By Mahlon Meyer
Northwest Asian Weekly
The house had large plate glass windows, like saucers reflecting portions of the sky. But around them was charcoal-colored wood, multi-hewed, and dusty-looking.
“Is that Shou sugi ban?”
Rick Satori, 53, had walked up to the owner of the house, who was loading drywall and other construction material into a dumpster.
The woman responded, “No.” They had to cut corners and couldn’t afford the expensive ancient Japanese technique of burning wood to bring out the resin to render it fireproof.
It was an imitation. But for Satori, it was the beginning of a new phase in his life.
Like millions of other Americans who took the pandemic as a time to question the value of their work and start on something new, Satori had launched a new career.
As he talked with Northwest Asian Weekly last week, he had just undergone his first job interview in his new career path and was eagerly waiting for news of another opportunity (his name and a few details are changed to protect his economic viability since he has not yet fully shifted careers).
The change was a long time coming—a slow hurricane that gathered force from the isolation of the pandemic, a questioning of values, a feeling of hopelessness from the murder of George Floyd, and the rancor of a heartless president sunk in.
And yet these feelings of insignificance laid bare a space for him to be inspired anew.
As his home developed problems, including a leaky roof, wiring problems, and the general need for refurbishment, he found himself watching videos about home construction and design.
He had always been interested in protecting the environment.
When kayaking on Lake Washington, he would lean over and pick bottles and debris out of the water, securing them to the netting on the top of the hull, to pack them out and recycle them.
But he now found, from one video in particular, that 40% of carbon waste released in our air comes from building materials and housing.
“Let’s say you go in the hardware store and are looking at a couple of two by fours. You have to think, what did it take to produce them, to mill them, to transport them here?” he said. “And then think of the same question with a ceramic washbasin.”
He was also inspired by Greta Thunberg, the 13-year-old climate protection activist from Sweden.
Satori had gone from despair, during the pandemic, believing that our individual lives and actions are “insignificant,” to believing what Thunberg consistently advocated—that one individual can make a difference.
“She skipped school and sat out alone outside the Swedish parliament,” he said. Later, she gave a speech at the United Nations that has inspired millions.
“She was willing to say to the politicians very directly, ‘You’re ruining our lives,’” said Satori.
Satori was standing under a spreading chestnut tree as we overlooked Lake Washington from a small plot of grass that was neither a formal park nor private land. The wind swept by, and he hugged his arms around his chest.
He had realized that his job was meaningless. He worked in the high-end real estate market. He found a program that, at nights and on some weekends, would train him in green energy and building design.
“I would literally close my work computer at the end of the day, then go sit on the sofa and open it again and start doing my homework.”
He visited and learned about energy-efficient buildings, green building codes, and even found an internship with a green builders association. It was daunting, not just the sheer workload, but the wide variety of students in his cohort, who often had entirely different backgrounds, and were not always as ready to collaborate.
He had to continually pluck up his courage by looking for the positives over many months.
When his internship turned out to be nothing more than him making cold calls to solicit attendance to events involving the owners of the buildings, he was at first discouraged.
Then he turned it around.
“It was a great networking opportunity,” he said.
Finally, one of his instructors introduced him to a potential employer. She had a one-woman company that helped businesses meet strict environmentally-protective codes in the region. Her only employee had just left.
In his first interview with her, however, she talked non-stop for an hour.
“Don’t you think we need to talk more?” she said at the end.
In the second interview, she spoke down to him, cutting him off, and speaking over him.
“It was a red flag,” he said.
Besides, it was an independent contracting job with only a minimal number of hours per week.
Nevertheless, it was at this time that he was also conducting informational interviews, which are not meant to look for a job, but to figure out what skills a candidate is lacking for a certain position.
A classmate, whom he was interviewing, told him that his boss was looking for someone.
He expects to hear back this week.
The meaning of it all
Satori, who majored in philosophy at Berkeley, believes that his transition is part of a broader reevaluation that came out of the pandemic and is occurring world-wide.
He said he felt intense isolation during lockdowns, but at the same time a feeling of togetherness with the rest of the world.
“You would see photos of empty streets from all over and realize they were going through the same thing,” he said. “It’s not since World War II that something this global has impacted the planet, but even then, it may not have reached every corner of Africa, for instance.”
It was thoughts like these that climbed over the feelings of hopeless insignificance. This was when he began to look seriously into climate change and started to pin his life to averting it.
“We marched in the protests about George Floyd and before that in the women’s march after the inauguration. I seriously thought of becoming an activist, but I realized I didn’t want to get arrested, and that’s what you have to do and be prepared for.”
He also had a dream, as his house was decaying, of someday building a sustainable house, although he knew not in his wildest dreams could he ever afford it.
Still, as a hobby, he started to design a house, what it would look like, what building techniques it would incorporate, how it would face the sun to save energy.
He began to spend all his free time on the project, laboring with unfamiliar computer animation tools that he was forced to become familiar with.
He shared his drawings with friends, his wife, and even some architects. It was beautiful, a white temple of green building practices, stretching just long enough to accommodate friends and family.
Somewhere along the way, he put his dream house on hold, a dancing chimera that would float forever in front of him, and turned to his program of study.
If he could not build his own dream greenhouse, he would build them for others, or help them meet code, or help them find the right materials, or advise others on how to keep pollution out of the air as they found safe homes.
“One thing I learned from watching that initial video is that we do have a choice to change things.”
Mahlon can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This health series is made possible by funding from the Washington State Department of Health, which has no editorial input or oversight of this content.