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!”

Friday, June 7, 2013

Things to Do in Seattle with the visiting Fam

It’s been a cavalcade of family lately.  My parents, his parents, my parents again, all within a month.  What to do!  Literally – what to do?  Thats a lot of tourism.  Our families are great people - and, while definitely not picky, are not as interested in trying the thrill-seeking activities we might on our own, nor as interested in 'weird' food ('weird' in my dad's lingo is anything spicy, overly flavorful, vegetarian or 'emerging'.  This is a man who, in his mid-50's, has recently 'accidentally' discovered he likes asparagus.  Trust me, that was 'weird' enough for him.).   

A good thing about lived here for a little bit and having some idea of what people want to see, is that we haven't lived here so long that we've seen everything too many times yet.  So.  What did we do and eat?

Here's what we saw!::

Pike Place Market: You kind of have to, if you or someone visiting you hasn’t been here before.  I find it much more pleasant during the week, when it’s just a normal level of crowd, than on the weekend, when throngs of people are meander aimlessly and occasionally come to a traffic-stopping halt for no apparent reason.  If you have a choice, hit this up M-F instead of S-S.  It is pretty cool of a place, honestly - I shop here even as resident.  It’s got nice views of the water and the city skyline, and plenty of snacks (Peroshky Peroshky, The Crumpet Shop, and DeLaurenti come to mind, and the original Starbucks - just take care, as there are about 4 Starbucks in the Market, so that you identify the actual first one and not just ‘a’ Starbucks). 

Seattle Aquarium and Argosy Harbor Tour: While you’re at the market, head on down to the waterfront.  It’ll get you away from overwhelming crowds to more reasonable crowds.  You can buy a special combo ticket for these two attractions, which is what we did and why I lumped them together.

The Aquarium is lovely, and the docents/volunteers are really friendly and really into marine life.  The sea life ranges from bright and beautiful to weird and lurking.  I get sad around mammals in aquariums and zoos, but the ones here were all rescued, so I feel a little less bad about it.  Special bonus unique Seattle Aquarium tidbit: you an learn a lot (a LOT) about salmon, which in my experience every good Washingtonian knows by heart already.

The Argosy Harbor Tour has plusses and minuses.  I could do without the hard sell on drinks, both on the dock and on the boat.  While you’re in line on the dock for the boat, someone is literally constantly blathering on a mic about the drinks on the ship, which gets old fast.  However, once the boat takes off and after they do one last push for your boozin’ on the water, they stop all that and focus on the tour.  The boat goes (sails?) around and a guide points out interesting things out and tells you about them.  Example: you learn that the Puget Sound is so deep the top of the tallest building on the skyline, if set on the floor of the Sound, would still be below the surface.  You learn about buildings you can see, ships, animals, history.  I won’t spoil you with too many tidbits, because that's most of the fun of the tour, so if you pay attention its trivia-tastic.

Ballard Farmers Market: This is a less touristy, more local version of Pike Place Market, so if you’ve already gotten your fill of food-tourism maybe skip this.  But if haven’t, or you just want to check out another section of town and mix with the locals going about their days, it doesn’t get much better than this.  The location is lined with shops and restaurants, so it doubles as a great spot for breakfast/lunch/brunch/coffee and getting some unique gifts.  If you've got or know some kids, there is a great toy store called Clover with adorable, European toys that are mostly pretty far removed from the overly plastic, pink-and-blue shock of a commercial toys.  A superb, simple coffee can be got at Anchored Ship Coffee Bar, and a more elaborate coffee with pastries is available at Fresh Flours.  If you want to eat market-faire, there’s a quesidialla stand with veggie quesidillas that are delicious, and a little pop-up donut manufacturer.

Fremont Market: This is not a farmers’ market (there’s little produce to buy, although there are plenty of prepared-food vendors, including some very tasty Indian and some very tasty tacos).  Rather it is a combination art and antique market.  You can get artisan marshmallows, cute old jars, paintings, hand-made tee shirts, lawn furniture, tchotskys, trinkets, jewelry, pottery… stuff.  Good stuff.  It’s in yet another fun part of town (lower Fremont), with access to the Troll, the Lenin statue, a grand bike path, and Fremont’s shops and eateries.  And it’s close to Theo Chocolate.

Theo Chocolate: A chocolate factory!  They have a tour theoretically, although I have yet to figure out how to actually get on the tour (and I’ve tried calling, signing up online, and just showing up, none of which have worked).  So… good luck with that and tell me how you did it because yes, I do want to go on a chocolate tour.  The shop is enough of a joy, with samples of nearly every kind of chocolate bar available for the tasting.  Chocolate like ‘Ghost Chili Pepper’ and ‘Fig, Fennel and Almond’ and ‘Coconut Curry’ and I could go on, but you’re either with me or against me regarding sweets, and your mind is probably made up either way.

Ballard Locks: See how ships get from a higher water level to a lower water level using nothing but gravity and hydraulics!  Watch ships go not only back and forth but up and down!  I’m no engineer.  Engineers probably love the technicalities.  I like being by the water in the sun.  There’s also something called a “fish ladder’ which was closed while I was there, but is doubtless probably pretty great to see when operational (I mean - a fish ladder?!).  The grounds of the locks are a lovely garden, and volunteers quite knowledgeable about the whole system and grounds staff the shop/information center.  Trust me, they are a hoot.  Talk to them.  They love that.

Golden Gardens: A little down the road from the Locks is Golden Gardens park.  It’s one of the only real beaches in Seattle, as far as I know which is not super far so if you know of any more please let me know.  So.  It’s a beach and across the Sound you can see the Olympics, and in the evening you can see the sun set behind them, and if that’s not one of the most magnificent things you’ve ever seen you can start taking me on vacation with you to these so-called more-wonderful places.   Boats bobbing around in the water, kids and dogs and whales and dolphins splashing around in the waves, and fires in fire pits on the sand, and sunsets over mountains.  It’s a heck of a picnic spot. Technically there are no dogs allowed, but I have yet to see any fewer than 5 dogs there at any given time.  Booze seems to be okay too, although I don’t know if that’s official or not and I certainly wouldn't bring glass.  Definitely no fires out of fire pits, though – I’ve seen firemen wandering around kicking sand on them.  Even if you just stop by and it isn’t sunset, it’s still a gorgeous spot. Note: there is no actual garden.  Ironic.

Volunteer Park: This city is drenched in parks and plants.  Plants are growing everywhere a plant can grow, which is most places - even cracks in the concerete.  Plants are coming out of mailboxes, sprouting out of hats, appearing in your shadow when you turn around.  Volunteer Park is high up on a hill in the Capital Hill neighborhood.  It’s huge and there are gardens, trees, playgrounds, museums, and the Conservatory.  You can wander around and get a great view of the Space Needle with the sun setting behind it (I would also say that this city is lousy with sunset-gazing viewpoints).  It’s also next to the graveyard where Bruce Lee is buried if you’re into grave visiting. 

Conservatory: Inside the Pacific Northwest, one of the most beautiful landscapes in America, is Seattle, one of the most garden-friendly cities in America, which houses Volunteer Park, one of the most picturesque parks in America.  In this park there lies a special place where even more special plants are specially cultivated.  It’s the Conservatory.  Here you can actually learn what plants you’re looking at, through signs and, again, well-informed docents/volunteers.  The upside to the Conservatory, as opposed to simply being in Seattle in general which is pretty great, is that its wings house an even larger diversity of plants than the outside itself (which has an amazing array).  I learned that air plants need to anchor onto something to grow, instead of just sitting in a dish, where they can survive but not bloom.  Who knew?  The succulents wing made me pine a little for Austin.

Asian Art Museum: Also located in Volunteer Park, the Asian Art Museum is… well, it’s pretty self-explanatory.  It’s free the first and of the month.  In the 8 months I’ve lived here I’ve seen three different special exhibitions here and they were all really stunning, so I’d anecdotally say they get new stuff often and have a rad curator.  The permanent collection contains a delightful, beautiful statue called “Monk at the Moment of Enlightenment” that is so perfectly named, you’ll know it as soon as you see it.

Chihuly Garden and Glass: I was skeptical, I admit.  Glass museum sounds boring, like I’m going to be looking at a bunch of vases and some chandeliers and fall asleep while my mom examines them thoroughly.  Boy was I wrong.  This stuff is epic in scale and color and is about as artistic as glass can get.  There is a boat so big I could lie down in it twice, and it’s filled with glass balls and pillars and organic sculptures.  The glass pieces are part indoors and part outdoors (I’m partial to the indoor displays myself, although I like the way the outdoor sculptures are integrated with the landscaping (you perhaps thought a glass museum would remove you from the garden scene but oh no, friend. No.)).  

Washington Park Arboretum: Guess what?  A park!  It’s big!  It’s got trees!  There’s a Japanese garden (which is the only part that has an admission fee).  You can walk on a trail to Elliot Bay to marvel at those boats, and the University of Washington campus across the way.  Maybe you live here and you want to check out something new.  The grounds are a great for biking or jogging, too.  You can bring a dog on a leash!  I love that.

Here's what we ate!::

Bizzarro Italian Café: My parents really love Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives, and this place was featured on that show, so they were really excited to eat here.  I don't see how it's a diner, a drive in, or a dive, but based on Bizzarro, I’m guessing that title is purely for alliteration and not a true descriptor of all the places they feature.  Bizzarro looks like a cheesy place, with ‘cool stuff’ all over the walls and floors and tables and surface, but the food is the real deal.  It’s some great Italian food.  It will please foodies without being intimidating to sensitive tasters.  It is magically good for both families and dates.  

Elliot's Oyster House: Down on the water, downtown, near Pike Place, the Aquarium, the Argosy, and a bunch of other sites not listed here, is Elliot's Oyster House.  It’s huge so I can't imagine there's ever an extremely long wait, its on the water so that pleases visitors, and it’s nice to have seafood when you’re in Seattle.   I would describe Elliot's as a more traditional nice seafood place, where you can get seared tuna sliders, raw oysters, fried fish sandwiches, salmon salad, etc. 

Ballard Annex Oyster House: Near the Ballard Market, this is a newer spot that has more modern-type fare in a restaurant that looks like a boat.  It partially looks like you’re looking at a boat and partially feels like you’re on a boat, which sounds more confusing than it is.  Perhaps just imagine ‘generally nautical’ but without imagining ‘theme-y’.   This is the type of place that instead of fried calamari, there’s steamed calamari in a delicious broth.  You might get a whole trout here with the head and tail on, but you can still get fish and chips, too. 

Citizen: A great small coffee-shop/restaurant a short walk from the Seattle Center (which houses the glass museum, Space Needle, and EMP Museum, among other things).  They have sandwiches, tacos, breakfast all day, truly delicious chai, and an accommodating happy hour.  They have an extensive crepe menu, too.  I have a soft spot for this place that is not purely because they have breakfast tacos, but is at least partially related to that.

So, these are some things visitors can do that I would recommend.  They proved to be a solid overview of the city for our visitors (SEATTLE = PARKS + FOOD).  What are some of your favorite places to visit or take visitors to in Seattle?  Do you know of any off-the-beaten-path places worth exploring?