April 26, 2015

What goes around, comes around

The Columbia Earth Day celebration was rained out last week. Seems fitting, in a way.

Rain is the epitome of recycling: Raindrop to stream, stream to ocean, ocean to cloud, cloud back to raindrop. Repeat for a million years or so.

Earth Day is very special to me. I was a freshman in college in 1970 when θ -- the Greek letter theta – began appearing on bumper stickers and posters. Theta on a green field was the new symbol for ecology, which itself was a term that never made it into my textbooks.

By April, I was wearing the symbol myself and part of the organizing team for Earth Day 1 at Shasta College in my hometown, Redding, CA. I have seldom felt so proud as when I carried the giant θ-emblazoned flag as we marched through downtown.

It tell that story to my students now and their eyes roll. Few know what “Earth Day” means – nor do they care. I suppose I should be upset, but I’m strangely pleased. Their ambivalence means that hippie-haired gaggle of protesters in 1970 succeeded. We changed the world.

Earth Day did not arise to promote hemp seed, belly dancing and henna tattoos. It came on the heels of warnings by Rachel Carson, Paul Ehrlich and others that we might not make it to our dotage unless we started taking care of our world.

In my hometown, the lumber mills burned their waste in huge “teepee burners,” which likely were not as bad noxious clouds from the burning garbage dump. Clear Creek, near my home, was anything but and lined by 20-foot-high rows of gravel left behind by the dredges that plowed the valley for gold nuggets.

The national picture was bleaker. I remember my eyes burned and I hacked up brown gook while visiting Los Angeles. The Potomac in our capital was known as the river you could smell before seeing. Bald eagles were fantasy creatures – on the verge of extinction from the effects of DDT pesticide.

So we marched. Better yet, we voted. And year by year, life not only went on, it got better.

Now my students watch bald eagles glide over the Missouri River, put their cans in city-provided recycling bags and think DDT is a rap group. Blissfully.

And Earth Day? Just a rain delay. The anger was mostly gone, replaced by gardeners, solar panel salesmen and kids with face paint. But you can’t keep a good movement down.

Like a raindrop.

April 19, 2015

From One State to Another

Oregon to a Missourian

Dear Gillian,

Spring is just starting to peep out here in the Heartland. The trees are budding and the bulbs are blooming. In a week or two it will be honestly green.

But Missouri is not Oregon. I think about the real green every time I glance down at my right hand and see the sparkle of my UO ring. After 14 years as a professor here at the University of Missouri, I’m a loyal Mizzou Tiger. But in my heart, I’ll always be a Duck.

Oregon is a mystery to most Missourians. I asked a few of my students this week what they thought of when I said “Oregon” or “Oregonians.” I was met with puzzled looks and a couple of “I can’t even imagine it.”

From here, Oregon is a lifetime away – almost a dream. It’s always been that way for Missourians. The Oregon Trail started here and wound 2,200 miles to some odd place where the trees stayed green all year. The Midwesterners in those covered wagons were not gamblers like California’s ‘49ers. But the Oregon dream was so strong even sensible folk who lived by the Show Me creed packed up for a land they couldn’t comprehend.

Even today it’s beyond the imagination of many Missourians. Oregon is the land where you watch the football team change uniforms 20 times, pull into the station to let someone else fill up your VW bus so you can drive over to Washington and buy marijuana, then come home and turn your beer bottles in for deposit before getting a doctor to help you kill yourself. All with no sales tax.

Nothing weird about that. Except sandals, of course. Wearing sandals before May 1 is a Class B misdemeanor in Missouri. Wearing sandals with socks can get you exiled to Kansas.

But I know Oregon and delight in both its eccentricities and wonders. It’s Mount Hood popping out of the clouds after a month in seclusion. It’s Multnomah Falls seeming to spill a wisp of water from heaven. It’s the amber waves of grain east of the Cascades that shock outsiders into realizing more of Oregon is high desert than high evergreens.

And it's the people. Oregonians are less eccentric than they are pragmatic – their ideas make so much sense the rest of us think they must be crazy. Low voter turnout? Cast your ballot by mail. Attendant-pumped gas too expensive? Ride bikes (lots and lots of bikes). Drizzly rain never-ending? Just pretend it isn’t there. Gor-Tex is fashionable for any occasion.

But most of all, Oregon has you. If my daughter, my grandkids and my son-in-law are so very happy there, it must be magical.

And for that, Missourians drop their famous demand and quietly turn it into a plea.

Show Me. Please.


April 18, 2015

Missouri to an Oregonian

Dear Dad,

Remember in Eugene when you’d get those rare days in spring where, after dreary skies and an eternity of rain, the sun came blazing out in all it’s summer glory and no one came to class, not even professors because, well, the sun was shining! It’s that kid of day here in Portland. Unfortunately I’m no longer an undergraduate who can just skip a class now and then, and while it is my day off from work, I’m stuck inside studying cataloging, which, by the way, is not the kind of thing you want to do on a beautiful sunny day.

The western half of Oregon, as you know, is blessed (cursed?) with an abundance of rain. I actually don’t mind the rain. I’m not sure if it’s a gene passed down from our English roots or just the fact that I’ve spent more of my life in the rain than out of it that has made it, for the most part, a perfectly pleasant kind of environment to live in. It means that you spend a lot of time indoors or in raincoats, sure, but it also means that it’s green an lush almost all the year round.

Missouri, I know, is not like that. I remember when you first moved there, how you would describe the barren beauty of those months after the leaves fell, when you could see houses you didn’t know were there on hills that had been hidden by a swatch of deciduous trees. Coming from the land of evergreen forests, I didn’t really understand the appeal. Forests were dark and mysterious and hushed, any sounds deadened by the heavy curtain of pine and fur boughs. During our time living in Missouri, and then later all our trips to visit, the scenery has grown on me. It took a while for me to see it, because Oregon’s beauty is very in-your face – sumptuous and grand, but now I understand the feast or famine greenness of your state, the wonder of the world outside transforming from lush green to burn orange to stark brown as the seasons roll by.

Will and I once took Briton on a mountain bike ride, somewhere, I can’t remember where, not far from your house. It was fall and the trees were bursting with bright yellow leaves. The wind picked up, just a little, just enough to send a constant and steady fall of lemon colored leaves, drifting to the ground. Like snow. It went on and on, and we stood under it and just watched. It was, perhaps, the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen. I still think about it. A part of me wishes I’d gotten a picture, but mostly I’m glad I didn’t, because I’m sure a photo wouldn’t have done the moment justice, and I’d rather have that memory in my head than the memory of watching through a viewfinder and a mediocre photo stored on my computer. Last fall, people here marvelled at the autumn colors changing and I kind of though "meh, I've seen better." Oregon does green better than it does red and orange and yellow.

According to my phone, Columbia and Portland will both be in the high 70’s and low 80’s this weekend. So far this year we’ve been consistently warmer than you, but in a few weeks I imagine you’ll outstrip us, heading toward your much hotter summer as Oregon dithers back and forth for a few more months about whether it’s spring or winter or summer, changing it's mind on a daily, if not hourly, basis. But for a brief moment in the year, we’ll both be spring this weekend. I’ll sit outside with my tea and think about you, enjoying your coffee on your deck. You’ll watch your hawk, I’ll fill up the hummingbird feeder, we should both probably do some yard work except, eh, it can wait.

Enjoy spring in Missouri Dad.


April 14, 2015

Kids, parents and performances

To Watch, To Dream, To Love

On Friday night I sat in a darkened high school auditorium and watched my girl dance under the bright stage lights. I have seen this particular dance at least a hundred times. I sat through the beginning stages of learning it, listened to the ballet teacher stop and start and stop the music again and again to work on this step or that. I helped with costumes and dress rehearsal and yet, it never got old, watching my beginning ballerina, no less serious for her inexperience than a more advanced dancer, sous-sus, plié and relevé her way through the performance.

This is the first chance I've had to be the one watching other than school music class concerts. The first time I was the audience to my own children. It's only in the last few months that both kids have discovered the excitement of preforming, Evelyn with dance, Briton with acting. His play is just a few weeks away (which reminds me, I better get sewing on those saytre costumes he promised my time and sewing machine for). And as much as I loved (and I mean LOVED) being on stage as a teenager and young adult, I have to say I am enjoying this audience thing even more.

It's not just the fun of watching your child do something wonderful, and lets face it, even if things go terribly wrong, I'm still going to think my own children are fabulous. It's seeing them be inspired by their own abilities, seeing that flush of happiness on their face at the end of the dance, when the audience is clapping and they are smiling and bowing, seeing that familiar thrill, the one I remember, sending their limbs jittering with excitement.

As much as I think to myself "That girl is a dancer!" I've never been the parent who pushes their kids into this activity or that one. In fact, I may have under-exposed them to after school activities simply due to my dread of driving all over town for lessons, classes and practices. I don't expect them to find the thing that drives them now, at eight and twelve. I don't really care much if they stick with dance and drama or float away from them and onto other things. I want them to love life. And if that means dancing four hours a day, well ok. But I'm also ok with building foam swords for a hobby. Watching Evelyn dance was heart-clenchingly sweet. One of the joys of being a parent. And I suspect I'll watch many more dances, and several plays as well for the boy, but even if I'm just watching a reenactment of Jason and the Argonauts in my front yard (it happens) just watching has turned out to be so much fun.


I'm more than a fan. I'm the Dad.

It’s hard to imagine two more opposite performers than our children.

Gillian, our oldest, was born with showmanship. Last-minute complication had the nurses excited as they wheeled Cecile into the delivery room. But like the diva she was and is, she simply came out smiling and singing.

Garrett, our son, had less dramatic but arguably more dangerous natal entrance. He was born jaundiced and spent the next several days under bilirubin lights at the hospital while his mother and I worried.

Both of my wonderful children have, through the years, provided endless hours of the joy, laughter and even terror only a parent can experience. I never tired of their very different performing styles.

Our first video of Gillian shows her dressed in a pinafore and belting out “It’s a Hard-Knock Life” from Annie. She and her friend choreographed their act, complete dance steps and hand gestures.

No surprise, then, that she insisted on going to the Oregon Country Faire to have her ninth-month belly painted or that last week she dressed in the 1920s tweeds of Madame Librarian for a festival. She has never stopped delighting her audience – even if that was just good old Dad.

Our first video of Garrett showed a toddler pushing a toy shopping basket through the house with fierce determination. Nothing was going to stop him; nothing was going to break his concentration.

He was destined to become an engineer. He tackles every challenge with focus, energy and forethought.

The easy part of watching your kids perform is liking it. What’s not to like? Children (your own, that is) cannot sing off-key, fumble their lines or trip over props. It’s all part of the Biggest Show on Earth – parenthood.

Not that they can’t give you the cold sweats. When Gillian announced that she planned to become a drama major and that her boyfriend would be an art major, I had nightmares of supporting them for the rest of my life. Thankfully, Gillian changed both major and boyfriend.

Garrett specialized in stomach-gripping physical performance. He took up soccer early, but blossomed when he moved into the goalkeeper’s box. A keeper is the masochist at the end of the field who dives on the ball just as other players are kicking it. That is, when he is not diving into the path of a leather cannonball.

Eventually, Garrett grew out of competitive soccer. So he took up whitewater kayaking. You will never know how long you can hold your breath until you watch your son turn upside-down amid foam-splashed boulders.

But Garrett always rights himself, just as Gillian always gets deserving applause. And both make me so proud that I would gladly give up anything Hollywood can imagine to watch them perform the miracle of life.

Bravo, my children. Bravo.