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

Archive for the month “June, 2012”

Slowness Breaks

When you’ve been moving fast, slowing down sometimes feels nearly impossible. Especially if you’ve been flitting like a hummingbird from task to task, as we so often do in our speed-loving, app-happy, instant-everything culture.

For example: every single time I sit down to write, I have to relearn the most basic of lessons, which is: Going slow is the fastest way to get the job done. Because there is just no way to do it besides: One. Word. At. A. Time. It’s like bricklaying: it happens brick by brick. Or, to use author Anne Lamott’s famous example, if you are writing a school report about birds, you have to go bird by bird.

Last week, I activated my new smart phone. Oh, the new high-speed horizons! But something unexpected happened on the way to my new 21st century lifestyle. In my eagerness to embrace all that my new toy had to offer, I brought my four-year-old laptop into the computer store for some upgrades. Long story short, something somewhere got miswired in the process and I ended up making four trips to the store and spending quite a bit of the week without my number-one tool: my laptop.

Fortunately, I picked the right week: no looming work deadlines. But I still felt like I’d been handcuffed. Sure, I had my sparkly new phone. But you can’t write write on a phone. And yes, I own pens and pencils and I used them plenty last week. But for 25 years, my habit has been to scribble unedited thoughts and reflections in a journal and then compose anything more formal than that with the help of a keyboard: a real one, not a slippery little wallet-sized touchscreen.

So, for five days, I did what I could with the tiny screen. And on my four treks to the computer store, while waiting for various attempted fixes, I did a lot of window shopping and a tiny amount of actual shopping at the other shops in the glamorous University Village, which, in its quaint early days, was the shopping center of my childhood and featured a Woolworth’s, a Singer sewing store, and best of all, a tiny bookshop called Kay’s Bookmark, where I spent hours of my young life.

By visit number four, I was so done with the U Village and so fed up I knew what I badly needed was a slowness break.

I packed a notebook and a pencil. I headed for the Washington Park Arboretum. When I got out of the car, a light rain had just begun to fall. I found a tree by a pond, its leaves thick enough to keep most of the rain off my head, and sat down. I wrote a little, word by word, recalling memories of the daydreamy, poetry-writing Arboretum rambles of my adolescence. But mostly, I watched the raindrops dance on the pond.

I wasn’t there long; maybe half an hour, before I got the call from the store and headed on to the Village. But what a difference that slowness break made in my ability to brave the final round of laptop-repair-stress.

In a recent survey by the Trust for Public Land, Seattle was rated ninth in the nation in quality and quantity of public green spaces. These parks are ours. Yours, mine, ours! Claim them. Try a ten-minute stop sometime soon and see how different you feel. Back away from all your gadgets—phone, computer, car—and take a slowness break. You might just find it’s the fastest way there is to restore your ability to get stuff done.

Radio lovers: you can hear the Restless Nest commentaries every Tuesday at 7:50 a.m., Thursdays at 4:54 p.m. and Fridays at 4:55 p.m. on KBCS, streaming online at and on the air at 91.3 in the Seattle area.  Podcasts available.

Here’s nest artist Kim Groff-Harrington’s website.


When did “speed” become an adjective? Speed-dating, speed-networking, speed-parenting.  Maybe the question should be: when are we not speeding?

For months, I planned to upgrade to a smart phone the minute my wireless phone company declared I would be eligible for the big discount. But as the date approached and then passed, I dragged my feet. I found excuses. I felt a sudden fondness for my not-smart phone, for its tiny slide-out keyboard and charming doorbell text-tone. Finally, I placed my order and the Fed-Ex man brought me my little device, the one that will make me a truly 21st century speed-person. By the time you read this, I will have activated it. I haven’t yet. Just give me a day or two.

Because I know what’s going to happen. I’m going to be like Mickey Mouse in that “Sorcerer’s Apprentice” scene in Fantasia, right? Moving faster and faster until I wake up sweating and gasping for air and longing to time-travel backwards to the moment before I turned loose this malevolent instrument, this miniature servant whom I now serve!

One of my more creative excuses for delaying the big smart-phone purchase was the Seattle International Film Festival. I did not go to an absurd number of films; just enough to make those three weeks extra speedy, what with balancing work and film-going. But what a food-for-thought feast some of these films have been. For example: the essay-like documentary Five Star Existence, in which Finnish filmmaker Sonja Lindén trains her creative eye and curious mind on how our lives have been transformed by technology. She goes far beyond the simple stuff like fear of smart-phones and really makes us think about how every aspect of our lives has been revolutionized. We see a dairy farmer at a desk managing robotic milking machines with his mouse. We see huge trees torn from the ground by robotic arms, as a forester casually says he doubts he could find men strong enough, in these soft sedentary times, to log the old-fashioned way. We see Korean children at a camp for computer addicts, smearing real leaves with real paint to make leaf-print T-shirts, their hands clumsy and unaccustomed to this sort of tangible craft.

Psychologists interviewed by Lindén use phrases like “cultural lag” – meaning the impossibility of ever staying on top of the latest innovations – and “pseudo-activity” – meaning that constant, frenetic relationship we have with our laptops and smartphones that makes us appear and often feel busy, when in fact we’re not really DOING anything. We’re scrolling, gaming, texting, surfing: and taking in more visual images in one waking hour than humans used to in a hundred hours.

But we’re doing this with brains and bodies that haven’t caught up to this new speed-life. We’re still more suited to milking cows by hand; taking out a fiddle or a book in the evening. And yet these same cave-person brains of ours created computers and all their many robotic offspring. It’s the great paradox of our age.

Technology has speed-changed all of our lives, but some more profoundly than others: like the paralyzed woman in the film who has a tiny chip of a mouse pasted to the middle of her forehead, enabling her to communicate via her computer with the entire world. Watching her type by moving her head was the slowest and most moving sequence in the film. Slow can be beautiful. We need to remember that, in this age of speed-everything.

News flash: My film, Quick Brown Fox: an Alzheimer’s Story, is now available on Amazon, Hulu and other digital download sites. 

Radio lovers: you can hear the Restless Nest commentaries every Tuesday at 7:50 a.m., Thursdays at 4:54 p.m. and Fridays at 4:55 p.m. on KBCS, streaming online at and on the air at 91.3 in the Seattle area.  Podcasts available.

Here’s nest artist Kim Groff-Harrington’s website.

Safety, Take Two

He didn’t think there was any way to get help for his son. And now six people are dead.

How did we get to this place in modern history where we routinely take better care of our bodies, our teeth, our cars, our homes than we do our minds, our hearts, our souls? If we’re lucky enough to have health insurance, it probably doesn’t cover mental health. Maybe medications: pills to make us less anxious or depressed. Maybe. But treatment? Therapy? No, our national mental health plan is to turn our most tortured souls out on the streets. Let them fend for themselves. Let them buy guns, no problem there! Let their aging parents and other relatives do what they can. But as long as it’s not our mentally ill relative, it’s not our problem.

If you are that aging parent, like Walter Stawicki, the father of Ian Stawicki, who killed five people, gravely wounded another and killed himself in Seattle on May 30, you know what resources are out there for your troubled adult child: none.  A 2006 survey ranked Washington state 47th in the number of psychiatric beds per capita. And involuntary commitment is well nigh impossible, unless your unstable relative is making imminent, life-endangering threats to another person. The Seattle Times reports that every month, between 15 hundred and two thousand people are evaluated by mental health professionals under the state’s involuntary treatment act. Two thirds of them are turned away.

So Walter Stawicki assumed, correctly, that there was little he could do to get his son the care he so clearly needed.

Meanwhile, people in central and south Seattle are still anguished over the May 24th death of Justin Ferrari, a Madrona dad caught in the crossfire of a gun battle on Cherry Street. And many are wondering: how did that killer slip away?            Whoever he is, that killer slipped away a long time ago.

Just as we have become accustomed to ignoring the needs of the mentally ill, we have grown accustomed to the stories of Seattle children who turn to the streets, to gangs, to drugs, to meet needs never met at school or home. We hear “argument on Cherry Street” and think we know all about it: it must have been gang-related or drug-related, we say, shaking our heads. But isn’t routinely ignoring the needs of children in crisis just as tragic as ignoring the needs of the mentally ill?

I’m with Kaaren Andrews, a mom and Seattle Schools principal who, in an eloquent Op-Ed in the Seattle Times, asks us to stop ignoring those kids. Stop writing them off and then shaking our heads when another tragedy occurs. Maybe no one has come forward to identify the killer of Justin Ferrari because they fear it will just add to the misery: they assume any informant will be targeted not only by gang members but by the police.

“No one chooses a life of street violence,” Andrews writes. “We all want safety, happiness and hope.” Just as no one chooses to be mentally ill.

Quaker author Parker Palmer writes of the power of turning a broken heart into a heart broken open. Let’s not let these tragedies break our hearts. Let’s break our hearts open to compassion, to empathy, to reaching across all the streets that divide us and finding ways to help.

Radio lovers: you can hear the Restless Nest commentaries every Tuesday at 7:50 a.m., Thursdays at 4:54 p.m. and Fridays at 4:55 p.m. on KBCS, streaming online at and on the air at 91.3 in the Seattle area.  Podcasts available.

Here’s nest artist Kim Groff-Harrington’s website.

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