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

Archive for the month “December, 2013”

Quiet: the Book

DSC00865This year, I am making a New Year’s resolution that might appeal to you too—or to someone you know. Here it is: I resolve to stop trying to make my introvert self live up to the extrovert ideal of our culture.

Introvert that I am, I excelled as a child at book reports, and that’s really what this is. The book I read, that led to my resolution, is Quiet: the Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain. My report can be summed up in three words: Read this book. Even if you’re an extrovert, you will recognize many of the people you know, love or work with, and you will benefit from learning a little more about what makes them tick.

Quiet was published in 2012, so you may have already read it or heard of it. I didn’t read it until now because I was number 674 or something on the library hold list and only just got my hands on it, which says something about the number of people who found the title appealing. I should have bought it. In fact, I probably will buy it, so that I can re-read comforting sections from time to time.

People who know me casually might say: you’re an introvert? Really? But that’s why you have to read Susan Cain’s book, in which she explains better than I can why  “introvert” does not mean shy or anti-social. Many introverts, myself included, love good conversations with friends and colleagues. It’s the networking event, the cocktail party, the old college mixers and high school dances, that daunt us. Some introverts can’t do them at all. Many others, like me, can tolerate or even enjoy an hour or two—but then we’re SO relieved to get home and open a book.

But what I really loved about Quiet is—just as she promises in her subtitle—the way that Susan Cain makes the case not only for what introverts are not but for what they are. For, as she puts it, the power of introverts.

In a room full of talkers, who’s really tracking what’s going on? The listeners.

In an art gallery, where does the power reside? In the art. Which was created in solitude, in a studio.

How does a movie, a play, a poem, a book, a ballad get its start? In the head of one person, sitting alone, scribbling words on a page or tapping them on a screen. Whispering lines out loud to hear how they will sound, someday, in a hushed theatre full of people. No matter how powerful the performance, its source is this: the deeply quiet moment of focused creativity.

These days, teachers and bosses want everyone working in teams: collaborating, brainstorming, talking talking talking. In her book, Cain takes an in-depth look at what we stand to lose by insisting on constant teamwork, open office plans, classrooms arranged into table groups.

When I worked in TV news, I mostly produced long (really long, by today’s standards!) features and special reports. I loved coming up with stories that got me out of the city: to wheat farms in eastern Washington, to an iron foundry in Port Townsend, to the last daffodil farm in Puyallup. I loved interviewing, and still do, because it mostly consists of listening. Many times, the photographer and I would be driving back to Seattle and we’d have a conversation that would go like this:

Photographer: “How do you think you’ll start the piece?”

Me: “I don’t know. I won’t know until I sit down to write.”

Photographer: “That one shot I got, with the wheat stalks in the foreground—“

Me: “Great idea. Definitely. I’ll look at it.”

I was terrible at talking the story. I had to be sitting alone, starting to put words on screen, in order to figure out what I wanted to say. I’m still that way, although I’ve gotten a little better. But thanks to Susan Cain, I vow to no longer view this as a flaw. It’s just the way I work best: in happy solitude. From which I will eventually emerge, ready for feedback on what I’ve written, and perhaps some cozy conversations with friends.

Registration is open for Intro to Memoir Writing at SCCCStarts Jan 6. Six Monday nights. Non-credit = all inspiration, no stress!

 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.

Holiday Family School


We figured out a long time ago that buying presents for every single family member was not going to work out very well in the long-term. Not when you start with six siblings and add spouses and then kids, more and more, year after year. So in my extended family, we draw names. And every Christmas, I’m grateful we figured that part out. Because there’s always so much else going on.

When a big family gets together for Thanksgiving or Christmas or Hanukah or any other annual occasion, it is never the same group of people it was the year before. There’s a new boyfriend, or spouse, or baby. There are friends or neighbors who need a place to go. There are a few nuclear families who might be missing this year because, shockingly, they’re with that other family known as their in-laws. Or they’ve dared to break with protocol and go on a trip.

But there’s another reason it’s never the same group of people: everyone in the room is a year older. So what? You might say. Maybe so what for us grown-ups, but for the kids? Wow. What a difference a year makes, when you go from squalling newborn to toddling, smiling one-year-old. Or silent young teen to suddenly-able-to-speak-again older teen. Or high school senior to college freshman. The niece or nephew I thought I knew? Gone, replaced by a young adult who wants to talk to quaint, church-going me about whether God exists and if so, why.

Every year for 32 years, with just a few exceptions, I have attended what you might call Holiday Family School: a “classroom” full of young people I’ve known all their lives who currently range in age from just under one (my great-nephew) to 32 (his dad, my oldest nephew). So even though my own children are now 21 and 24, I get a glimpse into the current middle school-high school world via my five teenaged nieces and nephews. I can commiserate and celebrate with their parents. And from my niece and nephews who are in their later twenties, I can learn what might lie ahead for my kids. And for me.

What it looks like is conversation and lots of it. That’s what we do. Sometimes it feels like shallow skimming; at other moments it goes deep. We’ve had our heartbreaks, our losses. We have our ongoing worries. But we also know how we lucky we are to have this: Holiday Family School, where we are always welcome as Continuing Ed students, lifelong learners, back for more.

It’s fitting that Christmas celebrates not only the birth of a baby but the creation of an unlikely family: teenaged single mom, loving stepdad, admiring shepherds filling in for the aunts, uncles and cousins they couldn’t get to that night, because babies come when they come, even if it means making their grand entrance in a barn.

Meanwhile, in some other town, Mary and Joseph’s relatives must have been fretting through the dark hours, and looking forward to the next year, when they’d all be together again: talking, comparing notes, admiring the new baby.

Merry Christmas from the Restless Nest.

Registration is open for Intro to Memoir Writing at SCCCStarts Jan 6. Six Monday nights. Non-credit = all inspiration, no stress!

 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.

Sausage Rolls: Seriously

DSC00865 If you had asked me, thirty years ago, what sort of holiday magic I hoped to someday impart to my grateful family, I never would have predicted that it would be all about pork products. But such is my fate. I am the official maker of the sausage rolls. That is my one unchanging task, year in, year out, Thanksgiving and Christmas.

            It’s no small job. I’m one of six siblings, who all married and have two or more children. My oldest nephew is now married and has a baby of his own. Looks like our gatherings, which average 20 or 25 people, are just going to keep getting bigger.

For each holiday, I purchase four pounds of pan sausage from Bob’s Quality Meats on Rainier Avenue in Columbia City. In recent years, I’ve also bought a package of fake sausage for the vegetarians in the family. Then I mix up a quadruple batch of buttermilk biscuit dough. I roll out a quarter of the dough at a time, cover it with sausage, and roll it up together into four and a half long cylinders, which I wrap and put in the freezer. When the big day comes, I slice, bake and serve the sausage rolls piping hot. I must do this. It is written.

           Except, of course, that it’s not written at all. It just sort of happened, a long time ago, that sausage rolls became mandatory. And I went along with it, because—well, maybe because I like having one unchanging holiday task, one that I know will make everyone happy and make me feel useful.

            What many of the younger family members don’t know is that it’s also my own small annual testament to a woman I still miss. A long time ago, she was my mother-in-law.

            “Oh, there she goes, bringing up that first marriage,” I can hear my children saying.

            “What first marriage?” I can hear my youngest nieces and nephews asking.

            Well, kids, way back when I was in my twenties, before I met your Uncle Rustin, I was married to someone else. A nice young man from North Carolina. And so I had a Southern mother-in-law. She was no home-fried stereotype: stylish in an unpretentious way, she worked full-time for a jewelry company, a job she liked. Her nickname was Sam. 

Sam was a voracious reader, an Anglophile, and she enjoyed cooking. And what she cooked bore little resemblance to what my mother cooked. Potato-chip cookies, for example. Or Broccoli Surprise, which involved a lot of cheese, breadcrumbs and sauce. My first husband had never eaten a naken broccoli spear until he dined at our house in Seattle.

            But it was Sam’s sausage rolls that really won me over. What a sinfully rich, animal-fat-laden, incredibly tasty idea: to roll up sausage with biscuit dough, bake, and eat while still piping hot. And so versatile: have a few with coffee on Christmas morning, OR serve as an appetizer later in the day! Sam made them with Bisquick (and so I did too, for many years) and Jimmy Dean’s Pork Sausage (ditto, until I discovered Bob’s).

            In those first-marriage years, I liked to cook, but I wasn’t terribly confident. So to come across something I could make so easily and that everyone in my family instantly loved? It’s no wonder I’ve clung to the formula for three decades.

            And even though, to our Northwestern taste buds, sausage rolls seemed so Southern and therefore clearly tied to that first marriage, the fact that my family members wanted me to keep making them was more than just a damn, these are good! product endorsement.  It was also a way of saying, without having to say it out loud: Don’t worry, Ann. We will ALL survive your divorce. And we will all continue to cherish memories of your first mother-in-law, who died too young from cancer, and your first husband, who really was a nice guy—and who, I’m happy to report, remarried a long time ago and has two kids of his own.

You know what’s funny? I’ve never asked him if they have sausage rolls every Thanksgiving and Christmas. I’ve just always assumed.

Registration is open for Intro to Memoir Writing at SCCCStarts Jan 6, 2014. Six Monday nights. Non-credit = all inspiration, no stress!

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.



Brain Museum

ImageJust when I thought I was done writing about the brain, there I was in Lima, Peru, standing face to face with an actual brain floating in a glass globe.

I was in a small museum called “The Brain Museum.” Although I have visited many other quirky, out-of-the-way sites in Peru in the past month, I truly did not intend to visit this one. I was quite sure my Peru agenda had nothing to do with Alzheimer’s disease, my mom, her brain or brains in general.

My husband and I have been in Peru working on a documentary film project that has to do with a clinic named after my great-uncle, who lived here for 25 years. But we’re also doing a few days of filming for a global health fellowship program affiliated with the University of Washington. And that’s how I found myself face to face with a floating brain, the focal point of an assemblage sculpture called “Custodia, Estudio 1,” created by artist Jose Luis Herrera Gianino.

A custodia—or “monstrance” in English—is a glass container on a stand that is used in some Catholic churches to display the communion host, or wafer, representing the bread Jesus broke and shared with his disciples at the Last Supper. “This is my body, broken for you,” Jesus said. “Take, eat, in remembrance of me.”

In earlier eras, a custodia was sometimes used to display relics: bits of the bone, hair or clothing of saints.

Here, floating in front of me, was the most intimate relic imaginable of one anonymous human being, whose body was long ago broken but whose brain had been preserved—symmetrical, intact, rippling with all the hills and valleys which were once rich with memories and feelings and insights.

And here, surrounding me, were walls lined with preserved slices of hundreds of brains, most of them afflicted with frightening diseases: Cystisercosis (tapeworms), Huntington’s, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s.

There were other relics, too: brains that grew the wrong way, or too much, or not enough.

The Brain Museum was the archive of Dr. Oscar Trelles Montes, founder of Peru’s National Institute of Neurological Sciences. His patients came from all over the country to see him, because he was the only doctor in Peru who knew anything at all about their strange and distressing symptoms. He persuaded many of them to donate their brains to research after death.

I have participated in Alzheimer’s research. I have seen PET scans, MRI scans and many other images of the human brain. But certainly, I had never stood in a room lined with neatly sliced and preserved brains. And certainly I had never stared down a brain afloat in a glass globe, mounted on a bronze stand.

In an artist’s statement on his London gallery’s website, Herrera cites truth and faith as two of his abiding themes. The truth is that we are beings who reside in bodies; beings whose faith, attributes, loves and hates are all filed, mysteriously and invisibly, in the pink folds of a soft, three-pound organ called the brain.

And if one of my own abiding themes, inspired by my mother’s Alzheimer’s disease, has been to wonder whether we are still ourselves when our brains are damaged or changed, then how presumptuous of me to think that this theme would not follow me everywhere I go. How dismissive to think that in a rapidly developing country like Peru, brain research would not also be a priority. In fact, Peru’s neuroscientists have a particularly fertile area to explore: the neurogenetics of a population with pre-European roots that date back thousands of years.

Once again, I was humbled by all I didn’t know: about the brain, about science, about the world and this corner of it. And every time this happens to me—this experience of being humbled, surprised, enlightened, all in one instant—I understand all over again: this is the very best reason to travel.

Give yourself the New Year’s gift of writing memoir. Register now for my non-credit (all about inspiration, not about stress) Intro to Memoir Writing class at Seattle Central Community College. Six Monday nights. Starts January 6, 2014. 

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.

photo taken in Ayacucho, Peru, by the Restless Critic, aka Rustin Thompson.

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