Hey, it’s hot


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So as everyone knows, the Pacific Northwest is having a heat wave right now. While it’s not completely unheard of for temperatures to get into the 90s and even break triple digits west of the Cascades, it’s definitely unusual. Unusual enough that on the radio yesterday they were talking about how to keep your car from overheating. It’s just not a thing people here normally have to worry about. Or how to keep themselves from overheating, for that matter.

The big thing to be aware of, if you don’t live in this part of the country, is that residential air conditioning still isn’t the norm. Off the top of my head I can think of maybe two households I know that have it, and one of those is in a newer development. So right now a lot of people are doing what they can to keep cool–running fans if they have them, wrapping wet towels around their necks–or going somewhere that does have AC. Which now has the added complication that we’re still in a pandemic, though the governor is planning to lift all restrictions next week and the state has edged pretty close to a 70% vaccination rate. (Mind, that percentage for herd immunity to COVID-19 is still a best estimate, and among some demographics the rate is far lower.)

I got in a workout this morning before the heat turned brutal, then went for an iced tea with a friend in a nice air conditioned coffee shop. I’m not exactly a hot-weather person, at least not anymore–growing up in Maryland where the summer temperature hit the triple digits semi-regularly by the time I was in high school, I used to, if not enjoy it, at least be able to function within it. But I’ve been outdoors a lot this last year, including a couple of eastside camping trips in pretty hot weather, so I seem to be acclimating.

On the other hand, we have one of those portable AC units intended to chill a single room going in our house, which is keeping things bearable. That was my husband’s idea–he’s a Portlander through and through, and his idea of a hot day starts well short of 80 degrees. The longer I live here, the more I feel the same. That’s another thing to be aware of, if you live somewhere where it regularly gets this hot or even hotter–the human body gets used to the range that it spends most of its time in. Many years ago we spent the winter solstice in Fairbanks, where the daily average was around 40 below zero. When we got back to Seattle, what’s considered a chilly winter day around here felt downright warm.

So while when I first moved here 25 years ago I rolled my eyes at people complaining when the temperature got into the 80s, I really can’t fault anyone for complaining right now. The next few days are going to be rough, especially for people whose homes don’t have AC or have poor ventilation–or who don’t have homes at all.

What I really wonder about–and of course we won’t know unless it happens–is whether this will become normal.

Going back to go ahead


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Tomorrow I go back to work.

By which I mean, tomorrow morning I sit down at the same table where I’m sitting now, at the same laptop where I’m sitting now, and log in to my work e-mail. I check my calendar for meetings, and schedule other ones. I start a number of trainings I’m participating in this summer: Alma-Primo VE software, copyright for librarians and educators, inclusive pedagogy. I open up the budget analysis project that I didn’t get much work done on during the last month of my sabbatical, refamiliarize myself with the metrics, and start writing up preliminary conclusions for my colleagues.

It’s all a big shift from two weeks ago, when I was entering into the final week of the Anake program, a series of challenges and integrations and goodbyes. Time gets elastic during big changes, catastrophes, major life shifts. Earlier today I observed that one month ago today, I was on the eve of what in Anake is referred to as the gauntlet, a series of experiences designed to test and develop what we’d spent the previous eight months learning.

One month ago. It feels like a lot longer.

One year ago my university had just come to the strangest end of the strangest semester most of us could remember, in the middle of which we all went home for the weekend and came back to two days to move our entire educational operation online. Much of my own job remained largely unchanged–a lot of a librarian’s job can be done remotely, or at least mine can–but there were still those reminders of the disaster we were living through. Nursing students and faculty I consulted with looking increasingly strained. Friends volunteering as street medics at the Seattle protests, or documenting what was going on, or just happening to live in the neighborhood. City parks closed and grocery stores mandating limited capacity as we all struggled to understand what was going on. Somehow through all of this, one of my teams at work completed a major software upgrade that changed almost everything about how the library did our work–even as we closed the building to everyone except essential employees and debated whether and how to sanitize printed materials.

That also feels like much longer ago than it was. Between this elasticity of time and my having spent most of the last year in the woods, I’m feeling a bit like I’m in one of those fairy stories where someone disappears under a hill for a year and comes back to find that centuries have passed and everything’s changed.

Centuries haven’t passed, though, and depressingly, not a whole lot has changed either. The pandemic highlighted how much “normal” hasn’t been working, and for how many people, but that normal still seems to be what we’re headed back to. Maybe because it’s hard to have any other coherent idea of where to go. Personally I’m still in that post-initiatory phase of wanting to make some pretty big changes in my own life, but what those changes are and how I’ll do them is taking longer to come clear. In my more optimistic moments I think maybe that’s what’s happening on a broader social level as well. But the forces trying to revert to the status quo are powerful, and they’ve got inertia on their side.

When I was 21 I came to Seattle on a one-way ticket with enough money to get me through a few months. (That was a lot less money in 1996 than it is now.) So maybe my own slowness to make changes now is a factor of age, at least in part.

One of the things that happened for me in the late 90s was I met a martial arts teacher who became one of the most important mentors I’ve ever had, as well as a good friend. Yesterday, I got together with some other students of his, all of us vaccinated, and we worked out together for the first time in over a year. It’s been 25 years; we’re older than we were then, obviously. Slower, creakier. Some of those who were with us back then…aren’t, now, including our teacher. But we’re also sneakier, cleverer, more strategic. We’ve got clearer ideas of what works and what doesn’t, and what’s at stake.

I’m hoping that counts for something.

An ending, and a beginning


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Nine months ago I began both a sabbatical from my academic job and the Anake program at Wilderness Awareness School. Not without a certain amount of reservation in both instances; going on sabbatical when my institution was facing one of its worst crises in my 15+ years there felt vaguely inappropriate, even as everyone from colleagues to my director to the provost was encouraging me to do it. And while I’ve taken many courses at WAS at this point, Anake was another thing altogether: a full time immersion into a multi-faceted program that sought to unite curricula around naturalist studies, self-discovery, and social and environmental justice. At some point I’ll perhaps unpack some of my ambivalences around it; right now, I’ll just say that this was one of those instances where my motivations were somewhat obscure even to me. This has frequently happened around what turned out to be major life decisions in the past, from moving to Seattle to starting a relationship that led (eventually) to marriage to pursuing a graduate degree in library science. That most of these decisions have turned out reasonably well hasn’t really lessened my second-guessing myself about how I’ve made them.

But, there I was, sitting in a cabin in the woods the first week of classes, getting acquainted with my classmates on Zoom because the seasonal wildfires late last summer were so bad that the outside air was too smoky for class to meet in person, wondering what the next nine months were going to be like, whether we’d make it to the end. (With a few exceptions, the rest of the year we did meet in person: outdoors, socially distanced, and wearing masks. While I didn’t mind the masks overall and did agree with the reasoning behind them, I’ll go ahead and say that when interacting with people I’ve just met, they did prove a barrier to connection for me. Until then I hadn’t realized how much of my social interactions relied on other people’s facial expressions.)

As the program comes to its end, I’ve found myself reflecting on what motivated me to sign up for it in the first place: or rather, to mull it over for years until circumstances conspired to allow me to just go ahead and do it. I think what I was looking for was a new way of living my life–or rather, of re-discovering a way that I’d once known, and either forgotten or abandoned. I joked at times that Anake was my midlife crisis: there I was in my mid-forties, trying to keep up with classmates who were often half my age, wondering what playing Capture the Flag in the woods had to do with becoming a naturalist. (More than one might think, potentially. So much is context dependent.)

A lot of people were reflecting on that question last year. I saw it frequently among friends, acquaintances, and colleagues whose lives had been upended overnight by the pandemic, who were brought face to face all over again with the enduring injustices and inequalities of American society; either by that society’s response to the pandemic (or, often, failure to respond), or by the deaths of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd, or by the spectacle of the presidential election, or by the insurrection of January 6th, or by hundreds of other things, great and small. Getting to reflect on such questions in beautiful natural settings of the Pacific Northwest, with a few dozen like-minded people, in a program where sitting under a tree for an hour or following a thread of birdsong through the forest constituted homework, was a privilege bordering on luxury. But I came away with the thought that humanity’s collective relationship to the natural world in which we live is inextricably intertwined with all of the rest of this–not in a back to the land, we should all go live in the woods sort of way (I’m here to tell you that that is a very difficult path that most of us would likely opt out of) but in a wider, deeper, more thorough understanding of what it means to live in the world and with each other sort of way.

It would be an enjoyable but ultimately rather pointless thing to have done, unless I can bring something back from it. Something that I can’t quite see yet.

It was, potentially, a life-changing experience. I’ll know if my life changes from here on out.

What I’m reading: The River That Made Seattle


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I’ve lived on a hill above the Duwamish River for most of my 25 years in Seattle–I can even see it when the trees are bare–and yet I never really knew much about it. I’d gleaned a bit here and there from the Duwamish Longhouse and the bulletins from the EPA (both entities featuring heavily in this history), and from volunteering for Nature Consortium and Duwamish Alive!, but that was about it.

Book cover for The River That Made Seattle.

What elicited my interest in learning more was a map of Seattle I found during a cleanup project at the library where I work. The map is from 1908 and shows the Duwamish River before it was straightened and dredged to make room for shipping and industrial operations. B.J. Cummings’s book details what happened to the river before and since, and how it’s inextricably woven into the shaping of the city of Seattle from its early years up to the present day–to say nothing of the effects of both of these things on the indigenous people of the region, to whom the river has been literally a source of life.

Seattle, 1908.

It’s also one of the most polluted waterways in the United States. Seattle has made much of its environmental friendliness and commitment to sustainability, and the number of people I meet who are unaware that Seattle has a river, let alone that it’s hazardous to eat fish out of it, used to surprise me. (These kinds of things no longer surprise me, but that’s another post.) The River That Made Seattle is a history of the city through a particular lens, the lens of a river to which the city owes much of its prosperity–but at considerable human and environmental cost.

Duwamish River warning sign. Source: WA Department of Health.

My own relationship with the river has been little more than that of most of the city’s residents for most of my time here: the indirect benefit of its shipping traffic and intersection with truck and rail cargo; an obstacle to be crossed when going in and out of West Seattle (which has been considerably more challenging this past year, for reasons I’ve already written about); something that I’ve felt vaguely bad about, especially when those EPA bulletins started arriving in my mailbox, detailing the pollution of the river and what would need to be done to clean it up.

From a river tour I took in November of 2008.

That relationship began to change before Cummings’s book came out, in part due to other efforts she’s been involved in, but The River That Made Seattle shows how the entire city’s relationship to the river can–and arguably must–change. It’s a worthwhile start not only to understanding the importance of the Duwamish River to Seattle’s history, but why its cleanup is a matter not only of good stewardship, but of justice.

View from Duwamish Waterway Park, March 2021.

Psychic distance, chaotic time



There’s a now-classic bit in the newer run of Doctor Who about the nature of time. It’s in the episode “Blink,” which introduces the Weeping Angels, a terrifying species who only move when you aren’t looking at them. If you’ve seen the show, you already know exactly which bit I’m referring to. It’s this one:

Yesterday I got an automated e-mail from my bank, informing me about a direct deposit from my employer. My monthly paycheck had just hit my account.

I’m on sabbatical, which means that I have even fewer anchors to my week than everyone working from home since last March. Balancing that is my studies at Wilderness Awareness School, which does provide some structure (and much-needed human contact, albeit masked and distanced). I’ve also been in a strange state of numbness after the insurrection in Washington D.C. on January 6th. Though I haven’t lived in the D.C. suburbs for a long time–in fact I got away as fast as possible–it’s still where I’m from. I was born a few miles from the events of January 6th. So my response to the event was somewhat personal, for reasons that had nothing to do with the particulars of what was actually happening.

I was last in Washington D.C. in the fall of 2019. My parents were embroiled in the colossal task of packing up the house I’d grown up in, where they’d lived for over forty years, to move out to the Pacific Northwest. I went back east to do some heavy lifting, in a few senses of that term. I don’t recall why, but I had a free afternoon one day, and took the Metro downtown to wander around the Mall and visit the National Museum of African American History and Culture, which I’d never seen–it opened long after I moved away. The museum was amazing and I hope to visit it again someday, but what I mostly remember was how empty the Mall felt, and how fortified the White House looked. I’m old enough to remember before Pennsylvania Avenue was closed, never mind all the additional fencing and other security that’s gone up since.

January 6th was both shocking and not. Shocking because, well, the incidents and developing pressures that led to all that additional fortification notwithstanding, the last time anyone assaulted the U.S. Capitol was during the War of 1812. Not, because…I mean, have you read the news anytime in the last few years? The most shocking thing about January 6th was how the people tasked with preventing it…didn’t.

I’ve written before about the effect of emergency on our perception of time. Last year the jokes were all about how March 2020 had lasted hundreds or even thousands of days. Time grew elastic, seeming to stretch out into an eternal present where we had always been working at home at our dining room tables–and that was if we were lucky. If we weren’t, our jobs had evaporated, or had become so dangerous due to the pandemic as to make the paltry sums of “hazard pay” offered by grocery stores and the like insulting. I look at some of my entries from last year and they seem to have been written much, much longer ago than that.

And yet that notification from my bank startled me. Was it sending me notice of my deposit early? Why would a bank do that? How would it even know to send it? With a shock I realized: we’re already at the end of the month. January 6th was weeks ago, and in the frenetic churn of a news cycle for which the designation of 24 hours doesn’t seem frantic or fast-paced enough, it feels even longer.

Some of this, for me, is no doubt a function of age. I’ll be 47 this year and am somehow stunned to be over 20 years into the new millennium. Part of that had to do with growing up in the shade of incipient nuclear annihilation; every time I hear Prince’s “1999” I recall how much of the cheerful-sounding music of the 1980s was about how we could all expect to die at any moment.

But also, time gets away from you. The disorienting elasticity of time over the past year is, in a way, just an exacerbation of the weirdness of our perception of time, even as we collectively assume that time moves forward moment by moment, at the same pace for all of us. I’m reminded of when I came up with the notion of psychic distance, back when I first moved to West Seattle. Before our bridge broke, my house was an easy 15-minute drive from downtown, 30 minutes by bus. And yet people acted like I’d moved to the moon. The bridge, the river, the enormous forest on West Seattle’s eastern edge, the industrial district and port in between–all of it turned those few miles into a chasm.

I don’t hear as much talk about “back to normal,” these days. That meant, as much as anything, the resumption of a more sensible passage of time. Even nature, a balm though it’s been for me over these past months, has gone wibbly-wobbly. The garlic I planted in November, expecting it to show up the following spring, sprouted less than a month later. A few days ago I saw the first openings of salmonberry flowers. A run of unusually warm and clear weather has stirred up all the birds.

Back to normal. Wibbly-wobbly-ness notwithstanding, I don’t think there is any going back.

A passage from Terry Pratchett’s Hogfather that I like to post every year


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I’ve long been a fan of Terry Pratchett’s novels, though I haven’t read the last few that he wrote–mostly because after that, there won’t be any more. One of my favorites is Hogfather, which can reasonably be compared to A Nightmare before Christmas (Pratchett often riffed on pop culture, and also Shakespeare, who was also pop culture, so that’s fine), but more broadly is a meditation on deity, belief, and myth.

Toward the end of the novel, there’s a lovely passage that I always think of at the winter solstice. In it, Death and his granddaughter Susan are having a conversation right after Susan has rescued the titular Hogfather from oblivion:

“Yes! The sun would have risen just the same, yes?”
“Oh, come on. You can’t expect me to believe that. It’s an astronomical fact.”
She turned on him. “It’s been a long night, Grandfather! I’m tired and I need a bath! I don’t need silliness!”
“Really? Then what would have happened, pray?”
They walked in silence for a moment. “Ah,” said Susan dully. “Trickery with words. I would have thought you’d have been more literal- minded than that.”
“All right,” said Susan. “I’m not stupid. You’re saying humans need… fantasies to make life bearable.”
“Tooth fairies? Hogfathers? Little—”
“So we can believe the big ones?”
“They’re not the same at all!”
“Yes, but people have got to believe that, or what’s the point—”

I used to take this passage quite literally. Until it occurred to me that I never really believed in Santa Claus or the Tooth Fairy, but I do believe in justice.

Or rather, I believe that justice is something we can create–I don’t believe that it has an existence independent of us, and the systems and structures we create to bring it about. And I think, lately, that this is what Pratchett was really getting at. In Hogfather, gods come into being because of people’s belief. So perhaps Death is making the same assertion about justice, mercy, and duty.

Anyway, Pratchett’s both very funny and pretty danged insightful, so if you haven’t read Hogfather, or any of his other books, give them a try. (Small Gods is a good one to start with.)

Every so often I remember how angry I am


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I give people the impression that I’m calm and level-headed. Recently I revealed some of my deep-seated social anxiety to a friend, to their surprise; they hadn’t thought that I got anxious about anything.

Much of the time, I am calm and level-headed. I’ve spent quite a bit of time over quite a lot of years on it, and to give it a deep well rather than, well, surface tension. But I am also, not infrequently, furious. Especially over this last year, but it goes back a lot further than that. Not sure when it began, really.

Today I took up my bag drills again. I have two bags in my garage for punching and kicking, backfists and palm strikes, along with a tension band and some mats. I’m going to hang a pendulum for escrima drills. That’s what I can do, since the pandemic put an end to my gung fu group.

We were together for quite a long time, more or less since the death of our teacher in 2012. We kept working out in the basement he’d rented in Seattle’s ID for awhile, then moved to a community center in the University District. Remembering, through practice, the things we’d been taught. And then COVID came. The community center closed. We could probably find somewhere else, even outdoors, but the kind of training we were doing isn’t really possible from six feet of distance, masks or no masks. I haven’t seen any of them since.

When I started with my teacher in the late 90s, two days passed between my initial conversation with him on the phone, and meeting him in Pioneer Square, where he taught at the time in another rented basement. On that intervening day, I learned that an old friend of mine had just escaped from a domestic abuse situation that had been going on, unbeknownst to me, for years. I had nowhere to put my resulting rage: but, the next night, I did. I still have the scars on my knuckles.

My then-boyfriend, now-husband often referred to martial arts as my stress management therapy. There’s always been an element of truth to that. I’m not violent by nature and it’s not my go-to; I’ve hit another person twice in my life that I can recall. In one case, they started it; in the other, I’d been subjected to month upon month of the kind of harassment that is still written off as boys being boys. But hitting something that is designed to be hit, a focus mitt or a punching bag, can be a very satisfying way of releasing stress.

It can also bring up the deeper-seated anger that’s way down in that deep well, underneath all the calm.

It’s reassuring. I’ve been depressed a lot this year–no surprise, haven’t we all?–and sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference between depression and just being sort of…neutral to everything.

There’s so much to be angry about, I’d hate to think that I couldn’t do it anymore.

Reacquainting with the antelope


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Years ago when I was in library school, there was a particular article we read as a sort of foundational text for the discipline. This was Michael Buckland’s “What is a ‘document’?” which reviews various definitional approaches to the question. Since libraries and other information repositories concern themselves with documents and no such repository can collect absolutely everything, the point of the question is to determine scope. Whether a thing belongs in library is thought to depend on whether the thing in question is a document in the first place, and then you go from there. In practical day to day terms the question rarely comes up; the bigger question I’m usually facing is whether we have any money to pay for the thing, or for access to the thing, and whether in light of budget cuts we can afford to keep the thing. Library science has a grounding philosophy of sorts, but daily operations tend to be more pragmatic.

The metaphor that everyone always remembers from the Buckland article is the distinction between an antelope out in the wild (not a document) and an antelope in a zoo (document). It’s interesting then that it isn’t Buckland himself who makes that distinction; his is a review article, a documentation of other documents. This particular metaphor originates with Suzanne Briet, who proposed to define a document as “evidence in support of a fact” back in 1951. Briet’s article was in French; perhaps francophone librarians recall the metaphor’s origin correctly.

Now an animal in a zoo can have important educational, research, and informational functions, just like a book in a library can. But one of the things about documents is that they are necessarily one step removed from the thing they are documenting, and whoever avails themselves of these documents is likewise necessarily one step removed from direct experience of the thing. Patrick Wilson wrote an entire book-length study of this issue, titled Second Hand Knowledge: An Inquiry into Cognitive Authority, which among other things discourses on how we as humans decide what information to believe since we cannot directly experience everything for ourselves, nor gain all the necessary expertise to understand what we’re looking at from necessary perspectives. The relevance of this to our present moment is obvious. I think a lot of people out there are frankly terrified by how little any one person can understand about how the world works. Some of the simplifying explanations these people come up with are actively dangerous to themselves and others.

This fall I’m on a sabbatical from my library and having a number of direct experiences of antelopes through the Anake Outdoor School. There is a definite experiential difference between reading about a golden-crowned kinglet in my field guide to Pacific Northwest birds, and encountering a flock of them in the forest. The latter happened to me yesterday; it was both an opportunity to turn information (from the field guide) into knowledge (mapping what I’d read onto what I was seeing in front of me in terms of identifying marks and behaviors) and one of those deeply satisfying experiences that people go into nature for the express purpose of having.

I’m currently reading Ezra Klein’s Why We’re Polarized, which I’ll probably have more to say about once I’m done with it, but one point he’s made that’s sticking with me is that people who spend more time engaged with political news and information sources often end up with a less accurate picture of what’s going on. Much as it’s difficult for someone whose profession is information to admit this, it’s possible probably to have too much information–not in the sense of having too much prurient detail (although of course that also happens) but in being unable to see the forest for the trees. I’ve said before that for all the overwhelming volume of information we now have access to, our human brainmeats still process that information at the same speed as they always have. To construct knowledge out of information, we have to be selective.

The danger here of course is that most of us are selective according to what we already believe we know to be true, or what we want to be true. Very smart and knowledgeable people are not an exception to this, although they do have an advantage in the specific areas they are knowledgeable about. Add a general American suspicion of expertise and you have, well, some of the more toxic informational stews one can find online without even looking particularly hard.

I guess what I’m saying here is that one could do worse than go out and take a look at the antelope for yourself. Just remember that once upon a time, somebody looked at an antelope and decided it was a unicorn.

Pandemic slice of life


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A friend who has to move on fairly short notice gave me four Western red cedars (one sapling and three seedlings) that she had in pots. They’re on my front steps right now. Eventually they’ll go out to the land for planting.
Friend is in Ballard, so I drove back to West Seattle through downtown because I’ve been north of Spokane St a handful of times this entire year, and downtown not at all.

It didn’t look apocalyptic, but it did look empty. Oddest of all was the building where Amazon’s offices were located in the late 1990s on 2nd Ave, upstairs from what was then the Art Bar and later the Noc Noc. Whole block is boarded up and, I’m guessing, slated for redevelopment.
Thinking about 20 years ago a lot lately, for some reason.