Sunday, June 28, 2009

Books are trumping the tube

I've been writing on Crosscut about my decision to not go digital and allow my broadcast TV to fade to black. I'm watching more DVDs, but less TV. If you want to read up on my decision and updates, you can find posts here, here and here.

Less tube-time has also been good for my summer reading, and I thought I share some thoughts about a couple of books I've read recently.

The first is not yet published, but I had a chance to look over the uncorrected galleys of a book slated to come out this fall from my "Pugetopolis" publisher, Sasquatch Books. It's called "The Collector," by Spokane author Jack Nisbet, and it's a stirring account of the naturalist David Douglas's expeditions to the Pacific Northwest in the early 19th century.

Douglas, whose name is attached to our region's iconic Douglas fir, was in the enviable position of being one of the first men of science to get to roam and explore the region at will. He was a horticulturalist sent to find plants that would delight English gardeners, but his discoveries and contributions to science did so much more than that. A pleasant, energetic Scottish bachelor, he kept extensive journals from which Nisbet has been able to reconstruct his journeys. Keep your eyes peeled for this book if you have any interest in seeing the Pacific Northwest as it was, with its bison herds, grizzly bears and giant condors. The only meaningful density issues back then: thick forest and rivers choked with giant salmon.

I also greatly enjoyed Curtis Ebbesmeyer and Eric Scigliano's "Flotsametrics and the Floating World," which I reviewed on Crosscut as the ultimate in beach reading this summer. Ebbesmeyer is a Seattle oceanographer who has made important discoveries by become the world foremost authority on flotsam and jetsam by studying how sea-borne junk moves around the planet. If you are interested in weirdness, like why do Nike sneakers float and what to make of those tennis shoes with feet in them that have been washing up in our region, this book has the answers. One piece of good news: you still have decades to look for those classic, old Japanese fishing floats because Ebbesmeyer's computer model predicts they'll continue to wash up for years to come.

A footnote: Ebbesmeyer sings the praises of legendary Northwest beachcomber Amos Wood who was the father of Japanese fishing float collectors and whose works have proved invaluable to those studying flotsam, jetsam and ocean currents. Back in the 1980s, Wood gave me a magnificent large float that he'd found, much like the one pictured here. When I edited Washington's Almanac years ago, I used the float as a crystal ball to make predictions with. It still sits in my study as I write. Thanks to Ebbesmeyer, I have a better sense of the journey it took to fall into Wood's hands.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

KUOW listeners weigh in: More like 6,000 things you can't say about Seattle

My recent story, "Six things you cannot say Seattle" generated a lot of response, evidence of the story's Twitterability and that it seems to have struck a chord. Seattle's famously mushy discourse has resulted in a build-up of verboten opinion. The culture of consensus is discomfited by disagreement.

My list was short; I gave six examples, which isn't to say these are the only things that are no-nos. Not by a long shot. The best part of the feedback is that almost everyone had something to add to the list. You can see some of the debate in the comments thread following the original piece, but the discussion continued in a number of forums.

We devoted a lot of time to it on KUOW's "Weekday" journalists' roundtable discussion (June 12). Instead of discussing healthcare reform, we got swept away as listeners called-in and emailed their own additions to "six things." If you want to know what Steve Scher, Art Thiel, Eli Sanders, and David Horsey have to say, listen in. "Weekday" producer Katy Sewall also kindly collected some listener suggestions and passed them along, noting that some seemed rather confessional. So, according to Seattle public radio listeners, you cannot say:

Kurt Cobain had nothing to do with Courtney Love's success

Tim Eyman is awesome! (that would cause a public lynching!!)

If the salmon can't fend for themselves that's their own problem

I like clearcuts

I drink Folgers

I prefer wine from a box

Why do I have to learn Spanish?

Composting is GROSS

I don't like salmon

I missed two episodes of Jon Stewart


"Ballard hipster" is just a variation of "Bellevue yuppie"

I eat at McDonald's

I don’t like KUOW

Density is good

Soccer is BORING

I don't buy organic

I like Budweiser

I don't own Fleece

I don't like coffee

I'm from Tacoma

Whole Foods is a waste of money

A public hearing will just bog down the project

Anything remotely critical about KEXP

Yeah it's in Seattle, 2 bedroom and nice lot...and I paid less than $250,000

I was born in Bellevue

The Space Needle is tacky!

Lake Union isn't really a lake, it's a lagoon

J.P. Patches is a tired old clown

The Puyallup Fair is better than Bumbershoot

Put your dog on a leash

Baseball is boring

I’m on dial-up

For more response, including from Portlanders, see the longer version of this story at

Friday, June 12, 2009

Six things you cannot say in Seattle

Today on KUOW's "Weekday," we talked about my story, "Six things you cannot say in Seattle," which has been getting tons of hits and response on Crosscut. The calls and emails flooded in to the show, and Steve Scher, Art Thiel, Dave Horsey, Eli Sanders and I had fun talking about the city's taboos. I plan to do a follow-up piece based on listener or reader response. Clearly, the piece struck a nerve. Some of these topics are tackled in a different way in my book "Pugetopolis," like the whole "Seattle nice" myth, but there is clearly much more. Below, I am running the piece so you can read it here:

Newcomers to Seattle quickly find that we’re a cultural minefield of prejudice and political correctness that can blow up in your face if you misstep. So here’s a list of conversation stoppers — things you just can’t say in polite company. Clip and save this column; it may save you from social banishment or worse.

1. “Recycling is a hassle.” Oops. You mustn’t complain about sorting cantaloupe rinds from Kleenex. Anyone who yearns for the good old days when garbage was garbage is rooting for planetary death. Seattle is a city of dedicated recyclers — it’s one of the things that makes us morally superior to everyone else. Sort your trash into 50 different containers and do it with a smile, otherwise you’re as suspect as an SUV owner.

2. “Bellevue’s pretty cool.” People in Seattle might sneak over to Bellevue Square for shopping once in awhile, but you’d never tell anyone. And despite Bellevue’s attempt to become a dense, gay-friendly, smart-growth city, Seattle will never see it as anything but an example of trashy, car-loving sprawl that is causing, yes, planetary death. The Eastside is Orange County with rain, and Bellevue is Anaheim without Disneyland. For true Seattleites, it does not exist save as a dark, eternal “other” (with a great mall).

3. “Would you like to come over for dinner?” I’ve previously written about the “Myth of Seattle Nice.” We’re friendly, but not so friendly as to actually want to get to know each other very much. Recently, a newcomer told me that his new Seattle friends dumped him when he became too “needy” after the death of his partner. Another said that when he moved out here he invited his new neighbors to a get-to-know-you barbecue. Only one person showed up. (I’m surprised anyone came.) We have a word to describe people who invite strangers over: “stalker.” Blame it on our Scandia-Asian roots or the fact that Ted Bundy or D.B. Cooper might be next door, but being too friendly could result in a restraining order.

4. “I like driving better than biking.” What is it with you and planetary death? First, people here consider cars a necessary evil at best. You don’t wash it, trick it out, or show it off. No gals in bikinis lolling on the hood. Cars are colorless (gray, silver, light blue) and practical (’84 Volvo wagon). Even better, you drive your car as little as possible and when you do drive, don’t have fun. Second, cycling is good for you. Your weight loss will take a load off of Mother Earth. If you have a coronary riding up a hill, be reassured that Seattle is the “Best Place to Have a Heart Attack,” according to the Journal of the American Medical Association. This is the town where the bike anarchists beat up a guy who tried to get out of his parking space. So bike it and like it, see?

5. “Your dog just shit on my shoe.” Look, in Seattle, pets are people, too, even Labradoodles. Dogs at the store, in the bar, under the seat, in the next cubicle: You have no right to complain because that would mean you’re being cruel to animals— and possibly even demeaning someone’s disability, if a pet owner has deemed Fido a service dog. Hair, dander, allergies, drool, snarling, defecating: That’s no different than what you experience from people on Metro every day. So be mindful that the pooch under your seat could be a lawsuit just waiting for you to open your mouth.

6. “I’m a Republican.” There is no surer ticket to the Mental Hospital for the Criminally Insane than to make this declaration in Seattle today. Republicans haven’t been a factor here in 40 years. Most people in Seattle have never met a Republican, let alone voted for one. To admit to being a Republican is to declare war on the sensibilities of the recycling, biking, companion-pet-owning, suburban-hating loners you live among. If you are not involuntarily committed, you will be advised to move to Bellevue, where you can speed the way toward planetary death with your own kind.