Monthly Archives: May 2012

The Power of Story

We gather at The Richard Hugo House in Seattle, chairs scattered around small tables, a simple podium up front on a platform. New City Theatre inhabited the space before it became a venue for the literary arts. What was once a stage for cabaret performances now hosts readings. There is a lot of energy between these walls and we tap into it.

Writers trickle in from as far as Portland. Students and alum of the MFA program in Creative Writing at Goddard, we try to do this sort of thing often because, as far as we are concerned, we have found our tribe. Except that it is smokeless, the room resembles a café scene in Greenwich Village back in the Beat Generation. A man and his poems, a woman and a piece from her memoir. Someone refers to “all the love in the room….” And I feel a nostalgia for that era of acoustical guitars and ballads, before everything in the arts became so heavily produced.

The long lost art of readings, where writings are offered as gifts. I come away from each one knowing I am holding and have been entrusted with an enormous bouquet. Readings reintroduce each one of us to the primal importance of story. At a reading we are in that heaven again and wonder why it ever stopped? Why that gap between childhood and graduate school without having been read to regularly? Parents get busy or children run off or everyone tells themselves, “oh well, she can read now on her own.” But it’s not the same.

I run a weekly writing workshop for seniors and start each session by reading a story aloud. The story suggests a prompt, and the participants bow their heads and write on that for an hour. And in that time I see so much joy on their faces. How often writing out an experience enhances it. While mining for memories, present aches and pains fall away. We bring ourselves home with stories, and give value to our lives. At the end of each session we all read what we have written. In listening to each other’s stories, we experience common human values. Lives link with the storyteller. The personal becomes universal, and another “tribe” is formed.

My father tells me he is fond of reading a book to my mother in bed. His voice is soothing, and she often falls asleep. At which point he keeps going, I think, reading aloud into the darkened room, giving the gift of story.

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Irrational Fears in an Irrational Time

Two presidential candidates, attractive, bright, Harvard scholars both, stand before us in a crowd. Spring is warm, much like summer, and the candidates have removed their jackets. Obama rolls up his sleeves as well. Mitt leaves his sleeves long, pressed, and buttoned at the cuff. Obama reaches out to people with both arms. Mitt methodically shakes hands with his right hand, trying to give a formal hand shake, over and over, despite the fact that folks are all around him. I see a world of choice in this election. One man is real. His ears stick out as do ours. While the other man looks computer rendered. “Mannequin man,” I call him.

Beware of mannequin men, women, and children. As a child I believed that mannequins were simply posing by day, but came alive at night. The grandest department store in Hartford, Connecticut at that time was G. Fox & Co., where legend had it, female mannequins were modeled after Katherine Hepburn, also Hartford born and bred. Her father, Thomas Hepburn, a prominent physician, and her mother, Katherine Houghton Hepburn, head of the Connecticut Suffrage Association. Now as fond as I am of Kate, I know her to have been formidable. Twenty years later in La Jolla, California, the seamstress on my wedding dress, a close friend of one of Kate’s nieces, confided that Kate had nothing to do with her niece because she had failed to complete her college education. Aunt Kate held her standards as high as she held her neck, and, like a mannequin, she did not bend.

Anyway, back in Connecticut, back in time, my best friend shared this fear of mannequins with me and together we fed each other’s fantasy. On sleepovers, in that moment just before sleep, one of us would mechanically move an arm, raise a leg, or turn her head, and with all the woodenness and soullessness of an android, come alive at night as a mannequin. Apparently the only way to deal with a mannequin was to become one yourself, and so we terrified both ourselves and each other by never wanting to be the first one to snap out of it.

Whether it’s your best friend acting, plaster, or plastic, now I know what this phenomena is called: The Uncanny Valley Effect. Coined by robotics professor, Masahiro Mori, in 1970, “The uncanny valley is a hypothesis in the field of robotics and 3D computer animation which holds that when human replicas look and act almost, but not perfectly, like actual human beings, it causes a response of revulsion among human observers. The ‘valley’ in question is a dip in a proposed graph of the positivity of human reaction as a function of a robot’s human likeness.” (Wikipedia).

These are strange times and we stand at a precipice. While “mannequin man” tips us into an uncanny valley, the president, on the other hand, is one of us. I’m just saying….

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Roche Harbor, Roche Harbor

It had to have been a dark day in January when a “Save the Date” card arrived for the Grand Banks Rendezvous, May 10-13, at Roche Harbor Marina on San Juan Island in the Puget Sound. I’m sure I looked at the photograph like I was looking at another life, long ago and far away. Nevertheless I posted the card on the kitchen wall, and last week we packed up, grabbed a good friend and our dog and headed out.

First I should explain that my husband has had two expressions of mid-life crisis that I know of, one is a silver Boxster Porsche, and the other, a 36’ Grand Banks trawler. One is speedy and the other, slow. Boating has so capsized our world, we are beginning to dream of living on the boat in all the summer months of our retirement. Cares are left on land and water becomes an elixir. But that’s another story. The one I want to tell now is of the annual Grand Banks Rendezvous, which is fast becoming more fun than college reunions. More fun than anything.

People from all over–Aspen, Philadelphia, and somewhere in Texas, as well as some of our own neighbors in Seattle— keep their boats in the Puget Sound. Grand Banks owners tend to be former sailors who have moved onto something that is a little less work. This sets everyone apart from other stinkpot owners, or so we like to think. Grand Banks slip in and out as quietly as kayaks. And while many other boats are designed to be condos at sea, there is something so outdoorsy and friendly about the Grand Banks. Like a row of front porches tied up to the dock.

That’s the nostalgic quality of both the boat and Roche Harbor, which has to be one of my favorite spots on planet earth. For me Roche Harbor is reminiscent of The Bandbox, a big music hall on a small lake in my childhood in Connecticut. For my husband, it’s the Catalina Casino building, where he summered. Everyone has someplace. It’s sunny, people look healthy, and I think it’s the light. Have I mentioned the whole subculture of children and dogs? Papa may be in an engine class, mama busy mastering navigation, but children are endlessly entertained with a simple fishing pole or just a bucket and a net. In all my times out there, I have yet to hear a baby cry, a child whine, or an adult have a cross word. Everyone is away from cell phones, ipads and computers, and our dogs get a taste of life off-leash.

All my bright colored clothes come out here, I stow them on the boat, all the reds, whites and blues–saving the khakis, blacks, browns, and grays for Seattle. But that down pouring of light, nostalgia, and particular patriotism—with a call to colors at every sunset, saluting the British, Canadian, and American flags and proudly playing all anthems. Here it feels almost like international waters, and it’s rather fun for an old counter-culture girl like me.

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The Color Orange

I am sitting here at A T & T Stadium in San Francisco on a bright sunny afternoon with the Giants well ahead of the Brewers, looking out to a sold out crowd–half of whom are dressed in orange–and wondering how it was that I once had a problem with that color? But I did. While all other colors on the spectrum were natural to me, I saw orange as the color of plastic, and I abhorred it. I had to work on that. And that I did, out in the garden, making myself plant not with my customary whites or pastels, but with oranges. I found oranges and blues, oranges and purples, particularly exciting, and I grew to love the color orange that summer. How liberating! I was cured.

Maybe I’ve been a sleepy blue Mariner fan too long but now that I can embrace it, the color orange really is brighter, more wide awake. Fans are happier here. And looking out to them I have the same thought I had at the last Giants game I attended: hoping that they all know how extraordinarily fortunate they are to live here, and knowing too, that they do. It’s all over their faces.

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