Archive for the 'Family' Category

Electric locomotive blood

My mother, waving a fork forlornly over her salad at a favorite spot in Issaquah where we go to lunch together every month, expresses frustration that no one in the family seems eager to receive things from her walls and shelves and cabinets, the things she has spent a lifetime collecting, by bequeathal or purchase, and now wishes to pass on to the next generation. They’re not only in her way since she and my father moved out of my childhood home in Bellevue to the smaller condo she now occupies, but they also threaten to be a burden to others (me, mostly) after she’s gone, l.m.s.l..

Finally, she’s just plain sad that no one wants to cherish these things. What will become of them — these platters and trivets and teacups and serving bowls and creamers that she has lovingly safeguarded against the ravages of time, pilferage, breakage? Her granddaughters, the ones close by here, are starting their own families now but for various reasons they don’t clamour for these objects.

One reason is that — as I keep hearing — “millennials” are not as possession-oriented to start with. Partly because they’re more nomadic, partly because the American Dream of home ownership seems to slip further beyond their grasp as the years go by, they feel neither the necessity nor the capacity to house loads of stuff that they don’t use often, exactly the kind of thing that middle-class homemakers of my mother’s generation loved to collect and display. Millennials are happy to rent flex- and zip- cars rather than deal with the insurance and maintenance and parking costs associated with what was once the first and most important status symbol in American society — owning a car. They pay for music as a service rather than buy CDs that then need to be both copied to mobile devices and stored somewhere, trusting, as I never could trust, that some server out there on the interwebs will keep track of their purchases and let them have that music again if they lose it.

Then there are style incompatibilities. My mother’s only daughter, my sister Jeni, went out of this life earlier than we expected, but Jeni was not very sentimental, and she was also blunt. There were a few things I think she had earmarked among my mother’s treasures that she would have taken had she lived longer, but for the most part she had her own style that was different. Jeni’s daughters mostly value a modern style, cleaner lines, more empty space, less clutter and less ornament, a style more suited to apartment living. One of them is a missionary in Africa, and she and her husband indeed live light on the earth.

While Mom sizes the situation up I nod sympathetically. Not empathetically but sympathetically, because I feel her pain. I’m a keeper. Despite great strides made by me in recent years in throwing things out, I still seem to find myself standing in piles of things that I can’t really use for anything but to which I am attached by a feeling that they have inherent value that is not utilitarian. The basement of my life continues to cough up useless but keepish items the way farmers’ fields grow stones. They just rise up with the freeze-thaw of life’s seasons, no matter how many wagon loads are carted away.

Scratch-built, hand-painted, unique in all the world. And about to be terminated.

Scratch-built, hand-painted, unique in all the world. And about to be terminated.

Another view. The middle section is precariously balanced on its paper-thin wheels.

Another view. The middle section is precariously balanced on its paper-thin wheels.

One such item is a tiny balsa-wood model of an electric locomotive that my Uncle Jim made from scratch and gave to his littlest brother, my dad. I don’t remember when Dad gave it to me or where he had stashed it all those years; maybe in his top dresser drawer, maybe in one of the many cluttered cabinets in his shop. I took it because he handed it to me, and because I liked the picture in my head of how delighted my dad, as a boy, would have been to have received this amazing piece of craftsmanship from his older brother. Jim was the first of six kids, and something like thirteen or fourteen years older than my dad, who was the last. Jim was the family hero; he went to sea in the Merchant Marine, and was the first to go to war. Looking at this little model, seeing the fine paint work and the individually applied rods and electric thingies and hand rails, and thinking that he made it for his kid brother Billy, just gives me a good feeling.

It sits on its own track and trestle, so it could in theory have been displayed at one time, but part of the trestle supports and many of its fine details were broken off during my dad’s tenure as its guardian, and in my own administration the whole middle section has come away from the end sections. It’s that brittle. It doesn’t do anything. It’s just a tiny, amazing piece of craft, unique in the entire universe.

And I don’t want it anymore.

But what to do with it? It has no monetary value and it’s unable to stand up in the slightest breeze. I guess the center could be glued back, but it would be a dodgy operation because the break from the tracks was not clean and all of it is so blasted delicate.

My daughters remember their Pop-Pop, my father, but Uncle Jim died long before they were born, so the thing has little inherent sentimental value for them. So there’s little reason to hang on to it for my offspring’s sake.

I was recently preparing a box to ship to my own little brother, Ben, containing one of his model railroad boxcars that somehow ended up in my stuff years ago when our parents were getting rid of the old train layout and boxing up our rolling stock for us. I’ve been meaning to send it to him for years. I boxed it up last week and included — very well padded in paper and styrofoam and several nested boxes — the little balsa model. In the little thought bubble above my head, Ben was opening it up with delight and saying “hey, this is so cool!” I had it all taped up and addressed to my brother in Alaska when the thought occurred to me, and I said aloud…”whoa, wait a sec. Am I just doing that thing?”

Angela laughed, recognizing a thing that happens in my family a lot, especially in recent years with so many people shucking the coil. She then summed the whole situation up brilliantly. “You cherish the thing, but you don’t want to be burdened with it anymore. You’d feel guilty getting rid of it, and you hope that someone else will cherish it. But you don’t want to risk asking them and having them say no. So you just send it. And then it’s their problem.”

I couldn’t believe it. I was doing that thing exactly. Even after the myriad times that Angela and I have laughed together and rolled our eyes after I’ve opened some package and found some thing returned to me that I had given (or sold) to someone decades ago — a drawing or painting, a poem or letter. “Thought you might want this back,” invariably goes the accompanying note. That’s part of our Particular Tribal Crazy. We view gifts in this bizarre way, so that when we’re done with something someone has given us we don’t feel free to just give it or throw it away. Gifts come with strings. They have to be returned to the giver when we’re done with it. But we don’t ask.

Years ago, when my Uncle Jim (the same uncle) and Aunt Evelyn downsized to a smaller house, they told me they had my painting for me to come and get when it was convenient for me.  The painting was a mammoth 2-foot by 4-foot oil on canvas I’d done as a teenager, when I took painting lessons in the basement of the Ilona Rittler Gallery in Bellevue. It was a copy of one of the translucent ocean wave paintings by an artist named Galen who was known for those kinds of seascapes. My uncle and aunt had commissioned me to make a painting, a large one for their large house, and I chose this amazing Galen wave and copied it fairly faithfully. That was what we did as students; the studio had lots of full-sized prints of paintings of various kinds, and we honed our craft by copying them when we weren’t painting something from a photograph. I was proud of the technical achievement — the skill it takes to faithfully reproduce some existing work — but it was the forger’s skill, and I began to see early on that I was not an artist myself but a technician. Consequently, I did not love the idea that this behemoth, for which I had been paid the fair sum of 200 American dollars decades ago and which I considered the rightful property of Others to dispense with as they saw fit, should land on my house in one of these “keep it in the family” lateral hand-backs.

The locomotive is smaller by orders of magnitude, but I realized I was pulling a F– Family Lateral on my kid brother. So I emailed him some photos of the little model and asked if he wanted it. Turns out, no, he too has no place nor need for such a thing, as impressed as he was by its unique craftsmanship. Softy that he is, he said send it if I must, but all he would do was take it to an antique shop — there’s only one in Fairbanks that he thinks would even consider taking it. I realized that this would only be a further attempt to free both of us from guilt, as they’d probably throw it away. It can’t have any monetary worth. So I told my brother that I would not send it, that I wasn’t sure what I’d do with it but its blood would be on my hands and no one else’s.

But without the option of a Lateral, I’m not sure I can part with it. I am not psychologically sound enough. It would be cool to have the space and display cabinetry to keep all these things forever, but it would be even better to be able to keep our parents and uncles and aunts and other family members forever — because that’s what the guilt is about. To throw the object away — an object unlike any other under the sun or beyond the stars, from an age before everything that we own sprang from a plastic mould; an object that houses and symbolizes the discipline, the artistry, the effort and time dedicated; embodies the love — well, it feels like we’re saying none of it mattered.

I know all of it did matter and matters still, historically forever. And I know that the object ultimately does not matter. It isn’t cruel or callous of me to throw the little engine away. It’s just a damn shame.

When music condenses

Yesterday while I was driving around with my daughters doing some panic shopping for the double jeopardy of Jesus’ and Angela’s birthdays, which are just days apart, Emilia asked me how radio happens. Millie is lately very “sciency”, to quote the eleventh Dr. Who. So I told the girls about radio waves, how someone sitting in a radio station spins a record (yes, I know) and the radio station has a machine in it that makes the sound of the music go up to the top of a tower and then shoot out across the sky to our radio, and the radio is a machine that listens for that music and plays it when it hears it.

“The towers are called radio towers,” I said. “You’ve seen them on top of Queen Anne. Those three really tall red and white towers with the blinking red lights on the top? Those are radio towers sending out the music we hear.”

Millie is like Mara was at that age — she expressed no further interest in the topic. She was done with it, I thought, even before I finished talking.

Tonight as we drove home from Gramma’s house on Interstate 5, I pointed out the radio towers on Queen Anne, which are lit up with Christmas lights right now. These were visible out Mara’s side of the car, to our left as we headed north through downtown. I don’t know whether Millie saw those, but she saw something interesting to her a minute later when we crossed over what is known hereabouts as the “ship canal bridge”, from whose top deck automobile passengers (and drivers who are not paying attention to the traffic in front of them) can survey the campus of the University of Washington and the houseboat-deckled Portage Bay beside it.

“I think I see the music coming out,” came Emilia’s voice from the back seat.

Angela and I swiveled our heads this way and that to try to see what such an announcement could possibly mean (I was driving, yes, but there were few cars on the road because it is Christmas day). I figured she might be seeing more radio towers, but couldn’t think of any she might be looking at. I turned back (again, it’s a holiday) and saw that her face was turned toward the campus, the curve of her cheek lit softly by the lights of the University district.

“The steam!” cried discerning Mara. “She means the steam.”

I then saw that the old steam plant on campus, which has a tall chimney stack, had a red light on top of it, and a cloud of water vapor was condensing into steam as it spread out from the top of the stack, streetlit amber gray against the darker gray of night behind and above. Emilia had heard how it works. She had been told how to identify the towers. And there was the music coming out. It made perfect sense.

Things are sometimes not what they seem, and still exactly what we expect them to be. Merry Christmas if that’s what you’re having. If else, peace to you and yours.

Best. Summer. Ever. – Episode 15: Rainier redux

We had such fun the first time we went to Rainier this year that we decided to go back and spend a night there in October when the fall colors rise up into the leaves of the meadow shrubs and the sky is achingly blue. That way we could take our sweet unhurried time getting there and also enjoy a morning, when both we and the mountain were fresh. We stayed at the National Park Inn at Longmire, one of the old lodges in Mount Rainier National Park. It’s not one of the ones up high — those are Paradise and Sunrise. Longmire is down in the forest along the Nisqually River, a half dozen miles in from the park’s Nisqually entrance.

The bridge at Myrtle Falls.

The bridge at Myrtle Falls.

Onward and upward.

Onward and upward.

We had a small room with uncomfortable old beds, but that didn’t matter. The girls were enchanted, by our room upstairs and by the guests-only fireplace room on the main floor, which had puzzles and games and a roaring fire. (Don’t eat at the restaurant in the lodge. The food was okay, I thought — Angela thought not — and we were grateful for it because we stayed on the mountain until dark the first night and our dinner options became swiftly negligible, but it was expensive and took so long to come out that our daughters nearly expired before it arrived before us. And then the girls couldn’t eat the mac and cheese, it smelled and tasted so bizarre. Later a friend told me that the National Parks contract their food services out to one giant corporation, which, if true, explains everything.) We drove up to visitor center at Paradise the first evening after dumping our gear at the lodge and climbed up part way to the Glacier Vista lookout. Angela had some kind of conversion experience up there by herself, when I hung back with the girls because it was getting dark and very cold, and almost all the other park visitors had retreated from the mountainside and Angela wanted to press on (so unlike her to get the trail-crazies, and so unlike me to be realistic and conservative when hiking), and she did press on, and she bonded somehow with the universe up there in the near dark, and came down sort of glowing.

Angela near Alta Vista.

Angela near Alta Vista, still aglow after her alien abduction, or whatever it was, the evening before.

The National Park Inn at Longmire.

Sleep but don’t eat. The National Park Inn at Longmire. Photo by Angela.

The next day was even magicaler. In the morning we returned to Paradise and hiked all the way up to Glacier Vista via the Alta Vista and Skyline trails, which was 916 feet of elevation (from 5420 to 6336 feet) for my little girls, who were troopers about such a big, hot climb. We saw marmots sunning on the rocks and a family of ptarmigans fluttering under a tree on the way down. And that pretty much caps our tour of the Best. Summer. Ever. It had truly been a wonderful extended summer of little escapades, one I will always cherish and I think the girls will, too. We got to know our mountain, our region, our family tribe, and each other a little better through these often impromptu weekend adventures. I hope you enjoyed riding along.

The bluest skies you've ever seen are near Seattle.

The bluest skies you’ve ever seen are near Seattle.

On the Alta Vista trail.

On the Alta Vista trail.

Best. Summer. Ever. – Episode 14: A bed for Millie

When Mara was ready for a big-girl bed at age three, Angela found a nice old wooden bed frame in a shop in Port Orchard, which for you outtatowners is a sweet little one-street port town across the Puget Sound from Seattle, several days’ hard riding in a saddle, a few hours by car, an hour by ferry. She found it online; it was the right bed, and it just happened to be in a little antique store across the Salish Sea. So we went there and brought it back. Mara’s little sister Millie turned four this summer and she was still sleeping in her crib. She loved her crib, even though when fully stretched out she was almost touching both ends of it. She loved climbing out over the rail every morning. Once in a while she mentioned that she’d like a big-girl bed, but it was more my own fears that we might somehow be stunting her psyche by delaying the transition that got us to start looking for a bed for Millie.

The right bed. In another shop in Port Orchard, of all places.

The right bed (leaning against the wall). In another shop in Port Orchard, of all places.

Millie climbing in a playground we found in Port Orchard.

Millie climbing in a playground we found in Port Orchard.

Angela went looking on Craigslist again, and darned if Millie’s bed didn’t turn up in an antique shop on the main drag in Port Orchard. It wasn’t the same shop — the one we found Mara’s bed in, sadly, is gone — but it was only a block away and on the same side of the street. Well, we know when we’re looking into the maw of destiny, so we drove over and got it. We spent a long afternoon in Ikea looking for mattresses for both girls’ beds, and decided in the end that the quality of the mattresses we could afford there wasn’t high enough for our princesses, and the ones we thought would be suitable and that we might suck it up and shell out for, even though they were out of our price range, they didn’t have in stock. Instead, we ducked into a family-owned store called Bedrooms and More in our neighborhood, and they treated us right, got us into some really nice mattresses at the right price. Millie fell out of her new bed twice the first night because she was accustomed to sleeping with her face right up against the wooden bars. We put pillows on the floor next to her bed and tucked her sheet in after that, but she internalized the boundlessness of her new nighttime environment pretty quickly, so the midnight thumping has subsided. And for the first time ever, we get to read bedtime books to Millie in her own big-girl bed.

Making the bed for the first time. Angela gave the old wall a fresh new green coat of paint.

Making the bed for the first time. Angela gave the old wall a fresh new green coat of paint.

We used to read bedtime stories to Millie in Mara's bed and then put her in her crib afterwards. Now her own new bed is her story place.

A sweet new regime. We used to read bedtime stories to Millie in Mara’s bed.

Best. Summer. Ever. – Episode 13: The farm

When I was a kid, Remlinger Farm was the place my mom and Aunt Jean always wanted to drag us kids out to to pick strawberries in the blazing summer sun. It was a cheap way (cash-wise, anyway) to get lots of berries. You just picked ‘em yourselfs. At that time they actually grew strawberries there and tortured children by handing them a crate and pointing off into the fields. Now children enter an unbelievable playland and if they are picking anything besides their noses I don’t know where that’s happening. It’s more like an amusement park, although somewhere I suppose there is still an agricultural hinterland supporting its Delusions of Agriculture. Anyway, Remlinger Farm is a big hit with families these days, and our family is no exception. Angela has been taking the girls there with various friends for years. I myself have thus far been absent from these excursions to the Eastside’s most popular farm, but we visited one day in September this year and I got to experience the madness. It really is a gas. They have a stage coach that kids can get up on, and pony rides, and a log ride where kids board hollow log canoes and ride around a chute filled with running water, and a petting barn, and a roller coaster, and a teacup ride, and a go-cart ride, and a pumpkin ride, and an antique motorcar ride where kids can “steer” their car around a track, and an old bus to climb in and out of and an old firetruck to climb on, and a giant silo full of hay to jump into, and a theater with a man playing fun songs on a guitar every half hour or so. And…a steam train. A little one. Not a real old working engine and real old working passenger cars like the ones at Snoqualmie, but a shiny pint-sized custom amusement park engine just big enough to hold the engineer and open-sided cars just big enough to hold us passengers. It runs down a quarter mile track and back in a loop. Well, we enjoyed just about every ride and amusement the place had to offer, but you know we do love us a train ride.

Another fun journey down the tracks.

Another fun journey down the tracks.

Whoohoo! Millie and I rode the rollercoaster.

Whoohoo! Millie and I rode the rollercoaster.

Best. Summer. Ever. – Episode 12: Rails

What best-ever summer would be complete without boarding a train somewhere along the line? Along the line, heh. I just realized the phrase “somewhere along the line” probably comes to our daily usage courtesy of America’s (or Britain’s) long and romantic history with railroading. It’s a history that in this utilitarian and forward-looking corner of the world has had a hard time being remembered.

Boarding the Snoqualmie Historic Railway.

Boarding the train in historic Snoqualmie depot. Today the train will be pushed and pulled by a modern switcher rather than by a steam engine, but it’s still a ton of fun.

Nevertheless, volunteers at the Northwest Railway Museum have been collecting old engines and rolling stock at Snoqualmie’s historic depot for as long as I can remember — many of the engines being fine examples of the compact Shay logging type that worked these hills in the more exuberantly rapacious days of northwest resource extraction. In fact, my folks took us kids on what we always called the “Snoqualmie Railroad” or the “train at Snoqualmie” when I was about Millie’s age. It runs from Snoqualmie to North Bend. I have just the barest memory of being on the train with aunts and uncles visiting from the East, and of the train going north to the falls (Snoqualmie Falls, yeah, a big deal) on a summer morning where the sun dappled through the canopy of firs above the track, and of the train reversing and my thinking that was because it had derailed and had to go back, which I’m now sure was my misunderstanding.

We found the best seat, where we could sit facing each other to share our excitement better.

We found the best seat, where we could sit facing each other to share our excitement better.

The train awaits new passengers in North Bend. Mount Si is the berg in the background.

The train awaits new passengers in North Bend. I wonder why I’ve included more photos in this BSE post than in any other? Hmmm…Does somebody like trains? Mount Si is the berg in the background.

In my late teens, Kip’s little brother Caleb and I went on a black-and-white photo expedition where we ended up climbing out onto the support beams under one of the bridges on the line between Snoqualmie and North Bend, waited for the little steam engine to toot its arrival at the bridge — not so little when it’s roaring above your stupid danger-courting teenaged misdemeanor-committing head and hot grease and oil are spattering off of it (off of the engine, I mean)  —  and then stood up next to the track with our cameras just as the engine was about to pass over and took one incredibly good photo (each) of the train crossing the bridge from rail level. I lost that photo and its neg “somewhere along the line.”

At the historic Snoqualmie Depot. Here Emilia's skill at finding a way of thwarting a photo op comes into play.

At the historic Snoqualmie Depot. Here Emilia’s uncanny skill at finding ways to thwart a photo op comes into play.

The "guy" (I'm sure this volunteer has a title like "brakeman" or something) operates the horn and maybe some other functions with these levers as we reverse back to the depot. Note the stack of old logging engines on the siding.

The “guy” (I’m sure this volunteer has a title like “brakeman” or something) operates the horn and maybe some other functions with these levers as we reverse back to the depot. Note the stack of old logging engines on the siding. Will they rust away before funds are raised to get them back under steam?

We got on at the depot in Snoqualmie, ate lunch in North Bend, then made the return trip. On the way back from North Bend, the train actually continues on through Snoqualmie Depot to the falls, stops next to the famed cataract, then reverses and backs up to the depot in Snoqualmie again. For this part of the trip we had secured the seats at the very back of the last Pullman car on the train, where some wicker chairs were arranged as in a living room. Millie, who has a thing for nodding off in moving vehicles, fell asleep just before we reached the falls.

Millie was a tired little hobo that day, and fell asleep to the clickety clack.

Millie was a tired little hobo that day, and fell asleep to the clickety clack.

Best. Summer. Ever. – Episode 6: Millie turns four

Millie’s birthday is in late June. She turned four this year. On her actual birthday in the middle of the week, she and a friend named Kimber went to the Woodland Park Zoo together. I don’t have any photos of that event handy (maybe mi esposa does), but on that weekend we had a party for her here with our extended family. She wanted a cake with green frosting. She got a cake with green frosting (Angela said at the time that she will never do that again, but when I just now asked her to relive the agony she could not recall why she said that — my guess? She’ll do it again before she fully and permanently learns that lesson). Here are a trio of photos from that event, which featured a Special Friend in the girls’ lives, and especially Millie’s. Again, this was not an outing, but there are plenty of those to mention still and again, this is one of the fun things we did together.

Millie and the Special Friend, whom we call Tante, which means Auntie in German.

Millie and the Special Friend, whom we call Tante, which means Auntie in German.

Our bunch gathered to celebrate Millie's birthday. The Lamaze toys on the floor remind us that my niece had to leave early with her baby, one of the newest members of the tribe.

Our bunch gathered to celebrate Millie’s birthday. The Lamaze toys on the floor remind us that my niece had to leave early with her baby, one of the newest members of the tribe.

Millie getting help with cake extinguishing from big sister Mara.

Millie getting help with candle cleanup from big sister Mara.


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