Every year I receive stuffed into holiday cards printouts of what people have spent their year doing. I used to mildly scoff at the format, but for some reason this year it occurred to me that over time the memories of past years blend together, and it actually might be worthwhile to sum things up. Hopefully this doesn't come off as too self-centered. Although it's framed as my year, the experience is mostly about who I was with and where I happened to be.
The football rapture
The year began for me not on January 1 but the 10th of that month, when my beloved Oregon Ducks played for a national championship. It was the moment I had waited my entire life for—well, sort of. I’m not sure prior to this winning a national title even seemed possible. Maybe that’s why I started referring to this game in the days leading up to it as “The Football Rapture”. I told people that if Oregon were to win the game, you wouldn’t see me anymore because I’d be in Zimbabwe or East Timor helping the poor.
The game was a classic, decided on the last play of the game. Oregon came away with a heroically valiant effort, but the final score was Tigers 22, Ducks 19. It was a devastating disappointment, and I'm still not over it. But it was the greatest season in Oregon football history. I sometimes think of a fellow Ducks fanatic who wrote succinctly on Facebook after the game, “SO PROUD!”
Although I was ready for a break from the Ducks after the emotional tsunami of the championship game, there was an end-of-February deadline for a new update to my 2007 book, Tales From the Oregon Ducks Sideline. I was busy throughout January and February interviewing former players and coaches, which was of course a tremendous labor of love. Most of the key interviews had taken place four years earlier, yet this time around I was very excited to speak with the person I’d most regretted missing when the book was written the first time around: coach Mike Bellotti, the man who guided the Ducks for 15 years, including a Fiesta Bowl win in 2001.
The publisher also wanted a new foreword for the book, and I was lucky enough to have former Ducks great Ahmad Rashad agree to write one. Whereas the writer of the previous book’s foreword, Joey Harrington, simply churned out a completed draft on his own and sent it over, Rashad preferred to talk out a draft over the phone. Which was more than fine, because it meant I got to have numerous phone calls with him over a period of a couple weeks.
Will write for food
In terms of my bread-and-butter work, architecture journalism, the year began with a series of home magazine assignments, including pieces for Luxe about luxury homes in Colorado and Arizona, as well as the Park Box (a longtime favorite architect’s work here in Portland) for Oregon Home. For Architect magazine I wrote one story on high-tech architecture school classrooms and another on architects’ favorite design software. I also wrote two articles in the early part of the year for Design Bureau, one on a Seattle house and another on GE’s new line of high tech medical gadgets.
Although most of the magazine stories I write now are about design and architecture, one of my favorite pieces of the year (or any year) was more about history. Claire Phillips, whom I profiled for Portland Monthly, was a Portland-raised nightclub owner in Manila during World War II who wined and dined Japanese officers in order to pass on countless secrets to the Americans. After the war, she was the subject of a Hollywood movie called I Was An American Spy as well as an episode of TV’s “This Is Your Life”. But Claire, widowed when her soldier husband was killed in a Japanese prison camp in The Philippines, never completely adjusted to life back in Portland after the war. She was dead from alcoholism by the 1960s. But while her game has faded, there is a growing effort to honor Claire Phillips here in Portland with a statue and documentary film.
Talking art & architecture
In the spring, I started to get busy with a couple speaking engagements and some other non-writing efforts. May brought a lecture at the Portland Art Museum as part of the Artist Talk series (in which local artists pick a favorite artwork at the museum for discussion). I selected a French landscape painting by Virgil Narcisse Diaz de la Pena called “The Forest at Fontainebleau”, which is part of a period and group of artists called the Barbizon School, a precursor of Impressionism. I felt a little bit in over my head - I'm no great art expert - but luckily I was able to more or less communicate why the piece is meaningful on a personal level.
In June, I delivered a lecture to the City Club of Portland called “Why Memorial Coliseum Matters” as part of a continuing three-year effort to save this landmark building. I grew up attending countless events at the Coliseum during my childhood and teen years, but that’s not why we (in the organization Friends of Memorial Coliseum) have sought to save it. Although this astonishing feature has long been curtained off from public view, the Coliseum is actually the only arena in the world with a 360-degree view to the outside, offering a gigantic postcard view of the city skyline.
Also in the spring, Valarie and I traveled east to stay with her parents in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. Valarie goes home every spring and Christmas, while I tend to tag along every other spring. Staying with Pat & Hank, her parents, is always enjoyable because they are such hospitable, salt-of-the-earth people. Pat cooks some delicious dinners every time, from meat pies to roast chicken and of course the local specialty, pierogies. Valarie's sister, Chris, and her two kids are fun to be around as well.
Because my sister Sara now lives in Washington, DC, I wound up taking a trip within a trip, riding Amtrak down to our nation’s capitol from Philadelphia (after numerous delays). Sara is now an editor at the nation’s biggest online political magazine, Politico, so I was able to visit her office just across the river in Virginia and meet a few of her coworkers. It still amazes me how smart and talented Sara is; during her year-and-a-half stint at Politico, she has already been promoted a couple times and is now the publication’s Deputy National Politics Editor as we approach a presidential election year.
Also while in DC, I was able to hook up with my one of my lifelong best friends, Chad. The primary reason to see him, beyond simply catching up after a few years without seeing each other, was to meet his son for the first time since his birth last year. He was an absolutely adorable child, and it was very moving for me to see the child of such a close friend. Chad also had a tantalizing offer: an invitation to come back to Washington that summer to participate in a project with his band, Beauty Pill. They would be recording its new album in full public view, in an Arlington nonprofit art center’s black-box theater. Would I like to be one of a handful of photographers to document the album being recorded?
By July, I was back in DC amidst record-breaking heat but exhilarated to be part of “Immersive Ideal”. For three days from about noon until 10PM, I would hang out in a windowless but high-ceilinged space watching Beauty Pill’s members recording tracks on guitar, drums, electric piano, vibraphone and bass. Normally working 10-hour days makes me grumpy or fatigued, yet by midnight each night when recording ended I was still full of energy and excitement. I took over 1,000 photographs during the Immersive Ideal sessions, as part of an exhibit showing at Artisphere in January 2012 that will have the final album recording playing with a continuously changing montage of still photos of its being made.
Writing and running
Meanwhile, my schedule that summer was getting busy. Just as I was off taking photos or visiting family, a year or two of relatively slow journalism work transformed into a flurry of assignments. For Metropolis magazine I wrote about a new theater chair designed by Portland firm Ziba that combines the lightness and portability of folding seats with the plush comfort of theater seats. For Stadia, a London-based publication devoted to stadiums and arenas, I wrote about efforts to erect a new NFL team stadium in downtown Los Angeles. For Oregon Home, I wrote about a restoration at Portland’s midcentury-modern downtown skyscraper, the Portland Plaza. For Luxury Home Quarterly, I wrote about a host of projects in Canada, Miami, Switzerland and Texas. For Auditoria, an industry publication devoted to concert hall and auditorium design, I covered the new Frank Gehry-designed Miami New World Symphony Hall and was excited to conduct an email interview with the legendary architect himself.
During the summer I also began a new effort to get into better shape. It started with exercise: bicycling, mostly, then later running. At one point in the fall I was running as much as 15 miles a week, which is about the most I’d ever done regularly. As the rainy season arrived in earnest later in the autumn, I finally got a gym membership and began exercising there regularly. And in addition to the exercise, I’ve also been seeing a naturopath monthly and trying to change my diet at her urging (fewer carbs). I feel much better mentally/emotionally and I’ve lost about seven pounds so far.
In the summer Valarie and I took another trip: to the eastern Washington towns of Snoqualmie and Roslyn, each the site of filming for favorite TV shows of ours, Twin Peaks and Northern Exposure. In Snoqualmie, about a half-hour east of Seattle, we stayed at the same hotel that had appeared numerous times on David Lynch’s Twin Peaks; it also overlooked a huge waterfall, Snoqualmie Falls, which had been featured in the show’s opening credits. I shot lots of video of the falls and wound up turning it into a short film.
Heading east a few days later towards Roslyn, we crossed the Cascades to find the landscape changing to one of golden, rolling hills. Valarie found a good deal on lodging at a cushy resort called Suncadia, so when we weren’t checking out Northern Exposure sites we were receiving relaxing spa massages and hiking along the Cle Elum River outside. Once we actually got lost on a hiking trail, and not only was the lodge happy to send someone to pick us up, but that someone turned out to have acted numerous times in a supporting role on Northern Exposure as the town barber. He had great things to say about all the cast and crew except for the show’s star, Rob Morrow, who we were told “kind of thought his poop didn’t stink.” By coincidence, we’d watched an episode with the barber character in our room the night before he picked us up. Driving back home to Portland, we thoroughly enjoyed making our way through eastern Washington and the Columbia Gorge, although in the back of my mind this also reminded me of driving through this area on September 12, 2001 in a frantic effort to get home from a work-trip following the terrorist attacks. Luckily the beautiful Gorge and the river never cease to lift one’s spirits.
The summer also brought a milestone in my family. After 35 years in business, my dad retired and sold his restaurant, The Sage. I was very happy for him because I know it’s been a whole lot of work, with plenty of attendant worries. 35 years of taking the garbage out, of having to hire and fire employees often without proper work ethic or education. 35 years of showing up early in the morning to hand-knead 15 loaves of bread and make gargantuan pots of soup.
But I also knew that my dad was retiring somewhat reluctantly, concerned about what he’d do with all the idle time, and missing before it even left him all the sincere customer appreciation and accolades – the community always kept The Sage’s tables filled. And after waltzing into the Sage back kitchen to make myself Dagwood-sized sandwiches for the better part of four decades, my sister and I were saddened to see the family business leave the family. It’s where Sara and I worked all through junior high and high school, and we’d known many of the employees there for decades. Again, though, at the end of the day I was happy for my dad to relax a little more, even somewhat against his will.
What’s more, I took time upon his retirement to think of my dad’s entire career, including his pre-Sage days on active duty in the Air Force. During Vietnam, my dad had analyzed spy-plane and satellite reconnaissance photos – a curious coincidence given how I later became a photographer and an art critic specializing in photography. We may not agree on politics, but I’ve always felt tremendous pride that my dad was involved in the military intelligence field, especially his association with what I think of as the greatest, fastest, most beautiful plane every built: the SR-71 Blackbird.
As if Dad's transition weren't enough, we also moved my grandparents this year into an assisted living facility. I'v been so luckyat 39 years of age to have three of four grandparents still alive. But moving my mom's parents this year emphasized their age and frailty. It was a sad affair, although enlivened by the opportunity to go through their treasure-trove of photos and keepsakes. My aunt Barb and I have been busy scanning their old pictures.
Still more writing
Come fall, it was time for the release of my newly updated Tales From the Oregon Ducks Sideline. The promotional blitz wasn’t as substantial as it had been four years earlier for the original release. That said, I did a few radio interviews, including the syndicated “Big E Sports Show” in Dallas.
Locally, it was a hoot to be a guest on the longtime local TV show “AM Northwest,” which I remember watching on sick days from school way back in the 1980s. Oregon Symphony director Carlos Kalmar and famed Pink Martini bandleader Thomas Lauderdale were fellow-guests on the show that day, so it was a thrill to talk with them in the green room before we went on the air. Just before Kalmar’s segment, the Uruguay-born composer—not someone you imagine as a football fan—wished me a good Oregon Ducks season.
I also was excited to be able to have a reading at Powell’s Books. Although attendance at the reading was low, Powells' author representative turned out to be acclaimed author Kevin Sampsell, with whom I chatted long enough before the event that we wound up having lunch a few weeks later.
Writing assignments also continued to come at a faster rate during the summer and early fall months. For Dwell magazine, I wrote about the historic Watzek House in Portland. In Architect I talked to designers about environmental issues affecting their work. For Atlantic Cities, I covered the burgeoning design and political struggle to build the Oregon Sustainability Center in downtown Portland. For the Oregon Encyclopedia, I wrote entries on Portland architects Brad Cloepfil and Robert Thompson. And for Design Bureau, I profiled landscape architects in Texas and California.
In the fall I was humbled to receive my first board-of-directors appointment, which in fact became a board chair. It’s for a new nonprofit wire service called Oregon Arts Watch. It takes its cue from a number of similar nonprofit journalistic organizations sprouting around the country such as the Chicago News Collaborative and the Bay Area Citizen. The idea is that newspaper coverage has declined so much in recent years that important issues affecting the public good are no longer being properly covered. By going nonprofit and supplying stories to major dailies, we can help bring a more substantial array of information than one finds in dwindling dailies like The Oregonian. Also as part of my Oregon Arts Watch role, I will also be contributing articles from time to time, and in early autumn I delivered my first one: a report from a screening of My Own Private River, an alternate edit of the classic Gus Van Sant film My Own Private Idaho. Van Sant and actor James Franco were both at the screening (Franco actually did the edit, which focuses more on the film’s late star, River Phoenix), so I was able to quote them for the article. It was the fourth time I’ve written a story about Portland-based Van Sant after previously interviewing him about films like Elephant and Gerry.
I wasn’t emotionally ready for it when the Ducks took the field at Cowboys Stadium in Dallas for their first game of the year. I still hadn’t recovered from losing the national championship game in the final seconds. It haunted me. But by this season opener, another horrific threat had emerged: that Oregon was being investigated by the NCAA for possible recruiting violations. Given how USC had earlier that year seen their national championship from 2004 and Reggie Bush’s Heisman Trophy taken away, it shook me to the bone with worry that Oregon’s back-to-back Pacific 10 Conference championships of the past two seasons could be taken away. And I was exceptionally bitter that Auburn, Oregon’s opponent in the national championship game, was exonerated by the NCAA after the lack of smoking-gun evidence prevented the exacting of punishment, even though coaches from Mississippi State University and even former Auburn players had gone on record saying the pay-for-play schemes were true.
But come September 3, Oregon not only had a game to play, but one against the team that would be top ranked all season long: the LSU Tigers. Despite Oregon leading LSU in total yards and first downs, turnovers cost the Ducks the game. After going 12-0 in the regular season during 2010, we’d suddenly lost two games in a row. Luckily, the Ducks rebounded nicely, going 10-2 over the course of the 2011 regular season, enough to earn a third straight conference championship and a trip to the Rose Bowl. As I write this, it is 12 days before the game, and the feeling is different than it was leading up to Rose Bowls in 1994 and 2009. This time, we’re not like the first-time Oscar-nominee just happy to be in the running. Given how the Ducks last tasted Rose Bowl victory in 1917, the pressure is on to win the game.
Luckily, life goes on, and the rest of the fall and winter winding down 2011 has remained busy. In October, the American Institute of Architects hosted a screening of my short films as part of their annual Architecture + Design festival. Writing assignments have continued to come from publications like Luxury Home Quarterly (about houses in Los Angeles and Florida), Architect (designers discussing digital fabrication techniques), and Portland Monthly (a remembrance of Humphrey Bogart’s late pre-Bacall, Portland-born wife, Mayo Methot). I’ve also continued to operate my local blog, Portland Architecture, with an expanded offering of other writers’ work besides my own.
In November, I received a very pleasant surprise: Portland State University invited me to teach a class in its Honors College called “Urban Discourses”, which uses Portland and its arts/humanities as a template for learning about cities. I’d thought that having only a bachelor’s degree would preclude me from consideration as a professor, but the head of the department said that my experience, particularly with writing, was enough of a surrogate for a Ph.D. that she was willing to give me a try. So I’ve spent much of December formulating lesson plans, wondering how I’ll be able to fill two hours of class time twice a week, and imagining discussions of Portland-bred artists like Mark Rothko, Gus Van Sant, and Simpsons creator Matt Groening.
In 2012 I’ll turn 40, which I anticipate not with dread but enthusiasm. Almost every new decade has been better than its predecessor: My 30s were more enjoyable than my 20s and my 20s were vastly better than my teens (although my teens weren’t better than the first 10 years of life). I’ve speculated about celebrating my 40th with an international trip, because after regularly visiting locales in Europe and Asia from 2001-2007 there has been a long dry spell. Germany and Switzerland? Spain and Portugal? We’ll see. Or even if I don’t travel anywhere, I have so much to be thankful for. Valarie’s health has improved substantially in the past year, for example, after a mysterious illness (involving dizziness and vertigo) has made things difficult for her for over two years. Although not lucrative, I’m both excited and humbled by how things have gone with my writing career, especially given that the travel-memoir I’ve been working on for two years is nearly complete. And maybe this will finally be the year, after a 95-year drought, when the Ducks finally taste January bowl-game victory. Even if they don’t, though, and even if I seem often caught up in various stresses and windmill chasing, there is no doubt I am one of the lucky ones.