I Walked in Space!!!

An incredible, immersive virtual reality experience that lets you explore the International Space Station.

I have always been fascinated by the International Space Station. In fact, I have gone to https://spotthestation.nasa.gov/ to sign myself up for text notifications when the ISS will be passing over our house. (You can, too!)

If the station’s flyby isn’t at some ungodly hour like 3 a.m., and if the entire Pacific Northwest sky isn’t blanketed in clouds as it so often is, Dear Husband and I make it a point to spot the station from the hot tub in our back yard. I always wave. As far as I know, no one has ever waved back. Still, it never gets old, and it makes me feel connected to something much bigger than myself.

Having said that, just imagine our excitement when we heard that The Infinite was coming to a city near us. This is an amazing virtual reality experience that allows you to virtually walk around inside the space station, explore all its nooks and crannies, and even walk through walls into the vacuum of space. You get to eavesdrop on the astronauts as they go about their daily routines, and you really get a sense of what life must be like up there.

My main takeaway is that I think the station needs to focus more on aesthetics, so that it isn’t such a psychological shock being there. I know it’s zero gravity, and that physical space is at a premium, but every floor, wall, and ceiling was covered with sharp edged, cold, clinical-looking instruments. There needs to be one module where things are warm and soft and comfortable. People need that every now and then. (I wanted to check out the sleeping quarters and the bathrooms, but had no luck finding them. There wasn’t time to see everything, but I suspect I’ll be back.)

When we arrived at the Tacoma Armory for the event, we were given VR headsets, and once we had them on and they were properly adjusted, an assistant came around to see who in our group of 8 were actually family or friends. To avoid bumping into others as you wandered around, you “saw” everyone else as human-shaped, star-filled avatars. Strangers had a glowing blue star in their chest. Friends had golden stars. Facilitators had green stars. If, while wandering the station, you came anywhere close to a real life obstruction, it was covered in bright red lines. I’m proud to say I didn’t bump into anything or anyone during my visit. (A little girl did bump into me once, but no one was hurt.)

At one point I was standing inside a capsule and a ball came whizzing past my head. What the…? I turned, and there was an astronaut catching the ball. He then threw it toward me again, and I spun around to see another astronaut catching it. All the while, they were discussing their work on the station. Even though I knew this was virtual reality, and that a foam ball in zero gravity couldn’t hurt me even if I were truly there, I couldn’t help but duck each time it flew/floated by me.

I had an unexpected intermission when a facilitator approached me and said that the battery on my headset was running low, so they’d have to trade it out for another one. I took off my headset and came crashing back to reality. I was standing in a huge empty room, and oddly enough, its walls were covered with murals of palm trees. (I wish I had thought to snap a picture.) There were dozens of people wearing headsets who were slowly walking around me, obviously interacting with things I could not see. It was rather surreal. I was happy to get another headset on and return to space.

At one point I walked through a (virtual) wall and enjoyed viewing the station from the outside, and also had fun looking down at earth, both in daylight and darkness, from 200 miles above. And then, the next thing I knew, the station left without me! That gave me more time to focus on the universe surrounding me, but still, I wanted to say, “Hey! Wait for me!”

It came back, though, just in time to allow us all to participate in a mission. We were going to do a space walk to observe the astronauts as they made a few repairs. I got to sit there, with nothing but stars beneath my feet, and watch and listen to their communications. I really felt like I was right there with them. If one of them had said, “Here, hold my wrench,” I’d have reached for it.

But of course one cannot spacewalk for days on end, and so the experience came to a close. We were asked to place our headsets on a conveyor belt so that they could be sanitized for the next lucky visitors.

And then we were treated to an unexpected bonus. (“But wait! There’s more!”) That bonus was in the form of an audiovisual art installation by the Japanese artist Ryoji Ikeda. Called “The Universe within the Universe”, it had us standing in a big circle, gazing into a mirror on the floor that reflected a projection of a very colorful, fast-moving, computer generated journey through his interpretation of everything from the micro universe to the macro universe, and back again. Still photos don’t do it justice, so here’s a short video we took of a tiny segment of the installation. ***If flashing lights cause you to have seizures, you may want to skip it.*** Otherwise, enjoy!

The Infinite is currently in Tacoma, Washington, and will remain there until about September. If you are anywhere close, you’ll really want to experience it. It’s out of this world. (See what I did there?)

If Tacoma is beyond your reach, you can go to the website and sign up to be notified of future tour dates. Keep an eye out in case it comes your way. It’s even better than watching the International Space Station fly overhead while you sit in a hot tub with someone you love (although that’s pretty cool, too).

If stuff like this existed when I was a kid, I’d have taken science more seriously. What amazing times we live in.

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A Beautiful Superfund Site

Tacoma is one of my favorite cities.

I live about halfway between Seattle and Tacoma, Washington. I spend a great deal more time in Seattle, though, because there always seems to be much more going on there, including my job. But I have to admit that I like the Tacoma vibe much more. It seems more laid back, albeit a little too conservative for my tastes.

Tacoma is also the home of Point Defiance Park, which includes stunning old growth trees and makes you feel as though you’re deep in the back of beyond. There’s also the Tacoma Narrows Bridge (of Galloping Gertie fame), and when you’re downtown you can barely throw a rock without shattering some very expensive and beautiful Chihuly glass. There are also untold number of museums, and public art (one of my passions) abounds.

But what I love the most about Tacoma is its gorgeous views. As you travel through the town, you keep getting stunning glimpses of Puget Sound, and Vashon Island and Mount Ranier. You also can see the Cascades Mountains and the Olympic Range. On a clear day you can get a stunning view of Glacier Peak. So in essence, you have all the convenience of a city but there’s nature everywhere you look. I’d love to live there.

But there’s a dark side, too. Much of the waterfront area, and in fact, 1,000 square miles in a tricounty area, was poisoned with arsenic and lead because of the former ASARCO copper smelter in Ruston, Washington. (Ruston is a little municipality that is surrounded on three sides by Tacoma, and the fourth side is bordered by the sound.)

This smelter churned out its poison for nearly 100 years, and that poison settled into the soil. That 1,000 square miles of toxicity is now called Tacoma Smelter Plume, and you’re well advised to check out this website before buying property in the area.

Oddly enough, though, the Tacoma waterfront, one of the hardest hit areas, is actually quite gorgeous, if you don’t think too much about what’s below your feet. We visited the recently built Dune Peninsula, which is part of Point Defiance Park, and is named after a book by the author Frank Hebert who grew up here. I didn’t want to leave. (Read, also, my post about the little free libraries that we visited in the area.)

Here are some pictures of the park, including one of the old, gigantic copper smelting pots, a view through a scope of Glacier Peak, and a stunning view of Mount Rainier. What’s not to love about this superfund site? Well, I mean, besides the obvious…

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Because Sunshine!

Get out in it!

When I lived in Florida, I used to take sunshine for granted. In fact, I got rather adept at avoiding it at all costs. I have no idea how anyone survives down there without air conditioning. I spent my whole Florida life trying to quickly move from one air conditioned space to the next.

But here in the Pacific Northwest, you learn to appreciate every single ray of sunshine that you get. The winters here are wet, grey, and raw, for months on end. So when spring comes along and throws several days of sunshine at you in a row, you’d be a fool not to get out in it and celebrate.

And so it was that dear husband and I decided to take a road trip to Tacoma and enjoy the waterfront. (More details about the waterfront and the town itself in another post.)

While we were at it, we brought a box full of books and visited a few of the hundreds of little libraries that are in that area. It’s always fun to see the different setups that various people have, and see the neighborhoods that they serve. It also makes me smile to think that I’m adding books that are new to that particular library. Variety, after all, is the spice of life.

We visited four little free libraries in or around old town in Tacoma, and their pictures are below. Not only did I leave many books behind, but I took a few for my library. I wish I had time to read all of them myself!

I also nominated three of them to become pokestops. I hope the Pokemon Go folks accept my nominations, so that more children will be drawn to these libraries and perhaps develop a love of reading. I couldn’t nominate the fourth one because it was mounted directly on the wall of their home, and I know for a fact that Pokemon rejects all things that are quite obviously on private property. (As well they should.)

The tall skinny one that you see was as wonderful as the others, but the bottom door had become swollen and wouldn’t completely close, and therefore there was some water damage to the books on the lower level. That kind of made me sad. I hope someone repairs it at some point.

And I loved the one that included a bench. I can just imagine sitting there in that pretty neighborhood, enjoying the sunshine and reading a book. That sounds as close to heaven as one could possibly come in this life.

Books and sunshine both feed the soul.

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Why I Love the Primaries

You can make a bigger impact in the primaries than at any other time.

Recently I had the privilege to attend a Bernie Sanders rally at the Tacoma Dome here in Washington State. Yep, that arrow, pointing to the blue smudge amongst the 17,000 other attendees in the picture below…that’s me! It was exhilarating to be among so many like-minded people.

I imagine it would be even more exciting for someone who was still on the fence about who they intend to vote for in the primaries, but I’ve been for Bernie since the last presidential election, so this was more of a confirmation of my beliefs in what he stands for. I will definitely vote for him in the democratic primaries.

But I’m not here to convince you to do the same. Make up your own mind. Seriously.

No, this is a post about primaries in general, and why I think they’re so critically important. It drives me insane that so many people skip the primary process altogether. The voter turnout is always much lower.

I’m a democrat, but here lately, it’s mostly by default. I would sooner die than vote republican, because they represent everything that I DO NOT stand for. But I’m losing faith in politicians in general, if I’m honest, and that’s heartbreaking.

I do believe firmly in the democratic process. I think voting is the most patriotic thing a person can do. When you vote, you’re helping to decide the moral shape of your country, and that’s important.

In a way, though, I think you have more ability to make an impact in the primaries than at any other time. When you vote in the primaries, you’re telling your political party what values you hold, and what direction you want them to take in the future. Even if your person doesn’t win, they’ll think, “Wow, that person stood more radically for women’s rights (for example) than any other candidate, and got 30 percent of the primary vote. Maybe we should take women’s rights more seriously, moving forward.”

I see primary platforms as my wish lists. If my person gets elected, do I actually think they’ll achieve everything they set out to do, given our obstructionist two party system? No one can, regardless of party, the way things stand these days. Not by a long shot. But even if they get partway to where I’d like this country to go, it’s better than the alternative. And if your party learns what truly matters to its constituents, then it will start putting up more candidates that hold those values. And then if that person wins… like I said, baby steps. But steps nonetheless.

So don’t skip your party’s primaries, folks. Don’t skip any election, for that matter. Vote! Vote! Vote!

Me at Bernie Rally

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The Museum of Glass

Check it out! You’ll be glad you did!

If you ever find yourself in Tacoma, Washington, I highly recommend that you pay the Museum of Glass a visit. It’s been around since 2002, and it’s a place where you can experience all things glass. Its very existence revitalized that charming city.

I suggest that you approach the museum by crossing Chihuly’s Bridge of Glass. It’s an otherworldly riot of color that will leave you wondering how it could possibly be topped by the indoor exhibits. There’s the ceiling display called the Seaform Pavillion, then a wall of vase-like objects that are lit up at night, called the Venetian Wall, and then two large blue sculptures that can also be seen as you drive beneath them on the freeway, called the Crystal Towers.

The building itself is a tilted, stainless steel cone, and it’s fun to stand in front of it, tilted yourself, for a memorable selfie. (I’d show you ours, but I have a modest husband.)

Upon entering the building, check out the hot shop first. That way you can cool off afterward in the exhibit area, because to say that the hot shop is hot is an understatement. But there you can watch glass artists in front of the scorching hot ovens, honing their craft. It’s really magical to watch something transform from a baseball sized lump to a stunningly designed, extremely intricate vase. And there is always someone on hand who can answer your questions about each step of the process.

Glass Hotshop

Next I recommend that you take a peek down a glass fronted hallway called Art Alley, where the “Kids Design Glass” exhibit is. This is a delightful concept. Kids under 12 can go to the website and fill out a Kids Design Glass Entry Form. The entry includes the child’s drawing, and their own little story that inspires the drawing. Then, once a month, one entry is chosen, and the hot shop invites that child to watch them make two copies of the glass sculpture inspired by that drawing. One copy goes to the child, and the other one is put on display. What fun!

The museum often has workshops where you can experience glassmaking firsthand, and there are also docent-led tours of the exhibits, or you can explore them on your own. In addition, there’s a docent-guided Chihuly Walking Tour around downtown Tacoma on some days. And there are a lot of one-day events throughout the year. Check the website for days and times.

There’s a permanent Dale Chihuly exhibit, and a few rotating exhibits and short term exhibits.

I’m hesitant to tell you about the amazing exhibit we saw, entitled Raven and the Box of Daylight, because by the time you read this, it will be gone. It was based on a Tlingit story about Raven’s journey as he transforms the world, bringing light to the people via the stars, moon, and sun. It was otherworldly. You experience it through the glass, the story, the music and the lighting. I was a feast for the senses. I’m so glad that photography was allowed (see below), or it would have felt like it was all a dream.

And every good museum has a store. I wanted one of everything. But I’m trying not to accumulate stuff.

Check out the Museum of Glass. You’ll be so glad you did!

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Realtors — The Inside Scoop

I never realized that it’s really a helping profession.

People don’t give Realtors much thought unless they’re buying or selling a house. At least, I never did. And then I went and married one, so needless to say, I have some newfound insight on this particular career.

It’s a unique job that requires a unique skillset. 90% percent of the people who get their license do not renew it at the end of two years. And only 1% of Realtors make it to 25 years. My husband has been at it for16.5 years, so I’d say he’s at the upper end of the bell curve.

He also happens to love his job. That, of course, helps in any profession. But it’s a particular boon in this one, because it’s a challenging job to succeed at.

First of all, you only get paid if the sale is made. You might work with someone for months, and in the end walk away with nothing. Only half the people you work with result in a paycheck. A lot of the time it must feel like volunteer work. That would drive me insane.

Your paycheck isn’t steady. It’s either feast or famine, and that must make it difficult to pay your monthly bills. But my husband is quite good at long term planning and budgeting.

And then every time he does get a paycheck, he’s unemployed again. Much effort is expended in finding new clients. Fortunately he gets a lot of referrals from old clients, because they recognize how good he is at what he does.

He spends tons of time and money in continuing education, advertising, and marketing. So that big commission gets divided in a lot of ways. The profit margin is extremely slim, and it gets even more strained during an economic downturn.

He’s also never off the clock. He gets calls all hours of the day and night, seven days a week. If you want to do this job well, you have to strike while the iron is hot. And you never know when that will be.

People who go the “for sale by owner” route don’t realize how much they shortchange themselves. Realtors earn every penny they make. They increase your home’s exposure, they give advice in staging it so it looks desirable, and they are up to date on all the legal issues so you don’t make a horrible, expensive mistake. They are familiar with the market in the area so that you can be sure that your home is not priced too high or too low. They make sure all the t’s get crossed and all the i’s get dotted. They also have well known contacts in other parts of the industry so that you have a competent team on your side. When you try to go it alone, the real nightmare often comes when you forget to do something and it comes back to bite you after the sale is closed.

If you’re looking to buy a house, I cannot stress enough the importance of finding the right Realtor for you. The term Realtor is misunderstood by many. When people get their license from the Department of Licensing they are a real estate salesperson, aka Brokers. But only those that become members of the National Association of Realtors® are Realtors. Brokers don’t bother to correct people when they are mistakenly called a Realtor, but there is a higher standard and a Code of Ethics that Realtors adhere to. So don’t just pick some random person off the internet, or latch on to someone that you’ve only just met. Do your homework. Find someone who has worked in the field for several years, and knows your area well. Choose a someone who is a member of the NAR and who loves his or her job and will give you all the attention that you need.

The interesting thing about the job, the thing I would have never guessed, is that it’s really a helping profession. I think that’s what my husband loves best about it. You are helping people find a home that they can afford, and that they will love.

When he was helping me find my home, he spent a lot of time listening closely to what I was looking for. He quickly learned that it was important to me to have a big bathtub, a fireplace, and a dishwasher. On the other hand, I didn’t really care if I had a garage. But I did want off street parking (which is an important consideration in the Seattle area.) He figured out that I wouldn’t feel comfortable in one of those neighborhoods where all the houses looked alike. I would have stuck out like a sore thumb in a gated community. Because he took the time to learn all those things about me, he was able show me listings in my price range that fit the person that I am. That counts for so much. No two people get the same image in their heads when you say the word home. My husband really understands that. A good Realtor always will.

Another thing that a good Realtor will do is tell you to walk away from a house that he knows is not right for you. My husband did that several times, even though he knew that would delay his getting a commission. That’s when I knew he was a keeper, professionally speaking.

He also understands that the house buying and house selling process is stressful as all get out. There were two points in my process where I had a complete meltdown. I’m learning that that’s not uncommon. Sometimes my husband takes on the role of counselor or bartender. He listens. He advises. He reassures.

He also enjoys getting to meet new people. He shows them that he’s honest and really has their best interests at heart. For a long time, he couldn’t figure out why he felt a slight let down after a sale. Shouldn’t he be feeling triumphant? But then he realized that his clients quickly become his friends, and he was going to miss seeing them every day. Many of them are still friends years later.

I think the best part, for him, is getting to be his own boss, and being able to work with good people, knowing that their success in this monumental life task will also be his own.

If you are buying or selling a house in the Seattle area, (basically from Everett to Tacoma), contact me and I’ll put you in touch with my husband. You won’t regret it. And if you are located in any other part of the country, he can also help you find a reliable Realtor in your area.


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My Recent Time Travel

I got to hop off a bus and walk right into the year 1857.

The other night I got to hop off a bus and walk right into the year 1857. That’s a sentence I never thought I’d have the opportunity to write. And yet, there I was, in a world of candlelight and campfires, square dancing and samplers, blacksmiths and bartering.

Even more fascinating, I got to be a mere specter in this place. The people of 1857 did not see me. They didn’t even sense me. In fact, I had to move out of the way a few times to avoid being trampled by them. And I had been warned that they were going to live their lives as they always did. If they had to throw a bucket of slop out the door and I happened to be in the way, well… too bad for me.

And so, there I was, an invisible fly on the wall at Fort Nisqually. Eavesdropping and observing. What a fascinating night that was.

I happened to walk in during the preparations for the wedding of Letitia Work and fort clerk Edward Huggins. People came from miles around. Gentlemen and their wives, settlers, trappers, laborers, and cooks. All had a role in this event, whether it be a supporting one or a participating one. For many of them, their work continued on, but they were at least treated to a nice plate of food from the reception. Others came especially for the ceremony, wearing all their finery, and took the opportunity to discuss the news of the day with people they rarely had the opportunity to see. I was fascinated to note that politics were divisive and stressful even back then.

I got to wander through the forge, the factor’s house, the sale shop and the kitchen, and in and around the fort grounds, listening to over a hundred people who were going about their 1857 business in a world where there are no cell phones or electricity or social media. What an amazing experience.

The good news is, this time travel opportunity is available to you, too, as Fort Nisqually hosts these candlelight tours in early October each year. If you are in the Tacoma area, I highly recommend that you mark your calendars for next year, as the destination is 1859. You might even see me there, in ghost form.

Two Gentlemen of Fort Nisqually

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Exploring Washington State: Fort Nisqually

Nestled within what seems like forest primeval, but is actually Port Defiance Park in the City of Tacoma, is a fascinating fort that will take you back to the year 1855. Although only two of the buildings are original, the Granary and the Factor’s House, and it doesn’t look like much from outside the gates, once you enter you feel like you’re in another world.

The fort used to be located 15 miles south in what is now DuPont. It was moved to Tacoma in 1933, but the curators have done an amazing job to make this Hudson’s Bay Company fort historically accurate.

According to their website, Fort Nisqually was the first European settlement on Puget Sound. It thrived on the fur trade, and later on it produced crops and livestock for export. The Europeans and the Native Americans got on well. They worked together and intermarried. It wasn’t until the fort found itself on American soil and revenue agents and tax collectors started bugging them that things became hostile.

I absolutely love living history museums, and this is one of the best I’ve seen in quite some time. The interpreters in period clothing were very friendly and taught us a great deal about life in the fort, and there were some fascinating displays as well. There was even clothing that you could try on.

We had the opportunity to feel some actual beaver pelts, and from that I could finally see what all the fuss was about. It was amazing. And something I didn’t know was that top hats made from beaver at the time did not include the skin. It was the fur alone, made into a soft felt, that was used. It could last practically forever, so these hats were often passed down from father to son.

Despite the fact that it stopped being an actual working fort in 1869, there is a certain vibrance to the place. They still plant crops and raise chickens. They hold workshops to teach such things as butchering and curing, 19th century clothing construction, beekeeping, and basketry. They have summer camps. They have several events throughout the year, such as Queen Victoria’s Birthday, Brigade Encampment, Harvest Home, a Candlelight Tour and a Christmas Regale.

I am thrilled that I now know about this place, because I’m sure I’ll be back many times. I’ll leave you with some pictures from our visit.

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Just about every day that I work on one of the drawbridges that crosses the Ship Canal here in Seattle, I open my bridge for a 2000 gross ton gravel barge. That’s a lot of gravel. If it were being transported by semi truck, that would be an average of 186 trucks per barge. Every day.

Island Chief Ballard

That had me wondering where this gravel was coming from, and where it was going. Well, the answer is, it comes from Dupont, Washington, which is south of Tacoma, and it is carried up to Kenmore, which is at the northernmost tip of Lake Washington.

There are several pits and quarries in the Dupont area. One is shown below. I’m amazed the entire region isn’t one massive hole, based on what I’ve seen float past my window.

When it arrives in Kenmore, it is taken to CalPortland, the largest producer of sand, gravel and quarry rock in the Pacific Northwest. They make products such as ready mix concrete, corrugated pipe, assorted building materials and asphalt.

There’s no question that this region is booming, and I suppose that most would consider this a good thing, but I look at those barges with a certain level of despair. What I see is “used-to-be-mountains.” And according to this article in Science Alert, the world is actually facing a sand crisis that most of us haven’t even noticed.

When the world’s population increases, the need for building materials increases. But there’s only so much sand and gravel to go around. It’s getting so bad that organized crime groups are actually selling sand and gravel on the black market, and violence has  broken out over sand. Sand!

We take it for granted, because we walk down beaches and feel it between our toes, but sand is actually a limited resource along the lines of water. Without it, we will see increasing erosion, and that’s compounded by the fact that sea levels are rising. Barrier islands and wetlands that protect communities from tsunamis and flooding are starting to disappear.

Many species that depend on sand as an important part of their habitat, such as crocodiles and turtles, are starting to be endangered as well. Further, the standing pools of water that are created when you remove sand are breeding grounds for mosquitoes and bacteria that cause a variety of diseases. This is a problem that we need to take seriously.

We are raised to believe that progress is good. We try not to think about what disappears as a result of this progress. We don’t think about limits. We don’t think about the end of things. We just take, take, take. One barge load at a time.

Kapowsin Quarry

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