Friday, January 28, 2011

In the Beginning -- Ti


The streets on our end of town flooded every winter. When the winter storms and high tides came the river would run over its banks and we’d row up and down our street in a Crayola®-green boat. All the junk under our houses would float out—garbage, bits of wood, beer bottles, along with an occasional dead cat. After the flood subsided our houses would smell damp and moldy for weeks. But at least, as my mom would say, it was clean under the house.

My dad insisted that I come along with him when he went out to work on the Indian reservations along the Washington coast. Though my family is Chinese-American, my dad had many friends among the tribes. He frequently took time to help them out with carpentry projects, pouring concrete for the floor of a new shed, helping with fishing boats, mending nets and more.

While visiting friends on various reservations, we stayed in homes and house trailers with limited plumbing and not enough insulation, though I don’t remember that as being a hardship. I remember fun times, good storytelling, legends from the elders and sleeping by woodstoves glowing red. I especially remember Grandma Marie’s outhouse, got up, as she put it, “…like a cheap whore’s bedroom…” with red-and-white flocked wallpaper, lace curtains, a gold-painted toilet seat, and a heart-shaped mirror.

I also remember getting in trouble for telling my mom what Grandma Marie called her outhouse.

Every evening the cigarette butts and beer bottles would pile up on the kitchen table. The other kids would try to sneak puffs from the smoldering butts and pull sips from the bottom of beer bottles. The drunker the older folks got, the better their stories were: raven, wolf, hummingbird, whale, and bear people and my favorite, the slug people, who talked like “thissshhhhh…”.

I plotted my escape from the Washington coast: college, then big city career girl. I’d wear snappy clothes and cute shoes and work in a big building with banks of shiny elevators. However, while working as a bicycle courier in Seattle, I discovered what I really liked doing was going in and out of the buildings and riding the elevators. I had no interest in actually working in one.

Did I mention that I’m Raven Clan? Grandma Marie said I was the sort of Raven that didn’t like playing pranks on others (true) or having pranks played on her (also true) but who could endlessly play pranks on herself (all too true).

On top of it all, I was raised outside the Judeo-Christian tradition. I understand responsibility and duty, but I had to take “Bible as Literature” classes in college to understand the use of allegory in western writing. To this day I still don’t quite get the concept of “guilt”.

I have fond memories of two friends, one Irish-Catholic and the other Jewish, trying to explain guilt to me. They’d toss example after example at me and ask how I’d feel.

Them: “What if you promised someone you’d do something and you didn’t?”

Me: “I’d contact them right away and then do whatever I was supposed to do.”

Them: “No, you’d feel GUILTY!

…and so on until we were all helpless with laughter. The end result is that I now also associate the concept of guilt with good times, funny friends, and laughter.

I went off to college in Hawaii, which was the place most opposite the town I grew up in that I could imagine. Blessedly, I looked like just about everyone else in Hawaii—just another Asian-looking girl with long hair. It was great.

And then I got married. At 19. And moved right back to the coast with my husband, who always wanted to live in Washington State.

I married young, divorced young, finished college with a Communications degree and did the wandering around looking for myself thing. I worked dozens of different jobs, waitressing, cleaning houses, lived alone in a cabin for a couple of winters (house sitting for friends), cooked on fishing boats, delivered sailboats, wrote computer code, taught middle and high school, worked for a type house, a newspaper, a TV station, a photo lab, a science museum. I stayed single as my friends married, bought homes, had kids. I hit the glass ceiling, took two years off, and went back to college for my Master’s degree.

All the strands of my life came together when I went to work at KCTS, the PBS affiliate in Seattle.

PBS and NPR were the place to go to work when I was in college. Public broadcasting, public voice, no commercials, experimental programming, educational television were the wave of the future. The edgiest programs were on PBS: Sesame Street, Big Blue Marble, NOVA.

Things had changed by the time I got to KCTS—PBS had become mainstream and the “educational” mission was blurring as new technologies flooded the schools. Nonetheless, KCTS was riding high on the success of Bill Nye the Science Guy and it was a kick to travel to PBS conferences and be working for the station with the cool program.

I met Kristi at KCTS where she created outreach projects for various broadcast programs. I admired her work, and we worked well together though we were just about complete opposites. For starters, I’d thrived at The Evergreen State College, she’d hated it there. I never wanted kids or a house, Kristi wanted both and was a great mom with a great house. Funniest of all were our many “east-west moments” when Kristi would say something perfectly logical to her and I’d think that she’d just flown in from Venus. And vice versa.

But Kristi is the idea gal and I am the “make it so gal”. If you need 1000 plastic eyeballs by 5:00 PM, call me. If you need to know what to do with 1000 plastic eyeballs, call Kristi.

Kristi was going through a divorce and I tried not to listen to her heated conversations with her lawyer, and soon-to-be-ex, even though our cubicles were right on top of one another.

After her divorce, she came back from a trip across the mountains grinning, saying she’d asked a ponytailed guy to dance and thereafter she traveled across the mountains to be with him.

Abruptly, Kristi’s job changed. She went from running big projects to being a glorified secretary and she was clearly not happy. Her ponytailed guy had moved west to be with her, but suddenly, as she put it, their five-year plan became a five-month plan and then a five-minute plan: she married her guy, and poof, moved to the remote valley where her new husband had lived.

In contrast, my job was getting more interesting and the diverse paths of my life had finally merged: visual and graphic arts, education and writing. I was experimenting with early versions of streaming video, trying to figure out ways to use the technology in the classroom. I was working with youth media and helping emerging producers get their work on the air. When I mentioned where I worked, people said, “Cool! We love PBS!”

The only thing I wasn’t doing was any work of my own.

In the Beginning -- Kristi


In the beginning, I was a basically “normal” person. I was raised by working class parents in Portland, Oregon, who respected education and encouraged me to get a degree. As Ti mentioned, I started out at the alternative Evergreen State College in Olympia, where I learned I wasn’t “alternative” enough to fit in. So I put myself through school and earned a degree in International Studies from the University of Washington. Upon graduation, I fled the country to work in remote Africa as a Peace Corps Volunteer. Impetuous move #1. Little did I know I had just set the stage for my whole life.

After returning from the Peace Corps, I cast around for a direction and life. Finding neither, I did what many a lost woman has done before me: I got married and had kids. By the time I figured out I had picked the wrong guy (and the wrong life), I had moved back and forth across the country following my husband’s struggling career, had another child and ended up in Seattle where I finally figured out what I wanted to do when I grew up: work for Public Television. I started out as a receptionist at KCTS just to get my foot in the door. But two days after my (now ex) husband moved out I got a call from KCTS offering me the job of my dreams: Outreach and Learning Services Coordinator.

By 1997, I was a single mom with an interesting job, two young children daughters, a nice “normal” home in an upscale neighborhood of Seattle, and lots of fun, educated, left-of-center urban friends that looked and acted like me. A pretty average urban life.

My work as an outreach coordinator creating public education and outreach campaigns for PBS documentary productions was rewarding. I got to do meaningful work and work with cool people like Ti, who, despite our many differences, was a great cubical mate. She was quiet; I was not. She worked odd hours; I punched the clock. She had a fish tank and art and other cool things on her desk while I could barely find mine under piles of paper and files.

Ti was Chinese-American with great stories to tell about her family. I was an American mutt with few stories to tell about mine. Her work ethic and organizational skills were incredible while mine were okay, but not great. I often would sit in awe as she effortlessly moved between the three computer screens sitting on her desk, each with a different project, while I struggled to even find my current project in the pile of poo that was my desk. We mostly did our separate work but would occasionally collaborate on projects together, which we did well. Casual conversation, on the other hand, was dicey. Example:

Kristi (making light conversation and obviously wasting time): “So, Ti, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah?”

Ti (rapidly typing away): “Why are you asking me this?”

Kristi: “Ummm, just curious.”

Ti: “No.” Conversation ends.

I remember the time I laughingly told Ti my philosophy on life, which had been passed down to me by my anti-authority mother. “It’s easier to say I’m sorry than to get permission.” I chortled. Ti looked at me squarely for a few moments and said, “Why would you apologize?”

“Okaaaay” I thought. Another east/west moment bites the dust.

Yet, despite these rather odd cultural moments, my life in Seattle was pretty normal. My home was tidy, my children were clean, people liked me and thought I was a nice person. I had lots of good friends. No big controversies to speak of.

How it is that I end up living in a small, dark, wood-smoke-filled log cabin in a remote mountain community where bears wander through my garden, people shoot deer in my driveway, and I develop a growing reputation as a troublemaker is… Well, that is the heart of my story, and something I’m still trying to figure out. In retrospect, I blame it all on the “Wild Women.”