WE CAN OUTRUN THEM IF WE TRY


A few years ago I came across Brooke Hayward’s memoir, HAYWIRE, first published in the late 70s. She is the daughter of producer Leland Hayward and actress Margaret Sullavan; her second husband was Dennis Hopper, with whom she had a daughter, Marin, once the editor of ELLE magazine. She had a privileged life in New York and Connecticut and Hollywood and then back to New York and Connecticut again, but her family was marked by tragedy. There was mental illness and suicide and divorce and abuse, which cast long shadows across the successive decades and generations. These things, she tells us, are often passed down, like blue eyes or red hair or perhaps the way your laugh rings out in a crowded room.

The edition I have of HAYWIRE has an introduction by the filmmaker Buck Henry, who was part of that Hopper-Hayward-Fonda charmed circle. He wrote about seeing Marin across the room at Dennis Hopper’s funeral, and seeing in her a reflection of her mother, who he had once been in love with. He said something that has stayed with me ever since: “The pleasures of the past live on, mixed in all of us. So do the pains. But we can outrun them if we try.”

THE VIEW FROM OUTSIDE


When I was in high school, every so often one of my dad’s old classmates would call during dinner. “Can I come ‘round tonight?” he’d ask, showing up a few hours later. I would take my dog for her evening walk, then my mom would hustle me back upstairs to finish my homework. From my room I could hear the low hum of their voices in the living room, their goodnights when he left, the beat of silence after the front door closed, my parents coming up to their own bed. I had known this friend of my parents since my childhood, he and his wife and his two daughters a little younger than I. Much later, my mom told me the marriage had been an unhappy one. All those late-night conversations had been about struggling with whether to keep it going until the girls were grown, or to make a clean break and divorce, which they finally did when their daughters were in college. Before I had been too young to hear the underlying, acute misery in those after-dinner visits, but now I understood. As much as you can understand any marriage that isn’t yours.

Most of us who grew up in the post-KRAMER-VS-KRAMER 1980s either had divorced parents or had friends with divorced parents. The freedom to be a wife and a mother and still have a career also brought with it the freedom to leave a marriage because you weren’t happy. But happiness is hard to define. My dad recently told me the story of one uncle and his first wife: “I want a divorce, I’m not happy,” she said. His response: “What if I buy you a Mercedes-Benz, will you be happy then?” She left him shortly thereafter. It was easier to understand divorce brought on by infidelity, abuse, mental illness, or the wildly conflicting personalities of people who should never have married in the first place. Much more difficult to pick up the pieces of something that just simply crumbles quietly into infinitesimal, unidentifiable pieces, so quietly that you don’t realize it’s happening until you suddenly look down to realize your hands are full of dust.

By the time I went to Lakeside in the 90s, the school directory was littered with families that had dual addresses cross-referenced under different names. If your parents survived your high school years intact, that was no guarantee that they would make it through your college years, either. In my early 20s my parents seemed to spend a significant amount of time in different countries, but their marriage had been an enigma to me since I was old enough to ask about their wedding day (eloped, Rochester, NY, 1974). I preferred not to ask any questions when I didn’t really want to know the answers. Anyway, their marriage was its own entity separate from our family, its own sliver of the Venn diagram of our three interlocking souls. This is how I protected myself against taking sides. I was an outsider to this thing called “a marriage” which concerned only the two people inside it.

When I was a child, my parents never argued in front of me. Ever. I was 20 before I knew that they ever disagreed on anything, and only because my mom told me so. As far as I could tell they were a single person united - by my mother’s iron will - and always united against me. The rare time or two I attempted to play one off the other - “Mom said it would be ok if you said it was ok!” - ended with me shot down and set on fire. It’s only now, as a grownup, single and childless, that I understand how hard it is to be married, and even harder to be a parent. Probably harder still to be parents who aren’t married. “We got divorced so we WOULDN’T have to deal with each other!” But somehow you do. How anyone makes it through all this is beyond me. The instinct is to always put someone else’s needs before yours, but often no one does the same for you, and it is so easy to forget that you have to take care of yourself before you can take care of anyone else. That’s why the instructions for oxygen masks and life vests on airplanes tell you to put your own gear on first before you help someone else. It goes against all our natural reflexes. But you still have to try.

LOVE AT FIRST SIGHT (A POEM BY SZYMBORSKA)


I came across this poem, by accident. This poem was the inspiration for one of my favorite films, TROIS COLEURS: ROUGE. Both are about paths crossing without your knowing it, only to meet again, later, with awareness and love dawning. How often has this happened in our lives? And not always love in the romantic sense, but in your friends, too, whose paths crossed yours years before you met and really began to know each other. This is love, too.

LOVE AT FIRST SIGHT.


They’re both convinced
that a sudden passion joined them.
Such certainty is beautiful
but uncertainty is more beautiful still.

Since they’d never met before, they’re sure
that there’d been nothing between them.
But what’s the word from the streets, staircases, hallways –
perhaps they’ve passed each other by a million times?

I want to ask them
if they don’t remember –
a moment face to face
in some revolving door?
perhaps a “sorry” muttered in a crowd?
a curt “wrong number” caught in the receiver? –
but I know the answer.
No, they don’t remember.

They’d be amazed to hear
that Chance has been toying with them
now for years.

Not quite ready yet
to become their Destiny,
it pushed them close, drove them apart,
it barred their path,
stifling a laugh,
and then leaped aside.

There were signs and signals
even if they couldn’t read them yet.
Perhaps three years ago
or just last Tuesday
a certain leaf fluttered
from one shoulder to another?
Something was dropped and then picked up.
Who knows, maybe the ball that vanished
into childhood’s thickets?

There were doorknobs and doorbells
where one touch had covered another
beforehand.
Suitcases checked and standing side by side.
One night perhaps some dream
grown hazy by morning.

Every beginning
is only a sequel, after all,
and the book of events
is always open halfway through.

- WISLAWA SZYMBORSKA. 1993.

THE CITY IS OURS; WE OWN THE CITY


Kate was the first person to notice the way I move through a crowd when she saw me cut through a mass of people during rush hour in a London tube station. One blink and I’d be several feet away, looking back over my shoulder at the rest of my friends. “It’s like you TELEPORTED,” she said. It isn’t about shoving your way through, although sometimes a neatly deployed elbow is essential, but rather looking for pockets of space between people. A sideways wriggle, a swing of the hip, a swift step forward and to the left, and you have leaped over a surprising distance the way a salmon leaps over his fish ladder on the way down the river and out to sea.

I thought about that crowded tube station again after lunch today as my dad and I walked from one end of the Pike Place Market to the other. It was noon on a Saturday, and there were throngs of tourists walking at a snail’s pace, stopping dead to look at postcards or windchimes or straws of honey. I realized then that it is the more than 25 years of weekend visits to the market that have honed my crowd-teleportation skills to a fine art. We came here all the time when I was a kid, and whenever my dad is in town, we still come often. There was a ritual: brunch at Cafe Campagne or Maxmiliens, croissants and eclairs at Le Panier, produce at Sosio’s, browsing at DeLaurenti’s.

I thought about how people complain about the tourists at the market, clogging the aisles and the sidewalks with their strollers and their camera bags and their insistence on lining up down the block outside the Original Starbucks. I thought about how my friends commented on the insanity of going to the market on a Saturday and then over to the University of Washington to see the cherry blossoms in bloom, on the same Saturday. The UW quad, like the Pike Place Market, was a seething mass of people from one end to the other, and more were pouring in from all directions, like ants converging on a fallen cupcake at a summer picnic.

I mention my friends’ comments to my dad, who laughed and said, “When you have lived in Seattle long enough, you are not afraid of crowds. You own the city.” At this point I should admit that we have two secret weapons: my dad’s infinite patience, and his handicapped parking permit. There is a third secret weapon: an understanding of what it is to be a visitor in someone else’s city. You cannot complain about tourists unless you have never been one, if you have never inadvertently blocked someone’s path because you were looking at the Tube map, or if you have never taken too long to choose and order a gelato from a vast array of unfamiliar flavors. All of us have been at one time or another a stranger in a strange land. And if you practice your teleportation skills, you will never let a crowd stop you from wherever you want to go in your own city.

THE PHENOMENOM OF A NEIGHBORHOOD JOINT


My family has been dining at Nishino since it opened, in 1995. Before that it was an Italian restaurant called Trattoria Carmine; one day we came to dinner and found an affable Japanese couple running a sushi restaurant in its place. For eighteen years now they have anchored a small strip mall off the intersection where Lake Washington Boulevard crosses Madison and heads into the Arboretum. Continue on eastwards, towards Lake Washington, and the neighborhood becomes leafier, grander, wealthier. To your left, a golf course/residential community called Broadmoor - once spoofed on ALMOST LIVE! - sprawls in all its manicured glory behind high brick walls as you get closer to the water.

The women of Madison Park are groomed and affluent-looking; they wear diamond engagement rings (of a reasonably moderate size, chosen by husbands at the beginning of lucrative careers) and diamond studs (the 20th anniversary upgrade, they are each twice the size of the aforementioned diamond rings). They play tennis, and their sport-jacket-wearing husbands play golf. And Nishino is their canteen, their neighborhood joint, their local diner, their clubhouse. There are parents with their preteens on school nights and couples on date nights and friends having a relaxing dinner together, letting their hair down now the kids have grown and gone. I have never spent any amount of time around WASPs, but watching the occupants of Madison Park greet each other over dinner seems to come pretty close to how I imagine them.

In the years since my parents moved back to Taipei, dinner at Nishino has just been with one parent or the other, so we now eat at the sushi bar instead of in the raised dining room. The restaurant has modern paintings on the walls and the light is a sort of peachy glow, all the better to smooth out crow’s-feet and minimize that Botox shine and illuminate the freshly highlighted and coiffed heads that are busy air-kissing across the tables. Every time I come here, I notice two things: the owner recognizes almost every single person who comes in the door, including my parents, and at least half the people in the dining room know each other. Another thing I’ve noticed: the sushi chefs are busily making boxes upon boxes of sushi takeout in-between serving us our perfect nigiri.

Since Nishino opened, more than eighteen years ago, I have never seen it not busy. It is always mostly, if not completely, full. Before we started dining mostly at the sushi bar, we sometimes couldn’t even get a table. This is extraordinary, because it is not an inexpensive place, and yet it is the most neighborhoodiest neighborhood joint I have ever seen in the entire city of Seattle. Tatsu Nishino chose to open his restaurant in a neighborhood where its inhabitants have both a great deal of money and a considerable sense of community, and also he and his wife remember and treasure their customers. This sense of community between the owners and their customers, and also between their customers themselves, this is what has kept them alive and thriving for almost twenty years. It’s the most amazing thing.

A PHOTOGRAPHIC MEMORY


This morning I found a photograph in my archives, of a KOMO 4 news helicopter, not the one that crashed yesterday morning in the shadow of the Space Needle. In this photograph, you can see two men preparing to board, and at the edge of the frame, a woman with a camera. I don’t know if these are the two men who died yesterday, but I remember this moment, two years ago.

I was at a cocktail party celebrating a new food show airing on KCTS9, whose offices are in the Seattle Center complex. It was mostly a food blogger party, the kind of party I never get invited to, so I ran into a lot of friends and acquaintances who looked puzzled to see me there. It didn’t matter. I met up with other friends, including Daphne, who had invited me, and Gennie, who was about to move to England and who I knew I was going to miss fiercely.

In those days I always had my camera with me, even though it was heavier than any handbag could carry. We were on one of the lower levels of the Space Needle, looking out over the city, not the bird’s-eye-view but the flying-carpet view. In a break between drinks and hors d’oeuvres and gossip I saw a news helicopter preparing to take off from the landing pad on the rooftop nearby. I tried to catch a shot of it rising in the air, but I have only this one image of it waiting for flight. I remember I was disappointed that I’d missed the moment.

I remember that day was a beautiful day, one of those early March days when Seattle is bright and gleaming and seducing you into thinking, ah, SPRING! just before the rains slam back down again. It was a gray morning, yesterday, when the KOMO 4 helicopter took off from that same helipad, stumbled, and then fell from the sky. I feel so terribly for the families of the two men who died, and for the man on the ground who somehow managed to get out of his car with his clothes on fire. I wish him the speediest of recoveries.

The sight of a helicopter always reminds me of the ending of Barbara Kingsolver’s ANIMAL DREAMS. Codi’s earliest memory is of her mother, dying, refusing to get into the helicopter ambulance. She dies on the ground, and the empty helicopter hovers briefly, and then “rises like a soul.” It has stayed with me all my life.

WHAT DID I KNOW THAT I’VE SINCE FORGOTTEN


Last weekend I went down to the Young Playwrights Program at ACT. The previous fall some 200 students had participated in a city-wide theatre workshop, writing their own plays with the help of Seattle theatre artists. The program is led by the incredible Anita Montgomery, ACT’s literary manager and education program director. In addition to all this, she is unquestionably one of my favorite directors, tough and gentle at the same time, and extraordinarily open.

The eight plays chosen from that initial 200 were presented by various directors and actors, working closely with the young playwrights, who ranged in age from about 12 to perhaps 17. I was staggered by the array of talent before me; these kids were stunningly articulate, smart, hilarious, and heartbreaking. There were lighthearted mysteries and scathing social commentaries and meditations on life and death. I could see how these actors and directors gave their own shape to the words from these young writers, but they were true to their individual voices. The topics were often somber, but as grownups we forget that even the young are not too young to understand that the world can be a dark and complicated place.

What did I know then, that I’ve since forgotten? Did I know then, as these preteens and teenagers grasped so vividly, that out of the tangled maze of the world that surrounds us sometimes, art and its creation are like Ariadne’s thread leading us away from the Minotaur, back out, blinking, into the sunlight? Maybe I’ve always known this. Maybe this thought has followed me, always. Art is a solace, a companion, a guide, a mirror inward and outward. I hope these students will keep writing, or at least look back and remember how to put into words all the joys and pains of life, and then move on.

THE CITY RISES


The other night I went to the closing night of Annex Theatre’s latest production, BLACK LIKE US. Three sisters, sorting through their deceased mother’s belongings, find a family secret: their mother’s mother was black. The story pings back and forth from the present day of the three sisters and the cousins they never knew, to the not-all-that-distant past of their mother’s mother and her sister. Behind the intertwining stories about identity, family, race, belonging, there is another story, and it is about Seattle.

Some years ago, A. and I went to a sort of town hall event at the Taproot Theatre, in conjunction with their production of BROWNIE POINTS, another play about race and identity. I grew up in the south end of Seattle, on one of the nicest streets in Mt. Baker, before the Microsoft and Amazon money went from a steady trickle into a flood. Our neighborhood was bracketed by Rainier Valley to the west and the Central District to the north, with the yet-ungentrified Columbia City to the south, and, of course, Lake Washington on the east.

It was at that town hall event that I learned that Seattle’s neighborhoods were formed by racial discrimination, the so-called “redlining” that prevented people of color from buying houses in certain (that is, most) neighborhoods. So often communities were formed less by the desire for community and more from lack of option. I didn’t know anything of this when I was a child, even as a product of the Seattle Public School’s feeble attempt at forced integration during the 1980s.

Years have gone by. I drive through the south Seattle of my childhood, and it has changed, new apartment buildings and townhouses rising along the valley. I look down from the roof of my First Hill condo and see the landscape evolving before my eyes. The lines between neighborhoods have become blurred, porous, as the generations shift and young families spread across the city in search of a place to become rooted. A city rises over the ghosts of its past. I wonder what it will all be like fifty years from now.

WE WILL LEAVE SOME TRACES


Those of us born in 1980 fall in that no-man’s-land between Generation X and the Millennials. We learned about AIDS as children, old enough to understand what sex was but still young enough (mostly) not to be having any. We knew it wasn’t anything you could catch by hugging or kissing; my middle school health class screened every single AIDS movie-of-the-week ever made. This awareness permeated every aspect of our culture in the 1990s, created from the fury and pain and determination of an entire generation affected by AIDS. This fury became a driving force that channeled a great deal of energy and perhaps more importantly money, into research. Research meant drugs, not a cure but certainly a way to manage AIDS and its “spectrum of illnesses,” as Susan Sontag describes it.

The other night I went to see THE NORMAL HEART with two friends. Larry Kramer had written this play in 1985 and set it in 1981-1982, following a circle of gay men in New York City who were watching their friends drop dead in waves from some mysterious illness that nobody understood. It is so full of anger and fear and pain and loss that I was shaking by the end of it. The lights came up and M. was crying, and I have never seen him cry before. I am old enough to remember the Challenger disaster of 1986 but not quite old enough to remember these early days of AIDS. Of being so in the closet that you would not dare to talk publicly about AIDS because that meant having to talk about being gay. Of doctors trying to treat any number of symptoms without knowing what they were treating. Of men reveling in the sexual freedom of post-Stonewall New York City and then finding that all this free love was actually killing them.

Between each scene various actors recited lists of names, too many to count. I could hear the occasional gasp of recognition, a few scattered sobs. I understood that they were calling the dead, but it wasn’t until afterwards my friends told me these were names of people from Seattle who had died of AIDS. One of the actors had asked several friends for the names of people they’d known. Now I understood: those sobs came from people crying out from the pain of survival, and this handing down of the names had meaning for them. A line from Eugene Ionesco’s THE CHAIRS came back to me: “We will leave some traces, for we are people and not cities.”

BEYOND RANGOON


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I came to Burma for the first time two years ago. Aung San Suu Kyi had been released from house arrest two years before that, and the country was opening up to tourism. We did the typical tourist route - Yangon (which I still think of as Rangoon), Kyaiktiyo (famed for its pagoda of the Golden Rock), Bagan, Mandalay, and Inle Lake. We were traveling with a Taiwanese tour group (there are direct flights between Taipei and Yangon); the few Western tourists we saw were German or French. No Americans. There was no internet, credit cards were not accepted anywhere, and no foreign cell phones could be used. All the domestic airports were the sort that had one large waiting room with rows of seats, and two “gates” that were simply doors onto the tarmac through which passengers surged in a wave and walked towards the plane. However, they had progressed to the point of $200-a-night hotels and $320 sunrise/sunset balloon rides (the latter at Bagan). We were reminded of Siem Reap, in 2000, before everything changed.

Two years ago, Yangon, like Mandalay (the next largest city), had an air of dusty neglect. The newer hotels, mostly Singaporean-run, were large and modern and totally impersonal. The older hotels (like the one we stayed in at Kyaiktiyo) reminded me of Moscow in the early 90s, or Shanghai in the 80s, before the economic boom. And two years later, we were back in Yangon. The airports were still the same. Most of the city still seemed dusty and neglected, but everywhere we looked there were signs of new money - stuccoed villas, shiny office buildings and condominiums, more luxurious hotels, more Americans (though still, tourists seemed to be predominately German or French). We stayed at the gleaming new Trader’s (part of the Singaporean Shangri-La hotel group); our guide blithely told us over lunch at Monsoon (clientele: mostly foreign) that there had been a bombing on the 9th floor of our hotel three months ago. No one was injured. The bombers were protesting the progress of a newly open society.

For investors coming from the outside - China, Taiwan, Japan, all the wealthier Asian countries, or those from the West - the streets are paved with gold. Burma is a small country, but rich in natural resources - oil, minerals, bamboos, gemstones, the mining of which all basically ended under the military rule of the last sixty years. Rangoon is fast becoming a boomtown, which is great for foreign investors, but perhaps not so much for the people of Burma, which I find slightly terrifying. The word ‘infrastructure’ was not really part of my vocabulary, until I saw a country that has none. What happens next, I cannot predict with any measure of certainty. But the people I have met have been open, friendly, calm, laid-back in a way I haven’t ever experienced anywhere else. Until this changes, I will keep coming back.

We had just one day in Rangoon on this trip, and I had missed the morning because of a sudden, terrible cold. But after lunch our guide took me to the “Private Market,” which was cool and dark and filled with the scents of fish paste and spices, where sellers hawked vegetables and fruits and meat and fish and teas and all sorts of things. Quite suddenly, I recognized the temple we’d visited two years earlier, and the shopping arcade with its white-painted wrought-iron trim. It was a strange feeling, this familiarity, even amongst all the other changes since my first visit. Just before sunset, we headed to the Shwedagon Pagoda, the highest point in the city, with its gilded stupas and streams of worshippers and tourists. As night fell, they lit candles and oil lamps that snaked around the base of the central pagoda, and it looked like a river of fire. People knelt in prayer, as they have for thousands of years. May it continue for thousands more.