Saturday, February 17, 2018

Rants of an old, albeit famous, man . . . Mark Tobey

My parents were friends with Mark Tobey, Northwest artist, visionary, and mystic whose work is held in major museums. One evening in 1959 after Tobey had been at our house, I was struck how wise, how deep his thoughts were. (He was approaching seventy—and I nineteen.) As a university freshman, I also felt wise. After all, I'd learned to smoke cigarettes without coughing, hold my own in philosophical conversations, and stay awake half the night cramming for an exam. That particular evening it struck me how amazing it was that such a great and wise guru had been our guest—this extraordinarily talented man sitting in our living-and dining-rooms, chatting away with my family in the same relaxed way an ordinary neighbor might. The difference was that his thoughts were profound, his comments scintillating. I was enthralled by every aspect of the man and wanted to remember his words—immortalize them. As soon as Tobey departed, I began jotting down in a spiral notebook what I could remember of that evening’s conversation.

M. Tobey  Self-portrait 1949
Four years ago I discovered those notes in an old box stuffed with odds and ends, marked “Treasures.” Multiple sheets of notebook paper were folded in the box, unopened since the very night I recorded them. The notes are of a one-sided conversation only—Tobey’s—as he chatted with my parents. Although my parents provided the other half of the dialogue, Tobey’s musings were all I bothered to capture. After all, he was a great artist, wise beyond others, while my parents were just ordinary people.

What follows in italics is exactly what I wrote at age nineteen—words spoken by Tobey—but I’ve augmented a few words [in brackets] and added several footnotes to help today’s readers make sense of them a half-century later.  

Seafair: [1] I just stay away from downtown [when it’s going on]. Miss Universe, Miss Washington, Miss South Dakota, Miss Florida . . . [they] all look alike. Same smile, same crown on their heads. Glamour is substituted for spirit. They have no spirit, so they straighten their teeth, pluck their eyebrows, paint themselves with grease, and there is glamor! They look—like the devil? No. They don’t look like the devil. I’d like to imagine that the devil looks like something!
Sex: One thing about the twentieth century—we’ve discovered sex, and “they” won’t let us forget it. Aren’t we wonderful! We’ve discovered sex! Sex in soup, sex in . . . you name it, but don’t put sex in abstract art! The critics don’t like it.
Fast-paced modern times: I used to like to go into Safeway about dusk. It was nice. Now I go, push a go-cart up the aisle four times—then I ask where the coffee is. All you hear now is ‘ding, ding, ding.’ People hurry. Why, you can’t even get to know your butcher now. Occasionally an arm sticks out [from] behind [the] glass. We do all this so we have time to live. We hurry in and out, but when do we live? We don’t know the butcher. When do we live? Only humans make life—we can get as mechanized as possible, but only humans make life.  White Henry Stuart Building[2] [now has] automatic elevators—music comes on. What for? One street in Hong Kong has more life than the whole of Broadway[3] because it is completely human. Only humans make life.
Young artists cannot grow when snatched up in [their]youth—[I] don’t approve of early discovery of talent. ‘Debutante [now], then wallflower. Now days, [there is] no young, exceptional talent that hasn’t been “discovered.” Scouts all over—too many.
Urban blight: Trees soften the hardness of life—the only thing [that] rests your eyes downtown. [For instance, take the] Pike Street Market[4]—every race, creed, color, culture. Saturday – [I] took five Yale students there. Top part of their trip. Never enough time. So many things to watch, to wonder at. Color of vegetables and fruit seem to put everyone in a good  mood. If you go, take lunch up to second floor—see the whole sound. Beautiful view! Two blocks [away] at second and Pike, what is there? Nothing. Nothing. Not a thing to look at . . . except the trees in the front of the bank.

A few catalogs & books about Tobey
As a then seventy-four-year-old woman reading the newly rediscovered musings (I'm four years older now), I found myself incredulous. In retrospect, Tobey’s comments seem no more insightful than any other old person’s. Having revered him all these years, I realized the words easily could have been spoken by any one of my own peers, railing about the contemporary scene. Mark Tobey was a mortal, after all, with the same kinds of opinions and notions about the ruination of the younger generations and deterioration of services that we all notice as we age—the “wisdom” of hindsight. He continued to admire Pike Place Market, however, something that is still easy to do, despite its periodic updates and gradual gentrification.

Time changes perspective: a universal truth. That very constancy stitches us together—whether we’re rich or poor, famous or unknown—into a continuum of humanity. And what’s perceived as the decline of civilization continues to be lamented by people on the downward curve of life as they mourn “the good old days.” I still adore the work of Tobey and revere his genius, but now that I’m older than he was when last we met, he seems less a deity to me and more an ordinary mortal who happened to have extraordinary talent.                                                                                       

Copyright ©2018  by Sara J. Glerum

[1] Seafair is a Seattle month-long summer festival 
[2] A Seattle landmark  in the first three-quarters of the 20th century. Sited on Fourth Avenue and University Street, it was torn down in 1974 to make way for the home office of the then Rainier Bank  (once an inverted pyramid design, the building is currently under complete redesign) 
[3] A lively commercial street in Seattle’s Capitol Hill district
[4] Currently referred to as Pike Place Market

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

When BURR-r-r-r Means HOT

Finally the national tour of Hamilton arrived in Seattle, which was the long anticipated occasion for a visit from my Canadian family.  Eleven-and-a-half year-old granddaughter, Mae, is one of its biggest fans . . . so how could her grandmother not buy tickets for her (and her parents) as a family Christmas gift?

Several days before our performance date (Hamilton plays in Seattle from Feb. 6-March 18), I received an email reminding me I had tickets (as if I could possibly forget!) and informing me there was a free Hamilton App to download on cellphones. When we arrived at the theater, the ticket taker referenced the app (, as well. Yes, all this seems commercial rather than artful, but it turned out to be a great way to spend time as we waited for the curtain to rise at 1 pm.

To say that Hamilton lived up to our expectations is a considerable understatement. We laughed and cried and clapped and cheered . . . and talked about it into the evening hours, and again the next day. I feel so fortunate to have seen it. Hamilton has the power to take your breath away. But to me, the most powerful and moving thing about it is its colorblind casting--making it heartbreaking in a way that it wouldn't be if the characters were portrayed by all northern-European actors. Hamilton deserves ALL its hype. 

Saturday, January 27, 2018

Three Js Park

After Jay died, I hardly knew where to begin to get back my balance.  It’s traumatic to be alone after more than fifty years of marriage.  No, we didn’t have a perfect marriage. Of course, I got irked at him when he wouldn’t listen, peeved when he didn’t agree with me. Sometimes I wondered why I’d  thought it a good idea to ever marry anyone.  But when death grabbed him and removed him from my life forever, it was awful. Loneliness and grief took over the space formerly occupied by my best friend and loving companion. I’m not unique; ask any widow you meet.

After a full six months of  living the clichéd “one-day-at-a-time” —with little joy and a lot of hell—I was physically and emotionally drained.  Prior to Jay’s death, I had considered myself  a competent, independent person. I never thought much about it—it  was part of my underlying reality. Not so after those six months, though.  How had I ever become so needy and incompetent? Even the simple act of starting the day was a challenge. In the ‘old days,’ one of us turned up the thermostat while the other one pulled up mini-blinds; one of us poured the coffee while the other one retrieved the morning paper from the front porch. Now it took twice as long just to sit down with coffee and the paper! And that was just the first five minutes of the day.  What I missed most, however, was Jay’s  support for my activities. My personal ‘fan club,’ something I had taken completely for granted, had died with him. Yes, widowhood is a great breeding ground for self-pity.

Enter now three men, all unknown to me at the timeJonty, James, and Jesse—to whom I will ever be indebted. They unwittingly rescued me from my pity-party and delivered me back into a good place. They didn’t rescue me in the sense of physically riding in on white steeds to pull me back from the precipice. Instead, they restored me to a good place by raising me up from a deflated imitation of myself back to the competent, helpful woman I had been as a married woman. This all came about because the three men decided to do something about the threat of a development project that would change our neighborhood forever.

Here’s what happened: A billboard announced that the golf course in our neighborhood was being considered for rezoning. The city was entertaining an application to change this land from the gorgeous open vista with a tiny clubhouse to an upscale townhouse community for seventy-six households . I saw the billboard announcing the proposal, and considered the increased traffic with seventy-six more families dwelling across the street from me and shrugged. Progress? . . . urbanization? . . . greed? . . . all with their inevitable degradation of environment and habitat.  What could I possibly do about it?

Jesse, James, and Jonty didn’t think like defeatists who couldn’t make a difference, thank goodness. Collectively they envisioned something wonderful in place of development—a park! With intelligence, passion, and vision, they organized a coherent message and began to talk it up to their neighbors, both known and unknown. As we gathered in small groups, they informed us that WE—the people living near the golf course—WE could speak out about the loss of open space and WE could save it!

I couldn’t help but get excited hearing them describe the possibilities for the golf course and began to eagerly attend meetings they were scheduling and followed the Website they’d developed to explain their mission. The grammar-snob part of me ruffled, however, as I explored the Website’s narrative, so I sent feedback over Internet about a few sentences that (in my opinion) desperately needed fixing. Instead of writing me off as a crackpot old busybody, they thanked me and invited me to give them feedback any time.

I began to review other aspects of their communication with the public, and every time I was thanked for my suggestions. The more I worked with the three, the more I realized I was feeling needed for the first time in many months and was enjoying the interaction with them enormously. My focus on the community gradually changed too. I began to care more deeply about the golf course land and the river running through it—and beyond, to the wildlife it sustains—and beyond that, as well, to comprehend the dearth of open space depriving urban dwellers. I began to think of others’s needs, not just mine as the ‘poor-me, new-widow,’ the countless citizens who would benefit for years to come from the acquisition of a private golf course for public passive recreation, land reclamation, and habitat restoration. I could, and would,  help make the dream a reality.

And indeed, we did make the dream come true. Currently the City of Bothell is requesting help naming its newest park, the 89 acre former Wayne Golf Course! WE really did save it!

Now, whenever I see any of the three men these several years later, I want to smother them in grandma hugs. They instilled in me a growing sense of community pride, and helped restore my  meaningful-life-factor. Because they didn't know me as a married woman, the word 'condolence' wasn't in their vocabularies. They asked me for help . . . and responded appreciatively to my efforts. Because of them, I began to look up and out again—beyond my grief and loneliness.

The bottom line is they made me feel capable again, even if I still can’t change a windshield wiper or fix the switch on a lamp. Yes, I owe immeasurable thanks to these three men—and hope I never stop being grateful for their gift. And hooray for our newest park, whatever its name. If it were up to me, I'd call it "Three Js Park."

Saturday, December 23, 2017

Not white? OK, as long as it's not blue!

The 'ninth' candle, mine, is around
the corner to the right
This Christmas season may well be the weirdest one of my lifetime. Weird, as in singular, irregular, unusual. Any of those adjectives would be more dignified, but weird has the right connotation.

What’s different this year is it’s the first of my (soon-to-be seventy-eight) Christmases during which I won’t be getting together with someone in my immediate family. For the first twenty-two Christmases, it was the Johnsone clan; for the next sixty-five, with at least one Glerum (with crossover years bridging both).  

Initially, thinking about being without my favorite people for my favorite holiday made me sad, blue, pity-party worthy. But as the day draws closer, I’m realizing something important. I have no Christmas stress!

I’ve intentionally not done any of the normal activities of the season, including baking, Christmas cards, and excessive decorating. The only traditional activity I’ve done is to place electric candles in the windows of my townhouse. Jay started the tradition when we were emptnesters, with four candles for our four grown children. He then added one for each grandchild. After he died, I added a candle for him—and this year, I added one for me, too! So now there are nine candles in our windows.

Baroque Putto dating back 'forever'
I did set out a few items on the mantel—a bit of seasonal décor here and there, including the baroque putto my grandfather obtained on a trip to Europe before 1900.  It’s something my mother always used (frequently on top of our Christmas tree), so it’s always been part of my life. But I left three boxes of seasonal treasures unopened, thus unused. 

Two weeks ago I gave away the beautiful artificial tree that Jay and I purchased when we moved to our townhouse. We’d always had a live tree, but the high ceilings and limited floor space in our new space prompted our purchase. It was too big to manage on my own, so through the miracle of social media, I located a stranger to give it to. She was so thrilled, she wrote me after she assembled it, yet-to-be decorated, “My son asked if we can’t leave it up all year, it’s so beautiful.” Her delight, as well as her son's, made me feel wonderful!

This angel mobile was purchased
in the Copenhagen airport in 2001,on our
way home from a December trip to Paris
I mailed packages early in the month because I had an out-of-town house guest  arriving Dec. 11. Usually I stand at the post office for an hour or longer in mid-month, bake cookies the weekend before Christmas, and wrap gifts as late Christmas Eve.  Only when the spirit moves me do I begin my holiday letter—never before December 15—then print it, address envelopes and write personal notes to the hundred-plus recipients. All this activity has made up my Christmases for years, and it makes for seasonal stress.  

Not this year! Without family to look forward to seeing, to decorate for, to travel to, to bake for, this time of year feels like any other dark, cold month. Without the reflection of my Christmas letter (I decided I just couldn't do one this year), I don’t feel compelled to take inventory of the year. That's OK because it wasn’t a great year, anyway.  I’m free to contemplate the meaning of Christmas, consider my propensity for angelic images, and binge on the latest season of a Netflix series. See? I told you it’s a weird year, but I’m going to take advantage of the absence of seasonal stress. That part’s a good thing.

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

The Daily Scraping Up of a Memory

It’s interesting, isn’t it, how one minor incident in a lifetime can trigger a perpetual memory that reappears every time the incident is repeated? Take, for instance, the daily task of squeegeeing the glass shower door. It occurred to me this morning that the minute I begin to wipe down the shower with the squeegee, I think of Chad—a man I haven’t laid eyes on for more at least fifteen years. Chad came to work for me at WM Life in Seattle as a part-time clerk in the early ‘90s—he was freshman at Seattle Community  College. He was smart, trainable, a quirky and delightful addition to my staff. He proved to be loyal and hardworking—as good as anyone who ever reported to me, but that’s a topic for a different post. He worked for me on and off for a number of years—eventually leaving to attend Evergreen College in Olympia. Sometime after graduation and a full-time job, he contacted me. He had started his own window-washing business. Did I need any windows washed?

Glad to patronize his start-up, I answered “yes,” and a few days later he drove up our driveway in his old VW Van, loaded up with everything he needed to do the outside widows all around the house—some at ground level, and others needing extension pole or a ladder. Jay was delighted to delegate and pay for the service, and Chad did a splendid job (and returned for seasonal work until he found other work).

Yes, I’m getting to the point of my first sentence. It was Chad who showed me the most efficient way to use a squeegee. Until then, I had always stroked parallel lines from top to bottom of the window (I’d been washing inside windows for at least forty years by then—much more frequently than now, I must admit). Chad showed me how to swoop across the window in figure-8 motions, eliminating the constant need to wipe the drips at sill-level. Only one wipe was needed with Chad’s method.
And that’s why I think of Chad every morning, as I begin the figure-8 motion along the inside of the glass shower stall. Who would have thought . . .

When we think about it, it’s not any different from the memories popping up as we set out our beloved Christmas decorations. It’s the association with a person or event that causes such sentimentality. But who would have thought a window-washing tip could become a daily trigger of recall of affection.  Chad, by the way, is now a successful chiropractor—and, by my rough calculation—is in his mid-forties by now. When I think of him, though, it’s as a young man  whose honesty, truthfulness, loyalty and hard work endeared himself to his boss.

Sunday, November 26, 2017

Musings of a Grateful Woman

Remember how your mother explained the meaning of the word “reciprocity”? If someone gave you a birthday present, you would give them a present on their birthday. As you got older, you probably learned the nuances of the concept, such as keeping gifts suitable and not trying to outdo the other person with a wildly disparate gift. As we grow in age, wisdom, and grace, we continue to master the art of reciprocation, understanding that generosity from the heart enhances and solidifies relationships. Not only does a gift endear us to the recipient, but giving strengthens the bond we, ourselves, feel toward the recipient—be it a person or entity.

When November rolls up to December, I begin to make the list of organizations and groups that have enriched my year, given me such pleasure or brightened my life so much that reciprocity is in order. But what am I going to do? Play an out-of-tune scale on my violin for the symphony? Perform a skit for an entire theatre troupe?  No. That’s where a monetary gift can be a stand-in for reciprocity.  

I have greatly enjoyed a number of performances this year, and also follow the work of several human services organizations. One such organization is the YMCA. Yes, I belong and pay a monthly fee. But the YMCA is so much more than a gym, or exercise club. It serves the entire community with scholarships and subsidies that allow youngsters to attend camps in the summer, to eat healthily on weekends and summertime, to learn team sports, and to swim. It also serves anyone in the community who wants help with chronic disease management and/or prevention, weight loss programs, and it hosts Livestrong programs for people with cancer. It offers exceptional daycare for preschoolers, and tends children whose parents are at the Y to pursue fitness goals . . . and on and on.

We all make donations when we are able—to churches, bootstrap organizations, meal programs, favorite hospitals, cultural groups, and national groups like the Red Cross and organizations assisting any number of needs for people without means to pay for them. Many of those gifts are pure altruistic: “Here—take this—you do great work.” But some gifts are reciprocal—a way to show thankfulness for acts of generosity benefiting us!

When I look back over the past eleven months, I realize I’ve much to be grateful for from various cultural groups, enjoying many memorable theatrical productions, breathtaking symphony concerts, mind-boggling art exhibits. I am immensely grateful for my healthcare providers (cutting out the cancer in January, just for starters), not to mention the loving support and companionship of family and friends, help from neighbors, inspiration from community volunteers, and energy from an always-welcoming staff at the Y. The list goes on. I am blessed with gifts from all kinds of places—from across the street to across the water, from as close as my neighborhood to the neighboring country (home to one of my granddaughters and her parents). My body and soul are all replenished through these gifts. To some I will show my appreciation by making a monetary donation; to others I can only do it with these words: Thank you.

Wednesday, November 8, 2017


 What a difference a day makes . . . 
well, maybe ten days.  

     Welcome to November.