Archive for the 'Just calling it as I see it' Category

My answers – (excerpts, embellished)

Visual History
Current occupation: Technical writer/Starer at computer screen
Do you use a computer? Yes
How many hours per day? 8
Distance from monitor: 18″ …and closing

Spectacle Lens History
Do you currently wear glasses? Yes
Since: 1995 – Present (also age 2 – 18)
Have you had trouble in the past with glasses? Yes
Explain: I was 2. I had glasses. Do I really need to explain?

Social History
Do you drink alcohol? No
Do you smoke? No
What DO you do?*
Do you engage in regular exercise? No, and I’m starting to feel like a dull boy with these questions, can we talk about something else?
Hobbies/Interests: Reading, jigsaw & crossword puzzles, Playmobil assembly, watch repair, model railroading, fingernail hygiene — all the stuff I’m having trouble doing lately because I can’t see.

Current Eye History (sic)**
Blurred Distance Vision: No
Blurred Near Vision: Yes
Tired Eyes: Yes
Sandy or Gritty Feeling: No [aside: !]
Headaches: Yes, migraines all my life, but not necessarily eye stuff.
Discharge: No. Gross. No way.
Floaters or Spots: Yes (Depending on what these are, I think I have a floater)

* This question was not really on the form.
**I kid you not. “Current Eye History”



Note: This could be considered a companion piece to the post “Debankle”. I don’t know why communications from banks make me want to blog so much, they just do.

Chase Bank has sent me bubbles in the mail. That is, they have sent me a letter saying that while they’ve noticed I am currently listed as wishing to receive no offers in the mail from them, they are updating their files and want to make double sure that I am receiving all the offers I want to receive from them and none of the ones I don’t want, and to make sure everyone is clear about all this, they helpfully included a list of products and services with an open, friendly, expectant bubble next to each one, waiting to be filled in. A signature and date were required for my choices to be valid.

As irksome as is the pretense that they need me to reaffirm my intention to be left alone, I wasn’t about to spend mental energy on it. I don’t share Chase’s confusion as to my wishes regarding offers from an organization I don’t bank with anymore, and since the letter obviously was not created to serve any need of mine but some oily stratagem of theirs, I was about to recycle it. But then I saw the sentence that said that if I did nothing I might begin to receive offers from them. I backtracked and read more closely. The instructions said I must completely fill in the bubble next to each product or service that I do not wish to be notified about. The words “do” and “not” were underlined.

I could hardly believe it. I was being blackmailed. Bubblemailed. Does this seem as wicked and snakey to you as it does to me? Doesn’t this make you want to consider taking a workshop in arson?

Let us pause and reflect for a moment about the thinking behind bubbles. The idea is that computers, which think binarily (one or zero, on or off, this or that, yes or no, etc.) can visually “read” them, perceiving that a bubble is either filled in or it is not filled in. This was true in 1969 when we first-graders were being tested for whatever we were being tested for — maybe Marxist tendencies. You were warned that you must fill in each bubble completely because supposedly if the computer saw even a tiny speck of paper-hue showing through inside the border of the oval bubble it would read that bubble as “not filled in” and your answer would not be counted. Conversely and inexplicably, if even a small spot of errant pencil lead (later ink) was found in a bubble other than the one you completely filled, it would count as a second filling and your answer would be thrown out because you had chosen two.

These two facts seem to contradict each other and I suspected even at age seven that the whole business was a test of something else besides our knowledge of the right answers, or not even a test really so much as an exercise in social programming. That seemed to be what it was about. The test-makers were keen to create a society of people who understood from an early age the importance of completely filling in just one bubble and not getting any ink or lead in any other bubble. Why that was important I cannot speculate.

But even back then, the bubbles were small, about the size of a grain of rice. The bubbles on this mail from Chase are the size of lima beans. I strongly doubt that any imaging technology will ever be applied to the document no matter what I or anyone else does about the bubbles, but if it is I would think that the bubbles need not be ten times larger than they were BEFORE WE HAD PUT A MAN ON THE MOON (“for cryin’ out loud”, etc.). This is “Century 21” is it not? Can’t the bubbles be smaller now? How about a checkbox?

But this is all intentional. In the even larger bubble above my head, in which I imagine scenarios, I have pieced it all together.

At a table in a conference room in an office building several marketing types are brainstorming a new campaign to get people to invite Chase’s blizzard of advertising into their mailboxes. Maybe the Chrysler Building is visible off in the sunny blue distance out the big plate windows. Some of the males wear ties, the women are smartly dressed but not too colorfully. Various containers stand on the table containing the macchiatos or the spring water they bought on the way back from a working lunch.

Chase's two towers (center) in Seattle. It's not Manhattan, and I just put this photo here for visual interest.

One of the young men, slouchy but with a look of focused attention through squared, thick-framed glasses, has just said, “and let’s make it opt-out, so they have to fill all ten bubbles in if they don’t want to hear from us. Most people won’t want to bother and won’t do it.”

A second guy with much product in his hair so that it stands up and a British accent says, “Or they’ll assume that they’re to fill in the bubbles of the ones they do want and so they won’t fill in any. We should underline the words ‘do not’. They still won’t read it correctly because they’ll be skimming and they’ll assume it’s opt-in, but our butts will be covered.”

The woman who called the meeting, dark-haired and sitting upright, responds, “Sa-weet, and let’s make the bubbles really big, like lima-bean big, so that if they do notice and start filling them in, they’ll give up right away because they’ll see it’ll take forever”.

A second woman says, “I like it. We’ll need to put in a note that warns them to fill in the bubbles completely.”

The sloucher starts laughing, imagining with impressive accuracy — in a reciprocal imagination bubble above his head — someone like me, late for the bus and bent over their kitchen table with a pen, swearing under their breath while trying to make sure no paper shows through any of the bubbles. It is a cynical, dry, lazy kind of laugh, as though the young man has just seen his friend open a can of beer that has been shaken. The reverse imagining nearly creates a calamitous rupture in the space-time continuum but disaster is averted by the piping up of the Information Technology guy, who has been sitting somewhat apart in jeans and a tee-shirt.

IT guy: “Did I miss something? Why the bubbles? These things won’t be read by a computer.”

The meeting-caller woman: “We’re not saying that they’ll be read by a computer.”

“But it’s implied by the bubbles. Why would you make them fill in bubbles unless you want them to believe that their responses will be read by a computer?”

“We DO want them to think that. That’s the point.”

IT guy: “But it’s not true.”

Sloucher: “Dude, you’re not going to get all ‘consumer advocate-y’ on us again are you?”

Brit: “Yeah, this is about lead generation. Are you going to go along with us or are you going to flip out like you did with the graffiti campaign?”

Anyway, the vision goes on like this in my head until I finish filling in the bubbles.

That’s right, you heard me. I filled in all of them. Completely. And I’ll photocopy the document, too, and even keep it on file. These people have no idea who they’re sending bubbles to. To whom they’re sending bubbles. You know what I mean.


Ravenna Boulevard follows the path that once, not so very long ago, a creek of the same name traveled from the eastern edge of Green Lake southeast to the shores of Lake Washington at Union Bay. It is a true boulevard: two lanes running in opposite directions separated by a tree-lined median. The old Craftsman houses that line it were once some of the poshest properties in North Seattle. At one end they still are — the eastern end. But closer to Green Lake where it intersects with Roosevelt Avenue and Northeast 65th Street the boulevard loses some of its charm and a lot of its real estate value. Partly this is because Interstate 5 crosses over it in three broad swaths at 65th.

What it's good for.

The freeway thunders overhead on pillars that lift it above what can be thought of as Ravenna Valley. It plies this elevated path for a considerable distance before meeting the valley’s opposite edge, its concrete pillars creating a dark colonnade that cuts across the Ravenna neighborhood at an angle, thereby dividing it not once but twice, north from south and east from west, and marches over the shoulders of nearby houses and a church, casting shadows over them on sunny days and a dull, throbbing gloom on cloudy ones. Since the space directly underneath this juggernaut of infrastructure is best suited to parking lots, that is what has been built under it.

When I get off the bus at the end of the day — ‘disembark’, I like to say, or if I’m in a particularly springy mood, ‘alight’ — I do so almost directly underneath the freeway. Many commuter buses stop in this vicinity. Depending on which bus I take, I may be on the other side of the freeway from my home, and no matter which bus I take I will have to cross Ravenna. Many days, I am disgorged on the wrong side of both, so that I imagine a large X of traffic that I have to walk through the three-dimensional center of.

Ravenna passing under the freeway, sans its one-time charm.

There are sidewalks under the freeway if I take the long route along 65th, but if it is not too rainy I risk a shorter way among the tall concrete columns next to the parking lots, columns that were painted a few years ago with a pattern that I think was intended to make them seem like graceful, hourglass-shaped pillars. The yellow paint cheers the space but little. It’s a zone where nothing grows, not even moss or weeds. The earth under there is dry and hard almost the year round; the only water this land gets drips off the edges of the highway above and between its three major sections, creating strips of muddy ground that are narrow but also very long and difficult to get around. If it is wet out I avoid this shortcut for the sake of my shoes, even though I prefer walking on the bare earth — even the forsaken earth under the pillars — to walking on a sidewalk that seems  unconvincingly to suggest that the underside of a freeway is a natural place to stroll.

In fact the underside of a freeway is not a natural place for doing anything, and for that reason it fascinates me in a dark way. Whenever I pass through there the deadness of the space distracts me, its purposelessness agitates my mind. A man with a shopping cart camped under here for a time, almost a year, and collected a heap of rumpled, trashy things around him. But he did not thrive; he leaned against one of the pillars, often asleep and looking dead. He never asked for money, never even looked up, but sometimes I’d see him shuffling around nearby. Joggers jogging to Green Lake from the southeast have to jog through the muddy strips there, but mostly the place is empty. A blank space, a space removed from the turnings and functions of the earth on which it sits.

This field used to be the backyards of houses along Ravenna and Eighth avenues.

The place is almost perfectly blighted, and yet — and here’s the fascination for me — it is both a planned space and an unplanned space. In the sense that it is the result of the construction of a freeway deck thirty feet above, this wasteland underneath was created intentionally, even designed. And yet it is nearly accidental space. It is space whose particular properties no longer matter. It only need be there, and not for its own sake but for the sake of the lanes above. What it looks like or what happens or doesn’t happen there means nothing to anyone. From a strictly Christian perspective, it is the opposite of what the Creator intended for Earth, even for “placeness”. It is anti-place, a kind of Tartarus on the surface of the globe.

Other areas of wasteland that are less dead-looking attend this and all freeways in the form of the banks that ascend and descend from the freeway on either side and that get wider around clover-leafs and other rampy installations. Freeways are ideally flat and straight, which means that they are not often at the level of the surrounding topography for very long, especially around here where we have lots of ridges and valleys. Accordingly, the ground must either be dug out for the lanes, leaving the remains of the “cut” on either side, or built up to support the lanes, leaving the freeway on a sort of raised bed. On these banks that cradle or undergird the road there may be grass, or trees and shrubs tolerant of exhaust and open sun. If the banks descend away they are often rolling with waves of blackberry canes. If they rise up from the road they are often covered in grasses that are infrequently mowed. Red-tailed hawks circle above these slanted meadows, waiting for the misstep of a rodent.

These spaces often look park-like, but they are not parks and they only exist as a buffer between neighborhoods and the freeways that plough through them. The buffer must exist because the worlds are too different. Neighborhoods are places where people live. “Being” happens there. But it is “going” that happens on freeways. The beautified edge of the freeway is meant to reduce the friction created by the juxtaposition of a world of going with places of being. As such, it has a designed purpose, but it is really another kind of wasteland, a placeless space.

These houses on the east side of Fifth Avenue NE just north of 53rd Street, photographed in 1937 by the City Engineering Department, were razed or moved less than a quarter century later and replaced by the southbound lanes of the new freeway. A tiny stretch of Sixth Avenue NE, where the northbound lanes are now, is visible between the houses.

This particular freeway, Interstate 5, was cut through the heart of Seattle in 1961. It’s path unfolded itself overtop of what used to be the west side of Seventh Avenue and the east side of Sixth downtown and continued north along the side of Capitol Hill, cutting that venerable neighborhood off from the city center forever, then bridging what we hereabouts call the Ship Canal to subsume the northern incarnation of Sixth Avenue, separating the University District from Wallingford and the hill of Latona where I now live. Our old not-quite-neighbors Gordon and Vivian, whose home on the west side of Fifth Avenue Northeast just north of 50th Street faced the gigantic trench that was dug at that spot for laying the highway in, say they remember how their little old house shook and rumbled for months. Except for 45th and 50th streets, which were fitted with bridges to go over, and 65th Street, which went underneath, cross streets were closed and made into dead ends where they encountered the new throughway and metal barriers were erected that are now covered with the blackberries that have overrun the banks alongside the great road. The houses here were either razed or hauled away and set on new foundations elsewhere (commentor Colin over on pointed out that the house on the east side of 100th Avenue in Kirkland, an arrowshot south of Simonds Road, is of one of them, and in fact it is one of the houses just behind the ones shown in the picture above).

I have benefited much from the Dwight D. Eisenhower National System of Interstate and Defense Highways, and I realize that we woke up in the ’50s and were shocked to find that while we’d successfully shipped uncounted tons of tanks and other heavy equipment overseas in World War II to rescue Europe and Asia from the Double H Club, we would be hard put to move a Jeep across the United States using the old wagon roads that comprised most of the nation’s network of highways. (I once heard that the Interstate system is fitted every so many miles with a mile of straight highway, so that military planes can land on them. I don’t know whether this is true. UPDATE: This is not true.)

Nevertheless, I’m not a fan of the thinking that says that the most important thing in the world is to get our cars moving faster to more places. Really, I’m just not usually in that much of a hurry. And as a person who values the footedness of humans, our ability to walk from one place to another, I feel kind of crabnacious when I am confronted with these dead spaces that cluster around the skirts of these Great Big Ideas, like freeways, that came about as a result of the last century’s nascent fascination with imposing rational order on everything by means of huge quantities of concrete.

Gotta go under it. My walking choices from where the #76 drops me. Ravenna runs from the lower left corner to the upper right. Sixty-fifth is the street running top to bottom at right. Image owned by Microsoft.

What is it that makes us do this, I sometimes wonder as I pick my way among puddles that reflect only the concrete underribs of the freeway. What is the philosophy, the rhetoric, the narrative being promoted in the creation of infrastructure whose inherent lifeless characteristics are so hard for us to disguise, (even when we try but particularly when we don’t)?

I don’t think the planners of the freeways thought long about how their swaths of concrete would affect the neighborhoods they sliced through or about how their presence would affect walkers. They gave us sidewalks over and under, which fulfilled their responsibility to humans who might be so backward as to eschew the life automotive. And they thought not at all, I’ll wager, about the spaces that were rendered useless to both pedestrians and motorists, like the dead zone I walk through on my way home (a triangle once occupied by more than twenty houses). There is no satisfying thought you can have about such a place, because its uselessness betrays the rational process that created it. But freeways are envisioned, designed, and built by great numbers of people, no single one of whom will ever need to answer the question, “what about this space here, what was the thinking regarding this space?” There was no thinking. The thinking was, no one will ever see that space except for fleeting glimpses from inside their cars.

Once I drove through under here in a thick fog lit up by yellowy streetlamps, and the corner of my eye picked up some strange movement between the passing pillars. I turned and saw the monster-like silhouettes of several men in armor, helmeted in helmets that made their heads look large like lions’ heads and holding shields, bashing at each other with great weapons. My mind boggled for a moment until I realized they were members of the Society for Creative Anachronism. The sight seemed unearthly and weird and out of place, but now that I think back on it, the phrase “out of place” doesn’t seem to apply to the placeless space beneath the highway.

If you imagine the pillars are shade trees you can almost envision the boulevard of old.

I just finished reading The Fires, a recent book by Joe Flood about how relying on the relatively new art of systems analysis and imposing a statistically derived rational order on management of city services enabled the Fire Department of New York to justify closing the most vital fire stations in the Bronx and other poor neighborhoods in the 1970s while those same neighborhoods burned to the ground. I had heard of Robert Moses and Le Corbusier and Robert MacNamara before, but this book made the link between the top-down urban planning approach favored and implemented by such luminaries and the kind of neighborhood evisceration that emerged as a consequence of large infrastructure projects that were ostensibly (and even arguably) for the good of the community. It appears that the mid-century was gripped by a kind of infatuation with the argument-winning power of statistics and a blind obedience to efficiency.

The book helped me piece something together about freeways I hadn’t realized before. We all know that the freeways were put up to help more people get more quickly get from Here to There. But we may not think about what that implies, namely that there is something desirable about There that you don’t have Here. And what is it that Here lacks?

One answer is “everything”. The vision of the rationalists who invented and championed top-down urban planning was a vision of ideal order, where manufacturing was put here, retail was put there, residential housing was put over here, and hotels and casinos and other luxuries and entertainments were put over there. The large master plans left out the element of neighborhoods that made them neighborhoods, which is a kind of historical variety or “layeredness” — old buildings and spaces reused for new things, often small businesses that serve a neighborhood’s needs — the tangible evidence of a community’s habit of internal “environmental reclamation”. As these kinds of places were bulldozed and not accounted for in the new mid-century utopias, people were forced to use their automobiles to go get a quart of milk or a newspaper, or to visit the dentist or buy a lamp. The urban developers naturally viewed arterial roads and freeways as the vital links between all the categorized zones they had laid out. The fact that neighborhoods had not naturally arisen this way but in shifting, overlapping and repeating usage layers within walkable boundaries was not taken into account. People (all the people that mattered) would have cars, and they would want to use them. At this point, space became more of a numerically understood resource than the organic stuff our neighborhoods used to grow up in.

The old neighborhood, Ravenna at an angle and 65th at the right edge. All the houses in this 1936 view except those along the top edge went away when the freeway came through in 1961. Compare with aerial above.

The other answer is “what Here lacks doesn’t matter”, because getting There has become an end in itself. Here is devalued in the restless culture we have woven around us. Whatever Here is, it is not as good as getting in your car and driving to some distant There. I have often felt and indulged this very impulse. It fits snugly with the idea that people like Moses had about big infrastructure in the first place. The same way that boating enthusiasts need a body of water to sail or paddle in, car owners — “motorists” they were called, suggesting a kind of “hobbyist” — needed freeways to drive on. Cars were a luxury and even an entertainment, a sign of one’s arrival to the middle class life of leisure, and freeways were the tree-lined parks to enjoy them in. You took your car out driving not because you had to, but because you could. Why stay Here when you have the means to go There?

That’s what the freeway barreling through your neighborhood means, as an idea. That’s the philosophy embodied by that large piece of expensive infrastructure. That’s the meaning of that dark wasteland under the highway. Its presence says, “you sleep in those neighborhoods, but you no longer live in them. You now live everywhere else. You live on the road.”

Schooling flatlanders in the mountain ‘hi’


— Traditional Northwest native greeting

I saw two bald eagles circling above Mercer Island as I drove through on the freeway Saturday. While always a welcome sight and a joy, this would not normally be worth writing home about. After all, they live there and I have seen them before. Mercer Island’s original nesting pair of eagles are locally famous, not least because the 300-year-old Douglas fir tree they live in long marked the center, legally among bipeds and unbeknownst to the raptors, of a zone in which no heavy construction might take place (lest their habitat be jeopardized) and also the center of a controversy about the existence of that protected zone, which represented a class A bummer for the people who wished to develop the property the tree stands on.*

Plummeting into the fog wall.

Rattlesnake Lake.

But it happens that these were not the only raptors I saw that day, indeed not even the only eagles I saw that day. The blue skies where I was on Saturday were cut by the graceful arcs and swift vectors of quite a few red-tailed hawks and at least two larger, dark-colored birds that I was told were golden eagles.

That the skies were blue was actually the most noteworthy fact of the day. I and my friend Scott had decided to get one just-us-guys-without-the-kids hike in this year come hell or high water. We were expecting high water that day in the form of more of the clouds and rain that had been dogging the northwest all week. On the way over to Scott’s house in Snoqualmie, in fact, I was not surprised when I entered a fog-bank that seemed to promise that I would not see the sun again that day. Scott and I knew we would not likely get another weekend day this year when both of us could leave our wives and young children to go scampering in the hills, so we decided to take whatever weather we were dealt. But when we pulled into the parking lot at Rattlesnake Lake the last patches of morning fog were drifting away on a slight Octoberish breeze from the south and the sun lit the lake and the flanks of Rattlesnake Mountain, the hike we chose because we are aging and out of shape and weren’t interested in killing ourselves.

In this photo from lake level, the foremost ledge looks higher than the back two but it is actually lower.

Rattlesnake Ledge is an outcropping of rock — one of three, actually — that juts from the eastern end of the mountain of the same name and affords hikers what I have always accounted a bargain vista. For a small investment of time and effort you can look out on a panorama that almost seems like the Pacific Northwest showing off. It’s almost hammy. The jagged peaks of the Cascade Range, often capped with snow, rise directly before you, and in the middle distance is a valley that you never see from any highways with an unbelievably large lake in it, whence comes the drinking water we townies take for granted. This is Chester Morse Lake. Directly below — almost you could toss a buffalo nickel into it, it seems — lies Rattlesnake Lake with its ancient treestumps breaking its surface, stumps so big around you could park a Volkswagen on them. To the right is an expanse of primeval forest stretching away as far as you can see to the south, where lies the old town of Ravensdale.

It has clouded up a little, but ace trailbuster Scott is ready to press on upward. Mt. Si looms behind.

Off to the left, brooding over the towns of North Bend and Snoqualmie, is the imposing mass of Mt. Si, named for Josiah Merritt, a legendary settler often referred to as “Uncle Si”. His cabin long ago sank into decay and was reclaimed by the moss and duff of the forest below his mountain, but I — among relatively few alive — know where it was; at least I did. I haven’t driven that road in many years, and development is so rife out in the Snoqualmie Valley that now I might not recognize the turn in the road, or the patch of woods if it still stands.

When Angela saw this she said it looked like I was Photoshop'd in, like I wasn't really there. I'm here to tell ya, I was really there. Chester Morse Lake is in the high background, Rattlesnake in the low.

When I was younger and hiked a lot I used to drive out to North Bend and scramble up to Rattlesnake Ledge and sit on the rock outcropping there like a desperado, thinking about life, praying sometimes, sometimes writing. There were never many people there, one or two other hikers at most. The trail at that time was not well delineated, but in parts was an organic network of nearly vertical dear tracks, and it was shorter then, too, making a fairly direct ascent to the left and up the ledge’s southern shoulder, which was mostly bare of trees. It only took me about 35 minutes.

Scott and I took our time this day, enjoying the rare freedom of being out and about without our kids (don’t get us wrong, we love being with our families, yadda yadda, & cet.) and involving ourselves in the kind of deep conversation that often happens between old friends on a hike. I have known Scott for more than twenty years. The trail is now longer, having had several of its switchbacks lengthened it seems to me, which makes it also less steep, and it circumvents the ledge’s once-bare shoulder for a gentler last leg (do I confuse body part metaphors? Very well, etc.). Though we were an hour getting to the ledge (joggers and people walking dogs passed us), it seemed like no time at all.

No quiet meditation here today.

The rock outcropping was crowded with people munching the sandwiches they’d brought and tipping back water bottles, fingering almonds out of plastic bags, taking pictures of each other with their phones. I think that years ago, the ledge was relatively far from large populations, and those who lived in the Upper Snoqualmie Valley were people who had always lived and worked there and would not be climbing up Rattlesnake every weekend. But now the upper valley is populated by hundreds or thousands of young families new to the delights of their natural surroundings, and for these people Rattlesnake is an amazing view just a few minutes’ drive from their homes. And with a trail that has been “civilized”, it’s no wonder the rock looked like the checkout line at REI.

A chilly breeze blew off the lake below, and after taking some nourishment we decided to explore the trail that continued up the spine of the mountain, a trail that, surprisingly to myself, I had never before taken. We stopped a few minutes later at a second rock outcropping, from which vantage point I took a photo of the first.

View of the first ledge from the second.

Then we continued further upwards to the third, a veritable aerie atop a sheer cliff, whence I snapped a shot of both the first and second ledges.

View of the first and second ledges from the third.

It was here at the third ledge that we saw the many hawks spiraling far below, yet very high still above the trees, and espied the large dark birds that a fellow hiker identified as golden eagles. I feel blessed when I see large birds like eagles and hawks and ospreys. I am probably a birdwatcher and just don’t know it. We spent about an hour up there, long enough on an autumn day to see the feel of the light change from morning light to afternoon light. The sun had emerged again from the morning clouds while we were at the third ledge and it stayed out for the rest of the day.

On the way down the trail, we passed many many people who were on their way up to the first ledge. Observing the protocol that has been an unwritten rule around here for as long as I can remember, Scott and I said “hi” to every individual hiker we encountered and to at least one person in each group (I usually hit the first and the last if they’re densely clustered, each one if they’re spread out). Less than half of them seemed to be expecting a salutation, and although most returned it, a lot of them seemed a little thrown and some even seemed annoyed, and there were a few who didn’t even look at us but trundled past us without a pause in their intergroup chatter.

This narrow gray bird is nor hawk nor eagle, but it held still long enough for me to photograph it. I have no idea what it is. A jay?

This garred me greet. I have been hiking these hills for decades, and when I was coming up (or going down, badda boom!) you always said hi whenever you encountered another hiker. You didn’t ask yourself whether you wanted to, or whether the approaching forms looked like they might be the kind of people you would want to hang out and play Scrabble with. You just said hi. It was a courtesy, and more than that, it is simple acknowledgement that you are on a mountain, or at least in the woods, and that it is these people who will share water or rope or a jacket with you or haul you out if you get into trouble. It’s a pledge of montane solidarity.

Scott and I took the challenge of educating the steady stream of people by example, greeting every hiker we met, whether they acknowledged us — or even noticed us — or not. We met our match in the guy who passed us talking on his cell phone a few paces ahead of a woman and young boy, whom he seemed to have forgotten about and who trudged solemnly along in silence. I didn’t know whom to feel sorrier for, them or him. In the end, him, because he seemed to be under the delusion that he was communing with the outdoors and with his family, while they at least knew their reality and were able to absorb their surroundings. She looked up and smiled when we said hi.

Another one of my happy place photos. I'll go there in my mind when it's still raining next June.

I thought about the lousy statistics we were reeling in. With so many people passing you the other way on the trail, maybe people didn’t feel the same bond of fellowship as when they only encountered very few souls. Maybe it seemed silly to them to say hi so many times in a row. But I think, too, that I’m just getting older and finding myself increasingly out of step with a culture that values only electronic connections, not spontaneous in-person ones. I would say “their loss”, but it’s mine too, because I have a [n/perhaps romantic] idea that people on trails in my beloved Pacific Northwest are ipso facto cool people, the kind of people I would at the least want to exchange a smile and a word with. I can be ignored on any old sidewalk in downtown Seattle.

I wonder if the amount of time we spend watching faces on screens desensitizes us over time to our innate attraction to real faces that are actually nearby. I wonder if we are in fact beginning to see the entire world, wherever we go, as pixels.

*I don’t know how the story of the Eagle Tree ended because I can find nothing besides an application from 2007 for permission to build a walkway in the wooded area where the eagles have built three nests since 1994, and a website for “Friends of the 300 Year Old Eagle Tree” that has not been updated since 2008 and whose last entry suggests that the “friends” were losing the battle against the developers.


A thick envelope arrived today from the banking corporation that owns our house. The contents of the envelope were a Notice of Pre-Foreclosure Options, which consisted of a list of my rights, some options I might consider with my housing counselor such as a “workout” plan, short sale of the property, & cet., and a detailed description of what would happen if I did not respond within 30 days.

This was not a notice that the bank had not received payment and foreclosure was a potential result. My awareness of all that was assumed, as was my intention to default. This was a droll recital of the things I needed to know to navigate the firestorm of banking protocol that awaited me down the road. It reminded me somewhat of the swift and terrible action with which the French used to respond to perceived insubordination in its colonies and Overseas Departments. I felt like some clerk in Mayotte who had neglected to append the proper schedules to a payroll report and was now looking down the 8-inch gunbarrels of a man-o-war out in the harbor.

Boots, even now, were on the ground.

I’m glad this communication did not arrive a week ago, because I would not have had any idea what it was about and might have panicked. As it happens, a swirl of incomplete, subconscious thoughts and misgivings had been nagging at me and had coalesced a few days ago into a prickling uneasiness in my forehead centered around the twin facts that 1) I found a bunch of last month’s bills that did not have the usual scribbles on them indicating that I had paid them and 2) I had noticed that the balance in our checking account was unusually high; high, in fact, by about the amount of a month’s worth of bills.


I checked our accounts online and could find no record that I had paid those bills. Online, yes. I joined the twenty-first century — actually the twentieth century — a few months ago when we fled Chase Manhattan during the Fee Pogroms. And therein lies the root of this gross oversight, I’m sure. I used to track everything in a paper booklet called an account register, but as it became apparent how easy it was to just check balances and transactions online I gradually grew slackalaizical about the register, and also about scribbling dates on paid bills. People had always laughed at me for writing and mailing checks, but it was a system that worked. The bills were collected on the hutch in the dining room until once a month I opened them and recycled the crap ads in search of the remittance slips, wrote the checks, noted the amounts in the register, appended stamps to the envelopes, wrote PAID on the invoices, and then took them downstairs to our home-office to be filed for a few months just in case, and mailed the bills the next day. If the bills were there on the hutch, it meant they hadn’t been paid. If they’d been paid, they were gone. I never bumped into a stack of bills whose status was unknown to me. I never just forgot to pay my bills.

Actually, I had noticed the elevated balance in our account weeks ago and the thought had pinged off my scalp that “hey, I wonder if I didn’t pay the bills last month”, but, I further reasoned, what kind of a moron would you have to be to completely miss paying your monthly bills? and then, too, I would have expected to have heard something by now from one or more of my creditors. I mean, wouldn’t they be curious?

Dear Mr. F–

It is my unpleasant task to admit the embarrassing fact that we here at Stalwart Savings and Loan are unable to locate your mortgage payment for July. We have overturned our offices in search of your usual check but cannot lay our hands on it. I know you are well aware of the importance of timely remittance, which knowledge compels me to contact you immediately to make enquiry as to a possible solution to this conundrum.

Of course we assume that payment was your intention, and can only wonder if in the sleep-deprived chaos of your second child’s first year (congratulations once again, and we hope you enjoyed the preserves, which were put up by the president’s wife with fruit from their own yard) you perhaps wrote the check but forgot to mail it, or perhaps the stamped and addressed envelope slipped down behind the credenza. If you would double-check we would be most grateful.

For we know that you have been a customer in good standing for many years and, if I may put it so, “a straight ahead fellow”, and we are eager to put this matter to rest as soon as possible. Please feel free to call me or stop by the bank at your convenience if there is anything at all I can do, and in the event that some impediment to making full payments has arisen for you, I am sure that we can work out a reasonable solution satisfactory to all parties. Also, it should go without saying that if payment has been remitted you may disregard this letter and join us in considering the matter closed.

I look forward to hearing from you and remain

Yours aff’ly,

Hiram C. Honeywell
Vice President of Accounts
Stalwart Savings and Loan

P.S. On a personal note, we hope to see your brood at the Cow Chip Cookie Eating Contest and BBQ during Pioneer Days next week.

Apparently, this bank is not curious, nor does it send out letters making polite enquiry into the whereabouts of its money. It sends notices like the one I received today notifying me that my annihilation as a homeowner is imminent. The combination of my non-payment and a certain time period have reacted chemically to trigger the fiduciary equivalent of a thermonuclear event, which can now only be aborted through swift action and consultation with experts.

I miss the world of humans. I’d like to tell them that the check is in the mail, but it’s not. There is no check. I entered the amounts, including the late penalty fee, in the online form and clicked Make Payments. Funds are being transferred electronically and automatically. Sometime soon. I hope.

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.

In step

I’m walking down Fourth Avenue after picking up a book at the library yesterday, and a man crosses to my side of the street. He’s smartly attired in a dark dress shirt and black pants and talking pointedly. I assume he’s got the Bluetooth ear-thingy in but then I see he doesn’t. He’s just talking. We cross the street together and happen to be pace buddies, although I push my stride a little so that I’m not actually beside him. While emphatic, his speech is not loud and the noise of traffic drowns out most of it, but over my left shoulder I hear fragments of a non-stop complaint that sound like this:

…not CIVilized…
…trying to cross a STREET…
…get in the WAY…
…wait TWO seconds a man cross the STREET…
…no way…
…no reSPECT for the common man, for the FELLOW man…
…all he wants a place to LIVE and a decent job…

We walk for at least a block together, and it occurs to me that although he had been sounding off even before he joined me on my side, someone had nearly driven over us as we stepped into the crosswalk and his vitriol might have something to do with that. Then halfway down the block, a woman drives out of a parking garage and halts on the sidewalk in front of us, blocking our forward progress. I’m slightly miffed, but my miffage is almost immediately assuaged by the fact that there is already a running, verbal complaint audible in my left ear. It occurs to me that the man might well be channeling my own sense of pedestrian entitlement, as though his body and vocal cords were a receiver and amplifier of my own indignation.

I could protest that I was simply an innocent bystander, that I just happened to be walking at the same pace slightly in front and to the right of a crazy person, but the fact was, many of the phrases I was hearing seemed to be from thought patterns that I would have to admit to having entertained in my own head, and pretty recently, too. I get tired of nearly being struck by motorists, and it happens a lot. Was the man just picking up and broadcasting my own signal? The fact that he was walking behind me and I couldn’t see him heightened the sensation that I was hearing a voice in my own head. The scary part is, the voice just didn’t seem that foreign.

What a horror it would be if my most self-pitying, resentful and uncharitable thoughts were suddenly bullhorned to the world around me via some inductive crosstalk between my own magnetic field and that of someone with a looser tongue. And what if I couldn’t shake that person by turning right down Cherry? What if that person remained at your left heel always, like some figure out of early twentieth-century German literature. The whole episode made me want to think kinder thoughts.


The Great Seattle Gargoyle Hunt