Some readers loved Ron Judd’s tongue-in-cheek take on what makes a true Northwesterner. Others hated it. But it stirred emotions and started a conversation about the massive change our region is undergoing.
NOW I KNOW why no one else wanted the assignment.
In homage to the perilous nature of the task at hand, the opening words of our Jan. 11 cover piece, “A Survival Guide for Understanding the Northwest Character,” were a little more direct than usual:
“Chances are pretty good that everyone is going to hate this.”
I was sort of joking. But I was at least half right.
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My thinking was that those starting words would signal, strongly, that much of what was to come in the piece resided firmly on the outskirts of Jestville — that my exploration of the traits that make up the typical native type, of which I am one, was mostly in fun, and even in the spirit of self-deprecation. With this in mind, I went on to proclaim that:
A) We natives really couldn’t care less what newcomers think of us; and B) newbies could try as they might, but would never really be one of us unless they were actually born and raised in the region. So they should stop trying.
Part of the idea was to poke fun at the undeniable smugness of the natives. Alas, this subtlety was lost on many people, some of whom loudly proclaimed the entire exercise inappropriate, demeaning, xenophobic, divisive, exclusionary or worse. Simply pointing out differences among new and old residents automatically carried, in the minds of some newcomer readers, a negative connotation — as if any simple acknowledgment of differences translated to slinging of mud. Which, of course, was never the point.
At the heart of the piece was a list of beliefs I suggested many native Northwesterners — both the “actual” ones and the many who have long lived here and embraced them — tend to share. It was one person’s clumsy attempt to paint a portrait of the core values of people who’ve been here for a long time; establishing some common ground, if you will, for the purposes of understanding and moving forward.
Some angry readers never seemed to get that far; others praised the list of “traits” as something with which they identified to the point that they became teary-eyed. So, there you go.
Loved or hated, the piece succeeded in generating ample emotion, much of which was surprisingly (to me, at least) raw, on both sides.
In any case, it all seemed to fit with the magazine’s 2015 theme, “Newcomers: Facing Our Crowded Future.” Other pieces throughout the year expanded on that notion: A week after my missive, longtime local writer Fred Moody extolled the many virtues of fresh blood in town. Tyrone Beason and photographer Bettina Hansen explored the new Pioneer Square a month later. Susan Kelleher and Benjamin Benschneider provided a revealing glimpse into micro-housing living.
You might not have noticed this, but many other 2015 Pacific NW cover pieces centered on the same thing: the new American dream; Seattle’s hardscrabble heavy construction workforce; visa wives; modern parenting in our increasingly big city; only children; the region’s new immigrants; and that perennial talking point, the search for Seattle’s last parking space.
This attempt to chronicle the rapid-growth angst that has defined our recent existence will live on in posterity, to a degree.
Shortly after publication of my piece about the native soul, I was contacted by a committee in charge of a state time-capsule project, masterminded by fellow scribe (and fellow moss-draped native skeptic) Knute Berger. The piece, the committee thought, touched a significant nerve about who we are, or want to be, as a people — one worth passing on, for the enlightenment, or at least amusement, of future generations.
They asked to place a copy of the article in a time capsule about to be sealed in Olympia — one of a series of 16 such collections being assembled, on quarter-century state anniversaries, to be opened in November 2389, Washington’s 500th anniversary. (I have dutifully set an Outlook reminder.)
As part of this process, I was given the opportunity to include a one-page personal letter to accompany the magazine piece, saying whatever I wanted to say to Washington residents almost 375 years down the road. (Hundreds of other state residents had already done the same thing, their thoughts captured on microfilm.) The capsule-keepers needed this letter in a couple days, to make the sealing-up deadline.
I agreed, but initially choked on figuring out what to say. (For this I partially blame Berger, who had likened the opening of these capsules in 2389 to us reading thoughts left behind by the pilgrims. No pressure there, Knute!)
So I did what I normally do, which is procrastinate until, in my only surviving writing mode (borderline deadline panic), I banged out a note, printed it, sealed it in an envelope and mailed it.
The letter began with a description of the massive change undertaking our region. I described writing it in a Seattle newspaper office (“ask your great, great, great grandparents”) in South Lake Union, completely surrounded by construction cranes.
“Lots of glass and steel and people wandering around staring blankly into handheld computer screens on their way to jobs at Amazon.com — mega-retailer and inventor of ‘Prime Shipping’ — look it up!”
I expounded on the magazine piece; discussed the tipping point our region seemed to be at; and threw in some heartfelt thoughts about how at least one local bloke, speaking solely for himself, hoped it would all end up.
At the dawn of a new year, I wondered whether the letter, which now should rest quietly in a stainless-steel cylinder in a 3,000-pound green safe in the state Capitol, might serve as an epitaph, of some sort, to our Season of Great Discontent — that forced mashing of ideas and people, new and old, that continues to spice up the increasingly condensed civic soup in which we all find ourselves bobbing like hapless oyster crackers.
TO THE FUTURE, I offered this:
My editors and I came up with this story as one part of our 2015 magazine theme exploring this “new” Seattle, which surely will seem hilarious to you, because by the time you read this, it’ll be older than dirt. (Do you still have dirt?) It was an attempt for one person to boldly, and somewhat humorously, define what it means to be a “native” in the Puget Sound region today, in 2015 — a taste of what we locals believe in, and why: a glimpse at our “regional” identity. For better or worse, the story struck a nerve and started a conversation about all of us needing to find ways to save what matters to us.
God, I hope we succeeded, because the Northwest has been good to us. Alas, we (or at least our recent ancestors) haven’t been so good to it. Generations immediately before us killed most of the salmon and logged most of the beautiful old-growth forest; at present we are watching our beloved orcas struggle to survive in the Salish Sea. They thought it was all infinite. We know better. We’re trying to stem the flow, and undo what we can. But we struggle because all of that resource exploitation is still built into our economy and, sadly, our way of life.
As you read this, so far down the road, all I can offer is that I hope we were able to leave standing, thriving and recovering a bit of the magic of this place we all love. If we succeeded to any degree, I hope you can pay the favor forward by passing along the best of your home to the next bunch of squatters. If not, I’m terribly sorry. It wasn’t for lack of trying, by a whole lot of us.
So be well, get outside (do you still have “outside?”) and don’t take life too seriously. Or, as our late local hero Ivar Haglund would say, Keep Clam! (Do you still have … oh, never mind.)
Yours truly, a proud Puget Sound native son,
Staff Reporter, The Seattle Times
Jan. 28, 2015