Hazy Shade of Summer

14 08 2018

Last week, the smoke was from California. This week, it’s from British Columbia. No matter which way the wind blows, it seems that the summer skies of Seattle are hazy from West Coast wildfires.

So far, it’s not as bad as last summer. At its worst last year, a fine dusting of ash landed in Seattle. You could see the normally invisible spider webs, traced in thin gray pencil between the branches of trees. This year, the worst we’ve gotten has been blood red sunsets and sharply reduced visibility.

This afternoon, I took the kids to the beach club. Because of the smoke, you could just barely make out Kirkland on the other side of the lake. With just a little squinting and imagination, you could ignore the far shore and pretend we were at the edge of an impossibly still and vast ocean.

Smoke doesn’t make it any less fun to spend a day at the lake. Patrick and I splashed and swam in the shallow water. (Now that it’s mid-August, Lake Washington has finally progressed from “cold enough to make you question the existence of God” to “brisk and refreshing.”)

Alex was lucky enough to find another knot of rising 7th graders, which means we barely saw him — just glimpses as he tried to balance on the spinning log or as he clambered up to the high dive platform. When Patrick was ready to leave, Alex wasn’t. We left Alex at the beach with his friends, and he walked the mile home by himself two hours later. To be in middle school, carefree, with friends by a lake in the lazy late days of summer… one of the pleasures of parenting is living vicariously through your kids. Today delivered a glorious reminder of the best that summer and youth can bring.


13 08 2018

Last year, I bought myself a nice wooden chess set from the House of Staunton for my birthday. It was something I’d wanted ever since high school, but it was too extravagant for a high school student’s budget. One of the perks of middle age is being able to afford the toys that are out of reach to the youth.

In high school, I loved playing the game and got to what I’d call the “strong beginner / weak intermediate” level of play. I read chess books, knew the major tactics, and could use my pieces together effectively in an end game. I had a portable chess board and I played other kids on the bus on the way to school, and I probably had a 50/50 record against other strong math/science brains. While I abandoned the game when I discovered go in college, and then abandoned go as a result of working too obsessively in my twenties, I have a soft spot for chess. As a parent, I wanted my kids to play and enjoy chess too, but beyond teaching them the rules I was never able to pass on the love of the game.

So imagine my thrill yesterday when Patrick said, out of the blue: “Dad, let’s play chess.” We pulled out the board. It had somehow accumulated large boxes of photographs on top of it, which gives you an indication of how long it had been since one of the kids wanted to play. The chess board doubles as piece storage; there’s a drawer on each side that contains each player’s pieces safely nestled in individual felt-lined compartments. The black pieces are real ebony — I’m going to enjoy middle age, darn it.

We set up for the game. Our tradition is I take the black pieces and play without my queen. That’s the only handicap I give him. He may be my son, but I’m still playing to win. Well, mostly. If he blunders in an obvious way I’ll ask him, “Are you sure?” and try to turn it into a teachable moment. But mostly, I’m playing to win.

There are even some real stakes involved. Last year, when Patrick was in the middle of his phase of collecting Yu-Gi-Oh cards, he wanted to teach me to play that game. That sounded pretty miserable, so I deflected: Once he could beat me at chess (a “real” game!), I’d let him teach me Yu-Gi-Oh. That’s a fate I desperately wanted to avoid — so, I play to win. Even with a queen handicap, it was pretty easy to maintain my invincible streak. And thus the chess board wound up buried under photographs.

With the game board set up, Patrick confidently advanced his king pawn two spaces. I matched him with my king pawn. Then I got my first warning that something was different. Patrick said, “I beat the AI all the time now.”

“Wait, what?” I asked.

“The computer. I play on my iPad and I beat the computer all the time.”

I had no idea he’d been playing chess at all. With wide eyes, I looked over to Alex, who’d come over to watch us play. Alex said, “Oh yeah, he played a couple of games on the plane back from St. Louis.”

I looked back at Patrick. I think there was a twinkle in his eye.

Every move he made was solid. Not brilliant, I don’t think — but I’m not at the level of “brilliant,” so can I judge? But solid. In the past, I could just set a trap, wait for him to fall into it, then grind whatever advantage I’d gained into victory. This time, he didn’t fall for any traps. We traded pieces, a huge disadvantage when you start down a queen, and soon he had the initiative, a queen and rook with full command of the center, and he deftly checkmated me. I hadn’t just lost. I’d been crushed.

I’m sure you can imagine his elation as he ran off to tell Molly about my humiliating defeat. First thing this morning, he brought up his Yu-Gi-Oh cards. It’s time for me to learn. So the torch passes, one generation to the next.

Happy Father’s Day

18 06 2018

Two years ago, my dad died after suffering from lung cancer for years. My grandmother and grandfather also died from cancer. It’s a terrible disease, and I hope that within my lifetime, people will no longer need to suffer from it. That’s why, for the past two years, I’ve participated in the Fred Hutch Obliteride to raise money for cancer research, and I’m going to do it again this year. On August 11, I will 100 miles on a bicycle in one day with hundreds of other people, all of us doing our part to cure cancer faster.

I hope you’ll support me this year! You can donate by going to my fundraising page: http://engage.fredhutch.org/site/TR/Obliteride/Obliteride?px=1495872&pg=personal&fr_id=1633. Or, if you’re in the Seattle area (or want to travel here in August!), ride with me! Obliteride is one of the most meaningful things I’ve done. If cancer has touched your life, I bet you’ll also find it rewarding to join this community of people striving for a cure. Reach out to me if you have questions.

Pie-Billed Grebe and Chick

29 05 2018

I’ve been going to the Union Bay Natural Area pretty regularly for a year, and I still get to see new things.

This Week in Urban Nature

12 06 2017

A crow watches a juvenile bald eagle with the 520 bridge and the skyscrapers of Bellevue in the background. Minutes later, the crow worked as hard as it could to chase the eagle away. An osprey went hunting, and wood ducks brought splashes of color to the lake shore.

Juvenile Bald Eagle

Go Away!




4 06 2017

For a home in the heart of the city, we are close to a lot of nature. While I’ve always loved nature in the abstract, and when I get to go visit nature at a zoo or while camping, I’ve never lived surrounded by so many different plants, birds, and insects.

Every week is an education. For example, when I moved into the new home, all I could have told you about the grove of trees across the street in Yesler Swamp was that they were big. Now, I know they’re cottonwood trees, that they thrive in poor soil next to rivers and lakes, and they require full sun. Little cottonwood trees can’t grow near established cottonwood trees (not enough light), so they need to go for distance when it’s time to send their seeds out into the world. I learned all this because for three weeks each spring, cottonwood trees stop being a backdrop for nature and become the main event, shouting their name to everybody and everything nearby. When the trees release their seeds, it looks like it’s snowing and the seeds can pile up in drifts several inches deep.

Snow in spring?

It would be purely annoying but for one saving grace: Cottonwood seeds are great food for hungry, growing ducklings. Cottonwood season is also duckling season. Being surrounded by nature is best when it’s adorable and fluffy.

Standing Guard


26 05 2017

One of the unexpected pleasures of our new home: We can see a bald eagle nest from our bedroom window. Since moving, I’ve seen eagles flying overhead every day. Maybe someday it will get boring, like spotting a squirrel in a tree, but for now it’s amazing.


A Gruesome Death

28 10 2016


Image by Moyan Brenn.

Here’s what happened. Don’t read if you’re squeamish.

Our garage is not very big. It fits our car with barely enough room to walk; depending on how well we park, there can be some awkward squeezes to get in and out.

At the back of the garage, a scant 1 or 2 inches from the front bumper of our parked car, was a collection of stuff destined for the dump. We have a dilapidated bookcase with its shelves removed. Sitting in the bookcase, we piled our old car seats; our kids have outgrown them and no charity accepts used car seats. A few weeks ago we got a new kitchen mat, and we rolled up the old one, tied it, and put it in the bookcase resting vertically on top of the car seats. (It’s amazing how long we can keep junk piled up in our house.)

I think I got my first literal whiff that something was wrong on Sunday. A little over a year ago we had a dead rat in the attic, so I’ve learned the “dead animal” smell, and I smelled it walking through the garage. But it wasn’t a strong smell, and “dead rat” isn’t a pleasant memory, so I did the rational thing and ignored it.

When I walked my bike through the garage Monday morning on my way to work, the smell was stronger. However, our neighbor also had a landscape crew in his yard and they were spreading compost right by our garage door. My brain decided to make the pleasant association of the smell with the compost rather than the unpleasant association with “dead rat.”

Tuesday morning, I thought to myself, “Phew, that’s some really pungent compost that Doug put in his yard.”

Tuesday evening, though, my brain ran out of ways to suppress the unpleasant memory. When I got home, standing at the garage door (right next to Doug’s composted yard) and typing our entry code into the keypad, there was no smell. Walking into the garage, the stench was unbearable. There was no way to ignore it any more — there was something dead in our house.

The mystery was: What was dead, and where? Remembering the rat in the attic, I looked around the walls and the ceiling for voids where a rat could have squeezed in and died. I couldn’t see anything. There were no rat droppings in the garage itself. The walls, ceiling, and floor of our garage are more solid than the rest of our house and I dreaded the thought that a rat found some way to scurry around unnoticed. I didn’t have much time before I had to leave to take the boys to piano lessons, though, so I gave up and texted Molly, warning her to pay attention to the smell when she got home and that it was probably a dead rat.

Molly was the one who realized the obvious: The rat was probably in or behind some of the junk in our garage. “I’ll love you forever,” she told me when I came home from the boys’ piano lessons, “if you go down and pull the stuff away from the walls.”

I really didn’t want to. It was dark out. I wasn’t mentally ready. Won’t she love me forever anyway? Could it wait until the morning?

“I’m worried the car will stink if we wait overnight,” Molly countered.

“Fine. I’ll move the car out of the garage!” was my answer.

When I went to move the car, the garage was pitch black. I don’t know why I decided to use a flashlight to do a quick peek at the stuff around the walls rather than turn on the one bare light bulb, but that’s what I did. As I swept the light around, I still saw no obvious place where a rat could hide.

Then I shined the light into the bookcase and jumped back a foot when I saw a tuft of fur between the rolled-up kitchen mat and the car seat. I found the body.

I still wasn’t mentally ready, so I went back upstairs and told Molly that I found it. It turns out she’d also seen the tuft of fur. However, just as my brain preferred to associate the smell with “compost” rather than “dead animal,” her brain sought a more pleasant explanation for what she saw. “It looked too nice to be a rat,” she said, “so I hoped one of the kids had stuck one of their stuffed animals into the bookcase.”

“You’re right, it doesn’t look like a rat,” I said. “I think it’s a squirrel.”

“I want to see the dead squirrel!” Patrick exclaimed, excited.

“No!” I said. “I am not ready to deal with this yet.”

Alex wanted to know what would happen if the squirrel wasn’t really dead, but instead had glowing red eyes. “Hmm,” I said. “Maybe it will bite me and give me his powers and I’ll turn into Squirrel-Man.”

Molly & I decided we’d get rid of the squirrel after dinner. That gave us time to work out our strategy. When the rat died in the attic, we called the pest company and they carried the carcass out in a ziplock bag. That was my plan: put the squirrel into a ziplock. If it fit. Molly wanted to avoid seeing or dealing with the body at all if we could help it. Since the squirrel was in a bunch of junk we were going to throw out anyway, maybe we could just move it all straight into a garbage bag? No matter what approach we took, what do we do with the body once it’s bagged? Internet research provided the answer. In the city of Seattle, dead animals less than 15 pounds just go into the trash. (Eww.)

In the warmth and light of the kitchen, we decided to prepare for both strategies and decide what to do when we saw things up close. So we assembled our body-disposal equipment: Latex gloves, big black garbage bags, gallon ziplocks, and headed downstairs. The kids followed, excited.

Staring at the bookcase and the fur poking out, I figured out what probably happened. I’m sure the kitchen mat accumulated lots of delicious food smells. Because our garage door is so loud, we frequently leave it open if we know we’d just be opening it again before too long. (For instance, the first one home often leaves the garage door open until the second one of us gets home.) So, during one of those times the garage door was open, a squirrel smelled something good and scrambled in to the middle of the rolled-up and tied kitchen mat, but then got stuck. The mat was still upright with the squirrel body inside.

Assessing the situation, Molly’s plan of “throw everything away” seemed better than “pick up the squirrel and put it in a ziplock.” Tossing the entire kitchen mat would be the rodent equivalent of carrying a dead body in a rolled-up carpet. So Molly got the garbage bag ready, and I tried to twist-and-scoop to move the kitchen mat to horizontal from vertical while keeping the squirrel tucked inside.

This shows I really have no experience with dead bodies. I imagined a squirrel carcass affected by rigor mortis. Stiff, maybe a little dried out. Nope! Apparently, at this stage of decay, there’s really nothing holding the body together. The squirrel ripped in half where its body was poking out from the edge of the mat. The rear half and tail fell to the floor and the front half stayed tucked in to the mat. Maggots spilled out and writhed everywhere.

That was the low point of the night. My memory of the next few moments isn’t that clear. I remember Molly going “eww eww eww” and retreating for a little while into the basement. My brain was in the “well, there’s no turning back, just get this job done” mode. The part of it that controlled “disgust” turned off and I got the mat, the bottom half of the squirrel, and all of the maggots into a garbage bag. Then Molly and I together bagged up everything else that was in the Bookcase of Junk. The bags went into an empty garbage can and out of our house.

The kids’ reactions were interesting. Patrick wanted to know why mom ran away. Alex was happy that he had a really good story to tell his classmates the next day. Me, I’m just glad the whole thing is over, and I’m really glad it was just a single daring, lost squirrel who wandered in through our open garage door and not that rats found some new way into our house.

I’m also glad there were no glowing red eyes and that I didn’t pick up any squirrel powers.

Hello, Fall; Hello, Spiders.

23 09 2016

My first few years in Seattle, I didn’t pay attention to fall. Seattle doesn’t get the same over-the-top colors as the East coast, so it’s easy to overlook. But after living in Seattle and getting used to the rhythm of the Northwest climate, the transition time between weeks of unending sun and months of unending clouds feels especially glorious. Mornings are cool, afternoons are warm, the days are dry more often than not, the light seems particularly luscious, and it seems there are spiders everywhere. What’s not to love?

Spider season

One of several spiders I’ve seen around our house in the past few days. 

I’m serious. My rule about bugs is I like anything that doesn’t try to eat me or my food. Those criteria put mosquitos, ants, and flies near the top of my “do not like” list. Spiders, however, leave me alone and happily munch on the things that would otherwise be after the items in my kitchen. It’s more than the-enemy-of-my-enemy-is-my-friend. With their long, elegant legs and intricate webs… spiders are beautiful. 

So like fall foliage and crisp air, the return of spiders is something to celebrate in the magnificent Northwest autumn.

Halfway through 2016

22 07 2016

We’re now more than halfway through 2016, and for the most part it’s been an awful year and I’ll be happy when it’s a distant memory. The year does have one thing going for it, though. Now that the kids are 8 and 10, we’re firmly in the golden era of parenting. It’s easy to get out and do something fun, like watch an ultimate frisbee game:

Sasquatch and Patrick

Or hike on a glacier:

Our Boys

And this year still has a lot of great family adventures to look forward to, culminating in a trip to London. (Which reminds me… time to start planning our trip to London.) 

So, 2016, you will not defeat me! I’ll make sure you end better than you started.