Monday, March 22, 2010

Will the Authentic Seattle Please Stand Up?

Puzzling authenticity is really fun and challenging in Seattle. Everything is all about authenticity here, and it can  be really really hard to tell the posers from the real. Having walked all over Buffalo recently, the city I grew up around, I understand that walking is the only way really to get to know a place. It also happens to be the only real side benefit to pulmonary emboli since it seems that one must do something to get ones breath back, and walking fits the bill.

So, if I can discover a new Buffalo just by walking through the city I know best, it would seem that I could also discover a new Seattle, a city I know reasonably well, but not so well as I do Buffalo. Still, who are the authentic ones? Is it the fine guitartist with a nice and mellow deep voice at the Public Market whose face and clothes and distended belly prove that he sleeps on the street although he has CDs of his music for sale? Is it the pair of Native Americans sitting on the dock down at water level, sharing a simple meal of bread and polished apples? Is it me gawking at the Tesla Roadster which runs faster on laptop batteries than a Ferrari can on elaborate fuel injection, welcomed warmly to a city where no-one can tell who's got the money?

It can seem as though everyone in Seattle is striving mightily to become that "it" self; the one you get by driving the vintage Mini Cooper instead of the new one everyone else drives. The one you get by unfurling the sails on your wooden boat just at the solstice while everyone else is strolling in the unaccustomed sunshine. The one perhaps who throws the fish instead of merely buying it or snapping its picture. The one who understands that the best fish cannot be had from that particular tourist market in the first place.

Yesterday happened to be the day when admissions letters would go out from the Northwest School, one of several to which anxious parents submit their child's application with far more raw desire invested than you or I might have for shiny new toys of either child or adult variety. I had discovered two things the evening before; that a former student of mine is the Upper School director there, and that my niece had applied. Or rather my sister had applied my niece.

I knew neither of these things ahead of time and so could invest no guilt to my dear sister's all-in-good-jest complaint about missed connections. But as my daughter's boyfriend would be subbing at the school that day, it seemed a reasonable thing to do to walk there just in case I might be able to scare up my former student who I'd last seen when he was well beneath adulthood.

As I arrived still near the beginning of my perhaps 10 mile cicumnavigation of the city, the students had all poured out into the streets for a fire drill, and there was Ben looking very much in charge. We eventually had lunch together and I got the very insiders look at the school, and a take on its history with which I was already acquainted, because we had, the school and I, shared some history about the wars of transition from founding to continuing energy way way back in the day. This can be a problem for schools, as for most anything about life.

Does this count to make me a kind of "it" Seattlelite?? I hardly think so. But it surely does count as authentically random, unpredictable and somehow raw. Maybe? I really don't know.

I do think that there is something important to be discovered by hanging back from too much control. By staying open to what might come along in the course of simply being alert. I think that there may even be something to be said for hanging back from too much investment in authenticity. My own daughter never had as a choice a school so fine as the Northwest School, and yet I can find nothing deficient in her, or even in the potential she still might realize to change the world for the better. Or was it always and only about what she might accomplish for herself?

Among other things, I have been puzzling what to do about a chopstick my daughter's boyfriend and I managed to drop down into the oil pan of an engine whose blown head gasket we have been working to replace. I'd thought that the chopstick might do as a guide to place the cylinder head, but somehow it went down the wrong and bottomless hole. In the act of retrieval, I got to watch it disappear very much like the way in which cinematic drama might capture the feeling of losing your friend to the abyss when your grip on his hand fails.

This particular car - a VW of course - requires some significant disassembly before its oil pan can be removed. There are time constraints. There are tool and equipment constraints. Of course there are massive money constraints. The full drama has yet to unfold. I wonder - I really do - how it will end. I wonder if the chopstick also will force the proper cleaning out of the oilpan, the accomplishment of which will add that much new life to this old car. I wonder, honestly, how I can accomplish the blood draw which my doctor requires of me in a medical and insurance nightmare whose plot can only be the most absurdist comedy I have ever even imagined.

Stay tuned.

* * * 

So, OK, as if I'd willed it, March madness produces health care reform. I am as obscenely gleeful about this as are those basketball fans waving towels and shouting to break their vocal apparatus. If it wouldn't be unseemly, I would paint my face Obama warpaint colors, as someone along my walk did his garage door. I would shout it out on streets as so many were doing along the way to pick up our pizza at Fat Mama's up on Capital Hill. This is not an insignificant accomplishment.

This morning, I removed Bob's wheel - that's the other VW which belongs in the junk yard - and found that indeed his brake pads were down to the metal core, and tossing shiny flakes all over get-out. But the cost to replace these is still below the cost to rent a car for a day. Chris is rounding up the tools and parts to put the other VW back together. The sun is coming out.

No matter how much I feel akin to the folks out here, who are multicolored among their friends and even among the hypertalented children they adopt, I still find myself offended by the hyperachieving. It still feels an indictment on everyone else who isn't quite so great either in reality or aspiration. It still feels like a species of racism, although clearly it's not racism. But it is exclusivity, and even though these kids will likely be the ones to "save the world" which they actually are already doing by break-dancing for Haiti (you have to pause to parse that statement, consider what break dancing is, and where it got its start, and the fact that there are expensive schools here to teach it).

I still want somehow to howl, and scream and exclaim that we can do better than this. That it really isn't necessary to be that elaborate in the preparation of your mind or body. That there is something to be said for normalcy, for spaces filled with nothing more than absurd laughter.

Well, I'll keep you posted as and if I figure any of this stuff out. I'm sure your breath is 'bated. My daughter took me on the underground Seattle tour on Sunday. Her boss had given her a couple of tickets as a Christmas present, although the major domo of the tour still required that we sign our names, and give him our phone numbers, and those of my daughter's boss. He wouldn't say these gift cards had been forged. Something about being given away too freely. But I don't think her boss is that cheap.

The tour was great, in a touristy kind of way. There wasn't much to see, well, except for the genetic uderpinnings of Seattle. The building too fast in a sandy bottom, where incoming tide would cause the newly invented flush crappers to spout their contents which had been meant to go out to sea. Where a fire required rebuilding in stone what had gone up in wood, and where the merchants were too impatient to await the city fathers' plan to fill in the low ground. Where the architecture sits half submerged, and you must enter the spots where the whores used to await you, before the stone, before the fire, through an upstairs window, now at street level, now overcrowded by tourists. The Elliot Bay bookstore, anchor to the Pioneer Square district, will be moving up to Capital Hill. Perhaps Buffalo's fortunes and those of Seattle are more closely aligned than these folks could ever guess. The trajectory is trending down, just like my clotting factors.

Fallen ladies all, with fine aspirations for their offspring. Good day!

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