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Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Raking in the Memories

On the day of my father's birth the Panama Canal had been open for three weeks. He didn’t know or care. Neither did it matter to him that on his second day, the underdog Notre Dame football team tried out their new “forward pass” on Army, resulting in a gridiron upset never to be forgotten. I doubt if those headlines mattered to his mother either. She cared only about the new life beginning as October ended in 1913, a life during which her son would come to know and care about a great number of things. In October, when red and golden autumn leaves mark the passing of time, I think of my father more than ever. He should go down in history too.

Dad never made the headlines, except maybe on Vashon Island where he spent most of his life. Sometimes the island paper mentioned his many roles beside husband, father of seven, and friend to many. He also contributed to society as a water district commissioner, scoutmaster, PTA president, member of his church, school board, Odd Fellows lodge, and frequent volunteer in all kinds of situations. For example, during World War II he helped man an observation tower, often staying up all night to watch and listen for aircraft and record the direction of travel.

At the same time he worked long, hard hours running an auto freight business which was considered a vital industry. Truck drivers were exempted from military duty. He sometimes made two trips in a day to Tacoma where he picked up meat and other supplies, delivered flowers from Beall's greenhouse, whose blooms he also took into Seattle to the Pike Place Market. He moved people too, or pianos or firewood or somebody’s heifer to be bred or whatever else needed hauling. Over the years he worked at other jobs as well, being many things to many people, but most importantly a good example. 

Have I mentioned life on the home front? Something always needed to be painted, planted, plowed, picked, or patched. My father grew enough fruit and vegetables to feed half the island. I took for granted that he could fix anything. We went on car trips, picnics and outings and no matter how long and tiring his day he’d always listen to a book report, read a story, or help on a math problem. He gave us rides in the wheelbarrow, bouncing along the garden path until we were hysterical with giggles. Through him we learned to make change, balance a checkbook, have a good work ethic. It seemed he could make everything in the world okay.

Sometimes, when I think about Dad, I think about all that has changed since his birth. In that year Ford Motor Company began using the first moving assembly line, and his mother marveled at the news of an electric home refrigerator just out on the market. He lived through several wars, the wackiness of Wall Street, space travel and Spandex and learned to use a computer. At least he's done raking leaves. If only all Americans lived by his ideals of citizenship and kinship, our country would be a better place. Thinking of you, and missing you, Dad. Happy Birthday. That old Panama Canal has nothing on you.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Back in Your Own Backyard- the unstructured childhood

Have you played outside today? I remember when every day, except during extreme weather, included playing outside. It ranked up there with the three main features of life as a child: eating, sleeping and going to school, all of which adults controlled. That fact brings me to the distinction everyone seems to be missing these days: PLAY TIME BELONGED TO US.

We owned that open, unstructured time, to do with as we pleased. It made us aware of something larger than ourselves, a world we all belonged in together. The quality of that time, whether it proved to be fun, or not so fun, depended entirely on our own creative imaginations, social skills, and problem solving abilities. It made us healthy and happy.

I feel lucky. We had plenty of open space, beyond just lawn. a big lawn. Our two-and-a-half acres didn’t include woods but did have a huge hay field with grass tall enough to hide in when you’re little and one of many well compacted paths from one neighbor's house to another. Brush and cattails hid a frog pond. We climbed trees, scraped our knees, dug deep enough in our sandbox to capture wiggly earth worms down where the dampness remained. We got dirt under our fingernails. Our play equipment included old blankets, boards, sticks, barrels, ropes, sand, water, mud puddles, tin cans, hammer and nails, etc. It also helped to have a mother who didn’t care if you got dirty as long as you wore your coat and rubber boots, if needed, and washed up before supper. Wasn’t I lucky?

My own sons had a different childhood than mine, of course, but it still contained some of these elements, the most important being unstructured time. They had woods to play in, built “camps” and explored, could walk to a nearby stream, and had safe places to ride bikes without constant supervision. Sure I worried about them, but with some lessons in safety and common sense, they survived, and like my generation, ended the day with rosy cheeks and a good appetite.

When I walk around my Tacoma neighborhood these days I wonder where all the kids are. I see very few. Sometimes they're on the sidewalks on bikes or skateboards or sometimes walking. Often they’re plugged into an iPod or talking on cell phones. I do see them on city playfields participating in organized sports. True, that means fresh air and exercise, but it isn’t the same thing as chasing each other around playing hide and seek or some other made-up game. The place I see them rarely is in their own backyards. Interestingly enough, research shows that even kids in rural areas now spend as much time indoors as city kids. Is it any wonder we now see so many children, including the youngest, with problems like obesity, symptoms of stress, poor attention spans and sleep disturbances? I worry about them, and I’m not alone.

In 2005 a man named Richard Louv published a book of major importance, called Last Child in the Woods-Saving our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder. This book became a catalyst for a movement to get kids back outside, and in 2008 Richard Louv was awarded the Audubon Medal. Washington State Parks has joined this cause with its No Child Left Inside program. I've also discovered a great web site called Green Hour, meant as a resource for parents and run by the National Wildlife Federation. Another good one is Let’s Go Outside sponsored by the Fish and Wildlife Service. Just type something like “kids and nature” into your search box and you’ll find more.

I feel sorry for kids living in apartments, but even in the city a vacant lot or stand of trees can mean a place with bugs to catch and rocks and leaves to collect, or room to act out a pretend scenario. Our future depends on the next generation having people who know how to think for themselves, come up with creative solutions, cooperated, and most importantly, care about our planet. All of those come from playing outside. And don’t forget this: it isn’t just for kids. Even if you’re an adult at work when you read this find a minute to GET OUTSIDE and breath some fresh air, feel the refreshing chill of autumn, hear a bird sing. Dig in your garden, rake leaves, go for a walk, have a foot race with a giggling kid. Come on. The sun is shining out there. It’s good for you. Just ask Mom.

Note: Comments are welcome, especially information to share with people living in the Pacific Northwest about this movement in our area. Thanks!
And yes, that's me in the sandbox in 1956.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Discoveries in Unknown Waters

Last Sunday morning the autumn colors of maple trees stood out among evergreens on the hills around the still sleepy town of Gig Harbor, all reflected on calm water. But the focal point of the scene floated out beyond the marina: the ninety-five-year-old wooden schooner Adventuress, peacefully at anchor from the previous night.

I’m a member of Sound Experience, the non-profit that owns the ship, but thought I’d already had my last day of sailing on Adventuress this season. I wrote about it in last week's blog post Setting Sail for the Future (published Oct. 8th) . It explained the Adventuress Self & Sound program, through which girls between the ages of twelve and eighteen had the opportunity to spend ten days on the ship, six of which would take them on a continuous voyage around Puget Sound, learning about sailing, the environment, and most of all about themselves. I said I wished I could be a teenager again. That wish did not come true, but another was granted. I could come back aboard and spend the day sailing with these girls, in the role of reporter. Elizabeth Becker a profession photographer and staff member of Sound Experience, joined me on the dock. Soon we found ourselves in an inflatable boat, gliding rapidly toward Adventuress, while flocks of birds skimmed over the water beside us before curving in one graceful arch, up and away. It seemed a metaphor for the uplifting experience to follow.

Before my eyes girls changed in the course of a day. I watched them overcome fears, face challenges, learn and grow. Those who'd been afraid of heights felt victorious going aloft. Though safe in harnesses and well supervised it still meant daring themselves to take what seemed like a very real risk. No one felt pressure to do it, but most did go up.

"I was afraid to do that before but it was really fun" said one girl, grinning widely, after she came down from climbing the rigging. It came as just one more new experience in a week full of them. Some kids had never been away from home, had so many rules to follow, or chores and responsibilities like doing dishes with a bucket of water, cleaning heads and swabbing decks. They also gathered for classes on everything from marine biology to navigation. All of that still left plenty of "down time" to read, talk, try a new musical instrument, or just daydream. But purpose shaped these six days.

"One of our goals is for them to be able to raise the sails all by themselves," said Captain Mary Beth Armstrong. She and her excellent all-female crew gave these young sailors a safe, warm, and supportive environment in which to try new things and learn more about themselves and their own capabilities. I loved hearing the girls proudly using nautical terms they'd learned, or each take their turns as "trainee watch leaders", calling out orders for handling lines and raising sails, leading the sea shanties to keep the time during hand-over-hand hauling. In fact, except during muster when they had to listen quietly, it seemed a lot of singing went on along with the continuous stream of activity I observed. I kept busy writing and recording comments while Elizabeth took hundreds of pictures, all for a future article we're doing.

Despite a lack of real wind we did have creamy canvas sails arching above our heads as we left Gig Harbor and set a course south through the Narrows. I've lived here all my life and never before saw the houses clustered along the shore at Salmon Beach, or how the train cars look like a string of colored beads disappearing into the tunnel running under Point Defiance. Neither had I seen the underside of the bridge.

Every time I'm at Titlow Beach I gaze off to the southwest and wish I could travel by water to the places on Puget Sound unknown to me. Sunday I did. Along the way I discovered the joy of seeing youth filled with promise, and enthusiasm, a good sign for our future. I gained more respect for the adults who give so much of themselves to help and teach others and thereby make the world a better place. I discovered the exquisite beauty of varnish on old wood in the golden glow of a setting sun, the different designs made by moving water, and the rare pleasure of true quiet. I also learned that being middle-aged or teen-aged doesn't really matter, as long as you keep learning and growing.

We approached Kopachuck State park at twilight. It seemed the only likely spot where Elizabeth and I could rendezvous with my husband Dave for a ride back. After heartfelt goodbyes to our new friends we once again settled into the inflatable and headed for shore. Dave timed it all perfectly, found a trail to the beach and appeared out of the woods just as our feet crunched gravel. I turned to look back at Adventuress, but we'd rounded the point and left her behind. It didn't matter too much. The pictures in my mind will keep as well as any in an album and I'll always be thankful for the gift of such a day.

Photos by Candace Brown

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Setting Sail For the Future- Life's Lessons Learned on a Tall Ship

“I’d like to be teenager again, for just six days”, I said to myself last Sunday. After the long drive from Tacoma to the Everett Marina, I stood once again on the deck of Adventuress, a 95-year-old wooden schooner and sighed. I’m getting to know her and getting attached. The passing of the previous night’s wind and rain storm, made the partly sunny sky feel like a gift. Sea lions poked curious faces up out of the water, and gulls circled above, as if watching our preparations to leave. 

My own curly hair made a good wind gauge, tossed by the fresh salt air. I welcomed the mess. It meant enough of a breeze to cause the canvas to tremble and swell like a living thing, as we hoisted the heavy mainsail through team effort. Sunday marked the last of the season’s three-hour public sails on Adventuress, owned and operated by the non-profit Sound Experience. I’m proud to be a member and felt happy to be back on board. If I were a teenager though, by Thursday I’d be starting a possibly life-changing six day voyage.

On September 27th, twenty-five lucky girls from Pierce County between the ages of twelve and eighteen began taking part in a totally free program called
Adventuress Self & Sound. The crew of Adventuress, usually made up of both men and women, is all female for this program, and will lead these girls through a ten-day-long journey toward a new concept of themselves and their environment.

That first weekend they had an orientation, enjoyed fun activities, spent the night on board, and then began learning the basics of sailing and navigation. They’ll return to the schooner on Oct. 9th, for the second part, to spend six amazing days voyaging from Seattle to Tacoma, getting the chance to actually sail a tall ship, explore Puget Sound, and study the environment and the threats facing it. They’ll rest each night in a cozy cove, being rocked to sleep by the waves. Along with the fun and education come other lessons, life lessons, such as teamwork, responsibility, concern for others and for the world we all share. The folks at Sound Experience like to point out that living on board in close quarters, in this self-contained world, symbolizes life on our planet, where resources are limited and what we do affects everyone else.

Sound Experience welcomes anyone interested in getting to know Puget Sound through sailing on Adventuress. It’s their belief that people take better care of something they love, and to many who come aboard it’s their first time to be that intimately connected with the salt water environment and the rich variety of life dependent upon it. But Sound Experience has a tradition of emphasizing youth outreach, and appreciates the partnership of two other organizations in making Self & Sound happen. A most generous grant from the American Sail Training Association (ASTA), through their Youth Adventure initiative, covers the costs, including all food and gear. Girl Scouts of Western Washington is also helping to support the program in several ways, including van transportation. Later in October, Girls Scouts will drive the participants up to Port Townsend, the home of Adventuress, for the third and final portion. The girls will gather for a last sail and overnight on board, followed by a celebration with parents to mark their accomplishments. When it’s over, they can look back on their own personal “Voyage of Discovery,”  not only of Puget Sound, but also of themselves and what they are capable of.

I too was a teenager when I began to learn a little about sailing. I loved it intensely, but as time went on, life’s circumstances didn’t include many chances to do more. During last summer’s Tall Ships Tacoma event, I sailed again for the first time in a decade.* I hadn’t forgotten the feeling. It’s all about freedom. It’s all about getting down to the basics: water, wind, air, sunlight, a sturdy and faithful vessel (hopefully wooden), and your own true self. It’s about learning who you are and what it’s like to feel the power of wind running down a line and right into you, through you, hurling you forward with exhilarating speed. It’s about feeling ALIVE. I wish every young person could have the chance to experience this kind of “high”. They’d never seek any other.

There are many reasons I wouldn’t want to go back to my teen years, bittersweet as they were. But if I’d been able to participate in something like the Adventuress Self & Sound program I might have gained the confidence to live more fully, more faithfully to my true self, than I did for many years. Through the efforts of Executive Director Catherine Collins, and others in Sound Experience, the generous grant from ASTA, the help of the Girl Scouts, and The News Tribune’s John Henrikson, whose article in Tacoma’s leading newspaper gave it publicity, Self & Sound is happening. Who knows how significantly this will impact the lives of these twenty-five girls, and even the future of our country? The Self & Sound program exemplifies the mission of Sound Experience but is only one of many. I may be too old for this one, but the organization offers a wide range of opportunities to learn, grow, and feel that youthful exuberance again, even for those of us well past our youth. Thank Goodness, the laughing teen-aged girl I once was, with the wind tangling her curls, still exists in my heart. We’re getting reacquainted these days.

Note: All photos are the property of Sound Experience and used with permission.

*Please see archived post from 7/9/08 "Adventure on Adventuress: A Tale of Tall Ships"

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Tacoma's Proctor District Featured on San Francisco Website

Writing Good Life Northwest puts me in touch with the most interesting people, like Fred Gillette, from San Francisco. Fred became a regular reader of my blog a few months before we were introduced during one of his visits to Tacoma. Standing in the sunshine outside the Pacific Northwest Shop, with the cheerful commotion of the Proctor Farmers' Market in the background, we finally met face-to-face, thanks to our mutual friend, Bill Evans. Right away Fred and I found ourselves deep in discussion on a favorite topic: neighborhoods.

Fred Gillette and two other dedicated people in San Francisco, run the registered non-profit called Neighborhood Life. They believe that the quality of our neighborhoods is intimately tied to the quality of our lives, and strive to connect people all over America who want to share ideas for enhancing and improving neighborhoods. Four times a year they publish an issue of this online neighborhood improvement journal. With a vast quantity of readers across the country, including hundreds of regular subscribers, it brings people together to share ideas for dealing with problems, highlights successes, explores possibilities, and seeks solutions. Neighborhood Life celebrates the American neighborhood, in all its diversity, character, and uniqueness.

I'm delighted to say that the first article on the "Features" page is called "A Walk Around Proctor", which I wrote for Neighborhood Life at Fred's request. Maybe you already know Proctor, or maybe you don't. Either way, I invite you to wander down those sidewalks with me, to see the sights, meet the people, and learn why this particular neighborhood functions so well. Please come along as I take "A Walk Around Proctor". Here's the link:

Neighborhood Life

I'll meet you on the corner in a minute.