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THE CITY SOME LOVE TO HATE
September 17th, 2012 by Clark Humphrey

In a publication entitled City Living, you might expect words by and for people who love this city.

But there are also Seattle haters out there.

I know. I’ve seen them.

All the time I’ve been in Seattle (don’t ask), I’ve known two predominant kinds of Seattle haters:

1) White baby-boomers who rant that the city is too big, too loud, too tense, and too full of suspected “gang bangers” (i.e., nonwhite males younger than 40). These folk dream of having a McMansion-sized “cabin” on the Bainbridge shoreline, but would settle for a Skagit County farmhouse.

2) Men and women of prominent ego (of many races, though still usually white) who decree that this hick town doesn’t deserve their obvious greatness.

These denouncers almost always also rant that Seattle fails to sufficiently imitate New York, Los Angeles, and (especially) San Francisco, in criteria ranging from architecture to food.

These folk generally refuse the idea that people in cities other than NY/LA/SF can choose to run a city any differently. All which is not NY/LA/SF, by these folks’ definition, is automatically inferior.

Sometimes, these folk will expect me to casually agree with their putdowns. They’ll ask me what part of the East Coast I’m from. Then, before I can answer, they’ll tell me I obviously agree that this is just a cowtown full of hicks and don’t I want to get my butt back to the civilized world?

I tend to respond that the only thing “eastern” I’m from is the eastern shore of Puget Sound; that Seattle is a fascinating place brimming with ideas and personalities; and that we can do things our own way.

If these folk are still listening, they usually tell me that I’m obviously just kidding. (Which I’m not.)

This is the combination of hubris and willful ignorance depicted in Where’d You Go, Bernadette?, the highly publicized new novel by local transplant (and former Hollywood sitcom writer) Maria Semple.

The title character is a tried and true Seattle hater. She’s also a former elite Los Angeles architect, with a Microsoftie hubby and an above-average teenage daughter (and an outsourced “virtual assistant” in India). She lives a life of wealth and privilege; the daughter goes to an elite private school. The family’s even planning a vacation getaway to Antarctica.

But even with everything money can by, Bernadette’s not happy. And, like many unhappy people, she blames her unhappiness on the world around her.

When Bernadette disappears, as the novel’s title implies, the daughter tries to figure out what happened by reading the mom’s old diaries, letters, and emails.

It’s in these documents that Bernadette says what she might have been too polite to say in public. Particularly among Seattle’s well documented cult of niceness.

Among her complaints: Too many Craftsman bulgalows. Too many Canadians. Too many slow drivers. Too many wild blackberry bushes. Too many neurotic moms. Too many self-congratulatory “progressives.” And way too much politeness.

Or for the short version, this is a city unfit for the presence of someone as obviously superior as Bernadette.

But, to Semple, this attitude is merely a symptom of a larger disorder. It’s a stage in the character becoming estranged from the world in general, then dropping out of sight from even her family.

But in a missive revealed at the novel’s end, she announces a change of heart. Bernadette really loves Seattle after all. She loves the gray-wash winter skies, which “felt like God had lowered a silk parachute over us.”

Semple herself, according to interviews, had also been a Seattle hater. But, like Bernadette, she’s since changed her mind.

Semple says she wouldn’t write Bernadette’s vitriolic Seattle putdowns these days. Semple now loves the place.

Or at least that’s what she says in public.

You know, to be polite.

(Cross-posted with City Living.)


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