The Forum is now open! We’re excited about all the possibilities of the space. One item in the new space is a functional piece of art—the lectern. Comprised primarily of 14-gauge cold-rolled steel and finished with acid patina and wax, the lectern’s height is electrically variable from 42” to 48” via linear actuator. Its body rolls on ‘ball races,’ typically used for heavy material handling, but reconfigured and manufactured as furniture casters, complete with brakes!
Karl Swanson, who built the lectern, chatted briefly with Town Hall’s marketing manager, Jonathan Shipley, about his art.
JS: What is your full time job?
KS: I don’t work full-time anywhere…I am self-underemployed, focusing on my personal art.
JS: How did you get into metalwork?
KS: I was self-introduced to metal fabrication in my grandfather’s shop in Grand Island, Nebraska. He did his own maintenance on his many rental properties. He had all types of tools and materials, and me and my siblings were free to explore. I once made a chicken out of wire, nuts, and bolts! My earliest love was automobiles, and to be creative with them you needed metalworking skills, so that steered me in the general direction. Also, after dropping out of art school, my step-mother recommended that I attend vocational school and learn to weld, both for work and sculpture. Although I ultimately did not do the schooling, the suggestion nudged me toward the craft.
JS: What are some other metal projects that you’ve done?
KS: I was a metal fabricator professionally for 25 years, all told. Everything from blacksmithing to aerospace metal fabrication. I did my own sculptural furniture in Salt Lake City, San Francisco, and Santa Barbara. The list of projects is long. Recently, I built folding bunk beds for a tiny house construction company that was being filmed for a reality TV show.
JS: Why did you want to work with Town Hall?
KS: My family has a long tradition of being supportive of—and being culturally nurtured by—Town Hall. The building’s renovation project was impressive and ambitious and I wanted to take part somehow. Also, Wier Harman had been instrumental in helping our family find the perfect care facility for our matriarch and I wanted to return the favor.
JS: About the lectern—what aspect of it are you most proud of?
KS: I am most proud of creating a tool that satisfies both myself as a designer/fabricator and Town Hall as an end user.
JS: What was the most challenging aspect of the lectern?
KS: The most challenging part was the time frame: fully six months from first discussions to finished product. There were some relatively minor technical challenges that I lost a bit of sleep over, but those are to be expected with custom fabrication when there are moving components.
JS: What’s your next metal project?
KS: I plan to do some personal small-scale sculpture with copper, brass and cloth. I will also continue to do itinerant metalwork for a shop in Santa Barbara. I might possibly help with the exterior electric bicycle corral at Town Hall, too!
Like all great musician origin stories, it starts with Sir Mix-a-Lot. “The first cassette I ever got was Sir Mix-a-Lot’s Seminar album,’ notes Seattle-area musician Eli Rosenblatt. “Remember that song ‘Gortex’? ‘Posse in effect, scramble up, new rhyme/Big Gortex, crushed down, two time.’ I loved that album.”
The first musical memories Rosenblatt has are of the Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong duets that his parents played. It struck young Eli dumb. “There are no wrong notes. There is not one beat that does not swing,” he says enthusiastically. He grew up listening to his parents’ albums. They’d listen to jazz, and Edvard Grieg’s “In the Hall of the Mountain King,” Bob Marley, and Paul Simon’s Graceland album, graced with the sounds of Ladysmith Black Mambazo. The family’s tastes, and Eli’s own forming musical tastes, were eclectic. Then he heard Afro-Cuban music and a lifelong love affair was born. “I heard the piano at the beginning of a mambo song and thought, ‘well, this is the best thing that exists.’”
He picked up a guitar at young age and soon after a notebook to write his own songs in. He started playing in clubs as a teenager and he doesn’t want to brag, but “I was one of the best local freestyle rappers coming up.” His first paid gig was at a Greek restaurant in Eastlake. “I can’t believe that I could get paid for this.”
He got enough gigs to play professionally full time, leaving his job at UW Hospitals as a medical interpreter. Currently, he fronts the band Bakbuk. They play a mix of original music and reinvented classics in global music styles like Salsa, Cha Cha, Waltz, Klezmer, Swing, Hip-Hop and Samba. Bakbuk performs at Cafe Nordo on 4/11.
All the while, now with a kid of his own, he’s opened wide the door to playing music for children. “It’s brought me a lot. It took me on a journey into my authentic self. It made me feel comfortable with love and unity and acceptance. It opened my heart and I can truly say I love the children I play for.” He plays songs like “Elephant Car,” “Watermelon,” and “Mr. Fox.”
“To make a connection with these kids is really special,” he says. When kids come to his show he wants to them to have the freedom to be themselves. For Rosenblatt, it’s a freedom to express himself in melody and rhythm, rhyme and meter. For the audience: “I want them to be inspired. I want much rejoicing.”
Lori Gottlieb is a psychotherapist. Lori Gottlieb is also a human. She, herself, went to psychotherapy. Soon, on April 10 at the Summit on Pike, she’ll talk to Luke Burbank about her career as a psychotherapist, what it means to give advice, and ponders the question of what we all want in life. Get tickets to the event here. To give us a preview of her story she spoke recently with Town Hall’s marketing manager Jonathan Shipley.
JS: What got you interested in psychology and therapy to begin with? Was it your major in college or did you have interest even before that?
LG: I did a lot of other things that seemed unrelated to therapy. I worked as a film and television executive in Los Angeles. I went to medical school. I was a journalist for many years and then I became a therapist. And so all of the things that I was doing were related to therapy in a way that I didn’t realize at the time. When I was working in film and television I was dealing with fictional stories, but they all had a lot to do with human struggles. And then I went to medical school and I saw real human struggles. I later became a therapist and I got to help change people’s lives.
JS: As a kid were you already analyzing yourself, your friends, your parents?
LG: I think I was always curious about psychology when I was growing up. I was very curious about friend dynamics; about my family dynamics. I never envisioned doing it for a living, but I was always curious about why people do what they do.
JS: So how did you finally make the leap into being a psychotherapist?
LG: I’d been working as a journalist for many years. I was really happy as a journalist, but then I had a baby and I realized that there were no verbal humans to talk to during the day. And I thought I need colleagues. I need to get out of the house. So I called the dean at Stanford Medical School, which is where I had been in medical school, and I asked her if I should come back and do psychiatry and she just laughed at me. ‘Wait, you want to come back to medical school?’ She knew about me from medical school and so she knew that I was really interested in the relationships with the patients and being involved in people’s lives as a guide, as someone that they could rely on over time. And so she suggested that I get a graduate degree in clinical psychology and go that route, which is what I did.
JS: What are the skill sets involved in being a psychotherapist? What do you bring to the table?
LG: Well, all of the training and credentials and everything that needed to happen in order to get licensed and then to learn the craft being a therapist. I think that my most significant asset is that I’m a card-carrying member of the human race. That I know what it’s like to be a person in the world. And I think that it’s really important for therapists to be human and to not position themselves as the expert up on high, but as another human being who understands what it’s like to struggle with the daily problems of living.
JS: Is there some amount of hubris involved? That you can change their lives?
LG: We can help them change their lives, but we can’t change their lives for them. They have to do the work and we can be there to help smooth the path so that they can see why they’re getting in their own way. So many times people who come to therapy are shooting themselves in the foot in ways that they don’t realize. I think that I can hold up a mirror to them and say, ‘look at this reflection,’ and do it in a very compassionate way. Say, ‘This is something that you should pay attention to because you keep ending up in the same place and not understanding why. Here are the clues as to why.’
JS: This is probably difficult to identify, but are there any commonalities among all your patients? What is it that we want? Love and acceptance. Is there anything more than that?
LG: We are all very different people in almost every respect. And yet, I think at our core, all of us, we are dealing with the same questions about how to love and be loved. What is it like to be vulnerable? What do we do with our pain? What do we do with the things that we can’t change, and how do we change the present and the future? Why is it so hard to change, even when we really want to? Why do we keep resisting change? How do we deal with the fact that we have a limited time on the planet and we’re all going to die? How do we live the life that we want to live in the limited time that we have to do so? I think all of those questions are the questions that every single person is dealing with in very different ways.
JS: When did you decide that you, yourself, needed therapy?
LG: I was going through something and I didn’t think about calling a therapist. The first person that I thought about calling was my best friend. You can’t go to your friends for therapy, but she said, ‘maybe you should go somewhere where you’re not being a therapist. Maybe you should talk to someone.’ And that’s when I decided to go talk to someone. And as it happens with many of my own patients, the turn of events in my life that took me to therapy was just a symptom to a larger problem.
JS: I am curious as to what you think of the bootstrap mentality—that we can just solve our own problems and that going to therapy is just a sign of weakness.
LG: Sometimes what happens is people who actually find themselves struggling don’t think that their problems are significant enough to get help for them. With our emotional health, if we’re feeling something we often think, ‘well, what do I have to complain about. I’m really functional and all these people in my life love me.’ But struggles are struggles. Therapy isn’t a place to go complain. It’s a place to help you with your struggles. A lot of people feel there is a hierarchy of pain. I don’t think there is. Pain is pain. Your pain isn’t less because you don’t have cancer. Your pain isn’t less because you happen to have a loving partner. Your pain is your pain.
JS: What are some tools for someone battling depression?
LG: Minimizing our feelings or trying to pretend them away doesn’t work. In fact, if we keep up with that stiff upper lip mentality, they get bigger. Suppressing your feelings does not make them go away. People are afraid of those unpleasant feelings. They don’t realize that our feelings are like a compass—they guide us to say something’s not right, something’s not working, and something needs to be paid attention to. I think it’s really important for someone who experiences depression to get help as early on as they can.
LG: I love advice columns. I think there are so many talented columnists out there and I think they’re really useful. I think that a lot of times people need an outside person to look at their situation. I wanted to do an advice column with a twist—I wanted to do what a therapist does, which is to help people see their situation from a different perspective and through a different lens. By doing that maybe they can see their problem differently and make a better choice. I’m not telling them what to do, I’m guiding them in terms of looking at their situation from a different angle.
JS: You must be popular at dinner parties.
LG: There are so many reactions when someone knows you’re a therapist. Some people feel like, somehow, we have x-ray vision into their souls. They don’t want to sit next to you because they don’t want you to analyze them. It’s not like if you sat next to a gynecologist you’d ask if they were about to give you a pelvic exam. I think I understand where it’s coming from, though. I think there’s this this fear: how will you see me? Will you see my shame? My vulnerability? All the things that I try to hide in polite company, will you be able to see it?
JS: What do you wish you knew in your youth that you know now?
LG: I wish I knew that we’re all more the same than different. I think the ways we imagine our lives compared to other people’s lives are often grossly inaccurate. And that we are really all okay the way we are, and even if we need work and even if we are working on changing that, we’re still together in this.
I know this sounds cheesy, but I think that so many times people feel isolated in their situation, their feelings, what they’re going through, and they don’t realize that they’re not alone. Quite the opposite. Everyone is struggling, some in big ways and some in small ways. They’re human. We all are.
We need to have a lot of compassion for ourselves. The more compassion we have for ourselves, the more we have compassion for others.
JS: What don’t you know yet that you wish you did?
LG: I start to look at these existential questions that we all have about love and mortality and I’m made aware that we all have a limited time on the planet. You should live your life in a way that you want to live it and not wait for some unknown date in the future to really do the things that you want to do. And I think we can all live every day that way.
Irene Butter is one of the few Holocaust survivors still writing about her experiences. On April 16, 2019 she joins us for a Town Hall conversation about taking action and refusing to be a bystander. You can get tickets to the event here. To give us a preview of her story and her message of hope, she spoke with Town Hall’s Copywriter Alexander Eby.
AE: Can you tell me about what your life was like before the Nazis came to power? Before the camps?
IB: Well, I did have a wonderful early childhood. I lived with my loving parents and my brother who was two years older than I, and I had the great fortune of living with my grandparents in the same house. We were given all kinds of treats and taken on trips—it was truly a wonderful family. But then Hitler came to power and the persecution of the Jews began.
My grandfather owned a bank and my father was his partner, and the bank was taken away from him because Jews could no longer own banks. This left my father unemployed, so he left for Amsterdam to try to find a job. My mother and brother and I followed him a few months later, but my grandparents could not come with us. That was the first separation we experienced. We were in Amsterdam for two years before the Nazis invaded. When the Nazis took over Holland and then everything began to escalate, life for the Jews became very uncertain. There were many restrictions, and then of course the deportation. I think I had six wonderful years of childhood in Berlin and Amsterdam before the Nazis invaded. And from then on times were very difficult.
AE: What were your experiences like in the camps? How did you cope with day-to-day life there?
IB: The first camp we were in was Westerbork, a German concentration camp in Holland. Most people did not stay there long, and things were difficult. We lived in a crowded barracks. The adults were made to work, and for the children there were no schools or libraries, no toys or books. It was complete boredom. Food was limited, and in retrospect it was not all that bad—but only because things got a lot worse.
The worst part of life in Westerbork was every Saturday, when a cattle car train would arrive. The railroad track ran right down the middle of the camp, so wherever you went you had to see it, and it stood there Saturday afternoon and all day Sunday. And then on Monday the barrack leaders turned on all the lights to read the names of the people who were made to leave. Most of those trains went to Auschwitz. Some of us were made to clean the wagons of the trains, and we had a glimpse into what was happening Auschwitz. They found little notes that described the gas ovens, and we learned that most people were gassed upon arrival. It was heartbreaking every week to have to say goodbye to friends or relatives.
Now in our case, my father met a friend in Amsterdam who had just received Ecuadorian passports from a man in Sweden. My father sent a letter to have some of these made for us, but we were deported from our home in Amsterdam before they arrived. The German government had issued an exchange policy by which they kept Jews who had either a foreign nationality or who had passports to one of the allied countries. They kept those Jews because Hitler wanted to exchange them for German citizens who had been caught in other countries when the war started, like a prisoner exchange. After four to six months in Westerbork, a package containing our Ecuadorian passports arrived, and we were no longer at risk of being deported to Auschwitz.
Instead we were sent to a camp called Bergen Belsen, which was referred to as an exchange camp, where Jews were held until the exchanges could take place. We spent an entire year in Bergen Belsen, and conditions were much worse. The adults were subjected to long days of slave labor, six and a half days of work. And we were all made to stand in a big square once a day to be counted for roll call, sometimes for hours at a time. Food rations were minimal, not enough for anyone to survive. Hygiene was deplorable and there were many deaths from disease epidemics and malnutrition. And there was punishment. There was brutality. You had to learn to be able to cope with death, to tolerate death. There were dead people all around you. Every morning I woke up surrounded by dead bodies. It was a truly fearful situation. Everything was uncertain.
AE: What are your thoughts about the situation at the American border, specifically the separation of children from their families?
IB: Heartbreaking. That’s all I can say—I have nightmares about it because I myself was separated from my family. When we were finally included in one of the exchanges, we were put on a train from Bergen Belsen to Switzerland. The second night on the train, my father died from malnourishment and from being badly beaten, and my mother was also very sick. When we arrived in Switzerland my mother and brother were hospitalized, but I was not allowed to stay with them. Switzerland was not accepting any more refugees, so I was sent to a refugee camp in Northern Africa. I was separated from my family not only by cities, not only by country, but by continent.
The war had not yet ended, and for several months I didn’t even know if my mother and brother were still alive. When I finally learned that they were recovering, still nothing was done to reunite me with my mother and brother until we came to the United States. We were separated for 18 months, and I have never forgotten the trauma that comes from being separated from your family. It’s almost unbelievable that this is happening today, and I am very proud of the people who are working to interfere with this process of family separation.
AE: What would you recommend for people who want to take action and avoid being bystanders at a time like this?
IB: It is such an important message for young people, and I’ve been talking in schools for more than 35 years about never being a bystander. I think we all have choices to make, and if you have certain values you need to act on them. When you see injustice and evil you need to interfere in any way you can. Seek help for people who are being injured, line up support, and refuse to be enemies. There is a lot of hatred being promoted at target groups these days, and it’s so destructive. We’re told that people are our enemies when we’ve never met them, or we’ve never even seen them. Refusing to be an enemy to those people is very important because it means opening up to people who are different. To look them in the eyes and listen to their stories. When you do that, you find that the differences between people are far smaller than the similarities that we all have as human beings.
Join us on April 16, 2019 and sit in for Irene Butter’s courageous firsthand account of one of the most harrowing chapters of human history.
There are thousands of living languages spoken in the world—and countless literary masterworks written in each of those languages. Translators like Michael Straus offer us a gateway to these incredible works of fiction and literary history. Straus will join us onstage on March 19 at the Summit on Pike with Washington State Poet Laureate Claudia Castro Luna to discuss the process and philosophy of translation, as explored in two of his most recently translated books—Grapes and the Wind by Pablo Neruda, and a richly illustrated edition of the Bible’s Book of Revelation. Straus recently sat down with Town Hall Marketing Manager Jonathan Shipley to discuss language, rhyme, and the difference between translation and interpretation. JS: What got you into translating to begin with? What’s your background in languages?
MS: Spanish became a second language to me as a result of my time as an exchange student in Santiago, Chile during high school. Although I had had a couple of years of Spanish in junior high and high school before then, it was only by being immersed in a setting where no one spoke English to me—not in the family I stayed with or at school—that I really grappled with the mysteries of communicating across language barriers. My initial weeks in Chile were difficult, not because I wasn’t welcomed—I was—but because I had to consciously construct sentences in Spanish in my head, translating from English to Spanish, before speaking them. And I similarly had to consciously translate Spanish to English before I felt I understood what was being said to me. At some point I stopped doing so, i.e., I ‘understood’ what was being said to me in Spanish without first translating into English and likewise responded in Spanish without first thinking the answer through in English. In a sense, I began to experience or at least have some confidence that one can communicate thoughts and feelings across different languages with the underlying meaning left intact. And at the same time I recognized that the linguistic medium or context remained variable, in that there were often cultural and historical nuances and overtones unique to any given language that might never be fully communicated, a gap that continues to interest me as I try my hand at presenting in one language thoughts and feelings formed in another.
Spanish is thus a second language to me from a spoken point of view, but also from literary works I then continued to study on my return to the United States both in my remaining year of high school and then at Columbia College. In addition, I sort of absorbed what I’ll call ‘baby Dutch’ while working in the Netherlands after law school as Legal Advisor to the Iran-United States Claims Tribunal in The Hague, enough Dutch to handle basic living requirements such as shopping, traveling and the like. Apart from that, the two official languages were English and Farsi, but French was used as an ad hoc common language between the Iranian members of the Tribunal and various others. I therefore also absorbed a working knowledge of French but chiefly as a passive language, meaning I have some ability to read and understand French but very limited ability to speak it. More recently, I studied Greek and Latin, neither of which is a ‘living,’ i.e., spoken language (except to the extent ecclesiastical forms of Greek and Latin are used in the Orthodox and Catholic Churches), with a principal concentration in Greek, as to which I have graduate degrees from Columbia University and the University of Cambridge.
JS: What got you into poetry? Do you write poetry yourself? What poets speak to you?
MS: I’m not a professional poet by any stretch, although I do aim to write ‘poetically’ in relevant translations. My first exposure to serious poetry was, I think, through the periodic visits the poet John Ciardi made to the local public schools I attended in New Jersey, where he would speak and teach on poetry and provide kids with poetry exercises and tasks.
JS: Why did you gravitate to Pablo Neruda? And, specifically, this work?
MS: I first learned of Neruda during my time as an exchange student in Chile. He was then and probably still is considered the greatest Latin American poet of the 20th Century, later winning the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1971. There were nearly always political aspects to his works, deeply rooted in his membership in the Communist Party but also universalized in his vision of a common humanity. I became aware of this poem specifically because its central section, a hearkening back to Chile during his time in political exile, was given to me in a separately printed form as a going away present from my fellow students. It was only more recently that I turned back to it and was surprised to discover that the poem had never been translated, in whole or in part, into English and that in fact it had seemingly fallen through the cracks in the wider anthologies of his works. That presented both a challenge and an opportunity.
JS: When it comes to translating poetry, what are the key facets that a translator needs to focus on (rhyme, cadence, etc)?
MS: In addition to his own poetry, John Ciardi (who as noted visited our local public schools regularly) is probably best known for his translation of Dante’s Divine Comedy, where he rejected as a potential ‘disaster’ the idea that it would be most faithful to Dante to render his Italian terza rima rhyme scheme (aba, bcb, cdc, ded) into English, opting instead for what is seen as a kind of ‘musical’ English in plain verse. I take Ciardi’s approach to suggest that faithfulness to an original doesn’t mean forcing it into an entirely different grammatical and structural mold but rather finding, if possible, an equivalent spirit of the thing. I think that’s a good approach because some languages, such as Italian, are more ‘rhyme-friendly,’ while English is less so. The same is true with meter, where, for example, Homeric Greek might accommodate dactylic hexameter (each dactyl being 1 long and 2 short syllables, but with a tolerance for 2 long syllables, or spondees as substitute) but another language might not. This same meter, so-called ‘epic’ or ‘heroic,’ does appear in English, notably Longfellow’s Evangeline (‘This is the forest primeval. The murmuring pines and the hemlocks…’), but would now fall kind of flat. So there is thus always a risk of poetry coming out ‘sing-songy’ if a translator tries to force rhymes or meter that might not be as well-suited to the spoken rhythms of the receptor language.
JS: What are the common challenges to translating poetry? How do you know if you’re doing it “right”?
MS: I’m sure that the challenges vary depending on the original and the receptor languages. There must be entirely different concerns when translating from ideographic languages, for example. I would guess that if there is a common challenge it is how to be faithful to the poet’s own muse without creating something entirely detached, even if it bears no strict correlation with the original. And in that context I would say that word-for-word translation, which doesn’t even work that well for prose, is entirely unsuited to poetry, which does not rely on words simply ordered together but, constellations of words, allusions, internal or external rhyme schemes, echoes, rhythm, complex metrical structures and the like, none of which will find 1:1 correspondence from one language to another.
Without being too flip, it could simply be that ‘I know it when I hear it.’
JS: Are there specific challenges to translating Neruda?
MS: Focusing on this poem (which is the only one of his I’ve translated, the rest of his corpus already having the benefit of multiple translations while this has but the one), the two main challenges for me were (1) adhering to the concreteness and at times sparseness of his language, where he generally chose the simplest of Spanish words for things like water, air, earth and the like and rather than seek variations or synonyms stuck to using the same word throughout; and (2) grappling with the hagiographic approach to such monstrous people as Stalin and Mao. Neruda’s poems are also suited to be read aloud, in Spanish anyway, and in Chile itself are memorized and/or put into song. It was therefore a challenge to render the work into English in a way that would at least not be jarring if read aloud. I’ll let others judge whether I’ve done so with any degree of success.
JS: What is the main goal of a translator? To “disappear” and let the words speak for themselves? Do you consider yourself a collaborator with the author?
MS:Walter Benjamin said it is to ‘liberate the language imprisoned in a work.’ It might be vain to think of oneself as a collaborator—in this case, at least, I’ve been authorized to undertake the translation by the poet’s estate but not by him and given the minimal translation of this poem during his lifetime (‘East’ German, Romanian and Hungarian and even then in the mid-1950’s), it’s impossible to speculate how he would react. I do think it’s fair to say that the poet’s voice should somehow control. In other words, a translator doesn’t have unlimited freedom, in my view, to depart from the underlying sense or tone of the poem—otherwise it wouldn’t be a translation but an interpretation (not that these will always be easy to dissect).
JS: Are there ways a translation can improve upon the original? If so, in what ways?
MS: That’s a tough question because to some extent we may not fully appreciate the original if it wasn’t written in our own native language. At the same time, there are some originals that are so totally opaque to a non-speaker, such as Beowulf, that any reasonably readable translation is an improvement. But taking that example, Beowulf in the hands of a translator who is himself independently a great poet—as with Seamus Heaney—becomes a poem that stands alone as if it had originally been written in modern rather than Old English. That’s got to be some form of improvement.
JS: What’s next for you? What are you working on or are about to?
MS: I’m considering translating the poems and fragments of Alcaeus, a contemporary of Sappho’s from the Island of Lesbos during the so-called Archaic period of Greek poetry in the 7th to 6th Centuries B.C.; and have started on several already. I also have completed a translation of the New Testament (from Greek) with publication forthcoming this spring.
Michael Straus will be speaking about translation, Pablo Neruda, and his work translating the Book of Revelation on March 19 at the Summit on Pike with Washington State Poet Laureate Claudia Castro Luna. Get your tickets now.
Most Western democracies have few or no people serving life sentences, yet in the United States more than 200,000 people are sentenced to such prison terms. Steve Herbert, University of Washington Professor of Law, Societies, and Justice, will be on Town Hall’s stage on 12/11 with Ashley Nellis of The Sentencing Project, to discuss the flaws in a life-sentence based criminal justice system. Herbert’s new book, Too Easy to Keep: Life-Sentenced Prisoners and the Future of Mass Incarceration, shares moving personal profiles of individuals affected by life sentences. He sat down recently with Town Hall’s Jonathan Shipley to discuss regret, redemption, and reform.
JS: What initially got you interested in the prison system?
SH: I have long been interested in the criminal justice system, although I’ve primarily focused my prior research on urban police departments. I have taught about punishment and prisons in my classes, although until 2013 I had no direct experience with prisoners. That changed when I learned that colleagues at other universities had taught courses where they brought their university students inside prisons to teach courses alongside prisoner students. I was motivated by their stories to try and replicate that at the University of Washington. It was that decision that led me down this road.
JS: What was the impetus for your new book?
SH: I started teaching at the Washington State Reformatory in 2013, and began teaching ‘mixed enrollment’ classes there in 2014. These classes combine students from UW with incarcerated students in classes taught exclusively at the Reformatory. I learned in teaching these classes that there were many people in prison for extraordinarily long periods of time who were amongst the very best students I had ever encountered in any classroom. I must confess that I did not expect this to be the case. That prompted me to learn more about life sentences, and how common they happen to be.
JS: What preconceived notions/prejudices did you have going into interviewing lifers? How did that change after talking to them?
SH: I had enough familiarity with life-sentenced prisoners that I expected them to be thoughtful and interesting. I don’t believe that they necessarily challenged any stereotypes I had. The process of stereotype destruction had already occurred when I started teaching inside.
JS: What are some of the greatest lessons you’ve learned from lifers?
SH: I think the most significant lesson is that so many of them are deeply regretful about their past transgressions, and that they try as hard as they can, under limiting circumstances, to engage in some form of atonement. I could not help but be impressed by their resilience, and the strength more generally of the human spirit.
JS: Rehabilitative incarceration—is that something you believe in? How can we make it a reality?
SH: There is no question that many, many prisoners are hungry for opportunities for self-improvement. Efforts to respond to this desire for positive change bring benefits to everyone, both inside and outside of prisons. For that reason, they should be supported. In my observation, many impactful programs are those that are run by volunteers from the outside. For example, my teaching inside could only have occurred due to a partnership with University Beyond Bars, which works to provide college preparatory and college level courses for prisoners. In Washington State, at least, efforts to make it as easy as possible for these outside organizations to do their work can only pay dividends for all involved.
JS: Do lifers have a desire for redemption? In what ways? How, if at all, does this help them in their day-to-day lives in jail?
SH: I cannot speak for every lifer, but there are clearly very many of them that earnestly seek redemption. They manifest this desire in myriad ways, but most notably by trying to be mentors to the younger prisoners in their midst. They try to help these prisoners redirect their lives so that they do not reoffend and thus return to prison. They also try to work a job, to educate themselves, and to involve themselves in various prisoner-run organizations. These activities help provide structure and meaning to their lives, and help them lessen the day-to-day pains of imprisonment.
JS: What are some more poignant stories you have in regards to your interviews with lifers?
SH: One inmate told me a story about how he participated in a dog program at his institution. He described how terrific he felt when he first met the dog, and interacted with it in his cell. He said that it was the first time he had ever been asked to care for another sentient being, and that it was a terrific feeling. He told this story as he was describing his general maturation. This was a consistent theme across many of my interviews. Many of the prisoners, especially those who got their sentences while they were young, discussed how their maturation led them to be more concerned for others, and how this shift was really critical to their more general projects of self-improvement and atonement. Said one prisoner, ‘When I committed my crime, I didn’t think about the consequences or who I was hurting or anything like that. I just wanted some money. So, I didn’t really think about that kind of stuff. It was just all about me. Me, me, me. But then I realized it really wasn’t about me, and change started happening.’
JS: What fixes would you propose for life sentencing?
SH: The best route forward is to change sentencing policy. Life sentences are too commonly invoked, so a shift in punishment policy is a smart move. This can happen in a number of ways, but a key one is to make parole more widely available. Like many states, Washington no longer allows parole for most prisoners; they all serve fixed sentences. This means that many prisoners who undergo profound change cannot have that reality recognized in a reduced sentence. That, in my view, is a key policy that deserves reconsideration.
JS: Can the public do anything to improve the lives of lifers? In what ways?
SH: I think the public can lessen the distance between themselves and prisoners. The best way to do this is to find a volunteer program for which they can work. Regular encounters with those who are incarcerated will work to dispel the stereotypes that are commonly held. They can also lobby their legislators to shift punishment policy.
The first robot to walk the earth was a bronze giant called Talos. This wondrous machine was created not by MIT Robotics Lab, but by Hephaestus, the Greek god of invention. On 12/3, Town Hall will present Adrienne Mayor, Research Scholar at Stanford University, to discuss her new book, Gods and Robots. We’re delighted to bring her to the stage for a first look at the ancient origins of humanity’s timeless impulse to create artificial life. To offer us a preview of her upcoming event, Mayor recently sat down with Town Hall’s Jonathan Shipley to discuss automatons, Medea, and Siri.
JS: How did you first get interested in classics and folklore?
AM: You might say I’m a historian of human curiosity—I’m interested in uncovering historical and scientific knowledge embedded in ancient mythology, legends, and folklore. Much of my work takes place in the borderlands where classical Greek and Roman literature and art meet archaeology, history, anthropology, and science. What I am seeking are the earliest inklings of the scientific impulse in premodern cultures.
JS: What inspired you to combine that interest with robots and AI?
AM: I live in Silicon Valley where brilliant innovators are exploring and producing ways to imitate, improve, and surpass nature, developing Artificial Intelligence, advanced robotics, and other marvels. So I was curious—who first imagined automatons? How deep are the roots of the human desire to make artificial life? Most historians trace the first working automatons to the Middle Ages. But I wondered, could the ideas of making self-moving devices and androids have been imagined long before the technology made them feasible? I found compelling evidence that the concepts of making artificial life were thinkable as early as the time of Homer, in myths first written down in about 700 BC.
JS: To avoid confusion, how do you define a robot? An automaton? Artificial intelligence?
AM: Robot and automaton are interchangeable in informal speech. But a glossary of technical terms is included in Gods and Robots. An automaton is a self-moving mechanical or constructed device resembling an animal or a human. Some automatons perform tasks according to predetermined instructions and some respond to different circumstances. Artificial Intelligence mimics cognitive functions associated with intellect or mind, such as learning, planning, and problem solving; there are complex categories of “narrow” and “general” AI and four ascending types of AI. Robot is a slippery term but usually means a machine or self-moving object with a power source; some robots can be programmed to sense surroundings and process data to interact with the environment and perform actions.
JS: When writing the book, what parallels between the ancient and modern world struck you most about our human want/fear/need/desire/etc of technology?
AM: It is striking that the ancient myths about the god of invention Hephaestus, the techno-wizard Medea, the fire-bringer Prometheus, and the legendary craftsman Daedalus are really the first-ever science fiction tales. The ancient stories and art works show how the power of imagination allowed people more than 2,500 years ago to ponder how one might create driverless carts, self-navigating ships, and bronze killer robots—if only one possessed the sublime technology and genius of the gods. It is often remarked that where science fiction leads, inventions often follow. And indeed, by the fourth and third centuries BC, a profusion of genuine self-moving devices, animated statues, and automated machines were being designed and built.
JS: What ethical conundrums did the ancients face in regards to robots/technology/etc?
AM: The myths suggest that as long as the self-driving chariots, golden servant-androids, and automatic machines fabricated by Hephaestus are confined to the realm of the gods, they are charming and benign. But when automatons like the bronze robot Talos and the artificial woman Pandora are sent to earth and interact with humans, then all kinds of troubles are unleashed. Today many warn that technology favors tyranny. Notably, that ethical concern appeared in both ancient myth and in historical times and places: there was a strong link between autocratic rulers and machines of malice.
JS: What’s your favorite mythological story in regards to artificial life? Why? What can it teach us today?
AM: The myth of Pandora is my favorite. She was created as ‘evil disguised as beauty,’ to punish humans for accepting the gift of divine fire, stolen by Prometheus. Zeus ordered Hephaestus to fabricate a seductive femme fatale android ‘programmed’ to open sealed jar of eternal misery for humankind. The story has so many layers of meaning. A cruel and vindictive tyrant, Zeus jealously guarded his divine technology of fire and commissioned an evil fembot as revenge. Prometheus, whose name means ‘foresight,’ tried to warn mortals against accepting Pandora, but her deceptive charms were dazzling. Today, Pandora’s box is often compared to the allure of the ‘gifts’ of AI and robotics. Even the last thing in the fateful jar, Hope, has a double meaning. Philosophers since antiquity have debated whether Hope was the best or worst thing in the jar.
JS: If you were to make a robot, what would you name it? What would you want it to do?
AM: Great question, but ironic for me! I own a smartphone but I have no smart appliances and I never talk to Siri or Alexa. I prefer cars with few automatic features—I like to roll down my own windows and I use printed road maps instead of GPS navigation devices. I’m unlikely to interact knowingly with a robot and can’t think of anything I’d want a personal robot to do.
As for robot names, Tik-Tok is my favorite because it designates the extreme poles of robotics for good and evil. The original Tik-Tok was the rotund and genial mechanical clockwork servant in Frank Baum’s popular Oz books (1907). By 1983, his namesake has become a psychopath robot bent on getting away with murder in John Sladek’s chilling sci-fi novel Tik-Tok.
Late nights and ear damage helped convince Chris Ballew that perhaps there was something new in store for him during his run as lead singer of Presidents of the United States of America. The band was a big deal in the 1990s. The Seattle-based Presidents released a self-titled debut album in 1995 and it peaked at No. 6 on the Billboard 200 and their song “Peaches” garnered the band their first and only Billboard Hot 100 Hit. “Kitty,” “Lump,” and “Dune Buggy,” were other popular tunes on that influential album.
Yes, the band was popular (they formed in 1993 and dissolved in 2015 since, as Ballew posted on the band’s Facebook page, “we are OLD PEOPLE NOW!”), but there was an itch during their reign that Ballew knew he wanted to scratch.
Ballew recently sat down with Town Hall’s Jonathan Shipley to discuss the Beatles, losing stuff, and dark, dirty, stinky, smelly rock clubs.
JS: When you put out a new kid album, is it focused on a particular theme/idea?
CB: I don’t make themed albums as a rule but I do have a few that fit that description. There’s a holiday record, two Beatles cover albums, and two lullaby records in my library of releases. I grew up on Sgt. Peppers by the Beatles and the way that record took me on a wild psychedelic ride still influences how I make records. I want the families that buy my records to feel that same sense of being on a ride when they listen to them. For me the themed record is too much of a limitation, and I prefer the kaleidoscope of weirdness that a non-themed record can achieve. But in a general sense the theme is always bizarre little stories that I turn into songs that make me laugh!
JS: Are there commonalities between playing shows for kids v. adults?
CB: When I play a show for kids I still feel that thrill of connecting to an audience and the interplay between my music and their happiness. If the parents are paying attention and participating then I get to do some of the same call and response type stuff that I can do with an adult crowd. The fun of the mechanics of doing a show is the same, too. I always feel like I am setting up for the circus during load in and sound check. I love that feeling and I still get to experience it with my shows for families.
JS: Are there big differences then between playing for children and playing for adults?
CB: The first major difference is the time of day. My shows for families happen at 10:30 am for the most part. The days of stumbling to bed at 2:30am after an 11:00pm set time are blissfully behind me! Another difference is the venue. I’m playing in beautiful old theaters or library meeting rooms or YMCA gymnasiums instead of dark, dirty, stinky, smelly rock clubs. That is another change I’m very happy about. This time around I’m booking all of my own shows so another big difference is that that I’m responsible for all of that stuff. We used to have a booking agent and manager in the rock band so I didn’t have a lot of responsibility on that level. Now it’s all on me!
JS: I see you have a song on your new album called Dropped My Lollypop. That sucks for kids. What small things inconvenience you?
CB: I really don’t like looking for lost things (even though a bunch of my songs are about lost things!). I feel like all the time I’ve spent looking for lost things is time I want back. Beyond that I really feel that all my problems and friction is related to making this music which I love so I decided to love my problems as well and now I don’t have any problems.
JS: Your “Disco Hippo” song – quite a hip swaying, toe tapping tune. What genre of music do you think is the funniest?
CB: I think really fast bluegrass music is hilarious. There’s also an electronic artist nameSquarepusher who makes it insanely fast music that sounds like synthesizers on speed playing crazy jazz. I put that on the car while I drive around and laugh my head off!
JS: What spurred you to turn from rock music to kid music?
CB: The entire time I was having success in the 90s I also had I got feeling that that success was not my final destination. I spent about 14 years hunting outside the rock band for another form of expression that would scratch that itch. Finally I figured out that simple innocent music for children was what really resonated with me in a way that was perfect. I feel like the music I make now is exactly what I really am as a person. I am way more like a child than a grown-up. The rock band was extremely close but it just wasn’t exactly right. Late nights and ear damage convinced me that I had to find something else. When I figured out I was supposed to be making this music I was incredibly relieved.
JS: What’s your favorite thing about performing for kids?
CB: As an adult I want to live in a state of imagination and wonder. I want to be able to rearrange the world in my mind to be hilarious and bizarre and entertaining. I want to find the innocent perspective necessary to really see the natural world as the greatest show on earth. I think kids have that perspective baked into their innocence. I love being around that energy and I love helping families bond over music that they can all truly love.
This interview was conducted by Margaret O’Donnell, Artistic Director and Founder of the Seattle Playwrights Salon. Powered by Shunpike, the Seattle Playwrights Salon is a staged play-reading series founded in 2016. The Salon meets at Palace Theatre & Bar in Seattle from 7PM-9PM the second Friday of the month. It is one of the few regularly scheduled evenings in Seattle where playwrights and actors can bring new plays in development before an audience.
The interview below has been edited. You can read the full-length version here.
Octavio Solis will be on Town Hall’s stage on December 4at the Rainier Arts Center discussing his new memoir Retablos: Stories From a Life Along the Border.
MO: You’ve been writing plays for nearly 30 years, and have had at least 25 of your plays produced. How have you changed as a playwright in these years?
OS: Oh, I have more unproduced plays in my folders. Theatres may commission works from a writer, but they’re under no obligation to produce them. Sometimes they don’t like the work. Sometimes the work is just not right for the time or their audiences. These works languish away in neglect, but sometimes they get cannibalized by other newer works.
I think my writing has changed quite a bit over time, but it’s because I’ve changed. We all must or else we become stagnant individuals stuck in some idealized time. Some things, however, still hold true. I still cling to the notions of theatricality—that is, the use of all the elements of live theatre to make the story vivid: lights, music and song, direct address, heightened language. I like works that dance across time and space, that bend these dimensions at will in the way Shakespeare did.
And yet at the same time, I think I’ve settled a bit. I like to focus more on people. I’m more inclined to slow the page down to let them talk. Too much effort is directed at moving the action forward, and not enough on moving the action inward. Each character is a kind of maze, and I am drawn to the language that acts as a kind of string that leads us into and out of the maze.
MO: Are the themes that interest you different than they were 30 years ago?
OS: Yes, I think I have absorbed some new themes into my oeuvre. For as long as I’ve been a playwright of note, I have devoted myself to defining the American experience for Latinos in this country. The complexities, conflicts, and ironies of being an immigrant in America. The love for and struggle against the temptations of our consumer culture. The Mexican culture as it evolves into a new hybrid American society. What it means to live on the hyphen.
But now I am drawn to environmental issues. I think moving to the country, raising goats and chickens, living off our green garden; these new aspects of our rural life have awakened my environmental heart. Now as I see so much of our forests charred by wildfires, I am struck by how much of it is due to climate change. We’re at a tipping point. We have to respond to the dire circumstances in our planet, even if we’re only the Cassandras and canaries in the coal mine.
MO: Has the way in which you get inspiration for your work changed over the years? How?
OS: Many companies have concerns they’d like me to address, so some commissions come with issues attached. Still, I have to find what matters to me. I have to be inspired to give them the play that they’re looking for. So often I ask, what is my way in? What about the issue or topic is personal to me? I have to care deeply or else I won’t care at all. What I look for is the element that will change me in the writing. I can’t be expected to change people’s perspective if I am not willing to be changed by the writing myself. So it’s always an education, always a discovery, which means there’s always a risk. By this, I mean that I have to be ready to have my beliefs upended by the work I do. I have to be ready to let the play talk to me directly and indirectly about things I have not considered about myself.
MO: Have your writing habits changed over the years? What works best for you now?
OS: I used to write with fervor every day, every chance I could. I used to stand by my writing with a ferocity that permitted no challenges. I was young. There was still so much room to grow. Over the years, especially since writing is all I do, or at least the only occupation I have full-time, I used to demand that I write every day, all day, and when I was wasn’t I punished myself grievously by not going out and enjoying myself. Now, I know that was wrong. I have learned that when I’m not writing, I am still writing. I am thinking and processing and engaging with my stories in my sleep, in my idle moments, when I’m driving my car; even when I am doing a repetitive physical task, I am writing. It’s the process before applying fingertips to keys or pen to paper. The dreamtime. The digestion of the idea. Consequently, I have parsed out my energies more wisely. I don’t write every day, but when I finally do sit down to write, I sit for six to eight hours and hammer out what needs to be written. Raw and unvarnished, ugly and badly worded. That’s what a first draft should be anyway. This process has become harder to maintain as I get older.
MO: What are you working on now?
OS: I’m working on getting the word out on Retablos, my new collection of memoir stories by doing readings and book-signings. I am working on a screenplay. I am doing the final touches on the rehearsal script of “Mother Road” which goes in rehearsal at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival this January for its premiere in March 2019. I am revising a work I had produced earlier this summer in Los Angeles. I am winterizing my farm in preparation for the first big freeze of the season.
Seattle is a literary town. The city is always noted as one of themost literate cities in America, and recently the city was designated by the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) as aCity of Literature (one of only two in the United States – the other being Iowa City).
JS: What’s your role at Elliott Bay Book Co? How long have you been there?
KMA: I’ve worked at Elliott Bay Book Company as a bookseller and as author events co-coordinator for 19 years now and I’ve had a chance over the years to discover some overlooked classics that deserve a much wider readership. These books can help us understand something important about our city. Many of the issues still resonate today.
JS: Why did you choose Horace Cayton’s autobiography, Long Old Road: Back to Black Metropolis?
I found this excerpt of Harold Cayton’s long out-of-print memoir in Reading Seattle: The City in Prose, edited by Peter Donohue and John Trombold and published by the University of Washington Press. This anthology of over 100 years of writing about Seattle also includes essays and stories by Rebecca Brown, Mary McCarthy, Tom Robbins, Matthew Stadler and many others. I’m a longtime resident of Capitol Hill and the fact that Jim Crow was part of life here in our neighborhood haunts me. I often wonder how this history affects us still.
JS: What about famed Vashon Island author Betty MacDonald? What made you decide to choose her work?
KMA: My first encounter with the writing of Betty MacDonald was in a small article in a ‘zine called Transom, which I picked up at Confounded Books when it was still sharing a space with a CD and vinyl store called Wall of Sound. Her loving portrayal of a lunchtime visit to Pike Place Market could have been written today, when life is just as tough for struggling artists, writers, and single parents. MacDonald’s Anybody Can Do Anything has been reissued by the University of Washington Press, along with two of the author’s other memoirs. This timeless book also made an appearance in James Mustich’s 1000 Books to Read Before You Die, published this year by Workman Press.
JS: Can you tell me why you chose Japanese American writer John Okada?
KMA: I’d read John Okada’s novel No No Boy, but after I started working at Elliott Bay I read it again and thought about how many of the events in the novel took place within a few blocks of our old location in Pioneer Square. That area was also part of the Nihonmachi, or pre-World War II Japantown, which was a district that was hit heavily by the “evacuations” of Japanese families in the early 1940’s. These evacuations were nothing more than incarcerations and bans of people based on race, immigration status, and religion. Now that these practices have returned to our country for other groups of people, we have much to learn from the brave individuals who resisted and survived those times.
JS: And Vi Hilbert?
KMA: We had the honor of working with the late Vi Hilbert, a revered storyteller, historian and Elder of the Upper Skagit. Lushootseed is her native tongue, and she was committed to furthering its revitalization along with the cultures of the people indigenous to our region. The SAM Olympic Sculpture Park signage includes Lushootseed plant names. Seattle University has named a campus building and an ethnobotanical garden in her honor. Lushootseed culture also lives on through stories such as those collected in Haboo.
JS: For those that want to read more, what would you recommend?
KMA: Check out the work of Kathleen Alcala, Glenn Nelson and Jourdan Keith, all people of color writing about our relationship to the natural world. Poets Laura Da’, Claudia Castro Luna, Anastacia-Renee, and Quenton Baker inspire and teach me. Children’s book writers Kelly Jones, Sanae Ishida, Ken Mochizuki, Jessixa Bagley and Julie Kim are inspiring the next generations. Mattilda Sycamore Bernstein, Rebecca Brown, Donna Miscolta, Frank Abe, Nisi Shawl, Nicola Griffith, Sonora Jha and Chrystos are just a few pushing the boundaries of form, identity and possibility in their writing. There are so many more, but this is my list for today.
To hear these amazing works read live by local Seattle actors, don’t miss Short Stories Live on 11/18.