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Sunday, June 15, 1997 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Northwest People

Divas, Not Darlings -- For Holly Morris, Gender Is An Assignment. At Seal Press She Edited Books By And For Women. Now She's Trading Manuscripts For TV Scripts.

THE BAR, FAUX Irish, called Mulligan's, not quaint, not cozy, but very neon, is annexed to the Super 8 Motel - $39.95 single, free HBO. Left at the ice machine, past the swimming pool and the Jacuzzi for 12, through the double glass doors is a rock band playing for 300, in a place meant to hold 200 comfortably breathing adults.

Cradled in a vinyl booth is a towheaded toddler with a crew cut, who may someday brag to his teenage friends that before kindergarten he attended a Luscious Jackson concert in South Lake Tahoe, Calif., though he will have no recollection that he fidgeted and cried the whole time.

Holly Morris, feeling old, arrived two hours earlier and, like the kid, might rather be somewhere else instead of where she is, landlocked by overanxious bodies bracing to mosh and a facade wall of lava rock. Your conscience can lead you to strange places. Like a concert, meant to be held outdoors, pushed indoors by the weather.

So much like home in Seattle, she thought earlier that day, wanting a thick book and a quiet place to sit, but having to settle for an espresso Americano under a dripping awning.

She is trapped on a beer-sticky floor, her ear bent by Sinead O'Connor's body double decked in baby doll, 20 impassable feet from the nearest breath of fresh air, because she is the host of a television program that will further the cause of breast-cancer awareness, Gen-X style. She is here despite her fatigue, the recent death of her grandfather, and her full-time job in Seattle as managing editor of Seal Press.

Woman. For Morris, gender is an assignment, taken with scrutiny and insoluble energy. As Seal's editor, Morris has produced books by and for women, be they mountain climbers, lesbian mothers, battered wives, middle managers, Web surfers or aerobic instructors. At 31, she has helped make Seal one of the country's largest publishers of feminist literature.

Switch. To television. And Lake Tahoe. After Morris taped a talk show recently on public television, strangers in parking lots recognize her, beautiful but seemingly unaware of it, an irresistible combination. Perhaps, she thinks, large media like television can support smaller media like Webzines and regional presses and expose the lives of exceptional women to a larger audience. Maybe.

Her own documentary show, "Adventure Divas," will be on television next year, she hopes.

"How could I tell others to be the architect of their own lives if I wasn't doing the deed myself?" she says.

Morris is a career feminist, though she regards the use of the word cautiously. The word does not work because everyone thinks they know what it means. It is also useful because everyone thinks they know what it means. She has spent perfectly good hours discussing the relevance of "the word" with other - dare we say it? - young feminists who have as a lot been publicly accused of being uncommitted, fractured and, at worst, absent.

Accusations that do not explain the duel taking place in her conscience: Am I articulating the truth with the full extent of my intellect? Am I saying the important work of feminism is done, that it's time to loosen up? Am I self-indulgent? Am I creating meaningful dialogue or mind-candy? Am I joining in the dumbing down of America by distilling my life's convictions into a 30-second commercial?

One year ago, Morris spoke as part of a panel on alternative forms of media. Her interests already roaming, Morris was asked to predict her future. Morris said: "To cultivate or support girl-driven empires . . . there aren't enough of them." The audience bellowed in agreement.

"BOARDING FOR Breast Cancer" began on a late spring morning in a cottony fog. The Sierra-at-Tahoe ski resort stayed open one day past its normal closing for the pro snow boarders, rock bands and their mostly teenage audience who paid $35 each to watch the rock stars (slang for expert snowboarder) and the rock stars (literally) and support breast-cancer research. To say nothing of lung cancer, as cigarettes were passed around like bubble gum.

Morris interviewed members of Seattle band 7 Year Bitch, raising topics sociological (making issue of the group's role in shaping grrrl-culture in Seattle), avocational (bringing up the band's own progress as snowboarders) and medical (asking them if they gave themselves regular breast examinations). The interview style was chummy and its content did not pretend to probe or enlighten. The show she taped was a pop-umentary in the mold of MTV, the intellectual equivalent of hopscotch, but gave a good cause a unique forum.

Her world has been books. In seven years at Seal, Morris has ascended from intern to editor. She is best known for editing two anthologies of fishing stories by women, "Uncommon Waters" and "A Different Angle." Her publisher, Faith Conlon, most values her ability to be a mentor to young writers and the mostly 20-ish staff at Seal, who tend to be in awe of Morris.

"Writers are drawn to Holly because she's very nurturing," said Conlon, assigning a typically female characteristic. "She lets them find their way. She's a very sensitive person. And that's an important asset."

Morris' own writing appeared in "Another Wilderness: New Outdoor Writing by Women," and "Home Field: Nine Writers at Bat." A collection of nine essays about baseball, it was released last April.

That month she also announced her intention to leave Seal in order to produce and host a series of travel documentaries called "Adventure Divas," which will take cameras around the world in search of women like Lithuanian scientist Birute Galdikas, who is trying to save the orangutan population of Borneo, and Phoolan Devi, a former bandit and member of India's Parliament, and American anthropologist Carol Dunham, who studies polyandry (the practice of several men sharing one wife) in Nepal. The first program will most likely air, she hopes, next spring on a cable network like Discovery or Lifetime, though she has not yet sold the program.

Ironically, she does not subscribe to cable and therefore would not now be able to watch her own program. She grew up watching as much television as most American kids, but it is largely missing from her adult life. It is not because of principle as much as unintentional neglect. As a child she watched the classics, gravitating toward their strong heroines be they Kate, whom she considered the smartest of "Charlie's Angels," or Christy Love, the female supercop.

"The timing is right," she said of "Divas." "There is more sensitivity to the lack of powerful images of women. And it is not too radical an idea for the mainstream."

The weekend in Tahoe was a useful segue. The experience in front of a camera did not hurt (it was her first except for a seven-minute video promoting the "Divas" project), and anyway she eventually has to get used to combing her hair, a chore she tends to neglect unless prompted.

The immediate comfort she has in front of a camera - she declined to rehearse for the seven-minute spot - must have come from growing up around her television reporter parents. Her delivery is organic, full of the natural pauses and restraint contained in normal speech, more like National Public Radio's Ira Glass than, say, Diane Sawyer. Morris, on air, is unimposing and earnest, able to pass chunky ideas while leaving no trace of her ego. For example:

"You know, George Clinton defined funk like this," Morris said in the "Divas" promo, seeming as if the idea was occurring to her on the spot. "He said the . . . funk is the awesome power of a fully operational mother ship. And I think that's part of what a diva is - she knows her funk and she uses it."

Her transformation from book editor to television host is a mark of her versatility and restlessness. Her former west-facing office near the bottom of Queen Anne Hill took its view of the Olympic Mountains and Puget Sound through a wall of old windows, which allowed both winter's moisture and summer's heat to infiltrate. Though recently painted, the ceiling dropped huge peels of failing paint during meetings and phone calls - a reminder that one does not work for Seal Press because of the money and that a big, wide world exists beyond it.

"She is more of a visionary," a close friend said. "This project is quintessentially her."

Morris has traveled extensively, mostly for pleasure. Now that it's her work, she questions whether she is indulging herself. The answer, after a little guilt, is yes.

"Fun gets (overlooked) in the politics," she said. "You don't have to be a martyr to do good things.

"Feminism has been all about reacting," Morris said of the activism of earlier feminists. "Now it's time to be proactive."

As in run for Parliament. Make the laws, rather than protest them. Therein lies her definition of a diva. It is a word boys have not needed. Because they have words like president, astronaut and quarterback. Or wide receiver, as Morris' father happened to be.

MORRIS GREW up in Palatine, Ill., the youngest of four children, an even split of boys and girls. Palatine was white America's America, an exaggeration of average, and hometown of Ted Nugent. Kiss played the prom at Morris' high school; so did Styx, before it became Styx.

Morris' parents were locally famous. Her father, Johnny Morris, played for the Chicago Bears. A possession receiver of average size, he was the Steve Largent of 1960s Chicago. After his playing career, he became a sports broadcaster. His visibility provided an opportunity for his wife, Jeannie Morris, to become one of the country's first female sportswriters. She eventually wrote a biography of former Bear Brian Piccolo and later, like Johnny, became a sports broadcaster. Though a seemingly liberated woman, the truth was not so noble.

"In those days, I don't think we would have had a successful marriage if I wasn't working with him," said Jeannie Morris, 61, executive producer of "Divas." "It was OK as long as I enhanced his career. We were sort of a well-known team and led very integrated lives."

Johnny and Jeannie divorced as their lives diverged. Johnny retired, and likes to play the horses. Jeannie is writing a biography of Sen. Carol Mosley-Braun (D-Ill.) and recently finished a PBS documentary set in the Himalayas.

In Jeannie, Holly had both a positive and negative role model. "She didn't see her mother in a traditional job," Jeannie Morris said. "But she also did not approve of what a subservient wife I was."

Nonetheless, the team of Johnny and Jeannie worked while they were parents. When Holly was 7, Johnny and Jeannie quit their jobs, rented their house and took the family on a one-year voyage across Europe and the former Soviet Union in a Ford Econoline camper. The trip became a book by Jeannie called "Adventures in the Blue Beast," which was later turned into an Emmy-winning children's documentary, in which Holly can be seen grudgingly scrubbing the roof of the van because "I'm the lightest." She jokingly refers to the scrubbing as her "feminist awakening."

Even at that age, Holly was aware of the burden she carried as a girl. In England, after watching the Shakespeare play "As You Like It," about a woman who disguises herself as a boy, Holly told her brothers, ". . . When a girl pretends to be a boy and no one knows the difference, she can do everything and do it better!"

AN ESSAY Holly Morris submitted for Home Field recounted a summer she spent playing for a novice softball team and how she and the other women on the team came to find fulfillment in losing all but one game.

"Holly's story probably didn't spill out of her," said John Marshall, editor of Home Field. "Hers had to be pulled out."

Morris is a facile writer, but is more comfortable as editor. She left her initials at Seal with "Adventura," a series of sports and outdoor books written by women. It helped inspired the "Adventure Divas" project.

The topics of Seal's other books are those of most publishers - self-help, health, mystery, parenting, popular culture, fiction, poetry - though each speaks specifically to women. For instance, Seal's nonfiction titles cover incest, emotional abuse in the workplace, teenage dating violence, lesbian parenting, women in nontraditional blue-collar jobs, and the feminism of bisexuals.

Morris' mission at Seal was a plurality of thought, which meant publishing books by and for Latino women, black women, Asian women, lesbian women and young women. One of Seal's bestselling books is "Listen Up," essays by women mostly in their 20s about their experiences with race, pregnancy, body image, sports, sexuality, eating disorders and violence, among others. The pieces are deeply personal and have been used as classroom text. Its appeal most likely comes from its candidness. It often reads like a diary. "Listen Up" was an idea initiated by Morris.

"The genius of her idea was to identify that gap in literature," said the book's editor, Barbara Findlen, 32, also the executive editor of Ms. magazine.

Findlen believes there is ageism among feminists - though she believes it is not as strident as portrayed in the media - and that many young feminists feel trivialized or ignored by their older counterparts. This concern is what prompted Morris to publish the book, though she concedes the ideas presented are hardly ground-breaking and somewhat unsophisticated. In this case, providing the stage was more important than the performance.

This generation of young women, Morris believes, is hungry for role models of all types. The range of female images in the media are evidence of that.

The British band the Spice Girls preach girl power, unabashedly using their sex appeal to sell their message; Xena the warrior princess is at the head of a thriving fictional genre of beautiful, butt-kicking action heroines.

"Things anymore aren't black and white, gay or straight, figuratively and literally," she said.

Diplomacy sometimes sounds like rhetoric, but Morris' point is that a single feminist party line no longer exists. That a cause is not as important as having one. That she does not speak for all women but she wants all women to speak.

She has opinions. That poverty inordinately affects women, and therefore children. That her generation, which came of age during 12 years of Ronald Reagan and George Bush, is profoundly cynical. That George Clinton beats John Tesh any day. That sexuality ought to be personal, not politicized. That there's no shame in drinking watery, light beer.

HER WORK contains most of the complexity of her life, and is the way she articulates herself. The shell of her life is plain and much of it suffers from inattention. She is single. She spoke reluctantly and briefly about a long relationship that ended largely because her career in Seattle was more important than following him to Philadelphia.

"I've paid the price, but I don't want to get into that," she said.

Her car is loaded with used mugs, car parts, various household litter and a wide-brimmed hat for her passengers to wear when it rains. The sunroof to her old Jetta leaks mostly on the right side. A paper clip holds her car's tape player in its slot on the dashboard.

The hot-water faucet on her bathroom sink doesn't work. She is not particularly handy but has learned well to live with cold water.

She is not a particularly conscientious eater, prone to skipping meals. Her friends make frequent gifts of lotions and various beauty products "because they all think I don't take care of myself." Offered a nail file while filming in Lake Tahoe, she mocked the suggestion, useless for her ground-to-the-bone nails.

Life's ancillary needs tend to slip Morris' mind. The important things, like "dog food," she writes in pen on her hand so she is forced to see it all day.

She dresses more for comfort and thrift than style, though she possesses one nonetheless. Her shoes, the personality center of a wardrobe, are inconspicuous but bold. Usually boots, usually dark in color, they are heavy on the heel, thick on the sole.

She cares for fish named Sojourner, Truth, Identity and Crisis, after the abolitionist and for her favorite psychological affliction. She also has a German shepherd named Boo Radley, named after the mysterious savior in "To Kill a Mockingbird." Her furnishings are nondescript and sparse. Her life is generally low on material, high on experience. Perhaps because she grew up with the strange idea that she would not live past age 30. Not for any particular reason. It is likely a symptom of her humility, her obsession with the underdog and with unreached potential.

"I have a perverse attraction to not knowing what's going to happen next," Morris said.

She wants to stay in Seattle, her "spiritual home," her mother called it. Morris owns a home here and plans to keep it, though she will have to leave it every other month during the filming of "Adventure Divas."

Her irrational sense of doom, she said, is coupled with an opposite sense of invincibility. She recently learned to skydive and plans to do it once a year. Every summer, she also jumps off a vestigial freeway onramp into Lake Washington. She prefers that which daunts her. Snowboarding, for example.

She has tried it three times now. Her athletic genes overcame her novice skills. She is trying still to understand the sport's youth culture, its music, its lingo, its fashion, its racial monotony.

The last time she snowboarded, she spent the first few hours falling at almost every turn, but more violently when she turned right. About the fifth trip down the run, after joking that she feels more comfortable with the left, Morris began to understand that optimum control is obtained by keeping her weight on the edges of the board. The center seems safe, but really gives her no control. The edge is where she finds her power. So it is with snowboarding, and life.

She suddenly executed, perfectly, the right turn, and experienced a change of heart.

"I think I like right turns more," she said. "They're more proactive. Left turns are like waiting for something to happen. You don't really have to think about doing them. But you have to make yourself turn right."

Hugo Kugiya is a writer for Pacific Magazine. His e-mail address is: hkug-new@seatimes.com Harley Soltes is Pacific's photographer.

Copyright (c) 1997 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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