therestlessnest

where life's not empty, it's restless.

Welcome to Seattle

IMG_1312Here’s a sad, sad thought: your cherished friend is visiting Seattle from across the country and you find out she’s drinking bad hotel coffee at her downtown hotel. You know the stuff: those packets that you stick in the toddler-sized coffeemaker, because you can’t bear to spend ten dollars on a cup from room service OR throw a coat over your pajamas and venture out for a to-go cup from the nearest café.

When I heard the news, I felt personally embarrassed on behalf of my hometown.

Vicky and I met forty years ago this month, when Wellesley College assigned us to live in the same room. She was from Ohio. I was from Seattle. We were both 17, on financial aid and not from New York or New England, which must be why Wellesley College matched us up.

Vicky remembers that I drew little cartoon evergreen trees on the whiteboard outside our dorm room because I was so homesick. She remembers that I brewed my own coffee, purchased at the gourmet store in town.

I remember that no one knew anything about Seattle, except for what they’d seen on Here Come the Brides, the TV show responsible for the song, “The Bluest Skies You’ve Ever Seen.” (“—are in Seattle?” Who wrote that?)

Over the many years since college, Vicky has been in Seattle briefly a few times. But on this visit, she finally had the leisure to look around a bit, while her husband attended a conference. I know Vicky to be an intrepid walker, so I thought we could start with a morning of urban hiking.

But first she needed a decent cup of coffee. And food. Now that everyone in the world can go to Starbuck’s, we locals have to get a little more creative. So we marched through downtown to the original Macrina Bakery in Belltown, where they serve perfect drip coffee in giant sloshing cups, along with the world’s best muffins and quiche and pastries.

Fueled up, we headed to the Olympic Sculpture Park: my favorite place to take out-of-town guests. To me, it’s where a lot of what makes Seattle Seattle converges: water, mountains, trees, art, kitschy history (The Space Needle), long-ago history (the bustle of tribal canoes and tall-masted ships), green history (the Sculpture Park was built on a former petroleum depot), and the ongoing conservation wars that define the West: the park crosses the same train tracks that carry coal bound for Asia. It is where I can show my college roommate what I missed when I showed up in that Wellesley dorm room.

Full disclosure: in 2007, my husband and I produced a documentary about the making of the Olympic Sculpture Park that was so positive a reviewer for the Seattle Weekly accused me of “documentarian Stockholm Syndrome,” as if I’d been kidnapped by and fallen in love with my subject: the Sculpture Park. Ouch! But that’s another Seattle quirk: our discomfort with boosterism. We fear it, because we’ve been taught all our lives that we’re provincial, we’re quaint, we’re not San Francisco or New Orleans, which are allowed to be both regionally flavorful and sophisticated. No, we prefer to joke about our shortcomings. To talk about how gray and rainy it is, instead of how gorgeous the weather can be in, say, September.

I confess to that reviewer that she was right: I was smitten with the park and therefore not very objective. I confess: then and now, I was and am un-hiply boosterish. I want people to love Seattle. I want them to see what a unique place it is. That’s why I don’t want them to drink awful hotel coffeemaker coffee.

And that’s why I’m glad the sky was blue when Vicky was here. Because when it is blue, it is about the bluest ever. Go ahead, accuse me of Stockholm syndrome. You know it’s true.

Her_Beautiful_BrainThanks to everyone who attended the launch of Her Beautiful Brain at Elliott Bay Book Company. The room was full to the brim with warmth and support. And first reviews are in! From Shelf Awareness: “unflinching, tragic and compassionate.” And from Booklist: “candid, sometimes funny and always poignant.”  984230_10152726131714684_7000466355561148229_n

 

 

Alzheimer’s + Anger

Her_Beautiful_Brain

I am not an angry person. I’m not. I’m sure I’m not. So why, then, am I riveted by Greg O’Brien’s rage?

O’Brien is an investigative reporter who, as Maria Shriver put it, “is embedded in the mind of Alzheimer’s, which happens to be his own mind.” Five years ago, at 59, O’Brien was diagnosed with younger-onset Alzheimer’s. Now, O’Brien told Shriver in an NBC interview, “60 percent of his short-term memory is gone in 30 seconds.”

And it fills him with rage. When he can’t remember how to dial his cellphone. When he looks at a lawn sprinkler and can’t remember what it is. When suddenly “you don’t know where you are, who you are, or what the hell you’re doing.”

When you recognize that there will never be enough research dollars directed towards Alzheimer’s until people understand that it’s not always a disease, said O’Brien, that “you get at 85 and then you die, and who gives a s*it.”

O’Brien’s memoir, On Pluto: Inside the Mind of Alzheimer’s, is coming out in 10552552_1505946412957424_2136751528538458501_nOctober. I look forward to reading it. I know it won’t be sugar-coated. I’m glad.

O’Brien was fresh in my mind when, a few days later, I read about 16-year-old Alicia Kristjanson of Edmonds, Washington. Kristjanson will be walking in the upcoming Walk to End Alzheimer’s in honor of her father Doug, who died of the disease this year at age 49. She told the Edmonds Beacon she “would never wish what I went through with my father on anyone else, not even on my worst enemy.”

“I am not a very angry person,” Kristjanson explained to me later. “So when I do get angry, for me, the way I’ve gotten out my anger is by volunteering and doing what I’m doing to try to find a cure.”

Alzheimer’s disease: it’s not just for old people.

quibro_loresMy mother was in her late fifties when she began to worry that something was wrong with her brain. She was diagnosed at 66 and died at 74. Like Alicia Kristjanson, I would never wish what she went through on anyone. Like Greg O’Brien, I am filled with rage when I think of how much frustration and misery she had to suffer. How little we still know about why it happens. How helpless we still are to treat symptoms, let alone cure or prevent Alzheimer’s, which currently affects more than 5.2 million Americans, including 200 thousand who are younger than 65.

It does help to write. The body of literature about Alzheimer’s is growing. Lisa 10439509_10152589930319379_3980131392185575086_nGenova’s best-selling novel, Still Alice—which she finally self-published after two years of rejections—is now also a feature film starring Julianne Moore and Alec Baldwin and premiering this month at the Toronto International Film Festival. Trailblazers in our own region include poet Holly Hughes, editor of the luminous anthology, Beyond Forgetting: Poetry and Prose about Alzheimer’s Disease; Unknown
poet Tess Gallagher, journalist Collin Tong, who curated a collection of essays called Into the Storm: Journeys with Alzheimer’s; poet and memoirist Esther Altshul Helfgott, (Dear Alzheimer’s: A Caregiver’s Diary & Poems) and poet Lon Cole, diagnosed with Alzheimer’s at 61, whose latest book is called alive & thankful. I will be honored to join their ranks when my memoir, Her Beautiful Brain, is published this month.

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It also helps to find ways to feel less alone. This month, the Alzheimer’s Association is staging Walks to End Alzheimer’s all over the country, including ten in Western and Central Washington. The Seattle Walk is on September 20th.

When you see or hear news stories about the Alzheimer’s walks, remember that Alzheimer’s is not a condition that inevitably comes with age. It is a terminal illness. It is deadly and indiscriminate. It is the sixth leading cause of death in our country, and the most expensive: more than 200 billion dollars in direct costs this year. And yet research funding for Alzheimer’s lags far behind funding for other illnesses.

Anger is an appropriate response to Alzheimer’s. Those of us who have lived with it or near it have been too quiet for too long.

Thanks to everyone who came to the September 7 Her Beautiful Brain book launch at Elliott Bay Book Company in Seattle. So wonderful to see you all there! 

Radio lovers: you can hear the Restless Nest commentaries every Tuesday at 7:45 a.m. on KBCS, streaming online at kbcs.fm and on the air at 91.3 in the Seattle area. http://kbcs.fm/listen/podcasts/

The Other Washington

IMG_1174It’s the heavyweight red bicycle I’ll remember: how I swiped a credit card and punched in a code and out it popped from its parking spot in front of the Department of Labor.

Then, freedom. Off I went, up the long, gravel paths of the Mall, dodging the Sunday crowds, feeling the breeze I couldn’t quite catch when I was walking.

The Other Washington is always full of tourists in the summertime, despite the tropical heat and humidity, which on this visit was blessedly below normal. Hot or not, I like being there with the tourists. My fellow tourists: I’m one too, even though I’ve visited many times over the years, since one of my closest friends lives in the Virginia suburbs.

What fascinates me is how my own D.C. tastes have changed. How much more of a cornball, capitol-loving kind of tourist I’ve become over time.

I was a college student when I first visited Washington, D.C., in the post-Watergate late seventies. Patriotism was unthinkable. The protest era was over, and what, we thought at that cynical time, had those marches achieved? The only government building I wanted to visit was the National Gallery.

Nearly four decades later, D.C. has changed and so have I.

On my first afternoon, I visited the Library of Congress, which I love for its over-the-top tile frescoes honoring muses, poets, philosophers and scholars; its gold-leaf proclamations that “Knowledge is Power.” But this time, I found a hidden gem: a tiny plain gallery down the hall from the basement shop, where a small but powerful selection of news photos of the 1963 March on Washington were on display.

When you see those pictures of a quarter million people filling the Mall, all eyes turned toward the Lincoln Memorial where Martin Luther King, Jr. stood on the steps—when fifty years have passed and the words of his “I Have a Dream” speech still resound—and then you step outside and take in the vast sweep from the Capitol building down to the distant monuments—then you see Washington D.C. a little differently.

One of the photos was taken from behind Lincoln’s massive stone shoulder, as if he was looking down on the crowds, blinking back a hundred years worth of tears.

Hard to believe his life ended in a little house on 10th Street, across from Ford’s Theatre where he was fatally shot. Inspired by the Library of Congress exhibition, I finally went to see it.

It was a long walk up Pennsylvania Avenue, past the statues outside the National Archives, with their solemn motto, “Past is Prologue.” Past the Department of Justice and the FBI. Across busy E Street to quiet Tenth.

A group of foreign students stood outside the Petersen House, where Lincoln died early in the morning of April 15, 1865. They studied the plaque. They quietly snapped photos on their phones. Clearly, these young people understood history better than I did at their age. They understood the notion of past as prologue.

A few days later, riding my big red rental bike around the Washington Monument, I saw many more groups of students, some of them strolling with their parents. I saw buses from all over the country. I saw veterans making their way towards memorials to the Vietnam War, the Korean War, World War Two.

So much emotion courses through our capitol on any given day, I thought as I pedaled. Some days—like the day of the March on Washington or the day Lincoln died—it’s a collective tsunami of emotion. But ordinary D.C. days are moving too. And I’m always happy to see where one takes me.

Her_Beautiful_Brain Save the date: Her Beautiful Brain book launch: 3pm, September 7, at Elliott Bay Book Company in Seattle. You can pre-order now from Elliott Bay, Powell’s Books, or the large or small bookseller of your choice.

August

IMG_1162 August is a misunderstood month. “Nothing gets done in August,” people say. “Everyone’s on vacation.” But who is everyone, and what exactly does vacation mean?

Below this surface fiction of hot, languid days, college freshmen pack up and get ready to step out of the only life they’ve ever known and into a new one they can’t quite imagine yet. Young couples get married. Babies conceived on cold winter nights are born on warm summer mornings. Teachers write lesson plans. Schoolkids—well, they’re probably still in happy denial, though a few might secretly look forward to being a whole year older than last year.

And some of us have books coming out, not long after Labor Day.

Call me a late bloomer, because I am, but publishing my first book this fall feels in many ways just as scary as going off to college.

I was an early-bloomer then. I left home for college at seventeen. And all through that long-ago August, a stranger stood in my bedroom, reminding me that I was about to step off a cliff. The stranger was a suitcase. I’d never owned one. Never needed one. But here it was, my own classic, rectangular, sky-blue Skyway, a high school graduation gift from my grandparents: quietly waiting for me to fill it. Quietly reminding me, every day, that the Skyway and I would soon be flying east into a different universe called college. A universe I longed to love but didn’t know yet if I would. Didn’t know yet that there would be moments worth loving, freedoms worth having, but crises and troughs and miseries too.

Her_Beautiful_BrainI want to love launching my first book, Her Beautiful Brain. But now I’m way beyond old enough to know there will be high and low points. There will be people who don’t like it. People I love who don’t like all of it. People whose attention I had hoped to attract, who ignore it.

That sturdy, rectangular Skyway was my sidekick, my magic carpet, my ticket out of this sleepy old Here Come the Brides town. Grandma was so proud to have picked it out for my high school graduation gift. It was our color, the blue of all of our eyes, the blue that turned up in every ski sweater she ever knit. Skyway blue, set off perfectly by the stainless steel latches that snapped open and shut like a stapler. Inside, the blue was subtly quilted and had a silver sheen, not unlike Grandma’s hair. There were shirred pockets around the sides for small items. It smelled like a new car. It smelled like my life finally beginning.

A few years ago, before we moved out of the house we’d been in for two decades, the time came to face the truth: twenty years in an unheated carport had not been kind to my old Skyway, so unkind it wasn’t even Goodwill-worthy. Off to the dump it went. Or “transfer station,” as we now say, as if we are gently “transferring” our cast-offs to a new habitat.DSC00232.JPG

As I watched the Junk-B-Gone truck pull out of the driveway, the Skyway half-buried, I felt disloyal and guilty about the haphazard way I’d stored it.

It was a tool, I told myself. Like my long-gone first Royal typewriter. Or the laptop on which I started my memoir, which is not the same laptop on which I finished it. It’s where the Skyway took me that mattered. Into the stories of my life. One of which, one month from now, I will be sharing, between the covers of a book.

Park Dining

family_funI had lunch today at “Dog in the Park,” one of the best outdoor dining establishments in Seattle. One window, one grill, and a cluster of umbrella-shaded picnic tables on prime downtown turf: the east side of Westlake Park. From my excellent table, I had a ringside view of the children’s play area, the waterfall wall and the busy intersection of Fourth and Pine. My chicken, feta and spinach dog with peppers and onions was grilled to perfection. It cost me five dollars plus tip. If you’re after traditional pork or beef dogs, they have those too. Veggie, vegan? Naturally. It may be a one-item menu, but “Dog in the Park” has a dog for everyone.

But this is not a restaurant review. This is a park story. Westlake Park is not just a busy downtown crossroads. It is, in fact, a city park. It has its own Seattle Park District web page, which lists its size as 0.1 acres. It also has its own Office of Arts & Culture web page, on which you can learn all about artist Robert Maki’s 1988 design for Westlake, which features paving stones in a Salish basket-weave pattern, a Roman-inspired stone archway and a 64-foot, double wall of water that you can walk through on a steel walkway.

Sitting in the park, with a tasty grilled hot dog, is much better than reading about it. As I ate, I watched a few kids plinking on a pink piano, one of the “Pianos in the Parks” that have popped up all logo-pianosintheparksover Seattle this summer. I watched a half dozen younger kids scramble on the geodesic jungle gym and the shiny aluminum balls. I watched the parents and grandparents who were watching all the children, some of whom occasionally drifted down to the south end of the park to see how the games were going on the giant chessboards. The sun was as summer-bright as it could be, but there was a delicious breeze cooling us all.

It’s all pretty wonderful, especially if, like me, you can actually remember what things looked like before 1988. Before this one-tenth of an acre became a park paved in a basket pattern. In 1982, when I moved back to Seattle after eight years away, Westlake had a post-apocalyptic feel. I remember gaping holes and plywood with graffiti on it, which gave way at some point to screeching jackhammers and scaffolding everywhere. I remember this going on for years.

I’ll tell you the truth: it wasn’t until I got home after my hot dog that I looked up online and learned that Westlake is a city park. It made me happy to learn that it is. Because on August 5th, Seattle 10295774_1453094438270155_5810437079417490514_nresidents have a chance to vote to provide stable funding for all our parks, including tiny Westlake. If we can pass Proposition 1, Seattle, we’ll be protecting what has become a very sweet spot in the heart of the city. It’s only one tenth of one acre out of the 6200 acres in our park system. But it is probably the only park where you can buy a grilled-to-order lunch and eat it while taking in the ever-stimulating spectacle of downtown life.

On Tuesday nights, you could have your hot dog and then do a little ballroom dancing in Westlake Park. There are occasional concerts, too. Political rallies and parades pass through pretty regularly.

And because it’s a park, it’s ours. Just like Rainier is our mountain and Alki, Lincoln and Golden Gardens are our saltwater beaches, Westlake is our own protected bit of downtown real estate. Check it out. Try a hot dog. And mail that ballot.

Her_Beautiful_BrainSave the date for the Her Beautiful Brain book launch: 3pm, September 7, at Elliott Bay Book Company in Seattle. You can pre-order now from Elliott Bay, Powell’s Books, or the large or small bookseller of your choice.

 

Radio lovers: you can hear the Restless Nest commentaries every Tuesday at 7:45 a.m. on KBCS, streaming online at kbcs.fm and on the air at 91.3 in the Seattle area. http://kbcs.fm/listen/podcasts/

 

 

 

 

 

 

Park Dreaming

10295774_1453094438270155_5810437079417490514_nI want to write about parks. Seattle voters, you know we’ve got a big decision to make. But here’s the problem: there are these snapshots in my head that keep getting in the way.

A woman standing in front of her wildfire-torched home in Pateros, Washington.

A funeral for a child in Gaza.

Bodies lying in a wheat field in Ukraine.

The headlines this week, and the pictures that go with them, have been brutal.

I want to write about parks. But it seems—disrespectful.

I want to write about how parks saved my mental health more than once. About what a safe haven they’ve always been for me. I want to remember the Arboretum, where I could spend half a day with a pencil and notebook. I want to shout out the old-growth trees and cool summer waters of Seward Park, my refuge for 24 years. I want to remember the climbing tree in the playfield up the hill from my childhood home, where I could hide out for a while when being one of six kids in the house just got too cramped.

But even though I really, really want Seattle voters to pass the measure on the August primary ballot which will create stable funding at last for our city parks, it just seems so indulgent to write about while the largest recorded wildfire in our state’s history blazes on. While both sides in Gaza report their deadliest day. While families in the Netherlands and Malaysia and a dozen other countries mourn the violent deaths of people they loved, people whose only involvement in a territorial war was to fly high overhead in a commercial jet.

So indulgent. But here’s the rub: I can’t stop the wildfires or the missiles or the bombs. But I can urge you to think about the future of Seattle’s parks. About how—when it feels like things aren’t going so well in the big wide world—we need our parks more than ever. We need green places where we can walk, talk, run, bike, swim, think.

Or pull ivy. On Saturday, I was planning to go for a run in one of the most popular parks in the city—beautiful Golden Gardens, way out on Shilshole Bay—when I spotted an email reminder about a work party in one of the least-known corners of the park system: Cheasty Greenspace, a tangle of woods along the east side of Beacon Hill, just around the corner from where I live.

I decided I needed to be useful more than I needed a drive across town and a fresh salt breeze.

The goal in the Cheasty woods is to create bike paths and walking paths in an area of the city where access to quiet, green spaces is sorely needed. There are some neighbors who say they want it to stay wild. But most of us in the area do want the trails, and we’re willing to show the city we do by putting in some seriously sweaty sweat equity.

The task at hand was not glamorous: yanking out invasive English ivy. Yards of it. Mounds of it. All morning, a dozen or so grownups pulled and pulled, while kids ran our little piles up to the big piles. By noon, we had amassed a small mountain of ivy.

We were sweaty and dirty. We had not solved the world’s problems. But we had done our modest bit for our future park, our little link in Seattle’s emerald chain.

We know the ivy will keep growing back. So… we’ll keep pulling it. Because once you see where there might someday, if everybody pitches in, actually be a path, it’s hard to get that snapshot out of your mind.

Save the date: Her Beautiful Brain book launch: 3pm, September 7, at Elliott Bay Book Company inHer_Beautiful_Brain Seattle. You can pre-order now from Elliott Bay, Powell’s Books, or the large or small bookseller of your choice.

 

The Real Portlandia

10431951_659260227460590_1999677558_sImagine: you are in the middle of downtown, in a major American city, and you walk right into a clean, pleasant public bathroom. No strings attached: you don’t have to buy a coffee or stride purposefully past a store clerk or a hotel concierge or a librarian. This restroom is there expressly for you. You, the visitor. In fact, it is in a place called the “Welcome Center,” which also features racks of brochures and maps and friendly volunteers who will answer any questions you might have. Hot day? Water bottle empty? They’ll point you to the drinking fountain where you can fill it.

I know what you’re thinking: I really am imagining this. There’s no such place. But you know what? There is, and it’s closer than you think. One hundred seventy three miles south of Seattle, there exists a strange parallel universe called Portland, a cityscape that resembles ours, only everything is easier.

The Welcome Center is located in Portland’s Pioneer Courthouse Square, right in the heart of town, right where tourists can find it.

“Why can’t we have one of these in Seattle?” I thought, as I walked in, two minutes after stepping off the many-branched MAX light rail, which had just whisked us downtown from my nephew’s outlying neighborhood. I know: Seattle’s working on it. I live on our Link light rail line, and I love it. I just wish it were a real network, like the MAX, instead of one lonely line.

Light rail is expensive and it takes a long time to build. Public bathrooms downtown probably aren’t so easy, either. But there are a few other things Portland has figured out that Seattle has not. That maybe wouldn’t be so hard to do. For example, sidewalk dining. SO much nicer when it’s not crammed behind a chain. Walking along the Willamette River on the Fourth of July, café tables and chairs stretched from one restaurant to the next the way they do in Paris.

My husband and I were there for the Portland Blues Festival. We took a strolling break in search of coffee. Sitting at our little outdoor table was so pleasant we decided to keep strolling after we were done. We came to a restaurant, sat down and ate dinner—still on the sidewalk, taking in the scene as people spread their blankets to watch the fireworks—before we finally went back into the jam-packed festival area, which also sprawled along the river.

Here, too, there were no fenced-in beer gardens, as there are at Seattle’s festivals, for people who wanted to have a beer or glass of wine. Instead—what a concept!—you could buy your beer and sip it as you walked, or bring it back to your own blanket or lawn chair and sip it while you took in the music.

Like many Seattleites, my husband and I are not often tourists in Portland. We pop down for a day of work or a visit with friends or relatives and then we head home. But after our recent three-day jaunt, I get the magic. I understand why young people are moving there in droves. Sure, it’s “twee”—you can buy a book at Powell’s that explains what that is—and many people have many, many tattoos, some of them quite beautiful. But Portland also boasts great art, music, food and drink. You can get to the ocean beaches or the Gorge in no time. And on top of all that? Portland is easy. It’s friendly. It is so welcoming it has a Welcome Center.

Seattle, I know we’ve got the guys who throw the salmon around under the Market clock. But I think it’s about time we learned a few things. From Portland.

Save the date for the Her Beautiful Brain book launch: 3pm, September 7, at Elliott Bay Book Company in Seattle. You can pre-order now from Elliott Bay, Powell’s Books, or the large or small bookseller of your choice.

Freedom Riders

DSC00865“Freedom,” such a lovely word, is about to get its annual binge on. It will be overused, misused, badly used and, occasionally, poignantly or profoundly used. Why even try to compete?

So I’m keeping my contribution simple. You ready?

Freedom is a bicycle.

Stay with me here. Ride with me.

I live in a newly rebuilt neighborhood where many of my neighbors are African immigrants. Our home overlooks a small central park built around two enormous red oak trees. On summer afternoons, it is usually full of children.

One recent afternoon, I sat at my desk, trying and failing to focus on my work while I watched the park fill with kids. They were headed towards a shining sea of bicycles parked under a big blue canopy down at the other end. It was the annual bike fair and giveaway sponsored by Bikeworks, one of the most high-energy, generous nonprofits in Seattle. One by one, thirty children were fitted with a new helmet, passed a safety test, and sped down the sidewalk on a bright new refurbished used bike. One by one, I watched them ride right towards me, smiles filling their faces.

Freedom is a bicycle, I’m telling you.

When you get on a bike, your feet kiss the ground goodbye. Pedaling uphill may make you sweat, but coasting is flying. One minute, you’re standing in the park; the next, you’re flying, and it’s not magic, it’s your own muscles turning those wheels and making it happen.

I learned to ride a bike late. I was the third of six children, and my parents, like many of the parents in my current neighborhood, were busy with the youngest ones and apparently never thought about teaching us middle girls to ride. Finally, when I was about nine or maybe even ten, our grandparents gave my sister and me funny bikes with banana seats and we taught ourselves. No training wheels; just a few weeks of bruised shins and crashes until riding a bike was, suddenly and forever, as natural as breathing.

And it was freedom. Overnight, we graduated from footsore hikers of the neighborhood to fliers, little Amelia Earharts piloting our low-slung, banana-seated planes as far as we dared.

I love seeing that Amelia Earhart look in the faces of the neighborhood kids, soaring by on their new bikes. Few of them will go to soccer camps or summer camps, but they’ll be able, occasionally, to soar.

I worry a lot about safety. I wish they would wear their helmets at all times. As in many American neighborhoods, we have a problem with a few young men who love driving fast in cars. Trying to soar in a car is never a good idea. But once you’ve got a driver’s license, bicycles just aren’t as cool.

Until you get past all that and realize that actually, they are.

On the Saturday of the Solstice, my husband and I rode our bikes up and over Beacon Hill, through the International District and Pioneer Square, along the downtown waterfront, through Myrtle Edwards Park and along the Interbay bike path to the Ballard Bridge, where we picked up the Ship Canal path and took it to Fremont. We got there in time to catch the last wave of naked bicyclists in the annual Solstice Parade. Seeing them was a lot of fun, but really, the best part of the day was riding through our city, speeding past snarls of traffic. Feeling free.

I’m sure we looked as old and uncool as we are. But who cares? Like the little girl who just sped by as I write, her bright blue hijab flying out from under her red helmet, we were tasting freedom, and it tasted like the Fourth of July.

Save the date: Her Beautiful Brain book launch: 3pm, September 7, at Elliott Bay Book Company in Seattle. You can pre-order now from Elliott Bay, Powell’s Books, or the large or small bookseller of your choice.Her_Beautiful_Brain

 

 

 

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Volunteer Janitor

DSC00865“I bet those nice ladies think I’m the new janitor,” I thought, as I jogged past them down the basement stairs of our 80-year-old church, carrying a caddy full of cleaning supplies. “I guess I’m OK with that.”

But for a second or two, I wasn’t OK. I had a momentary taste of how it might feel to be the janitor, and I didn’t like it. I was fine with cleaning toilets as a volunteer. Our church had just finished a week of hosting six homeless women and their children in our basement and I was helping with cleanup. Lucky me, to have access to such an easy way to feel like I’d done something Good with a capital G. An hour in rubber gloves, and then I could get back to my real life of working at a desk, where I may think I’m scraping by financially but I know I make more than the church janitor. Custodian. Cleaner. Am I showing my age, using the word “janitor?”

And then there are the homeless moms and kids, packing up their stuff every week and moving on to another church. This is what we call a “safety net” in America: networks of volunteers who put up tents in church basements and serve hot dinners and help with homework and try to make a desperate situation bearable.

I don’t have a natural facility for this kind of volunteering, or any kind, really. I did not grow up in a volunteering kind of family. I had to learn to volunteer by imitating other people. When my kids were young and pleas for volunteers began coming from their school, I learned that I was much better at hands-on time with children than committee work with grownups. I learned that I’d rather tutor a slow reader or shepherd a field trip than attend meetings and debate strategy. I’d rather clean toilets.

I sometimes quip that it’s a physical thing. I spend enough time sitting in meetings with adults.

But it’s about something else too; something harder to define. Something about not wanting to live full-time in a protected world where the closest I come to homelessness is buying a copy of Real Change from the vendor outside the PCC.

It’s uncomfortable to try to define because it sounds like tourism. Slumming, as people used to say. But what I’m getting at is more urgent than that. It’s more of a need to understand first-hand. Not fully, never fully, but to get at least a glimmer of insight into other worlds and lives.

It’s also about wanting to help in ways that are tangible, as in: Today, I helped one child read one book. I heard her inch a little closer to fluency.

My husband and I have made many, many short films for non-profit organizations. In the course of telling their stories, we’ve interviewed many of their clients. That has been another way of gaining insight. But it is not the same. Filming people tutoring or cleaning toilets is not tutoring or cleaning toilets. Watching people do it, you don’t wonder what it feels like to be a homeless child staying in a church basement in the same way you do when you are hunched over a homework packet with that child.

I know how lucky I am to have a home, to earn a living, to be part of a loving family. I also know how lucky I am to have time to volunteer. I always come home having learned something. About other people. About the world. About myself.

Save the date: Her Beautiful Brain book launch: 3pm, September 7, at Elliott Bay Book CompanyHer_Beautiful_Brain in Seattle. You can pre-order now from Elliott Bay, Powell’s Books, or the large or small bookseller of your choice.

 

 

 

The Longest Day

EndAlz

On the longest day of the year, the Alzheimer’s Association wants you to think. Use your precious and, God-willing, still-intact brain and think. Spend five of those one thousand glorious minutes of summer solstice daylight thinking about the people you know who are dealing with dementia and what the words “longest day” might mean to them.

The Alzheimer’s Association is betting you do know someone whose spouse, parent, grandparent, aunt, uncle, friend or neighbor is living with Alzheimer’s disease. Someone who knows the loneliness of caring for a person who once had so much to say and now says nothing at all, all day long. Or maybe she says the same thing over and over again. Or maybe he speaks, but it makes no sense. Maybe she or he is sundowning—there’s a good “longest-day” word—but in the dementia world, sundowning is not so pretty. It means getting agitated and cranky and sometimes even scary right when the rest of the world is getting ready for bed.

The longest day. Where my ancestors came from, it was and is a day of IMG_0461celebration. Of joyous gratitude for summer light and warmth. And many of the people who are in the early stage of Alzheimer’s are going to be able to enjoy the longest day of the year just as much, if not more, than the rest of us, because no one is better at living in the moment than people who can’t remember. If you can no longer follow a book or a movie, then why not get outside and smell the June flowers and soak up the extra June hours? Why not savor every strawberry as if it’s the first one you ever ate? Because as far as you know, it is.

But for people who are in the middle or later stages of the illness, all that extra daylight could be confusing or exhausting or both. Which means it will be exhausting for their caregivers, too. And lest you think we’re talking about a boutique illness, a sliver of the medical world, here are the hard facts: more than five million Americans are currently living with Alzheimer’s disease. Officially, Alzheimer’s is now the sixth leading cause of death in the U.S. But new research shows that it could be third, right behind heart disease and cancer. Last month, the New York Times ran a story headlined: “Alzheimer’s, the Neglected Epidemic,” citing research showing that in just one year, 2010, Alzheimer’s was the underlying cause in half a million deaths in this country.

For all kinds of reasons, it has been very hard to get people to feel the urgency of the Alzheimer’s epidemic. Maybe, until you see it up close, it is easy to dismiss as some sort of inevitable curse of old age. Something far off in the sundowning distance. But as the baby boomers grow old, we are going to be in deep trouble if we don’t step it up. Current federal funding for Alzheimer’s research is half a billion dollars a year. Sounds like a lot, doesn’t it? But cancer research commands more than five billion federal dollars a year. Heart disease: nearly two billion. And those investment have made a huge difference. Heart disease and cancer death rates are declining, even as Alzheimer’s deaths soar.

Some of the people you know who are affected by Alzheimer’s disease might be part of a “Longest Day” fundraising team. Give them a boost, if you can. But at the very least? Think of them. On the longest day or, better yet, every day.

Need help getting fired up about the urgency of the Alzheimer’s epidemic? Watch actor and comedian Seth Rogen’s testimony before Congress.

Her_Beautiful_BrainAnd save the date for my book launch: 3pm, September 7, at Elliott Bay Book Company in Seattle. You can pre-order Her Beautiful Brain from Elliott Bay, Powell’s Books, or the bookseller of your choice.

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