The moving van, vehicle for personal growth.

I am not as reflective as I pretend to be.  It’s just that I am at my most introspective when moving, and I have packed up and changed addresses at least 40 times in my adult life.

In this latest move, urban-to-suburban, I learned some things about myself. Things beyond the realization that I am now, absolutely, too old to move again.

“Being in the moment” is an impossible goal for a constitutionally worried and self-absorbed person, one who believes that she can keep bad things from happening by paying close attention to detail and examining a situation from all sides, looking carefully for bits of static catastrophe that might cling together and suddenly present an actual problem. But I’ve learned that this same person can, in fact, live in the here-and-now when moving. She can decide in an instant to toss things instead of packing them, as a means of conserving her energy. Even things that will be needed in a few days: balls of heavy twine; paper clips, dimes and pennies; chocolate syrup, twist-ties for the medium trash bags.

Likewise, in-the-moment moments can come while packing books. Finding an old friend, unread for years, is the perfect excuse to sit down and read a few pages.

Other things I realized upon moving into this house:

–I don’t understand the chemistry of natural gas, nor do I grasp the nature of combustion issues around hot-water heaters or dryers in small, unvented rooms. When I carefully crack the windows, I am no better than the ancient pagan who thought boiling a goat would keep the floods away.

—A cheap garden hose is exactly like a cheap shoe.

–A frosted-glass bathroom window, when installed backwards, affords the person outside the house a clear view of the person inside. The person inside, conversely, cannot see out.

–Home Depot would have delighted Kafka, as would appliance warranties.

–Squirrels are the gang members of the animal world. Afraid of nothing, they dare each other to do dangerous things and terrorize innocent bystanders.

–The definition of completely exhausted is when one sees and feels a spider head up her pant leg and instead of stirring herself to shake it off, she wearily slaps it flat against her own skin.

Moving, to me, has always seemed like a tiny death. Even when I wanted to move, which was probably 39 out of the 40 times, there was always a drop of sadness. In both a move and a death, it’s necessary to buck up and make snap decisions. It’s necessary to be nice to a diverse group of people, many of whom I would ignore on a normal day. Every decision costs money. Drapes, casket linings.

Strangers bring offerings of food, friends want to help, and have no idea what would actually be helpful, nor can the moving/bereaved person enlighten them. What do I need? I have no clue. I know it when I see it, though. The friend who showed up and quietly loaded dozens of flattened cartons into her car and took them away might as well have brought me a diamond bracelet.  I could tell she was surprised that I didn’t have any twine to tie them up, but she didn’t say a word.


Author Rebecca Skloot and the Dwight Garner book list.

I don’t usually pay much attention to lists of “Top 10 Books” that come out at the end of each year. They tend to be too much like those annoying, whitewashed annual holiday letters:

Look how artsy I am! I could not put down that impenetrable novel you tossed after 10 pages! See how smart I am! I loved that biography that weighs more than the chair I sat in to read it!

This year, though, I read two books I knew had to make every list. The first was The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Journey of America’s Great Migration (Random House). I had the good luck to review Isabel Wilkerson’s book for The Seattle Times.

I wrote:

Many of us see the history of African Americans as bracketed by slavery and the televised moments of the 1950s-’60s civil-rights movement. Coverage of Barack Obama’s historic election replayed those midcentury milestones: cruel, brave, jubilant, violent moments. The past unrolled in footage of powerful speeches; attack dogs and fire hoses; a dignified, unblinking dark-skinned girl walking into a Southern school with white adults screaming abuse all around her.

Isabel Wilkerson’s exceptional book, “The Warmth of Other Suns,” moves the story to a much larger screen, as she chronicles the migration of some six million African Americans who left the South behind between World War I and the 1970s. Her extensive demographic and social-history research, thousands of interviews and select oral histories create a fresh, rich book.

Wilkerson is getting well deserved recognition right and left. She’s already won a Pulitzer for her work at The New York Times – now she’ll likely get another.

The other book is The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks (Crown) by Rebecca Skloot. It’s a fascinating story (enough so that Oprah will movie-ize it soon) and Skloot’s crafting of the science and human stories is nothing short of brilliant.

I noted its publication  on this blog:

Cells from Henrietta Lacks, a cancer patient in the 1950s, started something that seems more magical than scientific. Johns Hopkins doctors who took the cells from Lacks, a poor African American farmer, never imagined creating HeLa – the “immortal” cells grown in culture that live on and save lives around the world. This is tireless, deep reporting sensitively done and written with unusual clarity. The very talented Skloot erases the line between lab and humanity with inspiring deftness.

Skloot’s book has attracted great press. Yet some of the year-end  lists of Top Ten do not include it. Hello? This makes zero sense.

Maybe it has something to do with the publication date — long ago in February 2010. We have short memories in this society. But, still.

An exception is critic Dwight Garner’s list. He’s the sharp book dude at The New York Times–the one who avoids making a review more about himself, something most of his peers seem unable to avoid. Garner’s a fine writer with encyclopedic knowledge of contemporary publishing and a charming sense of humor. Again, all too rare among the professional book junkies. His review of Skloot’s book was typically well done.

Garner also had the catchiest, most fitting one-liner of any book review in 2010:

“A thorny and provocative book about cancer, racism, scientific ethics and crippling poverty, ‘The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks’ also floods over you like a narrative dam break, as if someone had managed to distill and purify the more addictive qualities of “Erin Brockovich,” “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil” and “The Andromeda Strain.” More than 10 years in the making, it feels like the book Ms. Skloot was born to write. It signals the arrival of a raw but quite real talent.’”

Garner produced 2010′s  best list — and yes, it appears I am now on the way to compiling the “Top Ten Lists” list.” Well, someone had to do it.

Goodbye Senator Byrd. Be glad you missed the news today.

One of the faceless commentators talking during the solemn carrying of Senator Robert Byrd’s casket this morning observed that the most significant thing about the late Senator’s tenure is the enormous social change on his long watch.

Byrd himself exemplified that change, moving from membership in the Ku Klux Klan as a young West Virginian to a supporter of civil rights measures as a seasoned statesman.

The comment no doubt gave a lot of other people pause as it did me. I don’t know about the rest of you, but I would have thought longer and deeper about the thesis had the footage of Byrd not been followed by a live studio shot about the oil spill.  On the set was one of the new news-hotties stretching her long legs from a tall chair facing the camera, chatting with Phillipe Cousteau Jr, grandson of the revered Jacques Cousteau.

Yes, Senator Byrd lived a long life. Long enough to die on a day when “news” comes from a nitwit in snakeskin high heels schmoozing a low-wattage, high-ancestry bullshitter about one of the worst environmental disasters on record.

A comforting nugget of wisdom.

From the New York Times obit for Chris Haney, co-creator of Trivial Pursuit:

“Mr. Haney fought and won a 13-year legal battle against a man who said he had given him the idea for Trivial Pursuit when Mr. Haney picked him up hitchhiking. He won another suit against an author who claimed that Mr. Haney had taken questions from his books, something Mr. Haney readily acknowledged.

The judge’s reasoning: “You can’t steal trivia.”


What I miss least: Having to play it cool or bluff my way through.


–It really doesn’t matter that I can’t divide fractions.

–Running the quarter-mile in less than 60 seconds just one time was enough.

—The daily newspaper’s big front-page correction on my city council story is buried in a microfiche drawer in a basement. Far away.

–People forget bad perms.

–I never wonder if a man likes me.

These realizations, and easy access to Google, make me smart enough.

Meth trash? That goes in the blue bin, right?

We’re always a little behind the curve when it comes to controlling dangerous-stuff-while-driving behavior.

We wait until a lot of cars blow up (Corvair, Pinto) or take off on their own (Toyota) or roll over (early SUVs) before we regulate ‘em. We get all pissy toward people (Ralph Nader in the ’60s) who try to help us stay safe (seat belts).

We’re weak-kneed when it comes to regulating things that any fool can see are dangerous, such as texting and talking on cells while driving. Some states with new laws against the latter are just handing out warnings to folks who work out of their cars, like on-the-road salespeople. Oh, please. Unless you’re a mobile day-trader, there is no job that won’t allow you to pull over for 4 minutes and make a call.

Now, according to Susan Saulny in  The New York Times, there’s a lot of meth cooking going on in back seats. Of moving cars.

What better way to stay under the radar, so to speak? You buy such small amounts of pseudoephedrine that no alarms go off at the store, and you cook it in the car, where nosy neighbors don’t get suspicious and turn you in. As long as you keep within the speed limits, wear your seatbelts and are not on the phone, the stretched-too-thin cops might miss the fact that you and your smurfer buddies are making–and indulging–in product. And then tossing the resulting trash out the window.

That meth-littering is the main point of the NYT story. And my only hope is that here in the Pacific Northwest, at least, people will nip this activity in the bud.  In this part of the world we are on trash like, well, flies on trash.

In Portland especially, we sort it. Boy, do we sort it. Our coffee grounds are composting before we set the mug down; our old tires are sneakers. I bought a sun hat the other day thinking it was straw. Wrong, it was made of recycled phone books. People here are terrified of losing daily newspapers, not because they read ‘em, but because they can be turned into bricks and then sports stadiums. (I made that last thing up, but it’s almost the truth.)

If there’s a new kind of trash in town, we’ll find a way to spin it into something else. And, in a couple of years, we’ll have a law on the books that forbids cooking in the back seat. Of course, by then it will have moved to light-rail cars.

77 Words: “Natural Elements” by Richard Mason

For more “77 words,” click here.

“Natural Elements” by Richard Mason (Knopf, 2008) –

The impulse to read this novel slowly to savor it belies its plot: A mother and daughter in contemporary London, each adjusting in her own way to the older woman’s move to a nursing home. Mason has a bold, uncanny ability to hijack the brainwaves of a driven middle-aged daughter; a mother with a complex past and other well-shaped characters, including the elder woman’s unlikely friends, from a devoted South African cabbie to a nerdish young librarian.

(For book reviews with more words, see my archive at The Seattle Times, where I worked for some years. I freelance for the paper as a reviewer and over the years have been assigned some terrific books.)