Faith & Doubt / Family / My Seattle

Stealing in Seattle

I’ve been so committed to getting this house in shape, overlooked must-dos left by the previous (deceased) owners.  It’s almost exactly 1,300 days of my hard labor.


The results of my hard, sweaty, ibuprophen-maxed labor for 1,300 days: a house that’s now inhabitable. (Photo: Helen Holter)

Hauling 19 cubic yards of dirt and compost, wheelbarrow by wheelbarrow.  Tearing out stones two feet deep in the front and back yards – mysteriously dumped by those owners, and under all those stones are two layers of blue tarp – not landscape fabric, but blue tarp.  Why?  Crappy deck, neglected shrubs, a house never painted in more than 30 years.  Busting up blacktop to reveal dirt devoid of any living organisms, save for horsetails.  Tearing out the entire kitchen, painting upstairs, and refinishing the floors – almost all of it by myself.  Drywalling, tiling, plaster-and-lathing, pouring cement.  Unearthing the previous owners’ stashes of trash and hoarded goods, from massive cement blocks and roof tiles to Jesus and Joseph statues buried alongside mold-infused insulation and rusted tools.  Why?  How can people ruin a perfectly good house? They’ve stolen the heart, life, and soul out of this 1941 Cape Cod home-sweet-home.


Transforming a backyard of blacktop, rocks, and blue tarps to this: an urban retreat. (Photo: Helen Holter)

I weep as I work, in frustration and fatigue.  I hear my own dead father’s voice and my living mother encouraging me along, telling me hard work will yield its rewards.  I have to believe that’s true.  I’d go crazy otherwise.

And yet, trying to untwist the minds of dead people is as frustrating as trying to untwist the mind of a living person – a recognized journalist – who stole from me.  Stole the heart and soul of one of my stories posted here on my web site, and I can’t get it back.  It took me 1,300 days to find what I was searching for in this story, and in the photos I took and the pieces I put together.  It’s digitally damaged, with his name and his magazine’s name all over the hard work I doggedly pursued and created, and he is making money from it.

My dad was renowned for his hard work, especially in growing food to feed his family.

My dad was renowned for his hard work, especially in growing food to feed his family.

Why do people do that?  It’s theft, and it’s forever ruining the work of others – my work, as well as the larger project that story and photo were part of.  His intellectual laziness and ethics lapse makes me believe he’s probably so lazy he’d never think of picking up a wheelbarrow and hauling 19 cubic yards of dirt and compost (the size of two large SUVs, and as tall) to achieve something.  Anything.  It’s simply easier and less sweat to steal, letting others do the hard work while he sits back and reaps the rewards.

I don’t hear my dead dad’s voice in any of this; perhaps he’s as perplexed as I am. We all grew up in Montana, where hard work is a given and pride of ownership – in your own house, in your own work – is to be treasured.  I spent eight years mastering the Russian language with Serbo-Croatian and Old Church Slavonic as my secondary languages, along with Uzbek and Turkish.  I became an expert on the Soviet Union/Russia, winning Emmys and international awards for my TV news work.  I couldn’t steal that knowledge or expertise from anyone; it’s such extraordinarily difficult and complex work, but I did it, and did it myself.

Digging Dad's grave

My brother – an Oscar-winning Hollywood animator – and I do the hard work of digging our dad’s grave in the family plot in northeastern Montana.

But here in Seattle it just feels there is an entitlement mentality that “if I see it and want it, I will take it from you.”  Stealing in Seattle.  I can’t imagine someone like this journalist actually doing the hard work of studying something as difficult as Russian or diving into the complexities of anything as challenging as the Soviet Union/Russia.  You can’t steal that knowledge and expertise and – poof! – you’re a master linguist or political expert; if it were possible, I’m sure that journalist would have stolen that from me as well.  Working hard for a living – an honest living – is 100 times harder than hauling 19 cubic yards of dirt, or resurrecting a house for 1,300 days – as I am doing now.

I weep as I work, in frustration and fatigue.