The Uptight Seattleite: Who Moved My Chai?

An exclusive excerpt from his just-published trade paperback, A Sensitive Liberal’s Guide to Life.

"So, this book of yours—is it just a collection of columns?"When people ask me that, I admit the "just" stings a little. But only a little. It's nothing more than a stray piece of gravel to the cheek, kicked up by the Dodge Ram of thoughtlessness. You've gotta just shake your head sadly and keep pedaling.Anyway, the answer is no, my just-published book—A Sensitive Liberal's Guide to Life: How to Banter With Your Barista, Hug Mindfully, and Relate to Friends Who Choose Kids Over Dogs (Gotham Books, trade paperback original, $15)—is not "just" columns. It contains bits of columns, but these bits have been synthesized into a greater whole. As if they'd been fed to a wise old giraffe in a folk tale and reconstituted into a lump of magical cud.Indeed, readers accustomed to my usual free-slinging style may be surprised to hear that the book is arranged in thematic chapters. Don't worry! The structures of these chapters are loose enough to let plenty of spontaneous moonlight come shining through their slats. In other words, expect periodic flashes of off-topic truths.Some parts of the book comprise letters from the column, along with my responses, and other parts are just me, hangin' and rappin' directly at the reader. I also share a bit of my process through a series of pages ripped—still warm from my back pocket—directly from my Moleskine. But the most important thing is fun, and we definitely have that in the book. Heck, sometimes our discussions about racial tension, environmental crime, and body shame get nuttier than a box of crackers!But to get a teeny bit serious for a moment, I would like to thank you, the readers of Seattle Weekly, for all your observant and funny letters through the 3½ years we've been together. Though I was unfortunately unable to find a feasible way to compensate any of you monetarily, I've been assured it puts me in no legal jeopardy to admit you have my gratitude.So here's a little taster of the book for you, a few selected morsels, starting with one of my most toothsome topics—food! Thanks again for everything, and I hope to see you at the University Book Store on Thursday night for the first of my several scheduled appearances! —The Uptight SeattleiteJottings from my Moleskine: Grammar and physics. The preposition a wee arrow directing force and weight. On the mantel. Under the wardrobe. In the kitchen with Linda Ronstadt. Do you have to buy organic?Food is an intensely personal choice, and one that is at the nexus of complex issues involving science, economics, ethics, and the environment. Not everyone can make the right choice every time. And so you occasionally may find yourself supporting the irradiated Frankenfood spewed out by processing plants a thousand carbon-choked miles away, because it's "all you can afford." No need to get down on yourself for that. It may be an obvious truth that what's bad for you is also bad for the planet, but it's also a large truth, and may be hard to comprehend all at once. I'm sure you do what you can. You might not have remembered to bring your reusable burlap sacks to the grocery store this time, but I'm sure you usually remember, right? If you have forgotten them, you might think that your only options now are paper or plastic. Not so! There's another one staring you in the face: your own two hands. Ask the bagger to construct a pyramid on your outstretched arms with the larger items on the bottom and the smaller ones on top. If you've got a half-dozen or so cans of soup, have him stack them into a radio tower on top of your pyramid. True, you'll have to walk very gingerly, and you won't be able to see where you're going. But if you call out from behind your pyramid of groceries that "this is for the earth," and describe what your car looks like, passersby will be happy to shout out directions. Another option is to ask the bagger to leave a pair of tunnels in front of your eyes. This may take some engineering skill on his part, but it will help if you suggest that he devise a single tunnel with a box of Grape-Nuts as its roof, and cleave it in twain with a Fruit Roll-Up. OK, great job. Now consider taking it to the next level: juggling your items as you walk out of the store. When your performance catches people's attention, then it's "each one teach one" time. Flash a twinkly smile and chant, "Juggling resources, juggling resources, you know we can't keep juggling resources!" Master this and you're ready to go up still one more level: leaving the store without carrying anything at all. Jam carrots into your sleeves. Apply your mouth to the bulk-honey spigot and suck down a week's supply. Scoop from the granola bin directly into your pants. The store should be fine with this if you explain that you'll pay the difference between your weight when you came in and your weight when you leave. And if you promise not to dishonestly reduce your weight by going to the bathroom between weigh-ins. They won't let you use the restroom anyway. Jottings from my Moleskine: Found myself missing wrong numbers. Everyone on speed-dial now. That brief, random connection with another soul— now a thing of the past. Miss especially delivering my joke: "No, he's not here. Try calling his number." Raw milk Hello, my fellow criminal. So glad you could make it. This is the perfect setting to continue our discussion of how to effect positive change through consumer choices: Café Name Withheld, a Sunday-afternoon raw-milk speakeasy. We're all here to enjoy the creamy goodness that science and the government want to keep from us. You're one of the many new faces I've seen lately. It's great that more people are waking up to the health-giving properties of unpasteurized milk, no matter how belatedly. Welcome, my friend, to raw milk. Welcome home. Sadly, I must leave this sunny plateau where we food revolutionaries have made such a cozy little camp, but higher ground beckons. See, when you drink even unpasteurized milk, you're consuming something intended for infant calves. This raises certain troubling associations between cows and mothers. Cows may be OK for you, and I hope they are, but I myself need an upgrade in the animal-mother department. That's why I'm headed to a little boutique farm on Bainbridge Island for my monthly allotment of raw alpaca milk. Alpacas are far more alert and lithe than cows, bringing a lighter spirit to the maternal presence in our food lives. And for some reason their milk has never before been consumed in human history, so the unfamiliar jolt of their DNA in ours delivers great vigor of body and mind. But do I mind sharing one last creamy glass of mammalian bounty with you? Not at all! Cheers! Jottings from my Moleskine: Why doubt things unseen? You can't see love. You can't see your skeleton, but try standing up without it. Try doing a silly little dance without it. Actually, that would be a silly dance! From bread to books It's not just food, of course. Where you buy your books also has implications for the earth. Unfortunately, for one small local business I know, it may be too late. A beloved neighborhood institution for decades, the used bookstore is closing for good today. The store's venerable calico, Dickens, naps sullenly, as if all too aware that he'll soon be evicted from his sunny window. Perhaps you choose a steeply discounted art book, ruthlessly pressing your advantage against the bruised flesh of the owner's fortunes. Don't feel bad about this for even a moment. True, the place is going under because people like you long ago drifted toward Amazon.com, or away from buying books altogether. You weren't there to see the good-natured mischief that once twinkled in the eyes of the owner as he offered his patented commentary on each customer's purchase fade to a look of dull defeat. But it's this look that he now turns on the oversized book of Renaissance paintings. The one that was purchased from its original owner for the optimistic price of $40 only last spring and that you've now plucked from the makeshift "80% Off" table set up where the poetry section used to be. He knows it's only the sign in the store's front window announcing its demise that has reminded you of its once-familiar charms. The silent glow of fellowship from your fellow readers, the soft classical music, the funky patchwork of flyers in the entrance offering to massage you, watch your dog, and teach you guitar. A warm, quiet embrace of your mind and senses. That's just one way of looking at it, though. Maybe you prefer to have your books delivered from the Internet, dragging heavily across the face of the environment their tails of cardboard, air-puffed plastic, and glossy advertisements. I wouldn't presume to tell you that you're helping to kill the planet with your blind compulsion for convenience and price. That you've grown deaf to the music of the names of your city's used bookstores that once beckoned you with a slyly understated sophistication. Magus, Horizon, Twice-Sold Tales, Left Bank, Epilogue. Perhaps you could make this music into a soundtrack for your meditation on how these quiet little havens that once enriched the texture of civic life are fast disappearing forever. Without these bookstores, into what cozy chamber will you duck on a rainy afternoon? But it's all right. Log on and kill off one of the last sacred spaces left in the city, and do a little bit more damage to the environment to boot. Tip the world ever more relentlessly toward sterility and despair, as it were. Jottings from my Moleskine: This thought gave me a silent little chuckle on the bus: Wouldn't these people be surprised if they knew I'm on day 22 of my complete media fast? And that I don't even miss all the bad news? If only they knew how liberating it is. Be patient with them. That's what I tell myself. Don't go too, uh . . . fast? OK, make that two chuckles! The model home I'm sure you don't want to do that, though. So please step this way to learn more about how you can help the planet by buying things. But would you mind removing your shoes first? This is a model Seattle home, and therefore a shoe-free zone. We'll get to why in a second. In the meantime, did you notice that every surface in here is recycled or sustainable? That the fixtures were reclaimed from a 1970s public school, the counters are made from millions of cubic yards of mashed-together newspapers and magazines, and the Fair Trade–certified deck furniture was handcrafted out of Shell oil cans by Ghanaian villagers? That, in short, this is a place where clean lines meet a clean conscience?That brings us back to why you're standing there in your socks. (Oopsy! Someone has a hole!) It might seem like we're just aping a particular Japanese custom. But it's bigger than that. The delicacy of feeling that is the genius of Japanese culture finds its analogue in the delicacy of our carpet fibers. Floors are an investment, and can add or subtract considerably to the resale price of a house or condo. So there are inside/outside, sacred/profane, and clean/unclean implications here. To enter someone's home is to breach the glowing energy field that is its market value. So you must purify your entrance like a sumo wrestler throwing salt, or a Shinto priest waving his folded paper thing around. It's not just carpets, by the way. Those scuff marks on bamboo floors— ugh! Not that they have a lot of bamboo floors in Japan, but there is an evocative connection that floats like a feel-good haze above our tasteful decor. So take off your shoes, close your eyes, and drift off with us into a vague, warm feeling of oneness with nature. OK, open your eyes! Tour over! You have to go back to your own house now. On your way out, you may notice that there's no welcome mat. Well, we couldn't very well have gotten that kind with an eagle on it. The next thing you know, a Fox News crew would jump out of the bushes, and there'd be a segment about how Seattle liberals hate America so much they wipe their feet on its most sacred symbols. Let them keep hassling San Francisco, that's what I say. And those metal-reinforced coir-fiber mats are so brutal and chunky. No, better to go with a no-mat strategy to prepare the way for the no-shoes policy. Let them wipe and they start to get ideas. Instructions for the dog sitter Possibly because of my sensitivity to higher truths, I'm unable to take my upcoming separation from Kunio lightly. And—oh my Goddess, look!—only two weeks left and I still haven't worked the bugs out of the preamble to my instructions for the dog sitter. I've got a pile of notes to incorporate, and I'm still tweaking the tone. Of course, I'll need to appeal to the reader with the title, too, so I've been playing with a few possibilities. "While I'm Gone: Hangin' With Ma Pooch" is friendly, but I want the work to be taken seriously, too. Another contender is "Poop Bags, Vegetable-Protein-Based Doggie Pretzels, and Romping Techniques for Sensitive Paws: The Slightly Crazy and Totally Fun Stuff in Store for You Until I Get Back on the 10th." It does ring out with the joy that I think is the missing component at the heart of interspecies dialogue. But again, the problem becomes "Where is the seriousness of purpose that is the other equally valid side of my dog-stewarding value system?" Fun though it may be, caring for Kunio is not a game. I guess I should be grateful I've got the main chapters in the bag. I never thought I'd be this close to finishing, but it's true what they say: Keep squeezing it out every day and it really does pile up. Jottings from my Moleskine: The blind African-American governor of New York—the way he walks. Charges straight ahead. No tap-tapping cane for him. He trusts his aides, a crew of Caucasian men in ties. Don't we all have the equivalent of that necktied crew inside us? Learning to trust the self. Learning to trust the crew—that's called leadership. But how did I originally think this related to the self? Put at top of next week's Ponder List. Communication with the economically diverse Sometimes the challenge of diversity is not about ethnicity and religion so much as economic position. For example, what should you do when you're visiting a country with a lot of poor people? How can you deal with the guilt? This is a problem that carries a solution within itself—like the prize in a box of Cracker Jack, or those handmade crafts in your carry-on. Because what does it mean when you feel guilty? It means you're a good person. And therefore . . . you shouldn't feel guilty! Actually, you should feel better than not guilty. You should feel great, because you're focusing on the most important issue here: your own feelings. After all, you must be the change you want to see. Therefore a better world for everyone starts with you. And unlike most people, you've taken the trouble to travel where developing people live and learn about their culture. Maybe you're checking into an ashram in rural India, or enjoying an eco-tour of Belize. Don't flinch from the crowds in dusty streets. Remember that we're all part of the same crazy Dance of Life. Sure, the dance has sad parts and slow parts. Smile at the indigenous folks as you pass, to show that you accept your part in the dance, and theirs, too. Back home, dancing on the edge of this privilege gap requires less global consciousness and more care about where you step. It's not enough to view yourself as being equal to the people who ring up your groceries, foam your milk, and massage your body. You also have to find some way to express this view at every moment of every interaction with them. This is particularly tricky on those occasions when your loud-and-clear egalitarian subtext also contains a complaint. Like if your grocery-store cashier is practically hurling your food at the baggers. Spiritually aware individuals know that actions carry energy, and that food in particular can easily be imprinted with careless negative energy. But it won't do to get mad at the cashier for not being a spiritually aware individual. Instead, take a deep breath and reflect on your relative privileges. Not helpful: making judgments. Yes, helpful: offering tactful pointers in terms the cashier can understand. So rather than confronting the cashier directly, hint at your meaning in a friendly manner. Like the Buddha, who once responded to a disciple's question by silently holding up a flower. Don't be afraid to also turn on the fun! Fix the cashier with a goofy smile and say, "Hey, I bet you were a lawn-dart champion in a past life!" Then look meaningfully into the distance. The next time you're at the store, seek out the same cashier and offer another comment carefully crafted to lead them to a higher level of food sensitivity. Some examples: -- "Ever had your feelings hurt? I know I have. Not very fun, is it? Oh well, you know what they say, You are what you eat!" -- "I bet your unconscious vigor could be harnessed for positive ends. If you know what I mean."-- "Have you ever imagined you were a banana?"When you think that cashier is making progress, move on to the next one, and repeat the process. Another sticky situation at the grocery store comes up when they ask, "Do you need some help with your bags?" If you accept, are you exploiting the workers or merely availing yourself of a service you've already paid for with your grocery bill? If the question leaves you paralyzed with indecision, relax! It's actually OK to let them help, so long as you do the following two to-dos. As with the food-hurling cashier, here, too, to-do number one is to reflect on your privileged position. To-do two: Transcend this position. In other words, you may have arrived in the land of Good for You!, but this is only a way station on your journey to What Was the Issue Again? Translation: You must learn to converse in a natural manner with the young man carrying your groceries. To show you're as comfortable with him as you are with people in your own income bracket. But what to talk about? Chances are he's a sports fan. Even if you don't follow sports (I sure don't!), all you have to do is ask how he thinks your hometown team is going to do this year. To strike the right jaunty tone, make up a nickname for the team. If the team is called the "Giants," for example, refer to them as the "Big Guys." You can also throw in a little profanity to show you're a regular person. As in, "How 'bout those fuckin' Big Guys this year, eh?" When you feel the impulse to give him an accompanying playful slug on the arm, then you're really getting into the groove. Don't follow through on the impulse, though, as it could cause him to drop your groceries. Bantering with your barista . . . You've probably heard the saying "That and a dime will get you a cup of coffee." It dates from an age unburdened with real-time knowledge of the world's great cruelty. These days your laptop is a window into Darfur villages burning on Google Earth, and your latte is the beige bull's-eye of a series of concentric circles of shame. The outermost circle is composed of the misery of the people who pick the beans. The next circle, in this series that will eventually lap onto the shores of your local coffee shop, is described by the trail of pollution left by the planes and trucks that deliver the beans. Even so, our faith in our own idealism is strong, bolstered by the higher prices we pay and the smiling black and brown faces in those Fair Trade brochures. If this faith crumbles at its edges into sentimentality, isn't that better than not giving a damn? As I put it in a recent poem: A certain hope,/disdained by the cynical,/in the power of collective action/burns yet on, burns yet on,/in my throat now. But what I want to address here is the innermost circle of shame, your interaction with the stylish-and-yet-no-health-insurance-having worker who prepares your beverage. The heart of this interaction is the tip, which must be delivered with great delicacy. If the barista at any point thanks you, you've blown it. You want the tip to be noticed, but you don't want it to appear that you want it to be noticed. Drop that dollar in the jar immediately after receiving your change while smiling blankly at a point six inches to the left of your barista's face. . . . and with your massage therapist Taking off your clothes in a candlelit room to the sounds of a tropical rain forest? You must be getting a massage! If this is a new experience for you, you may have some questions. Maybe you wonder if it's weird to feel uncomfortable about getting a massage from someone of the opposite sex. Or if it's even weirder to prefer someone of the same sex. And how about chitchat—how much is expected during and after the massage? Should you feel guilty about being able to afford a massage? Can people who give massages afford to get massages? And finally, can you remember the difference between a masseuse and a masseur? No, you can't. No one can. No one can remember the price of a first-class stamp either. That's why we use two stamps and say "massage therapist." Our mail doesn't come back and we avoid that impossible masseuse/ur swamp. The word "therapist" also extends the proper respect to these highly trained professionals. And you should rest easy about whether their income level puts them in the massagee class or not. We can safely assume they have some kind of exchange arrangement with their fellow therapists. To relax about all of this, all you need is a little more knowledge. Plus, your therapist will surely appreciate your taking the time to learn about their craft. I personally like to use that pre-massage chitchat to show that I realize there's a whole universe beyond the basic Swedish rubdowns so popular with the masses. "Do you agree," I'll ask, "that the Shiatsu versus Derivative Shiatsu debate is totally missing the virtues of a Qi Gong approach? And what is your position on transverse friction? Is it better than light petrissage or effleurage when treating subcutaneous adipose tissue? When the massage itself starts, I like to space out and stare at the anatomical charts. I've always wondered if the color they choose for the muscles on those charts is based on the color of raw beef. Or if that's the real color of muscles for mammals. Tipping, alternative health care workers, and you We inhabit a wilderness of Reiki Masters, Healing Touchers, Low Qi Specialists, Rolfers, Dulas, Hydrotherapists, and Orthomolecularists. While some of these alternative practitioners may welcome your tip, others may see it as an affront to the validity of their discipline. Think how your X-ray technician would feel if you tried to tip her. This isn't as hard to sort out as you may think, though. Just watch for any of the following signs that your therapists would see a gratuity as gratuitous: --Their title includes a word of three or more syllables. --They wear a white lab coat. --Their job involves human birth. --Their office is a place of clinical silence rather than softly noodling Celtic harps. In the absence of these signs, the standard 15 to 20 percent applies, depending on the degree to which your spirit was refreshed. Jottings from my Moleskine: Public communication on a city street. Who owns the means of production? Corporations with their billboards. Taggers with their tags. The maintenance guy with his stencils. The stencils give his words official power. ALL OTHERS TOWED. What else could he say? What if he used his power instead to lift us up? ALL SPIRITS SOAR. The Uptight Seattleite has been a columnist for Seattle Weekly since October 2006. This is his first book.

 
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