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

Archive for the month “October, 2012”


By the time you read this, we will have survived the third and final debate and we’ll be in the final countdown to Election Day. But I can’t help it, people: I’m still shaking my head over Mitt Romney and his binders full of women. Of course I am thankful, along with so many voters, for the comedy it inspired. Yet at the same time, I’m saddened by what it says about how far we women have really NOT come since Virginia Slims launched its 1968 ad campaign with the catchy tagline, “You’ve come a long way, baby.”

Funny how that particular jingle should spring to mind, with its dark double message: hey women, now that you’re so liberated, you too can smoke all you want and die of lung cancer, just like men!

When Mitt said it—it being, “I went to a number of women’s groups and said, can you help us find folks? And they brought us whole binders full of — of women”—you could feel a collective squirm go through the Columbia City Theater, where I was watching the debate with friends. The squirm was followed by a collective head-scratch: did he really just say that? We all murmured. What century is this?

You could argue that Mitt “meant well.” But what does it mean, to “mean well?” In this case, “meaning well” meant wanting to appear to be someone other than who he is: a guy, surrounded by guys, who—as the Boston Phoenix newspaper reminded us, contrary to the way he tried to phrase it in the debate—did not actually notice the paucity of women in his gubernatorial administration until a coalition of Massachusetts women’s groups brought it to his attention. They offered the binders not in the sort of distasteful, mail-order bride way it sounded coming from the candidate, but in a proactive, let us educate you kind of way: as in, we want to introduce you to some incredibly qualified candidates for state office who have mysteriously been overlooked.

But then Mitt made it worse, by talking about how he generously allows his chief of staff to go home to her family at night: as if only mothers, not fathers, would want or need such an allowance. As if: you’ve come a long way, baby—but hiring you is still way different than hiring a man.

It all felt so… Ron and Nancy. So George and Laura. So Tarzan and Jane. It kind of made me want to sneak a cigarette.

But only for an instant. Because that whole notion—that to succeed as a woman, you have to make it on your merits into a special binder, rather than, say, play racquetball with the right people—that’s exactly the kind of stress that made women want to smoke back in the Virginia Slims day. It’s the double standard we restless nesters want to believe will not be the working-world norm for our daughters. And so when Mitt brings it up, like it was a good thing—hey, we were an all-guy team but then I asked for the binders full of women, wasn’t that great!—it made us all squirm because it sounded like the kind of thing you’d expect, maybe, a 75 or 85 year old man to say. Not a 65 year old aging Boomer, who is running for president in a century that is supposed to be new. But then again, this is a candidate  who did not support the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act. Which places him pretty firmly in the company of men who have NOT come a long way, and don’t plan to anytime soon.

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.

Our films, The Church on Dauphine Street, 30 Frames a Second: The WTO in Seattle and Quick Brown Fox: an Alzheimer’s Story are now available on Hulu, Amazon and other digital sites.

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



Readers: October has been a busy month here in the Restless Nest. This week, I re-broadcast a radio piece on one of my favorite subjects: breakfast.

“So, how’s the Empty Nest going for you?” the Other Mom asked me when we ran into each other in the park.  Our children were the same ages: 18 and 21.   The younger ones recently graduated from the same high school.

“It’s a little strange.  But I guess I don’t miss getting up every day at 6:30.”

“Oh, that wasn’t an issue for me,” she responded.  “My daughter was so self-sufficient.”

The implication being, of course, that our son was not: that it was his sorry lack of self-sufficiency that got my husband and me out of bed every morning.

But that wasn’t it at all, I wanted to explain, but didn’t.

I wanted to be there every day, just to say “Good-bye!  Have a great day!” as Nick ran out the door.  I wanted to know he had breakfast in his stomach and a sack lunch in his backpack.  I knew he didn’t “need” us to get up.  He probably didn’t even “want” us to get up.  But isn’t one of the enduring themes of the teenage years that secret feeling that no one really cares?  And when you’re having one of those dark adolescent moments, might it not help to be able to say to yourself, At least my parents get up every morning and pop my toast in for me?  At least they say good-bye when I leave the house?

But I didn’t say any of that to the Other Mom.  Especially since she was the same Other Mom who, the first time we ever chatted, scolded me for putting my daughter in an “elitist” gifted program, the same program she put her own daughter in a few years later.

Parents can be so judgmental.  Myself included.  In Seattle, we judge each other for, among other things, not offering the most perfectly healthy snacks or allowing violent video games or too much TV.  Or any TV at all.  But one of the wisest, most non-judgmental moms I know once told me, when Nick was still in middle school, that she would continue to make peanut butter toast in the mornings and pack sack lunches until her tall teenaged boys absolutely forbade it, because to be able to send them out into the day with good food gave her such comfort: the comfort of knowing that, whatever else might happen to them that morning or afternoon, breakfast and lunch were covered.

I can do that for Nick, I thought at the time.  I will do that.

Her twin boys are 21 now, seniors in college, living off campus, cooking and eating with impressive self-sufficiency.

I don’t miss smearing peanut butter and jam on bread, bagging carrots, rummaging in the cupboards for trail mix or cookies.  I do miss knowing that Nick has a brown bag full of healthy food in this pack, food he can “eat standing up,” his one specific lunch-packing request.

I don’t miss having to get up at 6:30.

I do miss the two-second, patiently tolerated goodbye kiss.  That I do miss.

Our films, The Church on Dauphine Street, 30 Frames a Second: The WTO in Seattle and Quick Brown Fox: an Alzheimer’s Story are now available on Hulu, Amazon and other digital 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.

View from the Rafters

When was the last time you had an important decision to make? Did you call upon undecided people for help?

via View from the Rafters.

–I urge you to read the rest of my friend Kim’s brilliant take on how politics has narrowed its focus to a tiny and unimaginably indecisive group: the Undecideds.

And if you’re still trying to figure out Mitt’s “Binder” comment, the New York Times offers this great explication.

Noise Equals Hope

Recently, a bulldozer showed up outside our house at seven a.m. and began backing up onto the vacant lot next door. I was trying to read. The noise was hard to tune out, especially when the bulldozer got to work and the whole house started to shake. I looked outside. Clouds of dust were rolling through the neighborhood. When one of the construction guys knocked on the door and asked if he could borrow our hose to keep the dust down until the water truck arrived, I was only too happy to say yes.

And, believe it or not, I am thrilled this is all happening. This next-door project was one of those recession-reminder blank spots, another project that ground to a halt and left a gaping, weedy wound on our block; an everyday reminder that the economy remained in critical condition. The owners—who also built our townhome, right before they temporarily ran out of cash—finally sold the lot to another builder with a great reputation, and she (yes, she!) is breaking ground. Four more homes in south Seattle are on their way.

And now the September job numbers are in: 114 thousand new jobs last month, the 24th consecutive month we added to, rather than subtracted from, the total number of people working. The unemployment rate is now below eight percent for the first time since President Obama was elected.

Noise next door equals jobs equals hope. I know there are going to be times when the hammering gets maddening. But I’m going to try to remember: noise equals hope.

And I’ll remember what it was like four years ago, when candidate Obama made hope his word, our word, at a time when most of us were consumed by fear. Remember what that felt like? I sure do. Our clients stopped calling. Our savings and home equity were amputated overnight. Friends lost jobs. Other friends lost their entire nest eggs, just as they thought they were nearing retirement. Younger friends couldn’t find work at all.  Nonprofit organizations lost donors and foundation grants, even as record numbers of people knocked on their doors for help.

For many, if not most, Americans, life is still a lot harder than it was before the recession. But there are noisy glimmers of hope. Bulldozers. Jobs.

In this election year, we are faced not with the economic terror of four years ago but with fragile signs of economic recovery, tiny seedlings that are going to need a lot of nurturing. And as we contemplate who we would like to have leading us through this careful, cautiously hopeful time, we have two very different choices. We have a president on whose watch we have gone from losing 600 thousand jobs in January 2009 to 24 straight months of growth. And we have a candidate who thinks it makes more sense to shrink the safety net—at a time when so many are still so vulnerable—than it does to ask the top one percent to kick in one more dime.

The house is shaking right now. The bulldozer next door is rumbling away. I’m remembering four years ago, when the silence on construction sites all over America was deafening. I’m OK with the noisy sound of hope.

Have you met the Restless Critic? Be warned: he could change your movie viewing habits forever. I know: I speak from 25 years (as of Wed, Oct 10, 2012) of experience! 

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.


Becoming Obama

Barack Obama was 33 years old when he published his memoir, a fact often noted with the kind of wink that says, “Clearly, the man knew he was destined for greatness.”  But that’s not at all how the book reads. Dreams from my Father is written with humor and humility.  Graceful, fluent writing abounds, but so do the frankly self-conscious moments of a young writer who knows he’s still got a long way to go towards wisdom.

Dreams from my Father is subtitled “A Story of Race and Inheritance,” and it is, but intimately so.  When Obama describes arriving in Indonesia as a little boy, he resists the scholarly urge to set the scene and instead reveals the country as it was revealed to him, from the back seat of a taxi, recalling the “brown and green uninterrupted, villages falling back into forest, the smell of diesel oil and wood smoke.”

It is in Indonesia, a country where almost no one is black or white, that Obama has his first realization of the deep racism of America when he comes across an article in Life magazine about black people who have tried to dye their skin white.

Back in Hawaii, an adolescent at the fancy Punahou prep school, Obama quickly understands that in America, he is and will always be black.  Through his high school and college years, he self-consciously plays the part he knows everyone in his life expects him to play, excelling as the young black man making it in the world of white privilege.  But he begins to feel more and more unsatisfied with his hothouse identity. And so he makes what was, in the Greed-is-Good Eighties and in his Ivy League universe, an utterly counter-cultural move: to the far south side of Chicago.

When I read the book in the first weeks of Obama’s presidency, it was the Chicago chapters that moved me most of all. I lived in Chicago for two years, reporting crime stories and other local news all over the city, so I can picture the sagging bungalows and public housing apartments that were his turf.  When he talks about how he changed during those years, he calls it “the sort of change that’s important not because it alters your concrete circumstances in some way—wealth, security, fame—but because it hints at what might be possible and therefore spurs you on.” In a line like that, I hear the future president. I also hear how good it feels, when you’re young, to let go of the cynicism you feel you have to cultivate just in case you never get to do anything truly meaningful.

Dreams from my Father is a young man’s story of yearning for just that, meaning: for the why of his namesake father who left and then died; for the place in America that would call out to him: You belong here. The book is a claiming, a stitching together of all the threads of his complicated identity: African, white American and the African-American that he became.

I can’t help but believe that the act of writing Dreams from my Father helped prepare Obama to be president, because it enabled him to plunge ahead into his most ambitious years with a full understanding of where he had come from and why he was who he was.  Writing helped him to make sense of his experiences.

I’m glad I waited to read Dreams from my Father, which was written in 1995.  It was such a pleasure to read it after the election. But now’s a good time, too: to take a break from polls, pundits and debates and sit down with the story of how Obama became Obama.

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.

Post Navigation