Friday, December 31, 2010

awesome americans #1: kurt vonnegut

I was a victim of a series of accidents, as are we all.

The worst thing that could possibly happen to anybody would be to not be used for anything by anybody. Thank you for using me, even though I didn't want to be used by anybody.

I found me a place where I can do good without doing any harm, and I can see I'm doing good, and them I'm doing good for know I'm doing it, and they love me, Unk, as best they can. I found me a home.

--Sirens of Titan (1959)

We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful what we pretend to be.

Make love when you can. It's good for you.

--Mother Night (1961)

Hello, babies. Welcome to Earth. It's hot in the summer and cold in the winter. It's round and wet and crowded. At the outside, babies, you've got about a hundred years here. There's only one rule that I know of, babies — "God damn it, you've got to be kind."

--God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater (1965)

How nice - to feel nothing, and still get full credit for being alive.

Everything was beautiful, and nothing hurt.

I have this disease late at night sometimes, involving alcohol and the telephone.

--Slaughterhouse-Five (1969)

I will come to a time in my backwards trip when November eleventh, accidentally my birthday, was a sacred day called Armistice Day. When I was a boy, and when Dwayne Hoover was a boy, all the people of all the nations which had fought in the First World War were silent during the eleventh minute of the eleventh hour of Armistice Day, which was the eleventh day of the eleventh month.
It was during that minute in nineteen hundred and eighteen, that millions upon millions of human beings stopped butchering one another. I have talked to old men who were on battlefields during that minute. They have told me in one way or another that the sudden silence was the Voice of God. So we still have among us some men who can remember when God spoke clearly to mankind.
Armistice Day has become Veterans' Day. Armistice Day was sacred. Veterans' Day is not.
So I will throw Veterans' Day over my shoulder. Armistice Day I will keep. I don't want to throw away any sacred things.
What else is sacred? Oh, Romeo and Juliet, for instance.
And all music is.

1492. As children we were taught to memorize this year with pride and joy as the year people began living full and imaginative lives on the continent of North America. Actually, people had been living full and imaginative lives on the continent of North America for hundreds of years before that. 1492 was simply the year sea pirates began to rob, cheat, and kill them.

--Breakfast of Champions (1973)

A great swindle of our time is the assumption that science has made religion obsolete. All science has damaged is the story of Adam and Eve and the story of Jonah and the Whale. Everything else holds up pretty well, particularly lessons about fairness and gentleness.People who find those lessons irrelevant in the twentieth century are simply using science as an excuse for greed and harshness. Science has nothing to do with it, friends.

--An address

What we will be seeking ... for the rest of our lives will be large, stable communities of like-minded people, which is to say relatives. They no longer exist. The lack of them is not only the main cause, but probably the only cause of our shapeless discontent in the midst of such prosperity.

--"Thoughts of a Free Thinker", commencement address, Hobart and William Smith Colleges (1974)

I was obviously born to draw better than most people, just as the widow Berman and Paul Slazinger were obviously born to tell stories better than most people can. Other people are obviously born to sing and dance or explain the stars in the sky or do magic tricks or be great leaders or athletes, and so on.

I think that could go back to the time when people had to live in small groups of relatives-maybe fifty or a hundred people at the most. And evolution or God or whatever arranged things genetically, to keep the little families going, to cheer them up, so that they could all have somebody to tell stories around the campfire at night, and somebody else to paint pictures on the walls of the caves, and somebody else who wasn't afraid of anything and so on.

That's what I think. And of course a scheme like that doesn't make sense anymore, because simply moderate giftedness has been made worthless by the printing press and radio and television and satellites and all that. A moderately gifed person who would have been a community treasure a thousand years ago has to give up, has to go into some other line of work, since modern communications put him or her into daily competition with nothing but world's champions.

The entire planet can get along nicely now with maybe a dozen champion performers in each area of human giftedness. A moderately gifted person has to keep his or her gifts all bottled up until, in a manner of speaking, he or she gets drunk at a wedding and tap-dances on the table like Fred Astaire or Ginger Rogers. We have a name for him or her. We call him or her an 'exhibitionist.'

How do we reward such an exhibitionist? We say to him or her the next morning, 'Wow! Were you ever drunk last night!'

--Bluebeard (1987)

Many people need desperately to receive this message: "I feel and think much as you do, care about many of the things you care about, although most people don't care about them. You are not alone."

--Timequake (1997)

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

awesome americans

i started this whole blog idea thinking about being an american, and being patriotic - what that means, and what it doesn't mean, and how it all came to be.

it was living in germany that made me realize two things: that i am, irreversibly, an american through and through; and that i was ok with that.

but this same process happened before, too. i've learned this lesson before.

growing up, it seemed that our existence - out on the corner of the country - was nothing but irrelevant. news was something that happened somewhere else - the midwest, the east. politics, government - the northeast. arts & culture all came from europe. popular culture came from southern california. sports, events, everything - came from somewhere else.

and, in many ways, we didn't even fit into the west. the coastal edge of oregon and washington are an anomaly in the west. not dry. not open. not the typical home of the western archetypes, cowboys. liberal politically and open to government and laws. no one came to experience the west. no ski resorts with hollywood types, no dude ranches. nothing to entice the wealthy easterner or southerner to visit.

feeling irrelevant, and as if everything of value came from away, and loving art, i was a europhile. i wanted only to get to europe, to real culture, civilization, and relevance.

but in high school, i was exposed to a whole new batch of americans, through books and art, ones that made me realize that we had something to offer, that we had contributed something to the world stage other than bravado, empty promises of freedom and success (forced under the guise of war), and optimism. this coincided with trips around the west to visit national parks, where i found a landscape of unsurpassed beauty and joy.

awesome americans - and the national park service - drew me into loving america and loving being american for several years.

so, i've decided to do an occasional series of my personal inspirations. my awesome americans. they don't have to be significant to anyone else, and i'm not even trying to convince other people that they are worthy of their love, too. it's just a way to celebrate and remember the people who led me to recognize some of the amazing contributions we've had.

top of the list & first up: kurt vonnegut, who wrote a body of literature that has never been surpassed for me in terms of honesty, realism, and sweetness. and who could only have been american. not very exciting, perhaps, but coming soon.

Friday, October 1, 2010

old world, new world, no world

it's always so interesting to return to a place one used to live.

the feeling of belonging, yet not belonging. the feeling of both intimacy and strangeness. the same face of the same cashier who looks at you just a little bit extra, trying to figure out why you look familiar.

all these feelings were present many-fold on my recent trip back to germany, after over two years back in the states.

part of it is that i never really did feel that sense of belonging there. because i didn't really speak the language, and still didn't always get the small niceties and customs correct, i was always a little bit of a stranger in a strange land there.

i don't pretend to really know either germany or france. i don't even pretend to 'sort of' know, or 'make a stab at knowing' any place in the old world. it was while living there, after all, that i realized how completely and utterly american i am, through and through - even if i didn't want to be. but last week, while i was there, a friend idly asked me, "do you think the cultural difference between france and germany is larger or smaller than the cultural difference between the US and germany, or the US and france?"

my first instinct was to respond: oh, absolutely, france and germany are much more similar to each other than the US is to either of them. after all, one is new world, while the other two are old. the US is completely unique, sharing a common historical experience with almost no one, while the other two have been sharing a border and even swapping parcels of land for centuries. there must have been so much cross over between the two that they are like siblings, interrelated and interwoven by both history and shared present experience. we've fought along side one and against the other a couple of times, but we had a lot less at stake in these wars than either of them. we had no damage or atrocities on our soil, no civilians terrified or killed. surely even that negative shared experience would leave them with more in common with each other.

and yet, the more i thought about it, the more i'm not sure that's right. traditional - or even merely frequent - enmity is not always a bonding point.

there's definitely a difference when you cross the border between france and germany. the half-timbered fachwerkhaus gives way to stone or at least plaster over the timbers, sometimes plain, sometimes more ornate, with iron balconies and lamps. the merely occasional piles of dog crap on the sidewalk give way to frequent, almost constant piles of dog crap. favored beer and white wine give way to red wine, while bread you could use to defend yourself gives way to fluffy crumbly croissants. (my german friends are tearing their hair right now, admonishing me that there's many, many types of bread popular in germany, not just dark, heavy ones. i know, i know, but i'm generalizing to make a point. after all, they do drink beer in france, too. just not real beer, right?)

on the trip back from paris to frankfurt, aboard the high speed train line that is cooperatively shared by the french and german national rail companies, i watched an exchange between a french couple and a german guy. the french couple had seats that weren't together - one of them was next to the seat already occupied by the german, while the other was across the aisle. they spoke to him in french. he answered in german. neither spoke the others' language. i was pretty sure they were just wanting to swap seats so they could sit together, but he kept pointing to his seat reservation card. "do you speak english?" the german guy asked the couple. they shook their heads. still, he forged on in english, perhaps guessing that that was his best shot at being understood.

back over here, there's a lot we have in common with the german culture. you could say we inherited a lot of it. and yet thanks to the normans, french culture is not unfamiliar and french words are scattered through our language; in particular, a lot of common food names and terms come from france. the united states is peppered with both german and french last names. you can get a croissant in the morning and a bratwurst for lunch. people are as likely to trace their heritage to one as to the other, or even both. our lack of deep connection - a connection forged either from mutual aid and understand or from mutual distrust or enmity - leaves us free, in a sense, to love and appreciate both countries in any way we chose.

so i don't know. maybe our mixing-pot experiment of a country means maybe we're not so much the far point of a triangle as a bridge. without the baggage of history, without the centuries of grudges and memory, we don't really belong anywhere but here, but we're a little bit familiar with a lot of places. 

Saturday, September 25, 2010

class warfare

if there's anything that makes me want to commit my life and actions more thoroughly to the eradication of social and economic classes, it's flying internationally.

it just somehow gets worse and worse. this past trip to europe i flew on united, simply because that was the airline i had frequent flier miles available to use. it's one thing to have to walk past a reasonable first class section or business class section, with wider, leather seats that recline more, personal 'entertainment on demand' units, and more leg room. ok, i look at it with longing, but that doesn't really inspire rebellion in me.

but recently, airlines are upping the anty in providing comfort to these royal classes, at the expense of the rest of us peons. on my recent flights to and from frankfurt from washington dc, united now has no fewer than four classes in which to divide us: first class, business class, economy plus, and economy. first class, instead of being two nice seats next to each other, is now one pod-like structure that completely surrounds and envelops the traveler. the molded plastic 'seat' features an iPod dock, a huge TV screen with entertainment and games on demand, connectors for your laptop, a leg rest and foot rest that - get this - combine with the seat to create a bed that lays completely flat. completely, utterly, absolutely flat, with a nice soft white pillow and blanket. a bed. on a plane. this was not a huge plane - the regular sections fit seven or eight seats across the width of the plane - but first class fit only four of these huge cocoons across the width of the plane, each seat requiring at least the equivalent of two rows by the standards of economy. business class was more like first class than economy - smaller pod-like seats that were next to each other, but still featuring the seat that lies completely flat. both of these sections, of course, also feature better food and free drinks.

it's when you (finally) get to the ever-shrinking area of the plane that's carrying the bulk of the passengers that it really gets annoying. here, the cost of those enormous bed-seats necessitates that every other row of seats be closer together. in the rock-bottom world of economy - i.e., a normal ticket - the seat back in front of me was a mere inch in front of my knees. my knees. i'm not a tall person. in fact i'd go so far as to say that i'm about as small a person as you're going to find on a plane without including minors. i'm the shortest person in 90 out of 100 gatherings of adults (for those of you who think that's a low estimate, my cousin's wife wins at any family gathering). once i had carefully stowed my carry on under the seat in front of me, it was impossible to reach it while sitting in my seat with someone next to me, because my head hit the seat back in front of me long before my arm could reach the floor. the rows are so close together that they cannot recline as much, either. i spent the next 8.5 hours twisting in my seat that barely reclined, desperately trying to find any sort of comfortable position, without even the heretofore sacred international flying perk of a free drink to pass the time with.

that's how they've suckered people into - or as we say in economics, provided incentives to encourage people to - paying more for what used to be standard: this new economy plus gig. as you check in, as you approach the gate, as you're getting ready to board a stream of cheerful advertisements featuring happy, smiling people sitting on the plane with their legs elegantly crossed encourages you to 'upgrade' to economy plus for "five inches more legroom!" it doesn't get you a flat place to sleep, free wine, or better food. all it gets you is what used to be standard - a seat you can cross your legs in and actually lean forward enough in to retrieve something out of your bag. this is what they're doing, my friends. they are going to keep cramming the seats closer and closer together until suddenly the economy section disappears and we're all paying more for what we used to get standard because - ta da! - now it's all economy plus. i'm not usually a conspiracy theorist, but as i sat fully upright, legs straight in front, desperately trying to sleep on the way to germany, it wasn't hard to come up with such nefarious schemes being perpetrated on us by the airlines.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

everything is temporary

one of the nicest things about getting to know a place is that you can see when it changes.

sometimes change is good; sometimes, not so good. but i love both the excitement of the new and the mourning of what's lost.

i am irrationally attached to the place i grew up. not just to the overall place, but very specific places within it. streets. vistas. particular doorways or parking lots. specific trails and woods and beach cliffs.

one of my friends will occasionally post on facebook just a name - a name of a place that used to be there, that no longer exists. and everyone from there will leap in with other names, places we remember, places we wish were still there, places that frightened us as kids, places that we frequented as teenagers.

when you grow up in a place, change happens so slowly that you hardly realize what all is gone. it's the accumulated loss, from a perspective 20 years out, that is striking. how interesting it is to see what others remember, that i don't. and how the memories come flooding back, when that list starts getting created!

i don't know olympic national park well. i've only been there a handful of times. but we just got back from backpacking there, in exactly the same place we went last year. and it was astounding and awesome to be able to realize, in a very specific way, exactly what had changed over the year.

last year, kalaloch beach was covered in driftwood. and not just any driftwood. huge, monster, old temperate rainforest sitka spruce driftwood. the logs, several feet in diameter, polished to a grey smoothness, often still with giant root stubs attached, covered the first twenty or so feet of beach from the land. we scrambled up and over them, climbed all around, marveled at their length and girth. they were jumbled together like so many pick-up-sticks, crossing over each other, balancing on each other.

we marveled at the force that brought them miles downstream, out into the ocean, and back onto the beach. each looked as heavy and as permanent as any human construction. logs six, seven, ten feet wide and fifty feet long? they were clearly not going anywhere anytime soon.

except, they were. this year, the beach was almost empty of logs. all that mass, all that volume, all that weight, somehow during the course of the year, simply picked up, and swept away.

last year we camped at a bend in the river a few miles in. there, the river channel spread out and we were near some calm pools on a side channel. the main channel was across a gravel bar, out of sight and out of mind. 

this year, the entire river was in the main channel. those calm pools and side channels we were fishing in last year were expanses of gravel and silt, that we happily pitched out tents on. the main river was in one simple, fast moving channel and in twelve short months it had completely changed course. 

a few miles down the trail from us were a pair of backpackers who've been coming to this river for 50 years. when the road washed out, they biked in. sometimes they walked in. they'd been here in fall, when the initial ford was impassable, when they rowed in by boat. they'd been here when the only way to get here was on unmarked forest service roads, before the national park began routing people along this upper valley road. i wonder if they sometimes sit around like my friends and i, naming features and landmarks that no longer exist. i wonder if they remember when there was no himalaya berry in the meadow. when the large doug-fir still had its top. when there were more bears, and less people. 

i can love this beach, or my hometown, for what it is, but it will never be again exactly what it is now. everything is temporary. 

Monday, August 2, 2010

kith and kin

for all the completely opposite vegetation, climate, and landscape, i feel at home in the southwest. there's one key thing that southwesterners and northwesterns have in common, a key similarity that we can recognize in each other's eyes and culture and think: yeah, so you understand where i'm coming from.

it's rain worship.

for opposite reasons, and through opposite experiences, we both end up at the same point: the point at which rainfall becomes, in many ways, the defining feature of our existence.

in the northwest, as it rains all winter long, it becomes the focal point of our conversations - how much it's rained. how many days it's rained. how long it's been since we've seen the sun. how much above, or below, average this year is. how it compares to soaker years in the past. how, we tell newcomers, this ain't nothin yet; just you wait. sometimes it will rain for months.

and down in the southwest, by the end of fall, they are having similar conversations: how much it's rained. how many days it's been since it rained. how long it's been since they've seen the rain. how much above, or below, average this year is. how it compares to drought years in the past. how, i imagine them telling newcomers, this ain't nothin yet; just you wait. sometimes it won't rain for months.

all of us, eyes fixed to the skies, staring at the clouds. all of us worshipping - in a direct, this-is-what's-shaping my-life way, the rainfall.

and existence in both the northwest and southwest is defined by storms that come, like clockwork, with the rains. in the northwest, it's the winter storms. the grey clouds settle in and cover the landscape, for days on end. then, slowly, a storm will build; with little change in the color or tenor of the overhanging roof of clouds, winds gradually whip up and rain increases until, for hours or days, all natural hell breaks loose. bridges are closed. trees topple.  waves crash across lanes of traffic. rivers cease to stay in thier courses and innundate the banks around them, spilling across roads. falling trees cut off power for hours, sometimes days. and all around, coastal and valley residents are comforted by the knowledge that they are, in the grand scheme of things, only bit players; that nature always has the final word on whether thier pitiful endeavors - roads, bridges, houses, power lines - will stand or fall. wrapped in our insignificance in the face of all that's powerful, we can finally relax, and inhale and exhale with the gusts and breaths of the storm. it is a meditation. and we are nothing more or less than rain-worshippers, praying.

in the southwest, it's the summer storms. the dark clouds gather on the horizon almost daily. one can watch them marching ever closer, ever darker. then like a wall, the water hits. torrents run from the skies. freeway traffic slows to 40, to 30, as drivers search for a faster windshield wiper setting. isn't there a three? i can't see a thing! water gushes into roadways, which drop from four lanes to two as rivers form along the sides. rain flows across parking lots and skips over curbs, creating tiny canyons in xeric rock landscaping as it courses along. instead of the drama of the wind, here it's the drama of lightning. streaks split the sky over and over. lightning touches down and, the channel now open, will pulse two or three times over as built-up energy finds an open outlet. thunder booms all around. life comes to almost a standstill as everyone realizes that, in the grand scheme of things, we're only bit players; nature will flood your roads and burn your forests without a second glance. the storm breaths slightly; slowing down, the worshippers exhale a bit, relax a bit, only to realize that the pause was simply an intake of air. wham, another blast descends. until, finally, like exiting a room, the rain slows to a trickle and the foreboding dark sky gives way to the trademark southwest washed-clean blue with little, innocent, white fluffy clouds. everyone is breathing in time. it is a stop-what-you're doing, meditative moment in the hot day. and every person watching the sky is nothing more than a rain-worshipper, praying.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

and the runner-up is...

new mexico just might be the second most perfect state (after oregon, of course).

for starters, it's got solid cowboy sensibility, along with real ranchlands. but instead of libertarian cowboys with a veneer of homophobia & racism (wyoming), libertarian cowboys with a dash of white supremacy (idaho), libertarian separatist, cultish cowboys (montana), urban-style cowboys (colorado), the closest we have to a church-state (utah), or libertarian arizona (more on that later), it's cowboys with a multi-cultural, democratic flair. how refreshing! new mexico is one of only four states with a minority majority - which is to say, no majority at all. it's got diversity, without the mega-populations of california and texas; of the four most mixed states, it's the least populated. it's both bigger in size and less populated than oregon. native americans, hispanics, whites, and african americans are all mixed in a historical soup context of ancient puebloan culture, spanish conquistadors, western expansion, the civil war, and finally statehood.

there's volcanic landscapes and ancient puebloan ruins, including the graddaddy of them all, chaco canyon, one of the most extraordinary places in the united states. there you can step through carefully aligned 800-year-old doorways built by the original inhabitants of the land. there's art-focused santa fe and northern new mexico, where house styles run towards understated instead of ostentatious, and good food abounds. there's public lands, there's grasslands and mountains and rivers, ponderosa pines and desert in the south, and in new mexico one can be as close as you can get to big bend without actually being in texas. there's vibrant tribes and pueblos. there's a hispanic, democratic governor, featured in photographs with his custom made, new mexico-themed cowboy boots up on the desk ( there's conservative, anti-wolf ranchers (one billboard proclaimed, "lock up your children!") and liberal, obama-stickered cars. and it's all blended, mixed together, in a way that very few states are able to achieve.

and arizona? oh, arizona, what are you doing? it was to my dismay that my long-planned trip took me - with no possible way to avoid it - to arizona, right at this time. following the passage of senate bill 1070, even entities i don't usually find myself politically aligned with - like, the city of los angeles - were calling for a boycott of the state. arizona, where you can now get pulled over and detained for not having adequate proof of american citizenship. arizona, where a drivers license from another state and no accent whatsoever is NOT proof enough of citizenship. where the motto is, guilty until proven innocent. it's a new way of thinking in america! wonder why it hasn't caught on sooner?

governor jan brewer followed up that move with a much lesser-known action: banning ethnic studies  classes that "promote resentment toward a race or class of people," "are designed primarily for pupils of a particular ethnic group," or "advocate ethnic solidarity instead of treating pupils as individuals" (—update). in reflecting back on my time in an ethnic studies program - designed primarily for pupils of a particular group, since it was at a tribal school, on a reservation - i find it interesting that those classes were the ones that taught me the most balanced view of native and white cultures. 

at first i tried to only spend money on indian reservations (which are sovereign nations, after all, not subjects of the state of arizona) and national parks. it's hard to do that though; i'm certain i scattered some dollars around the rest of the state. i don't know if i found it reassuring or disheartening to come across this passage in "The American West", by michael malone & richard etulain:

"An effort to join the neighboring southwestern territories into one state failed in 1905, mainly due to the refusal of Anglo-dominated Arizona to be joined with Hispanic New Mexico."

ironically enough, there's a new license plate you can choose that says, instead of "the grand canyon state" on the bottom, "live the golden rule". i'm not sure if that means the people driving are ok with children being separated from their parents, or if maybe there's something else they are referring to.

then one comes across this billboard of governor jan brewer:

way to go, governor. you've co-opted one of the most beloved iconic images in recent american history. an image that, at the time it was produced, stood for two things: solidarity among people for the greater good and an increase in opportunities for an oppressed group. you've used that - solidarity and equality - into a promotion for your nativist, anti-equality policies. i suppose it is very western to take the law into your own hands.

you're surely thinking, there must be something good about arizona. it's true, there are some fabulous landscapes. there is organ pipe cactus national monument, still a magically wild and lonely and beautiful place. there's the grand canyon, which can only be felt, cannot be described. there's also many vibrant tribal groups and cultures. of course, these are all the background of arizona; they don't reflect the tenor of culture and society there now. so what did i like in my recent visit, related to human works, not geographical?

well, i have to say i love the new font they are using on road signs. seriously. it shows life, and movement. look at that! especially, look at the snazzy, jaunty little tails of the a and l. have you ever seen a sans-serif font dance like that?!

so arizona, pluses for the landscape and the font choice. but negative, like, one thousand times over for the governor and the anti-immigrant policies.

Friday, July 23, 2010

a note from the road

july 17, 2010

the day started out perfectly, on a cool morning in chiricauhua national monument, in southeastern arizona. i'd been camped there for two days, loving the respite from the heat and sun. after a week in the southern arizona desert parks & the urban heat island that is modern phoenix, chiricauhua was a sub-90 degree oasis, complete with trees for shade. i had already decided, when leaving, that instead of retracing my steps west and north to willcox and the interstate in order to head east, i'd follow the double grey line on my map that wound just south of the monument, right through the mountains. double grey indicated "local road - typically improved, gravel surface" which seemed doable in the jetta. i tried to solicit more information out of the woman at the visitor's center, who wasn't a park employee. "well, let me see", she said, perusing a list somewhere in front of her. "says it's 26 miles to portal. i think it's a fine road, just a bit slow." "so, maybe an hour?" i venture. "oh, i don't think it'd take that long," she replied cheerfully. "but it doesn't require 4-wheel drive, right?" i ask. "no, definitely not", was her answer. 

it turned out to be definitely more than an hour's drive, but definitely worth every minute of it, on a solid second gear road, that as often dipped down into first as rose briefly into third. it wound and switchbacked right over the mountains and exited with a view that was even more spectacular than the origin point, as it dropped down into portal. truth be told, that's just about my favorite kind of road; roads that curve back and forth, through a forest, with views of the surrounding mountains and plains below. i was supremely happy, music loud, windows down, rolling through the ponderosa pine and juniper, which had that wonderful resinous heat smell that these high forests get in the summer.

my destination for the day: gila cliff dwellings national monument, north of silver city, new mexico. first came a long, typically western drive across the high grasslands, the two-lane road stretching arrow-straight in front of me, rising and falling over the ground. just me and, yet again, the border patrol. i hadn't seen them in a few days, but their green-sided SUVs were again more common than passenger cars, and their green-uniformed officers were again out cruising on ATVs in pairs. 

new mexico state highway 15, which runs north of silver city into the gila national forest, was another joyous drive. just two lanes - but paved - it also ran up and down and around corners, through the trees. this one, however, was far from deserted. campgrounds lined the road and it was clearly a recreation oasis up here in the cool, forested mountains. it crosses the continental divide, at over 7000 feet. the park service signs at the beginning of it estimate the travel time to the monument as two hours to cover a mere 44 miles. as usual, though, they are overestimating things, as it didn't take that long. or maybe it's just that it's my favorite kind of road. i was briefly stuck behind a truck with a camper canopy on it from new york state. signs on the back read, "retired", "when guns are outlawed, only outlaws will have guns", and "no riders, except for blonds, brunettes, and redheads". when they pulled to the side to let me around, i got a glimpse of a tanned man with white hair, smoking a cigar. this seemed to fit the collection of declarations perfectly. i waved my thanks and continued on. 

first stop at gila cliff dwellings - the visitors center, where i and four ladies from tennessee watched the educational film together. they were dismayed to learn that you can't see the cliff dwellings from the road. "mother can't walk," they told the empathetic rangers at the center in their sweet southern drawl. clearly now the woman who was mother spoke. "you've got to go up there, we've come all this way!" she exhorted her fellow travelers. but that was the last i saw of them. i didn't see them on the trail up to the dwellings, or at the parking lot at the bottom. probably the heat, trail, and the impending thunderstorm dissuaded them. 

it's too bad, because i think they would have really liked the dwellings. there was a volunteer interpreter at the bottom of the trail, to get you started, and another one at the cliff dwellings themselves, to orient you while you're up there. both were older men, probably retirees. "can i answer any questions?" was how the man at the top began, somewhat startling me. "um..." i really want to ask something, but i didn't have my mind on questions right now. he was experienced, though, and jumped right in there, explaining some of the stone work i was gazing at. "see the t-shaped doorway?" he asked while pointing in front. "that's a chacoan-style doorway, the only one here in the park. it may be that the people who built these cliff dwellings were advance scouts, or volunteer settlers, from chaco. i like to think of them as the avant-guard architects for this area. like, what's that place that lloyd wright built in arizona? talesin west, that's right." 

he's a cheerful man, clearly liking his job, clearly enjoying talking to tourists. the place isn't deserted but neither is it busy; there's a steady trickle of visitors. the group before me is working on a group photo, kids whining that they want to go back, father needling them to sit still on a particularly photogenic bench. other that that, there's no one in the ruin at this time. it's nice, quiet and shady, with the rumble of encroaching lighting and dark clouds contrasting against the green trees. the volunteer offers to take my picture, and then asks where i'm from. this initiates a conversation about oregon, of course. he volunteered at malheur for a while, and at yaquina head in the wintertime once. "it rained 10 inches in january and february that year," he said in disbelief. i believe him, though. "and they'd close it when it got too windy, and it was often closed." 

he continues chatting, pointing out petroglyphs, making sure i see all the good stuff. then he asks if i go to osu, since i live in corvallis, and what i'm studying. "forest economics", i say. "good!" he seems pleased. "you're going to keep them from cutting down all the trees, right?" "i'm an oregonian!" i say. "we love our trees." "well, but there's some out there who'd cut them all down, right?" at this point in time i'm halfway down a ladder descent. i stop, and contemplate the difference between management styles, the various forest protections acts, the difference between old growth and plantations...but i'm ready to get out of there, and don't want to get into it. "i suppose so" i say, "thanks for all your help." and continue on. 

back at the bottom, i stopped to take off my backpack and look around the parking lot. there's cars from michigan, oregon, california, the truck from new york, and new mexico. there's a car with an obama and a "hay is for horses, straw is for houses" sticker on the back, and a minivan with the entire back window covered in a eagle & flag motif, with plates indicating a veteran. and this is what i love about national parks. they are absolutely, without reservation, for everyone - regardless of politics, regardless of origin. i understand fully that park visitation is underrepresented by african-americans and poor people. part of this is that, with the exception of the urban historical parks in the east, most of them you've got to drive to. and there is an entrance fee. still, i revel in these moments. everyone on the trail is cheerful, and friendly, and relaxed (with the exception of a petulant child or two, but that's to be expected). we're all in this together at these moments. we're all here to learn something, to be amazed at this connection to our country's history and beauty - to people that lived here and built something incredible 800 years ago, to the remnants of populations that stretch back 10,000 years. we've all trekked up this long, winding road, dragged our out-of-shape asses up the trail, in order to revel in the views and vistas that present themselves before us. and we'll all continue on our paths to wherever. 

it's still early, too early for stopping. there's too many great shady roads with lovely corners and bends, calling to me still in the warm afternoon sun. i was planning on staying at the forest service campground that is right near the monument, but that won't do now. now i'm in full road-warrior mode. how far north can i get, towards the next destination, el malpais national monument? a quick perusal of the map and i pick out what looks like a promising spot. whitewater, it's called, and it's just outside of a very small town called glenwood. as i get closer, with excitement i realize that it's the same spot i picked up a brochure for at gila cliff dwellings - for a trail called 'the catwalk' that had enticing pictures of bridges and suspended metal pathways in a narrow canyon. yes! this is perfect. i can stay the night there, hike the catwalk first thing in the morning, and continue on. and it's going to be perfect timing, too. tiredness is setting in and the road warrior vibe is ebbing. 

there's the sign for whitewater, 5 miles off the road. i follow the narrow road down, slamming on the brakes at each mad dash by a little cottontail rabbit. the sun's going down, and the final approach is through a small creek. that's when i realize that the lack of campground symbol on the sign at the main road was not a fluke, not an oversight, not a lack-of-an update from a recently revamped camping spot. and i suddenly realized that subtle but oh-so-important difference between the solid-outline tent symbol on map and the hollow-outline tent symbol on the map. campground, vs. picnic area. 

damn. i'm tired, hungry, and i know from earlier perusals of the map that the next campground shown is at least 20-30 miles further up in the mountains. not only will the sun set soon, but i won't be able to walk the intriguing catwalk. no way am i going to want to come back 20 miles the next day. there's no choice, though - i turn around and head back to the main road. and am almost immediately surprised by a forest service campground, just north of the town! eureka! it's not lovely - hard by the highway, few trees, no view, no water. but it's free, and looks deserted, except for a van nearby that looks broken down. the hood is up and the passenger window is covered with plastic instead of glass. there's no people to be seen though, so i relax, cook some dinner, and enjoy the solitude. 

suddenly there's the sound of a sliding door closing from the direction of the van - whoosh-whomp. unbidden, the image of javiar bardem from no country for old men springs to my mind. shit. i quickly slam a car door, to let them know i'm here. as if, like a bear, making noise will deter them from injuring you. then it's just time to wait until they - he? - can be seen; but it's not what i expected at all. it's a man and what appears to be his daughter, setting out from the van, walking - maybe to town? i hear her small voice, at first indistinguishable, then becoming clearer. "...don't know why there has to be all the bugs." "well, says her father, a voice of reason, "you have to remember that god made all the little bugs, to do something important." it's an odd snippet of conversation to overhear. do they often ponder the presence of god and why certain creations were made? could it be that they, like any wild animal, are more afraid of me than i of them? remember they hadn't seen my 5-foot person yet. maybe the dad was imagining the face of javiar bardem, too. maybe their words were talismans, just like my car door slam, to ward off potential harm. 

who knows. they continued on without a look in my direction. and i went to sleep, finally, looking forward to walking the catwalk tomorrow morning.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

road trip 2010

well, my peops, tomorrow i take off for a three-week jaunt through arizona and new mexico.

i could wax poetic and say i'm off to find myself, or to find the west, but neither of those is entirely true.

neither of those things can be found in three weeks, for starters. surely not myself. i've never been a big epiphany person, with startling, life-changing discoveries and realizations. i find that finding myself - whatever that means - tends to happen in small little moments of clarity, that are usually immediately followed up by weeks of befuddlement.

two steps forward, one step back.

and surely not the west, either. it encompasses far too much to be 'found' in three weeks. i've lived here for years, and been thinking about it for years, and still haven't come much closer to knowing it. sometimes thoughts crystallize together or form a chain...only to be driven away by competing ideas, new revolutionary thoughts, or just exhaustion.

two steps forward, one step back.

i've been saying all week, when asked about leaving on thursday, "yep, that's the plan." i keep saying that's the plan instead of yes. partly because i can't really believe i'm going to roll out of here tomorrow. i'm not really prepared and it just seems like something will come up to keep me from going. some child illness, some work crisis, something. i've been on several of these sort of road-warrior trips over the years, so it's not an unfamiliarity preventing me from leaping into commitment. 1991 i spent two weeks driving around with a friend, from oregon to california, nevada, utah, wyoming, montana, canada, and washington. again in 1991 with a friend for 2 weeks: oregon, california, arizona, new mexico. in 1992, alone: all through california for 2 weeks to many national parks. in 1993, again solo: from montana to texas and back. in 1994, again solo: from montana to southern california and back, via utah. in 1994, solo, from oregon to colorado and wyoming. in 1996 from oregon across nevada and back. in 1997 with a friend: from oregon through nevada to new mexico and onto texas and back via montana (no kidding). and then three months and 10,000 miles in 1998, with many friends and a son, from oregon to maine via the southwest and south. with lots of side trips. there's more, but you get the picture.

is there anything more american than the road trip? our country is just designed for it! we've got highways - miles and miles of them. we've got cars - millions and millions of them. we've got cheap gas, wide open spaces, and natural wonders around every corner. the road trip has been the basis for more movies of family hilarity and self-discovery than can be counted. roadways are established to celebrate the scenery, mark important history, encourage tourists to visit ridiculous wide-spot-in-the-road towns with little to recommend them.

god, i'm feeling like an american! i love traveling. i love it. i love it, love it, love it! i love driving alone with the music as loud as i want. i love deciding each day where to go, what to see, where to hike. i love waking up someplace new. i love seeing the desert in summer. i love seeing national parks and monuments. i love stopping in new small towns and wandering around. i love imagining living in all these out of the way places. i am going to be doing a lot of thinking, a lot of reading, a lot of wandering around. i'm going to be living healthy, getting lots of sleep, fresh air, taking my vitamins and flossing my teeth every damn day. hell, maybe even after every meal! what's not to love about the chance to reinvent one's self? for the next three weeks, i'm going to be healthy, relaxed, happy, and have good teeth!

the car is pretty much packed. clothes, gear, food, stove, a box of books, and a box of absolutely essential cds. camera. flashlight.

i won't find the west or myself in just three weeks, but i don't expect to. i just hope to make some progress and remember what that sense of discovery feels like.

maybe take four steps forward, and only only back.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

what is the american west?

i ask this question in all seriousness. what is the american west? what does it mean to you? what images arise in your mind when you think of the west? because if i think that the west matters - and i do - i've got to figure out what it is.

at first, it was the area of the louisiana purchase, and everything even further west - which was all occupied by other countries anyway. it's hard to imagine arkansas, parts of minnesota, and new orleans being in the west, but those areas were all acquired in the purchase. so perhaps part of the problem in defining the west has been that it is, in some sense, a relative measure - in part, it is simply the western portion of the united states, however the united states happens to be defined at that moment. this purely geographic definition is - or was - a shifting target. now, the U.S. census bureau defines the west as the 13 state region encompassing alaska and hawaii, oregon, washington, california, idaho, montana, nevada, arizona and new mexico, utah, wyoming, and colorado.

ecologically, there is a basis for considering it as all the land west of the 98th or 100th meridian. this meridian, which runs through the middle of the united states - generally marking the eastern boundary of the dakotas, and running near the eastern edge of nebraska, kansas, oklahoma, and the middle of texas - basically separates the arid from the non-arid; as the approximate line of 20 annual inches of rainfall, it marks a line of irrigation. it is where the dry summers of the west give way to the humid, wet summers of the midwest and east, where summer moisture can be enough to grow crops. it's true that you could define much of the west as this very characteristic - aridity. as wallace stegner said, 'you have to get over the color green'. it is the land of irrigation, of reclamation, of reservoirs and dry heat. even if the aridity definition excludes the verdant pacific northwest (and alaska and hawaii), the pacific northwest can tag along under the umbrella of limited summer moisture and low summer humidity. and, certainly the struggle for water has shaped much of our recent regional history. by including western oklahoma and texas in the definition, we bring into the fold two states with significant minority populations or histories. 

certainly part of the definition of the west is cultural. the west include states with large portions of minorities and the four states with no one majority race or ethnicity (texas, new mexico, california, and hawaii), and this diversity has shaped our common experience.
frederick turner, in 1893, considered the west equivalent to that area that was 'frontier' or very sparsely settled (under 2 persons per square mile), and he bemoaned the end of it. his pessimistic view didn't hold true, though -  although the overall population of the west has grown consistently over the last hundred-plus years, it hasn't been equally dispersed. there are still many places that are 'frontier' in terms of settlement. and the west encompasses major metro areas like los angeles and phoenix and seattle. so it's not just about rural, scattered population, although that is part of it, as is our shared, frontier heritage. in fact many of the connotations of the West are those relating to the Old West, to the glory days of outlaws, cowboys, immigrants, and wilderness. we also all share an exploitative past. western economies have long been focused on utilization of raw natural resources - whether soil, trees, or rangelands - for eastern capital concerns. all western states share a correspondingly heavy proportion of land federally owned. but are these shared experiences and characteristics enough to give a cultural definition to the west as a region separate from the rest of the u.s.?

these aren't all rhetorical questions. i really feel like the west is different, is unique, but why? it's the most diverse region of the united states. shouldn't that work against a common identity? we have the lowest rainfall and the highest rainfall, the lowest point and the highest point. the most diverse climates and ecosystems, from all of our deserts to our temperate rainforests. diverse populations. very different current cultures - from the liberal left coast to the libertarian intermountain west to the increasingly nativist arizona. so why do i identify so clearly as a westerner, and why do i feel a kinship with others who are from the west, regardless of political affiliation, regardless of background, regardless of occupation?

when i think of the west, i think of several key characteristics: immense, superlative vegetation (redwoods, sequoias, saguaros, douglas-fir). magical and unique land forms (canyons and hoodoos and monument valley). native cultures both living and ancient. iconic places like the grand canyon. small, resource dependent towns and economies; loggers, miners, cowboys. mountains, volcanoes, and geology for the layman to see and understand. the hopeful destinations of millions of immigrants, both foreign and domestic, and the repository of the constant american searching for a better life, just around the corner. wide open spaces, wilderness, parks and natural places - all of which is a function of that public, government-owned land. thank god for our public lands! trust me, i have seen hell (the private-ownership mecca of maine, for example) and it's not a pretty sight.

maybe i haven't figured out exactly what the west is, but i do have my own designation of what states comprise the west. it's oregon, washington, idaho, montana, wyoming, nevada, california, arizona, new mexico, and just western texas. alaska and hawaii are too different in every way to be part of the shared west - although i'm glad they are part of the u.s. i gladly grab western texas, even though - as a state - texas is a big pain in the ass, and i'd never take eastern texas, with their SUV driving oil-drilling mavens and executives and revisionist textbooks. but western texas is as independent and idiosyncratic as the best of the rest of the west. plus, we've got to have big bend, one of the most beautiful places in the united states.
and colorado? why exclude colorado? don't even get me started on colorado. they have eastern butter, for pete's sake. you think i'm joking? i'm not. i have absolutely no basis for excluding them so summarily, but i do. because i'm a goddamn westerner, and have little use for top-down rules and designations.

i am serious, though. i'm curious what anyone reading this thinks the west is. write it in a comment, or if it's too long, send me an email.

map of federal land ownership from an article by David Kennedy. for his (much better) overview of the west, see

Thursday, April 15, 2010

looking up

as in, i was looking up today, in the hopes that things would follow suit.

sometimes i have a hard time remembering the beauty around me, and i find that a camera literally helps me focus my thoughts.

such was the day today. and who can resist the look of fresh maple keys?

of newly-grown dawn redwood needles?

of wild ginger, peeking out?

of the tropical look of about-to-burst azaleas?

and of cherry blossoms against a springtime oregon blue sky?

if that's not enough to keep me looking up, i don't know what is.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

an interlude

i often find myself on the east side of campus, with some awkward amount of time to kill between events over there - say, somewhere between 30 minutes and 2 hours - that is just not enough time to warrant going all the way back to my office on the west side. yesterday was one such day, so i gravitated to where i always gravitate to -  the bookstore.

i love bookstores. when i walk in, a calm and yet excited - or maybe hopeful is a better word - feeling settles over me. calm because i am surrounded by my primary comfort source: books. i know, somewhere, hidden on the shelves, are the books that are most like old friends, that the very title of makes me smile. hopeful because i am reminded, again, that the possibilities for new learning and growth are endless, that there is always so much more knowledge and beautiful prose out there that i haven't read yet, that there's some other new best friend out there, waiting for me. at the OSU bookstore, first comes the entry way displays: staff recommendations, top sellers for indie bookstores, and the bargain table. this always warrants a quick overview. then i head to my favorite aisles in general books. is there a new, absolutely perfect tree or flower identification book out? new hiking guides, travel guides, maps that are calling my name? on to forestry/ecology, then gardening & quilting, then religion, a quick glance at some puzzle or music books, quite a while in history, then literature for the finale. sometimes i'll wander through the kids' section. and, even when not textbook shopping, i always head to the text book section. i always browse the forestry aisle (yep, the book i want is here - silviculture and ecology of western forests - but not a used copy yet; will check back later), but apart from that, i mostly check out what the undergraduate literature courses are reading this year. i check to see that i have a sufficient percentage of them, i look for new and interesting titles, and if there's a classic i need cheap, i'll grab a used copy. this year i'm pleased to see lots of familiar faces - slaughterhouse-five is still on the list, for example - and some impressive new choices - fight club, for example. (nicely done, prof!)

yesterday, though, as i'm going through my normal routine and circuit around the bookstore, it suddenly hits me: what am i doing? not at this moment, in the bookstore, but in a general way: what the fuck am i doing with my life?

what i am interested in, what makes me happy, what i enjoy and get fulfillment out of is perfectly represented by my wander through the bookstore: different places. trees & flowers. quilting. spirituality in its many forms/ideas. music. history. and most importantly, books. books, books, books. writing and reading. prose and poetry. fiction and non-fiction - all of it.

why does this matter? and why am i writing about it? because i am currently a phd student in applied economics. what is applied economics?  well, here's what it says on our web page:

The curricula provide, at both master's and doctoral levels, a foundation of rigorous courses in economic theory, and econometrics and other quantitative methods. Areas of concentration are available in international trade, public health economics, resource and environmental economics, and (for the MA/MS only) transportation economics. Students employ economic theories, principles, and methods to examine real-world problems with significant attention to data and institutions.

let's see - do you see books in there? trees? quilts? beauty and the search for meaning? no, me neither.

yet that's what i'm doing. and that's why i haven't blogged lately. why the quilt books i check out of the library languish on the end table until, a couple of testy overdue email notices later, i reluctantly return them. why the trails i want to hike again have remained unsullied by my boots. why i haven't been to my inspiration point since february. because i am studying, continually, a subject that is as foreign to me as chinese and that provides me with no passion, no inspiration - in fact it sucks out my soul.

yesterday morning, before this, i sat in my microeconomic theory class and worked on the  problem on the right. that was it. that's what we do.

in just 10 short weeks i have two exams to take: on june 18th from 9am to 1pm four of us will solve 6 of these microeconomic theory problems. if we pass, we continue on to study - hopefully - something genuinely interesting. if we fail, we can try one more time before leaving the program. on june 16th, from 9am to 1pm, is another exam that will be even worse, if possible - over quantitative methods.

i'm not trying to complain too much about being a student and having to take qualifying exams. everyone has to do it. i choose to come back to school, after all - no one twisted my arm. obviously i do find some aspects of economics interesting. i'm just realizing that i will have very little time and inspiration to write between now and june 18th, may have very little soul left after that, and i expect it will take me a while to recover.

and, that i'm still trying to figure out what i'm doing with my life. and these mini-identity crises always take up so much damn time. 

"Can one know one's self? Is one ever somebody? I don't know anything about it any more. It now seems to me that one changes from day to day and that every few years one becomes a new being."
--George Sand

Wednesday, February 10, 2010


sunday morning i got up in the dark. i threw some food, the binoculars, and a plant book in my backpack, a change of shoes in the car. i kissed the boys good bye in the pre-dawn and headed west. as i drove and sang loudly and watched the forest wake up in the sunshine, shedding its fog coat in glistening drops, i realized there were two things i was doing. one was simply, going home. but the other was, pilgrimage.

how did this come about? let me back up. a couple of weeks ago, two newcomers to the state asked me what my favorite place in the coast range was, and why. (actually, that's not completely true. only one asked me. the other just mentioned the coast range in an offhand way, which i took as sufficient invitation to expound on the best places. so really there was only one direct solicitation.) the 'where' answer came easy - cascade head. the 'why' answer - well, i had to think about that. and i realized there were two reasons why - one, because it's just a beautiful place; what i think of as the absolute reason. the other is more personal - a relative reason.

i arrive at the lower parking lot to the sight of the salmon river estuary emerging from the early-morning winter mist. ah, the salmon river. it might seem strange to love such a beleaguered, unspectacular river. but that river is the connecting tie, the binding cord running from the house of my childhood about 2 miles upstream - past the hatchery, where i spent bored hours watching the fry, where the rough, red-headed salmon returned to in all their fearsome, dying glory; running through fields and grazing horses; past my home 'town' - to this joining of river and ocean, at the base of the steep, grass-covered headland. no, it's no rogue river, or umpqua. there's no miles and miles of wilderness, or rapids, or much wild fish runs anymore. it simply starts in the coast range and powers through the forest downhill to the ocean, passing only trailer parks, lawns, blackberry vines, and abandoned buildings. but it feels somehow both accessible and familiar; knowable and lovable. this morning, there are birds calling through the mist, and the promise of sun coming in the diffuse light. and, best of all, not a soul in sight. eager to get into the woods, i turn away from the river, and head up the trail.

cascade head - long a place i associate with happy memories of my youth. was it totally familiar, this trail? did i recognize every step? no. in fact, i rarely use - or used - the lower trail. we almost always came from the forest service road on the top. partly that's because we weren't a real big hiking family, despite spending a fair bit of time in the woods. we definitely tended toward the 'hick' variety of backwoods oregonians, as opposed to the 'hippie' variety. the other is that back in the day, that road wasn't closed half the year. at least, not that i remember. it's possible that it was. we definitely had a local's view of cascade head and, in that utterly inexcusable yet endearing local way, probably never really realized there may exist rules to follow, or that they might also apply to us, and not just to people from portland. in fairness, my mother certainly would have followed rules, once made aware of them, but i'm not sure even she would think to seek them out. and my father - well, let's just point out that for fun, as a youth in butte, montana, he and his friends stole dynamite from mines and blew it up. clearly 'following rules' was for wimps.

in truth, i haven't been up here for years. a ridiculous number of years. and i've certainly had the chance. i've played tour guide for several groups in and around the area. and i always expound on how beautiful, how unique, how much i love cascade head - but i haven't come up here. it occurs to me now, walking through the quiet, that maybe, deep in some corner of my heart, i wanted a pilgrimage to this place and recognized that, for me, pilgrimages are best spent in solitude, not among a large chattering group. for once i don't want to share the memories i have of this place with anyone else, while i'm reliving them.

even though the trail itself isn't familiar, the forest itself is. it is beyond familiar; it is like a natural extension of my existence. the trees, the feel of the ground, the bird songs, the smell, the colors of green, grey, brilliant blue, and red; all so familiar it is almost difficult to think of them in parts, in pieces. it is like trying to imagine one single cell of your skin. it is hard to take apart; it just happens to be this thing you're wrapped in, not in any way separable from yourself or your existence. this is what being in the coast range forest feels like, to me. i expect this comfort, welcome it. i was craving it. part of me wants nothing more than to lie down in the moss, the way i used to as a kid, in the little chunk of siuslaw national forest that was right behind our house - that really was my backyard. but i'm also anxious to see the grasslands this time, and so i continue on.

the interest in the grasslands is new and different - and yet still connected to memory. last week i had to track down the grassland plant communities on cascade head. these aren't detailed in the forest service guides to plant communities in the coast range. so i dug out my plants book and started flipping through.

now, my amateur botanist enthusiast career started in grade school, when a terrific teacher taught me how to press, identify, and mount plants. of course i started with the obvious, pretty, showy bunch - the wildflowers. since then, my affection has been focused on trees. but an odd thing happened the other week as i looked through the book. there were some it seemed i could remember, quite clearly. then, i found a phd dissertation written in 1984 for OSU's botany department classifying plant communities in coastal grasslands in oregon. eureka! his classification species jived exactly with what i picked out from the plant book. although i hadn't realized it, i was paying attention in this place i loved so much, all those years ago. in fact looking at the illustrations brought back a flood of memories - the feel of the downy panicles against my palms in spring, the soft feel of the fresh spruce growth, the sunshine so readily felt in the open area, the sound of the waves rising from a thousand feet below. again, some secret little corner of my heart was paying attention, was speaking to me. that's when i knew i had to get back out there.

of course, on this sunday in february, bright sun notwithstanding, it's winter. there's no panicles for my palms, no spruce buds to rub against my cheeks. but it is just as beautiful as i remembered. the grassland is just as open, the view is just as spectacular, the cliff just as frightening. the way the estuary spreads out below you and you can truly appreciate how essential that ecosystem is - when all else you see is cliffs, hills, and trees, you can see how vital that shallow water, that sheltered area is. now that i've learned how rare these coastal grasslands are - and how cascade head was declared one of the best examples of them in the 80s, and was added to the UNESCO world biosphere reserve list - now that i've learned that it was so special to the tribes it was a vision quest site - it's even more beautiful. it is, in every way, an absolutely special place.

as to why i love it so much - that relative reason - well, it's one of the few places from growing up that i only have positive memories of. the thing about having a parent that sort of cut a drunken swath through a small town - and then died young - and being a person with the affliction of memory - means that most places in this, in my home area, in my comfort zone, are a mix of good and bad. in a very specific way. home - lots of both. north bank road - good and bad. otis, rose lodge, lincoln city, all the bars and places in there and in between, the beach, portland, grand ronde, seattle, airports, grocery stores, john day, eastern all those places each good memory is tempered by a sad one.

except - and this is so key - except cascade head. how did it escape such association? was it because we always went in the daytime morning, before the scotch got flowing? i even flirted with the thought that my memory might be faulty, and i should verify this with my mom - but good lord, why would i ever seek out such a truth, if it existed? why would i ever willingly pawn off this place of good memories for just yet another, run-of-the-mill, ho-hum boring standard ordinary place of good/bad memories?

there was a brief year or month or maybe just a day, when i was about 10, when my dad got a new camera and really loved to try it out. it was at the height of my wildflower pressing days. he actually made me a flower press - lord knows how he figured out how to do it, but he did. i can still remember the exact feel of the plywood cover, of the elastic straps and screws that bound together the layers of newspaper and blotter paper. in that rare moment, that confluence, of our interests, we got up before dawn one day - at least one day - and drove the old highway from otis to neskowin, through the national forest. stopping for pictures, stopping to collect wildflowers. he taught me how to use his camera, and i took this picture of a snag, and of foxglove. we ended up at the new highway, crossed it, and continued on the forest service road across the top of cascade head. i remember the sun, and the feel of the panicles on my palms. and i remember a good day, a spectacularly good day, just me and my dad, in a good place, in a spectacularly good place.

this sunday, up there, on the top, i feel like a kid again. my soul feels unweighted, my heart light. i relish the breeze, the solitude, the sounds of the waves and the birds. as i descend back down the trail, i stop briefly and tug out some hairs, and let them glide through the air. long ago, when i lived on the reservation, i was taught about traditional uses of wild plants by a tribal elder. she taught us that every time we munched on wild onions, dug up camas bulbs, or chewed up rattlesnake-plantain leaves for a poultice, we should leave something behind in thanks. a bit of tobacco usually was the choice. i don't have tobacco with me these days. but a bit of hair will do, too. something to acknowledge your taking, something to leave behind. i may not have taken any plants today - i know, now, not to gather wildflowers in protected areas. i'm a little better at following the rules. but i sure took something from that place. i took a little bandage for my heart. i plugged up a tiny hole with sunshine, bird song, and good memories. i paid homage to the ocean, to the trees, even to the grass for the first time, and to the river that connected it all. like any pilgrim i went seeking something, and found it.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

the best team in the world (that's no exaggeration...)

ah, winter (and fall, and spring). as the rains settle in and the geese move overhead, a young girl's thoughts turn lightly

basketball! the sport of champions! and a sport that we oregonians have a unique relationship with. why is that? is it because it's a winter sport, easily played indoors, just when we PNWers need something to do inside? well, maybe that is a portion of what motivates our love.

or, is it more accurate to say that it's the sport that we as oregonians have a unique fan-atic relationship with our one and only fabulous team over?

what is it that makes the blazers fans and our love of our team unique? one is the way we express it. i've heard about 'sports towns', with lots of fans and major league teams and the sort of love that expresses itself by upturning cars and setting them on fire after the team wins. we don't really have that here. i've been puzzled before by new jersey or new york folks at sporting events, yelling "get a real player in there!" i was shocked, shocked to the core. that's not how we roll in the PNW. we're like parents, cheering on a kid. we have one team, just one, just one hoped-for and prayed-for baby upon which to shower all our wishes and expectations. just one vessel to pour into all our collective dreamed of sports hero-dom. that's certainly part of it; the fact that we have only one major league team. but that's not all of it.

it's hard to explain, the way we feel about our team. another way of saying it is that we're no detroit, putting up with criminals just to win games. true, winning seasons are nice, but overall, we just want nice people. we want the kind of guys you could bring home to your mother. it's no coincidence that clyde drexler, one of the most universally nice guys ever, is one of our most-loved players ever. the truth is, that oregonians actually just like having a nice, pleasant life. we live in eden - it's kind of hard to put on a hardened, cynical, heckling front when your heart is full of singing birds and flowers and when everyone you see is smiling and pleasant. we like our cheerful life, and we like watching our sports in a positive frame of mind. we want to root for the good guys, and if they win, so much the better. what's that? want to talk about...*that* time, when the players weren't good guys and the fans weren't behind them? well, this fan blog put it better than i can:

"Roughly 5 seasons ago, Blazer's management recognized that if the Trail Blazers want to become a viable, competitive and successful basketball franchise again, they would have to repair the damaged relationship with the city and the fans. First order of business, fix the Blazer's tarnished reputation. By gutting the team and replacing the coaching staff, they made a pledge to the community that the Blazer's organization was ready and willing to reestablish the ever important bond between a loving but disillusioned fan base and wayward Blazer team. Through a series of calculated moves and a new commitment to draft and sign only those players with the highest moral quality and character, the Blazers reconciled with Portland and the era of "character and family" has been in full swing ever since."


let's recap: management realized that to be a winning franchise, they needed to have the fans behind them, 100%. maybe that goes along with the whole small-market thing. let's face it, in los angeles, you can easily alienate half the population and still sell out every night; there's so many people that you can always find some lowest denominator willing to root you on. but that doesn't fly here. when the team was established, oregon - the whole state - had only two million people, maybe a third of that in the entire greater portland metro area. you can't alienate them, there's nobody else around!

i've been teased before for being fans of players who aren't as good as their billing, or aren't maybe all that good at all. my only defense? they are blazers, and i love my blazers. we are loyal. we're no LA, putting up with egomaniacs in order to win games. we're loyal to the core to our players because we like nice players and we want them to be loyal to us, too. we know anyone good can be courted away by a big, sexy, major market at any time (like hedu turkelo's rejection of portland last summer for toronto, a 'real' city. ouch!) our only hope is to shower them with love and devotion in the hopes that...that...the players will either love our adulation or just be unable to break our hearts by leaving. doesn't matter. the end result is the same. we need them here - we need them more than glamorous places like LA or new york.

and, to some extent, there's just no analyzing my love for the blazers, there's just no way to break it down into understood parts that make sense. isn't that what fandom is all about? that 1 + 1 make 3? that it just maybe doesn't add up?

suffice it to say, that i grew up loving the blazers. my folks lived in portland just before that glorious year we went to the championships; they went to many a game of the fledgling team for the two years before relocating to lincoln county in 1972. growing up in the glory years of the blazers just meant they were a ubiquitous presence, a constant feature of state pride. well i remember the "blazers" signs distributed in the oregonian during each playoff session in the 80s and 90s, and how every car, every window was emblazoned with them, no matter where in the state you were! i remember being at the portland symphony one year on a sunday afternoon when we were in the playoffs. during the applause break between pieces, a tuxedo-ed man briskly walked across the stage to the conductor and whispered in his ear. he turned to us and said, "blazers are up!" and the whole place burst into cheers. somehow, that's what's so unique about oregon and our fan-dom - that the people at the symphony are just as interested to know what the team is doing as the folks across the river at the coliseum.

why are we so close to our team? that i can't say at all for sure, but i can see it might have something to do with acquiring a team that so suddenly did so well - winning the championship just four short years after being established. in one sense, it doesn't matter that we haven't won since then. we don't mind being the overlooked under-dog team. we are the overlooked, underdog state, sandwiched between our more famous neighbors. it's our cross and we'll bear it happily! having tasted glory, having burst on the scene, we know it's possible; until then we are happy to revel in our overlooked status, happy to quote the statistics of clyde when he was overlooked for the first dream team that was assembled in 1992; happy to be indignant that brandon roy was once again not selected in the fan voting for the all-star game (the last two years the coaches have voted him in; let's hope they are wise again this year. he is a super star, after all - and did i yet mention that he's a PNW native?!). we love being our small place, our small market, our happy loving delirious fans cheering on our one-and-only sports team.

as finally the NBA writer bill simmons realized, as answered in his 'mailbag' feature earlier this season after a book tour stop brought him to portland and he caught a game at the rose garden:

"Q: Did your book tour include a stop at the Rose Garden for Pistons-Blazers last week? I hope you checked out the way the Garden treats Greg Oden. Every time he does something basic, the place explodes like he dunked from half court. They are just willing themselves to think he will be good.

A: Yes, I did. And the best way to describe the crowd's support for Oden: It's like watching 15,000 parents rooting for their kid, only all 15,000 parents fathered the same kid. If he ever explodes for 30 points, 20 rebounds and eight blocks in a game, you'll have to carry each deliriously passed-out Portland fan out of the Rose Garden individually like they were victims of smoke inhalation in a burning house. (The funny thing is, everyone in Portland is nodding right now. And yes, I know he's had a couple of inspired games this season. You don't need to e-mail me the stat lines. No, really. Save us both the time. Let's not put too much pressure on him. Baby steps.) I also was startled by Portland fans arguably (see, there it is!) liking Rudy Fernandez as much as, and maybe even a smidge more than, the great Brandon Roy.

Two other things shocked me. First, that's the whitest NBA experience you can have that doesn't involve the words "Salt," "Lake" and City." They didn't play hip-hop either before the game or during the game, each team seemed to have more African-Americans than the entire crowd and the pregame video right before the introduction of Portland's starting lineup was a local grunge band singing "Ballroom Blitz." And second, during a second-quarter timeout, my buddy House and I ran into the concourse to grab beers and noticed there was NOBODY else in line for anything. We felt like Will Smith in "I Am Legend." There was no sign of human life other than the workers. Everyone else stays in their seats. At halftime, those same people pour into the concourse like it's halftime of a football game. I've never seen anything like it. I don't know whether the Blazers have the most loyal, passionate, dutiful fans in the NBA, but at the very least, we can say nobody else tops them.

Here's what I took away from my Rose Garden experience: Portland loves the Blazers the same way a single mother would love her only child. The city's revulsion toward the "Jail Blazers" makes a lot more sense to me now. The team and the city are intertwined, and if one side isn't holding up that bargain, it's even more painful than usual. Anyway, I couldn't be happier that I got a taste of it. Great NBA city."

'scuse me. i've got to catch the end of this game...blazers down, team plagued by injuries, it's the classic rise-from-below story of an overlooked potential superhero! right?!