By Linda Wallace

Author's thoughts on the Pacific Northwest and beyond.

Thursday, September 28, 2006

Power Line

Wednesday was a sad day. Contractors for Seattle City Light showed up, power equipment at the ready, to prune the locust trees in my front yard. I knew they were coming. All up and down our block, they’d distributed letters informing residents of the pending butchery.

It was my fault for bringing the trees to City Light’s attention. This summer I heard a strange crackling sound outside. I searched for the source and discovered a small blaze sputtering high up among my tree branches where the power line touched some of the smaller twigs. Uncertain of what to do, I simply stood and gaped at the fire for a while. A stiff breeze pushed leaflets against the wire, producing sparks and a brief spurt of flame, then stems and twigs would smolder, sending a thin plume of smoke into the sky. Eventually, it occurred to me I needed to call the light company. I didn’t want to be responsible for burning down an entire block, not to mention my own home.

City Light responded promptly. Workers arrived within the hour to trim the branches that were making contact with the power line. Only a few cuts were needed. It didn’t look bad at all, and the fire was out. They told me then they’d have to return later to prune the trees more extensively. I should have been prepared, but I wasn’t.

I love trees. I have an emotional attachment to them as though they were pets or children. When we moved into this house, one set of neighbors asked hopefully if we were going to cut down the trees so everyone could see our beautiful home. They were tired of dealing with the thousands of tiny yellow leaves that drift down all summer then come down in earnest in the fall. Poor things, they so got the wrong new neighbors. I would never remove a tree unless there was an imminent threat of it crashing down on a roof. A few years later, my husband and I did agree to share the cost of pruning the trees that grow along the neighbor’s property line and overhang their yard. Legally, they could cut those branches without our permission, but they told us they had hired a tree pruning company, and we wanted to be good neighbors, so we offered to pay half the fee. I paid $350 for a serious sobbing session.

And that’s what I did Wednesday morning--sob. The Seattle City Light contractors knocked on our door early in the morning and politely informed us we needed to move our car to make sure no limbs fell on it. I resolutely ignored the whining of the saws and grinders for some time, but finally, I had to look. I let out a shriek and burst into tears. They were cutting so much more than I had anticipated.

I went outside, found the site supervisor and told him they were removing way more of the trees than I’d expected and that I was extremely upset. Not that I needed to add that last bit as my eyes were watery, my nose was running and my skin was blotchy. I’m sure he thought I was a fool, but he courteously explained that the law required the trees be pruned a minimum of ten feet from the main power line, which carries some humongous number of volts, and five feet from a lesser line. He said the law would have to be changed for them to make their cuts any differently. Then he tried to cheer me up by saying that next spring the trees would leaf out and look much better. I wasn’t cheered.

At the end of the workday, groups of neighbors gathered to look down our block and discuss the changes. A gorgeous gigantic maple down the street from my house was also shaved halfway down one side. Its owner was unhappy but said the pruners were only doing their job. One neighbor said it was the worst thing she’d ever seen. She has a friend whose pine trees were cut down right to the ground. Thank goodness they didn’t do that to my locusts. She suggested I e-mail Seattle City Light and complain. Better yet, I should contact our three local TV stations.

I thought about doing just that, but the thing is, the trees should never have been planted under power lines in the first place. Locusts grow from 30 to 70 feet tall. Our trees towered over the power lines when we moved here. According to the Seattle City Light Web site, "…interfering tree limbs and falling trees or branches are the No. 1 cause of power outages in the Seattle metropolitan area." They offer a free copy of The Right Tree Book, or you can download an Adobe copy from their site. We were probably lucky our trees escaped unscathed for as long as they did.

But couldn’t the contractors have carried out their surgery in a more esthetically pleasing fashion? City Light’s Web site claims, "Certified Power Line Clearance contractors under the direction of Seattle City Light employees perform the trimming. Seattle City Light uses pruning standards approved by the International Society of Arboriculture which meet safety requirements of both federal and state laws." I’m not convinced, but I have to admit ten feet is a lot of tree to trim. Maybe there was no way to do it any better.

Of course, anyone who knows the locust is giggling hysterically right now. Locust is not a Pacific Northwest native. I’ve heard it called a weed tree and an alley cat tree. It is not generally prized. Both the blossoms (which, at least, do smell wonderful) and the leaves are messy. You find it growing in abandoned lots and poorer neighborhoods. But I don’t care. I love them. And I’m going to mourn the hunks of them that we’ve lost for a long time.

Saturday, September 23, 2006

A Love to Kill

A friend of mine, who moved to Seattle from Vietnam not many years ago, loaned me her DVDs of the popular Korean series A Love to Kill. The male lead is rock star Rain, and his beloved/hated costar is Shin Min-ah, both pictured here.

I watched about an hour of the eight discs before I gave up, totally baffled as to what was going on. At my friend’s urging, I had watched one episode on TV previously and was equally mystified. Part of the comprehension problem is the English translation. My friend frets over her English, which is actually quite good, but she admitted that her own grammar is clearer than the subtitles on A Love to Kill.

Or maybe the lack of comprehension is do to my Western mind being unable to wrap itself around the contemporary Asian concepts of drama and love. I did get that everyone is unhappy. Extreme close-ups of tears coursing down gorgeous faces got that idea across without any words.

And that’s what I’m writing about today. Why do women of all cultures fall for the jerks? Why do we work so hard at being miserable? When are we ever going to learn that nice guys are best? That it's okay to be happy? I’m guilty myself of perpetuating the myths. I write romances ( in which the heroines agonize over, if not exactly jerks, inappropriate men. Of course, without conflict there’s no drama, but I worry about the messages books and movies send to women. The universal appeal of the bad boy.

In one of the scenes I watched from A Love to Kill (also known as This Love I Want to Kill/The Love of Death/Detestable Love/Knock Out by Love), the hero, Kang Bok-ku, watches a young woman, tears streaming down her face, prepare to leap from a bridge to her death. He says something like "go ahead," strolls away, and she jumps. He keeps going for a bit then apparently decides maybe he’d better do something about it after all and saves her. A real champ, right? This is the same fellow who makes a living by theft and extortion. Oh, and he’s a kick-boxer. Definitely worthy of being chased by every female character in the series. My Vietnamese friend says, "His heart is deep." Maybe. Or maybe he’s a jerk.

In Bok-ku’s defense(?) he has determined to spend his life with Han Da-jung as a reward to her for saving his life. I guess that could be considered a worthy cause. But he’s distracted when his brother steps off the guardrail of his house while reaching toward the face of Cha Eun-suk (the one in the photo) on an electronic billboard with the announcement of her engagement to a rich heir. With his brother now in a vegetative state, Bok-ku becomes film star Eun-suk’s bodyguard to make her fall in love with him so he can avenge his brother.

Does that make him a man of honor? Worth all those tears? Or just a jerk?

Friday, September 15, 2006

Judgment Day

At a dinner out with friends recently, one of the women introduced the subject of pet peeves. Hers was drivers who hop out of cars parked in spaces meant for the handicapped and stride briskly away. I said mine was obese people shopping in motorized carts. If they’d get out and walk, I pontificated, they wouldn’t be so overweight and wouldn’t need to ride. Later in the evening, reflecting on what I’d said, I trembled. I could so easily be the person driving the shopping cart. Might become that person some day. If I do, will I be struck with lightning the first time my backside hits the driver’s seat as a punishment for what I so thoughtlessly pronounced at dinner?

My daughter has a more refined sense of ethics than I do. She frequently admonishes me to avoid gossip and judgment, both of which I avidly enjoy, though, as per the above example, often feel guilty about after indulging in them. A case could be made that a writer is by definition a gossip: a person who tells intimate details of others’ lives. You can read about my fictional characters’ lives at

But judgment in real life is tricky. For instance, traveling with my husband. He has a number of health problems you can’t discern by looking at him other than he’s overweight. He can’t walk very far (I’m talking about from one room to another) or even stand up for very long, so we use a wheelchair to get from the curb to the gate at airports. I’m uncomfortable walking beside him as the airline attendant wheels him in front of everyone else to the pre-boarding area. He usually gets out of the wheelchair to walk down the ramp to the airplane, and I’m afraid people will think we’re pre-boarding just to get on the plane first. I have to bite my tongue to keep from asking him to try to look a little more frail and decrepit so he’ll appear to need the wheelchair.

Then there was my colleague at The Los Angeles Times. After experiencing a series of mysterious symptoms including falling down in the parking lot, she quit selling advertising to go on disability. I thought she was looking for a free meal ticket, that she was faking it. I actually made that judgment about her even though she was a close friend. She was eventually diagnosed as having multiple sclerosis. We gradually lost contact with one another after I moved to Seattle. I think about her often and would like to get in touch again, but I’m also afraid to find out how the disease has progressed. And, of course, I’m riddled with guilt over misjudging her.

Normally, I’m not one to quote scriptures, but I have to conclude that Matthew got it right. (7:1-2) "Judge not, that ye be not judged. For with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged; and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again."

Friday, September 08, 2006

Benches at Bumbershoot

Thursday evening, August 31, 2006, Starbucks sponsored an auction at the Seattle Center to raise money for community parks. Benches at Bumbershoot was quite an event.

I belong to a group, Friends of Hicks Lake, that works to improve the water quality of a small pond at Lakewood Park near my home. One of our members, Dick Thurnau, made and donated "Cedar Bench" for the auction. It’s the one in the right-hand corner of the flyer. Actually, you could say he’s the only member as he’s the one who does almost all of the work. He discovered he’s allergic to cedar while building his bench, so he gave a certain measure of pain, along with the construction materials and his excellent woodworking skills, to the fundraising project.

I came to Friends through the Washington Native Plant Society. I’m a Native Plant Steward and have pulled ivy, grubbed blackberry and tried to eradicate other noxious weeds at various parks in the Seattle area. Several years ago, Stephen Reilly wrote a grant that included a native plant restoration for Lakewood Park. The WNPS Steward Coordinator gave him my name as a Plant Steward who lived in the neighborhood and might be interested in helping him. I was, and we went to several local schools, elementary through high school, to give presentations about native plants to teachers and students. The students, EarthCorps and Friends of Hicks Lake (There may have been other organizations I’ve forgotten that helped. Sorry if I overlooked you.) planted trees and shrubs from King County’s nursery, and I joined Friends as another avenue to support native plants.

But I digress. Back to the auction. As artists are wont, the bench creators had gone off in myriad directions on a common theme and produced some truly wondrous works to sit on or in—several more nearly sculpture than bench. I tried on for size all 14 of them except the canvas slings suspended from a tall frame—I was afraid they’d dump me out on the floor, and I didn’t want to spill my Mudslide Martini—with a few rude pokes to my backside as a result especially from the "Peanut," middle-left on the flyer, composed of ceramic tiles grouted over high-density foam, and "Wired Basket Bench," lower-left.

Our bench viewing pleasure was enhanced by food, beverage and entertainment—a trio including singer, bass and accordion. I love events where handsome waiters pass around little trays of delicious doodads. After the free-flowing wine had had enough time to loosen the bidders’ purse strings, Larry Taylor Auctioneer, Inc. began the action. I hadn’t heard an auctioneer since I was a teenager living in Missouri. Those auctions were of cattle or of household goods after someone had died, though, not works of art. Quite a difference, but Mr. Taylor did admirably reproduce the exciting singsong I recall. I carefully hid the large number I’d been given when I arrived, didn’t want to accidentally bid, and it was a good thing, too, as one bench brought $5,500—"Edith Piaf," lower-right on the flyer. I tried to follow the flash of the numbers as the bidding went on to see just what someone looked like who could afford to pay thousands of dollars for a bench. Even the $50 price of admission was more than most of my friends would be willing to spring for. Mr. Thurnau had given me one of his artist’s comp. tickets, or I probably wouldn’t have been there, either. Two other benches brought $3,000 each, "Cedar Log Bench," upper-left, and "Cocoon," not pictured, the one I though I might fall out of.

Altogether, Benches at Bumbershoot raised $23,700 for parks. Not a bad evening's work. Of course, the artists and organizers spent hours and hours preparing. I’m extremely thankful for Seattle’s generosity in supporting our park treasures. Friends of Hicks Lake hopes to use our share of the money to go toward a floating fountain/aeration system to add oxygen to the lake. Since its inception in 2000, the Starbucks Neighborhood Parks Program has donated $2.4 million towards improving 104 local parks in King, Pierce and Snohomish counties. The coffee giant provides grants to volunteer organizations to restore and revitalize parks, so if you’re a member of such a group, you should check it out at Along with a healthy dose of advertising, of course.

Friday, September 01, 2006


I went to an exhibit of Henry Darger's work at the Frye Art Museum in Seattle last week. He was an extraordinary man, not always in a good way, but definitely not your average bear.
Darger apparently never shared his work with the public. When the artist died in 1973 in Chicago, his landlord, Nathan Lerner, found stacks of diaries, drawings, weather journals, an eight-volume autobiography and a 15,145-page novel in words and pictures titled The Story of the Vivian Girls, In What is Known as the Realms of the Unreal, of the Glandeco-Angelinian War Storm, Caused by the Child Slave Rebellion. Darger was a recluse who worked away at his writing and paintings for decades. I don't know if that is a monument to artistic passion or a testimony to an appallingly lonely life. Along with the art were collections of old newspapers and magazines, bits of string saved for bundling his manuscripts and a miscellany of other debris. It seems a small miracle that the landlord recognized the value of piles of what many would have thought of as garbage, perhaps because he was a photographer himself.

The paintings are quite beautiful but often disturbing in subject matter. Some of the larger ones are pieced together in long scrolls with many images of violence against little girls--strangling being one of the more popular. It crossed my mind that he might have painted what he knew--a serial killer who got away with it--but in reading about his life I came across nothing to suggest that could be true. You can't view the drawings without noting that a great many of the girls have small penises. Some say the girls have penises because they're empowered princesses, some think they're Darger's emotional surrogates and some speculate that he never learned the anatomical difference between boys and girls. Who knows?

What I find more interesting is the whole idea of working for a lifetime without recognition. In our time of celebrities, creative and not-so-creative people--artists, writers, actors, musicians, athletes, newscasters, politicians, your next-door neighbor--all compete madly for attention with press releases, Web sites, blogs, sound bites, sky writing. Look at me, look at me! (Look at me at Would I continue writing if I thought no one would ever read a single word I wrote? I don't think so.

My daughter and I often bemoan the fact that an artist has to be a businessperson if she is to have any chance of making a living with her work. At her university art students often major in business. You have to be very skilled at saying "look at me" if you are to succeed in a creative field. So sad.

I wonder if Henry Darger would have posted on a blog if he'd had the technology available to him. It's probably a good thing he never had the opportunity. He might never have had the time to write about the Vivian Girls.