Getting together with family during the holidays — especially with members who visit from across the country — is a great time to assess all that has changed. Grandkids get taller, adult kids get grayer, and parents get a little slower. And cities like Seattle get more unrecognizable.
My folks traveled to Seattle for Thanksgiving this year after having not visited the city for about four years. They love Seattle and have been big fans since my brother and I moved west more than 20 years ago. Back then I tried hard to get Dick and Kathy to relocate, and I tried even harder when we had their first and only grandchildren. But Seattle was unaffordable then, and now moving from Western New York is not even a conversation worth having.
What we did talk about was the explosive change in Seattle, even in the few years since my parents last visited. And, as usual, we talked about technology and how it impacts my city and my family. It was fun to notice how they reacted to some of the newer things around town, even if those things feel like they’ve been here for some time now. I’ve collected a few post-holiday highlights below:
Even 20 years ago, Seattle felt a little big for my folks. They’re not fans of traffic, or sitting in it to get anywhere, even though one of their favorite things to do, at 82 and 78 years old, is get in the car and go for a drive.
Driving through Ballard and Fremont, they noticed the proliferation of new apartment buildings. “Wow,” they would say, staring up at a five-story building being constructed on what they remember as a sleepier corner.
During a favorite walk of theirs, from my house to the neighborhood bakery, plenty of older houses have been replaced by modern boxes. “People are stacked on top of people now,” my mom said.
I felt like the best way to show off the change in Seattle was to take my parents to the epicenter of it all. The day after Thanksgiving we headed down to Amazon’s headquarters for a look at the Spheres, mostly from the outside and from the Understory information area that is open to the public.
Walking around in the cold drizzle and staring up at Amazon’s Day 1 and Doppler towers, and the Block 21 project that is rapidly taking shape across the street, I could sense my parents running numbers in their heads. So I told them, 45,000 people now work for the tech giant in Seattle.
The city where they live is home to Kodak, and that film giant, which once employed 60,000 people, is a shell of what it once was. My parents have a hard time, in 2018, imagining the same thing could ever happen to Amazon.
We walked past the first Amazon Go store and they just kind of chuckled when I told them there are no cashiers, you just grab items and walk out. My parents live in a city that is home to Wegman’s, one of the most revered grocery chains in the U.S. It’s a joy for them to shop there, and talking to the people who work there is a big part of that joy.
Inside the Spheres’ visitor center, they watched a video about some of the plants that live in the structures above, and they learned a little about Jeff Bezos’ philanthropic pursuits from informational kiosks. I reiterated that the Amazon CEO is the richest man on the planet. “What about Gates?” my dad asked. “Yeah, twice as rich as Bill Gates,” I said.
We drove through South Lake Union and I explained that most of what they were looking at was also Amazon, with some Google and Facebook and Paul Allen ventures sprinkled in. “There sure are a lot of cranes,” my mom said. “Yup. More than any other city,” I told her.
We talked a lot about transportation during this visit. My dad drove a truck for UPS as a career, and I always catch him checking out the delivery drivers at the crowded Pike Place Market, as if he’s watching them navigate the throng of tourists and saying to himself, “No thanks.”
My wife now works for an e-bike company in Seattle and as a family we have about eight bikes in the garage. I raced BMX with my dad a long time ago, so bikes are always a hot topic. Around Seattle these days, Dick was flabbergasted by all of the LimeBikes.
“What’s with all the green bikes? How do they work? Why are they left on the sidewalk?” he asked. “There’s another one. Oh, there’s a Lime. Someone left that one on the grass!”
His reaction was typical of anyone dropped into the city in the last couple years, since bike sharing became a thing. I’m glad he wasn’t here when the colorful addition to our commuting lifestyle also included yellow Ofo and orange Spin bikes. But, he did get to ask what was up with the new red Jump bikes from Uber.
We have an Echo Dot in the kitchen at home, and it was the first time my parents interacted with Amazon’s voice assistant, Alexa.
Wednesday evening before Thanksgiving, my mom was prepping her apple pie. “Want some music?” I asked her. “I can play whatever you like. What’s your favorite?”
I asked Alexa to play the Bee Gees. “She’ll play anything?” my mom asked, as her eyes widened by the small black disc sitting on a shelf.
Throughout the week, Alexa was employed by my kids to answer a variety of questions — or make a cat noise. Each time my parents were kind of surprised by the artificial intelligence living among us.
My mom, who loves her iPad, thought she was already ahead of the game.
“When I have a question I always have to go to the Google,” she said.
I thought I’d have to defend my kids’ screen time during my parents’ visit, but a funny thing happened during down time around the holiday. At certain moments, all six people in the house were checking some sort of device. My wife and I were on our phones; I used my laptop for work; my son played games on an iMac in his room; my daughter drew pictures or watched a show on an iPad; my parents played solitaire on their iPads.
At night it was an even funnier sight, as our family headed for bed and left my parents on the couch. Both of them were wearing headphones, watching separate Netflix shows on their iPads.
“Goodnight!” they yelled over what they were listening to.
I have to tell a 5-year-old, regularly, that she’s had enough “My Little Pony.” I didn’t have the heart to unplug “The Great British Baking Show” from her grandmother.
PREVIOUSLY IN THIS SERIES:
Mom and dad unplugged: How 10 days with my parents taught me to love the way they use tech
After 58 years, my parents ditched their daily print newspaper for iPads — here’s the scoop on that