This week, Jack Straw published a podcast interview conversation between me and University of Washington professor and novelist Shawn Wong, who curated the Jack Straw Writers Program the year I participated. It felt like a homecoming to sit across the table from Shawn in the same studio in which we recorded an interview about my then-current project, a collection of essays titled Hidden City Diaries, which this blog is named after. This time, we discussed UGLY ME, my recent installation at the Jack Straw New Media Gallery.

What a difference three years makes, and yet, a common thread runs through it all. At the end of my Jack Straw year in 2012, I had completed a collection of essays only to conclude that my work was too personal and probably best kept to myself, at least in its present form. It didn’t go to waste, though.

Last November, I used those essays as source material to write a novel called The Year of the Tiger during NaNoWriMo, a feat I attempted to complete in public via a large screen set up at Seattle’s Central Library. By month’s end, I had written over 70,000 words — a full first draft of my first-ever novel. A few weeks ago, Linda Johns, one of the librarians who advocated for my project, wrote about A Novel Performance in Alki, the Washington Library Association Journal. Linda’s words took me back to that feeling of fear and exhilaration I experienced each day when I came to the library to write, knowing that strangers would be standing just a few feet away, watching as I fixed random words from my brain and experiences from those essays into something legible, tangible and –I dare say– real.

Now we just had to convince Frank that a high-traffic area in a public library was the place for her to bare her writing soul.

Each day when I plugged in my computer and began to type, I had a flash of remembering; I felt the same butterflies when I got on stage to perform my work during my Jack Straw year. Washington State Poet Laureate Elizabeth Austen, who gave us performance training, had taught us to greet that feeling with a sense of welcome, acknowledging that the butterflies and elevated heartbeat were signs that we were ready to perform.

As 2015 comes to a close and I begin dreaming about my next project, I’m grateful to have a break in which to reflect on the work that has come before and see how the pieces weave together. As I do so, I sense that feeling again — the shaky anticipation of stumbling onto something new. I find myself craving it. Each initiative, whether pure writing or experiential installation, is a progression in a growing body of work that I couldn’t anticipate just a few years ago. It’s is what gets me up every day: the chance to experiment on my own terms and, hopefully, make something that touches others on an emotional level.

As someone who did not grow up knowing professional artists or writers, this understanding of how an art practice begins and develops, or how obsessions can feed and expand a person’s work, is all new to me. Coming into this knowledge, hands out fumbling like a person in the dark, makes me look at other artists’ work from a different perspective. For the first time, I’m beginning to feel into what’s next for my own work with more intentionality and become excited about the unknown, the process.

In one way, it never feels like there is enough time to do any of it –to dream, think, brainstorm, create, write, build, promote, reflect, conclude, report– but when I look back and see what determination (and obsession) make possible, I have no doubt that another link in the chain is not far off. Making art is like exercise; you need alternating periods of exertion and recovery. This is recovery. Exertion lays in wait.

For now, winter approaches and it’s time to hunker down, rest and enjoy catching up on what everyone else is putting into the world. I hope you’re able to do the same.


Raft of the Medusa (Part 1) by Frank Stella
on show at The Whitney Museum of American Art.

This is totally, offensively, utterly, audaciously, fabulously, ugly me


In the fall of 2013, I was hanging out with Tammie when her daughter, Lissa, showed me a distortion camera app on her mother’s phone. She mugged for the camera, her ridiculous faces made even goofier by the camera’s distortion lenses, then passed it over to me, a moment I now equate with opening a can of juicy worms.

Normally, I run from cameras. I’ve long hated my own image and all the flaws I can detect in it; before then, I had never even used the feature on my own smartphone that would allow me to produce the selfies I saw popping up across social media. No way, no how. But, this was different. I made stretched alien heads with my own image, then blockheads, pinheads and swirlies. I was addicted. I downloaded the app and began trading images with Tammie and another friend, Kim — the more distorted and ugly, the better.

About a week later, it occurred to me that, for the first time since I could remember, I didn’t mind having my photograph taken. It was more than that, though — I didn’t mind having truly godawful ugly shots taken, and I actually reveled in sharing them. What was this about?

That fall, I began peeling the onion. Maybe it was about how I felt inside more so than how I looked outside. Yeah, it was about growing up feeling like an ugly nerd, something that had never left my sense of identity even after I transformed from a duckling into something swan-ish. I was pretty sure this was it, so I made a proposal to Jack Straw that October to create a multi-media installation called UGLY ME about beauty and self-worth that was based on distorted selfies. In March of 2014, my proposal was selected with one caveat: they asked me to compose original works rather than selecting works by other authors to read as the audio component of the installation. Okay, fine.

Since then, I’ve watched other artists stage installations on selfies and celebrities publish books about them. I’ve seen friends and strangers post their own selfies on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter and blogs, but nowhere did I see people sharing on a personal level about the relationship of one’s self-image with her worth, identity and value the way that I wanted to. Still, I struggled to express myself in the poems I was writing. I felt like what I wanted to say was just out of reach; I just couldn’t get there on my own.

Seattle poet Jeanine Walker, who agreed to give me poetry counseling, caught on immediately. When we met to review my work, she said, “I like where you’re going conceptually, but –if you don’t mind me saying– I think you’re hiding behind these poems. These need to be personal; I want to see more of you in them.” She was right: even when I thought I was revealing everything, I was still hiding. After that, I started writing loud and embarrassing poems, poems that delved into my childhood, poems about the effects of the fashion industry on my sense of beauty, poems about being silenced, poems that touched on many reasons why I look at my own image today and feel shame and worthlessness. Reading them aloud, I realized that these were naked poems, and I became nervous then about recording them.

At the end of May 2015, I worked with Christine Brown, an actress who gave me voice coaching, and Tom Stiles of Jack Straw, the sound engineer who recorded and mixed my readings. It was scary and exciting to be in the recording booth again, sharing not on paper but out loud in front of two warm but professional acquaintances admissions that I would even hesitate to divulge to friends. At different points, Christine had tears in her eyes, as did I; I tried to hide my wavering voice as we recorded. A week later, Tom sent me the digital files: there they were, my naked poems that made me feel so shy I could barely listen to them.

Yet, in the weeks since, I have felt exhilarated — so empowered, in fact, that when I had to have my photograph taken for work, I channeled that feeling of being safe in the studio with Tom and Christine, and I didn’t flinch or cringe the way I normally do when sitting for a photo. And guess what: the picture actually turned out great.

I’ve been peeling this onion for decades, and only now can I see how I’ve been dragging myself down all these years. One thing I’ve concluded is that it starts young and words matter; children indeed live what they learn and what they hear — they process and internalize external feedback all the time. The self-image we create as children becomes a deeply entrenched basis of self-understanding as adults; it’s so ingrained that we can pick apart all the good of ourselves without knowing that we’re even doing it, until we know no other way to live. (Ever seen Amy Schumer’s video of women who can’t take a compliment?)

Next Friday, on July 10, UGLY ME opens at Jack Straw New Media Gallery at 7 pm. There will also be an artist talk on July 31 at 7 pm. This installation is two years in the making, but looking back, I think that time was necessary. I am trying not to have expectations — there are still many things to pull together — but I do have hopes.

I hope that you can join me for the opening or the artist talk.
I hope that you will bring your own selfies that you will pin to the wall.
I hope that you will laugh and get enjoyment out of what is intended to be silly.
I hope that you will take something away from this that softens your heart to yourself and those you love and care about.

Click Jack Straw for more info.


When I was seven or eight, my parents bought me a Funk & Wagnalls encyclopedia that spanned the top shelf of my bookcase. Since they never went to college, and there was no doubt in their minds that I would, they tried to fortify my childhood with tools they thought I’d need for success, such as an expansive encyclopedia.

Looking back, a lack of experience in academia and the white collar world was the basis of their sometimes misinformed decisions: they thought that, by giving me the very things and experiences they didn’t have growing up in the fifties and sixties, I would be a high achiever in the eighties and nineties. To a point, they were correct, in that my upbringing goosed me into capitalizing on what they offered, and so I made from it all that I could. And I’m grateful for their scrimping and working out deals with my grandmother so that I could have weekly piano lessons and, later, my own instruments to practice with at home. Music, as much as reading and writing, was integral to my developing mind.

I didn’t get everything I wanted, of course. They couldn’t afford many things, like sending me to Washington, DC, for the class trip in high school. I was one of a few students who stayed back in Phoenix with an angry cloud over her head while everyone else toured the nation’s capitol. My parents considered the trip a luxury and relegated travel to the category of fun rather than learning and, thus, not essential to my future achievement. My parents as I knew them were not big travelers, although my mom kept several scrapbooks from the journeys she took before she met my father. After she died, I realized that she had quite a bit of wanderlust, though that’s not how we lived as a family. Maybe that’s what drove me, in part, to want to travel throughout my life, to do the things that she wasn’t able to do, to extend her legacy.

This morning, I was thinking of those Funk & Wagnalls volumes when I went to search for the significance of the number five. If you wanted to research something in 1981 and didn’t have a dictionary or encyclopedia, you were stuck. You could go to the library if it was open, or ask friends and family who likely didn’t have the answers either, but there was no truly exhaustive resource of easily accessible information. Sadly, I rarely cracked the volumes of my encyclopedia, as the entries were either too brief to be helpful or what I was searching for wasn’t listed. (Sorry, Funk & Wagnalls.)

A few minutes on Wikipedia reminded me that five is many things. The Torah contains five books and there are five pillars of Islam. A perfect fifth is the most consonant harmony and there are five lines on a music staff. There are five basic tastes. We have five fingers and five toes each on our hands and feet. There’s the five-second rule for dropped food. No. 5 is the name of an iconic fragrance by Coco Chanel (my mother’s favorite, actually.) Five is the number of Supreme Court justices necessary to render a majority decision. Starfish have five limbs. The Jackson Five and the Dave Clark Five. Five elements. Pentagrams. Iambic pentameter. Maroon 5. Interstate 5. Quintuplets. A strong and clear radio signal is described as five-by-five.

Though it was not listed on Wikipedia, as of March 1, 2015, this blog will turn five.

I’m writing now because I will be traveling during the anniversary, which is fitting since travel was the purpose for starting this blog five years ago. In March 2010, I was preparing to live in Italy on a two-month fellowship and I wanted to publicly document my work. Since then, my blog has provided a platform for several projects and investigations which now happen to number five: CivitaVeritas, Mushroom Farm, Hidden City Diaries (for which the site is named), A Novel Performance and, this summer, Ugly Me. The tone and content has changed over the years to match the need at hand, and so I’m grateful that my readers have stuck around from one iteration to the next. As a blogger who began with zero followers, the fact that the site will reach 20,000 views by March 1 indicates that something good has happened between then and now.

So, what will occur in the next five?

I have some ideas. I may document the work of a collective of young Seattle architects working Gordon Matta-Clark-style on artistic interventions in urban homes slated for demolition. Last weekend, I scouted their newest site just across from Pratt Park. It took me back five years to the apartment I was living in whose creaky floorboards reminded me that seven decades of human life had taken place there. I love the idea of cataloging and investigating the ways that the human essence imprints itself on a built place, and how people in future generations interpret and overlay their own marks.

IMG_4269 IMG_4265 IMG_4264

There is also the documentation of Ugly Me, an immersive multi-media installation that will debut at Jack Straw Cultural Center’s New Media Gallery this summer. This spring, I’ll be writing new work and spending time in the recording studio, in addition to cutting out thousands of figures from fashion magazines. (If you’re bored, stop by and take up an extra set of scissors.) Will it be prose poetry? A series of flash fiction? A literary collage? Time (which is ticking…gulp) will soon tell.

Back to my parents, I’ve also been thinking about legacy. (This is what people do when they hit their forties, right?) What good am I doing for the world and the generations coming after me? Can my work have a positive impact on the human experience today? To that end, I’m considering starting a literary magazine that creates a platform for new and emerging talent in literary art and beyond. (Go ahead, tell me that I’m crazy.) All this to say that, while I have an inkling of what the future holds, I’m leaving room for new things to take up residence where they will. Maybe this blog won’t really be a blog at some point — it’ll be something else.

As an only child with no children, I also think about the things that probably won’t happen, like the catalog of experiences that I would offer to my own children, if I had them: we would travel abroad and immerse ourselves in other cultures; we would go to museums, readings and gallery openings; we would read progressive literary works and listen to a wide range of music; we would spend time hiking, skiing and camping and learn to love the outdoors; we would grow our own food and make homemade edibles from kombucha to bread, pickles and tomato sauce; we’d read the Economist and listen to NPR non-stop so that we were well-informed global citizens. We would not eat iceberg lettuce or go to shooting ranges or staying inside air-conditioned houses all day watching television and reading pulp fiction except maybe once in a while for fun.

Of course, I’d be at least a little wrong in whatever I picked to enrich their lives; advice given is never so much about others as it is ourselves. Every time I add to this catalogue, I realize all that I still want to do and experience in my own life, and much if it comes back to that first item and the reason for this blog: travel.

In five years of journeys, my greatest learnings always track back to temperance and empathy, which is frightening since the more I understand the more I realize I have yet to know. In my blog and journals, this topic is threaded through everything, though they say that it is actually literary fiction that teaches empathy. I’d argue that travel, particularly international journeys, creates a similar effect by stripping us of the power of the familiar. Never as when we are abroad in truly foreign places from our home can we appreciate kindness (of others) and suffering (our own.) If we remain open while in transit, travel helps us become better citizens of the human race.

I’d also assert that the spokes of empathy touch on blogging, too. In the modern world, a blog is a place where everyday people share intimate ideas and experiences with strangers while examining and questioning their beliefs as a means of forging personal connection and self-knowledge.* We appeal to the humanity in others by revealing the human in ourselves.

And so, here begins a new era. Thank you for the thoughts, empathy and humanity that you’ve shared with me over the past five years. I look forward to what’s to come.


* Okay, not blogs dedicated to revealing naked celebrity photos, but many other ones.


I had anticipated last week’s trip to Pullman, Washington, for some time.

Since November, I’ve been working with teams to prepare design proposals and presentations at Washington State University, one in collaboration with a general contractor for a new visitor center, and the other for pre-design services to remodel the school’s art museum. Last week, my firm was also shortlisted on the WSU wine science center in Richland; I’ve had crimson and gray on the brain non-stop for the last quarter.

Though we’ve discussed prospects at WSU for years, it was a rich experience to actually set foot on campus. Set in the heart of the Palouse, the university is surrounded by rolling wheat fields, tawny in fall and gently undulating with powdered snow in winter. It made me recall my trip to Walla Walla last October: the warm sun, the loamy aroma of rich dirt and crisp breezes, the intimate setting of an agrarian community.

During the four days we spent in this small college town, the topic of school spirit was a natural focus. Steven, a principal at our firm who is close to me in age, also stayed the week. A proud alum, he is known for flying the WSU flag over his desk during football season and is an active member of the alumni board for the school of design and construction. When he speaks of his university experience, it’s clear that WSU significantly shaped his thinking and his career as an architect. I couldn’t help but contrast his student life with my own, which is lacking in that area.

All week, we encountered Cougar pride throughout town: on sweatshirts and hats worn by sleepy students headed to class, on banners hung by virtually every local business, in the names of bars and hotels, and in the dozens of cougar icons —stone, metal, fabric and plastic— modeled after Butch, the mascot. For most retail stores and restaurants, a WSU top over jeans was the standard uniform rather than the brand’s own logo wear.

In general, as an alumnus of the University of Arizona, I observe the rivalry between the University of Washington and WSU with neutrality, though it’s easy to fall in with the Cougs. Their enthusiasm and underdog nature plays on my heartstrings; plus, Cougs are usually more fun at parties.

As I did while exploring Whitman College, I considered how my involvement in student life might have shaped me like it has Steven if I had attended a college like WSU. The dynamic of deep fealty surrounding this small-town university —and the university’s small town— felt intriguing when compared with my own attendance at a 50,000-person university in a city with the population of half a million.

Likewise, UW students are distracted not only by the buzz of Seattle and neighboring institutions like Antioch and Seattle Pacific University, but by monolithic brands like Microsoft, Amazon, Vulcan and Boeing, as well as the Seahawks, Mariners and Sounders. While significant, University of Washington’s presence competes shoulder-to-shoulder with a host of public and private Goliaths for students’ loyalty — before, during and after college.

In Pullman, both the town and the university’s focus is much more pure, if a bit exclusive.

After our first project interview, the team gathered at a small tavern dubbed The Coug for celebratory beers. Four members of our design-build team were alums, three of whom served on the board and returned to Pullman often. They filled in the rest of us on the establishment’s traditions.

Only after bartenders get to know patrons —which happens when they tip well, or at all, over a period of time— do they extend the offer for a personalized beer mug, which is stored at The Coug in perpetuity. One of our team members, an ’84 alum, discovered that they still had his mug; the staff encouraged Dave to call ahead before his next trip so that they could retrieve it from storage for him.

After we tipped generously, inciting the bartenders to rap several times on the brassy, grating cowbell, I ruminated on the concept of loyalty in Pullman, which is intrinsic to life both inside and outside of school. The Coug’s system of reward is actually kind of brilliant: you can’t buy membership by plunking down a credit card, you have to get to know the bartenders and servers and become involved in The Coug’s community. One must personally commit to supporting the cause in order to reap its rewards.

While my friends and I frequented one Tucson dive bar in particular, there is no physical evidence of my time at The Buffet Bar and Crockpot, nor would any of the longtime staff remember me. (Ned the Bartender, I had a secret crush on you!) Though I served as an editorial columnist for The Arizona Daily Wildcat, our university newspaper, I didn’t fit in with the journalism staff who produced it, so I spent little time with them in their beloved dungeon of an office. And, while I held down a campus job and developed a close friendship with Dr. Sigmund Eisner, my Chaucer professor, I’ve let virtually all ties to classmates, teachers and staff lapse over the years, save for my friend Tash in Chicago.

To gain from an experience, be it college, work, marriage or friendship, you have to contribute to it. As I examined a WSU T-shirt for sale, I reasoned that my natural tendency to be a lone wolf rather than one of the pack comes with the consequence of detachment. Rather than hollowly proclaiming to support teams, I often eschew wearing the colors of any organization altogether.

Someone asked during our trip if I belonged to a sorority in college. I rolled my eyes and quipped, “Are you kidding? They would have burned me at the stake.” While this is probably true, the other side of the coin is an issue of intimacy; asking to join a group means a possibility of rejection. If you are unlike the others, a non-conformist, then such a fate is inescapable and in some ways self-made throughout one’s life.

Fellow iconoclasts will insist that they don’t want to be like “the herd,” a notion that feels true for me, too. I don’t want to spout someone else’s thoughts or slogans if I don’t believe in them; I’d rather conjure my own than repeat the mantra of others. If something becomes too popular, I stubbornly avoid being caught up in the trend, circling back later to make my own choice (ahem: Oprah’s book club…) which means that I am often a late adopter of popular culture.

Admittedly, part of my pride is wrapped up in blazing a divergent path.

In the end, I refuse to compromise my beliefs to gain popularity. I’d rather be disliked for being myself rather than loved for emulating someone else. But that’s an easy if not petulant line to draw in the sand, isn’t it? The path of self-knowledge and equanimity begins by holding oneself out for others to experience, whether they mirror acceptance or not. Intimacy between individuals or group relies on trust between members, whether they number two or a thousand, and that involves taking a chance.

The real bonds we form in life come from being naked and honest about who we are—and accepting others into our circle in kind. When that happens, as with Steven and I, it’s possible to lend critique alongside compassion and support. This thing called intimacy allows people to grow stronger within a collective than they would alone. More and more, this is what I seek.

Last night, I found myself reliving my college experience yet again as I wrote the first draft of my application to Breadloaf, a writers’ conference held each summer at Middlebury College in Vermont. I’m applying for a scholarship whose criteria includes, “first-time applicants with nontraditional literary backgrounds, who are working outside of academia or without a writing degree.”

As I described my academic path —a science major from high school to the end of college when I switched my degree to English— I realized that my weak connection with U of A stems from the fact that I didn’t find community there. Even as I changed majors, leaving all my scientist friends behind, I didn’t consider studying creative writing; it sounded hokey, like something that one lists on a resume under “hobbies and interests.” Instead, I pursued English literature, which didn’t fulfill me as I thought it would.

For me, community and self-knowledge have come later in life. Only now, seventeen years after college, have I realized the need to surround myself with other creative writers. Outside of class, it’s a lot more elusive a quest than one might think, even in Seattle. Writers tend to be circumspect about their work, save for the few extroverts who will die if they can’t read their short story/poem/essay aloud to everyone they know.

When I meet with writers in situations similar to my own, we speak a different dialect than the rest, one that feels like home. We’re questers and chroniclers, enjoying the show of life and reflecting on what it means more so than being lead actors on stage.

My experience with the Jack Straw Writers in 2012 opened windows into Seattle’s literary community, as did the Hugo House master class in memoir that I took with Peter Mountford. Last month, I applied for Artist Trust’s EDGE development program for literary artists with a similar hope: to learn the business of writing and meet others in a like moment in their careers. It’s been telling to reread the applications I’ve made recently: NIAUSI, Jack Straw, EDGE and now Breadloaf. Standing back, I see a developing honesty that I’m learning to share with others, hoping to be accepted, but willing to carry on if I’m not.

Steven and I shared thoughts like these during the evening we spent between teams leaving and arriving for interviews. We discussed U of A and WSU, work and family life, architecture and writing over dinner at Black Cypress in downtown Pullman, then crossed the street for a nightcap at Rico’s. Steven has always been one of my favorite co-workers, and I feel fortunate that these pursuits have brought us together more in the last three months. His directness and creativity are truly remarkable; he’s one of those level-headed alpha males that you’d want around if your ship was marooned on a desert island.

On our last night, I realized that WSU has helped to cement our bond. The others went to their rooms after dinner, but Steven wanted to chat in the lobby for a while. Over the course of the week, our free exchange of thoughts, ideas and feelings was a means of community building. We were able to be frank with one another, and support each other during the rest of the trip when occasions arose. In college lingua franca, the trust we developed was pretty cool.

As any university experience should, my week in Pullman has shed light on areas in which I can grow as a student of writing and of the world. I may not have matriculated there, but my time at WSU has granted me pause to evaluate my participation —and lack thereof— in the communities that make up my life today.

Like Steven said during our interview, it’s not just that we’re here in this physical time and place, but at this time in our lives. These years we spend together find us at our most formative, when we’re impressionable and open, sowing seeds of curiosity, experimentation and loyalty into our very nature—a bounty that we’ll share with people near and far for the rest of our lives.

In acknowledgement of this great gift, and my blossoming school spirit, I proclaim with genuine enthusiasm, “Go Cougs!”

– – – – –

Author’s note: in searching for Dr. Eisner, I was sad to discover that he passed away in December 2012, coincidentally on the same date that my mother died. These lines from his obituary say it all:

Sig loved a good book, a good pipe, a glass of Irish whisky, and above all, a good joke with family and friends. He will be deeply missed by all who enjoyed the privilege of knowing him.


This past Friday, the Jack Straw Writers were each paired with a musician who used our writing as inspiration for an original musical work of his or her own. Together, we performed them at Bushwick Book Club, a performance-based literary gathering held at the Royal Room in the Columbia City neighborhood.

A few weeks ago, I met up with Joy Mills, the singer/songwriter who selected my work. We traded notes back and forth, and she opted to use one of the short pieces I wrote from my trip to Chicago called “In Transit” as her touchstone. When I emailed her an edited version (below), she responded:

I’m writing from a theme of wonder, much like your character is wondering all these things while looking at the juxtaposition of the man in the street and the privilege around that bustles around him.

Once I read this, I realized that I have forgotten about the importance of wonder in my project. Over the past nine months, I’ve become so accustomed to being out of my element that even the revelation of travel is losing its wonder for me.

Admittedly, my method of writing has posed a greater challenge than I originally perceived: to travel to a place for a few short days, intently poised on noticing every detail about the city and the people I encounter, to seek connections and a constantly unfolding adventure, to persistently think-think-think then to return home to a full-time job and sundry demands… This schedule leaves little time for the writing and reflecting that actually comprise the book. It makes me sorely miss the two months I spent in Civita where I was able to immerse myself into that tiny microcosm and tease its foundational bits apart one by one… and sleep well each night.

That has not been the case with this endeavor, especially the sleeping part. On Monday as I half-snoozed fitfully somewhere above the Pacific Ocean during my 12-hour flight from Auckland to San Francisco, I inhaled someone’s flu virus from the recirculated plane air. The instant the woman’s sneezing began, I cringed, covering up my nose with my sweater, knowing as a condemned man knows that my prayers of being spared would do no good. Thankfully, the flu shot I got just before departing for New Zealand has reduced the virus’s impact, but I’ve been home in bed this weekend, days before I am to depart for Miami—the last city I am to explore before coming home to write about Seattle.

Honestly, after all these months of anticipating my visit to the Sunshine State, I am not sure that I want to go.

Adding up all the money and time and spirit I’ve spent traveling the nation this year, there’s a part of me that wants to remain at home. Where I once brightened at the smell of airport air as a signal of promise, I’m dreading the tin can of germs that awaits me this week. Admittedly, this is in part because I’m already sick and tired. The other part comes from a calloused perception of people and places, and ultimately, a waning sense of wonder. I’m so close to achieving my goal that I’m wanting to skip to the end just to be finished.

Before Joy explained her selection, I was curious why she picked the piece she did, as I had given her several options. It wasn’t uplifting or romantically touching the way much of her music is. By the time I was done editing it, my prose felt meager and mean, which was also how I felt the evening of the Bushwick Book Club. Before I went on stage, flashes of fever and chills ran through my body; should I have stayed home?

I thought of Slaid Cleaves playing the Saxon Pub before Thanksgiving last year; sick as a dog, he still managed to play a two-hour set. I caught pneumonia from him when Jess and I went to introduce ourselves. I wanted to hear Joy’s song more than anything, so I stuck it out long enough to go on stage with her, blinded by the lights. (For the record, it really is impossible to see much of anything when you’re on a professionally lit stage.)

My heart raced from my illness as much as my anxiety as I read my piece and turned the stage over to Joy. She commented that she liked the idea that my writing was influenced by these people who would never know that I noticed them or that they impacted me. “I think I was also drawn to the notion that we could all be in that position as the person Gabriela writes about,” she added.

Like all of her music, Joy’s song was sweet and haunting, with lines like, “I pushed the door open and let the clouds roll in…” Even in my diminished condition, I felt the sense of wonder that she had made blossom from my words against the gushing rain outside.

I imagined that she sang from the point of view of the man I saw, perhaps just before his life took a turn for the worse—when a kind word or help from the right person might have altered his path. That Joy was able to channel the hopefulness in him through a few of my lines reminded me why I set out to write this book at all. Indeed, it was originally about wonder… and connection.

I don’t feel as good as I might, but I do feel better that I would have without my flu shot. And, thanks to Joy’s infusion of wonder when I needed it most, I think I’m going to keep my reservation and see what Miami holds.

In Transit (excerpt):
I see his feet and legs first, resting akimbo like he’s dead.

My eyes travel up his wiry body, his arms bent awkwardly at the shoulders and elbows. He is both sprawled out and curled up on the sidewalk. His head rests on a grimy backpack propped against the brick wall of the EL station at Adams and Wabash. Lank and hungry-looking even while asleep, he reminds me of a praying mantis that someone squashed with a rock.

I pause because he’s beautiful in a broken way.

Part of me wants to take his photograph; instead, I toss my phone into my bag and commit him to memory with my heart instead.

His shirt is royal blue with red stripes. It’s torn in places.
His brown skin gathers in flaky white patches at the elbows.
His bearded chin juts toward the sky, revealing curly white hairs mixed in with the black ones.
He shudders in his sleep.
His bed is a carpet of leaky cans and bottles, discarded wrappers and sticky pink hills of spat-out gum.
Beneath the dark hollows of his eyes, he looks kind.

What does it take for a person to pass out on the sidewalk at mid-day, to relinquish his defenses against being robbed, abused or arrested? How little must a person have to not fear losing anything?

Before walking on, I glance down at my perfectly pedicured toenails. The throaty purple blush matches both the color of my guilt and my misguided sense of pride at noticing it.


The Walla Walla public library is quaint and humble and more roomy than one might expect a small town library to be. At night, it glows faintly green like an absinthe fairy.

Turning left at the main entry past the security gates, the interior unfolds into a carpeted piazza flanked by wooden bookshelves in the round. Four banks of seats face a slim podium; as the five of us Jack Straw Writers enter, we find nearly all of them filled by an energetic audience.

Outside, the streets are dark and sparsely populated –everyone is eating dinner at Oliver’s or Brasserie 4– still, a crowd of thirty-five settles in to hear us on a Friday night. The bright-eyed library staff and volunteers pause to introduce themselves, as if we are as important as the published authors who occupy their shelves.

Shawn Wong, our curator, pulls me aside to say that I will go first. I sigh with relief as he introduces me, mentioning as he always does our connection through Civita di Bagnoregio. The room falls intently quiet as I begin to describe my crisis of faith:

Looking back, my own degenerate times began the day I learned that my mom had cancer — long before her surgery, rounds of chemo and radiation, the loss of her speech and, eventually, her death.

Having to acknowledge at 13 that life was impermanent and unpredictable –that my mother’s once-infallible protection couldn’t surmount these forces– began the degeneracy of my own beliefs. Truly, it seemed pointless to build a future that could be so easily swept away.

As my lips form the words, I feel both proud and shy. I’d hardly share these thoughts with co-workers, yet I’m saying them to a room of strangers. Some heads nod; a mother wraps her hands around her son protectively. A 20-something boy in the front row checks his phone and fidgets against his girlfriend’s shoulder; my childhood tragedy doesn’t apply to him. I continue on, pretending not to notice.

“Wishes… hope…” I say, pausing dramatically at the end, “…I think they’re the same thing.” A man in the third row dabs at his eye in the silence before the crowd applauds. Four hours on the road for five minutes of reading suddenly seems like an okay deal.

Nick gets up after I do, reading about “The Big 8” in which one character teases another with the knowledge of the eight keys to life, never revealing what he considers them to be. As Nick sits, I think, How hard could a list like that be for someone like me, who ponders this stuff all the time?

At breakfast the next morning, I sketch out my own eight keys over a plate of migas near the Whitman College campus:

1. When something good happens, celebrate it.
2. Be anonymously generous.
3. Say yes: be open to experiences.
4. Fall in love.
5. If you find yourself giving advice to others that you don’t take, question your actions….

As the server warms up my coffee, I smirk at the fresh lines of black script in my notebook, thinking, You couldn’t sell a penny pamphlet with this crap!

After all, how much celebrating of the positive do I actually do? I’m so impatient, I’m always on to the next thing. And, as much as I say yes, I also say, Hell no!! If I actually took the advice that I recently gave to a colleague, I would have cashed in my Roth IRA and quit my job yesterday to be a full-time writer…but I didn’t. And falling in love? Actual love –the kind that makes a person truly naked, the kind where you compromise and stick around through illness and imperfections and arguments, long past the fade of the honeymoon– what do I know about giving myself over to that?

I shut my notebook defiantly.

To escape the crowds of wine-swilling tourists as much the stupid eight keys, which continue to haunt me, I decide to drive to Jimgermanbar in Waitsburg. (It’s impossible to make one universal insight to life, let alone eight! Making them intriguing or unique is another battle altogether. How could they be anything less than trite?)

The architecture changes from quaint small-town brick houses and 1930s factories to a series of late-70s strip centers, tire shops and fast food pad restaurants before pulling apart. Soon, whole blocks go by without any buildings, then several lots at time. (Be anonymously generous? I think I wrote that because of the pay-it-forward coffees and the meals I buy at Union Gospel Mission.)

After a few minutes, as I’m nearing Highway 12 East, I’m surrounded by scrubby hills with barns made with old weathered wood, all unpainted — a palimpsest of ochres and browns. (If I were more open, I would have ridden the ferris wheel when my friends wanted to go.)

The yellow of the centerline is echoed in the dry wheat of the rolling hills; earthy barn tones appear in the rich dirt beneath the fields. The tire-smudged lane lines are mirrored in road signs and buildings painted with flaking chromium, the years of red and blue and green peeking through the forced white that they are today. (I should have lit candles when I won that grand in bingo last year…)

The edges of Walla Walla fade into the hills, and the world becomes an undulating sea of tawny corduroy. I long to touch the rolling mounds of wheat — the velvety Palouse dotted with purple gabled roofs, patches of deep green grapevines and pert silver silos that reflect the clean brilliance of the fall sun. They look like the birth parents of the Tin Man. (Why is falling in love so scary, anyway?)

The layers of brown that surround and mound… How my childhood in Arizona brought me to hate the color brown. Here, it feeds my soul. (Is there some sort of key to life in that?)

I realize that I am only going 45 when a beat-up Ford pick-up whooshes by doing 80 in the passing lane. The gentle texture of the Palouse in all of its shared earth tones may have eased my inner speed demon but not my frenetic mind. (Small buildings, big landscape… the relative smallness of humankind?) I make a noise of disgust at the litany of forced armchair philosophy.

Through the din in my head, the siren song of the landscape calls to a part of me that the cynical city girl usually sublimates with her obsessive/compulsive downtown soundtrack. In an uncharacteristic move, I pull my car to the side of the road. I simply can’t stand to keep passing these fields without touching them, Waitsburg and this stupid list be damned.

Wading into the waist-high wheat chaff, I stride as if pursued, tossing glances over my shoulders. I keep waiting for someone to bark at me to get off of their land. Several yards in, I remind myself that it’s okay to slow down, that I’m not on a mission or a schedule. I think of Sandro counseling me in Civita with his hands raised, “Piano, piano, Gabri! Tutto a posto.” Slow down, girl – everything’s alright.

Once I calm my pace, I realize that I no longer hear cars rushing by on the highway; the sound of their velocity is replaced by the rustling wind and occasional bird calls. The sun’s radiance is soothing, its intensity held in check by the cool breeze. The dry grasses crunch under my boots; the earth is soft underneath, moist and waiting for the next crop. The air is perfumed by harvest-ready grapevines and drying leaves. As I venture deeper into the field, small grasshoppers spring diagonally across my path like dolphins weaving at the prow of a ship.

The last time I felt this way was back in Civita. Time holds no power.

I inhale and exhale deeply, wishfully thinking that I could get lost in this field. Blissfully lost, the kind where no signal can reach my phone. No talk of work or deadlines or appointments. Lost in the sense of found — found time, found clarity, found self.

Up ahead, a patch of grass looks inviting. I sit Indian style — no blanket, no separation between me and the Palouse. We are one.

Journeys of all kinds are about transportation: from one state –or state of being– to another. Change, time, introspection, muscles, mind, miles traveled… what does it mean to go there and back again? We so rarely travel in an ongoing chain; there is always someplace called home that pulls us back to a former state, asks us to assimilate new data while conforming to the rules and norms of a time before that knowledge entered our lives. Yet, like Adam and Eve, there is no unknowing once our eyes are opened.

As I let the imperative of the eight keys melt away, I’m startled by a lone grasshopper who springs onto my knee. In another uncharacteristic move, I don’t shoo him off. I think of the roaches and hairy spiders I’ve smashed, the millipedes and scorpions I’ve crunched under my boots, the beetles and mosquitoes and bees that I’ve flinched at over the years. With a wise expression in his charcoal eyes, the grasshopper seems much more evolved than his insect brethren. Maybe I am, too.

Once alighted, the grasshopper takes a deliberate moment to turn in a circle, folding and unfolding his legs to assess the most favorable perch on the crease of my jeans before settling in. Heads cocked, we contemplate each other. The grasshopper probably has a better idea of the keys to life than I do. After all, the grasshopper is true to his nature; he doesn’t question his own purpose or worthiness. (Be you — and let others be themselves was number 6.)

The grasshopper’s unblinking eyes peer further into mine, which are lidded half-mast against the late afternoon sun. If Michael were here, he would probably comment on the grasshopper’s past life as a lama, at which I would titter skeptically.

When the tiny sage finally moves to leave, he catches a filament of his foot in my pant leg. He quickly becomes desperate, his diminutive ribcage heaving in and out. Praying that he doesn’t hop in my hair or my face, I remain calm and shift my leg to set him free without flinging him asunder. (Identify someone’s need and fill it without seeking personal gain, that was number 7.)

As he springs away, I feel a little bereft.

His sudden departure brings to mind the many meetings and separations that have come before this moment: connecting with Toni and Wesley in Nashville; discovering my earth mother Maya in Boston; rekindling my friendship with Taica and Bettye in Chicago; tapping into deep existential territory with Michael in Santa Cruz. Waves of old and new come crashing together, rumbling sonically in the grasshopper’s wake. Maybe that’s the magic of Walla Walla: a current of earthly energy where life’s lessons become apparent, if only for a few moments.

Except it’s not as ethereal as that. These moments are concrete; they matter. Exploring these cities and spending time with people, watching the transformation of my own thoughts in progress — these are not pretend journeys or mere props for a writing assignment. I realize that I’ve been given the gift of time and adventure to sort out who I am with the help of a series gurus along the way.

There are no eight keys to life and there is no turning back — no do-overs, no second chances. I will never again have the opportunity to re-make these moments, only live them in the present in succession as they appear. One shot for all of it.

That’s when I decide to borrow something more universal for myself than any eight keys ever could be. I could try to make something up, but honestly, I could never say it better than Annie Dillard:

Spend it all.
Shoot it,
play it,
lose it,
right away,
every time.

I watch the silhouette of his tiny brown body spring forward until it disappears in the distance. Thank you, grasshopper, I think fondly. Very wise indeed.

Jack Straw Podcast

As part of this year’s Jack Straw Writers Program, each of us was interviewed by curator, Shawn Wong, about our projects. Jack Straw combined segments from that interview along with a recording of my first reading covering my trip to Nashville to produce a 15-minute podcast of my book-in-progress, “Hidden City Diaries.”

For those readers who haven’t attended a Jack Straw event, this gives a flavor of what it’s been like to get up and read in front of crowds of strangers this year — which is to say, incredibly and surprisingly fun.

Our last gathering will be held on Saturday, November 10 at 2 pm at the downtown branch of Seattle Public Library. All 12 Jack Straw Writers will give a brief reading that day.

Hidden City Diaries: A Podcast


Gabriela Denise Frank takes a closer look at American cities; ruminating on the character of a place. Her travels abroad inspired her to capture regional distinctions in the United States.

SoundPages is produced by Jack Straw Productions as part of the Jack Straw Writers Program. All of the writers heard in this series are published in the Jack Straw Writers Anthology, and featured online at http://www.jackstraw.org/. Music by Rachel Matthews and produced as part of the Jack Straw Artist Support Program.