coat and warm boots. The wind kept trying to pull away my bag of Kettle chips.

Here is a picture of Maximus Minimus that I took last summer.

The pig in sunnier times. Note the shades.

2. A walk

One evening at dinner Mara expressed chagrin that she hadn’t had a chance to “get her wiggles out” that day on account of the weather was so foul. On a whim, I gathered her up and took her to the (Washington Park) Arboretum, where we embarked on an after-dinner stroll on the path that rambles through groves of Austrian pines and exotic birches and beeches and reedy wetlands on its way under the freeway and out onto Foster Island.

This was not too long after the longest day of the year, but with the cloud cover it seemed really dark and dismal out. We passed only a few joggers and two couples walking dogs. Nevertheless, our adventure turned up a heron, or maybe THE heron, who lives in the park, several duck families, two or three murders of crows and, though we only heard them, a redwing blackbird or two. I had hoped we’d see turtles along the shore — in sunny weather they haul up on logs near the water’s edge and bask — but it was probably warmer in the water than out that evening, and the turtles absented.

A bridge too low. Marsh Island will have to wait.

The trail through the swampy western bit of Foster Island was waterlogged, I assume because the lake level is high, I further assume because of the wet, cool weather we’ve been having. Big swarms of mosquitoes hung quivering in the air above the trail, right at face level. I instructed Mara to exhale as we passed through them. We couldn’t pass from Foster Island to Marsh Island because the wooden boardwalk was actually underwater. Mara was nearly in tears because of this impasse, because she SO loves crossing from here to there and getting wet and strongly prefers moving forward into The Next Thing over Going Back the Way We Came (unless the latter involves stopping for treats at some place she has eyeballed on the way), and thought an acceptable solution would be for me to wade across carrying her in my arms. I said no.

We had a book of Pacific Northwest plants with us, and we identified what I thought at first was a salmonberry (Rubus spectabilis) but turned out to be the closely related thimbleberry (R. parviflorus). In case we were wrong and they were deadly poison, we ate just a little bit each.

We came home with muddy shoes, but at least we didn’t let the weather beat us.


Spider Zombies of Gasworks!

They came like zombie spiders, a half dozen or so of them, arms waving and legs poised in mid-step, feeling their way over the massive old pipes and compressors and flywheels and piston housings that have all been painted into a cheery, rust-free stillness under the pump shed at Gasworks Park.

“The Parkours are coming,” said one of the musicians, a tall man with a recorder.

Mind the gap. Photo by Joe Mabel licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License.

I didn’t know what that meant, the Parkours are coming, and at first I thought he’d said something about the Park Corps coming, like maybe we weren’t supposed to be making so much noise at a city park and some Stasi-like force was descending upon us. Angela and Mara were again practicing Morris dancing with their group, and again I and Baby Emilia-pants had accompanied them to observe. This week because of a light rain we had repaired to the shed once known as the pump house or exhauster house and now called the Play Barn, where the old machinery for making gas to light and heat Seattle’s houses now lies immobile, docile and accessible to the public.

I was sitting on the edge of one of the big machines with Millie in my arms, giving her a “tug on the jug” — her bottle of formula — when the recorder player said “they’re doing a blind traverse, they want us to move.”

Millie is fidgety these days, even on the bottle, and I had just got her settled and her face was happily glazed over as she sucked. I bit back a rather large mouthful of pique and said that I would move when my baby was finished eating. Who were these clowns, I thought?

Altruism with élan. This person has your welfare in mind. Photo by Thor licensed through Creative Commons.

This railing was built with an inconvenient extension that adds nanoseconds to the commute. Thank heavens for Parkour. Photo licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License.

That’s when I turned and saw this group of lean and wiry young men in jeans and sneakers clambering over the gasworks with their eyes closed. Another lean and wiry young man in jeans and sneakers appeared to be their leader or instructor or guru. His eyes were open and he offered encouragements and advice to the others as each member of the group encountered the particular metal outcroppings that characterized the unique line of traverse in front of him. I sorely regretted leaving the camera home.

Who are the Parkours? They are technically called traceurs, and they are adherents of a non-competitive discipline called Parkour or “l’art du déplacement”, sometimes also called freerunning. Apparently I am the last one to have heard about Parkour even though I saw the Daniel Craig version of Casino Royale in the movie theater and therefore was introduced to the sport at the same time that many others were through the breath-stealing opening chase scene (warning: violence).* I just looked it up, which you can do too, and since all I know about it came from Wikipedia I’ll not launch into a Parkour history lesson here. You may already know lots about Parkour. Suffice to say that the basic object is to travel from point A to point B in a straight line as quickly and efficiently as possible.

It's not always about jumping; sometimes it's about balance. Photo by Thor licensed through Creative Commons.

Why would they do this in a shed full of big metal machines instead of in a place where they won’t bang their shins or fall off of curved and slippery surfaces or disturb other public facility Enjoyers? The answer is that moving efficiently in lines of travel that normal people wouldn’t consider taking or would sustain injuries if they did is the whole point of Parkour. A farmer’s meadow or a playfield or an airport runway would allow covering much territory quickly and efficiently but would make for pretty lackluster sport (although activity at the latter might alter the level of danger from a static challenge to one of Intermittent Extreme Danger, which might be fun for some and is probably already a sport unto itself for all I know), and muchness of territory is not what it’s about. Cityscapes are ideal because they require traceurs to leap over things, jump between things, hang from things, scale and leap from walls, balance on things, crawl under things, etc. The old equipment in the sheds at Gasworks is the perfect practice area.

Hmmm. Is this route more efficient or just faster?

When one well-placed footstep on the adjacent wall gets you there faster, stairways are passé.

Millie came up for air, so I moved. The compressor upon whose rim we had been sitting turned out to be the end of the line for the blind traverse, and once the initiates had all reached it, the master led the neophytes in a new exercise, which was jumping from a squat position across a wide expanse between two large pieces of equipment. The machine at the other end of the leap, however, had pipes sticking out of it that would knock you jibbering senseless if you made your landing outside a narrow zone. Also, if you fell short you’d be looking at the rapid approach of the concrete rim at the base of the machine, with which you would be forced to choose a limb for collision. Although I was trying to watch and support Mara and the other children who were practicing their dance, the sight of these men leaping like giant ticks just a few feet away was distracting.

The sport has been around in some form for a century, elements of it have come into the subconscious of folks like you and me through the movies and moves of Jackie Chan, and in the last decade or so it has taken on this name, Parkour, which is derived from the phrase “parcours du combattant“, which refers to a French military training discipline that had at its core the idea of altruism. You strove to be fit in order to serve others.

Sure they could just step down, but where would be the fun in that? I'm not sure these guys are really traceurs, but I love the photo.

I think my puny feeling of resentment, besides being typical of me, is probably also a typical experience among users of public recreation areas in general. Your dog off-leash, my three-legged race; your kite, my radio-operated airplane; your Parkour traverse, my dance practice. So this is all just a thin layer of motor oil on a big lake. But while I think the idea of this discipline is pretty cool — like dancing it is a celebration of movement and vitality — I also think the leaping spider flea lads neglected the central foundation of their sport by choosing to disrupt a baby on her bottle and invade an area where these children, who need all the focus they can muster, were simply trying to learn some new and difficult steps.

It was sort of dark under the shed roof, but I didn’t see much altruism in their interactions with others around them. It looked like something else to me. As with many disciplines, the founding spirit of Parkour may be a difficult thing to maintain in a world full of other people.


*The Parkour scene in Casino Royale betrays the noncompetitive spirit underlying parcours du combattant, since the fleeing person of interest and the pursuing James Bond are using Parkour toward competing ends, the former to increase and the latter to decrease the distance between them. However, it might be admitted on behalf of 007 that his deployment of Parkour is in service to the altruistic mission of national and perhaps even international security.

She said a handful

Just gimme some kind of sign, girl
Oh, my baby

–Brenton Wood

When Mara was a baby, we bought a book about teaching babies sign language and Mara took right to it. Each time we recognized that the motion of her hands was intentional — intentional in a verbal way — and that we were seeing her use a new sign for the first time, we were flattened with glee. And Mara was thrilled, too. Babies can sign a lot sooner than they can form words with their tongues, and contrary to what the amount of drool on their chins might suggest they have a lot to say at a very early age.

For the most part we anticipated Mara’s needs and she didn’t have to tell us when she was hungry or sleepy or had a load in, but as Mara began to be able to identify desires and preferences she had, we found that her ability to communicate those desires and preferences to us reduced stress all around. Imagine knowing exactly what you desperately want and trying to say it and having people just stare at you. The tool of hand-speech gives children an early sense of self-agency and helps build their self-esteem — yeah, I said it — and feelings of security. Plus, when a baby can give the sign for “all done” less food goes on the floor.

While Mom and big sis practice in the background, Millie makes her sign for dog (note the right hand at her belly).

It’s also plain fun. I remember times when we’d be driving somewhere with Mara in the back seat and her hand would start thumping against her thigh — the sign for “dog” — and we would wonder if she was just wigging out or meant something else entirely. But if we looked carefully enough, scanned the sidewalks near and far, up an alley perhaps, we would always see the object of her conversation. She was always right. And somehow, she knew they were dogs no matter their shape or size or pilatory endowment. We would sometimes marvel, “How does she know that fuzzy little thing isn’t a cat?”

I have heard some people express concern that children who learn to sign will have trouble later with vocal speech, one even citing some case where a child grew up silent because it was easier to use the sign language than to use speech. Folks, I’m here to tell you that we had no problems with vocal reticence. Mara talks as much and as enthusiastically as any other six-year-old, and because of the nature and sheer number of the books we’ve read to her and stories we have told her over the years, she has a vocabulary that is well above that of many of her peers.

Of course Mara modified the signs, simplifying most of them. And many times she would blend signs so that the only difference between two words might be the size of the gesture or some other aspect like the sharpness of its execution rather than its particular shape. The sign for “water” is three fingers held up like a W and one of them touching the lip, but Mara’s sign for water looked a lot like the sign for “food” or “eat”, which makes sense. That word also touches the lips, but as if you were eating bread. We learned her dialect, her particular “spellings” — a beautifully apt usage here — and looked forward to each new word she used, until eventually her desire to say the words with her mouth — a practice she found more reliable since we might not always be looking at her but we were always able to hear her — increased and her signing gradually fell into disuse.

Millie has just begun to sign and we are thrilled again. One of the first signs she learned was “hot”, which looks like turning a hot piece of potato away from your lips. She likes that sign, and it’s one of the words she uses with its vocal counterpart. I think that besides “mama” and “dada” and “yaya” (Mara), “hot” may have been Millie’s first vocal word. (For a while, there was a noise she made like “kok-kok” to signify a book, because of the rooster saying “cock-a-doodle-doo” in one of her bedtime books, and she also used a similar sound when the cats brushed by her on the floor. We determined that it was her early vocalization for any animal she saw. For some reason we categorize those utterances differently.)

The Morrisers go at each other with sticks.

But she is increasingly using signs. A week or so ago Emilia and I accompanied her big sister and her mother to Gasworks Park, where Mara and Angela were practicing with a local Morris Dance group. There were a lot of people walking dogs, and every time Millie saw one, she started thumping her hand against her belly, which is her particular spelling for dog. For a while she expressed cats as dogs, too, even though “cat” is spelled with two hands as though you are defining whiskers on both sides of your face, but lately she has started using a one-handed modification that looks a lot like blowing a kiss.

Sure, why not? We love the cats.

Aqua urbana – Part III

Today we finish our long walk around downtown Seattle visiting waterfalls and fountains and other wetscape elements. We looked at the fountains west of Third Avenue in Part I, and in Part II we took on the quadrant south of Seneca Street and east of Fourth Avenue. For the final installment we venture north of Seneca along the freeway and then over to Fourth and Pine…and beyond. If you can comment with any history or credit due, please due.

Seventh and Seneca

Aquatic Motown: a wall of of watery sound. There is much more water cascading than what is shown here.

You can tell you are getting old when you realize that things and events you think of as new or recent turn out to predate the entire lives of people that you report to at work. In my mind Freeway Park (whose name has officially been changed to Jim Ellis Freeway Park because of the universally acknowledged fact that it would never have happened without the efforts of that venerable civic leader and solicitor) is “that new park they put over I-5 a few years ago.” Imagine my astonishment then, when I dug up Paul Dorpat’s Now & Then feature showing the fountains there during the park’s dedication in 1976! Do I feel ancient? (Yes, I do.) I’ve said before that I prefer more earthy and organic fountain shapes, but there’s an impressive amount of water moving among the very square elements of this concretescape, which, come to think of it, together look like a scale model of a city. This park and its fountains is one of the other silver linings to having a freeway slice our town in two.

Sound quality: Loud
Sittability: Excellent (you can pretend you’re a lion at the zoo and just flop down on a slab) \
Best time to go: A hot day. The trees have grown up and there’s a lot of shade here these days.

Eighth and University

The water cascading here follows the walkway all the way down from the street above.

I’ve given the eastern fountain in Freeway Park its own entry because it’s pretty far away from the western fountain and in completely different environs, and while that one is almost like a swimming hole, this one is more like a place to rest on a forest journey. After I started catching my homebound bus at the Convention Place station (thus giving myself the gift of not only a long walk through town but also a non-underground wait, since that station is outside the tunnel’s northern end) I began experimenting with different routes to get there. That’s how I ended up discovering the Freeway Park fountains. Shown here is the bottom of a pretty long installation that travels alongside the walkway down from University Street’s First Hill avatar (the olde street abruptly ends to allow the freeway its mad right of way). Walking along that path reminds me of hiking the Northwest’s montane trails in June, when snow is still melting higher up and creating little creeks that accompany the paths noisily and chaotically like dogs, crossing and recrossing in front of you, again like dogs. The water is very doglike, I guess is what I’m saying.

Sound quality: Very good
Sittability: Excellent
Best time to go: It’s pretty secluded and foresty through here so if you’re jumpy go during rush hours when lots of people are heading up the path

Sixth and University

Busy stairway on one side, private bench on the other.

This fountain and the ones in the next entry are all in the same block: to wit, the block bounded by Union and University streets and Sixth and Seventh avenues, which I guess is called Union Square because the two buildings inside it are called One and Two Union Square. We’re arriving from the south, so we hit One first, and this little fountain comprises half of the wall next to the stairway up from University Street. The address One Union Square is affixed on the other half of the wall in gleaming silver letters, which makes this clever dribbler sort of an undulating real-world banner ad. It’s quite fetching. There’s a private corner behind it with a nice wood bench.

Sound quality: Faint, but that’s cool because this is a relatively quiet spot for downtown
Best time to go:
As the spirit moves, I guess

Sixth and Union

Thanks to the woman on the stair for demonstrating not only scale but also an evocative five-o’clock weariness.

Moving northward from the upper plaza in front of One into the lower plaza in front of Two, we come to one of the nicest spots in the city to take your lunch. Really, the hustle and bustle just outside the square does not penetrate into it. Given that the third tallest building in Seattle presides over this plaza, I’m surprised that there aren’t more people in it. I recently visited on a sunny day during the lunch hour and there were a dozen and a half people sitting at the tables or on the fountain’s wall or various boulders, and a handful of folks passing through. I took the photo above at “closin’ time” on a day that was cloudy but still quite warm, and look — not a single soul seated and only one or two passing by. Where are the old men playing checkers? Where is the troubadour playing her accordion or guitar for lovers cooing under a leafy bower?

Sound quality: Pleasant in the utmost — a soothing rush of varied frequencies
Sittability: Five stars
Best time to go:When it’s mad busy everywhere else

I don’t know what the teens darkly huddled under the trees are up to, but I walked right by them and they paid little attention to me.

A few who appreciate the boon of an idyllic retreat. This photo showed the fountain perfectly but I had to crop it to reduce to zero the amount of buttcrack in the image.

The plaza is ringed on three sides by several terraces. On the top level on the west side is another fountain of the bubbling cauldron type. The benches next to and above it are thoughtfully curved so that everyone seated on them can enjoy this water feature, and you can also sit on slabs radiating out beneath it. On my sunny lunchtime visit there was a professionally dressed woman at one of the benches reading a novel. But at five o’clock on the day I returned with my camera, there were already several groups of youths here as if to answer the question I posed above. A young man in one of the groups played a guitar for his friends, who wore shirts that said things like “Let me drop everything and work on your problem”, and on the other side of the fountain another group (dimly visible in top photo) huddled together discreetly, but it wasn’t a young couple cooing, more like a trio dealing. So it seems that this square has a midday culture and an evening culture and they are very different. Some of the architectural details from the building that originally occupied this spot are preserved in the arches around the top terrace: you can just barely make out some of them in the top photo between the leaves of the trees.

Sound quality: A serene burbling
Sittability: Excellent; thoughtfully executed
Best time to go: Depends on what kind of culture you identify with

Fourth and Pine

A tunnel of water.

With the fountain a few yards away scrambling traffic noise, contestants can concentrate.

Just when you thought we’d seen every kind of fountain, along comes this tunnel of water at Westlake Plaza. It’s difficult to show how this works in a photo, but those who want to disappear between the sheets of water here must enter at the metal rail visible at the far end of the cascade on this side, and exit to the other side at the nearer metal bar. I haven’t walked through it. When I looked inside a breeze was blowing the water so that it hit the railbar and splattered in all directions, guaranteeing saturation for passers-through. This fountain is right out in the open at the edge of the plaza along Fourth Avenue, so it’s not about seclusion or being left alone, and this square attracts everyone from spontaneous buskers and scheduled musicians to professionals taking a lunch break to panhandlers and clipboard-carrying, hand-extending petition peddlers. There really is a lot of life in this square, which is triangle shaped. The fountain sits about where an old triangle-shaped building used to stand, back when the monorail came a few yards further south and crossed overtop of Pine. It occurs to me to wonder if the reddish decorative elements in the fountain’s pillars are remnants of that building’s facade.

Sound quality: Loud
Sittability: Okay. Few benches right at fountain but plenty of seating in the plaza
Best time to go: A windless day if you plan to traverse the fall’s interior, unless you’re in a humor to get soaked

Cedar, Fifth and Denny

Chief Noah Sealth. Still getting shorted.

Name me one statue of a(n) historical figure in the downtown area. [Pause.] Right. You can’t, because there aren’t any. My tour officially ended at Westlake, but as a special bonus for those of you who stuck with me this far, I give you a fountain way off north at Tilikum Place, often called Five Points, the triangle where Cedar and Fifth and Denny converge and where the 5 Points Cafe has a neon sign in the window saying “WE CHEAT TOURISTS-N-DRUNKS SINCE 1929”. It’s not only a fountain but also a statue of a person who lived and breathed, which makes it special in my book. After sculptor James Wehn’s likeness of the First Nations leader that Seattle is named for (his name really sounded something like Si’ahl and is often written “Sealth” and pronounced like “health”) the next closest one is the statue of Jimi Hendrix kneeling with a left-handed axe up on Broadway. After that, I don’t know of another until you get to George Washington on his pedestal next to Meany Hall at the University of Washington (Fremont’s statue of Lenin doesn’t count, since he was not our honoree but an import.) Seattle just doesn’t honor people with statues, I guess. Even this statue has a slightly forgotten feel to it, stashed away here near the foot of Queen Anne Hill since around 1910 (my cheap and dirty online research suggests the statue was created in 1912 but somehow erected in 1908). Self-righteously progressive, we Seattleites don’t like to be reminded that we swiped this verdant littoral from people who’d been using and respecting it for centuries. To add a final injury to all this insult, my photo chopped the chief’s fingers from his upraised right hand. This fountain shares that irritating ploppy sound with the one at WaMu but it’s an unexpected center of calm in a really busy area, and I’m fond of it because old Noah looks kind of small and vulnerable — there’s something real and about-as-large-as-life about him. For a better picture by Jan Krosnell, click here.

Sound quality: Ploppy in that Old World way
Sittability: Excellent. The fountain’s circular edge provides seating all the way around
Best time to go: Not when you’re touring and not when you’re drunk


The Great Seattle Gargoyle Hunt