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

Archive for the month “January, 2013”

Women Warriors

DSC00853I claim I want to better understand war. But my gut reaction to the news about women being allowed to serve in combat positions? Queasy. As if what the headlines are shouting is: “Hooray! Women will now be allowed to do the most dangerous, spiritually challenging, morally ambiguous dirty work on the planet!”

New York Times columnist Gail Collins set me straight, reminding me that “They killed the Equal Rights Amendment to keep this from happening, but, yet, here we are. And about time.”

Collins goes on to recall the words of retired Air Force Brigadier General Wilma Vaught, who once told her: “I think people have come to the sensible conclusion that you can’t say a woman’s life is more valuable than a man’s life.”

The logic is clear: if we invest our nation’s security in professional warriors and if we believe women deserve equal access to all career paths, then women who make the personally huge commitment to serve in the United Sates Armed Forces must not be barred, on the basis of gender, from combat roles.

So why my retrograde queasiness? Because, like any pacifist, I find it so difficult to turn my thoughts to combat at all, no matter what the context. But—as I learned from Karl Marlantes’ book, What it is Like to Go to War (see last week’s post)—I know turning our backs on war is not the answer. Especially the wars we support with our tax dollars.

It has been 40 years this month since we ended the draft. It has also been 40 years since the Supreme Court’s Roe versus Wade decision, which legalized abortion. Though Roe v Wade was rightly hailed as a victory for women’s rights, the court’s decision had the unintended consequence of pumping up the volume on both sides of the larger movement for equality to such a level that passage of the Equal Rights Amendment quickly spiraled from assumed to doomed.

The language was so simple—“Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex”—many of us were stunned when it failed. How could our fathers, brothers, boyfriends, husbands—let alone other women—oppose something so basic? And yet, as Gail Collins reminds us, it was the very idea of women in combat that ultimately killed the ERA. Perhaps for a nation still recoiling from the Viet Nam War, still without any bedrock confidence that the draft would not be reinstated the very next time Congress had a good excuse, the thought of sending sons and daughters to war was just too much, illogical though that may seem to us now.

Forty years is a long time. Our hearts and minds have changed. On Inauguration Day, we heard President Obama invoke not only rights for women and minorities but also, for the first time in an inaugural address, gay rights. As he poetically put it, “We, the people, declare today that the most evident of truths –- that all of us are created equal –- is the star that guides us still; just as it guided our forebears through Seneca Falls, and Selma, and Stonewall.”

Obama went on to say that “our journey is not complete until our wives, our mothers and daughters can earn a living equal to their efforts.” And now wives, mothers and daughters who want to earn their living on the battlefield can officially do so–not just unofficially, as so many already have. Which could mean, ten years from now, we’ll have more women generals and admirals. We don’t know yet how this might change military culture (especially regarding epidemic sexual assault) or the way we fight wars. But we can hope it will.

This Thursday, January 31, 2013, I’ll be reading as part of the Writers in The Schools writer reading at Richard Hugo House. 7:30 to 9pm. The bar will be open and admission is free!

 Also: I have guest posts up on two sites I love,  A Geography of Reading and Earthy Sophisticate.

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 Viet Nam

DSC00865Forty years ago this week, the Selective Service announced there would be no further draft calls. My brother, then a college student, had a dangerously low draft number. He and his peers hated and protested the Viet Nam war with a fervor that frightened me as much as the TV images of the war itself.

But we who were young children in the 1960s grew up hating the war in a different way. We hated it the way children hate watching their parents fight. We hated it selfishly, because it was robbing our families, and therefore us, of playfulness, joy, innocence.

Our older brothers and sisters had fifties childhoods; all Kick the Can and Leave it to Beaver. We tried to. But we’d seen things on television the Beav would never have been forced to see: kids our age aflame in napalm. Soldiers bleeding and screaming. By the time we were of protesting age, we were sick of it all: war and protest; fighting and shouting and political posturing. We turned away from community, from engagement. Remember the “me generation?” That was us. Isolationist, pacifist, devotees of meditation and marijuana; avoiders of meetings and causes.

Most of us came out of our shells when we became parents. Having children of our own gave war a whole new meaning.  When the United States went to war against Iraq in 1991, my husband and I carried our baby daughter in a march for peace on Capitol Hill. It was the first time I’d ever marched for anything.

But thanks to that early Viet Nam-on-TV conditioning, I have never pushed  myself to understand war. To move past my knee-jerk pacifism.

Recently, a young Iraq veteran I know suggested I read a book called What it is Like to Go to War by Karl Marlantes.

For me, the war-avoider, this was such a difficult book to read. But all along, I felt that Marlantes was writing it for me and people like me.  A decorated Viet Nam veteran and author of an acclaimed novel about Viet Nam called Matterhorn, Marlantes sincerely wants those of us who have spent our lives reflexively turning away from war to understand why, as human beings, we must not turn away. He prefers the word “warrior” to “soldier.” He invokes mythology, literature, history, biology in explaining why we have and have always had wars and warriors. In the end, he is cautiously hopeful that globalization will help break down many of the fears and divisions that cause wars. But Marlantes believes there will always be humans who will give in to the temptations of aggression, which means there will always be a need for humans—warriors—to defend us from the aggressors. Therefore, he argues, it is hypocritical for us to condemn warriors. And war. Although Marlantes also argues going to war for the wrong reasons is the most disastrous thing we can do.

I’m still taking this all in.

It was much on my mind as I watched Kathryn Bigelow’s film, Zero Dark Thirty, which has been criticized for justifying, even glorifying the United States’ use of torture to procure information about Al Qaeda. The first ten minutes of the film are very hard to watch. I was tempted to leave. But Marlantes would say: the United States did this and we need to ask ourselves why. How it came to this.

For forty years, we’ve managed not to conscript young people. This is good. But we’ve used it as an excuse to turn away from thinking about war, which has led us to a place where our warriors operate with too much hubris and too little oversight. Films like Zero Dark Thirty are making us talk about it. And that is good.

Check out the Restless Critic’s review of Zero Dark Thirty.

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.

Connoisseurs of Light

In January, we in the Northwest become connoisseurs of light. Gourmets who savor every spoonful. As the sun rises behind clouds on a Saturday morning, I lie in bed and study the bare branches of the old red oak in the park across the street and conclude: yes, they do look ever so slightly fuller. It’s the light, plumping the tiny buds inside each twig, like an artist going over his pencil marks with a black felt-tip marker.

Later, we walk out of a matinee at 4:30 and are surprised to see streaks of light still in the sky. The next day, there will be a few more minutes of light. And each day after that. Every single day from now til the 21st of June!

We who live nearer the poles love light the way babies love mothers’ milk. In winter, we turn our faces to the sun whenever and wherever we encounter it. This year, our New Year’s Day was dazzling, as drenched in light as Jan One can be in Seattle. My husband and I went for a walk at Alki Beach and everyone, everyone was smiling their most carefree, I’m-letting-my-inner-happy-baby-show kind of smile. It was as if the sun was granting us eight golden hours on the edge of the prism between the dark, exhausted old year and the beckoning light of the new. Talk and walk, the sun said; smile, breathe, drink in this light. You know it won’t last because this is the Northwest. But you live here, so you know to treasure it.

I was born in January. I’m a natural Janus. That lesser, restless, Roman gatekeeper god, always depicted in a double profile, looking forward and back? That’s me. I don’t want to forget the past; I want to mull it and sift it and puzzle over what it might mean. But I’m just as fascinated by the future. I strain to see ahead; I’m so curious to know what’s around the next curve. What adventures the new year might bring.

Sometimes, that looking back that I so love to do enhances the forward view in unexpected ways. For example: Last January, I was looking forward to, of all things, the end of Newt Gingrich’s primary campaign, which was imminent. This January, we are celebrating President Obama’s second inauguration. What a difference a year makes!

Last January, I praised outgoing Governor Gregoire for her public support of gay marriage and her explanation of why, as a Catholic, she finally changed her mind. This January, the gay couples who got married as soon it was legal in our state are celebrating their one-month anniversaries. And there are rumors that Obama will ask Gregoire to head the Environmental Protection Agency.

Every year, I do have to face the one-year-older part of my January equation. But I try to think of one of my mom’s favorite quips about aging, which was, “Hey, consider the alternative!” When she was my age and said it, I thought it was spunky and charming. Now, I’ve lost enough friends and colleagues to really understand the poignance of what she meant. To understand that it’s a blessing to be a Janus, because the pause between past and future is where we live. We look back, we look forward, then we stand still, turn our faces to the sun and drink this moment deeply.

Movies on your restless mind? Check out The Restless Critic.

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.

Seattle Grown Up

DSC00865Call me provincial, but I still get excited when I see anything about my hometown in the New York Times. Last Saturday, there we were, on the cover page of the Arts section, under the headline: “A Place Comfortable With Boeing, Anarchists and ‘Frasier.’” What an oddball trio of references, I thought. Then I saw it was a story about Seattle’s Museum of History and Industry, better known as MOHAI, which has just reopened in the grandly re-imagined Naval Armory at the south end of Lake Union.

The hometown booster in me was excited. Proud: the nation’s newspaper of record was covering the museum that, more than any other, I think of as our museum. I love the Seattle Art Museum too, but MOHAI? It’s about us.

When I walked in for the first time, there was the Lincoln Toe Truck and the giant, neon Rainier Beer “R.” Even so, I felt disoriented, though in a mostly good way: the way I feel when I see one of my children’s preschool friends, now all grown up. This was not the museum I visited when I chaperoned those preschool field trips. No. This new MOHAI is a grown-up museum about a grown-up city.

Fresh evidence that while I may still be provincial, Seattle is not.

And like any newly minted grown-up, MOHAI had all kinds of things to teach me.  For example, New York Times writer Edward Rothstein’s reference to Seattle’s pioneering Denny Party, arriving via the Oregon Trail, which I smugly thought he got wrong? I was wrong. The Dennys did travel overland to Portland before they boarded a schooner for the last leg and made their famous water-landing at Alki Beach.

But unlike other Oregon Trail pioneers, the Denny group did not want to stake a claim and start farming. They wanted to build a city. They really did think Seattle might be the next New York.  And their gee-whiz, provincial spirit has shaped the city ever since. To the point where we might finally be transcending it.

My children, in their early 20s, think this is an interesting—maybe even exciting—time to be living here. We have a music scene, a filmmaking scene, a bar and restaurant scene, a critical mass of artists and writers instead of a lonely few. We’re a center for technology, medicine, global health and philanthropy.  We finally have a light rail system. We just voted for gay marriage and legal marijuana. Meanwhile, we still build airplanes and run North America’s seventh biggest port.

When I moved back to Seattle in the early 1980s, we had none of the above, except for the planes and ships. “Interesting” and “exciting” were not words I would have used to explain why I came back. I returned because I missed mountains, Puget Sound, evergreen trees and my family. Because it was home.

Seattle was then in the very earliest stage of recovery from our last major recession, and it was, well, a mess. The heart of downtown–Pine Street and Westlake—was a ripped-up, stalled-out construction site, through which I walked every day to work, a Monorail Espresso cup in my hand, feeling grateful that I had a job and that my city had something as quaintly innovative as a “coffee cart.”

As I became my grown-up self, so did Seattle. But—sort of like with brothers and sisters—it’s so easy to keep viewing the city you’ve always known in the exact way you’ve always viewed it. Visiting the new MOHAI was my wake-up call: it’s time for me to get over my provincial-vision problem. Time to get to know this new grown-up city.

Local history geeks: make sure to check out History Link, the free online encyclopedia of Washington state history. The best!

And… I’m proud to have an essay in the winter issue of the wonderful new literary journal, Minerva Rising. Subscribe online or, if you’re in Seattle, pick up a copy at Elliott Bay Books.

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.

Goodbye, Oh-Twelve

DSC00865What if our New Year’s Resolutions looked like this? One: Be kind to yourself. Two: Be kind to others. The end. That’s it. Saved again, by the Golden Rule!

You could add a little fine print. For example, re being kind to yourself: you could vow to truly ban all trash talk, especially the real F-words: fat and failure.

Re being kind to others, that tends to be a whole lot easier once you’re being kind to yourself. Although I have often found this to work the other way round: doing something kind for someone else can be the quickest way to distract yourself from self-trashing.

Once you’ve enacted your Golden Rule two-resolution package, you’ll have so much more time to reflect on the ways in which 2013 is going to be way, way better than 2012. Not that Oh-Twelve didn’t have its high points. Election night, anyone? But with apologies to Republicans—especially those who might be feeling that their party has been hijacked by a loud and deluded minority—the biggest way in which 2013 is going to be dramatically different from 2012 is that there will be no election night hanging over our heads for ten out of the twelve months. I know, the Republican primaries had a certain amount of entertainment value, as did Clint Eastwood and the chair, but WOW: however you may have voted, aren’t you glad it’s all over?

I am. Especially after traveling to France and Finland last spring, a trip that was one of the highlights of my year. Granted, I visited but a small European subset of the world—but I felt first-hand the love and respect people in other countries feel for President Obama. I could see what a setback it would have been to lose all that good will, when we have so much work to do on so many fronts. Global warming being by far the most urgent front: and though I’m not happy with Obama’s lack of forceful leadership on climate change, I can’t imagine where we’d be if the candidate backed by the climate deniers had won.

In 2011, TIME Magazine’s Person of the Year was the Protester, a moving shout-out to the Occupy movement and to the Arab Spring. In oh-Twelve, TIME picked President Obama: for, as managing editor Richard Stengel wrote, “finding and forging a new majority, for turning weakness into opportunity and for seeking, amid great adversity, to create a more perfect union.” TIME makes a persuasive case for Obama, noting that “we are in the midst of historic cultural and demographic changes, and Obama is both the symbol and in some ways the architect of this new America.”

I couldn’t agree more. I’m a great fan of our president. But if I got to choose, I would have declared 2012 the Year of the Voter. Or the year of the young voter, 60 percent of whom voted for Obama. And then there were the female, Asian, Hispanic, African-American and GLBT voters. The point is, Oh-Twelve was the year voters of every description decisively ended the white, straight, male chokehold on the American presidency. You might say: didn’t we do that in 2008? Yes, but. In 2012 we gave history the gift of ensuring that oh-eight could never be viewed as an aberrance, a fluke, a blip.

In 2012, voters said: Thank you, oh-‘leven Occupy protesters; thank you, Arab Spring, for reminding us that Every. Vote. Counts. Every voice counts. Every human counts. The Golden Rule counts.

Goodbye, Oh-Twelve. I’ll miss the election-year excitement, a little. But I won’t miss the nail-biting. And I’ll be grateful, as 2013 gets going, that 2012, the year of the Voter, paved the way.

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.


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