I've been busy. And I'm going to continue to be busy. The only time to rest is right now, so I'm taking a one-month break from the blog before returning in late January with new excitement– a lot more stories (including one about pie! Yay!), and an Exciting Lecture (yes, there are such things) I'll be giving at MOHAI on February 19th.
Until then, please enjoy these four videos of different lengths of me talking and answering questions about buses, life, joy, grief, youth, ageing, publishing and everything else. I'll never be able to explain how much went into making these possible, or how much some of them didn't happen. I hope you enjoy them. Massive thanks to everyone listed in the videos and descriptions for any of this being possible.
1. Nathan and Tom Eykemans at Elliott Bay
This is the now-legendary (for me, anyway!) show that apparently is one of Elliott Bay's highest-ever attended. I was told we beat out Bruce Springsteen! Not that it matters. What matters is not how many came, but who came. What a friendly crowd. A lot of people special to me were there that night. Can you feel it, especially toward the end as we get into Q&A? I still think about the question the girl asks at 1:34:34. I'd have a better answer now. Her tentative, raw vulnerability and the size of her query honestly contains more wisdom than anything I could've come up with in response. Reflections of my own on the event here.
2. Nathan and Susanna Ryan at Third Place
How can I explain how fun this was? I can't. Just watch the video. Plus, reflections on this lovefest here. How can I resist writing lovefest recaps after all my events? It never gets old. I'm always cowed into silence (or lovefest recapping) with unending gratitude.
3. Nathan as Life Goes On
This is a short one. Here I am reading a story that's meaningful to me at a festive bookselling event on Greenwood. I miscalculated the crowd; I made the error of baring my heart and soul with a story about death and grief at a delightful, high-spirited event that was more about cookies and meet'n'greeting. But I couldn't help myself. I include it here because this happens too. Every presenter knows that least-favorite sensation of asking for questions when there aren't any... But don't you love how Life takes charge as the video wears on, pulling us gently back into the sway of things? I think I had as much fun announcing Kim as I did reading my material!
4. Nathan and Tom Eykemans at the Greenwood Senior Center
This one was discreetly posted earlier, but I wanted to make sure everyone got a chance with it. Those seniors ask the best questions. I worked on a memory loss video for the GSC recently and had a great experience. Plus you get to listen to Tom again as well. Isn't he just the best? I think so.
Well, there you have it! Pardon me for giving you almost five hours of videos of me talking. I really like to blab away... but not as much as I like to listen, reflect, read, and write. Which is what I'm off to do now. Have a lovely holiday, enjoy these videos and/or the book, share them around and stop by again in late January!
How can I possibly thank you? With what phrase can I articulate what it meant to me that you were there, hauling yourself up to those northern hinterlands, where traffic finally peters out and parking, for once, is excellent? Do you know what it means to me that you went out of your way to attend?
This particular Third Place Books is the venue where I once saw Michael Crichton, a favorite author of mine and whom, especially at a younger age, I couldn't get enough of. He was seated at a table signing books. I distinctly remember that of everyone in that long line waiting to speak with him, I was the only person he stood up for and shook hands with. I'll never know why, but in 2003 it meant the world to me, and today it still resonates. I wonder what it was about our brief exchange that compelled him to make it ever more special. Perhaps it was my age; as with so many events and films I've enthusiastically attended throughout my life, I was at least two decades younger than everyone else present.
It wasn't until after the high of my event was plateauing that the thought hit me: there were more people here tonight than there were for Michael Crichton.
What does that mean? Probably nothing. But things don't have to mean anything in order to be significant. They can simply be felt, and cherished for the small good things that they are. With respect to solely that night, let alone everything else, I'll count myself forever lucky for a multitude of reasons: the chance to share the stage with someone as vivacious, talented, inspiring and downright charming as the great Seattle Walk Report; that she was so easy to work with and chat (in front of a crowd!) with; that questions were asked, and thought-provoking ones at that; that Kalani dreamed up the idea of pairing us; that you came, you all (!!!); that my photo professors were there in the audience, whom I have not seen in ten plus years and who have been major, formative influences on me; that I managed to remember everything I wanted to say; that it was successfully filmed (stay tuned for a full-length video!).
Most of all, I'm thankful that people tolerate me for who I am. That the folks who are struggling through life, who are in a rush, who are unhappy– that they put up with me and let me be. I know the happiness of others can grate during periods of strife, and I try to be mindful of that. It's the only reason I don't burst into full, unexpurgatedly enthusiastic flower every second of the night. Don't rub it in, I tell myself. But also– don't pretend to be depressed just to make others comfortable. If I tried to fit in and placate them by matching their mood, I'd never know what is so easily and regularly true:
That people usually come around to reflecting your positive energy. Most people respond to genuine respect. I've angered more people in my life by belittling them than by being positive. I try for a positive energy that's respectful, that has a conscious awareness. That's present. This is my way of avoiding the offense of oblivious happiness.
But I can never reach everyone. I hope those others, the ones for whom compassion and goodwill appear to do nothing, take a moment to reflect amidst the clutter of modern life, and come to their own conclusions in time.
I wonder if they recognize that happiness is a choice, and that, perhaps like them, I've undergone hardships too awful to imagine. But what can you do but continue dancing? Choosing something healthy? One of the most valuable takeaways of reading Susanna's book, for me, was the question of worldviews. If our outlook is determined by what we focus on and how, and we have control over that, then it follows by simple logic that we can choose our outlook. One is hardly going to be less than truthful than another, and during the short time I'm alive I'm going to try for what I'm good at: highlighting the little things, the beautiful everyday proofs of goodness within ourselves and out in the world, for the sake of my soul and anyone else who's got a moment.
What moved me most about that night at Third Place was the dreamlike truth of sharing that stage and space with people who all respond to something similar.
Thank you for keeping that candle burning.
Above photos by Kalani Kapahua.
I'll be taking a break from the blog for a while to prepare for a major event early next year– but not yet! I've got some big surprises to share in the coming week, but before sending off I wanted to drop a nice, big, juicy story, rather than more press or information about the book. Because nice big juicy stories are how all of this got started in the first place. I'm particularly excited to share this one because it began going somewhere I thought I could anticipate, and that would've been meaningful enough, but this guy took things further. Here goes:
We were talking about everything and nothing, Tiger and I (click here for our first conversation), when he hit me with the news.
I'd been commenting on how cold it gets in Minneapolis, where I'd recently visited. "And they got a homeless situation there just like we do," I was saying. "Which I don't understand. Forty below? Where do these guys go at night? How do they live?"
"Well, you probably gotta look at the death toll over there."
"That's no joke."
Then he remembered. "Oh, you probably don't know, if you was gone last week. The window washer died. You know that guy, he always had the window washing gear, real tall?"
"Yeah." I paused, recalling his name. "Milard."
"That's the one, Milard."
"What? Are you serious? Milard, dead?"
"Yeah man, he got hit by a car."
"Hold up, I need to think about that for a second." I pulled over. Empty bus, after hours. You can do this at nighttime.
I could feel my brain– slowing down is the first impulse to describe it as, but it was really an expansion, my mind reeling out to take in the massive size of death, the eternal reminder that almost everything we normally think on is so much smaller.
Milard. The tall and lanky and lovable neighbor, whom we knew as a character because he wasn't a character, just a reliably decent man, who'd dress crisply in a variety of styles, somehow able to elicit admiration from youngsters and old-timers alike. He was a man from the generation that will always exist in spirit, but sparsely: the reflective sort, your friend who thought before they spoke, who really did treat others as they'd wish for in return. Who covered their mouth when they yawned.
I couldn't believe it. I stared at Tiger, and he looked back at me. We knew each other's silences then, the twin sensation of a world on pause; something was missing, and in its place was merely negative space. But Tiger had more to share.
"Bro," I said. "Tiger, you got me in a state of shock. Milard? I love that man! I picked him up last– two weeks ago!"
"Two weeks ago that's right. I'm tellin' you. And check this out. Lemme tell you what happened, 'cause this is crazy."
I pulled back into traffic. He cleared his throat.
"So this car hits him. He's jaywalking, it's dark. It's right by the tree, by the store. You know. And the white lady driving the car sees what happened and pulls over, over there by the laundromat."
"By the laundromat okay yeah."
"I was already there, I was trying to perform CPR on him, but it was over. Wasn't nothin' you could do. Wasn't nothin' there, man."
He gestured to his stomach and said it again. "Wasn't nothin' there."
"Man, that guy was the picture a health," I mused. "He was always dressin' sharp, clean-cut dude always with a good word. Everyone loved Milard."
"His funeral was today."
"I woulda gone if I'd known. Love that guy."
"It was big, man. It was a whole lotta people there. He had twelve brothers'n sisters."
"I bet it was big. Twelve? Gosh."
"So get this though. The white lady pulls over, she gets out her car. I'm trying to do CPR on Milard, but ain't nothin' happening. And then all of a sudden Nathan, instantly, all these African guys come running from everywhere. And they pissed. They be pointing they finger at her, like 'she killed him she killed him, the white lady killed him.' They's trying to kill this lady. And I had to make a decision, bro. I stepped in and said, 'oh hell no. All y'all need to get the fuck on.'"
"Man, thank you. On behalf of humanity, thank you. Cause it ain't like she meant it."
"She just made a mistake."
"Naw, not even that. She didn't do nothin' wrong. He jaywalked. He's wearin' black, it's nighttime. There wasn't nothin' she could do. And the African guys is trying to run up on her– and by the way, I don't know where the fuck these guys came from. There was a ton of them, I mean lots. And I'm out here all the time. You're out here too– you know. There ain't never a whole crowd like that."
"Yeah, there never is. I don't see big groups of dudes anymore on Rainier."
"But I was like 'stay back, fools. It ain't like that.'" He snorted. "Trying to make it a race thing, shit."
"Tiger, seriously. Thank you. Because that lady probably woulda gotten killed, which wouldn't have helped anything."
"Exactly, man! I tried to help him, but he was gone. So I made a decision. I can't help him, so I'm gon' help her. I had a decision to make. It's good it was me. Everybody knows me, but they were still pissed."
"And when it's a mob like that, that's when people get killed. You know, the mob mentality, makin' people crazy."
"Right. I had a decision to make, man."
"I'm so glad you were there. You know she ain't ever gonna forget you!"
"I was there when chief John Williams got hit, remember that, the native American dude got hit by the black guy driving a car? It was in the paper. I gave John CPR!"
"You're a guardian angel, Tiger."
"I'm the 'hood doctor!"
I tried to help him, but he was gone. So I made a decision. I can't help him, so I'm gon' help her. The endless wisdom of those lines. Tiger just wanted to help, to further Life, never mind who's who. In a split second he could enact what takes so many of us years of therapy and processing to grasp: Tend to the Living.
Yes, there will be the pain of the family, and the pain of friends. I've written extensively on that sort of loss elsewhere.* There will also be my own confusion and deep sadness at driving on Rainier without ever seeing one of my favorite passengers again. No one was like Milard. He was expert at what I try to do– he made you feel comfortable and appreciated, like you were special. Knowing people by name, and always a kind word for me. You couldn't tell if it was his workday or weekend, because he was equally and consistently happy on both: a fifty-something man who looked thirty-five, with strong defined features and ageless dark skin, plus that irresistibly wide grin.
I'll mourn for Milard later. I get the feeling he'd prefer I just remember his best traits. What I found myself instead returning to that night, amid thoughts of missing my friend, was the car driver.
I thought about what she must be feeling. The guilt she'll carry for the rest of her life. The possible manslaughter charges, legal fees and even jail time; but worse, the gnawing question that she might've destroyed a family's belief in a just universe, and that on her lowest days she may term herself a murderer. Be kind to yourself, fellow human. Milard would. In a decade of knowing the man I never heard him raise his voice, and saw him calm down quite a few irascible souls.
I realized also that she would be forever affected in a positive way. Tiger may not think she made a mistake, but I know she thinks she did. In her mind that night she'd just made the mistake of her life, and every witness but one wanted her blood. She was at the mercy of an angry mob on the wrong side of town, and who saved her?
She will always remember who saved her.
A black American man in the 'hood, who saw her for her core, the common humanity they both shared, who understood her. Who helped her in a time of tremendous need, gladly and significantly risking his safety to do so. A black American man who walked, talked and dressed just like any number of movie villain stereotypes we've grown up with, hard-fronting media figures the youth so baldly try to emulate, and real-world criminals I happen to know.
She will always stick up for a certain type of person now, give them the benefit of the doubt, moreso than before no matter what her views were to begin with. She will have a comprehension of how wide love can run in a way even her closest friends may never comprehend.
I was down, she may think. I was hated by the mob, by God, by myself.
But not by Tiger.
It shouldn't be a pattern, but for whatever reason it's getting to be one. Other stories involving African-American men and myself wrestling with shattering personal loss, here, here, here, here, here, and especially here, a four-part series that turned out rather differently than I ever thought it would.
Read the above Stranger article here. It's better in print, though. Isn't everything better in print?
In Farsi, I'm told the word most often translated into favorite doesn't necessarily connote the stipulation of a single choice. You can have more than one favorite. The corresponding term is simply used in reference to an item you hold in exceptionally high regard.
It is only in that light I can allow myself to accept the impossibly high compliment offered by this article's title. Of course I'm not the single nicest guy in the Seattle. (That would be the guy who hugs the other guy in this story.) But I'll allow myself to entertain the idea that I'm one of many, and before you start calling me the Mr. Rogers of Seattle, I can reel off at least five people I know personally who are more deserving of that title.
But isn't that what we want? To be surrounded by good examples? I was once told we become most like the five people we hang around the most. I'm so thankful to know the people who have shaped me into who and what I am. They're the ones who really deserve the credit. I may be gregarious now, but I was once very shy, and there's a part of me that will always be the quiet, introverted child on the sidelines, observing, taking in how people behave and considering what it all could mean. I imagine most people have these sorts of internal reflections, and similarly come to their own unspoken life conclusions.
I write mine down in blogs and books and screenplays and photographs, and I'm grateful anyone cares enough to listen; it would be adequate– more than adequate– simply to bear witness to an experience this beautiful, a life colored with this many giants, from the strangers I've met to my best friends, from lovers to parents to teachers to colleagues whose names I've forgotten, but whose wisdom and life force I'll carry through to the end of my days. The conversations after a shift, in between events, walking out to the car and before you know it you've been standing in the parking lot together for a half hour, connecting on a plane outside of time.
That's what living is.
This blog and the book stemming from it now contain records of moments like those numbering in the thousands. They document moments which are by and large not flashy, sexy, suspenseful, or otherwise extraordinary. Their exceptional nature is simply that they are. In a culture where only what is extreme is allowed to be interesting, I have the incredible and ridiculous luxury of having as my inspiration what gets passed over by most everyone else: the entire rest of life. My subject matter is unique not because it's unusual, but because no one else writes about it.
Nicest is up for debate. But I'm pretty sure I'm the luckiest guy in Seattle. And you won't find me more grateful than every morning I get to rise up and do it all over again.
Seattle Review of Book's Literary Event of the Week takes place tomorrow: Susanna Ryan and Nathan Vass in conversation. Hope to see you there.
UPDATE: Seattle Review of Books names this as their Literary Event of the Week!! Eep! See you there!
My primary emotion upon reading Susanna Ryan's book version of her wildly popular Instagram feed, Seattle Walk Report, other than excitement, was of recognition. As in, someone else also gets excited about these sorts of things besides me?
Check out page 77, where differing tops of fences are appreciated, or page 94, where contrasting construction cones are replicated with just as much loving attention. I really knew I had found a kindred spirit, though, as early as page 19, where she draws a dumpster beneath big block letters reading, "CAPITOL HILL TRASH TIME!" A subtitle states, "Capitol Hill has the best sidewalk trash in Seattle, and no one can tell me otherwise!" The dumpster image (complete with adorable raccoon) details her finds: "On this walk I saw four buttons, a pile of Christmas lights, a hanger, a dinosaur-shaped fruit snack, a broken plate, a coupon for 20% off a noninvasive face-lift, a stamp pad, and a bag of rhinestones."
How could you not immediately have to buy this book?
I was reminded of two things: Don Delillo's rhapsodic two-page section in Underworld (the best book written after WWII), where he articulates how trash is the actualization of all human activity, how it contains all narratives and all evidence of existence; and my own fascination with garbage, from photographing it as a discipline (as in, if you can make this look affecting, you're good!) to appreciating the different reasons why things end up on the ground, as explored in this deep cut of a blog post, a conversation I had in the bullpen at work with a few other operators. Less seriously, I was also reminded of my own enthusiasm at capturing the details of life and the massively wide spectrum through which it flows, which I imagine is why I'm drawn to snap at various objects left behind on my buses as in here, here, and here.
It's all about how we choose to see things. That's what our two books have in common. I often pitch my book to newcomers as focusing on the positive things that happen on my bus, but that's not strictly true. Homelessness, violence, prejudice and grief are not positive things. But the perspective through which I try to wrestle with those themes is positive in a way I hope is restorative.
All of which is to say, it's gonna be one positive night this Friday evening at the Third Place Books in Lake Forest Park. We're pulling out all the stops for this one. It's a rare double-header author event, and it's free!
I try to organize what I present at each of my talks so the overlap is minimal; if you've been to previous talks of mine (such as last year's epic Elliott Bay bash!), rest assured that nearly everything presented this time around will be new.
December 6, 6pm.
Third Place Books
17171 Bothell Way NE, #A101
Lake Forest Park WA 98155
Parking is free and easy; bus service is great (from downtown: 312/522. From UW: 372)!
Details, directions and more here.
More on Susanna Ryan:
The Stranger. Seattle Isn't Dying, and My Proof Is Seattle Walk Report.
Crosscut. Seattle Walk Report draws inspiration from city sidewalks.
Creative Mornings. Susanna Ryan: Finding Inspiration in Your Own Backyard (lecture).