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My Skinner Box

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When you leave the house for a journey or an errand, don’t turn back if you forgot something. If you do have to turn back, sit down before you start again.

Walking on the sidewalk in downtown Fall City, I avoided cracks in the cement. The roots of the maples tilted the stones. Some roots cracked the cement. Thick grass grew through the gap. “Step on a crack, break your momma’s back,” my brother said.

I stepped on the crack.

“I’m going to tell her,” he said. I wanted not to believe these things. Like Heaven, they seemed to me a scam.

At school, they talked about a figure named Jesus and God. “Where do they live?” I asked. “Have you ever seen them.”

“They live in Heaven.”

My father said that heaven was a scam. It was a way of making you do stuff that other people wanted you to do on Earth. We had pets that had died, and they were gone. We buried our cat Shorty George who ran into the rim of the Nova’s rear tire when he was trying to run across the street behind the car. He lay on the side of the road, not in Heaven, but on Earth dead, and whatever had been inside of them was gone, like a toy with a battery that had run out of power, like the toaster when it was unplugged, like the fridge when the power lines went down. Dead and without light or burning filaments or the smell of toast crumbs getting burnt even more.

“Don’t walk under ladders,” my father said. So I walked under ladders.

If we got out of bed on the wrong side, then our day would be filled with bad luck. We weren’t supposed to believe in Heaven, but we were supposed to believe in luck.

I tripped on a deadfall in the forest following my dad down to the pasture. “Go back and walk over that again.”

“I’m already on this side,” I said.

He looked at me. “It’s bad luck,” he said. “Fix it.”

Our world was filled with signs of doom and confirmation of our general bad luck, our damnation, our isolation from grace. My striped t-shirt had a perpetual spaghetti stain brown like the remnants of a bullet hole that had shot through me. I would never be clean and radiant and walking lightly through the world.

Even when I found a penny on the asphalt outside of the dinner called The Other Place, luck could be good or bad. We had two diners in town. One was named Martinelli’s like the golden bottles of sparkling apple juice in glass bottles shaped like apples. The other was not that place. A penny was a dreadful event on the asphalt, dry, but inches from the mud puddle with unfurling cigarette butts and the ribbons of fleshy night crawlers who had wriggled out of the cracks.

If it was heads up, bad luck. Worse luck. I didn’t believe in luck. If I didn’t get Heaven, but only had Hell, then I didn’t want luck good or bad. I would step on cracks, walk under ladders, shatter mirrors, always wake upon the wrong side of bed. It didn’t matter did it.

But the penny was heads up. Good luck. I could see the reflection of the cumulus clouds in the mud puddle. The day was going to go my way.

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Down Comes the Other Leg

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The Bogeyman, Slender Man, or Struwwelpeter

My seventeen year old daughter Riley said something horrifying to her three year old cousin, Ila. Riley said that if Ila wandered away from where they were playing outside, a man who would find her and user bones as blocks.

“You said that?” my wife asked. “Why would you say that?”

Riley was confused that we were horrified. “Did anyone hear you say that?” my wife asked.

It struck us as both a weird thing to say to a child, and yet it was the kind of thing that people in my family said to their children. It was the kind of thing adults have always said to children. These things had been said to me. And in hearing her say it, I wondered if I had said similar things to my daughter? Why wouldn’t I have? Riley seemed to think this is what you do with children: Scare the hell out of them. You tell them about the Bogeyman, Slender Man, or Struwwelpeter. You engage in ambient child abuse through mythology.

Riley seemed confused. She said she had been told as a child if she didn’t behave a man would come and put her into a hole in his back. She said this in a matter of fact way. She had been told this, and we tell kids that monstrous things will happen to them at the hands of supernatural forces because that is what happens when you misbehave.

Yet what Riley had said about the man using Ila’s bones as blocks was clearly made up on the spot. Why would she make something like this up on the spot? Who told tell her a story about a man with a hole in his back that would imprison children in his body cavity if they did bad things?

Riley said that was us. It was some adult. We had told her this. My wife said,  “I didn’t say anything like this.”

In the moment of round robin denial, I said, “I didn’t say something like that. It’s horrifying.” But later I thought about it. Had I? I mean, I could have. Before I had, had a child I had a very fuzzy idea of what it meant to be a child. My own parents felt that childhood was a dangerous myth that put young people in danger. In their world, a child was just an adult who as three years old. Growing up, I had never seen the kind of nurturing, protective, (maybe too-protective) attitude that parents had toward child and even the concept of childhood. The idea that something like Free Range Children needed to exist was absurd where I grew up. We were told to get out from under foot. Get out of the house and play. If we stuck around the house, we ended up doing chores. I was expected to turn up at dusk.

When my daughter was born, my attitude about childhood and adulthood changed because I was forced to examine what my attitudes even were. Part of this was due to the parenting classes offered through my Health Co Op that taught a form of parenting called attachment parenting, an approach used by Dr. Sears. Sears promoted attentive engagement with your child and close physical contact. Anticipate your child’s needs and provide a nurturing ting safe environment for the child to gain the confidence their needs would be met, and they were fundamentally safe. His approach seemed very logical. My parents practiced, I guess, a kind of proximity parenting, and a discipline inspired as much by Max Ernst as John B. Watson’s Behaviorism. Even though they were self-professed hippies, they weren’t into Dr. Spock. They were in the barn. I was in the barn. There was food in the pantry and the orchard. I could eat if I was hungry. I was raised in the barn.

As soon as my daughter was born, this changed. She had not existed. Then she was a kind of diaphanous figure in the amniotic void of an ultrasound in the physical reality of my wife’s womb. It took her nine months to grow a person inside of her body. The unreality of pregnancy turned very real. When our daughter came out into the world, she was coated in fluid, her eyes were closed, and she needed everything short of her own capacity to pump blood through her heart and air through her lungs. Anything short of nurture from that point forward seemed cruel. I was quick to yield completely to the myths of childhood, to the social contract, to the demands of Dr. Sears, to the responsibilities of adulthood and at times the crushing conformity that is required by a parent who needs to provide medical care, nutritious food, opportunity to their child. Nine months was just the warm up to the decades required.

Why then tell a small person who is still sorting out that airplanes fly, clouds are fluffy, and so that there are also men who kill you and use your bones for play things? Why tell them men would place your entire body into their bodily cavities? Who had told my daughter this disgusting and horrifying lie? This freaky fairy tale?

It was likely a someone from my side of the family. And among my side of the family it was likely a Briggs. My mother’s side of the family made up psychological torments, but only in the lines of what was materially possible. My father, however, would tell an old story he had heard on a Alfred Hitchcock radio show as a child about a fireplace in a cabin in the woods. A travel comes into the cabin and builds a fire. As he is warming myself by then fire, a voice calls out, “down comes the leg,” and then there was a leg dancing in the fire. And then a voice calls out, “downs come the other leg!” This became a catch phrase when I was growing up, “Down comes the other leg!” This would be the alarm when something surreal in real life was happening, which in my father’s world was often the case. During the cluster of the story the entire body comes down with the climax happening when “Down comes the head!”

There was in my father’s family a number of malevolent figures that my dad and uncle would talk about. That is the underpinnings of these figures were grossly allegorical and the crude allegory made them approachable as fantasy figures. We could just as easily make up own figures. (And we did later with figures like the Main in Plaid). Yet a the time I first heard of the Pernicorn or even the Sasquatch they seemed as real as any other thing adults told me.

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A figure called Ngurp, that is is similiar to the Pernicorn, in my uncle’s journal.

For a six year old, they were no less real than other figures, such as Santa Claus, The Easter Bunny, Jack Frost, bobcats, bears, and other spirits and animals in the forest. These figures for as long as I could remember as I could remember where balanced between myth and reality. The question of their existence was part of their existence. They were at once musical and cynical, at once a product of the imagination and a product of critical inquiry.

These figures seemed at once made up and also like they have come form something or meant more than just pure whimsy. Whimsy in my father’s family was used as a kind of weapon. This is one of the comforts of Trout Mask Replica to me. Captain Beefheart’s masterpiece is partly a masterpiece because it embodies the drunk uncle on acid and PCP aesthetic that my father and uncle delighted in when I was a child in Snoqualmie in the 1970s. (This is aesthetic is not isolated to the Snoqualime in the 1970s.) There is in that album a sequence where Beefheart and his cohorts record their interactions with some relatively straight neighbors during the cult like period of rehearsing the album. “It’s a bush recording. We’re out recording the bush.”

Hair Pie: Bake 1

Girl: We just moved in around here. We heard you play, so we decided we’d come up and find out who it was

Captain Beefheart: O, ho, yes. Captain Beefheart and his Magic Band.

Boy: Really?

Captain Beefheart: Yeah

Captain Beefheart: Where did you move here from?

Girl: Oh, just from–

Boy: Reseda

Girl: Yeah

Captain Beefheart: Reseda?

Girl: Yeah

Captain Beefheart: She’s nice…

Captain Beefheart: What do you think?

Visitors together: Sounds good.

Captain Beefheart: It’s a bush recording. We’re out recording the bush. Name of the composition is “Mea… Neon Meat Dream of an Octafish.”

Boy: Hum

Girl: Um

Captain Beefheart: No! It’s: ‘Hair Pie’

Girl: Looks you don’t find the drummer now.

Boy: Huh!

For some reason we make up bogeyman for our children. I don’t know if is the children that need them however.

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Reports of an active shooter on the Highline College campus near my house

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With so many weapons, why aren’t we safe?

At 8:55 a.m. on Friday, February 16th 2018 my daughter, a high school junior in the Running Start Program, going to a college campus in Des Moines near our home, sent our family’s ongoing group chat called Froggy Johnson the screenshot of school alert she received on her phone.

“We have reports of gunfire on campus. Please lockdown all offices and classrooms until further notice. This message was approved for delivery to all students by the office of the Vice President for Administration under the Highline Student Email Policy.”

A barrage of messages (nine on my phone in nine seconds) piled up as my wife and daughter talked about where she was, what was going on, what my daughter was hearing. I looked down at my phone as it began to ping ten, fifteen messages. At first, I thought my daughter who is a pretty new driver had gotten into a fender bender or was having engine trouble. Instead, it was the report of an active shooter on her college campus.

As I caught up and read that she was in her room, that the doors to the room were locked, and that the police were coming, my first thought was she is probably safe. And let me wait and see before I invest any emotional urgency in this event that is beyond my daughter’s control much less anyone in her classroom’s control.

This is not the first lockdown my daughter has experienced. Every year since she was in grade school, her school has had lockdown events. There have been people on the campus with weapons. lockdown. There have been threats that someone was going to come to school and shoot people. lockdown. There was a massive riot between rival groups at the school. lockdown. The lockdowns are so routine that the fear of armed killers is a persistent part of the environment, like global warming, like a nuclear holocaust, like mass plagues, like ambient drug trafficking violence, like an e-Coli outbreak.

Life is not that dangerous, unless it is.

I began to follow #HighlineCollege on Twitter because it seemed to be the only aggregate source of immediate information about the event. Mostly, it was kids rightly scared out of their minds tweeting existential shout-outs to the void.

Updates kept rolling as the police began to respond. My wife heard the roar of a fleet of police cars and firetrucks racing up Pacific Highway South. SWAT Teams arrived. A woman with asthma had an attack. She and another person were taken to the hospital.

As the SWAT teams evacuated kids, they took them across the street to the Midway Lowe’s, and then let them go.

A traffic jam snarled the streets hours after the lockdown started. Traumatized kids left school. The college canceled classes for the rest of the day.

Despite someone tweeting an image of a white guy with a shotgun, it was unclear in the aftermath what had prompted the lockdown. It may have been fireworks. Chinese New Year is coming up, and so some people have fireworks. No one really knows what happened. But at the same time, no one is saying “Never Cry, Wolf.” We are saying about this event, cry wolf often and loud because there are people with guns, typically young white men with AR-15s, and the lockdown is part of this ritual.

Charles Mudede at The Stranger wondered why our society continues to allow our children to be murdered in our schools in his post, Mass Shootings Reveal America Is a Civilization That’s Reverted to Ritual Sacrifice. This is the same question the kids hunkered down in class were asking. “Why do I have to put up with this threat to my life just because I want to go to school? Why are my parents allowing us to be killed?”

The kids at Highline weren’t killed on February 16th.

After the danger had passed, my daughter came home and did her homework and played her video games. I ruminated on the news at work, reminding myself that there was nothing I could do about it. Even writing about it, like this, will do nothing.

After the danger had passed, I kept working. I work as a technical writer. I had a meeting with a man who didn’t want to talk me. He was confused about why I wanted to talk to him. I was not articulate enough to help him understand why I wanted to talk to him. I wanted to talk to him about something I was writing, and how this thing I was writing wasn’t making sense to me. I was told he could make sense of it.

He paced back and forth and said about this document I was working on, “I can’t tell you because there is too much wrong with it.”

I’m a writer. There is an idea that writers are supposed to somehow get at the truth of things. Journalists have their methods. Fiction writers have their methods. Technical writers have their methods. But the act of looking for the truth seems increasingly like Schrödinger’s cat.

It helps to know that the cat is dead. It helps to know if an assertion is false. From there you can proceed toward the truth. Even saying what is wrong with something is a movement toward the truth.

I believe our society knows this. We know there are false things and there are true things. Rituals are designed to make the untrue, true. Charles Mudede calls our society a civilization. Maybe our society is a civilization. Or maybe it is a post-civilization. I believe civilizations are based on conventions, just as the dictionary says — “an advanced state of social development, e.g., with complex legal and political and religious organizations.” But in the mode of a post-civilization, people would think that my relying on a dictionary was as naive as relying on the will of a society to protect the truth or its children.

We know one fact about weapons in our country. What we are currently doing is killing people.

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No Outlet

No Outlet

Back of a stop sign at Saltwater State Park in Des Moines, Washington in the winter of 2017.

I pass this sign when I walk from my house to the beach. It is a stop sign on the way from my house toward the beach. I have never stopped walking when I passed this stop sign. On the way back from the beach, I pass the sign and enter the region that is here declared as no outlet, a set of dead ends and cut-de-sacs, and I walk a trail that leads into the forest. I pass along this trail through the forest and have a choice of where I would like to exit. I can pass along behind a row of houses along a muddy track and come out onto a paved cul-de-sac in a development of houses built in the mid-1960s. Or, I can walk along a road that ends in a gate that has never been open, and then walk alongside the road on a shoulder that is not really meant to hold pedestrians. Blackberries hang from the maple trees and a fence. Or, I can walk up to a set of bridges that cross over the canyons where the paves roads end and then the creek cuts through narrow gullies that finger out into the subdivisions built along Pacific Highway South.

There is clearly an outlet at this point even though the sign declares to anyone paying attention that there isn’t one. I routinely ignore the warning labels and laws with their clearly stated does and don’ts and I don’t know at what point in growing up I learned then and at what point I learned that I should not follow them. Continue Reading →

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The Fence Maker by Matt Briggs in Necessary Fiction

The Fence Maker began to punch up the tall fences before 1980, we are plenty sure. The fences stood twelve feet tall. The height was as regular as a regulation.

 — Necessary Fiction

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Mowing the Lawn

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I am aware though after I mow my lawn in a strange suburban pride in having a neat and tidy lawn.

I am aware though, after I mow my lawn, in a strange suburban pride in having a neat and tidy space to call my own.

I mowed the lawn yesterday. This morning I’m looking out on the bluish early morning light and seeing the edged and smooth and somewhat green velvety texture of the lawn coated with early morning dew. There are drops in the scraggly and mostly dead rose bush. I like the collapsing and tangled and probably unhealthy rose bush and don’t want to trim it, but the lawn itself is something I feel a degree of suburban energy around. I don’t even know know how to phrase this. I didn’t have a lawn when I lived in an apartment while going to college. In fact the entire building didn’t have a lawn. It had a hedge of bamboo where raccoons would hide while migrating from Lake Union to Green Lake. There were planters for the Japanese maple trees along the street. But otherwise the building was free of vegetation even though it was under very tall city trees that left leafy, cool shadows on the side of the hill in the Spring and Summer. But after this I lived in houses on city lots with tiny lawns that required mowing and I would kept these patches of grass trimmed and short. It would take less half an hour and I would be done. I didn’t think much about the lawn or lawn care or mowing lawns in these rental houses. We lived for a time in a house north of the city, and the previous tenant had left the back lawn to grow. He’d had a bon fire in the middle of the grass that had gone to seed for several generations leaving clumps of golden straw and a brown morass of old seed pods. I used a weed whacker to cut the grass down to a manageable size and then began to cut the grass and after a season the grass was a plush bed of grass and the old fire-pit disappeared into the soft bed. It calmed me, but it wasn’t until I bought a house in the algae coated suburbs filled with cul-de-sacs, pastures holding drainage ponds, and houses with somewhat vast overgrown yards that I became the owner of my own bit of managed lawn. Continue Reading →

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Earth vs Space

The Blue Marble is a famous photograph of the Earth, taken on December 7, 1972, by the crew of the Apollo 17 spacecraft, at a distance of about 45,000 kilometers (28,000 miles). It is one of the most iconic, and among the most widely distributed images in human history. It is more than a symbol of globalism; it is the photograph of globalism.

The Blue Marble is a famous photograph of the Earth, taken on December 7, 1972, by the crew of the Apollo 17 spacecraft, at a distance of about 45,000 kilometers (28,000 miles). It is one of the most iconic, and among the most widely distributed images in human history. It is more than a symbol of globalism; it is the photograph of globalism.

Putin is now the US’s Daddy: Putin said in his Op Ed in the New York Times a while ago, “It is extremely dangerous to encourage people to see themselves as exceptional, whatever the motivation.” I agree the American Exceptionalism and the American Dream are both really dangerous (and heave been myths that have hammered the US middle class/working class in the last three decades.) Russia hasn’t needed myths to suppress their middle class/working class what with purges and the Gulag, however. But whose counting? We have vast prison systems; they have vast prison systems. We have the Russian Mafia; They have the Russian Mafia. We are essentially the same place. When I go for a walk on Sunday at the pier, I am surrounded by Russian couples.

I think it is more dangerous that we see ourselves as “The West” and we see Russia and Asia as “The East.”

It is retrograde to use “The East” as something to define ourselves. Edward Said’s book Orientalism is really handy in breaking down the reductive trick of balancing West against East. Not only is East/West really old as a set an artificial world-view dichotomy, it also serves no purpose in Globalism aside from setting up seating charts, resource distribution schedules, and other administrative tasks. Continue Reading →

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Ann Rule and the Green River Killer

Not a single victim wore shoes like this; they tended to wear tennis shoes.

Not a single victim wore shoes like this; the dead tend to wear tennis shoes.

I read Green River, Running Red by Ann Rule book a while ago.  The book left me a lot of questions. I was puzzled by Ann Rule’s own handling of her role in the events. There is a meta aspect to the story where as the author of the story, she considers that doesn’t have the chops to handle, nor does the entire True Crime genre have the chops to handle Gary Ridgeway’s story and the nearly epidemiological causes of the environment that gave rise to Ridgeway, the teen age runaways, and the initial reluctance of the law enforcement and community to do anything about it. Ridgeway himself was aware of his future fame as the Green River Killer and was partly a serial killer fan boy. He anticipated his notoriety. In that sense, then, Ann Rule, contributed to his crimes. She doesn’t have the answer to that, and she does focus the narrative on the stories of the children who ended up murdered by Ridgeway.

One of the puzzles of Ridgway’s story is how he settled down with his third wife and moved to Auburn and essentially stopped killing because of his happy home life. I can imagine Rule interviewing his third wife and asking about the strange bumps on the Green River Killer’s penis. Did you notice any bumps? It is this sort of tasteless, lurid, and trivial that is essential to the True Crime genre. The first season of HBOs True Detective works so well because Matthew McConaughey’s Rust Cohle manages to infuse the closer observation of the trivial with existential angst; his rambling autodidactic musing are rooted in the trivial, and in turn the trivial is lifted and connected to the larger movements of a fictional serial killer. Rule however struggles with the banal killings of a killer who is not captured partly because the task force didn’t take Ridgeway seriously as a possible killer: he was too stupid, too ordinary. And this ends up being the enigma at the center of the narrative of Green River, Running Red, the killings are routine for the killer. Ridgeway would sometimes kill while out running an errand. At one point he picks up a victim with his young son in his truck, drives to a vacant lot off of Pacific Highway, has sex with and kills his victim, and then returns to the truck. Continue Reading →

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Signs and Symbols in the Suburbs

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Cottonwood Park on the Frager Road in Kent.

I went for a walk on Saturday on Frager Road and saw a number of signs on symbols that I could only take as harbinger of the year to come. I saw a man under the Veteran’s Driver Overpass riding a BMX bike. He was a middle age man on a child’s bike. He asked me for the time. I didn’t want check my phone, but told him instead I didn’t know the time. I said that I my guess is that it was about 12:30. I figured I’d left the house around noon and I’d been walking for a number of minutes along the Green River. I didn’t want to show my phone. He was grizzled. I couldn’t fell if the bike was his or a bike he had picked up from someone’s back yard. He awkwardly perched on the bike and had to keep it in motion to keep from falling over. With each pedal he had to hunch down. He wore a green rain jacket, a baseball hat, and had a full sized hiking rucksack with a bedroll. After we had our exchange, I wanted to check my guess about the time but I didn’t want to reveal to him that I had lied to him about not being able to check the time, so I briskly walked ahead of him. After about five minutes I looked behind me and he was ambling behind me, walking alongside his bike. So I kept walking briskly and then looked behind me again and there he was still ambling along. He was a very rapid ambler. So I wasn’t able to check the time. There is a metal bridge that crossed the river at the Puget Power Trail. I had this sense then that I needed to cross the water to get past him. I thought maybe he wouldn’t cross the bridge ambling along with his bike, or maybe I had a sense that he couldn’t cross the water like some supernatural creature. When I got to the bridge, I turned to see if he was going to follow me over the bridge, but he’d disappeared somewhere in the cottonwood growing on the banks of an old mill pond. On the Frager Road I try not to walk at dusk. Most of the time I encounter people who are walking their dogs, riding their bicycles in some kind of competitive distance race, or jogging. I encounter people who are headed somewhere and have a purpose. With the salmon run in the fall, men wearing hoodies line the banks of the Green River with their rods propped in the muck and their hands in their pockets. They stare morosely at the turbid water patiently waiting for a salmon to swallow their hook. At dusk, however, I run into men carrying bedrolls who don’t really seem to have anywhere to go. They wander along the side of the river, or wander into the forest. He was gone. I checked my time and it was about 12:45, so I had been very correct. Continue Reading →

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Pattern of Travel in the Space Where I Live

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Boxes and boxes of places.

During the week I don’t leave the routes of my routines through my neighborhood. Everything that happens beyond the limits of those tunnels happens beyond me. An alarm wakes me in the morning against my better judgment. Lately I have been stretching to help me wake in a positive mood. I reach my arms toward the drapes and make a kind of capital V with my arms. I roll my palms toward the sky. I wait for a positive feeling to wash over me, and yet it doesn’t really. Instead I unscramble from the fetal position I was sleeping in during the night and force my arms into a shape until the blood starts to flow and then I am ready to make coffee. I brew coffee while I write. And then I drink it while sitting in the light of a SAD lamp, and continue to write.

The rush of caffeine and10,000 lux wide-spectrum light usually gets me functional enough to take a shower and then drive to the Park & Ride at the Methodist church parking lot across from the Kent park. Every morning the same cars are parked in essentially the same spots. There is some random variation of sequence, but the ingredients of the Toyotas, a Lexus, and several makes of Nissan remains the same. I climb into the bus and issue the driver my OrcaCard which logs the transaction, and later I can find the monotonous row of these times on the Sound Transit web site documenting my toing-and-frowing from work. Continue Reading →

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