Tuesday, January 05, 2010

Trip to Seattle at the End of the Year

Entry for 31 December 2009:

Our lives have become increasingly scattered over time, as we moved first from Northern California to Toledo, Ohio (1978), then sent our kids, one-by-one, off to university in Cleveland (2000), then moved to Scotland (2006). In 2008, our oldest, Brendan, moved to Seattle, Washington, with his partner Mayumi. Now they are expecting a daughter this coming May, and we are facing a level of fractionation that we are having trouble coping with. Kenneth had been up to see them last July and Diane is planning to go to help with the baby in May. I, however, had no plans to visit them in Seattle, and had been feeling rather uncomfortable about this, so I booked a flight for a short trip to Seattle between Christmas and New Years.

On the Tuesday after Christmas, I caught the 5:12am BART train from Pleasanton-Dublin to San Francisco Airport for my 8am Virgin America flight to Seattle, arriving there about 10:30, where I enjoyed the free wireless internet service while I waited for Brendan to pick me up. The weather is startlingly beautiful: sunny, mild, clear.

There then followed three days in which were packed with a month or more of intensive Seattle Adventures:

Day 1:

1. Sammamish River and Pho lunch. Tuesday’s Adventures started with a walk along the Sammamish River, near Brendan and Mayumi’s apartment. This river used to be twisty and shady, with lots of dead trees and banks; the salmon loved it. Then the Army Corps of Engineers did its thing, rationalizing the river by straightening and dredging it; the fish hated it and didn’t do so well. Now they are trying to put it back somewhat like it was before, but it’s not as easy to unstraighten a place as it was to untwist it, so progress is slow, and here and there dead logs have been tipped into the river. They have a long way to go!

We stopped along the way on our walk to have lunch at the Pho Than Brothers restaurant in Redmond, one of Brendan and Mayumi’s favorite places. It turns out the Pho (pronounced “fuh”), a Vietnamese beef-and-rice-noodle dish, is big in Seattle; we see Pho restaurants repeatedly over the next two days.

2. Microsoft. Then it’s time for the Microsoft Tour. Brendan has worked for Microsoft for a bit more than a year, during which time he’s mostly been occupied with cleaning up Windows 7 for release (along with a couple thousand other people). He is clearly proud of himself; we got signed copies of Windows 7 for Christmas this year, which I’ll now use for running my one Windows program: Winsteps (it’s the only program that I know of that runs a form of advanced psychological measurement analyses known as Rasch analysis).

The Microsoft campus is enormous, bigger than a major university campus, spread out on both sides of State Highway 520, with at least 100 separate buildings (40,000 employees just in the Puget Sound area, bigger than the town I grew up in). Today, between Christmas and the New Year, however, most of it is like a ghost town; Brendan only sees one person that he knows. Around the corner from his office there are 3 guys he doesn’t know playing foos ball.

Brendan makes me wait outside in the hall while he erases his white boards and hides his work; they take the security of their intellectual property security very seriously here! I’m startled to find our old living room couch sitting in his office, the one we bought in 1981, not long before he was born; as soon as we brought it home, we had fights with our cat over it, when she decided it looked like a pretty nice scratching post. Brendan, who can’t stand for anything to be thrown away, eventually cajoled it away from us and took it off to Cleveland with him. Now it sits incongruously in the middle of this nexus of high technology. On a bookshelf, surrounded by old textbooks and computer manuals, a collection of favored tchatchkas: kimono-clad Japanese doll in a case; replica of the TARDIS; a set of action figures from one of the Final Fantasy Games, still in their box. So this is where my oldest son hangs out, doing his work! I will picture him here, working on whatever comes next after Windows 7.

After that, we stop at the Microsoft Visitor Center, which looks like a museum but is really more of an extended product placement for Microsoft products. The large, interactive table-top computer screen known as the “Microsoft Surface” is one of the main crowd-pleasers, allowing multiple users to independently and simultaneously manipulate objects like photos and chess pieces. Clearly, touchscreens of various kinds are an important Coming Thing.

Home again, we work on dinner while waiting for Mayumi to come home: a delicious steamed salmon dish from Hokkaido, Japan’s northern island. After that, I try to stay up and chat with them, but waves of exhaustion wash over me, and there is nothing for it but to crawl off to bed and crash.

Day 2: I get up early, before sunrise, see Mayumi off to work, then go for a run up and down the Sammamish River, making a big loop out of the trails that run along both banks. Temperatures in the upper 30’s; it feels refreshing.

3. Chittenden Locks. We head out for the Chittenden Locks, on the west side of Seattle, crossing Lake Washington, past the University of Washington, and over the ridge between east and west parts of northern Seattle. I love the lakes, hills and ridges that complexify the landscape here, frustrating attempts to impose a grid pattern of rectilinear streets and making driving unusually difficult for a major American city: The roads twist and turn, run up and down steep hills and change names regularly as if this were a European city.

The locks turn out to be a pair of sea locks, one very large, the other medium large. In contrast to Glasgow’s narrow canal and locks, used by hobbyists as a kind of historical re-enactment, these locks are real working locks for safely taking boats of various kinds from Puget Sound into a series of interior rivers and lakes in the interior. Boats are queued up upstream waiting for their turn to go out the medium sized lock. There is even a traffic signal for them.

On the far side of the locks there is an elaborate fish ladder for the salmon. It’s out of season, but we go down into the underwater viewing area, where humans can participate vicariously in the drama of mature salmon swimming against the torrent as they try to return to their birthplace to spawn. Obviously, this makes a handy metaphor for lots of things in life: struggling against powerful forces in search of something deep inside us that urges us forward, suffering setbacks, but persisting anyway, all for the sake of sex/romance and fame/progeny.

4. Space Needle and Science Fiction Museum. We’ve worked up an appetite at the locks, so we head for Marianne’s for lunch and a visit. Marianne is Conal’s ex-partner and a botanist specializing in tree diseases. There we meet her current partner, Michael, as well as my niece Becky, her boyfriend Nick, and my nephew Pat. We always have great conversations with Marianne, and her kids are charming as always, so two hours there passes quickly. Afterwards, we stop briefly at the hospital where Mayumi works as an oncology nurse, in the Capitol Hill area.

We drop the car off with Mayumi and take the bus to the Space Needle. I am struck by how friendly and helpful the bus driver is. People talk to him the whole time; he jokes with them; they ask him for directions, and, unlike Glasgow bus drivers, he is genuinely helpful and clearly cares about his passengers. I find this heart-warming.

We don’t have much time, but decide to check out the Space Needle first, before the sun sets. The Space Needle is like a smaller version of the CN Tower in Toronto, but with more interesting views out over Seattle’s varied landscape in all directions. East: Lake Union, where a hydro-plane is taking off, and beyond that, Lake Washington and the city of Bellevue; north: the Locks we’d visited in the morning; south: the sky-scrapers of the city center; west: Puget Sound, the late sun glinting on the rough waters. And on various sides, in the far distance, rows of jagged mountains. We circle several times, inside and out, taking photos, before taking the elevator back down.

I’ve read about the Science Fiction Museum in Locus, the science fiction writer’s magazine that I get; it’s built around Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen’s personal collection of science fiction books, models, movie props (they have a whole arsenal of Star Trek phasers of varying vintages), posters, videos. There is a section devoted to the Science Fiction Hall of Fame; we stop to watch a video about Gene Wolfe, author of the amazing four-volume Book of the New Sun, which I spent a couple of years working my way through in the early 1980’s. In fact, all of my favorite science fiction writers are here: From my youth: Robert Heinlein, Isaac Asimov, Andre Norton, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Jack Williamson. From my early adulthood: Roger Zelazny, Samuel Delaney, Ursula K. LeGuin, John Varley; and from more recent years: Kim Stanley Robinson, Neale Stephenson, Vernor Vinge, Greg Egan, Bruce Sterling. Kitsch next to transcendence; space opera, sociological science fiction, near-future extrapolation, far future metaphysical speculation.

We stagger out of the museum; there is a full moon shining down, glinting off the undulating surfaces of the whimsical Frank Gehry structure that houses it. Mayumi is waiting for us, and takes us on a drive around downtown Seattle in the dark, stopping for a delicious dinner at the Palace Kitchen along the way. We end up at an enormous Japanese market and bookstore; I buy smoked salmon for Diane’s mom and they buy a Japanese children’s book that preaches the benefits of frugality.

Returning home we are not done yet: Brendan puts on the latest Miyazaki movie, Ponyo. We’re all tired from working or Adventuring, but I’m not too tired to miss the influence of The Little Mermaid, Wagner’s Die Walkyrie, and Mozart’s Magic Flute, all within a movie that beautifully captures the mentality and spirit of a bright but somewhat out of control five-year-old.

Day 3: After all this, it’s a bit difficult to get up the next morning. But it’s New Year’s Eve, and we resolve to go out for one more adventure.

5. Snoqualmie Falls and the Northwest Railway Museum. Half an hour’s drive from Brendan and Mayumi’s place in Redmond, there is Snoqualmie Falls, overlooked by the Salish Lodge. Years ago, these featured prominently in David Lynch’s weird TV drama Twin Peaks, but in fact the Falls have been a tourist destination for more than a hundred years, when a train line was built out to them, just like the rail line that used to run to the Campsie Glen north of Glasgow (which also features a waterfall). As with the other tourist destinations on this trip, the winter weather (it’s clouded over today and is beginning to rain) has driven away most of the tourists and it is easy to get unimpeded views of the Falls and hotel. December Adventures Rule!

We drive up the road a few miles to the Northwest Railway Museum. Compared to the UK, with places like the National Railway Museum in York, this is a sad affair, with rows of rescued locomotives, passenger cars and odd service and construction rail vehicles rusting in the rain. However, close to the museum visitor center, the trains are in better shape and we spend 15 minutes in the bookshop talking with the garrulous, enthusiastic train guy who runs the place and keeps trying to get Brendan and Mayumi to volunteer in the museum. Afterwards, as we drive back into Redmond, we muse on the lure of obsolete technology, because it’s clearly the case that my kids are as drawn to obsolete videogame systems as the museum train guy is to trains. What is it about these old technologies that so charms people? Childhood nostalgia (even when it’s not one’s own childhood one is nostalgic for)? The fact the obsolete technology is no longer new and scary but has been rendered somehow cute with time? Or is this another metaphor, as if we saw ourselves in these old machines, recognizing in them all our own obsolete parts?

On the way back we pick up Mayumi and Brendan’s friends Kayo and Jeremy and all go out to lunch at an Italian restaurant in Redmond. The afternoon of New Year’s Eve Day turns out to be a great time to linger over a meal, talking about work, rapidly approaching parenthood (both Mayumi and Kayo are pregnant with their first children), and the ways in which having to speak in a nonnative language changes one’s sense of who one is and what opportunities and difficulties emerge from this situation. It is one of those far-ranging, memorable conversations that linger afterwards in memory. As Mayumi and Brendan drive me back to the airport and I board my plane and head back down the coast to San Francisco on the last day of 2009, I am both exhausted and filled by these three days, like a plant we’d thought was finished for the season suddenly bursting in flower, an unexpected gift.

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