The Air Quality Index for Seattle now rests at 177, which is quite unhealthy but much better than a few days ago. The AQI means nothing to the two well-fed rats, Herbie and Larry, who live as slovenly bachelors in the brush pile between us and the neighbors. Yesterday, they were hanging out underneath the birdbath in broad daylight on the opposite side of the rust garden from Ms. Hoppers, the rabbit who recently took residence underneath our garden shed which currently houses bicycles. This is exactly the kind of thing you run into with a bird feeder in the city but what are you going to do? It’s possible they’re getting bolder, braver because we’ve been cooped for the past seven days. The boys got excited when I raised the idea of slingshots to discourage the rats. While I can appreciate that Herbie and Larry are just trying to make a living scrounging the scraps of sunflower seed shells which the birds drop from above, the simple fact remains that rats are disease-ridden vermin who to boot are quite aggressive in this case, chasing Ms. Hoppers around like maniacs when it suits them. All she’s interested in are the dandelions, can’t they see that? Being that rats are omnivorous, they’d probably have no compunction about eating her ears right off. In some places across the Puget Sound lowlands, birders are reporting bird activity has plummeted (vanished in some places, even) ostensibly due to the terribly smoky air. Not here. The birds, more species than we have seen all summer, have turned our backyard into some kind of Times Square. One of the Scrub jays even delighted in harassing either Herbie or Larry (Herbie’s chunkier but it’s hard to tell the two apart when they’re on the move) who had climbed a couple of feet into the laurel for a better view.
Adam finished The Silmarillion, the night before last. He was glad. For the past couple days he’d been lamenting the elves’ long life spans. With some exasperation, he’d pointed out to me that elves tend to have lots of children and in turn those children tend to have very similar-sounding, uncreative names or else they carry the appendix-name of their villages or whatnot. It just gets all very confusing. Earlier this week I told him there was no shame in walking away from the book but he refused. He’s really into lore and was determined to see the story through. So he was even more disgusted with himself when upon finishing the book, he discovered the handy-dandy index of character names buried in the back, there were about seven damned pages of elves and dwarves whose names started with the letter A.
The frame above is from August when our entire family went for a walk in the northern Cascades, it might have been the nicest walk of the summer. It was a wonderful day for shutterbugging (the clouds!) and I put the perfect amount of jam on my sandwich. Oliver made us wait for more than an hour while he swam in a freezing cold tarn. Does this have anything to do with Herbie, Larry, Ms. Hoppers or The Silmarillion? No, nothing at all.
This morning I toasted waffles for Oliver Fern, leftovers from Adam’s birthday breakfast. Oliver likes his butter and maple syrup. He was devouring them (the waffles, too) just three minutes before class and here came Adam gingerly climbing the stairs which corkscrew from the not-so-very-nice basement where he has spent the past several nights sleeping on a practically dirt floor with the spiders, tools and musty laundry because his room upstairs has been getting close to ninety degrees despite my best efforts blocking all flicker of sunlight with bedsheets and towels. Along with no insulation inside of the walls, this old house has double hung, single pane windows which freely allow the transmission of confused bumblebees and outside air, to the indoors. Sleeping next to the washing machine is just a temporary arrangement but as he grasped upwards on the handrail for balance, squinting into the light of the kitchen and scrunching his itchy face in that ghastly orthodontic mask, Adam at first resembled something out of a horror movie. He takes the mask off in the morning, transforming into a studious junior high pupil.
It’s not just hot. The air’s really bad having swirled north up the coast from fires in California and Oregon. The front porch smells like an ashtray and the valley’s a dense curtain of gray murk which induces strange respiratory sensations. We’ve got fires of our own, mixed up with the California and Oregon smoke. Our drafty old windows are a trivial inconvenience considering the horror the fires have wrought down south. People are living out of cars and trucks after their homes were burned to the ground. But even here the smoke is hazardous to breathe, a daunting combination with COVID-19. We’re keeping a couple of old HEPA air purifiers blasting away, nonstop. They’re left over from when Adam was younger and he struggled with asthma (thankfully he outgrew it). The boys haven’t been out of the house for several days on account of the smoke but there’s a chance of precipitation on Monday. The calm of last summer now seems like a mirage. Two out of the past three years, August or September have been smoky.
This frame from a couple weeks ago is when we were looking for a little lake up north that turned out to be more of a marsh. The reflection is the thing, for me. It’s not even part of the focal point but I love how you almost can’t tell what you’re looking at, it’s so still. I was hurrying to take advantage of the stillness before the boys turned the surface of the water into a chaos of concentric rings. There were frogs in here. Oliver likes holding them in the palm of his hand but he’s so afraid of hurting their slippery bodies, they easily jump to their peril. They seem all right (they get away) but they’re not very good at landing on their feet, like the myth about cats.
We’re not usually walking to the gunkholes (quieter) this time of year but the mountains have been chockablock with riff-raff, this summer. Everyone from tattooed hipsters, vanlife scenesters to horny panhellenics have been leaving clumps of toilet paper behind every other tree and campfires smoldering unattended (we’ve found them). Ugh. It’s a bad state of affairs but it’s not really new except the pandemic has heavily concentrated a lot of desperate people into the mountains, magnifying the most clueless of the lot. Some of the carelessness obviously has had devastating consequences. The fires that incinerated the parched countryside on the other side of the Cascades last week were mostly human-caused (and super-fueled by catastrophic climate change-related factors).
postscript: Wrote this on Thursday or Friday, last week. The pall of smoky air over Seattle is still remarkably hazardous. Adam had headaches all day on Sunday and I woke up this morning with a green nose, one can logically assume both may represent some kind of inflammatory response to the icky air. The onshore flow which overnight was supposed to start moving air out of the Sound and produce rain, stalled out over the Pacific. Still, I filled the birdbath for the Scrub jays and watered the flowers, this morning. Haven’t seen the bunny that lives under the shed, for a few days. Adam’s sitting through physics in the dining room and Oliver just gave me the peace sign through a crack in the pocket doors (he’s stationed at the rickety card table in the living room). Remote learning is going to be a lot weirder, harder than I anticipated. The boys have completely different, overlapping schedules full of confusing breaks and stoppages. Oliver has thirty-seven children in his remote-learning class.
These lily pads were sloshing alongside the docks at Stan Sayres when I took this a couple of Sunday nights ago (the smelly turtle night), the green seems like the perfect antidote after all the monochromes I’ve been sharing. Last night we went for a long walk in the Snoqualmie Valley underneath towering cottonwoods, leaves were falling like snow. The boys start school on Friday, we’ve known for some time it was going to be remote learning for our school district. First on Wednesday, Adam and I will pick up his assigned laptop computer from the parking lot at his middle school. After that, Oliver and I will pick up the laptop from his elementary school. Speaking of which, all four of us are getting the influenza vaccine, from a parking lot, in a couple of weeks. Could drive-in theatres make a comeback? Uh-oh, I’m bouncing from one thing to the next, again. Could it be a sign of my deteriorating social skills due to prolonged isolation? It could be. Oversharing? Check. Awkwardness? Check? Impulsiveness? Check. Wait a minute……I’m always these things, a little bit. Never mind.
The arthritis in my wrists and hands hurts bad after going Ash Williams on some overgrown laurels in the backyard on Saturday afternoon, with our rinky-dink electric chainsaw which I’ve already sworn once or twice that I would give away (I’ve gotten my money’s worth and now I just want to avoid an emergency room visit). Took the offending laurels nearly all the way down to the ground (12 volts per channel, baby cakes). Our neighbor Penny was excited, it was fun talking over the fence (some badly mangled chicken wire) with each other. I’m worried about her rhododendron which will receive a lot more sun but it’s in a hollow slightly below the level of our yard, so it should be okay. She even wants to take the Philadelphius way down so I figured she can’t be too worried about her rhodie. We can see her tiny pond from the kitchen, now. In the afternoon there’s a sliver of reflection, in it. Her dogs like to jump in the pond. One of them has been quietly poking his nose through the dilapidated, ivy-covered chicken wire. He sniffed my fingers after I offered them through the wire but cautiously jumped back.
Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about what our lives could be like if we lived in a more racially integrated neighborhood though I don’t know if that’s even possible in the Pacific Northwest without adding to complex layers of pre and post-gentrification or moving to a soul-killing outer ring suburb of endless sprawl. Allow me to digress: As Donald Trump ratchets up his pre-election pandering to the racism of disaffected white people I’m increasingly filled with a sense of dread and despair but part of me is also optimistic at this superheated moment, that we’re (if you’ll pardon me for a moment, we being those of us in the United States) going to start taking significant steps forward in a national reckoning.
Another digression of sorts: It would be impossible right now in this current political climate but I’m enthusiastically supportive of reparations as soon as possible, for Black Americans. This would not fully undo the damage caused by historical, long-term unconstitutional infringements on their civil rights and it’d be just part of an overall plan of remedies. We can do things now like reduce just a small part of the ridiculous budget for the Department of Defense, diverting funds into a reparations program. In conjunction with reparations, we can address the current national trauma by overhauling policing across the United States to a far more community-based model. Also, we can create a system of financial incentives and creative inclusionary zoning for racially, economically integrated communities across the country so people can truly start to have more choices about where they live.
How do we get to a place where we start doing these things and what would be the parameters of such a plan? I don’t know. Racial resentments are scalding-hot, right now. I’m not so naive to believe that working-class (even a large percentage of middle class) white people as a group will ever come to comfortably accept the idea of reparations. Ideas and principles barely seem to matter, anymore. Cutting defense spending might be a nonstarter for half the country. The pandemic has gutted the economy. Be that as it may, I’m fully supportive of reparations being a real action item. On some level, there would be sacrifice involved but when you think of all the ridiculous things our taxes are diverted toward? I don’t believe the sacrifice is that big. In the long term, all of our lives would be better. There needs to be a growing awareness created, about specific federal, state and local government policies and programs which irrevocably harmed generations of some African Americans’ ability to find housing and/or create wealth. It’s unconscionable how deeply, profoundly unaware (or in denial) most white people in America continue to be about the continuing effects of these recent past de jure policies on black lives, today. Once upon a time, the idea of reparations seemed too radical, to me. Not anymore. Now I believe it’s a fundamental, very moral and ethical part of healing the damage to America’s psyche. My still-evolving thinking on this matter has been shaped recently by the most excellent Ta-Nehisi Coates and Richard Rothstein, among others.
postscript: I wrote this a couple of weeks ago, published the post to my journal then quickly pulled it back after the light of day made it seem like too much soapbox and veiled virtue signaling. I’m putting it back on now, I feel a little less self-conscious since it can just fade to the background like most of my old entries. It was something that had been weighing on me. I’d been so busy with the boys but I finally finished Rothstein’s The Color of Law and that really had my wheels turning. Rothstein was instrumental in giving me some of the specific language and ideas to frame these things in my mind (and put them on paper). After seeing some startlingly ugly right-wing propaganda in the WordPress Reader one day, I felt like I had a moral obligation to share my thoughts.
We rode our bicycles south to Seward Park, on Sunday. It ended up being a little over fifteen miles, roundtrip. This summer, that distance seems to be our sweet spot for carefree joy riding. Our favorite parts of the journey were the long downhill coast through Colman Park then the six miles of car-free pedaling along Lake Washington Boulevard. Oliver Fern found a real nifty turtle shell on the beach at Seward Park, he spotted it below with his ridiculous eagle eyes while I was taking a picture of the snow lantern just outside the park entrance. We staggered down through a briar patch then mushy reeds for a closer inspection, he pined for me to transport it home on the back of my bike. I’m not sure if the empty shell first belonged to an extraordinarily musky Yertle or Lake Washington is just a lot dirtier than usual. The shell emanated an odor that can best be described as thunderly horrendous alligator-turdstink, akin to a filthy truck stop restroom where all ten toilets are graphically plugged.
On the ride home, Oliver begged for us to stop so he could swim a little. We picked the cleanest-looking, loneliest shorespot along the lake, that could be found. The three of us refused to join him on account of several closed beaches (poor water quality) several weeks ago but we were willing to take our chances on the eight year old (I guess that’s the only honest way of putting it). Oh boy, he was like a pig in the mud! It’s just really fun to watch Oliver swimming and laughing, he’s like an overgrown bird splashing around in the birdbath. When we did get home, he and I took a shower together to ensure every trace of the lake was removed from his body. There’s not a lot of room in there so it was a little awkward. I soaped him down til he was clean as new fallen snow which had been put through reverse osmosis and then dumped out and replaced with snow that hadn’t even been given a chance to touch the ground.
In case you’re wondering, back at the house we balanced the turtle shell upon a stick and propped it up behind the shed (as far from the back porch as possible). As though summoned by magic wand, the bottle flies came out of nowhere to gather on the shell, en masse. I wondered if a raccoon might eventually come along, take that shell for nothing else than a good chaw (nope, it’s still there). Oliver was really happy. Turtle shells are pretty neat to find. Hopefully the terrible smell and various bacterial and virus-containing organisms will wear off.