How I Spent My Winter Vacation

January 6, 2024

Happy New Year 2024! It’s been a minute, hasn’t it?

I hope everyone had a good Christmas and New Year holiday.  An opportunity to be with family, friends, and recharge the batteries.

My family and I went back to Seattle, for the first time in just over 10 years. TEN YEARS, away from the area that uncovered my strengths and made me fully who I am. As my wife will tell you, it’s where I found my people: folks who, like me, will strike up long conversations with you in the grocery store or a queue. Because it’s Winter, I lived in my parka and various woolen pullovers. We got an AirBNB in West Seattle, five blocks from our old house and allowed us to visit many old haunts, fave restaurants and coffee places, Alki Beach (Seattle’s version of Venice Beach), etc. We always referred to West Seattle as “Seattle’s Brooklyn,” because you have to cross a bridge to get to it.

I’d been up in the Pacific Northwest in early 2023 in the Tri-Cities briefly, and that perhaps created a little tug to go back up with the family, walk the Puget Sound shoreline, smell the fir, cedars and salty air. Plus, Miss P is interested in the University of Washington (my former employer! Go Huskies!), so it provided a good excuse. Many thanks to our friends, Donna, Raman, Asha, and Dillon for taking time to be our tour guides one sunny afternoon.

With Christmas and scheduling, there was not enough time to see everyone (and a great many have scattered to the four winds), but it was still great. Much like John Keister of Seattle’s vaunted sketch comedy show “Almost Live!” has said, it seemed like we spent a lot of time commenting about stuff that’s gone, as the city has grown and changed.

One of my all-time favorite quotes is from William Gibson, the author known among other things as inventor of the term cyberspace.  He said: 

“The future is already here; it’s just not evenly distributed.”

I think that all the time when I’m in Seattle — which thanks to high-tech investment has always appeared a few years ahead. In 23 years, Seattle has gone from 22nd biggest in the nation to 15th.   They’ve done this by building high-quality housing density into their city.  For example, in our old neighborhood of West Seattle, there are lots more vertical apartments and condos, which are easier to accept in a Pacific Rim city that is bounded by water and mountains. 

Yes, that meant that the old West Seattle Buick dealership and other homey old-time places are gone; replaced by 5-story retail/residential mixes, with a Whole Foods and a Trader Joe’s.

In Seattle, there’s no endless expanse to build suburbs farther and farther out.  Bad traffic on the Interstates (again, they can’t build more due to water and mountains) is a disincentive to driving long distances in a car from an “affordable” free-standing home 60+ miles away.  So, they build up – everyone gets a piece of a view that way.  It also makes mass transit easier to justify.  A friend who works at Microsoft actually walks to work on the rare days when he has to go in for meetings and hasn’t replaced his old car.

I’ve followed Seattle’s development forever, and in the years since we’ve lived there it was nice to experience the results of the new Highway 99 tunnel, which has let the downtown reconnect to the water’s edge, without being bisected by an elevated highway. Shopkeepers I talked to at Pike Place Market (see Paragraph 2 above) told me of changes that are underway, which will add more space and upper-level residences just down the hill from the market, and let people freely walk from the piers to the shops.

When we sold our house there in 2000 (a BIG mistake in hindsight), we knew that the city planning overlay was to put 4-5 story buildings down on California Street, 5 blocks down the hill from us.  Now they are there, don’t block the view of the water or the Olympic Mountains, and our great little “1950s suburban downtown” doesn’t appear to suffer.  The increased density means a more vibrant city, with walkable neighborhoods.

Driving around town I noticed TONS more electric cars: lots of Teslas, Rivians, and Nissan LEAFs were the ones I could pick out. With gas at $5.11 per gallon, it appears that they’ve done a good job of building out charging infrastructure. The “new to us” parking garages at the UVillage shopping area both have charging areas, and I assume lots of folks charge at home, like my daughter does with her LEAF in Tulsa.

Contrary to popular belief, there are sunny days in Seattle in the winter, and we saw lots of homes with photovoltaic panels, oriented towards the south and the Sun.

I’ve also often said that I used to overhear the smartest conversations just walking around Seattle, and that remains the case.  Over 60% of the population has bachelor’s degrees, and 27% of them have advanced degrees, as befits the home of Microsoft, Amazon, Zillow, Tableau, and many other high tech businesses.  From physics to computer science to business, there’s a lot of fascinating chatter if you just eavesdrop…

When we visited Florence, Italy back in 1999, one of our tour guides mused about the energy and vitality that Florence had in the Renaissance period. He said: “Imagine going to the market to buy bread and running into Da Vinci, or Michaelangelo — knowing that the wealth of Big Pharma of the age (the Medici Family) were funding great works that enhanced the prestige of the city.” Driving around Seattle feels like that: knowing that so many spinoffs from the DotCom era have remade the city with new structures and vitality.

To be sure, all cities have problems, and friends had warned me about Seattle’s homeless population. This is a reality for all cities — since I office near downtown Tulsa, I see it daily. It’s sad and depressing to be sure, and this led to reading articles about how San Francisco’s homeless policy pendulum is perhaps starting to swing back towards properly funding mental health needs, and criminalizing risky behaviors that they’ve ignored for many years. Let’s hope Seattle takes these steps as best-of-breed solutions develop.

All in all, a good trip and opportunity for family time in new/old places.

Over the last couple of years, almost all of our trips have had a component of college search in them, and this was no different, except that since we knew the area it wasn’t so frenetic. We took the time to enjoy and savor the surroundings and each other’s company, which is as it should be.

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