Princeton Emailed Me About Race

The president of Princeton emailed me and all the other alums, about racial issues happening there.

It was jarring to receive a communication from that side, and feel implicated on that side.

The black kids often struck me as isolated and embattled at Princeton. They were definitely hanging in and putting a good face on things, but even in my racially naive teenaged state I could sense that things weren’t ideal for them. I felt sad for Michele Obama when I heard that she went there.

I can imagine how marginalized black kids might have felt, because I’m white and I felt marginalized. It was probably a whole other order of magnitude to be black at Princeton.

There were a lot of us who felt like we were there to provide a diverse college experience for the core Princeton student body. The REAL Princeton students. “How was the party?” one of us would ask. “Too many Princeton people there,” the other would say. When we said Princeton people, we meant the people Princeton was meant for. People not like us; people we didn’t know how to fit in with and weren’t going to try to fit in with.

“Oh so that’s why you got in,” more than one person told me with a superior smirk. “It’s because you’re from Alaska. Geographical diversity.”

I saw a girl from a small town in northern Idaho try to fit in. She worked so hard. “There but for the grace of God go I,” I thought.

Life was good on the margins of Princeton. The margins of Princeton were kind to me. There were beautiful, funny, brilliant people there. We laughed and laughed.

But like I said, I’m white. I wouldn’t doubt for one second anything a Princeton black person said about feeling alienated, bizarre, unwelcome, a stranger in a strange land.

People I Barely Know #1

I see a barista at a certain Starbucks a lot of mornings. I don’t think she has any idea who I am or registers how or why I might know something about her. She is slight, small, plain-featured, easy to overlook. She always seems with-holding, like she doesn’t quite want to participate in the cheery bustle of her surroundings I don’t blame her at all.

I didn’t notice her at all until one morning a few years ago when I ran into one of my coworkers at that Starbucks. At the sugar and cream island, he pointed her out to me and said “I just asked that barista out! We’re having coffee on Wednesday! I’ve had a huge crush on her!” He then plunged head-long into a revolving door that was locked and wouldn’t revolve, which made the whole thing a funny story.

I’d never been close to this co-worker. We were both young-ish and relatively new, and worked near each other, and he had made a few friendly overtures. I was polite to him, but held him at arm’s length, consciously, because he seemed too avid to me. I didn’t think he was hitting on me. I thought he was gay.

Maybe the small barista thought he was gay too, and was startled into saying yes when he asked her for coffee, but that’s just a guess.

My curiousity over him and the barista, and my enjoyment of the revolving door scene, made me a lot friendlier with my co-worker. I had to know how coffee turned out. Wednesday afternoon I went over to his cubicle and asked him. He said, “Oh, I don’t know. It gave me pause.” He said she had a small child, and the father was still involved and gave her trouble sometimes. Her life seemed hard, intense. He didn’t think he was interested after all. He seemed disappointed, but in a normal way.

I wondered what the coffee date was like for her. I still thought maybe she was just being polite to a regular customer. Or maybe she thought he was really nice.

Three days later, we got a company-wide email that my co-worker had died. We found out later that day, he shot himself. He did it in his car in front of another co-worker’s house who had just been married.

When I saw the barista the next week, I wondered if anyone had told her or if she would ever know. She seemed wan and drawn, but she always did. I still wonder if anyone ever told her, or if she ever knew.



I was harsh about FB shows of solidarity with Paris yesterday. I feel like I have two speeds — callous crankiness and abject freakout. I think that all our contrasting sensibilities are sloshing into each other at full speed on the internet. It wasn’t the flag filters that wrong-footed me, and it wasn’t the expressions of sorrow exactly. And it wasn’t even the fact that we all (me t00) failed by not caring about Beirut until Paris came along. It’s the sudden leap to pat memorializing. City of lights, city of love, Paris in the springtime, blah blah blah. People are dead. Shit is fucked up. We don’t any of us know what we’re talking about. Anyway, the news coverage today helped it all sink in a little more, and I’m sorry.

Music is life and, like it, is inextinguishable

Seattle Symphony on November 14, 2015                                            

It felt strange going out in the stormy darkness to take the bus downtown to see the symphony. I was broody from listening to Adele and The Weeknd all day, and it was my first time going out among people since I’d heard the news about Paris the night before. I felt no silver-lining solidarity with Paris. I just felt confirmation that things are shitty and getting worse. I felt grateful to not have kids, and that morning I wrote a short letter to leave on my chest of drawers in case I die (I’m still most worried about getting mowed down in a crosswalk by a Seattle driver). “Don’t think of my retirement savings as crappy sadness money,” I wrote, “Have a little fun. See the grandkids more often. Take one of them to Europe.” Europe. I haven’t put a French flag filter over my Facebook profile picture. That’s tourist stuff. Everyone keeps talking about rich, sanitized, dewy, romantic comedy Paris. No one’s thinking about years and years of car fires, I guess. And who am I to talk—I’m thousands of miles away, I’m white and cozy and on my way to the symphony. But being in a concert hall with hundreds of strangers brought Paris home. We don’t think anyone is going to try to kill us while we enjoy music. Of course not. And then you try to imagine. Maybe a bomb this time. Maybe guns.

Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks by Richard Schumann (written around 1894) – 16 minutes long

This piece is light and funny—a good mental relief. It’s about a guy who pulled a series of escapades: riding a horse through a crowded market, interrupting a church service, and peeing off a tall building. The music is so expressive, so undeniably cartoonish. I laughed out loud when a violin described the shower of piss. It made me realize that music didn’t just precede animated cartoons, it anticipated them. This music was a sixteen minute cartoon. It was so cartoonish down to its very soul that it needed no pictures to be a cartoon. That flipped everything on its head. Music isn’t the soundtrack to animated movies. The pictures are the embellishment of musical expression.

Another visual realization: My enjoyment of watching the symphony while listening live is also why I shut down sometimes. There is all this activity on stage, but other than the conductor’s informational dance or a special guest soloist, there is not individual stagecraft. People are seated wearing black, working together as a piece of a whole. But they are not pieces of a whole, they are individual human beings. And the visual clutter of their bows held at different angles and their music stands at different heights, and their feet on the floor is a flood of information that I don’t know how to ignore or what to do with. I imagine the orchestra as a cuttlefish propelling itself through the water, a complicated organism of grace and beauty. Then someone cuts the thing open and finds these nested semi-circles of flesh, bone, metal and wood—sawing away together but separately. I can’t tell if it’s too messy or not messy enough.

Bruch Violin Concerto ­– 24 minutes long

Henning Kraggerud is a cute Norwegian born in 1973, playing a concerto written in 1864-1868, on a violin made in 1744. That is an old violin! It was made by someone named Guiseppe Guarneri del Gesu, and it is owned by a Norwegian bank because c’mon. Regular people can’t own those things.

Kraggerud and conductor Thomas Dausgaard danced together in a very sparkly and twinkly manner throughout the whole concerto, and the 24 minutes flew by. And after Kraggerud would say something particularly dazzling with his violin, the orchestra would come crashing in with a response and he would stand there in front of them with his violin lowered, smiling as if he could feel the sound flowing around his body on its way out to the audience. And most times the orchestra’s answer was a form of booming celebration, like they were saying “You are a BEAST, Henning Kraggerud, we are eating you with a fucking SPOON right now, bro!” But this one time, the response came in so soft and yet so quietly full that I didn’t even think it could have been that symphony on that stage in front of me producing the sound. It was like someone left a window open, and we could hear strains coming from another symphony in a concert hall two blocks away.

Clapping is half the fun: At the symphony you have to sit still and be very quiet and have adult command over things like adult ADD and theater knee. So when you have a chance to make noise, it is good to be as joyous and expressive as possible. Toddlers know that clapping is a worthwhile activity in its own right, and this is the time to embrace your inner toddler. Also, it’s good to yell something because it helps drag the symphony audience demographic back from the brink of total death’s door, stick-up-the-ass Pacific Northwestern patricianism.

Kraggerud Encore: very lovable, folky, stripped-down duet written by Kraggerud, played with Seattle Symphony principal cellist Efe Baltacigil (I think—I don’t know all their names and he had more hair in his picture on the web site which has shaken my confidence in ID-ing him). Kraggerud was a head taller than Baltacigil and during the waves of applause that followed their duet, he kept dragging Baltacigil up off his chair by the arm and side-hugging him and beaming down at him.

Ugh, Intermission: Intermission can be such a drag. Good if you have to pee, but otherwise just a bunch of slow motion jostling, social awkwardness, and lost momentum. I sat in my seat re-reading Villette by Charlotte Bronte.

Carl Nielsen’s Inextinguishable – 36 minutes long

There is an intrinsic menace to anything that is thirty-six minutes long. Episodes of Sex and the City were about 36 minutes long, but you could check your email or eat pizza during them. You could cough with abandon. And there were pretty outfits to look at. I was not tempted to duck out at intermission and disappear into the night, though. I was into the idea of Inextinguishable.

Inextinguishable was written about 100 years ago, in Europe. Carl Nielsen began it as World War I was beginning and the war wasn’t over yet when he completed it a couple years later. The piece has all this rumbling and roaring of battle, but also this sinewy wistfulness of nature and beauty, just snaking along through it. It encompasses hope, fear, and inner turmoil. The quote in the program from Nielsen was “Music is life and, like it, is inextinguishable.” If anything could be some sort of catharsis for Paris, Beirut, Syria, and Iraq, it should be this. War and disaster and terror, but also this idea that music is life. And life is inextinguishable.

Life may be inextinguishable but so are my distracting thoughts at the symphony. There’s so much happening on stage, so much competing information. So many talented people being excellent before my very eyes. So many strains of melody and harmony. So much movement. My thoughts spiral out to things like expression, art, words, music, color—and the mundane and the lofty get all gnarled together. I’m thinking about the economics of being a professional musician in this town, and I’m wondering if they develop physical problems from repetition and practice. Also: do they develop crushes on each other, sleep together, and then do things get complicated? I’m still admiring moments and passages, but it seems like I can only catch 5% of what is going on in the music as it barrels past, especially since I’m also thinking about sex and what I need at the grocery store. How can I ever get my arms around this giant music thing happening before me?

(The climax.) Near the end of Inextinguishable, a solid-looking man gets up out of his chair in the audience and walks up the steps onto the stage. Michael Crusoe has already been in the back of the orchestra beating on the timpani all night, but there’s another set of kettle drums and now for the ending, this chunky guy who suddenly appeared is going to play them too. That’s already arresting, two timpanists thundering away—but the rest of the orchestra has merged into one rhythmic, screaming wave of sound. It’s not an array of different stimuli anymore, it’s just one all-consuming effect. Everything is going to hell, but we still have this. Finally, finally I’m not thinking about a dozen things at once, I’m just swallowed up in the music.

Bus Romance

Oct. 19, 2015

I’ve noticed something on on my pre-dawn commute. I’d always seen these two people separately and then at some point they started sitting together in a very familiar way. I was jolted when I noticed. BUS ROMANCE??

He is a VERY handsome and well-kept black man in fluorescent safety coveralls that looked stylish on him. He looked clean cut. Dapper. He did something in construction, I overheard at some point later. She’s white and looks twelve years older than him, but who knows. She keeps herself together somewhat, but she’s a bit chunky and stuck in the 1990s. She has long lank hair and is a little jowly and sallow. She wears headbands and hoop earrings and leggings and short skirts and boots. She leans toward black clothes and accessories. She’s top-hefty and flat-assed. Pretty eyes.

The third time I saw them get on the bus and sit down together, I decided I was being some kind of racist against him or snide against her to feel surprised. Surely they were a married couple, had been this whole time, and I had only noticed them separately before. Now their schedules had shifted so they ride the bus together. That’s all.

But yesterday they came in and sat right behind me and I heard them talking. First off, I should say that I have no moral high ground. This happened a few times to me back when I rode the 5 bus. High jinks ensued. But maybe because I *had* been there, I felt wracked by self-consciousness on this pair’s behalf. But she didn’t seem self-conscious at all. And I was surprised by how little they still seemed to know each other. She was asking him if he gets a lunch break, and where exactly his work site was, and saying maybe she’d walk the baby down there some time (what baby?) (baby at a construction site?). She asked if he had a picture of his daughter. “I just want to see if she’s as cute as her daddy,” she said. Her voice was loud, a little clotted. Deep and nasal at the same time. His minimal, measured responses seemed smoothly relaxed, self-contained. It read like someone pranked the drama geek into thinking that the quarterback liked her. But he was participating in it, whatever it was.

She got off a few stops before him. I watched her go, a little flounce in her step, and then I turned and looked at him. I just couldn’t quite resist. In another mode, at another time, I would have looked a little brazenly, maybe. A little archly, or humorously, or flirtatiously. But as it was, I was just a frowzy white business casualty in smudgy glasses, glancing owlishly at a handsome black man. He looked back at me with a look as flat as the back of your hand.

October 27, 2015

The lovebirds sat down right in front of me. I couldn’t hear anything they said over the engine this time. I also couldn’t see them too well. They were perpendicular to me and a step down, with a partition between us. So I could just see the top of her head, and more of his head beyond her, and I could see her foot out in the aisle. I could see how slim her ankle was, how boldly patterned her stockings were, and how she kept snapping her shapely foot in and out of a black ballet flat. It was undeniably sexy. Other than that I just caught the tone of her deep clotted voice without being able to hear the words. Occasionally I caught a glimpse of her blunt, stocky fingers as she touched her hair. She was wearing too much perfume and it made my eyes water. He just looked debonair as ever in his bright work gear. Everything in his body language and eyebrows was self-contained and self-assured. He seemed warm without giving too much away. He caught me watching him watching her leave the bus. He glanced over at me. I looked away too quickly, like someone caught red-handed.

October 30, 2015

When they got on the bus, she strode down the aisle ahead of him, wearing a fetching, form-fitting black leather jacket with a diagonal zipper across her torso. She looked luminously happy.

November 9, 2015

I don’t pay too much attention to them anymore, but this morning I heard her say to him “text me later, sweetheart” as she got off the bus. When I got off a couple of stops later, minding my own business, the man smiled at me. He intercepted my gaze as I passed, and confronted me with a smile and a “Good morning.” Almost as if he’d been watching me.

Jean Yves Thibaudet at Benaroya Hall in Seattle

Jean Yves Thibaudet: French and middle-aged, has good hair, and has skinny legs in stovepipe pants.

First Half: Schumann (52 minutes)

I was a little too sleepy and sluggish for a darkened room and reflective Schumann. Also, I find Jean Yves Thibaudet’s fingers on the keys to be very erotic, so that was hypnotizing in an unhelpful way. I didn’t realize what it was until we were on to Ravel in the second half, but with Schumann it was like Thibaudet’s hands were working as one to create something floral and seamless. Beautiful, but to my tired brain it just rolled out like wallpaper. This is one of the hazards of going to hear “classical” music and not knowing much about it. No hooks to hang things on, so you can just slide right off.

Fortunately the Sunday afternoon crowd added texture to the experience by not seeming to realize that they were supposed to be quiet, polite, and self-contained while the music was happening. No one seemed to be stifling, timing, or even muffling their hacking coughs for one thing. It sounded like a TB ward. Over that base was a layer of snoring, belching, and the clattering sounds of things falling on the floor. There was the excitement of a loud cell phone ring and a couple of verboten camera flashes. Most amazingly and constantly, the young couple in front of me full-on necked throughout the whole show. After awhile, I started to notice otherwise quiet people around me breathing huffily or shaking their heads back and forth at how disruptive everyone else was being. On top of all the actual noises and movements I could hear the psychic howls of ADD-sufferers forced to sit still and attend to one thing for the 52 minutes of the first half.

Intermission: Bathroom conviviality

One of the young Morlots (daughter of the symphony’s musical director) was in front of me in line at the bathroom, and then Leslie Chihuly (symphony president) happened to come in behind me, and they small-talked charmingly around me about school and stuff. After leaving the bathroom, young Morlot splintered left to go to the Founders Room, which is VIP and probably where the best snacks are. It reminded me of when I was a kid and I used to tuck over to the cannery messhall at the 3 pm break whistle and have a bowl of vanilla ice cream with my grandpa.

Second half: Ravel (36 minutes)

Ravel was easier to stay awake for, more modern and rhythmic. You can always play the “How is this sort of like Debussy and at the same time NOTHING like Debussy” game the whole time. It’s not spooky and ambiguous like Debussy. But it doesn’t march along predictably either. It’s like Thibaudet’s two hands are separate creatures this time, building interlocking structures. I could almost see them in my mind and THAT gave me little hooks to hang my listening experience on besides just the chorus of humans not trying very hard to be quiet.

When Thibaudet finished his second Ravel piece there was a great sigh and murmur of appreciation that surprised me. By this point I thought the audience was pretty much just dullards napping fitfully. And then people were getting to their feet in a delayed and disorderly fashion, not jumping up but straggling up for some kind of ovation, clapping their hands up in the air in front of their faces. Thibaudet seemed happy enough to be there and happy that so many people came to his concert even though he isn’t Lang Lang.

Three Encores, starting with Something Something Brahms

Thibaudet bowed to the crowd and then got laughs for bowing to the piano. He leaned over and pretended to consult with the piano. Then he sat down on the bench and said something-something “Brahms.” The crowd gave up sighs and words like “lovely” as a hundred ADD sufferers shrieked their discomfort right into my brain. The Brahms was very lovely and lulling and homely, and we were all a bit quiet afterward. The NEXT time Thibaudet popped back out onto the stage, he played a little something humorous and spritely and short , like he just wanted to send us back out into the world with a little sparkle, that’s all. The crowd was now getting more used to being called upon for a response, and jumped up more quickly this time and shouted louder. Now Thibaudet seemed like he was our uncle visiting from far away in a land before television, dazzling the children with musical tricks after dinner. He sat back down at the piano AGAIN, and said “Last one!” to laughter. The last song was something so quiet, simple and intimate–single notes, space, a sweetness of something not composed but just hummed by your mom to herself. We had to lean in to hear it and it was like the hall shrunk down to a much smaller venue and we were all among friends.

Riding the 16 bus home

Across the street from Benaroya Hall, I got back on the 16 bus with the same careful, elderly, dignified widows and widowers who rode the bus downtown with me to the show. They wore clothes that looked like they had been their Sunday best for a couple of decades at least, but every garment looked cared for. Some carried canes. Some had quite splendid hats. They sat quietly on the way uptown, with their programs still folded in their laps, looking out the window and keeping their own counsel. All along the route they got off in ones and twos and the driver kneeled the bus as deeply as he could for them.