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A few nights ago, I was checking in with a friend about his small business — which had to survive Hurricane Harvey not so long ago — and he used the phrase, “in times like these.”
As if we have ever lived through a time like this.
A pandemic. A global pandemic.
How can this be real?
For a few moments, as I was cleaning up toys and washing dishes, which I do every night after putting the kids to bed, I had the strangest feeling. That this wasn’t real at all. Not exactly a dream, and definitely not fake, but just… not real. Almost like something I had read about in a novel.
It’s easy to forget — or choose not to believe — when the enemy you’re fighting is invisible. When it doesn’t touch you directly.
I had to remind myself of China. Of Italy. Of Seattle and New York City. Of the points on the map getting closer and closer to home. Of the numbers getting larger. Of the personal accounts I’ve been reading on Twitter. Of my healthcare friends on the front lines.
Then it sunk in again. This is real. This is happening. We are living through history. A generation-defining moment. It’s not end of days, but I don’t know what the other side of this looks like.
I don’t even know if there is an “other side.”
My neighbor keeps posting pictures of his daughter playing in the big, wooded park near our homes. She examines a sunset-red fungus growing on a fallen tree trunk. She shows off a leaf. She poses in her knit hat and woolen gloves, smiling.
My husband said he hopes that IB remembers some of what’s going on. At first I stared at him like he was insane. Then I thought about it some more.
Maybe it’s not so crazy. Because how our kids are experiencing this time is so different from how we are. We adults are anxious, frustrated, exhausted. But most children — the young ones, anyway — are just excited to be home from school. To spend more time with their parents. To play and laugh and be held.
It’s kind of wonderful? Because it’s a reminder that even in the worst of times, there is joy.
(And for the people who are not safe in their homes, who are stuck with angry voices or hands… my heart breaks.)
I keep hearing that by the end of this, we will all know someone who has died from COVID-19.
I fear that it’s not going to be who, but rather how many.
RB is nearly 8 months old now, and every night, he falls asleep in my arms. This is an indulgence, a bad habit I don’t want to give up yet. Those precious minutes after he falls asleep, but before I transfer him to the crib, are a form of self-care for me. I watch him, eyes closed, simply breathing, wholly at peace. I try to absorb that.
If I’m feeling bold, I might nuzzle his soft, fat cheek, or kiss his nose.
Yes, even in times like these, there is joy.
Over the weekend I had the pleasure of attending Books by the Banks, an awesome celebration of authors and books and reading and writing, put on annually by the local libraries and my favorite independent bookstore (Joseph-Beth, where Andy proposed).
Previous years have brought some amazing authors like Garth Stein, Jennifer Weiner, and Dennis Lehane. This year was no exception.
Author of THE COLOR OF WATER, a memoir about growing up biracial, which I read in college and loved and identified with, despite a few obvious differences. His latest is THE GOOD LORD BIRD, “a novel of caricature” (as he calls it) about abolitionist John Brown.
- “I just think it’s easier to get to people’s hearts when you make them laugh.”
- He found it compelling to write about this time period because people were making “real choices that could get you killed.”
- Regarding John Brown’s letter-writing in prison: “In those 6 weeks, he did more with his pen than he ever did with his broadsword or a gun.”
- “Every story has several different sides, and the responsible writer tries to present multi-faceted characters so the readers can see [those sides].”
- McBride says he’s not really an outliner but that he spends a lot of time on characters, because “characters create plot.”
- He rewrote the foreword and first chapter of THE GOOD LORD BIRD many, many times. “Because you’re competing for readers’ attention in bookstores. It’s you or… EAT, PRAY, LOVE.”
- Within the “first 2 or 3 chapters, you really have to engage the reader deeply.”
- “Slavery in America enslaved us all.”
- “We are all slaves to something.” (Social media and our cell phones were examples he gave, if I recall correctly.)
- Regarding gentrification, not just of physical areas but also of society: “All these bumps and bruises of American life are being flattened out.” He indicated that he did not think it was necessarily better or worse, but that there was some color/flavor being lost to the smoothness.
Former TV writer (for Arrested Development and Mad About You, among others) and now author of WHERE’D YOU GO, BERNADETTE, a comedic novel about an unhappy wife in Seattle. Confession: I only read this because my book club chose it, but I ended up loving Bernadette so much that I bought copies for each of the two friends who hosted me during my recent trip to Seattle.
- To my surprise, Semple revealed that BERNADETTE is in many ways autobiographical. She gave up her successful career in LA to move to Seattle, and became deeply unhappy there. Instead of looking inward, she blamed the city and the people. When a friend told her that she was becoming “a menace to society,” she thought that was a delightful idea and decided to write about it.
- “You’re not just a storyteller; you’re a story-withholder.” In other words, writers need to think about what they’re not revealing to the reader, as much as what they are.
- When asked about the relationship between her screenwriting and her novel-writing, and what writers of each discipline can learn from the other, Semple said that in both, “Scenes are the building blocks of story-telling.”
- Also: “I don’t think enough stuff happens” in fiction.
- Sometimes she actually asks her students, “Do you know what action is?” (Presumably because they are turning in stories where people just sit and talk about their feelings.)
- As a writer, “you want to be out living life, seeing things, and meeting people.” Otherwise you’ll have nothing to write about.
One of the last things I did in Seattle was hunt down this building. It’s not hidden or anything; it sits plainly on the corner of Marion St. and 5th Ave. It’s got a little café in the ground floor. And a newsstand. But I didn’t know any of that when I set out to find it. All knew was what my father had told me over the phone. Vague memories from decades ago.
4th Ave. About 35 stories tall. Cross-hatching support beams that you can see from the outside. I think it’s brown with black windows. And it used to be owned by a bank.
Some of those things are true. Others are not.
The reason my dad wanted me to find this building is that he had been part of the team that designed it, back when he worked for a big architectural firm. He has always done that: pointed out bits of history that are interesting or important to him, thinking they’ll be interesting or important to everyone else too. Growing up I thought it was cool, then lame, then annoying, then endearing. Now that I’m an adult, I think it’s all of those things at once.
Scanning the skyline from the Bainbridge ferry and later the Seattle monorail, I saw a handful of possible candidates, including one that I desperately hoped was not his, because it looked like “some ugly federal building.” But upon closer inspection, none of them had the cross-hatching support beams that my dad swore would confirm his building’s identity. It was like a litmus test, or a birthmark.
Fueled by a sense of daughterly duty, I decided to reserve my last morning in Seattle for tracking down my dad’s building. The strap of my duffel bag dug into my shoulder as I hiked up and down the hills, certain that somehow I could find this thing. Certain that my dad’s role in the project would echo through the years and serve as a homing beacon for me to follow.
That did not happen.
In the end, it took another phone call to my dad — who now said that the building was white or silver, not brown, and that it had retail space at the bottom — with an assist from Google to figure out which building it was. But then, at long last, I found it. Better yet: I liked it.
Though it was built 30 years ago, it still looks modern. There is good attention to detail (at least from what I could see) and those cross-hatching beams are subtle, but nice. After taking it all in, I went inside — and I found myself hoping that I would have to sign in at a security desk, or at least that I would look lost enough for someone to ask me what I was doing there. And then I could say, “Oh, I’m here because my dad’s an architect. He designed this building.”