Seattle, WA
February 8, 2023

What Are People Doing?

Every week the Town Crier blog will look back at Seattle’s near-forgotten Town Crier magazine to see what was happening then and talk about what’s happening now. One of the largest sections of the original Town Crier was “What People Are Doing,” highlighting things like, “Reverend Bliss entertained with a Thanksgiving dinner ” and, “They are noisy, and they are gassy, and they’re dirty, the ubiquitous tin Ford.” In this series we’re revisiting the old column and tying it to our community’s current happenings, asking: “what are people doing?”

Today’s entry…

The November 29, 1919 Town Crier looked towards Christmastime with Thanskgiving in the rear view. “Looking backward for a moment, we see that the usual features of Thanksgiving day were very much in evidence: the turkey, roosting higher than ever, was nevertheless removed gently but with determination from his perch, and translated by fire and skill into a crispy brown mound of toothsome tenderness, entirely surrounded by Thanksgiving trimmings.” The story continued, “Perhaps the mince pie lacked something of its former delicious flavor, and again, perhaps it didn’t.”

Regardless of if your pie was delicious or not yesterday, take note, the holiday season is upon us and Town Hall has a great many holiday happenings in the coming weeks.

November 30: The Byrd Ensemble and Seattle Baroque Orchestra will play Bach’s “Wachet auf” and “Magnificat.”

December 8: Northwest Girlchoir will present their concert “Generation to Generation,” playing holiday favorites and unheralded gems.

December 10: KIRO Radio’s “Goodbye, Christmas!” KIRO Radio and Seattle Radio Theatre will present an original holiday radio play.

December 14: Seattle Girls Choir will present their holiday concert, “A Gift of Song.”

December 14: Magical Strings will showcase a “Celtic Yuletide.”

December 15: A special Short Stories Live event – “A Rogue’s Family Christmas.”

December 21: Early Music Seattle will present “Festive Cantatas: Christmas in Gabrieli’s Venice.”

December 28: Earshot Jazz will present their 31st annivesary concert of Duke Ellington’s sacred music.

That’s a lot to digest, we know. That said, there’s more going on at Town Hall than just these shows. Check out our calendar for a full listing and happy holidays!

The American Xenophobia Paradox

The United States is known as a nation of immigrants—but it is also a nation of xenophobia. Erika Lee,director of the Immigration History Research Center at the University of Minnesota, takes the stage at Town Hall on December 10 with an unblinking look at the irrational fear, hatred, and hostility toward immigrants which have been defining features of our nation from the colonial era to the Trump era. Tickets are only $5 (free for anyone under the age of 22) and are available now.

Town Hall’s Jonathan Shipley sat down with Lee to briefly discuss political power, racism, and Benjamin Franklin.

JS: What initially got you interested in the topic of xenophobia? 

EL: I have always been fascinated with America’s history of immigration, one that has been marked by both a tradition of welcoming immigrants and a long record of xenophobia – an irrational fear and hatred of immigrants. But the 2016 presidential election and Donald Trump’s explicitly xenophobic campaign still took me by surprise. Then he was elected. My students, many of whom were first generation immigrants and refugees, asked me, “How did this happen?” I didn’t have the answers. I knew that I owed it to my students—and to all Americans—to try and figure this out.

JS: For the layperson, what IS xenophobia?

EL: Coming from the Greek words xenos, which translates into “stranger,” and phobos, which means either “fear” or “flight,” xenophobia  literally means fear and hatred of foreigners. But I think that it is important to think about xenophobia beyond this literal translation. It is an ideology: a set of beliefs and ideas based on the premise that foreigners are threats to the nation and its people. It promotes an irrational fear and hatred of immigrants and demonizes foreigners (and, crucially, people considered to be “foreign” or outsiders). And it is a form of racism; it defines certain groups as racial and religious others who are inherently inferior or dangerous—or both—and demonizes them as a group based on these presumptions. When we think about xenophobia in these ways, it becomes clear that it is not only about immigration; it is about who has the power to define what it means to be American, who gets to enjoy the privileges of American citizenship, and who does not.

JS: As a nation of immigrants, why the paradox? Why do we fear the very thing we are supposedly proud of?

EL: This is one of the biggest puzzles that I try to figure out. The U.S. is indeed a “nation of immigrants;” a nation built by immigration. And while we have allowed generations of immigrants to come to the United States, that welcome has not always been uniform across groups; nor has it translated into full equality. There have always some groups that we have been wary of; to the point of demonizing them and labeling them threats to the United States and to the American people. Whom we have welcomed or banned has often been defined by race. European immigrants—while not uniformly embraced into the United States—have certainly faced less systemic xenophobia and discrimination than non-Europeans. When we understand xenophobia as a form of racism, this paradox, I think, is easier to understand.

JS: How does xenophobia work? Why does it endure? Who does it benefit?

EL: Xenophobia is often understood as something that rises and falls depending on what is going on in the United States. When our economy is good, when we are at peace, when we are unified as a country, we are more welcoming. When we are suffering through an economic downturn, are at war, or fractured as a society, we are not welcoming. 

History shows that while economic and other concerns certainly help to make xenophobia thrive, it is not just an inevitable consequence of national anxieties. It is actively promoted by special interests in the pursuit of political power. It has also endured because it has been an indelible part of American racism, white supremacy, and nationalism, and because it has been supported by American capitalism and democracy. And it has succeeded through repetition. Targeting and discriminating against one group of immigrants makes it easier (and normal) to do it against others. Even as Americans have realized that the threats allegedly posed by immigrants were, in hindsight, unjustified, they have allowed xenophobia to become an American tradition.

JS: You note how Benjamin Franklin ridiculed Germans for being “strange.” Did the Founding Fathers have the thought that they could very well be “strange” to the native populations being immigrants themselves? 

EL: In fact, it worked in the opposite way. America’s white settlers did not think of themselves as “foreigners” or “immigrants” in the same way that we use the terms today. They believed they were destined to possess and rule over the lands that became American colonies and the United States. They identified Native Americans and African Americans as America’s first “others;” those who were threats to the colonies and then the United States because they were unfit to American citizenship and racially inferior. 

JS: Chinese exclusions, Japanese internment camps, the Muslim ban – we have a long history of negative treatment towards immigrants. How/why do we target certain populations at certain times? What are the ingredients to cause this hysteria?

EL: Xenophobia thrives best in certain contexts, such as periods of rapid economic and demographic change, war, and cultural conflict. This, in part, helps to explain why and how we have targeted Chinese, Japanese, and Muslim immigrants. The anti-Chinese movement spread during the economic recession during the 1870s; the incarceration of Japanese Americans and the targeting of Muslims in America happened during World War Two and after 9/11. 

But xenophobia is also about racism and political power. Chinese, Japanese, and Muslims have all been portrayed as inherently more foreign, and thus, more dangerous than other immigrant groups. As such they have been targeted for racially discriminatory policies like African Americans and Native Americans. And the campaigns against them—especially the anti-Chinese and anti-Muslim ones—have been actively promoted by politicians as part of larger political agendas and as a way to mobilize voters. 

JS: Are we making progress as a society to eradicate it?   

EL: I’m sorry to say that at the end of writing this book, I am much less hopeful that I was at the start. The Trump era has revealed just how powerful and effective xenophobia remains in the United States. 

JS: What can a citizen do to help in this regard? 

EL: I believe that the first step is to understand how our anti-immigrant attitudes and laws have been steeped in racism then and now. In the past, we used explicitly racist language. Today, code words like “law and order” and “national security” obscure policies that are still racist in their intent and execution. 

Another concrete action that we can all take is to remain informed about immigration issues and how immigration works so that we can be prepared to recognize “fake news,” mistruths, and distorted facts.

We also need to be resolved to the idea that solving xenophobia will not happen overnight. This is a much bigger and deeper problem than just electing a new president. It is deeply rooted in our worldview, our politics, and our laws. 

Lastly, we can all get involved. There has been a tremendous backlash to Trump era immigration policies. If you agree that this administration’s approach to immigration is hurting, rather than helping our country, then let your voice (and your vote) be heard. 

Hear Lee speak more about xenophobia at Town Hall on December 10. Learn more here.

What Are People Doing?

Every week the Town Crier blog will look back at Seattle’s near-forgotten Town Crier magazine to see what was happening then and talk about what’s happening now. One of the largest sections of the original Town Crier was “What People Are Doing,” highlighting things like, “Last Wednesday evening was a dance given by the Broadway Orthopedic Guild at the Army and Navy Club” and, “The big card party is planned for November 24 for the Lighthouse of the Blind.” In this series we’re revisiting the old column and tying it to our community’s current happenings, asking: “what are people doing?”

Today’s entry…

The November 22, 1919 Town Crier mentioned Thanksgiving. “With straining eyes we look across a disturbed and chaotic world and exclaim: ‘For what are we to give thanks?’ One year ago our hopes were high and our hearts were warm within us as we looked forward with confidence to the future. A twelvemonth of turmoil and confusion, of misunderstandings and suspicions, has depressed the spirit.”

The story continues with some amount of hope. “Mighty problems are facing the world. They demand solution and only through the sanest thought and action will the impasse be removed. Here is where the faith of mankind in the ultimate outcome is put to the test. The present difficulties were inevitable but isn’t it far better to be alive to their meaning than to have our senses dulled to the situation? Our work lies close at hand.” 

Town Hall is close to offering up a plethora of events dealing with some of the mighty problems facing the world. These include:

WTO Anniversary Events (11/30 and 12/7). 20 years ago Seattle protests shut down the World Trade Organization’s conference. On 11/30 the Community Alliance for Global Justice and UFCW 21 present the day-long “Another World is Possible! WTO+20 and the Justice Movements of Today.” On 12/7 the Washington Fair Trade Coalition offers a day of workshops and an evening program featuring Nobel laureate Joseph Stiglitz.

Eli Saslow (12/5). Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Eli Saslow joins us to discuss his new book, Rising Out of Hatred: The Awakening of a Former White Nationalist.

Civic Saturday (12/7). A gathering of friends and strangers to dive into readings of civic texts, share thoughts and ideas, and reflect on the meaning of our nation’s creed—of liberty, equality, and self-government that truly unites us.

César Cuauhtémoc García Hernández (12/9). Almost 400,000 people annually spend time locked up pending the result of a civil or criminal immigration proceeding. Leading scholar César Cuauhtémoc García Hernández takes a hard look at the immigration prison system’s origin and operation.

Erika Lee (12/10). Author Erika Lee takes the stage at Town Hall with an unblinking look at the irrational fear, hatred, and hostility toward immigrants which have been defining features of our nation from the colonial era to the Trump era. 

Find some solutions to the world’s problems at Town Hall this Thanksgiving season. Have your voice be heard. You can check our full calendar here.

What Are People Doing?

Every week the Town Crier blog will look back at Seattle’s near-forgotten Town Crier magazine to see what was happening then and talk about what’s happening now. One of the largest sections of the original Town Crier was “What People Are Doing,” highlighting things like, “Pupils of Mary Ann Wells went to Aberdeen for an Armistace Ball” and, “Mrs. Cecil Bacon has returned from the East.” In this series we’re revisiting the old column and tying it to our community’s current happenings, asking: “what are people doing?”

Today’s entry…

The November 15, 1919 Town Crier had good things to say about the Seattle Symphony’s first concert of the season. “The orchestra assembled by Conductor Spargur has improved in quality and there is far better tone in the violin section.” They continued that there was “more smoothness in the brass choir and the wood winds were quite a satisfaction.” They played Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, and Charpentier. “Charming it was in the warmth and joyousness of the sketches so well contrasted.”

Warmth and joyousness will be found at Town Hall soon with a plethora of music concerts coming soon.

November 16: Sounds of the Sound 3 A showcase that presents a vast array of gifted musical artists who give a unique voice to the culture, diversity, spirituality, and soul of the Puget Sound area and its people.

November 23: Puget Sound Symphony Orchestra. “Heroes and Villains” includes famous melodies and a tribute to Stan Lee.

November 24: Philharmonia Northwest. Dr. Seuss and Charlie Brown meet for a family friendly concert. Read an interview with Philharmonia Northwest’s Julia Tai here.

November 25: Piano Ki Avaaz. A Town Music concert featuring a newly commissioned piano trio piece by Reena Esmail.

November 30: Byrd Ensemble and Early Music Seattle. Bach masterpieces “Wachet auf” and “Magnificat” will be played.

And there’s much more coming in December. You can check our full calendar here.

Town Hall Can Thaw the Seattle Freeze

The gloomy weather is rolling into the city as winter approaches. It’s gloomy enough for Seattle to be named the nation’s gloomiest city. That’s pretty gloomy. Adding to it? The Seattle Freeze. The widely held belief that it’s hard to make friends in Seattle has its own Wikipedia page. There have been studies done about it. Half of all the residents of Washington don’t want to talk to you. KING5 covered the phenomena this very week.

What is one to do? Might we suggest coming to a Town Hall event? It’s where community comes together. It’s where voices can be heard. YOUR voice can be heard.

Let us revel, for a moment, in this intrepid Seattleite who recently attended our Just Food program. They went to it…with a new friend! GASP! And had a great time! GADZOOKS!

We can learn a thing or two from The Spider Queen. We can be open to new experiences and new people at any time. We can find new things to be passionate about. We can find practical and direct ways to use those things that mean something to us to improve our community as a whole. Town Hall’s here for that.

Here are a handful of events in the coming weeks where you, too, can revel in the thawing out process at Town Hall:

11/19: Richard Louv – A talk on how connecting with animals can transform our lives. (Humans are animals, too)

11/25: Piano Ki Avaaz – A chamber music concert is a wonderful way to connect. Revel in the music!

12/7: Civic Saturday – A place to come together in civic community, be inspired and encouraged to reflect and connect.

12/12: Rabbi Michael Lerner – Drawing from his book Revolutionary Love, Lerner proposes a globalization of generosity, prophetic empathy, and environmental sanity.

Those are but a few of the many events Town Hall has planned in the coming months. Regardless of what events you attend at Town Hall, join us at our Otto Bar before or after the event to have a drink, commiserate, debate, chat, laugh with friends new or old.

Get out of the cold, friends. Come to Town Hall. Let’s come together, warm-hearted and nimble-minded, and melt the freeze. 

Classical Music is Child’s Play: A Conversation with Julia Tai

Charlie Brown is going to be meeting Dr. Seuss soon. On November 24 on Town Hall’s Great Hall stage, Philharmonia Northwest will be presenting a family concert highlighting the wondrous writer of The Cat in the Hat and the lovely holiday television chestnut that is A Charlie Brown Christmas. You can learn more about the coming concert here.

In the meantime, Town Hall’s Jonathan Shipley sat down with Philharmonia Northwest’s Music Director Julia Tai to discuss Offenbach, brain development, and instrument petting zoos.

JS: Tell me a little bit about yourself.

JT: I am the Music Director of Philharmonia Northwest and the Co-Artistic Director of the Seattle Modern Orchestra. I’ve performed with the Seattle Symphony, American Youth Symphony, Bakersfield Symphony Orchestra, Estonian National Youth Symphony, and many others.

JS: Does Philharmonia NW do a lot of family concerts?

JT: We have done several family concerts in the past, including Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf and Saint-Saëns’ Carnival of the Animals. We make it a priority of the orchestra to provide engaging musical experiences for young audiences, whether that’s a family concert or a side-by-side concert with high school musicians. We’ve also invited elementary school students to come watch our dress rehearsals, and have collaborated with young dancers to choreograph live dances in our concerts. Family concerts are very special occasions for sure. We love seeing the audience filled with kids—listening, dancing, and having a good time. In our upcoming concert, we will also have an instrumental petting zoo in the lobby before the concert so kids can get their hands on different instruments.

JS: Why do you think kids should be exposed to classical music?

JT: There are all kinds of studies out there that talk about how music helps kids’ brain development, concentration, and problem-solving skills. But from a musician’s point of view, I want kids to be exposed to the beauty of symphonic music at a young age. Symphonic music is so varied in sound and form. It’s also great at depicting stories, conveying feelings, and evoking imagination—think Fantasia or Bugs Bunny. I think that music can be one of the earliest ways in which a child can really perceive something bigger than life.  

JS: What were YOUR earliest introductions to classical music? What struck you about the music in those early years?

JT: My mother was a music teacher at a high school, so my childhood was filled with music. She has lots of videos of famous conductors and orchestras in the world, so I was immersed in music from an early age, even before I start going to live concerts. I also started studying the violin when I was 4 and a half, so very early on music was a big part of my life. I remember the first time a piece of music conjured up feelings of being at the ocean. Making that connection between perception, imagination, and sound was a big discovery for me.  

JS: What are some ways parents can bring classical music into kids’ lives?

JT: There are so many resources out there. But mostly I would recommend making music an activity: playing and participating, not just something you play in the background. Just like teaching kids how to read, you can play story tapes, but the most effective way is to sit down with your kid and read a book together. Music leaves a much bigger impact on the kid when they are in the middle of making it. Enroll in a kids’ music class or go to live music concerts. When children see people making music in front of their eyes, it’s a much different experience than listening to it on the radio at home.  

JS: Do you have kids? How do THEY like classical music?

JT: Yes, I have a four year old daughter. Music is definitely a big part of her life. We have been going to Music Together classes since she was 18 months old. We always have music in the car or in the house. She loves to sing and dance to it. We want music to be part of life, not just something you ‘do’ occasionally.

JS: What can audiences expect from the show? Why did you choose the pieces you picked for the show?

JT: The show is going to be really fun—it’s good for all ages too. We start with Offenbach’s Overture from Orpheus in the Underworld, which includes the Can-Can Dance that everyone knows. Then we have a symphonic poem for narrator and orchestra that tells one of Dr. Seuss’ stories, The Sneetches. It’s a story about some serious themes like bigotry and exploiting people for profit, but it’s delivered in the delightfully playful rhymes that we love from Dr. Seuss. It ends with a beautiful message about how people can live peacefully together by embracing differences. It’s just so timely to talk about these things—how we can live harmoniously with people that are different from us. The second half of the program is a new piano concerto using the themes from Peanuts. It includes many familiar themes from A Charlie Brown Christmas. It’ll be a great way to start the holiday season.

Tickets are on sale now!

Happy Halloween from the Town Crier

Happy Halloween, Town Hall readers! Will you be joining us this coming weekend for Town Hall treats? Tonight, Andrew Rea joins us with his Binging with Babish cookbook. Tomorrow night, Jenny Odell teaches us how to do nothing and the Flat Earth Society is having a concert as part of the Earshot Jazz Festival. On Saturday November 2 there will be a Veterans Day open mic and a Seattle Jazz Showcase. On Sunday Julie Hirschfeld Davis and Michael D. Shear will discuss Trump’s assault on immigration. Treats aplenty.

Halloween hasn’t always been a treat for some. Particularly for the writers of the old Town Crier. Take, for instance, their take on Halloween in the November 5, 1927 edition. They lament, “Some of the Halloween fun is innocent enough. The smaller children get a tremendous kick out of their pumpkin lanterns, their witch costumes, the ringing of doorbells, the cowbells, horns and varied devices for making noise. No one would deprive them of it.” They continue, “But the eight- and ten-year-olds are off the streets by eight or nine, to be succeeded by older roisterers.” Those rapscallion roisterers! “These include boys who range from 12 to 13 up to 18 or 20, with a distinct tendency to run in gangs of considerable size! It is quite probable that even of these the majority are harmless enough, but there is a proportion, large enough, that finds amusement only in vandalism and destruction.”

The Town Crier writers suggested that Halloween be abolished…forever. “We wonder now why we endure it as long as we have.” A sad state of affairs, to be sure! “Life will be even more peaceful when the vandalism of Halloween is relegated to the scrap heap.”

Halloween has yet to make it to the scrap heap. Far from it. Enjoy it and we’ll hopefully see you at Town Hall soon.

Talking about Talking to Your Kids About Death: A Conversation with Caroline Wright

How do you talk to kids about death? Author Caroline Wright wondered the same thing when she was diagnosed with an aggressive, terminal brain cancer as a mother to her young sons. Now, having lived a year past her prognosis and written a children’s book to help children know the undying love of a parent, Wright will be at Town Hall on November 9 to help other parents find hope and agency with similar diagnoses. She’ll be joined by a panel of leading experts in the fields of children’s bereavement and cancer to discuss the complicated issue of what to say to our kids to comfort them when facing loss. Tickets ($5, and free for anyone 22 and under) are on sale now.

Town Hall’s Jonathan Shipley recently sat down with Wright to discuss honesty, science, and comfort.

JS: Tell me a bit about yourself.

CW: I’m a cook, writer and terminal brain cancer patient. After my undergraduate education in Paris, I completed the La Varenne culinary program with Anne Willan in Burgundy, then started my career writing and styling recipes as a food editor for Martha Stewart’s Everyday Food magazine that folded in 2012. While I was writing articles, I authored three cookbooks.

After I was diagnosed with glioblastoma, a very aggressive, incurable brain cancer, I shifted my diet and began writing personal essays regularly about my cancer as it relates to food on my blog. I also wrote a children’s book for my sons about my enduring love for them.

JS: What emotions swirled through your head upon hearing of your cancer in regards to your children?

CW: I had no idea how to help them process the news because I had no idea how to process it myself. It was a strange experience, to say the least, to be a source of comfort and pain simultaneously for my boys. 

JS: How long did it take you to share with them the news? How did you go about formulating it? What were their initial reactions?

CW: My husband and I told them immediately. (Our engaged child at that point, really, was Henry, as he was four. Our younger son, Theodore, was only one; he was nonverbal at the time and still somewhat a baby.) We told Henry everything we knew, which wasn’t very much, as the situation developed. Henry was scared, of course, and struggled with the meaning of what was happening; his reactions would emerge randomly, out of context, when little bursts of understanding would break through. This meant that talking about my cancer was always an open dialogue, part of our daily lives.

JS: How have those reactions changed/evolved as time has passed for them? 

CW: I don’t know if their reactions have changed, or if they have become more capable of expressing them over the time that’s passed. Henry seems to remain in a similar realm of understanding as when I was diagnosed two years ago; Theodore is a totally different being than before and is growing up in the presence of my cancer as fact. The biggest change I’ve noticed is Theodore’s expression of sadness surrounding things that happened at that time, like mentioning baldness or when his grandparents moved to Seattle. He understood far more than we thought he did at the time.

JS: Did your religious upbringing (if you had one) come into play when discussing death with them? 

CW: My husband and I aren’t religious. We didn’t offer any sort of odds or hope or narrative of what might happen if I died, or lean on anything but fact. We just talked about love a lot, about how our connection is permanent regardless of the outcome, which feels spiritual in a way but not specific to a religion

JS: Did scientific discussions come into play? 

CW: Yes, more so than religion—we gave our boys developmentally appropriate answers, backed in what we did know. We only talked about the present, because that truly was all we knew in that moment (which is still true!)

JS: What ARE effective strategies in discussing/coping with death and grieving with youngsters?

CW: There are many—and the experts on the panel could probably speak to theirs—but for our family it was very simple: be honest and present, saying something rather than nothing. (Saying nothing is definitely scarier.) Providing outlets for our boys to maintain their schedules and connect with other people was helpful for our family, too. I don’t think there’s a right way to connect about death. And it’s a process, anyway—it’s not one conversation, but many. They change over time. The most important thing, I think, is just being there and being open, which is so hard if you are the one who is sick and is reckoning with death. For me, it was about holding optimism and reality separately, being very careful to know when to mix the two around my sons.

JS: What can we, as a community, do to help children who are dealing with death/grieving?

CW: Talk about it, out in the open. Silence from adults is what causes kids to feel alone in grief, when they are capable of understanding so much. Also, connecting kids with peers who are experiencing similar circumstances is incredibly helpful in knowing that they aren’t alone. People such as the experts on the panel at my upcoming Town Hall event are from a variety of outlets and are full of resources. Sometimes a peer can connect more fluidly than an adult.

JS: What do you hope people get out of your coming talk? Your new book? 

CW: I hope to support families out there that were once like mine, facing uncertainty and pain without the words or understanding of what to do. From personal experience, I know the importance of language as it relates to death, and hope I can make it easier for other parents out there navigating their own trauma. I hope my book brings comfort to families facing the loss of a parent from terminal illness, but also to anyone who reads it a different loving perspective on death regardless of faith or creed.

JS: What’s next for you?

CW: Honestly, I don’t know! I am choosing these days not too look too far ahead; I try to stay present, knowing what a gift today is. I’m busy and doing a lot of things I love: writing, mostly; a lot of cooking; being a mom; making things that mean something to me, that tell a story and connect me to others. I’ve come close to the edge, seen behind the curtain, or whatever other preferred metaphor that communicates the limits of mortality, and I can tell you from the bottom of my heart that very little matters from that place. I try to keep that in perspective every day. I’m not on social media at all. Instead, I write a weekly food blog about my life now called The Wright Recipes, which helps give shape to what I’ve experienced in writing it. I also write a monthly newsletter that provides a space for those who want to keep up with how I spend my days, which has proven to strengthen my connections with friends, whether I know them personally or not. I’m grateful and alive and up next I hope is more of the same.

Join Caroline Wright and a panel of grief and bereavement experts on Saturday, November 9

Do Nothing But Read This Interview with Jenny Odell

We are in an age of distraction. We are inundated with distractions all the time. Is there anything harder these days than to do nothing? And what would that mean if we did do nothing? Are there ways to reclaim our own attention and redefine what we think of as productivity and reconnect with the people and places that surround us? Jenny Odell says, to this last question, “Yes.” Town Hall and University of Washington Communication Leadership Program present Jenny Odell with Austin Jenkins on Town Hall’s stage on November 1 to discuss her new book, How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy. Tickets are only $5 (and free for anyone under the age of 22).

Odell recently sat down with Town Hall’s Jonathan Shipley to discuss her book, social media, and the weird miracle that is life.

JS: Tell me a bit about yourself. 

JO: I grew up in the Bay Area and am currently an Oakland-based artist and writer. Although most of my visual art involves some kind of digital element, it’s usually in the service of getting viewers to be more aware of their physical surroundings (I’ve also been teaching digital art at Stanford for the last five years). I’ve exhibited locally and internationally, and been an artist in residence at Recology SF (otherwise known as the dump), the Internet Archive, and the San Francisco Planning Department. In the last few years, I’ve been writing more, including for the New York Times and Sierra Magazine. But for me, my art and writing are both focused on the same thing: finding new patterns of attention that highlight surprising things about the everyday.

JS: I had a hard time putting my phone down to pick up your book and actually start reading (even though what I wanted to do was read your book). That’s a problem, isn’t it?

JO: Yes, it is! But, at least for me, I find certain books quite absorbing. Once I start them, I actually have the same problem (can’t put them down to do something else that I need to do). I think it’s helpful to know what kinds of things absorb you in a way that feels less destructive or pointless than social media, and either keep those things close at hand or be sure to spend time in those kinds of spaces. For that reason, I keep books everywhere.

JS: What do you mean by, what is your definition of, “doing nothing”?

JO: By “doing nothing” I pretty much mean anything that’s not obviously goal-directed. One example is the difference between walking somewhere (taking the most efficient route) and going for a walk. If you’re going for a walk, then simply by walking, you’ve already achieved your “goal.” The types of non-directed activity that someone really enjoys will vary from person to person, but for me it’s usually things like birdwatching or wandering in a library. I’ve talked to people with similar feelings about gardening, fixing things, or taking care of someone. These are all activities that it would be sort of absurd to imagine “optimizing.” Just doing them is the point.

JS: What are the benefits of doing nothing?

JO: I’m almost reluctant to answer this question because in our optimization-obsessed culture, we always want to know what the “results” are of our time spent doing something, and whether it’s worth it, in the sense that time is money. Truthfully, one of the benefits of doing nothing is that it allows you to step outside of constant cost-benefit analysis, and maybe allows you to see your life less as a product to be improved and streamlined, and more as the weird miracle that it is.

JS: What are the detriments of falling into the attention traps (social media, etc)?

JO: On a practical level, I think most people find themselves distracted more often than they’d like to be, which means that deep down they might rather be doing something else. More broadly, I think that social media engenders a kind of endless urgent present that makes it hard for us to access even recent historical context that could be very helpful in the moment. If you’re caught in a loop of fear, anxiety, and reaction, it makes it more difficult to get some perspective, do focused research, and also just recuperate in the way that’s necessary for sustained activism.

JS: When did that become an issue for you? How did you combat it (more than just writing this book?) 

JO: I became especially aware of the attention economy in late 2016, after the presidential election and the catastrophic Ghost Ship Fire here in Oakland. Many of my friends are artists and writers, and I noticed a general feeling of paralysis, but also guilt in not keeping pace with the outpouring of rage on social media. In that moment, the importance of time and space for reflection, the right not always to express oneself, and the usefulness of conversations in smaller more intentional contexts, became clearer to me.

JS: How has your life changed (positively/negatively) from getting out of those traps (or at least being aware of them)?

JO: I feel I have slightly more agency when faced with something like social media, or the types of communication it encourages. The value system of social media can feel very real when you’re in it, but when you walk away, you may realize you have more choices (about how and whether to participate) than seemed apparent. That said, I’m also more aware of how much my experience being able to occasionally step away comes from the privilege to do so. One of the reasons I’m interested in noncommercial, decentralized social media is because online social networks in and of themselves can be really useful. Journalists, for example, have an obligation to be connected to what’s going on. I’ve also had conversations with disabled folks about how important the internet and social media have been for accessing information and staying connected to others.

JS: What are three simple things someone can do today to ‘do nothing’?

JO: First, try paying attention to something new, especially in a place you think you’re familiar with. Historical walking tours are great for this; see also Rob Walker’s The Art of Noticing. This is key for moving from a knee-jerk reaction, analytical mindset to a temporary state of openness and surprise. You may realize there’s more to see than you thought.

Second, pay attention to attention. For example, I like to watch peoples’ facial expressions as they’re looking at their phones on the subway. I also spend a lot of time with my neighborhood crows, looking at whatever they’re looking at (I’ve discovered that they have a deep grudge against a specific local cat). It’s really fun spending time with young children and just seeing how they see the world, because they make so few assumptions. All of these are fascinating in and of themselves, but they also make it easier to watch your own attention and how it moves to different things; this awareness can make you less susceptible to habit.

Third, just remember that your life is finite, and that everything in the world has a lifespan. Advertising and the attention economy encourage a type of impatience and acquisitiveness, as if every experience could be gained with one click on Amazon. But simply thinking about our birth and eventual death is a reminder that life is, as Hannah Arendt called it, “a gift from nowhere.”

If you want to do something about doing nothing come to Town Hall on November 1 and hear more from Odell. You can get your tickets here.

An Earth Shattering Interview: Discussing Earthquakes with Joan Gomberg

We’re poised for ‘The Big One.’ ‘The Big One’ being an earthquake. Remember that New Yorker story about what will happen when an earthquake hits the Northwest? The subhead of that story: “An earthquake will destroy a sizable portion of the coastal Northwest. The question is when.”

On November 6 in the Forum at Town Hall the US Geological Survey presents the Pacific Northwest Earthquake Forum. Four local experts will offer up a discussion of seismic activity in our region. They’ll lend us insight into the study of faults and ground shaking, monitoring technology and early warning systems, earthquake-based building engineering, and strategies and policies for preparedness. The event is FREE.

Town Hall’s Jonathan Shipley recently talked to Joan Gomberg, a research geophysicist with the US Geological Survey (USGS), specializing in earthquake seismology for the National Earthquake Hazard Reduction Program (NEHRP) in the Pacific Northwest.

JS: What are you focused on in your research?

JG: I focus on how earthquakes start and interact with one another and how faults slip. I lead and participate in the USGS’s activities that advance subduction zone science, particularly in the Pacific Northwest. I also lead and participate in regional education and outreach activities, am a member of the Cascadia Regional Earthquake Working Group, and I also collaborate with emergency management agencies.

JS: What should every household have in preparation for an earthquake? Worst case, what’s the bare minimum someone should have?

JG: Basically, the preparations aren’t much different than preparing for any natural disaster’s impact, with the additional consideration that the shaking can cause things to fall and break so that one can configure your home and workplace to minimize this. Examples might include being sure that appliances connected to gas lines or have the potential to cause fires if lines are severed or bolted down, bookshelves are tied to the walls and not placed near beds, cabinets are latched well, computers are secured to tables, etc. Preparations also might include having supplies of food, water, provisions to function without electricity for several days at least, and plans of how to connect with family members if you get separated and communications are challenged (e.g. have a common contact person outside the likely impacted area). When the earthquake shaking is underway, ‘drop, cover, and hold’—meaning get underneath a sturdy table or something similar and hold on to it until the shaking stops. Don’t run outside!

JS: Can science predict when an earthquake will hit yet? How? If not, how far do we have to go for that to become reality?

JG: No, it is not possible to predict earthquakes on time scales that make evacuation practical. Because the processes that lead up to an earthquake take place over tens of thousands of years, and the structures (faults) they occur on are hidden many thousands of meters beneath the surface, we can only make forecasts of probabilities on time scales of decades to centuries.  Much like the weather, the longer the horizon or larger the area, the more accurate the forecast becomes—but the processes that lead to events like storms occur on time scales of hours to days, in regions that can be directly sampled (e.g. the atmosphere so forecasts can be made on more actionable time and spatial scales. 

However, the science has improved significantly and will continue to do so; for example, only in the last decade or so have we realized that some faults move continuously or episodically but so slowly that they don’t generate seismic waves (which is what does nearly all the damage), instead of in earthquakes—so they are less hazardous. Using GPS, geology, and satellite imagery we can identify such faults.

Someone once provided a good analogy—some people suggest that there will never be a cure for cancer because there are too many types and it’s too complex. Yet society can’t give up trying, in part because we will get better at minimizing its likelihood or impacts. The same can be said about earthquakes!

JS: What early warning systems are being created? What are the latest technological advances in this regard?

JG: There is an early warning system along the US’s west coast called ShakeAlert. It’s worth emphasizing that an early warning is a warning of coming strong shaking, not of an earthquake, much like tsunami warnings. In both cases, the earthquake has already happened and the warning is about its impact.

JS: Is Seattle city government ready for an earthquake? What about our state or federal governments?

JG: We are more ready than we used to be at all levels, but there is still much to be done. A moderate earthquake beneath an urban area or a very large earthquake along the plate interface offshore is still sure to have significant impacts.

JS: What should citizens ask the government in this regard?

JG: Often governments make decisions based on short-term gains, but given the difficulty forecasting earthquakes, we have to view mitigating preparations to be investments to safeguard our long term prosperity. While it may be decades or even hundreds of years until the next great earthquake in the Pacific Northwest, one will happen with nearly 100% certainty someday. The cost of preparing will be far less than the cost of repairing the devastation that would result from not preparing. Citizens should ask the government to invest in their futures, which may pay off tomorrow or in a hundred years—but the payoff is guaranteed!

Learn more about earthquakes on November 6 at Town Hall. The event is free.

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