A Bittersweet Farewell: 10 Questions with Joshua Roman

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Joshua Roman has been the Artistic Director of our beloved Town Music series for 15 creative, vibrant, transformational years. With bittersweet emotions, we’ll send him off with an epic Final Cello-bration in The Great Hall on June 7 at 7:30pm. We can’t wait to see what endeavors Joshua embarks on next — but before he does, we sat down for a quick Q&A that spans everything from his favorite moment to his favorite Seattle sandwich spot.

1. Favorite show?

Every show! But the Final Cello-bration will be the feather in my cap.

2. Favorite commission?

I love them all —  it’s been amazing to see pieces go on to have a life that began at Town Hall.

3. Biggest regret?

Not capturing every single Town Music moment on HD video from the beginning.

4. Moment of bliss?

Fratres with all the cellos.

5. Moment of panic?

Turning a page during the premiere of Gabriela Lena Frank’s solo sonata and seeing that an entire movement was missing.

6. Artist you wish we’d been able to present?

I’ll never tell!

7. Best after show meal spot?

Ba Bar on 12th Ave — consistently delicious, close to Town Hall, and open late.

8. Favorite sandwich?

The Market Grill (in Pike Place Market)! It’s a Seattle gem with great views, and I love taking guest artists there for lunch.

9. Thing you’ll miss about Seattle?

The Town Hall audience! Hopefully I’ll be back often enough not to miss y’all too much!

10. Thing you’ll miss about Town Hall Seattle?

The whole team. Town Hall is truly special, and there’s so much good energy with everyone there, including all of our supporters and audiences. I wish every audience listened with that much care and interest! And The Great Hall…love the sound in that room…

Click here to read Joshua’s farewell letter to the community on our blog and check out his playlist of past performances.

Disability in Fiction with Sarah Salcedo, John Wiswell, and Ross Showalter

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On April 26th, authors John Wiswell and Ross Showalter will join our Writer-in-Residence, Sarah Salcedo, for an evening of short fiction and craft talk. Amongst other topics related to the craft of writing, John, Ross, and Sarah will specifically discuss how they approach the topic of disability within their work

Sarah Salcedo, who planned the event as part of her residency, explained what she was looking forward to most about the evening. “We live in an ableist society with a truly abysmal national sense of what the word ‘healthcare’ means. We approach disability for ourselves in our work as a deeply personal practice, but we also consider how we write these identities for those both within and outside of our communities. We write about our joy, our pain, our day to day experiences, and with every story, the practices of how we balance ourselves and our exploration of self within our work varies.”

“I am a bit in disbelief that I get to talk to these writers and have this discussion. Both John and Ross have written stories that have not only made me feel seen as a disabled person but you make me want to be a better and bolder writer. When I received this residency, I was told I could create events that reflected the conversations I wanted to have in my writing, and I cannot wait to learn from and chat with these two amazing authors.”

“When I asked my guests about the discussion ahead of the event:

John Wiswell wrote, ‘I love normalizing various critical and underrepresented parts of life, and disabilities are among them. It’s wonderful to just happen to have characters share my hearing issues, or chronic pain, or whatnot, without it being centered. But there are bigger things that need saying, and those call for stories that center the experience. Yet in writing lived experience, there is always the questioning of how much of the truth will fit within the word count and the plot.’

Ross Showalter replied, ‘I see fiction as a channel of empathy, and if I could show folks what it’s like to live in this world and not be able to participate as much as you want to, then I’m inviting people to empathize with a point-of-view that, personally, I think should be given much more space. Selfishly, I think writing fiction also allows me to work through some complicated feelings regarding my own disabilities and my own state of being. All fiction is personal, in some way, in the questions we ask and the way we tell the stories, and we just have to acknowledge that it is something that can be seen objectively.’ ”

If you’re not familiar with the writers’ work, you can visit their websites below to find a full list of their stories available online.

Sarah Salcedo’s website // Twitter
John Wiswell’s website // Twitter
Ross Showalter’s website // Twitter

For more information, and to get tickets to Sarah’s free virtual event on 4/26, click here.

Five Questions with Kiki Valera

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Take a peek into the mind of Cuban virtuoso Kiki Valera, who muses on his influences, his instrument of choice, and the art of making music. Be sure to join us later in February for a live concert with Kiki Valera y su son Cubano (2/25), part of Town Hall’s Global Rhythms series! 

Para español, haga clic aquí.

Town Hall (TH): Who were your musical influences growing up?

Kiki Valera (KV): I grew up in a musical family, heirs to the legacy of Cuban Son. We used to gather several times a year to celebrate with live music and dance. These were spontaneous reunions and at that time, we were unaware of the role my family was to play in preserving the authenticity of this musical tradition. In 1982, the musicologist Danilo Orozco was conducting an investigation on the origins of Cuban Son in the eastern region of our island and through my paternal grandmother Emilia Miranda, he discovered that he could trace the we played Cuban Son all the way back to the late 19th century. In this musical environment my main influence was the Cuban Son in its purest, simplest form. After that, I began my classical guitar studies at the Esteban Salas Conservatory in the city of Santiago de Cuba, where I had the opportunity to expand and enrich my knowledge from a theoretical point of view.

 TH: What do you love most about playing the Cuban cuatro? For those who might be unfamiliar with the instrument, how would you describe its difference from a standard guitar? 

KV: What I like the most about the Cuban cuatro is its versatility from a melodic, harmonic and rhythmic point of view. The Cuban cuatro is a mid-sized guitar with eight strings, tuned in pairs of two. It has a distinctive sound that is soft and sparkly and the extra pair of strings (as opposed to the six-stringed Cuban tres) offers me the creative freedom to improvise.

TH: Your roots are in Cuba, but today you’re living, teaching, and making music here in the Pacific Northwest. How does this region inform your music? 

KV: Coming from Cuba from a musical environment like that of my family, I have tried to preserve the traditional Cuban music style as authentically as possible. Most artists are unconsciously influenced by other currents, and I am no exception. Being surrounded by a different musical environment than the one I come from, I have really enjoyed playing with excellent musicians of other genres and attending concerts of world music, jazz, Latin jazz, salsa and rock. I can say that I feel lucky to be in the cultural atmosphere of Seattle.

TH: Has the COVID-19 pandemic changed anything about music for you? 

KV: For us musicians, interaction with the public is very important. It is a kind of necessary feedback to continue offering the best of ourselves through music. I have used this time to dedicate myself to working on new projects and remote recordings with my musician friends in other parts of the country and world. Musically speaking, COVID-19 has not changed anything in me but I think that it has changed the way we socialize in a general sense and I miss playing live concerts.

TH: What, in your opinion, are the biggest gifts of son Cubano?

KV: The best gift that Cuban Son has given us is that it has allowed us to transmit joy and above all to share with the world our cultural identity.


 

Cuatro preguntas con Kiki Valera

Eche un vistazo a la mente del virtuoso cubano Kiki Valera, quien reflexiona sobre sus influencias, su instrumento preferido y el arte de hacer música. ¡Asegúrese de unirse a nosotros más tarde en febrero para un concierto en vivo con Kiki Valera y su son Cubano (2/25), parte de la serie Global Rhythms de Town Hall!

Town Hall (TH): ¿Quiénes fueron tus influencias musicales mientras crecías?

Kiki Valera (KV): Crecí en una familia musical, heredera del legado del Son Cubano. Solíamos reunirnos varias veces al año para celebrar en vivo con música y baile. Estas reuniones eran espontaneas y en ese momento, desconocíamos el papel que mi familia iba a jugar en la preservación de la autenticidad de esta tradición musical. En 1982, el musicólogo Danilo Orozco estaba realizando una investigación sobre los orígenes del son cubano en la región oriental de nuestra isla y a través de mi abuela paterna Emilia Miranda, descubrió que podía rastrear el son cubano que interpretábamos hasta finales del siglo XIX. En este ambiente musical mi principal influencia fue el Son Cubano en su forma más pura y simple. Posteriormente inicié mis estudios de guitarra clásica en el Conservatorio Esteban Salas de la ciudad de Santiago de Cuba, donde tuve la oportunidad de ampliar y enriquecer mis conocimientos desde el punto de vista teórico.

TH: ¿Qué es lo que más te gusta de tocar el cuatro cubano? ¿En qué se diferencia de una guitarra estándar?

KV:  Lo que más me gusta del cuatro cubano es su versatilidad desde un punto de vista melódico, armónico y rítmico. El cuatro cubano es una guitarra de tamaño mediano con ocho cuerdas, afinada en pares de dos. Tiene un sonido distintivo que es suave y brillante y el par de cuerdas extra (a diferencia del tres cubano de seis cuerdas) me ofrece la libertad creativa para improvisar.

TH: Tus raíces están en Cuba, pero hoy vives, enseñas y haces música aquí en el noroeste del Pacífico. ¿Cómo influye esta región en tu música?

KV: Viniendo de Cuba y de un ambiente musical como el de mi familia, he tratado de preservar el estilo de la música tradicional cubana de la manera más auténtica posible. La mayoría de los artistas están inconscientemente influenciados por otras corrientes y yo no soy una excepción. Al estar rodeado de un ambiente musical diferente al del que vengo, he disfrutado mucho tocando con excelentes músicos de otros géneros y asistiendo a conciertos de world music, jazz, latin jazz, salsa y rock. Puedo decir que me siento afortunado de estar en el ambiente cultural de Seattle.

TH: ¿La pandemia de COVID-19 ha cambiado algo sobre la música para ti?

KV:  Para nosotros los músicos, la interacción con el público es muy importante. Es una especie de retroalimentación necesaria para seguir ofreciendo lo mejor de nosotros a través de la música. He aprovechado este tiempo para dedicarme a trabajar en nuevos proyectos y grabaciones remotas con mis amigos músicos en otras partes del país y del mundo. Musicalmente hablando, COVID-19 no ha cambiado nada en mí, pero creo que ha cambiado la forma en que socializamos en sentido general y extraño tocar conciertos en vivo.

TH: A su juicio, ¿cuáles son los mayores dones del son Cubano?

KV: El mejor regalo que nos ha dado el Son Cubano es que nos ha permitido transmitir alegría y sobre todo compartir con el mundo nuestra identidad cultural.

An Interview with Fall ’21 Podcast Artist-in-Residence Samantha Allen

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Town Hall Seattle is pleased to introduce our Fall 2021 Podcast Artist-in-Residence, Samantha Allen. Samantha is the author of Patricia Wants to Cuddle and the Lambda Literary Award finalist Real Queer America: LGBT Stories from Red States. She’s also a GLAAD Award-winning journalist, and her writing has been published by The New York Times, Rolling Stone, CNN, and more.

As Town Hall’s Artist-in Residence, Samantha examines the intertwined human-animal history of Western Washington through the lens of six wondrous, wild things. The result of her extensive research and interviews culminates in a fascinating 6-part podcast series, Beasts of Seattle. We took a moment to talk with Samantha to learn a little more about the series, Seattle’s unique ecosystems, and how she really feels about Bigfoot.

Town Hall: How did you start to conceptualize Beasts of Seattle? What did that process look like?

Samantha Allen: I think the seed for the series was probably planted when I saw the salmon run at Pipers Creek in Carkeek Park the very first autumn I lived here. What an incredible thing to be able to watch amid an urban environment! We’re a city that values green space, that loves nature, that takes pride in our wildlife — and yet the longer I’ve lived here, the more I’ve realized how precarious our beloved creatures are. Hence the series!

TH: The series covers six pretty iconic animals, but are there any creatures you wish could’ve been included? Which ones didn’t make the cut?

SA: Oh, gosh! I was tempted to choose either squirrels or raccoons — arguably our two most famous “nuisance animals,” as they’re sometimes called. I also thought about picking cougars because of how plentiful they are in Washington and because of how often they’re seen in residential areas. Earlier this year, people thought they saw a cougar in Discovery Park but state officials said it was probably something else. It would have been nice to have a land mammal on the list — well, besides Bigfoot, of course.

TH: How did you decide who to interview for each animal that’s discussed in the series? 

SA: While I’m sure I could have gleaned a lot from strictly interviewing conservationists, I wanted to talk to an array of folks who could each offer a unique lens on the creature in question. That’s why I’m interviewing the artist behind a steel salmon installation in Olympia, for example, and a working dog photographer. I put on my journalistic research cap and tried to assemble the most interesting and eclectic group of interviewees I could find for each episode.

TH: What do you think it is that makes Seattle’s creatures so iconic and fascinating to both locals and folks from outside the region? 

SA: Anyone who visits this city, even for a day, is blown away by its beauty — especially once they realize it’s not constantly downpouring here like it is in the movies. You’ve got the Olympics on one side, the Cascades on the other, and water all around. We’re the biggest city in the country that’s built on an isthmus. I think we’re so powerfully situated in nature, and surrounded by trees, that we’ve been able to build up this reputation as a wild, wonderful place. But unless we take care of our environment, we’ll be just another city — and I’d like for us to stay unique.

TH: What’s one of the most surprising things you’ve encountered while working on the series so far? 

SA: I knew that orca whales were threatened by a lack of salmon and by water pollution, but I didn’t know quite how badly noise pollution impacted them until I talked with Orca: Shared Waters, Shared Home author Lynda V. Mapes. Killer whales hunt with echolocation so if there are noisy propellers nearby, they can’t hunt. They’re apex predators, kings and queens of the ocean, but a loud boat can essentially ruin their ability to catch prey.

TH: What does exploring these creatures teach us about where we live and how to interact with the world around us?

A: At a minimum, it’s a valuable exercise to see the world through the eyes of the eponymous beasts. At best, though, it can encourage us to be more responsible stewards of the environment and to remember that we live in an interconnected network of animal life. There’s a selfish motivation here, too: The kind of world in which salmon thrive and the orca swim free is a better world for us, as well. We need to care for our creatures if we want a habitable planet.

TH: Which animal from the series would you like to study and learn about more?

SA: Of the animals in the series, I probably knew the most about sea otters and salmon in advance. But I’d like to learn more about crows. That’s why I’m glad Dr. John Marzluff is joining me for the live crow finale! I hadn’t really spared a thought for any corvid before I started researching for that episode. I see them everywhere and I wondered once why they were cawing so much in Leschi Park, but apart from that, I didn’t pay them much mind. Come to find out, they’re wildly smart and endlessly fascinating.

TH: If you had to get one of the animals from the series tattooed on your body, which one would you choose?

SA: Bold of you to assume I don’t already have a sea otter tattoo! But you’re right, I don’t have any animal ink yet. If I had to choose, it’d have to be the sea otter. Just look at their little faces! I wish I were goth enough to rock a crow tattoo, but I’m a big softie at heart.

TH: Who would you love to listen to this podcast?

SA: Anyone who wants to think about our region from a fresh perspective. I think in an election year, we’re going to be talking a lot about some very important and timely issues affecting Seattle, and I’m glad those conversations are happening. I think my hope is that amid that essential dialogue, Beasts of Seattle can remind us of the long view of our history and our future in this place. We’re nothing without our nature.

TH: Bigfoot believer: yes or no?

SA: To quote Fox Mulder, I want to believe.


Image with words Beasts of Seattle and drawings of animalsThe Beasts of Seattle series kicks off with a fascinating dive into the world of the iconic salmon. Listen in here!

Learn more about the Residency Program at Town Hall Seattle and explore work by past Artists-in-Residence here.

Town Music | A Conversation with Artistic Director Joshua Roman

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Our Town Music chamber series has returned! In this age of COVID-19, the season has been transformed. Town Music, in the coming weeks and months, will explore how digital spaces can enhance our experience of art, rather than simply remind us of what we are missing.

Joshua Roman, Town Music’s Artistic Director, has spent much time in quarantine thinking about what a season of concerts can be without a concert hall for everyone to gather in. He sat down with correspondent Jonathan Shipley to discuss what it means to be a curator in this day and age and what silver linings there may be in a pandemic.


JS: What’s the role of a curator?

JR: To present a view of what chamber music is right now. It’s my responsibility to have the audience trust me. I don’t want to push audiences, I want to pull them into new discoveries. I want to develop a circle of collaboration with them. I want them to experience those discoveries and have that discovery bring them joy.

JS: Has that definition of being a curator changed with the pandemic upon us?

JR: The pandemic has given me a lot more time to think. That’s been the most meaningful thing for me – to think about what’s been done (what we’ve always done), and what we can do now to change things and experiment; to find out what is possible.

JS: You mentioned you have been asking yourself, ‘What is chamber music today’? What answer have you come up with?

JR: It’s constantly evolving. There has been a lot more emphasis, particularly in the last decade or so, on new music. That’s very exciting. I’m always wanting to showcase new music, while looking back on those old favorites. Remember that those old favorites that we know and love were brand new when they were played. Audiences were eager to hear the latest from Beethoven, or Brahms, or whomever. What was new music back then is now classical music. I want to honor that tradition.

JS: Has that evolved at all as you thought about the coming season? Do you not only want to reflect what it is today but push it forward towards some new future?

JR: I’m a preacher’s kid, but I’ve also always had a rebellious spirit. I appreciate the structure of something but, also, what can I do to push it? Chamber music is no longer funded by kings. Chamber music today is being present and creating something new while honoring the past.

JS: You have to know the rules before you break them.

JR: Exactly. I love learning history. I love context. I love connecting something from the past to the present. What is the same as it was during Beethoven’s time? What is different? From that, what can I apply to a coming concert?

JS: What does it mean to curate concerts when you can’t have concerts in a traditional sense?

JR: It’s changed my thoughts. We all want to experience a live concert. There’s nothing like sitting in an audience hearing a piece performed live. Now, though, there are no geographic barriers. If you have access to the internet, you can listen to a concert. But how can we make that more tangible? How can we make it a less passive activity? I’m thinking about that. It’s also giving me a chance to be more nimble. Instead of planning out a concert for, say, next February, I can respond to what’s happening in the world much sooner. If we want to reflect Seattle this week, we can.

JS: Not only is the nation facing the pandemic, we’re confronting racial inequities in this new uplift of the Black Lives Matter movement. What does it mean to curate as a white man in this era?

JR: We cannot afford to miss this opportunity to do better, to be better. My white privilege can help. Money, relationships, capital, space, attention, performers. I am blessed with resources. I want to allocate those resources that address the issues the best that I can.

I have been asking myself, ‘Am I the right person to do this? If not, can I change to be the right person? Or do I give it to someone better suited?’

JS: What are you, as a white man, doing to remove your blind spots in regards to race?

JR: Sit. Listen. Learn. I’ve attended seminars and discussions on DEI. I always welcome all these conversations.

JS: Does the pandemic give you any silver linings? Does it help that perhaps there is no going back to normal?

JR: The jury is out on that one. Each of us as a human being has an opportunity to sit back and see how things fall, or reach up and have a hand in how it all works out. We can take on these long-standing issues and better ourselves.

JS: Are there music organizations that have inspired you by what they’ve been doing during COVID?

JR: The Seattle Symphony. They were one of the first orchestras to adapt to the pandemic and it’s been really successful. The Music Academy of the West is another one. It’s been really heartening to see young musicians evolving, not only themselves, but music during this COVID time.

JS: What are you most excited about the coming season?

JR: I’m excited but also nervous. I’m excited to be nervous about all of this. This is all new. We’re all going into this together without knowing the outcome. There’s this vulnerability that I think everyone has been feeling. We’re not entirely in control and that’s both frightening and exciting. The creative spirit wants to explore and if we are all fully present with the right questions we can find meaningful answers.

This interview has been edited and condensed.


Click here to find out more and become a subscriber of Town Music during the 2020-21 season.

Who Was The Joyce Girl? A Conversation with Annabel Abbs

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Author Annabel Abbs writes powerful stories that capture the lives and struggles of remarkable women. Her first novel, The Joyce Girl, tells the fictionalised story of Lucia Joyce, forgotten daughter of author James Joyce. Abbs gives voice to Lucia and enables her to tell her own story—a fascinating, heartbreaking tale of thwarted ambition, passionate creativity, and the power of love to inspire and destroy.

Abbs will be streaming a Town Hall discussion of The Joyce Girl on 6/9/2020. To preface the conversation, she spoke with Town Hall’s Alexander Eby about the life of Lucia, what it means to be a self-taught writer, and the amazing but overlooked artists who Abbs finds inspiring.

AE: Can you tell us a bit about The Joyce Girl?

AA: It’s a fictional re-working of a critical period in the life of the only daughter of James Joyce (the Irish author of the great modernist novel, Ulysses), Lucia Joyce. The novel is deeply researched, but all of Lucia’s letters, medical notes, diaries were destroyed, so there was very little of her left. During this period—1928 to 1934—she lived with her family in Paris where she was training to be a dancer. She was supposed to be a very good dancer and had performed in dance tours in Italy and Belgium as well as at various theatres in Paris. But during this time she stopped dancing, and I wanted to understand why she had given up something she loved. At the same time her father was grappling with his final book, Finnegans Wake, which took 17 years to write. Lucia was also believed to have had an affair with Samuel Beckett at this time, and then with Alexander Calder, who became her drawing teacher when she gave up dance. Later on, she told other people she had been engaged to each of them.

AE: How much of the story is biographical and how much is fiction? Why did you choose a mixture of the two, rather than fully in a biography format?

AA: Lucia is already the subject of a biography written by a Joyce scholar, and although I relied heavily on it, the book is constrained by the absence of material in Lucia’s voice. No new material has come to light, so I felt wary about writing a second biography. I felt her story lent itself to a fictional re-telling where I could slip beneath her skin and imagine her experience—at the centre of an oddly dysfunctional exiled family but in the wild excitement of Paris at its creative apotheosis. All the characters are based on real people and all the main events of the novel actually took place, so the biographical facts acted as my scaffolding leaving me free to imagine Lucia’s thoughts, feelings and responses.

AE: What was it like to write the characters of James Joyce, Samuel Beckett, and Carl Jung? How did that experience compare to writing Lucia, particularly as a figure whose personal character is likely less well-known but is more central to this story?

AA: Lucia was the hardest character to write. Not only had her own letters and diaries been destroyed but so had hundreds of letters that mentioned her or discussed her predicament. I felt as though I was looking for her through an endless telescope. I had quite a few photographs and one snippet of autobiography that I used to look at in a London archive, but it was hard to fathom her from so little. Joyce, Beckett and Jung have tens of biographies between them, as well as collected letters, interviews, voice recordings and numerous scholarly works. I read four biographies of Beckett, and hundreds of his letters, as well as attending an entire season of his plays, going to something every day for a month. I had a much clearer sense of their characters, their foibles, their likes and dislikes.

Lucia came to me in that strange liminal time between wake and sleep. It sounds weird, but in those few minutes I found a version of her—my version.

AE: Many would consider James Joyce and Samuel Beckett to be household names—yet not Lucia Joyce. Why do we have so few details about her life? What initially drew you to tell Lucia’s story—and what draws you to continue that discussion today?

AA: Yes, Joyce and Beckett are household names, as is Carl Jung—who she was sent to in 1934 as she became more and more fragile. This juxtaposition made me uncomfortable—the way the men in her life had become legendary figures while she had been erased from history, barely a footnote in most scholarly works on Joyce. There was considerable evidence that Joyce had been hugely influenced by Lucia, and inspired by her dancing. References to it appear throughout Finnegans Wake. I felt this needed acknowledging. I was indignant at the attempts to wipe out all trace of her. But the stigma of mental illness was very strong then. Lucia’s story is really about what happens when you live in the shadow of another person, what happens when your own creativity is thwarted, and the dark underbelly of jazz-age Paris. There was an entire community of extraordinary dancers (mostly women) in Paris at the time, most of whom have been forgotten. We still think of 1920s Paris as being very much the playground of Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Joyce, Picasso. But there were just as many women trying to live in a new, more emancipated way. I’d like to see them all resurrected.

AE: How does your own work as a dancer compare with Lucia’s point of view? When researching Lucia’s life, did you find that you and she had any similar experiences from working in that field?

AA: I’d done some dance before but not the freeform modern dance that Lucia trained in. So I tracked down someone who had trained with the same woman as Lucia. She was nearly 90 and she introduced me to a group of dancers (most of them very elderly!) and a teacher who taught me to dance the same method. It’s called the Margaret Morris Method (Margaret Morris was the name of the woman who devised this style of dance) and it’s still going in some parts of the world. It’s a very expressive form of movement, with lots of improvisation. I loved it, and it gave me an immediate understanding of how Lucia must have felt when she danced. It’s nothing like ballet. It’s very free, very creative. It was Lucia’s voice, I realized. She spoke through her body while her father spoke through words.

AE: You mentioned that Lucia served as her father’s muse for Finnegans Wake. Can you elaborate on this, based on your research about their lives and relationship? 

AA: Joyce attended all Lucia’s performances and there are accounts of her dancing in his study while he wrote. Finnegans Wake is full of references to dance and when she was initially hospitalized he visited her every Sunday and they danced together. Later, Lucia said that all the bits in Finnegans Wake about dance, love and madness were about her. Dance seemed to be how they communicated when words failed them, it seemed to be a bond between them. What struck me was how they were both breaking boundaries. He was writing a book about the ‘dark night of the soul’ using language as it had never been used before (or since) and she was dancing using movement as it had never been seen before. Her dance was as radical as his writing.

AE: What do you think of the concept of “the muse” in general—as a typically feminine figure that’s been woven into our concept of authorship in classical and contemporary literature? Do you see the archetype as empowering? Damaging?

AA: The notion of the muse (usually female, often supine) seems quaintly old-fashioned now, thank goodness! It’s a notion that requires a person to be both subject and object, making it inherently problematic. I find it hard to see the traditional muse as anything other than passive and possessed. On the other hand, in the past being a ‘muse’ offered women the chance to do something a little more interesting than they might otherwise have done and to have exposure to a circle of artists and writers. So I’m reluctant to write them off. All too often they were aspiring artists themselves. They frequently had an enormous impact on the works they inspired, but received no credit for this. This is what bothers me—how little agency they seem to have had and how little credit they received.

Does anyone call themselves a muse now?

AE: You’ve famously decided against formal writing courses and MA programs, instead building your own curriculum and structure. How long did it take you to figure out what worked for you? How do you keep yourself motivated?

AA: I had too many family commitments to do a course, although I would dearly have loved the support network that comes with doing a Creative Writing Masters! Instead I bought some books and devised some creative writing exercises that I did whenever I was stuck. And I read like crazy, copying out lines and paragraphs and then dismantling them so I could better understand the author’s craft. I also edited and rewrote, over and over. I was kept motivated by my rage at how Lucia had been treated. Whenever I stalled (which was often), I took out a photograph of Lucia in the mental hospital where she died, and was re-fuelled with anger. Then I got back to work.

I think you need to be comfortable with a certain amount of chaos, uncertainty and isolation if you take this route. COVID-19 lockdown is a good dry run!

AE: Who are some female writers and artists from history who inspire you, but who have been overlooked or overshadowed in their time? Who are the female artists and authors who inspire you today?

AA: Oh so many…where to start? Overlooked…all the best-selling female poets of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Many women wrote and published hugely popular poetry, but very little made it into the cannon. It frequently lacks the muscular style of their male counterparts but why do we rate muscular more highly than emotional? Letitia Landon is my current favourite—she wrote under the initials L.E.L and died tragically at the age of 36. I’ve also been researching and writing about a painter called Gwen John who also worked in 1920s Paris but was completely overshadowed by her brother, Augustus John.

Finally, I’ve spent much of lockdown looking at the paintings of Georgia O’Keeffe—all that open space has helped keep me sane in my London house—and reading Hilary Mantel, one of the best historical novelists writing today (in my view!).


Annabel Abbs will be streaming a Town Hall conversation about her book The Joyce Girl on 6/9/2020.

 

Shouting From The Margins

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In the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, many historically marginalized groups are finding themselves facing prejudice, animosity, and rejection by a system already stacked against them. But South Seattle Emerald founder Marcus Harrison Green is stepping forward as proof that if you speak loudly enough, your voice can still triumph, even from the margins. 

In a typical Town Hall season, we select Artists or Scholars in Residence and give them the literal keys to the building so they can engage with our programs and develop original events for the community. This year, in consideration of the current global crisis, we’re altering our Residency platform to present a podcast residency.

In partnership with South Seattle Emerald, Town Hall presents Life on the Margins. Co-hosts Marcus Harrison Green, Enrique Cerna, and Jini Palmer share stories not just about marginalized communities, but from within, and alongside them. In each bi-weekly installment of this residency podcast, they engage with the narratives and experiences of our city, sharing them more widely with the Town Hall community.


Alexander Eby: Back in 2017 you served as Town Hall’s Scholar In Residence. What’s got you excited to be working with Town Hall again?

Marcus Harrison Green: It’s great, to be honest with you I feel almost as if I never left. Town Hall is such a central hub of the city when it comes to civic engagement, when it comes to featuring  public intellectuals, provisions of space for communities to come to and gather together and feel as if they are a part of the fabric of the city. Even after I left as the Scholar In Residence I would still go and participate in talks, I would go to and attend talks that were very insightful life affirming and challenging. And, well I’m not a really religious person, but I imagine it’s like the feeling of having worked at a church for a while as a youth minister or what have you, and then shifting to becoming a congregant. So even though I wasn’t necessarily there in an official capacity anymore, I was certainly there in intellectual or an emotional one. So it’s almost as if I never left.

I think the Beach Boys said something like this once, trying to create an experience where people can go from it, but can never leave it. And that’s really what Town Hall is to me. Even though I’ve gone from the physical space, it stays with you. It makes an indelible imprint upon you.

AE: Can you tell me a bit about Life On The Margins? What inspired this project?

MHG: I think for us—myself and my co-hosts Enrique Cerna and Jini Palmer—I think like anyone, we’re all consumers of media, whether that’s broadcast or printed or digital. For us, this podcast came about because we were seeing a need that wasn’t met, and conversations that weren’t being had with any regularity on a lot of mainstream platforms. We really wanted to hone in on what’s been going on with marginalized communities, on their stories. Our city and county, certainly before the coronavirus, have been seeing this shift and reconfiguration. And even now I think it’s more important when you have this pandemic that we’re all experiencing, and the potential for certain communities, especially communities of color, to be disproportionately hurt. 

I know that the early local numbers don’t quite match to what’s been going on nationally—I think in Louisiana, 70% of the deaths that have been recorded are African-America, and there’s been a huge surge of COVID cases in the Latino community. If these numbers are any indication, it’ll be communities of color who will be hurt the most. And I think that even though we are empathizing with and featuring the stories of communities of color,  this is still something that affects people who are within our community, within the fabric of Seattle and King County. These are stories that affect us all, so we’re just trying to bring some light where darkness once was.

AE: With the quarantine directly affecting everyone’s lives right now, the first episode of Life On The Margins is very much reflective of this moment in time. What kind of direction do you hope to take the show in future episodes? 

MHG: We definitely want to make this a longer-running podcast series, and this is just season 1. We felt that, given the current state of the world, that would certainly be a good topic to explore in this 6-episode run. So that will be the thrust of it for the first few episodes, but obviously life is large, so we want to try to highlight other things that are going on. And we’re definitely acknowledging that people are experiencing some COVID fatigue, shall we say, and many folks want to take their minds off of what’s going on around them. 

AE: I’m curious about your thoughts on this—the idea of self-isolation and quarantine as a sort of blueprint for collective action. Once the quarantines are lifted, how can we use this shared experience to motivate ourselves and others to show up for other causes and make change in other parts of society?

MHG: We keep hearing this mantra repeatedly right now, “we’re all in this together.” One of the things this time of quarantine has given us is to be somewhat introspective and contemplative. I think that’s allowed people to interrogate and examine what that actually means, for all of us to be in this together. What does that look like in practice? Lots of people are scanning fundraising pages for different organizations and thinking about their $1200 stimulus check, thinking maybe they don’t necessarily need all of it. I know this is all indefinite, but I think when all of this is over it will have shown us that if we can come together in the worst of times, why can’t we in the best of times? 

I think we’re going to see an awakening, an acknowledgement of other people’s humanity and empathy. I people on my daily walk, people who used to hurry to pass you by—now their cadence is slower and more deliberate, and they actually wave and say hi. This is a period where we can use this time to look within ourselves and learn to extend our locus of concern to other people.

AE: What’s on your quarantine reading list? 

MHG: Right now it’s a lot of the Stoics. I’m in the middle of reading Meditations by Marcus Aurelius. It poses a question a question to me that’s applicable not just to this time period but to life in general, which challenges me to wake up every morning and face this strangeness and uncertainty and ask myself “how do I want to be remembered in this time, and how do I want to remember myself in this time?” Was I a better friend, a better son, a better roommate? Did I cultivate resilience? Was I kind, was I generous? Was I somebody who I was proud to be? And I think anything that can challenge you day by day to be a person who’s better because they’ve endured the worst. I know it’s a 3000-year-old text, but that still resonated with me.

I’ve also been reading How To Be An Antiracist by Ibram X Kendi, Nickel And Dimed by Barbara Ehrenreich. Then there’s Winners Take All by Anand Giridharadas, and I’m about to start Pleasure Activism by Adrienne Maree Brown—I’m trying to knock out about one a week. 

AE: Who do you have lined up for future guests on the show?

MHG: We’re definitely trying to get a range of people, to strike a balance between the sort of well-known figures and everyday people, if you will. We’ll certainly have a mixture. At the end of the day, what we sought out with our guests was people who had an interesting story, or an interesting take or stance to share with our listenership. We do have Luis Rodriguez coming up actually on the next episode. He and his wife Leona are very prominent because of their famed and venerable coffee shop called The Station coffee house, which is continuing to help serve people in need and bring people together.

AE: What’s one message you want to send to listeners of Life On The Margins, and to Seattle in general? 

MHG: I would say that we have an opportunity here to really sit still and really examine life as it is, and ask if we want it to continue to be this way. I think it’s time to really focus on what matters, and to maybe rethink things. We’re always in this frenzy of life, we barely have time to think because we always have to move on to the next thing and the next thing after that. And now we have the time to not take things for granted—just saying hello in a coffee shop, sending a message to a loved one expressing that you care. This is the kind of time where we can value life more than we have done and cherish it more than we have done. How do we want to show up in this world today, how do I want to be present, what do I want to take away? That’s something we can do now, and I hope it’s something we can bring forward into the future.

Listen to Marcus Harrison Green, in conversation with Jini Palmer and Enrique Cerna plus special guests, every two weeks with new episodes of Life On The Margins

Emerging Intelligence: An Interview with Richard Yonck

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Humans occupy a unique place in nature. Our evolution has been interdependent on pattern recognition and the development of technology unlike any other animal on the planet. We often consider our primary evolutionary advantage to be our intelligence—yet we are still limited in our ability to define what “intelligence” actually means. 

Futurist Richard Yonck speaks to audiences and writes about artificial intelligence and other emerging trends and technologies. Yonck sat down with Town Hall’s Alexander Eby to discuss how we define intelligence today, and introduce us to technologies and ideas that are redefining our understanding of intelligence both in and beyond ourselves.

AE: Your new book, Future Minds, is about the many ways our world is becoming more and differently intelligent. Can you expand on that?

RY: Absolutely. Future Minds takes a very broad view of the purpose of intelligence in the universe in order to better understand the ways it is likely to develop here on Earth over the next century and beyond. Using what’s known as a Big History framework that spans the life of the cosmos, it explores the possible fundamental drivers behind the development of complexity, life and intelligence. From there, it dives into the work and research into intelligence-related technologies that are rapidly transforming our world today. From advanced AI to brain-computer interfaces to biotechnological augmentation and more, it looks at the possible paths that lie ahead for humankind.

AE: Broadly speaking, how do we currently define “intelligence”? Do you agree with that definition—and if not, how should we be defining intelligence?

RY: There is no single unifying definition of intelligence. In fact, based on the literature, there are literally hundreds of such definitions. This is in part because it’s one of those words that AI pioneer Marvin Minsky used to call a “suitcase word.” Not rigorously defined, it carries many different meanings and associations which contributes to lots of challenges when talking about it. In the opening of the book, I explore a range of these in order to try to get to the kernel, the core meaning for the purpose of this discussion. This isn’t to say it’s the only way to define intelligence. I’m just trying to establish a starting point.

In writing Future Minds, I wanted to understand why intelligence exists at all in this cold, impersonal universe of ours. How do the basic underlying principles of nature drive the incremental ascent of complexity, life and intelligence? Eventually, this came down to a variation of a definition that comes to us via the field of physics: Intelligence is anything that seeks to maximize its own future freedom of action, whether that effort involves cognitive choice or is merely deterministic in nature. In other words, anything that promotes and perpetuates its own existence or that of its descendants, including its ability to act on and influence the environment to its benefit, can be said to be a form of intelligence. Taken as a relative statement, this can apply to different levels of living, and perhaps even nonliving processes, up and down the scale. Single-celled organisms, plants, animals, including humans, and even technology can all fit along a spectrum when viewed in this way.

AE: What are some of the technologies that are causing our world to become differently intelligent?

RY: Certainly, a lot of people would point to artificial intelligence and deep learning as examples, though many in and outside the field take issue with calling these systems intelligent. But we tend to forget just how young this field and its advances are. The 75 years of AI is barely one human lifetime and we’ve been wielding technology for some 150,000 generations. Beyond that, our species has existed for an eyeblink of time relative to all life on this planet. So far as I’m concerned, these technologies are only barely getting started.

Beyond this, we have augmentation technologies like brain-computer interfaces, otherwise known as BCIs. Designed to allow us to connect to and operate devices using our thoughts, many people think of these as belonging to the world of science fiction, but BCIs have already come so far. They’ve been used to send messages on Twitter, to operate wheelchairs, to type on virtual keyboards, and even to play video games. While much of the early research and its applications have focused on restoring lost functions for the physically and cognitively impaired, in time, uses of this technology will extend to much more elective and discretionary purposes. 

We are probably only a few decades from BCIs being very commonplace in society. This will continue a long-term trend that has allowed us to access and interact with our technologies by ever more natural and immediate means. The most recent and evident form of this has been the progression of computer user interfaces. Eight decades ago, computers were programmed by physically rewiring them. This was followed by punch cards and punch tape, then using keyboards to type on a command line, followed by the graphic user interfaces of the 1980s and 1990s. Today, our devices are increasingly operated using natural user interfaces including touch, voice, and gesture. Each step of the way, these interfaces have allowed us to interact in more natural ways with our devices, until today, even a young child can easily make use of the amazing processing power of a smartphone. BCIs and other interface technologies will only continue this trend, eventually giving each of us the ability to access immense informational and processing resources using only our thoughts.

Numerous other fields are contributing to a world in which we and our technologies will become increasingly and differently intelligent. Biotechnological neural augmentation, neuro-enhancing drugs and various forms of directed brain stimulation are all taking us in this direction. In the end, we shouldn’t be surprised to see each playing a role according to different needs and circumstances.

AE: Your books and other writing look at many different aspects of the future. What does it mean to be a futurist? 

RY: Again, here’s another word that’s often not well-defined. There are plenty of people who attach the word “futurist” to their resume because they think it makes them sound forward-thinking, but a futurist’s work is much more specific than that. It’s a field made up of people who actively study the future in structured ways, applying rigorous methodologies to try to anticipate and prepare for different potential futures. Many of these people receive formal education in master’s and doctoral foresight programs, while others have transitioned from different fields, many of which often have a strong analytic component. In my case, that’s computer science. Still others are trained and mentored within large corporate environments, such as Intel, Microsoft, and Ford Motor Company.

Though human beings have always had the ability to anticipate what lies ahead, the field really got its formal start following World War II, during the Cold War era. There was a need to better understand weapons development feasibility and timelines, which led to the early think tanks, such as the Rand Corporation. Over time, the need for futurist thinking and foresight extended to and became essential to other parts of government as well as to corporations and other organizations. Today, most major companies utilize in-house and consulting futurists, though these forecasters and analysts often go under many different titles.

AE: What technologies or ideas are helping us understand intelligence today?

RY: It might be easier to say what fields are not involved. The study of intelligence in its many forms draws from so many different branches of science. Scanning technologies, artificial intelligence, philosophy, cognitive neuroscience, linguistics, and developmental psychology are but a few of the fields that play a role in our developing understanding of the brain’s structure, function and language. Some of this knowledge is being used in the course of trying to model and emulate the brain through technologies like neuromorphic computing, while other areas have inspired neural networks and developmental learning models that are being applied to deep learning.

AE: How likely do you think it is that the refinement of technologies like brain-computer interfaces or deep learning neural networks will result in a new form of intelligence? 

RY: That really depends on the time frame being discussed. If you’re talking about five or even ten years, then I don’t feel it’s very likely. But if you’re asking about 50 or 100 years from now, then it’s much closer to being an inevitability.

I’d also suggest that developments in intelligence will probably remain incremental. In the past, new technologies like written language and literacy, mass communication, the Internet, and smartphones have taken time to develop and be adopted. Each of these has changed what we know, as well as how and when we can know it. Not only has this augmented our intelligence and access to knowledge, but it’s contributed to the rewiring of our neuroplastic brains in order to make better use of these technologies. While many aspects of technological adoption are speeding up, it still takes time to make that happen.

As far as computers, neural networks, deep learning, and the like, these are all becoming more capable, but it’s a mistake to think of them specifically in terms of human intelligence. Besides, we already have plenty of human intelligence all around us. The value of artificial intelligence is the many ways in which it differs from our own thinking so that we can leverage it to our advantage. This isn’t to say that we can’t or shouldn’t draw on our understanding of the human brain as an inspiration for AI. But biology and technology are such radically different starting points, it would be a mistake to assume we’ll ever develop a machine that can think exactly like a person. At least not for a long time. This isn’t to say AI won’t eventually be able to emulate human thought and behavior quite well. It almost inevitably will and that raises many of its own issues and concerns. But AI will achieve this through fundamentally different means than the human brain does. Which in part is what I mean about our world becoming “differently intelligent”.

AE: If humanity is going to leave Earth one day, we may need to be prepared to encounter intelligences beyond our planet. How can we bridge the gap when approaching intelligences that may be very different from our own? 

RY: That’s a really big question and there are several different elements to address. First, it’s not a question of if, but when we leave Earth. From a purely statistical standpoint we have to expand beyond this one planet if we are to survive as a species in the long run. As the famous physicist Stephen Hawking said, “if we want to continue beyond the next 100 years, our future is in space.”

While my book attempts to expand what we identify as intelligence, in part to better recognize it when we do encounter it, both here on Earth and elsewhere, I’m not optimistic that we will meet anything nearly so advanced as ourselves beyond this planet for a very long time. Of course, I could be pleasantly surprised, but I think it may be many millennia before we find ourselves directly interacting with an extraterrestrial species, if in fact any exist within our tiny region of the universe.

AE: We share a world with many animals we often consider to be intelligent (chimpanzees, dolphins, elephants, ravens, octopuses, etc.) How do we apply contemporary discussions of intelligence to these creatures? Could studying these animals prepare us for interactions with artificial or alien intelligences?

RY: There’s a ton of terrific research being done on all sorts of animal intelligence. Many of us tend to think of human intelligence as superior to most, if not all of these, but in fact we’re all just differently intelligent. After all, intelligence is much more than just the neural processes that take place in our brains, which even in us humans we’re only aware of a tiny percentage of. It’s also our metabolism, our emotions, our cells, our genetics and much more. Whether we’re talking about an ant, a bat, or a whale, that creature’s intelligence has evolved specifically so it can successfully occupy a particular ecological niche. Human beings evolved to fill what’s been referred to as a cognitive niche which has worked out very well for us. But we’re extremely poorly evolved for many of those other niches, so from those perspectives, we’re really not all that intelligent at all.

AE: What steps could we take as a society to live in an era alongside an emerging intelligence we can’t easily comprehend? How can we foster that comprehension?

RY: The question implies or assumes that the emerging intelligence is separate from ourselves, which is only one scenario. Certainly, if AI ever reaches a certain level or threshold, there are many ways we’ll have to adjust, but it very likely won’t be in the sort of adversarial terms we’ve come to know from the fictions of The Terminator or The Matrix. As I discuss in my book, the biggest issues are probably around what are known as value alignment problems. It could even be argued that we’re already starting to see this. Since people begin from such different origins than whatever technological intelligence may eventually be developed, what is important to us isn’t likely to align with what is important to that advanced AI. As a result, we wouldn’t need to be in direct conflict with the AI in order to experience it as a threat. In fact, the AI wouldn’t even need to be conscious or have what we would recognize as self-awareness. Simply the inability to care about us or it seeing us as an obstacle to what’s known as its “utility function” would be sufficient to get us in a great deal of trouble that could ultimately result in our extinction. While that’s an extreme extrapolation of existing trends, we’d be wise to consider the possibility and seriously explore how best to avoid such an outcome.

But that’s only one possibility. What if we ourselves are the emerging intelligences, given the potential for augmenting our own minds? After all, we are by far the most advanced and adaptable intelligence we know of, so that’s a pretty significant jumping off point to start from. What challenges would this present for different forms of inequality between populations, for how we interact as a society, for maintaining the many features we value in our humanity? As we continue to enhance human intelligence, we’ll have a lot of different things to consider and plan for.

Yet another emerging intelligence we need to think about is our global civilization itself. By many measures, this may be the true emergent intelligence we need to pay attention to. Just as individual cells don’t comprehend the larger body they’re part of, it’s challenging for us to fully appreciate society as its own form of evolving independent intelligence. To be sure, these are still early days and human civilization is still developing. But I wonder how things will appear in a few thousand years, taken from a different, less anthropocentric perspective?

AE: What is your favorite product of human intelligence? Which advancement in the modern era do you appreciate most?

RY: My favorite product of human intelligence would certainly have to be language. Spoken language has only been around for a few hundred thousand years—and the written word, a bare fraction of that. With the development of language, it became possible to assemble and manipulate concepts, to exchange and build ideas, to communicate knowledge between otherwise isolated minds, share our inner worlds, expand our understanding that others have their own subjective worlds, all as deep and rich as our own. In the absence of true language, none of this would really exist.

As for a favorite advancement in the modern era, I’d have to say it’s the scientific method. While there are those who see this as its own type of belief system, it is in many ways the antithesis of that. More than just a single area of knowledge or understanding, the scientific method is itself a technology, a series of processes by which real, objective insights about nearly everything can be acquired and built upon over time. All along the way, the capacity for reevaluation and correction of that information exists, leading to a deeply structured body of knowledge based on objective reality that all of humanity can draw on and benefit from. Nearly every aspect of our world has been enhanced, improved, or made possible by the products of the scientific method and probably more than 99% of all existing technology has resulted from its use over the past four hundred years. Now certainly, we’ve reached a stage when we can say that there are things we will never be able to know and answers we can never attain, but even this insight comes to us courtesy of this profoundly beneficial process. As a result, this will remain one of the key drivers in the continued advancement of intelligence and knowledge for the foreseeable future.


Richard Yonck will be joining us at Town Hall next season on 9/15/2020 to discuss his book Future Minds: The Rise of Intelligence from the Big Bang to the End of the Universe. 

 

(Virtually) Here For It

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R. Eric Thomas tells the kinds of stories we need. They connect us with the American experience writ large—the trends, the headlines, the important conversations—all filtered through his unique and hilarious perspective. Thomas joined us for a livestreamed conversation on 4/16 (watch the full event below) to discuss his new book Here For It: Or, How To Save Your Soul In America. But before the broadcast, he spoke with Town Hall’s Alexander Eby to discuss writing rituals, staying busy during quarantine, and ways to find humor in absurdity.

AE: News and pop culture happen so fast these days, you have so much to keep track of when writing for your column at ELLE.com. How do you decide which topics make it into your articles? What about on a personal level—how do you choose what to consume when there’s so much out there?

ET: I try to be really judicious with my news diet personally because, like you said, there’s a lot out there and most of it is not great. So typically, I track what’s happening online all-day for work and then purposefully try to separate from the news stream in the evening. Like everyone else I’m addicted to social media, so I’m not able to distance myself completely. But after work I’m much more likely to be tweeting about food or YouTube videos of Broadway stars than I am about a press conference or stimulus package. Then, before bed I find the most distressing article I can and I read that and then go to bed. I don’t mean to but it always ends up that way so I’m just claiming it as a practice.

AE: Your job must require you to basically live on social media. It must be exhausting to be exposed to fraught news stories and the Latest Terrible Thing every day! How do you find the humor in current events? What drives you to keep coming back? 

ET: I look for the absurdity, of which there is plenty. I look for the things that make me excited, of which there is also quite a lot. It’s ultimately more enjoyable to write humorously about things that make us happy rather than things that make us angry or sad. So, I take the little things and blow them up, focusing on little strange details or asides that still capture the spirit of the news.

AE: If you had to pick one of the essays and stories from your book to tell people in order to give them a sense of what the book is about, which would you choose? 

ET: All of the essays are different in terms of approach and subject, but I think the essay “There’s Never Any Trouble Here in Bubbleland” is a fun grab bag of all the ingredients I worked with in this book: humor and heart, applying ideas about identity and belonging to one’s lived experience, and pop culture references.

AE: Every writer’s process is different, and most tend to look a little strange from the outside. What’s one of your strangest routines or rituals to get yourself in the headspace for writing?

ET: My new thing lately is dusting my baseboards. This is sort of a quarantine habit, actually. I used to go buy a baked good when I was trying to get in a writing headspace—I will go to the ends of the earth for a blueberry muffin. But with that off the table for now, I have to resort to things I can do within my house. My baseboards are shining like the top of the Chrysler Building right now.

AE: What are your go-to strategies for chasing off boredom while in isolation? What’s the weirdest trend you’ve heard about (or participated in) while in quarantine?

ET: I’m actually pretty busy in quarantine, which I’m grateful for. I’ve got my day job and other events and projects that are keeping me tied up. But I’m really appreciating that the lack of access to a larger physical social life does afford more opportunity to watch TV and movies and read, so I’m doing a lot of that in the evenings. I thought about getting really into skincare, like purchasing a lot of products and emerging from my house absolutely gorgeous when this is over. I did the purchasing part but I haven’t really gotten around to the rest. There’s time though. Whenever this is done, I’m going to be a supermodel.


R. Eric Thomas joined us for a livestream on Thursday, 4/16—and you can watch the entire event below.

Connecting Across the Social Distance with Eric Liu

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At a time when quarantines are keeping us isolated from our neighbors, it’s more important than ever to help us maintain connections with our community and stay engaged as citizens. Eric Liu, co-founder of Citizen University, hosts regular Civic Saturday gatherings in Seattle to help us reflect, connect, and cultivate the kind of healthy civic traditions we need during this difficult time.

Town Hall and Citizen University are presenting a Virtual Civic Saturday on 3/28 to give civic-minded Seattleites a place to gather—even if it’s not in person. To preface this livestreamed event, Liu sat down with Town Hall’s Alexander Eby for a conversation about community health.

AE: During this time of social distancing, what are some ways we can maintain engagement with our community and feel that we’re still contributing to our society, even if we can’t do it in person?

EL: There are so many ways! Create a contact sheet for you and your neighbors—it’s a good chance to check on elders and introduce yourself (from an appropriate distance) to folks you don’t know yet. Read and subscribe to the Seattle Times—we in this area are unlucky to be an epicenter of the virus but we are exceedingly lucky to have an independent daily newspaper with such talented and dedicated staff. Circulate your time, talent, and treasure at any scale using any platform available.

AE: When health concerns are making people feel alienated from their neighbors, it’s important to remember that we’re all in this together. Right now, in what ways is Seattle (and our nation) most united?

EL: We are all realizing that when it comes to a pandemic there is no such thing as someone else’s problem. Our community is only as healthy as its least healthy members. That’s always true but most of the time society forgets it. There is no avoiding that truth now.

AE: What agencies and sectors would you encourage people to support right now? Who should we donate to? Who should we patronize?

EL: We should first make sure we help those who help us: health care workers, grocery workers, delivery workers. We can help them by pushing our policymakers and big employers to do right by all of them: living wages, paid sick leave, safer workplaces. Second, we should all get better at asking for help. Epidemiologically and economically, things are going to get worse before they get better. So it’s not so much “who should we donate to” as it is a matter of practicing mutual aid and figuring out how we can help each other.

AE: Many people are finding themselves stuck in their homes with an abundance of free time—the perfect opportunity to buff up our civic education! What are some texts at the top of your “civics required reading” list that you recommend people read during this time? Why do they resonate with you?

EL: Rebecca Solnit’s A Paradise Built in Hell is about how people come together in times of disaster and form the kind of communities that we all yearn for—and she argues that the yearning means that we shouldn’t let that feeling evaporate after the worst passes. We need to pay close attention now, during the crisis, to how we practice kindness and civic love and civic responsibility so that we can keep up those practices after the crisis.

AE: What’s a message you would want all of Seattle to hear and meditate on in the coming weeks?

EL: Society becomes how you behave.

Join Eric Liu online on 3/28 for a Virtual Civic Saturday, or check out Citizen University to explore Civic Sermons from past gatherings

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