Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Weekend Excursion: San Juan Island

It's hard not to feel incredibly thankful when a friend offers you a weekend in their family cabin on the water's edge on San Juan Island.  Without a doubt, the San Juan Islands are some of the most beautiful natural area of the country, and San Juan itself is a jewel in that crown.  From Seattle you drive north to the ferry that takes you and your car on a two hour trip past picturesque islands and coastline, and drops you off in a quaint village of Friday Harbor.  From Friday Harbor, with a car and your feet, the island is yours.

We stayed in a cabin with a wall-sized window overlooking Canada across the water.  The back of the house had stairs that led right down to the shore.  Somewhere in the water, below the surface, is a microphone, and you can tune into that microphone's feed on the internet.  You can listen for whale song, and when you hear whale song you can sit on your porch with a pair of binoculars and a coffee and watch for the whales to breach the surface.  We didn't hear or see any whales this time, but it fills me with joy to know that such a thing exists.

Beats the crap out of Sea World, that's for sure.

San Juan is covered with national parks, through and past which winding roads circle the coast.  It just so happened that I was there during the government shutdown, so all the parks were closed.  I'll try not to get too political but let's just say I hold a certain non-Democrat party responsible for that bit of ridiculousness and irresponsibility.  Yes, that is me being nice about it.

We did manage to take in some views from the road and one beach that was littered with felled trees, bleached white by sun and smooth by sea.  While we were on the beach, we saw some foxes running around in a field of grass.  Heading back to the cabin, we passed lama and sheep farms.  If the place were any more gorgeous, people would probably just slip into a state of bliss that turned them into pure light and they'd disappear forever.

The ferry ride up was at night, but the ferry ride back was during one of the clearest, brightest Northwest days I've experienced.  It was so clear you could see Mount Baker from the boat, and Mount Rainier as you drove back to Seattle.  And even though we didn't see any whales, on the boat ride back we did see a school of dolphins playing in the ferry's wake.

I can't believe I live here.

Hike #5: Bullett Chimney Trail

There are just an embarrassment of trails within just an hour of Seattle.  Some sport spectacular views, others old growth forests, others waters gushing with salmon or still as a fairy-tale mirror.  Some are just trails where you walk around and enjoy being outside.

Such was the case with Bullett Chimney Trail, or, I should say, the Squak Mountain trail system.  Squak Mountain is near Cougar and Tiger Mountains, both of which sport harder and easier hikes than Squak, and both of which offer more majestic experiences.  But, on the other hand, Squak Mountain boasts the fact that it's basically empty, or at least was on my wintry preamble.  It's the kind of alone-in-the-woods feeling I haven't gotten in a near-Seattle hike (the closest I have come was camping in the Olympics, but even that wasn't this empty and it was much further away from Seattle).

We originally set off to see the Bullett Chimney, which was... pretty much just a chimney.  I'm not really sure what I expected but when guidebooks say 'ruins' I get a certain Indiana Jones ideal in mind, and it's not quite that exciting.  The trail was so short and relatively simple that we decided to walk around some more to see if there were any other good bits to highlight the trail.  The Central Peak sounded promising, but there's not really a view and at the top there's some kind of microwave tower facility, which you can't get near (and I'm not sure you'd want to...).

The trails are very clear and we were able to get back to the parking lot by completely new routes, so check in the plus column for variety of walk.

This is a simple, well-maintained hike that's not too strenuous.  It isn't spectacular but it's a good place to try trail running or bring a dog or do some meditative thinking, or just to experience a greater isolation than most of the more well-trod paths without having to get too remote.

Cave B Vineyard

A couple of friends from Seattle got married at Cave B Vineyard, over the mountains and to the east of Seattle.  It was a moody drive out of the City, over the mountains.

I talk a lot about the impressiveness, peace, and beauty of the mountains, the variety of city life in Seattle, and the gorgeousness of the waterways of the Northwest, but Washington is unsatisfied to provide only those to me.  Oh, no, there's more.  It's on the other side of the Cascades.

Immediately over the peaks are flat patchwork farmlands, sporting old and new barns and homes and wind turbines.  I love a good wind farm - it makes me feel hopeful about society.

And on the other side of THAT is a desert scrubland of lava rock with low, brushy, dry plants like out of the southwest, and sliced clean through by the Columbia River Gorge.

Cave B Vineyard is planted on Gorge's edge, a dark green spot amid the brownness.  The buildings have a ubiquitous rustic Italian style, with a few exceptions (including some really cool units carved into a hillside).  Trails wind through the grapes, opening to posh sitting areas and bocce courts, and snaking down to the bottom of the canyon.  For a wedding, it was a beautiful setting that provided some great resort food (a personal favorite was breakfast the next day, which was a buffet, which is kind of my ideal eating situation - piles of a wide variety of food I can pick at for hours).  We took a wine tasting and the wine was great (I'm no wine aficionado but from that perspective, it was yummy) and they give you a souvenir wine glass to take home (to indicate how not a wine aficionado I am, this was the first true wine glass to enter my house since moving to Seattle - if ever I actually had wine at home, I drank it out of some French picnic glasses from a vintage store in Austin (which, if nothing else, makes me sound even more pretentious than just having a dang wine glass)).

The most fun part, though, was sleeping in a (dog-friendly) yurt.  On one side of the grounds is about 30 yurts in a little yurt collective, and each yurt can sleep a single or a couple.  They were one bed in the middle of a round room, with a small bathroom in one arc, and a round skylight top center.  And I mean - it's a YURT.  Just having a yurt option is exciting.  It was everything I had dreamed a yurt could be.

It's Been a Long Time! Catch Up with a Ship Parade.

Hey anyone who reads this blog.  It's been a long time since I've written anything, but I plan to remedy that with 5 blogs of things I've seen/done in/near Seattle since October, and hopefully keep a better schedule of this going forward.  Even if it's just a writing/crafting exercise, keeping up a blog feels productive.

Here's, then, post 1: Ship Parade!

Every December, Argosy Cruise Lines holds a Christmas Ship Festival.  The Argosy Christmas Ship sails to 45 different spots around Seattle, where choirs sing 20 minute performances that the cruise line plays on loudspeaker to the communities.  People in the area gather on the shore, around bonfires or in other small groups, to watch and listen.  You can buy tickets to be on the Christmas Ship, have dinner and celebrate.  The proceeds go to The Seattle Times Fund for the Needy.  People who own ships are also invited to sign up, decorate their ships, and follow along with the Agrosy to create a parade of festively decorated vessels.  

Even though I know I've only lived in Seattle for two Decembers, it still surprised me that there was such a delightful holiday event so close to my house that I had never heard of.  It's right up my alley too!  Looking at lights, watching boats, walkable distance, holiday music, bonfires, hot chocolate... perfect.  Luckily this year I had a group of new friends who were going and invited me along on Christmas Eve Eve.

Gasworks Park was full of revelers, from families to groups of friends.  A huge bonfire blazed on the brick lookout area, and people tucked in by that or up the hill or down at water's edge on the pathway.  Lake Union was filled with so many boats I don't know how they weren't running into each other.  The parade was mostly at a celebratory standstill there, but the line extended out into the ship canal towards the Sound and into the bay leading to Lake Washington.  There were tiny stand up paddle boats to small sailboats to huge yachts, all completely decked out Christmas Vacation style.  The lights of the Seattle skyline glowed across the water.  It made an already beautiful view even more cheery and festive.

At the very end, the choir on the Christmas ship did their performance, and it was incredibly lovely.  Is there anything more simply moving than an excellent a cappella choir singing a familiar classic in haunting, stirring clarity?  It may be me getting older, or more sensitive, but the right song and the right arrangement seems to strike at the very heart of my emotional core anymore - be it a choir, a marching band, a TV theme song... like Christmas, I think the magic is half nostalgia and half dream.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Rattlesnake Ridge Trail

The first meditative experience I had was not called meditation at all. 

The school where I spent my fifth through twelfth grade years sent each class to camp for a week during the year.  Fifth graders went one week, sixth another, etc.  Each year we went we learned some new skill or had some new emphasis – low ropes, high ropes, rock climbing, rafting, orienteering.  Much of the experience was not meditative.  Learning the skills was rigorous physical and mental effort (that I still use today).  Many of my classmates had little to no interest in being there – the younger ages brattier and the older ages more sullen, each painfully inconvenienced by the primitive isolation.  I, on the other hand, and many of my good friends, ate it up.  I’d always wanted to go to camp (thank you, YA fiction, Salute Your Shorts, and The Parent Trap).  I loved hiking, mud, not having a television, being cold and tucking into a mummy wrap sleeping bag. 

One activity we did each year, without fail and without regard to whatever other skill we were developing that particular week, was to go on solos.  Basically, we would hike as a group to a reasonably remote spot (remote = not on a trail just walking straight out into the woods (in a park where there weren’t rules where you had to stick to a trail), where we were unable to hear or see a highway or any other people).  Then the counselor would have us scatter about so we were no closer than 40-50 feet from the nearest person, and sit.  We’d just sit there in the woods and then after a certain amount of time, the counselor would blow a whistle and we’d reconvene and hike back.  Sometimes we’d have a journal to write in, but mostly we just sat there, safely alone in the woods.  Instructions: just sit.

No one explained that it was meditating.  No one told us what to do or think, except that we were just to sit there and not talk.  We could do whatever we wanted while we were there.   What do you do in that situation?  You either think about things, or you observe.  And given enough time, you start to observe out of the boredom of your own thoughts.  There’s much to see and hear and touch sitting out in the woods.  And so, as the time wore on, you became more and more mindful of the experience of being alone, sitting quietly with your brain, observing yourself and your surroundings.  You started meditating as naturally as it really is to do so, without naming it, without trying.  It was beautiful and simple, quiet and transformative.  

Also, no one explained that it was relatively rare in this modern age and area of the world to be able to be alone in the woods (people who live in the woods notwithstanding).  It seems like a lot of parks have a ‘don’t go off the trail’ rule (and for good reason), but this park had no such rule and in fact had no trails.  It was all back country, all traipsing around.  You really got a feel for the landscape and learned to notice the shape of the woods and waterways as visual landmarks, rather than sticking to a clean trail.  You weren’t really trying to go anywhere (to the top, to the lake, to the view, etc.), you were just enjoying the woods, then enjoying them alone.  Even now, if I can find a trail that is mostly people-less, rare if ever is the time when I’m not with a few of my own compatriots (lest I end up having to cut my own arm off or some equal disaster sure to befall me if I go hiking alone…).

I think these lovely formative experiences have colored my reactions to hikes and woods.  The biggest issue is: the more crowded a hike is, the less I like it.   Rattlesnake Ridge was the most crowded hike I’ve ever been on.  It was nearly a nonstop stream of people, and when you got to the very nice overlook, there were so many people there was almost nowhere to sit or stand to take in the view.  It is for this reason that I do not recommend this hike – or that if you go on this hike, you do it when it’s colder but not raining, as the view is the point, and if there’s too much cloud cover or rain you probably won’t get the payoff. 

The thing about the Northwest is, you don’t have to do an uncomfortable crowded hike, because there are many hikes that have spectacular views that aren’t overstuffed.  I recommend one of the other hikes mentioned on this blog, or not yet on this blog that doesn’t describe itself as ‘popular’.  If you do not mind crowds, are invigorated by shared experiences, this could be up your alley, and it does have attractive views.  I will be on a trail where I can sit idly and forget that anyone is around (if they even are).

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Logical AND Polite: One Idea

Work today, right?  No matter what you do, chances are you have to communicate with someone(s) else while you’re doing it.  Probably you do this by email.  If not, this article is not for you, but thank you for reading (spoiler alert: wasn't that painless?).  If so, there’s a possibility that you also have the kind of job/personality where you want/need to increase your efficiency.  No one wants to waste time reading stupid emails (‘stupid’ is a subjective term)!  It’s unproductive (‘unproductive’ is slightly less subjective)!  We want emails that are concise, informative, and hopefully contain a dash of wit!  It’s hard to argue against this, unless you are being paid by the word or being emailed by your child.

Other articles I've read address this issue with tips on how to achieve such a noble goal.  Most of these tips are good.  Some are bad.  One is just confusing.  The advice that confuses me is in regards to the Thank You Email.  There’s a lot out there blanketly discouraging the writing of the Thank You Email.  The common argument against the Thank You Email basically amounts to “Stop clogging my inbox!”   

I present a different view: the Thank You Email not only offers clarity but also indicates good manners - and that these two things are more logically useful and socially valuable than the falsely-perceived efficiency of a prohibition against them.

Sure, I’m happy to elaborate with examples and explanations.  Thanks for asking.  Here’s a bulleted list of the reasons I favor the Thank You Email.  It's bulleted so you can read the highlights and skip the burdensomely extraneous wit (‘wit,’ as used in this sentence, is the MOST subjective term in this article).

1   1.  The Thank You Email confirms to the recipient that you received their last email.  If someone sends you a document or finalizes some plans with you, they will likely want confirmation that you received the document or understand the final plans.  The more pressing the import of these items, the more confirmation matters to their sender.  I can’t tell you how many times I’ve gotten an email, not sent a quick Thank You Email, and then had someone call me moments later to ask “did you see my email?” Sometimes, they send a follow up email to confirm that I got their previous email.  A quick Thank You Email allows the recipient to assuage sender's concerns up front.  

      2.  It’s polite. Chances are, when a person sends a Thank You Email, they’re being polite.  They’re not trying to cause pain.  If you physically hand someone a document or makes plans with them by the water cooler, they say thanks (hopefully).  I argue that such an email response is an equally important civility.  Please, let’s not try to eliminate common decency for the sake of two point two seconds of efficiency.

      3.  It’s easy for a recipient to delete—without even opening!  Many email systems show a preview of an email’s content and the recipient can instantly see that the body just says ‘Thanks!’  Delete without opening.    Maybe your email doesn’t have a preview, or you want to be extra sure nothing’s below the jump.  Open, scan in approximately 1-5 seconds, delete.  Is that so painful?   Are these moments the difference between achieving daily goals and curling into the fetal position, having been broken by the strain of a Herculean effort?

      4. If it actually is too troublesome, and genuinely does make you give up in despair, perhaps you have greater concerns to address.  Perhaps you:

a.     Have too many emails already, and it overwhelms you to see more emails.  Delete things you don’t need. This eliminates visual clutter.  Afraid to delete?  Move it to a folder (as easy as click and drag or check and file).  You’ll forget they’re there, but you can rest comfortably knowing that you’ve squirreled them away and you can read them later (you won't).

b.     Don’t understand antiquated notions of human interaction.  Try to think about how the ‘olds’ used to rely on ‘conversations’ to get their ‘point across’.  It’s like that.  Feel free to delete.

c.      Are too impatient/important/busy to want to deal with the words of others.  Slow down!  But I mean, really, if this is you – how did you even get this far into this article?

d.     Actually do have too much to do to withstand this simple thoughtfulness without going fetal.  Consider:

                                               i.     Delegating some thing(s);
                                              ii.     Quitting some thing(s);
                                            iii.     Getting separate email box(es) for separate thing(s);
                                            iv.     Setting aside a block of time to just manage email;
                                              v.     Trashing or filing some of your email (see 4a);
                                            vi.     Finding a job that doesn’t require email;
                                           vii.     Deleting all the unnecessary emails you’ve never deleted because Gmail just offers so much space that you don’t need to (including Thank You Emails, emails you’ve never read, and subscriptions) and then keeping up on this so you don’t cry every time you see that you have 1,475 unread emails (allow your unread emails number to truly reflect unread emails you actually need to look at, even if it is just to delete them);
                                         viii.     Realizing that keeping up on email isn’t as important as some other values, and letting go of your anger at your perception of the sender's 'thoughtlessness'.

Side Bar Note To the Thank You Emailers: Don’t abuse the facility of your free-wheeling email-happy lifestyle.  Be considerate on this end, too.

      1. DON’T HIT REPLY ALL unless all the recipients really do need to be thanked by only you.  Chances are quite high that’s not the case.  You can thank the one who truly deserves thanks in a humble ‘reply’.  It doesn’t make you look like a better person to be the first to thank someone, and you don’t need to feel obligated by a reply-all avalanche to be the thirty-third one to do so (Likely no one will even notice you didn't follow the group because they'll be overwhelmed/annoyed by all the other thankers. You won’t look like a jerk if you don’t follow suit.  The only jerk-o here is the one who started this avalanche in the first place by abusing the Reply All).

(My answer: no)

2. Consider that some emails don’t require a thanks at all.  For example, if someone thanks you for sending something, you maybe don’t need to say “No, thank YOU!” or “Thank you TOO."  

If you only read one thing here, when considering sending and receiving a Thank You Email, approach it with this crazy idea: Be Logical AND Polite.  

Thursday, August 15, 2013

A Prose Poem for my "Writing the City" Class

I recently took a writing class at the Richard Hugo House called "Writing the City" where we each produced a prose poem (journalism + poetry + prose).  This is mine, on a house in my neighborhood.  Perhaps light on the poetry, but I still like it.  The class was great and I recommend both the specific one and the Richard Hugo House in general.

We leave the bus together, my neighbor and I, making small talk.  I’ve gotten to know her over several similar mornings and she seems like a real nice lady.  We walk past some five houses and I veer off down my driveway.

“Goodbye, I’ll see you tomorrow!” I say.

“Oh you live here,” she replies.  Her voice is relieved.  “I thought you lived there. “  She points three houses down to another duplex. 

“No, no, I don’t live there!” I say with a too loud laugh.  Down the street another nice man with a pair of shih tzus glances over before continuing his walk. 

There is a house that people are relived to find out that you don’t live in.  At first it is dull but unremarkable, then it wilts.  Tan paint curls around chipped bricks and multiple defunct satellite dishes screwed in around the eaves.  There are too many things on the lawn – half-living plants in cheap plastic cups, fake stone wells, numerous flags of indeterminate symbolism.  There are too many cars, most of which seem unable to have arrived by the power of their own motors – windowless, spray painted, covered with tarps. There are too many silences until other neighbors lift the dirty veil and point out the mysteries.

She confides more about the house.  “Last year someone threw a Molotov cocktail through the front window and it nearly burned down!  It stayed that way for a long time before the owner rebuilt it.  If you call that rebuilt.  People come and go all the time.”

In sea of rentals, such turnover must indeed be high.  I begin to notice, too.  I begin to see the groups who seem disconnected.  Five young punks pacing.  Three sagging ladies smoking while half-assedly weeding.  An older man tinkering.  Now they are strange!

Similar relief repeatedly manifests.  “You can drop me off at my house.  It’s over here.”  “Oh, good – at first I thought we were going to say there!” 

Why do you persist, house?  This neighborhood is so nice!  Why does no one sell you to get rich, or take care of you like we deserve?  Wouldn’t we all be happy if you, too, were lovely?

When the time comes, I vote for the improvements to the city. The choices seem inclusive - a socialist, parks funding, infrastructure improvement, a livable minimum wage, marriage equality, legalized weed.  They mostly pass – see how we are a progressive model?  Everyone is welcome to help tow the line, to draw us closer to an ideal, so please remember to do your part, house.

Mornings, I walk my dog, going from there towards here.  An old dreadlocked white man in a tie-dye tee shirt works in its lawn area from time to time.  “How are you doing?” he always asks.

“Good.  And you?” I say.

He looks over both shoulders and leans towards me with a grin that at first made me nervous but now that I know him seems innocent.  There is never anyone around, but he does it anyway, laughing.  “Don’t tell anyone else, but I’m doing fantastic!”