The Last Frontier

I have been excited about this trip ever since getting a job interview over a month ago.  Seattle is a destination praised by many.   The ocean, the coffee, the hipster-ness.  Evergreens, KEXP, UDub.  The Grey’s Anatomy connection, the Twilight connection.  People speak of Seattle so highly, I didn’t question whether I would like it.  Of course I would like it.  “You’re European and you used to live on the West Coast, you’ll fit right it.”  I had spent 4.5 years in the San Francisco Bay Area, and driven to Portland once in the I-5 when learning how to drive, but never into Washington.  Seattle: my last frontier.

It was sunny yesterday when I landed.  The guy at the rental car counter asked me where I was going and whether I needed directions.  “It’s sunny, so I’m going outside.”  He nodded.  I hopped in the car, and zoomed over to Discovery Park, driving up 90 right past downtown.  I read in the travel guide that the park opens onto Puget Sound, with views of The Cascade and The Olympic Mountains.  I walked quite past quite a few 30-something moms with tiny tots in three-wheel strollers and Baby Bjorns, fitting the Pacific Northwest fashion bill in their Mountain Hardware lightweight rain shells and SmartWool leggings.  I, on the other hand, was occasioning furrowed brows in my trench coat and knee high boots – I had a sun to chase and no time to change.  However, I quickly got caked in mud getting to the shoreline, so it was the perfect Seattle baptism.

I have discovered lovely places in the last 24 hours, but none have overwhelmed me quite like … the libraries.  I know, it’s odd.  But then again, is it?  Libraries are the keepers of all that we know.  The Suzzallo library at the University of Washington is a gem.  From the outside, it looks like a Gothic chapel, tall and long, complete with stained glass windows.  A sanctuary to 2 million books and countless brilliant minds since 1915.  Inside, the Grand Staircase and the ever imposing Suzzallo reading room, where students quietly type away on their MacBook Pros and TI-89s (remember those?), are architectural treasures.  Tip-toeing around the reading room, I was reminded of my days at Berkeley, steadfastly filling out my anatomy coloring book in the North Reading Room of the Doe Library.  The heavy wooden chairs made a deafening racket every time someone sat down, so much so that I would often stay put longer than intended for fear of disturbing fellow students.  I walked around the stacks of Suzzallo, breathing in old dusty book smells and watching students preparing for final exams.  And I wanted to study.  What is it about academic libraries that sets neurons ablaze?  I loved the energy that filled the library.  On the far side of the library, I found the Research Commons.  A colorful, brightly-lit open space furnished with rolling desk chairs and computer stands.  Groups of students where huddled around laptops, rehearsing group presentations, studying, drawing out complex organic chemistry equilibrium reactions and the phases of mitosis on whiteboards.  I really wanted to take a picture, but there was nowhere for me to hide and snap a quick one.  It’s amazing how well-designed spaces naturally invite people to meet, communicate, and think together.  High Five, UDub, high five indeed.  My academic brain was being tickled just standing there.  And high five to you, Student, who correctly and artistically drew the phases of mitosis.

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Today I went to the Seattle Central Library (SCL), part of the Seattle Public Libraries network.  I had read it was worth peaking at because the facades are made almost entirely of diamond-shaped panes of glass.  Well, it deserve more than a peak.  The SCL is an architectural feat, drenched in natural light – in 50 shades of grey today – and savvily designed.  From the 10th floor landing, one can look straight down at the lobby.  The 9th floor reading room is simply stunning, with rows of communal tables where each seat has its own power strip – rather than four sad outlets needing to be shared – that is cleverly hidden within the table.  Several reading corners with colorful oversized chairs and reading lamps – and plenty of outlets built in the floor! – can be found throughout.  And while you sit there and read/study/meditate/sleep/Youtube, you are under a glass ceiling and surrounded by downtown Seattle high rise.  I sat in one of the oversized chair, charged my phone, read the local paper, curled my feet under me.  Can I live there? Please, please?  There is a cafe and a gift shop.  There are bathrooms.  I could live there.

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I am the book nerd who gets sad when a good book ends.  I love to have piles of books around, even if I haven’t read them, because I might read them and because I need escapes at all times – mind escapes, that is.  I like books to be, well, books.  Printed books.  I have nothing against e-readers and audiobooks, but there is something about the physicality of the printed book.  The feel of the paper and the act of turning the page, perhaps the guilty pleasure of folding a page of corner.  Then there’s knowing you can flip directly to the end in under a second, but you don’t, because you want to be surprised.  I sometimes read the very last sentence of a book – fiction, only –  before I start it.  Very rarely does the very last sentence reveal anything about the plot.  It tends to be a rather simple sentence, one that doesn’t mean much out of context.  I love revisiting the last sentence when I get to the end of the book, with its meaning revealed.

Books are journeys and libraries are travel agencies offering endless destinations.    They are the true last frontier.

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