Storytime

I told my friend, Laura, this morning, “I need to get medicated.”

I’m suffering from what I call the “Trump funk”:  The inability to get any work done due to continuous scrolling through Countable to see what other shoes have dropped, exchanging panicked messages with strangers on Twitter, signing up for marches (for women, for science, for immigration), and calling my reps in D.C. every other hour to remind them to vote “no” on whatever it is they’re voting on that day.

Yes, I’ve read the essays circulating on the Internet, dozens of them, about how to maintain balance and prevent burnout while participating in The Resistance.  “Stay off social media,” they say.  And do what?  Sit in my living room, stare at the wall, and wait for the world to end?

Tonight, though, after eight straight days in my apartment, eating canned tuna and peanut butter sandwiches, because I haven’t been to the grocery store in two weeks, I put on a clean shirt and left the building.  I’d promised my friend in Tennessee that I’d go hear her friend, Kevin Wilson, read from his new book, so I had no choice.  I walked the twelve blocks to Elliott Bay Book Company, listening to a story about the open water swimmer, Florence Chadwick, on my favorite podcast, The Memory Palace.

When I got to Elliott Bay, I headed downstairs to the basement room where authors do their readings.  Kevin Wilson was there to promote Perfect Little World.  Although there were only ten of us in the audience, he seemed delighted.  Ten people was far more than he was expecting, he said, due to the state of the world.  “I don’t know anyone in Seattle,” he told us.  “I thought everyone would just stay home.”

He read to us from the first chapter and answered questions.  About teaching, writing, the anxiety of raising children, and the thrill of seeing his previous book, The Family Fang, turned into a movie.  Nicole Kidman had invited him to lunch, and the movie premiered at a theater in his home town of Sewanee, TN, where he got to walk a red carpet.  “I felt like the most famous person in the town,” he said.  Then he told a story about writing an essay about his son for BuzzFeed and being horrified by the “clickbait headline” that got added.  He doesn’t like writing non-fiction and probably won’t do it again, he explained.  “With fiction,” he said, “you create a world you can control.”

After we’d run out of questions, he sat at a table at the back of the room and signed copies of his books.  I offered to take a picture of him with one of his fans, a woman who kept saying, “I loved Family Fang.”  Then we all left, the ten strangers who had gathered together in a basement to hear stories.

I walked home, listening to another episode of The Memory Palace, this one about the pianist Hazel Scott.  My heart felt lighter than it had in weeks.

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Books to lift your spirits

Last week, I began reading The Lady in Gold by Anne-Marie O’Connor, the story of Gustav Klimt’s friends and patrons among Vienna’s Jewish bourgeoisie  in the early 20th century.  I reached the section on the arrival of the Nazis over the weekend, and by Monday night, the story had turned so horrific that I found myself lying in bed and staring at my bedroom ceiling long after I’d turned out my light.

It’s a fascinating book that personalizes the holocaust in a way I hadn’t experienced since The Diary of Anne Frank.  I recommend reading it.

But not right now.

This morning while I was having breakfast, I started thinking about non-fiction books I would suggest to friends during this time when the world seems dark and uncertain — books that made me smile and, just picking them up again, brought back wonderful memories of reading.

I’d love to get other suggestions.  But for now, here are some favorite books from my own shelves that are worth reading anytime and are especially good to pick up right now:

  1. Beatrix Potter:  A Life in Nature by Linda Lear.  A classic biography.  It’s the story of a talented woman who was ahead of her time and found happiness on her own terms, doing what she loved.  It turns out Potter was not only clever and determined, she was also extraordinarily generous.
  2. My Life in France by Julia Child.  One of my favorite books of all time.  It’s a cookbook, a love story, and a travel narrative.  But what’s most remarkable is the way Julia Child, even with her terrible French, made friends everywhere she went.  Her warmth and curiosity inspired strangers to invite her to dinner and hand over their family recipes.
  3. The Piano Shop on the Left Bank by Thad Carhart.  The second of my “stories from France” recommendations.  This is Carhart’s memoir of a friendship he developed with a man who ran a piano repair shop.  Through that relationship, Carhart met all kinds of people around Paris and discovered gems hidden in the city that few of us get a chance to see.
  4. A Year in Provence by Peter Mayle.  A classic fish-out-of-water story set in a small town in France.  You will laugh and cry as you read this book — and dream of moving to a small town.  Or maybe simply getting to know your neighbors better.
  5. A Walk in the Woods or In a Sunburned Country by Bill Bryson.  The story of Bryson’s hike on the Appalachian Trail and his tale of traveling through Australia.  Both are hilarious, educational, and moving.  Everywhere he goes, Bryson encounters wackiness and kind strangers who are eager to help.
  6. My Losing Season by Pat Conroy.  Conroy’s memoir of his senior year as captain of the Citadel Bulldogs basketball team.  The book is about winning and losing, and it’s wonderful to follow Conroy, who came from an abusive home, as he discovers the joy of friendship.
  7. Boys in the Boat by Daniel James Brown.  The story of the University of Washington’s ragtag-bunch-of-underdogs crew team that beat the east coast powerhouses to advance to the 1936 Olympics, where they defeated Hitler’s German rowing team.  In this story, the good guys finish first.
  8. Lab Girl by Hope Jahren.  The memoir of a biology professor at the University of Hawaii who grew up in a small town in Minnesota.  The book is remarkable for its beautiful writing and Jahren’s father who passed on to her his love of science.  Jahren fought tough obstacles as a woman in the sciences, but this is really a story about friendship and the power of great parenting.
  9. The Natural World of Winnie-the-Pooh by Kathryn Aalto.  A tour through the real woods that inspired Milne’s beloved books.  Aalto’s flowery writing style may make you crazy, but she does a good job of capturing the magic that was Milne’s childhood and the kindness that created Pooh.

 

Power to the People

An amazing story has been unfolding here in Puget Sound for the past 8 months, and recently, we’ve come to the exciting end of Book I and are ready to embark upon the sequel, a new adventure.  The tale has nothing to do with our humdinger of a presidential election, but it’s truly an American story.  Or maybe it’s more of a story about what we’d like our whole country to be.

We have a delightful little radio station here called KPLU (88.5).  It’s an NPR affiliate that broadcasts from Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma and, when it’s not running NPR programming (Morning Edition, All Things Considered, and Fresh Air), it airs local news, jazz, and blues.

It’s a gem of a station with a loyal audience, including myself.  I wake up every morning to KPLU and listen to it at night while I do the dishes and fold laundry.  And it offers one of my favorite radio shows, Bird Note, a two-minute program about birds that combines narrative and nature sounds.  The first time I heard it, I thought, “That’s really odd,” and now, every morning, I look forward to the distinctive oboe theme that opens each segment.

Last year, Pacific Lutheran decided it wanted to get out of the public radio business, so it approached KUOW, our 800-pound radio gorilla at the University of Washington, about buying it.  KUOW is a great station, but it’s very different from the much smaller KPLU, and its plan was to shut down KPLU’s news department and make the station all jazz, no NPR programming, no local news.

Fortunately, last December, due to outcry from KPLU listeners, who want news with their jazz, the purchase agreement was modified to allow for a competing bid.  The community would have until June 30, 2016 to raise $7 million to take control of the station.  Friends of KPLU was formed and it kicked off a fundraising campaign, with the goal of keeping the station independent.

It seemed like a crazy dream, and as the money began trickling in, the reality of just how big a number 7 million is began to settle over KPLU listeners.  Donations were coming in steadily, but every day, as we got the donation update, we also received the reminder that we still needed millions and millions of dollars to buy the station.

And then suddenly, we were only 2 million away.  Then 1 million.  And on May 26, more than a month before the deadline, Friends of KPLU announced that 20,000 people had donated money and the $7 million goal had been reached.

As I wrote at the beginning of this post, the story isn’t over.  PLU still has to accept the community offer and KUOW has to withdraw from the bidding.  But it looks as though those things will happen.  Also, the station will need to change its call letters (with help from listeners), form a community board, and raise money for operations under its new name.  Programming will remain the same, but the station will be something different:  truly public.  Owned and operated by its listeners.

Margaret Mead said, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world.”  The story of KPLU affirms that there’s enormous power in individuals coming together for a common cause, and that there are few obstacles that can’t be moved by people who believe they can make a difference and are willing to invest the time and resources to do so.

And there’s another saying I like:  “It ain’t over until the fat lady sings.”

We’re being hit hard right now by stories of an ineffectual primary system, an unjust justice system, and a Congress that works for the corporations that give them money, rather than the voters who elect them.  It’s easy to say that our most fundamental institutions are corrupt beyond saving, but, as the community effort to purchase KPLU shows, there are a few planks in the foundation of our country that remain strong:  Freedom of speech and our ability, as individuals, to donate money to causes we believe in without censure from our government.  Also freedom of the press and the opportunity we have as citizens to take ownership of media organizations and run them as we see fit.

This story also demonstrates that each voice matters.  It’s tempting to dismiss this idea with cynicism, especially right now, but the truth is:  KPLU’s audience spoke up, and PLU and KUOW listened.  Maybe because it seemed like the right thing to do.  Or maybe because, in America, we still cheer for the person willing to pull out a tiny slingshot, draw back his or her arm, and take on a giant.

 

 

Absurdly wonderful democracy: the caucus

Poster board signs with numbers written in Magic Marker.  Parking lot testimonials.  Paper ballots.  Ad-hoc scribes.

In other words:  The 2016 Washington Democratic presidential caucus.  A delightfully low-tech process during which you to sit in a crowded room with your neighbors and wait for your number to be called.  Kind of like getting a driver’s license, except no one’s really in charge.

Having never lived before in a caucus state, Saturday’s event was my first.  I joined a few people from my apartment complex in walking three blocks to Town Hall, a music and lecture venue in downtown Seattle, to caucus with other Democrats.

As I stepped into the building, a volunteer asked me, “Did you register online and fill out your voting form?  Do you have it with you?”  My answer was “yes” to both, so I was directed to the left, where I found a piece of poster board taped to the wall that had precinct numbers divided into “upstairs” and “downstairs.”  My precinct was “downstairs,” so that’s where I headed, into a large space that was standing-room-only with every race, gender and voting age represented.

There were no festive decorations.  No posters, bunting, or American flags.  Town Hall didn’t look any different from usual.  Just more crowded.  I politely pushed my way to a spot in the aisle and considered going back upstairs, turning in my voting form and leaving.  I knew whom I wanted as the Democratic candidate.  The caucus wasn’t going to change my vote.  But I felt swept up by the experience.  For the first time in years, maybe ever, I was gathered with my neighbors in a public space and, together, we were going to make a decision about our future.

So I stayed in my aisle spot and waited to find out what came next.

A few minutes after 10 am, one of the caucus organizers took the stage and gave us the rules:

  1. Don’t start caucusing until 10:30 am.
  2. Don’t stop caucusing until after 11:00 am.

Someone sitting in front shouted, “We need a real primary,” but no one agreed, no one said anything, and the man on stage ignored him.  We were told, “When I call your precinct number, raise your hand.”  This part was interesting, because there weren’t any precinct leaders.  A random someone with a raised hand was given a poster board with the precinct number written on it and told to stand against a wall.  After all the signs had been given out, the rest of us wandered the room, looking for our precincts.

“Should we go outside?” someone in our group asked, once we’d assembled.  We all shrugged and mumbled “okay,” and moved like lemmings to the back parking lot.

The woman holding the precinct sign continued leading our group, which was made up of about about 30 people.  She collected our voting forms, which had two boxes, one for our nominee choice before the caucus and another for after, in case we changed our minds.  Then the woman told us to stand on her right if we supported Sanders and on her left if we supported Clinton.

“Wow,” the guy next to me said.  “There’s a real generational divide here.”  And there was.  The Sanders supporters outnumbered the Clinton supporters 3-to-1, and most were under 30.

I don’t know if our group was representative of Democrats across the country.  But as the testimonials began, alternating speakers from each side, one thing became clear:   The people supporting Clinton did so for a variety reasons, from her experience to her greater electability, while there was a solidarity to the Sanders group.  Their speakers all talked about failing institutions – education, health care, Congress, corporations, the economy, society – and I was struck by how different I’d been at their age, when I saw the world as my oyster.  These voters were more cynical, more distrustful, more scared.

Life in America, as they described it, resembled a Hobbesian state of nature:  poor, nasty, brutish and short.  Bernie Sanders offered them hope.

They also believed he was the only candidate who cared about the underserved and underrepresented.  “I’m voting for Sanders,” one person said, “because I want to vote for a Democrat.”  Those of us in the Clinton camp, who’ve followed her career for twenty years, were surprised by his comment.

“She was supporting gay rights in the early ‘90’s,” one man said.  “Long before most other public figures.”  I informed the group that Hillary was one of the first to put universal health care coverage on the table, that she’d wanted to lead the effort to reform our system during Bill Clinton’s first term, and for that, she’d been labeled “Lady Macbeth.”

“She’s had to learn to be a woman politician,” I said.  “So if she seems more moderate, more measured, it’s because of what she’s experienced.  She’s had to become less outspoken to survive.”

A Sanders supporter, a young white man, responded, “If she were a real leader, she wouldn’t have backed off.  She would have kept speaking out.”  I listened, knowing I could never make him understand what it’s like to be a woman in politics, in business, in America, in the world in general.

“Whomever you vote for,” I said instead, “remember this day.  Remember that you stood in a parking lot and respectfully exchanged political views with people who disagree with you.  Remember what it felt like, that it’s possible.”

At 11:00 am, we finished our testimonials, and our scribe, who had become our sergeant-at-arms, asked if anyone wanted to change their vote.

No one did.  So we elected our delegates, three for Sanders and one for Hillary.  And then our group dispersed, all of us leaving the downtown parking lot, scattering in different directions, and bringing our caucus to an end.

 

Great hometown radio

A lot of towns have an offbeat, “alternative” radio station run by people who love discovering music and sharing it with the world.  This is the station that celebrates when Adele sells a bazillion albums but doesn’t play her music, not because it’s not great, but because you can hear it up and down the dial.  This station is for music you can’t hear anywhere else.

This radio station is independent in its sensibilities, often located on a college campus, and isn’t for everyone.  But it’s built-to-order for some of us, and we listen to that station all the time.  Whatever it’s playing, we’ll listen.  Even if we don’t like it, because we’re fascinated by the choice, appreciative of the chance to hear it for the first time, and curious as to what’s coming next.

I’ve moved around a lot in my life, and when I land in a new town and stumble upon one of these stations, I feel as though I’ve found home.  In Los Angeles, that station was KCRW (89.9 in L.A.), and the show was Morning Becomes Eclectic — hosted then by Tom Schnabel.

As the area’s premier NPR station, Santa Monica College’s KCRW brings you all the good stuff.  You get the best of public radio, which includes both NPR programming and KCRW’s original shows.  My favorites, Which Way L.A.? with Warren Olney (and anything with Warren Olney) and Book Worm with Michael Silverblatt, are consistently fascinating.  Just as Jason Bentley introduces new music every morning, Silverblatt highlights great new writers, and Olney brings together emerging influencers.

When it comes to music, KCRW’s programming rule is: “Play what you love.”  That’s it.  Each DJ has his/her own taste, each show has its own personality, and they’re all great.  As a fan of live radio music, I recommend Bentley’s Morning Becomes Eclectic, which regularly features amazing and always intimate in-studio performances.  Download the KCRW app on your phone and get 20 years of audio and video recordings from the studio.

Austin’s KGSR (93.3) is the king of alternative radio and has become known outside Texas for its annual Christmas “Broadcasts,” a CD collection of live studio performances.  (Vol. 23 goes on sale November 27.)  People all over the country collect them, including fans who’ve never lived in Texas.  My friend, B.J., here in Seattle, has them all, and my brother in San Francisco gives them as gifts every year.  Which is how I get mine.

Having grown with its hometown, KGSR is no longer the little independent radio station it was when I lived there.  It’s now part of the Indianapolis-based ENNIS Communications.  And as Austin has become more diverse in its musical tastes, KGSR has shifted a bit to remain the heart of the music scene there.  But even having “gone corporate,” the station stays true to its roots:  promoting local, emerging and alternative artists.  So don’t be put off by the Kohl’s and Coldplay promotions on the website.  Dig deeper.  Take a look at the Most Played list.  You’ll find a station that’s finding a way to balance commercial demands, local tastes and its musical mission.  It’s had to embrace mainstream marketing as it’s grown, but KGSR doesn’t compromise when it comes to music.  (I’ve been listening to As I Lay Dying, Steve Earle and Hozier on KGSR as I’ve been writing this.)

Now that I live in Seattle, my station is KEXP (90.3) which broadcasts from the University of Washington with the mission: “Enrich people’s lives by championing music and discovery.”  This means all genres, and the station prides itself on having DJs who are experts on local, American and global music of all kinds, especially “emerging sounds.”

“Rock and eclectic” fills most of the day at KEXP, but nights and weekends are when the station mixes it up.  Check out the schedule and you’ll find Jamaican, blues and jazz, as well as a range of other genres.  Everything but classical.  But you might have to stay up really late to get what you want.

One of the station’s great online features is the Song of the Day.  If you enjoy exploring music and discovering new artists, check out the website and grab a taste.  (I just enjoyed today’s song, Martin Courtney’s Northern Highway.)  The orange stripe on the right side of the homepage is a cornucopia of delights:  Song of the Day, DJ Curated Mixes and in-studio Live Performances.  Right now, I’m listening to the Montreal band Ought doing Beautiful Blue Sky.  (Does anyone else hear a bit of David Byrne in there?)

KEXP is public radio.  Not NPR public radio with a capital “P” and “R” but true public radio, as in “listener supported.”  Which means it belongs to the community it serves, and the station is an active part of the Seattle music scene.  This station is a local treasure but global in its orientation, and with the internet, it’s available to everyone.

Explore KCRW, KGSR and KEXP online.  They all have live streaming, blogs and podcasts available on their websites.

Also, check out Tom Schnabel’s Rhythm Planet music blog and his wonderful tribute to Paris from Morning Becomes Eclectic (November 24), both on the KCRW website.

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History’s unicorn: The moderate-turned-reformer

Ali A. Rizvi recently posted “An Open Letter to Moderate Muslims” in the Huffington Post in which he urges moderate Muslims to give up the belief that the Quran is the infallible and literal word of God.  “Islam,” he says, “needs reformers, not moderates.”  And he goes on to define reformers as people who “change things, fix the system and move it in a new direction.”

The big challenge in this call to action, according to Rizvi, isn’t making change happen.  It’s acknowledging that something is broken.  Not that it’s being portrayed as broken by extremists, but that it is actually broken.

Rizvi reminds us that the Prophet Muhammad, himself, was a vigorous reformer, as was Jesus, and that Islam and Christianity both arose out of reform movements.  He closes his essay with the kicker, something everyone, wherever you fall on the religious or political spectrum, should keep in mind:  Openly challenging problematic ideas isn’t blasphemy or un-patriaotic – it’s what Mohammed, Jesus and all the American Founding Fathers did, and what they taught others to do as well.

Rizvi wrote his piece in response to the recent violence in Paris, Beirut, Syria and Kenya, and his topic is moderate Islam.  But the points he raises apply to all of us who are moderate in our beliefs.  To the moderate Christians who point to extremists spewing hate language about homosexuals and say, “That’s not me.  That’s not what Christianity is.”  To the moderate Republicans who point to extremists attacking women’s health centers and say, “That’s not me.  That’s not what a Republican is.”  To the moderate liberals who point to University leaders who no longer allow conservative views to be publicly shared on campus and say, “That’s not me.  That’s not what liberalism is.”

Sitting in the middle and holding fast to our beliefs, even when they are being used by fanatics to promote hatred and violence, does not make the world a better place.  Dismissing an extremist’s use of political or religious orthodoxy as “a perversion” is not an act of courage.  Nor does it promote kindness, progress or peace.

Here’s another thing that “speaking moderate” doesn’t do.  It doesn’t remove suspicion of or build support for our own mainstream religious or political views. This is a problem Islam currently faces among non-Muslims all over the world.  But Islam isn’t the only thing taking a beating from radicalism.

In the U.S., Christianity and voter participation are both in decline.  Thanks in large part to our loud and offensive extremist minorities, a growing number of Americans are suspicious and fearful of religion and politics.

What is the moderate majority doing to turn these trends around?

Rizvi’s piece hit me hard.  As a political moderate, I’m quick to criticize extremism on both the right and the left.  And as a moderate liberal, I’m particularly wary of the political correctness that has taken over our public discussion.  There should be rules for debate – empathy, respect, and intelligence.  But beyond these, debate should be open.  No fences.  And it should be uncomfortable.  Because when we get to a place at which everyone in the audience is nodding his or her head in happy agreement during a political candidate debate, we have come to a time when all our candidates are disingenuous, craven, cynical, empty and liars.

And no, I don’t think we’ve quite gotten there yet.

I can talk reasonably with almost anyone about liberal politics.  But what do I do when I hear about a student who has been kicked out of college for expressing sexist, racist or other unpopular views in a legitimate forum, without using violence, harassment, threats or vandalism?  I may make an indignant comment about free speech to my friends.  But I have never spoken out against this in a public forum, protested this injustice among my fellow liberals, or openly questioned the mainstream liberal views that foster this form of extremist persecution.

I know it’s not easy being a moderate-turned-reformer.  In fact, this kind of person is history’s unicorn.  But as extremism continues to grow in influence and impact across multiple aspects of society, moderates have a responsibility to do more than speak as the voice of reason.  We have to act, to lead reform.  And this begins with questioning the very foundation of our own beliefs and having the courage to say — out loud and on Twitter — “I think the Bible writers got it wrong in a few places.”

The soul in letter writing

What cannot letters inspire? They have souls; they can speak; they have in them all that force which expresses the transports of the heart; they have all the fire of our passions.  Heloise

One of my favorite novels is Clarissa, Samuel Richardson’s million-word tome that inspired the bodice-rippers of the 1970’s, with their swarthy scoundrels who ravished young virgins before falling in love, marrying, and living happily ever after.

Richardson, however, treats his scoundrel as scoundrels deserve:  After ravishing Clarissa Harlowe, the villain Robert Lovelace dies in a dual, condemned, despised, and alone.

But that’s not the best thing about Clarissa.  What I love about the book is that it’s an epistolary novel, a story told through letters, and the person who controls the correspondence drives the story.  In the beginning, it is Clarissa through whom we get our information, in the letters she writes and receives. As she falls under Lovelace’s control, she loses her voice, and other characters take over the narrative.

What does Lovelace want from Clarissa?  Not only her body and her virtue, but also her letters. He searches desperately for Clarissa’s correspondence, uncertain of her possession until he has seized every word she has written.

Clarissa is a dark, 18th-century story, but it still has something relevant to say about letters:  They carry enormous power.  For the writer, they provide a means of independent expression, and for the recipient, they create a deep sense of connection.

I’m a letter writer, someone who loves stationers and can spend hours looking for the perfect notecard.  Email is cheap; it’s fast and convenient.  What it’s not, though, is sensual.  You can read it, but you can’t feel it or smell it – you can’t fully experience it. It lacks the depth and texture of carefully chosen paper. And its message doesn’t imprint upon your soul.

Look around your colleagues’ workspaces.  No one prints out email and tapes it to the wall.  But a card or a letter?  You’ll find one on almost every desk.  Even the most cynical digiphile smiles when he or she finds a handwritten letter in the mailbox.  Because an email says, I thought of you, but a letter says, I imagined your face when you found this letter and learned that someone was thinking of you, so I searched for the perfect card, one that would make you laugh, and sat at my kitchen table to compose this note just for you, unlike any other note I have ever written, and I found a stamp and ran to the mailbox, so that you would have this letter in your hands before the week is out.

I once sent a card to an editor, someone I didn’t know but whom I admired, congratulating him on a new job he had gotten at a bigger magazine.  Years later, when I contacted him to pitch a story, he told me, “I remember you.”  He took my pitch and ran my story.

Yes, letter writing is troublesome and time consuming, but human relationships, the real kind, require effort.  Sometimes the easiest gesture isn’t the best.  “Can you do lunch earlier?”  That’s an email.  “Thank you for a wonderful dinner, inviting me into your home, and giving me the chance to meet your family.”  That’s a letter.

Questions about letter writing etiquette? Visit Crane & Co.

You can find a free ebook version of Clarissa in 9 volumes (plus a preface) on Amazon.