To bastardize Tolstoy, sunny families are all alike; every rainy family is rainy in its own way. In 1978, my family made a sudden, unexpected move from Westchester County, New York, here to Seattle. My dad may or may not have had a nervous breakdown; results are inconclusive, and now that he’s been dead for six years, there’s really no dragging it out of him any more. But we piled into a couple of cars that June and convoyed across America with a wayward alcoholic moving man, ending up in the remote, wet hideaway that was Seattle. My father was born in Seattle - on a fluke, while his parents were traveling, and my mom lived in Seattle for ten years after she moved here from Finland in 1952. I really don’t know why we moved here so fast, though I have some ideas. There was some yelling and there were some hushed conversations, and I think a good way to describe my dad in general, but particularly then, would be emotionally sunburned. So Seattle was going to be a balm for whatever it was. That there’s so much mystery around the nature and circumstance of his maybe-breakdown seems fitting for our conversation tonight about the rain. Rain is nothing if not discreet. It pulls a veil down from the sky, affords some kind of essential privacy, takes the show inside. Seattle was a balm for my dad, he embraced its muddy weirdness, and the place suited us in some fundamental way.
I want to go back to my opening statement about sunny families and rainy families. There are more than two kinds of families, of course, but let’s embrace some easy duality for a minute and say there aren’t. There are two kinds of families. Sunny families and rainy families. Sunny families write annual Christmas letters. Scratch a jock and find a sunny family. All Christian families are certainly not sunny, but all sunny families are, in my world, Christian. I’m not saying that sunny families are happy families, either. And I’m not saying that rainy families are sad. I’m saying that sunny families are yang families and rainy families are yin. Yang is active, positive, masculine, it’s hot, dry, Western, sun. It’s a Mountain Dew commercial. Yin is passive or receptive, negative, feminine, cold, wet, Eastern, moon. A Midol commercial, if you will. Sunny families are high-achieving. Rainy families embrace process, or failure. Sunny families conduct business. Rainy families go into art or academia. Sunny families are tan. Rainy families are wan. Sunny families are normal. Rainy families are weird.
A year after we moved here from New York, I enrolled in a weird little private school, and one thickly overcast day we took a field trip to Ivar’s Salmon House. We sat at a long table underneath a canoe, and ate cornbread in the low, warm, light, and listened to stories about the Native American tribes that lived here before us: the Nooksack, the Makah, the Elwah, the Chinook. It was great. Contrast that with the field trip our school in Port Chester made to a hamburger bun factory, where we watched white dough being poured into machines and turned into hamburger buns and that was that and only right this moment am I like what the hell? A hamburger bun factory? Whose idea was that? There’s a metaphor sitting right there but I don’t feel like I need to go and get it. We were all given a bag of hamburger buns. My family was vegetarian, and my parents never bought white bread, so we had some thrillingly decadent PB and J’s for a few days, and that was the upshot of that field trip. Anyway, sitting at that table at Ivar’s eating cornbread while the rain came down outside and we could see Queen Anne hill tucked in so closely near us, I pictured the hillsides stripped of houses and imagined the Native Americans moving around in their black and red and white wool cloaks, and the whole thing was so cozy and weird and indulgent for a school day. The kind of thing that the rain allows.
My dad was in no way an outdoorsy guy. He was a Harvard guy, a science-fiction books and suspenders guy. He was also a cross-dressing guy but I didn’t know that when I was growing up. There’s the rain again, with its discretion, and what it allows. So yes, he wasn’t outdoorsy, but when we moved here, he became an avid mushroom hunter. Not those kinds of mushrooms, no. He wasn’t a hippie. My family was weird, but we were also straightlaced. No, he joined the Puget Sound Mycological Society and became this crazily enthusiastic mushroom hunter, taking day trips to the Cascades to tromp in the wet woods looking for chanterelles and morels and matsutakes. He came home happy and exhausted, and filled hot frying pans with butter, and the horrible-to-me-then smell of sizzling, buttery mushroom would infiltrate the house and I would go and hide gasping in the back of my closet holding a shirt over my face. My closet was lined with bare wood and had a little light bulb, and I could fit all the way into the corner, which had a low ledge meant for shoes which was great for sitting, privately. The indoors of the indoors. Nooks and crannies, best explored while it rains.
We also had a huge basement in our house, which was decorated hilariously like a brothel when we moved in. It had red flocked satiny wallpaper and red carpeting and a red leather bar with old-timey newspaper underneath the glass. The ceiling was rimmed with bare-bulbed theater-lights, like you see in dressing rooms, but on a dimmer switch. The basement was lined with books, hundreds and hundreds, possibly thousands of books. My favorites were the sexy ones scattered here and there. They varied in tone. You had your sort of Victorian, Lady's Chatterley's Lover kinds of things, and then you had - and I went back and back to this one - your little paperbacks of goofy, naughty cartoons. The one I’m thinking of was called The Infernal Revenue Service, and it was cartoon after cartoon of housewives ripping off their blouses to reveal their bouncy, comic-strippy boobs in the hopes of having their taxes forgiven by nerdy, corrupt IRS agents. That was in the basement, and my dad’s office was in the basement, and his desk was in his office, and in his desk drawer one afternoon I found a half-slip and two little rubbery cup things that looked like peachy fake caps of mushrooms that in retrospect I realize could fit into a bra to create breasts of ones own. But I had no context for these items when I saw them there, at age 9 or 10, and so I just blankly accepted them. Dads and their desk drawers. Grownups and their widgets and wodgets.
There were so many places to hide in our basement, and so many things to hide. I had no little boy friends to play doctor with me so the neighbor girls were recruited to take the part of Hawkeye Pierce or Rhett Butler or Basil Fawlty - yeah, there was an episode of Fawlty Towers that I found so unbearably sexy, where Basil Fawlty is getting a room ready for this beautiful buxom blonde woman in a turquoise shirt, and the power was out, somehow, maybe, and Basil Fawlty went around a corner to, I don’t know, check a fuse or something, and the blonde woman was leaning up against the light switch, and Basil Fawlty reached around to check the switch and ended up accidentally feeling her breast. I feel like he’d also somehow dipped his hand in black paint, so he left his shameful, indelible handprint on the lady’s bosom. Anyway, I thought it was hot. I could have watched that moment a million zillion times. So I recruited the neighbor girls to make out with me and threaten me with IRS penalties and make me stand buxomly and vulnerably in front of the lightswitch. We took turns being the boy, which was a necessary penance for the titillating reward of being the girl. These were rainy games, yin games, private games, games you didn’t play out on the lawn. Nothing we did in our household was fodder for any kind of Christmas letter.
A couple of days ago I took my son, Finn, who’s almost five, to a birthday party with a Pirates and Mermaids theme. Finn was worried about going to the party but didn’t really want to say why at first, until it finally came out that the problem was that he didn’t want to be forced to be a pirate. If he was going to be anything, he wanted to be a mermaid. Finn is an exquisitely beautiful little fella who likes to dress up in saris and pretend to be Shiva, the Hindu God of Destruction, who he insists is a girl. When he told me that he felt good about going to the party if he got to be a mermaid, I felt a storm of pride and fear and fierce protectiveness gather in my gut. Hell yes, you can be a mermaid, angel, and woe betide anyone who looks at you askance through sunny glasses. Shiva’s a baby kitten who rains down fucking Hershey kisses compared to what they’d see coming out of your mama. At the same time, I knew it would be all right, because this is Seattle.
And that’s what I love about my town, though I got here nine - or a hundred - years too late to be a native. The rain says, do what you want. Stay inside today. No one is watching. Or screw it. Come outside. By now it’s been raining here so long that no one cares. There are no competitions. There are no awards. There are no penalties. We’re not living to pad a Christmas letter. Do your thing. Indulge it. Fly your rainbow Shiva freak flag. Grow into the little wild mushroom that you are.