Getting to Know Seattle: SAM Exhibit

This post is for friend and regular reader Phyllis, who shared my pilgrimage to Flannery O’Connor’s homestead in Milledgeville, Georgia, where we met descendants of two of Flannery’s beloved peacocks.


The Seattle Art Museum, which has a so-so standing collection but brings in spectacular traveling shows, is hosting an exhibit called Peacock in the Desert: The Royal Arts of Jodhpur, India — 15th century artworks beautifully preserved an on exhibit in India at the vast Mehrangarh Fort. If you saw The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, I think this is the same Jaipur where the hapless crew of old Brits arrive to live out their days in decrepit former luxury. We asked a docent if that was so, and she said no — but after looking at a map of India, I think the docent is wrong. I think historical Jodhpur is now Jaipur.

Louise was struck by the gilded luxury of the rich in India, set against massive poverty then and now — but I think that’s true of a lot of countries, our own included.

That inlaid mosaic swing is made of stone, which must make it very heavy.

I liked the elephant best. When I was a kid, five or six, there was a program on TV about an Indian boy who had his own small elephant, and I was deeply smitten. I remember making the case to my parents why our garage would have made a suitable home for my own miniature live elephant — to no avail of course. Nor did I appreciate what wintering over in frigid New Jersey would have meant to an elephant of any size.

This is a painting of a peacock, not the real thing. They are beautiful creatures, but they have a blood-curdling screech. Flannery had 60 or more. I was quite bowled over by the sound of two.

52 Places for the New York Times

Those of you who read the New York Times may be aware that they send a travel journalist to the top 52 places to visit for that year, and publish weekly travelogs from that person. Here’s the new guy for 2019, Sebastian Modak.

Before you swoon over how wonderful it would be to travel the world on someone else’s dollar, think about being in a new place every week, and having to endure the travel to get from one place to another. This is not an easy job.

Something Modak said rings true for me: you could only do this successfully if you have a fluid sense of “home” and the ability to make yourself comfortable very quickly in new places.

I do feel like I’ve been working toward doing something like this my whole life. I was born in the United States to a Colombian mother and an Indian father, but we left for Hong Kong when I was 2 years old and continued to move every few years. My brothers and I didn’t really grow up with the concept of “home,” because we understood every place was temporary. It made travel the only real constant in our lives. January marks five years in New York City, though, and that puts it in a joint first-place spot for the longest I’ve stayed anywhere — tied with Indonesia and India.

For me, travel is all about immersing yourself in the unfamiliar, and embracing the feeling of humility that comes with that: There’s always something to learn from someone else, from somewhere else. That’s what made me choose a career in multimedia storytelling. I was a Fulbright-mtvU fellow in Botswana, where I spent a year documenting the local hip-hop scene. I was a producer on an MTV series that looked at the role of the arts in protest movements around the world. Most recently, I was an editor and then a staff writer at Condé Nast Traveler, where I was often sent on assignment to find and report stories that resonate with a global and globally curious audience. I think the thread that connects all of these experiences is an insatiable sense of wonder at the world around me.”

When Matt rode his bike across country the year after Jerry died, completing his father’s goal to celebrate the 60th birthday he never reached, Matt called me from a little town in the heartland where his biking group was spending the night. He said, “Mom, do you know there are people who’ve never been more than a half hour from where they were born?” I said I did know that. A job like Modak’s would be torture for such a person, stressful and not fun at all.

I don’t think I’d manage a year of travel very well, although, like Modak, I enjoy travel for the delight of new places and for the experience of finding strangers unexpectedly kind. But I’ll follow his journey, and wish I could also follow his steps.

Getting to Know Seattle: “Imperfect Produce”

There’s a company in Seattle that gathers up imperfect produce, food that is safe and nourishing and fresh but which falls outside the standards that most grocery stores will sell. The fruits or vegetables might be too large or too small, too misshapen, off color — things like that. Take a look at a row of tomatoes next time you go to the grocery store, and notice how uniform they are. Anything that falls outside of that uniform standard either gets donated, discarded — or winds up with Imperfect Produce and sold at a discount to adventuresome cooks.

Sara did this for awhile, and liked it, but stopped because of her travel schedule and the need to cancel her weekly box too often. My friend Nicki does it now. I don’t, because in a weekly box I’m apt to get things I don’t know how to cook and don’t really eat — things like chard or kale. I think you can control somewhat the contents of the box, but not entirely. I feel as if I’d waste a lot of things while pondering what to do with them. But I like the concept.

I was at Nicki and John’s for dinner on Saturday night, and Nicki showed me this giant sweet potato. You see what I mean by “larger than usual.” 🙂

Getting to Know Seattle: The Mountain is Out

We’re actually having a pretty good winter, without too much rain. I went for an early morning walk on Saturday, and was happy to see Rainier out. And, the view of the Olympic Mountains in sunlight was quite pretty. That snow will stick around until well into the spring, even as the weather warms up at lower altitudes. The city of Seattle is between the Olympic mountain range and the Cascades, where Matt and family went to play in the snow.

Green Lake on New Year’s Day 2019

New Year’s day here in Seattle was cold, right around 32 degrees, but sunny. Seems as if half the city was at Green Lake. They have a polar swim there, but I missed it this year. I think the hardy souls dive in rather early, around 9am.

There were adult walkers, little kids on shiny new red bikes with training wheels, slightly older kids on scooters, a few adult bikers, dog walkers, people with walking sticks or canes, and elderly people bundled in blankets being pushed by gray haired relatives. There were joggers and runners and people on in-line skates. Seattle is a dog city, so there were lots of those, all on leashes. Puppies were being coaxed, then pulled, then dragged in something of a forward motion. Eager young dogs lurched and barked at similar energetic dogs, gaming to become head of the pack. A few squirrel chasers practically tore their owners’ arms out of their sockets lunging toward trees. Older dogs ambled pleasantly along, ignoring any distractions. Some people held cups of coffee — the vendor stays open all year. I walk fast; as I passed by others, I heard English, Spanish, French, and Russian I think.

A young man sitting on a bench had a sign saying “I desire a conversation. Will you stop and talk with me?” Someone had.

I notice different things at different times of year. Now, I notice reflections on the water.

Getting to Know Seattle: Winter Skies

I vary my exercise in the winter, toggling between the gym on rainy days, Green Lake in nicer weather, and a brisk neighborhood walk which takes me by Kerry Park when the day is no worse than cloudy. Kerry Park offers stunning views of downtown Seattle, Mount Rainier when out, and our winter skies. My goal is 4+ miles a day of something, seven days a week.

Mount Rainier, although you can’t see it, is right in the center of that bright spot of sky over Puget Sound.

Seattle Philanthropy

Seattle is home to the Gates Foundation, and the Seattle Foundation, which in 2014 was #22 in terms of the largest community foundations nationwide. We also benefit from the substantial giving of the late Paul Allen, of the Schultz Family Foundation, The Ballmer Group, the Raikes Foundation, Jeff Bezos, and other super wealthy individual donors.

Beyond that, though, Seattle punches below its weight in philanthropic giving, despite the number of high salaried and high net worth individuals who live here. Tony Mestres, President and CEO of the Seattle Foundation, just wrote an article for the Seattle Times documenting that Seattle giving is below both the national and state averages in terms of giving as a share of adjusted gross income. Our level of giving places us on par with Phoenix, Baltimore and St.Louis — cities with far less abundant economies than ours. Mestres, of course, writes to urge the community to do more. He cites a sense that the presence of  “big givers”, Gates and Allen et al, seem to give people a pass in terms of thinking about giving. Because we have the Gates Foundation here, in some sense people seem to think we’ve got giving covered.

Jerry and I shared the value of charitable giving, even in years when we were starting the business and money was tight. We transmitted that value to Sara and Matt. Now, I’m doing Heifer Project with Archie and Else — a worthwhile charitable initiative and a tangible way to talk with young children about giving. I get the paper brochure, and go through it with each child. Each has $120 to give, and they get to pick a goat or a sheep or a share of a larger animal or several clusters of honeybees or chickens or rabbits. We talk about what Christmas means when toys have to come second to something far more basic: food for the family, clothing, fresh water.

Many  of the institutions that used to teach the value of giving, like religious bodies, have faded in importance. As little Catholic girls growing up, my sisters and I filled mission boxes with spare change for the poor. I’m not sure we had much idea what that meant, but we got the point that life was not just about us. In raising Sara and Matt, that responsibility shifted to Jerry and me.

I’m often struck, in the village in Panama, how families serve as the safety net for each other. Sharing is family based, and doesn’t usually extend much beyond. But if there is a crisis in any part of the family, whoever happens to have money coughs it up. When Gloria’s father died two years ago, I had just paid her the generous amount I give for her weeks of work. Although she has eight siblings, no one had any money to spare. Gloria wound up spending all of the money I gave her on her father’s funeral needs. Could she have said to her siblings “I’m paying a ninth, and the rest of you will have to come up with your part because Tia Pamela is always telling me I have to save”? Not really.

Caring for those in need, to me, is part of the basic fabric of humanity — both locally and globally. Giving short shrift to giving diminishes all of us, and it’s not an attractive trend.

Getting to Know Seattle: Winter Solstice

December 21 is the winter solstice, and in Seattle that means the sun sets at 4:19pm. Sunrise was 7:55am. This was a very short day indeed. At the summer solstice, it’s still pretty light at 9:30pm, which I truly love. I sit on my deck with my Kindle and a glass of wine or cup of tea and read until almost dark.

When it’s this dark this early, I struggle to stay awake after 9pm. I don’t go to bed that early, but I suspect I could.

Panama is really different. Since it’s right at the equator, there’s not much variation in the length of daylight. It’s light for 12 hours, and dark for 12 hours, year round.

My January vacation there, which will bring sun, warmth, and much longer days, sounds pretty appealing right about now. 🙂