The American Xenophobia Paradox: A Conversation with Erika Lee

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

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

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

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

JS: For the layperson, what IS xenophobia?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

JS: Tell me a little bit about yourself.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tickets are on sale now!

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

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

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

JS: Tell me a bit about yourself.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

JS: Did scientific discussions come into play? 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

JS: What’s next for you?

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


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

Do Nothing But Read This Interview with Jenny Odell

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

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

JS: Tell me a bit about yourself. 

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

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

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

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

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

JS: What are the benefits of doing nothing?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

An Earth Shattering Interview: Discussing Earthquakes with Joan Gomberg

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

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

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

JS: What are you focused on in your research?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Light Conversation with Shannon Perry

There’s more to see at Town Hall aside from the plethora of events that we have taking place (you can check out our calendar here). There is art to see. Town Hall commissioned several artists to create permanent pieces that can be found throughout our building. In the southwest stairwell, for instance, you’ll see artwork on light boxes done by Shannon Perry.

Town Hall’s Jonathan Shipley recently sat down with Perry to discuss babies, glass powder, and tattoos.

JS: How did you become aware/get introduced to Town Hall?

SP: I’ve been attending talks, book releases, and concerts at Town Hall for years. The arts and literature community got me acquainted with the space originally. 

JS: Why did you want to work with Town Hall with your art?

SP: Town Hall provides space for such a diverse array of talented performers, authors, and artists from all over the world. I’m proud to have my art featured in the space. 

JS: What was the inspiration for your Town Hall artwork?

SP: I was pregnant while working on this project and gave birth shortly after I completed the drawings. It was a massively transitional time for me and my identity was torn between my rebellious pre-motherhood life and wanting to provide a stable, structured environment for my son without losing touch with the theatrical idealism of youth. The recurring vine is representative of life marching ever onward, and the vignettes placed throughout mark moments  of feeling within that timeline viewed from this new and intimidating precipice. More generally, it’s about growth. The piece is a reflection, both on Town Hall’s redevelopment and the experiences I’ve had there—and the different perspectives I’ve had at each event over the years crystalized into a sort of floating timeline.

JS: What was your favorite thing about creating this piece?

SP: I got to work with a great team of people, most specifically Bradley Sweek of Amiga Light, who has been a longtime mentor to me. Seeing my illustrations screen-printed with glass powder and melted into glass felt really special and permanent. I’m a tattoo artist by trade, so I work with permanent art all the time but being able to hold the glass and feel the tangible weight of it was a super gratifying experience.

JS: What was the most challenging thing about this project?

SP: This project helped expand my skill set to making larger pieces of work that are fleshed out over time. Typically I work on pieces I can finish in one or two sittings, due to the constraints of creating art on people’s bodies. I’m excited to see what new projects I will create as a result of finding out how much I enjoyed moving into a larger and more tangible framework!

JS: What do you hope Town Hall attendees get from the piece?

SP: I hope they can create their own stories and experiences with it. Most of all, I hope the humorous aspects of some of the themes will serve as a wink to children, punks, misfits and grandmothers alike.


JS: What’s next, artistically, for you?

SP: I’m working on a series of screen prints of new illustrations, some of which I’d love to eventually see turn into murals, or possibly a children’s book for all ages? I am always excited to see what the future brings, at least pertaining to making art!

Waxing Poetic with Sarah Galvin

There’s more to see at Town Hall aside from the plethora of events that we have taking place (you can check out our calendar here). There is art to see. Town Hall commissioned several artists to create permanent pieces that can be found throughout our building. In the south stairwell, for instance, you’ll see a poem written by local literary luminary Sarah Galvin.

Town Hall’s Jonathan Shipley recently sat down with Galvin to discuss her process, the poem, and gargoyle people.

JS: What’s your arts background?

SG: I started writing seriously in second grade. I was obsessed with Lord of the Rings and Narnia, and tried to write a novel about gargoyle people living on a planet made of ice cream. People told me I might be older when I finally got to publish, and I remember feeling so frustrated. I wanted to publish a book RIGHT NOW. I think as a service to little kid me I will actually try to publish that book, which was about 90 pages long, at some point. I started writing poetry when I was 14, after reading Ginsberg’s “Howl.” I was very into stream of consciousness writing at that age and what came out of that obsession was terrible. At 16 I began going to performances by this one-man-band called Sexually Active Corpse. SAC, a man named Will Waley, sang pornographic, surreal nursery rhymes over beats made with a Casio and an assortment of children’s instruments. My first real poems were sort of an imitation of his lyrics, which listed the hypersexual, surreal behaviors of a multi-gendered “speaker” with the ability to change bodies and travel through time, among other magic powers. The poems inspired by Will were also terrible. I finally began to write real poems when I realized that music, a beat, and a tune provided Will’s art a layer of meaning and a source of momentum that I needed to create somehow silently on the page. My first source of guidance for this was Joe Wenderoth’s “Letters to Wendy’s” which is (depending on who you ask) an epistolary novel or a series of poems using Wendy’s restaurant comment cards as a formal template. After gaining a rudimentary understanding of how to structure prose poems from “Letters to Wendy’s,” I started reading all the poetry I could find, and picked up techniques as I read.

JS: How did you become aware/get introduced to Town Hall?

SG: After I was accepted to University of Washington’s poetry MFA program, I went to see my soon-to-be thesis advisor, Heather McHugh, read at Town Hall. I had been freelancing at The Stranger, and when I walked into the auditorium, several people I knew from the paper smiled at me and beckoned to me to enter the room. It was one of the most beautiful experiences of my life. I started to cry. I saw Heather, up on the stage, dressed as a bird in a flesh-colored spandex bodysuit, and all these people from the paper I could hardly believe had admitted me to work with them, and thought, “how do I deserve to be in this beautiful place with these geniuses? How can this be where I belong?” Ever since that night, I have had tender and reverent feelings about Town Hall. I believe it is a cathedral of art in Seattle.

JS: Why did you want to work with Town Hall with your poetry?

SG: It was an incredible honor, given my first experience of that space and what it has come to symbolize to me, to be asked to contribute a poem to be permanently on view there. I felt like I was completing something that began the first time I walked into Town Hall, answering for myself the question of whether I really could create anything worthy of the space. It is a magical place for me, in a way, the place where I went in a few steps from making a child’s art to making grown-up art. Town Hall for me has always physically manifested a right of passage. I was a student, now I hope it’s time for me to teach, to beckon the next generation of artists into that grand hall.

THE STREET LIGHT TODAY IS AN ANGEL OF THE LORD

Because you had never seen a seagull, your description of the one
that flew into the store where you worked inspired
the manager to call the police.

I want everything to be like that bird, so overwhelmingly itself
that it is its own spotlight,

but 90% of things are the guy sitting next to me who punctuates
statements like “I’ll pull together some numbers for you” by
pounding the table so hard, my coffee bounces.

His animation lacks the meaning of emotion it references, like
an elaborate set with no play.

There are so many sets. The absence of a play seems like an emergency,
considering the amount of wasted resources,

but there’s not really anyone to call
about that kind of emergency, which perhaps is
why people pray.

JS: What was the inspiration for the piece?

SG: Richard Kenney, one of my professors in grad school, was talking about poets in a lecture. He said something about how people look at poets like they’re crazy in their exaltation of mundane moments. Something like: “Without poetry, you walk up to somebody and say, ‘the streetlight today is an angel of the lord,” and they think you’re nuts. But you really saw that.” Exaltation of mundane moments is what poetry is all about. The primary project of art in any medium is to lift the veil of familiarity from life, which we need in order to function (imagine being blown away by every streetlight! You would never make it home from work.) When art works it makes every experience it exhibits feel like you’re experiencing it as a child again. Shortly after I met my wife five years ago, she said when she first got to Seattle as a teenager she worked at Urban Outfitters, and one day a seagull came into the store. Being from North Carolina, she had never seen one of our gigantic stretch Hummer seagulls before, so she called security and told them a “large waterfowl” had entered the building, and they better come quick. They of course laughed when they saw it was just a giant Dick’s fries-fed Seattle Seagull. It’s a love poem—I adored the exaltation of something familiar in her response to the trespassing seagull. Over and over, she makes my world new, gives me inspiration, and this poem expresses that facet of our love. Art is the core of our relationship in a lot of ways.

JS: What’s your process with your poetry? Is it systematic (specific times/places you write)? How much editing do you do after? 

SG: I usually start with words from a conversation I found interesting. In this case it was Richard Kenney’s lecture. But it can be a sentence from a dream, something from social media, a poorly translated restaurant menu. I don’t think initially about what it “means,” I just follow a train of associations to create the poem. It feels like a desire to answer a question, like, what did that random sentence mean to me? Why do I keep thinking about this image? And because of the inspiration, my poems usually get their momentum from a poetic device called “anaphora” in which the same image or concept recurs and develops throughout a poem. I will write for four or five hours, finessing the same small set of words, then let the draft sit for a week or two, after which I dive back in for an intense round of editing that lasts vastly different lengths of times based on the length and complexity of the poem. Very occasionally, a poem just appears in 20 minutes in exactly the form it should be.

JS: Are there specific messages you’re wanting to convey in your work or are you opening it up to readers to give their own interpretations?

SG: I would say I hope the readers wind up in a similar emotional space after reading my poems, but I want that to be specific and personal to each of them. I want them to finish the poems with a sense of conclusion, yet with more questions than they had before they started reading. And I want them to feel deeply excited by the questions. You know how when people in cartoons turn invisible, sometimes somebody throws flour or a sheet over them and you can see someone’s there? That’s how poetry works for me. It outlines meanings that are too complex to be directly expressed with words. But I try to make the poems accessible—I want every reader to see that the invisible cartoon character is Donald Duck and not Mickey, even if they see an outline and not all of his features. It’s not language poetry, which tries to de-commodify poetry by completely relying on the reader to create meaning.

JS: What do you hope Town Hall attendees get from this particular piece?

SG: Well, as I mentioned the only words that can express what a poem is “about” are the exact words of the poem itself—I’m fond of the idea that “poetry is ‘about’ something the way a cat is ‘about’ the house—but this one is about love, and how when you really love someone, their day-to-day experiences fill you with wonder, awe and endearment. It’s also about how, as humans living through late-stage capitalism, we spend much of our time trapped in a sort of quantitative experience of life, and the little moments of love and art that free us from that. I hope people will read the poem and feel a renewed appreciation for the people they love and the moments of beauty those people bring. I hope they feel compelled to tell the important people in their lives they love them, and to make art.

JS: What’s next, artistically, for you?

SG: I just finished a new manuscript, which I sent to Black Ocean, the press that absorbed my previous press Gramma’s catalogue (which includes my most recent book, Ugly Time) when they closed down. I’ve been teaching a bit and want to teach way more! I love it. I just pitched a few classes to Hugo House, and ideally at some point I’d love to teach a class or two a quarter at Cornish, UW, or Central. I’ve been looking into how to make that happen. I also teach one-on-one writing lessons, so if you’re reading this and are interested, get in touch with me through my website! For those of you who have taken my classes, I’m sorry to say the price of the class no longer includes unlimited Jell-o shots, as I stopped drinking a year ago, but there will probably still be candy. Also, I like to write at least a couple of essays or reviews a month, and at the moment I have nowhere to publish them, so I’m looking for a publication to freelance regularly for. Oh, and I turned my blog, the Pedestretarian, a series of reviews of food found on the ground, into an Instagram, and I may either find a publication that will publish the reviews as a regular column, or start my own little printed publication. I’m also working on a book of essays.

Talent Show: The Tender Gritty Music of Amanda Winterhalter

On August 10, Town Hall’s stage will be graced by musician Amanda Winterhalter for a single release concert. Tickets are on sale now! Get to know her a bit more:

There was a record player in her house growing up in the rural hills of Stanwood, Washington. There were records, too. A Bread album. Cream. The Rolling Stones. Anne Murray. “My mom really enjoyed Anne Murray.” Amanda Winterhalter suddenly breaks into song as we talk. Tender, with a little grit beneath. There was a record player at her house but the needle broke and no one bothered to fix it. It sat, getting dusty.

The Winterhalter house wasn’t a musical house. There weren’t tunes playing in the living room. The radio was rarely on. In the car they played oldies and gospel (Amanda’s mom sang in the church choir, after all). There was contemporary sacred music that piped through the car’s dinky speakers. “Amy Grant was very influential to me.” Amanda breaks into song again—a short refrain.

The house she found music in was a house of worship, a church the Winterhalter family attended frequently. “I wanted to do musical things,” and so she joined the choir. Her mom was a soloist from time to time. Amanda thought that was pretty cool. Sometimes, they sang mother-daughter duets together. Amanda started soloing at church when she was around 10 years old. She picked up a guitar as a tween and started learning chords and learned how to pluck the strings. As a teenager she joined a church band. “The youth worship team played the cool Christian music—drums, electric guitar, and shit.” She laughs a warm bright brassy laugh. “I lead the youth band and it’s where I learned a lot of my foundational band skills. I was quite ambitious. I loved music.”

Music was sacred to her, and still is. But secular tunes began to catch her attention. She listened ardently to the first ladies of jazz, the honeyed voice of Ella Fitzgerald, the blackberry vines of Billie Holiday, Dinah Washington. Also, Lauryn Hill. “It was the Video Music Awards, or something, and Lauryn Hill began singing ‘To Zion’ and it blew my freaking mind.”

Shy by nature, Amanda didn’t join many music groups in high school and when she went to college (Northwest University in Kirkland) she majored in English, though her desire to pursue her art grew and then grew more.

“My senior year was an inflection point. It was my time to rediscover music.” She took voice classes, ear training. She was a member of the chamber choir (“It melted me away”). She took music theory classes. She was becoming versed in verses.

She decided, shyness be damned, to enter the school talent show. She sang and played the guitar. She wore all black and was decked out in leather boots. She played Mindy Smith’s ‘Come to Jesus.’ And what happened? “I fucking won that show head over heels.”

She discovered that she could call herself an artist. She started writing her own songs in earnest. She was working in Olympia as a teacher when she joined a band in Shelton, Lower Lights Burning. She sang backup vocals, played piano, banjo, accordion, mandolin, pump organ.

From there she started making connections with local and regional musicians. She wanted to become enmeshed in the music scene and she felt Shelton couldn’t hold her. She moved to Seattle and soon ran into Geoff Larson, a jazz bassist who ran, and continues to run, The Bushwick Book Club Seattle, a nonprofit where local artists write and perform original songs inspired by books. She started singing songs at Bushwick events. She opened for Elizabeth Gilbert and Geraldine Brooks before their readings that were put on by Seattle Arts and Lectures.

Winterhalter and Larson became friends and developed an artistic partnership. Through working with him she began finding her form, the shape of her style, and her voice. “He helped me find the sound that felt true to me.”

He also helped her record her first album, Olea (2016). She’s got a full band now with Larson on upright bass, Rick Weber on drums, Nick Drozdowicz on electric guitar, and Ed Brooks on pedal steel. Winterhalter says, “With our diverse backgrounds and our diverse influences, we’re really starting to swing.”

On August 10 at Town Hall Seattle they release in concert the title track of her forthcoming album, What’s This Death (2019). They’ll be joined by The Drifter Luke and Old Coast. The album has all the parts that have helped make Winterhalter feel whole—cathartic lyrics, warm tones, deep wails, and wrenching growls. “It’s my way to have a voice in this world.” She suddenly starts singing again and a record player, gathering dust in someone’s house, is aching to be played. Winterhalter’s album comes out  early October 2019.

Below is a recent song she wrote about the Mount Saint Helens explosion:

Duh: The Importance of Early Childhood Education

On July 17, in the Forum at Town Hall, there will be a screening of the documentary, No Small Matter, and a post-movie discussion about childcare access. Get your tickets now.

The film’s directors are Danny Alpert, Jon Siskel, and Greg Jacobs. Town Hall’s own Jonathan Shipley talked to Jacobs about early childhood education, brain works, and Cookie Monster.

Greg Jacobs

JS: What got you interested in the subject matter? Do you have children of your own?

GJ: So my co-directors—Danny Alpert, and Jon Siskel, and I—all have slightly different “origin stories” for how we got interested in this issue. For me, it started when we were asked to do a video for The Ounce of Prevention Fund, a big early childhood advocacy organization here in Chicago. The video was about their flagship Educare, an incredible early learning center for low-income kids and families on the city’s South Side. After a week of filming, I was like, ‘Why hasn’t anyone told me about this!?’  

I’d been interested in education issues for a while (I’d written a book about school desegregation in my hometown of Columbus, Ohio), but I’d pretty much given up on K-12—the battle lines were so entrenched that it seemed like nothing we tried would make things better. But seeing Educare made me think, ‘What if the best way to improve the K-12 system is actually to improve the raw material coming into it? What if instead of 5 out of 25 kids arriving at a kindergarten class ready to learn, 20 of 25 did? What impact would that have on, well, pretty much everything that follows?’ And that’s when I became a zealous convert to the cause!

And by the way, I do have two kids, but sadly, they’re now teenagers, so they’ve both aged out of No Small Matter.

JS: The director statement on your website says, “Duh!” of course early childhood education. What made you want to take this on as a project?

GJ: After that first video, we did a few more, and each one made us more convinced of the issue’s scope and importance.  Finally, we said, ‘We want to do ‘the big one’—the comprehensive, issue-defining, Inconvenient Truth-type feature documentary about the power and potential impact of early childhood education.’ But, to be honest, there was probably no way we could’ve done such an ambitious film and engagement campaign on our own. Fortunately, we discovered that our friend and fellow Chicago filmmaker Danny Alpert also happened to be interested in the issue, so we decided to join forces and tackle the project together. Best decision ever. 

JS: What are some of the most important facts you learned while making the film?

GJ: No Small Matter makes a brick-by-brick argument for why investing in the first five years is so crucial. Each step of the way, there are jaw-dropping facts or statistics—a baby’s brain is making a million neural connections every second; in over half the states in the U.S. putting an infant in childcare costs more than sending a kid to public college; just three percent of all educational expenditures in the U.S. go to 0-5, etc. But because early childhood is inescapably about big people taking care of little people, probably the most important facts involve the destructively inadequate pay and respect we give the early childhood workforce. On average, ECE teachers make less than dog-walkers and parking attendants; around 46% of them are on some form of public assistance; turnover is roughly 30% a year; and in a study of the expected lifetime earnings of undergraduate majors, early childhood education ranked 83rd —out of 83. That’s unsustainable. 

JS: What are some of the most surprising things you learned while making the film?

GJ: Suffice to say, we are not scientists. So it was fascinating to begin to wrap our heads around the surprising science of early childhood development, including the groundbreaking work being done at I-LABS in Seattle, which we feature in the film. Researchers know so much more now about how the developing brain works than they did even ten or twenty years ago that the science has outstripped the public’s understanding of what really matters during the 0-5 years. And it turns out that what truly helps build a healthy brain is not flashcards or fancy technology, but the environment of relationships within which a child is raised—the more back-and-forth interactions a baby has with loving, supportive adults, the better that child’s odds in life will be. Which is why the issue of early childhood education is never just about children—it’s always about families and communities, as well.

JS: What were some of the most emotionally affecting moments for you while making the film?

GJ: There were a lot. But probably the most powerful thing was seeing, over and over, the struggles of parents and caregivers who are doing their absolute best in the face of constant, unyielding economic stress. Since Americans tend to treat 0-5 as a purely private matter—one that is neither shaped by politics nor political in its consequences—these parents and these caregivers often think that the problem must be them. Which is why so many of them have such emotional responses to No Small Matter—it’s often the first time they’ve seen their own struggles set in a larger context: the abdication (or privatization) of our social responsibility to support families with babies and young children. Or, as Geoffrey Canada puts it in the film, ‘Here’s an enemy that most folks don’t even know we need to fight.’

JS: For someone without kids/family, why watch the movie?

GJ: As I always say, our target audience is anyone who has, knows, or was a child. Because No Small Matter isn’t just a movie about parenting (though parents will certainly learn stuff). And it’s not just a movie about kids (though there’s a lot of fascinating stuff about early childhood development). It’s a movie about how we as a nation support—or don’t support—families with babies and young children. And that, as it turns out, affects everyone, because so many things that so many people care about are impacted by that issue: health care, crime, economic opportunity, inequality, workforce development, even military readiness—the list goes on and on. So whether you have little kids or not, we can pretty much guarantee that if you go see No Small Matter, you’ll laugh, you’ll probably cry, and you’ll leave the theater viewing the world differently than you did when you came in. Plus cute babies and Cookie Monster!

JS: What can people do to ensure early childhood education is available in their neighborhood/city/state?

GJ: One of the things we love about early childhood as an issue is that it’s not just powerful, it’s possible—it’s one of the very few issues that both Republicans and Democrats can agree on. That said, building a high quality system of support for families with young children is going to take time, it’s going to take movement on multiple fronts (prenatal care, home visiting, family leave, childcare, pre-K) and it’s going to take public will. So the first step for people is understanding just how powerful an issue this truly can be—telling that story is the goal of No Small Matter. Once you get it you can’t go back, so the next step is acting on that understanding, making it a part of your everyday political filter, a litmus test for your candidates, a measure of your community’s health. Basically, treating it like the grown-up issue it really is. If enough people get to the point where they, too, view this as ‘duh’, then we might actually see what advocate Dana Suskind calls ‘population-level change.’

Watch the movie at Town Hall. Listen in on a panel discussion after. Ask questions. Take steps. Tickets are on sale now

What Orcas Can Teach Humans About Menopause and Matriarchs

Darcey Steinke will be discussing her new book, Flash Count Diary: Menopause and the Vindication of Natural Life, at the Forum at Town Hall on July 8. Tickets are on sale now, or buy your tickets at the door!

The following article, written by Brangien Davis, originally appeared on Crosscut:

Seattleites understand the draw of killer whales. Even a dorsal fin glimpsed from a ferry sparks awe. We want to be near their black-and-white bodies, their close family pods, their huge brains, their haunting songs.

But for writer Darcey Steinke, one quality above all others pulled her from her home in Brooklyn to the San Juan Islands in hopes of seeing a killer whale in the flesh: the fact that orcas and humans are two of only five species known to experience menopause.

In her new book, Flash Count Diary: Menopause and the Vindication of Natural Life, Steinke explains how this surprising cross-species connection led her on a cross-country quest to see the centenarian southern resident orca “Granny” (aka J2, who has since died). The trip was a kind of feminist version of Moby-Dick, but instead of hoping to harpoon a white whale, Steinke sought solace from a black-and-white elder.

When she was 50 and having frequent, intense hot flashes (not to mention insomnia, fatigue and anxiety), Steinke began looking around for something — anything — positive about menopause. She noted that in pop culture, menopause is referred to almost exclusively as a punchline, often via dismissive or self-deprecating jokes about hot flashes or mood swings. The self-help books she read couched menopause as a disease that should be fixed, usually with hormone replacement therapy (HRT, which has many risks and unknowns). From pioneering menopause writer Gail Sheehy (The Silent Passage, 1992) to 1970s television star Suzanne Somers (The Sexy Years, 2004), experts promoted HRT as the best shot at “keeping the veneer of femininity intact.” To Steinke, everything read like “boilerplate misogyny.”

Her research unearthed a long history of dubious “cures,” from transfusions of dog’s blood to vinegar sponge baths to putting a magnet in your underpants. All of which, she says, seem a little less strange once you realize that the most popular hormone replacement treatment, Premarin, is made from the urine of pregnant horses.

“Nobody wants to hear about menopause, not even menopausal women themselves,” she writes in Flash Count. It’s an unspoken secret that many women are embarrassed to discuss. Even among middle-aged women, the topic of menopause and perimenopause (the years-long, symptom-heavy suite of bodily changes that lead up to the final cessation of periods) has a hushed air of shame — something to be kept under wraps, because culturally it signifies “your usefulness is over.”

When she found an article in the journal Nature about how postmenopausal killer whales serve as leaders and knowledge bearers in their pods, Steinke felt a glimmer of hope. While menopausal humans are ridiculed or ignored, menopausal orcas are critical members of their society. Given the lack of nuanced human narratives about this significant life change, Steinke latched onto the cetacean story. She took a plane to Seattle, a van to Anacortes, a ferry to San Juan Island and a sea kayak out into the Salish Sea.

Part memoir, part widely researched treatise (with citations ranging from The Incredible Hulk to Simone de Beauvoir), Flash Count argues for a new view of menopause, one that openly acknowledges and embraces it as a phase of life that is confounding and physically nightmarish, but ultimately pregnant with possibility.

“I wanted to fight back, to resist how the culture denigrates and stigmatizes menopausal women,” Steinke writes. She goes on to quote renowned feminist Germaine Greer, author of The Change (1991): “The menopausal woman is a prisoner of a stereotype and will not be rescued from it until she has begun to tell her own story.” And so, Steinke does just that.

I spoke with Steinke in advance of her upcoming appearance at Town Hall Seattle, where she’ll be in conversation with Dr. Deborah Giles, scientist and lecturer at the University of Washington’s Friday Harbor Labs on San Juan Island.

BD: What was it about that article in Nature that clicked for you?

DS: I found out that not only do killer whales go through menopause, but the post-reproductive orcas go on to lead their pods. And in that same article they talked about how menopause is an evolutionary puzzle because most creatures breed until the end of their life cycles — it’s a principle of Darwinian fitness to have as many offspring as you can. The article said menopause probably evolved in human communities for the same reason as in whale communities: because around 50, women get so smart and knowledgeable that they’re more valuable to their communities as leaders than as breeders. This was an idea that I really, really liked.

BD: So you got obsessed. 

DS: I got completely obsessed. There’s a lot of YouTube footage of the southern resident killer whales in the Salish Sea, and the University of Washington’s Center for Whale Research has a live-linked hydrophone— so I could listen 24 hours a day for whale sounds. Sometimes I heard them calling to each other. I also got obsessed with Lolita, who was from L Pod, and was taken 48 years ago from the Salish Sea and is still held captive at Miami Seaquarium. So I went down to see her. And then I flew to Seattle, went straight to Friday Harbor, got in a kayak, and on my first day out, I saw Granny! She was such an iconic whale. It was unbelievable. I’m still not really over it. I’ll never get over it.

BD: But in the book you say the moment wasn’t like the movie Born Free. It was more mysterious. 

DS: Right. When I saw Granny it wasn’t like we had this big connection, like, “Ooh, we are one.” I actually felt like her look said, “What the frig are you doing? Why are you guys out here?” I think that’s related to menopause. The passage is mysterious — it’s not like it’s all powerful. I definitely suffered some. But there was also some fascination with what was happening to my body, my mind, my gender, my sexuality. You’re almost like molting. It didn’t seem completely negative; it seemed more like, human. And real in a way that was not sugar-coated, and not necessarily empowering, but a human experience that should be felt and honored.

BD: Flash Count Diary is currently Amazon’s No. 1 bestseller … in the menopause section. Most of the other books in that category are about “solving the menopause problem” with hormones or diets or essential oils.

DS: I know, I love it! It’s like, The Hormone CureThe Estrogen CureMenopause Is a DiseaseYou Need to Fix Yourself. I’m not totally against hormones, but I’m so happy to be beating all the hormone books! When I was going through menopause — I think I’m at the end now, but I’m not sure — I discovered there are so few books that talk about menopause as something that is nuanced. It was always about how to get rid of the symptoms. There was nothing that was really engaged and respectful. When I started to have hot flashes, they were really uncomfortable, but they were also fascinating as a bodily phenomenon. I found them exquisite in a weird way, too — just to be incandescent with heat.

BD: Alternately there are rah-rah, empowerment narratives, such as, “Hot flashes are power surges!”

DS: As annoying as the menopause books trying to push everyone onto hormones are, those other books that are like, You’ll rise like a phoenix through menopause! were really annoying to me, too. Those are equally unnuanced. … I’m not completely surprised that I’ve landed in the women’s health world, and I guess I’m kind of happy about it. But part of the conclusion of the book is that we don’t need to be ashamed, we don’t need to get rid of it, we should live our own truth. So I like to think that my book is somewhat more punk rock than the others.

BD: It seems like lately there have been a few more menopausal storylines on television. Do you watch Better Things? Pamela Adlon’s character is dealing with her changing body and new life stage in the current season.

DS: Oh yeah, that’s a great show. I think she has a hot flash in one of the first episodes. There is also that incredible scene in Season 2 of Fleabag when the older woman [Kristin Scott Thomas] talks about how wonderful life is postmenopause. But I’m very sensitive to menopause being made fun of on TV, like when hot flashes are laughed at, even if by women. That stuff makes me kind of crazy — do we make fun of people who are having seizures? I’m not saying menopause is an illness, but it is a kind of bodily suffering. I know humor can be a release but most of the jokes are just boilerplate misogyny.

BD: When I was reading Flash Count I found that I sometimes felt embarrassed to be carrying around a book with “menopause” on the cover. And then I’d get mad that I was embarrassed by this thing that happens to half the population. 

DS: Yes, other women have told me the same thing. They think, “Wow, I realized I’m a little ashamed of this, and then I realized how crazy that was.” I mean, if you were reading a book about pregnancy or birth you wouldn’t feel embarrassed. Or maybe even a book about menstruation, because now we have this “menstruation power” movement. That’s connected to the idea in the book that women are mostly valued for their sexuality and their motherhood, so after those days are over, there is some shame attached to menopause. That’s misogyny, too. It’s just not a phase when men find women interesting.

BD: As the author of many fiction titles, did you ever have qualms about writing a personal menopause book?

DS: At the very beginning I wondered, would this taint me as being “the menopause writer”? But pretty quickly I realized even thinking that shows how messed up the culture is around all this. And I started getting kind of angry. I decided, I’m gonna write the most honest book about my own experience, and say what I really think about the way the medical world treats this condition. I got buoyed up by my own fury, so that dealt with the shame I might’ve felt.

BD: “Storylessness has been women’s biggest problem,” you quote cultural critic Katha Pollitt as saying. Her (and your) point is that while we have countless books about women coming of age, embracing sexuality, falling in love and starting a family, the roster of stories by and about women experiencing menopause is measly.

DS: That’s why I wrote the book, right? And that’s kind of why I attached myself to whales, too. I couldn’t find any human stories about menopause, so I got attached to Granny. Two books I did like were The Change by Germain Greer, a philosophical feminist study of menopause and midlife, and Colette’s novel Break of Day, which is a story about Colette’s own menopause and her flirtation with a younger man, a meditation on her sexuality at this age. There is also Simone de Beauvoir’s Old Age — people forget she was one of the first writers who would go out and interview people for her books, to hear their experiences, which is something I did for my book too.

BD: Tell me about the subhead: Menopause and the Vindication of Natural Life.

DS: I love the word vindication — in part because of Mary Wollstonecraft, whose book A Vindication of the Rights of Women [1792] was one of the first feminist books and was very important to me as a young person. But also because menopause is not a disease, it doesn’t need to be cured, it needs to be vindicated! I really wanted the book to be engaging — a fun read — but also a treatise or call to arms. I know that writing it definitely saved me from menopause shame, so I hope that can be true for other women as well.

Darcey Steinke is joined by Dr. Deborah Giles at the Forum at Town Hall on July 8. Buy your tickets now or at the door

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