People Have to Live Somewhere

Every single day, I commute past tent encampments for the homeless here in Seattle. When I first came out here, I found this shocking. I came from Jacksonville, Florida, and I had never seen anything quite like this. You’d think the Florida climate would be more amenable to homelessness, but no. The West Coast experiences much more of it than the East Coast does, according to most homeless counts. It disturbs me greatly that I’m getting used to the sight of these encampments. The shock is gone. The sadness remains.

I’ve got a few theories, now, as to why there’s such a difference from one coast to the other. First, of course, is that living out here is about 3 times more expensive than it is in Jacksonville. A lot more of us, here, teeter on the brink of financial ruin. Second, there are fewer places to hide such encampments. While Seattle has a much lower population than Jacksonville, it’s much more densely packed. There are not huge swaths of woods in which one can disappear. Third, I suspect we’re a good deal more tolerant out here. I know for a fact that the Jacksonville police tend to drive people out to the county line and dump them, making them continually walk the 20 or 30 odd miles back to civilization in the oppressive heat, without food or water.

That county line solution is just cruel. People have to live somewhere. Every creature on this planet does. It’s not a homeless problem. It’s a home problem. And it isn’t new.

A friend of mine shared with me this photo of Seattle’s Hooverville from the 1930’s. After reading about it on historylink.org, the amazing free online encyclopedia of Washington state history (specifically here and here), I discovered that this photo only captures about half the shantytown that existed there at the time, and there were others scattered about as well. The conditions were appalling. People built shacks out of whatever they could find. The city burned them down twice before they recognized the futility of it all. People have to live somewhere.

Incidentally, that Hooverville is not far from where Starbucks corporate headquarters now stands. Irony, anyone? And as long as REITS (Real Estate Investment Trusts) are allowed to exist, giving the richest among us the ability to make huge profits from housing, thus artificially inflating rents, this problem will only get worse.

When I get off work at 11pm, on my way home, I often see an old man with a walker standing by the stop sign at the end of my highway exit ramp. He holds a sign that says, “Homeless veteran. Please help.” The cynical side of me thinks about all the stories one hears about people making very good money through panhandling, and the stories about how some people want to be homeless. But this guy… I’ve seen him out there at midnight, in the pouring rain, in 35 degree temperatures. No financial return or lust for a freewheeling life can explain that.

The man needs help. And I feel very inadequate to the task. I couldn’t even help one person for more than a few days. And there are just so many out there. I don’t know what to do.

Sometimes I resent this man. He doesn’t let me forget. He doesn’t give me the peace to drive home to my nice house at the end of my shift and climb into my hot tub and forget.

But then I realize that he probably would like to forget, too.

Seattle Hooverville

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A Long Term Trek

Way back in January 1, 2015, I wrote a blog post about Paul Salopek. By then he’d been walking for two years, in the footsteps of our ancestors, from cradle of civilization in Africa with his ultimate goal being the tip of South America. He’s writing, filming, and photographing along the way. When I wrote about him in 2015, he was in Turkey. At the time of this writing, he is in Bodhgaya, India. He has a long way to go. I can’t even imagine the state of his feet, knees, and back.

But oh, how I envy his experiences. If you ever want to travel vicariously, check out the stories posted in the Out of Eden website. They’re mesmerizing. I wish I had the fortitude and the confidence to leave all traditional life behind and just walk for years on end, seeing the world. What an adventure.

I think the hardest part about a trek like that, for me, would be the loneliness. Granted, he usually has a companion, whether it be a journalist or translator or a guide, but no single person has joined him for the entire stretch. He’s in it alone. Oh, and currently he has a donkey. Sometimes he has a pack horse.

Either way, I wonder what he will do once he reaches his goal, if he does. Will he want to settle down and root himself in? Will he want to never go anywhere else again? Will he be over it all? Or, on the other hand, will he always be restless and never satisfied by staying put? These are questions I’d like to ask him if we ever crossed paths. (And it does look like he will be passing close to Seattle, someday, years from now.)

I wonder if the portion of his trek through the United States will be jarring and unpleasant after all that wandering through rural third world lands. Will he be anxious to get it over with, or thrilled to have constant access to Starbucks? These are the things that interest me most. Not the trek as much as how the trek has shaped him.

I need to backtrack and read all the posts of his journey and get a better sense of the man. I need to follow the Out of Eden Walk Facebook group. I need to see the progression, the evolution, of Paul Salopek. Because I can.

It’s a rare thing, when someone puts his or her entire life’s journey out there for the world to see. It’s like anthropology through an electron microscope. And what a unique opportunity that is for all of us.

Out of Eden Walk

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Impermanence

When I was 19 years old, I was in love for the first time, in Paris for the first time, and seeing the Eiffel Tower and Notre Dame Cathedral for the first time. It doesn’t get much better than that. It was one of the high points of my life.

It didn’t take long to figure out that the love wasn’t going to last, but, as they say, I’d always have Paris. Some things you just assume will last forever. Some things, you think, will be as permanent as Mount Everest.

Watching Notre Dame burn broke my heart. That spire crashing down felt like it went right through me. Yes, they’ll rebuild, but it will never again be “my” Notre Dame. That’s gone.

We tend to forget that the things made by man are very impermanent. If a stretch of interstate highway was abandoned for 10 years, it would be so reclaimed by weeds and trees that it would be unrecognizable. Whole cities have disappeared with the passage of time. Buildings and bridges collapse. Towns burn. Tumbleweeds roll down what used to be main streets. Waters rise, winds blow, sand dunes encroach.

Most of us try not to think about it. It is hard, living in that state of awareness. Impermanence is scary. It reminds us of our own mortality. If Notre Dame can burn after having stood for about 800 years, then my fragile little body is toast.

But in many ways, that impermanence is actually a gift. While Notre Dame propped up my 19 year old’s sense of beauty and romance, I went on to have many other amazing experiences, and I’m sure that more are in the offing. Knowing that all these things are merely blips on the radar of the universe makes me appreciate them even more. What I am experiencing right here, right now, will be gone in a moment.

What a gift that I got to collect these memories, if even for just a cosmic second, even if they aren’t made of mountains, and will someday be reduced to dust.

Don’t forget to appreciate the now, dear reader. In the overall scheme of things, it’s really all that we have.

Notre Dame

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Despicable Him

I’ve been binge watching Game of Thrones. It’s probably one of the best series I’ve ever seen, right up there with The Handmaid’s Tale, This is Us, Northern Exposure, and Six Feet Under. But at the end of each episode, I’m always left stunned with how despicable some human beings can be.

I try to comfort myself with the fact that this series is a work of fiction. (Obviously. I mean, there are dragons.) People can’t really be that horrible, can they?

But I know better. People can suck. I’ve seen it firsthand.

Whenever I have any doubt about the depths to which people can sink, all I have to do is remember a guy I knew decades ago, whom I’ll call John Smith for the purposes of this post. I never liked him. He gave off this selfish, hostile vibe, and he’d blatantly lie to get whatever it was he happened to want. That was bad enough, but then I learned something really horrible about him.

His wife was pregnant, and one day John Smith drives up to the house with this ratty little trailer that he proceeds to park in the back yard. Naturally, his wife wanted to know what was going on, since she hadn’t been consulted. Boy, did she ever find out.

It turns out that the trailer was there to house John Smith’s girlfriend, who also happened to be pregnant. Of course this came as quite a shock to the wife. I have no idea why she put up with such treatment, but the girlfriend lived there for many months, and then she had the baby before the wife had hers.

When the girlfriend had her baby, it was a boy. And John Smith decided to call the child John Smith Jr. Take that, wife!

A few weeks later, the wife had her baby. It, too, was a boy. Guess what John Smith named the child?

Yup. John Smith Jr.

This, to me, is proof positive that humans can be selfish, cruel, thoughtless, and evil. (I wonder, too, about the passivity of the women in this story, but that’s a perplexing tangent that I don’t have the energy to pursue at the moment, and I have no idea what either one had to do to survive. Putting up with this demon seems like way too high a price to pay, but that’s me.)

I hope neither John Smith Jr. carried on his father’s legacy in any way. They’d be adults now. I hope they realize that their father is a despicable, misogynistic, waste of human flesh. I also hope that they turned into decent, upstanding men in spite of that.

Awful

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May All Your Guesses Be Educated

When I have time to kill, I often rely on my Sudoku phone app to keep me from twitching with boredom. Sudoku puzzles can be quite addictive. They challenge my mind, and yet allow me to shut off big parts of it at the same time. It’s hard to explain. You kind of have to be there.

Now that I’m playing at the “expert” level, I occasionally have to rely on guesses to get past a numerical log jam. I wouldn’t have to do this if I bothered to educate myself on the higher level Sudoku strategies. You can read up on them all over the internet. I could probably figure them out if I cared enough. But to me, it’s a time killing game, and I don’t want to waste too much energy climbing up to the next dimension.

But when I do make a guess, I do my best to make sure that guess is an educated one. I calculate the odds that one number should be placed in a particular box, as opposed to another. This quite often serves me well. Until, of course, it doesn’t.

When you think about it, isn’t that how the majority of us get through life? We take chances. We guess. The more intelligent people among us learn as much as they can before making a choice, but in the end, a choice has got to be made.

Don’t be impulsive. Learn what you can, and then go from there. Do your best. Look before you leap, so that you can get a better sense of where you might land. Of course, there are no guarantees, but at the very least you can increase your odds. Therein lies a more successful path through life.

May all your guesses be educated, dear reader.

Sudoku

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Book Review: Lab Girl

I consider myself a strong, intelligent woman who is equally left- and right-brained. By this I mean that I’m analytical and fascinated by all things scientific, but I’m also creative and love to write. So it was gratifying to come across the book Lab Girl by Hope Jahren, because she can be described in the exact same way.

Hope is a professor of geobiology at the University of Oslo. Science is her passion as well as her bread and butter. Because of that, you’d think that any book she wrote about her life and career would be dry and pedantic. But no.

This book is a work of art. Read it. Seriously. You’ll be glad you did.

This is not just a book about plants, although if you read it you’ll learn all sorts of amazing things about them, and you’ll never look at a tree in the same way again. For me, though, what it is about, more than anything, is friendship.

Woven throughout this book is her relationship with her senior research laboratory manager, Bill. They have worked together in various labs around the world for 25 years. Theirs is not a romance. It’s something better. It’s unconditional, platonic love and respect. It’s dedication. It’s mutual support. It’s the kind of relationship that all of us aspire to, and most of us only dream about.

The book also talks about being a woman who chooses a career in a male-dominated field, which is something to which I can definitely relate. It’s also about mental health, and finding your place in this world, and never quite feeling like you fit in. It’s about being misunderstood by many, except for the most important people in your life. And in the end, that’s all that matters.

And it is amazingly well written. I keep a quote book where I save passages from books that really resonate with me. Here are some of the ones I plan to save from Lab Girl.

“He (her father) taught me that there is no shame in breaking something, only in not being able to fix it.”

“Each beginning is the end of a waiting.”

“In Georgia, when someone walks up to you wearing overalls with no shirt underneath them, it is unlikely that something good is about to happen.”

“A cactus doesn’t live in the desert because it likes the desert; it lives there because the desert hasn’t killed it yet.”

“Being paid to wonder seems like a heavy responsibility at times.”

Because of this author, I went out and planted ten trees. How many people have gotten you to do that? And hey, she has inspired me to write a future posts about Stuckie the Mummified Dog and about Anomalocaris, “a segmented marine insect the size of a Labrador retriever” that, thanks be to God, no longer exists. Now if that doesn’t intrigue you, nothing will.

Lab Girl

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Bridge Break In

So, I came to work the other day to a sheet of plywood covering one of our windows. It seems that some drug addict scaled the bridge to the upper floor and tried to bash the window in with a 2×4. I don’t know what they were hoping to get. There’s nothing much worth stealing in here, especially if you then have to carry it back down to ground level. But ours is not to reason why.

The thing is, the fool tried to do this right at the beginning of the shift, so a coworker caught him in the act and called 911. He bolted, but by some miracle the police caught him right down the street. My coworker identified him, for what it’s worth, but I’m betting he’s walking free again even as I write this.

It’s amazing how much an evil outside force can alter your worldview. I used to feel safe here. Now I keep seeing movement outside the window out of the corner of my eye. And I also wonder what would have happened if the idiot had gained entry, and whoever came to work didn’t notice the broken window, unlocked the sidewalk door, came up the stairs, and was face to face with a drug addict wielding a block of wood. What would have come next?

A friend pointed out that there’s no point in playing the “what if” game. You can’t live your life in constant fear. At least, you shouldn’t do so. And to a certain extent I agree. But it never hurts to have a contingency plan.

From now on, I plan to drive by and take a look at that window before parking. When I unlock the door, I’m going to pause to see if I hear anything, such as the kind of noises one would only hear from an open window. (Or some disembodied voice saying “Redrum,” or something.) I bet the guy didn’t smell very good, either, and I have the nose of a dog. So there’s that.

What I resent most, though, is that my sense of security has been shattered. Take all the stuff you want, but leave my comfort zone alone.

I’m sure I’ll relax again eventually, but until then, I wouldn’t advise you to sneak up on me. You could be in for a nasty surprise.

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