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

Archive for the month “May, 2013”


DSC00865We were going to camp, but the weather was terrible. Instead, we rented a tiny cottage on the Washington coast. It has a wood stove and a big window, so we can watch the storm pound the beach in comfort.

There is room, in this cabin, for exactly two people: my husband and me.

About fifteen years ago, we rented a pair of houses up the beach a ways. There were eight of us—my sister and her family and me and mine. Four adults, four kids. Beach fires, forts, expeditions, charades, a new puppy—it was a hectic, joyful blast of a trip.

It was a different time of life. A wonderful time. I feel lucky to have had such a wonderful time.

We still feel lucky. We have two young adult children who actually want to hang out with us reasonably often, and we treasure our time together. But we also have this: the flexibility to sneak off to the beach and rent a place the size of a dollhouse, where we can read, write, walk, eat and sleep when we want.

The Washington coast is a good place to ponder the passage of time. Little changes here, and yet everything does. The wind and waves push the sand without ceasing: every day, the beach is brand new.

Two years ago, when I began writing these commentaries for KBCS radio, I thought I would reflect frequently on the passage of time and this big life transition from a full nest to a “restless” one. More often, I’ve found myself responding to what is happening in the world, whether in my neighborhood or far away, from this more restlessly reflective vantage point.

Turns out, “restless” really is the right word to describe this phase. And not just for me and my husband but for our two children, as they make their ways in the world, bouncing back to the nest for an evening or a week or a month, setting out again, visiting frequently with reports from the frontlines of becoming an adult.

If you’re lucky, there is no dramatic break between a full nest and an empty one. Instead, there is breathing room—for us and for them—and frequent reunions, in which we can compare notes.

In some ways, their 20something and our 50something lives have more in common with each other than they do with the people in between us: the busy young parents renting the big beach houses and making spaghetti for eight. Our daughter’s in her first professional job; our son’s in his final stretch of college. They, like we, are pondering questions such as: what do I want the next one, five, ten years of my life to be? When you have young children, you’re way too busy doing to spend much time pondering.

Old beach cabins creak and rock and shift with every storm. There’s a for-sale sign outside this one: before long, it will probably be torn down and something bigger and fancier will be built on this prime beachfront lot.

I wonder if the new owners will keep the driftwood fence, with its festoons of fishing floats. There are names of people and places on some of them—Dominica, Piraeus, Doreen. Bits of histories that floated up here in the surf. Of people, who had bad times and wonderful times and stories to tell. Which I hope they told.

I’m going to take a three-month hiatus from the weekly Restless Nest radio commentaries. I may occasionally post a new (or old favorite) piece here over the summer, and I’ll see you on the radio again come September.  

In case you missed it: “Laughter and Forgetting,” mAugust 2012 story in Seattle Metropolitan Magazine about younger-onset Alzheimer’s disease just won first place in health reporting from the Society of Professional Journalists. Honored and grateful to Sharon Monaghan and Cathie Cannon for sharing their story with me.

Radio lovers: Podcasts available here of the full Restless Nest audio archive.

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

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


DSC00865She had it dry-cleaned and put it away, layered in tissue, never to be worn again: an aqua-blue, demurely double-buttoned linen dress. To watch Anita Hill unwrap it and shake it out, smiling in a bittersweet, almost affectionate way—as if to say, Oh, if frocks could talk!—was unforgettable. Sure, it bordered on stagy, but there was something wonderful and graceful about Hill’s plucky, good-humored willingness to do this on camera, more than 20 years after the day she spent in that aqua dress, testifying in front of siblings, colleagues, friends, her aging parents and, on the other side of that big green table, a battalion of white guys in suits who called themselves the Senate Judiciary Committee.

By this point in documentary filmmaker Freida Mock’s latest film, called simply Anita, I was so brimming with outrage that this quiet moment in Hill’s closet came as an urgent relief. Reliving Hill’s testimony about sexual harassment by then-Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas was like reliving a bad, bad dream.

But the news has been like that lately. The way the senators turned Hill’s willingness to shine a light on a nominee to the nation’s highest court into an opportunity to question her morals, her credibility and her dignity was powerfully reminiscent of the stories many military women have told recently about how they were treated when they tried to report sexual harassment or rape. The senators’ behavior also reminded me of Chris Cuomo’s slimy CNN interview of Amanda Knox. The brutal truth is: two decades after Anita Hill’s testimony, there are still men who apparently find it sporting to force women to use words they would rather not use—and then watch them squirm. There are men who learned nothing from our country’s most notorious sexual harassment scandal beyond what Clarence Thomas learned: when it’s one person’s word against another’s, it’s much better to be male.

Twenty years ago, I was a new mom and I remember thinking: I do not want my daughter to grow up in a world where this happens. But she has grown up in such a world. Anita Hill’s brave testimony could not single-handedly end sexual harassment.

However: it did change things.

Hill’s legacy is most visible toward the end of the film, when you see her speaking to groups of young women and then you see some of those women, in turn, leading groups of teenage girls in frank discussions about sexual harassment and gender equality. This is good news: that more and more women, especially younger women, no longer feel, as Hill did, that their best strategy is to remain silent.

Walking out of SIFF Cinema after a preview screening of Anita, it was vividly clear who has had the more powerful impact on history: not Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, who is known mainly for his silence on the bench, but Anita Hill, who has spoken about, written about and become a powerful symbol of the real meaning of that overused phrase, “speaking truth to power.” Twenty-two years ago, she was Truth. Power didn’t like it. The spectacle wasn’t pretty, but it was unforgettable.

Anita is screening at the Seattle Film Festival on May 25th, 26th and 27th. Go to for tickets and information.

News Flash: My August 2012 story in Seattle Metropolitan Magazine about younger-onset Alzheimer’s disease won first place in health reporting from the Society of Professional Journalists. Honored and grateful to Sharon Monaghan and Cathie Cannon for sharing their story with me. 

Radio lovers: you can hear the Restless Nest commentaries every Tuesday at 7:45 a.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.

A Girl, Alone

DSC00865If he’s still alive, he’s old and probably fat by now. That guy I try never to think about. His face has faded, but I remember him as a little doughy. That guy who did to me what I could not bring myself to call rape at the time.

I was traveling alone. I’d missed the overnight train from Geneva to Paris. He offered me a spare bedroom; swore I’d be perfectly safe. To my 19-year-old eyes, he looked trustworthy, this 30-something pilot in an expensive trenchcoat. So surely it was my fault, right? When I woke up in the wee hours of the morning and he was on top of me?

Judge me if you will. Call me stupid and naïve; that much is fair. But who ever judged him? No one. Yet I knew I didn’t have a story to tell a Swiss police officer. So I got on the train and went back to my study-abroad dorm room in England, feeling a little wiser and a lot older.

When I got back to the States, I wrote a short story about it in which I tried to be very Hemingway-esque, starkly describing what happened but leaving out all details about how I felt. Because of course I didn’t know I felt. Or rather, I felt so many different feelings I didn’t know which was the real one: shame? Anger? Sadness? Outrage?

They were all real and they have all been flooding back to me this month, which has not been a good one for the one out of four American women who harbor memories of sexual assault. First, there was arrest of the head of the Air Force sexual assault prevention program—on charges of sexual battery. Then, just two days later, the Pentagon released survey data revealing in 2012, an estimated 26 thousand active service women and men were sexually assaulted, up from 19 thousand in 2010.

And now we have Amanda Knox out on her book tour, being interviewed by piranhas like CNN’s Chris Cuomo, who so relished interrogating her about the rumors of her “deviant” sex life. Never mind she’s been convicted of murder in Italy, jailed for four years, acquitted and now may be tried again.

No wonder I found myself fuming recently when I saw a TV commercial in which two dads exchange those “boys will be boys!” looks when they catch their sons spying on a female neighbor from their treehouse. What if the ad showed little girls watching a man undress? Would we think that was adorable?

In his eagerness to pry salacious details out of Knox, Cuomo reminded me of the boys in the commercial. But Knox’s long legal nightmare has taught her how to remain calm in the face of the ugliest accusations.

“I was sexually active. I was not sexually deviant,” she said, clearly and without elaboration. In that instant, she became the grownup in the room and Cuomo the prurient child, still stuck in his adolescent treehouse.

Collective outrage over military rape may be what takes us to the tipping point where we can no longer tolerate the double standard inherent in an interview like Cuomo’s. I hope so. Because this is about more than raising boys to treat women with respect. This is about raising girls to understand: shame and guilt need not be their default emotional settings. So when a soldier is groped, she doesn’t immediately think it must be her fault. Or when a naïve girl from Seattle is interviewed by Italian police, she can’t be bullied and intimidated.

Or when another naïve Seattle girl sets out to see the world, she won’t spend the rest of her life thinking what happened one night in Geneva was ALL her fault.

Radio lovers: you can hear the Restless Nest commentaries every Tuesday at 7:45 a.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.


DSC00865My email spam blocker is having filtration problems. So am I. Just as the diet, mortgage, dating, credit report, e-cig and language learning messages flow nonstop to my laptop, so does every conceivable distraction flow into my brain. I want to get some work done, I really do. But then I look out the open window and there’s that purple car with the green trim and jacked up wheels, circling the block again. And in the park across the street, there are the tween-age boys playing pickup basketball, while the younger boys watch longingly. Moms with strollers and cellphones and dogs walk by like little mobile juggling acts. Tiny girls in hijab run toward the swings. Maybe I should not try to work near an open window on a spring day.

There are distractions inside, too: we all know what a dangerous Pandora’s box a laptop or a smartphone is. But what I don’t know is this: why am I sometimes better at filtering and focusing and other times, I’m just not?

Often, I think it’s a problem of accumulated experience. I know that sounds like a too-sly way of saying “age,” but stay with me. Because what I mean is this: I think my filtering problem is due to a ridiculous over-abundance, a lifetime buildup, of past references for all the stimuli outside the window or on the screen or wherever my busy brain might be.

I hear kids playing ball and my mind reels back to growing up near another neighborhood park, in another part of Seattle, where I watched my skinny big brother don all kinds of strange armor and head up the hill to play Little League Football. How I cringed, imagining him getting knocked down and trampled by all those beefier boys. And from there, my brain skips ahead to his three sons, young adults now, and—you see? How hopeless it is, to stay focused? Don’t even get me started on the stroller moms and all the memories they conjure up. And the little girls in their bright scarves and how I’ve been to so many countries, but not to theirs.

It is such hard work to filter distractions in our hyper-distracted world, especially if everything you see, hear or read can trigger a whole decades-long chain of memories.

And often, we have experiences we really need to allow ourselves to dwell on, but instead we plunge into the nearest distraction at hand.

After the Boston bombings, I thought what I needed to do was comb the Internet news sites, Twitter, Facebook to see what the latest was and what people were saying about it. But what I needed much more was simply to talk to actual humans: to my husband, friends, children. To shake our heads together, to share the shock, to mourn.

A happier example, this time of year in Seattle, is the sun finally coming out. We know what we crave: to feel it on our faces. To be out in it. We can try to lash ourselves to our desks, pretend we’re getting work done—when really we’re checking the weather websites and other peoples’ photos of the sun setting over the Olympics—but really, what is the point? Why not go outside, bask, stroll, stretch—and then take that good feeling back indoors?

Be warned: feeling the sun on your face will remind you of all the past springs of your life. It will be hard to filter that memory deluge. But you might not want to.

This week’s shameless plug: my daughter Claire Thompson wrote a great essay for Grist on millennials. Check it out!

Radio lovers: you can hear the Restless Nest commentaries every Tuesday at 7:45 a.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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