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

Archive for the month “September, 2012”

Memphis and Mitt

 I’ve got Memphis on my mind, and I can’t think of a better week for it to be there. Not Memphis the city—where I’ve never been, though it is now officially on my must-visit list—but Memphis the show. I know, I’m a little late to this fan party, but I finally saw Memphis at Seattle’s Fifth Avenue Theater, where it is making a triumphant 3-week return to its pre-Broadway launching pad. In 2009, Memphis went from Seattle to New York, where it played more than a thousand shows and won four Tony awards, including best musical.

What struck me as I watched, at the fevered height of this Presidential election season, was how much life in America has changed since the early 1950s. And how much it has stayed the same.

Memphis tells the story of how Blues music crossed the previously un-crossable radio color bar, paving the way not only for the explosion of rock ‘n roll but for the beginning of the breakdown of segregation as a Southern American institution. How long ago it seems, this ancient time when mixed-race marriages were against the law in many states. How far away, this place where a white record producer could not have dinner with an African-American singing star at most Memphis restaurants. And yet: as those of us inside the 5th Avenue thrilled to the dazzling musicianship, dancing and acting onstage, many people outside that magical zone were glued to their screens, large and small, watching as Mitt Romney tried to explain what he meant when he wrote off 47 percent of voters as shiftless freeloaders. Sixty years after the events of Memphis, Romney was willfully pressing all the same old stereotypical buttons in an effort to win support from wealthy white donors. We get it, he seemed to be saying to guests at that secretly videotaped fundraiser in Boca Raton, Florida. We in this room understand who matters in America: Us.

It has been widely noted that Romney made no mention of Americans in uniform in his convention speech. Nor did he give a Labor Day shout-out to actual workers—aka people with jobs, as opposed to the “job creators” he loves to talk about. Americans who put their lives on the line, but pay no taxes, are not the voters Romney wants. Americans who work hard for a paycheck but never make enough to write an income tax check? Ditto. Not his kind of voter. Latinos, immigrants, people of color?  Romney might pay attention to you, IF you pay taxes, like him. Like him? Hmmm, maybe not so much. The tax returns he finally released show he paid 14.1 percent on his taxable income, which comes mostly from investments—but of course, as writer Anne Lamott tweeted, “Oops, he accidentally forgot to include those rascally Swiss bank and Cayman Island funds again.”

Getting back to Memphis. When politics gets tiresome, there’s just nothing more refreshing than the performing arts. Memphis is a union show, of course, employing more than two dozen wildly talented people who can act, sing and dance all at the same time, eight (sometimes nine!) shows a week. And then there are the ten musicians and the enormous crew.  So what you’re watching, at a show like this, is something that no single person built alone. And if you look at the fine print in your program, you’ll see that Memphis got some grants from the city, state and county.

Union cast and crew? Government grants? A story about people crossing barriers of race and class? Sounds like Mitt Romney’s worst nightmare. That’s OK. He can keep his job-creators and his Boca Raton donors—and leave Memphis to the rest of us.

“Introduction to Memoir Writing” started last night at Seattle Central. I had such a good time—I’m glad I already signed up to teach it again in January!

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.






 Seven years ago this month, much of New Orleans was under water. Hurricane Katrina remains the great before-and-after for that city and it is still making headlines. The latest big Katrina news: a lawsuit filed by homeowners against the Army Corps of Engineers and one of its contractors that is finally, after seven long years, getting its day in court. The suit asserts the Corps and the contractor were responsible for the levee failure that flooded thousands of homes.

I just finished Dave Eggers’ fine non-fiction book about what one Syrian-American family endured after Katrina. It’s called Zeitoun, named for the title character, a father and business owner who rescues and helps people in the days following Katrina, only to be imprisoned on a bogus burglary charge. I was going to recommend this book to you. Now I’m not so sure. Turns out Zeitoun is in jail again, this time charged with assaulting and then conspiring to kill his ex-wife. They divorced earlier this year. I couldn’t believe it when I read it: the hero, the family man, who endured wrongful imprisonment and tried so hard not to let it enrage or embitter him, in jail on a charge like this?

I felt so sad, stunned, angry.  And conned. I know that wasn’t the intention of Zeitoun or Eggers (who is channeling book profits into a foundation to help rebuild New Orleans), but I feel that way just the same: like I believed one thing about a person, only to find out he was someone else.

Just as I felt conned reading about Lance Armstrong, who has become so adept at not quite admitting anything. Armstrong says he, quote, “won’t fight” the doping charges against him anymore, even thought it may cost him all of his bicycling titles and trophies. I’ve heard arguments on both sides of his story, but either way, I feel conned, either by him or by his accusers, and either way, I don’t like it, any more than I like knowing I was moved by the story of a man who may turn out to be the sort of man who would try to get someone to kill his ex-wife.

I also did not like how I felt about Bill Clinton when he lied about Monica Lewinsky.

But what I really like, least of all? –is knowing how awful it feels to lie. Most of us learn early we can’t live with any lie we ever tell for very long. Which is why I’m so stunned by people who can sustain large lies for lengthy periods of time. Why they are willing to risk the trust of—in Armstrong or Clinton’s case—the millions of people who believe in them. Didn’t they feel awful, doing that to people? Don’t they get how much human beings hate to feel conned?

Seven years ago in New Orleans, the outrage was not about a hurricane. It was about the levees: All New Orleans felt conned by the Corps. And it was about FEMA, and the insurance companies, and all the other con artists people had to deal with in the weeks, months, years following Katrina.

It will take some time for this new, sorry chapter in the story of Zeitoun to unfold. It will take time for Lance Armstrong to start over. Maybe he’ll be as resilient as Bill Clinton, whose finest post-presidential hour just might be his stirring Democratic Convention speech nominating Barack Obama to a second term.

Meanwhile, bicycle fans and followers of Zeitoun’s remarkable story will nurse the bruises that come from feeling conned. We’ll be warier. And that’s too bad. As with Clinton, once we get to forgiveness, that’ll feel better. But it will take some time.

Still a few spots available in my “Intro to Memoir Writing” class, which starts next Wednesday night at Seattle Central!  Register here.

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 you get up in the morning, do you EVER think, “Ah, what a great day it is to be an American consumer?” Who wants to be a consumer? Since when were we stuck with this label?  Does what we ingest, what we purchase, what we acquire really define us? And if it does, how deeply sad is that?

In his acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention, President Obama used a different word, one that’s come to sound a bit old-fashioned: Citizen. Try that on. “Ah, what a great day it is to be an American citizen.” Maybe you don’t feel that way every morning of your life. But wouldn’t you rather wear the label, “Citizen,” with all it implies?

A citizen sounds like someone worthy of respect. A consumer sounds like an appetite housed in a body.

A citizen sounds like someone who cares what happens to our country. A consumer sounds like someone who cares what happens to him or her self.

To be a citizen is to be a citizen OF a specific place. To care about a community larger than yourself. To live the belief that investing in the common good enriches our individual lives, too.

It’s pretty simple. Citizens vote; consumers buy stuff.

In his convention speech, President Obama called citizenship, quote, “a word at the very heart of our founding, at the very essence of our democracy; the idea that this country only works when we accept certain obligations to one another, and to future generations.”

The “heart of our founding,” the “essence of our democracy,” is not just about us, it’s about ALL of us. I like that Obama said this out loud. I am glad we are not just consumers to him, we are citizens who care about making this country a better place.

We Americans like to trumpet individuality, entrepreneurship, freedom, gumption, the myth of the self-made man or woman. We grow up wanting to be cowboys and cowgirls. But then we do grow up. And we acknowledge we might need help with a few basics, like roads to drive on, police to protect us, electric power, running water, emergency rooms, firefighters, public parks.  Oh: and an education.

One of the Democratic Convention warm-up speakers was Costco co-founder Jim Sinegal, who said in his speech, quote, “we did not build our company in a vacuum, we built it in the greatest country on earth.”

A country where citizens have rights and responsibilities that go far beyond shopping at Costco or any other store.

Take Lilly Ledbetter. Best known as the woman whose name became the title of the law signed by President Obama that finally guarantees women equal pay for equal work, Ledbetter brought down the house in Charlotte with the story of her fight for fair wages at the Alabama tire plant where she worked for 19 years.  But as she said, quote, “This cause, which bears my name, is bigger than me. It’s as big as all of you. This fight, which began as my own, is now our fight.” Ledbetter never collected back wages. But she made the future brighter for our daughters and granddaughters. Ledbetter is a citizen, not a mere consumer.

The stirring speeches of the conventions are over. Now, the long slog to Election Day in November begins. There will be robo-calls; there will be inflammatory ads; there will be constant media coverage. But if we can think of ourselves not as passive, mindless consumers but as citizens who care about the future, maybe we can get through this fall without going crazy.

There are still some seats available in my Intro to Memoir Writing class, which starts September 26. 6:30-8pm, SCCC campus. Join us!

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.


My daughter just tweeted this: “FLOTUS is my favorite OTUS.” After watching Michelle Obama light up the screen at the Democratic National Convention, I couldn’t agree more.  Maybe I’ll change my mind Thursday night, when POTUS takes the stage. But for now, I’m grateful for FLOTUS—aka the First Lady of the United States—who sure washed away my GOP-red-stained blues. What a difference a week makes.

This is a non-broadcast Restless Nest: typically I write on deadline for KBCS radio, but the conventions have given me a two-week break. I’m going to do some housekeeping—watch for some new pages on the blog  and a new URL. (don’t worry: you’ll be redirected).

Meanwhile, I offer you a very few of my own favorite blogs:

A Little Elbow Room: I love this week’s piece, “Pass me my blog.” Love the idea that we bloggers are creating a new literary tradition.

A Geography of Reading: if you want to go beyond the bestseller lists and discover the most provocative, beautifully written books in the world, Isla McKetta will take you there. You’ll get lost, happily, on this site.

Matrifocal Point: after watching Lilly Ledbetter’s speech last night, I love Liza’s blog even more. There is still so much work to do towards equality for women and she is a font of inspiration.

Peace Corps Gray: Ready for a challenge? How about joining the Peace Corps at 60? Marsha’s in Senegal for two years. Drop in on her now and then, via her warm, funny, honest, wise blog.

Shoes on the Wrong Feet is the sweetest, most lovingly crafted blog about motherhood. And daughterhood and just general being alive-hood.

Finally, the Restless Critic. Yes, I am married to this blogger, who over the years has developed a devoted following of people who want a fresh viewpoint on the latest films—or on the classic films they may have missed. Once you get to know Rustin Thompson, you’ll never watch movies the same way again. Trust me!



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