Keep calm and rock on!

26 Feb

Wow! My kid is going to be 13 in May. I’ve been intermittently using this space as a private blog for the past couple of years…going back to read old posts and remembering I was kinda good at this parenting thing for a while. While I’m struggling in some ways with parenting an adolescent, I am definitely confident about how I’m exposing my kid to music in general and live music specifically.

I’m going to say this a few times: parenting at shows is still parenting.

It might also be fun for the adult, but that’s not the primary goal. The primary goal is to keep your kid safe and teach/model how to be a responsible part of our community.

Most of the tips below are based on my experience as an aunty and a mom with kids 8+.years old. Here are some quick thoughts on developmental stages of rocking out:

  • You can bring a baby anywhere (wear them, no strollers please) and they’ll be happy.
  • Here’s the hard truth, parents: your toddler does not want to go to shows. Honestly. Maybe a few minutes of open air music at a street fair…but in general, leave the under 3 year olds at home. Get a sitter, swap with your partner or friend…do what you need to for everyone to feel good and have a good time. Toddlers are like Gremlins: they’re cute until you break the rules. Don’t keep them up late or feed them after midnight.
  • The 3-5 year old crowd can party! As long as they’re well rested, well snacked, and well supported.
  • 5-10 year olds probably have more fun than anyone else at a show.
  • Your 11+ year old will have fun as long as they have a friend and you help curate an experience that works for them.
  • Don’t bring anyone’s 15+ kid to a show unless you are prepared to be 100% responsible for any possible outcome. Have very direct conversations with all adults and youth involved about expectations, potential risks, and potential consequences for not following expectations.

It’s really exciting to see how the Seattle music scene continues to evolve, supporting musicians and fans of all ages and stages of life. These days, I’m much more likely to bring my kid to an all-ages show than a kid-friendly early dinner/happy hour–although it’s pretty great when the two can go together and we can enjoy cheap early dinner and a show that ends early enough to get up for school the next day!

Since venues have re-opened after COVID, I’ve made it a priority to get out to support artists and venues around town. I’ve also really, really enjoyed taking my kid to festivals–in particular Summer Meltdown (sure hope we can get melty again next year…).

I will (and do) listen to every style of music when the artists and the crowd are really into coming together for the experience. Blues, ambient, classical, jazz, punk, rock, folk…all of the above and more! I truly believe that sharing music in person is a critical part of being human–of connecting with each other. We absorb live the emotion and information artists share when performing live into our cells (our souls, if you’re okay with that word). I want my daughter and her friends to have as many chances as possible to create and enjoy every possible style of music in every possible way–whether it’s a fuzzy car stereo, a 3000 person crowd, or 10 people awkwardly avoiding eye contact in someone’s garage while someone’s cousin pokes at a computer keyboard during a silent disco in their garage.

My tips for bringing to shows with confidence look a lot like how I approach taking toddlers out to eat:

read the room, always leave ’em laughing!

  • Safety: You and your kid should feel physically and emotionally safe in the space and the crowd. When my daughter is with me, I want to know that she’ll be able to navigate the crowd to find what she wants and needs with confidence. Start with smaller venues that you already know and model/teach/practice good concert habits:
    • show your kid the location of the nearest bathroom
    • look for venues with assigned seating so your kid knows where to look for you on the way back from the bathroom
    • make a plan for where to meet/how to connect if you get separated and can’t reach each other by phone (it happens)
    • review general courtesy and awareness: hold on to your stuff; stay off your phone; don’t cut in line; be aware of your surroundings, including the people around you
      • Have open, honest, direct conversations about drugs–including alcohol. Talk about only consuming food/beverages from you/your group or purchased directly from vendors. However you feel about specific drugs, be aware that your minor child is by definition not an adult. Youth cannot understand the risk of consuming a specific substance (legal for adults or not) and cannot be responsible for the outcome of a poor decision. This is your kid. Protect them with information and supervision.
    • have ongoing, honest, direct conversations about creepy behavior and how to a) not be creepy and b) deal with someone being creepy to/around you
    • point out what kind of uniform security/staff wear and practice conversations that might come up: “I lost my mom, is there someplace I can wait while she finds me?” “This guy is following me around.” “I lost my phone/coat/purse, is there a lost and found?” etc
  • Respect: know and understand the rules and norms of the venue. Specific tips for parents:
    • If you have young children, keep them with you or a designated adult at all times. Actively supervise them. Take responsibility for meeting their needs: naps, diapers/toileting, food, rest and/or activity breaks.
    • Older kids need clear, consistent expectations for how to behave and clear, consistent consequences for when they behave otherwise–including an understanding of local laws and venue policies. If you’re letting your kid/s wander, you need to have a time and place to check in at least once every couple of hours. They need to have the ability to pay for what they want/need and they need the gear necessary to be physically safe and comfortable: sunscreen, clothing appropriate to the weather, water bottles, wristbands or barcodes for re-entry, etc.

Whether you’re at a farmer’s market watching someone strum a guitar or in a huge arena shaking it to Beyonce, if your kids are with you you are parenting. That might mean you have to leave earlier than you want, you might spend part of a set standing in line for the potty, you might be carrying wet wipes and cookies in your backpack–or it might mean that you’re holding your 15 year old’s hair because she accepted a beverage from someone.

If you are not planning to parent 100% while at a show with the minor children in your care, you should not bring them to the show. That means don’t get wasted. Don’t hook up with strangers. Model the kind of behavior you want your kid to have when they’re 17.

Last piece of advice: please, please, please model excellent self-care and wear quality ear protection. Teach your kids to wear quality ear protection: every show, every time. I’ve had tinnitus for over 20 years and it sucks. Straight up sucks. Standing up front next to the speakers screaming at the stage is awesome–soul filling! It’s also really, really bad for your ears. To quote Kurt Vile: “Plug ’em up.”

Some amazing options for enjoying quality live music with kids

(and feel good about letting teens go on their own)

School of Rock

Bring your kids and watch students (maybe even your kid!) perform at bars all over town. This is exactly how we grow the next generation of artists and audiences!

Vera Project

Vera is the place you wish you had when you were young…unless you’re raising a second-gen Vera kid. All-ages shows, classes, community…so good!


The only reason KEXP isn’t top of the list is that I consider it a radio station first, venue second. You don’t have to rank choices–just go! It’s free, all-ages, and shows are always excellent. Also look for shows the station sponsors/recommends around town.

Listen, donate, volunteer, show up. If you’re a parent, check out the 90.teen program and the internship program and tell your kid/s and their friends!

Other venues that frequently host all-ages shows (check carefully for each offering). Be aware that many venues won’t/don’t allow alcohol in the all-ages area, so if you order a beer you’ll be separated from your kid while you drink it.

The Paramount

Musicals, rock shows, other cool stuff. The Paramount is intimate, welcoming, has great sound, and offers accessible seating. They will also allow you to bring your beverages into the theater if you have a lidded cup.

El Corazon

Old school Seattle punk venue. Always awesome,

Showbox (downtown is great, I’ve never been to SoDo)

Diverse programming, excellent sound, great security crew. Expect to be crammed into the bar during all ages shows. Not recommended if you’re solo with kids under 12.

Seattle Symphony

Not a bad seat in the house! Excellent, excellent sound quality and really good programming. Way more diverse and fun than you would expect if you haven’t been in a while. Kids under 10 should probably stick with the “family programming”–short, sweet, and more affordable. Everyone else should be prepared to sit still and be very respectful. Teach about when to clap, maybe pre-listen to the music. Note: Benaroya Hall has lots of other programming beyond the symphony.

Town Hall

Seattle Opera

Same as the Symphony: leave your littles at home.


These are the people (published draft)

23 Aug

3 blocks south, 1 block west, 3 blocks home. Sometimes it takes 15 minutes, sometimes 45. Tonight, the dog and I spent a leisurely half hour wandering around to sniff and pee, confirming that his buddy Louie is indeed camping, and connecting with some of our human neighbors.

I came home carrying a head of cauliflower, a bag of shredded cheese, a pouch of smoothie mix, two Starbucks salads, and a black bean wrap. The lady on the corner has volunteered at the El Centro food bank for over 20 years. Her front porch is a secondary food pantry for the unsheltered “street inebriates” displaced from Triangle Park after the big tree came down–and occasionally for random people (like me) who look like we might eat organic vegetarian stuff.

Juggling her generous gifts and a leash, we didn’t make it far before we ran into another neighbor from around the corner. She was still in her work uniform, walking her daughter’s sweet little dog. Unfortunately, my dog has decided that her dog’s testicles are a problem, so they can no longer romp in the parking strip. After I gathered my dropped groceries, we continued for another block before a group of cyclists passed us as they leisurely pedaled uphill on the greenway. One guy pumped is fist in the air, chanting “No bag! No bag! Woo!”, then mused to his cycling partner about how it would be hard to find my house keys when I got home.

I didn’t say anything about how I leave the door unlocked a lot of the time. Our neighbors have our backs.

Can’t win for losing

3 May

I created some basic self-care checklists to inspire myself to…care, I guess. My kid has never been a star-chart kind of person, but I find it satisfying and helpful to cross things off lists. Periodically, I try to care for myself at close to the same level I teach her to function: eat healthy meals, exercise, brush your teeth, etc. I made it 13 days this time, until last night I intentionally went to bed without brushing my teeth because…dammit, I didn’t want to. I don’t want to take care of this stupid body. I identify waking up with gummy eyes and gross breath as being rebellious, independent, adult.

Sometimes that’s the best/only self-care I can muster.


Light up

9 Dec

My dad called me on Father’s Day, 2018 to tell me he had been diagnosed with cancer. I was camping with my daughter & her dad, along with two other families. The day before, I’d felt more joyful, peaceful, and optimistic than I could remember feeling in years. I began that camping trip confident that I deserved the amazing life I had, and that I could move forward to build a great life for my kid.

Our phone conversation was brief. Dad was making several of those calls that day, and I was in a campground with a group of kids. There was a lot to say, but it wasn’t the time or place to say any of it. We never really found a place or time to say any of it.

About a week later, after tying up as many loose ends as I could identify, I headed to Walla Walla by myself. It seemed like the thing to do, so I did it without giving much thought or talking to anyone.  In hindsight, I wish I’d made different choices–either leaving immediately after the phone call or waiting just a few more days. I was in a fog, trying to plan and also trying to rush. I regret missing my daughter’s last day of second grade, never getting (or giving closure) to the kids, families or staff.  It was a tough school year for everyone. The teacher lost her father suddenly and was gone for several weeks near the beginning of the year. We all deserved a better goodbye/closure than I allowed.

I also deeply regret missing Summer Solstice. Our family celebrates the changing of seasons during Equinox and Solstice, usually at a small park near our house. We bring gifts for the fairies, clean the park, and dance around. For as long as she can remember, we’ve visited the fairies in the big maple tree. Our little celebrations drew attention from the neighbors, who created a fairy village to accommodate the expanding population drawn to our increasingly popular neighborhood. That group of fairies followed the neighbors when they moved to Atlanta, Georgia to seek more affordable housing.

About two weeks after my dad’s diagnosis, the big tree dropped a huge limb that crushed the bench beneath it. City arborists discovered the tree was dying from the inside and cut it down.  We had skipped our Summer Solstice celebration to go to Walla Walla and never got to say goodbye to the tree. I couldn’t bring myself to tell my daughter about it for several weeks.

We were still in Walla Walla for the Fall Equinox, which we celebrated with the big old maple in our front yard. We’re back home in Seattle for Winter Solstice. The new little maples in the park can’t host as many fairies as the big old tree, but the remaining fairies are resilient. They’ve relocated around the neighborhood and will gather to join us as we remember and look forward.

For everyone in the Northern Hemisphere: hang in there. The light will return.


Good grief!

8 Dec

My kid is getting a much more honest perspective about death, dying, and grief than I did as a child. This summer, she sat in the observation deck of the slow motion train of watching someone you love decline, getting a close up view of the ways the family came together–and also how we fell apart. Six weeks after her Papa died, we’re still navigating the intense physical, emotional, and social effects of grief–hers, mine, and the extended family’s. Although it’s hard to expose her to painful emotions, I hope that being allowed to participate in the process of grieving as a child will prepare her for dealing with grief as an adult.

I grew up in the 70’s & 80’s in a small rural college town. My  mom’s family was “working class”; we were just poor. We’re a white family (European potluck, no one’s certain which countries) with no particular religious framework. We celebrated most mainstream holidays in the American commercial sense and enjoyed some traditional foods & activities, but mostly muddled along without a lot of structure. I’ve often envied friends with strong faith because it seems like they were taught how to do things that I’ve had to figure out on my own–including grieve.

Both of my favorite grandmothers died in quick succession when I was about 15. From the perspective of the kids, the end of their lives was a quick downhill progression of whatever had been wrong with them. They were only in their late 60’s, but in our world it was “their time”–it was normal for them to die. Funerals were organized and attended, people brought us food, graves were visited occasionally…but no one ever talked to us about grief. There were vague mutterings about “a better place”, but no follow up about what those of us left in *this* place are expected to do after losing someone. How was I supposed to bake cookies/play Scrabble/spend my summers? Were my sad feelings normal or was I “being dramatic” (again)?

Over the years, few other people close to me have died. Not very many, but enough that I thought I understood grief. I also had the hubris to think that the grief of losing relationships with people still living was similar to the grief when someone dies. In short, I was completely unprepared for the impact of Full Strength Grief when my dad died. I expected to be sad, but I wasn’t ready for anger, anxiety, disappointment, or fear. I certainly wasn’t ready to feel grief so strongly in my body.

The physical symptoms of grief are real–and they can be intense. Various family members have experienced symptoms ranging from hives to cold sores to general malaise. I spent two weeks almost incapacitated by nausea, and have battled colds and headaches. My body hurts and food tastes wrong.  It took me almost three weeks to finally google this, and I’m so grateful for the resources on What’s your grief. It’s reassuring to know that my experience is within the range of normal responses, and to read about others having similar experiences.

I’m not ready to intentionally explore my emotional responses yet, but I dip my toes in occasionally. “The Mom Show” on KEXP hit home harder than usual this year, in a very good way. Every year, John and Amy Richards create a space for thousands of listeners to navigate grief. The 2018 playlist is here.

As an adult, I understand that my parents (and most of the other adults in my life) were barely able to cope with daily life most of the time. They struggled under the weight of multi-generational trauma and poverty. They battled mental illness and addiction without support. I cannot and do not blame them for being unable to model and teach healthy ways to grieve.

I’m just starting to dip my toes into “Grief Theory“–barely scratching the surface of the resources available to help me navigate this stage of my life. I have the incredible privilege of a stable life as an adult. It’s my responsibility to use this privilege to navigate grief and the rest of life’s challenges in a way that will support and inspire my daughter as she navigates her life. I hope and expect she will be prepared to grieve well.

I Am Trying To Break Your Heart

27 Oct

I’ve never been a huge Wilco fan, mostly because I was doing other things when they were big. I like their music, in that abstract “Oh, that’s a good song. What’s that band called again?” sense.

This morning, I woke up with the opening track of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot in my head on loop. As I looked for the pieces of my coffee pot, let the dog out (then clipped his leash on for a proper pee), found and set up the coffeepot (then let him out again to bark at something in the compost while the coffee boiled), the lyric “I Am Trying To Break Your Heart” kept playing over and over.

Coffee beside me, I opened Spotify and started the album. I’m typing at 6:02a.m. as Jeff Tweedy sings over some lush keyboards & complicated background noise. My dad is dead.

He died last night around 9. My Aunt Ilene called first, then was immediately mortified that she knew before me. Groggy and more than a little stoned, I waited for the next call before joining my 8 year old in bed. My sister didn’t make me wait long. She called to tell me that she’d be at the house with our cousin and Dad’s wife for “them” to take him away. She was calm, and professional, and compassionate. I mumbled some words and went back to bed.

We’d been at the house the evening before, after hospice administered pain relief and gave us an estimate our patriarch’s life was measured in hours, not days. Cousins and siblings stood in the back yard joking, drinking beer, and talking about how glad we are pot is legal. (Except for one brother, who doesn’t agree. His lack of open disapproval was proof this was a Serious Occasion.) I left early to collect my kid and give my dad the privacy he seemed to want.

This morning, I woke to a text from my sister-in-law offering to come be with my daughter while I went over to say goodbye. I’m touched–it was a genuine offer, and I love this woman. I’m also confused. Didn’t we say goodbye? Did I miss yet another social cue? Lacking a religious foundation or specific cultural background, I don’t understand the protocols around death. I know what to do with birth and illness, but death…I don’t know.

My dad sent me away when I came to visit, both when he was lucid and when he was fighting to die. He asked that the grandkids not see him as he deteriorated. We had no lingering deaths in our family when I was young. We never talked about or practiced what he believed/wanted/expected about dying.

I tell my daughter her Papa loved her so much it hurt him to worry she’d be scared. It distracted him from his efforts to die. I tell her this because it’s true, and because the possibility that we were explicitly excluded because is too painful to think about thinking. I tell her that we come together when someone dies to celebrate that individual and to care for those still living. We do what needs to be done, practically and emotionally. I tell her these things because it’s all I know, and we have to do something.

Right now I’m putting Jeff Tweedy on loop about breaking my heart. Radio Cure is downright annoying. I can’t listen to the album. It’s 6:24. The kid is up. I’ve made her tea, distracted the dog, and refreshed Jeff Tweedy three times. It’s time to stop typing.

Later (soon), when other people are awake, I’ll check in to see what I can do for them. We have to do something.

Rights and responsibilities

16 Oct

Notice. Know this.

You are not alone. Your actions affect everyone. No one has the right to hurt someone else.

You have the right to be safe and a responsibility to create safety.  No one has the right to hurt someone else.

You have the right to health and a responsibility to create a healthy world. No one has the right to hurt someone else.

You have the right to create close relationships and receive love and care, and a responsibility to do so. No one has the right to hurt someone else.

You have the right to ask for help, and the responsibility to offer (or find) help for others. No one has the right to hurt someone else.

You are not alone. You have the right to safety, health, and happiness. You have the responsibility to support the same rights for everyone else. No one has the right to hurt someone else.

Let’s talk to kids: death

1 Oct

Kicking off my “Let’s talk to our kids series” this morning.

I could try to organize my approach into a checklist, but for now I’ll outline the basic ways I’ve answered questions and/or introduced “difficult” topics to kids in my life. I’ve been having these conversations with other kids since I was a child, and have honed my tone over 30 years of childcare.

  • Be honest about your own feelings and responses to the situation/issue
  • Avoid concerns about offending religious relatives by limiting your conversations to very basic facts and referring the kid/s back to their own grownups
    • Understand that people will still get offended and use your own judgement for how to proceed
  • Provide accurate information in language the kid/s can understand
  • Expect to make mistakes and correct them when possible
  • Expect follow up questions
  • Provide resources: videos, written materials, other people
    • Looking up materials for kids can help you organize your thoughts and predict some of the questions they’ll answer
    • You’ll learn stuff

My 8 year old daughter is the only child in our very large extended family who knows that my dad (her Papa) is dying. That’s probably not true–kids are smart, and observant. It’s more accurate to say that she is the only child who has consistent, honest, factual conversations about the fact that her Papa has cancer and is going to die.

I answer my kid’s questions–spoken and unspoken. She wants to know why we’re in Walla Walla, why Papa closed his shop, why he doesn’t get out of bed. I want her to understand why the adults around her are tense and sad. I want her to be as prepared as possible for the changes she observes in her Papa and to know that his illness isn’t contagious–it’s safe for her to visit him.

When I mentioned to Sylvia that these conversations aren’t part of her cousin’s experience and sheepishly requested that she keep her information to herself, she was appalled. “People don’t talk to their kids? That’s stupid! Why not?” Let’s start with how I answered that question, then move on to how we talk about death.

Many adults believe kids can’t/don’t/shouldn’t understand certain issues. Unless their religion/culture provides a specific tradition of when kids may be introduced to these topics, they don’t get around to the conversations. In the United States, we lack a unified culture or religious background to offer a framework for how to discuss certain topics and issues.  Without a clear tradition or code for where to send our children to learn about sex and reproduction, death, money, etc individual adults flounder when faced with questions from the children around us. We worry about offending other adults, scaring the children, revealing our own vulnerability.

We’ve created a vacuum of information, leaving kids to figure things out on their own based on information they glean from each other and what they read. Because the kids internalize the sense of discomfort (or even taboo) we’ve created, they don’t ask clarifying questions and they never fully understand what’s going on emotionally, culturally, philosophically, or even physically with some of the most essential functions of the human body.

It’s true that young children lack a formal framework to discuss the philosophical issues  around death and dying. So do I. We can still have conversations about what we observe around us: you stepped on that worm, it’s dead now. The bug is squished on our window, the cat killed a mouse, a friend’s mom was killed in a car crash, your grandfather is sick and won’t get better.

My kid isn’t traumatized by these conversations. We haven’t had one “talk” about death, or sex, or money, or equity, or racism, sexism, war…we have ongoing conversations about the world around us. These conversations help us understand and support each other.

Try it.

Short list of resources I’ve found helpful in discussing cancer with an 8 year old:

The Canadians really do it right:

Decently presented general information:

This is a very informative book, gently presented. It mentions “heaven”, so it’s also a good way to start/continue your conversations about what happens after death.

Not for kids, but this excellent coloring book made my sick dad laugh.

What’s your name? Who’s your daddy?

28 Jul

Growing up, I learned how to navigate the rural/small town ritual of meeting someone and reviewing each other’s pedigrees. Even now, people peer at my ID and ask if I’m related to so and so, or fail to recognize the name and ask if I’m “from around here”, then begin to pry–pulling out family names from my mother’s side, double checking details, finding my place in their world.

My partner finds this mostly innocuous, mildly funny. Since he’s not “from around here”, it’s a harmless game to him. I can see the humor: spending 10 minutes in the parking lot gabbing about a cousin I haven’t seen in 20 years going to jail (again) makes for a good story later. I know the rituals, and I know the stories, but my role in the theater of these interactions is more complicated than I usually go into.

The ritual of reviewing someone’s lineage in every casual interaction might be funny, but it isn’t innocuous. It’s a way of establishing and maintaining hierarchy. Perhaps someone in your extended family is an elected official, or maybe someone recently recovered (or died) from a tragic accident. What if you have a run of cousins who are known bad seeds–ne’er do wells who are no better than they ought to be, given who their uncle was? Who lost it all gambling? Who moved a fence and stole 10 acres? Who poached cattle? The American Dream requires that some people be ground under the heels of the boots attached to the straps of others. In my corner of rural America, your “people” matter–that’s why everyone asks who they are. The grudges from 5 generations ago are often alive and well. Tragedies and successes are remembered.

I began using Jonas when I turned 18 because I needed to use my legal name for college, financial aid, employment, etc. It never occurred to me that it’s possible to create a new name with a simple visit and a few bucks at the Courthouse. Seeing Jonas on my ID gives very little juice to the curious. It’s a line long in years but short in members. My brother’s kids may be the last to carry the Jonas name in Columbia County. When this name comes up blank, people usually move into my mother’s mother’s families: Stevens, Powers, Tate. These names also have deep roots, and these lines have been much more fruitful. If I’m feeling generous (or want to grease a wheel), I’ll pull out these names. They’re mostly good people (many people even consider her a good person). No one asks about my other names.

My graduation announcements simply said “Melissa Dawn”. I didn’t want to confuse or offend anyone from any of the families that claim me as their own. When I was in high school, I was called Missy Young. Missy was a family nickname that continues to stick around (and I still cringe). Young is my third dad’s last name. The dad my mom never married and used to remind me has no legal claim. Young is the last name of the man who is dying slowly this summer. He raised me from the time I was around 4, gave me more stability than anyone else in my childhood. His mother’s extended family (the Williams’) continues to claim me as kin.

Jonas is my second dad’s name.  The dad who adopted me when I was a toddler, who paid child support until I was 18 and had weekly visitation until I quietly stopped going in my teens. He died my freshman year in college, back in the days before Facebook or cell phones. I had no idea he was sick for weeks, no way to return to Washington to visit, and no understanding that might be expected of me.  The money from the farmland he left my brother and me in a trust after he died changed the course of our lives. I probably wouldn’t have finished college without that yearly income. Saying we were estranged would be not only an understatement, but fundamentally incorrect–we never really had a relationship to be estranged from. My mother expected us to divorce him as effectively as she did.

My first dad’s last name is Foster. His son (my half-brother) contacted me via Facebook a couple of years ago, came over to meet our little family and share his life story. He gave my number to his dad. This is the man who allowed me to be adopted by his first wife’s second husband, who tried to “keep in touch” but was thwarted by so many factors. I vaguely remember meeting his mother (or maybe grandmother?) in a nursing home a few times. I vaguely remember my great-Aunt coordinating visits so we could see each other, until Foster re-married and became a Mormon. There’s none of THAT allowed in this family, thankyouverymuch. Foster got my mom out of her abusive father’s house, married her as her mother was dying, was part of creating me.

The man I call Dad chuckled when I said I told Foster to “take a number”. I didn’t, really.  I was polite, but I am exhausted by the pressure of all the family members I actually remember and know. I am overwhelmed by the history here and how I’m expected to know and play my role in it. I cannot even imagine a future that includes even more history. They probably both think I’m cruel, and I probably am–but it’s not intentional.

This visit has been full of uncomfortable opportunities to explore and explain my name and my daddy. I’ve often said that I’m related to everyone in two counties, mostly in jest. It’s actually true, depending on how you define related. Pre-kid, I would shrug it off, but watching people try to connect with my daughter (and seeing her response) inspires me to help untangle these relationships. You can’t choose your parents, but but you can choose how and why you define your family.




Front porch musings from Walla Walla

9 Jul

Let’s start with the fun stuff: there’s a lot of great beer in Eastern Washington these days. Really, really good beer from local brewers. Laht Neppur is a favorite. They don’t distribute widely, but their growler fills are reasonable and the beer list is expansive. Their IPA is one of the most delicious beers I’ve ever tasted. The people who work there (owners and staff) are friendly and welcoming and the pizza’s good. Mill Creek Brewpub is a great spot for eating and drinking. Plenty of tasty beer and good fries. I recently discovered Blewett Brewing in Leavenworth and…oh man. Their Double Wide Imperial IPA is dangerous to drink in the heat. Goes down easy, but at 7.8% it deserves respect. There are plenty of other beers at other ABV points that are almost as tasty. Friendly staff & good food, too. I could (and probably will) write about distilleries and everyone has lots to say about wine, of course. (Sigh. Seriously…wine tasting is not my thing. But if it’s yours, this is your place!)

Most small towns in this region have great libraries and many still have excellent bookstores. We always support A Book For All Seasons in Leavenworth and I’m thrilled to see that Earthlight in Walla Walla is still going strong, as is my beloved Hot Poop. I also adore the public radio available in small towns, including Northwest Public Broadcasting and KWCW, the radio station that changed my life. (Seriously.)

Moving into the Deeper Thoughts…the politics over here are difficult to understand unless you dig a little. Despite all the awesome folks who organize marches for #FamiliesBelongTogether, the incredible journalists who track down every Hanford leak and dirty local politician, the advocates and activists and educators…the politics east of the Cascade Mountains are a toxic mix of isolationism, regional pride, and seething resentment.To say people are “conservative” doesn’t really do this region justice–though it’s not inaccurate.

I’m a straight, middle aged white woman with privilege and a winning smile. People are “nice” to me, though they definitely notice I’m not “from around here”. I get actual stares in grocery stores. My name is scrutinized and family tree questioned when it turns out that I am, actually, “from around here”–about 8 generations deep. But I left, so I’m even more suspect. I’m less welcome than when I’m visiting San Diego, or Ecuador, or England. Less welcome, even, than tourists from those places visiting this lovely little tourist town.

Sometimes when we’re traveling, I’ll tell someone we’re from Seattle and get a blank look. It’s not as well-recognized a city name as New York City, or Boston, or Los Angeles. Or sometimes I’ll say Seattle and people will nod, then ask where it is. I’ll say in the state of Washington, which elicits a knowing “Ahh. Where Donald Trump lives.” Then I’ll make a rectangle of the United States with my hands to show the upper left of the upper left for Seattle and the lower right-ish of the lower right (except Florida) for Washington. “The OTHER Washington”, I say. “El estado de Washington, no la ciudad. No la capital de la nacion. Una region in el norte y oestre. No votamos por Donald Trump.”

Of course, nothing is that simple. There’s a substantial chunk of our region that defiantly defines itself as the “real” Washington, as opposed to Seattle’s citified faux Northwest vibe. Spokane, Wenatchee, Yakima, the Tri-Cities (also subject to fierce inter-city regionalism) and Walla Walla all defiantly hold out their history and current identities as proof that they are somehow more legitimate than Seattle. They argue that (white) people have lived there longer/more continuously/without change/more successfully than people have lived in Seattle. These small and medium sized towns celebrate their quaint and quirky, their safeguards against change. Seattle, in turn, looks down on Eastern Washington for its hick ways & conservatism.

It’s not true to say “We didn’t vote for Donald Trump” in Washington. My friends didn’t, I didn’t, most of Seattle and King County didn’t vote for him. However, most parts of Eastern Washington overwhelmingly supported Trump.  A lazy search for “Eastern Washington Trump” shows almost exclusively Western Washington news sources analyzing the reasons why: Seattle Times, KUOW, Crosscut. I don’t see any local news sources explaining or analyzing 2016 Presidential election results.  When I (gingerly, carefully) talk to family and friends about politics, they swagger and/or patronize me as a “liberal patsy” and celebrate that their champion has arrived.

People in this part of the state styles themselves as independent, old fashioned family values holding folks.They feel like they’re “taking back” power/authority that “liberals” held. They’ve been hard done and they truly believe it’s time to Make America Great Again. They truly believe that there was a time when there was a level playing field for the “working man” and they absolutely oppose taxes, immigration, or anything with a whiff of socialism. They’re racist, openly and privately–though the racism in this part of the state is largely focused on “Mexicans”. (All Latinos are assumed to be Mexican, and all attempts to identify other nationalities/cultures are brushed away. Some of the more “enlightened” members of my family will occasionally try out “Hispanic” as a modern alternative to Mexican.)

Growing up in this region during the 70’s-90’s, I had no opportunity and saw no reasons  to celebrate how great things were. Our family was 5 pound blocks of cheese, paper food stamps, water turned off kind of poor. We lived in subsidized housing, we relied on the food bank for Thanksgiving, we walked everywhere because we couldn’t afford gas.  I was very aware of every subsidy and grateful for every benefit. Everyone I knew was poor until junior high, when I met a teacher’s kid. Visiting a middle class household gave me a glimpse of what it would be like to be comfortable and safe.

I fled Walla Walla for college in Fairbanks, Alaska because I could afford the application fee and I got a scholarship. A local travel agency gave me a $500 scholarship for my “joie de vivre” (I had to look up what that meant before writing my essay) and I used the money to buy my one way plane ticket. I’ve never looked back. There’s no way I could be as personally, professionally, socially, or financially successful as I am living away from Walla Walla. I say that with confidence, because the modest success I’ve achieved is either invisible or mocked by my extended families. My education (8 years for a BA, 3 years for a professional certificate) was considered a hobby, an excess. The fact that I left town has been treated as a betrayal, proof that I don’t belong here.

I didn’t leave Walla Walla for financial stability. I left because I saw no future, no potential to be who I am. I abandoned/escaped an abusive (and also loving) family  and a community determined to cling to traditions, without ever evaluating the values of those traditions.

I fled a region where history was taught as a series of completed events. Information was shared without context or reference. I learned that the Whitman Massacre was a misunderstanding compounded by bad luck. White settlers won the “Indian Wars” and that was that. No one ever mentioned the nearby reservations. Dams, hydro power, and irrigation were unmitigated good. Hanford and farming “sprays” (pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizer) were necessary, and any adverse health outcomes were just part of life. Environmentalism was a challenge to everything necessary for survival. Immigration didn’t exist and the bracero program was never once mentioned. There was never an explanation for the fact that nearly 40% of our community consisted of established Mexican-American families beyond jokes about “wetbacks” and overt racism towards “illegal aliens”.

Politics was a game/joke in this part of the state when I was growing up. Poor people didn’t vote, for a variety of reasons. Young people weren’t expected to understand what’s going on and their efforts to gather information and form opinions were mocked and actively discouraged. Elections were better left to those who “knew better”.

These days, things are slightly different. Local students still learn very little about local history beyond “white settlers fought and won battles with the ‘Indians’.” Local residents continue to understand almost nothing about the context of the stolen land they farm on, the stolen water they use to irrigate GMO crops and generate the country’s cheapest power. They continue to lack information about the Works Progress Administration projects that literally built the infrastructure that makes it possible for them to live here.

Because this region is isolated from other parts of the state and country, there is a sense of frontier independence. This breeds a toxic combination of pride in the belief that they have pulled up their own bootstraps and resentment that anyone else might possibly benefit from their labor or money. The cultural and physical isolation of long-term residents in small town Eastern Washington, combined with the sewer of echo-chamber news sites and social media, results in a kind of cocky paranoia. Everyone’s out to the get them, but they’ll win in the end because they are the chosen people. Not in a religious sense, necessarily–though there are some religious extremists here. This paranoia comes from a lived reality of having the perception of plenty of land, plenty of water, plenty in general…but still never having enough. It’s the ugly reverse of the mentality of the Great Depression described in “We Didn’t Have Enough But We Sure Had Plenty.”

If asked, people will say they “take care of our own”, but when you parse the words it’s clear that “take care of” and “own” have different meanings than it sounds. “Take care of” means “keep track of”/gossip about/bail out of jail. “Our own” means “those we approve of”. Your kid comes out as gay/has an addiction/voted for Hilary? They’re not sleeping on your couch. State or Federal government suggesting anything that sounds like a tax increase…oh hell no. Some of this is driven by poverty, urbanization, divorce rates, etc. Much of it is driven by a perspective that “I’ve got mine and screw everyone else–including me if I lose mine.”

My brother and his wife have been hosting friends who were displaced from their home because of crushing debt. They have other friends who live in a 5th wheel trailer (no heat, no running water) after losing everything to medical expenses. They all see this as normal, part of life. “You gotta pay your bills,” my brother says. The idea that there’s any benefit to collectively supporting one another gets his back up beyond the point of civil conversation. He’s completely on board with supporting an individual friend, by choice–but no one can suggest that we all deserve a safety net. He also sees no problem with these people losing their homes due to medical debt…it’s just a part of life and you better hope you have a good friend to help you out.

I will never understand how my brother doesn’t connect the dots the same way I do. He credits a couple of family members for helping him out, gives no recognition at all to the systems that supported us as kids. It’s possible that he only remembers the guilt and shame of using food stamps to buy groceries, the crappy houses we lived in, the ugly eyeglass frames available for us because we were using medical coupons. He may only focus on the bad from those days.

My opportunity to live a comfortable, safe life was possible because I had access to Medicaid, food benefits, housing, low interest student loans, energy assistance, etc. I support those lifelines because they kept me alive and gave me the skills and opportunity to support myself. The vocational program that helped me get a job in high school changed my life forever. I met professional people who believed in me and modeled life skills and lifestyles that helped me understand how to behave so I could “pass” as a college student. I learned how to get along in a workplace, how to fake it like I made it as a grownup.

I’m still faking it, but by many standards I’ve made it. I wouldn’t be sitting on the porch enjoying a craft IPA if I hadn’t had the advantage of every single Federal, State, County, City, and nonprofit program available in Walla Walla. I advocate and vote to support these programs because I personally understand their value. If I could only help explain it to everyone else in my family…maybe if I moved back? HAHAHAHAHA. There truly isn’t enough craft beer or quality radio in the world.