Is It Bertha’s Fault?

Viaduct meme

Seattle is digging a BIG tunnel.

When it gets done–assuming it ever does–it will replace a LONG overhead viaduct. The viaduct casts a shadow over prime city waterfront property. It is not a thing of beauty, unless you’re driving on it, and that makes property owners unhappy.

However, several problems have developed with its replacement. A gigantic, expensive tunnelling machine got stuck, hurt its teeth on an old steel pipe used in 2002 for groundwater studies and for some reason, never removed. Then Bertha took sick with a fever, got doctored up, but is still…stuck.

In the meantime, the viaduct has developed noticeable cracks and has to be temporarily closed for repairs years before the tunnel is completed.

Officials say the cracks are the result of settling from an earthquake that occurred 13 years ago. They have nothing whatsoever to do with Bertha, a 58-foot-tall, 7,000-ton boring machine blasting away–before it got stuck, that is–under the ground nearby.

Who knows, maybe they’re right. I hope so.

But my own common sense took my thoughts in a different direction and led me to create my first meme, at the top of this post.



For Whom the School Bell Tolls

school house

Who are Seattle’s kids counting on? demands the oversize glossy color brochure, illustrated with cute kiddie drawings, that arrived in my mailbox today. Renew Seattle School Levies–Vote YES!

The brochure is from Schools First, whose website describes the group as “the campaign organization that works to help pass Seattle School levies.”

Not that passing school levies is a cause that needs much help. They’ve gotten voter support regular as the rain here–including mine–in recession or boomtime. After all, what is more important than education, and who doesn’t want to help kids?

This time,  the school district wants money f0r a variety of things, including building six new schools–at a cost of $42 million per school.

That’s at least 20 percent higher than normal, according to the Seattle Times.

How can a school building cost that much? the Times asks. Larger schools, higher construction costs. (Why?) And then there’s this:

Finally, there are “soft costs,” for planning, design, permitting, taxes and reserves.

Seattle says its soft costs would be 51.75 percent of its construction costs, adding about $14 million.




I have a hard time with soft costs.

And I have a hard time with Magnolia Elementary, a school in my neighborhood that has sat vacant for 20 years and deteriorated so badly that it has lost most of its value and may be beyond repair. If you owned a building, would you let this happen?

If you live in Seattle, you do own it. Your taxes are paying for it, and for several other schools left to rot. Not sold when they were no longer needed, not rented, just left to rot. Now the same people who “managed” them want more money. The old schools are decaying because of their neglect, so they want to build new ones.


Still, I could almost shrug my shoulders and vote Yes anyway, after seeing the pathetic pictures of the speech therapist with no office and the hideous portable classrooms kids have to put up with.

Expensive? Well, why shouldn’t we spend a little more and give our kids nicer-than-average buildings? Too much bureaucracy and “soft costs”? Well, there’s bound to be some waste, nothing is perfect, and we shouldn’t punish our kids for the imperfections.

But what about this: a criminal investigation into Seattle Public Schools money that went to pay for work that was never done, at least not on school projects.

How much money are we talking about here?

Oh…$1.8 million or so. Give or take. Not that anyone at Seattle Public Schools is really counting. Arithmetic is a lesson you learn when you’re spending your own money. When it’s other people’s money, math skills tend to get weak, numbers fuzzy.

It’s my money they’re wasting and spending illegally.

That’s bad enough, but there’s something that bothers me even more, something that finally led me, after all these years, to vote No.

It’s not the money itself, but the values.

Should we open our pocketbooks unquestioningly to people who lie, cheat, and mismanage funds? Should we teach our kids that such behavior is OK, that the ends justify the means?

Who are Seattle’s kids counting on?

Let’s hope it’s not the people running the public schools.


The Pumpkin Man

The Pumpkin Man

Every fall in the Seattle neighborhood where I live, pumpkin vines begin to sprout all across the lawn and up the front entrance of the house of the Pumpkin Man.

The vines are fruitful and multiply, and in the weeks leading up to Halloween, the Pumpkin Man’s yard becomes a child’s dream of giant orange and white delights.

Big pumpkins–some weighing up to 500 pounds. Messy pumpkins, sprawling willy nilly all over the place like toys that refuse to be put away. Pumpkins that suggest your front yard does not have to be a place of carefully-tended rose bushes and grass that must be weeded and mowed and leaves that must be raked. No, it can be fun and wild and free, like the setting of a Dr. Seuss book.

Well, maybe not your actual mom’s lawn. But maybe your lawn, maybe someday. The potential is there.

In reality, growing a yard full of huge pumpkins that later must be mulched or recycled or buried is a lot of work. Why does the Pumpkin Man do it?

“I like seeing people enjoy it, I like seeing a smile on their face,” he says.

But exactly why he got started, even he is not sure. It was back in 1970, and Greg Shaw, who was not yet the Pumpkin Man, had just left the Army. He was a tenant in a small house and planted some jade plants in the yard. Then he built a small greenhouse for them.

“I just liked growing things,” he says.

He had never grown pumpkins before, but for no particular reason planted some Big Max pumpkin seeds in a pot. They grew to a Jack-and-the-Beanstalk height of 20 feet. They produced a 100-pound pumpkin. Shaw was hooked.

But he had to leave his new hobby behind for several years while living in an apartment and attending the University of Washington. Then in 1981 he moved back to the Magnolia neighborhood where he’d lived before, and this time, planted Big Max seeds in his yard. Big pumpkins came up. They were even more unusual a sight then then they are now, and he got quite a reaction. Every year, his pumpkin patch grew larger. Then he moved into a different house across the alley and started again.

Shaw became a real estate agent. He told a successful colleague what he was known for, and asked the man’s opinion.

“Do you want to be thought of as a Pumpkin Man or a Realtor?” the colleague asked.

He abandoned his pumpkin growing for four years while growing his career as a realtor. Then he started planting his seeds again.

His pumpkins are an eye-opener here in the city, but when he took one weighing 170 pounds to the rural Puyallup Fair one year, it failed to win a prize. The winner was a 569-pounder. Since then, Shaw’s pumpkins have hit 500 pounds, but he doesn’t enter competitions anymore. Some growers have now produced fruits surpassing a ton.

Size is not the point for Shaw. For him, it’s all about the reaction he gets.

One year, some 30 years back, there were pumpkin thieves afoot, and he placed a baby monitor in his yard to watch for prowlers. His footage didn’t show any, but it did expose plenty of people screaming and yelling with excitement at his pumpkins.

Cool!!! they would say. Or Holy ____!!

The Pumpkin Man does not use expletives. But he understands how his yard causes others to do so, and it’s OK.

There’s something magical about the pumpkins, and it’s not just their size, it’s their rate of achieving it. When Shaw says he likes watching them grow, he means it almost literally.

“There was one around 20 years ago that grew ten feet in 24 hours. That’s half an inch an hour,” he says.

The hardest parts of pumpkin growing are weeding the plants, and cleaning it all up when the harvest is over.

Shaw can’t quite claim to be an organic gardener–his fertilizer contains a fungicide–but he uses no pesticides. His two cats take care of rats. Occasionally he has a problem with squirrels who don’t quite get what a pumpkin is.

“They think it’s a big nut or something and they try to chew on it.”

The Halloween harvest ends with a ghoulish chain saw massacre as Shaw cuts up the fruit and fills his truck with over 2,000 pounds of it, headed for the yard waste recycling center. Or sometimes he buries it, as he did last year. One year, he donated pumpkin guts to a food bank to make pumpkin pie.

By April 21st, he’ll be ready to sow another year’s crop. As long as he’s able, he’ll keep doing it.

One time a man came by with his child, and Shaw heard him say, “When I was growing up, my parents brought me here to see the giant pumpkins.”

That’s motivation. Two generations so far, and the Pumpkin Man’s still growing strong.

To sell your house or get free pumpkin seeds, contact Greg Shaw at 206.579.5475206.579.5475,

Pumpkin fieldpumpkinspumpkin growing on vinepumpkinpumpkin field in front of house